Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: Unexpected Grace

Sermon for St. Michael and All Angels
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, September 29, 2013
Lectionary readings for the day, click here.

Open our lips, O Lord,
that our mouths might proclaim your praise. Amen.

Today we commemorate
the Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels. 
Since the Middle Ages, this day has
1) honored St. Michael,
who defeated Lucifer in the war in heaven,
2) recognized the ministry of angels and archangels
“help to defend us here on earth,” as today’s collect offers.

Scripture reveals that angels serve two main functions.
First, as messengers who serve and praise God and
second, as non-material spiritual beings,
signs of God’s power and will.

See, angels reveal God’s grace in unexpected times and places.
And since today is our annual Open House event,
we hope you recognize all the angels in our midst
who have prepared grand hospitality
to evoke in you Jacob’s response,
“Surely God is in this place!”

Angels are quite popular in our culture.
From Chubby-cheeked cherubim in greeting cards,
to TV shows such as the 9-year hit "Touched by an Angel"
to movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life" or
“Michael,” staring John Travolta as the imperfect winged one 
with the big belly laugh, who loves to eat sugar and
smells like homemade cookies…
Travolta plays the famed Archangel with the tagline,
“He’s an angel, not a saint.”

Michael comes to earth to serve God in a specific task.
He is on a mission to mend broken hearts.
Once he gets Frank and Dorothy back in love,
he returns to heaven.[1] Or maybe he ascends to heaven,
like the angels from our readings today.

Today’s gospel is from the “call” story of the disciples
Philip, Andrew, Peter and Nathanael – we hear the 2nd half;
presumably 1)to highlight angels (since this is their feast day).  
and 2) to draw us into the mystery at the heart of Christianity –
how could Jesus, this ordinary human,
who until then had
performed no miracle, shown no sign, engaged in no teaching,
how could Jesus really be Divine?

In this text up till now, in this call story of the disciples
from chapter 1 in John’s Gospel
Jesus has proclaimed nothing about the reign of God
that could excite the imagination of Philip or anyone else. 
And when Philip says to Nathanael that he has found
“the one of whom it is written in the book of Moses and prophets, 
Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,”
Nathanael is scoffs.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” 

That’s a familiar sensation; and it made me wonder
…if there is a little bit of Nathanael in all of us, right? 
I wonder if our mistrust or skepticism get the better of us.

Can anything good come out of … Congress? 
Can anything good come out of … that mega-store 
who shall not be named moving into the neighborhood nearby? 
Can anything good come out of …a Vestry meeting?

Are we tired? 
Are we jumping to conclusions
about how the future will unfold, like Nathanael?

So Philip replies to Nathanael, simply, “Come and see!” 
Today, Jesus says to us, “Come and See!”

When Jesus sees Nathanael across the way,
under his breath, Jesus remarks,
“here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Or, in many translations, no “guile” –
no cunning, no craftiness, no slyness. 

Nathanael wears his mistrust, doubt and wariness, 
like a protective vest; “Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus replies,
“I saw you under the fig tree.” 
Jesus “saw” him even before Philip called him. 
Jesus “saw” him.

This “seeing” reminded me of the SciFi movie Avatar.
Human explorer Jake Sully takes on the digitized body form
of the Navi race to befriend the tribe, ultimately 
to gain access to precious metals to save humanity.

In avatar form, Jake meets Neytiri,
a full blooded Navi, and they develop a love interest. 

There is that scene where these two get to know each other. 
Jake learns the tribal greeting, from Neytiri, “I See You.” [2] 
Neytiri explains: when Navi persons “see” each other,
they allow this greeting to deeply affect them,
and it affirms that they are One tribe.

While that is sci-fi, it seems this is what happened between Jesus and Nathanael.   
Jesus “saw” him –
from the depths of his soul, to the last hairs on his head
looking right through his outerwear of doubt
– Jesus saw him. 

And, Jesus sees us – profoundly, deeply. 
Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton
calls this *seeing* “Le Point Vierge,”  “The Virgin Point.”

At this mysterious center of our being,
Le Point Vierge is that point,
“…which is untouched by sin and by illusion,
a point of pure truth, a point or spark
which belongs entirely to God, …
from which God disposes of our lives,
which is inaccessible to the fantasies
of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.”[3] 

Le Point Vierge – is where
Jesus sees us, loves us and calls us,
even before our friends invite us here.

Well, Jesus’ remark surprises even Nathanael. 
and elicits a response appropriate to the Divine –
that wild profusion of messianic titles,
“You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!” 
echoing Jacob’s comment, “Surely God is in this place!”


Nathanael’s believing response
was not based on empirical evidence, not on facts, 
but on the mystery and sureness of love -on being seen (and known).

Jesus then invites Nathanael
to go deeper – to go beyond his “belief.”

Jesus invites us, too,
to go deeper – to go beyond our “belief.” 

Today, in our Open House event,
in the mystery of the liturgy,
in the song notes floating above the musicians,
in the smiles of children who yearn for love,
in the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread,
today, we are invited to go beyond our “belief.” 

“Do you believe just because I saw you under the fig tree?” Jesus asks.

“Well,” he continues,
“…you ain’t seen nothing yet! 
you will see greater things that these!”

Here, something interesting happens in the Greek text,
Jesus switches pronouns to plural “you” as in “y’all”. 

Jesus says, (in a southern vernacular)
“Truly I tell y’all, y’all will see heaven opened
and the angels of God ascending and descending
up on the Son of Man.”

He addresses not just Nathanael,
but all the disciples who were there gathered –
Philip, Andrew, Peter…
And he is addressing us, as his disciples. 

We can’t help but make a connection
between this image of angels ascending and descending
and Jacob’s vision of the ladder of angels at Bethel
from our first reading. 

In that connection to Jacob, and in Jesus’ remarks,
we realize this text is not just about Jesus;
it is about Nathanael

Nathanael is “seen” by Jesus as one awesome Israelite
“in whom there is no deceit” – no “guile.”

See, although
*Jacob* was divinely given the name Israel
after he wrestled with the angel all night,
*Jacob* was known as one who saw God face to face
and was utterly transformed by the encounter,
*Jacob* was a man who had guile,
having deceived his brother Esau
out of his father’s blessing.

When Nathanael is “seen” by Jesus
as an “Israelite without guile”
Nathanael becomes a new Jacob…
Nathanael, beholding Jesus, is seeing the very face of God
and is utterly transformed…
Nathanael, as the guileless Jacob,
is the prototype of a new humanity reborn in Christ. 

And in that seeing, Jesus reveals himself as the ultimate ladder
stretching between heaven and earth,
with angels ascending and descending.
Jesus connects the finite and infinite, time and eternity. 

The good news today is that this text is about us, too.
We are transformed in the presence of this Holy One. 
When we love God and each other with our “whole heart,”
when we love our neighbors as ourselves,
when we share the sign of peace,
we are beholding the face of God. 

And we are all utterly transformed by the encounter. 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? 
Can anything good come out of an Open House event? 
Realistically, I think Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber
is right when she reminds us that
while church is founded on God’s love for all people,
it is a human project and of that I don’t want to be idealistic.

Realistically, it’s a human project
with human mistakes and human foibles. 

Realistically when you come and “see” us today,
it is possible that at some point,
I or someone in the church will let you down.

Please decide on this side of that happening
that you will still stick around; that you will revisit. 
Because if you leave, you will miss the way the heavens open,
the angels ascend and descend and the way that
God's grace unexpectedly fills in the cracks
of our brokenness.

“And *that* is something too beautiful to miss.Don't miss it.”[4]

Come and see, take a tour, enjoy the hospitality,
tell your story, come and “see” us.
Jesus invites us to co-create God’s kingdom here on earth:

a new humanity, a new reality, a new body of Christ –
and, you will see more than that! 

You will see angels revealing God’s grace
in unexpected times and places. 

For that, we praise God,
joining our voices with angels and archangels,
and all the company of heaven!


[1] Summarized from cited on September 23, 2013
[3] As described by Kathleen Deignan in Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours, note 25, page 30. Originally included in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, (Image Publishing, 1968)
[4] Excerpt from Krista Tippett interview on cited on September 23, 2013

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