HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
EPISTLE LESSON II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
MESSAGE: “Can We Reclaim Halloween?”
You may find this an interesting factoid: The year 1972, 40 years ago, was the year in which more horror movies were produced than any other year – some 189 of them! Perhaps the most famous of the horror genre, The Exorcist, came out the following year, 1973.
I read this week that the movie Jaws grossed $470 million and remains the No. 1 horror movie ever. Thirty-seven of Stephen King’s scary stories have been made into feature films. Jamie Lee Curtis became “The Scream Queen” by starring in six horror movies between 1978 and 1981. One horror film actually won an Oscar for best picture: The Silence of the Lambs, in 1991. More recently, zombies have been popping up in a number of movies. And of course the Twilight movies and True Blood television series have made vampires more popular than ever. Here we are on this eerie 40th anniversary of that horror-ible year, and three days from Halloween, and we have friends who love it, and friends who think Christians should have nothing at all to do with it.
The writer of Psalm 34 says, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears” (v. 4). In times of trouble, we want to be delivered, and yet -- at the very same time -- we seem to like to be scared. We even have a holiday for it. Halloween is just three days away, the day on which normally well-behaved boys and girls become zombies and scream queens. And it is not just a children’s holiday anymore: Adults currently spend an average of nearly $70 per person on their Halloween costumes. The holiday has expanded to include a month of lawn decorations, plus weekend parties for adults and children. The National Retail Federation estimated that more than 68 percent of Americans celebrated Halloween last year, spending $6.86 billion.
“I sought the LORD, and he answered me,” says Psalm 34, “and delivered me from all my fears.” When children become frightened of witches, ghosts, zombies and vampires, they need to understand that the LORD is with them and has the power to deliver them. A child is never too young to learn that, in the words of the apostle Paul, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Sharing this powerful truth is one way to take back Halloween. Not just our children, but all of us need to know that “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them”
Some of you know that I haven’t been a great fan of Halloween. I haven’t said much about it for quite a while, so others of you may not know that about me. Here’s the deal. I grew up in a family that joined in the Halloween fun. We got costumes and went out trick or treating up and down our block – and in Chicago one block has a lot of houses. I remember when a new apartment building was built by the university the “Residents’ residence” we called it because it was built to house doctors who were residents at the hospital. If we could get just one person to buzz us in.
As a self-affirming chocoholic I like the sales of all those mini candy bars. Seriously, it’s a long time between Easter and Halloween, with no major candy holidays.
Halloween can be a holiday with great fun, and although there are some rather sinister legends behind some of the traditions, many of them are built-up urban legends. I doubt it hurts much of anything to, say, bob for apples, carve pumpkins, wear costumes and go begging for candy. My personal choice to avoid Halloween (except for shopping excursions to grab chocolate on sale), originated with learning that a very dear friend suffered ritual abuse at Halloween throughout her childhood as she was raised in a family that was part of a satanic cult. Such cruelty is the exception, not the rule. Still I remain mindful of the Apostle Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 8 when he dealt with the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Paraphrasing his letter to apply to this issue, Paul said “When you sin against them (those who are weaker, those who have suffered) in this way and wound the weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if my celebrating Halloween causes my brother or sister pain, I will never celebrate Halloween again.”
That’s my personal choice which stems from compassion for my friend. It’s not a standard I ever intended impose on others.
That said, when pop culture transforms a “holy day” into a “holiday,” it almost always manages to focus on the wrong side of the equation. For example for today’s culture:
I think about the minister of the church in which I grew up – Mr. Parsons. I think of our associate pastor who dealt graciously with the youth group – Lou Schweppe, countless Sunday school teachers, and children’s choir directors. I think of my mom, who sang in the church choir, served on the administrative board, never missed a Sunday unless she was flat-on-her-back sick. I think of a pastor in Ludington who visited me in the hospital there, simply because we shared a last name, who did a funeral for one of the administrators where I was working and so clearly proclaimed the gospel, but that I who had not been in church for a long time, had to go. I think of professors and instructors at McCormick Theological Seminary, some of whom are still living, but some have passed on. I think of Christian friends and colleagues who have accepted and loved me for who I am, flaws and all, when they could have easily turned away. Whom do you think of who taught you and nurtured your faith, and modeled for you Christian kindness. Can we reclaim Halloween as the prelude to All Hallows, remembering the saints who have nurtured our faith and gone on before?
In my first call, I remember Charlotte, who at 92 still lived at her home on a family farm, never missed Sunday school or worship, and with honesty spoke her mind every time she opened her mouth. In this congregation I think of David & Winnie Boyle, their delightful Scottish brogue, their faithfulness in worship and that table in the fellowship hall afterwards. I remember John Hyde who used to sing tenor in our choir. I never heard an unkind word from his lips. Whom do you remember?
I remember Gwen Ryerson – whom I met in the parking lot the night before I candidated. She was quite clear that she didn’t want the congregation to call a woman pastor . . .and she told me so as we walked into the building. We got past it and developed mutual admiration and affection. Whom do you remember?
I remember the “ saint “ we lost most recently – Gene McIntyre, who demonstrated his faith serving a deacon in this church. And I remember Rich Armstrong. He always had a smile for me, and he always called me “the boss.” Whom do you remember?
There are others . . . I’m not going to try to name them all, because if I try and miss even one. . . I’ll be in big trouble.
Like any good “coach” Jesus gave his followers a goal. He gave them concrete steps they could take to reach that goal. Jesus’ goal was nothing less than turning the “me-first” morality of the world on its head. The poor, the hungry, the sorrowing — they would become the blessed, the fulfilled, the laughing. Those reviled and cast out would become those who rejoiced and reaped heavenly rewards.
Yet there was only one way to achieve these miraculous transformations. It was a simple three word directive. But these three words turned all anticipated expectations and established interpretations on their head. Here are the three words: “Love your enemies.”
Did you hear it? “Love your enemies.”
No qualifications. No exceptions. No caveats or special conditions. Just “Love your enemies.”
“Do good to those who hate you.”
“Bless those who curse you.”
“Pray for those who abuse you.”
“Lose your coat? Throw your shirt in as well.”
“Give cheerfully and extravagantly.”
Don’t expect to ever get anything back in return.
Except spiritual stamina.
Except moral musculature.
Except heart health and soul strength–neither of which can be measured by any cardiac monitor or stress test.
So this morning let us celebrate the “saints” of our faith, the saints in our midst and the saints in the distant past. Let us celebrate this morning those brothers and sisters that still stand among us. And as we celebrate them, let them inspire us to employ and embody Jesus’ kingdom of God.
That is our spiritual legacy no matter where we have come from.
At the cost of his life, Jesus reminded us that there are some things worth dying for. On All Hallows' Eve, let's not focus so much on the living dead -- zombies that pop up on movie screens. Instead, let's remember the dead who are still living as saints of God, and as inspirations to us.