ELCA Conference of Bishops: St. Michael and All Angels
Lutheran Center, Chicago
September 29, 2011
I’m no angel, but I have a message of greeting for you. I don’t think I need to say, “fear not” when I report that Episcopalians are praying for their Lutheran brothers and sisters all over the Church, from Taiwan to Europe, and from Ecuador and Colombia to Alaska. We rejoice in our full communion partnership with the ELCA, even if we don’t have formal agreements in all the other nations where we’re present.
Angels are personified messages, reflecting the one who sends them. Meister Eckhardt put it this way, “an angel is simply an idea of God.” Sometimes the messages get garbled in transmission – that’s apparently what happened to the great dragon. His message file got corrupted somewhere along the way. In the cathedral in Stockholm there’s an immense bronze sculpture of St. Michael slaying the dragon. It shows the grim struggle with evil, but it also gives a hint of the origin of the dragon as a good creature of God. Michael has his foot on the neck of the dragon, which looks very much like a dog with its tongue lolling out.
But the messages and messengers we more often encounter usually get through faithfully. They may be hard to read and interpret, but angelic messages never resort to the puny – they’re not text messages: IM HR W8NG 4 U. Those mysterious angelic messengers have a lot more power and complexity, and they almost always start with a blessing: fear not.
Fear not – God is with you (Isaiah 41:10). Fear not – I bring you good tidings of great joy (Luke 1:30ff). Fear not – I will help you (Isaiah 35:4; 41:13; Jer 32:40; Dan 10:19). Do not fear – I have redeemed you and called you by name (Isa 43:1). My spirit abides among you, do not fear (Haggai 2:5).
Most often the messages are ones of encouragement and comfort, in that old sense of strength: God is near, God is doing a new thing. We live in a world that is desperate for relief from fear. People in this country are afraid of losing their jobs and homes. Others are afraid of not being able to feed their children or themselves. Many of our politicians are afraid of being chucked out by their constituents if they don’t answer their small-mindedness by prompting fear in others.
The angel personifies the message, “perfect love casts out fear.” Guardian angels ward off fearful things and even fear itself. Yet Jesus challenges the disciples who are celebrating their ability to banish demons and earthly terrors by reminding them of what is even more important. He says, “rejoice at the near presence of God, that your names are written in heaven.” Don’t put your energy into driving the fear away, or doing battle with it, rather remember that God is with you, and you are already accompanied by the sort of love that will never let fear have the final word.
Hebrews reminds us that unexpected visitors may turn out to be heavenly messengers. Sarah and Abraham got a surprise visit that turned out to be remarkably productive. The disciples on the road to Emmaus had a comforting encounter with such a stranger. In 2008 I was in Sweden for the celebration of 50 years of women’s ordained ministry, and Christina Odenburg, the first female bishop in the Church of Sweden, told me about being sent as a visitor. The church was debating whether to remove the conscience clause that permitted men to refuse to work with women clergy. A generation had passed since the first women were ordained, and many felt it was time to require that all clergy be willing to work with women. The archbishop sent her to speak with a group of men opposed to women’s ordination, to inquire about their response to the proposal. When she walked into the room, they broke out singing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” – the verse that says
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
They removed the conscience clause.
What message fells that misguided or corrupted one? Where do you look for that message? Where do you personify it yourself?
The fear all around us cries out for succor and comfort, and if we bear the image of God, we are also meant to be messengers of the holy one – fear not, God is with you. Your name is written in heaven.
The messengers are all around us, if we’re willing and able to notice them. Sometimes they come in fearsome guise, which is probably why the ones we recognize as angels have to keep saying, “don’t be afraid,” but even our fearful responses can be a reminder to go look more closely. Where would we be if Mary had run away screaming?
The reactivity in our current political situation is filled with messages of fear. Are we willing to receive and listen to the messengers long enough to discover the plea for connection, strength, and loving reassurance? In the midst of the loud complaints about the other party, or immigrants, or people who have a different opinion, there is often a quiet and unheard plea for a community where a person can feel at home and safe. The anger we hear around us is connected to the journey we’re on – a search for home, for the dream we share of a world where no one is hungry, or in danger from disease or violence, where neighbors can rejoice together. The work we share is about that journey toward the reign of God.
What are you most afraid of right now? A loved one’s illness, your job, the next challenging conversation you have to have with a congregation who wants to leave, or what the church is going to look like next year or ten years from now? Fear not – or at least let go of a little of that fear, and look a little deeper. What’s lurking under that dragon flesh? What do you see – anger or angel? It may be a pit bull, or it may be a Labrador retriever, but neither will be tamed by fleeing. Nothing is beyond the reach of the one who came among us in fragile human flesh, who suffered and died as one of us, who pronounced love and forgiveness on those who tortured and executed him.
Fear not, for nothing can separate us from that kind of love. Our names are written in heaven, and so are the names of those for whom we have the greatest fear. Fear not. Fear not.