Sermon for Diocesan Synod, 2020
Springfield Cathedral--Matthew 18:1-5, 10; Exodus 23:20-23, Psalm 91:9-16
The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee is owned collectively by the Episcopal dioceses of the southeastern United States. All three of my children got their undergraduate education there, and Brenda and I were “Sewanee parents” for nine consecutive years, between 1993 and 2002. The university does not impose its Christian and Episcopalian identity on either students or faculty, but neither does it shy away from wearing that identity quite openly. It occupies some very impressive real estate at the top a mountain about forty miles northwest of Chattanooga. All the land in the town of Sewanee is owned by the University, and the University’s Vice-Chancellor is the ex oficio mayor. The town and the campus and the surrounding acreage are referred to collectively as the “domain” of the University of the South. So there’s this quaint tradition at Sewanee, which our oldest child briefed us on as soon as she had spent a few weeks there, that, when you’re driving off the domain, you tap the roof of your car to summon your guardian angel, whose job it will be to protect you while you’re out and about in the world. Then, when you drive through the gate coming back in, you tap the roof again to release your angel to go on a break, because, while you’re on the domain, you’re protected just by being on holy ground; no angel necessary.
Although the feast is not to be found in the calendar of the Episcopal Church, in other western Christian traditions, today is the commemoration of the Holy Guardian angels. It points to the long-held popular belief that every Christian is assigned an angel to watch over them throughout the changes and chances of everyday life. It’s an undeniably appealing concept, which is why it has found its way into so many newspaper comic strips and Hollywood movies and, more recently, graphic memes on social media. We’ve all seen those images of an angel doing a face-palm in response to his charge’s risky behavior.
The scriptural warrant for belief in guardian angels is the last line from the appointed gospel reading for this liturgy, Matthew 18:10. Speaking of the little child whom Jesus had summoned to his side as he was teaching his disciples about the need to “become like children,” Jesus says, “I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” One might also turn to the incident described in the Book of Acts, when Peter is miraculously released from prison and shows up at the door of a home where he knew Christians were gathered. The person who responds to his knock shuts the door right back in his face, because it clearly could not have been Peter, and someone in the groups surmises that perhaps it was “his angel.” Then there’s the passage from Exodus, the first reading in this liturgy, when the LORD addresses the people of Israel, through Moses, saying, “See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and heed his voice.” And, of course, the most straightforward biblical assurance that we are aided daily by angels is the Psalm refrain from a few minutes ago: “He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.”
I’ve got to say ... I don’t find this a matter of first-order doctrine. It’s not a core theological principal. It’s not up there with, you know, the resurrection and the Trinity. I think it’s a wonderful notion, but there are a lot of other points of theology that I would go to the mat for before I’d try to defend the idea that everyone has a guardian angel. Yet, whether we think of guardian angels as an essential part of our belief system, or as not much more than a cute idea, what we can all take away from this commemoration is a renewed confidence in the providence of God. The doctrine of providence affirms the sovereignty of God, that God has a plan and a project, and that project is redemption. To borrow language from one of the prayers in the marriage liturgy, God’s redemptive project is for unity to overcome estrangement, forgiveness to heal guilt, and joy to conquer despair.
When the people of Israel were wandering in the Sinai desert after having been rather miraculously delivered out of slavery in Egypt, they were like a newborn child whose umbilical cord had not yet been cut. They were out of the womb of the Red Sea but had not yet begun to breathe on their own. But the LORD has a plan for them. He tells them what that plan is—to bring them to the place that God has prepared—and he seals that promise with the assurance that an angel—their own collective guardian angel—will go before them to guard them. The angel is an ensign of God’s providential reliability.
My beloved, we in the Diocese of Springfield are, like Israel of old, walking through not just a desert, but a desert within a desert within yet another desert. The uninvited season of Coronatide will not last forty years. But, as long as it does last, our common life is constrained. Our communities are able to have some form of regular public worship, and some have even started to do a bit of singing. But it still doesn’t feel anywhere near quite right. Outdoor coffee hour worked well in some places, but now that the weather has turned, it’s not so doable. And the whole thing is just mentally and emotionally exhausting.
But even without the pandemic, we were already trying to deal with a secular culture that we can no longer communicate with in the ways that have become engrained habits for us. We know we’re on the proverbial “mission from God,” but pursuing that mission is neither easy nor clear. And now—speaking of the secular culture—we’re in an election season and a political environment that can only be described as toxic. Disciples of a common Lord are in each other’s faces over issues that, in comparison to the weight of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can only be considered secondary.
So the commemoration of the Holy Guardian Angels is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that God is working his purposes out. In ways that we cannot even begin to guess at, God mysteriously bends the events of human experience toward the ends of redemption and restoration. The Big Bang from which this redemptive energy flows is the dying and rising of the Word made flesh, the only-begotten Son of the Father. This is what we proclaim and celebrate every time we come together for the Eucharist, an action that even those who are not physically present here in the cathedral can participate in by joining their prayers with those offered here. In so doing, we find that the grace that will see us through the season of the virus is precisely in the constraints we must embrace because of the season of the virus. The grace that will empower us in our evangelistic mission becomes available precisely as we turn our minds, hearts, and wills toward that mission. And the spiritual wherewithal to persevere in respecting the dignity of every human being in the midst of a political season that seeks to draw out the worst in us is never in short supply if we but seek it. Through his Holy Guardian Angels, God is working his purposes out.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.