Making Peace with Ghosts

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

Do you believe in ghosts?  What about zombies?

Donny was my next door neighbor.  He was my hero; my role model.

I have an older brother, Andy, about a year and a half older than I—just this side of a year and a half, actually: fifteen months and sixteen days.

Andy wasn’t my role model.  Not so much anyway.  He was my older brother; and you know how that goes.

But Donny!  He was the one I looked up to!

My family had moved to Camarillo in January of 1972.  I was almost four; Andy was five.  And I can still remember that first day, pulling in with a moving truck, into the driveway that would be mine for the next twelve and a half years—the driveway; and the old ranch house; and the seventy or eighty avocado trees that came along with it!  Here was my boyhood home.

Donny lived next door.  He was two months older than Andy; and, to a boy of three, that made Donny so much wiser—and just plain better, any way you looked at it!

So, in time, Donny learned to come on over any time of the day and peek in the back door, the sliding glass door; and if Andy or I was there, he’d just let himself in.

We’d do the same, too, Andy or I, at Donny’s house.  We didn’t know any different.  This was life.

Happy doesn’t even begin to describe the emotion I felt, then, when—finally!—the day came: Donny was invited to spend the night.

Ah, my first sleepover!  Donny was my hero; my role model.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Now, Andy and I shared a built-in bunk bed.  He got the top bunk—he was older, remember.  And I got the bottom.  (I’m still sore about this, by the way.)  But tonight it was to pay off!  For beneath my bunk laid a trundle bed; and tonight it would be rolled out and occupied by Donny, my hero, my role model.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

Also, we had this foreboding, creaky, and frankly spooky spiral staircase—made of cold, hard wrought iron—leading from a rather dark corner of the kitchen down, down, down into the basement.  The steps on this staircase were open at the back; meaning there was a perfect space underneath, to hide in and reach my hands through and scare the heebie-jeebies out of anyone who happened to be descending.

Mom never liked this staircase much.  But we boys did.  Most of the time!

And then I already mentioned the avocado orchard, right?

So: there was a squatter who lived in the orchard.  Like most squatters, he remained elusive, hidden away in corners where we wouldn’t happen upon him easily.  But he wasn’t what you might call a typical squatter; for he wasn’t exactly human.

Some time ago he’d been in a terrible accident: a pedestrian crossing the street, if I remember correctly, when a Mack Truck plowed into him, catapulting him onto the ice-plant some forty feet away.

Witnesses saw it.  The truck driver screeched to a halt.  A small crowd ran over to help the tall man, the seven-foot man.  One person checked his pulse; another called 911; someone else performed CPR.  But, alas, he lay crumpled and lifeless in a heap.  It was too late.  The seven-foot man was dead.

Well, you know how it is.  When something like this happens and everyone realizes it’s too late to do anything about it, things kind of slow down a bit.  The commotion settles.

The cops showed up and started taking witnesses’ reports.  The ambulance wasn’t yet on the scene.  And somehow or other everyone’s attention was diverted: no one was looking any longer at the seven-foot man.

When the ambulance finally did arrive and the people remembered the poor crumpled soul on the ice-plant, they turned and—oh, gasp!—he wasn’t there.  “So, where’s the victim?” the medics asked; to which everyone, including the cops, just shrugged their shoulders and scratched their heads.  He’d upped and vanished!

Except he hadn’t really vanished, I knew!  Because he was living in my avocado orchard!

If you can call it living!

Because I also knew that in the accident his body and spirit had been separated from one another; and for whatever reason they couldn’t be joined back together.  And now both were haunting my home and avocado orchard: both the disembodied spirit of the seven-foot man—his ghost; and his spiritless body—his zombie!

The seven-foot man was a double whammy!

And, late at night, after everyone lay in bed asleep, I knew that both zombie and ghost would sneak into that gaping maw, that space beneath the creaky spiral staircase, in order to try to reunite.

Donny knew it too.  So did Andy.  But we’d learned to live with it.

So then, after a long day of boyhood adventures, we enjoyed a delicious dinner of Mac ’n’ Cheese, donned our pajamas, and brushed our teeth.  Now it was time to climb in bed.

We boys had crossed the line a time or two that day, sure, daring each other to tempt fate.  We’d hunted for the seven-foot man, provoked each other to poke around in all the scariest corners of the orchard—the junk pile, the woodpile, the corner sectioned off by barbed wire—attempting to outdo each other in eight and nine year-old feats of manliness.

But, after all, the seven-foot man was just an invention of our own creativity, wasn’t he?  There really wasn’t some ghost-zombie man who would sneak into the basement after dark desperately seeking peace in the afterlife, was there?  Surely no!

Still, what if there were?

This question haunted me.  I mean, we’d just spent our day tormenting him, angering him . . .

Oh, well, it didn’t matter.  What did I care?  Donny, my hero, my role model, was at my side.  He was brave.  He was tough.  He wasn’t afraid of anything!

That’s when I heard the noise next to me.  Maybe a sniffle?

Oh, sure, Donny probably just had allergies or a little sleep apnea or something.

But then—it wasn’t just sniffing anymore—now I was hearing snuffles!  And now some throat-clearing!  And now, positively, sobbing!

“Donny,” I called out, “are you okay?”

A pause; then, “I wanna call my dad,” he replied (sniff, sniff).

Which he did.  And within five minutes he was packed up and heading home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man—and our fears—without him.

But he was my hero; my role model!

Whatever the case—whether you believe in ghosts or not (that’s not the point!)—today’s Gospel teaches us something about belief.

Jesus appears amongst the disciples and they are “startled and terrified.”  The disciples think they’re seeing a ghost.  They’re frightened.  Doubts arise in their hearts.

Then Jesus persuades them.  “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says; “touch me.”  And they do.  And their beliefs begin to change.  They are filled with joy; but there is still disbelief and wonder.

Finally, Jesus takes some food and eats it; and he teaches the disciples, opening their minds so that they understand the scriptures.  Now, no longer are they disbelieving.  No longer are they skeptical.  Their faith is now certain.

This Gospel story shows us three characteristics of belief:

a. Complete Disbelief—Jesus appears and they think he’s a ghost;

b. Skeptical Wonderment—their disbelief is mixed with joy;

c. Certain Faith—they hear the scriptures and understand.

I’m not saying that these characteristics of belief are progressive stages: that you have to go through one to get to another; that everyone needs to go through a time of complete disbelief and then a time of skepticism before he or she can truly believe.

Instead, you might find yourself in a state of sure and certain belief today—you can’t remember a time when your faith was stronger—; and yet tomorrow you experience a complete crisis of faith.  Belief is complicated.

Also, I’m not saying that these characteristics are comprehensive: that they cover the whole spectrum of belief possibilities.  Belief is not so simple as to mark it out in three easy steps.

But I think we can all relate.  We’ve all been here, right?

Have you ever thought something like, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my child’s tuition this year”; or, “I don’t know how my marriage is going to last”; or, “I’m not even sure I believe in Jesus anymore”?

These belief characteristics don’t just happen on the individual level either.  For example, a question might have been on this congregation’s mind in recent years: “How is St. Paul’s possibly going to regroup after so many have left the congregation?”

And yet God has managed; somehow, we have regrouped.

But belief is like that.  It’s complicated.  It can be unstable.  It’s insecure.

So, Donny called his dad and went home, leaving Andy and me to face the seven-foot man on our own. We were completely and totally freaked out by this prospect.

And not five minutes after we’d climbed back into bed, still spooked, now listening intently into the darkness, it happened: over in a dark corner on the other side of the house the spiral staircase let out a loud and telltale creak.

Well, Andy lost it.  He let out a scream to shatter a brandy snifter.  Which triggered a similar scream from me!  And together, like two coyotes under a full moon, we howled and wailed and cried until our real hero, our real role model, Dad, came into the room.

“Boys!” he shouted—mainly to get our attention.  Then, “boys!” he said, much more calmly; “I don’t know what went down with you and Donny today.  But I don’t have to.  I’m here.  I love you.  And if you need anything, just come get me.”

Peace, he’d said; be still.

Isn’t today’s word from God the same for us?  You might be in a sure and certain place today.  And if so, great!  Enjoy it!  You won’t always be in such a desired place.

Some of you, however, perhaps more of you, are not in such a certain and sure place.  You might be experiencing some joy and wonderment; but also some disbelief.  You might even find yourselves skeptical.

Others of you, probably a few, don’t believe at all right now.  You look around at the world and wonder how a god could even exist.

The truth is, we go back and forth between these places.  It’s a natural part of faith.  But we find it unsettling, unstable, insecure.  And, like that guy in the story who meets Jesus, in the very same breath we say, “Lord, I believe!  Help me in my unbelief!”

Peace!  Be still!  Jesus came and stood among his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”  Peace—not stability, not security, but peace—be with you.

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