Our Church Angel – November 1
A sermon based on Psalm 34:1-10, 22 (Inclusive Bible)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 1, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott
First of all, let me wish you all a Happy Anniversary. Seven years ago, this very day we started our ministry together. That’s longer than two thirds of the regular pastors who have been in ministry at this church since 1834! Nowadays the average length a pastor stays in ministry at a church is four years, which means this year, our eighth together, will double the average.
What makes this longevity especially impressive to me is we have been together in a very difficult time with churches over the past decade across the nation diminishing in membership, many closing. And now here in the relentless Covid crisis we have health and economic concerns and so many people unable to attend in person. On top of which, for the past five years or so there’s been a marked increase in divisiveness in our nation and our communities. So, our seven years together have transpired in a time of great cultural upheaval and uncertainty.
Through all of those challenging years together, with much reverence for God we have thankfully continued to exalt God and we have worked to be as (our banner outside says) “A non-judgmental, Christ-centered church that seeks to share and experience the transformative, inclusive and unconditional love of God through the teachings and experiential reality of Jesus.”
Our success at being that church is because we revere, exalt and work with God, and, of course, God’s incarnate presence with us and all around us. We could also add, given our Lectionary reading today (and something else I recently discovered), that an angel of the Lord has been with us all the way. As we heard, Psalm 34 teaches a consequence of such reverence is that “The angel of YHWH encamps around those who revere God and rescues them.”
We may not have even picked up on that in the reading. But it says clear as a bell that God’s angel hangs out with us. In Hebrew the word that is translated as angel is Mal’ak (mal-awk), and it literally means messenger. “The messenger of God” has encamped here. This will probably surprise most of you– it surprised me very recently– there’s a depiction of what I am going to call “Our Church Angel” in one of our stained-glass windows. And it’s not even a small portrait but one that is very prominent and has been looking over us as well as out over Main Street since 1895, so it’s not new either.
The church angel is in the round window above Elijah and David on the western wall behind you. So that you do not have to crane your necks the rest of the service we put a photo of it in the bulletin. It’s an excellent picture that Scott Mickley took and it was not until I saw it that I realized the image is an angel. Scott climbed up on the painters’ scaffolding that was up this summer and took that straight-on shot.
From ground level the shadowing and years of dust gathered on the outside behind the protective plexiglass make it harder to discern details. Plus, it helps to know a little art history to understand it is an angel in our round window. Back in the nineteenth century, and even earlier, angels were commonly portrayed in art as putti which is what young child angels in paintings are called (it’s an Italian word). Singularly they are called putto, we tend to call them cherubs, which we think of as little angels. And believe it or not a child-looking head with wings is one of the ways putti and cherubs have long been portrayed in Western art.
Cherubs are in the Bible and they are winged beings, angels, connected to God but nothing says they look like children, let alone a winged child-like head. And it’s a long story how the imagery unfolded but the short version is ancient Greek and Roman art had putti, not as angels but supernatural winged beings. (Cupid’s an example). Early Christians borrowed the pagan putti imagery putting them on catacombs as angels, Constantine also used them. Then later Renaissance artists picked up the motif and made them popular. That’s the quick version of how pagan putti images were adopted as a visual representation of Biblical cherubim in Western Art. 1
Cherub is a word that likely connotes an angel in general to most of us and probably to the folks who built this church. And sure enough Cherubim are mentioned in the Bible as angels. They guarded the entrance to Eden, are carved on the Ark of the Covenant and serve as messengers and transporters of God. 2. In Ezekiel some cherubs are actually described as having four wings and four faces each – and the three of their four faces were nonhuman animals. (Ezk 1:9).
But like I said in western art cherub angels now tend to look like winged young children, and even as winged heads of children. All angels are said to belong to heaven, but can also be God’s servants on earth sometimes indistinguishable in form from humans. In art they now have wings as rule to visually separate them from humans and saints and Jesus. The angel in our window has a very human child head, but the wings on the head’s side distinguish it from humans, as of course does the lack of a physical body (emphasizing its Spiritual nature). There is also a rough-edged golden nimbus or halo emanating around the head representing its heavenly origin and the Glory of God. Western art uses the halo to mark Sacred beings and there it is on the winged head that is flying without a body in the blue sky surrounding the halo.
Outside that inner blue sky is something I also never noticed before I saw Scott’s remarkable photo. That’s a wreath of evergreen holly with red berries that the angel is peeking down at us through. How wonderful is that? Now that I see it, to my eyes it’s unmistakably a Christmas wreath. Who knew there was a Christmas decoration embedded in the building three-hundred- and-sixty-five days of the year?
Over the years I have scoured church records and ancient newspapers to find details about the images in all of these windows–and there was not much from the nineteenth century other than reference to a window committee and line items for windows in financial records. So, I want to be clear that what I have been telling you is not from our church records or the local papers. It’s based on my general understanding and research of art and angels and scripture–and the images in the windows.
During research for this sermon I did, however, find a new to me note in our archives wedged between some pages. The note provides a summary on some of names in memorial windows. You can find those notes typed up in the bulletin too. But, like I said, I have found no notes from the 1890s on the who and what and why of these images on our lovely stained-glass windows. I have preached before that based on oral history and visual hints the Bible figures below the angel are most likely Elijah and David. The greatest human king and human prophet in the Bible are wonderfully portrayed as people of color and those windows are dedicated to our founders and anti-slavery friends.
I love the dedication and those portrayal of Bible characters. But when I look around at the other windows up here I find no other human figures.
There are lots of colors and a number of religious symbols: a cross, a crown, chalices, musical instruments, columns, jewels, a dove, a butterfly, grapes, grain, leaves, flowers, and shells, among them. But no other humans. Most notably missing is the human figure of Christ. Jesus is not usually depicted on reformation church crosses because he is risen. We can think of Christ as not in our windows for that reason, he is risen, but also because Christ is understood to be in us, out here in the congregation and in this church the Body of Christ. Which got me to thinking. From that Christmas wreath in the western window with the angel peering through from the highest part of the church, she is encamped looking not only over us but toward the east where the sun rises, and to the empty cross where the Son has risen.
In the language of Psalm 34 she looks to what rescues us, the empty cross. As she is encamped up there looking over us, we who act as the hands and feet and voice of the risen Christ – unified in the church . . . the Body of Christ. Whether or not the congregation or window artist back in 1895 had in mind the wonderful metaphor of our church angel peering from the Christmas symbol of a wreath to the Easter symbol of the cross and rising sun we may never know. But one way or another whether by intent or spirit – or I dare say angelic guidance– our symbolic church angel can be understood to serve as an actual messenger of YHWH, signally to us that Christ from Christmas beginning to Easter resurrection is meant to be part of us, wall-to-wall if you will. And the result of our following that signal and living into it is that we ARE “a non-judgmental, Christ-centered church that seeks to share and experience the transformative, inclusive and unconditional love of God through the teachings and experiential reality of Jesus.” And that, that, is really wonderful! 3
1. There is an interesting article on angels in art at this link that helped me understand the evolution of Pagan putti in art to Biblical cherubim in art https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/biblical-facts-angels
2. Gen 3:24; Ex 25:22; Ez 10:1-22;Ps 18:10
3. Here is a the picture of the window:
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED