Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels – September 29, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
“Its all in your imagination!” How many times has someone said that to you? How often might you have said it yourself? The question has a negative connotation and that is unfortunate because our imagination is the wonderful capacity to form mental pictures of the world and to envision new realities. It is God’s way of allowing us 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, one’s faith tradition.
The scriptures and our liturgy are full of images—bread and wine, water and oil, shepherds and kings, gardens and seas and all sorts of interesting creatures. Today we celebrate the existence of another image in scripture—the Angels—on this wonderful feast of St. Michael and All Angels. We Episcopalians don’t have a very well defined theology about angels and, indeed, those who come from less liturgical traditions probably did not make much of this feast or may have never heard of it. It’s one of my favorite holy days and a popular one within Anglo-Catholic tradition.
There are angels we celebrate today who have gained fame and familiarity because of their role in salvation history like Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael about whom we in that great opening hymn. And there are angels we celebrate today who remain nameless and fame-less 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 at least a few. Some of them have entered our doors and taken their place in these pews.
The reading from Revelations recounts the fight between the forces of good and evil; Michael and his angels against the Devil, and even though our Anglican theology about angels is not very concrete, traditionally we have looked on these heavenly spirits as companions on our life journey—though most of the time these incidents are related to events in the Gospel like when an angel tells Mary she will give birth to the Savior or when Joseph was warned by an angel about King Herod’s evil intentions.
I’ll bet some of you have at one time or another run into an angel whether or not you have recognized them as such. Just as Jacob experienced God’s presence in his encounter with the angels, I believe that God continues to provide us with out of the ordinary, unexpected, maybe even unnerving encounters; encounters by which God gives us some kind of revelation, opens our eyes to a reality that we were not able to see, or nudges us to expand our vision of what is possible.
Jacob’s wonderful dream is the centerpiece of the reading from Genesis—a vision of the sacred energy that flows from God to us and us to God, the holy movement and passage between heaven and earth. Then God makes this magnificent promise that Jacob’s offspring will spread from east to west and north and south and that he and all his offspring will be a blessing for all the families of the earth. This is a glorious passage because it prompts us to imagine the possibilities that can emerge when we are open to and practice holy imagination and let God speak to us.
Jacob’s dream speaks to themes that should be key elements in the life of a congregation: growth and blessing. God’s dream for us as the church is to grow—to draw all people into communion with God—and to bless one another with sanctuary, peace, healing, compassion, and affirmation. We continue to witness such growth in this community, to welcome and incorporate those who come here seeking the experience of God’s radical love and restorative grace.
Growth—both in terms of numbers and expansion of ministry—does come with challenges. Just think about our Sunday morning worship. Including the choir and those who provide refreshments for the coffee hour, at least 90 people minister here on Sunday to support our celebrations of the Holy Eucharist and Compline. What we are discovering is that many of our members are wearing lots of hats—all too common in church circles. And that is cause for concern because it breeds burn out.
This morning we have the opportunity to do two wonderful and exciting things: first, to explore the many ways in which you might get involved in the life of St. Paul’s and bring your individual and unique gifts in service to the community by participating in one or more of the many ministries you will learn about after the service today. And second, you have the opportunity to add to the number of those already invested in our common life and lighten their load some.
It’s our Ministry Rush and the insert in your announcement leaflet is full of opportunities of all kinds to consider. When you arrive at the coffee hour this morning you will be greeted by representatives of the various ministries that support our life here and they will be very happy to answer your questions and, if the Spirit moves you, to sign you up.
When I think of this idea of a “Ministry Rush” my mind turns to popular song of the 1940’s, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Perhaps some might think it foolish for people to spend time here on Sundays and other days ministering as acolytes, ushers, teachers, singers, members of the healing team, communion bread bakers, etc. etc. etc. I pray that a lot of us are in a foolish mood today, will rush in, put on our halos, honor our baptismal covenant, and dare to tread into the wonderful world of parish ministry. Please be an angel and consider how you might serve our community.
Ok. Commercial over. Now back to our regular programming. The story of Jacobs’ dream reminds us that God calls us to be instruments of blessing—blessing one another, blessing those who enter our doors each week, blessing those who are seeking a new and fresh experience of God, or have been hurt by some institution like the church, blessing those of you who go out into the world in the ministry you exercise there.
I think the striking imagery in Jacob’s dream—that metaphor of the ladder and the angels ascending and descending—a scene referred to again in the Gospel—and its suggestion of the energy of God moving passionately among us is most appropriate for us to think on this Sunday morning when we are celebrating the angels and celebrating the way this community ministers as an angelic presence. God is not finished yet. God wants to continue to empower and energize us, to grow this community as God grew the offspring of Jacob, and send us forth as a blessing to those beyond these sacred, prayer-washed walls.
May our minds and hearts be opened to the wonderful gift of holy imagination—imagining the possibilities for joining God in God’s work and activating the dream of God for us. With Jacob I’m so proud and humbled to say: “How awesome is this place! It is the house of God and the gate of heaven.”