November 26

And All the Angels With Him

By Marsh Chapel

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People of common faith trust in today’s Gospel, that as the least are treated, so treated is Christ the King.  How by faith one sees so, with the eyes of the heart, is a matter of pure mystery, of glad wonder—you could call it an angel song and sign. And all the angels with him…

Some years ago, we had the privilege in ministry—and ministry is privilege in full—to know such a person of faith, a native of Michigan.  Those years ago one would not have thought or needed to say so, but in our divided, conflictual era of abiding humiliation, which will in all probability endure a decade in length, we would today rightly add that our friend was all red.  Red to his toes, not an ounce of blue (with one exception) in his perspective, when it came to government or politics or taxes.  He had grown up in a small Michigan town.  It happens that so very long ago, one of his earlier pastors was later to become one of the now deceased former Deans of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.  In that town, he learned to love math and music, and on graduating from college had a hard choice—music or math.  He chose the latter, and on retirement had become the CFO of a major US corporation.  The only blue he celebrated was related to a certain big Michigan football team of his liking.  And he had his wisdom sayings, like, what is good for the Michi-goose is good for the Michigander. 

In those years, we had launched a mission in Honduras.  (The missioners have preached from this pulpit in past years). By some quirk our friend, more naturally inclined to music and finance work, had found himself on the missions committee.  It was proposed that the church send a work team the next winter.  My pastoral colleague with some astonishment announced at staff the next Tuesday that our friend was the first to volunteer.  In the soup kitchen ministry that year a group of parishioners and clients had together been reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. He had been reading it.  In and with that winter trip into the slums of Tegucigalpa, our dear friend’s faithful witness acquired a missional dimension.  In his full life, all red and blue aside to the contrary notwithstanding, and now in his choice within retirement to travel and work alongside the least, there was a true reliance on the truth of today’s Gospel.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  In a full and broad sense, down under the skin and right alongside the heart, and the eyes of the heart, we share a conviction, and a confidence, that the measure of faith is measured in the treatment of the least, the last, the lost.  Real religion is never very far from the justice that Ezekiel did prophesy would nourish, would feed, the scattered flock.  In Sunday worship, faithfully and without fail week by week, and in steady personal faithfulness within friendships, partnerships, and marriages, and in the disciplined determination to tithe—purposefully to give away each month a substantial portion of what we earn, up to a tenth—we follow the trail of faithfulness set before us by Ezekiel, by Ephesians, by the Psalmist, and preeminently by St. Matthew.  You hear our volunteer, communal, non-audition Thurman choir in faithful chorus this morning, for instance.  You will come to know over time, in the community of Marsh Chapel, the multiple creative and missional engagements of our people.  In research.  In medicine.  In public health.  In personal mission.  In advocacy for the enslaved.  In disaster response.  In personal giving.  But mainly, in worship, faithfulness, and tithing.

Come Sunday, the ancient witnesses to faith found in our Holy Scriptures, are meant to recall for us that we are not the first people to face unprecedented, novel difficulties and challenges.

We may differ to some measure, red and blue, about just how to lean forward into Matthew 25.  But the foundational truth of the Gospel here, in normal season and in normal outlook, is not in doubt.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  We have ample cause to meditate upon such an evangelical, dominical command, in a season in which our nation is fractured by flagrant inequality between rich children and poor children, measured directly and easily in the distribution, or lack thereof, of education and health care.   The least among us, children, those who are hungry by the hour, who thirst by the half hour, who are naked unless clothed by others, who are imprisoned in slightness and weakness, who are the very stranger in our midst, generation to generation, mark out the edge of the least of the least.

How does such an apperception of faith, finally, settle upon the mind and heart?  How, that autumn evening long ago, in yet another church committee meeting which like the peace of God may have passed all understanding and endured forever, did our Michigander friend become seized by a full measure of grace?  Whence faith, change, heart, grace, compassion?  It is the work of the ministry, and the special work of the pulpit, to preach Christ the King—to teach, delight and persuade—so that across the rainbow spectrum of cultural and political thought, women and men may have faith in God.  How does this happen, when it happens, as it happens, if it happens at all?

Our Gospel today gives us a clue, a hint, a glimpse.  And all the angels with him…The Son of Man will arrive with some help.  We may quickly leave behind a literal idea of angels.  But the reality they represent, the uncanny sense of presence, the inexplicable moment of revelation, the seeing by the heart, by the eyes of the heart—these angelic signs can become, for you, this season, the nearness of Christ the King, and so, by grace, your footpath to faith.  Faith comes by hearing.  What do you hear this Lord’s Day?  This is your invitation to a life of faith.  Do you receive, open and read, ready to respond?  Or do you re-post, marking it off, return to sender?

There is a range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience.  Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.

There is transcendence all about us.  Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Sunday.  What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience?

This year we bade farewell to our esteemed colleague and beloved friend Professor Peter Berger.  Are you looking for angels?  His summary still works, A Rumor of Angels.  You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears.  For this Lord’s Day, Christ the King Sunday, we recall his five suggestive allusions to the transcendent, the angels coming with the Son of Man.  Listen to them this day.  Give them the credit they deserve.  They are the angelic nudges, drawing you to faith.

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order.  Berger:  Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’.  Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play.  Berger: In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.

Third, we sense the ‘supranatural’, the transcendent, in the experience of hope.  Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Where there is life there is hope.  Better:  where there is hope there is life.  People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence.  Berger: Human existence is always oriented toward the future.  Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B.  Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas.  While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason.

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account.  It is this angel, in particular, and in full who sits down beside us in Matthew 25. As you have done it to the least of these… Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged… There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…to a moral order that transcends the human community.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the ‘supranatural’ or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice.  Berger:  There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe… The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the mighty who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity.

Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think.  But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor?  These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary.  And all the angels with him…

Sleepers awake!  Hear the Good News.  There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive!  There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life.  You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you.  It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole.  Begin.  You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self.  It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do.  Begin.  You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works.  Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work?  Do so.  But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being.  Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment.  You are being sold a bill of goods, here.  Be watchful.  It takes time to self-interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’.  Begin.  You do not have forever to experience Presence.  It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made.  It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach.  Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul,  not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s.  Begin.  And begin with the least: As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25)

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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