Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Last Sunday Kate told us her favorite memory of Epiphany. It happened in the courtyard on the Feast of Epiphany 2015 as we gathered to break ground for renovations. When she lit the fire an angel appeared in the flame. That’s a pretty significant memory, and one I share with her.
Then Kate went on to say how a few Sunday’s ago, in that liminal time between when she knew she was leaving Epiphany and when she shared this with us, she saw that angel again; this time out of the corner of her eye, walking by the sacristy in the Chapel.
When she saw that angel, a wave of light and calm spread over her and into the congregation. The presence of God filled her soul for a moment in a way that will remain with her the rest of her life.
I’ve known Kate for eight years. I know many things about her, but one thing I know for sure, is that she is stone cold sane; not a crazy bone in her body.She is as far from woo woo as you can get. And yet, she saw something that I am sure she will claim as reality until the day she dies.
I’ve had experiences like that… I’ve spoken about them before. They are the really real of dreams; they are strangers who present as saints, they are visions in prayer; or angels in fire… moments when God broke through that remain in our souls as some of the most really real moments of life.
Mary had a really real moment. I have a poster over the fireplace in our bedroom by Henry Tanner of this visitation. He depicts the angel Gabriel as a beam of light. Mary’s response: “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”
Professor Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University, claims that, depending on how the question is worded, 10-70% of Christians in America believe they have had intimate encounters with the divine.
Professor Luhrmann became intrigued by her observation that some Christians had this intimate, personal, really real relationship with God. She found it to be particularly the case in churches that were rapidly growing. So she immersed herself in these communities to try to better understand what was going on.
And what she found was that this type of intimate relationship with God can learned and magnified in a person’s life. Mary certainly learned it. By the time she is 13, and we meet her in the Gospel of Luke, Mary has been well trained in the art of hearing and seeing the living God.
God’s active presence was part of Mary’s life for as long as she could remember. Her birth story, in fact, retains this reality. Let me explain. Mary’s father, Joachim, was a shepherd. He and her mother, Anna, lived just outside the walls of Jerusalem, right up next to the Temple mount, near the pools of Bethseda. They were members of the Essene denomination of Judaism.
Mary’s parents had settled here with her uncle, Zachariah and his wife, Elizabeth. He was an Essene priest who served in the Temple under the authority of the high priest Simon bar Boethus, during the reign of Herod the Great.
It was a unique time in Judaism and Temple life. Due to power politics between Essenes and Sadducees and King Herod, resulting, probably, in a diminished workforce, Temple service was opened to young girls in addition to young boys.
Joachim and Anna dedicated Mary to this service. Here’s why: One day when Joachim was out in the field with his flocks an angel appeared to him and told him his Anna was with child. This surprised him, seeing that they were old and childless. The angel continued: this child will be named Mary, and she will serve the Lord. This was Mary’s birth story, etched I am sure, into her earliest memories.
So at the age of six Mary entered Temple service. Here she learned the Torah by heart, as well as theology and the law. She also learned how, through prayer, to hear and see the living God in the world around her.
Professor Luhrmann describes this art of hearing and seeing God like a screen upon which thoughts and feelings are projected. People who have an intimate relationship with God treat their mind more like a PowerPoint presentation than a locked vault where information is stored away.
On this PowerPoint screen images flash from our history, or things we see, or sounds we hear, or dreams we have. These images represent our wants and desires and needs. They also represent the world’s expectations for us. And, at times, the screen flashes messages from God.
The art of hearing and seeing God, happens through the practice of interpreting the images on the screen of our minds. The better we get at it, the more intimate our relationship with God.
What Professor Luhrmann discovered about these divine interactions is:
- They are always: brief, positive, powerful and memorable. In this way, they are distinguishable from mental illness and schizophrenia.
- She found that when the message received was more directivesay than the positive sense Kate felt in her soul, individuals sought message clarity from their small groups, or families, or priest.
And once clarity of message was reinforced then individuals responded to God’s directive with: “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”
And if this isn’t the answer, then the message on the screen of the mind isn’t from God. Too often people claim a word from God that is not from God. We see that even this week with Pastor Robert Jeffress, who claims: The Lord told him that it is OK for President Trump to blow up North Korea.
That is just foolishness, and comes from Jeffress’ personal desire for power and prestige and who knows what else. Men like that diminish the beauty of what it means to master the art of hearing and seeing the divine, intimately, in the world around us, like Mary did; like Kate does; like you can.
Professor Luhrmann discovered how intimacy takes hold. She took one hundred Christians and divided them into two groups. One she asked to read the Gospels every day for thirty minutes, six days a week, over a four-week period of time. The other group she asked to enter into prayerful conversations with God for thirty minutes, six days a week, over a four-week period of time.
At the end of the four weeks she asked her subjects particular questions about their divine interaction with God in the world around them. To a person, those who talked to God in prayer for thirty minutes a day found that God spoke to them more often in their regular, run of the mill life.
And I wonder, when I hear this story of Mary, was she the first young lady that the angel Gabriel visited with an invitation to be the mother of Jesus? Maybe she was the fourth or fifth? Who knows? What we do know is that she was the first one able to see the angel and hear the invitation and respond: “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”
One of the hurdles we face as we learn to hear and see God in our lives is the cultural impression that what happens in our imagination is not real. This is a rather new way of thinking about the things we think about and it accompanies the still developing idea of science. A scientific framework can limit our perception of the real to only things that are repeatable and measurable. And while repeatable and measurable things are real, that doesn’t set the parameters for all of reality.
I believe that the music that popped forth from the mind of Beethoven as his 9th symphony was real and not repeatable. I believe the art that ran out of the hand of Henry Tanner onto the canvass was real and not repeatable. I believe the angel that sanctified Epiphany Parish on January 6th, 2015 was real and not repeatable.
Our imaginations were made to help us hear and see the images God clicks onto the PowerPoints of our minds.
Dr. Luhnmann’s research concludes that people who cultivate this inner hearing and inner seeing start to walk in a world where God pops out to them all of the time; and indeed, guides their lives in a way that fills them with wonder and joy.
Wouldn’t you like more of that wonder and joy in your life? Is God avoiding you? Or is God talking to you? I’d like to know.
But if you’re not hearing and seeing God in the regular run of the mill moments of your day, before dropping by spend thirty minutes a day, six days a week, over the next four weeks practicing talking to God.
Sit quietly and say: Lord what do you think? Help me with this day. I have a meeting with so and so. I am taking the car for a tune up make sure it doesn’t need new rotors. My back hurts. Lord, what do you think? Lord what should I do?
Talk to God each day for thirty minutes, six days a week, over a four week period of time. Then come visit me. I’ll be interested to know what you hear and what you see.