A sermon for St. Michael & All Angels
September 27, 2015
Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
My fifth grade year was the only year I was ever in a Christmas pageant. The Episcopal church my family attended at the time, in downtown Atlanta, was so enormous and there were so many children that only the fifth graders were allowed to participate in the coveted Christmas pageant. Then to top it off, we had to audition for each of the parts in the play! There were no handouts, no volunteering, but each role was meticulously selected for each student.
Like the majority of the other fifth grade girls in my Sunday school class, I wanted to play the part of Gabriel: the messenger from God sent to bring glad tidings of great joy. I mean come on, Gabriel is pretty awesome. You get to wear this giant set of feathery wings with a golden halo around your head. And if you want to go all out: throw some glitter in your hair like you just don’t care.
And yet, on that day when the teachers announced our parts, the anticipation in the classroom building, I was handed a sheet of paper that said: Micah… And I thought: “Now who the heck is Micah?” My later seminary self would come to find out that Micah was perhaps one of the coolest Old Testament prophets, who prophesied the birth of Christ (ergo why Micah had a long spiel at the start of our Christmas pageant). However, for my fifth grade self, all that mattered was that Micah was not Gabriel. And I think it’s probably safe to say that angels hold a place of importance and awe, not only for ten year-old Sarah, but also perhaps in our collective imaginations as well.
For example, our Prek-5th grade Sunday school classes last week, learned about our Old Testament reading for today: Jacob’s dream, where he sees angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven. And when the children of Grace Church were asked to imagine these angels from our passage in Genesis, the came up with beautiful creations. In their artwork we see a plethora of human-like figures with wings, halos, and bright colors abundant.
I’m pretty much sure that everyone, no matter how young or old, can picture in your mind some beautiful, otherworldly, mystical creature that we all would know as an angel. Yet why are angels so written on our hearts? So imprinted on our souls? So entrenched in our psyches? Especially in a culture where sometimes angels are considered fairy tales, mythical stories, or some fluff to enhance a child’s bedtime prayer?
If I asked you the question: “Do you believe in angels,” what would your answer actually be? “I don’t know?” Or perhaps a firm, “No.” Maybe a: “Well I don’t believe in those freaky winged creature things, but I do believe people here on earth are put in our lives for a reason, and they are the real angels.”
So then why do these seraphim & cherubim, these heavenly beings, take such a firm hold in our imaginations? Perhaps because, in our heart of hearts, we want to believe in angels. We want to believe that like St. Gabriel in the Christmas pageant, angels bring us God’s good news, an incarnational message. We want to believe that like St. Michael in our reading from Revelation, angels act as our warriors, defending us against all harm. We want to believe that there are heavenly forces at play, working out God’s divine plan in a way that encourages us long our journey of faith.
Such a heavenly influence is most definitely the case in our reading today from Genesis. Jacob, who has just deceived both his Father, Isaac, and older Brother, Esau, has fled from his home in Beersheba and is making his way to Haran, across the Arabian Peninsula. Jacob is alone, away from home for the first time. Jacob is vulnerable, wandering through the endless desert. Jacob is exhausted, and lays his weary head down on a stone for a little while.
And yet, in that ordinary place, and upon that ordinary stone, something extraordinary happens. Jacob, who is far from a saint at this point in our Bible story, dreams an amazing dream. He witnesses a mystical vision. He sees a stairway stretching from heaven to earth, and angels ascending and descending, climbing up and down and up and down. Then, in midst of this majestic and otherworldly sight, that in and of itself must have been difficult to believe, Jacob is confronted not only with angels, but with God himself. God, standing right beside him, then speaks to Jacob, promising God’s presence throughout the duration of his pilgrimage, throughout the duration of Jacob’s life, and in the lives of all his future descendants. As with Abraham and Isaac before, God promises to continue this divine journey with Jacob.
Just as soon as the vision began, t is just as quickly gone. And Jacob wakes from his wild sleep, not saying to himself: “What a crazy dream,” but instead: “Surely the Lord is in this place!” Jacob does not negate this divine encounter just because it’s a dream, but instead he jumps from that less than comfy stone pillow on that dusty desert floor, and declares that God has come near, that God has been here, that “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Jacob emphatically shouts to all creation that he has encountered the Divine.
Yet Jacob’s encounter with God & with the angels, could have easily been ignored, could have easily been brushed aside, could have easily been sloughed off as just some crazy dream (Maybe due to that funky jerky Jacob ate right before he went to bed…). Jacob could have given every reason in the book, explaining away why he didn’t really see what he thought he saw and why he didn’t hear what he thought he heard. But instead Jacob chooses to reside in this liminal space, he chooses to believe in his dream, he chooses to live in the mystery.
And yet we must remember, that one person’s encounter with heavenly beings, may not appear the same as the next’s. I personally cannot attest to having some angelic vision, but I can attest to having a mystical experience. And with my ordination quickly approaching, there has been one experience in particular that has been on my mind.
On that last day of summer camp, on a hot July evening, as I sat in Camp McDowell’s chapel, listening to the words of a sermon about Mary Magdalene and her utter love and devotion for Christ—something happened. As the preacher’s words hung in the humid air, a tidal wave of emotions washed over me and it felt as though there was a fire burning inside of me, engulfing me from the inside out. And yet, I was not harmed, but empowered, emblazoned, and suddenly words came into my mind. These words did not emit from some Divine megaphone, but instead it was as if they were written on my heart, imprinted on my very soul. The words that said: “This is what you are called to do. You are called to preach my love to my people.”
And as tears ran down my fourteen year-old face, all of a sudden something clicked, and I knew that I was called to be a priest in God’s church. The terrified, vulnerable, insecure teenager in me could have easily and completely ignored this encounter. In all honesty, my life would have been just fine. But I look back on the pilgrimage that has been my life thus far, and I see how choosing, as Jacob did, to live in such moments of mystery has led me to this very place, has led me here to Grace Church, has led me to a community that is so vibrant and full of life that I cannot wait to see what the Spirit will continue to do here. So I must admit that God really knew what God was doing over a decade ago.
I am sure others of you have some synchronistic moments you are thinking of, where an encounter with the Divine forever changed the trajectory of your own life; each individual’s experience being vastly different then the next’s.
Friends, in all honesty my goal here today is not to convince you one way or another whether or not angels exist, to tell you the clergy have all the spiritual answers, but indeed it is the opposite of that. As we have read in the stories of our ancestors in Scripture, as we have heard from various friends of faith, and perhaps as we have experienced our very selves, there are so many unknowns, so many unfathomable moments, so much that is truly indescribable, that we haven’t even come close to scratching the surface of understanding the spiritual realm.
This unknowing means we should be open to the mystery of it all even more. We should be open to the mystery that God can choose to become incarnate and walk among us. We should be open to the mystery that the Spirit is working here at Grace Church, knowing that this community truly is capable of embodying God’s love. We should be open to the mystery that through the celebration of the Eucharist, somehow mere bread and wine is turned (in some form or fashion) into the Body and Blood of Christ.
So much of our faith is being willing to live in the liminal space, to believe in Divine dreams, to live in the moments of mystery. Even if that mystery, has feathery wings and a golden halo.
Beautiful! Dad and I were just talking about when you were first “called” yesterday! 12 years!
Thank you, dear Sarah, for being willing to express to your congregation the most delicately dangerous part of religion: those moments when what was faith is converted into experience. All those who have shared events like this recognize those tears and the interior inscriptions that beckon, drive and carry. Thank you for taking them into the pulpit, where they are scarce.
ps: save me a blessing fresh from your ordination, please.
I am attaching a 1950s photo of St. John Maximovitch (ROCOR) serving liturgy in Tunisia.