Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
May the showers of Christ’s kindness be gentle on our faces, the hand of God reach out to encourage us on, and the daring life of the Spirit gather around us as we go. Amen.
“Its all in your imagination!” How many times has someone said that to you? How often might you have said it to your kids? Maybe you’ve even thought it out loud to yourself? Imagination—that wonderful capacity of human beings to form mental pictures of the world and to envision new realities. To dream.
The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor likens it to “a child roaming the neighborhood on a free afternoon, following the smell of fresh bread in an oven, then the glint of something bright in the grass—led by curiosity, by hunger, by hope, to explore the given world from its highest branches to its deepest roots.”
Children are experts in the realm of the imagination. They can drape towels over their shoulders and be instantly transformed into kings and queens in ermine capes with crooked aluminum foil crowns atop their little heads. They have this natural ability to use all their senses and to see a world full of wonders where we adults typically see only stark reality.
The blessing of childhood is that rare gift to be able to surrender your certainty that you already know what everything is for and approach each thing you encounter with awe and amazement. Imagination produces images—images of ourselves, of other people, and of the world. Some of these swim out of our unconscious ramblings and others are introduced to us by such persons and entities as parents, teachers, television, and, of course, our Judeo-Christian tradition.
The scriptures and our liturgy are full of images—bread and wine, water and oil, the Garden of Eden, the Red Sea, the Cross. Today our attention is turned to another image in scripture—the Angels. Because of the fondness for this feast within Anglo-Catholic practice, we have transferred this festival which falls on the calendar on September 29, to this Sunday so that we don’t miss the lovely flavor of it and its grand hymns.
There are angels we celebrate today who have gained fame and familiarity because of their role in salvation history—Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael to name a few. We sang their praises in that great opening hymn. And there are angels we celebrate today who remain nameless and fameless except to the ones whose lives they have touched by their commitment to discipleship and how that is lived in simple acts of kindness, gentleness, and compassion. We all know them. Not a few of them are in our pews.
Think about the lessons we heard this morning: a story from Genesis about Jacob’s dream of angels descending and ascending upon a ladder from heaven and then this astonishing account from the book of Revelations about a war in heaven between the forces of good and evil. Both of these stories fall into the realm of the imagination—of the make believe. Both are the product of a person’s imaginings. But making believe—that childhood gift of stretching the imagination—is by no means a bad thing.
On the contrary, and a sad thing about adulthood that it often brings with it the loss of imagination—that wisdom of pretending, of making believe. This great festival of the angels is a reminder that we need to rekindle the God-given aptitude for imagination. It was that gift that enabled Nathanael to recognize Jesus as the “Son of God” when he had no proof for making that assertion other than his imaginings. To believe is itself an imaginative act.
The art of creating a sermon is, I believe, an act of imagination. It is what Native Americans call “looking twice” at what we see in the story. First, we must bring our eyes together in front so that we notice every detail. Then we must look again, directing our gaze at “the very edge of what is visible” so that we see “visions, cloud people, animals that hurry past us in the dark.”
A small group of us are doing that every Tuesday morning at 9 am and another group at 6:30 in the evening on the same day. I invite you to join them on this weekly adventure. What the Tuesday morning group uncovered this week was the certainty of how God wants to give us instruments of connection, links between the divine and the human, the possibility of seeing beyond the gap we might experience in our life and imagining how God might fill that chasm with wonderful expressions of God’s light and energy and presence—maybe even with Angels as agents of connection between ourselves and God.
Imagination is also a process that leads us to the place of revelation—that gift of new sight, often shocking, that allows us to see things from a completely different angle. Angels have been agents of this thing we know as “revelation” throughout the course of our history bearing such astonishing news that a young virgin will bring forth the Son of God to live in this world among us and telling a group of poor shepherds that their Messiah has been born in a barn in their own country.
But you and I have never had that kind of startling angelic visit, have we? What is reality for us is what we experience—what we see and hear and smell and can touch and we’ve never encountered that extraordinary phenomenon. Yet how many of us have been in a situation when just the right person appeared at just the right time—often a time of crisis—and said or did just what we needed in the moment?
Like the woman, for example, who received a phone call at work, informing her that her daughter had fallen ill with a fever. She rushed to the pharmacy to get some medicine, but when she left the building she found she had locked her keys in the car. She ran into a nearby Laundromat and got a wire coat hanger, but—try as she might—she was unable to get the car door open. In desperation, she prayed to God to send her some help. Moments later, a big, burly, bearded guy roared up on his motorcycle. “Good Lord,” the woman thought, “is this who you’ve sent to help me?” With some trepidation, she approached the biker and asked if he could help her break into her car. He grinned a huge, toothy grin and said, “No problem.” Moments later, her car door was open. Thank you,” she said to her unlikely helper, “You’re an angel.”
“No, lady, you’ve got that wrong,” the biker replied, “I just got out of prison for grand theft auto.” As she got into her car and prepared to drive home with her daughter’s medicine, the woman prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for sending me a professional!”
In his classic book Soul Making, Alan Jones, the former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, says that he believes that God provides us with such “out of the ordinary” encounters as a means of allowing us to have a “revelation” and that these short-lived relationship are opportunities for increasing our faith.
Just as angels have always told the story of God’s greatness and of God’s enormous love, these stories of the unexpected visitations of angels in our lives are an extension of those stories. I’ve shared this one before but it is worth hearing many times over. The late Alexander Schmemann, a distinguished Russian Orthodox priest and theologian, whom I was privileged to know, once told a group of students why he believed in the existence of angels.
When he was a young man living in Paris, he was traveling on the metro one day with his fiancée. They were very much in love and bound up in each other. The train stopped and an elderly, very ugly woman got on. She was dressed in the uniform of the Salvation Army and she sat near them. The young lovers began to whisper to each other in Russian about the grossness and ugliness of the woman.
The train came to a stop. Remember, they are riding on the metro in Paris. The old woman got up and, as she passed the two young people, she said to them in perfect Russian, “I wasn’t always ugly.” That, insisted Father Schmemann, was an angel who brought the shock of revelation that was needed for him to see that in this human being there was much, much more than an ugly old woman.
Imagination—that wonderful capacity of human beings to form mental pictures of the world and to envision new realities, leading us to revelation—new sight, often shocking, allowing us to see things from a completely different angle.
Jacob fell asleep with his head upon a rock and found himself at the door to heaven. “How awesome is this place!” he declared, “Surely God is right here and I did not know it!” I wonder if he meant the place where he was resting and the rock he placed there to mark it—or that wonderful place within himself, within our mind where imagination allows us to see angels and to dream a vision of a different and better world? That place where believing becomes more than making believe. Just imagine.