• Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson

Hearing Voices

Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B) 17 January 2021: 10:00 am Live-Streamed Ante Communion Homily Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church

Ashland, Oregon

The Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson, SCP

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.


I had a student several years ago who shocked a French class I was teaching. He was a well-educated Cambodian who had fled the 1975 genocide in his country, and despite his sophistication and scientific orientation, affirmed in class his belief in ghosts. He told us this story:

When the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Phenh, I was evacuated from the city along with everyone else. I saw people shot on the street as class enemies simply because they were wearing eyeglasses. I was sent to a labor camp near the Thai border. It was very hard, but I managed relatively well until I realized that there was no hope—all of my friends there seemed to be the first to be killed in a public struggle session. I had heard that the swamp between the camp was impassable and full of quicksand, but getting across the border was my only hope. I fled in the middle of the night during a heavy downpour that limited visibility to just a foot or so. Almost immediately I lost my sense of direction, and soon I was in water and mud almost over my head. I lost all hope. But then I started noticing small blue lights—almost like flames—that seemed to call to me. I would follow them—first this one, then that one, and as I did, I noticed the ground under my feet would get more solid, and suck at my legs less. Soon, even though it was still raining heavily, I was following a path marked by blue flames on each side. Gradually the rain stopped, and dawn came with me on solid ground. Immediately soldiers surrounded me. But they were speaking Thai, not Khmer. I had successfully crossed the border. The soldiers did not believe that I had come that way through the night, because the swamp was a dumping ground where the Khmer Rouge had been dumping the bodies of those killed daily at the camp. “It’s haunted by all the dead,” they said, “and no one can get through.” Now I am an educated man. I have studied science and some philosophy. I know that I had low blood sugar, and was under stress. I was probably suffering from hallucinations. I know also about swamp gas and bio-luminescence cause by microscopic plants. I know that all of this might be the explanation of the flames. But when I think about what happened to me, I realize that the only language that can even approach describing it to say that the ghosts of those killed by the Khmer Rouge took pity on me and lead me through that swamp.

One of Cambodia's many monuments to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

I have often thought of my student’s story when people ask me how it is that we Christians, living in an age of neuro-science, evolutionary biology, and particle physics, can say we believe in God, and that Jesus was God made truly human.

Most of us who come to Church regularly do so because at some time or another we have had an experience, an insight, a dream, or a deep feeling, where we felt, if only for a moment, that God was speaking to us, that Jesus was embracing us in his arms. This is true even of us Episcopalians, suspicious as we are of too-fervent claims of endorsement by the Almighty. Parading such experiences about in public, to us, is simply in bad taste.

“I heard God’s voice” is a dangerous claim. Think of the horrors that have been justified over the centuries with the words, “God commands this”: Holy wars, inquisitions, slavery, child abuse, assassinations, terrorism, sexual predation, the subjugation of first nations, or women, or people of color, or homosexuals or transgendered people. I have heard tapes of people involved in the sedition at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 saying “I am here because this is what God wants.” Granted, people have also cited God’s voice in arguing for good things, including the ending of many of the horrors just mentioned. “I heard God’s voice” is a suspicious claim, if only because it has been used to argue such widely divergent things.

On the level of observable facts, what people call “hearing the voice of God” appears to be indistinguishable from coming to a conclusion or insight through reasoning, introspection, or states of altered consciousness or hallucinations, whether caused by ketosis and low blood sugar due to fasting, emotional distress, possible environmental hallucinogens like ergot, or just a genetic predisposition to neurological disturbances. When people start talking about hearing the voice of God, then, we moderns are inclined to be like Ebenezer Scrooge when he first sees the ghost of Jacob Marley. He denies what he is seeing, saying Marley is a hallucination induced by eating before going to bed, “a spot of mustard, a bit of undigested beef.”

Yet we Christians persist in saying that we have heard God’s voice because, just like for my Cambodian student who believed in ghosts, this is the only language we can find that adequately describes what we have experienced.

Hearing God’s voice is the theme shared by all of today’s scripture readings.

The boy Samuel hears the voice of God in the Temple in the night and mistakes it for the voice of his master, the prophet Eli. Eli, with more experience, finally recognizes that it is God’s voice, and tells Samuel, “Go, and listen with an open mind and heart.” This all occurs in an age like ours where there is not a lot of vision, or hearing God. Just as Samuel needed a mentor to help him hear God, we need community, church, spiritual direction and rules of life to help us have better hearing.

Similarly, Nathanael hears Jesus’ call ambiguously at first, then more clearly, despite Nathanael’s prejudices against Jesus for coming from a backwater of a backwater. Jesus tells Nathanael that he is the gateway to heaven, the ladder on which the angels pass between Earth and Heaven. And so for us too, Jesus is the rule by which we must judge whether a voice is God’s voice or not. One of the clear implications of all of Jesus’ teachings is that we should not use God’s word to tell us what love is, but rather use love to tell us what God’s word means.

The Epistle reading makes a similar point: St. Paul is replying a letter from the Church at Corinth where some people claim to have heard God’s voice recommending things that Paul roundly condemns. The God they hear is not the God Paul does.

In our world, many competing voices claim to have heard God and tell us differing views of what God’s voice says. Learning to recognize the voice of God among such varied voices is important. My experience is that there is one standard that is reliable and trustworthy: it is the person of Jesus himself. In traditional Christian theology, we affirm that Jesus Christ was and is the definitive self-revelation of God. This means that what the historical Jesus said and did is extremely important. To be sure, this is all mediated through scripture, tradition, and reason. The voice of Jesus in scripture itself is mediated by four very different views of Jesus found in the four Gospels. But the ultimate standard remains Jesus himself. Getting acquainted with his voice gives us the experience and direction that Eli gave Samuel when he misheard the voice of God.

God does speak. I have heard the voice of God at times, and I believe that many of you have as well.

“Hearing God’s voice” can only be experienced, as it were, from the inside, and does not make itself readily available for rational analysis from some theoretical objective sideline, let alone for apologetics.

We need not fear God’s voice. It is the voice of a loving savior, a dear friend. Eli tells Samuel “Go and listen.” Phillip tells Nathanael “Come and see.” May we all be quick to do so. In the name of Christ, Amen.

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