Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Among the obscurer branches of late antique and medieval theological speculation is the quote-unquote "science" of angelology.
Christian tradition—based on biblical sources like Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, the Gospels, some of Paul’s writings, and the Book of Revelation, plus a fair amount of oral tradition and imaginative speculation—tradition has it that the angelic population of heaven is organized into nine groupings, or choirs, of angels. Each choir has its own rank, purpose, physical (or at least visual) attributes, and dignity.
At the top are the Seraphim, who have three pairs of wings, one to cover their eyes in God’s presence, one to fly with, and one to cover their bodies; their wings may or may not be covered with eyes. They are so bright that even the other angels cannot look at them. They tend God’s throne and spend all day shouting praises to God. You can see one artist’s version of a seraph in the window above the great wooden tower doors as you leave the building today.
Next come the Cherubim, who are not fat babies. They have four faces: a human, an ox, a lion, and an eagle—which just happen to correspond to the animals used to represent the writers of the four Gospels. They have two pairs of wings totally covered with eyes. You can see somebody’s version of Cherubim up around the Alpha and Omega windows. They serve as guards; the book of Genesis says that cherubim were set to guard the Garden of Eden after humanity was expelled.
Next come Thrones, who unlike the others have almost no anthropomorphic characteristics. They look like two sets of wheels, one within the other, each covered with eyes. They serve as transport for other angels, especially the Cherubim.
Now, for these next few choirs, things get a little sketchy. Different authors call them different things and place them in different orders, and nobody seems quite sure what they do. But here’s my best shot. First, the Dominions, who look like beautiful humans with wings and are in charge of the different nations of the world.
Next, the Virtues who, depending on who you ask, are either in charge of the movements of the celestial bodies, or of imparting their namesakes to humans, or both. You can see some of them up there to your left in the round windows.
Next come the Powers or the Authorities, who serve as warriors. In Christian mythology, Satan may or may not have been Chief of the Powers before he fell. So they say.
Next come the Principalities, who often wear crowns and carry scepters. They work with the Powers, they carry blessings to the world, and are sometimes said to be a source of inspiration, sort of like muses.
And finally, the lowest of the two choirs, and therefore the ones that you know best and humans are most likely to interact with: archangels and angels. Here we’re on solid ground again, at least in terms of agreement among the medieval. Archangels—the second-to-last group—look like gorgeous humans with wings. Some archangels you’ve heard of include Michael, guardian angel of Israel and of the Church, and Gabriel, who announced Mary’s pregnancy to her.
Last, and least in terms of stature though not number, are just regular old angels. These are said to look pretty much like archangels, though they seem to be easy to confuse with humans, at least sometimes. They often show up as hosts, like that one making the Annunciation to the Shepherds. They are the least otherworldly, the most this-wordly, and therefore the best-suited to interacting with us. Their name comes from the Greek word that means, simply, "messenger", for that’s what they are. They bear messages to the created world from the divine realm.
Now, trying to order the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels in their ranks may seem to you like just so much silly speculation, that from here there’s no place to go but to ask how many of these choirs can dance on the head of a pin. And you’re right; this sort of thing can obviously get out of hand and waste a lot of time.
But what this sort of speculation does do is this: it communicates a trust that God has ordered the world aright. That there is some sort of plan for the world. That there is a system at work here. That at least some of God’s ways are knowable. That, most importantly of all, the bases are covered and the jobs that need to get done will get done.
But here’s what I don’t understand. It seems to me that, in their wisdom, those medieval speculators left a choir, God’s most important choir, at least for those of us who live on earth, out.
God comes to the boy Jeremiah and tells him that he has been chosen to be a prophet, a messenger, an angel to the nations.
Jeremiah balks. He demurs. He fears for what the people will do to him; he worries about what they will think of him. He thinks himself unequal to the task that God has set for him; he seems to think that it’s the kind of job that should be given to a celestial being, not a mortal one. But God doesn’t think so. God thinks that he’s just the one for the job. Of course he’s unequal to the task God has set him, but God’s not, and God promises to help him out, to give him what he will need to make it happen. "With my help," God says. "With my help, Jeremiah, you will turn this world upside down, which is to say you will turn it—finally—right side up, my side up. Have no fear."
Jeremiah was called to do what he did during a particularly difficult time in the life of Israel. The kingdom was divided. Powerful neighboring nations swept through the land in wave after wave of invasion: the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians all took their swipes at Israel, culminating in a great siege and the fall of Jerusalem itself to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The city was destroyed. The Temple was leveled and its treasures carried off to far lands. The leaders of the nation were deported. There was every reason to think that the great project that God and the people had been about for so long would fail, that the name of Israel would become a byword and a warning, the name Yahweh would be forgotten forever, the promises of God would fail.
Into this mess, God sent Jeremiah. We call him a prophet, which is true, but you might also call him an angel, a messenger who bore words of hope, and tidings of return, and the promise of restoration and fulfillment. He didn’t think he was up to it, but God did, and God helped, and here we are millennia later, reading his story and his words, which means, I think, that God’s plan worked.
Now, before we go on, I need to use a word. It’s a controversial word, a word that some consider to be basically a swear word. It’s not to be uttered in polite society, and certainly not from the pulpit of a church as illustrious as this. It will make some of you angry; it will make most of us, and I include me in that, uncomfortable. I’m sorry to do it, but it has to be done, and here I go:
There! I said it! Do you feel that queasy feeling right down here? Evaaaangelism. Do you feel it? If I’m not mistaken, that’s the feel of crudely drawn cartoon tracts telling you you’re going to hell if you don’t do what the lady handing them out on the corner says. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the feeling of opening your knocked-upon front door to find a freshly-scrubbed 19-year old with carefully parted hair, a conservative tie, and a great big smile. If I’m not mistaken, that feeling you feel down here is what that terrible and silly question, "Have you been saved?" feels like.
If you feel a mite queasy when I use that word evangelism, there’s probably a good reason. It’s probably because you’ve had someone do it to you in the past, and it hasn’t felt very good. It’s probably because those who have done it most, and to some degree most successfully, have had an understanding of our shared tradition very different from your own. And, most regrettably of all, it’s probably because we in liberal, progressive churches like Old South have not been using the word, or doing the deed, for a long time now. We have convinced ourselves that our wide-open doors are enough, that all we have to do is open them enough, and then sit in here and wait, and the world will be saved by coming to us.
But here’s the thing. There’s a whole world full of people out there who feel as if someone has marched into their lives, has invaded their lives, and carried the good stuff off into exile. Who stand in the wreckage and wonder, what has happened? Who stand in the piles where their temples, and their hopes, and the places of their meeting God once stood, and feel as if their names will become a byword and a warning, and wonder whether the promises of God have failed.
They’re not going to come into this place on their own, because they think they know what they will find if they walk in here, because they have been in other churches where they were told that they are not welcome because they are gay, or because they are women who have something to say about God, or because they insist that science, logic, and intellect have a place in the church. They have walked into other churches and heard hateful words; they have met people who bear the name Christian who have told them that they are going to hell. They have met others on the street corners, or on their front porches, or at work, who have told them that they are outside the promises of God—and they have believed it.
There’s a whole world of people out there who don’t know that the promises of God still hold, that hope is not a silly thing, even in this world. There are people out there who don’t know that church can be this good, who don’t know that there are Christians that are trying this hard, who are trying to do it the way we are. There are people out there who have heard Pat Robertson preach but who have never heard a sermon like the one Nancy preached last week. And how will they ever, unless a messenger comes to tell them?
God does have a plan for dealing with this. There is a system at work here. There are beings, not heavenly ones but earthly, who have been called to bear the message to the nations. And while you may not like it any more than Jeremiah did, you know who they are.
You don’t have to stand on street corners. You don’t have to knock on doors. You don’t have to be preachy, or creepy. You just have to be you, and you just have to try to be unafraid.
If you need to leave work right at 5 to get to Bible study, don’t tell your boss you have errands to run; say where you’re going, and do not wince. If your friends want to know why you don’t want to stay out too late on Saturday night, be bold and tell them. If they despair over Haiti, tell them you know a people who don’t feel helpless because they are doing things to help. If they seem surprised that somebody like you goes to church, tell ‘em they ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and invite them to come along. Trust that you are a good, normal, high-functioning person. Trust that when they find out the truth about you, they will not think you’re less cool for going to church; trust that they will think church is cooler because you go to it.
If they ask why you are as good, or as kind, or as peaceful, or as hopeful as you are, tell them what you know about God. If they are broken or beat down, tell them what you know; God will give you the words. That’s what evangelism is.
The world is in need of faith like the faith you have here. The world is in need of places and people like Old South Church in Boston. The world is in need of God, and God has a message for the people.
Buried right in the middle of that word "evangelism" is another word: angel. It is no accident, either of etymology or of meaning. To do evangelism means simply this: it means to accept the call to be God’s messenger, to bear the Word of love to a tempestuous, broken, and beautiful world. It means simply this: to be an angel.
So. Because I believe that God has ordered the heavens and the earth rightly. Because I believe that God has made a plan for the world and has made provision for its saving. Because I believe that the people in this place have true things to say to the nations, and the nations need to hear it, I propose this: a tenth choir. It’ll go like this:
So may it be. Amen.