Like many a minister, I’ve preached some very fine sermons that I can no longer recall and some roundly mediocre ones that I cannot seem to forget. Yet there is only one I truly regret delivering, not because it was rotten or wordy or diffuse but rather, because it was just wrong. I remember this sermon often, with a curious admixture of mortification and gratitude. Certain kinds of mistakes can be real gifts, if we receive them in the right spirit.
This was a summer sermon, which meant that three months ahead of time, I had to provide the highly efficient editor of our church newsletter with a batch of sermon titles that would be binding for me throughout the entire season. Usually, I have a standing cue of sermon subjects, so this task did not faze me too much. In that particular batch was a sermon titled simply, “Questions About Angels Among Us”; I did not bother with a subtitle.
The topic sounded fairly benign and even – I believed – a bit alluring. My title was actually derived from the title poem of a collection I particularly admired, “Questions About Angels,” by Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I’d given copies of the book as a gift and read bits of it aloud to friends who had an ear for poetry. My favorite sentence from the poem was in fact a perfectly paced quatrain; it spoke to me persuasively then and still does today.
“If an angel delivered the mail,” the poet asked at the start of the stanza, “would he arrive/ in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume/ the appearance of the regular mailman and/ whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?” Excellent question, I thought, and a superb starting point for a sermon. Here I want to issue a clear disclaimer that the failings of my sermon were mine alone and no fault of the Poet Laureate; he did not fumble with his material.
Unfortunately, I did with mine, on a massive scale. I managed to break my own cardinal rule of the pulpit and preached about things I did not believe in, or alternatively, in things I disbelieved. I had absolutely no business doing that, then or now. Of course, I had been theologically trained and I assumed that gave me a certain license. In retrospect, it did: it gave me a license to know better.
Instead, I spoke at tediously informed length about the history of angels, their appearance in Biblical accounts, the distinctions that got drawn between cherubim and seraphim, various understanding of angels in Jewish and Christian testimony, and the modern-day appearance of angels in America. Then I talked about best-selling angel books and popular television shows and ceramic figurines and guardian angel charms and explained why those were all naive, inaccurate, and amateurish.
What on God’s good earth was I thinking?
After the worship service, a faithful member of the choir (the same choir I preached to, mind you) approached me, abashed and apologetic. “You know,” he said, “I always believed I had a guardian angel like the kind you described, but I guess I was wrong.”
In that moment, my heart cracked wide open, which was the least it could have done. Hearing what I had done to the choir and probably everyone else in the church, I started scrambling to amend the sermon and qualify my statements and stand corrected, but to little avail. Something had been shattered in this man’s spiritual life and it would take a lot to piece it back together again. Today, years later, I want to apologize to him and again, say how sorry I feel about what I had done that Sunday in a largely unwitting but nevertheless reckless way. He has such a sweet soul. He was not wrong; I was.
Words make all of us armed and dangerous, especially when we use them well. Sacred scripture is filled with cautionary comments about the damage that preachers and other spiritual teachers can do if they are not exceedingly careful. I have learned to exercise more care in what I say from the pulpit or any platform that I am given out of the generosity of some group’s conscience. I try to stay close to a fitting measure of humility, albeit with limited success.
Perhaps the main reason that I adore religious language to the degree I do is its unmistakable knack for laying matters bare. In secular settings, people often say that mistakes were made, and indeed they have been, repeatedly. But by whom? In religious circles, people develop this healthy habit of admitting that they themselves have made mistakes, and grievous ones at that. They become capable of repentance, which is the surest measure of spiritual maturity that I have seen.
Honestly, I have nothing against angels and never did; truth be told, I had abiding affection for them as a child. So why I later presumed to speak a word against them remains both a major mystery and a morality tale in my life. I reflect on this with some regularity. Recently I’m given to understanding that no doctrinal point is really worth my arguing over and that I have no need to quarrel about the state of any soul that is not my own. Who or what do I imagine myself debating, anyhow? Mercifully, my ministry has since become judicious in a way it was not before.
There are more than enough articles of faith for me to be professing in my lifetime – those could keep me busy and out of trouble and serve as handy reminders, frankly. I do not have time to address all the things I do not believe in, so I stay out of that line altogether. The sermon I should have preached that summer Sunday would have highlighted angels’ roles as divine messengers who carry parcels of wisdom that people are quite glad to receive. Angels speak in gracious tones and use those words that people are ready, willing, and able to hear. Whenever they speak, they always tell the precise truth, no less and certainly, no more.