Sermon: “Ghosts”

Thanks to Dorothea Dix Unitarian Universalist Community for hosting me. Here’s the text of the sermon:

It was after the waves of pirates and princesses,
after the ninjas wearing bathrobes and plastic swords,
after the cute little pumpkin being pushed in a stroller,
and the group of skeletons whose faces lit up in the dark.
It was after the adorable, toddling M and Ms;
and the dragon adorned with a mane of old carpet,
after the older kids who were wearing not much of anything
and the other older kids who seemed
to be dressed only as themselves, with backpacks open and expectant.
It was late at night on Halloween,
that steady stream of wonder and delight,
when the ghosts began to arrive.

Evening had fell upon the houses
and I, on my front porch,
was feeling an old, familiar spell in my heart begin to wane.
Halloween was not what it once was for me,
its sugar high had lasted decades,
had peaked all those years ago
when, through the magic of spray paint,
I got to be the robot from Lost in Space,
“Danger, Will Robinson!”
and then, much to my surprise and delight,
had peaked again when the kids were young and I was
the one holding the spray-paint can,
trying to make their dreams come true
with needle and thread and CFCs and what was left of
my imagination.

Now, in my dotage, I felt that Halloween was settling into
a state of ordinary existence,
its magic muted, a night like other nights,
but that was all before
the ghosts appeared.

First there was my great uncle, who died in the war.
I knew him only from a photograph,
Uncle Milt, dressed in his military fineries,
smiling at the camera.
And I was as shocked as
a child with a Ouija board
to see the very image of that photograph come
strolling past my front porch,
carrying what looked to be a plastic bag filled to the brim with candy.

It must have been a trick of the waning light, I thought to myself,
and in search of reassurance I took note at all
the strangers walking by,
none of which looked anything like my family,
nor dressed in military uniforms:
like that woman over there in the Victorian cloak,
and the little boy here in the rags of a caveman,
(what a hairy little boy he was!)
and the woman there who looked quite a surprising amount
like Harriet Tubman. Really, A LOT
like Harriet Tubman.
And wasn’t that –
I mean, who would dress up like my grandmother,
looking just as she did when I sat on her lap as a tiny child?

Nefarious doubts were creeping into my tired mind like
when James Dean walked up to the porch.

Now, a lot of people can look like James Dean.
It isn’t hard to do.
A white T-shirt, a little gel, maybe a cigarette tucked
behind the ear,
the perfect kind of pout.
But something about the way he walked up my stairs,
nodded, and said ,”hey”, made me just knew –
I mean, I just knew, this guy was him.
Only one person can occupy any given spirit, I guess,
and the guy in occupancy was clearly James Dean.

Still I had to ask.
“Are you…James Dean?”
A stupid question, sure,
but I had never really thought about what to ask a ghost,
much less the ghost of the guy who was the rebel without a cause.

“Yeah. You recognize me?” He seemed pleased.
“What are you doing here?”
He paused, shrugged. (Great actors never rush a line)

“It’s Halloween, man. What do you think I’m doing?
I mean, it’s a little early for carols.”
I looked down and saw in his immaculate hands
a plastic pumpkin with 2 Mike ‘n ‘Ikes and a lonely packet of Smarties.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, and hastily dumped a few bite-size goodies
into the container.
“Thanks, man,” he said, and he was gone.

You know how sometimes, when life throws us for a loop,
and everything is unfamiliar
our brain, sooner or later, can adjust to any sort of chaos?
Well, instead of questioning the existence of ghosts,
my tired mind yelled this at my consciousness:
“That’s all you had to say to James Dean?
Your favorite actor of all time?

I mean, how many times does James Dean rise from the dead?
And the extent of your conversation was, “are you James Dean?’
I didn’t tell him how I loved his movies!
I never even told him that I was sorry he was dead!”

But you know, friends,
how often do we do this though, to one another,
to the living,
spectral though we ain’t,
how often do we go through our days barely glancing at one other,
not saying more than the barest pleasantries
when the meeting of human beings,
whether living or dead,
is quite a phenomenal thing.
What was I doing, after all, with a ghost that I had not done a thousand
times with they of flesh and blood.

I made a resolution, not to let this opportunity pass.
I resolved that, if all this wasn’t some crazy dream,
or even if it was,
the next spirit that came across my porch, I would at least say that
I was sorry he was dead.

One does not expect, when making such a promise,
to see Genghis Khan so soon.
He was flanked by a couple of his fighters, all coated in bear furs,
carrying axes across their backs and pillowcases in their hands.
They did not appear to speak English,
which I was quietly thankful for,
but even so, as I slipped
two Hershey kisses each into their pillowcases,
I mumbled at his henchman ,”heymanI’msorryyourdead”
because a promise is a promise, and a sort-of a promise is enough of a promise
that you at least need to say something to somebody.

When John Lennon came up, though, I was ready.
“Oh, man, oh brother, I’m so sorry. You know, I cried the day that you died.”
“I didn’t.” he said.
Enigmatic, as usual, and then he added,
“You know, it ain’t so bad, being dead, mate.
I mean, I cried for Yoko, of course, because she was still in New York.
But I didn’t cry for me – life’s where the suffering is.
Death is a bit boring, but it’s not so terrible. It’s just peace.
I just wish everybody else would find peace here,
that’d be a lot more exciting.”
“I hear you, brother- imagine all the people, living for today.”
“Hey that’s my line, make your own song, brother.“
“You got it, John,” I said, and I slipped three full-size
Reese’s Pieces into his hand, and before I could say more,
he slipped off into the night.

Next to the porch came one of my Unitarian Universalist heroes.
Clara Barton, I recognized her by her nurse’s outfit,
and by the fact that she was carrying – of course­ – a Unicef Box.
I always keep a few quarters lying around to give to Unicef,
but for the founder of the American Red Cross, I dug in and found
a twenty. “why thank you, sir”, said Ms. Barton,
“That will help the lives of many.”
“Lives?” I asked, “begging your pardon ma’am,
but you’re not alive. I gotta ask:
what can ghosts do with Unicef money.”

The great nurse gave me a stern look:
“I collect not for the dead, but for the living.”
“Well, very nice of you,” I said, but she had had enough of
chit-chat, and thrust a phantom finger at my chest.
“Remember,” she said,
“you have only a little life to make something with.
The dead made a pact with the living:
Forget not the soldiers who died before dawn on the battlefield.
Forget not the nurses that tried to heal, nor think of our ultimate fate
as their failure. Many dead who contributed to your living.”
Frightened and humbled, I told her,
“You are right, ma’am,
and I will honor the past.”
“Honor the past! Pah!
Remember the past, but do not honor it!
The past is over and done. Defy the tyranny of precedent.
We didn’t honor the past.
You must honor the future!”
And with that, she marched down the stairs –
you would have thought ghosts float, but hers
was one determined spirit, and she was gone,
off to the next battlefield.

So much I was learning about the living,
so little about the dead!
I still didn’t know why my visiting haunts trick or treated
or what they will still seeking in their
ethereal existence.
I resolved to answer all my questions
with my next caller.

My grasp of history failed when a kindly old woman
was next to walk up my steps.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Penelope McGloin.”
Her name rang no bell.
“Well, do I know you? Are you someone famous.”
“No,” she said a little put upon, “Do I know you? Are you somebody famous?”
“Uh no,” I replied, “I guess not. Uh, maybe you’re a relative of mine?”
“Aren’t we all relatives?”
Yes, indeed, I suppose we are,
and not just the living and the dead of humanity, too,
but the animals, from a common ancestor,
the other kingdoms of the world. Even the rocks,
when interviewed under a microscope,
told tales of common bonds,
a connection in mattering.
“Why, yes,” I told the spirit before me,
in the guise of an old woman,

We are all related, I suppose,
are you here to deliver me some message?”
“No, not really, I just came to see if you’re all right.
You’ve been talking at thin air all night.”

My goodness! It was a living lady!
A neighbor! A genuine neighbor!
One who was here beside me
in my neighborhood, yesterday,
even though I didn’t know it,
and would likely be here tomorrow!

I could not contain my excitement.
Come sit on my porch a while!
I begged her to take some hot chocolate,
so we could get to know each other as neighbors.
Well, Penelope thought me a little weird- who wouldn’t –
but it was Halloween – and hot chocolate was hot chocolate,
so we sat down on my porch and talked
a good spell,
together we enjoyed the darkness and the quiet.

And that, and they say, was that.
I never did find out why the dead feel compelled
to trick or treat, whether all this happened in reality
or in the golden reality of my imagination.
I’ll tell you one thing, though:
I’m really looking forward to Halloween this year.

I have a few things I’d like to say to Gandhi,
I’d love to sit with Rosa Parks a while,
and I may even have a few choice words
for Genghis Khan.

Life has been different in the intervening year –
no ghosts visited me, so I had to reach out to them,
which I did.
No, not through a séance or anything so fantastic.
Instead, I reached out in my perspective,
considering myself often as part of the family of humankind,
a more thoughtful, more grateful, heir to
thousands of generations of dead people.
Even more than that, I have felt more connected to the living.
When another human being graces my presence,
to be in the presence of another living, breathing child, woman to man,
has felt like I was a child given some Halloween candy.
It is proof enough for me that life is treat, no trick.
Armed with that knowledge, I walk much less heavily than I once did,
aware my life is just one among many,
part of some mischievous and beautiful parade of being.

It won’t be too, too, long, I am sure,
before I am a specter haunting these streets,
with plastic pumpkin in hand. But today,
I thrill myself with the knowledge that others
will knock on my door, dressed as they wilt,
and remind me that I, too, am a giver
of gifts. And tonight, maybe, just maybe,
I’ll think of the right words to say
to James Dean.

Blessed be, my friends, Happy Halloween, AMEN

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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