A sermon for Michaelmas: This feast is but a waypoint
It was my honor this morning to be the guest preacher for the patronal festival of St. Michael & All Angels at the Church of St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. I shouldn’t have received top billing; that belonged to the bagpipes. But for what it’s worth, here is my sermon, partly inspired by the popularity of a blog rant of several years ago on this feast day.
Jacob said, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This occasion is a great blessing to me. I am glad to be here with you in this vibrant congregation, and I am grateful to Fr. Archie for the invitation. I am particularly glad to be here for St. Michael’s Day, which is one of my very favorite feast days. I’ve loved Michaelmas for years, and my love only grew while I served my curacy in a parish named for St. Michael.
I love Michael the Archangel for lots of reasons. It is a pet peeve of mine when we domesticate angels, but even a casual glance at St. Michael undermines an entire industry of cute, angelic tchotchkes. It will not be news to you here in this parish, but the St. Michael of scripture is nothing like the pillows and adorable prints of home decorating aisles in big box stores. No, St. Michael, like every other angel, is much more frightening than that.
A few months ago, I preached in a church with a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary on one side of the nave, and a statue of St. Michael on the other. That statue depicts a fearsome Michael slaying a positively terrifying serpent. I would not be at all surprised to learn that all the children of that parish are afflicted with nightmares. While I wish nothing but a good night’s sleep to children everywhere, I think the scary depiction of St. Michael gets it right.
Angels frighten us for lots of reasons. They are not like us, and the scriptures are filled with stories of angels bringing world-changing, life-uprooting messages. With good reason, quite a few of those encounters begin with the angel saying, “Be not afraid.” We humans are filled with fear in these encounters because of our natural dread of the unknown — both the messenger and the inevitable change that comes from the message.
It isn’t fashionable in many quarters of the Episcopal Church to speak of spiritual warfare, but Michaelmas presses us to acknowledge the presence of spiritual warfare in our world, past, present, and future. I for one am comforted — perhaps strangely so — by faith that fearsome and fearless St. Michael is contending for good in the battle with evil. We all have our part to play in working for good, for justice, and for peace, and the going will certainly get tough. Michaelmas reminds us that God has our back as we join in the fray.
This brings me to my last reason for loving this great archangel. The awesome — and I mean that in the old-fashioned, literal sense — the awesome aspect of these beings helps to put the created order in perspective for us. As John Macquarrie writes, “The doctrine of angels directs our minds to the vastness and richness of the creation, and every advance of science opens up still more distant horizons. Any mere humanistic creed that makes man the measure of all things or regards him as the sole author of values is narrow and parochial.”
In other words, celebrating Michaelmas reminds us that it’s not all about us. We are but one part of God’s creation, and our work of praise is joined by archangels and angels. The words we hear just before the Sanctus at mass each week are not quaint poetry, but rather reminders of a stupendous truth. “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying…”
Yes, right here in this very church, we feeble humans are joined by angels and archangels in our worship. Pondering this fact makes St. Michael, the other archangels, and all the angels seem a bit more…close to home, does it not? Yes, we are spiritually close to angels in this holy place.
This brings us to Jacob. Beyond having extraordinary parents and grandparents, Jacob started his life much like most any other human. His worries, his hopes, and his fears might not have been all that different from ours. But as we heard in the Old Testament lesson, Jacob was also blessed by some extraordinary encounters with the divine as he fulfilled his vocation as one of the patriarchs of our faith.
One might question the common sense of using a stone for a pillow, but it certainly seems to have opened the way for some impressive dreams. Jacob’s dream of a mystical ladder with angels ascending and descending is redolent with symbolic meaning. In this vision, we can see God’s realm descending to our realm. And we can behold the earthly realm ascending to the heavenly realm. After mystically hearing God’s astounding promise for an abundant future, Jacob awakes to an epiphany. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jacob knows that Bethel — the place where he had the dream — is hallowed by the vision he has received. It might have been exceedingly tempting to linger in such a place, a place where God’s voice was heard and where angels appeared. Thanks to be God, Jacob did not linger there. Rather, this holy place became a waypoint on his pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that made possible the faith of an entire people.
At Bethel, the angels Jacob beheld were messengers, but not in the manner of announcing specific news or charging a person with a specific task. The angels did deliver a message, but it was by their collective presence in Jacob’s vision. The very fact of the presence of angels was itself the message which heralded God’s promise.
There is, I think, a lesson in this for us.
This is a grand and glorious day in a grand and glorious place. But if we say only, “this was nice” and return to business as usual, we have missed something. Let us not neglect to open ourselves to the presence of angels. The words that the celebrant utters just before we sing, “Holy, holy, holy” are not a throwaway line. Today, here today, our voices will join with the voices of angels.
Ascending and descending happens here too. The lines between earth and heaven are blurred in what we do here. We lift up our hearts to the heavens, and we see how Christ comes among us in bread and in wine. We are meant raise our voices to share the Good News with the whole world, and we are meant speak humbly in a way that all might hear.
Yesterday on Twitter, I saw a quotation attributed to the Bishop of Oxford. He is reported to have said, “Christianity is a kind of extreme sport, it’s not for those who want to sit out of life.” If Christianity is an extreme sport, angels must make excellent teammates. As we leave this place To continue on our pilgrimage, on our way to be disciples in the world — to do the hard and sometimes scary work to which Jesus Christ calls us — let us take comfort that we have St. Michael on our side. And let us receive the message of the archangels and angels, with whom we have sung and prayed.
This place is hallowed by the prayers of generation upon generation. This place is hallowed by the presence of angels and of Christ himself. This place is none other than the house of God, and this place is the gate of heaven. But, we must not linger here too long. Like Jacob moving on from Bethel, let us ever continue emboldened on our pilgrimage, for this feast is but a waypoint.