Presiding Bishop's homily at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
The full text of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's September 30 homily at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, follows here, checked against delivery.
The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, observed
September 30, 2007
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Popular culture is filled with references to angels. The most-played rock song of all time is still Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Recall the TV series by the same name, and another, "Touched by an Angel." Perhaps some of us scoff at the fluff, but underneath the excess and the too-sweet greeting cards lies a real human hunger to know and touch and hear and connect with the realm of the sacred.
Angels are messengers -- that is what the word means, beings who are sent -- and in a more orthodox sense they may perhaps be better understood as personified messages. Marshall McLuhan reminded us that the medium is the message, even if he didn't have this kind of messenger in mind. Angels are traditionally understood to have no bodily substance, to be pure intellect or thought, or as Meister Eckhardt put it, "an angel is simply an idea of God." Most human beings find it easier to wrap our minds around something that at least has the form of a body - the message is easier to receive if it comes as a messenger. It's one reason we don't like anonymous emails - we need at least a name to deal with in that discarnate mode of communication.
Divine messengers turn up pretty often in the Bible. They encourage, particularly in the verbal formula "fear not," they make announcements, like the pending birth of unusual children, they offer comfort (which literally means strength), they warn and guide, guard and protect (like the one who stands at the gate of Eden), and sometimes they seem literally to stand in for God -- remember Abraham and Sarah's three unidentified visitors? And lots of times when a character is not named, we are reminded that it just might be an angel.
What strikes me most about what we've heard about angels this morning is that image of a ladder between earth and heaven, with angels going up and down. The messengers and messages are somehow like a continually moving escalator, even when we're not aware of them. It's also very much like an image that's used both of Jesus and the Holy Spirit -- Jesus as the bread that came down from heaven, his ascension into heaven, the spirit that descends on Jesus at his baptism, and again on the disciples at Pentecost. It is the ancient world's way of talking about the interconnections between this world and the divine. Today we would probably talk about interpenetrating realities, rather than two (or three) layers of existence, but that ceaseless motion is a way of saying the same thing. Ideas of God are in motion all around us, all the time.
I've had some very powerful encounters with ideas like that -- visitations from divine messengers, if you will. One that abides happened in the year 2000. I was driving around the western United States, interviewing congregations that were engaged in some way in mutual ministry. I'd been to one in Sparks, Nevada, and gone on to Utah and then Wyoming. The priest in Sparks had asked if she could offer my name in their bishop election process. I thought that was a completely ridiculous idea, and I laughed it off. But the message came back on the lonely, snowy roads of Wyoming. The idea terrified me -- and it took me quite a while to hear the "fear not" part of the message. But when I did begin to hear that, I also found the strength to say, All right, this may not make any sense, but I think I'm supposed to say yes to the possibility.
I remember another encounter a couple of years before that. I was serving in a small congregation in Oregon that I visited once a month or so. The week before had brought the death of a good friend's mother, and I had been with them much in the days before and the hours after her death. And as I stood at the altar that Sunday, I was suddenly aware of that woman's gentle presence. She was at peace, and she was gathered with the communion of saints in our midst simply to add her own blessing. It's happened to me since, with others, in similar circumstances.
Messengers like that visit us more often than we know or recognize. They most often seem to turn up when we're not expecting them. Sometimes they are amazingly practical like the two "deacon angels" who've been leading me around [in this morning's liturgy], sometimes they offer comfort and reassurance, and sometimes they motivate us to get up and do something bold. The chemist Friedrich August KekulÃ© reported a dream in the late 1800s, a dream about a snake biting its tail, which he received as solution to the puzzle of the structure of the benzene molecule -- suddenly he was sure that it must involve a ring, rather than a string, of carbon atoms. Martin Luther King, Jr. told about a midnight visit at his kitchen table, at a time when his life and that of his family were under dire physical threat, a visit that brought him peace and strength and the confidence that his path was right. He spoke about it as having been to the mountaintop, at the same time knowing that the road down the mountain would almost certainly lead to his own death.
The messengers are not always holy ones, however. The encounter between Michael and the dragon is a reminder of that reality. Sometimes the unbidden messenger is one that instills fear -- real fear, not the awe of God -- or uses fear to motivate, like the creeping urge we have to protect ourselves from people who are in some way different. When the message is about fear or hate, we can be sure that it comes from an unholy messenger. The divine messengers bring joy, strength, comfort, guidance, and even warning. They act to drive out fear, and that may be the best test of the messenger's source.
So what do we do with such a visit, and with the message the visitor brings? The physical imagery of angels, as beings with wings, says something about the swift and unexpected way in which they often arrive. The kind of theological speculation that has grown up around the subject also says something important. The medieval debate about how many can dance on the head of a pin or, more accurately, on the point of a needle is not as frivolous as it sounds. It is a reminder that angels don't take up physical space -- as thought or intellect they have important effects, though they do not use force or compel. It's also a recognition of the utterly interconnected nature of all reality, with God as its source. And, like the word of God they present and represent, angels are effective. They accomplish something, or they encourage and strengthen us to accomplish something.
Which brings us to the central question: What are we supposed to do about these encounters with a message or inspiration from God? These messengers have a mission to bring a message, and that message gives you and me a mission to accomplish as well. All those words have the same root as what we celebrate here this morning -- that old word for this service, "the mass" that ends with a sending, "ita, missa est," "the mass is done, now go." You and I will be dismissed at the end of this mass, and sent out into the world to do God's work. That mission comes to us in a variety of ways --in the midst of lots of angel messengers, coming and going -- and the work we're charged with is very much like the message we receive. Be peace to this world, bring comfort, announce good news, strengthen your neighbors, guard and warn when necessary, and keep on listening for the quiet voices, going up and down that ladder without ceasing. May those messages be effective in us, may they accomplish the purposes of God, through each one of us.
Imagine a flock of angels ascending from this city, with cries for help, with the pain of hunger and loneliness, with yearning for peace in the last hours of life, with appeals for justice everywhere. Imagine as well a flock of angels descending on this body, with messages for us like, "there's a fellow outside these doors who needs a good meal, and another one who could use a job." "The fellow who lives next door is having a hard time dealing with his father's death." "Your sister needs to hear from you." "Your co-worker is edging toward an unethical business decision, and your voice and friendship might prevent it." "This city needs your voice and participation as it tries to figure out how to provide decent housing for all its people." You get the idea. What do you hear? And what are you going to do about it?