Some of you know already why I cannot preach the sermon I had in mind for this morning, but for others — and especially for those who may be our welcome guests at this worship service — I must explain. Early yesterday morning I received a telephone call telling me of the sudden, unexpected death of Louise Dickey, whom I first met during my years of ministry at Plymouth Congregational Church and who has been since the birthday of this church nearly 15 years ago a loyal member of this church. That Louise was so abruptly gone from this life was shock enough by itself, but it was compounded by a terrible coincidence. She died on the morning of the day her beloved granddaughter Dana had set for her wedding. With friends and relatives here from out of town, and so many local friends planning to attend the wedding that it was impossible to inform them all of what had happened, and with going-away plans that had been set far in advance, the family sadly decided to put their grief on hold for a few hours rather than create so many difficulties for others.
I have done hundreds of weddings, but last night was certainly the most poignant and painful of my life. Many of us had to balance, somehow, the hope and joy that belong to a wedding with the grief they were feeling at the loss of someone who had looked forward so happily to the marriage of her beloved granddaughter. In some strange way, I think all of us who knew what had happened listened to the songs and the promises with greater intensity than we had ever done before. And it was that realization that made me decide to talk this morning about what no one likes to talk about.
The truth is nothing makes us more uncomfortable than thoughts of death and dying, despite the fact that poets and philosophers have told us over and over that dealing honestly and openly with those thoughts is the best of all possible ways for living life to the fullest. Listen to the words of a sensitive and articulate woman who learned how soon she would face death: “I have no regrets,” she wrote to others. “My life has been rich and full, and I have loved every minute of it. But if I were to live it over, I would take more time for the savoring of beauty — sunrises, the blooming of crab-apple trees, the patina of an old brass coffeepot, the delighted look on a tiny girl’s face as she pets a kitty for the first time. I would eliminate enough outside activcity so that I could be always the serene core of my home. There would be more time for family and for close personal friends…. When death is imminent we open our hearts quickly and wide. How much more love would there be if we didn’t wait for death to release our reserves!“
But this woman, we tell ourselves, had been given a date — and unless that happens to us we tend to live as if death were simply too remote to be real. We deny it in all sorts of ways. We constantly make use of euphemisms to avoid even the word itself. I read the other day of a hospital in which nurses and orderlies were told to say that the patient has “left us,” never that the patient has “died.” We use words like expire, passed away, gone from us, taken from us, departed — the list fills a couple of pages in a thesaurus because the “d” word has such a disturbing finality about it. We ask about death when we are small children, curious about what happened to a pet or to Uncle Jack, but more and more as we grow up we simply shove the whole idea under the carpet. Life, somehow, will go on without interruption. It is simply unthinkable that the incandescent love of living built into us can come to an end. Even people with strong religious faith hardly bother to weave into the fabric of their lives the certainty of death. We don’t like to say, “When I’m dead, you will need to do such-and-such” because we don’t like the sound of that word. So we put it some other way: “When I’m gone” or “When I’m not here anymore.” Or we pad the idea with a joke: “When I kick the bucket,” or “When I cash in my chips.” Perhaps there is some truth in the remark that one reason entertainers are paid so well is that they make us forget our mortality for a while.
I read just the other day of an insurance company that taught salespeople never to say, “How will your family be taken care of if you should die tomorrow” because that raises too much fear and discomfort. Instead, they were to say, “How would your family be taken care of if you had died yesterday?” — because that obviously hadn’t happened, so the customer could confront the notion of non-existence more comfortably. It’s one thing to accept a kind of vague theoretical proposition that life in general does not go on forever, but we will do almost anything to avoid thinking about what that means for us, personally. You may have heard French philosopher Jean Cocteau’s story of how one day, when the Sultan was in his palace at Damascus, a young man who was a favorite in his court, ran into his presence crying out in great agitation that he had to rush off immediately to Baghdad — and could he, please, borrow his Majesty’s swiftest horse?
The Sultan asked why he was in such a hurry. “Because,” the young man said, “as I passed through the garden of the palace just now, Death was standing there, and when he saw me he stretched out his arms as if to threaten me. I have to get away from here as quickly as possible.” So the Sultan gave him permission to take the fastest horse, and when the young man was gone the Sultan went down indignantly to his garden, where he found Death still there. “How dare you make threatening gestures at this favorite of mine?” To which angry question, Death replied: “I assure your Majesty, I did not threaten him. I only threw up my arms in surprise at seeing him here, because I was to meet him tonight in Baghdad.”
It’s not really one of our favorite stories, is it? As old Sir Thomas Browne put it, “The long habit of living indisposes us to dying.” Or, I would add, even to thinking about dying. It’s true that we lost Judy and her daughter and her grandchild in the surf off Carmel, and we lost Gale Doner when he was away on a happy vacation to see the autumn leaves in New England, and yesterday we lost Louise….but we’d really rather not think about the uncertainty of our own lives, and why should our minister upset us by talking about such things? My answer is based on this absolute conviction: that confronting the reality of death makes life itself better by putting all kinds of things in perspective.
Go with me for a moment to Joseph Addison, meditating nearly two centuries ago on those tombs that some of us have seen in Westminster Abbey: “When I look upon the tombs of the great,” he writes, “every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tombs of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider [fierce rivals] placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind.”
There would be no use saying such things to children, but you and I can begin to remember when someone is harshly critical or unkind that life is too short to nurse a bitter grudge, to spoil the precious time we have by plotting revenge. I am still not mature enough to keep myself from a moment of irritation at some trivial insult or injury, but I have at least learned how utterly foolish it is to waste life by holding a grudge. If the moment of irritation flashes, I’m glad now that it’s not long before I can say to myself, “This person faces mortality, just as I do — has her own secret sorrows and fears in the night, like all the rests of us “ — and then it finally starts to make sense, that strange challenge we were given to love even those who seem not to love us.
Since I may not come round to talking about this uncomfortable topic again, may I remind you of one very practical thing about how we react to death? How we don’t know what to say to someone who has lost a partner, a child, a close friend. In one of my religious journals, a woman testifies to what an aching loneliness she had in her heart when she walked into a room and everyone became quiet. She wanted to talk about her loved one, about their trips to Colorado, about their good life together; but no one would talk to her about it. This is a sensitive matter where timing is all-important, but watch for the moment when grief seeks to heal itself by talking about what has happened.
And you may have to help someone deal with the almost inevitable feelings of guilt in the person left behind, those “if only’s” we’ve heard spoken so often. It doesn’t seem to matter how prevailingly thoughtful we may have been, there rises the memory of an angry word, a neglected kindness. It’s hard to find release from those feelings since it has become too late to say, “I’m sorry,” but they can have one good consequence if they make us a little less likely to neglect the ones who still walk with us.
So I speak of death in the hope of making life more precious. Years ago, a man speaking in the building now named for our own Jim Rhatigan used the language of his business life to say to the audience, “Tomorrow is a promissory note, yesterday is a canceled check. I make this day count!” I thought of a wartime poet, watching men live close to death, who decided there might be an even worse way to live: “Some men die by shrapnel and some go down in flames, but most men perish inch by inch in play at little games.” Until — and you’ve heard these stories a hundred times — they come face to face with death, and suddenly see their lives differently. Some of you remember a man named Eddie Rickenbacker, a few others have read about his exploits in World War II. I recall his telling about his crippled B-17 and how when he and his crew realized they were going to crash, they began to empty the cabin of all the things they knew would lighten the plane. Rickenbacker said he finally had to make the decision to throw out even his briefcase of top secret papers.
I usually sleep well, but through most of last night I thought about ways of telling you that in the reality of facing death, we begin to make decisions about the things that are really important. Forgive the question, if you must, but what decisions do you have to make?
A moment comes, Eternal God, when we realize we must travel
more lightly. Give us the courage to embrace that moment and
rid ourselves of things that cheat us. Amen.