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Angels and Archangels

Angels and Archangels
September 29, 2019
Passage: Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Service Type:

Last year at this time a dear person gave me a medal with an image of
St. Michael on it, standing tall with his shield and sword. Some of you may
have seen me wearing it; the medal itself is shaped like a shield. On the back
of the medal are the words “Archangel Michael protect us.” This is
interesting…most saints’ medals say “Saint so-and-so, pray for us.” But
Michael is first and foremost a protector. Michael is an interesting figure—he
appears just a few times in the Bible, and a lot in Jewish literature written in
the centuries just before Christ. In the scriptural and intertestamental
tradition Michael has been held responsible for everything from protecting
all Israel to guarding the body of Abraham to keeping the heavenly books
and, as we heard in the Book of Revelation, to leading the victory that ended
once and for all the war in heaven and drove the dragon down to earth.

As archangel and protector, Michael is first among the angels and is a
“type,” that is, it’s safe to say that he represents all the angels. This is
important to us because we’ve got so much cultural stuff around angels that
has nothing to do with Michael or the other angels we read about in
scripture, cultural stuff we do well to unlearn. Angels are not—not—the
souls of mortals who have died and gone to heaven, least of all—sadly—
babies. Angels are not like Clarence in “It’s a wonderful life.” My favorite
movie angel is the one played by Alan Rickman in “Dogma,” long before
Rickman was Snape. Kind of like Snape, he was scary, and he was doing his
job even if no one liked the way he did it.

Angels are not God’s cherubs, but God’s army. Michael, the leader of
the heavenly host, heads up God’s army with his flaming sword, winning the
war in heaven and continuing the fight here on earth. Sometimes, that fight is
personal. That’s when we experience the angels like those described in Psalm
91, which we read in Evening Prayer this past Friday:

For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.

They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

I’ve heard angels described as a “gateway belief.” Once we believe that
angels are among God’s first created beings, guiding principles for creation, it
becomes easier to understand the presence of other heavenly beings, citizens
of the kingdom alongside us, like the very near presence of the saints in our
lives, those mortals who have gone before us. Once we believe in angels, it
becomes easier to see the divine in all of creation. All of it. Once we
understand that the serpent in the garden was a kind of angel—admittedly
an angel of the dragon of Revelation—we can perhaps grasp in our hearts the
ongoing battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Angels are
one of the ways that God becomes closer to created beings—closer to us
than we are even to ourselves. Jesus is another way that God becomes closer
than close. This is why the promise to Nathanael of a renewed Jacob’s ladder,
complete with angels, is a promise of God revealing Godself, in the person of
Jesus of Nazareth.

I don’t generally go to superhero movies, unlike some people we
know ☺. But I went to one a few years ago and thought: I get it! I get the
appeal. (Not enough to make it a habit, of course.) Superhero movies are
wonderful because the nature of good and the nature of evil are so very
obvious. We always know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,
and the good guys—and gals—always win! We know that before the movie
even starts. Magical things happen in superhero movies, like armies that
were invisible appearing out of nowhere.

The heavenly host is like that. Most of the time, it’s invisible. This
feast reminds us—in case we need reminding—of the strength of God’s army.
We need God’s army, and God’s army is all around us. It is hard to preach
about angels without thinking about the conflict between good and evil, and
without a heightened awareness of that conflict, everywhere. The conflict
between good and evil is real, not just in the movies. The good news is that
while it surely affects us, we are not responsible for fighting it alone. I spend
a lot of my time in conversation with people who are worried about evil. In
their family lives, in our government, in the streets, in the world.

  •  ***

I spent Friday morning at King County Superior Court, in the familylaw courtroom with someone petitioning for a protection order after being
terrorized and assaulted. The person I was with gave me permission to talk a
bit about what we experienced there. Good and evil was palpable in that
space as we listened to case after case being argued, stories of pain and abuse and longing, as we waited for the perpetrator to be brought into the
courtroom. There was clearly spiritual warfare going on all around us, and a
lot of pain, betrayal, and terror in the room, in spite of the presence of guards
and advocates. It takes an enormous amount of strength—a whole heavenly
host—to be able to stand tall in a place like that, as the person I accompanied
was able to do. None of it was my pain or terror and yet at the end of three
hours I was exhausted from being in the presence of so much evil, exhausted
from the battle waging between forces we could not see.

* * *

This past week I got together with some friends and former
parishioners I hadn’t seen for a long time. One of them said to me: “I’ve
always appreciated the way you allowed for so much room for doubt in the
experience of faith. That meant a lot to me when I was becoming a Christian,”
he said. (Yes, doubt is one of my gifts.) Then he asked me: “Where do you
find goodness and truth these days?” I answered—as I almost always do—
that I find it in the Eucharist. Much of the time it is the only thing that is real
and makes sense to me, in a deep kind of knowing. It is mysterious,
unfathomable, and real. One could say the same about evil, which is also
mysterious, unfathomable, and real. Except that a piece of what I know about
the Eucharist is that heavenly angels and archangels are part of that, and are
present with us in all of our worship as well as all of the battles waging
around us. If we pay attention, we can sense their presence, here and
everywhere. We’ve heard the words so many times, we probably don’t even
hear them any more:


Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with Angels and Archangels
and with all the company of heaven,
who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name

When we hear these words today, let’s remember that the battles that
frighten us are not ours to fight alone, and that a great company of heaven
surrounds us, in this very place and at this very moment, and always.

Archangel Michael protect us.