Angels Unawares

Scripture: Hebrews 13:2

A sermon shared at Suttons Bay Congregational Church, March 26, 2023

Many years ago, when we put our little pontoon boat into South Lake Leelanau for the very first time, I knew that somewhere in the North Lake there was an entrance to the Leland River. 

As I understand things, for most of its history locals called it the Carp River, until the Chamber of Commerce decided that the image of a slimy, inedible, bottom-feeding fish wasn’t good for tourism.

I didn’t know exactly where the entrance to the river was, but I figured it couldn’t be too hard to find. So, we motored up the South Lake through the Narrows and into the North Lake and started looking around. I didn’t consult a map before we left because, well, I am a male over fifty years old. 

After a bit of futile searching, I spotted an elderly couple on a shiny fishing boat taking up their anchor and it occurred to me that they might know the answer. I headed in their direction and called out: “Ahoy! Do you know where I can find the entrance to the river?” 

The man on the boat turned, somberly pointed toward the hulking sand dune we know as “the whaleback,” and—channeling a bit of Herman Melville—called out: “Head toward the nose of the whale.” 

We thanked him, they motored away, and Lisa turned to me and asked: “Did you really just say ‘ahoy?’”

We’ve taken that voyage many times since then and it’s one of our favorite things to do with houseguests in the summer. So, when our friend Sue and her wife Mary came to visit us at the farmhouse a few years back, we piled onto the boat and motored up to Leland for dinner. 

At the restaurant, we were seated next to a couple who had a tiny, gurgling infant with them. After a few preliminary minutes of billing and cooing, the child girded her loins and commenced screaming nonstop like a banshee. All efforts by the parents to calm her failed, as customers visibly winced, glass shattered, and plaster fell from the ceiling. 

Finally, the exasperated father looked over at us and said: “I’m terribly sorry. It’s our anniversary, and I’ve been away on business. We were hoping for some peaceful family time together. And now we’re just ruining your dinner.” We assured him that it was okay, wished them a happy anniversary, and joined in their futile effort to persuade the baby to stop squealing like a dyspeptic coyote caught in a steel trap. 

As you might imagine, these circumstances didn’t exactly align with the relaxing evening of quiet conversation we had planned, so I was a little puzzled when we got back to the boat and Lisa, Sue, and Mary were all smiles. “Do you know what she did?” Lisa asked, pointing at Sue. “She paid their dinner tab, including the tip.”

This revelation explained something that had puzzled me: 

As I was leaving the restaurant, I happened to see the young family headed to their car, but they no longer looked harassed and bedraggled. They were grinning from ear to ear; they hollered “thank you so much!” in my direction; the father dashed over to shake my hand for reasons I couldn’t comprehend; and, as they almost danced across the street, I heard the baby once again billing and cooing in her mother’s arms.

Once I heard what Sue had done, I understood. An unexpected act of kindness and generosity had set their universe right again and had saved their evening and their anniversary. 

Let’s call it a parable of sorts.

A parable for Lent, right there on the Leland River.

I will confess to a personal fondness for the elegant King James Version of our scripture reading for today: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” 

Whenever I read it, I think of the many unanticipated acts of grace and compassion that I have over the years seen people perform for others who they barely knew or didn’t know at all. 

I also run across these sorts of stories all the time in an online publication of the Washington Post called “The Optimist.” 

There’s the story of the 8-year-old boy who found out his favorite Waffle House waiter was living in a motel with his wife and children and so raised some money to help him find better housing. Specifically, he raised $30,000. 

There’s the story of the young guy who noticed that the credit card of the older gentleman ahead of him in the grocery store line had been declined and so paid his bill. Thereby beginning a relationship that has made them into lifelong friends.

There’s the story of the 14-year-old student who came up with the idea of sending Valentine’s Day cards to people who otherwise might not receive them—people in hospitals, nursing homes, and shelters. Over time, he’s involved other students across the Washington, D.C. area in the project. And today, lots of people—none of whom he knows—get a Valentine because of his initiative and hard work. Roughly 16,000 people.

You might notice that, in this way, our scripture verse for today has an unspoken symmetry to it. After all, sometimes we entertain the angels, and sometimes they entertain us. A host of witnesses can attest to it, including that sweet young couple in the restaurant and their budding future opera star.

Indeed, I think this brief and lovely verse from Hebrews has a number of implicit messages in it, important things that it tells us indirectly. This morning, I want to highlight two of those messages. They are exquisitely simple. They are immeasurably powerful. And both of them relate to that last word in the King James translation: “unawares.”

We might feel tempted to read the word “unawares” as signaling that angels don’t come into our lives very often. Under this interpretation, angels sneak up on us because we’re not accustomed to having them around. They materialize only rarely. We don’t hear from them much. In this sense, they are the exact opposite of those people who want you to remind you to extended your car warranty.

The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t fit very well with how the human sensory apparatus actually works. We tend to have a fairly high level of awareness of rare and unusual things. It’s the everyday things that slip past us. 

Wear a sweater to church next week and I bet no one will notice. Wear a top hat, a cape, and a feather boa and I bet they will. I had toyed with the idea of doing so this morning in order to make the point—but then I remembered that things on the Internet live forever. 

So, I don’t think the word “unawares” suggests that angels are rare. I think it suggests just the opposite. We don’t fail to notice angels because God is stingy in sending them to us. We fail to notice them because they are all over the place, hiding in plain sight.

Think of it this way: We can judge the success of an airline by the number of planes it doesn’thave in its hangars. A really good airline will have most of its planes up in the air, flying around, getting people where they need to go. It seems logical that a really good God—and ours is a really, really, really good God—would do the same with his angels. 

Now, it’s important to remember that, according to the Bible, different angels have different jobs. In the scriptures, some angels come to proclaim God’s intentions. Some come to give instructions. Some come to offer comfort and consolation. Some come to lead. Some come to do battle. 

In my view, this passage from Hebrews suggests that the ranks of heaven also include what I’m going to call “everyday angels.” These are the angels who spend almost all of their time on the move. These are the angels who abide with us from waking to sleeping. These are the angels who are so much a part of our lives that we are often in their presence “unawares.”

This verse in Hebrews is not the only biblical passage that suggests we go through life in the company of angels. Psalm 91 says: “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.” And, in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus says: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” The Bible makes clear that ours is a God of empty hangars and well-used runways.

Over the years, a number of films have explored this idea in interesting ways. If you’re looking for a serious and beautifully rendered take on it, then I highly recommend the 1987 movie Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders and starring Bruno Ganz. The film poignantly portrays the activities of everyday angels as they wander around the city of Berlin, sitting beside the lonely, putting their arms around the broken, always watching and always present.

Some of you may be more familiar with a much lighter treatment of the theme, the 1996 comedy Michael. In that film, John Travolta plays a cigarette-smoking beer-drinking bull-fighting pie-eating profane-speaking match-making wildly flirtatious archangel who spends his time on earth entwined in the lives and destinies of ordinary people. Why? Because in the Kingdom of God there are no ordinary people.

If you want a Christmas movie that plays with the same idea, then don’t miss the 1947 classic The Bishop’s Wife. There, Cary Grant plays a mischievous angel named Dudley who embeds himself in the life of a confused but well-intentioned clergyman to help him find his way back onto the right path. Lisa and I have watched this movie at least once every holiday season since we’ve been married and she will confirm that I have memorized most of the script. This can prove a source of despair around the holiday dinner table when I start reenacting the movie—line by line.

One of my favorite scenes in The Bishop’s Wifecomes at the very beginning, when Dudley is shown walking the streets of a city, keeping an eye out for everybody, helping here and there, watching for places to cast his light. I don’t pretend to know much about how everyday angels do their work, but I like to think it looks something akin to this. And, of course, throughout the film people invite Dudley into their lives and homes without knowing who or what he is, entertaining an angel unawares.

Now, my day-to-day work as a law school professor means that I spend most of my time surrounded by tough-minded and uncompromising rationalists. Many of them have sincerely and deeply held religious beliefs. But I suspect that, for some of them, talk of angels would test their credulity, and perhaps it tests yours. 

You may have serious doubts about angels, regardless of whether they have the cleft chin of Cary Grant or the dance moves of John Travolta. But, if you’re an angel skeptic, that’s okay, I have something to say to you, too. And that brings me to a second unspoken but implicit message of this scripture, and back to the word “unawares.”

In my view, there’s another sense in which we can encounter angels unawares, and it has nothing to do with believing in winged mercenaries sent from the heavens to block and tackle for us. Instead, it has to do with an idea that Jesus shares with us in unmistakably clear and simple terms. And he conveys that idea over and over again.

Perhaps the most famous expression of the idea comes in Luke 17, where Jesus says: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Think about that for a moment: The Kingdom of God is within you.Within you.Not “you” in the general sense, as in “everybody out there.” But “you” in the individual, specific, particular, and personal sense—as in “youyou.”

Jesus means it in the same way he does when he says in Matthew 25 that God has called you to feed the hungry, to quench the thirsty, to help the needy, to care for the sick, and to welcome strangers. You.There’s no looking over your shoulder to see if he’s talking to someone else. He’s talking to you and you and you and you and you. It’s an awesome responsibility.

But it also brings with it an awesome promise into our lives, a promise we should especially welcome and explore in this season of Lent. Because, you see, what Jesus is telling us is that we haveto believe in everyday angels because that’s precisely what he wants each and every one of us to become.

We are the ones commanded to guard our brothers and sisters in all they do. Weare the ones summoned to sit beside the lonely, to put our arms around the broken, to keep an eye out for everybody, to help here and there, to watch for places to cast our light, and to entwine ourselves in the lives and destinies of ordinary people because—again—in the Kingdom of God there are no ordinary people.

When Jesus calls us into this holy service we may look down at our shabby selves and not see much that looks angelic. Our wings may have gone missing in action. We may more resemble one of life’s passengers than one of heaven’s messengers.

But, that’s okay, too. In my favorite scene in the movie Michael, one of the other characters grimaces at the not-so-angelic slob sitting in front of her, piggishly scooping piles of heavily sugared breakfast cereal out of a bowl. She observes that she thought an angel would be “cleaner.” 

Michael responds that he knows what she has in mind. “Halos?” he asks. “Yes!” she exclaims. “Inner light?” he asks. “Yes!” she exclaims again. He leans in toward her and says: “I’m not that kind of angel.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, it may well be that none of us is thatkind of angel, either. But, as I noted before, the Bible tells us that God has different sorts of angels for different sorts of jobs. It’s just a matter of figuring out your particular job description is—and then getting started at it.  

One of the key messages of the Jesus of the gospels is that you—you—are fully qualified for the position. You have all the necessary credentials. Youare part of the ultimate LinkedIn site, one that has been up and running since the beginning of time.

You are a child of the living God. Youare loved by the most powerful force in the universe. You have the Kingdom of God within your heart and soul. You, you, you are one of the Good Lord’s everyday angels—even though you may have been so “unawares.” 

A second parable for Lent. 

Another one set on the water.

As our merry crew made its way back home across the North Lake, through the Narrows, and down the South Lake we reveled in the joy that Sue’s simple gesture had brought to that little family. In the grand scheme of things, the cost of a dinner may not seem like that big a deal. But everyday angels work in small ways as well as big ones, and Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father attends to the needs of even the lowliest sparrow.

As we chugged along down the darkened lake, we told stories, laughed, and then burst into the full-throated singing of sea shanties. Alas, like almost every line from The Bishop’s Wife,I’ve committed a few of those to memory. And, fortunately for you, none of them is appropriate for performance from a decent church’s pulpit.

Our dock on the South Lake is not illuminated, which posed a challenge in the moonless black night that surrounded us. So, to help, Lisa, Sue, and Mary grabbed lanterns and shone them toward the shore. Seeking. Looking for the right place to set in. 

We found our way just fine. We just had to look carefully. And the absence of light was no problem at all. 

You might say that we brought our own.

Oh, praise to the God who gives such light to all of us. 

Including you, and you, and you, and you, and you.

And the people said: Amen.

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