Readings from the Scriptures (CEB) Mark 12:28-34
28 One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 31 The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” 32 The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
I like observances that bring joy into our lives – and since I was young, I’ve always loved Halloween. I remember plenty of costumes from over the years, from that pvc Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, to the patience of my mom for years as I wanted to be the main characters from Wizard of Oz (I made a fabulous Dorothy), to much later years of complimentary costumes for my kids (Doctor Octopus to my son’s Spider-Man, etc). I’ve never been big though on the ‘scary’ side of Halloween, the jump-scare-filled movies, the excessive gore and gruesomeness that sneaks in when (in my biased opinion) we take things a bit too far. But thinking about it more these days, there’s much we can learn about Halloween and particular its focus on the dead.
We avoid talking about death so much that it becomes bigger in our minds. It gives it power – all that wondering and worrying about what will happen when we’re gone. Or moreso, about the process of dying – will we linger? Will we suffer? Will our family and friends suffer? The part of Halloween that I want to recapture is the comfort in speaking of death, for the church and the world has always felt the thin veil between life and death grow a little thinner this time of year.
In the church, feast days have come out of these ancient traditions to remember us of those who have left us: All Saints and All Souls in other expressions of Christianity happen just after Halloween, moving from an awareness of death, into an embrace of it. With the ancient Celtic traditions of Samhain (Sah-win) people would light fires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In medieval times, the poor would go “souling,” knocking on doors offer to pray for the residents’ deceased loved ones in exchange for food. In the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead, the favourite items of life are set out in order to make life more appealing to the visiting spirits of loved ones. These traditions help us to take the sting out of death – to remind us that just as the beautiful red, orange, and yellow trees do – there’s beauty in death, just as much as life. Being mindful of this eternal cycle, we are reminded to make the most of our time, to rejoice and have fun, to share our lives, and together, grow in faith so that when that hour comes, we’re not afraid. And to that end today, for a little fun, I thought I’d carve a pumpkin during the sermon. While traditions of turnip carving might be part of the past, there’s important learning found along each step in pumpkin carving.
Open my mind so I can learn new things about you. (Cut off the top)
How many times in life have you had to have an open mind? I’ve heard it said lots before that if you keep your mind open too much your brains might fall out – but that’s just to mean that whatever you find, whatever new thing you’re experiencing, when you’re encountering new beliefs or new understandings, you must practice critical thinking before you receive it. There’s plenty of youtube videos that will convince you the world is flat, that horse dewormer is a miracle cure, or putting your phone in the microwave will charge it. Don’t let your brain fall out – but don’t also close your mind so tight that you’re convinced you know everything. Be open.
Be open to the unique expression of God in each and all.
Be open the ever expanding experience of the divine.
Remove the things in my life that don’t please you. (Clean out the inside)
There’s lots that we carry with us that we don’t need. Within us there’s hurts upon hurts, sins and faults. Shame and guilt and anger. All the stuff that keeps us up at night. All the stuff we wish we could forget. But we carry it within us, because we don’t know what else to do with it. Emotional compost bags have fancy names like psychotherapists. Dealing with it all is a difficult task. However, if we face the mess, we discover that within it are the seeds to new life. In amongst the messiness, if we search, if we’re able to do the work that is required, we can learn and grow from all the messed up things that we’ve done or that were done to us, and discover seeds of hope. We discover forgiveness for ourselves that we can employ in our interactions with others. Or for some, while they might more easily forgive others, with enough practice, they can learn to forgive themselves too.
Open my eyes to see the beauty you’ve made in the world around me. (Cut two eyes)
When you look at the world, is the blessing of God the first thing you see? We recently wrapped up a wonderful Faith Study about nine spiritual practices, but the goal of each was to discover the unique call to relationship that God has placed within us. To see God in us. And when we deepen that relationship, we begin to see God in all things. Even a pumpkin.
I’m sorry for the times I’ve turned up my nose to all that’s been given to me. (Cut a nose)
There are days that we’re ungrateful. There are days that even a sparkling, shining glimmer of hope, does little against the backdrop of shadows and fear. But imagine if that glimmer wasn’t there. Imagine if even that wasn’t there. But our most familiar scripture (Psalm 23) reminds us that even in the valleys of shadow and death, God is. God is there. God doesn’t remove shadows or death, but instead dwells in the midst of it. God’s presence is enough.
Open my ears to hear you. (Cut two ears)
I just realized I rarely cut ears on a pumpkin. But in this ever loudening world, it’s becoming more difficult to hear God’s word of hope and reassurance. Listening for God, discerning God’s voice and will, are so difficult. But I’ve always used this test:
Is what I’m hearing, what I want to hear – or – am I being led to a new place, a new understanding, am I being led towards the people or the creation that God loves so dearly? Am I being challenged for prejudices that I carry? Is what’s being spoken to me going to be a blessing to myself or others? (Like have you ever had that feeling to call someone? Or reach out to someone you haven’t in awhile? That call that leads you to someone else, to an experience or an understanding that helps you or someone else grow, that brings about new life, new hope, new love… I count all of that as hearing the voice of God).
Open my mouth to share your good news. (Cut a mouth)
This is what we might call evangelism, but it’s more than that. You’re less trying to convert people – but you are trying to change their hearts from feeling alone, to knowing they’re not. Whether you’re speaking about God, or just your presence in their lives, are you bearing a word of love for them? Are you encouraging them? Are you speaking kindness in the world? Your fingers might be ready to tweet angrily or respond out of hurt, but so often we react impulsively speaking words that might get us into trouble.
Which is why the author of the Epistle of James said this:
James 3: 2 We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. 3 When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies. 4 Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. 5 In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly. Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. 6 The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell… 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
It shouldn’t be this way…because the light of Christ shines in us, and so,
Lord, let your light shine in me so others can see,
help me show your light to others through the things I do. (Place a candle in your pumpkin)
Halloween reminds us that the world can be a scary place but it doesn’t have to be. Death awaits all of us, and we carry such an irrational fear of death that makes us wonder about the point of life. But allowing the light of Christ to shine through us, when we speak words of love, when we train our eyes, nose and mouth to recognize and bear God’s word, when with God’s abundant grace we deal with the messes we carry within us, together these diminish the power of death. Living fully in each moment, celebrating silly festivals with too much candy, allows us to embrace even our deaths with hope.
For with the knowledge of death, we chose to live and celebrate as long as we can.
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation.
Should I fear anyone?
The Lord is a fortress protecting my life.
Should I be frightened of anything? …
13 …I have sure faith
that I will experience the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living!
14 Hope in the Lord!
Be strong! Let your heart take courage!
Hope in the Lord!
Psalm 27 (source of our opening hymn – A Mighty Fortress)
 Matthew 5:16