ANGEL OR DEMON? … HEAVEN OR HELL? … PRIEST OR PESTILENCE?
(SOMETIMES IT’S HARD TO TELL)
Homily for the Twentieth Sunday of Pentecost
The Festival of St. Michael and All Angels
Today we celebrate the Festival of St Michael and All Angels. Angels, as far as most Christians are concerned, are mostly associated with Christmas.
As described by scripture, angels are a dimension of God’s presence – “messengers” – often present to let people know what God is doing, or to reveal God’s will. As scripture describes them, they are supernatural beings, sometimes appearing in human form. Sometimes they are ferocious in their purity like Michael; sometimes they are like God’s secret agents; sometimes they seem quite ordinary.
In Luke’s Gospel it is an angel that tells shepherds (not kings): “Do not be afraid; for see —I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’” The Messiah? In a Manger? What a concept! But I love that little word “See” in there, subtle but significant. In Luke’s Gospel the angel speaks to ordinary, down-to-earth people, and points to a child in a stable that without divine intervention might easily have been overlooked, or dismissed – the message being that the Christ Child may be anywhere, or everywhere, and that even the most apparently insignificant child might be God’s son. Yes, that’s Good News for ALL the people, as the angel said, not just for a few. All we have to do is be willing to SEE.
And Luke’s Gospel begins with a song from Mary the mother of Jesus, a song that speaks of the rich and powerful being toppled from their thrones and the lowly being raised up. Luke’s Gospel points to the possibility of a new creation. This is all important to know as we consider today’s Gospel from Luke 16: 19—31.
Today’s readings carry the theme of missing the point, pointing out how easy it is to be oblivious to the truth that is right in front of us until it’s too late. Often things are invisible or irrelevant to us until well after the fact, and the story from Genesis is an example of that tendency:
Jacob awakens after a profound, life-changing dream in which he sees the connection between heaven and earth, and he says: “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place!’” The discovery of God’s presence transforms every situation, and makes us conscious of how “awesome” our life really is. Ordinary places become special, even sacred, because of this awareness and consciousness. Ordinary people take on new significance. If we have had even a glimpse of the sacred presence, we begin to relate differently to everything, because that perspective has a way of animating and transforming every aspect of our life.
In the Gospel reading today, the rich man wakes up and realizes too late that Lazarus was actually a beloved child of God, while his own life has amounted to nothing.
When I was growing up in Regina, Native people were often lying right there on the street, like Lazarus – lying there at the gates of wealth and privilege and acceptability but never allowed in, suffering the effects of alcoholism that was the gift of white people, suffering the prejudice that labeled them as unacceptable and unwanted in the first place.
While my friends and I were egging each other on to see who could eat six Big Macs in one sitting, First Nations people could only look in from the outside, present but not present, living in a very different world, just a short distance from us, as if they were in a kind of parallel universe. While my life was expanding, as I anticipated having an opportunity to go to school and do something rewarding with my life, they were already doomed to lives of futility, poverty and frustration. How many children of God did I unconsciously despise?
Psalm 91 (which we read earlier) says: “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ For the Lord will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; the Lord will cover you and under her wings you will find refuge; God’s faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.” It is a beautiful and compelling passage, reassuring us that it is not always the darkness that prevails in this life, and urging us to trust in God’s protection and presence.
Despite such promising words, many times it seems that God doesn’t care at all about some people, and doesn’t turn up as advertized. In the Indian Residential School system, “the pestilence that sneaks about in darkness” often turned out to be the person who was supposed to represent God to those incarcerated children. I think of a Dene man at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings last week telling his horrific story of sexual abuse that he suffered as a boy, at an Indian Residential School, at the hands of a Roman Catholic priest, and his desperate prayers to God to make it stop. It didn’t – not for some years. No divine protection – no wings or shield for him. His anguish continued, while the priest lived on without apparent consequence.
Where was the divine protection? Why didn’t God intervene – either to destroy the evil man posing as a representative of God or to enable the boy to escape the abuse? Does God condone such obvious injustices? Some questions don’t lend themselves to easy answers, but today’s Gospel may reveal something of an insight into these kinds of questions.
In Jesus’ parable, there is no divine intervention for Lazarus either – he lives out his life in poverty, illness and rejection. But Jesus paints a larger picture, of a dimension that we often fail to consider: that this life is not all there is to it, and woe to those, like the rich man, who think and act as if it is.
Clearly, the perpetrators, many of them priests, who preyed on First Nations children, did not choose to see in those vulnerable children any hint of divine character or glory. They didn’t treat them as children of God, and they themselves chose not to act as emissaries of God. They chose not to see any worth or dignity in those children – they chose instead to treat them as things, as objects; they chose not to care about the life-long damage they were causing.
In the film We Were Children, a priest/perpetrator is confronted by a nun who discovers the sexual abuse going on in the priest’s residence, and threatens to expose him to the authorities. “Who would care?” was his smirking response. Who would care? It’s a very good question.
In Jesus’ parable, the rich man was seemingly blind to certain people and circumstances. He walked right by the poor without a second thought, so we can imagine it got to a point where it not only didn’t bother him, but didn’t even occur to him. Lazarus just became part of the surroundings, like a weed or something. The poor man may as well have been invisible.
“The rich man dressed in the finest fashion and feasted sumptuously every day.” The rich man lived in the kind of world in which things are sacred and people are expendable. We live in the kind of world in which people will pay $40,000.00 for a purse, and $2000.00 for a pair of jeans, a world in which obesity and over-consumption are chronic. In our world, how many people are stuffing themselves senseless, believing somehow they are entitled to it, brainwashed by message after message that encourages living only for oneself, living only for the moment? How many of us are choosing to be oblivious to the obvious suffering and need right under our feet, right outside our door? What justifications do we use to ease our conscience?
In the scene in hell, Jesus suggests that the rich man knows Lazarus – he even calls him by name. It’s not that we’re blind, really – it’s that we choose, we determine, to close our hearts – we decide that we do not want to be anywhere near those who have fallen or are suffering, so we make ourselves impervious. It is a kind of willful oblivion in which we see them but we don’t see any reason why we should have anything to do with them.
In a typical Lukan surprise, it is the poor man who is actually blessed by God with life. He is the one whose life has had ongoing meaning, whereas the rich man, who appeared outwardly to be blessed, was actually very poor in spirit, and then found himself in the afterlife as he had lived in this life: very far from God, in a state worse than death. Turns out Lazarus was actually someone who mattered to God – not just an unsightly obstacle by the front door.
“Send Lazarus,” the rich man orders Abraham – “have him bring me a drink.” Even in hell, the rich fool still has the attitude of entitlement he carried in life, as though he is still thinking of himself as someone important – as if he still hasn’t really awakened to the reality – the hell – that he has created for himself. Even in hell, he really sees no one but himself. But then he begins to wake up, and expresses concern for his brothers, who may still be capable of being saved. And Jesus, speaking in a larger sense now, reminds the man (and all of us) that the sacred writings are full of stories of the many messengers of God who have come along to warn humankind and to try to teach them to live righteously. And their messages are usually ignored.
The parable is a warning not to allow riches and position and title to distance and divide us from the poor – not to de-value and dismiss those we might consider to be unworthy of our attention, because we may be missing something of eternal significance, something that affects our own well-being as well as theirs. John Westerhoff suggests that we should try to imagine every single person on the planet walking around accompanied by angels singing “Make way for the image of God!”
Last week at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events, the tears flowed as I heard the stories of suffering and abuse. I pray that those tears, shed by so many, may open the gates of many hearts, that we may begin to see the Christ, the image of God, in the anguished and anxious faces of those outside the gates. I pray that we may begin to have the courage to begin to feel genuine sympathy and become willing to act, taking the example of God’s angels, following the example of Christ our Lord.
How we respond to the divine presence in our midst (in whatever form it takes) is important. To be oblivious or dismiss it is portrayed as the worst kind of foolishness. As the biblical Letter to Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Just be good to everyone, because your perceptions of who is valuable and who is not cannot be trusted, and are probably wrong.
Recently there was a story in the news of a woman who had been seriously injured in a car accident, her car hit head on by a drunk driver and as she languished in pain, trapped in her car, a mysterious person was suddenly there to pray with her and reassure her that everything would be OK – which it soon turned out to be. As she and the rescue workers turned to thank the man, he had mysteriously vanished. The woman, and even the firefighters, were convinced she had been saved by an angel who had appeared out of nowhere and helped her to safety and then disappeared. The story generated a lot of interest and rekindled the hope that maybe angels do come among us. It turns out the “angel” was a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Patrick Dowling, who had helped her. More of a Good Samaritan than an angel, he was certainly someone trying to live by the teachings of Christ
In the spirit of this Gospel which invites us to imitate Christ by becoming good Samaritans, I say to you, “Go and do likewise!”
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 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, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world– he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”
Luke 16:19-31 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”