Sunday, April 4, 1994

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Deuteronomy 18:9-22
Matthew 18:1-17

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they year. For I tell you in

truth that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see the things you are seeing

and did not see them, and to hear the things you are hearing and did not hear them.

Matthew 13:16f.

Literally, what Jesus is saying here is quite straightforward. The prophets had foretold

that in the fullness of time the Messiah would come to deliver Israel from her oppressors,

and people who had faith in prophecy longed to see that day. In Deuteronomy we find the

promise that the Lord would raise up a prophet, a second Moses, and the command that his

words should be heeded; and again, people who had faith in such promises longed to hear

what that prophet would say.

Simeon was one such individual. He had received a personal promise that he would see the

Messiah before he died, and when the infant Jesus was brought to the temple for his

consecration, Simeon was inspired to recognize him. We have taken his words of rejoicing

as the psalm with which we close our worship: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart

in peace . . . for mine eyes have seen thy salvation."

Most of the prophets and righteous people, though, died before Jesus' birth, the Old

Testament prophets centuries before. The disciples were specially privileged--and

specially burdened--to be living at the particular time when the prophecies were

fulfilled. Of all the generations that had been or would be, they were adults at this

moment. Of all the places on the face of the earth where they might have been born, they

were in the Holy Land.

But if we begin to press this literal meaning just a little further, the emphasis begins

to shift. The disciples were by no means the only adults living at that time and in that

place. Jesus led a public life, meeting many individuals, talking to them with the same

insight and love that the disciples knew, healing some and bringing as much blessing into

every life he touched as that life was willing to receive. Yet not everyone saw what the

disciples saw or heard what the disciples heard.

This is exactly what Jesus is telling us in the parable of the sower. The same seed that

brings forth fruit in abundance when it falls on good ground brings forth nothing when it

falls by the wayside. To put it bluntly, we could meet the Lord in the supermarket or the

hardware store, he could talk to us, and we might not recognize him. Some of his

contemporaries thought he was possessed by the devil. Some thought he had gone out of his

mind. Some got all excited at first, but fell away when they found out what kind of

discipline was needed to become a true disciple. The disciples themselves struggled to

understand. They had to train their ears to hear. It did not happen automatically.

There is no lack of analogies in everyday experience. A trained auto mechanic knows how to

listen to an engine, how to sort out the sounds that are normal and focus on the ones that

indicate what it wrong. A doctor with a stethoscope hears vastly more than you or I would.

A trained linguist can hear regional accents with astonishing precision, a psychologist

can pick up tones of voice that the rest of us would miss, parents can understand their

children's first efforts at language.

In other words, hearing is not simply receiving. The physical situation at this moment is

that I am actively talking and you are passively listening, but that is only one small and

misleading aspect of what is going on. To the extent that hearing involves understanding,

no two of you are hearing exactly the same thing. No two will remember exactly the same

things when the service is over. I suspect every minister that ever preached has been

thanked for saying something that actually was not in the sermon at all. Something that

was said, or perhaps something that was implied, sparked a thought so vivid that seemed to

have been spoken aloud. I suspect every minister also knows perfectly well that not all

the minds in the congregation will remain perfectly focused on the sermon. Some will

wander, and some may even wander in ways that are more beneficial than the sermon. People

come to church with things on their minds, and those things do not always stay quiet.

Some of this is of course beyond our immediate control. Our backgrounds enable us to

understand some things but not others. To return to our analogies, I would need a

mechanic's or a doctor's training and experience to hear what a mechanic or a doctor

hears. The sound waves may be the same, but sound waves are not hearing. Hearing is what

our minds do. Swedenborg put it very clearly in regard to sight:

. . . if our more inward sight were not constantly flowing into our outer or eyesight,

this latter could never apprehend or discern any object. For it is the more inward sight

that apprehends through the eye what the eye is seeing: it is by no means the eye [that

does this], even though it may seem so. . . .

But the same holds true also for this more inward or spiritual sight. This does not see on

its own, but from something still deeper, which belongs to its rational functioning. Even

this does not see on its own, but from something still deeper, which is the inner person .

. . ; and ultimately it is not this but the Lord through the inner person who sees. He

alone sees because he alone is alive, and gives us both the ability to see and the

appearance that we are seeing on our own. That is how the inflow works.

Arcana Coelestia 1954

This is why the wife, looking at her husband, sees what no one else sees. She is not the

same person she would have been without that relationship. What he says and does affects

her in ways that do not hold for anyone else. Her seeing and her hearing are, so to speak,

specialized, and involve a long history filled with countless interactions and decisions,

conflicts and resolutions, joys and sorrows. One of the reasons I enjoyed working with Cal

Turley was that he would pick up what I would miss and I would pick up what he would miss.

This is also why, on a less profound level, our sensitivities seem to fluctuate from day

to day. When we are anxious or tired, for example, we can be sensitive to things that we

scarcely notice when we are at peace and rested. We are not just seeing and hearing, we

are looking and listening. The primary energy of perception, our theology says, is not

from the signals coming in through our senses but from our souls reaching out. To quote

Swedenborg again,

Since the soul is spiritual substance, and by reason of order is more pure, more primary,

and more inward, while the body is material and therefore more crude, more secondary, and

more outward, and since it is in keeping with order for the more pure to flow into the

more crude, the more primary into the more secondary, and the more inward into the more

outward, it is therefore in keeping with order for the spiritual to flow into the

material, and not the reverse. This means that the thinking mind flows into the sight,

subject to the state imposed on the eyes by the things that are being seen--a state which

that mind, further, organizes at will. In the same way, the perceiving mind flows into the

hearing, subject to the state imposed on the ears by words.

Soul-Body Interaction 1

"The perceiving mind flows into the hearing, subject to the state imposed on the ears by

words." We are never simply "hearing;" more or less intently, we are always "listening."

The sounds coming in limit what we can select from, but we still do the selecting. A truck

might rumble by during a sermon, and we are not capable of paying total attention to both

sets of sounds. We will tend to tune out one or the other, and neither the truck nor the

minister can make the decision for us.

In Mark and Luke we have the principle in its briefest form: "Take heed what you hear."

Mark adds, "The measure that you use will be used on you, and to you that hear, more will

be given." If we stop to think about it, this is both obvious and urgent. We do not really

change the world around us by our selectivity, we simply change our perception of it. If

we go through life with a chip on our shoulder, looking for insults, we will hear the

insulting side of everything. We will not actually change people appreciably. We will

change ourselves. They will not become more insulting; we will become more insulted. We do

well to "take heed what we hear" because we are forming the character we will live with to

eternity. If we are not changing the world around us in fact, we are choosing the aspects

of that world that we are going to live with.

There is evil in the world around us, of course. There is evil also within us. There is

also good within and around us. If there were not, then it would make no sense to call

anything evil because there would be no alternative to it. But more than that, we have

experiences of this "good." We have times of peace, times of mutual understanding and

affection. We have times when we are totally absorbed in doing something worthwhile and

see the results take shape. We know, if we reflect on it, that these times are not created

against our wills by our circumstances. Again, what delights us one day may irritate us

the next. Circumstances are powerful, yes, but our intentions have the last word.

Our theology urges us to listen for the good. "When people are being truly thoughtful,"

Swedenborg wrote, "they scarcely see another's evils. They see everything that is good and

true and put the best possible interpretation on whatever is evil and false. This is what

angels are like" (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 1079e).

We are not talking about rose-colored glasses. We are not talking about making excuses, or

wearing blinders. Perhaps the easiest way to see what is intended here is to turn it

around, to see ourselves as the perceived rather than as the perceivers. What our theology

is telling me is that when I am at my worst, the angel or the truly thoughtful person will

see through that to the part of me that does not like what I am doing. The angel or truly

thoughtful person will also see and sympathize with all the factors that make me

vulnerable to my worst--to the fatigue, the frustration, or the stress, for example. The

angel or truly thoughtful person will also see here an opportunity, will see the good that

can result if I can be helped to learn from this experience. In short, the angel or truly

thoughtful person will see what the Lord is trying to accomplish in these circumstances.

"Take heed what you hear." In the last analysis, we are listening for the Lord's voice.

In the fifteenth century, Thomas à Kempis wrote what the Encyclopedia Britannica calls

"except for the Bible, . . . the most influential book in Christian literature." He called

it The Imitation of Christ, and it is a call to behave in all circumstances, inwardly and

outwardly, as we believe our Lord would have behaved. It is a call to "hear his voice" not

only through his words but also through his example, to attend to what he would attend to.

Remember, too, "ultimately it is . . . the Lord through the inner person who sees. He

alone sees because he alone is alive, and gives us . . . the ability to see . . . ." From

the very core of our being, the Lord is seeing through our eyes and hearing through our

ears. If we can tune out the noise of our self-concern, we will begin to hear as he does.


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