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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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All Saints Day

John 11:32-45

Talking to the Dead

Graveside Chat

The minister recently arrived at his new charge. Like many older churches, a rather large cemetery surrounded the sanctuary. It held the final resting place of several generations of members. One day a few relatives of a long deceased member came to his office with a request. They asked for his permission to invite a professional “medium” to attempt to contact their relative. They believed that if they stood at his grave the medium could assist them in asking the departed's advice on various family matters. The pastor refused their request. He told them that they are Christians and that “we did not believe stuff like that.”

People have held a fascination about communicating with the dead throughout history. The Bible records that even King Saul, in a moment of doubt before a battle, disguised himself and sought the counsel of the dead prophet Samuel. (1 Samuel 28).

The first book on this subject was published in 1760 and included quotes from several notable spirits including--Peter the Great, Pericles, a "North-American Savage," William Penn, and Christina, Queen of Sweden. Perhaps the most infamous seance was held in the White House by the grieving Mary Todd Lincoln who wanted to talk to the her dead son. The President and several members of society attended. Such practices became very common in the late 1800s until a report was published by a specially appointed commission exposing many frauds of the movement. However, communicating with the dead, never really died.

The movie that depicted a seance was Supernatural . It was released in 1933 and starred Carol Lombard. Supernatural was about an heiress who wanted to contact her dead brother. Nearly all the movies since then do not give any credence to the possibility of the living connecting with the dead. Although the popular TV series Ghost Whisperer presents the possibility in a much more favorable perspective. The series is about a Melinda Gordon (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who has the ability to see and communicate with the dead. Melinda apparently helps the dead pass over to the other side by working as a paranormal investigator.

The Christian church has long affirmed the position of that pastor who declined to participate in a graveside seance. Scripture strictly forbids such methods of communicating with the dead.

" Let no one be found among you who ...casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead."

(Deuteronomy 18:11, NIV)

I Samuel records that Saul himself had ordered that all mediums be expelled from the land yet that did not stop him from seeking counsel of the dead when he was in great distress.

The author and preacher, William Wilimon, advises that every Sunday we come to church seeking guidance from the dead. In one sense that is true. We were called to worship using the prayers of one man long dead that are now recorded in the book we call the Psalms. We heard a story about Jesus healing a blind man and the increase in persecution that followed. The story also was written by a man who was hoping to see the coming of Messiah. His hope was only partially fulfilled. The author of the gospel of John recognized that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise, died before he got the chance to see Jesus return in glory. However, now through the writing of that dead apostle we can learn about Jesus. Willimon writes:

We have opened the scriptures, we have read from the testimony of those who have been dead for many centuries. We have engaged in a rather amazing act, amazing for folk in our culture. We have acted as if these ancient people with names like Isaiah, John, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, know more about God than we do. We have believed that they have something to teach us that we could not learn any other way.

Christianity is inherently a faith of the past, present and future. However, our current culture depreciates the past. It assumes that someone who has lived during another century does not have anything to tell us. The wisdom of the ancients is considered relevant to us today because the world is so much different than it is today. But this morning's gospel lesson serves as an allegory to tell us that wherever Jesus walks the dead arise.

The Dead Arise

In our world the dead remain dead. The family grieves but once the funeral is over, I wonder how many people really think about the lessons, the life experiences or the wisdom that the departed shared with them.

This morning's gospel lesson is the account of an event that took place shortly before Jesus himself was crucified. He had been told the news that one of his favorite friends, Lazarus, was sick and desperately needed him but Jesus waited several days. John indicates that Jesus intentionally delayed so that Lazarus would die. Jesus wanted to teach them that he was also Lord of the dead.

By the time Jesus arrives, Mary and Martha already had the funeral service. They had already shed their tears and expressed their sorrow. Their brother was dead. Nothing more could be done. However, that does not prevent everyone to speculate whether he could have done anything to save Lazarus' life. Only the disciples know that he has already raised two people from the dead—the son of a widow (Luke 7:11) and a little girl (Mark 5:41). But even the disciples were not expecting what would take place at Lazarus' tomb.

Jesus asks to visit the grave. This is an understandable request. Jesus loved Lazarus and needed time to personally grieve. However, people follow him to the grave like a bunch of groupies chasing after a rock star. They do not know what to expect. They most certainly do not expect him to perform any miracle. It is too late. Lazarus is dead. Nothing more could be done.

But this is Jesus and nothing is ever over. In a loud voice Jesus calls Lazarus to come forth out of the grave. To everyone's amazement, Lazarus walks from the darkest of the cavern and into the afternoon light. With Jesus, even the dead are never really dead.

Communicating with the Dead

We would not know this amazing miracle and other stories if John, Mary, Martha, Lazarus and other saints had not shared them with us. We now learn from those saints who are now dead. Unless we are willing to pay attention to the stories of people who have stepped from this world and into the next, we would never know about the electrifying work of God. All Saints' Day is a celebration of the lives of those who have gone before us. We are not suppose to conjure up their spirits to discuss finances, theology or world events. We are not to pray to them seeking solutions to our problems, protection while we travel or guidance in our decision making. However, in our own way, we can communicate with them. They may not hear us and they will not speak audibly to us but we may still listen to them.

Every time we pick up the Bible. Every time we read a biography. Every time we meditate on the word of an ancient saint we are listening to them. I believe this is an exercise that should be done more often. I think that we would take greater steps in maturity if we spent more time studying the works of St Augustine, St Francis of Assisi, Richard Baxter, John Owen, John Bunyan, Franny Crosby, Teresa of Avila, John and Charles Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other men and women of faith who now shine in glory because they ran the race before us.

This became very real for me a few years after my bone marrow transplant. The most difficult part of that experience was not the actual treatment. The first couple of years after recovery were very tasking. I still had a port line stuck in my chest so that I could receive fluids to prevent dehydration. My hair grew back very slowly and very thin. My feet hurt because of nerve damage. My strength was not nearly what it had been before the transplant. I did not have a permanent job because I was serving as an interim pastor. And I had one daughter in college and one who was soon to be. When I focused on all these issues that were circulating in my life, I had a difficult time dealing with discouragement. Reading did not seem to help very much. My theology books were too abstract and technical. The popular books offered solutions that were too simplistic and trite. They were very self-help oriented and filled with positive thoughts that did nothing to change mine.

Fortunately, I was enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry program and the professor recommended that I read a book from the 17th century, The Saints Everlasting Rest. It was written by a Puritan divine to help his congregation to prepare for a good death. You do not hear that type of jargon today. Pastors are suppose to help their parishioners learn how to live not die. They are to teach their people how to live the happy victorious life. Baxter thought differently. He believed that a person could not life faithfully until he or she was prepared to die.

The section that really helped me was the chapter entitled “The Excellencies of the Saints Rest.” In the eighth section of the chapter, Baxter expounded upon all of the virtues of our rest. His opening statement alone could be meditated upon for days. We shall then have joy without sorrow, and rest without weariness.” He then goes on to write about 10 or more things from which we would be delivered because heaven directly excludes all forms of sin. Baxter explained that we would no long have any doubts about God. We would not sense any of God's displeasure. All forms of temptation by Satan, the world or the flesh would cease. We could enjoy beauty without feeling the tug of lust, envy, greed or power. We would no longer suffer the abuses of persecution or have to witness the sufferings of our friends. Perfect harmony would reign among believers and we would finally be able to put aside our petty quarrels and enjoy our unity and love.

I spent a great deal of time reading through that section. I reread several paragraphs and then tried to imagine what that particular blessing would be like to experience. Baxter's instructions did more to lift my spirits than any more recently published book. He was not chained to the jargon and trite cliches of today. He was a man who explored the great depths of spirituality not by reading the quote of the day on his Blackberry or by mulling through the aimless meanderings of his friends. The profoundness of Baxter's thought and the richness of his wisdom came through hours of reading Scripture and meditating upon God's Word. Through the preservation of his words, we have the privilege of drawing from the wellspring of his knowledge. That is the beauty of communicating with the dead.

The Medium

The pastor visited the woman a couple of weeks after she and her family held their little gathering. She was very disappointed that her dead father had not appeared or spoken to them. The minister understood the woman's pain. She had once been totally dependent upon the love, the guidance and the care of her father. She became terribly alone with his death. She was not equipped to make decisions on her own. She could not solve problems without a parental figure giving her advice. She wanted to hear his reassuring voice. She longed to be the recipient of his wisdom. She just did not know how to go about it in a manner that was consistent with her faith.

On All Saints' Day and really on every Sunday we do what that woman tried to do. We reach out to listen to the wisdom of the saints who have gone before us. We do not expect to hear their actual voice, but we still can be enriched by their wisdom.

The idea for this sermon came from William H. Wilamon, Pulpit Resources


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