Fr. Bill Carroll – The Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, November 14, 2021
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
This is an old, old prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. There was a time when the Church offered it after every celebration of the Eucharist. I am praying it with you this morning, because our Old Testament lesson is one of the few places in the Bible that mentions Michael by name.
In the book of Daniel, Michael appears as the angel, or messenger, of God. In particular, he serves as the appointed protector of God’s People. Daniel tells us about his role on the Day of Judgment. In the New Testament, Michael appears in the Book of Revelation and the Letter of Jude. There, he is considered a healer, as well as the warrior-leader of the heavenly host.
Some of you may remember the John Travolta movie where Michael spots a bull across a field. Joyfully, he shouts out “Battle!” Then, he gets down, scratches the ground with his front “hoof,” and charges the bull head on.
Now, some of us may have doubts about St. Michael and the Holy Angels. We may also have doubts about Satan and the powers of evil. Some of this may come from taking the mythology too literally. Picturing Satan with horns and a pitchfork is no more justified than picturing God as some old man in the sky.
But there are powerful forces of destruction at work in our world today. Loneliness and despair in our homes, sickness and death in our hospitals, hatred and violence in our schools and streets. Around the world and here in this country, there is terrorism, armed conflict, and back-breaking poverty. There is also racism, xenophobia, and every form of bigotry. These forces are stronger than we are, or at least stronger than any of us acting alone.
But none of them is more powerful than God. And so, though I don’t insist on the wings or the sword, I believe in St. Michael and Holy Angels. They are “ministering spirits,” and God sends them to help us.
With their help—and by the power of God—we can overcome the forces of evil. To borrow a word from Fred Rogers, we can become the “helpers,” people who make our world a better place. God’s Church is filled with helpers. We are called to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” and to carry the love of Jesus into the streets.
A more serious objection to the Holy Angels has to do with their role as intermediaries. We have direct access to God. Jesus lives in us. We feast on his Body and Blood. His Spirit fills us with love. He is the innermost source of our being.
All this is true. But the fact that God lives inside us doesn’t preclude his sending his angels to help us. God is present in his creatures, and he can use them to reach out to us. Creation itself is a kind of sacrament. It is a book written by the finger of God. Our fellow creatures are gifts from God that testify to his mercy and lead us back to him.
The angels, in particular, show us God as our powerful defender, who is fiercely opposed to our ancient Enemy. That’s why in Holy Baptism we reject Satan and the other evil powers that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” Baptism invites us to renounce these powers, turn to Jesus, and embrace his love for the whole world.
Today’s Gospel is not the center of the Bible as Episcopalians understand it. The thirteenth chapter of Mark, the so-called little apocalypse, is all about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming of Christ. It appeals more to the Left Behind crowd than it does to the rest of us. But, as with other difficult portions of Scripture, we are called to take it seriously—not literally.
Apocalyptic literature plays a crucial role in the Bible. It conveys the urgency of God’s love for us, as well as our urgent need for him. Apocalyptic is imaginative and symbolic. It is meant to provide hope to people in frightening times. And so, Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid…Do not be afraid. All these things are but the beginning of the end.” These are the labor pains of God’s New World. For the Kingdom of God can’t come to us without a fight. This may be painful, but it is temporary. As with a woman in labor, the pain is for the sake of the new life struggling to be born.
In a sermon he preached back in 2015, when he was installed as our Presiding Bishop, Bishop Curry preached about that other great biblical Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. As he’s done elsewhere, our twenty-seventh Presiding Bishop (and the first African-American one), spoke powerfully about evangelism and racial reconciliation. He spoke to us about joining the Jesus Movement and helping God change the world:
In this work of reconciliation (he said to us) we can join hands with others. It is as the Jesus movement, following Jesus’ way, that we join hands with brothers and sisters of different Christian communities, with brothers and sisters of other faith and religious traditions, and with brothers and sisters who may be atheist or agnostic or just on a journey, but who long for a better world where children do not starve and where, as the old spiritual says, “there is plenty good room for all of God’s children.”
As I’m sure Bishop Curry was well aware, more than fifty years ago, another prophetic Black preacher had stood in the very same pulpit. Bishop Curry’s installation occurred at the National Cathedral, the church where Martin Luther King preached his final Sunday sermon. That Sunday, King preached about what he called the Beloved Community. (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.) And he challenged us to help God bring that Community to birth:
We’re going to win our freedom (he said) because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands…With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. Thank God for John (King continued), who centuries ago out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos caught vision of a new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, who heard a voice saying, “Behold, I make all things new; the former things are passed away.”
Brothers and sisters, we are the Jesus Movement. And, by the grace of God, we are called to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” And so, we are going to go out from this holy place. We are going to help God change the world.
And no matter how scary it gets. No matter how many people oppose us or how hard they try to stop us, we are going to keep on moving forward for Jesus and his Kingdom.
For Jesus is alive in us.
We have promised to follow him.
And his Spirit at work in us is more powerful than the spirit who is in the world.