Rev. George Miller
“Angels in Waiting”
March 13, 2011
Loneliness. Isolation. Depression. We have all felt these emotions. Until someone has, they have not truly experienced the human condition.
Too often we are taught that our emotions should be limited to “be happy”and “stay positive.” If you can’t: well there’s a drug we can prescribe.
Trouble is, since doctors have begun relying on psychotropic drugs, there has been a marked increase in mental illness and health problems.
That’s the message given at last week’s Clergy Cluster. Our guest presenter, neuropychologist Dr. Susan Crum, gave a presentation in regards to mental illness.
According to her, people living with mental illness overseas are faring much better than those living in America.
One theory is that those in America live a highly individualistic life; those living elsewhere are in cultures in which collective societies still exist and extended families are important.
Europe has been using a form of therapy called Milieu Community. Instead of relying on medication, patients live in a structured community environment that features trained personnel and puts an emphasis on social interaction.
In this environment people discover they are not alone. In other words, they are not made to feel as though they are in the wilderness, famished and tormented by demons.
If you recall, back in January I shared the fact that each pastor only has about 4 sermons in them that they dress up differently each week.
One of my sermons is about water in the Bible and how it can be used to represent chaos and destruction. Certainly the recent events in Japan have demonstrated that. One of my other messages is about the wilderness.
The wilderness is that place, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, in which we feel lonely, isolated, depressed.
It is where we feel lost, unsure, without.
The wilderness can be anywhere, anytime and is different for each person. It is a place in which there is danger, trials and no seemingly way out.
When you are in the wilderness it feels like the most horrific place to be. And yet...if you make it out alive and fairly intact, you find that the wilderness is the place in which you discover who you truly are, what you are made of and what matters the most.
We also discover just how many ways God is with us.
The Bible is full of wilderness stories. Four of the first five books of the Bible takes place in the wilderness, as God’s chosen people wander towards the Promised Land.
It was also in the wilderness that the people experienced how God fought for and fed them, they received the Law and Commandments and they discovered that as a community they were stronger then if they were each on their own.
The wilderness. Wandering. Achingly woeful.
We all experience wilderness moments filled with loneliness, isolation and depression.
I think of my own wilderness, between 1994 and 1999. I was living in MN. It was where I went to undergrad, where I came out, where my favorite musicians lived. I thought Minneapolis was going to be my Promised Land.
Well, reality took care of that illusion. I was far away from family and home. I worked two, three jobs at a time, barely making ends meet.
The winters were colder then cold. I hung out with the wrong friends. My father developed cancer and died.
I saw no way out and thought I was destined for a life of nothingness.
Have you ever had a time in your life when you felt that way; as if there was no way out?
And yet, I can look back and see all the ways in which God was working, and present and preparing me for what I do now.
One way was through the church I attended, called Grace Temple Deliverance Church. A black, Pentecostal church led by Dr. Willa Grant Battle, a woman with a strong passion for God, and Doris Akers, the composer of the Gospel classic “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit In this Place.”
It was there that I learned how everyone has problems, but through God we can overcome them. I learned that you can laugh and be reverent during service, that tithing is a way of honoring God, that a shared meal unites people, and the importance of human touch.
If you’ve ever been to a black church, you know the role touch plays. The men great you with solid, strong handshakes. The laying of hands during the altar call. The loving women who hug you to their bosom.
There is something comforting about being enveloped in the arms of a church mother.
When my father died, I recall how one woman discreetly slid money into my hand, they way people prayed for me, how the soloist walked right down the aisle, took my hand and sung “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” directly to me.
They were angels, living angels who used money, touch, prayer, food and song to keep me strong while I was in a wilderness that I could barely navigate on my own.
We all have wilderness moments. If you’ve lived a long life, you will most certainly have more then one. As we see in today’s reading, Jesus had his own.
After Jesus is baptized, he is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasts for forty days and nights, and he is famished.
Famished. A strong, strong word that opens up so many possibilities.
Besides food and water, Jesus could have also been famished for family, for friends, to be back in community, to hear the latest town gossip, to hear the voice of someone else besides his own.
This part of the story is so important, because it is documenting the humanness of Jesus.
Like us, like the Israelites before him, Jesus has a time in which he struggles in the wilderness, a time of great vulnerability and humanness.
It’s a shame that Matthew did not devote more space on what those forty days were like. Perhaps he felt it was too painful of a topic to explore; what dark thoughts the seclusion would have caused.
How this wilderness time could create feelings of doubt, misdirection, even faithless choices for Jesus. (See Thomas Long’s commentary)
Just how famished is famished? Apparently enough for Satan to swoop in and try to drive a wedge between Jesus and God.
Famished enough that apparently good things like creation, the Temple and worship could be used in a negative context.
And yet Jesus does not waiver. He stays true to who he is and the path he is on. The result is that angels come and wait on him.
I love the last line of today’s reading, the idea that heavenly beings would come and take care of the one who would eventually touch the broken and heal the wounded.
I imagine it in such a way that for each thing Jesus is famished for, there is an angel.
Food? An angel brings him bread; homemade, hot and crusty.
Thirsty? An angel brings him a cup filled with red wine, perhaps a nice Merlot from Barefoot vineyards.
A hot bathe? An angel warms the water and pours it into a copper tub with Calgon bubbles and cocoa butter.
Conversation? An angel sits and shares the latest news about John the Baptist, the problems the Pharisees are causing and how his mother Mary has been doing.
Sleep? The angels gather like on the night of his birth and illuminate the night, singing a lullaby befitting a holy king.
In the wilderness, Jesus experiences an angelic community in which he is not alone, but cared for by God...
...What about the angels who are amongst us today? Living angels. People who make EUCC a safe, nurturing environment in which we discover that no matter what, we are not alone.
That is one of the gifts we have as a church (and as far as I’m concerned, one of the responsibilities of any church): a collective community in which we reach out to and care for one another.
As we enter into the Lenten journey and continue our Stewardship season, this notion of living angels is something that is good to lift up.
After all, it is something we are known for; people notice it and comment on it when they first walk in through the door. The immediate sense of welcome and calm; the friendly, honest way in which they are greeted; the Spirit that is in the air.
The world out there may be a wilderness, but in here, there is peace and there is God and there are living angels.
Another way that living angels have made themselves known? The cards that are sent out. I can not tell you how many times I hear from people who are sick or hospitalized and just how touched and spiritually fed they are by the correspondence they receive.
The prayer shawl ministry. Amazing how a handcrafted item can have such an affect on the individuals who have received them.
But it has. Again and again, we hear from family members and individuals about how much the received prayer shawl has meant, given them comfort, fed their soul.
Finally, being present. That is perhaps the greatest gift a living angel can give to another person.
Not having to do, not having to fix, not having to solve, just simply being there, for a visit, a meal, a joke, a touch.
These are just a few examples of how we have angels in our midst. How else can we be angels to those feeling lonely and depressed? Those feeling scared and unsure? Those who are sick or dying?
Those who feel lost and unable to see a way out?
Angels may not solve our problems, but they help to ease the pain. They help to keep away the demons. And they sure do make the healing presence of God known.
And if Christ himself needed angels to wait on him, how much more do we need it?
In conclusion, when the kingdoms of the world try to put a wedge between us and our God, it is the angels in our midst who help to keep us from wavering.
Be it a strong handshake, a phone call or friendly visit, there are many ways that help us know that we belong to a community, that we belong to God.
Thanks be to the Holy Spirit that leads us to unimagined places, to Jesus who did not waiver, and for God who places living angels in our lives, even when we feel like we are in a wilderness.
Amen and amen.