The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels: Sunday, October 2, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s
Happy St Michael’s Day, St Michael’s! Happy glorious celebration of angels and archangels, the victory of good over evil, the name day of our warm and growing community, part of God’s family. It’s a day to give thanks for our patron saint, to give thanks for our community, to give thanks for our God at work in the midst of us all.
People often wonder to me if our full name isn’t St Michael’s and All Angels. I always say, no, we lost all the rest of the angels to the church down Broadway, we just have Michael. But Michael’s pretty great – Michael is the prince of them all, the archangel who leads the fight against the forces of darkness, and throws down the great dragon from heaven.
But there’s more than that story to Michael, it turns out. Michael’s name means ‘who is like God.’ He is named in the book of Daniel as the ‘great prince who stands up for the children of your people’; he was known as the ‘healing angel’ in the early church; and he has been known throughout time as the protector and leader of God’s army against the forces of evil.
In rabbinical tradition, Michael is said to be the one who protected Sarah when Abraham lied and said she was his sister and she got taken into King Abimelech’s harem – bet you don’t remember that story; Michael is the one who told Sarah that she would have the child Isaac, in the visit of the three men to Abraham; and the one who rescued Lot from the destruction of Sodom. Michael sent the ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac in that story of Abraham and Isaac, and he is, of course, the man who wrestles with Jacob in the night and then blesses him.
In Catholic and Ethiopian Coptic tradition Michael appears at the hour of our death and gives us a chance to be redeemed, carrying us to heaven. He is seen by some Protestant theologians as the pre-incarnate Christ, Christ before he was incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. He is revered by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the Book of Mormon, and in the Quran, where he is the archangel of mercy who provides nourishment for bodies and souls. He is the patron saint of police officers, paramedics, firefighters, and the military – and the sick and the suffering.
So isn’t it interesting that here we are in a church named for St Michael, with a long history (and present) of service and care to our neighborhood and to the needy, nourishing bodies and souls in our charitable and social justice ministries; located across the street from the 24th precinct and the fire station (FDNY engine company 76 and ladder company 22 – and working on relationship with those who serve there). We have a growing ministry providing healing prayer to people in church and outside of it. We minister with and for ‘the children of our people’ in music and play and story and love. We even offer a place of rest at the time of death, in our columbarium and out in Queens at our cemetery. Here we give and receive hospitality like those three visitors and Abraham and Sarah; and here we wrestle with questions of identity and blessing like St Michael and Jacob. Here we are, in short, part of God’s army, part of God’s movement to overcome the forces of evil. St Michael has been busy with us in this place for these 209 years.
Now we could stop and join in a rousing chorus of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ with all of you who are named Michael – and there are a lot of you – leading the charge. Except that being part of God’s army may not resonate quite as well with us these days. Our culture has changed, and we’re not so into the rank-and-file hierarchy idea, taking orders and marching in formation. (Wouldn’t my job be easier if we were…) We are less ready to celebrate the violent imagery of the battle we’d be marching into. But blessedly, Michael and all the stories that surround him offer us other images to embrace. Healing and caring for children and nourishing and protecting all are things that tie in less to army and more to family. So try this image, the image embedded in this year’s pledge drive theme: Rejoice, St Michael’s Family – because to be St Michael’s family means to be of the family of God, Michael the archangel among us.
Now, in case that image too makes you wince – I know, family can be complicated – let me hasten to claim it as family in the broadest possible sense of the word. Family not meaning the perfect shiny-children picture of success that none of us ever attain to, or the difficult people you’re estranged from which is why you live in New York City. Family not meaning the thing you don’t have or don’t do perfectly. But family meaning the great assorted lot of all God’s children, in all of our diverse, messy and lumpen glory.
Here’s what I like about the family image. Being family means chipping in together. If you’re part of a family, then you aren’t just a consumer of services – as parents are at pains to communicate. You take part in the chores and the responsibilities, as well as the making of memories that you will laugh over years later; you bring your particular character, your quirks of personality, and mix it with others, making the family what it is; you help out on the farm and support the elders when they get old and care for the kids as they grow up. You come to the table, even when what’s being served there isn’t your favorite dish, and you help clear the dishes when you’re done.
I hope you see where I’m going here. So much for the image – now for the ways that image plays out for us here in our own family.
This works in so many ways: When we give our time and energy to serve the needy through ministries here like the Saturday Kitchen. When we stretch ourselves and our sense of the world through education and work on justice issues like race and peace. When we care together for our children in all their ways of learning and growing, making their development central to our space and resources. And when we take part in the ministries that make this place go, the food and the hospitality and the financial planning and the leading of worship.
But if that isn’t enough, I have three quite particular areas in mind on this St Michael’s Day, ways for us to participate fully as members of this family.
First. On the staff and in the leadership here we are working harder on communications and marketing, getting the word out better about who we are and what we’re doing. But all the posters and mailings in the world don’t amount to a whole lot compared with actual people talking to people. So what we all do as part of the family?
We invite people. We get on social media and tell about this place, for one. And even better, we talk in person to people about it. Yes, you tell people you go to church. You come out of the closet. It doesn’t hurt as much as you think, especially because the Episcopal Church and even St Michael’s are getting some positive name recognition these days.
But if you’re not sure just how to do it? We’ve got a deal for you. Lauren Attinello has helped us design some gorgeous little cards, business cards, with images of this beautiful place and details of service times and location. We’ll have them soon for each one of you to take a little stack and carry in your wallet. Oh, so easy for handing to people with a smile.
Second. We also have all been talking for a long time about deepening our community, welcoming newcomers and getting to know one another more intentionally. We think we’re a very welcoming place, but sometimes – yes, we only talk to people we already know. The clergy and the welcomers and the ministry leaders are all working to change this, and you are a part of this too. So what you do?
You talk to people here you don’t already know. Oh my goodness, it’s hard for many of us, but today, I give you a new commandment, and I expect you to do it. Before you talk to anyone you know, you will talk today to someone you don’t know, for 3 minutes. Not at the Peace, please, but after the service. If everyone does it, it will all be ok. If you can’t think what to talk about, talk about how awkward that the rector made you do this. But talk. Nametags will help.
And third. The leadership, especially the vestry and our parish administration, have been taking pains to ensure our financial health – they’re making careful decisions about the corner property, renting out a lot of our space to nonprofit groups and events, being good stewards of the cemetery, investing what remains of our endowment carefully to last into the future. So what do we all do?
We commit to this community with our resources. Just as in our own families we share our resources to help everyone thrive, so we do as well in this family here on the Upper West Side. We all share in giving; we all share in receiving. Without the participation of every one of us, this community cannot live out what God desires for us to be.
That’s why the pledge drive happens every year. It reminds us over and over that this place doesn’t happen without all of us chipping in. Your pledge packets will come to your home this week. Take time to pray them over. This is important.
All of these are ways we act and love and give as part of a family. This is a family where every member matters and counts, those who have been here for decades and those of you who have just come for the first time today. This is a family where every member is loved and belongs. Where every member is part of the larger movement of God’s light in the world. Because this is a part of God’s family, and with God at our center we can live out all that God intends for us to be. Here as part of St Michael the archangel’s healing, nourishing, protecting, caring army, God’s family, we are one. May God bless us in all that we seek to do in God’s name.