St. Michael and All Angels
In my experience you are likely to get one of several reactions from people when your mention angels. One is the eye rolling, tossing of the head, I don’t believe you fall for the nonsense, reaction. Another is the new age, crystals and angels with flouncy long dresses and magic wands, reaction. But there is another reaction, and it probably won’t surprise you when I say, it’s the one I fall into.
For me, and for others, angels are not a pre-scientific, pre-rational, pre-modern way of understanding or thinking. Nor are they about whimsy, fantasy, and magic. For me, angels are about the imagination. Father Michael Himes, a Roman Catholic priest and Boston College theologian, defines the imagination as a “creative faculty,” which has “the capacity to embody the abstract in the concrete.” Imagination then is not about “escaping from reality.” Instead, imagination is “precisely about making things real.”
We have all watched children at play and have been captivated by how they can make real, and present, a world unseen. Their play is not an escape from the immediate constraints, weights, and fractures of human life, into some kind of fantasy. It is a way, in a sense, through the wardrobe door into another world, which is just as real as this one. In a way then, angels are doorkeepers who help by ushering us through the door, from one world into the other.
I must confess that I have always been envious of those who are able to acquire another language. I have always struggled to learn a second language.
As a child my parents enrolled me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same. I struggled all year to learn a few basics, scrape by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything over the summer. I would start again from square one, once again, each Fall. I finally dropped both French and Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in New Testament Greek. Early in the term the professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test. Finally everything made sense.
If you have taken the language aptitude test, you will know that it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer some questions. A week or so after the test, I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek, as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled oh and said to me, James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language
I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand and can’t speak American. It has been explained to me countless times, what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean, but it needs to be explained to me again each time someone uses those phrases. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more.
It’s not unusual for me to get something in my head, and be convinced that I have it correct, only to discover that I have it backwards. For the last few weeks, I have been repeating to myself a phrase, which I was positive I had right, but was actually wrong.
In the midst of death, I’ve been telling myself, we are in life. The phrase comes to us from the Prayer Book burial rite, and we Brothers sing it at the midday service on Holy Saturday. The problem is, I have it backwards. What the text actually says is, in the midst of life we are in death.
It seems however, that the trick my mind has played on me, has some merit. This past year, has been one long, long season of death. It will not surprise you to hear that the number of cases of Covid-19 in this country alone, will soon reach 31 million, with over 555,000 deaths. In the midst of death.
Nor may it surprise you to hear, that since the beginning of the year, there have been 125 cases of mass shootings, with a total of 481 people wounded, and 148 others killed. In the midst of death.
We see unfolding in the news, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes rising. The other day the George Floyd murder trial began. In the midst of death.
Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqLiH7AyU9A
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen[i]
I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about the prevalence of shame in our society. While I cannot remember my first encounter with shame, I can recall many instances of it throughout my life; moments that have been seared into my memory by the branding iron of trauma. From being bullied by older boys in the changing room at the local YMCA while participating in an after-school swimming program in elementary school—to being unable to finish my college degree as a result in part of a learning disability that eluded me until only three years ago—shame has been a regular character in the drama of my life, lurking behind the curtain until its cue to enter and take center stage. Shame manifests in my mind like evidence presented to a jury in a court of law, which after a very brief deliberation declares the devastating judgement, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Or, to put it simply: you are not enough.
In her book Daring Greatly, self-proclaimed ‘shame researcher’ Brené Brown defines this emotion as: the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.[ii] While you may not remember your maiden voyage on the sea of shame, my bet is that like me, you are able to recall instances of it throughout your lifetime. Brown goes on to say that we all experience the emotion of shame. And, even though it is universal, we are reluctant to talk about it.[iii] The insidious nature of shame insures that we dare not speak its name, giving it time to metastasize like cancer cells, breaking free from its injurious ‘ground zero’ and spreading throughout our lived experience.
Similarly, like cancer, the longer it roams free, the further out of control it becomes. The loss of innocence to shame often results in the learned skill of taming this wild beast and wielding it as a weapon to our advantage through the instilling of fear in another. So fluent are we all in the language of shame that often times our employing of it is not intentional. Shame can be used as a method of motivation to steer others from engaging in behaviors we find questionable, unacceptable, or dangerous according to our own lived experience, which can be skewed because of our own experience of being shamed. Shame begets shame, fear begets fear. When we force shame upon others, we rob them of their dignity as we venture to recreate them in our own image. Brown continues, “Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”[iv] Forcing a square peg into a round hole will damage the integrity of both.
In John’s account of Jesus’ passion, we observe a first-hand account of the destructive nature of shame. We watch as Jesus is abandoned by all but a handful of those close to him. We see Jesus as he is stripped of his clothes and his dignity; mocked, scourged, and spit upon. We stand with Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple at the foot his cross, gazing at His body: bruised, bleeding, and naked. Perhaps, it is in gazing at Jesus nakedness that we harken to another place and time: a garden where we hid ourselves in shame, hearing the voice of our creator asking, “Who told you that you were naked?” Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”[v] It is in this garden, called Eden, that we encounter our first experience of the shame that is so difficult to remember. The trauma experienced here was not the result of forbidden fruit, eaten and digested, but through the seductive language of shame: Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden? You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’[vi] Or, once again to put it simply: you are not enough.
It was then that we observed God’s first acts of mercy. God clothes the man and woman and then says, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’[vii] The expulsion from Eden was an act of mercy, lest humanity live in perpetual shame.
The gospel news of the cross is that God took on our human nature in the face of Jesus and endured the shame of the cross for our sake. It is in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that God restored our nature, giving us the ability to stare shame in the face and eradicate it with a different language: the language of love.
But, we do have to face the cross as Jesus did. We have to summon the courage with God’s help to face what we know to be true, that we are worthy of love and belonging, that we are enough. How is it that you know shame? What is your experience of being weighed in the balance and found wanting? How have you wielded shame as a weapon for the sake of self-preservation? Who has been a source of shame for you in your life? In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to venerate the cross. As you approach, bring your shame, your experience of not being enough, your struggle for control, or the shame you’ve felt at another’s hands; and as you kiss the cross, imagine that shame being nailed to the cross and know that in Jesus victory over death, that shame will be transfigured. For those of you joining us online, you may want to take a cross you have in your household, pull an image of a cross on your screen, draw a cross, or simply pick a brother to enact the veneration for you.
I close with words from Hymn 162:
O tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of glory now.
Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price which none but he could pay
To spoil the spoiler of his prey.[viii]
Lectionary Year/Proper: Year One
Solemnity or Major Feast: Good Friday
[i] Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week, Book of Common Prayer, p. 220
[ii] Brown Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery, 2015.
[v] Genesis 3:11
[vi] Genesis 3:1-5
[vii] Genesis 3:22-24
[viii] Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?); ver. Hymnal 1982
Today, on this Wednesday in Holy Week, we have just heard read one of the most emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. In an act of intimate, self-giving love, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. But he then turns from love, to betrayal. We are told, laconically that Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’; perhaps an understatement. For he has just washed Judas’ feet. Jesus loved Judas, as he did all his disciples. Jesus’ heart likely burned with a deep sorrow at what Judas was about to do.
But love and betrayal exist side by side. And there is a very close parallel between what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet, and what Judas was about to do. That parallel is made very clear by one word in the text, and that is the word betrayal. But that is only one translation of the word used by John. In the Greek of the original text, the word translated as ‘betrayal’, is ‘paradidomai’. This literally means ‘to hand over or give over power to another, or to hand over another into the power of another’. Here, that verb is translated as ‘to betray’ because this ‘handing over’ of Jesus by Judas is done treacherously. But elsewhere in the New Testament this very same word is used in a beautiful and loving way. In the letter to the Ephesians for example, we read that Jesus ‘has loved us and given himself for us.’ The same verb, paradidomai. Jesus so loves us that he freely gives himself over to the power of another. And this is what Jesus was expressing so beautifully when he laid aside his robe and washed his disciples’ feet. So great is his love for us that he laid down his divine power and became as a servant; became vulnerable and ‘woundable’. Through love he exposed himself to the power of Judas, he gave himself over to the power of the darkness in men’s hearts, ‘and it was night.’
“His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done in him.” (John 12:16)
Beloved, today we begin a second Holy Week in COVID-19 pandemic time. We have prayed for God’s merciful assistance to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby we have been given life and immortality. (cf. The Book of Common Prayer p. 270) We pray as we do on every Lord’s Day for the showing forth of the Lord Jesus’s death until he comes among us again in glory. (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26) As disciples in ages past have beheld in awe God’s ‘tender mercy love for the human race’ (BCP p. 219) in Jesus’s suffering and cross, so we do this Palm Sunday.
We continue at present separated in longing by disease and death, grief and loss, fear and uncertainty. Yet we join in hope with those who went out of the holy city of Jerusalem to greet the humble Savior. We raise our cries, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Together we hail Jesus, the Victor over death and evil, present among us now. Our pilgrimage through suffering is in company with that of God’s beloved Son, Jesus. Though scattered and terrified we are being healed, saved, and the whole world transformed and renewed by his glorious cross and resurrection.
Feast of the Annunciation
God’s invitation and Mary’s “yes,” which we celebrate today, began a journey. Pregnancy and birth both wondrous and shameful. Surprising shepherds and sages. Simeon said amazing things about Jesus and then to Mary: “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”[i]
Jesus was born into, lived, and died in community: family, neighbors, friends, and through it all, his mother Mary. She and Joseph anxiously searched three days for 12-year-old Jesus when he went missing. At the wedding in Cana, Mary prompted about the wine running out. Perhaps a push and pull, the mother encouraging her son to live into his vocation.
At the cross, Mary and the beloved disciple stood before Jesus. “Woman, behold your son. … Behold, your mother.”[ii] Perhaps Jesus is focused on giving her into the care of his friend. But what if Jesus speaks first of himself? “Woman, behold your son.” Look at me.
Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20
Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24
Much of the snow here melted last week, changing our perspective. The grounds and gardens came back into view. As soon as the river thawed, rowers went back out in their sculls. We see what was hidden: water, plants, and paths along with trash and twigs. Lent invites revealing, attending to what has been hidden, and reordering our lives. It may include gathering the trash and raking up the twigs within our souls, what we can see is out of place.
God says through the prophet Isaiah in tonight’s scripture: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil … cease to do evil.” It is more than lawns or riverbanks and more than simply tidying up. Wash yourself from evil. From denying goodness in each other. From denying goodness in ourselves and in the world. From all our little to large words and actions and inaction—including allowing others and systems to act on our behalf—all that degrades, oppresses, shames, and enslaves.[i]
Particularly in Lent, we are called to realize, name, and turn from our sin. As we will sing: “Lenten gifts invite us, searching deep within, claiming our desires, naming all our sin.”[ii] Not in order to beat ourselves up. Not because God wants revenge. Rather, surrender by acknowledging our need and receive grace. God comes wanting to save.
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers shared their memories of him, trying to make sense of what he had predicted. That is often the case as we look back on life, the “ah-hah” experience that comes when we remember and understand someone or something from a new perspective: “Oh, I get it. That’s what he meant when he said such-and-such.” “Oh, that’s what was going on then. I can see it now.”
- Jesus had earlier predicted that when he arrived in Jerusalem he would be killed, not crowned. Most of his followers had not understood him at the time.
- That after his crucifixion he would regain life, be resurrected. When they first heard it, most of his followers had missed what he was saying.
- That he would then return to his “father” – he would leave them, but not leave them without comfort or power. God’s Spirit would come to be with them. When they first heard it, most of his followers could not make sense of that.
- That his followers would take up their own cross and suffer. They had not missed that, because of what had been happening for decades. The Roman Empire had found Jesus’ followers seditious and treasonous; they were like sheep to be slaughtered.[i]
Our first lesson, from Saint Peter’s second letter to the church, was written around year 65, more than a generation after Jesus had finally left them, had ascended. One last promise that Jesus had spoken, his followers clung to: that he would return to earth, that he would come again in their lifetime, so they understood.[ii] They had lived with that hope. But Jesus’ return had not happened, and there was every imaginable explanation why. Peter is writing here about the meantime, in a very mean time, how then shall we live in the absence of Jesus’ return? “What sort of persons ought we to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” He answers his own question. Peter’s words still pertain.
- Peter writes that we are waiting on the Lord, but it’s actually the Lord waiting on them.” Why? For our repentance: to realign ourselves to life on Jesus’ terms and to change our ways: to repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.
- And then Peter calls his readers to “lead lives of holiness and godliness, at peace,” he says, “without spot or blemish… and not carried away, such we they lose their own stability.”
Lent is upon us tomorrow. The forty days of Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. For Jesus, those forty days were not a time when he would confront the misaligned political and economic powers that surrounded him, about which he was well apprised. Rather, those forty days were a time to re-align himself to why God had given him life: to claim the right purpose, the right power, the right voice God had given him. There he was in the desert to be purged of anything in the world that tempted him to stray from his reason for being.
And for us, Lent will give us forty days for the purgation of our own souls, where we may have colluded with the very powers we condemn. The focus of Lent can create space anew for the light, and life, and love to Jesus to teem in us and through us to our desperately broken world. Lent is to help us.
[i] Romans 8:36.
[ii] See Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32. See also Acts 1:11.