On Sunday 30th September 2018 All Hallows’ and St Chad’s joined with St Michael’s, Headingley to celebrate their Patronal Festival. Here are the notes from the sermon preached by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews.
During my first week as Director of Lay training for Leeds Diocese after exchanging the red rose for the white, I was meandering through the streets getting my bearings when I came across the Mandela gardens beside Millennium Square in the heart of the city. What could be a more poignant symbol than a Peace Garden symbolising the end of apartheid for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas – which specifically celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
The Bible speaks of angels as mighty inhabitants of the spiritual realm, not some airy-fairy, fanciful will-o-the-wisps. We could be forgiven for relegating angels the role of God’s Messengers – think of Mary and the angel Gabriel, but the Archangel Michael is bit more hard-core. Oft depicted as a warrior in huge technicolour artworks such as the C16 century piece by Raphael, Michael is painted overcoming a dragon representing, of course, evil personified – Satan.
But for me there’s also something about St Michael encouraging us in the battle against evil, lest we make our faith a triumphalistic fait accompli – it is finished, therefore I don’t need to do anything. Rather, St Michael and All Angels remind us that if evil is to be overcome we must participate in the battle against evil. Good intentions simply won’t cut the mustard. We have only to look beyond our own front doors, switch on the radio, television, or check Twitter to see that just as we are alive and well and worshipping Christ, the Truth, the Way and the Life, so evil flourishes through abuse, poverty, misappropriated power, despair, unjust governance, gendered violence, fraud and base profiteering. In many and varied ways evil continues to flourish across the earth and amongst all the created beings we have been gifted to care for.
But let me take you back to the Mandela gardens for a moment. The former South African president opened the garden in 2001 receiving the accolade Freedom of the City. During his acceptance speech Mandela said, ““I accept the honour on behalf of the people of South Africa. You honour me for achievements that are not those of an individual.
“Anything I have done could not have been possible without the collective effort of comrades and compatriates.”
“We South Africans would not have achieved our freedom if it had not been for the immense support we received from the international community in our fight against apartheid.”
Like Mandela, St Michael gets all the credit, but please note it is St Michael and All Angels – or perhaps we might say, St Michael, St Chad’s and All Hallows? St Michael and ALL Angels. Not ‘some’ angels, or ‘those angels that have especially been called to fight battles’, or ‘those angels over there who are much better at that sort of thing than we are’. No, in a word ALL angels. Just as an entire international community ultimately brought down apartheid, each and every one of us must recognise our place in this wider team of parishes as we take up our cross and follow He who is our First and Last into the fray. We must stand together; speak together; give together; challenging the evils we encounter today by becoming more than the sum of our parts as we share skills, gifts and resources around the team, joining with one another’s initiatives, ministry and outreach as leaders, providers, prayers and volunteers.
And yes, this will be costly, no two ways about it. When Mandela was honoured here in Leeds, the Council Leader at the time, Cllr Brian Walker, said, “We are are here to bestow upon you, Dr Mandela, the greatest honour that is within our gift – the Freedom of the City of Leeds.
“Freedom, Dr Mandela, is a word which has come very much to symbolise your life. It calls to mind the fact that for the greater part of your time on earth, you have not been free.
“You have shown the world that true freedom is not a matter for compromise, refusing more than once offers of freedom-with-strings – a liberation for yourself, but not for your people.” We, too, must beware that our faith does not become a liberation for ourselves but not for others.
For not everyone people realises that Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven year imprisonment could have ended so much sooner, had he just promised to keep quiet, tow the line – not rock the boat. To go home and live quietly without challenging institutional and legally sanctioned racism and inequality. The offer of home and wife, warmth and children, friends and familiarity – and for what, his silence? How tempting that must have been. Yet Mandela sacrificed it all finally winning freedom of all. I cannot think of anything more Christ-like.
For just like Jacob, Mandela slept with his head on a stone in a desert-place every one of those 9,855 nights he laid awake or tossed and turned in prison, wondering when his freedom would come, praying no doubt, for his own freedom and that of his people. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film of Mandela’ life called Long Walk to Freedom, but I was forcibly struck by the moment when he has a sort of revelation in prison and realises that he needs to change his angry, combative behaviour against his enemies and the prison guards, instead working peaceably to attain peace. It resonates profoundly with the moment when Jacob declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Mandela lived in a 6ft concrete cell with just a bedroll on the floor a stool and a ceramic pot for company. I’m not sure that Mandela ever described his prison cell as the gate of heaven, but he did say of his time there, ‘I came out mature’. Having entered the prison a charismatic, hot-headed revolutionary, he left a dignified, humble statesman, rooted and grounded in peace, and his cell had become a house of God. And if you feel you’ve been doing this a long time now and not seeing much fruit for your labour, remember that Mandela’s long walk to freedom took 27 years so we shouldn’t underestimate for a moment the power of evil to persist. The real question is do we choose ways which are life‐giving, not just for us but for others, or are we tempted to take paths which are destructive for us and those we love? Do we live for ourselves, or do we have a vision of something greater?
Many of us are here today to celebrate this church’s patronal festival and some have come from neighbouring church. Such reunions can be joyful occasions, where we celebrate the past and remember other happy times we have shared together in unity. But reunions can also have a bitter‐sweet element too, as we recall choices which we subsequently regretted, opportunities we wasted and ways in which we have failed to join with the service of others in our wider communities. As we reflect, we can be tempted to believe that we can’t change or make any difference to our lives now, or as the church is often accused, because we have always done it this way. We may feel we don’t have the resources, but Jacob and Nathaneal and Mandela arose into their vocations out of absolutely nothing but a call from God, a vision for a greater good and an insight into the spiritual support we have around us.
We have a choice just like Nathaneal had a choice. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he’d said. He could have watched from the side-lines seeing how things panned out for Jesus and his friends. He could have let his prejudices make his decision for him and stayed safe; business as usual. We too must choose whether to follow the path of pride, arrogance and self-preservation or whether to take a risk on the outcast for the outcast.
We have a choice just like Jacob had a choice. He might have said, ‘I’ve had a terrible night’s sleep in this God-forsaken place’ and continued on looking for God elsewhere’ never quite finding what he was searching for. We too must decide to worship and serve God where we are and resist the restless temptation of looking for something or somewhere more divine.
We have a choice just like Mandela had a choice. He might have remained an angry revolutionary having his life taken unceremoniously within the prison system, not even making it to a footnote in our history books. We too must submit ourselves to the humility and wisdom borne of suffering and patient endurance out of which God can bring liberation to many.
And whether we are a Mandela or a Nathanel or a Jacob, we might also need to trust that we will never see the fruits of our labour, but continue on in faith trusting that the battle in which we are co-workers with Christ ends well.
St Michael and All Angels call us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. This parish church is a good place for us to start. The beauty of this place and its position in the heart of Headingley draws us out of ourselves to reflect on God’s glory, as it inspired those who created it. It’s position reminding us that we, too, should be central to all that is happening in our communities beyond these walls; joining with our neighbouring parishes not just in worship but in service to those communities. Joining with the work of the Spirit of God in community groups who would never think of themselves as doing God’s work but through whom those glimmers of light and love, reconciliation and liberation can be seen, not allowing these walls to imprison the gospel or God’s love, or even us, should we become prisoners of the fear of the outside world. Instead these walls should become open arms that welcome the stranger, hold the hurting and send out the disciples – that means you, by the way – into the plentiful harvest of students and immigrants and lived-here-all-my-life-but-never-set-foot-in-the-churchers; the divorced, the despairing and the disparaging; the work-hard, the play-hard the find-it-hard-to-get-workers; the lost, the lonely, the elderly; the included and the excluded. You, me, the barista, the mother and the professor.
For you, too, can be someone’s angel. Some of you may even be a sort of St Michael, leading others into battle against a significant foe. Take heart, for we do not do this alone and in our own strength but in solidarity with one another and most importantly, through the light and life of Jesus Christ our Lord, whose Spirit guides, leads and empowers us to heed Jesus’ call.
Jesus showed us a new way of living that is transformative for us and for others and that way is love. It was an example that Mandela and countless others have followed in laying down their lives for the good of many. In what ways are we avoiding or fearful of that call? Where are we being called individually and corporately to focus? And in what ways can we become better connected, more than the sum of our parts by joining together to face the evils that surround us, here and today in Headingley – Far and near – and Hyde Park? How will we engage with the diverse communities that surround us in order to share the deep-rooted peace we have found, bringing grace, mercy and peace to a divided, restless world?
Just like Nathaneal, and Jacob, and Mandela, you have a calling – and of all the parishes in this wonderfully diverse Diocese, surely St Michael and all the Angels are with you!