Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Sep. 26, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Sep 26, 2021 in Feast Days, Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Feast of Saint Michael & All Angels

Sep. 26, 2021

The celebration of the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels dates back to the 12th Century in the Western Church, and all the way back to the 4th century in the Eastern Church. Our patronal feast day survived numerous purges of the church calendar, and so it remains. We honor what points the way to Christ, and helps us understand the angels’ place in our world. So, I’ve been thinking about how we see the Archangel Michael, and ‘all angels,’ about what we receive and learn from them. Personally I shrink back a bit from the more fearsome depictions and stories of him, perhaps because I don’t warm to the idea of images of violence in God’s service. And yet… I think I’ve been wrong. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis asks, “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” So how do we look at him?

First, we know that Michael is not the sort of glittering angels one hangs on the Christmas tree or finds painted on a cute wall plaque. Unlike most angels, Michael’s stories are about a sword-wielding warrior battling evil with his army of like-minded warrior angels. The depictions can be frightening; I saw one in a church in Spain, where a sculpture of Mary was on one side of the sanctuary and Michael on the other. Mother Mary looks serene and calm, unwrinkled, dressed in blue and white, hands soft in a prayerful position with eyes slightly downcast as if looking at you when you come near. Turn around and Michael is—terrifying. His facial expression made me physically step back. He towers over both Mary and me, and over a fearsome serpent writhing about him. His spear has already found blood, his sword at the ready. It was the stuff of children’s nightmares I am sure. We have one in such proportions in the stairwell here (although the tiny dragon looks more adoptable than fearsome and Michael looks rather calm) and one in reverse proportion is on our kneeler, embroidered by St. Michael’s altar guild some years back. The icon shows a very different aspect of Michael and his more attractive traits, and we’ll come back to that. I think they’re all spot-on really, perhaps the fiercely defending archangel most of all.

When angels arrive in scripture nearly every time they say, what—Be not afraid! Or Fear not! Then they bring messages big enough to upend our reason and change our world. I think the initial fear is not about the angel, but really about not knowing what that angel brings, why the angel has come. Is it our conscience that is troubled, or that the angels appeal to it? I’ve long loved the line from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861, about “the better angels of our nature” and usually that’s all we get. We romanticize, but he gives this speech just two weeks after Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as president—of the Confederacy. Hear it in tumultuous context, of that day and of our world now.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

I’m not sure what angels Lincoln had in mind (or Joe Biden referencing it in his inaugural address), so perhaps he hoped for the strength of the fierce Archangel Michael to triumph, or maybe, as in this icon, one sought Michael’s wisdom and sight to help mend an embittered nation.

Angels bring messages to us. Gifts of courage, empathy, a pause for cool headedness, an appeal to an alternative to what we might be considering, a reminder of our own vow to follow Christ and pointing our way, to oppose forces of evil, or maybe a message for peace, wisdom, open minds, or joy. They may speak through our conscience, nudge our moral compass, or like the Michael in this icon, hold up a mirror for us, to see the Christ within. The Church has understood angels as helping to mediate the presence of God with us and amongst us, and she is right to think so.

In two decades as a priest there have certainly been times I found the fierce and fearless Archangel comforting, knowing he battles evil for good. I bet you have too—lately I pray he battles the insidious virus and defends those who work so hard to care for children, for the sick, the vulnerable, and those dying. We wrestle with big problems and questions; pandemic, vitriolic divisions, brutality, unhealthy biases, people desperate for help across the globe.

The Very Rev. John Hall, the previous dean of Westminster Abbey, said this:

“But sometimes our replies to big questions are little answers, puny responses that put off meeting the real challenges… I believe the “great conclusions coming near,” the big answers clamoring, the huge abstractions shouting to be acknowledged, are the angels calling each of us to greater ministries, the messengers of God urging us to a more audacious Christian presence in the world.”

That’s who we are; Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, and we are like Bethel in Jacob’s story. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Made all the more so by all of you, by incredibly hard workers here yesterday, at Bud’s funeral, and with every ministry we do. It’s like Jacob’s Bethel because this is sanctified as a holy place to come to and draw from, to gather, to worship, listen to the angels, a place of faith and life, of transformation. And by design, this is also a place we need to leave. For some just until morning or every week, others for a whole new chapter of life. We go because Christ sends us out to be his hands in the world, disciples to carry the Good News, to bear God’s love and the Spirit’s fire. Each one of us, and the community of St. Michael’s, is called to ministry by God, messaged by angels. We go out as we are sent, as Dean Hall said, as “a more audacious Christian presence in our world.”

When faced with peril or challenge, we can feel very alone in the fight, and when finding great success we may also feel alone, as in “I alone have done this!” Those angels and archangels remind us that life is not all about us, and God’s creation is too vast to think otherwise. We are ever joined by those angels, and like in Jacob’s dream the angels ascend and descend on the ladder bridging heaven and earth, as the children’s ladder of angels our altar remind us. The angels’ message for Jacob wasn’t in words, but in their holy presence. They ascended and descended showing Jacob how very near to God he was, how blurred the line between heaven and earth really is. They open and traverse the ladder to heaven for us today, in person and joining online. They point to a connection we cannot locate with telescope or satellite, yet we can feel and encounter that angelic ladder effect. However, if we leave worship today thinking only this Michaelmas Day wasn’t what pre-pandemic ones have been, or that it’s only a day and it’s over—then we aren’t seeing or hearing them sing. Just as their message may be in their presence, our awareness of them begins in our openness and watchfulness. 

Generations of worshippers have prayed and celebrated here, tears of grief and tears of joy have blessed this place and it is sanctified by those faithful, by the angels, and by Christ himself. The stone Jacob used for a pillow he built into an altar to God, because in that place and with his head on that stone God came and revealed to him there. We know this too “is none other than the house of God” and “the gate of heaven.” Be that as it may, we don’t get to remain here and wait idly. Like Jacob we have to give thanks and then go forth; pilgrims fortified and courageous on our journey, disciples called to go out and reveal the good news, and to point out the ladder of angels joining heaven and earth.

Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.