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A Sermon from Sherborne
For the Feast of St Michael and All Angels
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 29 September 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
The Feast of St Michael and All Angels – Michaelmas Day – tends to slip by unnoticed whenever it is celebrated on a weekday, and here at the Abbey tends to be overshadowed by Harvest Festival when it occurs on a Sunday – as it does today. And that’s a pity.
Ironically Michaelmas is still observed in the secular world, as a Quarter Day for the termination of leases and the payment of rents. It also survives in the law courts, and in some universities and schools, as the name of the autumn term. Yet its position in the Christian year looks precarious. Nevertheless, I hope that the Church calendar will always retain the Feast of Michael and Gabriel and Raphael and the whole heavenly host not as an historical oddity or a concession to a fairy story, but as a profession of an essential part of our faith. I would like to think of it as an insistence on the reality of the spiritual world, a festival which underlines the inadequacy of a view of the universe that makes no room for God. Without God and the things of the spirit, man and man alone becomes the measure of all things. We each become the centre of our own circumference and the limit of our horizons; the walls of our life have no pictures and no windows, but only mirrors, and robbed of anything above and beyond and outside of ourselves, we are condemned to remain locked into ourselves, into ‘self’. And is that not one description of hell, to be absorbed and obsessed by self: self, self and nothing but yourself, for ever and ever?
Michaelmas reminds us that we are created for more than this two-dimensional living; that we are spiritual beings as well as earthly ones; that there is a constant traffic between heaven and earth. The heavenly country is all around us, we are already citizens of that fair country, and it is our native home and the summit of our heart’s desire.
Michaelmas is a glorious testimony to our stake in eternity. But it teaches us, too, some vital lessons in the conduct of our life on earth. Here there is warning against the deadly sin of pride, the sin which brought some of the angels down in disaster from the heights of heaven, and which can still plunge men and women into the abyss of separation from the love of God. There is also the glorious positive example which the holy angels provide, of swift and utter obedience to the Lord’s command, and of perpetual service to his will.
Michaelmas also throws down a thrilling challenge to the waging of that spiritual warfare in high places and low which is the true vocation of all soldiers and servants of the Crucified. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. They did not sit quietly in a corner of the heavenly places, having a committee meeting, perhaps, or keeping themselves to themselves while the powers of evil raged unrebuked. The mystery of that war in heaven may for the time being defeat our human understanding. But one thing is clear: that self-same war continues on earth, and there is surely a need for the Church, in every place, to be in the front line of the battle against evil, the battle for the souls of all men and women. Michaelmas is a time to remember that the Church is failing in its duty when it is not fighting against evil in all its forms, both stark and subtle, both obvious and obscure.
There is a fatal temptation for Christians, and not least for the clergy, to shrink from this fight. It is so much easier to choose the way of inoffensive quietness and appeasement. We all love to be loved. But our Lord came to bring a sword on earth, and he has placed that sword in the hands of his Church. Of course it is precisely not the sword of violence and aggression. Rather it is the sword of righteousness and truth, of justice and freedom. And the paradox in a world of war and conflict is that there can be no peace, no real peace, unless that sword is wielded with courage. No fear of the world’s censure, nor anxiety for its own popularity, should deter the Church (and that means the Church in this parish) from using that sword: in humility and deep penitence for our own shortcomings, of course, but nevertheless using that sword as we stand up for what is right and true and just, to fight for God and the things of God. And do we fight in our own strength? No. We rely instead on the grace of God, knowing that the limitless powers of the spiritual world are at our disposal.
This is proving a season of the most appalling political shenanigans in Parliament, and it is spreading like an epidemic through our land. Any number of visions of our post-Brexit (or non-Brexit) world are on display, most of them vague, woolly and lacking in all essential detail. They seem to have less to do with vision than with pride, prejudice and dogma. They are dividing the nation, its communities and even its families. I hope that is not a sign of my creeping cynicism about the whole political process, for all the enemies of democracy delight to breed on exactly that kind of disillusion. All forms of cynicism are ultimately corrosive, destructive and dangerous. But my suspicion is that real vision has been largely replaced by sets of competing programmes and prejudices, which masquerade as all about making your life and mine a little more comfortable, a little wealthier, a little more secure, a little bit nearer to your prejudices or mine. I want more. The Gospel wants more. Christianity demands a society and a world built on the foundations of love and justice, righteousness and truth, of which God alone is the architect and maker. That is why Michaelmas is so important: it lifts us up from that fatal absorption and obsession with ourselves which spells such certain death to the soul. It gives us eyes to see the real significance of our lives under God. It enables us to catch a glimpse of the realities which the great Christian mystics and visionaries have seen. It encourages us to resolve not to cease from mental fight nor let the sword sleep in our hand until we have built Jerusalem – not just in England’s green and pleasant land, but in every part of God’s world. And for that, thanks be to God.