St. Michael, All Angels and Imagination

Screenshot 2014-09-30 21.39.12

This sermon was preached at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on Monday September 29, 2014. 

Readings for the Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels

Genesis 28:10-17

Psalm 103:19-22

John 1:43-51

“The true sign of intelligence,” according to Albert Einstein, “is not knowledge but imagination.” The presence of angels in the Scriptures invites us to develop this intelligence by exercising our imagination, pushing us to see beyond the boundaries of finite reason. For English poet William Blake, imagination is another lens through which we can see realities that are far more real than those accessed through our five senses. So, according to Blake, the angels we imagine in this room are more real than this pulpit. Although this way of seeing could potentially lead to schizophrenia and psychosis, it also invites us “to see,” in the words of Blake, “the world in a grain of sand, and… heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.” And imagination also invites us to see the angels ascending and descending and to hear the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven sing “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might.” Angels are the forces that tug on our imaginations in order to expand our vision not only to see heaven at work on earth but also to see beyond our petty rivalries and egocentric fears.

In Genesis, Jacob has stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing and proven to be the victor of their sibling rivalry. However, now he flees in order to avoid becoming the victim of murder since Esau is now hell-bent on killing him. In the midst of all the deception, competition, anger and fear, Jacob dreams of angels. And in his dream, Jacob imagines a world in which God will protect and provide and bless him with abundance. Upon waking, Jacob realizes that what he saw in his dream and imagination was not a mere illusion or fantasy. What he saw was real, perhaps more real than his stone pillow. He says, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” What his bodily senses dismissed as one place among many to take a nap, his imagination saw as the house of God and the gate of heaven. Overwhelmed with awe and reverence and holy fear, Jacob exclaims, “How awesome is this place!”

The angels, however, are not done with Jacob and keep tugging at his imagination in order to broaden his vision. According to Jewish Midrash, it is the angel Michael who wrestles with Jacob all night before his eventual confrontation with Esau. The angel wrestles with Jacob’s fear and terror and pulls out of Jacob some of his most bold and honest prayers for God’s blessing. This divine and angelic yanking of humanity out of small and fearful thinking into a broader vision of blessing and abundance proves central to the identity of God’s people, which is why Jacob’s new name, Israel, becomes the collective name for all of his descendants: The One who Wrestles with God. The One who is tugged out of limited egocentrism and into broader vision.

In the Gospel, Jesus calls Nathaniel a true descendant of Israel, a spiritual heir of the One who is wrestled out of small vision and into abundance. Jesus calls him a true Israelite in whom there is no guile. The Greek word for guile is δόλος, which means deceit or trickery or propensity to manipulate. It is the same word that Isaac used to describe Jacob when he dressed up as his brother to steal his blessing. Nathaniel certainly needs to be wrestled out of his limited thinking but, unlike Jacob, he is not hiding his true identity. In other words, he speaks what is on his mind. When Philip tells him about the promised prophet from Nazareth, Nathaniel reveals his small-mindedness and prejudice when he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Tell us what you really think, Nathaniel.

We learn later on in John that Nathaniel is from Cana (21:2), which is another small town in Galilee. Often, the more similarities there are between individuals or communities the more potential there is for rivalry and animosity. There is no outside evidence of rivalry or animosity between Cana and Nazareth, but Nathanael’s question seems to suggest that some people in Cana did not think too highly of the neighboring town of Nazareth.[1]

One easy way to feel good about ourselves is to put others down. We do this all the time, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We do this with rival schools, towns, cities, states, regions, and countries; and history has shown how much we have done this (and continue to do this) with race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, background and so on. This kind of prejudice reveals a lack of healthy imagination and is connected with our need to blame someone or some group of people. Prejudice is essentially blaming others for our own self-hate. We put others down so that we can hate ourselves a little less.

Nathaniel reveals his prejudice, his lack of healthy imagination and his self-hate when he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Jesus responds, as a victim of Nathaniel’s prejudice, by essentially saying, “Here is a true descendant of Israel who says what is on his mind, an Israelite who is brutally honest about his lack of healthy imagination and self-hate.” Nathaniel knows he is someone who speaks his mind but he does not know how Jesus learned this, so he asks, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus says, “I saw you when Philip called you and I heard your snarky reply to his invitation.” Nathaniel is embarrassed and aghast but even more blown away by how Jesus seems to respond without the slightest hint of threat or offense and even seems to appreciate Nathaniel’s honesty. Someone with this kind of equanimity and inner peace, Nathaniel thinks, must by Anointed by God. By responding in this way to Nathaniel’s prejudice, Jesus is already tugging him out of his small-mindedness and self-hate and showing him a new and wider way to imagine the world. Then Jesus says, “If you feel like your vision has expanded because of my response to your prejudice, then just wait! You are going to see heaven open and angels tugging the whole world into a wider vision as you see how I respond to the most brutal violence of the most powerful empire in the world.”

Theologian James Alison writes, “Here at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus explains to a group of witnesses what will be the centerpoint of their experience…by accompanying him they will learn to see heaven open and angels ascending and descending on Jesus. His whole project for them is explained in this line…The opening of heaven will be the making accessible of the Father who knows not death and the presence of Jesus as risen victim, by means of whom heaven stands open and there begins that flux of heavenly riches and abundance for those who perceive him as the access to the Father.”[2]

Jesus and the angels work closely together to expand our imagination and lead us into abundance, so closely together that one Anglican Bishop Robert Clayton proposed that the Archangel Michael is the Logos, the pre-incarnate Christ. What the Bible makes clear is that Jesus is our gate to heaven, the One towards whom the angels tug us. Jesus embodies the expanded imagination and pulls us into the broader vision through his non-violent response to our prejudice and small-mindedness. And St. Michael and all the angels tug us all along the way, with all of our prejudice and self-hate, so that we may imagine and forever enjoy “the flux of heavenly riches and abundance.”

[1] James Alison says, “This Nathanael was a good Israelite, a little grumpy, half incredulous, to judge by his few words” Raising Abel, 78.

[2] Alison, Raising Abel, 78 – 79.

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