Valentine’s Day!

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | February 14, 2021

John 14: 18, 25-27

Valentine’s Day.  Years ago I was privileged to officiate at the renewal of marriage vows for a number of couples who had been married for fifty years or more.  One of the couples had been married for 80 years!  She was 96 and he was 98.  The old fellow was asked what the secret to his long and happy marriage was.  He replied, “Listen to your wife’s suggestions…and do ‘em.”

You are going to hear two brief homilies today.  The first is an introduction to Valentine’s Day from the saint himself.

The 14th of February, you say?  Today?  Ah, no wonder you wish to hear my story, the story of Valentinus.  

Now, I do not want you to think I was anything extraordinary.  I merely lived in extraordinary times and just tried to follow Jesus, my hero.  I was born about 200 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  My parents had told us—my brothers and sisters and me—the stories of Jesus from the time we were little, even though we were warned not to speak of Jesus outside of our home in the city of Rome, for this was still the time of intermittent persecution of Christians.  So we were careful.  But I loved nothing better than to hear my father tell the stories of Jesus.  Aren’t they wonderful!?   Giving sight to the blind Bartimaeus, healing the man with the withered hand, and the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, restored after 38 years!  Jesus throwing over the tables of the money-changers and declaring, “My Father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a marketplace!”  

And the miraculous feeding stories, one time 5000, another time 4000 people fed with a few loaves and sardines!  Oh, we loved those stories, because sometimes there was not enough food to go around.  Some evenings my father would say, “Oh, I stopped for a bite at my sister’s on my way home; I’m not hungry,” so that there would be more bread for my mother and my six brothers and sisters and me.  But we could hear my father’s stomach growling all night long.  We thought how wonderful it would have been to be on that hillside, to hear Jesus preach, and then to eat and eat and eat our fill and have baskets full of bread left over!  

As you probably know, Rome was almost constantly at war. But our father told us how Jesus said to love our enemies, and that Jesus, when he was about to be arrested in the garden, told his followers to put away their swords, declaring, “Do you not know that I could have called down twelve legions of angels to fight for me, but that is not my way.”  He chose martyrdom instead.   Of course, we know that Rome—and death—did not have the last word.

Then there were the encounters with the Pharisees.  It seemed like Jesus always managed to trick them, one time pulling a coin out of a fish’s mouth to pay the temple tax, and another time pointing out the portrait of Caesar on the denarius and saying, “Render to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God.”  I knew, as a lad, that I belonged to God, and very early on I knew I was called to be a priest.

And so, in adulthood, I quietly served the church, telling the stories of Jesus and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, baptizing babies, burying the dead, praying with people, teaching new converts about what it means to follow Jesus.  I loved the children and would teach them about how God created the beautiful world, the flowers and the trees, and tell them the stories of Jesus, especially how much Jesus loved children.

Meanwhile, in what you now call the year 278, a new emperor took the throne in Rome, Claudius the II, sometimes referred to as Claudius Gothicus, because he was so successful at repeatedly defeating the Goth invaders.  In addition, he continued the siege of Milan begun by his predecessor.   From what we heard back in Rome, things were going well on these fronts, but then Queen Zenobia of Palmyra attacked from the east.  

All these battles meant that fresh soldiers were constantly required.  Some young men fell prey to the siren song of battle and glory, and they eagerly signed up.  But others did not want to fight, for a variety of reasons.  The ones that really tugged at my heart were those who were in love and did not want to abandon their sweethearts.  

To counter this impediment to recruitment, Emperor Claudius issued a decree cancelling all engagements, forbidding any more marriages!  Have you ever heard of such a thing?  Well, my allegiance certainly wasn’t to the Roman Emperor, but to the Lord of Love, so I continued to perform weddings, albeit under the cover of darkness in utmost secrecy.  Word spread, and soon I was doing a wedding almost every evening.  But then one night, in the wee hours of the morning, the door burst open and a cohort of Roman soldiers hauled me from bed, brutally beat me and threw me into jail.

I was frightened, of course, but also proud to share the fate of the apostle Paul and most of the disciples.  In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus had warned that it was dangerous to follow him, but he also said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

When word spread that Valentinus was in jail, many children came and tossed notes and flowers through the cell bars.  To an extent, this may explain the tradition of exchanging notes and flowers on Valentine’s Day. 

I was moved to an inner cell to prevent these little gifts of encouragement, but then the Lord provided another way.  During my imprisonment I had made friends with the jailer, a gentle man named Asterius, and his daughter, Julia, who was blind.  Julia now brought me the notes and flowers from the children on the outside.  And whenever I could, I replied to the notes.  

After some time, I reflected upon Jesus’ healing of Bartimaeus and several other blind people, and I wondered if God might give Julia her sight as well.  I laid my hands upon her head and prayed for the Lord to do a miracle.  Lo and behold, God opened her eyes, and she could see.  Both Julia and her father, Asterius, became followers of Jesus that day, as did many of the prisoners sharing my captivity.

Word came to Emperor Claudius of this healing and of my kindness.  Evidently, he was impressed, and sent word that I could be released from prison!  That is, I could be released IF… if I renounced Jesus and worshiped the Roman Gods.  Never!  

I sent a note back to the Emperor thanking him for his kind offer, and inviting HIM to renounce the Roman gods and to worship the one true God that healed this girl!  

That was my death sentence.  Word came back that I was to be killed the following day.  My final act was to write a note to Julia, thanking her for her kindness to me.  I signed it, “From your Valentine.”

The next day, February 14, in the year 279, Valentinus was put to death and entered into eternal life.

For his martyrdom and dedication to Jesus, Valentinus was named a saint after his death and in the year 498 the pope declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day. Thus, Saint Valentine’s martyrdom day became an occasion to celebrate love, a tradition that has only grown stronger through the ages.  In honor of St. Valentine, and in faithfulness to Jesus, let us celebrate love at every opportunity.  Amen.

Homily part II

John 14: 18, 25-27

On this Valentine’s Day, let us remember where love comes from and from whom it comes.  I want to share with you this morning part of a sermon that I heard preached in the summer of 2015 while I was on sabbatical.  It really stuck with me.  And that’s, unfortunately, rare for a sermon.  The preacher was Will Healey, and he gave me permission to borrow his message. It’s a good Valentine’s Day message. 

The scripture lesson comes from John’s setting of the Last Supper, as Jesus gives his disciples eleventh hour encouragement:

“I will not leave you orphaned (promised Jesus); I am coming to you…I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Pastor Healey declared: “Jesus said he would not leave us alone (John 14)—said he would send a comforter, a counselor, a helper—the very presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit—that’s what we’re talking about today—about the presence of the living God, come to take up residence in us, that we might never, ever be forsaken or desolate.  Oh. My. Goodness!”

Then Healey referenced a wonderful short story.  It comes from a collection called The Doctor Stories by Richard Selzer, a surgeon and Yale Medical School professor—who took up writing as a hobby when he was 40.  He is an amazing writer and has published quite a number of books.  (I’ve never met him, but I hate him.  It’s just not fair to be really good at more than one thing.)

The story is of a Houston woman in her thirties.  Three years earlier her husband had been shot in a carjacking, and after three weeks on a respirator, he was declared brain dead and his organs were donated—liver, kidneys, lungs, corneas, and heart—to various recipients all over Texas.  

Three years had passed, and still the wife had no peace.  She thought of Sam’s liver doing its work, whatever livers do, over in Abilene, one kidney in Galveston and another in Dallas, lungs breathing in Ft. Worth and Sam’s heart in a little town “somewhere near Arkansas,” the doctor had said.  With all these organs still working, it didn’t really seem like her husband was fully dead somehow.

Then Hannah had a strange dream one night, and she knew it was a revelation.  “It was so simple…she must go to find that man who was carrying Samuel’s heart.  If she could find him, and listen once more to the heart, she would be healed.  She would be able to go on with her life.”  (p. 69)

But, of course, the donor’s family can’t find out the identity and address of a recipient.  Actually, it’s not that hard, she discovered.  Her best friend worked for Aetna Insurance Company, and after an official letter on Aetna stationery, Hannah had the name and address of the young man—turns out he was just Sam’s age—who now was walking around with Sam’s heart beating inside of his chest.  Hannah wrote to the man, Henry Pope, in Avery, Texas, her first letter just inquiring how he was getting along.  She didn’t want to scare him off.  A few weeks later the man’s wife wrote back saying that Henry wasn’t much of a writer, but he was doing very well, and they were very grateful, though they were awfully surprised to hear from Hannah, as they were told the donor’s family would not be told Henry’s identity.  

Hannah’s second letter boldly included the request to come listen to Sam’s heart, a request which was promptly turned down.  Over a number of months several more letters were exchanged, Mr. and Mrs. Pope becoming more and more disturbed by Hannah’s insistence.  Hannah’s fourth letter said in part, “You, Mr. Pope, got the heart, or more exactly, my heart, as under the law, I had become the owner of my husband’s entire body at the time he became ‘brain dead’…Don’t worry—I don’t want it back.  But I do ask you to let me come to Avery for one hour to listen to your heart.”  

(p. 76)

Eventually, Henry Pope relented, and he gave Hannah a date a few weeks in the future when his nervous wife would be out of town, for Hannah to come and listen to his heart.

Not trusting herself to drive, when the day came, Hannah took an early-morning bus four hours to Avery.  She walked to the house, “one of a dozen identical single-family ranch houses that made up the dead end that was Orchard Road…At precisely ten o’clock Hannah unlatched the front gate and walked up to the door.  ‘Come in,’ he said…

He’s nervous as a cat, thought Hannah, and that makes two of us… (80)

“How do you want to do this?” he asked.  “Best to lie on the sofa,” she said.  He did.  He scooted over to make room for her.  She sat next to him and laid her head on his chest.  

“Oh, it was Samuel’s heart, all right.  She knew the minute she heard it.  She could have picked it out of a thousand…Hadn’t she listened to it just this way often enough?…She listened and received the deep regular beat, the emphatic lub-dup, lub-dup to which with all her own heart she surrendered.  Almost at once, she felt a sense of comfort that she had not known in three years…

Will Healey concludes:  I don’t happen to think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that picture being the picture of the God who loves us, do you?  A God obsessed with hearing (God’s) own heart beating inside of you/inside of me—the people God created—the people God loves with all (God’s) heart?…Because when I picture Jesus on the cross—he’s up there dying, and on his driver’s license—there in his wallet—guess what it says?  It says, “Donor.”  He has inside him this perfectly whole, unbroken, healthy, free-from-sin, eternal, unconditionally loving heart.  It is the heart of Almighty God.  And (God) wants to see that heart transplanted into you, into me.  It’s why (God) came, that you and I, with our tired, weak, diseased, sin-sick, broken hearts might know the joy of having (God’s) heart transplanted into us, that God might incline an ear and hear God’s very own heart beating inside you and inside me…And when the wind of the Holy Spirit starts to blow through us, it stirs that heart, and takes whatever would (separate) us, or disillusion us, or discourage us, or cause us to lose hope for tomorrow—the Spirit of God will dispel all that and make in us something brand new.

Amen?  Amen!

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