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Dean Ian Markham Delivers Pumpkin Sunday Sermon


The Very Rev. Dr. Ian S. Markham, Dean and President of the Virginia Theological Seminary, delivered the following sermon on the occasion of Pumpkin Sunday at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill on Oct. 7:


What did one Jack-o-lantern say to the other? 

Cut it out!


What is a pumpkin's favorite sport? 



What's the ratio of a pumpkin's circumference to its diameter? 

Pumpkin Pi (3.1428571428571428571428571428571)


Why do pumpkins never quarrel? 

Because they have no stomach for fighting.


Why Pumpkins are better than Men?

Each year you get a brand new crop to choose from. Also, pumpkins are always on the doorstep there waiting to greet you.


And so we come to Pumpkin Sunday.  This is an important moment for this congregation.  It is the season when the funds are raised for outreach.  Through the hard work of selling pumpkins, the congregation will help those less able and less fortunate to cope in important ways.  It is a day when the Gospel connects with the World.  It is the day when the rubber hits the road.

I’ve always been intrigued by the Satan character of the astonishing and powerful poem of the book of Job.  Clearly inside the court of the Lord, Satan roams the world checking on authenticity.  In this narrative, he is the reality check; he is the person who makes sure that our internal life is in accord with our external life.  He is quite different from the more dramatic Satan of the New Testament or the book of Revelation.

Within western culture, the Job image of Satan has continued.  The entire legend of Stingy Jack, the basis of Jack O’Lantern, plays on a more Job image of Satanrather than the New Testament images of Satan.  There are various versions of the Jack O’Lantern story.  But this is fairly typical.  So an old Irishman, called Stingy Jack, is a wicked, mean, drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone.  On this occasion, it was Satan who was tricked by Jack into climbing up an apple tree.  Jack then placed a cross at the bottom of the tree leaving poor Satan trapped up the tree.  After extensive negotiation, Jack managed to get Satan to promise that he would not take Jack’s soul to hell when he dies.  The cross is removed and Satan is able to get down from the apple tree.  

When Jack finally dies, he makes his way to the gates of heaven to be told because of his mean, stingy, life, he cannot come into heaven.  Jack is then sent to hell, where Satan is forced to keep his promise and not admit him into hell.  Instead Jack is consigned to walk in the darkness around the earth.  Jack asks the devil for some light.  Satan gives him an ember from hell, which Jack puts intoa carved out turnip.  From that day onwards, Stingy Jack has been walking in the darkness around earth with just his turnip carved light to help him see.  (It is such a relief that when the Irish arrived in the United States they discovered that the US pumpkin is easier to carve out than turnips, otherwise this would be Turnip Sunday….)

In the Job poem, the issue is authenticity.  In the Stingy Jack legend, the issue is the danger of debauched living and playing tricks.  And so we come to the Gospel.

Remember Jesus is a both/and sort of guy.  In this Gospel, we have both the strict Jesus – look everyone, divorce is a concession to human sinfulness, the divine project was for us to stick together – and the gentle Jesus – don’t you dare exclude the children.  And this is how Jesus is all the time.  Jesus is constantly calling us to move beyond what we think is sufficient – to be more generous, more authentic, more available, more loving, more understanding.  Jesus is also constantly reassuring us thateveryone is still included.  The paradox of the Gospel is that Jesus is both ultra-demanding and yet hangs out with those who fail most visibly (the prostitute, corrupt tax collector).  There is no evidence anywhere in the Gospel that Jesus gives up on a person.  He always loves us, however much we mess up and however far we are from his demanding expectations.

Do buy your pumpkin and carve your pumpkin, but don’t worry too much about the implicit metaphysic of the Stingy Jack morality tale.  God receives us at the pearly gates and loves us regardless of how much we mess up.  It is in the end all grace.  And do buy your pumpkin and thank God for the authenticity of Immanuel Church on the Hill.  This is the moment when you reach out to others.  This is the moment when the Satan of Job would have to concede that this is a community, which is living the Gospel reality.  You have done extraordinary well in the Capital Campaign; you are doing extraordinary work inthis interim season; and you are doing extraordinary well as a community – talking the talk and walking the walk.

Sept. 26, 2012
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