A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels Healing Service, September 29, 2019
Several Octobers ago I slept overnight in Grace Cathedral. I went to the Women’s Dreamquest at Grace Cathedral with a friend. It’s like a youth group lock-in for (mostly) middle aged women, and they’re almost all non-churchgoing women. It was spiritual not religious in many aspects. Founded by The Rev. Lauren Artress, Canon at Grace, who brought the Labyrinth to Grace in the 1990’s. I was intrigued to experience the cathedral from a different perspective.
After midnight the lights were dimmed, and people began to settle down for the night. I arranged my sleeping bag up in the choir where I was ordained a priest in 2008. At around 2:00 in the morning, I took a final labyrinth walk. I heard a buzzing sound from over on the side, and I went to investigate. It was coming from the modern art installation called Jacob’s Dream.
During the day there is enough ambient noise in the Cathedral that you don’t hear the buzzing light bulbs in the art installation. But after midnight it was quiet, and I sat and watched the flickering of shapes go up and down the fluorescent ladder, like footsteps. And every few minutes you actually see a whole figure go up the ladder. But you have to sit and study it to catch it, because it happens randomly, and like a good dream, it can disappear. Try it sometime when you’re at Grace.
That experience at Dreamquest came back to me this week as I was preparing to preach on our reading from Jacob’s dream of the ladder between heaven and earth.
Dreams are a window into our unconscious. We barely remember them most of the time. I’m sure that before smart phones, and electric light, people were more tuned into their dream life. Our brains were not going 90 mph all the time.
Jacob’s dream shows us a liminal space. The word liminal means an edge that shades into another space. Celtic spirituality would call it a Thin Space that opens between our regular life and the holy.
While Jacob watches the angels going up and down, the Lord stood beside Jacob and talks to him. God renews God’s Covenant with the Hebrew people that God made with Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather.
How does this beautiful story relate to us here at All Saints’ on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels? Today is also known in the Anglican tradition as Michaelmas, and being close to the equinox, Michaelmas has traditionally been a celebration of the seasonal shift to autumn, that beautiful in between time between summer and winter. So Michaelmas itself is a liminal celebration.
It’s helpful to remember that our Interim time together is a liminal space. And I am convinced that in this liminal space of the Interim time we can be open to a new dimension of the holy.
Like Jacob, we are on a journey into the unknown. And God reaches out to Jacob in the midst of the unknown. That’s when God chooses to stand beside him in the dream.
When Jacob wakes up he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And then 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.”
I think most of us at All Saints’ would identify with Jacob’s statement; we know All Saints’ as a place of awe, a house of God, and the gate of heaven. It has become that for us and for many before us.
Our reading today from Revelation shows us Michael the Archangel and his phalanx of angels who fight the devil out of heaven. St. Michael is one of the few archangels mentioned in Scripture, along with Gabriel, the archangel who came to Mary in the Annunciation. We have both Michael and Gabriel represented in our stained glass windows.
Our insert today says “The Archangel Michael is the powerful angel of God who wards off evil from God’s people, and delivers peace to them at the end of life’s mortal struggle.”
St. Michael the archangel with his mighty sword became a protector for those who suffered and died of AIDS, here in San Francisco and elsewhere. He was known as the “protector of the defenseless.”
In our garden, we have the Shrine to St. Michael in memory of all those in our parish who died of AIDS. In Larry Holben’s book on the history of the parish, he includes a description by the artist, which I’m paraphrasing here, “In the void created by the cut-out of the angel, we see where the Archangel was present, has burned through into our space. This spiritual presence is here to help us.”
That terrible and intense time of the AIDS Crisis is now 30+ years ago. Many of you were today were here, experienced it, and some of you have shared stories with me. I remember talking with Kenneth about it when I was a student here 14 years ago, and with Sue Singer when I was at CDSP, too.
All Saints’ was a haven for these defenseless young men, like the place Jacob slept, “ a holy place, a house of God, and the gate of heaven.” All Saints’ reached out to them like God reached out to Jacob in his dream, and stood by them until they were taken up Jacob’s ladder to heaven. Our clergy at that time, Kenneth, Judith, and Sue, and the parish, were like angels to them, but they were mortals, not angels. And there was a cost. I think its traumatic memory is burned into the soul of our parish like the image of St. Michael is burned through the metal in the shrine.
In the last 30 years there’s been research around the impact of trauma on people. Traumatic memories linger and can even be passed down through generations. They can continue to hurt us, and those who come after us long after the traumatic event.
One of the things that came out of our history days was a longing for healing. I think it’s an important step for us to name it and address it. Today we will have a Litany of Healing that offers up those traumatic memories, among other wounds of ours to God’s healing grace.
One of the things that I wonder as Interim is: how do we hold this important and tragic episode of our history going into the next phase of All Saints’? What is the role of our Shrine in the garden in the 21st century?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but they are important questions for us that I would like to engage more intentionally at a later date. For one thing, the next Rector will probably in their 40’s which means they were born during the 1970’s or 1980’s. They will have no memory of the AIDS Crisis. That is something to ponder as we go forward as well.
Today, I dedicate this Mass to those in our parish who died of AIDS, and to those who ministered to them with dedication, love and courage. The list of names of the dead as I have been able to find them will be on the altar as we celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
Let us remember that we are a people of the Resurrection. When we gather around the altar to make Eucharist together, all our blessed dead are with us in that liminal space between heaven and earth as we break bread together in the Mass. Amen.