“Who is like God?” – St Michael, John Ruskin, and Brexit

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

Genesis 28:10-17

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 12:7-9

What to make of the angels?

Angels are all around us: Jacob’s dream is testament to that. Imagine highways not from Sky to Earth – but from a world beyond to the world around. From Heaven to Earth. A highway frequented by angels: ethereal beings, not feathered and female, but feisty and mighty. Messengers of hope and triumph and love and the things that must be. An army of messengers captained by Michael.

Today is his day.

Michael, the one who asks in the very meaning of his name “Who is like God?”
Michael, the one who slays Hell’s dragon: an apocalyptic metaphor for the triumph of hope over hate, love over destruction, life over death.
Michael, the great protector of the people of Yahweh.

It all starts with Yahweh. The God of Jacob, and Abraham and Isaac. The one who has watched over humankind through time and across place. The one who announces her place in our story with a simple and recurring statement: “I am Yahweh”.

I am goodness.
I am life.
I am love.

All the good and life and love that you have known.
I am.
I am that.
I am he.
I am she.

In recent years I have come to be a fan of a more modern angel: John Ruskin. Ruskin, who seemed so dull in my undergraduate days, has since challenged and reminded me time and again to see. To notice. Ruskin saw things that others could not see. He saw injustice where others saw only profit. He saw beauty where others saw only routine. He saw morality, where others only saw taste. Ruskin saw, he truly saw, what mattered, and he was keen for the world around him to see these things too.

This awareness and celebration of nuance and detail has been lost, for a time. Our noticing has become simplistic. We choose to see black. Or white. Left, or right. Right, or wrong. Deal or no deal. Leave or remain. We have become mired in the “bear pit of polarisation”.

Friends, we are being called to see beyond this.

“Who is like God?” Michael’s name challenges us in its very meaning.
“I am Yahweh” God reminds us, as God reminds Jacob.

These words lift our gaze. What is beyond the personalities and the rhetoric and the popularity and the name-calling and the fighting?

What do you see?

Free-heartedness, and graciousness, and undisturbed trust, and requited love, and the sight of the peace of others, and the ministry to their pain; – these and the blue sky above you, and the sweet waters and flowers of the earth beneath; and mysteries and presences, innumerable, of living things – these may yet be your riches.

John Ruskin, as quoted in To See Clearly (Suzanne Fagence Cooper)

So says Ruskin, as he calls us to see beyond. These things are all around us – can you see them?

There can be no taking of sides beyond the side of free-heartedness, graciousness, trust, love, peace for others and the healing of their pain. These things are the goodness of God. They are the goodness we see in one another – in our Brexit sister and our remain brother. I believe they are the good things I may find in those I disagree with most violently.

These are the things that triumph as Michael the might Archangel casts Hell’s dragon from Heaven and our own bitter agendas fade away to leave us feeling both ashamed and resolved: ashamed of what we think we have become, and resolved to realise that we can be so much better.

Jacob was mired in a mess of his own. He was fleeing his furious brother to seek a wife from a land hundreds of miles away from home. In his mess, he lay down to sleep. And in his mess, his eyes were opened to a greater reality around him.

Amidst our own mess, our anger, our polarisation, imagine the corridors of heavenly messengers ferrying divine messages from Heaven to Earth – messages of peace, and trust, and healing. What greater vision do we need for our politicians, our media, and our own neighbourhoods, that this reminder to see, to notice, to be aware.

The angels are all around us. Fearsome and feisty, bringing good news and exposing our darkness with their brilliant light. All we have to do is dream, see, notice, and know.

St Michael and the Devil (Jacob Epstein) – Coventry Cathedral

We have forgotten how to love: a sermon for a national crisis.

What a mess we’re in.

Like man of you, I watched the news last week with a growing unease. With all eyes on Westminster, it was clear that tensions were running high and deeply held frustration was beginning to over spill. I suspect the mood of the house reflected the mood of the country: confusion, disillusionment, anger, and sadness. We are mired, now, in perhaps the biggest national crisis that we have faced since the Second World War.

Many of us have an opinion about who is to blame, with most of our public ire being directed at the people of Westminster who have failed so spectacularly in their negotiations and leadership. However, I am unhappy about casting blame at the feet of politicians, who have always had the impossible task of pleasing everyone and no one. The problems that surround Brexit are, I believe, just symptoms of much bigger problems that we have been sitting on for a long time: ticking time bombs that, in recent months, have started to detonate.

In times of turmoil and grief it’s very normal to cast around for someone to blame. We blame “Remainers” for slowing the process down and not delivering the will of the people. We blame “Leavers” for triggering the whole thing in the first place. We blame those who didn’t vote, as well as those who did. We blame civil servants and academics and “the man on the street”. We blame Europe and we blame the wider international stage and we blame the media and journalists. On Wednesday we heard the Prime Minister, however misguided or mistaken she was, blame her own colleagues in the House.

And yet, as fallible as each of us is, I haven’t yet heard one commentator, or politician, or journalist, or member of the public – blame themselves. How refreshing might it be for some of our leaders to instead stand up and say: “we’re sorry – we’ve got this so very wrong. Let’s work together to put it right”.

And so it’s into this time of confusion and uncertainty that we hear again those ancient words of Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

Isaiah 55:8-9

As a largely secular society we have lost this bigger story of the Kingdom of God. We have lost this greater narrative on which to pin our hope and our expectation and our sense of justice and wellbeing. The Christian faith is not the only worldview to offer metanarratives that help to interpret the world: sense-making stories. But in our increasing secularism our letting go of these ancient outlooks and perspectives is great loss indeed.

If our nation can find again a bigger story – a bigger truth that gives us some context to our own lives – perhaps our perspective on the world begins to change a little. With the narrative of the Kingdom of God, values such as love, and generosity, and tolerance, and justice, become part of our way of life: a way of life founded in the self-giving love and the generous mercy of God. A sense of trust that we place into the arms of the God whose ways our not our ways.

Our faith sometimes acts as a mirror. Not only do we become aware of God’s work in the world, so we become aware of our own shortcomings and failings. This applies as much to communities and nations as it does to individuals. Without a Christian narrative, we as a nation have lost any sense of our own falling short. Perhaps we’ve dominated the international stage with our inflated ego for a long time, and we are about to have a fall from a great height. Perhaps we are a little like the fig tree of Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps we have ceased to bear fruit, caught up as we have been in our own sense of self-importance and self-righteousness.

Whether we voted to Leave or Remain, I hope we did so in fear and trembling: mindful that we need the nations around us, whatever that relationship looks like and whether or not it involves us being part of the European Union, much more than they need us. We would be wise to take heed of how we are speaking and behaving right now, as the rest of the world looks on.

The former Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove, wrote this week about how the Church of England might begin to formulate a response to Brexit. He argues that as a church, we must now be putting forward a much bigger narrative than that of Brexit alone. That is, we must be speaking of the hope and the good news that we find in Christ – and that this must widen our gaze well beyond the interests of our own nation. He says that “if our churches are not one hundred percent clear about the importance of loving our neighbour, who else is going to be?”

As I see it, the biggest problem that has come to the surface in recent weeks in the life of our nation is not lack of leadership, or a rise in populism, or poor negotiation, or lack of courage. The biggest problem, and the one that I have seen time and again in politicians and journalists and supermarket checkout queues and newspaper headlines, is that we have forgotten how to love one another.

How different disagreement looks when it’s done in love.
How different the outcome, when opposing points of view are laid down, and people come together to work for a greater good.
How refreshing, when those who disagree strongly are able to listen to and respect a different perspective without destroying a relationship.

And how rarely it happens.

You may have heard it said that when we blame another with a pointed finger, we have three fingers pointing back at us. Perhaps this is where the healing will start: with each of us realising that we have played our part in this national crisis. In our own failures to love and to hear and to respect and work with those who are different to us, we have all contributed to a culture of high blame and no responsibility.

I believe that through the local church, God can bring healing to our divided communities. It begins with you, and it begins with me. Perhaps this Lent, as the drama of Brexit around us continues to unfold, we might be committed in our own self-examination, our own repentance, and our own efforts to reach across these divides, and bring ourselves back to one another.