Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
September 27, 2015, St. Michael and All Angels, 8am & 9am
His name is Bill. He has wild hair. He is wearing a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans and no shoes. That has literally been his wardrobe the entire four years of college. He is brilliant--kind of esoteric and very, very bright. He became a Christian during college.
Across the street from campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. They want to develop ministry to students. They’re not sure how to go about it.
One day Bill decides to go there. He walks in-- no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service has already started and so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed, and no seats are available.
By now people are looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. Bill gets closer and closer to the pulpit and, when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the floor. While this may be perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, trust me, this had never happened in this church before.
By now the people are really uptight, and the tension in the air is thick. The minister realizes that from way in the back of the church, an usher is slowly making his way toward Bill. He is in his eighties, has silver-gray hair, and is wearing a three-piece suit. He is a godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly.
He walks with a cane, and as he starts walking toward this this young man, everyone thinks, you can't blame him for what he's going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid on the floor?
It takes a long time for the man to reach the boy. The church is utterly silent except for the clicking of the man's cane. All eyes are focused on him. You can't even hear anyone breathing. The minister can't even preach his sermon until the usher does what he has to do
And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships with him so he won't be alone. The minister says, "What you have seen you will never forget. Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some people will ever read."(1)
Now, of course this isn’t Christ Church. Yet it was a prophetic response. I’d venture to say it never was Christ Church. There is a sign in the office I inherited when I became Interim Rector here that says: All seats free. Sit wherever you like. All are welcome.
While other churches, Episcopal and otherwise, were charging a pew fee, a rental charge to sit in church, Christ Church from its founding abolished pew fees and welcomed all, regardless of their ability to pay. The very establishment of this church between the alms house and the poor farm, with two orphanages nearby, is testament to its goal to be Christ’s presence in the midst of the underprivileged and underserved of this city.
Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Michael and All Angels. A base for our understanding of angels is found In the Hebrew Scriptures, where there would be the report of a conversation with a man who spoke with authority, who was later seen to actually be a messenger of God. In Hebrew the word for a messenger is Malach, in Greek, Angelos, from which we get our word "angel". Michael, the captain of the heavenly armies battling evil, is mentioned in Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
We’re used to seeing photos of angels with cherubic faces and tiny wings, or as women with large wings like the capiz shell angel I put on top of my Christmas tree every year. In today’s culture many are comforted by the sense of God’s presence in their lives by the image of angels. Some very popular shows on television and movies have shown angels assisting people to make choices that change their lives and others.
In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear one of two stories of Jacob encountering angels. Here Jacob is traveling to Haran to avoid his brother Esau’s anger at Jacob for stealing Esau’s birthright. He has a dream of God’s angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven. God comes and blesses him from the top of the ladder. Later, we hear of Jacob wrestling with an angel as he struggles with whether he ought to cross the Jabbok river. In both instances Jacob emerges from the encounter changed. In both situations he names the site of his experience a holy place.
Some speak of our consciences as being God’s messengers in our lives, in the imagery of todays’ Feast day, they are angels who carry God’s messages of challenge and of hope into our lives. Surely as we move through our lives struggling with choices, decisions, challenges we encounter the Holy, the presence of God, and we are changed. We can have the honor, the gift of being the only Bible some people will read.
The English poet Elizabeth Jennings lived during the last century. Her Roman Catholicism had an impact on her poetry, which she saw as prayer. Listen to her her poem “Answers.”
I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.
The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.
But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.
Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow.
And all the great conclusions coming near. (2)
So often it seems to me that we can occupy ourselves with the small issues, the easy decisions, hoping to keep the hard questions at bay. As individuals, organizations, churches, parishes—it is easy to look away from great injustice, lest we suffer with those who suffer. It is simpler to attend to problems easily solved rather than the difficult, frightening, life-changing questions of our lives, of our culture. Easier to be the prophet in our own backyard rather seek to have an impact on the world beyond it.
I wonder as we continue through this interim time, this time of transition, what the angels of God, the messengers of Jesus Christ are calling into being here at Christ Church? What audacious, life-changing question, what courageous prophetic stand, awaits your action? What large answers are clamoring to be moved into your life?
One bishop said, describing the calling of a new rector, “Candidates want to get on a moving train.” Our own bishop, Ian, is known to say that a candidate wants to join into the energy of a parish and move forward together. Frederick Buechner is famous for saying that vocation is “Where the world’s greatest need and our greatest joy meet.” Where is that place here at Christ Church? Where are the angels drawing us into ministry? What are the big questions of our day that call us to take a stand?
It is in your history, in your DNA, if you please, to be in the midst of the struggles, to be a prophetic voice. From your founding, to your identity in the early 70s as a place for thoughtful engagement in the issues of the day. This parish was an early supporter of women’s ordination. It is in the roots of Christ Church to listen for the messengers, the angels, of God, to discern the big questions that await our attention. Knowing that in the presence of the angels we stand on holy ground.
I challenge you, today, to bring the questions into your prayer, your reflection. Listen, listen hard. Where is the need? Where is the joy? Racism, immigration, global warming, hunger, homelessness? Talk about what you think and feel. There’s no doubt that the messengers are here. What do they say?
(1) Author unknown The Day Bill Came To Church (Signs of the Times, November 1999) can be located at http://manualoflife.com/joes-pages/the-day-bill-came-to-church/
(2) Jennings, Elizabeth. “Answers” Selected Poems. (Carcanet, 1979)