Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at the Benefice Service in St Mary’s Church, Garsington on Sunday 1st October 2017.
Do you believe in angels? I think I met an angel once. I was travelling round Europe on my own after having graduated from university. It was about three weeks into the trip and I had arranged to meet up with my parents in Madrid in order to put their minds at rest that I was still alive and all right. I had been fine up until that point but, of course, seeing them reminded me just how much I missed them. Worst of all was the moment of goodbye at Madrid train station. I was going onto Seville then Barcelona, across to Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and finally Holland; six more weeks of exploring the treasures and delights of Europe. We said our goodbyes and the train pulled out. I sat in the carriage and burst into tears. It was then I met an angel. Sitting opposite me was an old man who spoke no English but he smiled at me, sniffling into a handkerchief and then opened up his bag and took out a packet of sandwiches, unwrapping them in silence, he looked at me again and handed them to me with another glowing smile. I was so stunned at this simple act that I just took them in silence. At the next stop he got off without a word.
I am sure I am not alone in my encounter with an angel or an angelic person. All of us, at one time or another, have been the recipient of a kind act. But it is those serendipitous moments, when the help or person appears out of the blue, just at the precise time they were needed that makes us stop and consider the possibility that there is a spiritual world of angels all around us guarding, guiding and mediating the love of God all the time through human forms and actions.
This week I spent some time at a Benedictine Abbey just outside Pershore where the highlight of the week was the celebration of the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Candles were placed on the choir stalls of the mons and nuns, incense burnt on the alter, an icon of St Michael stood as a centre piece of devotion, and the best treat of all, our usually simple lunchtime meal was a feast of homemade cooking that included a glass of wine. As we sung of the myriads of angels who praise God on his holy throne. It made me think about those heavens creatures, why are they so important for many people today and why do we need so-called intermediaries when our path to the throne of grace itself is so open and accessible to us through Jesus Christ.
For most people the feast of St Michael and all angels is easily overlooked yet many people know the title for this late September feast. For some of us the name Michaelmas will forever be connected with school or college terms, the time of new beginnings. For others it’s the burst of colour in the garden as the Michaelmas daisies come into flower when all the autumn mists mark the change of the seasons. Or ever eaten a St Michael’s bannock which is a large flat scone-like cake cooked on a griddle. The feast is so evocative of change and transience, coming as it does around the time of the autumnal equinox and Harvest time. St Michael himself is not only named in the Book of Revelation as the principal fighter of the heavenly army against the dragon but is also often depicted as the one who weighs the souls on judgement day. Michael which means, ‘who is like God’, is not the only named angel in the bible. There is also Raphael, which means ‘the healing of God’ and is found in the book of Tobit where he restores sight to Tobit’s eyes. Finally there is Gabriel, or ‘strength of God’ and we all know about Gabriel who came to Mary as the messenger of divine grace. Perhaps Gabriel is the best known and most well- loved of angels epitomising as he does the meaning of the Greek angelos, as messenger of God. Alongside these three are the myriads of messengers which move between heaven and earth and people the Christmas stories, so much so that the line between heaven and earth becomes blurred by their toing and froing making the hidden visible and the spiritual real.
Today there is still a strong cult of angels but it focusses more on the role which St Michael was seen to perform as the protector of Israel and then of the church. Now in popular spirituality angels are predominantly seen as heavenly beings who look after us like fairy godmothers. They can be called upon to protect us like a good luck charm, watching over us while we sleep and smoothing our paths before us. They have become a focus of prayer and devotion for many people and speak of a spiritual realm. Just like Jesus had angels ministering to him during the hardest moments in his life: the temptation in the wilderness and Gethsemane, angels are also popularly considered as helping us.
The modern cult of angels could easily be dismissed by the church, why need we have angels when we have Christ. But this would be to discount an important need which the cult of angels is seeming to address, the need to know and feel that we are not alone. That there is someone or something who cares for us and loves us. For those who have been profoundly let down by people the human face of Jesus stirs too many memories to speak of God’s abiding love, it is the guardian angel that can express this message.
Yesterday, myself and John and Tina went to a morning put on by Bishop Steven to explore the vision of the archdeaconry for the next few years. He called us to return to basics, the person of Christ, to rediscover once again who we are as people of God who follow Jesus and seek to live a Christ-like life. His message was rooted in the Beatitudes which he showed reflected the nature of God, the identity of each one of us and our united identity as the church. These eight blessings were distilled into three words: contemplative, compassionate and courageous. Like angels we are called to be those people who have our eyes fixed on the throne of grace, ever praising our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Like angels we are called to mediate that love and goodness to others, to become guardian angels to those whose faith in humanity has been betrayed and warped. Like angels we are called to take up the fight for justice and righteousness in our fallen world, to have the courage of Michael, the healing of Raphael and the message of Gabriel that we may be the face of Jesus Christ.
Was the old man who helped me at my moment of need an angel or just a kind person who compassionately responded to another’s distress? In some ways it doesn’t matter, both of them, whether human or spiritual, were mediating the love of God. Let us like the angels seek to mediate in our own way and as the church in Horspath, Garsington and Cuddesdon, the love, compassion and justice of God and thereby grow to be more Christ-like together. Amen.