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Michael and All Angels

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Cosmic battles. Heaven and earth caught in a war between good and evil. Satan is thrown down from heaven onto earth where the combat continues until someday soon, when the archangel Michael and the hosts of heaven finally push the devil and his minions into oblivion and the abyss.

Today’s scripture reads like gazing into a riddle wrapped in a mystery. We are frightened and a little mystified by the book of Revelation. In part that’s because popular media has turned its meaning upside down. The book is filled with stories of conflict and violence. Yet, Revelation is more about how to defeat terror than inflict it. The deadly force wielded by worldly powers to perpetuate injustice is conquered by Christ the lamb. To defeat Satan and the “beasts” of this world, all we have to do is testify to this “lamb power” –the power of God’s love made vulnerable through forgiveness and mercy.

This is apocalyptic literature. Daniel and Revelation sprang from times of turmoil like these. It offers hope for when we feel hopeless; encouragement for when we are exhausted; inspiration to answer despair. With its angels and demons, apocalyptic literature offers lessons we can learn through translation. Know that you are accompanied in all your struggles and grief.  You are never alone. God and all the realms of heaven battle beside you. The angels and archangels are in our fight with cancer, or chronic illness, addiction, joblessness, or homelessness, or perhaps—in just trying to cope with another week like the last one.

Last weekend we heard about deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. On Monday sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg and the UN Action Climate Summit presented more alarming news about ecological damage and mass displacement of peoples due to global warming. On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress officially launched an impeachment inquiry into the president.

God is with us, they say.  But also, they teach us how to fight.  Our forebears in faith have shown us how to dismantle systems of hate and oppression. They offer time-worn reconnaissance on how to destroy the handiwork of the devil, our old foe.

Revelation saw the devil at work in the great beast then known as the Roman Empire. Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar Barbara Rossing writes, “John [Revelation] was pulling back the curtain to expose the true power behind Rome— much like Toto’s pulling back of the curtain to expose “the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” Through its apocalyptic journeys Revelation offered a way of seeing—God’s vision of hope for the world—as an alternative to Rome’s violence and power.” (Barbara R. Rossing. “The Rapture Exposed, Chapter 4, Prophecy and Apocalypse.)

The antidote to persistent evil is Jesus, the cross, and the power of the lamb. We read, “they haveconquered him [Satan] 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” (Revelation 12:11).

Victory is ours through the blood of the lamb. Forty-three years ago, next month, October 27, 1976, a nationally televised show called, All in the Family, aired one of its most talked about episodes. The racist, misogynist, patriarch, Archie Bunker, finds out the life-saving blood infusion administered during his gall bladder surgery came from his black, Puerto Rican, female doctor—he was healed by black blood.

Of course, there is no such thing biologically, but socially and culturally we have made it into the thing, and it is the work of the devil. But we are being healed from diseases like systemic racism by regular infusions of the blood of the lamb. The end of Satan’s reign begins with the covenant God made with us in baptism. It continues at the Lord’s Table in Holy Communion. We are one family, one blood, one body. Here we glimpse the truth that frees us from the endless cycle of violence.

Because I am part of you, and you are part of me, and we are all part of one life in God, now, the innocent blood spilled in the street by gun violence is also my blood.  Now it is my blood, my children, who are born in the wrong zip code and denied access to the American Dream.  My blood, my mother, my father who are being targeted and imprisoned. My brother living on two dollars a day. My sister, my niece and nephew dying in a detention center at the border.  Let the whole angel chorus sing, Amen!

We find release from the chains binding us to the satanic power of injustice simply by remembering the blood we share and testify to the truth of these things. This is the power the archangel Michael wields like a sword. It proceeds from the words of his mouth.  Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them. The Devil and his empty promises are undone by the power of the lamb. “The strife is o’er, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won! Alleluia!” (ELW # 366)

Lutheran pastor and bible scholar, Barbara Rossing writes, “Revelation’s first-century readers knew first-hand Rome’s conquering power over the whole world. They were its victims. We, too, live in a world in which terror makes us feel powerless and we wonder how God can be victorious over evil. The “beasts” of the Roman Empire are long gone, but today’s “beasts” of violence, economic vulnerability, global injustice, and other threats still stalk our world, causing almost irrational fear. In a post-September 11 world, we need to testify to the wonder-working power of God’s slain Lamb today more than ever.” (Barbara R. Rossing)

The famous verse from Hebrews urges us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  The reverse is also true.  Sometimes, in going the extra mile, you become one of God’s angels for someone else. Like these quilts and school kits we bless today and send off through Lutheran World Relief, the works of our hands become a seed of hope and grace to take root and grow in the hearts of strangers halfway around the world. Because you didn’t have to but you did; because we are one blood, one body; because we share in the one life, and have one Lord, Satan will fall once more like lightning.

The power of God’s truth gives us confidence in the face of evil on earth, even in the face of our own death. As we gather around the Lord’s Table, we are joined with choirs of angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim in singing God’s praise. Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might heaven and earth are indeed full of your glory and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Proper 17C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  The writer of Hebrews hands down hard-won advice—a prized recipe for a well lived life. It is wisdom wrung from the sweat and striving of our forebears in faith. Hebrews counsels us like a loving parent on the eve of becoming an adult. Remember those in prison and those being tortured as though you were being tortured. Honor your marriage vows. Be content with what you have (vs. 3-5).

When asked what they wish most for their children a lot of parents today say they just want their kid to be happy. As words to live by, ‘whatever makes you happy,’ turns out to be sort of empty and confusing. The pursuit of happiness is not a compass well suited to leading through the wilderness of materialism, consumerism, hedonism, racism, sexism, or addiction. We need a more reliable star to steer by if we are to reach the promised land, to enter, and take possession of the inalienable human right, endowed to us by our creator, to life and liberty.

‘Avoid the love of money; do good and share what you have’ (vs. 5 & 16).  Inevitably, just as all the generations before us did, we ask the question, ‘What do I get out of it? If in giving I receive, what exactly is my reward?’  Quid pro quo—right?  I give something.  I should get something—and if I don’t have anything to give, I shouldn’t get. That’s the way of the world.  To which Hebrews responds –yeah—that’s what we thought. Yet, it turns out, we were wrong.

The good life consists in something fundamentally different than anything you can accumulate through give and take.  Quid pro quo must give way to God’s pro quo.  Tell me, how do you measure or calculate repayment of love, or mercy?  How do you put a value on family, friendship, marriage, or partnership? These are the fruits of love and trust.  These cannot be harvested from relationships which are merely transactional.  The dignity of every human life grows from the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

We hear these words and treasure them.  Perhaps, we honor them in a few private relationships. Enter Jesus to set us straight.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  He was a popular dinner guest but not a very polite one.  Mealtime scenes with Jesus end in provocations, insults, and/or scandal. A woman of dubious reputation caressed his feet under the table.  He interrupts the meal to heal sick people on the Sabbath. His hosts complain he ate with dirty hands, shared his table with riffraff, and drank more than his enemies considered respectable. We tend to forget this today. Jesus doesn’t put up with any phony baloney.

Jesus asks us to believe that our behavior at the table matters—but not because you know the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork.  Where we sit speaks volumes, and the people whom we choose to welcome reveals the stuff of our souls.  Favor the ones who cannot repay you.  Prefer the poor.  Choose obscurity. This is God’s world we live in, and nothing here is ordinary.  In the realm of God, the ragged strangers at our doorstep are the angels. Learn how to welcome them as you wish to be welcomed and we are on our way to life well lived-together.

Author and teacher Tony Campolo tells a true story about a time he was traveling. He couldn’t sleep, so he wandered outside and into a doughnut shop where, he overheard a conversation between sex workers. Apparently, it was a place they liked to hang out at the end of the night. One of them, named Agnes, said, ‘Tomorrow’s my birthday. You know, in my whole life, I’ve never had a birthday party.’

That’s right—Tony got an idea. He brought the store manager in on it. They arranged for a cake, candles, and party decorations. The following night when Agnes came in, they shouted, “Surprise — and she couldn’t believe her eyes. They sang, and she began to cry so she could hardly blow out the candles. When time came to cut the cake, she asked if they wouldn’t mind if she didn’t cut it. She preferred to bring it home — just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. She left, carrying her cake like a treasure.

Tony led the remaining guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the manager asked what kind of church Tony came from, and he replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for sex workers at 3:30 in the morning.” (Abbreviated from Brian McLaren’s in The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything [Thomas Nelson, 2006], pages 145-46.)

“The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place”(Sirach 10:15). “When we dare to gather at Jesus’s table, we are actively protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us.  There’s nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time.  To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our presidential elections, and that can be tiring.  But it’s what we’re called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom” (Debi Thomas, Places of Honor, Journey with Jesus, 8/25/19).

We must admit the history of Western culture is not known for humility –but for arrogance. Confidence in the superiority of western culture, science, and civilization led generations of white Europeans to take the highest place at every table. Yet, even now, at this very moment, the living waters of God’s grace are working within your heart, mind, and soul. Grace strips away our arrogant and worldly way of thinking like paint thinner that. From beneath the soot and sediment the original stamp of the imago Dei, the image of God, is revealed in you and your neighbor.

The good life is lived with honor, equity and joy among neighbors.  Maybe that’s why Jesus attended so many parties, feasts, and banquets. The kingdom of God to which you and I are invited is like a good party. There is always room for one more to be seated at the table of grace. Brian McLaren writes, “Today we could say that God is inviting people to leave their gang fights and come to a party, to leave their workaholism and rat race and come to a party, to leave their loneliness and isolation and join the party, to leave their exclusive parties (political ones, for example, which win elections by dividing electorates) and join one inclusive party of a different sort, to stop fighting or complaining or hating or competing and instead start partying and celebrating the goodness and love of God. (Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46. In Ch. 16)