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Angels Ascending and Descending


The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon at
the Collegiate Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Savannah, Georgia on September 29, 2017

Angels Ascending and Descending
A sermon marking 30 years of the Very Rev. Dr. William Willoughby III
serving as Rector of St. Paul’s Savannah
Genesis 28:10-17 and John 1:47-51

Angels are ascending and descending as we celebrate this feast of St. Michael and All Angels. In our reading from Genesis, Jacob is traveling to his mother’s family to find a wife from among his kin. He stops for the night at a random spot along the way as the sun sets. In a dream, Jacob sees ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Then in the Gospel of John we heard Jesus promises Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

But first came the first impression. It can be difficult to shake off a first impression. When Jesus saw Nathanael he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” That is all it takes for Nathanael to be all in, because Nathanael goes from questioning Jesus’ judgment to saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

First impressions don’t always go so well. In fact, the first impressions St. Paul’s made on the Willoughbys were perhaps not a lie, but not strictly the whole truth. That’s how it works when a church courts a priest. In hindsight, Father Willoughby sees that he hadn’t known the full situation before he arrived.

That’s more than fair, because I know for a fact that the picture the parish had of Mary Willoughby was a literal photograph of Mary with a very young Katie, both wearing matching Laura Ashley dresses. If a photo can lie, that picture’s pants were on fire. I worked closely with Mary Willoughby for years and love her dearly, but I consider that their sending a photo of her and baby Katie in romantic English dresses to be pushing the courtship part of finding a church too far.

To get a clear-eyed view of first impressions, I called Kay Saussy, who works in the office here at St. Paul’s, to ask her about young Father Willoughby. I wanted her impressions from thirty years ago today. Kay said, “If I tell you, you will scream with laughter.” Then she added in a hushed voice, “Let me go to the phone in the sacristy.” Click. A couple of minutes passed. I waited in anticipation.

“I am going to tell you exactly how it was,” Kay told me. Then she launched into her tale, “Obviously we knew he was coming and so the Altar Guild wanted to spiff everything up. We spent from 9-3 that day fixing and doing. We were ready to go home dead tired. This young man comes up in bib overalls and ugly shoes.” Kay paused. “You better leave out the part about the shoes” she told me and then continued, “I said to a woman on the Altar Guild, just what we need, a homeless person.

“He didn’t introduce himself for a few minutes and we still thought he was a homeless man who wandered in. He realized that he was getting strange looks and introduced himself as our new priest, and he was, but when I met him he was a street person.”

This is perfect for this feast of St. Michael and All Angels as the Letter to the Hebrews warns, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The St. Paul’s version of this verse would read, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to homeless persons, for by doing that some have entertained Rectors without knowing it.”

Kay did get to know the Rector himself well in the decades since. She told me, “What makes him an extra good leader is that he does it quietly. You don’t notice and then you look up and see we are going in another direction and this is good.”

I spoke with Erick Nowicki, who arrived more recently. Arriving from his Southern Baptist background he said, “I was intimidated by him when I started going here, but I realized he is a person just like anyone else.” Father Willoughby has his moments when he can be short tempered and I just say ‘Don’t make me take you into the lane.’” Offering to take their argument outside. But Erick added seriously, “Being on the vestry for years with him, I see how much heat he takes.” It gave Erick a different appreciation for Father Willoughby’s leadership. I do know this from years of working with Father Willoughby that he deeply values lay leadership and counts on his vestries. We give him credit and he is steadfast in sharing that credit as he knows in his bones how what he has accomplished has been a team effort. But there is the other side of it as Erick told me with a laugh, “We are a family and we stick close together. I may call him a jackass, but don’t you dare do it.”

Christina Chancey recalls that she and Tony have been at the church forever and ever, before they had children. She told me, the thing that she always appreciated is that Father Willoughby is open to new ideas, to people coming to him with projects. She said that they wanted Christian Education for children and “He heard us and supported our ideas and he worked with the vestry on it.” Then she looked at all that happened in these decades like the project with Sister’s Court and redeveloping the neighborhood, making sure we kept affordable housing, not just concerned for this block, but the whole neighborhood.

Of course, Christina had a different view from most of us as her beloved husband Tony, who died far too soon this June, worked as closely with Father Willoughby as anyone as the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s for a quarter century. Christina told me “It was not an employee/employer relationship. There was a lot of back and forth and they respected each other and could ebb and flow well, with confidence.” This is not to say that they agreed on everything or didn’t hold passionate opinions. She added, “I think that when there were differences, they could respectfully handle that and hear each other.” I recall William giving the Dean’s Award to Tony at our last diocesan convention, an award for exceptional service to one’s parish church and what came through in that presentation was love. We see this too in his close relationship with Father Charles and Deacon Sue and the rest of us. We see love.

I have known Father Willoughby for two thirds of his tenure here, and I have been with him in a lot of situations over the years where you discover what someone is made of. We have rejoiced with him and we have mourned with him. One of the moments I hold dear from this past year was being in the emergency room with him and Jan Carter as Father Willoughby brought the Eucharist to Canon Bob Carter. We were in an ER room at Memorial, but as the Patriarch Jacob would put it, “Surely the Lord is in this place…This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

On the other hand, we have had other moments. Recently your diocesan staff missed several opportunities to handle something right. We messed up. Dean Willoughby was appropriately upset. I ended up fully prostrating myself in 34th street. I kid you not. Mary and Colleen Willoughby tried to get me up, but I waited on forgiveness and was pleased when he offered it, undeserved as it was.”

This is what Kay Saussy referred to when she told me, “He is patient and loving with people when he would probably like to snatch them bald headed.” The hairs still on my head this evening show that Father Willoughby can show great forebearance as he didn’t in fact snatch me bald headed.

The truth is we know this priest, this man. We are here this evening because we know what we love about him. We know the vast quantity of time he has spent in public worship in this sacred space with the Daily Offices and Eucharists of a cathedral schedule spanning decades. Some churches gather to hear the preacher tell them about heaven, but the goal of Anglo-Catholic worship is to just spend a little time worshipping in heaven, knowing that that worship never ends and we just visit it for an hour or so. Father Willoughby has spent vast square miles of time in that ongoing worship. We know him to be a man of prayer as we find him at prayer right here morning and night, day by day.

We are also here this evening as we know what drives us crazy. Jim Shumard, a priest in Savannah for many years said that it drove him bonkers that Willoughby is such a know it all. He paused a beat and added that the problem is that he actually does know what he is talking about. That is infuriating. Like the time when a speaker at our Clergy Conference said something in passing about the Armenian Orthodox Church which was disparaging. There was a collective gasp among the good father’s sister and brother clergy as we knew what was coming. This man watches Armenian Orthodox liturgies on YouTube in his spare time and has more connections to that church than my family tree has branches. Lordy.

And this is where the Gospel comes back when we see Nathanael meeting Jesus. As Jesus sees him approaching he says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asks, “Where did you get to know me?” He will come to discover that Jesus was, is, and ever shall be the second person of the Trinity, the word of God that hovered over the waters in creation. There was never a time when Nathanael had not been fully known and fully loved.

This is true for each of us. Yes, the Willoughbys might have sent a photograph of Mary and Katie in matching Laura Ashley dresses, that might not have been a perfect picture of the red-headed Rector’s wife who would arrive. And yes, St. Paul’s might not have given the clearest picture of the problems of the parish and the work that awaited the new Rector who would need to rebuild the decaying neighborhood even as he led the church. But God could see all of that and beyond the mutual lies of putting ones best foot forward worked it for the Willoughbys to arrive here. For God knew them perfectly and knew this church completely and this was how God’s will would work itself out for this corner of the kingdom.

The deeper truth we see on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels is that beyond our plans and work, God is working out a deeper purpose. We are just given a chance to take part. For all the good that has happened in these past 30 years has not been William’s work alone or the vestries or the parishioners. Any greater good has been the work of God. And this we see clearly in that wonderful image of angels ascending and descending Jacob’s Ladder. If you asked me, I would have gotten it all wrong. I would have thought angels descend from heaven and then go back there. But both Genesis and the Gospel of John are clear that angels are ascending and descending.

They are ascending and descending because the angels are always around us, they just sometimes go up to heaven and back. God is always working in our midst. We are never alone. We are never unknown. We are never unloved. In all the ways we are wearied by the changes and chances of this life, we can rest in God’s eternal changelessness.

That is why we join our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing Holy, Holy, Holy proclaiming the glory of God’s name. Yes we give thanks for our brother in Christ, William Willoughby III, but even more do we give thanks for the God to whom he continually points us as we gather and pray.

Amen.

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