"Trying to Define An Angel"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 30, 2006
Psalm 4; I John 3:1-7
Humanity’s fascination with such spirit beings goes back to the beginning of recorded history. Two that are probably among the most familiar to us are Michael and Gabriel, both whom appear in the book of Daniel. Gabriel brought the news to both Elizabeth and her cousin Mary that they would conceive and bear sons.
Another spirit being was the archangel Uriel who attended to the spiritual needs of Ezra and was known as the caretaker of the entrance to Heaven. One interesting exchange between the two was recorded in a text not included in the Bible. Ezra asked, “Why do wicked nations prosper while Israel suffers?”
Uriel responded, “Can you give me the weight of fire? Can you measure the wind? Can you give me back a single day from the past?” Ezra responded that he could not. Uriel said, “If you cannot explain or understand the things with which you have grown up, how could you possibly understand the ways of God?” Angels were understood by early civilizations as spirit beings that had an understanding of reality that we humans do not possess.
It is difficult for anyone to define these spirit beings. Two things might be said about them. One is that they were thought to do the work of God in our physical world. The second is that their presence was only revealed to those who had some understanding or recognition of God’s presence in their world.
This morning I want to discuss our possibilities as if we began to understand ourselves as angels in the flesh. If we harmonized our spirits with such a self-image, our life patterns would become more intentional in reflecting that we are messengers and representatives of God. We frequently refer to ourselves as disciples of Jesus. This identifying label is nothing more than another verbal symbol that communicates the same image.
Since I prepared this message between chores in Juarez, Mexico last week, I took with me Peterson’s translation of the New Testament. I will be quoting from that version today. In it, the author of I John wrote, “What marvelous love God has extended to us. Just look at us – we are God’s sons and daughters. That’s who we really are. But that is also why the world does not recognize us or take us seriously, because it has no idea who God is or anything about God’s purpose for creating us.”
John brought to the attention of his readers that the followers of Jesus were not visible to those who have little or no consciousness of God. Think of all the angels in our midst that many people do not recognize. Think of the extended kindnesses that go unnoticed. We have to remember that our role is to remain a messenger and a representative of God. This is our calling. Our task is to reveal a loving presence and nothing more.
A little over a year ago, Lois and I were working a wedding together in Baltimore. We had arrived in plenty of time at the correct intersection where all the addresses were sequential except the one we needed. We entered a convenience store, a hotel and a liquor store asking various clerks for directions. No one knew nor had they ever heard of the place. We were growing anxious because after 40 minutes of searching we realized that the wedding was to start in 15 minutes. Seeing no wedding guests arriving heightened our levels of stress. Fears entered our minds that we might be in the wrong part of town. That would not be a good thing.
We entered an apartment complex where we found an elevator operator. He radiated the same gentle, wise spirit as our former custodian, James Young. We asked him where the missing address was located. He said, “Do you see the gate across the street? Go through that gate into the garden and you will find the place that you seek.” His words sent chills. These were lines right out of some fairytale or from some ancient sage of mythical proportions.
Who was this man who offered us the guidance we needed? What apartment building still employs an elevator operator when no one was coming and going on a Saturday afternoon? Being in his presence was amazingly reassuring. When we told him that we were conducting a wedding, he asked God to bless us on our journey. This gentle man represented to us the perfect definition for an angel – one who offers guidance to others who are searching.
As for the absence of the wedding guests, we learned upon entering the hidden facility that they were coming by bus. The couple wanted their wedding guests to have a tour of our Nation’s Capital prior to arriving for the wedding. Their plans unfolded perfectly until the bus developed a major mechanical failure, one of those unanticipated variables that moved the wedding ceremony well into the next hour.
Think about the man who offered guidance to us. Think about how this image of ourselves would transform everything that we do. Use your imagination and look at all the possibilities available to us to provide guidance, to be the messenger or representative of God.
It is easy to perform our responsibilities within the church family and look at them as chores that we have agreed to do. In our church, we could go on and on describing the worker bees that go unnoticed by most of us as they fill our altar candles with oil, prepare our coffee hour, arrange our flowers, clean the pews after each service or prepare a meal for grieving families following a memorial service. When such activities are motivated because of our awareness that we are representatives of God, the angel within us becomes visible more often. Without this more precise sense of our identity, challenges await us at every turn, pushing our angel either to come out of its cave or remain secluded sometimes forever.
Through e-mails, I have been communicating with a woman who really wants to learn how to express her spiritual identity more effectively. She wrote of a recent episode in her life where she expressed some regret that she had acted as she did. No doubt many of us have experienced a tension that was very similar to hers. She was in search of gasoline stations where the fuel was still under $3.00 a gallon. She found two: the 7-Eleven on Rt. 3 and the WAWA in Millersville.
She was driving up Rt. 3 where the road narrows from three lanes to two. A driver several car lengths behind her deliberately pulled into the merging left lane in an attempt to pass as many cars as he could. He failed. He was now traveling on the shoulder and had no place to get back into the flow of traffic. She slowed and flashed her lights for him to come in front of her. He did without the slightest recognition of her kindness.
Then she expressed her regret. She wrote, “I really wanted to run this jerk into the ditch to teach him a lesson, but I remembered something you once told me – “All our experiences reveal who we are.” Even though she had regret, she did well. Some of us have strong feelings about allowing such people to get away with their abusive and selfish behavior. In standing up for individual rights with a spirit of righteous indignation, we become the judge, jury and executioner. Is such a witness our calling?
Do people ever get away with anything they do? Think carefully about your answer. Divine justice may be a process where people are allowed to remain exactly as they are forever. No one “fixes” anyone’s growth patterns, including God. Growth and evolution are totally our responsibility. If God “fixed” people without their participation, there would have been no need for our physical world and the many teachable moments that come with life’s challenges.
The more reflective question is this: Do we allow the competitive values of others to manipulate us so that we enter their world and compete by their rules, values and standards or do we choose instead to reveal ours?
There is a difference between angels and people who have no clue about God’s presence. If we succumb to responding to life just as they do, we forfeit our ability to reveal the angel within us. John wrote, “We are now God’s sons and daughters, but it is not yet clear what we shall become.” John’s statement contains a fascinating insight. It means that God can use us to create in ways we do not fully understand at the moment.
Remember the taunts that came from those who were standing at the foot of Jesus’ execution device? “If you are the Son of God,” they said, “come down from the cross.” Had Jesus done that and stood before them to prove he had the power to do so, he would have failed to show how love overcomes the values of this world. Because he died on that cross, he taught us to follow him even though the only security net we have is our trust that God’s love will never abandon us.
John understood Jesus’ message and wrote, “You know that Christ appeared in order to take away our urge to miss the mark with our choices. He came as the authority because he did not miss the mark during his own life. Everyone who lives in union with Christ does not continue to sin. Those that continue to sin simply do not understand the lessons he taught. Sinning is a useless behavior.”
Finally, this world is the ideal training ground for refining the skills necessary to become angels while we still dwell in our solid forms. Jesus taught his followers how to overcome being trapped in the web of values and standards that our world tries to spin around us. Our periods of testing always perfectly match the areas in our lives where we need the most training. If we do not learn the lesson, the same test keeps coming again and again.
Such cyclical experiences help us answer one question – Do we want to become angels or do we wish to remain people who encourage and participate in the values of our physical world? Once again, the author of our lesson wrote, “Those that continue to miss the mark simply do not know Christ.” Rather than being critical and judgmental of others, why not give them guidance, as did the gentle man when Lois and I could not find the location of our wedding.
There are times at St. Matthew’s when the only reason some people experience one of our mission trips or participate in a project like Christmas in April is because someone invited them. They invariably discover that we are not like the religious people they imagined or expected. We laugh, some of us might express an expletive or two, some tell stories that would make our Sunday school teachers blush and there are times when we cry because we, too, have fragile moments.
What makes us different from others is the Shepherd we follow. We know his voice. We recognize his spirit in each other. Somehow, those without any consciousness of God, find that presence while they are working along side of us.
We are all angels in training. We are not perfect as some people define perfection. Our passion is to heal, bring people together and allow our compassion to show. The spirit of God that radiates from us is contagious. That Presence and how it functions, we cannot control. If others do not receive anything else when they are working with us, they learn how to give without counting the cost. God upgrades the consciousness of humanity each time one more person awakens.
Finding other angels in the world is like discovering refreshing reminders that there are values, rules, standards and wholesome desires not of this world that are clearly within our grasp. Go forth into the world with a renewed desire to allow the angel within you to show. Let go of your personal desires for Creation’s success and let the more authentic creation be up to the purposes of God.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
As our spirits yearn for growth, O God, we are aware of how easy it is to take the path of least resistance. We know the tension when issues of pleasure confront those of character. We know the power of compromise when we need to impress and please others. We sense the awkwardness when our values are different from those of our friends. When we are faced with having to make a difficult choice, help us to remember that we are made in your image. Inspire us to move beyond the mistakes we made. Help us to understand that we are new creatures, when we give away the qualities of spirit that are yours as well. Lead us, O God, always to be such a light to our world. Amen.