Sermon: Angels Among Us


Do you believe in angels? Have you ever seen an angel?

Now, guys, I’m not talking about statuesque underwear models that saunter down the runway clad in feathery wings and little else. Nor am I referring to the three shapely P.I.s who work for some mysterious guy named `Charlie.’

Nor, ladies, do I mean the kind that drifts dreamily while hanging from a rearview mirror or bobbles back and forth on the dashboard of the car, or delicately articulated cherubs in porcelain displayed on dresser top, or in framed prints above the living room sofa.

I’m talking about: Have you ever seen a real angel?

Do you believe angels truly exist?

 

Both the Old and New Testaments are teaming with accounts of angels and their interaction with various people. From the expulsion of Adam and Eve to the Annunciation of Christ; angels have reportedly abounded on earth.

Daniel had a vision of heaven in which a least 100 million angels appeared, “a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him,” Scripture says.

The prophet Enoch, in his many travels to heaven, saw, “angels innumerable, thousands and thousands, myriads upon myriads.”

St. Thomas Aquinas not only developed a whole theology of angels, he believed that every single person on earth had their very own guardian angel.

And his mentor, St. Albert the Great, contended that the heavenly host counted 301,655,722, of which 133,306,668 are fallen (how St. Albert came up with those specific figures remains somewhat of a mystery).

With so many angels floating around, you would think that each one of us would have seen one at some time or another.

And, even if we were trying to locate one of these illusive beings, how would we know what to look for? Would we even recognize an angel if we saw one? What would be the defining feature of such an encounter?

Should we look for wings, halo and harp?

Or would they look more like ghostly, ephemeral figures that simply defy description?

Bible accounts of angelic appearances range anywhere from pillars of light to mysterious strangers who look just like ordinary human figures. They seem to move freely and liberally through the biblical accounts of the history of  God’s people.

Yet, today, such encounters seem to be extremely rare, to say the least. Although, I would hasten to add, are not unheard of.

Do you believe in angels?

Perhaps only if you are very, very blessed might you have an encounter with an angel as, say, a once in a life-time occurrence.

And you might actually be rather surprised who has, and who has not, seen an angel. Though they both believed fervently in angels, reportedly neither St. Thomas, nor the Apostle Paul, ever saw one.

 

But take Charles Lindbergh, on the other hand. A man not particularly known for his religiosity. At one point, on his 33 hour cross Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, deep in the night, far out over the Atlantic, while fighting extreme fatigue – when Lindbergh was lingering somewhere in that dream-like-state between sleep and wakefulness – something very mysterious happened to him. He saw these amorphous beings congregating around the fuselage of his airplane.

He later described the encounter, in his book The Spirit of St. Louis: “Without turning my head,” he wrote, “I see them as clearly as though in my normal field of vision. These phantoms speak with human voices…friendly, vaporlike shapes, without substance, able to vanish or appear at will, to pass in and out through the walls of the fuselage as though no walls were there. Now, many are crowded behind me. Now only a few remain. First one and then another presses forward to my shoulder to speak above the engine’s noise, and then draws back among the group behind. At times, voices come out of the air itself, clear yet far away, traveling through distances that can’t be measured by the scale of human miles; familiar voices, conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life.”

Lindbergh’s strange experience left him with a few answers and many more questions. He concluded, “The emissaries from a spirit world are neither intruders nor strangers. It’s more like a gathering of family and friends after years of separation, as though I’ve known all of them before in some past incarnation…They belong with the towering thunderheads and moonlit corridors of sky.”

 

“For He shall give His angels charge over you,” declares Psalm 91, “to keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

Or crash your plane into the sea.

 

Throughout the eons, angels have apparently been following we human beings around, watching out for us, guiding our steps, wrestling with our doubts, delivering messages of hope, and peace, and joy, and love.

Says Frederick Buechner, “Slight-of-hand magic is based on the demonstrable fact that as a rule people see only what they expect to see. Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads its glittering wings over us, and we say things like, `It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive,’ or `I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right,’ or `I don’t know where I ever found the courage.’”

 

Do you believe in angels? Have you ever seen an angel?

 

I must confess that I’ve never seen an angel myself. At least I don’t think so. Although I’ve had a few rather mystical experiences that defy rational explanation. Maybe they were angelic encounters.

It was decades before Charles Lindbergh was willing to relate his experience publicly because he was so afraid of being socially rejected.

Of course, as you might imagine, being a Pastor-type, people tell me all kinds of weird, even supernatural-type, things. Maybe they figure that I’ve seen it all, spiritually speaking. Or that – as a pastor – I am already a little bit off-kilter already so I’ll be able to relate to their tale. Or simply with the assurance that they can swear me to secrecy, allowing themselves to get this wonderfully disturbing experience out of the cobwebs of the mind and into the fresh air of words. Although I’ve rarely been so sworn; it’s almost as if people want me to share with others these strange tales they’ve harbored in their secret hearts for so long.

You might be surprised who has had truly incredible encounters with the divine. Perhaps that person sitting right next to you in the pew.

One Clerk of Session I knew, a hard-bitten pragmatist given neither to flight nor fantasy, described in great detail the band of angels who gathered, around her mother’s deathbed in their last moments together.

When Diane’s second mother Belva passed away after a long bout with Alzheimers, her two grown daughters saw angels gathered at midnight on the deck in their backyard, one hour before her mother passed away. I do not know if wine was involved in that particular vision.

In fact, spending years in hospital chaplaincy, Diane has been exposed to a number of mystical stories that challenge both faith and imagination.

One such story was when Diane was working as Chaplain at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, a large research hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. An elderly man had been brought in after falling down the stairs of his house. He had tragically hit his head in the accident, and there was little the doctors could do. A few days later this man was declared brain-dead and was dying.

Doctors suggested taking him off life-support. And most of the family had accepted the inevitable. Everyone except his youngest daughter, who had always been daddy’s little girl. She was really having a tough time with it all. She simply could not deal with the idea of letting her father go.

Finally, one afternoon, Diane found her up in one of the waiting rooms, sitting by herself. Diane sat down next to her and started to chat, to see how see was doing.

As they talked, the young lady gazing blankly out the window, suddenly her eyes lit up in astonishment. “Oh my Lord,” she cried out.

Diane followed her startled gaze out the window of that fourth story room to see – what Diane still to this day can only describe as a band of – “colors…beautiful colors…every color of the rainbow”; which were sort of floating, hovering and streaming by right outside the building.

The event went on for quite a while, giving both daughter and chaplain plenty of time to investigate and hypothesize. After a few minutes, though, the young woman suddenly shrieked and ran out of the waiting area and down the hall towards her father’s room. Later she told Diane she thought the colors were angels coming to take her father away.

Meanwhile, Diane, thinking more like a theologian, hurried down to the nurse’s station where she snagged a small group of staff for witnesses. She led them back to that waiting area, where they all saw the very same mystical phenomenon that Diane and the young woman had. It went on for some time before finally sort of dissipating.

Diane calls the event, “Seeing a manifestation of God.”

The young lady unabashedly identified the colorful stream as `a band of angels’ come to take her father home. And a few days later her father was standing in the heavenly realm of God.

 

Regardless of whether you scoff at or embrace the notion of such an angelic manifestation – and whatever rationale you care to give it –– that experience enabled this anguished daughter to let her father go with the faithful assurance that he was going to be safely ushered into heaven to be with God forever.

 

The very word `angel’ comes from the Greek angelos, meaning “messenger”.

Angels are, therefore essentially, messengers of God.

 

A few moments ago, I made the remark that I’ve never actually seen an angel myself. I would now like to amend that comment.

For I, too, have born witness to the devoted love of a young woman who selflessly gave her father over to heaven.

And I’ve watched another daughter guide her mother through the valley of Alzheimer’s, walking steadily with her every step of the way.

I’ve met parents who stood firmly by their wayward drug addicted son – counseling and cajoling, advising and reassuring, never losing faith in his potential.

I’ve watched an elderly husband hover constantly over his ailing wife’s hospital bed.

I’ve born witness to an adolescent girl who, while she herself was dying from leukemia, took as her short-lived but powerful mission in life to bring hope and good cheer to other children on the oncology ward.

Do you believe in angels? Have you ever seen an angel? Do angels really exist? To those questions I would simply respond with this:

Angels take many different forms and have many different missions in the world. They are messengers of God who come to bring encouragement, comfort, guidance, protection, inspiration, reassurance and hope.

So if you are still skeptical concerning these holy emissaries, I would encourage you to not be too quick to dismiss their possibility. For they truly abound all around us.

And, somewhere, along the way, you too may find yourselves entertaining angels unawares.