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

Thursday, October 25, 2007

It Came From the Bible

2007-10-28 "It Came From the Bible"
1 Corinthians 15:51-58 and Ezekiel 37:1-14
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, October 28, 2007

If you want a really good ghost story, you don't have to watch a scary movie. You don't have to read Edgar Allan Poe. If you want to hear the best ghost stories of all time, all you have to do is pick up your Bible. Today we read two really great ghost stories. Ezekiel and the dry bones, and Paul's vision of graves opening and bodies rising in the air. This is spooky stuff. If Hollywood got hold of these ideas, they'd look like, "Night of the Living Dead," or "Re-Animator," or the classic and still the best horror movie of human ingenuity gone wrong, "Frankenstein." And yet, there's something different. These ghost stories in the Bible don't creep us out. Instead, they give us hope. The ghost stories in the Bible don't make us scream. Instead they make us sing. (Really. "Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones." Etc.) In the movies, the ghosts say, "Boo." In the Bible, faith says, "Boo," and scares the creepy stuff away. The Bible taunts death: "Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?" The Bible says, "Boo!" dances on the graves of all the scary stuff.

What scares us?

Halloween has a bad reputation where churches are concerned. We're not afraid to let the kids dress up like zombies and any number of Disney characters, bob for apples and eat their weight in candy. We're not afraid to contribute our part to the roughly 5 billion dollars this country alone spends on celebrating the holiday. That doesn't scare us. What scares churches is actually using the "H-word." So, bowing to trends in political correctness, we've all had to rename our Halloween Carnivals, "Fall Festivals." 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 the ghost of Halloween's history.

Back 2000 years ago, the Celts of Western Europe celebrated their new year on November 1st. 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 their priests, the Druids, 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 wore animal heads and skins - and bobbed for apples.

But by the 800s, Christianity had spread into the Celtic-Roman lands. In the seventh century, to replace the fall festivals, 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 2nd 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, devils, Spiderman, and Disney Princesses. 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 that says, "Boo!" to the things that scare us.


Over the centuries, as the church has awakened from All-hallows Eve, on All Saints' Day, it remembered the words of Paul. "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" 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.

And when disciples first heard these words, they may have raised their eyebrows and thought, "Hush! Be quiet before someone hears you!" But this ghost story is also 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.

Halloween (and All Saints') is worth so much more than five billion dollars in annual holiday spending. Halloween is about so much more than being scared. All-hallows Eve, All-hallows, Halloween - whatever you call them - these holidays - these holy days - are here to make us remember our history... and our future.

Halloween's here 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. You - in your life - can dance on the grave of death. Because you know how the story ends. You know what resurrection promises. 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.


[Prayer adapted from Book of Common Worship, Great Communion, Easter 1]