Angels are everywhere. I know that’s on a bumper sticker somewhere. We know angels from today’s scriptures; the good ones get to go up and down, as we read about in Genesis and in the gospel. The bad ones, not so much. We know angels from popular culture, from movies like “Dogma” and “Angels in America,” movies that portray angels as a little more grown up and scary than the two cherubim that could be spotted on coffee mugs and greeting cards throughout the 90s.
Angels keep watch. They’re in a much-beloved prayer: Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night. Give your angels charge over those who sleep. They’re in today’s offertory hymn: Rank on rank the host of heaven and….cherubim with sleepless eye…. Angels have hung out at the intersection of artistic and religious imagination for as long as mortals been talking about angels.
About ten years, I asked a group of newcomers to the Episcopal Church to talk about their favorite moment of the Eucharist. Lots of people talked about how much they loved gathering around the table with one another, and the leveling, inclusive nature of communion. One guy had in his former life been a heavy metal guitarist, evangelical-turned-atheist, and heroin addict. He normally didn’t say much in groups like this but he answered right away: “Oh, that’s easy: the part about angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” These words which we say every Sunday remind us that every time we sing the Sanctus, we are singing it with the angels who surround us in this place and everywhere.
Satan is as real and present as the angels. The great dragon, that ancient serpent, called the Devil and Satan—he was thrown down to earth, and his angels with him.
Last week, I was consulting Wikipedia in search of medieval poetry about the fall of Lucifer. In the process, I came upon an entry for the War in Heaven. What I found there was fascinating. There’s a box, kind of a table, on the right-hand side of the entry titled “War in Heaven” which lists all available historical data. It turns out to be a standard Wikipedia format for all major military conflicts. Here’s how it reads for the war we hear about in Revelation: Date: unknown. Location: Heaven. Result: Satan and his angels hurled down to Earth. Belligerents: Loyal angels; Rebellious angels. Commanders and leaders: Archangel Michael, Angels; Devil, fallen angels. (If it’s in Wikipedia, it must be true.)
The war in heaven is real, and its result here on earth is real. This is all very mythical/mystical and yet, who among you will deny that there are bad angels and dragons at work in our lives today? These bad angels and dragons take myriad forms: scarcity or, more likely, the perception of scarcity. Pettiness. Fear. Grumbling. Polarization. Poverty. Loneliness. White supremacy. A caste and class system that reminds us on a daily basis who is in charge, and who is not, a system where some have voice and power, and most do not, a system in which power trumps truth.
Revelation tells us and Easter tells us that the war in heaven is over. As the hymn goes: The strive is o’er, the battle done. The good guys won. So why is there evidence within us and all around us that the dragon is still alive and kicking? Woe to the earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you. The Beast is indeed still alive and kicking; defeat doesn’t always make our enemies give up. We see this in the world around us and I’m guessing we see it in our own lives. (As an easy example of the dragon’s presence in our interior lives, ask most women about their body image. Actually, don’t ask.)
…The devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short! Take note: God’s version of a short time and our version of a short time may be different. As with any conflict, it’s messy. There’s still mopping up to do. Satan keeps bleeding out and twitching like a dying bear or, I imagine, like a dying dragon. The conflict between good and evil, between angels and dragons, between representatives of Christ and representatives of Satan, happens over and over again. Christ’s victory over death happens every time a representative of Christ—that would be you and me, I hope—confronts a representative of Satan1.
I spent Friday in Aberdeen hanging out with the amazing Chaplains on the Harbor, a ministry that describes itself as a “Freedom Church for the Poor” in Gray’s Harbor County. A former timber town, the area has extremely high percentages of homelessness, unemployment, illiteracy, drug addiction, and people in prison—the whole complex of life in a world where the distribution of wealth and power is a steady reminder that the Kingdom has not yet come.
Chaplains on the Harbor offers a variety of pastoral and sacramental ministries from Aberdeen to Westport, and empowers the people there through radical community-building. I asked my host to talk to me about how he sees this conflict between angels and dragons happening in their context. He told me about a time, a couple years ago, when the Westport City Council was working on passing an ordinance forbidding tents, sleeping in cars, or any kind of camping on public property or on any church property. At the time, Chaplains on the Harbor had about a dozen tents pitched on the front lawn of their church.
The story I heard was that at a public meeting of the city council, neighbors gave testimony and a tavern owner said that Westport has a long history of vigilante justice, and that if the city didn’t get rid of those people, the townspeople would. The story goes that in a public forum he offered to pay anyone who got homeless people to leave the area, using any means necessary, $2000. He basically put a price on the heads of everyone who had been sleeping outside the church.
Chaplains on the Harbor, of course, invited all of “those people” inside. This was a challenge; these were mostly young men with serious drug habits, criminal behavior, and no love of the church. They stayed there for months. During that time, something shifted. It’s a longer story than I’m going to tell, but suffice it to say that they became a community. At Thanksgiving, these people who had fought with each other and mistrusted each other and the church almost as much as the rest of the community had fought and mistrusted them and the church, pooled all their resources, all their food bank boxes, and cooked up a huge Thanksgiving feast, covering table after table with abundance, generosity, and laughter.
Their Thanksgiving was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God and a sign of victory over death. For a moment, they could actually know and feel that the strife was over and the battle done. It is these moments of victory on which the kingdom is built. It is those moments of victory, however small, that move us toward the next victory.
Our baptism is not a sacrament for becoming a better person or for becoming a member of a religious institution, it is conscription as soldiers mopping-up of the war in heaven, the war that God has won but that still needs our attention and our participation. When we gather in this place, when we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we proclaim again and again, victory over Satan. When we go out into the world, I hope we will know the angels’ presence with us and, with them as our guardians, continue to proclaim God’s victory.
1 With gratitude to Ward Ewing’s Power of the Lamb for this concept.