– Genesis 32:1-2, II Corinthians 5:16-6:2
Perhaps some of you saw the same two articles in the newspaper that I saw last weekend, on separate days. The first was a report gathered from local book sellers, people who own places like Treasure City and such. Someone asked them the question, “If books on the occult had picked up in sales?” Their answer without hesitation was that everybody wanted to read about witchcraft , and Jeanne Dixon and astrology, these cultic religions, telling us what most of us already know that there is a sudden spurt of interest in that sort of thing. The second article was written by , the religion editor of UPI. He said that it is a phenomenon especially among the young, this turning to the cultic. But Cassels went further than that. He said that the reason young people are looking to the strange forms of investigating the supernatural is that the Church has ceased to help them find it; the church has failed to reach out to say something to their deep spiritual longings.
Now, people are always criticizing the church, but I think he may have something there. There has been a time in the last ten years or so when we who are the church have tended to confuse political activity with religious activity. Now, you know that I am not against political activity; it is simply that I believe that we have tended sometimes to want to substitute political activitism for prayerful devotion. So some people have gone other places, figuring there is more to be said about God than that. Or we have tended to confuse church activity with spiritual activity, implying that if someone is active in the church he is a spiritual person. He may not even have a nodding acquaintance with the God who makes us alive in the spirit, but he is active in the church. And so people have gone to the cultic that at least promised them the supernatural. Or we have tended to make the church a phony auto fit, saying one thing and doing another. Speaking of love out of one side of our mouths, but mouthing hatreds out of the other side of our mouths, and so some people have just quit the whole thing, figuring that Christians are just a bunch of phonies anyway.
If I admit to these charges, I am not saying that I think the situation is hopeless. In fact, I am saying that Cassels is not telling us something that we don’t already know. In fact, Cassels is almost out of date. What he tells us is wrong with the church has already begun to change. We have recovered our understanding of the necessity to speak about Divine things. We have found again our spiritual voice.
Right in the middle of the Jacob stories there is this report, that while Jacob was on his way with his wives and his children and all his household to a reunion with his brother Esau, he saw the angels of God and he said, behold the army of God, and he called the name of the place Mahasaim, after the army of God. What I want to say to you is that in the middle of our journey toward whatever newness that God is calling us to, there is the rumor that the angels are back again. God has always had his messengers, his angels, to carry his word of love abroad in this world. I believe the rumor, because I believe that you are the messengers, these angels of God.
Don’t let that startle you, for God chooses his own messengers. He has always done that, and he always will. I would want to say to those who doubt about the Church, that God has never been without his army of messengers, and he never will be. To be sure, there is a bad side of the story. Maybe some of you saw in last Sunday’s paper the report of the panel held in Dallas, for a host of men and women, who have quit the professional Clergy. They were giving their reasons why they were out now. They said, what a lot of people, as we already noted have said, “that the church has been unable and unwilling to find those forms which deal with the ultimate concerns of people.” There were other reasons, but that was the principal one. They were saying, as much as anything else, that the church has arthritis, not able to move where it needs to move to carry the message of God. These were men who had dropped out in the last five years. This year, at Annual Conference that convenes tonight, it will be reported that 18 men are dropping out. That’s a lot.
But that’s not the whole story. As I read the story of what those people said, I was sorry that they didn’t have someone on the panel who said that he likes what he is doing. For there are a lot of clergymen who like what they are doing, I do not hold myself up as an example, but I am one of them. I had a most interesting thing happen to me a couple of months ago. This friend of mine, who is dropping out this year by the way, invited me to lunch with him. It seems he is going with a company that sells a service to people to help them with their personal growth. He sees it as a continuing ministry, he believes that he will be doing with that company what he has been trying to do with the church, and he came to me with a proposal that I join his company, not full time, as he is, but part time. He said that if I put in 8 to 10 hours per each week, I could make an additional $300 or $400 a month additional income. Now, that kind of money is not to be pushed aside quickly, and so because I respected Vic I told him I would think about it. When I called him a couple of weeks later to tell him no, I told him I very much appreciated his asking me to consider it, because it had given me the opportunity to ask myself, “Do you like what you are doing?” I like what I am doing. I cannot imagine myself outselling something to somebody when I knew that there is something in the church I ought to be doing. I like it when people just drop by to share their joys, or their fears, their ambitions, the victories, their defeats, with me. And a lot of other people like it too. In fact, someone said the other day that when they called these people for the panel, one is a very busy psychiatrist, one is a busy counselor, each has his own work to do, but they all came, not one man invited said no, and they all came gladly.
But even if all were to fall away, even if next year fifty drop out, God has never been, and never will be without his people. God is still about the business of sending messengers to and fro in this world of his. Even if we lose our voice, another will take up the cry, “Behold the Lamb of God.” So, you see, I am a believer in what God is doing, and I believe that we have already begun to find our own voice again. I believe that the rumor that the angels are back.
I believe it first because God has always had his messengers and second because those messengers are taking the message of love and reconciliation to and fro in the world. Reconciliation, Paul said that’s what the message of the angels of God is all about, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and giving to us, the messengers, the work of reconciliation.” The kids are critical say the commentators on the contemporary scene because no one tells them about God. We talk about love they say, but not about divine love. We talk about power, but not about the power of the Holy Spirit. And if they are right we ought to listen. For Paul said we are called by God to be the brokers between men and God, the reconcilers, the middle men, mediating God to men, telling them where he can be found.
But reconciliation comes in many forms. Someone said the other day if it isn’t reconciliation, the church has no business doing it. To put it another way, where there is a separation between God and men, there we who are his servants are called to go, to fill the breach, to offer ourselves for the sake of healing. Wherever there is a separation between men and men, there we are called to go. A friend of mine told me about a project he is engaged in the other day. He said, we are trying to bring the bankers who may not know the needs of the poor and the poor people who don’t know how banks operate together so that the poor can borrow money to put indoor plumbing in their houses in the city of Austin. Standing in between, that is reconciliation. Another friend told me about a church that was under pressure from a Mexican-American youth organization to allow its facilities to be used by the group. The problem was that the youth group wanted to dictate the terms of the use of the building. When they reached the impasse the youth picketed the worship services at that Church. The minister went out and invited them in, but they refused until the service had started and they wanted to be seated in a group in a crowded church. What would you have done? Called the police? In that church they decided to fight dirty. They adjourned their service next Sunday and held it on the sidewalk surrounding the picketers, surrounding them with the reconciling love of God. That’s reconciliation, wherever there is separation, Christians are not called to take sides, but to stand in the middle, to reconcile.
They can say whatever they like, but I say to you that God has never been without his messengers in this world, and they are going about this world, even in our times, standing in between God and men, between men and men, mediating the message of God. I believe the rumors that the angels are back.
I say it is happening finally because you are they, for you must be they. You must be the angels, the messengers of God. That’s what Paul said, “Giving to us the ministry of reconciliation.” Now is the day of salvation.
You must be the people who throw themselves into the breach. If the students say that they intend to turn to drugs or cults, and the two very often go together, you and I must say, “Let me tell you about the Holy God, the one who is really there, not the one who appears in drugged imaginations or magical fantasies. You are God’s messengers. If there is a separation between men and men, you and I must stand in the middle and say, be reconciled, in the name of the Holy God. If the extremists of the right and the left are pushing people to one side or the other (and they are, all you have to do to know is to talk to them. When I talk to a Bircher, he makes me ultra-liberal, unless I work hard to keep my balance. When I talk to one of the new left, he makes me a conservative.) But between the extremes, you and I must stand in the middle with the reconciling, loving message of God. It is not that we shouldn’t have any opinions. I have my opinions. You have opinions; we act on them, as we ought to act. But what nobody else is doing, God has sent his messengers to do reconciliation. If it isn’t reconciliation the Church, and that is us, the messengers, the army of God’s angels, shouldn’t be doing it.
God has never been without his messengers in this world, and he never will be. I believe that, but if you are not those messengers, if you are not the angels of God, I don’t know who will be. I believe that the rumor that the angels are back and you are they.
I read what those clergymen said with interest, I read what Lewis Cassels said with interest. I read what the students say with interest and concern, knowing on the one hand, that the Church has always had its critics, and its needs them. We follow a perfect Lord imperfectly, and we need to be reminded of our sins and our short-comings frequently. But I also thank God that’s not all of it. This strange little story in the middle of the Jacob stories about Jacob’s encounter with the angels of God, says to me that God has never been without his messengers, carrying his word of love and reconciliation about the world and he never will be. And in spite of what our critics say, I believe that you are those messengers. I believe that you not only believe in reconciliation, but that you are doing it, in the name of God you are doing it.
When the critics say the church isn’t telling about God anymore, I want to say… “But there is a rumor that the angels of God are back”. Keep up the good work.
This sermon was preached in late May or early June of 1970 at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Garland, Texas