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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Date: 10/26/2004
Feast: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Church: Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Bible text: Luke 6:20-31, Ezekiel 37:1-10
Theme: All Saints/All Hallows Eve
James McTyre

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Retailers will be "goblin" up sales this Halloween as consumers are expected to spend a little bit extra on scary costumes and tasty treats. According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2004 Halloween survey, total Halloween spending is estimated to grow 5.4 percent to $3.12 billion from $2.96 billion last year. The recent survey found that the average consumer plans to spend $43.57 on Halloween merchandise this year, up from $41.77 in 2003. Halloween continues to be the second-biggest decorating holiday next to the winter holidays. Nearly 61.8 percent of consumers said they planned to decorate their homes and yards with spooky themes, the study said.

Every so often Halloween falls on a Sunday. And with 61.8% of you decorating your homes and yards with spooky themes, it seems appropriate to give the holiday its due, and tell a ghost story. The Bible has some good ghost stories. One of its best is when Ezekiel saw a vision of dry bones rising up from the earth. A skeleton dance worthy of today's computer-generated horror movies. But instead of trying to scare people to death, Ezekiel's ghost story scares us to life.

Ezekiel sees a vision. God shows him a vast field of bones. These are the remains of fallen warriors, left by their enemy where they lay, deprived of all dignity, not even given a decent burial. Which may well be how the Babylonians left things when they leveled Jerusalem, desecrated the temple, and marched all the surviving Israelites into captivity. Ezekiel speaks to the captive children of the children of that Israel. And God's voice through Ezekiel declares that these dry bones are all of Israel, Israel destroyed, Israel forsaken, Israel left for dead. God declares that a holy wind will blow across the dry bones of Israel. The breath of God will knit the bones together, wrap skin around them, and new life will come again to God's people. The hopeless captives won't just be set free, they'll be resurrected, re-created as God's chosen.

To the captive Israelites, this oracle must have sounded like a wild ghost story. They might have gotten a good laugh at crazy Ezekiel and his visions. They might have looked at their thick-muscled Babylonian captors and thought, "Ezekiel! Hush! Be quiet before someone hears you!"

But through Ezekiel, God called the Israelites to look beyond their fears. God called them to look beyond the confines of Babylon, beyond the limits of their hope. God called them to see things that aren't possible in this world. And so, not only their homes and yards, but their whole existence was decorated with the spooky theme of life beyond death. Ezekiel's ghost story would turn into a life story so hopeful... it was scary.


Halloween has a bad reputation where churches are concerned. I don't know if this is true everywhere, but in the Southern US, if you have a "Halloween" party at your church, people will think you worship the devil. So, not to scare anyone, we changed the name to, "Fall Festival." We still let the kids dress up like witches and load up on candy; but it seems more wholesome. Ironically, "Halloween" is a Christian holiday, invented to replace the pagan fall festivals of Europe.

Another ghost story, this one about Halloween's history. Back 2000 years ago, the Celts of Western Europe celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with -- and often brought -- human death. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain (sow-in), when it was believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble, damaging crops, and toilet-papering trees, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, the Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

On Samhain, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their home hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

But then, around 43 A.D., the Romans took over Europe, and incorporated their own fall festivals into Samhain. One of these was the day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and so Samhain became a festival where you bobbed for apples as you were wearing your animal heads and skins. Those wacky Romans.

But by the 800s, Christianity had spread into the Celtic-Roman lands. In the seventh century, hoping to replace Samhain, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints' Day, a time to honor Christian saints and martyrs. In Europe the day was called All-hallowmas, or All-hallows. The fall festival, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated much like Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Spiderman, and Disney Princesses came later. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas (similar to "Christmas"). [Information on Halloween taken from The History Channel's website.]

And while these days no one complains much about the commercialization of Halloween, somewhere along the way, the Christian holiday turned too creepy for a lot of Christians. Which is sad. Because the intent of Halloween and its ghost stories is much like the vision of Ezekiel. The intent of Halloween is to help us see beyond this frightening life, to point us beyond the darkness of death. The intent of Halloween is a ghost story that turns into a life story so hopeful... it's scary.


Over the centuries, as the church has awakened from All-hallows Eve, on All Saints' Day, it has read the words of Jesus that we heard read today. These were words that no doubt echoed in the ears of martyrs and missionaries, the saints who sacrificed their lives to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets."

And when the disciples first heard these words, they may have raised their eyebrows and thought, "Jesus, hush! Be quiet before someone hears you!" What they didn't know was that Jesus was telling a life story. A story of life beyond death. A story of resurrection and re-creation for people like you and me. A life story for everyone who faces the demons of illness, the devils of hopelessness, and the dark winter of death. "Blessed are you." Jesus not only tells the story, Jesus is the story. Jesus is the story of how the line between the living and the dead and the living-again did become blurred, so that instead of focusing on our fears, we can set our eyes on God.

Halloween (and All Saints') is worth so much more than 3.12 billion dollars in annual holiday spending. Halloween is about so much more than going, "Boo!" Today's All-hallows Eve and tomorrow's All-hallows are there to remind us. They're there to reassure us that the spirits of the saints who have gone before us are never gone away from us. The saints of this congregation, the saints of your own lives -- their goodness lives on, even though they may no longer be with us in the flesh. And that is not a ghost story. It's a life story.

And so we remember. We remember the ordinary men and women who by the grace of God have become saints, both in our hearts and in communion around God's heavenly table. We thank God that by the mystery of Resurrection they live and breathe again, in a new life. And we praise God for the promise that someday we'll join in that communion of saints... in a place where there are no tears and nothing, not even death, can scare us.

Let us pray. Almighty God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit --
It is truly right and our greatest joy
to give you thanks and praise,
eternal God, creator and ruler of the universe.
At your word the earth was made
and spun on its course among the planets.
Your hand formed us from the dust of the earth
and set us among all your creatures
to love and serve you.

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with angels and archangels
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

May we know Christ's redemptive love
and live a new life in him.
Help us who recognize our living Lord,
to see and serve him in all whose lives are broken.
Give us who are fed at his hand,
grace to share our bread with the hungry
and with the hungry of heart.
Keep us faithful in your service
until Christ comes in final victory,
and we shall feast with all your saints
in the joy of your eternal realm.

Through Christ,
all glory and honor are yours, almighty Father,
with the Holy Spirit in the holy church,
now and forever. Amen.
[Prayer adapted from Book of Common Worship, Great Communion, Easter 1]