Responsive Call to Worship
You keep using that word.
I do not think it means what you think it means.
You who love ice cream
and these clothes and those boots—
this show—that band—
you for whom love is
an emotion, not a commitment—
more sentimental than consequential—
a you thing rather than a God thing—
what feels good and what you want
instead of what the world needs most.
But when faith, hope, and love
are all that’s left,
and the greatest of these is love,
it’s what you cling to—
like a drowning person clings to a flotation device—
desperately knowing it to be
a matter of life and death.
Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.’
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
1 John 4:7-8
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Martin Luther King, Jr., on love and power
Witness of the Living Word, ii.
How many of you gave someone a Valentine’s card today?
How many of you forgot?
How many of you have gotten Valentine’s cards?
Candy with “be mine” written on it?
How many of you knew Valentine’s Day
was a $20 billion industry?
And along with a whole lot of money,
there’s a lot of energy—
a lot of hopes and expectations—
realistic and otherwise—
all associated with this day.
It doesn’t take much more than a quick perusal of Valentine Day cards
to know our culture does not know much of love,
as much love as we may know in this culture.
Our culture is both extremely selfish and excessively sentimental,
and love culturally defined and expressed,
has to do, primarily, with what we want—with what feels good to us.
It has to do with infatuation.
It has to do with sex.
It has to do with someone else who just does what we want—
who’s reduced from personhood to fantasy.
That may be a bit too harsh …, but not much.
It’s within all that,
within the truth and the disappointment of all that,
that we say, as is our want,
“Now wait a minute.
there’s a better story to tell
than one of selfish infatuation with sex and sentiment.
There’s a better story to tell than the one of what I want
that reduces other people to pale reflections of my wishes.”
Because there is a story that goes back to a man—
a man of faith—
that goes back to a faith story
of a martyr—
that goes back to a love that was commitment—
commitment through the worst the world can be—
that goes back to the story of a saint.
And it was way back in the year 496 of the common era
that Pope Gelasius identified February 14th
as the festival day to honor St. Valentine’s martyrdom
among those, quote: “whose names are justly reverenced among men,
but whose acts are known only to God”—
because there just wasn’t ever that much known
of this man, Valentine.
Oh, the story was told
of a man named Valentine—
a bishop of Terni, Amelia, Narnia
(did you know there was a place that is real
on our maps called Narnia?)—
in Umbria—central Italy—some 60 miles north east of Rome.
Under arrest in the house of a Judge Asterius,
this Bishop Valentine was talking about Jesus,
and the judge issued this challenge:
“As much as you say about this Jesus—
as much as you claim about this Jesus,
let’s put it to the test. Let’s be real.
If you heal my blind adopted daughter—
if you can show me this power of which you speak
in my own living and grieving and hoping,
I’ll do anything you want.”
Ah, well, Valentine laid hands on her eyes,
and she was healed.
Of course, right?
So the judge was prepared to do whatever Valentine wanted.
I would have asked for my freedom,
how about you?
But no, Valentine said, destroy all the idols in your house,
fast for three days, and then be baptized.
I would have asked for something for me.
Valentine asked for something for the judge.
And Judge Asterius did all that—
destroyed all the idols in his house, fasted,
and was baptized along with his household—
some 44/45 people.
And then, he freed all the christians arrested under his authority.
You see, Valentine did not ask for his own freedom,
and yet received it.
A free man, Valentine was later arrested again.
He just couldn’t stop talking about Jesus—
which at that time, wasn’t a safe conversation to have.
This time he was sent to Emperor Claudius II—
to whom you really did not want to be sent,
but who, of all things, liked him.
The Emperor liked Valentine.
“I like you.”
“I like you, too.”
“But you need to stop talking about Jesus.
And if you don’t, my friend, you’ll be beaten and beheaded.”
Valentine was martyred outside the Flaminian Gate
late in the third century.
The powerful Emperor’s expectations of friends
were the pale reflections of his own wishes.
The world has always had trouble
with the truth of difference in relation.
There was another story—
about a man named Valentine,
who was a priest in Rome
offering comfort to those persecuted by Claudius.
According to some stories,
Valentine also married Christian couples—
which was forbidden.
According to other stories,
he married any couples who came to him.
The problem in this case—
that Emperor Claudius had forbidden marriage.
He was under pressure to maintain a fighting army,
and was under the impression
either that married men
wouldn’t want to join the army in the first place,
or that married men wouldn’t focus on fighting—
wanting to be at home with their wives—
worried about their wives and families.
Imprisoned and brought before the Emperor,
again, it was said the Emperor liked the priest,
“I like you.”
“I like you too.”
“But you have to stop talking about Jesus, my friend,
or you’ll be beaten and beheaded.”
Before his death,
Valentine left a note for his jailer’s daughter
signed, “from your Valentine.”
According to some stories,
he healed that jailor’s blind daughter.
Same man? Same story?
Two stories blurring together in similar affirmations?
And, in fact, there was another story
of a man named Valentine—
a story with even fewer details
about a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.
A bit confusing, isn’t it?
Especially when the stories began to blur,
and in 1969, St. Valentine was actually removed
from the General Roman Calendar
by the Roman Catholic Church,
because there was so little information about him.
There are also a number of St. Valentine’s—
a number of them with feast days other than Valentine’s Day.
Y’all know that? January 7. July 4. September 18.
October 25. November 3. November 24.
There was a St. Valentina.
There are stories
of a woman named Valentina—
whose feast day is July 25.
Some common themes through these stories.
These are people who couldn’t stop talking about Jesus—
couldn’t stop acting in the way of Jesus.
They are stories of love
in which inquisitors and jailers become friends—
stories of friends who demand more than friends should,
and of friends who don’t let friends do that—
stories of confronting the power of the world
with the power of love—
stories of betrayal and death—
of commitment and consistency
through betrayal and death—
stories of faithfulness—
stories blurring together in similar affirmations
Etymologically, the name Valentine or Valentina
goes back to a Latin root, “valens,”
meaning “worthy, strong, powerful, healthy.”
And these are the stories of people
specifically powerful in the ways of love—
powerful in ways the world too often considers weak.
And isn’t it fascinating
that the stories of St. Valentine
commemorated on February 14
then echo through the year
(January, July, September, October, November)—
that resonate with the stories of other people,
powerful in the ways of love—
other Valentines and Valentinas.
Stories blurring together in similar affirmations.
Do you think it has to do with one story—
a story in which through the millennia have found worth—
to which people through the millennia have given their lives?
It should come as little surprise,
given how we have wondered through our lectionary sabbatical,
about Christian stories and festivals
intentionally and strategically told
to counter and subvert the stories of culture,
that the ancient pagan festival Lupercalia
was celebrated in mid February.
A perhaps pre-Roman celebration
associated with the Greek god Pan,
and then the Roman version of Pan, Faunus—
a celebration that came to be associated as well
with the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus,
the founders of Rome, in the cave on the Palatine Hill—
the central hill of the seven hills of Rome.
As part of this festival, two male goats and a dog were sacrificed,
their hides cut into strips given to men
who ran around naked
striking women with these whips
who were believed to thus be rendered fertile.
As another part of the festival,
names of young women were evidently put in a box
from which men drew names.
So some say, Pope Gelasius in 496,
in declaring a feast day to Valentine,
was seeking to confront, counter and subvert the Lupercalia—
to confront and counter the stories of culture
that were selfish, misogynistic—
having to do with what men wanted—
with what felt good—
with abusive, exploitative sex—
with rituals that make someone else
do just what we want.
And haven’t we come so far?
Now that may not be true—
that the pope strategically located Valentine’s day
at the same time as Lupercalia
to offer an alternative story.
But it does.
It does tell an alternative story of love
that is compassion and friendship and commitment—
that confronts the expectations, assumptions,
and the power of our world.
So amidst superficial selfish sentimentality—
amidst, on the one hand, meaningless sex,
and, on the other, sex with way too many expectations—
amidst the consistent ongoing exploitation and objectification of women—
amidst what are now called key parties and hooking up—
amidst an inability to honor and respect the differences of the other,
do we tell stories of people powerful in the ways of love—
whether they’re named Valentine or not?—
of love made manifest in friendship
in commitment through hard challenges?
Do we tell stories of people liked even by their enemies?—
of people strong enough confront power with love and truth—
truth and grace?—
of people strong enough to resist their friends
when friends ask inappropriate things?—
to confront friends whose “friendship”
is based on you doing what I want?
Are those the stories we tell our youth and children?
Because those are the stories they need to hear.
Do we tell stories
of people who enthusiastically talk about Jesus—
about the way of Jesus?
Do we talk about the freedom
that only comes from thinking not of self?
Do we tell a story to which we have given ourselves?
For if we do—
and if we do talk about the God
made flesh in such truths—
the God who in such a personal way
came to us to say, “Be mine!”
then we might tell stories of the truth
(and we might know the truth ourselves)
of the jailer’s blind daughter,
who said, “Oh, I see.”
Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
Martin Luther King, Jr., on loving your enemy
Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty,
but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil,
but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written,
‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’
No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them;
if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;
for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.