SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D PAMELA WERNTZ AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2015, THE SOLEMNITY OF MICHAELMAS
Thank you, dear Allan, for extending the hospitality of your pulpit and this parish in your invitation to me to offer some reflections celebrating the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. I bring you greetings from your neighbors at Emmanuel Church and am so grateful to be here with you. I have loved spending some time pondering and giving thanks for the ministries of angels, remembering times when I believe that I have been helped and defended by the holy angels of God. I confess that there are also countless times that I do not remember, that I didn’t even notice or give thanks for, the attendance of angels. I can remember many times that I have prayed for the help and defense of angels to get through dangerous or painful times. Then there’s the old rabbinic saying that every single blade of grass has an angel bending over it saying, “Grow, grow!”
Perhaps you’ve heard Jane Siberry’s beautiful folk song, “Calling All Angels.” The cold I caught last week is keeping me from singing it to you right now. The refrain goes, “calling all angels, calling all angels – walk me through this one, don’t leave me alone. We’re trying, we’re hoping, we’re hurting, we’re loving, we’re crying, we’re calling, ‘cause we’re not sure how this goes.”
It’s not considered particularly sophisticated or intelligent to talk about calling on angels, or about having encounters with angels – not with the supernatural kind anyway. However, since you all have joined us to observe Michaelmas, my guess is that you’re open to (or at least curious about) that kind of talk! Of course we are wise to discern the difference between the effects of privilege of race or socioeconomic circumstances and the assistance of angels. And surely there is a vast difference between the luck of finding a parking space on Beacon Hill or in the Back Bay and any ministrations or messages of love or comfort received in moments of extreme vulnerability or grief or poverty of any kind. It seems to me that pondering angels is an activity for people of faith and not for people of certainty.
Biblically speaking, angels (messengers and ministers of the Lord) can be invisible or entirely visible, both non-human and entirely human. Sometimes an encounter with an angel seems easily identifiable in real time, and sometimes it’s only in hindsight that we suspect that one has been on the receiving end of a divine message or ministration. We who think we are not Biblical literalists nevertheless often apply a literal standard to the Bible – our own post-enlightenment, scientific or historical literalism to our Holy Scripture that it was never meant (or imagined) to address. For people of faith, in ancient times and in the present, it’s not so much that seeing is believing, it’s that believing is seeing. Sam Portaro writes about the “necessity and wisdom of imagination,” particularly when it comes to seeing angels.
Our ancestor Jacob fell asleep in what he thought was a God-forsaken place. Jacob had been on the run. He’d taken advantage of his brother Esau’s empty stomach to outwit Esau into giving away his birthright as the firstborn. Then Jacob tricked his dying father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. When Esau found out about the deception, he was mad enough to kill Jacob and he planned to do just that. Their mother Rebekah warned Jacob to run for his life from his twin brother who was known for his skill as a hunter.
Jacob went as far as he could when he stopped for the night because the sun had gone down. He was by himself – no tent, no servants, and no place to stay in the city where he stopped. He found a stone to use for a pillow; here we have a poster picture of “uncomfortable.” And Jacob dreamed about God. He dreamed about God’s angels going up to and down from heaven and of hearing God’s promise of protection and companionship and the abundance of children. When he awoke in awe and wonder, he named the spot “Bethel” which means “House of God.” It had been called “Luz,” which means devious or crooked or tricky, and who was more devious or crooked or tricky than Jacob himself? In Jacob’s sleeping imagination, angels were all around – redeeming him, even in the last place on earth that Jacob would have expected an encounter with the Holy One.
John the Divine saw the glorious promise that in God’s paradise, war would be no more, but in the meantime, John’s vision also explained why there would be hell on earth until all was reconciled. John saw that the great accuser, also known as the Devil and Satan had messengers and ministers as well, assisting in the allegations and indictments. Their message couldn’t be more different than the messengers and ministers of God. The mark of their work is diminishment, humiliation, alienation and fear. The messengers and ministers of God proclaim “be not afraid, beloved of God. Be not afraid.”
In our Gospel lesson, Nathaniel encounters Jesus and hears the promise that if he follows Jesus – if he follows Jesus into the places with the people who seem most God-forsaken, he will see angels among the least and the last and the lost, ascending and descending on the Son of Man. The angels of God will carry the messages and ministrations of God. Jesus promises that if Nathaniel follows him, he will see the gates of heaven opened. That is, of course, the promise for any who follow Jesus, and I don’t think Jesus was talking about what Nathaniel would see after he died. Jesus was promising a fullness of life before death.
It’s not a stretch for me to imagine this beautiful sanctuary, this House of God, is a gate to heaven. It’s not a stretch to imagine encounters with angels (at least every once in a while and perhaps all the time) ascending and descending in the weekly dinner program that you host every Tuesday evening, year in and year out, no matter what, where guests receive a nourishing and appealing meal in a safe and pleasant place. It’s out there that it’s harder to imagine angels – in offices and in schools, on Storrow Drive or 128, in the midst of devastation caused by poverty, caused by addiction, caused by hatred, caused by war. Angels are harder to find – but they’re there.
Thinking about this reminded me of something that happened some years ago just before Christmas. For the past 17 years, on Monday nights, I’ve gone with some other volunteers to visit with women who are in prison. It’s my volunteer work. The women who are in prison are mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters. The volunteers take in drawings and paper and markers, glue, scissors, stickers – all kinds of art supplies – so that we can all make greeting cards to send to people we love. Every year the time before Christmas is very stressful for everybody – but it’s especially hard for women who are in prison who can’t be with their families for the holidays. And it’s hard because they know how sad their families are – how much they are missing their moms and grandmas, aunts, sisters and daughters. Sometimes just coloring a Christmas card makes us cry because we are so sad.
Well, one Monday night just before Christmas, we were working on our cards, and some guards came in and took our scissors away. They said they didn’t care if we had permission to use the child-safety scissors. They didn’t care that we were being careful and safe with the scissors. They didn’t care that no-one had ever gotten hurt with the scissors in many years of this program. When I asked why, the captain said that the guards couldn’t have scissors in the prison, so we shouldn’t be able to either. I tried to talk the guards into letting the women finish their pictures, but they ordered us to pull the scissors right out of the women’s hands – even if they were half-way through cutting something.
I was very angry at the mean-spiritedness of those guards. I felt sorry for whatever had made them so mean. I knew there wasn’t anything I could do that night to get the scissors back for the women to finish their cards. Some of the women tried tearing their pictures instead of cutting. That didn’t work very well. The scissors were a small thing – but it felt like one more burden on women who are already overloaded with pain and loss and shame, who are already overloaded with the consequences of terrible choices and terrible luck. I felt furious and sick and helpless and I was fighting tears that felt close to spilling out of my eyes. We sat in heavy silence.
Then one of the women started to sing softly – “our God is an awesome God” – and a couple of women started singing with her, very softly, and one by one everyone in the room began to sing “our God is an awesome God. He reigns. He reigns. Our God is an awesome God,” softly, tenderly, over and over in a bare whisper of a song. It was song about freedom in the prison. The eleventh floor of the tower at Suffolk County House of Correction became for me a holy mountain. A dim, mean-spirited, hopeless situation was transformed – transfigured right before my very eyes – into a holy moment – and I could see the wide-open the gates of heaven, and my small faith grew a little that night.
On this solemn feast of St. Michael and All Angels, I hear an invitation to us all to be uncomfortable, challenged, and changed by the messages and the ministrations of angels who are hovering over each one of us and whispering. Grow! Let us dream of God being in the last place on earth (or the last place in our own hearts) that we would expect an encounter with the divine. Call on all the angels. Listen and look for angels. Be an angel – deliver the messages and the ministrations of God. Notice that the gates of heaven are wide open. Walk through the gates of heaven because they are all around us when we follow Jesus.
1) Sam Portaro, Brightest and Best (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1998), p. 172-3.
2) I did not know of the inscription of this Bible verse over the entrance doors of The Church of the Advent until after the service!
3) Thanks to The Church of the Advent’s House of Mercy grant proposal for this description.