Sermon preached by Peter Thompson, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Michael & All Angels (tranferred) – September 28, 2014
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
As a young teenager obsessed with liturgical choral singing, my knowledge of popular music was limited to twice weekly viewings of the television show American Idol. Though I would not have been able to tell you the difference between John Lennon and Paul McCartney or to name even one Madonna song, I tuned in faithfully every Tuesday and Wednesday night to watch Ryan Seacrest preside over a pageant of singer hopefuls and to watch Simon Cowell eviscerate every single one.
So you can imagine my excitement when, in December 2004, I was invited to sing in a mass backup choir for the singer Ruben Studdard, the winner of the second season of American Idol. The top ten songs on my Ipod may have consisted entirely of nineteenth century English hymnody, but even I knew this was a big deal. So I adjusted my Palestrina-accustomed vocal cords to Gospel music, learned—however uncomfortably—to move a little, and took up a different kind of religious plea.
The song Studdard sang that night was called “I Need An Angel,” and it is even now—almost ten years later—burned into my memory. It’s a song about a person who is desperate—who’s “run out of answers” and “run out of time,” who’s “confused” and “losing” his “mind.” It speaks to moments we all know in which nothing we can do seems to work, in which our only hope is for something or someone outside of us to come and save us. “I need an angel,” Studdard sang, “I’m calling an angel. Send me an angel down.” For Studdard, an angel was just the thing to come to his rescue when he could do nothing else for himself.
Studdard’s song is only one example of the important role angels play in our cultural consciousness. In fact, angels are regular figures in many of our lives. We speak of guardian angels that protect and watch over us and picture little angels whispering into our ears to give us guidance and instruction. The popular television show “Touched By An Angel” depicted angels as supernatural beings sent to do God’s will in the human world, visible to our eyes and directly interfering in human affairs. Not only do we think of angels as powerful beings that interact with us and come to our assistance, we also ascribe to them the qualities of goodness, purity and innocence that we value. Think about how many times you have heard someone call a child’s voice “angelic” or used the term “angel” to refer to someone else who has been particularly helpful or kind.
Though angels serve as good examples of popular folk spirituality, they aren’t entirely divorced from organized religious tradition. They actually appear all over the Bible. Echoing the literal meaning of the original Greek term angelos, scriptural angels often relay messages from God, particularly in Luke’s Gospel, in which the angel Gabriel announces the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. Angels also attend God in the temple, singing songs of praise as the house fills with smoke and blotting out the sins of those who come before God’s throne. They minister to Jesus as he is tested in the wilderness and comfort him in the garden of Gethsemane. When Elijah is tired and starving, an angel brings him food. When the apostles of the early Church are imprisoned, an angel opens the doors and frees them. Angels show up in the Bible to move the drama forward whenever human characters are stuck and can’t do anything else on their own. They are agents of God sent to help people in need.
Traveling between Bersheeba and Haran, Jacob needed an angel. Jacob had just left home after stealing his father’s blessing from his brother Esau and having been told that Esau was planning to kill him. Jacob was at once running away from an uncomfortable past and running towards an as-yet-unknown future. As he rests in the midst of his uncertain pilgrimage, angels appear to demonstrate God’s persistent presence with him and reassure him about the person he will become.
Hundreds of years later, in the Roman province of Galilee, Nathanael needed an angel. Before our Gospel reading for today, Nathanael had been skeptical of Jesus actually being a person of promise. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he had asked his brother Philip. The vision of angels that Jesus invokes jolts Nathanael out of his complacency and cynicism. It reminds him that great wonders do exist, if only he can surrender his prior expectations and open his eyes to see a different future.
And in a place and time very far from the stories of Jacob and Nathanael, heaven needed a lot of angels. The Book of Revelation depicts God’s angels as a kind of army fighting for the cause of good against a large dragon and its angels, which together represent evil. The angels of God, led by Michael, persist in the struggle against what is terrifying and destructive and ensure that good triumphs.
We may not face a great dragon in heaven, but we know what it’s like to be engaged in battles against evil outside of and within us. We need angels to fight beside us, to help us gain victory over all that frightens us and threatens our well-being. We may not be sitting under a fig tree in Galilee, but we—like Nathanael—know what it’s like to be complacent and cynical—to believe that we’ve seen it all and that nothing different or unusual can happen. We need angels to turn us upside down—to surprise us and to show us everything that we’ve been missing. We may not have stolen a blessing from our brother, but we know what it’s like to escape a shameful past and to worry about a future we can’t yet know or see. We need angels to let us know that everything will be OK and to lead us on to what’s next.
Like the characters in the stories we read, we need angels to step into the stories of our lives and move our dramas forward when we can’t do anything else on our own. We need angels to protect and guide, to inspire and encourage, to strengthen and comfort.
Yes, indeed, we all need an angel. So, please, God, send one down—right now.