Sunday, September 29, 2019

Homily for St. Michael and All Angels, Sunday, September 29, 2019

Yet another homily, this one preached September 29, 2019, also at Christ Church Anglican, Summerville SC, where I am the non-chalcedonian, West Syriac Rite Orthodox\Old Catholic priest in residence (or something):

First, here's a link to the audio. If you can only listen or read the text, I would recommend listening since I did occasionally, as they say, "depart from the prepared text."

Homily for Michaelmas

Readings: Revelation 12:7-12 Matthew 18:1-10

And here is the text:

Homily for St. Michael and All Angels, Sunday Mass for September 29, 2019, 
Christ Church Anglican, Summerville SC
By Fr. Gregory Ned Blevins, West Syriac Rite Orthodox/Old Catholic Priest in Residence

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Good Morning.

So, like my 6 y/o granddaughter, I enjoy Youtube videos.  However, the ones I watch are quite different from the one she prefers.  I like videos that are about things I’m interested in, certainly Christian liturgy and theology, but also trains.  I am an unabashed train nut, a “foamer”.  There is also the “History Guy” and then, a man named Briggs.  Briggs is in his forties, spent some time in the Army, and actually earns a living making videos about places, usually with titles like “The Top Ten Reasons not to move to Chicago” and so on.  He says people will only watch negative videos so these are the ones he usually makes.  I also enjoy watching videos from a young man with a Ph.D. who teaches Old Norse at the college level and related subjects and who discusses them in his Youtube videos.

And then, there are videos from a man named John Michael Godier.  He describes himself as a  “science fiction author and futurist”.  Virtually all of his videos discuss topics related to space travel, and one issue in particular he returns to again and again is the Fermi Paradox.  Named after pioneering nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, this paradox notes that the universe is huge, containing trillions of stars and thus, statistically, should be teaming with life.  That being the case, where is the life?

Well, in thinking about this, one thing that gets noticed frequently is the exceedingly small chance of everything coming together such that life, and intelligent life at that, would arise “from the dirt of the ground” here on earth.  If many and various things had been  different, just by a few fractions of percentage points,  life could not have arisen here in this way.  It is ironic to me how many times scientists, committed (and rightly so) to “methodological atheism,” reach a point where they can go no farther because they come up against a brick wall.  

This leads to  some, shall we say, strange speculation.   For instance,  this matter of this planet in this solar system being seemingly tailor-made to produce intelligent life has led to some scientists positing, some who are perhaps not only committed to methodological atheism,  but also, to philosophical atheism, that there are multiple universes, all coming into existence by chance, all separate from each other, and there being so many of them that in at least one of them, such a solar system and such a planet would be inevitable.  Kind of like a billion computers working for a billion years.  One will certainly reproduce the collected works of Shakespeare in that time.  But the problem is,  there is absolutely no evidence for such a multi-verse, and it is difficult to see the possibility of such evidence, even if this hypothesis is correct.

There is also the question of whether or not this universe is a computer simulation.  This seems unlikely, given the amount of computing power and energy it would take to simulate even a very small part of the universe.  However, what if there is a “Mind” that underlies the existence of all creation, that hold everything together?

Now, there are some scientific projects that are in fact significant  for  theology.  One such area is called neurotheology.  It studies, among other things, how a lifetime of prayer and meditation might affect the brain.  Well, it turns out that the effect of such a lifestyle is rather similar to that of NDEs or “Near Death Experiences” as demonstrated by brain imaging devices such as  PET scans which look at brain activity, and both of these tend to have positive effects on psychological health.

But what does all this have to do  with angels you ask?  Well, I’m getting there.  I know a man (okay, so he’s my bishop) who, at age 5 (and if you knew him, you would completely understand this), decided to jump into the family swimming pool and to try to breathe like fishes do, inhaling water into his lungs.

Kids, do NOT try this at home!  

Well, of course, the results could have been tragic, but his father, a man who had been a Navy medic in WWII, was standing right there.  He  pulled the little boy, whose name was Victor, out of the swimming pool and got the water out of his lungs as best he could without specialized equipment, and got him breathing air again.  But in the meantime,  my bishop, now known as Victor Mar Michael, was having a Near Death Experience.  He has never told me exactly what he experienced.  It is likely beyond words.  However, at age 5, his life course was set by that experience.  From that moment on, he began to seek to have it again, to find the source of what he had felt, seen, and heard.  

As he got older, he became involved with the mystical traditions of many different religions.  At age 16, for example, he told his parents he was going camping with friends over the weekend, but instead, he got on a bus and rode from Knoxville TN to somewhere in Pennsylvania.  When he arrived, he was initiated into the worship of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god.  All the while, his mother was praying for him, and eventually, he began encountering angels.  They did not look at all like what we think of as angels.  They appeared to him as what we might think of as space aliens, little creatures in shiny silver jumpsuits.  However, they directly challenged him with the good news of Jesus Christ.  They called upon him directly to take up that they said was his calling, “to serve as a priest in the Holy Catholic Church, whose head is Jesus Christ.”  And he, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, eventually said “Yes”.  I perhaps would not be standing here today as a priest had it not been for angelic intervention in my bishop’s life.

Others have had experiences with angels.  Some of them are recorded in the Bible.  The word, as you likely know, means “Messenger”.  Billy Graham wrote a book about them, called “God’s Secret Agents.”  They tend to show up, both in Scripture and in our lives today, at critical moments.  We can think of the encounters that Zachariah and Mary had, telling them that they would become parents of some very important people,John the Baptist and Jesus.

Then,  there are all the stories from the blizzard of 1983.  My wife and I  ourselves were caught in this, driving from Wisconsin to Charleston.  We had a car seemingly miraculously continue to run without a critical belt in place until we could get it replaced.  Many had their broken-down vehicles towed to safe places, only to have the tow truck and driver seemingly disappear into thin air, leaving no tracks in the snow.     

Now, of course, science cannot verify the existence of angels.  However,  there is a realm of human experience that may be amenable to showing the effect encounters with angels may have on the brain, given the proper instrumentation, but the experience itself is completely subjective.  Often NDE’s are like this.  Someone, for example,  experiences themselves outside their body, maybe above their body,  which is perhaps lying on an operating room table.  From this perspective, they see things that  they could not otherwise see, the surgeon’s bald spot, things on top of cabinets, or what-have-you.  When otherwise rational people tell such of such events, and then, speak of encountering a comforting light or whatever which sends the person back into their body, we must take such stories seriously, especially when these person’s demonstrated what is clearly some kind of conversion.  This is also true of encounters with angels.

At the same time, discernment is necessary.  We do not allow such events, or the persons having experienced them, to determine our theology.  We can fit such events into our theology, yes.  However, we must know that not all “angels” are good.  Some, quite frankly, are literally demons and they can appear, as St. Paul writes, as angels of light.  One man, one man whose holiness in this life was manifest thanks to the power of God working in and through him, was Padre Pio, now known as St. Pio of Pietrelcina.  He often encountered angels, especially his guardian angel, as well as the Blessed Mother, other Saints, and Christ himself.  However, he was also frequently attacked by demons and frequently, these demons would be disguised as “angels of light” or even, as the Blessed Mother, other Saints, or even Christ.

St. Pio, through these experiences, was given and developed a very sophisticated sense which of these experiences came from God and which did not.  To discuss this in detail, of course, is far beyond the scope of this sermon.  However, I would give you one tip:  if you experience such things, say, in the word of the Archangel Michael as record in Scripture:  “Satan, the Lord rebuke you.  In the Name of Jesus.”  If what you are experiencing is from the adversary, it should instantly go away.

So this kind of brings us back to St. Michael the Archangels and his colleagues.  Also, “the angels” of children, constantly beholding the face of the Father.  In the first reading, we see Michael and the other angels who remained loyal to God (and humanity) defeating the adversary and tossing satan and his minions out of heaven.

This biblical book, Revelation or the Apocalypse, is of course highly symbolic.  Perhaps I should go off an anti-Darby/anti-Hal Lindsey rant here, but I think we all know that this is not the way to interpret this material.  But it is relevant to ask, symbolic although this passage is, when this battle occurred, will occur, or is occurring.

In general, the classical, traditional way of interpreting this book is something Augustine got right.  Using symbols and allegory, this book details the defeat of the world, the flesh, and the devil by Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. It then goes on to document the Christianization of the Middle East and Western World, particularly the Roman Empire both East and West and what comes out of it.  Thus, “the millennium” is basically the time of Christendom.  So, if one wishes to ask, “Where are we in terms of the Revelation timeline?” (if such exists), the best answer, in my opinion anyway, is that we are now in the period mentioned at the end of the book, prior to Jesus Christ coming again in glory.  

So thus, Revelation 20:7-10:   “And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison  and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them,  and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

One could preach a whole sermon on this passage itself, but that will have to wait.

So, when does St. Michael and his angelic army throw the evil one and his forces out of heaven?  Well, let’s look at what comes immediately before, in Rev. 12:1-6 (RSV):

“And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars;  she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.  And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.”

Again, I am not going to go into detail, but it is clear that this passage speaks of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the “one who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron” and then, that this child is caught up to God.  So Jesus appears in heaven and then, what happens?  St. Michael and angels remaining loyal to God throw Satan and his minions down upon the earth where they wreak havoc until  their “short time” is done, only after a long period, “the millennium” they are released to wreak more havoc for a short time.  We apparently, are privileged to live on earth during this “short time.”  (Remember: ever blessing is also a curse and vice-versa.)

But the overall point is a very simple one:  the world, the flesh, and devil are defeated by the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This reading in Revelation tells of this defeat in symbol and allegory.  We are literally saved by clinging. through active faith, to Christ and His Body, the Church, where the fulness of faith, and the fulness of the sacraments are found.  In so doing, we become like little children in our faith and thus, we too can be assured that our “angel” as well constantly behold the face of the Father.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  Only the world, the flesh, and the devil, and they are now nothing.  We need not fear them, we need not fall victim to them.  Christ has conquered!

So thus, to Him who is the Eternal Son and Word of God made flesh+, to his eternal and unorginate Father and to the all-Holy, Good, and Life-giving Spirit, be all glory and honor and worship both now and forever and unto the Aeon of aeons!  Amen.