Tuesday, December 5, 2017

2 Advent B

It is a dark and foggy night and you are driving along following the red tail lights of an unknown car in front of you. Suddenly a strangely dressed man appears on the road frantically waving a stop sign and saying, “Turn around, you are going the wrong way!”

2 Advent B
The Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
Brentwood, CA
Mark 1:1-8

         Imagine that you’ve spent the evening at a friend’s house somewhere East of Byron. When you leave to come home you discover that it is a dark and foggy night. You get in your car and drive along, carefully following those little yellow dots that show where the middle of the highway is. You have been driving for quite a while. Your spouse, sitting next to you, is complaining that things don’t look right, shouldn’t there have been a turn back there, etc. You mutter back something about back seat drivers and continue on.
Now you are making a little better time because there is a car in front of you, at least there are those two red lights to follow. You know nothing of the person driving that car, or where they are headed, but at least there is someone to follow. Then, suddenly, you see a strangely dressed man standing in the road holding a stop sign, waving and jumping up and down to get your attention. With hesitation, you stop and role the window down just a little.
“Turn around! You are going the wrong way!” he says.
You look confused.
“Turn around! If you keep going this way you will hurt yourself or someone else,” he repeats.
“But I’m being careful” you respond.
“Turn around! The lights you are following belong to a drunk who could lead you off the road, who will lead you only to death!” he states with great drama.
“Who are you and why should I trust you?” you ask.
“Turn around” he keeps saying.
Finally, he brings out a bucket of water and pours it over your windshield. To your surprise, it is no longer foggy outside. What you had thought was fog, was really all the dirt on your own windshield. Now that you can see outside you realize that you are very far from home; you have no idea how many hours you were going the wrong direction. It dawns on you that you are totally lost.
You also notice that the car you were following is about to go off into a ditch. You turn to the man beside you to thank him and ask him how to get home.
“Follow that one over there,” he says as he points to a light in the distance.
As you pull away you ask your spouse “Who was that?”
“Oh, I think he was a workman preparing the road, making the highway in this desert straight.”
         John the baptizer proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance, what is repentance? The word is a translation of metanoia, a Greek word that means to know again in a new way, be transformed, to turn around. When someone calls for repentance they are telling you to turn around, to turn around because you are going in the wrong direction, to turn around so that you can see things in a new way. Baptism of repentance would be a baptism that provides one an opportunity to see things in a new way.
         How much of our lives we spend as if we are wandering lost in the fog? We have no sense of where we are going, we don’t see the dangers ahead, and sometimes we follow something or someone without knowing where it will lead.
How many of us wake up one morning and begin to question what we are doing with our lives? We follow a path set before us, school, marriage, job, whatever, without thinking about whether it leads to where we really want to go. Perhaps we seek wealth, money for its own sake, without thinking about why we should be trying to get rich, and then we find, once we have some money, that we still feel empty inside. Perhaps it is power that you followed after. Perhaps it was the dream of your own home and that fantasy middle class life. Once you have achieved it, then what?
         Maybe you have a gone down a road of addiction to alcohol, or drugs and one day you woke up to realize that this road leads nowhere. Maybe you idealized someone and followed them until you found that you had lost your own sense of identity.
Any time we make anything more important than God, more important than loving God and our neighbors, we are going in the wrong direction and sooner or latter will find ourselves lost and at a dead end. 
When we discover we have gone the wrong way there is only one thing to do, turn around.  To repent, to turn around, means to acknowledge that we have been going the wrong way, to acknowledge that we have done things we shouldn’t have done and not done things we should have. 
To repent of our sins means to open our eyes and acknowledge the mistakes we have made, to see ourselves in a new way, to acknowledge that we are lost, to turn around and to follow the one for whom John was preparing, to follow the true light that can lead us home.
         Advent is a season with two themes. The first is the joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ, the incarnation of our Lord. The second is the preparing for the second coming of Christ. Both involve a sense of preparation, of self study, so that we are ready to receive the incredible grace that God bestowed upon the earth on the first Christmas. We need to prepare to be able to let in just how much God loves us. We need to be prepared to open our hearts and receive the gift of love that is the Christ child.
         How do we prepare? By opening our eyes and hearts, by washing away the dirt of our past that keeps us from seeing the truth, by repenting and letting ourselves be transformed, so that when we see the true light we are ready to follow Christ home.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Advent 1 B

Imagine your house is up for sale and a stranger comes to the door with an interest in buying your home. What happens if you haven't kept it clean, if there are dishes in the sink and the garbage that hasn't been taken out.
Advent is about staying prepared and being ready.

Advent 1 B
Transcribed from a sermon
By Valerie Ann Hart
On November 27, 2011
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

The little story or tiny parable that Jesus tells at the end of this reading about the servant that is left in charge of the house as the master is away doesn’t really resonate with most of us. I know all of you pretty well, and I don’t think any of you have servants at this point in your lives. And as far as I know none of you have served as a slave or a servant. So we don’t really have a good sense of the meaning of this story.
In Jesus’ time people understood that a rich household would have servants or slaves who would have authority. Whoever was the doorkeeper would have authority over the whole house, to keep it safe and to be sure everything ran smoothly. Sine that doesn’t resonate with us, I thought I’d tell it in a slightly different way. Something that some of us at least have had an experience with ‑ that is selling our houses.
Imagine that you are putting your house up for sale. There is a lot of preparation to get ready for that. You paint the things that you’ve always meant to paint. You get the carpet cleaned. You do all those little things to make it show well. Then during the time when it is up for sale you need to keep it really clean all the time. You never know when somebody is going to come to view it and see it. You hope that the real estate agents will call first so you can do a quick straightening up of the house, but there is no guarantee. Sometimes the amount of time you have isn’t very much. Now, imagine that you are trying to sell your house. It’s been on the market for a while so you’ve gotten a little relaxed about keeping it nice. Suddenly the doorbell rings. There is a man at the door who says that your house is in exactly the neighborhood he wants and is exactly the style house he wants. This is his only chance to see it and he asks to come in. You go through your mind and you realize that there are dirty dishes in the sink, you haven’t dusted in a couple of days and you meant to take the garbage out last night because it was already starting to smell a little bit bad then. Then there is the bedroom, oh my gosh, the stuff, the clothes that are sitting around. Oh, my!
“Could you come back in a little bit?”
“No, this is the only time I have to see the house.”
Needless to say you’ve lost your sale because the house doesn’t look or smell or feel like home to this person. You’ve lost the opportunity because you haven kept awake - you haven’t kept things in order.
Symbolically in literature or in interpreting dreams, or any kind of work like that. the house represents our bodies, ourselves, who we are. So when Jesus talks about keeping the house and keeping awake for the master to return, he is reminding people whose house it is. This body, this body was created by God. We didn’t make it. Whatever it is that says “me” and “I” is really just using this body. The body is on loan.
I’m a servant of the master, or as it is put in the old testament, “He is the potter and we are the pot.” What we do in keeping our house represents ourselves. So, symbolically if we had a messy house, then we might have a messy inner life. If we leave the garbage sitting around till it starts to smell, that could represent those parts of ourselves that we haven’t dealt with. The old angers and resentments that still are sitting there, that we’ve never cleaned out, that we’ve never dealt with. After a while it just starts to putrefy and effect our whole being. Like the places where we haven’t asked for forgiveness, or we haven’t forgiven. It is all those ways in which we are not paying attention, not being awake.
This particular story comes right after Jesus has been talking about the end time. This was a very common theme in prophets in the couple of hundred years before Jesus. The idea that world was unjust, that things were terrible and at some point God was going to come and wipe out things the way they were and bring back the glorious kingdom of God. During that time the Israelites were pretty much under the thumb of some empire, whether it was Asyria, or Rome or some other empire. Things were tough and they wanted things to change. The prophets predicted there would be an end to the world as they knew it and a new life in God.
Jesus is referring to, and using the language of those prophets as he talks about the Son of Man coming on a cloud. Right after he was talking about the end time he uses this image of being ready - of being prepared.
It wasn’t too long ago, less then a month ago, I don’t remember the exact date, when there was a pastor somewhere in the south who said that he knew exactly when the end of time was going to come. It didn’t, so he recalculated it and said it is coming at a different time. He must have missed this part of Mark. It is strange for a pastor to not have read that even Jesus and the Angels don’t know when it is going to happen. I don’t know how he thought he could know.
And I don’t know when it is going to happen, or if it is going to happen, or what it is going to be like. But I do know that each and every one of us will have a time when the world darkens, and the sun, moon, lamps will give no light. We will no longer be able to see, we will no longer be able to hear and everything will be different. Each and every one of us at some point is going to die. We don’t know whether we are going to die at the same time everybody on earth dies, which would be the end time as it is described, or whether our death will just be the end of our relationship with this earth. But we all will have a time when we die.
We as Christians believe that at that point we are going to encounter Christ. What is that going to be like? Well, if you haven’t kept your house clean, if you haven’t kept your house in order, what is it going to be like? Now there will be some of us, some people who are graced with knowing they are about to die. They have an opportunity to reconcile with those people they have never reconciled with. They have an opportunity to express their apologies, to receive forgiveness, to forgive others, to put their house in order. It’s like the person coming to the door giving you a call a couple of hours ahead so you can race around the house and clean everything up. Some people are given that grace.
Some of us aren’t. Some of us may die in and automobile accident or a heart attack or a stroke with no knowledge ahead of time. No chance to clean up those lose ends. There will be the knock on the door and we will have whatever it is we have.
Now if the person at the door is a stranger it is going to be pretty tough.
Let’s suppose instead of that being a stranger that wanted to buy your house, suppose in that story it was your mother. Your mother comes and knocks on your door and your house is a mess. Well, my mother is no longer alive, but I would have been embarrassed. I’d feel like I let her down. I wasn’t living up to what she wanted me to live up to.
She probably would give me that look. Every mother has a look. Each mother has her own look which is some combination of “you’ve done it again” and “I love you anyway”. We all know that look, and those of us that are mothers are really good at doing it. So if my house is a mess and my mother is at the door I might be embarrassed - I might feel bad -  I might apologize, but I would know that she would still love me. There would be no question about that, assuming I had kept a good relationship with my mother.
What if you had a really good friend and they drop by. A really good friend is the sort of person who can drop by and you don’t feel bad about the fact that you haven’t pick up the house because they have been there before. They have helped make some of the messes in your house. They know you. They know who you are and how you live, and they appreciate you for who you are. You are comfortable with them no matter what and you trust their love no matter what.
When we die, when we encounter Christ, who will Christ be to you? Will Christ be a stranger that you feel judged by? Will Christ be a loving parent where you will feel sort of embarrassed by the life you have led but they are going to love you anyway? Or is Christ going to be a good friend who has been with you through each day of your life so at this point knows you completely? What will it be like?
Teresese of Lisieux who wrote about the “Little Way” was a very simple and profound nun. In one of her writings she included a little prayer “After earth’s exile I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. In the evening of this life I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you Lord to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish then to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.”
Keep awake, prepare of the coming of Christ. What is going to matter at that moment is not what we have done or what we have left undone. What is going to matter I our relationship with the one who comes to greet us.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Proper 25 A

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. A simple, easy to remember sound bite. An easy commandment until you start thinking about what it means to love and how can one be commanded to love.

Proper 25 A
Transcribed from a sermon given
On October 23, 2011
By The Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your whatever. It’s said in different ways, but we have heard it so many times.
Love your neighbor as yourself. The essence. It’s simple. It’s easy to remember. It’s a wonderful little sound bite. It’s really hard to remember the hundreds or even thousands of rules that the Pharisees tried to follow. Even ten commandments can get intimidating. Remember all ten? But love God and love your neighbor that you can remember. That’s simple. It’s clear. It’s not confusing.
Until you start thinking about what it means to love. How do you love someone? What does it look like when you love God? What does love look like in everyday life?
 How in the world can you be commanded to love? You can be invited to love. But no one can command you to love. We know of the dictators in the world who demand their people love them. Well you can be forced to say I love you, but no one can force you to actually love. In fact, commanding someone to love you is the best way to get someone not to love you. So how can it be a commandment to love God?
Another question that comes up as you read this passage is why the writer of Matthew put Jesus asking about this obscure thing from scripture about David saying the Lord put my lord at my right hand? Why is it right there? After the great commandment? So lots of questions. Something that looks so simple ends up looking a little more complicated.
This particular question that Jesus asks the Pharisees is mirroring the way the Pharisees thought. They went through scripture and took quotes from scripture to try and explain things. One of the issues was what was the Messiah to be like? Now the Jews did not expect the Messiah to be divine. The Jews expected, and still expect, the Messiah to be a great human being. Like Moses who was a friend to God who could do marvelous and amazing things. But fully human.
Yet Jesus was talking in ways that didn’t quite fit with that, which disturbed the Pharisees. So he told them to look back at their own scriptures. One of the places that is seen as predicting the coming of the Messiah is this particular passage from the Psalms. The understand then was that the Psalms were written by David. Scholars now are pretty sure that David did not write most of the Psalms. Maybe he wrote a few, but most of them he didn’t. But in Jesus’ time there was no disagreement about who wrote them. Everyone agreed that David wrote them. So how could David be referring to the Messiah as his Lord, if the Messiah was to be his son?
 Remember the prediction was that the Messiah would be a descendant from David. So Jesus is bringing up this issue, this question, to leave it open that maybe the Messiah is more than they imagined. Maybe the Messiah is more than they ever dreamed. Not what they thought.
For us that is a very important issue. Let’s think about how we come to love? If you have ever met someone who had no love as a child, you realize that as an adult that person is a very damaged human being. We learn how to love by being loved. We respond to love with love.
It has been said that you don’t teach love, you don’t command love, you catch love. Its almost like a virus. You get around it, you catch it, it grows in you, and then you give it to others. But it is a good kind of virus. So if love is something that we catch from being loved, how are we to love God? By knowing that God loves us. That’s the power of the incarnation and the sacrifice of Christ.
Some of us have a difficult time feeling a love relationship with an abstract deity within which we live and move and have our being. For some of us it is easier the feel loved, and to love in return, when it has a human face, human flesh. So in order for us to obey the command to love God, we need to know that we are loved by God. It is God’s love that empowers us and strengthens us to be able to love in return and to be able to love others. To open to that love.
But what does it look like? What is everyday life like when you love someone? Most of us here, probably all of us here, have at some point felt deep love for someone — whether it was a spouse or a child or a friend. When we were feeling that deepest kind of love, when we go to the grocery store the beloved is in your presence, even if not physically, because as we walk up and down the aisles we might think, “Oh, she would love that.” Or,  “He loves doughnuts. I’m going to get the chocolate ones with the sprinkles which is what he likes the most.” Or for your children you may think, “Well there is the kind of cereal he loves the most, but that’s not good for him, but I’m going to get the healthy one that he loves the most.” Love is not always doing what the person wants, but what is best for them.
When you are feeling love, when you are loving, when you are in love, you naturally want to do things for the other person. I had an interesting conversation with a friend who had gone through a difficult patch in her marriage. There was a short period of separation and then they got back together and now the marriage is better than it ever was. She told me that before the separation, when it came time for a birthday or Christmas she couldn’t figure out what to get her husband. But now that they are back together, when it was Christmas time, she wants to buy him six or seven different things. She just spontaneously wants to do things for him.
You know the difference when you go Christmas shopping and you have to buy things because you ought to. like for aunt so-in-so when you struggle to figure out what to get her this year, versus when it is not even any special day, but you think that this person would love that and you pick it up and give it to them. When we are feeling in that love relationship we just want to give. It becomes natural to give. It becomes what our hearts and minds and souls want to do.
So when we are in a relationship of love with God, when we know God’s love for us and we open to that, we just want to give to God. The only way we can really give to God is by giving to other people. We spontaneously want to give; we want to express our love. The more we do that, the more we feel God’s love. The more we feel God’s love the more people around us feel the love that we have for them. It magnifies it.
So we have this wonderful, succinct summary of all the law and the prophets. All that a Christian really needs to know. Is to love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your spirit, with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.