What You Missed that Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas, how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.
After lunch she distributed worksheets that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—something important—and how to believe the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks, and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions, and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking for whatever it was you lost, and one person add up to something.
Brad Aaron Modlin
from Everyone at this Party has Two Names
I don’t usually put poems in sermons, and certainly not at the beginning, but I did today because I want to talk about angels because, of course, today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. And the subject of this poem, which you all now know, is a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Nelson and she is arguably an angel. Because angels are messengers. If you are interested in word origins the word angel comes from the word ἄγγελος meaning messenger. And they are not just messengers in an ordinary way but in a truly deep and special, maybe in a shocking way which is why they always begin their messages with “Fear not!”. They are the messengers for God.
In this poem the fictitious Mrs. Nelson teaches her students all the important things in life – how to pray, how to find meaning in mundane tasks, how to know you have a place in the world, how to quiet the mind with all the chatter in the middle of the night, and how to know you matter. All those life lessons that for all of us who missed this day in class have to spend our lifetime learning.
This week as I have been thinking about angels and messengers, I have been asking people this question. “What is the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to you?” Like nicer than flattery. Like what thing has someone said to you that really touched your soul? I want to make an uncomfortable pause for you to think about that for a moment without me talking.
And now I want you to think why it mattered so much.
This week I have heard that people were touched when they were recognized for being fair, having dignity under duress, were referred to as lovely by a teacher, being kind, being a good mom, being wise, by being told that what they said mattered and made a difference.
And I think these sorts of things touch our souls for two reasons:
First of all, because someone recognized in your life and example the exact values that deep down inside really matter to you.
And the other reasons is that these are attributes of godly living. When we are in Christ we strive to live with dignity, integrity, authenticity, love, goodness, and wisdom. It may not have escaped your notice that these attributes sound a whole lot like what St. Paul calls the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).
And when angels in our lives recognize these qualities in us – they do a couple of things – firstly, they affirm to us that which is important – and secondly, it also encourages us to continue to develop and employ these divine qualities.
The word evangelism makes most Episcopalians pretty nervous. It brings up images of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker and the like. But what I want to share with you is a different way of thinking about evangelism. Evangelism shares it roots with the word for angel, ἄγγελος , in other words, messenger, but it also shares the word for good. The ‘ev’ part of the word is from the Greek word Ευ (eu), meaning good. So evangelism is about sharing a good message – in a sense, being an angel.
I wonder if the call to us, in a world that has been ever known since the beginning of history as divisive and warring, for us to be ever more mindful of being messengers of good news, of being angels. What if we made it our mission to tell people when you see them being good and wonderful and kind – that you tell them that you appreciate their goodness, wonderfulness and kindness? Or what if we made it a priority to act on our good intentions and put those observations into writing and send a card or letter to someone to thank them for something that meant a lot to you.
Author Karen Salmonsohn wrote: You create positive ripples into the world every time you offer a kind word, a loving action, empowering insight or smile because whoever receives it passes it on to someone who then passes it on to someone, who then passes it on to someone…
And I wonder in a way if this is why we are all here today. Jesus spent his time healing people, forgiving, teaching and letting people know that no matter who they were related to, no matter what they had done, that no matter what their past was like or their job, or their religion, that they mattered and they were loved. Jesus showed us that no one was beyond the redeeming reach of God’s amazing and boundless love. And when we are asked to follow Jesus, this is what we sign up for – that we live in such a way, and speak the words that let people know the most important things – that they matter, that they are loved, and that what they say or do is good and meaningful. That movement started long ago in Christ continues in us as the eu-angellions of the world.
I invite you this week to recollect all the kind things that have been said to you, and to consider who in your life might need to be recognized and told some truth that will really mean a lot to them, that will make them develop this trait further and to share it with a world that is deeply in need of kindness, love, integrity, civility and graciousness.
And to end, I want to share with you some advice I had from an elderly priest when I was first ordained. He said to me, make sure whenever you receive a kind letter, a thank you, or some sort of affirmation that means a lot to you (this was before email) – put it in your bottom drawer so on the days when the work is hard, and you feel despondent, open that drawer and read what is in there, and be reminded of your calling. I invite you to do the same – I encourage you to gather up printed emails, all the letters that have said something affirming and wonderful, and to put them in a box, maybe label it, “Save for a Rainy Day” so that you can remember that you are loved and valued and an angel from God.