Something is in the air. You can smell it. You can taste it. You can feel it deep down. November nights press right up against the windows. Black tree limbs scrape against brooding skies. Swaddled in sweaters, dead leaves crunch beneath our feet. Daylight slips away. Horror lurks in the shadows, as darkness overtakes the light.
Horror, not a very happy topic for a Sunday morning! But bear with me, please!
Horror is an October hobby that I share with my indie filmmaker son Zach. Viewing horror films that is. In the spirit of Halloween, for a full thirty-one days – each day we watch a scary movie. Not the same ones necessarily. It’s a mother-son bonding thing, we have done since he was in middle school. We text one another and share recommendations and reviews.
We don’t watch the blood and guts kind of horror but the campy Vincent Price, Peter Lori, Bela Lugosi kind; the Alfred Hitchcock psychologically unsettling kind; cult classics like the 1936 Mexican film, The Phantom of the Monastery; film adaptations of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” The kinds of films you can only find on the Criterion Channel. (The best classic movie streaming service for film buffs – par excellence!)
I know that many of you are likely thinking, “Why would you want to watch such terrible things? Isn’t the real world scary enough?”
An opinion piece in the New York Times by author Stephen Graham Jones, answers this question best.
Horror fans have always known that the genre is more than a nightmare carnival. Horror is, and always has been, in dialogue with the anxieties and fears of its time. For instance, during the Great Depression the misery and economic strife were embodied by monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.
Horror does more than merely reflect our fears and anxieties, it also helps us process them. Not because it’s an accurate representation or dramatization of our turmoil, but because it comes packaged in novels and movies that end. Whether those books or films end happily or not, they end. For all of us who sense no end to our own daily horror stories, that’s what’s important.
Today’s scripture presents us with a horror show.
Each of today’s lessons is as dark and foreboding as the days of November. Something dreadful is coming this way. It seems the end is near. The times are urgent. The needs are pressing. The last two weeks, we comfortably sat in the pews contemplating the communion of saints and the company of heaven. But this Sunday, literally all hell seems to have broken loose.
(Heads up! Today I am using the old Episcopal lectionary and the not the RCL.)
Daniel gives us only 1,290 days before the “abomination that desolates” is upon us. Hebrews warns us that “it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God.” And Jesus himself warns of the “desolating sacrilege.” Our days on earth are being cut short and there is going to be hell to pay.
So, run; flee to the mountains. Don’t go back, not even for your coat. Run as fast as you can.
Something apocalyptic this way comes.
Mark’s community struggled. As Christians, their enclaves had been torched by Nero. As Jews, they had risen up in revolt against Rome. Under siege they found themselves victims of starvation and violence. Ultimately crushed by the Roman army, Jerusalem and the Temple fell. The very touchstones of the Jewish world were no more. As Yahweh’s refugees, in the face of such “desolating sacrilege,” their only hope was to flee.
Run, run to the mountains. “Steal away” and don’t look back.
“Steal away, steal away, steal away home to Jesus.”
In the mid-nineteenth century American south, you could hear this spiritual rising above the cotton fields. Black voices singing: “Steal away, steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here.”
America’s original sin, our “desolating sacrilege”, savagely stole and enslaved millions of Africans. Deprived of liberty, dignity, home, and family – all too often death seemed the only escape. Heaven — the only way out.
But “Steal away” was much more than a hymn about the great by-and-by. It was a signal for the enslaved to stage a strike in the fields; a musical map to find their way to the Underground Railroad. A song about reaching the Promised Land – somewhere up North.
Run, run, don’t stop for anything. Don’t look back.
There is a marvelous and moving African-American folk tale called “The People Could Fly.” This is the version told by Virginia Hamilton in a book of the same name.
Once upon a time, they say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, they flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black shiny wings flapping against the blue up there.
Then many of the people were captured for slavery. The ones that could fly shed their wings. They couldn’t take their wings across the water on the slave ships. But the people who could fly kept their power. Though you couldn’t tell anymore who could fly and who couldn’t.
The slaves, they labored in the fields from sunup to sundown. The driver cracked his whip over the slow ones to make them move faster. That whip was a slice open cut of pain. So they moved faster. Had to.
It was dead hot in the fields. A young man slave fell from the heat. The driver came over and whipped him.
Another slave fell and then another. Then the eldest of the slaves cried out to the fallen and reached his arms out to them. “Kum, kunka, yali, kum, tamble!”Whispers and sighs. And those who had fallen rose on the air. They rode the hot breezes. They crossed the rows, the fields, the fences, and the streams. And they were away.
They flew in a flock that was black against a heavenly blue. They went so high way above the plantation, way above the slavery land.
Say they flew away to freedom.
Flew away on the wings of the Spirit.
For The People Who Could Fly, the horror of slavery bitterly haunts, but it can never forever contain or define them. This story continues to resonate profoundly in a country still struggling with racial injustice and reconciliation. It is a poignant parable of hope.
For Mark’s community, their horror story of Roman occupation is integral to their history, but it did not portend their end. The early church survived and this new faith ultimately thrived. Mark is a gospel of hope.
Every day we hear in the news new horror stories. The calamities of climate change, the wages of war, the price of poverty, and so much more — apocalypses of our own making. And as Christians, before our God, we need to own up to them.
Biblical apocalypse is about beginnings and not just ends. Death to the old way of doing things — yields to life found in the new. Crucifixion redeemed in resurrection. Dark redeemed in light.
The end of Ordinary Time is upon us, my friends. The Advent of Christ is about to begin.
Lectionary Note: This homily is based on the Episcopal Lectionary for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28B.) This version preceded the Revised Common Lectionary now customarily in use.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog