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A homily given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Christmas Eve, 2013

What are we to make of these angels? What are we supposed to think about all these angels?

There’s a lot in this lovely little story of Christmas that is hard for the rational mind to believe. But you can explain most of it away—the miraculous birth, the amazing star. But not angels. They are a whole different kind of creature that populates the Bible, something between the human and the divine. People have invented a whole field of study called “angelology” and explained all the various ranks and types, which only makes it all harder to believe for me.

But the meaning of the word “angel” in the Bible that I was taught as a child and that means the most to me today is something very simple and grounded in our real lives. An angel is a messenger. Someone who comes from God to a person, carrying a message. Someone who tells us something we need to know about the holy.

What is the holy? Well, according to the Unitarian Universalist songwriter Peter Mayer, everything—and I see no reason to doubt him. Which would seem to suggest that everything is or can be a messenger of the holy also. Anything that helps goodness, wisdom, hope, get from out there to inside here, is an angel of a kind. Anything that brings us a message that the holy is the holy is an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a beautiful young woman straight out of a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings. When you’re sick and scared in the hospital, and an overworked, overweight, aging nursing assistant puts a reassuring hand on your shoulder and smiles, and you look into his eyes and feel a flame of hope come to life inside you—he’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a human being. When you are filled with despair and there seems to be nothing except barren ground and hard edges, and you stumble home and your cat rubs her cheeks against your ankles, and you remember that there is something soft and loving in the world—she’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be alive. A shooting star, the Badlands of South Dakota, a sand dollar shell washed up on the beach, the ocean itself . . . these have all been known to whisper messages of hope, harmony, beauty.

Whenever a message comes that reminds you of holiness, you have met an angel.

The messages don’t always have to be pleasant, either. We may hear that people are dying in South Sudan (radio as angel). We may be informed that we have hurt someone’s feelings (angry friend as angel). We may suddenly grasp that we are going the wrong way and have been going the wrong way for years (road sign as angel). If these messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking to us.

Everything is holy; anyone, anything, can be an angel.

And so the unknown writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

This, to me, means: be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the apparently uninteresting. It may be the messenger bearing a note for your ear.  And we are reminded in particular to be open to those would-be messengers that we turn away because they bear messages we don’t want to hear. After all, when the holy breaks into our awareness, it can make us have to change our lives. It can turn everything upside down.

A message implies that there is something we now must do. Here’s a text message that says, “Call me, it’s urgent.” Here’s a messenger of God saying, “Joseph, marry your fiancee,” or “Shepherds, go to Bethlehem and look for the baby who will be King of the Jews.” Here’s an angel saying, “I bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Wait a second. As the first carol we sang tonight, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” says, there hasn’t been peace on earth. People have not extended goodwill to each other. What has followed that message has been “two thousand years of wrong.” That’s because the message is never just a point of information; it’s a command. Go and do something. Make this a world of peace. Make goodwill between yourself and your neighbor. Hear the angels sing and take their messages to heart.

So the messages that come our way can be disruptive, reassuring, joyful, scary, exhilarating . . . . it depends on what we do with them. One thing is certain. When the holy speaks to us, whatever form the holy takes, whatever form its messenger takes, that angel is always bearing good news.

Gordon McKeeman has died. Without our ever meeting, he was a kind of spiritual grandfather to me: a mentor and teacher to many of my mentors and teachers. My conviction that ministry (from the Latin for “service”) is not the private domain of a small number of professionals, but something we all do together, clergy and laity, arose from my own experience, but it was McKeeman who gave it words:

Ministry is

a quality of relationship between and among
human beings

that beckons forth hidden possibilities;

inviting people into deeper, more constant
more reverent relationship with the world
and with one another;

carrying forward a long heritage of hope and
liberation that has dignified and informed
the human venture over many centuries;

being present with, to, and for others
in their terrors and torments
in their grief, misery and pain;

knowing that those feelings
are our feelings, too;

celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit,
the miracles of birth and life,
the wonders of devotion and sacrifice;

witnessing to life-enhancing values;
speaking truth to power;

speaking for human dignity and equity,
for compassion and aspiration;

believing in life in the presence of death;
struggling for human responsibility
against principalities and structures
that ignore humaneness and become
instruments of death.

It is all these and much, much more than all of
them, present in

the wordless,
the unspoken,
the ineffable.

It is speaking and living the highest we know
and living with the knowledge that it is

never as deep, or as wide
or a high as we wish.

Whenever there is a meeting
that summons us to our better selves, wherever

our lostness is found,
our fragments are united,
our wounds begin healing,
our spines stiffen and
our muscles grow strong for the task,

there is ministry.

Amen, may it be so, and may we know it to be so. Thank you for your ministry, Reverend McKeeman, in all its forms.

Mandela at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, to receive the Liberty Medal, July 4, 1993

Nelson Mandela was a hero of mine ever since I first heard of him, in the 1980s when I was a teenager growing into political activism. Ending apartheid was just a dream. Sure, we suggested concrete steps, such as divestment, but I for one didn’t think I’d see it end in my lifetime. I thought Mandela would die in prison, his main achievement martyrdom. We’d sing “Free Nelson Mandela” without any real hope that it could happen.

And then it did, and the African National Congress actually took power, and prisoner Mandela was president of South Africa. Of South Africa! And he was a wise, progressive leader who brought tremendous healing to a country that had seemed certain to die of self-inflicted wounds.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela is usually mentioned in the context of racial justice, but like him, he was also passionately concerned about economic justice. Having defeated apartheid, he turned to an even larger foe: poverty. One would think that almost 20 years of revolutionary activism, 27 years in prison, and five years as the head of state would entitle him to an honorable retirement, but Mandela never stopped taking on new challenges. In 2005, he went to London before a G8 trade meeting and reminded the leaders and the gathered crowd that the G8 had pledged several years earlier to cut world poverty in half. “Do not look the other way,” he said to them; “Do not hesitate. Recognise that the world is hungry for action, not words. Act with courage and vision.” (Full text)

The statement that poverty is not natural, but a human creation, is so simple and so radical. I hope one day we will look back on his words about poverty and perceive their truth as easily as we now perceive that apartheid was wrong.

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.

And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.

While poverty persists, there is no true freedom. . . .

Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.

Not everyone is born to a life as large as Nelson Mandela’s, but those last three sentences are going up beside my desk to remind me not to live small when it comes to making justice.

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