Good morning, everybody. Please be seated. I’m Harry Anderson, a member of St. Stephen’s and I am honored to deliver today’s sermon. I really wanted to preach on this date because tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and this, we know, is sweetheart’s weekend, which is always a special time. You’ll need to excuse me for not following the normal pattern for sermons. I’m not going to reflect on today’s Scripture readings, although at the end I will briefly mention the Gospel reading from Luke we just heard.
Instead I’m going to talk about love today, which after all is the true essence of our Holy Scriptures, isn’t it? So if you have your loved one with you today, please snuggle up while I talk. And those watching our live stream, in bed or wherever, can snuggle up even closer.
When I was in grade school, we gave valentines to other kids in our class on Valentine’s Day. My mother would go to the dime store and buy me some little paper valentines to sign and pass out. But my third grade teacher, appropriately named Miss Hope, said we couldn’t participate unless we gave a valentine to every kid in the class, not just the ones we liked. That was a tough lesson in affection versus love. We so often hear that Jesus taught us to love one another as he loved us. So that kind of love is what Miss Hope meant when she told me to give valentines to Robert and Carol, two kids I really disliked.
On the other hand, affection means showing someone we like that we care about them, have an attraction to them and want them in our lives.
A couple weeks ago, our dear Dr. William Seth Adams gave a wonderful homily in which he talked about God’s love for us and our love for God being an act of will — that we must have an intention to do something if we love our neighbor as ourselves. And that’s one big reason we come to church and renew our commitment to God and each other.
But today I’m going to talk about that other aspect of love and how the church has talked about it. It involves the physical expression of love, which includes that sensitive subject called S-E-X — something rarely mentioned while we sit in church on Sunday. So if you don’t want to hear this, feel free to plug in your ear buds and listen to a Super Bowl pre-game show or something.
Let me start by posing two questions: How did Saint Valentine, whoever he was, become Cupid dispensing arrows that tie two people into beautiful, loving and hopefully sexual relationships? And why has the church always had so many rules, regulations, limitations and abominations regarding the physical expression of love while at the same time telling us to have no limit in loving God and our neighbor? That’s our puzzle on this Valentine’s Day.
Just who the real Saint Valentine was is a little murky. There may been more than one. But the one we celebrate was most likely a priest in Rome in the third century. He was executed by Emperor Claudius II. It seems old Claude thought unmarried men made better soldiers than those with a spouse and family, so he outlawed marriage for those in his army. But Valentine, bless his heart, continued to perform marriages in secret for young soldiers and their lovers.
When that was discovered, the Romans chopped off his head. Brutal, I know, but also rather sweet, don’t you think? Maybe that’s one reason we celebrate him as the saint of lovers today.
We don’t know the actual date of Valentine’s martyrdom. But sometime after the Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Roman Empire in the year 382, the church decided it needed to “Christianize” some of the old pagan rituals. Lupercalia, for instance, was an old drunken, fertility orgy held in mid-February to arrange marriages. It was appropriately renamed Valentine’s Day by the pope in the fifth century.
Then in the Middle Ages in France and England, it was commonly believed that February 14 was the beginning of the bird mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day was for lovers and romance.
The great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer may have been the first to declare it as such in a poem he wrote in 1375 entitled “Parliament of Foules.” It included these words in Old English: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” Shakespeare later wrote in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that if two people meet on Valentine’s Day they are likely to get married.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, Cupid became associated with Valentine’s Day. Cupid was a Roman god modeled on Eros, the Greek god of love. Eros was originally portrayed as a handsome immortal who played with the emotions of gods and humans, using golden arrows to incite love and others made of lead to sow aversion. It wasn’t until much later that Cupid was pictured as a mischievous, chubby child with a bow and arrow that we now see on Valentine’s Day cards.
People have been sending valentine notes to their loved ones ever since. But for those of us living in the United States in the 21st century, the biggest boost to how we celebrate this day came in 1913 when Hallmark Cards of Kansas City began mass-producing Valentine’s Day cards. And it’s estimated that Americans will spend at least $20 billion this weekend on cards, candy, champagne, dinner reservations and other treats for the ones we love.
So there, in just about five minutes, you have the history of Valentine’s Day over the past two millennia. But, you may be wondering, why is this material for a sermon at church? OK, OK. Now comes that other part. Let’s talk about what our faith has said and done over the centuries about our gift of and need for physical love, also know as S-E-X.
Much of our Judeo-Christian tradition has often described our flesh as somehow wicked, weak and easily defiled. But ironically our tradition has also made a distinction between flesh and our bodies — which were created in the image of God and are described by St. Paul and others as a temple in which God dwells with us. In other words, we have divinely created bodies that have weak and wicked flesh. Try resolving that dichotomy!
In the ten commandments, we are told not to commit adultery and not to covet what doesn’t belong to us, including someone else’s spouse. In other words, God tells us sex is only for two people who are committed to each other. Sex outside a commitment like marriage is forbidden. But Scripture never says sex is evil.
Quite the contrary — sex is meant to be enjoyed as part of this human being God has created. Even St. Paul, so often a prude about such things, says in First Corinthians that spouses should show lots of sexual affection to each other as part of their marriage covenant. And in the Old Testament, the beautiful poetry in the Song of Solomon is quite graphic in describing the pleasure a husband and wife give each other.
But, of course, we cannot overlook the book in the Bible that is most often cited when it comes to sexual behavior and what God expects of us. It’s all in the laws of Moses laid down in the book of Leviticus. Take some time and really read it, especially Chapter 18. It’s an amazing list of “thou shalt nots” regarding sex. Let me list a few. And remember these Moses laws were written to instruct men, not women.
You shall not have sex with your mother or your sister or your daughter or your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter or your aunt or your sister-in-law or your daughter-in-law or your neighbor’s wife. Or with a slave or a Gentile or an animal. And, oh yes, definitely not with another man.
Most of those prohibitions in Leviticus were designed to prevent diluting the Jewish race through intermarriage with non-Jews or a ruining a Jewish man’s family legacy by casting doubt on who the father of his children was.
Leviticus is loaded with lots of other prohibitions such as not eating shell fish or pork and not wearing clothes of two different fabrics at the same time. Over time, Christians have abandoned most of those other Mosaic laws as cultural artifacts. But some of the sex prohibitions live on in many parts of our Judeo-Christian world even today.
Much of the tradition and teaching about sex developed fairly early. St. Augustine, a fourth century bishop, was so convinced that his flesh was evil that he deserted his wife and children, became celibate for the rest of life, and wrote long treatises on avoiding sex.
By the Middle Ages, the Christian Church teaching was that sex was meant to unify spouses for purposes of procreation only. The teaching did add that sex was a gift from God, and therefore it was good. But the clear implication of church teaching for centuries was that sex is good but should not be enjoyed too much. No form of contraception was permitted. Sex before marriage was never allowed; that irrepressible urge just had to be deeply repressed.
Catholic teaching has not changed much in the last thousand years. But the Protestant Reformation did inject questions and opinions into the mix, and Protestant thinking has evolved considerably, especially in the last century. Just think of what has happened in our own Episcopal Church: divorce is now OK and so is gay marriage. About all that has stayed constant are the commandments about adultery and coveting. I cannot even imagine what St. Augustine would have to say if he walked into our sanctuary today.
So what does all that I have shared with today you add up to — the beauty of Valentine’s Day and snuggling with our lovers. The human body as divine temple but afflicted with weak and wicked flesh. Thousand of years worth of rules and regulations about who can have sex, with whom, when and for what. Here is what I will leave you with. It seems clear to me that human beings are not created to be alley cats, mating with anybody and everybody all the time. We are meant to honor and protect our bodies, which God gave us and in which God dwells with us. We are also meant to share the gift of sex with that one special person we fall in love with.
Today’s Gospel reading was Luke’s version of the Beatitudes of Jesus, descriptions of those especially blessed by God — the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and so forth. I won’t dare to put words in Jesus’s mouth. But if I close my eyes and imagine him here right now, I would hope to hear him add this to the list: “And blessed are the lovers for they have received a gift from heaven.” And then, when I open my eyes, I will be so delighted to say to you, Happy Valentine’s Day and Amen!