I’m with Jacob when he says: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
In 2005, I became rector of a parish for the first time. As I believe I told your search committee, it was during that first call, from 2005 to 2009, that I made every mistake a new rector can possibly make. Maybe not every mistake that could possibly be made, but certainly all the big ones. Don’t even get me started. I was blessed with a Senior Warden who kept me on my toes. Some Sundays, I’d look up from a conversation in the parish hall before church where folks were standing around drinking coffee, and he’d be standing in the doorway, smiling and tapping his watch, pointing in me in the direction of the sacristy. He was someone who helped me navigate many of the mistakes I made.
A few years into my time at that parish, I had the joy of preparing a handful of teenagers for confirmation. This same wonderful first Senior Warden said he wanted to purchase personal size, leather-bound Books of Common Prayer for each confirmand. I was, of course, thrilled. He asked to remain anonymous. Just before the offertory on the day of the Bishop’s visitation, I gave each of the kids their books, and announced that an anonymous angel had provided these special gifts.
A few days later a little note from the Senior Warden appeared in my mailbox in the church office. In it, he let me know what an honor it was to provide those prayer books. He also said that he understood the difference between saints and angels to be that angels have no choice but to do the will of God, while saints act of their own volition. In the future, he wrote, he’d prefer to be thought of as a saint rather than an angel. I’ve been reflecting on this distinction with new eyes on this feast of Saint Michael and all the angels.
There are of course many other ways we can distinguish between saints and angels, besides free choice and involuntary action, although that dichotomy has obviously stayed with me. Others talk about angels being pure spirit, while saints are (or have been) flesh like you and me. Angels are messengers; saints are prophetic witnesses. Angels have wings. Saints have halos. With the exception of the big guns like Michael and Gabriel, angels are usually anonymous. Saints have names and life stories. (I can’t wait to learn all of yours.)
And today we have St. Michael, who is both an angel and a saint, obviating all distinctions. Luckily, we are a both/and people.
One consistency about saints and angels, whether in human vessels or ethereal vessels, is that they are signs of God’s presence. This much I know.
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In his dream of a fantastical ladder, Jacob witnesses angels ascending and descending, moving between heaven and earth as if there were no distinction. As if the land God was giving him would itself be inhabited by heavenly beings. The angels in Jacob’s dream speak God’s promise and God’s abiding presence. “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” says the Holy One in Jacob’s dream.
Our reading from Revelation describes the battle between St. Michael and Satan, the great dragon, the serpent. If, after the first few verses of this familiar imagery, we skim through the rest of the reading, it is easy to assume this is a victory story. “Rejoice then, you heavens, and those who dwell in them!” Yay, Michael!
But listen: “Woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath!” Not such a rosy, victorious picture after all. No, and yes. Remember, we are a both/and people. We cannot celebrate Michael the dragon-slayer without owning the existence of evil in the world. And the converse is true: we cannot acknowledge the evil and brokenness all around us without also remembering God’s presence in our midst and God’s victory over death in Jesus.
God’s presence is all around us. As are signs of evil in the world. The battle is not over.
In his conversation with Nathanael, Jesus reminds us that what it means to dwell with Christ is to experience a blurred distinction between our lives in the world and life in Christ. At least that’s how I see this passage—to see the heavens open is to understand that the Kingdom of God is within reach. Within reach, and not yet here. (Sort of like getting a new rector must’ve felt like to many of you for a very long time.)
I believe that the task set before each of us is to discern how to witness and respond to this both/and reality, the reality of God’s abiding presence in a broken world still waiting for the kingdom to come. I believe that this task is why we need each other, why we need to be a community of faith, a communion of saints.
It is tempting, in one’s long-awaited first sermon, to say everything that can be said, to be sure you all know my theology, my preaching style, how I read scripture, my sense of humor, and so on. But today is only the beginning. I look forward to many, many Michaelmas celebrations together, and everything in between.
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I began by saying I made every mistake that could be made in my first parish. Just to be clear: that doesn’t mean I don’t have any mistakes left in me!
In my most recent parish of St. David’s, I had the privilege of training lots of folks to serve in the liturgy. Many of them were new to the Episcopal Church and new to the Chancel (that’s the churchy word for this space right here). There are a couple of things I always told people when doing these trainings:
- I promised them: You will make mistakes.
- I told them that it is the devil who makes us dwell on our mistakes, the devil who lets our mistakes get inside us and ruin our day
- And the third thing I always told folks was that I usually make 3-4 mistakes every Sunday and no one ever notices. (Of course, that was before I came to St. Paul’s. Maybe you’ll notice.)
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Bernard of Clairveaux posed the question: “How can we earthworms speak worthily of angelic spirits?” Well, in the same way that we earthworms speak about many things: we draw from our own earthy experiences. Even if we have not ourselves been in the heavenly realm where angels reside, we can certainly witness to the ways they touch down among us. As we move through this octave of Michaelmas, I invite you to pay attention to the saints and angels all around us. Pay attention, especially, to the presence of God’s messengers and prophets in our most human experiences, our mistakes, our vulnerabilities, and our ventures into the unknown. It is there that we shall, as Jesus promises Nathanael, see the heavens opened and the angels of God descending and ascending.