Wednesday, December 5, 2018

2 Advent C

2 Advent C
Transcribed from a sermon given by
Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
December 9, 2009
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

The time of Advent is often described as a journey.  Sometimes it’s described as the journey to Bethlehem, or the journey of the Christ child, or the journey of Christ into our hearts.  Our spiritual life is also often talked about as a journey; a journey toward God.  

If we’re going to go on a journey, the first thing we need to do is to be headed in the right direction. If you’re in Iowa and you want to get to New York City, you want to head east and if you want to get to San Francisco, you want to head west.  Pretty clearly you’ve got to be going the right direction.  But every now and then, the messages are unclear.  If you’ve ever been driving in a big city and you’re trying to follow the signs, you may find it hard to know whether you go east or west on some given freeway.  There are lots of different messages, but it’s hard to know the right way to go.  

Our lives can be like that; so many different messages.  It’s kind of like when you were a kid and you played a game called “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  This is where they put a blindfold on you so you can’t see, then they put you in the middle of the room with a tail, with a pin or tape or some other way to attach it, and they spin you around. Then you’re supposed to walk up to the picture of a donkey and get the tail in the right place. Sometimes the other kids gather around telling you, “Go a little more to the left.  No, no, go to the right.  No, no, no, a little more to the left.  Go up higher.”  

If you’re at a party where all the kids are really nice kids, they’re all going to be telling you how to get closer to the donkey.  But sometimes there are kids at the party who don’t have your best interest at heart. They want to get to laugh at wherever it is you end up putting that tail, so they’re going to tell you the wrong thing.  Now you start hearing different voices.  Some of the voices say, “Go to the left.” and others are saying, “No, go to the right.” and you don’t know what to do.  It’s kind of like the world today when you turn on the radio or TV.  Some of the voices are screaming, “Go to the right.” and other voices saying, “No, go to the left.”  

So what do you do? You have to discern which of the voices you should listen to.  You may hear one voice that you know is the kid that always gives you a hard time, “So okay, I’ll ignore that one.”  Then you listen some more and you notice the voice of your parents or the voice of your best friend that you trust and you’re, “Okay.  That’s the one I can trust.  I’ll do what that voice tells me to do.”  

Sometimes you may be playing this game and all these people are saying go, “Left”, “Right”, “Forward”, “Back” then all of a sudden, you hear the voice of your mother or father shouting, “No!  Turn around. Go the other way.”  That’s when you’re about to step into the swimming pool. That’s the voice you better listen to, and that’s the voice of John the Baptist.  When he’s out in the wilderness, he is saying to the individuals gathered there and to his community, “Stop.  You’re going the wrong way.  Turn around.”  

That’s what repentance really means.  Repentance comes from the Greek word, “metanoia,” to know in a new way; to see things differently.  It’s also translated as “to turn around; to go completely in a different direction than you’ve been going.”  That’s what John the Baptist is saying.  “Turn around.  You’re going the wrong way.” 

Which voices are we listening to?  There are so many voices out there. There are the voices that say, “If you just spend more money for Christmas, you’ll have a happier time.”  There are the voices that say, “All you need to do is go to Las Vegas and then you’ll have fun and you can do whatever you want.”  Then there is the voice that says, “If you buy a new car you’re going to be happy forever.”  And there is the voice that says, “You’ll feel better if you buy a new drug, just talk to your doctor about it.  Yes, there’s several ways it could kill you, but it’ll help that particular disease that you didn’t even know you had.”  

Of course, there are all kinds of other voices, “Oh, one glass of wine isn’t going to hurt you.” All kinds of voices are out there. Which ones do you listen to?  

There were all kinds of voices in first century Jerusalem, as well.  The people who came to hear John the Baptist were surrounded by pagan culture.  The Romans had control.  They had power and were all about power and might.  Then there was the Greek culture which was very prevalent. They had plays, entertainment, and many gods who could be a lot of fun to worship. There was a lot of encouragement to go in different directions, to be secular, to forget about worshiping God. 

John was the voice of was crying in the wilderness, speaking for God.  

In our lives, we need to listen carefully to discern which of all these voices is the one telling us the right way to go.  One of the voices is Scripture.  That’s usually pretty reliable, confusing at times perhaps, but basically reliable.  Then there are good, Godly friends. You know which of your friends have the advice that’s going to be helpful and which of the ones you probably shouldn’t be listening to.  We need to discern which of the voices to listen to and which way to go. 

And when we discover we’ve been going the wrong way, we need to repent.

Repentance means saying, “I’ve been doing it wrong.  I haven’t been going towards God.  I’ve been going away from God.  I haven’t been going towards love.  I’ve been going away from love.  I haven’t been helping other people.  I’ve been hurting other people.”  

When you realize that you go, “Whoa!  I better stop.”  To repent does not just mean that you acknowledge what you’ve done.  Repentance is not just saying, “I’m sorry.” Repentance is saying “I’m sorry” and then turning around, turning your life around, so that you don’t go there again, but you go in the other direction.  The first step in our spiritual journey is to get going the right way. To get going the right way is what repentance is all about.  

But there’s more to what John has to say about the journey.  In this Gospel reading, John quotes from the Old Testament that says that God will make the high places low, fill in the valleys, and straighten the journey.  When you’re in your car, you may not notice the mountains so much, but if you’re on a hike, you know that when you come to a mountain its hard work. When you go into a deep valley, it can be scary. When you’re going on a crooked path, it takes a long time and you feel like you’re getting nowhere. When the path is rough its hard work and you may fall and trip.  It’s a lot easier to go on a level place, the smooth and straight road.  

The Old Testament says that God’s going to level things out. In that reading, it’s talking about the people of Israel who were in exile and that God’s going to make it possible for them all to get back to Jerusalem and the Temple and to God.  In the reading in the Gospel, the way it’s described is that John said that it is up to us to prepare the way.  It’s up to us to level the mountains.  Well there are two ways to understand that. 

One is the inner journey in which we are preparing to receive Christ into our hearts.  Remember the “Joy to World”?  “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.  Let earth receive her King.  Let every heart receive Him.”  It’s about getting our hearts ready to receive Christ. So we’ve got to get rid of the obstacles.  What are the mountains in you that keep Christ from getting in?  What are the deep valleys of darkness, the negativity, the resentments, the things you’ve held onto from your childhood that you haven’t worked out yet?  What’s the crooked path?  Where have you gone wrong? It could be that secret thing you won’t tell anybody else.  Probably should tell somebody and straighten it out.  What is rough and unclean about us that would get in the way of Christ coming in?  That’s our work right now, to get rid of those obstacles to Christ’s Love. To get rid of those things that keep us from realizing that the Love of God has been made known to the world in Jesus Christ and we are not letting that love in.  

There’s another side. There’s the community side. We are to knock down the mountains for everybody so that everybody can let Him. Christians don’t live alone.  Christians do not live in isolation.  Our spiritual journey isn’t just about ourselves.  It’s about a community.  We live as part of a community and always have.  Christianity started with Jesus having 12 disciples.  When He sent them out, He sent them out two by two.  He doesn’t send us out alone.  We are here together as the church, the community, the Body of Christ gathered together.  

So our job, right now during Advent, is to get out there and level those hills.  We need to get the bulldozers.  We need to get rid of the obstacles that keep other people from knowing God.  Knock them down, straighten things out, make it easy for each other.  That’s what ministry is about.  Ministry is about making it easier for other people to know God. 

So when someone’s by the church door, say’s, “Hello” and hands you a bulletin, it makes it a little easier to come into the church, to feel welcome.  When you have people who stand up here and sing, lead us in song and inspire us, it helps us; it smoothes the way.  There’s nothing like music in a worship service to kind of grease our way to God, smooth things out.  

And the people who make the coffee for after the service so we can have fellowship. And the ones who come during the week and fix up the grounds so it looks beautiful. And the people who are over taking care of the children.  There are so many things, little things, things that nobody notices.  That’s what ministry is about, because we’re helping to clear the way for God, to make it easier for other people to approach God.

That’s our work. That’s our job.  That’s the mission. It’s not an impossible mission that God calls us to, to love one another, to help one another find God, to stay on the path, to make the path straight, to know which way to go.  And it’s a glorious and joyous thing because we, as a community, are the Body of Christ.  We are the ones who are preparing the way for the Lord.  We are the ones to make the valleys filled and the high places low so the journey to God can be easy and direct together.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Advent 1 C

The First Sunday of Advent
Sermon given on
November 30, 2009
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

During his 1960’s presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport.  Colonel Davenport was the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives.  On May 19th, 1780, the sky in Hartford, Connecticut blackened ominously, and some of the representatives thought the end was at hand, that this was the end of the world.  So, some of them asked Colonel Davenport to adjourn the meeting because the world was ending. He said to them, “It’s one of two things.  Either the world is not coming to the end and so there’s no reason to adjourn the meeting, or it is coming to an end and I, at the end, want to be found doing my duty. So I’m not going to adjourn the meeting.”  And he ordered candles be brought in.

We’ve all heard predictions of the end time.  You may have read how the world is going to come to an end in 2012 because the Incan calendar only goes up to 2012 and the ancient Incans must have known when the world was going to end, even though Jesus told us even he didn’t know.  And of course, we all remember Y2K, you know, if the computers crash, that’s going to be the end of the world.  People have been talking about the end of the world for a long time.  

In this reading from the Gospel where Jesus talks about the end, what does he say?  He says that that’s good news.  So if someone comes up to you and says, “It’s the end of the world.” Your response, as a Christian, is, “Great!  That’s wonderful news!”  Because Jesus says at that time we are to stand up tall and raise up our heads because we know that our redemption is near.  The end of the world means that Christ is coming near.  It’s not something to be afraid of.  So I suggest if someone tells you the world is about to end, you say, “Fine.  I want to be doing my duty.”  

There’s a Buddhist story about an old monk who was well into his 90s.  He was outside his hut planting an apple tree.  It was just a tiny little apple tree and someone walking by said, “Why are you doing that?  After all, you’re not going to live long enough to see any apples from it.”  And he looked at him, and he said, “If I knew I was going to die tonight, what I would be doing today is planting that apple tree.”  We’re doing what we’re doing no matter what, even if it is going to be the end of the world. 

So the next time someone predicts the end of the world, say, “Great.  Now I’m gonna go about doing my duties because when the end of the world comes, I want to be found doing.”  I have a little refrigerator magnet that someone gave me and on it says, “The world is about to end.  Christ is coming.  Look busy.” 

So, that’s what we’re supposed to do if the world is truly coming to an end, but we don’t know when that’s going to be.  

Like everything in Scripture, talking about the end times also has more subtle meanings for our spiritual journey, for our own growth.  We’ve all had moments in our lives when it felt like our world was coming to an end.  It might have been when you walked into that doctor’s office, and you got the diagnosis of a dreaded disease.  It might be when you got the phone call of someone you love, a spouse, a parent, a child, who is dead.  It might be when someone you cared about hurt you deeply.  It might be when you lost your job.  It might be when you found yourself in the middle of a divorce. It feels like the world is coming to an end because the world, as you know it, is coming to an end.  

When you walk out of that doctor’s office, everything is different. When the one you love has died nothing is the same.  Your world has come tumbling down.  The question is, “How are you going to respond to the things that happen in your life?”  We all have circumstances, things that happen to us because none of us gets through life without struggles.  We all have people we love die.  We all have people we trusted to betray us.  We all have to deal with physical illness.  It’s the way the world is.  

The question for us is, “How do we respond to that?”  Rick Warren says we have a choice.  When things happen, we can either become bitter or we can become better.  We can be bitter or better.  We can take the things that happen to us and feel sorry for ourselves and blame other people or we can see it as an opportunity to grow, as a time to grow closer to Christ.  

It’s like at that “End of the World” time. We can say, “The world is ending,” and cover our heads and moan and groan and scream, or we can stand up tall and raise up our heads and reach out our hands to God because we know that our redemption is near.  When we go through these times of difficulty, we stand up and we reach out to Christ because Christ is with us, is walking with us. They are an opportunity to deepen our faith, to deepen our compassion, to understand ourselves and the world a little better.  

One of the exercises that is sometimes done in personal development workshops is to make a timeline. You have your life journey, and in that life journey, you mark significant events:  births, deaths, illnesses.  Then you take and you make a line showing your spiritual life, how close you felt to God.  When I do that, what I find is that the times that I felt closest to God were the ones where I was dealing with a crisis.  Ones where illness had come upon me and the only way I was going to deal with it was to reach out and grab God’s hand because I knew I wasn’t going to get through it alone.

At the times when someone I loved died, my heart was broken, and it was broken open, and I knew my need for God. When our world falls apart, when it seems like the end of everything, that’s the time we realize we can’t do it ourselves.  That’s the time when we have to reach out to God and ask for help. That’s when we know our need for God and our need to pray.  

The Psalm says to trust, “I put my trust in God and He will teach me,” We are to put our trust in God at the times when the whole foundation of our lives is trembling, because Christ is there.  When it feels like our world is coming to an end, stand up, raise up your head and know that that is when your redemption is near.  Amen.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Christ the King Sermon, Last Sunday of Pentecost

Last Sunday of Pentecost
Proper 29 - Christ the King
Transcribed from a sermon given on
November 25, 2012
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

Today is the last Sunday of Pentecost. We begin the church year again next Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent. The last Sunday of Pentecost is also called Christ the King Sunday, where we celebrate the reign of Christ. 
As I was thinking about this and trying to wrap my mind around what it means for Christ to be king, I realized that king is not a word that we really identify with. Our image of kings, like the king or queen of England, is of people who don’t have very much power. It is not like kings in ancient times. But I had a thought and came up with a story. One of the people at the first service called it a parable. 
I’d like you imagine a high school that has just gotten out of hand. What has happened is that the normal cliques and groups in a high school have coalesced into what they call teams, and each team has a captain. This captain rules it over every one of his team members. He tells them what to do and collects money from them. There are drugs being sold, there’s violence and there are fights between the members of the different teams. Those who are not part of a team get harassed. It has become a very ugly place. 
Some of the police in the area were discussing this and the young captain from another town said, “My heart is really breaking for these kids because I know there have got to be kids in there who are good kids and want to have a different kind of experience in High School.” This young captain was one of those people who looked very young, the sort of person who when he wasn’t wearing his uniform got carded every time he wanted to buy anything. So he volunteered to go into the high school and try and talk to some of the kids. Those of us who are old enough to remember 21 Jump Street, it is that sort of thing. For those of you who don’t remember the show, don’t worry about it. 
The officer makes arrangements. He gets his hair cut in a strange way and he finds whatever kind of clothes the high school is wearing at that time and makes arrangements for him to be a transfer student. Of course he is a transfer student with a poor grade point average so he is not put in the AP classes but in those other classes. You know. And he hangs out with the kids. At lunch he sits alone at one of the tables. Usually there are the teams that are all in different parts of the cafeteria. He sits in the middle. At first there are just a couple of kids who talk to him. Gradually each day more and more of the students sit at his table and want to listen to what he has to say because he is so gentle and loving and caring and smart. He tells them that they don’t have to live like that. That it is much better to work together. They need to take care of each other. And that nobody has a right to take away your lunch or your lunch money. You don’t need to do that and you don’t need to be part of one of these teams. You don’t have to be violent. 
Slowly but surely more and more of the kids start to hang out with this new person. Not just the kids that weren’t in a team, but some of the ones who were part of a team, were leaving their teams and saying I don’t like what’s happening and also began to hang out with him.
Well you can imagine how the captains of the teams felt about that. The teams were like, “You can’t do that. He’s messing up the whole system.” So one of the team captains has his thugs go in and confront him and say you better stop doing that. “If we see you doing that any more you are going to be in real trouble.” Well of course this guy is a police officer. He’s not the least bit scared by that. So, that didn’t work. 
Finally the strongest captain has his thugs grab him after school, bring him around behind the school in the alleyway and beat him terribly. And then the captain comes in and says, “Well, now what do you think?” And of course this police officer is not intimidated the least bit. A little beat up, yes, because he chose not to fight back, knowing that he probably could have done a good deal of damage to the kids. Then the captain says, “You don’t look afraid, what’s with you.” He responds “You have no power over me.” “Oh yes I do.” Then he asks, “Are you trying to be the captain here?” The officer responds, “I’m not a captain in this high school. I have no interest in being a captain in this high school.” The high school bully asks, “Oh, you are a captain then?” The officer responds, “Yes, but not in this high school. I have no interest in that.” 
So it was decided that it was time for him to leave, and he wasn’t seen again at school. There were a couple of the people who had been listening to him who saw him in his police uniform and suspected it was him, but nobody was quite sure. But the ones he talked to began to change the school because they began to work together and not be afraid of these powerful team captains. Slowly the culture of the school began to change. 
Then when graduation came, guess who was there to shake the hand of every one of the students as they graduated. The ones he had gotten to know well, he helped them in the next step in their lives with scholarships or jobs.
This little parable to me is kind of what Jesus was. He came into our world, but never was totally of our world. He always was more than that as well. That beautiful but confusing concept “Who is and was and is to be.” He is outside of time, outside of space - beyond. Something quite different.
We all have memories of our own high school experience. When we were in high school, didn’t we take it seriously? Didn’t it really matter whether you made it into the cheer leading squad or not. And it really mattered whether you got invited to the prom. And when you were called one of the dorks or geeks or whatever the word was that they used, you felt terrible and humiliated, awkward and strange. We all have our own particular experiences of high school. 
When we were in high school it seemed really, really important. And when we raised our kids and they were in high school, and they were all bent out of shape, we did our best not to say, “Oh don’t worry, it’s just high school” because we tried to remember that for them that is real. Perhaps that is how Jesus sees us. We are so concerned about power, or money, or how many things we are going to have. Does it really matter? Is it really important? Yeah it’s important to have food, clothing, health, all of those are important but how much do we need? Does power on earth really matter? What does matter? What remains from high school? What was really important when you were in High School that has remained? Maybe there are some friendships. Maybe there are some things you learned. But they are all those positive things. Those things you didn’t worry about at the time. Christ came among us, became human, was born and lived as a human being to tell us that there is something more to life than just accumulating things. There is something more to life than power. There is something more to life than security. That it is about love - loving each other, loving God, loving ourselves.
And every one of you who is here today is here because there is some part of you, maybe it is a large part, maybe it is just a tiny little voice inside, that knows that there is something more than just this reality, this world, this cosmos. That knows that there is something more than this. That this is not everything. And Christ came to assure us that that is true and invite us to help bring a new kind of reality into the world.
When we say, “Thy kingdom come” it means helping to make this world be the way it was intended to be, the way God would like to see it - whole, loving, kind and good. And here we are. Each day we have a choice - who is our captain, who is our king. Do we follow the leaders of this world or do we follow the leader of that which is beyond this world? Do we bring in peace and love and hope or are we stuck here. Each day we have that choice. 
Christ the King invites us to help bring his kingdom here on earth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Proper 27 B

The widows remind us of our need to give.

Proper 27 B
Transcribed from a sermon given on
November 11, 2012
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Mark 12:38-44

In the lectionary today we read about three poor widows. The widow in the Gospel of course, but also of Naomi and Ruth. For those of you who haven’t read the book of Ruth for a while I want to give you the context here. Naomi and her husband were from Judea, from Bethlehem. There was a famine so she and her husband and their two sons moved to Moab, which was a nearby nation. It was an enemy of Israel, but due to the famine they went and stayed there. While they were there their two sons married Moabite women. So they would have been considered foreigners to the Judeans. Then her husband died and Naomi became a widow. And then both of her sons died, and there she was a widow with two widowed daughter-in-laws. No grandchildren had been born. So the question came up, now what were they to do? 
Back in those days the life of a widow was pretty difficult. They had no social safety net, no social security. Basically your support was from your children and your grandchildren, especially the males, because at that time a woman couldn’t own property or inherit property, and there weren’t any good jobs for women. So these three women were pretty destitute - very poor widows. 
Naomi decided to return to Judea. She had heard that the famine was over there. As she left she told her two daughters-in-law, “you stay here. Go back to your mother’s houses and see if you can find new husbands because I am not going to provide you any more husbands.” Well one of them decided to stay in Moab, but Ruth, in a very famous statement said, “No, I will go with you. Your home will be my home. Your God will be my God.” 
So Ruth and Naomi return to Judea, probably hoping that there might be some friends or distant relatives who would help them out. At that time the way that the poor were taken care of was through what was called gleaning. If you had a crop and you were harvesting it you were not supposed to harvest every single grain. You were supposed to leave a little bit behind. It is hard to get the edges, it is hard to get everything, and rather than going back and getting all of that for yourself you were to leave it there so that the poor could come by and harvest the part that was difficult to harvest and have it for themselves. So Ruth goes out to glean in order to try and get some food for her and Naomi. And it just happened. (There are lots of things that “just happen” in scripture, but we know it is God’s hand when things “just happen.”) It just happened that the place where she went to glean was owned by a relative of Naomi’s husband. So Ruth was gleaning, and she worked very hard, and she took back whatever she gleaned to Naomi. They had enough, and she did that for several days. The owner of the field, Boaz, noticed what a hard worker she was so he surreptitiously told the people who were gathering his crops to leave a little more for her so she had plenty to glean. And he told them to give her some water because she gets thirsty in the middle of the day. He was treating her very well. There was respect for her, even though she was a foreigner, because she was caring for her mother-in-law and she was working very hard. 
This brings us to the part we just read, of Naomi going to Boaz, the owner of this field. Boaz was a kinsman and in Israel at that time inheritance of property was a very complex thing. It was to be inherited down the lineage, son to son to son. It was the property that had been divided up when they entered into the Promised Land, and the property was to stay within the family. So it was difficult if a man died without an heir. The law was that if a man died who didn’t yet have an heir and he had brothers one of the brothers was to take the man’s wife into his home and provide that woman with a child so that that child could be the heir for the man who died - so that brother’s name could continue on. There was a responsibility to take care of your brother’s lineage and heritage. Remember Naomi’s husband had died leaving no heirs since the sons have died. 
So Boaz is a kinsman, but not the closest kinsman, it turns out. But he is a kinsman so if the property is going to go to someone, it should go to someone who is related. And that is why Ruth goes and offers herself to Boaz, getting all dressed up and beautiful for the, well you all can imagine. Add to that the symbolism of uncovering the feet. The feet are often used in scripture as representing the genital area. So you can kind of see what Naomi was telling Ruth to do. They left out a part in which Boaz says that he is interested in marrying her, but he can’t do it right away because there is one kinsman that is closer, one relative that is closer and should have right to the property. So he has to first give that kinsman the opportunity to take Ruth as his own. The other kinsman says no so Boaz marries Ruth. And that is why when Ruth has this boy child with Boaz, it is taken to Naomi because that boy child represents the lineage of Naomi’s husband. It is a little confusing to us, but it is a very important story. The reason it is so important in scripture is because the son of Obed was Jesse who was the father of David. So when you read the genealogy of Jesus in scripture, it includes Obed of Ruth. Ruth is one of the women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy. It is interesting too that this woman is a foreigner. She is a Moabite. But what is important to me today is the faith that these women had. Their great trust, especially Ruth’s trust in Naomi’s God. She was willing to leave everything she knew to go back and worship the God of Israel. 
We have another poor widow with great faith in the Gospel today. She comes and puts two small copper coins or pennies into the collection box. Jesus is impressed because he says she gave everything she had to live on.
And there is one other widow I want to tell you about, a fourth widow. This was a woman who went to my previous parish. She lived in the poorer area of town. She had an apartment in subsidized housing. She didn’t have much. There came a time when the person who had been giving her a ride to church wasn’t able to do it any more and since I went right by her house when I came in to church I started giving her a ride to and from church. And it came to be the fall and it was stewardship Sunday, which is what we have here today. When I got into the car with her on the way back to her house she had tears in her eyes. I asked what was the matter, and she said she couldn’t come to church anymore. So I asked. “Why not.” She said, “Because I can’t give anything. I don’t have any money to give.” At that moment I felt like God inspired me. I had been hoping to find someone to make bread, so I said, “Could you make bread?” She said, “Sometimes I won’t have the money to buy the flour and the yeast and all.” And I said, “If I got you the flour and the yeast could you make bread?” She said, “Sure.” After that, every single Sunday until she went into the hospital before she died, when the gifts were brought up, her loaf of bread was right there. Her gift was offered to God. 
You see it is not the size of the gift, it is the heart behind it that matters. The two copper coins were more valuable to God then lots of money from a rich person, because you see God doesn’t need money. God doesn’t need money any more than God needed the blood of animals that were sacrificed at the temple. God has all the animals God needs in creation. God has it all - it is all God. God can take a church and blow it down. God can make something grow up instead. God doesn’t need money. 
But we need to give. That poor widow needed an opportunity to give to God. Each one of the four widows we have spoken of had a relationship with God. A relationship that involved trust, that involved love, that involved a sense of oneness. They had a relationship that included a sense of thankfulness even though they were poor, even though they didn’t have much, they needed to give to God. Ruth did so by taking care of Naomi. The widow by giving her two pennies. My friend by making bread. They needed a way to express that relationship, to live out that relationship. The giving was a sign of giving themselves to God. A sign of their trust that God would take care of things.
And that is what it is for us. Today is the day we collect our estimate of giving cards, sometimes called pledge Sunday or stewardship Sunday. God doesn’t need your gift, but we need to give, because what we give represents our relationship with God. If we truly feel that we have received love from God, if we’ve experienced the incredible gift of God’s love, we need to give back. It’s just a natural thing. 
We can give back in many ways. We can help out around the church, we can help our neighbors, and we can help our families. We can love God in many ways. One of the opportunities is by giving to the church. When we offer our offering to God it is a symbol. It is a symbol representing our offering of ourselves. As one of the Eucharistic Prayers puts it, “We offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.” It is a giving of ourselves that is offered up at the altar. The amount of the money isn’t important. The ministry that goes on here can go on without a building, without a paid organist, without a paid priest and a secretary. We could still express the love of God to people. The early church worshiped in houses and there were no paid clergy. God’s work could still go on. God doesn’t need our money, but we need to give. We need to love, we need to give and we need to share. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

All Saints Day

"Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died."
"Unbind him"

All Saints Day Year B
Transcribed from a sermon given
November 4, 2012
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart at
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
John 11:32-44
Revelation 21:1-6a

In the Gospel today we hear the story of when Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. There were two lines that jumped out at me. The first is when Mary said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” And the last one where Jesus says to the people gathered around, pointing to Lazarus, says, “Unbind him.” 
“Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.” You can understand how Mary and Martha would have felt that. Jesus was their close friend. He stayed at their home. They had sent messengers to him saying, “Lazarus is very sick, come right away.” And he delayed. He delayed for quite some time, and he didn’t get there until after Lazarus was dead. They knew that Jesus could have healed him! “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 
We look on the TV and we hear about what has been happening with that horrible storm Sandy. Of the more than 100 people that have died. Of people walking along and branches randomly falling on their heads. Of the houses that are under water - some destroyed. Of the destruction of lives. And sometimes when things like that happen we have this question, “Lord, where are you?” 
And in our own lives I think all of us have at one time or another asked God, “Where were you?” “If you were here I wouldn’t be suffering so much.” “Why did you let my loved one die?” “Why is my friend suffering?” Those questions that we have are the same as question that we dealt with in Job that we read last week. The question is why is there suffering and where is God in it.  
I am not going to pretend to be able to answer that. Why is a question that people have struggled with for thousands of years. But I will say that it is legitimate to ask that question. When we feel like we have been abandoned it is legitimate to say, “God where are you?” “It is okay to be angry at God,” I like to tell people. My God is big enough that God can handle my anger - and still love me. We all have times that echo those words of Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, then I wouldn’t be hurting so much.”
The story continues and Jesus weeps. He feels the suffering and the struggle of Mary and Martha and those who are grieving. He weeps. He weeps with us even now in our hard times. 
Then they go to the grave and Jesus tells them to take away the stone. Mary doesn’t want to do that because as the King James version puts it so beautifully, “After four days, he stinketh.” But they roll away the stone and Jesus calls Lazarus out and we get to that line of, “Unbind him.” I imagine Lazarus kind of struggling to walk. He has these bandages around his head and on his arms and on his feet. And kind of confused, I would think, after four days and then being brought back to life. Jesus says, “Unbind him.” 
On Thursday, which was All Saints day, I went to visit a family of the parish. The choir knows them well. The father had died not too long ago and the wife lives with and their son who is dying from brain cancer. They have now called in hospice. So I went to visit. I spoke a little bit with the son who is confused, unable to stand, and suffering. Then I met with the family and we shared communion together. Since it was all saints day I read this Gospel passage, and as I read it I had a new sense of what that “unbind me” could mean, because at that point for Billy it felt as if his body was binding him. His mind didn’t work anymore, his body didn’t work anymore and maybe at some point, the prayer is “unbind him.” Because we know, and we believe, and we proclaim, especially today, on All Saints Day that all the believers when they are freed from this body are one with God. Or as it is so beautifully put in the Book of Revelation, “They will be his people and God himself will be with them.” There will be a closeness, a chance to see God face to face, which is what Job had longed for. To be surrounded by God’s love with nothing in the way. 
Right now we are in these bodies. It limits us. They are wonderful. It is amazing. We can see great beauty but only can see only a narrow band of energy. And if that is beautiful what does it look like if we could see all the energy around us? The scientists talk about all the universe being made up of energy. Imagine if we could be aware of and see that. Our ears are amazing because we can hear the beauty of a choir, or a bird chirping, or instruments, or a symphony, or the ocean. But it is limited in its range. Imagine if we could hear the sound of the celestial orchestra, if we could hear the angels sing, if we could experience that. We have glimpses of it. Little glimpses of it at a sunset when we see something, or sometimes we hear something, that transforms us. Where we feel that presence of God’s love. Little hints, promises, suggestions of what is there, of what is behind it all. Sometimes I feel like I am a prisoner who goes to visit with my loved one and there is a wall in between, and I can hear them on the other side, and maybe see their outline or a shadow, but I long to be closer. Sometimes that is how it feels with God’s love. Sometimes it feels like that day earlier this week when it was so foggy. There was this one morning when you got up and you could hardly see in front of you. Sometimes I feel like I am walking around in a fog and there is a world and an existence out there that is more beautiful than I can imagine. We have the opportunity to have tastes of God’s love, hints of the magnificent love that God has for each and every one of us, moments when that Kingdom of God that is described as coming in Revelation breaks in upon us and we know that we are loved. 
Sometimes what keeps us from experiencing and knowing that love is bindings that we put on ourselves. Imagine that you are at work and you are coming home from work and you are really angry at one of the people you work with, or someone cut you off on the way home. For some reason you walk in and you are just angry. You are not angry at your family. You are just angry. But when you walk in the door and your family offers you love, you can’t experience it and share it because you are bound up by your anger. Or when we are afraid. When we are afraid we can’t open and be vulnerable with another person and it takes a certain amount of openness and vulnerability to feel their love. Or when we are wracked with guilt and feel like we have done something terribly wrong, when our friends compliment us we can’t accept it because we can’t see ourselves as they do, but we see ourselves through the lens of our guilt. We bind ourselves up in ways that make it hard for us to receive the love that surrounds us and hard for us to share that love for others. 
So I pray that God would unbind us – free us from those things that keep us from knowing God’s love and sharing God’s love – that keep us from holding on to the knowledge and the hope that there is waiting for us a time when we will be truly free and know God face to face. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Proper 25B

 If Jesus was standing right here and said to you “What do you want?” how would you respond. 

Proper 25 B
Transcribed from a sermon given
On October 28, 2012
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Valerie Ann Hart

As I looked at the readings for today I was struck by three words. The first is faith, the second is hope and the third is see or to see. Faith, hope, sight - they come up in the different readings and seem to cover things very well. 
We begin the collect for the day, which is a prayer we give at the beginning of the service that summarizes the whole service. Today it included, “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity.”
The gifts faith and hope.
Just what is faith? Most Americans might think that faith is to believe that God exists. There are lots of people who are asked about God and say, “Yes, I believe that God exists.” But it is some abstract, sense of God. Others might say that faith means not only that God exists, but that God has revealed Godself through scripture. Yes, that might be considered a part of faith. But the faith meant by the Greek word that is used in the story in the Gospel, where it says that Bartimaeus had faith, is faith in, faith inGod, faith inChrist. According to the Greek English dictionary that particular usage of the word faith means more than just believing in the existence of God or believing in something that God has supposedly said. It involves a relationship. It means that there is a belief that God has the power, and is is also near enough, to provide what we need, to make a difference. It is an idea that God’s presence is right here and God can make a difference and has the power to make a difference. That’s the kind of faith we are talking about with Bartimaeus.
And hat is the faith that Job had. This reading today is the last little bit of Job. We read some of Job last week. The lectionary summarizes the whole book with just a couple of readings, so I’ll give you some context. You may remember that Job was a righteous man who loved and had a really good relationship with God. He had the kind of faithful relationship with God that I am describing here. 
Then Satan, who in this particular book is like the prosecuting attorney, comes to God and says, “those people don’t believe in you.” 
God says “Look at Job, he is so faithful.” 
Then Satan says “Yeah, he’s rich and has lots of kids. Of course he is going to praise you. But if things changed in his life he would turn away in a moment.” 
So God gave Satan permission to test Job and Job was severely tested as no one else I think has ever been. All of his children suddenly died tragically on the same day. Then all of his wealth was taken away that same day. 
God says to Satan, “See, he is still faithful to me even though all that has been taken away.”
Satan then says “Yes, but he is still healthy.” 
So God gave Satan permission to make him sick. He then had sores all over his body and sat in sackcloth and ashes, scrapping his soars with a broken pot because there was so much pain. And he still had faith in God. 
Now Job had these four quote friends. With friends like this you don’t need enemies. These friends came to him and they basically said, “God wouldn’t have done this to you if you hadn’t done something wrong.” Like a simplistic idea of Karma. 
Job replies “No, that’s not the God that I have faith in. And I did not do anything wrong.”
Now we know as the reader that he has been righteous, but his friends say he must have done something wrong. 
Job continues to assert that, no, I am innocent. There is a long dialogue that takes place. Finally we have that profound statement of faith that we read at the beginning of our burial service, which many of you know perhaps from the Messiah. 
Job says, “I know that my redeemer lives.” When he says that he is saying that I know that there is someone out there, some aspect, some divine being that I can talk to who will justify me and say that I’m right I didn’t do anything wrong, I don’t deserve this. He has faith in a God that is present and able to help him. That never leaves. He has that faith. 
Bartimeaus has that same kind of faith. When he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is coming by he cries out. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” 
He was the first one to recite the Jesus prayer which is probably the prayer that has been said more than any other prayer. In the orthodox tradition the Jesus prayer is a very common thing to be repeated over and over again.
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me.” 
He said this because he had faith in Jesus. He had faith not only that Jesus was special and a healer, but he believed that Jesus had the power and the willingness to help and make a difference. 
So what happened for Job and Bartimaeus was that their faith gave them hope in a hopeless situation. Job’s situation was hopeless. He had lost everything and his body was deteriorating. It was a hopeless situation but he never gave up hope. Bartimaeus was a blind beggar on the side of the street. You don’t get much more hopeless than that and yet he never gave up hope. And when Jesus came he called out to him and asked for mercy, because it is faith, faith that God is near and has the power and ability to help that gives us that wonderful gift of hope. 
The third word that struck me was how the word see is used in the readings. In the psalm it says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” What kind of seeing is that? We have Job who finally gets the opportunity to be face to face with God, that’s what he has been asking, he has been asking to be able to be face to face with God so he can give his part of the case, so he can testify “I don’t deserve this.” And he gets it. In the whirlwind God appears to him. All of a sudden Job no longer knows God by having heard about God but now sees God. Job is voiceless. He doesn’t have anything to say. God is so magnificent and so much more than he had imagined. When he sees God he is silenced. What kind of seeing is that. He talks about hearing and seeing with eyes but we all know that seeing God is much more than seeing something physically with our eyes. It is a seeing that is transformative. 
“Taste and see.” We don’t actually physically taste God. We don’t actually see God. We see the manifestations of God all around us but that kind of seeing that is transformative is an inner seeing. An awareness of God. The true experience of the presence of God. “Taste and see and know that the Lord is good.”
Let’s go back to Bartimaeus, the blind beggar on the side of the road calling out for Christ’s mercy. Jesus calls him over. He doesn’t just heal him. He doesn’t assume anything. Instead he asks him “What do you want.” 
Bartimaeus says “I want to see again.”
Then Jesus says “Your faith has healed you.” Bartimaeus trusted that Jesus could and would help. He is healed and he sees again with his eyes. But unlike some of the people who are healed and just walk away, Bartimaeus had more of an experience than just physical healing; he becomes a follower, a disciple of Christ, and follows after.
So I would ask you about your own faith. Do you believe that God or Jesus, whatever you want to call him, has the power to help? That Christ is near enough to help? 
And I would ask you if Jesus was standing right here. Physically standing right here, and you could see him, and he looked at you and said, “What do you want?” How would you respond? 
What do you want? Perhaps you want some healing, perhaps you have a physical malady that is causing you pain or suffering or confusion. Perhaps you are struggling with grief or sorrow or depression. Perhaps there is a relationship that is broken. Or perhaps there is someone you love who is sick, hurt afraid. 
If Jesus was standing right here and said to you “What do you want?” how would you respond. 
And the truth is, he is right here. He is near. If we have the kind of faith of Job or Bartimaeus we know that Christ is with us, present with us, all the time, everywhere. We also know that Christ told us over and over again just ask, pray, pray unceasingly. Tell me what you want. Don’t hesitate. 
Right now, today, don’t hesitate to tell Christ what it is that you want.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Proper 23B

What do you need to let go of in order to be the fully loving, joyous member of the Kingdom of God that you are intended to be?  

Sermon for Proper 23 B
Transcribed from a sermon given on
October 11, 2009
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Arroyo Grande CA

There is a story from India of two monks who were total renunciates of the world. They went off into the Himalayan Mountains and found two caves. They had nothing except for some straw on the bottom of the cave to sleep on. They prayed and they meditated and they worked to be unattached to the things of the world.  Things get a little musty in a cave in the Himalayas over the long winter so when spring came and the sun came out they took their straw and put it out in front of their caves so the sun could refresh it.  Then one of them went over to visit the other, and as he was walking up he accidently stepped on the straw of the other monk. Immediately the other monk got very angry and yelled, “How dare you step on my straw!” 

You don’t have to be rich to become attached to things, and I think that that’s what this gospel is about. It’s about our attachment to things. We have here a young man who has been living his life with as much authenticity as he can.  He has been trying to follow the guidelines, the Commandments, and he comes and he kneels in front of Jesus.  He does everything right.  He is sincere. Jesus looks at him, and it says that Jesus loved him. Jesus loved him.  It’s very rare in the gospels that such a thing is said about an individual person, but here it says that Jesus loved him.  So out of that love for him, out of seeing this sincere young man and out of that love, Jesus tells him what he needs to enter the Kingdom. He tells him that he needs to give away or sell all that he owns, and give it to the poor and come and follow me. Sadly, the young man is unable to do it.  You see, Jesus saw in that young man what his obstacle to a full life was – what it was that kept him from being fully alive and living his life with freedom and love and joy and being part of the Kingdom right now, as well as in the future.  He saw that he was attached to his money, and his money kept him from being free.  

There are lots of different things that might keep us from feeling free.  Money tends to be particularly dangerous, because with money, you never get enough.  I was watching 60 Minutes last week, and there was this interview with a man who did a Ponzi scheme that had brought in multimillions of dollars. This man was a successful lawyer.  He was respected.  He was wealthy.  He had a beautiful home in New York City.  He had everything, but he had a dream of having more – of having a larger practice with people under him.  In order to set that up and have the wonderful fancy offices that were in his mind, he needed to borrow money, and he couldn’t borrow it legitimately, so he made up a story to borrow the money.  But then when the payments came due, he wasn’t able to repay, so he had to borrow some more and some more, and pretty soon, millions and millions of dollars. 

He didn’t need it.  He had it all.  Any of us would have looked at him and said, “My gosh, he is so wealthy. He has everything anyone could imagine.” But when you’re attached to money, there’s never enough.  Each one of us has different things that catch us – that keep us from being completely free; that keep us from being the loving, loved, joyous children of God that God intended us to be.  Some of us might be attached or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Or we might find that food keeps us from being free.  Or we might find that it is our jobs or old resentments or guilt that imprison us. We may find that we’re in a relationship that keeps us from being whole and healthy.  We may find that our relationship with a grown child keeps us tied in and that child from being fully alive.  We each have our own ways in which we’re caught and we’re trapped. 

I’d like you now to imagine Jesus standing in front of you and looking at you with great love.  What would He say to you that you need to let go of in order to be the fully loving, joyous member of the Kingdom of God that you are intended to be?  

We all have things that catch us and hold us back.  Jesus said to the disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go into heaven.  Well what does he mean by the eye of the needle? Some people have suggested that one of the gates to Jerusalem was called the eye of the needle, and it was a low gate that a camel couldn’t get through, especially a camel that was loaded down with stuff, and so you had to unload the camel in order for them to get through.  The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that was built by the mother of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century has an unusual door. Churches almost always have big doors, and the bigger the church, the bigger the doors.  They’re very dramatic.  But the Church of the Nativity has a tiny door.  It’s about four, four-and-a-half feet high, and maybe two-and-a-half feet wide.  It’s built that way so you can’t get in riding a horse.  In fact, you can’t get in carrying a lot of stuff.  You have to put down whatever your loads are before you can enter the place where Christ was born.  And you can’t walk in with your head held up high and with pride. You’ve got to bend down with your head down in humility.  That’s how to enter.  That’s how Christ entered the world, and that’s how we enter where He was born. And that’s the only way we can enter into the Kingdom of God – unburdened by the things that we’re attached to.  Humble. Just ourselves.  

The disciples are concerned that a rich person can’t get into the Kingdom of God, because at that time in that culture, if you were rich, it was considered that you must be blessed.  You must be important and powerful. The rich were seen as better than the poor.  Our culture hasn’t changed all that much.  We still see the rich and famous as somehow blessed and important.  So they said, “Who can be saved?”  If a rich person can’t get into heaven, who could?  And Jesus’ answer is, “For mortals, it’s impossible.”  But for God – for God, all things are possible.  For God, the rich young man can be part of the Kingdom.  We, with our attachments, can be part of the Kingdom if we offer them to God.  If we ask for God’s help, all of us can be the joyous, loving people that God intended us to be.