Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Proper 7 B

When we encounter a Goliath in our lives, when the wind and the waves of everyday living feel like they will sink us, Jesus says, "Peace, be still."

Proper 7 B 
Transcribed from
A sermon given by
Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
June 24, 2012
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

In that rather long first reading we got to hear the story of David and Goliath. Now Goliath was obviously a very large man. Whether he was quite as big as he is described in scripture is unknown, but he was obviously a much bigger man than any of the Israelites. You can imagine the fear, the confusion and the concern among the Israelite fighters. Remember, back then it was all hand to hand fighting so if someone was that much larger you, you were at a great disadvantage. But what was there about David that he didn’t get caught up in the fear and the concern.? What was it about him that he was able to keep his head and come up with a unique solution to that problem of Goliath? 
We can imagine what it was like then, with the yelling and shouting and the cacophony of the soldiers cheering on their people. The waves of fear that must have gone through the camp as they realized they were going into war. So much chaos and confusion and anxiety, yet David responded with clarity and calmness. 
That confusion and waves of chaos that David encountered were not unlike what the sailors with Jesus encountered. The Sea of Galilee is actually a rather shallow lake. I don’t know the physics of it, but the shallower the lake is, the bigger the waves are. So the Sea of Galilee, or lake Tiberius to the Romans, tends to suddenly have storms where the waves get very high. It is quite unpredictable. It is dangerous and it can be overwhelming. 
Let’s think about the disciples. They were fisherman. Now a fisherman stays pretty much along the coast. He doesn’t go too far out into the lake because most of the fish are caught close to the edge. The disciples would be used to fishing so if there was a big storm they would close to shore and able to come in. But Jesus had them going straight across quite a distance, far out from shore. So, even though these were experienced fishermen they were terrified by the storm. 
We can imagine being caught out on a boat in a huge storm with big waves. The water is rolling in over the boat and we think we are going to die. Then we look around, and our passenger is comfortably sleeping on the cushions in the back. 
The disciples say to him, “Aren’t you afraid that we are going to perish?” 
Now what was Jesus going to do. He doesn’t know anything about running a boat. He’s a carpenter. They, as fishermen, know much better what to do. Jesus wouldn’t be able to help them. What is going to, bail the boat? What do they expect from him? 
They seem bothered by the fact that he was so calm amidst this storm. They seem to want his attention. “Don’t you care about us? Don’t you care that we are about to perish?” 
“Actually not really too much,” is sort of Jesus’s response.
I have in my mind this image of Jesus kind of sleepily waking up and going, “Peace, be still.”
Then the waves stop and everything clams down. 
Now this is one of his miracles where the disciples began to realize that Jesus wasn’t just a healer, but he could control nature – the wind and the waves. But to me there is a deeper level to this story and that’s the “Peace, be still” comment. 
The real problem on that boat wasn’t the waves or the wind, but the fear, anxiety and confusion of the disciples. We all know what that is like. We all have times in our lives when the waves seem to be crashing over us. When there is so much stuff going on. When the fear of being able to pay the bills, worry about losing a job, concern that our children are acting out, or our parents are acting out, or we’re dealing with physical illness, with grief or loss. When the waves of pain, the waves of grief, come over us we feel it is going to sink us. It is coming from every direction, it is uncontrollable and our minds get obsessed. We all know what it is like when our minds are in great chaos. When it seems like we can’t think rationally anymore. 
Like the soldiers when they were confronting this giant Goliath. It didn’t occur to them that there might be some other way of defeating him. They were just overwhelmed with fear. 
But when we can quiet our minds a little bit, even for a short period, maybe we will see a way of getting through, of coping. 
So I think that when Jesus said, “Peace, be still,” he might have been talking to the disciples as much as he was talking to the wind and the waves. “Peace. Peace be still.” What a gift that is – to find peace and stillness within the chaos of our lives. 
That’s one of the reasons that it is traditional in many, many religions to have some regular practice of prayer and quiet. For me it is Centering Prayer. Some people do some form of meditation or relaxation. It is the idea of practicing peace and the stillness. If you practice that when life is going along okay, then when the waves start to feel like they are going to overwhelm you, you have something to go back to.
Of course what it really is asking Christ to be there with us, to give us that peace. Even if it is just 5 minutes a day. Even if it is less than that, just some time of quiet. 
Just to give us a little taste of that, I’d like to invite you all to close your eyes and just notice your breathing.
(The sermon ends with a brief meditative exercise.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Proper 6 B - Sowing Seeds

When we share our faith, tell our story, offer a gift or give of our time we cast a seed. Maybe, just maybe, it will sprout in another person's heart and grow; and we won't know how.

Sermon given on June 15, 1997
At St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Brentwood
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
Mark 4:26-34

A handful of wheat, five thousand years old, was found in the tomb of one of the kings of ancient Egypt.Someone planted the grains and, to the amazement of all, the grains came to life.

A parable is like a seed. No matter how long ago the story was told, when planted in the heart, in the mind, in the soul, it can come to life and grow. Each time we remember the story, each time a new event in our lives triggers a remembrance of the parable, there is a new understanding, and the seedling grows. Each time, each retelling, each rereading, each remembering the depth of understanding grows. 

Jesus taught in parables, in puzzles, with stories that his hearers would remember, would think about - that would aid and nurture the spiritual growth of the hearer. 

There are parables of words, and parables of action.

A sannyasi, an Indian holy man,had reached theoutskirts of a village and settleddown under a tree for the nightwhen a villager came running upto him and said, "The stone! Thestone! Give me the precious stone!"  
"What stone?" asked the sannyasi.  
"Last night the Lord Shiva appearedto me in a dream," said the villager,"and told me that if I went to theoutskirts of the village at duskI should find a sannyasi whowouldgive me a precious stone that wouldmake me rich forever.”  
The sannyasi rummaged in his bag andpulled out a stone.  "He probablymeant this one, " he said, as he handedthe stone over to the villager.  I foundit on a forest path some days ago.  Youcan certainly have it.” 
The man gazed at the stone in wonder.It was a diamond; probably the largest diamond in the whole worldfor it wasas large as a person’s head.  He took the diamond and walked away. 
Allnight he tossed about in bed,unable to sleep.The next dayat the crack of dawn he woke the sannyasi and said, "Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”  

A gift, an act of love, a touch, a statement, the telling of one’s own story can be a seed, planted in the heart, which grows to enlighten the soul. The gift given without expectation, the seed planted without knowing how, or why or if it will grow. The faith of the farmer who keeps scattering seed on the ground even though he doesn’t know why or how. Even though sometimes for days and nights he sees nothing above the ground. The seeds are scattered in faith - faith that somehow they will bear fruit.

The Samaritanwoman put down her water jar and went off to the town.  She said to the people, "Come and see the man who has told me everything I ever did.  Could this be the Messiah?"

Whatwonderful teacher wasthe Samaritan woman! She gave no answers. She only asked a question.She planted the seed of a question.It must have been tempting togive the answer because she had gotten it directly fromJesus when hesaid, “Iam the Messiah.  I who am talking to you."  But she was content to scatter the seed of a question and let it grow.

Many more became disciples because of what they heard from his own lips. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for wehave heard him ourselves, and we know that this is, indeed, the Savior of the world."

We too need to be like the farmer who scatters seeds. We are called to scatter seeds - seeds of our own stories - the parables of our own lives - seeds of faith, seeds of love, seeds of gifts given without expectation. We plant the seeds in those we care for, in those we meet, in our neighbors, our friends, and our children. We tell the stories, we ask the questions, we give the gifts and then we sleep and rise night and day and let the seeds sprout, and grow and rejoice that the smallest of seeds can become the greatest of all shrubs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Proper 5 B - Mother Mary's response

Ever wonder what Jesus' mother might have felt like when Jesus asked "Who are my mother and my brothers?"

Proper 5 B
Sermon given on June 7, 2015
At St Michael’s, Gainesville FL
The Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
Mark 3:20-35

(Put a shawl over my head to represent playing the role of Mother Mary)

You, out there, who are parents - you will understand. We worry about our children. We want them to be safe and happy. You can understand why when people were saying that my son Jesus had gone out of his mind I felt I had to do something. He was always so gentle and kind. He loved to study and learn. Sure, he hadn’t found a wife and wasn’t interested in being a carpenter like his father, but I didn’t really start to worry about him until after he went to see his cousin John by the Jordan River. After he was baptized he disappeared for 40 days! Forty days and no one knew where he was! I was beside myself with worry. Then suddenly he shows up in a nearby town with followers and crowds of people surrounding him, begging for healing. People told me he couldn’t find time to eat! I also heard about how he was criticizing the scribes. I was afraid he would get into trouble. It can be dangerous to speak against the authorities when your country is occupied. So the family talked it over and we decided to go and bring him home. To keep him safe.
When we got there we couldn’t get close to him. We had to wait outside. We told someone in the crowd to let him know we were there and then we heard his reply - even above all the noise of the crowd. It cut like a knife! He said, “ Who are my mother and my brothers?” As if we didn’t exist! As if we didn’t matter! Then he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.” I was so deeply hurt - we turned around to head home.
I kept thinking about that moment, those words, for days. After the initial shock and anger subsided I realized that he wasn’t saying that I was no longer his mother. It was not about excluding his family, but rather it was about including everybody. He was saying to everyone gather there that he loved them like he loved his family. He was not excluding but including. As time passed I saw how he loved everyone. It didn’t matter where they came from, or how much money they made. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors, with the rich and the poor. He healed Samaritans and Roman’s and Greeks as well as those from Galilee and Judea. You could see it. No matter who he was talking to there was love and attention in his eyes. And he hadn’t stopped loving me. In fact later we were very close and I sometimes traveled with him.
I also thought a lot about what he said about those who do the will go God. What did he mean by saying that the people around him were doing the will of God? Wasn’t I, as a mother, doing the will of God in trying to protect and take care of my son? How were those people gathered around doing the will of God? They were just listening to him. And then I realized that listening to him was doing the will of God.  They were listening, really listening. I hadn’t taken the time to listen to him. I listened to what other people were saying about him. I hadn’t taken the time to listen to him myself. Before coming to take him home, I should have listened to understand who he was and what he wanted. 
So I started to listen, really listen. I listened to his words not just with my ears, but also with my heart. I heard in them the call to love - to love God and to love your family. And that everyone - every human being - is a part of your family. It is hard to explain this using English, because your word love means so many different things. The kind of love that he was talking about was a love that wants what is best for the other person. That yearns for that other person to be all that God intended for him or her to be. And it is about being willing to give up some of your own comfort and convenience to the sake of the other. 
For Jesus it meant being willing to speak the truth to authority even though they wanted to kill him. For Jesus, loving all his family, all people, meant being willing to die a horrible death.
As a mother I wanted to protect him. I wanted to keep him safe. Yes, I loved him, but I was also a little selfish. I knew what I wanted for my son, but hadn’t listened to what he wanted, to what God wanted. To love and to sacrifice for another, listening carefully with ears and heart for what is truly right for that other person - that I have come to believe, is what he meant when he said that his family is made up of those who do the will of God.
He wants us, all of us, to listen and to love each other the way he loves us.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


Pentecost 1997
Sermon given at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church Brentwood
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
John 20:19-23
Acts 2: 1-11

         Come Holy Spirit, come, come like the fire and burn, come like the wind and blow. Take our eyes and see through them, take our ears and hear through them, take our mouths and speak through them, take our hearts and set them afire.

         Have you ever had to write something, maybe a paper for school or a report for work, and you just sit there in front of the paper, empty, tried, thinking you’ll never get that done, and all of a sudden, a thought enters your mind, seemingly out of nowhere, and soon you are off and writing, feeling energized, creative again.
         Or perhaps you have sat at a meeting where all you wanted to do was go to sleep. You know the feeling, bored, drowsy, the meeting is going nowhere and you have a hard time concentrating. And you can tell that the others around you feel the same way, even if they are suppressing their yawns. When, suddenly, someone comes up with a comment or idea that seems to set the place alive. Suddenly the tiredness is gone and the ideas begin flying. What seemed like a waste of time that you would do anything to leave, is now the place you most want to be.
         We’ve all known those flashes, those breakthrough of illumination, where suddenly the energy is there to make a difference. Sometimes we refer to it as inspiration - to be in the spirit - to breath in.
         Today, on Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity. Today is also considered the birthday of the church. Before my sermon I invoked the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the baptism today we will ask for the Holy Spirit to come upon the child Jacob Rhys Cropper. But what are we talking about when we refer to the Holy Spirit?
         When I was growing up the third person of the trinity was referred to as the Holy Ghost. In my child’s mind I imaged it to looks something like Casper the friendly ghost. It was a white, see through kind of thing. But that is not at all how the Holy Spirit shows itself in the Bible. 
         One image is of a dove, and we can see that dove represented on the back window, that descended upon Jesus when he was baptized. The other images are presented in the readings today. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes as wind and fire. It is also represented as breath in the Gospel as Jesus breathes upon the disciples. Breath, fire, wind, a dove. These are the images. But what do they represent. At first look they are very comforting, the gentle dove, the fire that warms us when we are cold, the gentle breeze that cools us, the breath of Christ. Who wouldn’t want the spirit to be present, to give us support and peace.
         But there is one thing we need to remember about the Holy Spirit - it is not domesticated. The Spirit blows where it wills. It can be a gentle breeze that fills us with comfort, or a tornado that turns our life upside down. - Just ask Dorothy when she finds herself transported from the gray of Kansas to the vivid colors of Oz. The Spirit can be a warming fire, and it can rage and burn bright and hard like the fire that purifies metal, burning away all our impurities. And if you have ever felt yourself in the refiner’s fire you know how uncomfortable that can be. 
         And even the image of that gentle dove is deceptive. After Christ’s baptism, we are told that the spirit drove him into the desert for 40 days of fasting and temptations. I’m not sure I’d want that kind of gentleness. 
         And finally we have the image of Jesus breathing onto the disciples. He tells them “receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What a powerful, daring, incredible responsibility, and awesome power.
         The Holy Spirit is sometimes described as God’s action in the world. So what is this action like. First of all, when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives everything is turned upside down, everything is changed. We are no longer the same person we were before the spirit enters our life. Dorothy is a wonderful image for this. Her old life was destroyed by the tornado. She finds herself in a whole new world, a world full of wonder, and fear, and temptation, and hope. When we ask for the presence of the spirit, we need to be ready to be transformed.
         Next we find that the action of the spirit is the beginning of a process, of a journey. Christ goes to the wilderness, the disciples go out of the room they are hiding in and begin to preach. 
         When Dorothy finds herself in Oz she begins a journey, a journey that transforms her. She goes from being a weak and frightened girl, into the leader of a group of travelers who has the courage to confront the false wizard and demand gifts for her friends. And she also develops the wisdom to realized that she has, and always has had, the power to go where she most wants to be, to go home.
         The spirit transforms, purifies and empowers - empowered to do what God calls us to do. Christ is empowered to follow his call to teach, and heal, and sacrifice himself. The disciples are empowered to forgive, to preach and to teach the good news. 
         The Holy Spirit is God acting in the world, and when it comes upon us, it is to prepare and empower us to act. One must be very careful what one asks for.
         After my brain surgery, and the difficulties I went through for the first year, I was so grateful to be alive, to be enjoying my family, to be able to think and act, that I prayed in thanksgiving, “How can I serve?” I prayed this almost every day for several years, not having any idea what the answer to this prayer would be. Suddenly one day I felt the Spirit upon me, and felt I had received the answer to my prayer - I was to become a priest. It was something I had never even imagined. And it was the beginning of one of the most difficult and rewarding journeys of my life. I knew what I felt called to, but getting their involved dealing with the diocese, going to seminary, confronting many inner doubts and fears, learning things about myself that I would just as well have ignored. It was years of burning, purification, tempering of the instrument (and it still goes on), for a purpose. So I could be empowered. So I could act.
         Every experience of the Holy Spirit in the Bible is associated with empowerment, empowerment to action. When we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit we are called to action. Those of us who are baptized had the Holy Spirit invoked in our lives. Those of us who feel touched by the spirit of God’s love have been touched by the spirit and are empowered to act, to make a difference, to tell others, to be God’s instruments on earth.
         The Holy Spirit is far from domesticated. It can and will turn your life upside down, sending you to places you have never imagined, testing refining and purifying you, and most importantly, empowering you. Empowering you to make a difference in the world. 
         Come Holy Spirit, come, come like the fire and burn, come like the wind and blow. Take our eyes and see through them, take our ears and hear through them, take our mouths and speak through them, take our hearts and set them afire.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

7 Easter B: The Sunday after the Ascension

In the unfolding of the church year this Sunday represents the time between the Ascension and Pentecost when the disciples did not know how Christ would be made known in the world. In Jesus' prayer during the last supper in John's Gospel he that his disciples would be one as he and the Father are one. This suggests that the love of Christ is shown through the love among God's people.

7 Easter
Transcribed from a sermon given on 
May 20, 2012
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church Arroyo Grande
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart

Every year the Church go through the whole history of Christianity. We recently celebrated Easter and the resurrection followed by the time when Christ was with his disciples and appearing to them after his resurrection. Last Thursday was Ascension Day, which in spite of the fact that it is not celebrated very often is actually one of the main liturgical holidays of the Christian calendar. It could be considered number four after Easter, Pentecost and Christmas.  
We are right now, today, in an interesting spot of the church year. Jesus’ physical presence as the resurrected Christ is not longer with the disciples, he has been taken up into heaven, and yet the Holy Spirit on Pentecost has not yet come upon the disciples. Now represents that odd time of waiting, watching and wondering what’s next. How do we see him? He was alive, he died, then he was resurrected and now he’s gone. How is Christ known in the world now? 
The gospel reading today is a continuation of the prayer of Jesus during the last supper when he is prayed for his disciples. Remember that when he is praying for his disciples it is not just those that are physically present that his is praying for, it is for all of us who throughout time will be his disciples. That prayer is for us.
Once Jesus was no longer physically present, Christ’s presence, God’s presence, is made known in the world through us, through the disciples, through the people of God. 
What Jesus prays is about relationship. He prays that the disciples may be one as he and the Father are one. This means that he prays that we would be one as Jesus and God are one. It is interesting, this emphasis on relationship. It is part of why that wonderful confusing mystery called the Trinity is so important. It is all about relationship. God’s very essence is a relationship among a unity that also has some separateness to it. A unity of three persons. There is only one God but it is in three persons, which is totally confusing, but it speaks to the understanding that God IS relationship. God is often referred to as love and love is about relationship.
In this Gospel reading, Jesus is praying that that relationship manifested between Jesus and the Father would be alive in the community of his followers. That sense of a unity, of oneness, and yet separateness. We are all separate human beings and yet we form one body. We are Christ in the world - in unity. It is a little like a dance of relationship, a dance of love and caring for one another. It is how we manifest Christ in the world. 
Christ is seen by how we relate to each other, which is sometimes good news and sometimes is not such good news. Think about when people come to the church for the first time, when they finally get the courage to open up those doors and walk in. Sometimes they are coming because they hear that we have great music, sometimes they may be coming because they hope that they will get an inspiring sermon. Usually they are not quite sure why they are coming. But the way in which Christ’s love is made known to them is by the community of who we are and how we live as Christ’s disciples. It is our love for one another, it is our relationships with one another and our openness to inviting others into that relationship, that is the way we manifest God in the world. 
We are Christ’s eyes and ears and hands and feet. We are the body of Christ. Some research has shown that after a person comes to a church for the first time, if they don’t within two months have a first name relationship with at least eight people they probably won’t come back. It’s about relationship. We have a couple of months to establish a relationship. That is how God is known. That is how God’s love is expressed.
When we were getting the Sunday School going we agreed that the main priority for Sunday School is that each and every one of those children feel safe and loved and cared about. If they happen to learn some scripture, great, but what’s really important is that they feel cared about and loved because we preach with our relationships. Remember, Christ prayed for us that we would be in unity as he and the Father are a unity. 
He also prayed about the idea that we were in world, but we are not really of the world. As I have been thinking about this sermon I went to a conference at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. At the cathedral they have a labyrinth, which is a circle on the floor that has a path that winds back and forth and back and forth and eventually gets to the middle. The idea is that you walk that path until you get to the middle, you stop and pray there, and then you walk back out. It is a powerful walking meditation that I like. 
I hadn’t been to Grace Cathedral in a long time, so after the conference I decided to go and walk the labyrinth. One of the things about the labyrinth is that it winds. You’re on the outside for a while and then you go toward the middle and then you are back out on the outside again and then you finally find yourself in the middle. So while you are walking it can be a little disorienting. You just have to focus on the path in front of you. 
There were a few other people who were also walking the labyrinth and they were going at different speeds. Some were coming out and some where going in. Sometimes we were far apart and sometimes we were close together. It is kind of how the church community works. We are all walking the path, we are all walking on that faith journey. Sometimes we come real close together and sometimes we look like we are further apart. Sometimes somebody is coming out while you are going in and you almost bump into each other if you are not careful. You’ve got to make room for each other. There is a sense of almost being in a dance. If you are watching some people walking the labyrinth they seem almost like they are dancing when they come close together and then they go far apart. 
That for me is a wonderful description of what the community of faith is like. We are each walking the path to Christ. It is our own path yet we are in relationship as we do that. 
On a beautiful Saturday in San Francisco there are tourists, lots of tourists. Grace Cathedral is one of the places that tourists come. When you come into the cathedral there is the baptismal font and then the labyrinth is right there. You have to walk across the labyrinth to go down the main aisle of the cathedral. When tourists are looking at the stained glass windows, or are looking at the architecture, or are taking pictures, or chatting with each they may walk right across the labyrinth without knowing it. 
Those of us walking the labyrinth probably look really strange to the tourists. We are walking and then turning and then walking and turning. They probably can’t figure out what we are doing because they don’t even notice the labyrinth on the floor. 
It is a very interesting experience to be focused on following this path and then all of a sudden encounter a family that is walking across in front of you or somebody standing and taking a picture. There was a sense that those of us walking the labyrinth were walking our spiritual path, and the world was going on around us. We weren’t separate from the world, we were perfectly aware of the tourists and the cathedral and everything that was going on, but our focus was on following that spiritual path, while these others didn’t even see the path that we were on and probably couldn’t understand why we were walking the way we were. 
I think that is a great description of what our life in the world is like. If we are following whatever path Christ is calling us to walk, and if each step along the way we are trying to follow where Christ is calling us, we may look a little odd at times to the world. Our responsibility is to keep focusing on our own path. We are still in the world and the world is still going on around us. 
Another thing about the labyrinth is that as you walk in you walk toward the center which represents reaching Christ. When you arrive you just stand and experience and let in that presence of Christ, but you don’t get to stay there. There is no bed there to stay in. You can’t set up your tent. You have to walk back out and go back out into the world. That is the part of the spiritual journey where we come together as a community, we support one another and we nourish one another but we don’t do it for our own sake. We don’t nourish each other as a community just because it feels good, we do it to empower us to go out into the world and to share God’s love in the world. To minister to others and to share that love beyond ourselves. 
We are the body of Christ. We are in Christ’s prayer that we might be in unity as God and the Father are one and that we might be in the world, and yet not totally of the world.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Easter 6 B

On the Sixth Sunday of Easter in 2015 I was providing supply at a church that had scheduled for that Sunday to have an informal children’s sermon followed by a sermon for the adults. Here is how I spoke about friendship and love to both the children and the adults. 

Easter 6 B
May 10, 2015
The Rev. Valerie Hart

Children's sermon 

Any of you have a best friend? Raise your hands.
Tell me, what makes a good friend?
See how they respond. Bring up
They are there no matter what
Someone we can tell our secrets to
Won't judge us
Jesus tells us that we are his friends. Jesus is like that. He will care about us no matter what. We can trust him. We can tell him our secrets. We can even have fun with him. He says that he wants us to have the joy that he has and for our joy to be complete. 
Say a prayer telling Jesus we want to be his friend. 

Adult sermon

During the children's sermon we talked about what a friend is like. (Refer back to some of the things the children said.) 
I'd like you to bring to mind one of your really good friends, either current or in the past. Think about what made that relationship so special?
Really good friends are always there for you, no matter what. If at three o'clock in the morning you are stalled by the side of a lonely highway you can call them on the phone and they'll get up out of bed and come to get you. They may be cussing you out the whole way there, but they will pick you up. 
A good friend is one that you can ask them if a pair of pants make you look fat, and they'll tell you the truth. 
Such friendships are built over time. They usually have to do with going through stuff together. It might be a coworker or someone you volunteer with or a neighbor, but a good friendship is built on being tested together. Soldiers who have been on the battlefield say that the one thing they remember positively about that time was the friendships that they developed. Successful soldiers in battle form a cohesive whole where each of them is willing to sacrifice themselves for the others. The same is true of firefighters. They are people who are willing to risk and even lose their lives to save one another. 
Given that it is Mother's Day I have to include that mothers are like that too. They are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their children safe and healthy. 

In the Gospel today, Jesus says, "I have called you friends." What we have been talking about is the type of friendship that that Christ offers us. We are offered a deep and abiding friendship with God. 

There is a tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures of friendship with God. Abraham is the best known friend of God. In fact, that is the term that is most often used to describe him. He was a friend of God because he totally trusted God. He trusted enough to leave his homeland and wander without knowing where he was going, trusting God’s promise of a home. Now if you read Genesis you will see that Abraham was not always courageous, that he sometimes did not live up to what we might have expected of a hero of the Bible, but he was always God’s friend. He was willing to argue with God and to sometimes doubt God, but he was always God's friend. 

Jesus says that we are his friends and abide in his love if we do what he commands. 
And what does Jesus command? That we love one another as he has loved us.
We are to love. 
Now in Greek there are several words that all get translated into English as love. The Greeks had a more nuanced understand of the concept of love than we do. 
The first is Eros. It has to do with emotion. It is the romantic, sexual kind of love. It is about feeling good. 
The second word is Philio. This has to do with affection and positive regard, as in a friendship. We find the word Philio in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Philio is that brotherly love. 
And then there is agape. Agape love is not about emotions. It is not about feeling warm and fuzzy inside. Agape love is not about how one feels, but what one does. It is about action not about warm feelings. 
It is a love that is unconditional 
It is a love that is sacrificial
It is a love that sees beyond the surface of things. 
In agape love there is no self benefit. It is not concerned with what is in it for me
Agape love is offered whether it is returned or not
C.S. Lewis describes agape love as "gift love."
It is not a feeling - it is a choice. It is a choice to care. A choice to give. 
Thomas Aquinas describes agape love as "to will the good of another." 
And it is the Greek word Agape that is used each of the many times love is used in these passages. 

When Christ says that we are to love one another as he loves us it is this is the kind of love he is talking about. It is a universal, unconditional, sacrificial love that he is talking about. 

Christ wants us to obey his command to love, not out of fear, not out of concern for punishment, but out of friendship and love. 
It is like how hard we worked to obey a teacher that we really respected; that we knew had our best interest at heart. Not out of fear of punishment but out of a desire to do what he or she wanted us to do. 
Christ invites us to be his friends, not his servants. He wants us to obey not out of fear, but out of friendship. 
He wants us to love one another in the sacrificial way that he loves us. He wants us to choose to love. He wants us to choose to will good for another. 
He wants us to do this not for his sake, but for our sake. He wants us to do this so that his joy may be in us and that our joy and be complete. 
There is no greater joy than this, to abide in his love - to be Gods friend. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

5 Easter B - "I am the vine"

5 Easter B
Transcribed from a sermon given on May 6, 2012
At St. Barnabas, Arroyo Grande CA
By The Rev. Valerie Ann Hart

The image that Jesus uses in the Gospel today of the grape vine would have been very familiar to his listeners. Back in Jesus’ time, much like in the Central Coast today, the growing of grapes for wine was one of the major cash crops - maybe the major cash crop for that area. So whether they were farmers or not everyone would have been familiar with the grape vine and on how grapes on grew on a vine. Just like around here. 
I imagine most of us have seen a grape vine or at least gone wine tasting at a vineyard and saw them out through the window, right? The vine is the foundation of the grape plant. The grape vine is the root system that is larger than the vine itself. The roots travel out and down, and the bigger the roots, the deeper the roots, the healthier the vine is. And in fact for some of the grape vines the roots system are ten, fifteen, twenty years old because the longer they have been there the more secure and deeper they are. Sometimes when they are growing grapes they will take one kind of grape as the root system and take another kind of grape and attach that to those roots because the roots bring a certain kind of strength and certain types of wine are better with a different root system. 
Then we have the branches. Usually if you see a grape vine that has been around for a while you see a few really thick branches Those are the ones that haven’t gotten pruned back. They have little ones that are coming off of it. Good pruning of a grape vine is really important to keep it healthy. You have the branches that come off of this sort of like a tree. It’s like a trunk and branches with little branches that come off. 
Now in order for those branches to survive they have to get the water they need and the nutrients they need in the water that is brought up by the roots, then through the trunk and then it goes out to the branches. So if something happens to one of those branches, if it gets broken off from the vine, we know what happens. You can watch it when there is a wind storm and a branch is broken from a tree. It withers and within a few days all the leaves turn brown and it dies. It needs that moisture, it needs those nutrients. Sometimes when there is a big windstorm a large branch will break off and fall down but it hasn’t completely separated. There is just a little bit that is still attached. Such a branch might live for a while because it is still getting a little bit of nutrients through that connection, but it is not getting the full amount, and it will, over time, get weaker and weaker. The same goes if you are going to take a new branch and put it on to an existing vine, when you do that it is really important that the connection is secure, that it is done right, so that all the moisture in the vine can get into the branch. Without that the branch may survive, but not be healthy, and it won’t bear fruit. 
This is the imagery that Jesus uses to describe himself.  That he is the vine. The imagery of the vine and the vineyard is something that comes up many times in the Old Testament. You will find in the Psalms and some of the prophets the idea that the people of Israel are God’s vineyard; God has planted them in the land. God tends them and cares for them. So this image is something that would be very meaningful to the people listening to Jesus. 
So let’s think about this imagery. What is Jesus saying? He is saying that he is the vine and that his roots go deep, they go deep into God. And what is the moisture, the water and nutrients that the vine pulls up and brings to the branches. Well it is pretty clear in the letter from John that we read today that it is love. That it is all about love. John writes, “God is love.” And he adds that you abide in love, and are called to express that love to others. 
So we can imagine Jesus as having deep roots in the love of God and that he takes that love of God and brings it up through him and gives it to us as the branches. That we are nurtured by that love, that we are strengthened by that love, that we are given the power and the strength and everything we need to become that which God intends for us to become. We have all the nutrients, all the love, all the strength that we need. And not just to grow into a healthy branch and have leaves, but to have buds and flowers and eventually to bear fruit.
The wonderful thing about fruit is that fruit feeds people - fruit feeds others. So what is the fruit of all this energy and power and love that Christ gives us? Well if you read Paul, he talks about the fruits of the spirit, but he always at the end says, “And the greatest of these is love.” So the fruit that we are to bear is love. This is agape love. It’s not about nice pleasant emotional feelings, its not abstract, it is a love in which we care for one another. 
If you cannot love your neighbor that you see how can you say you love God that you can’t see? The fruit that Christ is looking for is the fruit of love. Love expressed in giving to others, and caring for our brothers and sister. 
The take away for me of this is twofold. One is a reminder of the incredible abundance of love that Christ gives us. That we are richly fed with everything that we need in order to be whole and healthy and spiritually true. That that abundance, like rain on us, comes through Christ. Secondly it is a reminder that we need to be grafted well onto Christ because if we are just barely connected we can’t get the nurturance, we can’t get what we need in order to thrive. We might survive, but not to thrive. So the more we abide in Christ, the more connected we are to the vine, the more fully we can live our lives and express God’s love in the world and be instruments of God’s love for others.