Anticipation for the penultimate SFTS sermon of 2017 was high, and guest preacher Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr did not disappoint. Watch the entire video here.
Rev. Spahr’s sermon was heralded with spirited songs performed by the Seminary Singers, and a student-led dramatization illustrating the scriptures, Isaiah 58:6-9 and Luke 1:19-45, 56-63.
Do Presbyterians Believe in Angels?
Rev. Spahr opened her sermon thanking God for giving us all enough chances in life. She then told the congregation of a couple, Jim and Michael, who had decided to marry in their Rochester, New York backyard. Michael was losing his battle with HIV, but had not lost his spirit. He strung lights throughout their yard, and enjoyed sitting peacefully starring out at them. At the wedding, he asked Rev. Spahr, “Do Presbyterians believe in angels?”, and told her that every day, three angels would visit him in the yard, and smile at him.
Back in Stewart Chapel, Rev. Spahr continued her discussion of angels as she turned her sermon to the scriptures—making a point to state that she believed this story must have been written by a woman, not a man. This time, the visiting angel was Gabriel.
What Happens if a Patriarch is Silenced? What Might He Hear?
Setting the stage for the congregation to understand the significance of this topic, Rev. Spahr explained the patriarchal society in which Elizabeth and Mary lived, comparing it to the oppressive patriarchal empire ruling our country today. An empire promotes bullying those without power. Elizabeth was shunned by her community for being barren in her advancing age. A physical malady that was beyond her control, was used to diminish her spirit and sense of self-worth.
A Body Knows
Here is where justice is served, and we are reminded that everyone who lets God into their spirit and body—even if it takes them a while to get there—has a chance.
Elizabeth celebrates her pregnancy without hesitation, exclaiming “Thus God has done for me… to take away my reproach among people.”
Ironically, Zechariah, a priest (who should know better) questions Gabriel’s prophecy, and is thus struck dumb for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. For the last three months, he must listen to the woes of the downtrodden so he remembers what it means to minister to his entire congregation equally.
At this point, Rev. Spahr pauses to ask, “What if the patriarchs that abuse power today had to listen to refugees, immigrants, people that are addicted, children who cry that they are hungry?”
Against the cultural backdrop of an oppressive and highly patriarchal society, Zechariah is also forced to watch the female support and affirmation of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Her Magnificat at once exalts God and the downtrodden, celebrating the freedom that comes as we emerge from life’s challenges.
In the end, a humbled Zechariah learns his lesson, and stands by his wife, affirming that his son will be named John, as Gabriel decreed. “Bodies count. Feelings count, as much as scripture.” We know Zechariah listened during those nine months, because just as he wrote on the tablet that his son would be named John, he was suddenly able to speak again.
“This story is about change. We can change. Patriarchs can change. So who are we? Sometimes we’re like Gabriel—sometimes we bring that message of good news. Sometimes we are like Zechariah, and just need to be quiet. Sometimes we’re Elizabeth—‘Yes! You’re the one!’ And sometimes we’re Mary and we got the attitude. We can know God in all these ways.”
Rev. Spahr then brought us back to the story of her friends, Jim and Michael. Michael had passed away, and on the anniversary of their wedding, Jim was awakened at 2AM with a bright light shining in his eyes. He went out to discover all the lights in the yard were on. “There is no way that anyone could have turned those lights on. I haven’t turned them on since Michael died,” Jim explained to Rev. Spahr over the phone. “Nothing could have turned those lights on accidentally. Michael turned the lights on.”
What do you think? Do we believe in angels?