Sermons That Work

St. Michael and All Angels Selected Sermon

September 29, 1997

How do we talk about what we know and cannot see, what we perceive and cannot touch? Our age is one poor in language and concept for the realities that lie beyond the small confines of empiricism. And yet we know that they are there. And even with the inner knowing we can feel embarrassed using the language, concept and metaphor of angels, demons, good and evil. After all we are modern people and know that these are just old ways of talking about aspects of the human psyche made colorful by superstitious beliefs and ceremonies. Right? The old saying that there is more to this than meets the eye is precisely correct in this situation.

We know the struggle between that which gives or takes life is ongoing and ever present. Humankind has had stories and images aplenty in every age and culture to discuss and conceptualize this struggle, how it began, who are the players, what are their sources of power and what are their limits. Who is working for who? But we do not in any real sense of the word possess any such whole story, no cosmology, to treat this reality.

What we do have is a vast array of consumer goods featuring highly sentimentalized depictions of angels. Angels are everywhere in our popular culture. They are in mail order catalogues, they have their own shops, they even got a cover story on Life magazine. And for all their ubiquity at present there is an enormous gulf between what angels are depicted as and what their true reality consists of.

It is good to remember that the earth is inhabited by many spirits. Some beneficial some malignant. What makes a spirit an angel is that it is a messenger, an angelos, from God and as such has specific characteristics. Writer Megan McKenna in her book Angels Unawares states: “Perhaps we can best describe angels by what they do than by how they look. Angels instill in those who see them or hear them a violent need to obey the truth. Since they stand always in awe before God and worship God, no matter what wise they have been charged with doing, the presence of the holy exudes from them. Sometimes angels have been described as ways by which human beings apprehend the presence, the knowledge and the will of God…Angels are evidence that God is taking notice of us.”

Another writer, New Testament scholar Walter Wink, contributes to this picture in his book Unmasking the Powers the Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence. In his study of John’s Revelation he notes that the letters are addressed to the angels of the seven churches in Asia. It is Wink’s contention that all churches have an angel, a spiritual entity that represents the whole of the church’s members and experience. Similarly all institutions have a “with- in-ess,” the actual spirituality of actual institutions. IBM has a spirituality or “angel” as does Habitat for Humanity. The angel shapes the culture and is the projected being of the institution. Can this angel change if it is the spiritual projection of community that is dis-eased? One has only to look at the state of South Africa to answer yes. But not without conscious, serious spiritual battle. Battle with things seen and unseen.

The reading from Revelation tells us of the great battle in heaven wherein the malignant is confronted by the good. Michael is the leader of the forces of goodness and truth. Gregory the Great reminds us that Michael’s name means, “Who is like God?” His mere presence is an eternal reality check! It is also Michael who stands gaurd at the gate of Eden, his name and presence the constant reminder that there is no God beside God, no one, neither subtle serpent or power hungry human who can stand before the Holy One. Michael makes clear the boundaries. He is the protector of the human race, charged with helping it to maintain its discrete, distinct character and nature, its position within the web of creation, only a little lower than the angels, given charge over creation, dominion as God has dominion over human and angelic kind. Dominion that seeks life and truth, nurture and abundance. Throughout the ages Michael has come to the aid of those who struggle against the spiritual forces of wickedness that corrupt and destroy the people of God.

The great war in heaven, it is said, began at the moment that God first breathed life into humankind. The angels are at the bottom of the heavenly hierarchy behind Thrones, Seraphim, Cherubim, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, and the lowest orders are principalities, archangels and angels. The angels were given the task of assisting them. The angels were also given a choice, to move with God’s desire or not. The war resulted from those who thought the humans too far beneath them to serve. It is their unwillingness to cast to earth. Immediately those spirits cast forth from heaven set out to subvert God’s desire for humankind and lead them into the same traps of seeking power over others and one another, to seek the place of God without the power of Holiness. Just as the angels were expelled so too were the humans. Both in the same realm, with the same burden of alienation from God and one another. A hallmark of human institutions whose with-in-ness is directed by these malignant spirits is their inexorable trend towards alienation and dehumanization.

In the struggle for human rights in South Africa the Church was at the forefront of the process of naming the social evils and malignant spirits of Apartheid. Both active and passive participation in these structures shaped the spiritual landscape of the nation. What most distinguishes South Africa’s struggle is the Anti-apartheid leadership’s struggle to keep non-violence at the forefront, exposing the violence of the South African Government. Most recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has taken the stand of radical forgiveness and reintegration. The sheer weight of the suffering, self-sacrifice, the urgent need to tell the truth, to set at liberty the captives and open the eyes of the blind, to name sin, make restitution and to forgive proclaim the holiness of God’s presence. The insistent struggle, despite the oppression of the police state and the unspeakable horrors inflicted upon black South Africans, bespeaks Christ Jesus’ love. It is upon the ladder of Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection that one is able to discern the spirits and the angels and to see Christ’s Spirit incarnated in many South Africans, that were the ladder and The steady presence of the angelic hosts bore down relentlessly against the spirits who sought, once again, to usurp the place of God, conferring human or non-human status upon the children of God. Against these vast forces of goodness and light the shadowed spirits of Apartheid could not stand and are even now being transformed into an angel, a messenger from God, to all the nations bringing deep hope to this most beleaguered world. If this most desolate of all places could experience the transformation of God justice and love, perhaps’s Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Guatemala and Mayammar may one day too see healing.

It the Church will be the Church, that fully human, fully divine mystery whose vocation is to announce and live into the presence of God, establishing God’s Reign and healing God’s children from all the forces, seen and unseen, that seek to rend and destroy. But it is a challenge isn’t it? We’ve fallen out of practice in discerning the spirits.

Acknowledging that our starting place is imperfect, being impinged upon on all sides by the struggle between light and shadow, and that our choices are not always Christ-like, this day, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels behooves each of us to examine the angel of our own churches. Does the unique angel that holds our group spirit project the self-giving, healthy, hopeful, clear-eyed, truth-telling, destabilizing, laughter-filled love of Jesus? As Christians we are given the ground upon which we can undertake the most rigorous self-examination, because forgiveness and assistance to mend the broken and heal the wounded is ever present in the cosmos, is at the heart of the web that holds all life together, Jesus Christ the righteous, Jesus Christ the compassionate. In Him heaven and earth are reunited, in him we can ally ourselves with all the spiritual forces of good. We are called to join the heavenly battle which does exist, and must be enjoined daily, in all our choices. And like Nathaniel, we will be known, seen and shown more than this, the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

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Christopher Sikkema


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