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St. Valentine

by HW in HI

based on Matthew 17:1-9

Today is Valentine’s Day. A day to remember not just our spouses or boyfriends and girlfriends, but all the people we cherish in our lives. A friend of mine made the point that true love can be between good friends, brothers and sisters, parents and children. And of course, love is more than paper hearts, flowers and candy.

On Friday morning I sat down to work on this sermon, but I wound up watching the vote in the Senate and all the commentary. I slipped over to the church to get a few papers and by the time I came back, the Rikki Lake show was on. Have any of you ever seen that? Unbelievable. The show was about husbands that had babies with someone else’s wife. Complete with screaming and name calling bleeped out.

When we talk about love, we talk about commitment. Promises. Covenants. These ideas were lost on that TV crowd, and these ideas are largely lost in the world today. We live in a time when promises and words can easily be broken, and no one much cares. I’m not talking about marriages that just wouldn’t work. People who tried. Keeping promises sometimes cannot be done. But I am surely talking about fathering babies and leaving them to fend for themselves.

Promises and covenants have their origin in Biblical times, beginning with the Garden of Eden. In the time of Moses, clear promises were set down between God and the people of Israel. I will be your God, you will be my people; you will obey my commandments, I will lead you out of Egypt. The Israelites put a tremendous amount of energy into keeping that covenant. By the time Jesus was born there were well over a thousand laws to keep. And you might recall that Jesus was always getting in trouble for breaking those laws, like healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners, that sort of thing. Jesus was more concerned with the covenant with God than the law. The Israelites were trying to keep their promises with God by obeying the law, but people were hungry. The poor had almost nothing. The sick and infirm were often not cared for. Obeying the law had become more important than knowing God.

Jesus burst on the scene and pretty much turned things upside down. People insisted on following him even though their own lives were in jeopardy. People insisted on following him even though they might lose their lives. They wanted the truth at all costs. You know, if we stop to contrast those early committed Christians with the uncommitted souls we see on Rikki Lake – well, it’s beyond contrast, isn’t it?

I want to share with you the story of St. Valentine. He was one of those early committed Christians.

Valentine lived in Rome during the third century. Christianity was illegal at that time. Rome was ruled by an emperor named Claudius. Claudius wanted to have a big army, and go out and conquer lots of people so that Rome would grow bigger and bigger. He expected men to volunteer to join, but many men just did not want to fight in wars. They did not want to leave their wives and children. This made Claudius furious. So what happened? He had a crazy idea. He thought that if men were not married, they would not mind joining the army. Claudius decided not to allow any more marriages. Young people thought his new law was cruel. They were sort of into committment in those days.

Valentine was a priest and he performed marriages. After Emperor Claudius passed his law, he performed secret marriage ceremonies. One night Valentine was caught, thrown in jail and sentenced to die. But many young people came to the jail to visit him. They threw flowers and notes up to his window. One of these young people was the daughter of the prison guard, and the prison guard allowed her to sit and visit with Valentine. This is not a fairy tale, and things did not end happily ever after. On the day Valentine died, February 14, he left a note for the young woman, and he signed it, "Love from your Valentine."

They were not, as far as we know, a couple in love in a romantic sort of way. Rather, Valentine loved the young woman for her friendship. She loved him for his committment to his faith. Legend has it that she and her family became Christians.

The first Valentine was from a man who died for his love. But not his love of a woman, rather his love of Christ.

The disciples had such a love for Christ. A powerful, following kind of love. In this morning’s Gospel, three are selected to go with Jesus to the mountain top. It is just six days since Jesus told them he was to die, and six days since Peter said, “May God spare you. Surely this can’t happen to you!” And Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter had hurt Jesus, because he didn’t understand what was going on.

Still, on the mountain top we find Peter has been invited along with James and John. This tells us something about Jesus. Even when we don’t get it, can’t figure it out and say or think things that distance us from him, Jesus again extends his hand to us and says, “Come!”

Moses and Elijah appear. Peter, being Peter, opens his mouth and says, “This is great. Let me set up three special tents: one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Sometimes Peter just didn’t know when to keep quiet. But a cloud overshadows them. And God speaks to them, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” Which is to say, ‘be quiet, Peter.’

This is called the transfiguration. Jesus’ clothes are glowing white. His face is shining. Glowing. It is a powerful sign to the disciples that this Christ they love is more than a rabbi. Rather, this is the Son of God.

When people talk about mountain-top experiences, this is what they are talking about. A powerful experience of God’s love that infuses our whole spirit, every bit of our life. And Peter – well, Peter is Peter. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? He wants tents. He wants them to stay. He doesn’t want to come down. Life almost never gets this good, and it will never be quite like this again. That’s the mountain top. But they had to come down.

How many of us have had mountain-top experiences? A powerful experience of God, or of love, or of God’s love that overwhelmed us? And we wanted to hold onto it forever? Sometimes this is true for people in love. They want that mountain-top experience to last. So they get married, and have to come off the mountain-top and, well, marriage is work. Or parents with a new baby. There is almost nothing like that new baby. But you have to leave the hospital. You have to get on your feet. And you love that baby, but that baby is work.

Or that mountain-top experience can be finding that God has moved us in a powerful, life-affirming way. So wonderful we can almost taste it. And we have a powerful sense for God’s love in the world. God’s love for us. That we are special in God’s eyes. And we are. But we too have to come off the mountain top and get to work. There is a world created by God that awaits us. A world filled with paper hearts and flowers, but also with hurting people, caught in lives without covenants, without God.

There is a little pre-school song. I will spare you and not sing it, but it goes something like this, “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.” Faith is like that. Faith is something if you give it away, you end up having more. Amen.


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Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999