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“Know That I Am With You, and Will Keep You Always”: St. Michael and All Angels

September 29, 2019:
Genesis 28:10-17
Ps 103:19-22
Revelation 12:7-12
John 1:47-51

A few years ago it was reported in the news that British Airways had begun trialling a futuristic blanket to assist flight attendants. It was designed to change colour, from red to blue, based on the level of relaxation of the passenger. (I’m not sure whether the point was to attend to, or avoid unhappy passengers.)

Around this same time, Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘lifestyle’ company, Goop, became more and more popular, and is now valued at over $250 million. This ill-named outfit is designed to promote health and wellbeing, albeit while avoiding actual medical and scientific foundations. Quite something for what began life as just an online newsletter.

These are examples of happiness and contentment being presented as products. As technologies, or brands. As part of the commodification and professionalization of ‘the good.’ This trend seems to be on the increase, as the answer to our problems. Happiness (or wellbeing, or meaning, or fulfillment), which was once considered a given, or at least a goal, is now presented as a gap. A gap that we can fill with a thing: a technology, or subscription, or a product. Rather than look within, or look around the table, we look to the merchants, who can sell their solutions to us. And make a buck doing so. Once we make you happy, they say, then you can really start living your life.

(You’ll note how in Greta Thunberg’s address to the United Nations this past week, that one of her critiques is that so many world leaders present their responses to climate change as an economic opportunity, rather than just as the right thing to do.)

Contrast this endless rat race of commercialized wellbeing with the situation Jacob finds himself in, in our first reading. Jacob, admittedly, has been sort of a weasely character. He’s manipulated things within his family so that he gets the things that should really have been his brother’s. And if you think about it, beginning with Cain and Abel, there’s a recurring theme in the Bible of strained relations in family systems. (And that hasn’t changed.) And Jacob and his brother Esau grow up… and grow apart. And that’s when your mind starts working overtime. It takes those question marks left by that physical absence, and fills them in with assumptions, guesswork, and worst-case scenarios turned into first-case ones. Jacob is thinking: my brother wants me to kill me. And he means it both figuratively, like we do when we say that kind of thing, but he also means it literally. So here we have Jacob, having taken to the road, exhausted, sets himself down for some sleep, with a rock as a pillow.

It’s at this time, when things are looking grim; when the usual peaks of life have turned to valleys; when, as that reading from Revelation puts it, that it seems that the Devil is being especially busy in our world; when things in life have changed in such a way that the future is unimaginable — a black hole. The “dark night of the soul” is how this is sometimes labelled.

But it’s here, in this moment of uncertainty, and panic, and hopelessness — it’s at this very moment when the curtain rises for us, and we come upon the scene: “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it…. And the Lord stood beside him and said…. ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’”

This is a little different than what we’re used to in our own day, or what we’d like. That we can buy happiness or produce technologies to make give our lives meaning. Or that we’re at our most holy when things are going smoothly; that it’s easier to be good and wise when we’re insulated from the ups and downs of life. Or, like the so-called Prosperity Gospel claims, that the earthly rewards of wealth are signs of us being holy. (Even the famous televangelist and healer Benny Hinn has recently renounced this particular form of Christian thinking.)

“‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’” Wherever you go. When things are at their worst: when you’re far from home and using a rock for a pillow, that’s when God shows up. Or maybe better, that’s when you’re specially aware that God is there, and was there all along. And the curtain between the changes and chances of this fleeting life, and the eternal changelessness of God — this curtain is lifted, and we get a glimpse into the depth and meaning, often hidden, of our existence. That’s what we celebrate on this Holy Day that comes up every year on the 29th, and sometimes on a Sunday like today. It might seem a bit strange to have a special day to commemorate one or more angels, and a bit strange that over time Michael came to acquire the title of “saint.” But the meaning there at the core of the day’s readings isn’t a flight into Hallmark card sentimentality. But a message that Jacob needed, and that sometimes we do too: “‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’” The distance between us and God isn’t so great. The angels represent the connection between our world and whatever is beyond, or beneath our reality.

And not just the angels. This ladder or stairway to heaven reading is read by the churches of the East on the feasts of the Annunciation (of the angel to St. Mary), and the Dormition (or falling asleep of St. Mary), and the Nativity of St. Mary. When we think of Mary, we our minds go to Advent and Christmas. (Angels there, too.) And Mary, of course, brings us closer to her Son. To the mystery and miracle of the Incarnation: the Word that was flesh and dwelt among us. Again we hear the refrain: “‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’”

So Michael and the Angels remind us, and point us to, and hold up the Incarnation: the assurance of God’s love and concern. The assurance of God’s presence in our world. The assurance of the holiness of the ordinary, and its connection with the extra-ordinary.

The angels, too, are examples to us: created beings, like us, given the task of continual worship and adoration before God’s throne. And it’s with them and with all the saints that we join our voices when we sing “holy, holy, holy” in our Eucharistic prayer.

And when not worshipping with their lips, the angels, we read, worship with their lives, when they serve God by acting as messengers, like the angel Gabriel appearing before, and bringing a message to Mary. “‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God…. [Your son] will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’”

So today we give thanks for Michael and the angels. For their role in connecting heaven and earth. For protecting, worshipping, and offering words of hope and encouragement. That is their special role, but also a reminder to us that in our own unique way we are called to be angels to others. Protecting, worshipping, and serving as messengers of the God who wants us to remember: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter