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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (Observed) — September 27, 2015

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.

Alice Walker’s beautiful novel The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, a poor, black woman of the 1930s who overcomes horrific abuse and violence in order to discover self-acceptance and love. While The Color Purple seriously explores a variety of important issues—from race, class, and gender to suffering and violence—it also serves as a profound theological meditation on who God is and how God shows up in the world. In a core scene of the book, Celie reveals to her friend and lover Shug that she has begun to feel angry at God. From her perspective, she explains to Shug, God is just an old, white, graybearded man who treats her like all of the other men in her life who have hurt her. Like them, Celie relates, God is abusive and coldhearted: over and over, he has ignored her needs and failed to stop the terrible things that have happened to her. It is clear to Celie that God doesn’t care—and that realization causes Celie to despair. “If he ever listened to poor colored women,” she says to Shug, resignedly, “the world would be a different place.”

Shug understands where Celie is coming from and shares her own frustrations with the white man’s God that Celie rejects, but Shug also reorients Celie, encouraging Celie to stop thinking of God as an old, white, gray-bearded man and to no longer limit herself to the God she was taught about in church. “Here’s the thing,” she tells Celie, “the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it.” Sometimes, she continues, God manifests itself “even if you[‘re] not looking” for it or “don’t know what you[’re] looking for.” Shocked by Shug’s use of the pronoun “it” to refer to God, Celie questions her, but Shug clarifies that her choice of language was intentional. “God ain’t a he or a she, but a It,” she claims. And It doesn’t look like anything. It’s not a “picture show” or “something you can look at apart from anything else.” Instead, “God is,” in her words, “everything…everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that,” she says to Celie, “and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.”

God is everything—it’s a phrase you won’t find in most orthodox works of Christian theology, and I’m sure that plenty of my clergy colleagues would not look favorably on me mentioning it to you today. Indeed, many of Shug’s musings to Celie, though they certainly resonate with the theological discussions of the past few decades, nonetheless push back on some of the central assumptions of the Christian faith. How can God be the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, if he is everything? How could God create himself? What about sin? If God is in everything, how do you explain the reality of sin in the world? Does God sin? Why doesn’t the God that is in me stop me from sinning?

But to split hairs in analyzing Shug’s declaration to Celie is only to prove that Shug has a point: our preoccupation with a God who is different from us—a God we have only heard about from others and can’t ever really know—prevents us from seeing the God who is already here—who is deeply and inextricably linked with every part of our identities and lives. One of the paradoxes that Christianity has consistently struggled to express is the fact that God is both transcendent, beyond anything we can know or experience, and immanent, as close and as real to us as our own fingers and toes.[1] God is both so separate from us that we can’t even bear to see his face and so close to us that he has walked our streets and shared our tears. God is both the Cosmic Creator, dwelling far away on high, and the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Angels, the creatures we celebrate today, help to bridge the divide that seems to exist between God’s immanence and God’s transcendence. Neither mortal nor divine, they continually ascend to heaven and descend back to earth, standing in the middle, serving as a conduit between divinity and humanity, allowing God to communicate with human beings and human beings to communicate with God, narrowing the gap we so often experience between the dreariness of our existence and the majesty and magnificence of God. For both Jacob and John, angels are representatives of the unpredictable and unimaginable wonders of God breaking forth into the unremarkable lives of human beings: the angels in Jacob’s dream show him how an ordinary rest stop can become the house of God and the gate of heaven, while Jesus’ mention of angels in his discussion with Nathanael stresses how even a seemingly common stranger can be the source of a startling encounter with the Divine.

For millennia, authors and poets have seen angels as entities that can bring humans, mired as they are in their everyday doldrums, to God. The sixth century theologian Dionysius emphasized how perfectly angels, unlike humans, could perceive God, but, according to one scholar, also claimed that the purpose of the angels “is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him.”[2] The angels, Dionysius argued, exist “for the purpose of lifting ourselves up.” Through contemplating the angels, he believed, we could “train the human mind in the apprehension of divinity.”

In the hymn we sang before the Gospel, with its three hundred and fifty year old text by the English Puritan John Mason, that’s precisely what happens: the angels help us get closer to the power and majesty of God. At first, the hymn calls attention to the prominence of the angels and highlights the immense distance between God and us. Thousands and thousands of angels stand in direct proximity to the throne, while we are “dust”—and, by implication, nothing.  The angels can see the brightness of God’s face, while we can only follow God’s footsteps and hear God’s sounds. Yet as the hymn goes on we plead little by little for more and more of God’s presence—for a beam of light, for a part within the choir. Ultimately, our marveling at the angels’ praise of God leads us to recognize that God is big and expansive enough to be present to us too. God, we come to exclaim, is the “great…being…which doth all beings keep,” the “sea without a shore,” the “sun without a sphere.” The hymn then masterfully concludes with these two lines, addressed to God: “Thy time is now and evermore; thy place is everywhere.”

Thy place is everywhere. At the end of the day, this sentiment, appearing as the conclusion of a great hymn which has been sung by the Church for hundreds of years, is not too different from what Shug tells Celie in The Color Purple. In both cases, God is so holy, so massive, so remarkably present that God cannot be escaped. God is everywhere.

And surely, if this is the case, our lives cannot remain unchanged. If it is true that anywhere can become the house of God and the gate of heaven, if God’s time really is now and evermore and God’s place really is everywhere, then we can’t afford to dismiss or disregard any person, any place or any thing. God is astoundingly, frustratingly present—not just in our glorious church, our closest friends, and our favorite hobbies, but also in the abandoned dump we refuse to set foot in, the disgusting enemies we can’t help but hate, and the tedious tasks we have no desire to ever do. We have to learn to embrace God wherever God may show up—in the beautiful and in the ugly, in the wise and in the stupid, in the worthy and in the unworthy. This is tall order, for sure. But don’t worry—the angels are here to help.

[1] My discussion of immanence and transcendence, especially as it relates to the hymn “How Shall I Sing That Majesty,” owes some credit to the Rev. Peter Moger’s sermon here:

[2] Valery Rees discusses this aspect of Dionysius’ thought in From Gabriel to Lucifer: A Cultural History of Angels, the book from which these quotations are taken.

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