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.