A Sermon for Sunday June 19, 2011; Luke 24:36-49, Acts 1:1-5 and 2:1-11
Nestled atop one of the North Carolina hill-sides of the Montreat Conference Center is the ole’ McCallum house, which has hosted many church groups over the last 60 years or so. There are only two ways to get to the house: One is to drive up a narrow and windy mountain road to the back of the property and then descend down a couple of flights of uneven stone slab steps while grasping a rusty and somewhat shaky black railing. The other is to trudge up a path of 94 gravelly steps that cuts through a heavily wooded area on the front of the property. That might not seem so difficult during the day, but it can be particularly precarious and nerve-racking at night.
The McCallum house is a rustic place where the wooden floors creak, an occasional mouse scurries through the bathroom walls and spiders spin webs on the front porch. The house also has a musty and dank stone-wall and concrete floor basement, which is accessed via a 5×5 dimly lit passageway whose ceiling is partially covered with a dingy swatch of grey carpet. There is hardly any furniture in the basement except for a rickety wooden chair and an antique wooden dresser in a small unfinished bedroom. The only reason why anyone would need to go in the basement is to use the bathroom when the facilities on the house’s main two floors are occupied. However, when guys are staying in the McCallum house during Montreat’s week-long High School Youth Conference, you don’t have to hear nature calling to venture down into a strange and creepy basement. Just a wee bit of curiosity is enough to lead one to venture into the unknown.
So was the case for our 12 teenage boys who, after exploring the basement a few minutes before midnight on the Sunday we arrived at Montreat, came tromping into my room with concerned looks on their faces and a plea for pastoral assistance. “Andy, can you do a blessing that chases away the evil spirits in the basement!” they asked. “Seriously, you have to come down there and do something or we’re not going to make it through the week!”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the request and yet at the same time, I instantly felt pressure to adequately perform a non-Presbyterian task—one of those eerie Catholic exorcisms like you see in a horror movie. I was laughing and giving the youth silly looks on the outside but on the inside I was starting to let fear and my imagination get the best of me. “What if there really are ghosts down here?” I wondered. “What if there’s a corpse hidden in the basement? What if someone buried another person alive behind the stone walls exactly like the Edgar Allen Poe short story, The Cask of Amontillado, in which an 18th century Italian aristocrat, Montressor, tells of the time that he took deadly revenge on Fortunato, a fellow nobleman who insulted him, by burying him alive behind a brick wall!”
My mind kept racing as I put my hands on the wooden chair and continued my charade of laughing. “What if I do this blessing wrong and something does snatch one of us up in the middle of the night? If I let a ghoul take away the kind and mild-mannered Philip S., I’m going to be in big trouble because his dad is on Session! Think Acton, think! Make this a good blessing man!”
I took in a couple of deep breaths and tried to become reverent and serious, but when I asked the guys to bow their heads to pray which they did without hesitation, I burst out with laughter. “This is silly!,” I thought. “There’s no reason to be scared! There aren’t any evil spirits in this basement; hello, it’s Montreat!” And so with that piece of reality settling in, I said a short and reasonable prayer asking God to keep us safe during the week and then I made the sign of the cross, a version that I once saw performed in a comedic film that goes: Spectacles-testicles- wallet- watch.
Everyone broke out in laughter until suddenly, without warning, the large wooden bathroom door swung open wide, knocking against the wall with a loud thud!!!! The guys jumped about 10 feet in the air and one or two even shrieked…as Zach H. casually walked out of the bathroom. No one, except for (adult adviser) Bernie K and I, had seen Zach go into the bathroom earlier to do his business, so for a fleeting moment the rest of the group seriously thought there was a ghost coming out of the toilet!
Eventually, we all fell to the ground laughing. And then I came up with a brilliant idea: “Later in the week I should borrow Katie’s baby monitor from the room she’s staying in with Elizabeth at the conference center’s hotel,” I surmised. “And use it to scare the guys, make them think there are ghosts in the McCallum house.” About mid-week, I hid the speaker in the basement and put the receiver in Bernie and (adult adviser) Chris L’s room where upon Bernie and I made ghoulish noises to freak the guys out that evening: arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…eeeeeeeeeeereerreeeerraaaaaahhhh.
We were quickly discovered, but one of the guys still asked if the receiver could be left in the basement while he took the speaker up to his room. “Just in case there are ghosts, I want to make sure I hear him” he said with a straight face. I chuckled, smiled and nodded back. Who was I to argue? Although I knew we were safe in God’s hands, I still wasn’t ready to completely rule out those spooky supernatural occurrences that many reasonable and intelligent people claim to be true.
After all, I’ve grown up my entire life reading the stories of legendary Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham who spoke truthfully about such matters as ghost and all things Southern, and who, as timing would have it, died at the age of 93, the Sunday after our group returned from Montreat.
Kathryn Tucker Windham is noted as being the first female police beat reporter and feature writer for a big named Alabama newspaper in the 1940s; a pioneer for women’s rights in the workplace; a commentator on Southern culture for NPR’s All Things Considered in the 1980s; an award winning journalist, photographer and renown storyteller. But she is best known for her book series of “true” ghost stories, based on Southern folklore, beginning with 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, published in 1969. Other titles were Jeffrey Introduces 13 More Southern Ghosts; 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffrey; 13 Mississippi Ghosts and 13 Tennessee Ghosts. And who is/was Jeffrey? Well, he was the name of the presence that took up residence in Kathryn’s house in the mid-60s, which prompted her to start collecting and retelling ghost stories. A wise and kind-hearted woman who was mentally sharp till the day she died, Kathryn and her children could recount with honesty and sincerity the times in which “Jeffrey” was in the house—loud footsteps echoing down the hall or in rooms that were soon discovered to be empty or household objects disappearing and reappearing in strange places that would’ve been nonsense for any family member to move.
I once heard her tell a Jeffrey story about the time she was invited to an all-male regional Kiwanis club meeting in southeast Alabama during college football season. An avid fan of the Auburn Tigers, Kathryn was disgusted to see numerous Crimson Tide banners hung in the room, including a wall-sized one behind the lectern that read: “Yay Bama, Roll Tide!” Already convinced that the audience of 250 serious football loving businessmen would be bored with the Southern anecdotes and ghost tales of a gray-haired 70-year-old woman, Kathryn decided to bluntly share her feelings about the banners:
“I told them I was upset and that I was an Auburn fan and there wasn’t a mention of Auburn in that room and furthermore, I thought Jeffrey was an Auburn fan too. Well those men go, ehhhhhh, silly thing…I had not said more than two sentences when that banner fell off the wall behind me and clattered to the floor. It was wonderful! Those men pulled up their chairs and listened, I’ve never had a better audience. I could’ve told them anything that night and they would’ve believed it! ”
A few years ago, in a November 2009 interview that is posted on YouTube, Kathryn explained why people have always been drawn to ghost stories:
“There’s a fascination, I think, about ghosts because we’re really not sure. There’s something we aren’t certain about. Nearly everything we encounter, there’s some scientific explanation; you can explain nearly everything. But ghosts…do they exist? That’s something you have to decide for yourself. And the good ghost stories do not require that you believe in ghosts. I don’t care whether you believe in ghosts or not. The good ghost stories are the traditional tales, the stories that have been handed down in families…Whether you believe in them or not, they are a part of our Southern tradition. We are storytellers.”
The writer of The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles wasn’t from the American South, but he’s a darn good storyteller who carefully handles the stories, passed down from one family to the next, about Jesus and the disciples. This morning’s texts are probably two of the most fantastic post-resurrection “ghost” stories in the New Testament.
At the end of Luke’s gospel, the disciples are huddled together in a hide-out somewhere—tired, hungry, and worried that about the Roman authorities finding them. They are discussing the various reports of how Jesus has appeared to the women at the tomb, to Cleopas and friend on the road to Emmaus and at another location to Simon-Peter. They are trying desperately to understand and make sense out of stories about their teacher and rabbi coming back from the dead when…Jesus appears among them and says, “Peace be with you!” The disciples, however, don’t respond with “And also with you!” No, the text tells us “they were started and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.”
Jesus questions their fear and doubts, and then says to them, “Hello! Take a good look, it’s me! Look at my hands, look at my feet. I still got skin, which is covered in bruises and my nails have some dirt under them! You can even see a part of the bone where the nail went into my hand! Would a ghost have flesh and bones?”
The disciples hardly move and nary a one attempt to touch Jesus. Instead they stand there with their mouths hanging open, looking at one another, then Jesus. Looking at one another, then Jesus…who tries another approach at proving he’s not a ghost. He asks for food and when the disciples give him a piece of broiled fish, he immediately eats in front of them. After finishing his meal, Jesus recalls the words of the prophets and psalmists, opens up the disciple’s minds to the scriptures and then says:
“The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Now, here’s something strange about the text, if it wasn’t strange enough already: the disciples who were startled and terrified that they were seeing a ghost when Jesus appeared are now being told that they will be clothed with power from on high! In the first chapter of Acts, the writer says that power is the Holy Spirit…the Holy Ghost! And the disciples, now newly appointed apostles or messengers sent out by God to witness the good news of resurrection, have no reaction…at least none that the writer thought was important. If I was a disciple who had just been scared out of my sandals by Christ-back-from-the-dead, I would be freaking out if Jesus said to me, “Oh by the way, I’m leaving now but I’m gonna send the power of the Holy Spirit to hang out with ya for awhile.”
Mind ya, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just show up like an unexpectedly cool breeze on a summer day. No, the second chapter in Acts says that on the day of Pentecost, a big religious festival in Jerusalem, there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind (like a hurricane) and it filled the entire house where the disciples are sitting, but no one is harmed and nothing is damaged! Then tongues of fire appear among them, resting atop each apostle’s head and all are filled with the Holy Spirit “and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” But that’s not all! Remember that there was a religious festival going on, so there were thousands of people, Jews from every nation, gathered in Jerusalem. And all of these folks heard the apostles speaking in each of their native languages and they were bewildered! “Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?…In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’”
Wow! These accounts at the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts are more than just good stories; they are great stories! Bewildering, amazing, astonishing stories…that we are called to retell over and over and over again because God’s children, God’s people, are called to be storytellers. More importantly, we are called to embody these stories within our own story. Author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner reminds us that:
“In the long run, the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way around. And the story Jesus is is part of the story you and I are because Jesus has become so much a part of the world’s story that it is impossible to imagine how any of our stories would have turned out without him, even the stories of people who don’t believe in him or even know who he is or care about knowing. And my story and your story are all part of each other too if only because we have sung together and prayed together and seen each other’s faces so that we are at least a footnote at the bottom of each other’s stories. In other words all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”
Humanity is as at the heart of every story….Humanity is the story.
Do you see it there in this morning’s texts? Do you see and understand the humanity that the writer of Luke-Acts emphasizes so well?
Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, suffers unto death on a cross for the sins of the world and all the evil committed by human beings.
Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, eats a piece of fish caught by the same men whom he first called to be fishers of people.
Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, sends flawed human beings to tell of God’s merciful and redemptive deeds; to share God’s blessings; and to proclaim God’s name to all nations.
The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, blows through the house of newly appointed apostles, messengers of Christ’s love for the world.
The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, marks human beings with tongues of flame and enables them to understand other human beings through the power of language and story.
The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, collaborates with real people—people chosen to work on God’s behalf to help bring about justice, love and peace in our own world.
That is what humanity is all about: Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, and The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, inviting each of us (regardless of who we are or what we’ve done) to be in relationship with God and with one another, within and outside the walls of the church. As a former colleague once put it: “The Spirit gives gifts in different measure to different persons precisely to make sure that the Church does not fall into dull conformity…Part of the message of Pentecost is that life does not begin and end with us or with other people’s definition of us. Life begins and ends with who God calls us to be.”
Accepting this invitation to practice our humanity or to be human—be God’s children, be God’s people—is, of course, a difficult, daunting and sometimes scary task. But the writer of Luke-Acts reminds us that we are never alone and we never need to be afraid…whether it be ghouls, evil spirits, things that go bump at night or even the Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost.
Because Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, commissions us to go out and witness together love-filled blessings of God that cast out all fear and evil. And Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, God’s breath, to accompany us as we go and to passionately stir our hearts so that we may tell and live the story of God’s amazing deeds all of our days.
 Kathryn Tucker Windham on Alabama’s Ghost Trail, Part 1, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8j2Omlyu00E&feature=related
 Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner, 1990.
 The Rev. Mike O’Brien, the former senior pastor at Colesville Presbyterian Church, Silver Spirng, MD, where I first served as an ordained minister, 2005-2008.