A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 23, 2017 (Proper 11A)
There are times in our lives when we find ourselves calling upon angels. I remember one such time in my own life quite vividly. I was a newly ordained priest in Baltimore just getting used to wearing a collar in public when I stopped by my mother’s house on the way home from church one afternoon.
She lived — and still lives — in Bolton Hill, a dense city neighborhood of tall, victorian-era townhouses. I can’t remember why I stopped by; maybe she had a gift for Ben who was then one and-a-half or perhaps I was feeling guilty about not having visited lately.
But she had recently adopted a small, energetic, fluffy, white dog. Along with the dog, she inherited the dog’s name — something she definitely would not have chosen. Now I admit I’m not a big fan of small, energetic, fluffy, white dogs. But I’d forgotten all about her recent acquisition and so when I opened the door, the small, energetic, fluffy, white dog ran out. And suddenly there I was on a busy city street, wearing my clerical garb and yelling, “Angel! Angel!”
After a few strange looks, I realized just how bizarre this must have looked. A priest quite literally calling upon angels. So I quickly and unceremoniously scooped the thing up and brought it back to my mother.
I thought about this story this week because we tend to have an uncertain relationship with angels. We’re not quite sure what to do with them. Are they real? Are they kind of like friendly ghosts? Why are they so often depicted as chubby cherubs with wings and golden harps flying around the clouds?
In the popular imagination they’re meant to provide comfort, I guess. People like the idea of guardian angels providing protection through the valleys of life. There’s something about being “touched by an angel” that evokes a warm, fluffy embrace, like spiritual cotton candy. And there’s a whole cottage industry of bad angelic art coupled with saccharine sweet sayings fueled by religious superstition.
But where does this notion come from? How did this whole angel-industrial complex arise?
Well, it doesn’t come from the Bible. In Scripture, angels are many things but sweet, gentle, harmless creatures is not one of them. Angels are bold and daring; they bring messages of glad tidings and comfort but also messages that turn life as we know it upside down. They are warriors and comforters and deliverers of both good news and bad. So I want you to set aside your preconceived angel notions as we take a closer look at these divine creatures.
The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word for “messenger.” And angels are, above all, just that — messengers of God. And they are all over Scripture doing all sorts of things and delivering all sorts of messages — none of which involve strumming harps. In the Old Testament we hear about Jacob wrestling with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok River; we hear about angels in the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Daniel encouraging Daniel during times of struggle.
And in the Christian tradition, think about the Annunciation — it is the angel Gabriel who brings word to Mary that she would bear God’s son; and it is Michael who fights and destroys the forces of evil in the Book of Revelation. Angels tend to Jesus after his trial and temptation in the wilderness; an angel comforts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the hours before his crucifixion; an angel announces the Resurrection at the empty tomb on Easter morning.
These are not Hallmark moments! And so it’s less of a surprise when we encounter angels in this morning’s parable not doing stereotypical angel things. They are not flying around with golden halos and gently serenading everyone with harp music. In this story about the wheat and the weeds being sown together, the angels are the reapers. The ones who separate the good from the bad. The ones who bind up the good wheat and store it in the barn and the ones who bundle the weeds and toss them into the fire.
This is a parable about judgement — merciful judgment — a reminder that there is both good and evil in the world. But here’s the thing we often forget and why I want to stress that this sorting is the work of angels: we are not the reapers. It is above our pay grade to decide who is good and who is evil; who is wheat and who is weed. For all the judging we do of one another — the snap judgments, the gossip, the ways we evaluate and assess one another — that’s not our job. We can leave all that to God’s angels, these divine messengers and servants of God. And there’s great freedom in that, isn’t there? We can simply seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. We can worry about ourselves and serve others while forgetting all about the judging part.
This is precisely where I think so many Christian communities go astray — they spend all their time and energy worrying about who’s in and who’s out. We love being the sorters — putting people into categories like “saints” and “sinners,” “us” and “them,” “believers” and “non-believers.” But it’s more complicated than that — the wheat and the weeds grow together. Sometimes you can’t even tell the two apart. In fact most Biblical scholars believe Jesus was talking about a particular type of weed in this parable. Bearded darnel was a weed grass that looked just like wheat. Until it matured, it was impossible to tell wheat from weed. So you couldn’t go in and do the weeding before the harvest because you couldn’t tell whether you were yanking out the bad stuff or the good stuff. Yet another reminder that we shouldn’t even try. Our job in this life is to simply invite everyone and leave the rest up to God and to the angels God entrusts for the task at hand.
So where did this notion of chubby cherubs arise? In the ancient classical art of Greek and Roman mythology, flying babies represented nature spirits of some sort. Renaissance artists like Donatello and Raphael coopted these images into Christian iconography as a way to depict the transcendent balance between heaven and earth and the image stuck. For better or worse.
So the next time you watch a Christmas pageant and you see all of the adorable and proud angels strutting around in their tinsel halos trying not to get their wings entangled, enjoy the view. Then think about the angels of Scripture. And know that we are indeed in good hands.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017