September 28, 2017 – Eve of Michael and All Angels – Genesis 28:10-17, Revelation 12:7-12, John 1:47-51
I preached this sermon last night at The School of Theology’s Community Eucharist.
There is something poetic about angels. They are abstract, not easily explained, and depicted in myriad ways. We often cast them in the role of guardian, but even that is ambiguous. Maybe it means that God gives his angels charge over those who sleep. Or maybe it refers to those little white-clad creatures perched on the shoulder of your favorite sitcom character. I’ve even heard it said, “That woman must have had an angel with her to survive a car wreck like that.”
Perhaps when you hear “angel” you think of a quilt that your great aunt made or, God forbid, one of those “Precious Moments” figurines. The word is also used as a term of endearment. You have likely been called an “angel” by your lover or your grandmother.
On greeting cards, coffee mugs, or page-a-day calendars, angels are portrayed as cartoon characters, chubby little babies, and choir members. They represent the gentle, graceful, light, and airy. Even though depictions of angels are ubiquitous in popular culture, they remain somewhat of a theological mystery.
The poet Billy Collins points out that of all the questions you might have about angels, the only one you ever hear is, “How many can dance on the head of a pin?” Nobody ever asks how they pass the eternal time. Do they circle the Throne chanting in Latin? Or deliver crusts of bread to hermits on earth? Do they guide boys and girls across rickety wooden bridges? 
You and I know that they hasten to a tap on the roof of the car. What do they do in the meantime? Swing like children from the hinges of the spirit world? What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, or their diet of unfiltered divine light?  Collins is on to something. Angels may be a mystery, but they trigger our imagination.
Our interpretations of angels have always been fueled by imagination. Look at our tradition. Angels have been organized into a hierarchy: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels. In worship hosts of angels leap from brittle hymnal pages to the spring board of our tongues and then into the air where they briefly trip the light before gathering in throngs over the altar for the eucharistic prayer. Angels are important to our faith. Not because they are detectable by our senses, but because they feed our imaginations.
I’ve been pulling out my beard for two weeks trying to answer questions about angels. What are they? What do they do? What are they for? Where do they come from? I was seeking concrete answers instead of using my imagination. With cameras in our iPhones and Google Image results at our fingertips, we often forget to use our imagination, but angels remind us how.
Nathanael has no problem recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from giving him a little something to imagine, “You will see heaven opened and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Such an image helps us imagine a God so beyond compare that his glory can only be depicted by thousands of heavenly attendants. “Glory to you Lord God of our fathers . . . glory to you seated between the cherubim.”
Sometimes during the Magnificat I imagine Gabriel illuminating the dark cave, his voice not quite as deep as you might think, informing Mary that she will bear a son. On Christmas EveI lean back in my pew and picture angels bringing good news of great joy: the flash of green light and the supernal noise, like no music on earth. During Lent I imagine the solace Jesus finds in angels attending him after his forty-day fast.
Imagine the relief Abraham felt when an angel appeared to him just in the knick of time and said, “Do not lay your hand on your son.” Imagine the apprehension Moses felt when an angel appeared to him in the burning bush. “Moses, the Lord has something to tell you.”
Angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven are a sign to Jacob that God is with him. “I will keep you wherever you go.” Jacob went to sleep trying to escape, but woke up imagining a future with the God of his father.
The poor, persecuted author of Revelation practically has a Roman noose around his neck. He’s forlorn. He’s depleted. He’s angry. Imagination is his only refuge. He pictures a battle of epic proportions. Michael and his angel army crush Satan and upend the cosmic order. Angels are much more that ceramic dolls or kinds words. They are conduits for our imagination. Angels find us asleep in our humanity and wake us up so we can catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
There will be times when your prayer life suffers or when you visit the hospital that God’s glory will not be as apparent to you as it was to Nathanael, and you will need imagination to see the Kingdom of God.
There will be times when you are called an S.O.B. for doing what you think is right and you pray for an army of angels to overwhelm your accuser.
There will be times of declining church attendance when you can’t see God working in our life as clearly Abraham and Moses did.
There will be times of war, economic recession, and racist commentary when God’s promise does not feel as close to you as it did to Mary and the Shepherds.
There will be times when you need little imagination to see the Kingdom of God.
Take heart, angels are here to help. If you don’t believe me just remember: when you come to the garden expecting to tend to the dead, it’s an an angel who tells you to go back out and proclaim the one who lives.
 Billy Collins, Questions About Angels (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 25-26.
I was also helped along in this effort by Sam Portaro’s book Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts, especially his reflection on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.