According to a survey published yesterday, English people still have a taboo about death.
Eighteen million Britons are uncomfortable talking about death the survey reports,
although unsurprisingly the older you get, the more you think about it. Most of us are
prompted to think about or own mortality when, as we do today with Peter, we
experience the death of a loved one.
Sudden death is still very common, although I know that today Helen is particularly
grateful for the additional years she had with Peter following his heart problems of the
past. Perhaps in the past dying suddenly and unprepared was thought of as the least
ideal way of dying, with no time to prepare or make your peace with God; today, it’s the
slow decline and death that most people fear. We can be grateful that Peter has been
spared that experience.
But what for us, who remain? How do we move on when a loved one dies suddenly? What
might we wished to have said to Peter had we had the chance? You know, those of us
who are English are reminded on these occasions of the importance of never letting
things go unsaid; sometimes the chance to say them is taken from us by the cruel hand
of fate. The old Latin phrase carpe diem is a salutary one on occasions like this.
One of the things that struck me about Peter was the matter-of-fact way he approached
matters. He was, as I look back on my knowledge of him, not an easy man to get to
know. There was that outer politeness and charm that British schoolboys of previous
generations have drummed into them, but getting to know someone, getting behind
that, isn’t always easy. But, with Peter, despite the privacy of his nature, I saw his
passion for life emerge when he was talking about music, a shared love. His eyes would
light up and his enthusiasm would be palpable to see. As we’ve heard from Chris, that
warmth, love and devotion were very much on show when Peter was with his family, but
I for one am glad that I also saw it in his friendships with others and in this place as
So let me offer you a musical story as a meditation for this occasion.
One night the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was playing a gig at a club in New
York. He was playing the soulful ballad “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.” At
the song’s most heart-rending point, a mobile went off in the audience, fully wrecking
the moment. This unwelcome interruption should have killed the mood and ruined the
moment. After all, giants of the music world like Marsalis shouldn’t have to put up with
interruptions. You hardly could blame him if he had walked off the stage.
After a few seconds, however, Marsalis did something amazing. Without missing a beat,
he picked up on the ringtone tune and incorporated it into the song he was playing. He
performed variations on it – blending it with what he’d planned to play – and then drew
the whole ballad back to the original theme. The stunning result brought the house
down. Wynton Marsalis took a rude interruption and changed it into a moment of glory.
He didn’t allow an unexpected shock to stun or silence him. Instead, he turned this
setback into a comeback.
That’s what good musicians do.
We gather today because life has been interrupted. The discordant, shrill ring of death
has seemingly overcome the music and melody of life. Phones rang around the country
this past week when Helen had to call so many of you with the news. Hearing and
experiencing the ring of death makes us angry and frustrated. We want to know who’s
responsible for this interruption. Death makes us wonder whether we’ll ever have a
“ghost of a chance” of understanding, of getting back in tune, of feeling the music once
But today we need to recognise that God is standing at the microphone – the God who
improvises a different tune, a variation on a theme. We gather today because we
recognise that somehow God, the master Musician, is able to take the ring of death and
discord and turn it into life. That’s really what resurrection is about. Jesus walks out of
the tomb, showing us that even death doesn’t stop the music. The song goes on, perhaps
a bit differently, more improvised, more subtly beautiful, but it goes on.
The death of someone close to us can force us to give up, or it can be an opportunity for
improvisation – to find new ways of celebrating life amid tragedy. When Paul encourages
the Thessalonians with the words of hope of our first reading, encouragement includes
going on making the music of life That’s a powerful image. No matter how hurtful, how
tragic, how unfair or how out of tune we might feel, God can work variations on the
theme of life within us and turn it into something beautiful.
God’s direction for us today is to follow his lead, to improvise, to start something new.
Music never dies. And because of God’s promise of the Resurrection, despite the loss of
Peter with all his kindness, care, generosity and fun, neither does he and neither do the
people he cared about. No tragic ring of the phone can interrupt that.
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter
into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling,
but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but
one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations
of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen.