[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, August 28, 2016]
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.
One day, about 20 years ago, I was shocked to wake up in a hospital. I was even more shocked when I was discharged later that day. I was newly unemployed, I still had insurance, and, apparently, my blacking out the night before was not going to kill me. The emergency was past, and I could go home.
The sun was beginning to set, and the hospital was not in a good part of town. I couldn’t find a cab, and it was a long walk to my apartment.
I headed downhill, and after a few blocks, I began to get that uneasy sensation that you can get when someone is following you. I sped up, but I was still tired. I heard footsteps behind me, and a man passed me, and turned to face me.
He was African-American, about my age—early thirties, at the time. Taller than I am, and bigger than I was then. An athlete by the look of him.
So he says to me, and this was just the cap to a perfect weekend, “I just got out of prison today.”
I nodded. Really, what did I have to say to that?
Then he goes on: “I haven’t done anything good for anyone else in a long time. A really long time.”
He paused. Then he said, “You look like you’re having a tough day. Let me walk you home.”
I didn’t want him to. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t want anyone, even if I had trusted him. I just wanted to slip away, alone, get home and forget all about being in that hospital, of having lost my job, of having lost consciousness. But I didn’t know any way out. So I said yes.
We didn’t talk much that I remember. We just trailed through the City until we reached my door. I fished out my keys, ready to disappear into my safe bright little box. And the man turned around to face me again.
Here it comes, I thought, expecting—what? Him to ask for money? A mugging? I honestly don’t know that I had any expectation. Just that something was going to happen.
And then it did.
“Thank you,” he said, clearly meaning it, and he took my hand.
“Thank you,” I heard myself say, not really having planned to. And he disappeared from my life.
I had entertained an angel without knowing it.
Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us to be generous in how we treat the stranger, the homeless, the poor. Because God will see how we treat his messengers, and we won’t always be able to spot them in advance. So treat everyone as if they could be an angel, a messenger of God.
It’s good advice, if a little sneaky on the surface.
But if you dig a little deeper, there’s another layer.
After all, God doesn’t need to spy on us to see if we’re being good, right? In Psalm 139, the psalmist tells us that God discerns our thoughts from far away, and even before a word is on our tongue, God knows it completely.
God doesn’t need a Celestial Intelligence Agency.
So what’s with all the angels then, anyway?
I’m afraid we have it a little backwards. When an angel appears in the Bible, the angel almost always had to begin by saying “don’t be afraid.” It’s never something routine. It’s holy, but a little scary, meeting an angel. Something is about to happen.
The angel is just about always there to transform our lives. Mary at the Annunciation, Cornelius the Centurion, the women at the tomb—all of them are transformed when an angel enters their lives.
But the angel doesn’t do the transforming; the angel’s presence is a catalyst. We have to change. Something has to happen.
The man who walked me home didn’t do anything heroic, we might think. There’s no reason to think that I wouldn’t have gotten home all right—although we’ll never know. He didn’t carry me.
Or did he?
But maybe he did do something heroic anyway, no matter how you look at it.
He introduced himself, told me he’s been in prison. He told me he wanted to help me through a bad day, just by walking with me awhile.
He gave me the choice to accept that help or not.
And when we parted, he thanked me.
He had stood with me when I was vulnerable, and given me support, asking nothing in return. I started out cynical, unhappy, and suspicious, and was left astonished, awakened, and awed.
For which he thanked me.
I’ve never understood that last bit, by the way.
But in writing this sermon, I think I’ve glimpsed something new. I’ve always viewed this experience for how it affected me, how it changed my life. And that’s true—the man brought the light into my world when it was dark, and despair not far off.
But I never asked myself before a question that now seems obvious: Why did he thank me?
Not for anything I’d done, obviously, I accepted his walking alongside me, I was polite, I took his hand and thanked him at the end. So my mom raised me to have manners. So what?
It’s just possible that little bit was enough.
After all, where was he in his journey?
Just out of prison, after a long time, from what little he said to me. That day, he learned that he could reach out to a stranger, that he could do something good for someone else.
He learned that he could be the Light in a dark place. That he could be an angel.
No wings, no harp, no special effects. Just one man coming out of the dark reaching out to a stranger, and finding a brother.
I’ve had that experience, of being welcomed by prisoners with the light of Christ. It was years later, when our senior deacon forced me to go on a weekend group retreat. During the retreat, we found out that small groups were praying for those of us on the retreat. One group was not small, though. A big poster-board, hand-made greeting card with handwritten messages from a prayer group made of prisoners cracked my frozen chosen Episcopalian heart just a little when I read that they were praying for us by name.
Prisoners praying that we might be free.
There’s another poster, one at the entrance to this Church, that you might have seen on the way here. It quotes the Rule of St. Benedict, saying, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”
Not like Christ, as Christ.
It’s a profound statement, reaffirming the transcendent value of every person who comes into our lives. But it’s also, I’d suggest, a recognition that we never know who that person at the door will be in our lives. We meet the most important people in the most prosaic ways. I met my wife Catherine over a cup of tea, and then again, years later at the calendar call in a Bronx courtroom. We never know what any one encounter is going to mean to us, or to the person we’re meeting.
We need to be open to seeing beyond the surface. Because each person we meet has the potential to act as a catalyst in our lives. And we can have that effect on the lives we intersect with. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of it when we do.
Do not be afraid.
But do watch out for angels.
You just might find that they're everywhere.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.