The following sermon was preached at 8am, 9:15am, 11:15am, and 5:30pm on Sunday September 27, at CSMSG. This was “St. Michael’s Sunday,” the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Michael & All Angels, which we keep as our patronal feast. Music included the Bullock setting of “Christ, the fair glory” and Sidney Campbell’s “And there was war in heaven,” a setting of verses from Revelation 12.
Collect: O everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reagents with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
How did St. Michael’s get its name? If you’ve heard the story, you know it’s almost an accident. John Tyler tells how it happened in his parish history: When the Skinker family gave land for a new church at the point between Ellenwood and Wydown, no one knew what to call it. Isabella, the Skinkers’ daughter, looked through the Prayer Book for a solution (she was a good Episcopalian!): she noticed that every major feast of the church year had a corresponding parish in St. Louis, all except for St. Michael & All Angels. And so the church got its name.
Who is St. Michael, and who are all the angels? In art, and poetry, and Scripture, we see the Angels surrounding the throne of God, moving back and forth between heaven and earth, ministers of God to his creation. We see the high drama of heavenly battle: Michael with his sword and shield casting the devil out of heaven: Satan, formerly chief of the angels, corrupted by pride, defeated by Michael, leader of the heavenly host. Milton attributes to Satan the battle cry, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” And so he falls, to tempt the earth.
No doubt about it: this is high, epic drama. It had a strong pull on Christian imaginations for centuries. Today, though, we don’t think much of angels, and we pay even less attention to the devil. But it doesn’t mean angels are any less significant — they’re not like Peter Pan’s fairies, who disappear when people don’t believe. And the devil is no less dangerous. Maybe you know the film, “The Usual Suspects.” An FBI informant describes the exploits of an infamous mobster, nicknamed The Devil, saying, “The greatest trick The Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
But the devil does exist, and today he works the same evil he has always worked. Not by assaulting heaven, but quietly, personally: in the Garden of Eden, he tempts Eve with his own special temptation: disobey, eat the fruit, and you will be like God. Adam and Eve are already like God, they are made in his image. But they are tempted by mastery, authority, being peers with their creator. And so Paradise is Lost: in the moment of grasping at the temptation to be like God, Satan, and we ourselves, grab hold only of idolatry, corruption, and decay.
In a world like ours, where Satan does not risk open assault but works quietly and individually, how does Michael keep him out of heaven? How does the archangel defeat his schemes? The same way he has always done. Michael’s name, literally translated, is a question: Micha-el, “Who is like God?” It is the exact inversion of the Serpent’s temptation, “You will be like God.” Michael asks, “Who is like God?” A rhetorical question, no one is like God except God himself. At its heart, this is worship: to render to God what is God’s, starting with his own nature.
Michael’s humble worship, not claiming for himself what properly belongs to God, is what defeats the Devil. Our own humble worship is what keeps Satan at bay in our own lives. But there’s a great irony here: Michael’s name can also be translated, “He who is like God.” By his humble worship, Michael is granted what he could never have claimed for himself: a place to stand for ever in the very presence of God, enjoying his grace and love, being present in his counsels, and aiding in the execution of his will: truly, one who is like God.
Michael the archangel is our great patron here at CSMSG, he is both our defender and our example. But he is not the only angel. The Old Testament and the New are full of stories of the ministry of the angels: revealing God’s purposes to mortals, aiding them in their need, rejoicing at the manger, weeping at the cross, gathering the harvest at the end of the age, and sharing with us in the joy of God’s kingdom come. As our collect today puts it, God has “ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order.”
We pray that “as they always worship and serve [God] in heaven, so by [his] appointment they might help and defend us on earth.” This ministry of the angels is none other than Michael’s own ministry: rendering to God pure and spiritual worship, in all humility. When they come to help us, they do not abandon their reward in the splendor of God, but share it with us wherever on earth they find us, helping us to see the glory of the Hope to which we are called, and strengthening us to pursue it with every fiber we can muster.
In this way, the angels do their part in knitting together the fellowship of heaven and earth. Are you sensing a theme yet? Since I’ve come to this church, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, one way or another, from one source or another, “It’s all about relationships.” I’m glad you all think so, because if nothing else, and there’s a lot else, our patrons, St. Michael and all the angels, get relationship with God right. Where does it start but in worship? Who is like God? That kind of worship always keeps Satan in check.
Worship. It’s what we do here every Sunday, and throughout the week. It’s the best, clearest way we have of relating to God and to each other for that matter. Why do we stand and kneel, why do we bow to one another, why do we get all dressed up? Because in church we step, with Michael and all the angels into the heavenly court. And like any other stately court, we adopt manners and courtesy befitting the Lord we approach and the dignity of his servants who attend him. It’s all about relationship: a relationship Satan’s pride would fragment.
In church we are all God’s servants, working towards the same end, rendering to God that which is God’s: Each of our lives, and all creation. It is an act of generosity, of thanks-giving, of sacrifice. More than this, the God we worship does not sit like an idle tyrant merely receiving the gifts his people offer. He has given himself to all and to each, even to death on a cross. What we offer God in worship is what He has already given each of us: Our lives and our world, but chief of all his own Son.
At the altar, by the Holy Spirit, we join Christ’s own offering of himself to the Father, and we are received by God into Christ’s own Sonship. When we make our communions, we do not receive “a holy snack,” but we come with our fellow Christians to God’s table in heaven, where we join Michael, all the angels, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy martyr George, and all the redeemed from every age in one divine fellowship. Now we experience in part, then we will know in full: the unmediated splendor of God who fills all things with his love.
“It’s all about relationships!” Isabella Skinker may have chosen our name in a process of “fill-in-the-blank,” but she could not have chosen better. St. Michael and all the Angels get their relationship with God right. By living it out in humble worship, they put Satan to flight, enjoy the nearer presence of God forever and get their relationship with us right too. With patrons like these, you and I are constantly reminded of the need to give our all to worshiping God: in all humility, to getting that relationship right, and relationships with our neighbors right too.
“It’s all about relationships.” Satan still stands at our doors and in our ears, whispering to obey him and be like God. Let us resist his pride wherever it tempts us, aided by all the legions of heaven. His way leads not to God but only to fragmentation, isolation, and death. He wishes to reign in hell: let him reign over a silent, dead kingdom. You and I, let us rather serve in heaven, and do our part, with the angels, of knitting together heaven and earth in one communion and fellowship. So God shall be all in all forever.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.