A sermon preached by the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Sunday 31 October 2021, 10:30, The Fourth Sunday Before Advent
Readings: Hebrews 9: 11–14, Mark 12: 28–34
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“Dear Great Pumpkin, once again I look forward to your arrival. I shall be sitting in my sincere pumpkin patch waiting for you. I have been good all year…”
It’s Hallowe’en, and it’s a big day in the life of Linus van Pelt. Every Hallowe’en Linus takes his place in the pumpkin patch and awaits the magical arising of the Great Pumpkin. Every Hallowe’en he hopes that the Great Pumpkin will fly through the air and distribute toys to the children of the world. Every Hallowe’en his hope is mocked by his sister Lucy. And every Hallowe’en he is disappointed. His uncomprehending family refuse to allow him to sit up all night, and the Great Pumpkin invariably fails to appear. But Linus is nothing if not dogged in his belief. “A prophet is not without honour except in his own country and in his own house” he declares.
One year Peppermint Patty sits with him in the pumpkin patch. “Tomorrow” she says, “I get my baseball glove”. “Your what?” gasps Linus. “My baseball glove” repeats Patty, “I asked the Great Pumpkin to bring me a new glove”. Linus’s outrage knows no bounds. “You don’t ask the Great Pumpkin for a present!” he yells. “You wait for whatever he brings”.
The world of Charles M Schulz’s cartoon strip Peanuts has long been a source of joy and of theological wisdom to me. Linus’s lonely Hallowe’en vigil is a treasured waymark of it – taking its place alongside other classic vignettes such as Snoopy’s dogfights with the Red Baron, and Charlie Brown’s ill-fated attempts to woo that Little Red-Haired Girl.
Linus’s steadfast faith in the munificence of the Great Pumpkin stands out because it contrasts sharply with another Hallowe’en practice – a practice which has made its way from the pages of Peanuts to our own doorsteps. I mean, of course, the practice of dressing up in ghoulish costumes and knocking on doors with the words “Trick or Treat”. What those three words envisage is very different to what Linus believes as he sits in his pumpkin patch. The householder gives chocolate to the eager ghost, witch, or goblin as the precondition for the said ghost, witch, or goblin refraining from playing a practical joke. There’s a transaction (which in the world of Peanuts, incidentally, rarely works out well for Charlie Brown). Whereas Linus is insistent that there is no transaction at all. He waits for what the Great Pumpkin will bring – and he waits patiently, year after year.
I spent most of last week in Beirut, Lebanon. Please forgive me for mentioning it – it’s just that I’ll probably never be able to say it in a sermon ever again. But I did. I spent most of last week in Beirut, Lebanon, and as I reflect on the contrast between the Great Pumpkin and Trick or Treat two texts from the streets of Beirut stick in my mind. One was chalked up in a bar on Gouraud Street. It read: “Special Offer: you give us money – we give you beer”. The other was spray-painted on a wall just around the corner. It read simply “Give us this day our daily bread”. Beer for money; trick or treat: a transaction. Daily bread; the Great Pumpkin: waiting…trusting.
Which characterizes the life of faith as you understand it? Which characterizes the life of faith as you experience it?
Allow me to ask this as you consider your answers: when you hear a knock on the door this Hallowe’en; when you open it; when you find God standing there - what will God say? You see, I bet it won’t be “Trick or Treat”. God does not demand something from us – attendance at church or lavish almsgiving or hours of prayer or some other equally meritorious conduct – something in return for which he promises to fill our buckets with the heavenly equivalent of chocolate. Not, you understand, that chocolate is not heavenly. No: God will not be more generous to us if we are better or cleverer or thinner or more beautiful. There is no transaction in the religion of Christians. There cannot be, for the deal has already been done. The Epistle to the Hebrews could not be clearer. Christ has entered the Holy Place ahead of us, and he has entered it once for all. Christ has shed his blood upon the hill of Calvary; he has obtained eternal redemption for us. Our fate is sealed by his gracious act.
And all you and I can do is respond to what he has done. The scribe who questions Jesus knows this. “Which commandment is the first of all?” Burnt offerings and sacrifices, whatever ‘treats’ which we might offer in order to avert a divine ‘trick’ are ultimately unimportant. All you and I are bidden to do is to love the Lord – to love the Lord who has loved us first. All you and I are bidden to do is to love our neighbours as ourselves. Trick or treat faith - transactional faith – is not on offer to Christians, and to the extent that we suspect that it is then we need to consign it to the dustbin of history. God does not bribe us or bully us; we cannot bribe God or bully God. We can simply get on with living in a manner that is worthy of what God has already done: caring for one another, caring for the creation; caring about God’s purposes for us. Attending to one another, attending to the Earth, and attending to ourselves.
If you’re not convinced then remember that Hallowe’en is All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints Day. Tomorrow we will honour the holy ones of God. They are not a bunch of super-dealmakers; they have not struck bargains with the Almighty which have yielded spectacular results. TS Eliot ponders this, and puts these words into the mouth of one of them, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop murdered in his Cathedral in 1170: “A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.”
There’s a definition of sainthood for you; there’s what Hallowe’en is really about. It’s not about dressing up in ghoulish robes; it’s about stripping away the layers with which you defend yourself. It’s not about making demands of others; it’s about allowing God’s demands to be realized in you. It’s not about losing your identity in an archfiend’s cloak; it’s about losing your will in the will of God.
Brothers and sisters, it’s time to get off the doorstep, where we demand treats or inflict tricks. I’m afraid it’s even time to get out of the bar, where we exchange cash for beer. It’s time to sit in the pumpkin patch; it’s time to trust in the goodness of God; it’s time to await our daily bread. Linus wins. Amen.