Entertaining angels unaware

There is a scene near the end of both the book and the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” when all appears to be lost.  Harry is trapped in the deep and dark chamber under Hogwarts.  His nascent love, Ginny Weasley, is unconscious and near death, and the giant basilisk, a venomous, serpentine monster, lashes out at Harry.  Things are desperate.

And then, just as all hope is lost, Professor Dumbledore’s phoenix flies unexpectedly through the cavern on outstretched wings, piercing the gloom with sound and light with the means to save Harry.  The symbolism is potent and cannot be missed: The phoenix is the bird that rises from the ashes of death into new life, and in this case the phoenix becomes the instrument of Harry’s salvation.  This particular phoenix is an extension of his master, Dumbledore, and Dumbledore is surely Harry’s guardian angel.

Fawkes and the Basilisk

Dumbledore’s Phoenix is Harry’s angel versus the Basilisk.

Joseph Campbell, who wrote the seminal text on the Hero’s Journey (which I taught last semester during the Dean’s Hour) says that when, in the universal and mythic story of the Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves his home and sets out for new and strange lands, helpmates will appear.  Our great stories surely substantiate Campbell’s claim.  Gandalf appears to accompany Frodo when the hobbit leaves the shire.  Obi-Wan emerges from the Tatooine  desert to teach Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force.

The pattern repeats in Holy Scripture, and the Bible isn’t shy about naming such helpmates angels.  Jesus himself, once he has entered the wilderness and faced the temptations of the Devil, is immediately tended by angels, who, it seems, have been perched in waiting just off scene all along.  The most striking example of all is in the book of Tobit from the Apocrypha—a book everyone should read—when the young man Tobias is sent by his father on a long and treacherous quest.  God looks favorably on the boy, and God sends the archangel Raphael, disguised as a grubby nomad, to guide Tobias on his way.  More than once, it is only by the intervention of Raphael that Tobias escapes things that would otherwise drag him down.

The story of Raphael and Tobias, along with several others in Scripture, are the impetus for the opening sentiment in today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unaware.”

We can—and I do—affirm with Joseph Campbell that God will not fail to send helpmates.  But the reality is that we rarely know who, among all those we meet on our paths, could be God’s angels.  We don’t know from whence help may come.  It would be easier if Raphael would show up in a blaze of angelic glory, announced with heralds in the heavens.  But because God’s helpmates are so often disguised, if we are complacent and inattentive we may miss them altogether.

Tobias and Raphael

Raphael and Tobias

So, how can we best assure that we catch a glimpse of our guardian angels, that we take the time to acknowledge and notice them for what they are, so that we can become the beneficiaries of their saving aid?  The answer comes in Hebrews’ wondrous paradox: The best way, the most assured way, is to live our lives so that we are angels to others.  The author of Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.  Remember those who are being tortured [in body or in soul], as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

You see, if we will take the time and the chance to be an angel to someone else in need, we may discover in that pause that the person to whom we are tending is exactly the angel we, ourselves, have desperately sought.

We tend, I think, to assume that such encounters must be momentous, the stuff of mythic sagas or Hollywood blockbusters.  We’ve read and watched everything from The Odyssey to Lord of the Rings so often that we tend always to imagine ourselves as the epic hero.  Our experience of saving helpmates must be something like Harry Potter with that phoenix!  But our hero’s journeys are rarely so.  Let me tell you a story.  When I had just graduated from the University of Chicago with a newly-minted master’s degree in theology, the associate rector of my parish assigned me to create and teach a new adult Sunday school class.  That first Sunday, we had twenty attendees.  By the fourth week, though, the only people in my class were Jill and a great guy named Dale Conder who was too nice to quit.  The following Monday, I conferred with the associate rector, who asked me my subject matter.  “Oh, I’m teaching big stuff,” I said, “Complex theological ideas that even include some German and Greek words.  You know, earth-shattering things!”

And the priest replied, “Barkley, it’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering.”

He was right.  It’s not usually the bombastic sermon, or the sublime experience, or any other big thing that saves us, that serves as the point at which an encounter with one of God’s angels makes the difference between life and death.  Our lives are not, usually, lived like Hollywood epics.  It’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering.  The moments that matter are, rather, what I call the small occasions of grace, that blessedly happen on our otherwise mundane days just when despair or the Devil seems about to get the upper hand: the phone call received at the right moment, the hug, the expression of solidarity or care, the gesture of comfort.  Often, the angel who brings this occasion of grace doesn’t even recognize the depth or power of what he or she is doing.  I can think of a dozen moments in life when God has placed an angel along my path, when through some person—sometimes random, other times well-known—a small occasion of grace found me at just the right moment, when it had seemed like all was lost.  I believe you know what I mean, and I daresay there have been other times of which we’re scarcely aware when we have been such angels for someone else.

Gentle touch

Why is it that the world works this way?  How is it that God creates angels out of otherwise ordinary women and men, that God renders angels of us, with such profound power in such small gestures?  The answer is why, at the end of the day, our audacious claim that Jesus is not merely a man, but is God incarnate, matters.  Hebrews tells us today that the same God who knit the stars in the heavens and our children in their mothers’ wombs—remembers usGod remembers those who are in prison as though God is in prison.  God remembers those who are being tortured as though God is being tortured.  God remembers those who grieve, and who worry, and who face disappointment, and who are alone, as though God is all of these things as well.  Because, through the Incarnation, that same God became the fragile man who was imprisoned, and tortured, and grieved, and abandoned.  Even God has felt the need for those occasions of grace.  There is no substitute in this world for the empathy that comes from one who has walked the darkened paths we sometimes walk.  You know this, and so do I.  And the promise of our faith is that, in Jesus, God has walked all those paths.

God is not some Deist clockmaker, aloof in the heavens, and neither is God some capricious king, doing his will without thought of those on its receiving end.  God is the one who knows what we’re facing because God has faced it all, and God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  And that is why God sends angels.  That is why God makes angels of us.

It is a mighty responsibility, and the paradox holds.  We can only be angels, and we can only meet angels, when we pause to notice others in their need.  What angel might you meet today?  As an angel, whose life might you save through an occasion of grace?


Good but not safe

There is a dinner table scene in the lowbrow 2006 Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights,” in which NASCAR star Ricky Bobby’s family pauses before a meal of Domino’s pizza and Taco Bell to say grace.  Ricky begins not in customary Episcopal Church fashion, but rather with the words, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…”

The prayer meanders, until Ricky says again, “Dear tiny baby Jesus, with your golden fleece diapers and your tiny balled up baby fists,” at which point his NASCAR trophy wife, Carly, interrupts and complains, “You know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up.  You don’t always have to call him baby.  It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”

Ricky, indignant, responds, “Look, I like the baby version the best, you hear me?” and he continues, “Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus…so cuddly, but still omnipotent.  Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.  Amen.”

Ricky Bobby dinner scene

It’s a hilarious scene, especially for folks from the South.  (At my first parish in Memphis, I actually had among my flock a former Talladega, Alabama homecoming queen!)  But, as is often the case in comedy, part of its humor is the extent to which it parodies truth that hits close to home.  Like Ricky Bobby, we prefer the infant Jesus.  We may not invoke images of golden fleece diapers, but we do wait all year for the nativity pageant.  We cherish gauzy images of a cherubic babe in swaddling clothes, nuzzled in Mary’s arms, with Joseph hovering protectively nearby.  They remind us sentimentally of our own gathered families, or of the idealized family we always hope for.  The baby Jesus is warm, and peaceful, and calming.  We want Jesus to have power but also to be a sweet comfort—to be, as Ricky Bobby says, “cuddly but still omnipotent.”

But Carly the NASCAR wife is right.  Jesus did grow up.  And when we hear the words of the adult Jesus, they sometimes seem to upend the doe-eyed, Precious Moments manger scene.  Never more so than today: “Jesus said, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Notwithstanding the myriad jokes about that last relationship, this is a terribly frightening “red letter” passage.  From the mouth of Jesus, we receive words commissioning fire, division, and the deepest family discord.  This Jesus is all grown up, and he doesn’t seem to be bringing particularly good news.  What do we make of these words?

There is a militant brand of Christianity that uses this passage and the few that resemble it to craft a warlike image of Jesus.  Jesus becomes a kind of tribal chieftain, standing sentry in front of his followers to protect them from invaders, and encouraging his followers to brandish weapons to do violence in his name.  This is the Jesus of the Crusades, of the centuries-long European religious wars, of the more recent Troubles in Northern Ireland.  This Jesus is no less alive and well today.

Jesus with gun

“This Jesus is a paper tiger, propped up only when today’s passage is willfully wrenched from its context.”

But this Jesus is not Jesus.  This Jesus is a paper tiger propped up only when today’s passage is willfully wrenched from its context.  You see, the most reliable way to interpret scripture is with scripture, and the notion of a Jesus who beats his chest and sounds the drums of war cannot be maintained with the trajectory of the Prophets or the Gospel.  After all, the very pinnacle of the Bible’s prophetic announcement is Isaiah’s vision of the mountain of God to which people of every nation will stream in peace, where God will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and war shall be learned no more.”[i]

That is the vision Jesus comes to complete.  He confirms it in the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the peacemakers”[ii]) and when his very disciples seek to protect him from the mob through violence (“All who take the sword will perish by the sword”[iii]).  Jesus is the Prince of Peace[iv], and we must interpret today’s difficult passage from Luke in a manner that is consistent with the character of his Gospel.  So, what does it mean that Jesus brings fire and division, that family conflict is sown in his wake?

When Jesus speaks these words today, he does so only after twelve chapters in which he has consistently revealed what it means to follow him.  Jesus has shared parables, such as the Good Samaritan.  He has preached the Beatitudes.  He has embraced those whom society has discarded.  And yet, in ways that clearly frustrate Jesus, most of those around him, including his twelve disciples, don’t seem to get it.  They want to be associated with the guy who can exorcise demons and control the weather (that’s all quite exciting), and they love the Jesus who sometimes speaks soothing and comforting words, but they don’t seem to understand—in fact, they seem willfully to misunderstand—the deeper implications of Jesus’ message.  One man says, “I’ll follow you, but let me finish plowing my field first.”[v]  Another walks away when Jesus explains that discipleship requires financial sacrifice.[vi]  See, Jesus’ first century audience isn’t much different than us.  They want the warm and comforting Jesus, who has power but who exists mostly to ease their anxieties.  They want the Jesus who is cuddly and omnipotent.  They want the Jesus who is safe.

“You don’t get it!” Jesus finally cries out, to them and to us.  “What I’m asking you to do, what you must do if you are to follow me, is be willing to set aside your old life.  The only criterion by which you can decide whether you can continue in your old path, in your old commitments, in your old relationships, is if they, too, are in service to the Gospel.  In first place, you have to love as I’ve taught you, and serve as I’ve taught you, and give as I’ve taught you.  It will hard.  It will require you to swallow your pride and often your words, to let go of your anger and frustration, and, sometimes, your social safety.  It may require you to let go of some of your very family who will not live for love, and it will require you to claim as family a lot of people you may not like.  And, it’s not a seasonal gig, by the way, like the nativity pageant.  It’s everyday.  Living for the Gospel will be so different from the life you’ve been living that it will feel a lot like dying and being reborn into a new life.[vii]    Because that’s the only way for grace to take seed and grow in this world.”

Jesus knew the implications of living the Gospel.  Already in his story, his own family, including Mary, have come and tried to make him stop, to give up this different way of living for the cozier and more staid life back home in Nazareth.  He told them no.[viii]  As painful as it must have been, when his family told him to give up living as the agent of grace, Jesus chose the Gospel over his family, and he asks no less willingness from those of us who would live for grace.

Can we do that?  I will try, at least, to say it for myself, and as I do, I invite you to say it for yourself internally, and pay attention to how it feels.  Here goes: Before I am an American, before I am a Thompson, before I am a man, I am a follower of Jesus.  I will give all of these other things up, if I must, in order to live for the things for which Jesus lived, in order to love all the ones Jesus loved.

Can I do it?  Can we?  Can anyone?  I hope so.


In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the child Susan desires more than anything to approach the lion Aslan, who is the figure of Jesus.  Susan stands next to her host, Mr. Beaver, when she asks, “Is he…quite safe?  I feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

The Jesus we are called to follow is not a cuddly child in a manger.  And lest we forget, even when he was, the baby Jesus was quickly in flight for his life due to the division caused by his mere birth.  The Jesus we are called to serve is not safe.  His claim on us is total.  He refuses to be boxed away like the Christmas crèche and ushered out only on special occasions.  He refuses to offer easy comfort when the comfort we seek is at odds with God’s grace.   This Jesus is good, but he’s not safe, and if we choose to follow him, the life we’re currently living may be in danger.  Because if we choose to follow this Jesus, it means risking and renegotiating all of our prior relationships, our prior identities.  It means, as we walk through the world, as we enter our homes, as we live our lives, we live first for love and for grace.  Then, we will feel our anxieties truly ease.  Then we will know peace and calm in our souls, when we are first his disciples.  May we always be.


[i] Isaiah 2:4

[ii] Matthew 5:9

[iii] Matthew 26:52

[iv] Isaiah 9:6

[v] Luke 9:62

[vi] Luke 12:13-21

[vii] Luke 9:23-26

[viii] Luke 8:19-21