The Dead Cannot Direct the Living (First Sermon in Series, “From the Jonah Tale to the Tales of Jesus and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Timeless Truths”

 

 

I.
Actor John Malcovich said, “The ghosts you chase you never catch.”
Patricia Briggs wrote in Dragon Bones:  “It’s easier to dismiss ghosts in the daylight.”
I paid my way through college mostly by working as a youth minister; there was some work in our college library, but I made most of what I had to stay paid up by working as a youth minister.  In one of my churches there was a woman who had two children participating regularly in our youth activities, and when my first Halloween rolled around while I served that congregation, instead of going along with the usual plan of having a Halloween party in the basement of the church, she loudly and repeatedly objected to the tradition, insisting that it was out of line for a church to celebrate Halloween. She proposed in its place an Un-Halloween celebration.  “Don’t let her shake you up,” said the several church gossips to me.  “She’s always looking for a way to stir things up and sound as off the wall as she possibly can.  If you ignore her politely, eventually she’ll leave you alone and go find someone else to stir up.”  I was young and very inexperienced with the ways of churches back then and didn’t know that there really is no way to ignore some politely.
Bottom line:  I was really irritated with her interference. I thought it was silly.  I could find no objection to continuing a much enjoyed tradition there according to what I was told by the youth council.  Besides, as a youth minister it was difficult to find activities that appealed to such a varied group of young people as we had there, ranging in age from middle school to high school and including some few early college students also.
Frankly, most people didn’t pay very much attention to her, as the gossips had described, until the day she dropped the bomb. She began to say to everyone who’d lend her an ear, “If the church goes ahead with this Halloween party my children will not participate, and I cannot guarantee they will be coming to future activities of any kind in this church.”  Now everyone was concerned, and they made that problem the problem of the youth minister so I had to go and sit down with her and try to reason with her, seeking to understand her concerns and how the objection came up to begin with since her children had participated in that church’s Halloween parties for years, as far back as anyone could remember.
She said that the more she’d thought about it the more she objected–until she could keep quiet no longer, not that she was known for keeping quiet at all.  She said that Halloween celebrated as many or more evil characters than good characters judging from what adults as well as children wore to the parties–all over, not just at church.  She also said that Halloween turned anyone who’d died into a potential ghost or goblin or talking skeleton.  Instead of thinking about those who’d died going to heaven to be with God, Halloween had them trapped in this world frightening people and becoming the tools of evil forces.  Out of all the ghosts remembered at that time of year, only one was friendly, and, of course, that, she added in case I’d been living on another planet before coming to her church, was Casper.
Though I remained irritated that the whole party would have to be re-planned because of the objections of only one person, I realized that she was making some valid points.  So, I asked, what would an Un-Halloween Party look like?  Well, she said, we’d still dress up in costumes, but there would be no disrespect of the dead so ghosts, mummies, and skeletons were out.  For other reasons, frankensteins, werewolves, vampires, and study hall teachers would be also be prohibited as costume choices.
Furthermore, so as not to frighten any younger children who might tag along with their teen sisters and brothers, in addition to nixing monster costumes, we would also add to our no-no list characters like a pirate who might not look all that scary but who nonetheless made a ship’s prisoners walk the plank.  “Let’s have the kids dress up like positive people–nurses, doctors, policepersons, and even ministers.  Or, better still,” she suggested, “why don’t we have our kids dress up like biblical characters?”
I said, “Well, that could work, but in the Bible all the characters aren’t good people and thus can’t be regarded as exemplary.  There are ghosts, witches, demons who possess unsuspecting humans, and crazy rulers who threw innocent young people into lions’ dens and fiery furnaces.” She pretended not to hear that at all, saying in her well-performed obliviousness, “Oh, here I have let our coffee get cold.”
I honestly don’t remember how it was all resolved, but I’m thinking the church cancelled the Halloween Party; and this woman, in its place, had an Un-Halloween Party at her home to which she invited all the kids from the church.  I believe that my name was left off the guest list.  I wasn’t offended, and I don’t believe it was intended to offend.  Maybe she thought I’d be angry with her for stealing my thunder. I always wrote it up to the probability that I must have told somebody I’d already bought a $5 Dracula costume from K-Mart, and it was unreturnable.  So, she perhaps was afraid after all her efforts to go Un-Halloween all the way, the youth minister of all people would show up as Dracula.  In the end, I wasn’t upset to have been left off the list, and before you think “cheapskate,” remember that this was 1976ish.  Five dollars meant a whole lot more back then that it does today.
All these years later, I find myself to some degree in agreement with this mother who infuriated me for messing with my youth activity.  Regardless of what you believe about life after death to this world, I don’t believe it is healthy or respectful to allow our children–with plenty of adults–to believe that our dearly departed loved ones become ghosts who haunt as well as monsters of all sorts seeking to do harm to the living.
Halloween parties could be fun costume parties for kids and adults, and instead of celebrating false and frightening superstitions, why not dress up like good characters from literature or good  real folks among today’s celebrities?  Each party host would have to decide whether to welcome guests who want to come as scary figures such as Rush Limbaugh, despite the emphasis on good and wholesome folk.
Henrik Ibsen:  “It’s not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them–Ghosts.”

 

II.
There’s a story from the First Testament, the Hebrew Bible, that many of you who have been in church nearly every Sunday of your lives have never heard. It’s an eerie, spooky story with a somewhat obscure message so most preachers, and Bible study leaders for that matter, leave it alone. Whether you take it literally or fictionally it’s an unsettling tale. Since we’re beginning a sermon series today on the power of fiction–sacred and secular, biblical and nonbiblical–to convey life-changing truths, a smart bunch like you have already figured out that I take the story as non-historical, as fictional, yet completely capable of carrying a message for its original audiences and for individuals and congregations today.
The story reads well; it’s a real attention-getter, and I can only imagine that those who originally told the story really made the hearers shiver in fear of the mere prospects proposed by the story. Since my goal today is not to frighten, I will leave out sound effects and vocal extremes as I retell the story though I’m quite sure the ancient counterpart to Vincent Price did not withhold such enhancements as the story was first told.
You may recall that for a long time the twelve or so tribes comprising the Hebrew nation were a rather loose confederation of groups, each one independently governed and only cooperating with other tribes (or not) when a pressing set of circumstances demanded it. Many of the Hebrews from several of the tribes begged, literally begged, God to give them a monarch like most of the other nations had. The main thought evidently was that if they had one strong leader, he (I doubt many were thinking “she”) could unify the tribes and, thereby, consolidate the power of the whole nation to accomplish greater feats and, very importantly, bolster defense.
The way the story is told, God reluctantly gave in to the pleas and appointed the Hebrews’ first king, King Saul. Saul preceded King David and King Solomon on the throne and, thus, is often left in their dust as far as historians and storytellers are concerned. Not perfect by any means, he wasn’t a bad king at all, and he earnestly wanted to do a great job as the first king of his people.  Once God had given him the power over a kingdom, however, he acted as if there was no God.  If there was a God, God was for the weak, not for ultra powerful people like he was.
Probably the most profound challenges he faced during his tenure were matters of national defense. One morning, King Saul was awakened by his secretary of defense with bad news. Somehow the powerful enemy forces of the Philistines had encircled the relatively weak collection of Hebrew troops on watch for the well-being of their nation, and the Philistines who almost never lost in battle were ready to attack, first, the measly Hebrew troops and then with them out of the way the homes of Hebrews who were minding their own business in their tents or townhouses thinking all was right with the world.
Immediately, Saul remembered how well things had often gone when there was no Hebrew king, and leadership to the nation came through prophets and judges. At the top of the list had been Samuel, whom his people still mourned, so King Saul began to wonder what Samuel would have advised them to do had he still been living and involved in leading the people to make strategic decisions.
He couldn’t get that thought out of his mind, and one thing led to another–as they did when Mrs. Reagan began to consult with an astrologer every morning so that she could advise her husband, the Actor/President of our country, how to act in the face of the challenges that would face him that day.  In no time at all, King Saul was thinking of finding a medium who could consult with the dead Samuel in order to get some advice he thought he, literally, couldn’t live without.
Consulting mediums or sorcerers was against the law, the law the King himself had put on the scrolls. He ignored it and sent several of his top advisors to a little town called Endor where there reportedly was a woman who had been a very successful medium until her profession was declared illegal. Thankfully, the practice of a government’s establishing laws then hiring people, sometimes presidents (think Andrew Jackson), to break those very laws is a practice completely unknown in modern times. That was not the case, however, in Saul’s day.
The advance team got the medium, some called her a witch, to agree in principle to conduct a seance and call the late Samuel back from beyond the grave to offer the desperate king some advice that might well mean life for a huge number of unsuspecting Hebrews. They returned to the palace and had their king dress in disguise as a commoner. This is how he was taken to Endor as night began to fall.
Costumed, as it were, the king is introduced to the medium. Not knowing who he was initially, she  begins the seance.  She had all those present gather in a circle. She said her magic words in prayer-like fashion beside the low-burning fire, and after a short time, in the seance context, Samuel did, in fact, appear, but he was not at all pleased with having been disturbed. At about the moment she could see the figure of Samuel, the medium recognized the King.  She is both angry and frightened because the penalty for performing acts of sorcery and spiritism was death.  She thought she’d been set up.  She confronted the King, and he said what any king would have said, “It is, technically, illegal, but I’m the king; and I can give you a pass since this is for the well-being of the nation.”
“Fine,” she said, and Samuel began to speak through her to Saul.  In life, Samuel had not been known to mince words, and in death he had not changed. After plenty of grumbling about having been disturbed, he said to King Saul through the medium, “When you first came to the throne you took delight in the ways of God, and you let them lead you. As time passed, you loved your power so much that you convinced yourself there was no functional need for God. You began to live and to rule as if there were no God, and, Saul, what’s going to happen tomorrow is your fault; and it is now too late to avert. That’s the good news; you’re smart enough to know what’s going on, at least on the surface.”
“The bad news is that you and your sons will be on the casualty list when the roster of all the newly deceased because of the Philistine attack is reported to the department of defense for record-keeping and family notification. Among the many funerals being held next week will be a state funeral for Israel’s first king.”
After a long long silence, the Witch of Endor said, “I’m so sorry for the news that has come to you. I don’t know why almost everyone thinks that if they go to the trouble of having a seance and paying a medium (hint, hint) that they will automatically get good news.  In any case, I want to fix you a late-night dinner before you head back to the palace.”

III.
In Jesus’ parable of the poor man and Lazarus–not Lazarus the sibling of Mary and Martha but a filthy rich Lazarus–the poor man is a beggar who begs Lazarus and his high and mighty guests going to and coming from his opulent feasts almost every day for crumbs, just enough to stay alive.  He is roundly ignored by one and all.  Ironically, both of these men, the extremely rich man and the extremely poor man, die at about the same time.  In the next world their fortunes, shall we say, are radically reversed.
The poor man is with Father Abraham enjoying heavenly rewards including fabulous feasts at which divinity is served daily; if you’ve never eaten divinity, you should talk to Marie about how to sample some.  The rich man who assumed he was rich because God had willed it had always taken for granted that privileged in this world meant privileged in the next world as well; he expected his mansion over the hilltop with servants tending to his beckon call for eternity.  Wrong assumption.  Seriously wrong assumption.
In contrast the abjectly poor man, who also assumed that he was in the situation he was in economically because God willed it, went through his life believing that God must have been punishing him for some wrong he’d done or maybe some wrong his parents had done–a commonly held belief among Jews of that day.  Now, the poor man is in the best place with all the privileges.  His struggles on earth were not a preparation for an eternity of suffering.  The two men, in very different places compared to the way they lived in this world, found themselves also in very different places in the next world, but opposite to their places in this world and opposite to what each one had expected the next world to be.
Keep in mind that this, too, is a fictitious tale, a parable, in which the characters and their plights are created by Jesus to make a sermonic point.  There was hardly only one wealthy person who ignored the destitute right at her or his gate, right under feet really; instead, most of the wealthy acted exactly like the rich man in the parable.  Similarly, there was hardly only one poor person being intentionally overlooked by those who very easily could have eased her or his plight.  Instead, there were hoards of these.  But Jesus created a fictional tale with one of each for the purposes of his parable.
In the next realm, as the parable goes, I say again that the formerly poor man had his every need supplied while the formerly rich man endured an opposite set of circumstances.  None of his needs were supplied.  If he were hungry, he’d remain hungry.  If he were thirsty, he’d remain thirsty.  If he made a request to the higher powers, it was ignored.  Not knowing this at first, the formerly rich man asked two favors:  one, that the once poor guy zoom over and poor a few drops of water onto his parched tongue to ease his thirst since quenching was too much to ask.  The formerly poor guy though treated worse than dirt and wild dogs by the man who’d been filthy rich during his earthly life was willing to help the guy who’d all but spat on him every day they encountered each other, which was a matter of years.  Father Abraham, though, says, “No.  We don’t operate like that over here.  That huge chasm separating where you are from where we are will not let you come to us; nor will it let us come to you.  So sorry.”
Then, for the first time in the parable, the formerly rich man showed a measure of selflessness and said, “Well, my beloved brothers are as ignorant as I was about all of this.  Can you send a prophet to them who can preach the truth to them so that they will not end up in the horrible place to which I’ve been consigned until  time is no more?”
Father Abraham answered that one too.  “It’s so hard for me to have to say, ‘No,’ twice in a row, but, ‘No.‘  What were those trying to preach the truth to you while you were on earth, chopped liver?  They faithfully preached the truths, and you and your brothers summarily ignored everything they said.  Even if we sent a ghost preacher back to your brothers now, they’d ignore her or him just as they ignored the prophets trying to preach to you.  The dead cannot direct the living.  For the most part, even if they tried, it would be a waste of time.  You can start making plans to have your whole family over there one of these days.”
Samuel returned to Saul in a powerful, fictitious tale of a seance conducted by the Medium of Endor; he didn’t have any helpful news for Saul–something like, “The events that will take place tomorrow have been building up a long time.  There’s no way to undo them.  They will happen.  The best you can do is to tell as many of your people as possible to prepare to die, and as for you, King, you need to rewrite your will because no one named as a beneficiary in the present will and testament will be alive when dinner time comes tomorrow.”
By the era of Jesus, there was no belief at all, or certainly not pervasive, that once someone had reached her or his place in God’s more intimate embrace there could be communication between people on earth and people in the next realm–shockingly for many, this included Jesus.  Once Jesus is taken to the next realm by resurrection or ascension or whatever, his followers didn’t start praying to him for advice, guidance, anything.  If they thought they could have done that, they’d not have been nearly as frightened; nor would they have felt so forlorn and forsaken.  Prayer remains communion with God, not with Jesus or any of our loved ones or those named saints who have gone to the next realm.
The Pew Forum published a report just a little over two years ago in which it showed that about a third of US Americans from all faith traditions including Christians, Protestant and Catholic combined, believe in the possibility of real communication with the dead.  Among those, not surprisingly, many believe that they have been involved in two-way communication with a person or with several people who have died to this world.  With all due respect for those who hold such beliefs and have treasured experiences to prove it to their satisfaction, I have to say, “I’m sorry, but I believe you’re mistaken.”
The dead do not and cannot direct the living.  Except for whatever communion may take place between humans on earth and the God within them, the God within us, there is no communication connection of any kind, of any kind, between the living and the dead.
We have our memories, and some of us look forward to being reunited over there with our loved ones who have preceded us in death, but we can’t communicate with them in the mean time–to get stock tips, relationship advice, to get comfort when we need it.  We shouldn’t discount the power of memories, though, precious memories, “sent from somewhere to my soul.  How they linger, ever near me, as the sacred scenes unfold.”
Amen.

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