|Home||St. Patrick's Episcopal Church||Back|
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, March 20, 2011
I found this letter amongst a stack of letters on my desk the other day:
Thank you for your inquiry of 18th February. I am very sorry for the delay in responding, but have been “on the road” quite a bit of late and am only now starting to catch up with the mail. I suppose, however, that you will find this response worthy of some thought.
Upon your recommendation, I went to see the movie, “The Adjustment Bureau,” last night. It’s an old-fashioned love story, of course, but it brought to mind some bigger theological issues like: “Does God have a plan for each person?” and “If so, does this plan allow for free choices?”
It’s particularly relevant today because your first reading has to do with the call of Abram. Maybe you remember the “three strangers” who announced (somewhat to Sarah’s amusement) that this 80-year-old lady was going to give birth to a son. That’s the beginning of Abram’s blessing. You may also remember that it was an angel who later stayed Abram’s hand as he was about to kill his son, Isaac.
Perhaps you read the article about the man who was suffering from the terminal stages of acute lymphocytic leukemia. His last months were agonizing, with treatments not helping to remit and long, sleepless nights. One morning, while his wife was dozing, the man somehow maneuvered his IV around her and past the nursing station without being seen. His wife, waking with a start, searched the hospital for her missing husband.
Finally, she found him in the chapel, sitting in quiet conversation with a man she had never seen before. “Where have you been? Are you OK?” she blurted out.
Her husband, smiling, replied, “I’m fine. I’m all right.” His companion remained quiet, his eyes on the floor as though not wanting to be noticed. He was tall, dressed in a flannel shirt, new Levis, and lace-up work boots which appeared to be brand new.
“There was no real age to him,” his wife explained later. “No wrinkles. Just this perfectly smooth and pale, white skin and ice blue eyes.”
Her husband seemed to want to be left alone, so reluctantly she left the room. When he came back to his room, he seemed altogether different – vibrant and lit up. He didn’t have the air of a terminally ill and very weak man any more. “Who was that guy?” she asked.
“You’re not going to believe me.”
“Yes, I will.”
“He was an angel. My guardian angel.”
The wife turned and searched the hospital, but could not find the stranger. The security guard on duty hadn’t seen anyone come or go. “After the visit, my husband said that his prayers had been answered. I worried for a while that he thought the angel had cured his cancer. I realize now that it wasn’t the cure, it was the blessing he brought with him. It was the peace of mind.” He died two days later.
* * * * *
And so on and so forth. People being pulled from burning vehicles. Armies being saved by the seeming appearance of a multitude of heavenly hosts. Cures for cancer. Believe me, Jim, I’ve heard them all. But before we become simply delirious, developing all kinds of chimerae regarding the existence of fabulous supernatural beings, let me direct you to a thumbnail history of angels.
The usual Hebrew word for “angel” is maluk, meaning, “messenger” or “envoy.” Their resumes, if you will, called upon them to convey divine mandates to human beings, to bring news of extraordinary impending events, to protect the faithful, to execute punishment of their adversaries, and to be the executors of divine judgment before the sins of Israel.
As a man with some theological training, you know, of course, that the Hebrew concept of heavenly messengers had its roots in earlier pagan religions of the Near East. And there is no dramatic difference in angelology when transitioning to the New Testament, with the possible exception that angels are seen to be more accessible to human beings. They appear as harbingers of special events, like the birth of Jesus.
So, whether you turn to Judaism or Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism, Zoroastrianism or Sumerian religions, you will find the usual amount of materials on angels. The Rev. Dr. John Westerhoff, a pastoral theologian at Duke University’s Divinity School – and a man with whom I correspond from time to time – says, “Angels exist through the eyes of faith and faith is perception. Only if you can perceive it can you experience it.”
But all these remarks about angels seem to me a tad defensive – sort of like saying that when one dies, one will continue to live on “in the memories of others.” That’s the result of the rather uneasy truce we witness between theologians and poets on the one hand, and empiricists on the other. I guess it all depends upon what your own “supernatural quotient” is. Let me explain.
There seem to be two extremes. First, there are those who entirely lack skepticism. They have a hard time discriminating fact from fantasy. Too often for these folks stories of intervening angels involve wishful thinking or a certain type of cowardice in facing life’s hard choices and tasks. It can be a way of relieving oneself of responsibility or of explaining the unknown. Sort of like “swamp gas.”
Then there is the other extreme. There are those whose assumptions about the world have no room whatsoever for the supernatural. In the court of last appeals, everything is explainable by natural cause and effect and, even if something mysterious happens, there are but two courses: to distrust the senses and cry, “Illusion!” Or, as a statement of faith, make the claim that some day we will have the empirical equipment to unmask the mystery.
So what do we do, but repair to that infamous modern substitute for empirical evidence – the poll. Apparently, if enough people think something to be so, it must be. Well, as you can see, Jim, there can be no convincing evidence one way or the other. People tend to believe what rings true in their own experience. My honest opinion is that there are a lot of people out there who are making up a lot of stories on both sides.