SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D BETH MAYNARD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2011, THE FEAST OF ST MICHAEL & ALL ANGELS (MICHAELMAS)

I would guess that nearly everybody here has at one time or another received a challenging gift. Now I’m aware that sounds like one of those clever images with which Anglicans often begin sermons. But when I say a challenging gift, I am not attempting to get you thinking about some lofty spiritual metaphor rich in promise and paradox. I’m talking about the kind of challenge that happens when somebody has given you a birthday or Christmas present that you just can’t stand.  But for reasons of interpersonal diplomacy, you have to keep it and possibly even display it in your home. A challenging gift.

In our house we have a gift like that, a present from someone very well-meaning, and it is a large poster of uplifting sentiments about angels. It’s about 18 inches wide and 3 feet tall, in shades of gold and peach, enshrined in a dime-store frame -- and down the center, under the watchful eye of two cherubs, run several statements or quotations. A neighbor gave it to us because he knew we were Christians. A neighbor who might come over sometime. And so we have kept this poster with its uplifting sentiments about angels.

I don’t know who wrote or collected this text because there is no attribution, and it doesn’t say anything about St. Michael or Jacob’s ladder or Nathaniel seeing angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have much relationship to the Biblical data we have on angels at all. But just to give you the flavor, here is some of what our poster does say:

Angels keep the world safe for hummingbirds and butterflies and rainbows in the spring.....
The motto of all angels is "it's a wonderful life".....  
Whenever you feel lonely, a special angel drops in for tea.....
We are all angels in training; all we have to do is spread our wings and fly.....

You get the idea. If you want to read the rest of it, just Google that line about the special angel dropping in for tea and you’ll find at least 4500 copies.

Now this poster is of course far from the only uplifting, sweet angel-related product on the market. And I suppose it’s just a truism to point out that the images those products give us – the mugs, the embroidered pillows, the “how to communicate with your angel” self-help books – those images are quite unlike the way the Bible talks about the subject.

When angels show up in scripture they are not so much delivering a soothing cup of Darjeeling as causing people to fall on their faces incapacitated by terror. Sometimes they sing, sometimes they speak, but they often have to preface it by first insisting “Don’t be afraid!” Frequently they come with a message, or to carry out a task from God, sometimes a rather bracing one like destroying a city.

And there seem to be hints, from passages like the one we heard in Revelation this evening, that perhaps at times there is some kind of cosmic angelic backstory going on, in which swords are drawn and wars are fought and destinies decided in the realm of pure spirit, while we humans putter around obliviously down here.
 
No Darjeeling, though, and no embroidered pillows. More like fire and existential terror.

So if you, like me, can sometimes let the prevalence of angel kitsch put you off the whole topic, it’s valuable to force ourselves, at least occasionally, to notice that angels are in the Bible and they are, in a thoroughly non-kitschy way, part of the Christian vision.

Because when we start seeking to conceptualize the angelic realm, we have to come face to face with the idea that creation really is more complex than we usually assume. It’s not just the obvious ordered list: people, then animals, then material objects. Angels, our tradition tells us, are something else: pure spirits, created, according to many of the church fathers, long before the material world. They are creatures, as we are, but a different kind of non-bodily being.

All right, fine, but what does that mean? Do they occupy space? Are they always in particular places in the universe, or is that just for special occasions, like annunciations? Would we be able to tell if they were in the same place as us? How do I know, for example, that there aren’t several of them up there around the altar? The reredos of many churches, and this one is no exception, often has a few angels depicted on it, to remind us that there just might be. And I once knew a priest who, whenever anybody made a downbeat remark like “Oh, there were only 20 people at Mass,” would reply, “And 10,000 angels.” Was he kidding?

I don’t really know. And that’s probably good. See, one benefit to thinking about these things is that it has a tendency to make you say, “Well, what do I know, anyway? Maybe there are 10,000 angels here. Maybe there’s way more stuff going on in life than I thought there was.”

And apart from inculcating some useful intellectual humility, thinking about angels in light of Christian teaching, specifically Christian teaching, has another benefit. It shows us that we are not and do not need to be them.

Let me say what I mean. Lots of human efforts at spiritual development have assumed that it would be easier to get close to God if we, too, were in some sense pure spirits, unhindered by the limits of fleshly existence. Surely that would be sort of higher, more divine, than having to cope with a body, wouldn’t it?  If we were only spirits, wouldn’t we by definition be more spiritual? Certainly the person who wrote my uplifting angel poster would agree.

So to get closer to the divine, don’t we need to put this lumpy, lurid human flesh behind us? William Butler Yeats thought so, and lamented that his pure, true spiritual self was “fastened to a dying animal.” Win Butler of Arcade Fire sings, “My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love, but my mind holds the key.”

In fact, the notion that the non-material is by definition more spiritual is so instinctively plausible that we hear it turning up in Christian culture as well. During the procession we sang a text by Percy Dearmer, a Church of England liturgist and hymnologist, which speaks of those of us on earth as being “in the life of the body confined,” but encourages us to aspire to “soar as the bird from the mesh, freed from the weakness and wonder of flesh.”

Well, you know, I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure Christianity at its most robust has all that much interest in seeing human beings soaring away into the ether or being freed from our flesh. At its most robust, Christianity is offering a different kind of insight.

The Gospel of John this evening spoke of angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, which is a picture of Jesus – who had a body, by the way, and still does – as the definitive meeting place between heaven and earth. It is in that meeting of heaven and earth, flesh and spirit, that Christianity gives us its most counter-intuitive, non-instinctively-plausible and shatteringly powerful revelation.

Pretty much any belief system can deliver stories of some kind of benign spirit creatures with golden wings that sparkle in the morning sunrise as they bring us a nice cup of tea. Sparkly spirit creatures are a dime a dozen. Google them and you’ll get thousands of hits.

But God in the flesh, being of one substance with us? Heaven and earth married, in Christ, in the sacrament of the altar that is Christ, and ultimately in the fabric of a new creation forever?  Yes, it’s counter-intuitive. But it’s true: we don’t get to God by climbing a ladder out of our own world into a less material, more airy, rarefied existence. We get to God by letting God get to us – saying yes to God’s coming to us where we are, coming all the way in. 

By saying yes to the counterintuitive fact of Jesus:  God in the flesh, in a human, limited, bleeding body, scarred with a wound in his side, stripes on his back, and imprints of gravel in his knees -- and none of that left behind when he rose from the grave into an incomprehensible, yet embodied, new life, and offered to take us with him.

“Into these things angels long to look.” That’s what it says in First Peter. “Into these things angels long to look.” But they can’t. They don’t have bodies.

So let us celebrate on this Michaelmas, yes, that there is more complexity to creation than we imagine. Yes, that Michael and Gabriel and the heavenly host do show up in Scripture in the most stunning and lovely of ways. Yes, that there just may be 10,000 angels singing and swinging their thuribles here tonight.  

But also let us celebrate that we embodied creatures can taste in Christ, in the sacrament of the altar that is Christ, and ultimately in the fabric of a new creation forever, the sheer physicality of a cosmic redemption into which angels long to look.  Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.  Amen.