Tuesday, March 13, 2018

5 Lent B - Meditation on a popcorn seed

Hold a hard, smooth corn seed in your hand. It is beautiful, secure, and inedible. Drop it in a very hot pan and suddenly in bursts open into a delicious piece of popcorn.
Sometimes we have to die to who we think we are to become what God intends for us to be.

Fifth Sunday of Lent B
Transcribed from a sermon given
March 25, 2012
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
John 12:20-33

I love when I have an opportunity to do “show and tell,” so we have something to hand out to everyone. The story today was about seeds. I am going to give each one of you a seed. Will help out from the back and I’ll start of here and we’ll give everybody and seed.
(Seeds are distributed.)
You may recognize these. They are corn seeds. In fact they are popcorn. It is what I had in my house.
You will notice as you hold onto this how incredibly hard it is. It is like a rock. It has this hard outer shell. If you think about the life of a seed, it starts out with a plant that is growing and makes a flower. Then the flower gets fertilized and a seed begins. All the energy of that plant, all the nutrients that it gets from the soil, all the energy that it changes from the sun, all of that work of the plant goes into building up the seed, of providing it everything it needs to become strong and healthy. Then once the seed is established, once it has developed and is healthy it makes this casing around itself, this hard shell, to protect itself. This keeps it from being easily hurt, and it keeps it from growing any bigger. It has that dual nature.
This popcorn with this hard shell around it will stay like that forever. After all, this popcorn has probably been in my cabinet for years. I have no idea. Don’t check the expiration date. It is said that in some of the graves in Egypt they found grain that was still okay and viable. The seed survives because it is strong and contained.
It is kind of like when we are growing up. We start out as a major investment of our family. They feed us, clothe us, and care for all our physical needs. They teach us, educate us, and help us hopefully to grow spiritually and to develop a sense of who we are, a sense of what’s important, and a sense of what the meaning of the world is. If we have had a really good healthy childhood we develop into an adult that is strong and self sufficient, and we develop what is called a healthy ego. The ego is designed to protect us. That ego keeps us from being hurt by the outside world. It protects that sense of self that we have developed. It serves like that hard outer shell on the seed. And that is important, and that is necessary, the seed has to get to that point, just as humans beings have to get to the point where they have a really good sense of who they are and what is important. But, that shell, that ego, that keeps us safe also limits us. It is hard and rigid and keeps us from continuing to grow. And as it keeps us safe from things that are hurtful outside, it also can keep us from experiencing love and letting good things come inside. And our egos can get in the way of our union with God.
So just as the seed is perfect in what it is, it is not done. Just as when we become healthy whole adults we are not done. You see, if you take this seed, this popcorn seed, and you put it in a pan that is really really hot it is going to feel like it is going to die. Because that heat could kill it, destroy it. But if it isn’t too old, the moisture, the little bit of moisture inside will expand in that heat and all of a sudden it goes “POP” and it turns from this hard thing that you couldn’t possibly eat into one of my favorite foods.
It bursts forth and that shell becomes just a little bit around the bottom because the essence of it has expanded in a way that one never would have imagined if you didn’t know the secret of popcorn. This wonderful white fluffy thing, much more than that seed could have imagined. But it took heat; it took dying as a seed in order to become that which it was intended to be.
And so it is with human beings. We become healthy adult human beings with a good established self-concept and a nice strong ego and that’s not the end. God wants more than that. God offers more than that. But in order to transcend this ego, it has to die. It has to be ripped apart. And that is uncomfortable, to say the least. Most of us have known times in our lives where we felt like we were dying. Times when perhaps we were confronted with illness, or the death of a friend or family member, or the loss of a relationship, or divorce or losing a job where suddenly your self identity as this employee is gone. Or perhaps that happened at retirement. When what you had been doing all your life to feel good about yourself is suddenly no longer there. There are lots of different ways in which we have what one writer calls “necessary suffering.” Times when we are confronted with pain and lose and it hurts and we feel like we are dying, because a part of us is.
During those times, those times of struggle, which the psalmist calls “going through the valley of the shadow of death,” we are promised that Christ walks with us, that we are not alone in those dark times. But sometimes, when we are about to experience that death of our egos, we feel like Christ felt on the cross. We may feel abandoned by God, alone. And yet it is those moments of deepest despair and lose that can be the times that burst us open so that we are able to love in a way that we never loved before and we are able to receive love in a way we haven’t before and our relationship with God takes one step closer to union.

Christ says that we must die to be reborn. And here you are at a church, a Christian church that follows a leader who was crucified and died. And who calls all of us to take up our cross and follow him. Christianity is not easy. Christianity is about a willingness to die to who we think we are in order that we can discover who we really are - beloved children of God. But as long as we hold on to that hard rigid ego self-identification we can’t realize just how much we are loved. So like the seed it is only through dying that we come to fullness of life.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

4 Lent B

Why might one hide from the light? Why would we choose darkness?

4 Lent B
Sermon given
March 18, 2012
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church
John 3:14-21

Imagine that twenty or forty years ago a group of tourists were being shown around a great cave. The guide had taken them all the way down to the lowest chamber where there was a river that went through and had shown them the fish that didn’t have any eyes that lived in it. The guide showed them another section where there were all kinds of resources stored. There were blankets, cans of food and dried meat. He said this used to be a hide out for people who didn’t want to be caught by the law, and they stored things here so they could live there for months and months, maybe even years at a time. And just when he finished telling them about that there was a great earthquake and in the earthquake a piece of granite fell down and covered up the entrance to the cave The people who were there were stuck in this lower chamber and they couldn’t get out. Now they had enough oxygen coming in to live, and they had water from the river, and they had food that was stored and they had fish in the stream but they couldn’t get back out into the world. Of course as time went by things got more difficult.
Meanwhile, outside, after the earthquake the people saw that they couldn’t get down to this group that they knew was down in the cave. They tried everything they could to get through but they didn’t have the technology to go through solid granite. There was no way to reach the people who were trapped down below. They worked for weeks to try and get through. After a few months had gone by people began giving up, but the man who ran the guide service knew that down at the bottom there was water and there was food and that they could survive. And he cared deeply for all his guides including the guide who had taken them down there, and the people that had come to see the cave. He never gave up hope for them.
Decades went by, and the people underneath learned to survive. Of course it wasn’t too long before the batteries in their flashlights burned out and the candles that were down there had been used up.  Then they were in total darkness.
Human beings are amazingly able to adapt. They had what they needed; food, water, air and community. And they did establish their own community. It wasn’t the life that any of us would choose, but it was a life. And in fact it was an existence they got used to, adapted to. There were even children born there. They had blankets. They didn’t have rain. The temperature was always moderate. And they had all agreed at the beginning that the way they were going to survive was that whatever someone found that was helpful would be shared with all of the group.
As time went by some of the people, the older people who were trapped originally, remembered being outside and would tell the children about what it was like to be in the light, although some of the children in their rebellious teenage years thought that was just a story made up by the parents.
Time passed. And the people on the outside forgot, except for the one man who knew there may be people there, and who told his son about his love for the people who were trapped in darkness. He made his son promises that as soon as it was technologically possible he would go in and see if anyone had survived. So the son grew up to be an engineer and he studied mining methods. Finally when they came out with lasers that could cut through solid granite safely, they made a hole big enough for one person to go through. The son took a bright flashlight and went down into the cave, searching for where he might find anyone who would be alive.
You can imagine what it was like down there for the people who were living out their lives in darkness. They had no real idea of how much time had passed and they had totally adapted to the darkness. They were used to being in the dark and suddenly they saw a light coming. Some of them thought it was an illusion. There couldn’t possibly be a light down here. Others who remembered what it had been like recognized it for what it was and went to greet the person who was coming. But there were some who pulled back. Who didn’t want to be seen by the light. They didn’t want the flashlight aimed at them. That didn’t want to have anything to do with this one who had come in to disturb their lives.
Why would anyone not want to go to the light and leave the darkness? You see there were a few people there who had been hoarding food and not sharing it. And even though most of the people were very thin and just getting by there were a few who were well fed. Also some had found things and put them aside for themselves, or had found some clothing and not told others so they were better dressed then everyone else. When it was dark, no one knew, but if the light were to shine on them then the truth of what they were doing would come out. So they preferred to stay in the darkness. Now the man who came down with the flashlight to lead them out had no desire to condemn anybody who tried to survive down there, certainly understanding that you do whatever you can to survive. He had no concern about what people had done down there, all he wanted was to show them another life, to show them the light - to give them some new hope, new life.
So most of the people followed the flashlight out, but some chose to stay because they had developed a comfortable, secure life in the darkness and they didn’t want to acknowledge how they had lived their lives. Now the person who came in to save them, the son, was not going to force anyone to leave. So he left a rope and he said if you ever decide to come out, just feel for the rope and follow it out. You are always welcome out in the light.
That’s what Jesus came for, because we live in darkness. There is a lot of darkness in our world. Like the darkness of lying, and doubt and selfishness. We know what the darkness is. And Jesus came to say that you don’t have to stay in darkness because I can show you the way to the light. A light that is full of life, and joy, and hope, and freedom. It says here in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
He came out of love for the world, or another way to translate this is the cosmos, or all of creation. God’s incredible love for all of creation, especially for human beings, for each person, sent Jesus to show us a new life. It says very clearly here that God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. It says later, “The light has come into world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” That’s one thing about light, when it shines it sees everything. When we have things that we don’t want others to know about, when there are parts of ourselves where we have guilt, or doubt or resentments, we don’t want others to see it. If we open ourselves to the light of Christ’s love then we know that that will be seen. If we open up to Christ, he sees it all. Sometimes people choose to not open themselves rather than to be truly seen.
We all have bits of darkness within us. We all have things we would rather not have shown on TV. I don’t understand the reality TV shows because there are things I would not want to put out there. We all have those little secrets, those things we are not proud of. That’s why we have confession. If you have darkness, if you have a secret, if the light shines on something, if you shine a light on a dark place it is no longer a dark place. It is seen. And if you have darkness inside of you and it is spoken out loud and it is offered into the world it is transformed. It is transformed from darkness into just what happened. That is the power of confession. That’s really what we do during lent, we try to look honestly at ourselves. We take those things about ourselves that we are not comfortable with and bringing them out into the light so they can be transformed by God’s love. That’s what confession is for.
Every Sunday we have a confession where we all speak together. Usually that is sufficient. Sometimes we still hold onto things inside of us. We have things that bother us and we can’t let go of. That is why we have the option in our church of what they call reconciliation of a penitent. Some might call it confession. We have the option of going to a priest and saying out loud what is on our hearts and being told by the priest that God has forgiven us. That can be a powerful healing of a burden that we might carry.
Richard Cranmer who was the person who put together the first Anglican Prayer Book said about the office of reconciliation of a penitent, “All may” (anyone who wants to do that can go to a priest any time and ask for it), “None must” (it was not required. No one has to go to confession). Then he added, “Some should.”
It is a wonderful and powerful tool, especially for times of transition in your life. There are some people who like to do it during lent or during holy week in preparation for Easter. It is an option that is available. Just call me or you can contact Jeremy, or some other priest.

Sometimes if you have something on your heart you are not able to let go of, shining the bright light of Christ’s love upon it transforms it, and we are invited to a new life, a life of freedom, and joy, and hope in the light of God’s love.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Third Sunday of Lent B

Third Sunday in Lent B
John 2:13-22 and Exodus 20:1-17
March 26, 2000
Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Brentwood, CA

What was it that got Jesus so riled up? Why did he do this action of driving the sheep and the cattle out of the temple and pouring out the coins of the money changers? Certainly he knew how dangerous this was. Certainly he knew how upset the authorities would be. Yet he performed this dramatic action, at the Temple in Jerusalem, right before Passover, guaranteeing that many people would be around to see it. What could have driven him to such outlandish action?
This action of driving the salespeople out of the temple is one of a fairly small number of actions of Jesus that appears almost identically in all four Gospels. It is clear that it made a powerful impression on those who witnessed it. Most of the time when people talk about this action, they relate that Jesus was angry when he drove the people and animals out, but none of the four Gospels indicate his mental state at the time. None of them say that he was angry, they just record his action. None of them explain why he did it.
Jesus was acting much like the prophets who had come before him had acted. Often they would engage in some type of dramatic action to make their point. For example, Jeremiah is told (Jeremiah 13:1 - 10)

Thus said the LORD to me, “Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.” So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the LORD and put it on my loins. And the word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying, “Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.” So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the LORD commanded me. And after many days the LORD said to me, “Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.” Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: Thus says the LORD: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing.

Other prophets went through extended public fasts; one even married a whore in order to make a point. The prophets knew that actions, dramatic actions, get peoples attention and are remembered much better than simply words.
So Jesus’ intense and dramatic action against the establish religion as expressed through the temple was very much in that prophetic tradition. He didn’t just get up and preach that he didn’t like what was happening in the temple, he dramatically and memorably showed his displeasure.
But what was it that he was displeased about? What was wrong with selling animals and changing money in the temple? After all, to worship people needed to have the proper animal to be sacrificed, and it was a service to the pilgrims who came to have the animals right there to purchase. And people had to pay the temple tax with the local currency. Since people came to Jerusalem from all over the world, of course people needed to exchange their money. It was just providing a convenience for the traveler, sort of like putting in an ATM machine in the lobby.
What was it then that disturbed Jesus enough to make such a scene? What was the point he was dramatically making? The Bible does not explain why he did this, but we can get some idea by looking at Jesus’ statements in other parts of the Gospels and looking at the prophetic tradition that Jesus’ actions were a part of.
Jesus’ primary concern was that people could have a direct and personal relationship with God. Remember what he said to the woman at the well. (John 4:21-24)

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus wanted people to worship in spirit and in truth, to open their hearts in simplicity and faith and relate directly to God. What was happening in the temple was very different. There a person would come and buy an animal appropriate to the situation, take it to the priest to be killed, and then have completed the worship. It was more a business transaction in which the person paid God with an animal sacrifice in exchange for forgiveness, or to fulfill a duty, than a relationship of sincerity and truth. It was not just the sellers of the animals that were the concern of Jesus, but the whole method of worship that had developed over generations at the temple. In this he was following the prophets’ footsteps, who had consistently railed against the establishment of the temple. For example, Jeremiah says (Jeremiah 7:21 - 23)

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”

The temple, God’s house, the place that should have been a tool for helping people remember and grow closer to God through prayer, had become a marketplace. The temple and its methods had become an obstacle to the relationship with God, rather than facilitating it.
Jesus was bothered by anything, ANYTHING, that got in the way of the intimate and loving relationship with God. Right relationship with God does not take animal sacrifices, but a calm and peaceful and loving heart. The psalmist beautifully expresses it, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, oh, Lord my strength and my redeemer.” Words and meditations that are acceptable to God. That is the true worship, not what was going on in the temple at Jesus’ time.
In order for people to directly approach God, they had to get rid of the old system of sacrifices. Jesus had to drive out those things that got in the way.
I would ask you now, what in your life gets in the way of your relationship with God? What are the animal sacrifices and money changers in your life that Jesus would want to drive out of you so that your words and meditations may be acceptable to God?
If you need some hints, take a look at the Old Testament reading from Exodus, the Ten Commandments. Here we have delineated that which separates us from a true, spirit filled and loving relationship with God.

1.     Have no other God before me. God comes first. If there is anything, ANYTHING, in your life more important than God, it is in the way of relating to God. Period.
2.     Don’t make idols. Don’t turn any thing into God. Don’t worship things. Is your car an idol? Or your boat? Are you more concerned with caring for them then caring for your soul? How much time you spend concerned with their upkeep verses your prayer life? Don’t turn anything into God.
3.     You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. In ancient times, the names of the gods were used as words of power. They were used for magic, to try to manipulate the world. To use God’s name as a magic spell, in an attempt to manipulate things, to try to be in control, is clearly getting in the way of a right relationship with God. Today we are more likely to be tempted to use prayer in an attempt to manipulate the world in a magical way. The name of Jesus is powerful; we must not use it thoughtlessly.
4.     Remember the Sabbath. Take some time off. How can you possibly be in right relationship with God if you never take any time for that relationship? Can you set aside a regular time to pray, and read, and study?
5.     Honor your father and your mother. If we don’t have peace in our hearts with our parents our minds cannot be quiet and truly loving. I know this from years of therapy, both on myself and as a psychologist. Until we are at peace with our parents we are in inner struggle. Honoring does not necessarily mean obeying everything they say, but it does mean letting go of old hurts and resentments and treating them with respect.
6.     You shall not murder. If you have no respect for the life of God’s greatest creation, how can you be in right relationship with God?
7.     You shall not commit adultery. It is impossible, absolutely impossible, to be in an intimate relationship with two people at the same time and have any level of peace in your meditations or truth in your heart. Adultery leads to noise and confusion in the mind along with lying and deception.
8.     You shall not steal. Much like above, stealing leads to fear and deception, not love and truth.
9.     You shall not bear false witness. Here we are lying again. God is Truth, so to be in right relationship with God one must be in right relations with the truth.
10. You shall not covet. Coveting is such an archaic but powerful word. To covet something is more than just to want it, but to crave it, to be obsessed by the desire for it. To have your desire fill your mind and heart. To covet anything gets in the way of being grateful to God for the abundance that we have and focuses our minds not on God but on that which we long for.

What is there in your life that needs to be driven out? Can you invite Jesus to come into your life during this time of lent and take his whip of cords and drive from you whatever in you is an obstacle to a right and true and loving relationship with God? It will probably hurt, you will probably be surprised by what you find to be obstacles, but how else can we make ourselves a worthy temple for God’s spirit? Remember, we are God’s temple. Let us worship God in spirit and in truth.