If this sermon was a steampunk novel, its title would be, “On the Feast of Raphael and All Angels, a Sexually Frustrated Virgin, a Young Man Willing to Do the Deed, an Angel in Drag, a Dog, a Fish, a Demon and, a Backyard Full of Bodies: A Sermon From Tobit.”
Let us pray:
God who makes winds into celestial messengers and flames of fire into God’s ministers, attend us with your holy angels and open our eyes that we might see their works and yours. Amen.
This week in her wisdom, the Church celebrates Saint Michael and All Angels. We shall celebrate the angels with an apocryphal feast not included in any lectionary, not even in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. In keeping with the aims of A Women’s Lectionary, our readings and this sermon focus on a text that is underrepresented in androcentric lectionaries, a text that has been framed to include the women and girls who are there as part of our scriptural heritage but all too often left on the cutting room floor.
Most of our traditions about angels developed after the close of the Hebrew Bible. There is a notion that there are four archangels: Michael (the mispronounced Mikael), a man and a prince and a warrior who can fly and, Gabriel the New Testament messenger are well known though they only occur in a couple of biblical texts. Raphael who walks among humans in disguise, provides the answer to prayer and heals is less well known due to Protestants cutting out chunks of the bible. The fourth is a bit of a mystery. In 2 Esdras 4:36 it is Jeremiel. However later, 2 Esdras (4:1; 5:20; 10:28) also tells stories of the angel of light, Uriel, who will be considered the fourth archangel by many and is often named in liturgy and prayers. Subsequently angelology takes off to new and unimaginable heights in the writings that come after the Hebrew and Greek versions of the First Testament Scriptures.
Stories about angels are, if not as old as time, then as old as humanity. They are certainly older than the scriptures. They are older than the people called Israel who collected, codified and, collated our scriptures. In the ancient Afro-Asiatic world divinity was understood to be complex, too complex for one being no matter how great, how wise or, how powerful. There were the old gods of Canaan and all the gods of all the peoples before them, the gods of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Phoenicia and Philistia and those of every place in which humanity eked out a living below a sky filled with mystery.
There were by necessity, systematic theologies accounting for all of these beings. And then as monotheism gained a toehold, the Israelite systematics of the day collapsed categories and blended cultures and re-articulated the gods as the host of heaven, as divine beings something like the one God, but not quite. These expressions of lesser divinity bridge the dimensions and worlds between the heavens and the earth in a way their Creator could not have been easily imagined to do. There were the six-winged seraphim made of fire, the two-winged cherubim who range from the simple sword-wielding model of Gan Eden to the fantastic composite of wings, wheels, eyes and human hands in Ezekiel’s vision. There were garden variety divine messengers and, divine beings sufficiently male to impregnate human women and girls. Consider how differently the first portions of Genesis would have read had these divine beings been the daughters of God rather than sons of God who couldn’t keep it in their ethereal pants. We might not have had a genocidal flood.
Yet more than any other text, Tobit makes the case for angels among us, accompanying us as we make our way through the world just as Raphael accompanied Tobias on his journey and, answered the heartfelt prayer of Sara the daughter of Edna and Tobit and, healed Tobit in the book that bears his name. Perhaps it is of Raphael that the Apostle Priscilla writes in the Epistle to the Hebrews (13:2) – that sermon is on my blog: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.
In short, Tobit descended from a family in the tribe of Naphtali that sacrificed to the bulls in the profane shrine at Dan. He had a bad name because of something he had no part in. But he was faithful and generous, particularly to widows, in part because he was an orphan. Fatherless, he modeled his behavior on, “the law of Moses and according to the instructions of Deborah (his grandmother).” [Tobit 1:8] Eventually he would marry and he and his wife Anna raised their son Tobias as he, Tobit, had been raised. However, the all too human Tobit was far from perfect; after falsely accusing his wife of theft, Tobit lost his eyesight when he fell asleep in a field after burying the bodies of his kinfolk left to rot by the Assyrians and a sparrow pooped in them.
At the same time, a woman named Sara is also falsely accused. In her case, the stakes are much higher; she is accused of murdering husbands by the six pack plus one for the road. Her husbands were killed by a demon before she could consummate her marriages and her poor father, Raguel of our lesson, drug the bodies out into the night and buried them in the yard.
And then in chapter 3:
17 Raphael was sent to heal both of them: Tobit, by removing the white films from his eyes, so that he might see God’s light with his eyes; and Sara, daughter of Raguel, by giving her in marriage to Tobias son of Tobit, and by setting her free from the wicked demon Asmodeus…
Declining in health, Tobit had charged his son Tobias to find a woman from among their people to marry as their ancestors had done. Raphael in disguise and a dog who seems to come out of nowhere accompany Tobit on his journey. Along the way there is some extreme sports fishing and Raphael tells Tobit to keep the organs for medicine but throw out the guts. And ever so casually, mentions that this fish medicine has two uses, delivering women from demons and restoring the eyesight of the blind. (The book of Tobit isn’t subtle y’all.) Then in our lesson, Sara’s parents agreed to marry her to Tobit and everyone is terrified that they will have to bury this fine upstanding young man in the back 40 along with all the other husbands. And then, at the climax of the story:
Tobit 7:15 Raguel called his wife Edna and said to her, “Sister, get the other room ready, and take her there.” 16 So she went and made the bed in the room as he had told her, and brought Sarha there. She wept for her daughter. Then, wiping away the tears, she said to her, “Take courage, my daughter; may the Sovreeign of heaven grant you joy in place of your sorrow. Take courage, my daughter.” Then she went out…
8:1 When they had finished eating and drinking they wanted to retire; so they took the young man and brought him into the bedroom. 2 Then Tobias remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the fish’s liver and heart out of the bag where he had them and put them on the embers of the incense. 3 The odor of the fish so repelled the demon that he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt. But Raphael followed him, and at once bound him there hand and foot.
4 When the parents had gone out and shut the door of the room, Tobias got out of bed and said to Sara, “Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our God to grant us mercy and safety.” 5 So she got up, and they began to pray and implore that they might be kept safe. Tobias began by saying, [a prayer that we use in the sacrament of marriage]:
“Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors,
and blessed is your name in all generations forever.
Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever.
6 You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve
as a helper and support.
From the two of them the human race has sprung.
You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.’
7 I now am taking this kinswoman of mine,
not because of lust,
but with sincerity.
Grant that she and I may find mercy
and that we may grow old together.”
8 And they both said, “Amen, Amen.” 9 Then they went to sleep for the night.
So then, what do the stories of Raphael and Anna and Tobit and their son Tobias and, of Erma and Raguel and their daughter Sara teach us on this Feast of Raphael and the Angels? They teach us that God is with her people across the generations. She accompanies us on our way and she is with us in the moments of most profound trauma. Her ears are open to the deepest and most desperate longings of our hearts. And sometimes, sometimes, she manifests in a way that we can see, hear and touch. Also, I’m not ruling out that mysterious dog as an angelic companion. Dogs were profane in Israelite culture and that did not end with the advent of Hellenism. That dog is a mystery. And God is nothing but mysterious. To no small degree, angels represent the presence of God in our earthly, corporeal lives. Like the incarnation, they sanctify our very human lives, the need for love and touch and intimate partnership and, the well-being of our bodies and healing of our ills. Raphael’s sojourn in human drag on this side of heaven teaches us that none of the stuff of our lives is too mundane for God’s care and attention. God is with us.
Blessed be the God who surrounds us with angels. In the words of Tobit (11:14):
“Blessed be God,
and blessed be God’s great name,
and blessed be all God’s holy angels.
May God’s holy name be blessed
throughout all the ages.” Amen.