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Angels Are Hovering 'Round

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 06

Texts:  Ecclesiastes 12: 1-7,  Hebrews 12: 1-7, 13

This past Thursday morning, I met with a group of close clergy colleagues. As we began our meeting, one of them shared that he had just come from the hospital where he said goodbye to his dear and long-time friend, Harry Huff.  Until this past week, Harry was the widely loved and extremely talented Minister of Music and Organist at Old South Church in Copley Square.  He suffered a brain aneurysm on Tuesday and died shortly before 7 am on Thursday. He was 64 years old.  It’s a shattering loss for the Old South community, for Harvard Divinity School where he played and taught, for countless local and national guilds, and for those of us who had the pleasure of knowing Harry’s unique gifts and irrepressible charm.  As my friend finished sharing about the late nights and morning he had at Harry’s bedside, I suggested we light a candle. Another colleague suggested we sing.  We did both, in a living room out in Newtown.  We sang:

There are angels hovering round. 
There are angels hovering round.
There are angels hovering round.

It was a profoundly tender moment.  For just a few hours earlier, Harry was called home, and his “breath returned to God” to quote our Ecclesiastes reading.  I love that phrase. Though filled with pain, to be sure, the moment was for me a gift of centering, clarity and grounding in the midst of an otherwise chaotic and anxiety filled week. Aside from the high note of Wednesday’s World Series win, I think we’ve all been carrying a deep anxiety and confusion about what this coming Tuesday will bring, let alone the days that follow.  Singing that sweet song was a gift, as was the reminder that we are surrounded, even now, by those who came before, those who fought the good fight and who now see clearly and face to face what we can only see dimly. 

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says as much. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses!”  He’s talking about those angels hovering ‘round. His affirmation follows an almost 40 verse roll call of spiritual ancestors, from Abel to Abraham to Moses to David, to the prophets who by faith, we are told in chapter 11, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, [and] won strength out of weakness...”

Therefore, since we are surrounded! We might wonder, we might even find some momentary calm or relief in imagining how they are sizing up this moment in history.  I mean…did they enjoy that World Series as much as we did?  As one announcer said before the end of game 7, no one that was then alive had lived to see the day of a Cubs World Series victory but surely many died hoping!  More deeply, we might wonder:  is that cloud of witnesses as torn up as we are about the sad and sorry state of the nation?  We can only imagine what they see.  Our rational minds may question If they see, but our hearts may tell us something different.  Our hearts, and our faith, tell us it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that they are hovering ‘round, even now, if only to surround us, encourage us and inspire us.  Our scripture exhorts us to consider them, including Jesus, so that we may not grow weary or lose heart. 

That’s a thing about angels, those beloved saints departed…by faith, we know they are no longer with us, that they are in a better place, that we see dimly but they see clearly.  But our ongoing connections to the saints, connections of prayer and memory, can be for us a source of hope.  On days like today when we celebrate all the saints, it may feel like the veil between earth and heaven, between time and eternity, grows thin. We too can help repair the breach and close the gap between the world as we see it and the world as God sees it. We, too, want and indeed are given a taste of that banquet of God’s love and justice and peace.  They are in that holy kin-dom that Jesus taught us to pray about, and they are urging us on even now as we try to bring our broken world closer to that realm.  Thank God for all the saints and angels and the summons they provide.

I came across another reference to angels this week, this time in my inbox.  I saw Lincoln’s phrase “the better angels of our nature” used in a closing line of a moral declaration for election week. The declaration has been making the rounds in churches, synagogues and mosques around the country.  It was written by Rev. Dr. William Barber.  As the President of the NAACP in North Carolina, he stands in a long line of prophetic witness and, in the minds of many, is picking up the mantel of freedom fighters like Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer and Dorothy Day.  He and his colleagues are bringing forth a grassroots movement that began in 2013 with the so-called Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina Statehouse. This “moral revival” movement has now spread to 22 states and counting.

I’ll invite us to read their declaration in a moment, but first I want to remind us of the source of that “better angels” phrase that Rev. Barber references.  It’s from the conclusion of Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural Address, given in 1861. This is before Lincoln took a public stand against slavery and at a time when Southern States were threatening secession from the Union.  On the brink of a Civil War, he addressed a torn and despairing nation:

“… We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This was the sort of poetic, inspirational rhetoric that our country gave rise to during a time of unfathomable injustice a century ago, before slavery was abolished. 

“We are not enemies, but friends.”

Aren’t we desperate to hear that message now, assuming it’s not too late?!

Isn’t there a bitter need for us all to summon our better angels in order to face the week ahead? 

Friends, no matter what happens on Tuesday, we will wake up on Wednesday morning to a country in need of healing as deep as Jerusalem in Jesus’ time.  Recognizing our need to find common ground, to listen to those with whom we would disagree while standing firm in our values, we cannot afford drooping hands or weak knees or crooked paths.  Thank God our scripture today reminds us that we are not alone in this work.  We’ve got Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who stands tall and walks ahead of us, like a light. We’ve got saints and angels cheering us on, holding fast to those eternal truths that we all hold dear, surrounding us and encouraging us to persevere.  Yet as we celebrate the great cloud above and all ‘round us today, we must also look inward as well. We must appeal to those better saints and better angels that are within each of us, within our neighbors, and within those who are voting the other way.

Cornel West said recently of this current moment, “The most frightening feature of the civic melancholia in present-day America is the relative collapse of integrity, honesty, and decency — an undeniable spiritual blackout of grand proportions.”  But West is not without hope, albeit “hope on a tightrope” as he likes to say.  He too appeals to our spiritual forebears, to a tradition of prophetic wisdom and to the “spiritual and democratic movements that are afoot” even now. And so too must we.

In your bulletins, you’ll find an insert with Rev. Barber’s moral declaration in the form of a litany. We’ve been asked to share it this morning in solidarity with people of faith and conscience across the nation, and indeed with a movement of moral revival.  As we do, I invite us to consider the great cloud of witnesses that held strong to similar values when times were hard, that persevered through extreme injustice to seek remedies on which we still rely to this day. Imagine that solidarity extending not only across our nation but across the generations as well. 

The statement is not a prayer. It’s not especially profound rhetoric after the historic opening lines. It’s not about Trump vs Hillary. It is about right vs wrong and about what we will and won’t accept.  Shifting the focus from election scandals and conspiracy theories, it instead addresses what’s at stake for real lives, and what is at stake in both the myth and the ongoing promise of our American Democratic experiment.  Please join me in sharing it now.

 

We have heard the prophet's call to repair the breach and we know our Constitution's goal of a more perfect union.  

We reach back to our sacred texts that affirm life, love, and justice. “This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood.” (Jeremiah 22:3)…

We believe this to be true: All people have inherent rights, and no one can take them away. 

We have the right to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness.

We believe that the power of our governments derives from us, the people,

For the purpose of providing for the general welfare and protecting our human rights.

We believe in the values of democracy we were taught, so we cannot accept our democracy’s feeble state.

We cannot accept voter suppression and intimidation that target people of color and the poor.

We cannot accept demagoguery and fear-mongering that demonize and divide.

We cannot accept that 45 million are poor in the richest country in history, or that 1 in 5 children are food-insecure.

 

We cannot accept wages that don’t provide for a decent life, or the suppression of workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.

We cannot accept segregation and inequality in our public schools, or the attempts to privatize and profit-ize them.

We cannot accept that 29 million Americans don’t have health insurance, including more than 4 million denied Medicaid expansion by their state.

We cannot accept inaction in the face of climate change and its disproportionate impact on impoverished communities.

We cannot accept that 1 in 3 Black men born today can expect to spend time in prison, nor that our country holds one quarter of the world’s prisoners but only 1/20 its population.

We cannot accept endless war, which spends lives and resources only to destroy lives and resources.

We cannot accept attacks on our neighbors: immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer folks, the disabled, or the poor.

We cannot accept the way things are because we have been given a moral vision of how things ought to be.

ALL: We are here to summon the better angels of our nature and press together toward higher ground.

Friends, we know it by faith. There are angels hovering ‘round, and there are better angels within each and everyone of us.   May we summon them as we head to the polls on Tuesday. May we heed them now as we come to the table of love together, as Jesus did, with undying hope and radical love hope even for our enemies, all the while holding fast to the promise of God’s love which bears all things and believes all things and endures all things. 

Amen.

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