Vision Test

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Tonight is the Eve of the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.

In the context of traditional Christianity, devotion to angels is one of the more marginal beliefs. If someone came to me wanting to be confirmed as an Anglican and she professed her belief in the existence of God and the Holy Trinity and other elements of the Creeds, I would say she was ready to be confirmed.

But if the person also said that she found it difficult to ask the help of angels, I wouldn’t let this skepticism keep her from joining the church. You can be a Christian without having faith in angels!

Yet a lot of people do have this faith. Popular books on the subject pour out of the presses. For example, a book called, A Message of Hope from the Angels, reached the top of the Sunday Times best-seller list. Another book that people are buying now has the intriguing title, How To See, Feel, and Hear Your Angels.

Why are people still fascinated by the notion of these heavenly beings, who are sometimes portrayed in art as having wings and glowing halos and very pious faces?

Well, for one thing, people have an abiding interest in life after death, and angels are held to be messengers from Heaven. They are sent by God to earth on special missions for his Kingdom, and so they give us a link with the life of the world to come that we will one day experience ourselves.

The First Lesson we heard read tonight tells of a dream that the Hebrew patriarch Jacob had. He dreamed of a ladder that began on earth and reached all the way to Heaven. The Bible says that Jacob saw that “the angels of God were ascending and descending on” the ladder.

And in the Second Lesson for tonight’s service, Jesus predicts that one of his followers, Nicodemus will one day see “greater things.” Nicodemus “will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

In the Second Lesson, the idea is that the angels going back and forth between Heaven and the Son of Man show God’s favor upon the Messiah. The text implies that Jesus—like Jacob—could see that the divide between this world and the next is porous. The divine messengers go back and forth, ascending and descending.

Now you may be wondering what connections we could make between the feast of St. Michael and all angels and the person whom we are honoring this evening. I would not propose to claim that Alan McCormack is angelic! (Though his perennial youthfulness and boundless energy sometimes make me wonder if he’s powered by some hidden supernatural force!)

But I do connect Alan with one theme of tonight’s scripture lessons: vision. Jacob went on to found the nation of Israel because he had a vision of God’s plan for his people. Jesus came to earth to share his expansive inclusive idea of the Kingdom of God.

At St. Vedast, Alan, too had a vision: a vision for the Church of God here in the City of London.

The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch often featured religious characters in her novels. When she was asked about her own beliefs, Murdoch would refer to herself as a “fellow traveler” of the Church of England.

“Fellow travelers” are sympathetic to an organization, even if they don’t feel able to join it officially. So Alan had a great talent for reaching out to people who worked in the City who weren’t active churchgoers but who were curious about Christianity and may have felt some attraction to it.

Alan would get these folks to church for some special service. Or he would invite them for a meal and put these Christian fellow travelers at the same table with bishops and deans and archdeacons.

So Alan showed a remarkable ability to bring people into the church’s orbit who would never have seen themselves connected with organized religion. As a result, these folks discovered that the Church of England is a more interesting place than they imagined it was. In some cases, they would come to see the Spirit of God entering into their own lives—bringing them new joy and purpose.

As for myself, I find that every time we meet, Alan gives me new vision for my ministry. He doesn’t hesitate to push me when I am afraid to move out of my comfort zone.

For example, one time when I was subbing for him at St. Vedast and he was taking my parish in New York City, Alan arranged for me to meet with business executives and lawyers and other senior executives in the City of London.

As a result, I would find myself in a lavish office or an exclusive club or an ancient livery company, and I would have to make conversation with high-powered people who challenged me to show how Christianity might have meaning for their lives.

Often, the only previous contact these people had with a clergyman was with Alan! Yet I was often amazed to see how ready they were to talk about religion. Sometimes, those with the least religious experience turned out to be the most interested in spiritual matters.

Yet Alan didn’t only minister to the rich and famous. He showed immense care for his parishioners—and for my parishioners, too! When we would get together, we would always fill each other in on what had been happening in our respective congregations: who had moved, who had a new job, who was sick. In his pastoral ministry, Alan was helped by his phenomenal memory and social skills. But, above all, he cared.

And I think that’s one reason, too, that people are fascinated by angels. They are signs of God’s care for us.

Personally, I’m not attracted by the sentimentality some people show toward angels. It’s a nice thought to be watched over by these creatures. But surely it’s of more importance that we are watched over by God—the Almighty Ruler of the Universe!

Faith in God is essential. Set beside that belief, faith in angels seems optional. No one should be ejected from the church because they don’t share it.

But, by the same token, those who find spiritual nourishment in celestial beings are welcome to their belief. After all, we need as many ways of connecting with the divine as we can find.

We want to see God’s plan for us. We need the vision that comes when God’s spirit touches us. In the workplace today, we have to see beyond the day-to-day conflicts and challenges that so often weigh us down. We need to see the larger purposes God is calling us to.

In the months ahead, you who are members of St. Vedast will be discerning the work God is calling you to do under new leadership.

As you carry out your service to God’s Kingdom, you shall, as Jesus said, “see greater things than these.” And as you are guided in your ministry in the years ahead, remember to give thanks for the visions of inspiring and rejuvenating life in Christ that God gave you in the fruitful, bountiful work of Alan McCormack.



One Response to “Vision Test”

  1. Christopher Stromee says:

    Doug, this sermon is superb. And perfect for its occasion and lessons and Alan.

    It is a little sad that your heartfelt comments about his great capacities were in the past tense, though I am in no position to tell other people what they ought to do with their professional abilities!

    I share your outlook on angels, take ’em or leave ’em, but I thought of a passage from Rilke (not to be too highbrow and not my favorite poet!) from a 1957 translation:

    To the angel
    praise the world but never the inexpressible,
    you can never impress him with your splendid emotions;
    he of the infinite knows you are new to them.
    Show some simple thing that has weathered until as a part of ourselves it lives in our hands and eyes.
    Speak to him of things. He’ll stand amazed…

    -The Duino Elegies #9

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