Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“War broke out in heaven,
and Michael and his angels fought against the dragon …” (Rev. 12)
In Apache culture (as in many native societies), place names are of great consequence. In his book Wisdom Sits in Places, the ethnographer Keith Basso documents how Apaches understand themselves to inhabit a landscape whose names are vivid reminders not only of the experience their ancestors had there, but also of the moral lessons they learned and then handed down. Place names like “Two Old Women Are Buried,” or “They Are Grateful for Water,” both teach a respect for tradition, and a gratitude for the creator’s gifts that sustain life.
Christian culture, too, attaches names to places in a way that tells a story. The utopian village of New Harmony, Indiana, for instance; or the Christian mission of San Francisco (St. Francis), California; or the Spanish capital of Santa Fe (Holy Faith), New Mexico. Even here in this church, we ourselves inhabit a place with a name that tells story: the parish of St. Michael and All Angels.
Take the sculpture of Michael that’s there beside the altar. Evoking today’s reading from Revelation, it shows Michael struggling against the dragon, commonly associated with Satan. The story, you may recall, is that Satan, himself one of the angels, grew restless with his place around the throne of God. And so he decided to stage a rebellion, seeking to take God’s place for himself. Michael, wielding the sword of truth and the scales of justice (you can see them right there in his hands), fights again him, not only defeating Satan’s attempted coup but casting him out of heaven and down to earth, [“fallen to Sheol” like the rebel prophesied in our first reading from Isaiah].
So if we take our identity as a church from the name St. Michael’s, what do we learn from it? What do we see as having been at stake in this great mythological conflict? Given the political struggles we as a nation are currently engaged in—and the so-called politics of entitlement that has been on such vivid and distressing display this past week—it seems to me that we might interpret the story as trying to teach us that Satan’s essential error was to have developed a sense of being entitled to more than was his due. What he was entitled to, as one of the angels, was the enjoyment and wonder of God’s glory. What he was not entitled to, was to become like God, trying to establish the supremacy of his own power and influence.
Now, if you think about it, this term “entitlement” is a very peculiar word, for it seems to mean two opposite and contradictory things all at once. On one hand, to be entitled is the positive consequence of some aspect of who we are. As citizens, for example, we are entitled to vote.
Yet on the other hand, being entitled also has the pejorative connotation of believing oneself to be deserving of privileges or special treatment that are not ours to claim. To be wealthy, for instance, does not (or at least should not) exempt anyone from the law. Or simply to have a desire for something or someone, does not entitle us to have it, however much impaired our moral or cognitive faculties may be. (That was the mistake Adam and Eve made in the garden, wasn’t it? To think that since they desired the apple, it was theirs to eat.)
The danger of this distorted sense of entitlement is that it runs afoul of the ordered world that God created for us to live in, where relationships of mutual responsibility and accountability are intended to provide for the flourishing of all. False claims of entitlement upset that order, dividing the human community into opposing groups such as the haves and have-nots, the elite and the ordinary, or any number of other unproductive and false distinctions. These falsehoods, in turn, lead us into selfish behaviors whose consequences everyone bears. Human beings, for instance, were intended in God’s moral order to be stewards and not merely consumers of the earth’s resources, and the cost of feeling entitled to all that we want is increasingly evident all around us. Yet conversely, there are also things in this moral order to which we are entitled: things such as human dignity, basic fairness, and a fundamental equality.
In the story of Satan’s revolt against heaven, however, he refuses these limitations on his own creatureliness, and so like Adam and Eve, wants to possess everything, and on his own terms. That is the sinful side of entitlement, for it presumes an indefensible privilege that may in practice be possible to claim, but is nevertheless undeserved. Worse yet, such a sense of entitlement has a remarkable power to make those who hold it oblivious to the injury they inflict—Satan himself leaves the war-torn heaven sulking (as Milton puts it), that it is “better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.” One of the bedevilments of our age is that it is rife with just such unwarranted and violent claims to entitlement, whether they are based on education, or age, or race, or gender, or citizenship, or ordination, or whatever.
Yet Jesus was someone who positioned himself precisely at the point of intersection between these two contrary meanings of entitlement—that which we rightly expect, and that which we wrongly claim—so as to defend the one and resist the other. Think of how often he asserted the legitimate claims of those who were denied the dignity and respect to which they were entitled: the leper, the stranger, the cripple, the blind. Then think again of how often he resisted the illegitimate claims of those who presumed that their status entitled them to special privilege: the Pharisee, the Sadducee, the rich young ruler, the unrepentant sinner.
Jesus’ mission was to restore humanity to a rightly ordered community, undistorted by the false sense of entitlement that drove us out of Eden in the first place. In today’s gospel, he offers us a metaphor for this alternative vision. The new creation is a human community where all are woven together into one, with Jesus as the life-giving vine of which we are the branches. The life force of this vine is the love with which God loves us, and with which we are to love—care for—one another. In such a community, there are no false entitlements or special privileges, but only the inescapable fact of belonging to one another. And as long as the vine remains rooted in its source—Jesus himself—it can extend in all directions to embrace the whole human family. That’s the meaning of the image of the vine there around the east end of the church, a vine which will become symbolic of this fall’s stewardship campaign, “Extending Our Reach through Our Life Together.” And it’s the impetus for today’s Ministry Fair, when each of us can find out how our own reach can be extended through the ministries of this parish.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, just before the fall of Adam and Eve, he has them serve a meal to the archangel Raphael as a sign of their commonality as human beings even with the angels. In that time of innocence, before their sense of entitlement got the better of them, Adam and Eve were able to relish their sense of belonging in the cosmic order. “Freely we serve,” they say, “because freely we love.”
Likewise, to say that our church bears the name of “St. Michael and All Angels,” is to say that we understand ourselves to be a community where God’s free gift of love motivates our service to the world. Michael’s sword of truth and scales of justice are the standard by which we measure the demands of this love. And as we do, we take heart from Jesus who promises that as the vine, he calls us to be the branches of this new community of love so that his joy may be in us, and our joy may be complete. Such joy in caring for and serving one another is, in the end, that to which we are most truly entitled. Amen.