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. 

The Life Before: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 27, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word…”).

Pop quiz: What is the first story of the Bible? 

Most of us, if asked, would probably say it’s the story of creation, in Genesis 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”

That’s where it all started, right? 

But then we have today’s reading, that poetic, eternally lovely opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.

That’s the first story, right there. Right in the middle of the Bible, or more accurately, in the 43rd of the 66 books that make up the Bible, we are given a glimpse, not just of how THINGS started–things like the earth and the sky and the animals and the elements and you and me–but back, waaay back before any of that, back in what we might call the “prequel” to creation, when there was Simply God. John’s gospel isn’t special only because it is beautiful language, but because it reveals to us WHO GOD IS and what God was up to before any thing, before every thing

And who exactly was God before there was even a creation to utter the word “God”? 

Again: “He was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, [the Word] was in the beginning WITH GOD.” This is the hidden life, the hidden love, the hidden dynamic relationality at the core, the source, of everything that would follow.

It’s a bit mind-blowing when you think about it…and humbling, really, to acknowledge that God had (and still has) an entire life and reality apart from a relationship with us. Because I think we tend to place ourselves at the center of God’s narrative, as if we are the only object and culmination of God’s total concern, but it is something altogether different to recognize that it is the other way around– God is at the center of our narrative. God is everything to us, but we are just one part of him.

It’s sort of like that moment when you find a snapshot in an old shoebox of one of your parents, taken back when they were young, long before you were born—an image of them laughing on a beach at a joke you will never hear, or holding hands with someone, an old friend or partner who you will never know—and suddenly you realize, in a flash, with a shock—that your parent was a REAL PERSON. That they had a whole life, a whole complex reality that came before you. And even once you came along, they retained that rich inner life, all those layers of memory and identity and connection, even when it was hidden to you, even when they seemed to exist for you alone, as Mother, as Father. 

So here, in John, we get a dim, yet deeply evocative snapshot of God, in the beginning before our beginning: before the angels, before the stars, before the wind swept over the face of the waters. It’s good to sit with this image for a bit, to think about the Divine Life before, long before we were even a twinkle in God’s eye, to see whether it has anything to teach us about our own lives.

And, of course it does. 

Looking back at the text of John 1, (acknowledging that our human language is stretched to its limits here) if God somehow was the Word and was with the Word and was also alive as the Word within God’s own self, the one thing we can be sure of from all this is that God was always intrinsically relational. We might even say that God is RELATIONSHIP itself. And this is not some new concept, because we affirm this every time we talk about God as Trinity—three Persons, one Divinity, a dynamic, integrated community of love. 

God is this for us, yes, but God was always this, even before us. And thus, if we are made in God’s image, then we, too, are created primarily for relationship. We are relational beings. And futhermore, all of creation—the earth and all living creatures—are made for the same purpose. To connect. To support. To interdepend.

We are good at talking about this conceptually—one human family, love thy neighbor—but you and I know it is mightily difficult to live out. Greed, competition, mistrust, lies, fear—all of the manifestations of broken relationship that we call “sin”—are a stumbling block to our true vocation, the one that Jesus embodied, which is to be as deeply intertwined, as intimate with God and with one another as God is within Godself, a dynamic described again by Jesus later when he says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

We are meant to abide with one another and within one another. With and within. Why else do we kiss and hug and hold close those whom we love if not to act upon our most basic impulse to exchange part of ourselves with them? To be with and within them; to sanctify our flesh with holy, unmediated relationship?

This is what Jesus teaches us, and shows us: every time we take even the smallest step towards relationship, towards community, towards love, we move an inch or two closer to God. Sometimes we take great leaps. Somtimes we shuffle along. Sometimes we run the other way, directly into our deepest isolation.

But God is still there, still reaching out, never losing interest in a relationship with us, because God is relationship. And the old snapshot of him is still true: God is laughing on the beach, but the smile is meant also for you, and God is reaching out to hold someone’s hand, but it is also your hand, and no matter how the years go by, no matter how many other layers of memory and mystery are added, God is no stranger to you or to me. God will always be that person, the one in the beginning before our beginning, the one who was and was with and was in, weaving through time and through our lives like a thread, like a song, like undiminished light.

So as we consider the year that is nearly ended and the new one that is about to begin, I invite each of us to consider this word, RELATIONSHIP, maybe even write it down and stick it in our wallet or our bag and look at it from time to time and ask ourselves:

Am I moving toward relationship?  Am I moving toward life-giving relationship?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with my family members, with my friends, my fellow parishioners?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with the strangers that I meet, with my neighbors in need?

Amy I moving toward life-giving relationship with myself, all the tender parts of myself that need love and nurturing and honesty?

Am I moving toward life giving relationship with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with the God is who my parent and my creator, my friend and my Lord?

Am I spending time investing in these relationships with conversation and prayer and presence, or are they on auto-pilot? And, am I assessing those relationships that are broken or toxic and determining whether they can (or should) be mended? 

Am I–are you–are we– living into our essential, God-given identity as ones who were made to be connected to others, to take our place as an integral part of things, as part of God’s abundant, interconnected creation, foreshadowed and sustained by God’s own inner, secret, relational joy? Am I taking part in that unfolding, eternal relationship?

We can ask no more fundamental question than this.

Because in the beginning—the very beginning of the story—that is all there was. And, I suspect, I hope, I trust, that at the very last, that is precisely what will remain.