Ghost Stories: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 27th, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24 and Mark 5:21-43, wherein Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter and heals the woman with the hemorrhage.

I’ve used a bit of vacation time this month, and as it happens, both of the trips I took were to the mountains of Appalachia—first on a road trip through West Virginia and then down to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. If you’ve been down that way, you know that the land there takes hold of a person’s imagination in a potent way—down in those mountains, it can feel like the land retains its secrets, that the narrow valleys keep their own counsel, and while you may visit and you may explore the region, you will not ever completely see it or understand it.

I think that this mysteriousness and inaccessibility is probably part of the reason why Appalachia is famous for its ghost stories and its folklore—the storytelling tradition, nurtured in those relatively isolated mountain communities, is strong there, and it has been for centuries.

Now, one thing you might not know about me: I love a good ghost story, especially around the campfire on a summer’s night. My cousins and I used to frighten ourselves silly telling and retelling old family stories about apparitions and mysterious sights up in the north woods of Michigan. So when I was down south, I couldn’t help picking up a small collection of books about Appalachian folklore, just for fun, to see what sorts of tales are held within the folds of those evocative mountains. 

I even thought about sharing one with you this morning, but I figured it’s a little early in the day for that, so maybe we can plan a parish campfire sometime soon and swap stories then. 

Now, no matter what you think about ghosts, I think it’s safe to say that one reason people tell ghost stories—and have done so in nearly every human culture— is because we want to understand death. Death, of course, is all around us, it has touched and afflicted each of us deeply in various ways. 

And as those who must go on living in death’s midst, while the ones whom we love are lost to the valley of shadows, we often find ourselves living as a people haunted—haunted by memories, by regrets, by the words said or left unsaid, the deeds done or left undone. Our grief prowls in the night, whispering rumors of  our own annihilation. 

So in the face of death, we give death a face (or many faces, really) in the stories we tell, because we are desperate to understand, desperate to know if there is something beyond the finality that we perceive.

We tell ghost stories, in effect, to say to one another, “there is more to this world than what we can see. There is more than what we can understand.” And in the speaking of the mystery, we grope for meaning, for an assurance that the grave cannot contain the sum total of who we are and what we did in this life.

But although I love them and find them endlessly fascinating, here’s the trouble with ghost stories: as compelling as they can be, they are, ultimately, always about death. Death always wins, death always controls the narrative. And as such, ghost stories are about endings—about unfinished business or revenge or longing—and the ghosts we encounter are almost always conditioned permanently by the circumstances of their former life. 

These ghosts are stuck in one place, or focused on delivering a single message, or mired in grief over how they died. Their reference point is always looking backwards, towards who they once were, towards what used to be, because they are dead, and live no longer. So ghost stories can be thrilling, but they are not consoling. They possess little in the way of hope.

Which brings me to the point I want to make to you this morning: the gospel is not a ghost story. 

The gospel is not a ghost story. 

You might say ok, that’s a bit of a strange point to make. Sure, yeah, of course they’re not the same thing. But I invite you to think about this a bit more, about WHY the two are so very different from one another. 

Take today’s passage from Mark, filled with miraculous healings and a young girl brought back from the dead with only a touch and the words “Talitha, cum”–it is as fantastical as any Appalachian folktale, but here, Jesus does not show up and conjure a spirit or reveal a disembodied message from beyond the grave. On the contrary, he restores people to their actual life. He brings them back into the fullness of that life, to walk and talk and eat in broad daylight, to grow up, to know and be known by all those who love them. 

If this were a ghost story, there would be a note of finality, a sense of loss: the dead girl might appear and disappear, detached from her body, detached from her actual life, frozen forever in the haunted imagination of her family. Death would still maintain its hypnotic power over the narrative.

But that’s not what the gospel is about, because it’s not what God is about. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

In fact, we might say that the entire narrative of the New Testament is revolutionary in that it relegates death to a bit part, to the periphery, not as as an adversary coequal with God, but simply one final obstacle to be overcome by love’s ferocious power. As the author of Wisdom says:

God did not make death

And he does not delight in the death of the living

For he created all things so that they might exist.

The gospel is not a ghost story because a ghost story is conditioned by the parameters of death, and the gospel, in contrast, is defined by existence, by life’s eternal victory over the forces that seek to diminish or nullify it. 

And although the gospel does indeed contain wondrous and mysterious occurrences, it is a declaration of what is fundamentally real, of what God has done about death’s hold over us.

So if every ghost story ever told is really just a question about what it means to die, then the gospel is the answer: that in God, it means nothing, for death itself has died. 

Thus we are the inheritors of a new story, the one in which God is not interested in death, but in life—in the life of Jairus’ daughter, and that of the bleeding woman, and all the other lives that the world tends to marginalize or ignore. God is interested in your life and in mine, and in our life together. In the life of everyone who has ever lived. And God wants those lives to endure, to flourish, not to evaporate into the shadows.

So I have to remind myself, as much as I love those old ghost stories, not to live my life as if it is one. Not to be consumed by the past. Not to be conditioned by regret. Not to wander the earth like a lonely spirit, repeating the same old tired patterns. Not to entomb myself in the deadening effects of rage, apathy, and selfishness.

I have to remind myself that God, in Christ, came and lived like me so that I can live in God, forever. I have to remind myself that the gospel, not my personal ghosts or demons, but the GOSPEL, will shape the story of who I am, who I am becoming, and it will, by God’s grace, help me continue to thrive and grow within the One whose “righteousness is immortal.” The one who conquers death.

So no, the gospel is not a ghost story. And neither is your life, not now, not ever. You and I are alive; the ones whom we love and see no longer will be alive again; and God’s eternal life is welling up within us whenever we give ourselves over to it. It is as strong and true and mysterious and deep as the mountains.

Is that a story that you can tell, that you can live by? Are you able to lay down that which has haunted you, that which has held you back, that which has died, so that the One who lives might resurrect it?

I ask myself that question all the time, and I pray for the strength to say: yes. To let my story be his story, the one that ends with a beginning.

The story that ends with a voice saying, “Talitha, cum.” 

Get up, little child. 

Die no more, but live.

This is not a ghost story. 

Where are you?: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 6, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The primary text cited is Genesis 3:8-15.

I remember once when I was a little boy, I got into an argument with my dad. I don’t really recall what it was about, probably something unimportant. I just remember that in the middle of the argument, I ran out the back door into the yard and hid in some bushes. I guess I just wanted a quiet place to sulk and cry a little bit by myself.

But then my dad came out, looking for me, and the thing that I recall most clearly as I hid under the leaves, a little ball of fury, was the catch in his voice, a note of sadness and worry, as he called out my name, trying to find me. So I got over myself and crawled out, covered in dirt, and said, “here I am,” and he just looked at me, relieved, and said, “come inside.” And I did.

What a blessing it is, in our lives, to experience the kind of love that seeks us out and doesn’t abandon us to ourselves; the kind of love that sees past the fears and the frustrations of our petty, wounded hearts, the kind of love that looks at us unflinchingly and simply says, “it’s been a long day; come back inside.” 

I hope and pray that you have known and continue to know that kind of love in your life, whether from a parent, another family member, a partner, or a friend. I hope and I pray that that’s the sort of persistent, active, reconciling love we are practicing in our common life here at Trinity.

And I also hope that this is the sort of love that informs our understanding of today’s reading from Genesis 3, that pivotal moment when Adam and Eve are, themselves, hiding in the bushes after that fateful, perilous bite of ripened fruit.

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Where are you? In those three words, I think we can learn everything we need to know about God’s disposition towards us, from that moment in Eden until this very day, wandering the solitary paths of paradise, searching for his children’s faces. 

Where are you? We have been formed in many different understandings of the nature of God’s love, but I hope, when you hear that question, you can hear, not the threatening yell of a vengeful authority figure, but that of a loving parent, that note of sadness and worry, the voice of one who knows that, yes, something has gone terribly wrong but is nonetheless fervently seeking you out, seeking a way to save you, looking for you in every shadowy corner, under every weeping branch where you might be cowering, seeking you and refusing to abandon you to the despair of your hiding place. 

Where are you? It is the question God has been asking every day since that breezy evening in Eden, since that point in time, for reasons we may never fully understand, when it became possible for us to estrange ourselves from God’s loving embrace. It is the question that underlies the record all of God’s fierce and wild emotions in the Old Testament—

God’s grief and rage over Israel’s waywardness—where are you?

God’s sense of betrayal over humanity’s failure to embody justice, mercy, and peace—where are you?

God’s heartbreak as bow down before the work of our own hands instead of Divine majesty, trembling under the weight of our own fears, all while our One True Love continues to call out—where are you? Where are you? Where are you? 

It is also the question that Jesus came to ask us, face to face: little children, my mother, my sisters, my brothers, I see you now with my own eyes, and you see me, but where are you, in your deepest heart? Do you even know? Do you remember where you belong?

And still, God is asking us that question. Still, God is waiting for us to reveal ourselves, to step forward and to offer the response that Adam and Eve never quite could, the response that a true relationship requires. The word for that response, in Biblical Hebrew is hineini

Hineini. Here I am. 

So much depends on us responding to this love that seeks us out, this love that calls to us in the cool evening breeze even as we keep hiding, even as the evening shadows fall down around us. 

Everything that can be good and true in this fractured world depends upon us saying, as Abraham and Moses and Mary all did: Here I am

Here I am, God.  Covered with dirt and leaves and tears, my best intentions gone awry, my understanding limited, my heart a little bit broken, but here I am, God. I can’t promise to be perfect, but here I am. I am afraid, God, sometimes too afraid to speak, but here I am.

I wonder what it would look like if we could each step out from our hiding places, the ones we’ve run to, the ones we’ve built up around ourselves, and step a little bit closer to one another, a little bit closer to that place where God stretches a hand out to us in the twilight, and I wonder if we might let that question and that answer, that call and response, guide the shape our lives. 

What if we said each day, Where are you? 

Where are you present in my life, God? And where is my neighbor, where is the stranger I forgot to welcome, where is the enemy whom I was taught to fear? Where is the deep, tender heart of the blessed earth, where is the hidden paradise, the love hidden in plain sight? How do I press my soul down into its embrace? Where are you?

And what if we also said each day, Here I am. Here I am, Lord. Here is my face, seeking your face. Here is my voice, speaking your unutterable name on my breath. Here is my body, and here is my mind, and here is my heart; may your Spirit mold them into vessels of your love. You don’t have to search or grieve for me any longer. Hineini. Here I am.

Where are you?

Here I am.

Perhaps this small conversation is the one God has been waiting to have with us for our entire life. Perhaps all God ever wanted was to find us, to bring us home, not back to the beginning, not back to Eden, for we know too much now, we are grown now, but back to our true home, which is within God’s very own heart.

You don’t have to hide from God anymore. We never truly did.

God is calling to you, and there isn’t anything to be afraid of now.

So get up. 

And say, “Here I am.”

And come inside.