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Sermons

Listening to Heaven

November 25, 2007

BibleReading

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. . . ."

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said."

(Luke 1:35, 38)

Read also: Jeremiah 1:4-15; 2:1-2

Sermon

How often do we notice the angels in our living rooms? And how often to we say to them, "I am the Lord's servant"? I bet the answer is "not often." And that's not too surprising.

When Moses was told to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he said, "Not me. I'm not persuasive enough." When Isaiah saw the Lord, he cried, "Woe is me, I am ruined!" Jeremiah protested, "I am only a child."

And those were the people who were paying attention! How many burning bushes were there before someone came along and said, "Yo, what's this?" How many virgins did Gabriel visit who didn't even notice, or who kicked him out, saying, "You don't fit into my life plans right now"?

It's not a great favor to us that our holy scriptures tell us the stories of those people who did hear the voice of heaven, and then laments about how hard, how disruptive it is to follow the Lord. The first response to a visit from heaven is usually to balk! But there is something different about Mary. She didn't really balk. She did say to Gabriel, "You're not making any sense here. Where I come from, a woman has to have a husband to have a baby."

But there is something more about Mary. Not only did she say, "Sure, I can do that," which puts her miles ahead of almost everyone else who receives marching orders from heaven, but later, when she tells her cousin Elizabeth about her new calling, her commission, the new direction her life is taking, she bursts into song. How many of us do that when visited by an angel?

Do we even recognize when we're getting a visit?

We have a friend who was visited by an angel. He wasn't looking for anything like that. Our friend Ayele came to the United States from abroad. He was a scientist, a modern man, an intellectual religious skeptic. But coming to the U.S. was disruptive for him, and he fell ill. And while he was alone in his small apartment struggling with a fever, wondering if he was going to make it through the night, an angel appeared in his room. It just appeared, just standing there. Ayele took this vision to mean that he was mortally ill and he got himself to a hospital. And his life was changed forever. He no longer believed that the universe consisted only of those things we can measure and manipulate. It also includes angels . . . and Ayele became a very religious man.

It's not surprising that this angel did not speak to Ayele. Surely the mere presence of a being of heaven should be enough to get anyone's attention. According to clinical psychologist and mystic Wilson Van Dusen, angelic beings are not very verbal--unlike hellish beings, who can't stop yammering. Angels communicate instead through the sense of their presence, and through symbols.

Someone I know told me an angel visit story once. She had an older house that did not have heat in the upstairs rooms, instead using heating grates in the floor that allowed warm air from the first floor to drift up to the second floor. In essence, she had a hole in the floor with a grate in it. She was ironing one day on the second floor and suddenly there as an overwhelming, beautiful fragrance of perfume permeating the room. It was so arresting that she put down her iron and looked around to see what might be the cause. Then she saw that her curious and adventuresome infant son had removed the grate and was going through the hole; all she saw of him was his head and his fingers as he dangled in the air, eight feet above the floor below. Sometimes we are taken by surprise by communications from heaven. Who would think to deliver the message, "Your son is in danger," with the sweet aroma of perfume? Heaven would.

But what about those times we initiate the contact with heaven: when we pray? We pray together on Sunday mornings, and some of you will not get into bed at night without saying your prayers. Someone told me once that there are really only five prayers. They are: Wow, Thanks, Oops, Sorry, and Please.

Often our prayers are requests: please take this test for me, please be the surgeon performing the operation when I go into the hospital, make me well, make me patient, make me happy. And it is good and fit that we follow Jesus' suggestion to go ahead and ask for what we want to receive. And we hope that the Lord comes through for us.

And sometimes our prayers are ones of gratitude: thanks, I passed the test; thanks, the surgeon did a good job; thanks, I didn't yell at my kids or coworkers today. And it is fit and good that we send our appreciation to the Lord.

But how often is our prayer, not "Here's what you can do for me, Lord," but "What can I do for you, Lord?" How often do we listen instead of talk?

Again, if we look back to our Scriptural teachings, how often do we see communications to the Lord that say, "I can't do this. It's too hard. I'm in trouble now with the authorities. No one believes me." Even Jesus Christ said, "Take this cup away from me" (Luke 22:42). So why would any sane person want to say to the Lord, "What would you have me do for you with this one precious life of mine?"

But there are a couple more twists we have to consider here. Have you noticed how hard it is to understand heaven? Jeremiah cheats: he gets interpretations of his messages. The Lord says, "What do you see?" and Jeremiah says, "The branch of an almond tree." What does that mean to you? Does it mean, as the Lord tells Jeremiah it means, "Yes, I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled"? Does "I see a boiling pot" mean "disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land"?

Knowing what the Lord has in mind is tough sometimes. I was once in a situation where there was deep, hurtful conflict. It was a disaster. I didn't know if I should stay or go, so I prayed about it. Usually--frankly--I don't get clear answers to my prayers, but I did this time. It was, "Stay and heal." Now, I was not as bold as Mary, who said, "You're not making enough sense for me to understand you. Explain yourself." I knew what "stay" meant, so I stayed in the relationship, but I didn't understand "heal." Heal myself? Heal the other person? Heal the situation? Heal the world? Become a nurse? I stayed because I understood that part, but I never did get the meaning of "heal."

Not only do we sometimes not understand heavenly utterances, but there is another wrinkle. Sometimes we just don't like the message! Earlier this year I was at a spiritual retreat, an all-day affair. And a couple of hours into the session the retreat guide said, "If you have an issue in your life that needs clarification or a burning question in your heart that you would like God to clarify for you, now would be a good time to ask." Well, I graduated with my Master of Divinity degree last spring and now I am looking for what the Lord intends for me to do with all this training, so, yes, I had a burning question.

Specifically, I have always been deeply interested in psychology. Some people might relax with a murder mystery or a classic novel; I relax by reading about passive aggressive behavior or obsessive compulsive disorder. I have always enjoyed the opportunities to listen deeply to people who are struggling, to accompany them in dealing with life's difficulties. So I was wondering if my vocational call was to be a pastoral counselor. And I asked, "Lord, should I? Which is to say, would it be best for all concerned? Is this what you'd like me to do?" I got a swift, clear answer: "No, no, no, no, no"--to the tune of a TV advertisement, no less! "Well," says I, "I guess that settles that. At least I know what God doesn't want me to do."

But a couple hours later, I said, "Lord, maybe I didn't make myself very clear. Should I become licensed to do fee-for-service psychotherapy as a pastoral counselor?" The answer was again swift and clear: "No, no, no, no, no," to the tune of the same TV ad! So I did what any two-year-old would do and said, "Whhhyyy??? I want it!" I can give myself credit today for being more like Mary and asking for clarification of the message, but really it was my inner two-year-old. But I got an answer: "Because you want to work with congregations more than individuals." Oh, thanks.

My friend Ayele had this chat with the Lord. After his first experience of being so sick that an angel had to come and inspire him to get proper care, his digestive system was all shot, and I swear this man lived on nothing but potatoes and cabbage. Well, one day he was in prayer and Jesus piped up and said, "Ayele, go out and get yourself a Big Mac." Ayele said, "Oh, no Lord. You know that will kill me." The Lord said, "Ayele, get yourself a Big Mac--it's okay." and Ayele said, "Lord, I'm really afraid to do that." And the Lord said, "Ayele, do you trust me?" "Yes, Lord, I trust you with my life." "Go and eat." So Ayele marched himself around the corner to McDonalds, ate a Big Mac, and he didn't get sick. The message was, "You are healed." The proof was, "Go eat a Big Mac." But you'll notice there was this little arguing match that had to go on for bit, because messages from heaven are sometimes hard to absorb, or hard to believe, hard to want to do.

In contrast, one of Swedenborg's first messages from heaven was, "Don't eat so much." You just never know what the Lord will say to you.

When we pray, maybe a first prayer should be, "Make me willing do to what you want me to do." Then the second prayer could be, "Please send written instructions, because I might not understand what you say."

But let's point out one more conundrum we need to address in considering our conversations with heaven. And that is: How do you know? How do you know when it's God? Here is Mary just minding her own business and this thing shows up and says, "You're going to do the most dangerous thing you can possibly do in this culture. You're going to get pregnant out of wedlock." "Oh, okay," she says. I say, "Here is something I really want to do with my life," and God says, "No, that's not it." You say, "God, how would you like me to serve you?"

Whether or not you like the answer, how do you know? How do you know it's God? Why isn't it indigestion? Why wasn't Ayele's visit from the angel the delirium of fever? Why wasn't my friend's perfume-filled room simply a reaction between starch and a hot iron? Why wasn't my prayer response "No, no, no" simply the replay of a television commercial running in my head?

If you think I have an answer to the question, "How do you know?" I'm going to have to disappoint you. There is no easy answer. When we pray, we turn our hearts and minds to mystery, and take our chances.

So let us turn to mystery and take a chance right now. Let's set aside all the caveats and wonderment we've just reviewed, and give God a chance to weigh in on this conversation. We will be quiet--yes, quiet--for two whole minutes. If your brain is going to throttle you during that time, give it something to do. The Zen masters recommend counting to ten. Then count to ten again. Do that until done. But move your consciousness, your listening part, your attention to some other part of your body--your belly or your heart--and start to listen. See if you can have a little chat with heaven right now. I'll call you back to the room when time is up.

We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to God's influence, our deepest destiny is fulfilled. The universe, as those parts of it which our personal being constitutes, takes a turn genuinely for the worse or for the better in proportion as each of us fulfills or evades Gods demands. (William James, from The Varieties of Religious Experience as quoted in How Do We Know When It's God? By Dan Wakefield)

May you and the universe turn genuinely for the better by chatting with heaven. Amen.

Prayer

O God, we come to you in the silence of our own hearts. We open our minds to hear your voice speaking to us. We rise to the place above our worries and cares, above our daily routines, and look down upon them from a place closer to you. Thank you, Lord, for giving us a higher perspective. Thank you for allowing us to see the deep, fiery realities behind everything we think, feel, see, and do. Amen.

Eli Dale