Monday, February 15, 2016

Will you be my Valentine? The sermon

February 14 is a very special day for young people in India and all over the world. There is also a spring in the step of young men and women in the UTC campus when you ask about Valentine’s day. Many will tell you that there is no such thing and all this is hype by greeting card companies and other people interested in pushing their products through on this one day. The flower vendor will tell you that he is getting flowers from Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan and that is why it is expensive today. Luckily Milli, our ever ready chapel steward has used his influence to buy red flowers. Sam Anbrasu, our gizmo head knows that he can project a red rose at no cost and Bright, our bhajan secretary knows that he can replace the rose with his smile.

The men and women on campus who talk about Valentine’s day are like a mad man in a mental hospital who confesses to the ward boy that he was the one who told all the patients that someone is offering free biriyani at the entrance of the hospital. The ward boy then asks the man as to why he who cooked up the story is also running to the entrance. He replies “What if someone is really offering biriyani at the entrance?” This is the same feeling on campus. Everyone knows it is not important or we should say that it is not important but in every mind and heart there is a voice saying “What if a red rose comes from some where?”

There is an element of curiosity here. What kind of a sermon can come out of Valentine’s day? The truth is that Valentine’s day does indeed provide the opportunity for reflection from the gospel. I turn my attention to one of the fringe fundamentalist group’s in India and what they have said about Valentine’s day. According to them this is a day when lust, immorality, perverted love and obscenity make an appearance and it is a conversion of Indian culture into Western culture. It makes you think that people here should be thankful if all the mentioned only makes an appearance once a year!! That should make the fundamentalists happy. They also go on to say that St. Valentine was an old priest who fell in love with a young girl. Both these points seem quite preposterous to say the least. But more on that later.

What seems equally interesting is that the some elements of the church and secular society also join hands in saying that this is a celebration which is morally degrading, against Indian culture and against the gospel. In the secular realm this is a celebration with not much thought given into it apart from being a celebration for young couples to come together and even profess their love for one another. The word I love you comes in the form of heart shaped balloons, cards and small toys. A man saw a woman sitting alone on Valentine’s Day. He thought she needed his company and went up to her and told her that she need not worry and that he will do anything for her as long as her wish is three words long. He expected her to tell him to say “I love you.” She looked expectantly at the man, the man closed his eyes to hear the special words and then she said “Clean my house.” Hope this is a clue to all the married men on what kind of gift to give their wife.

When religious elements say that such celebrations should be shunned and done away with completely, what does the gospel and church tradition tell us and why is it important for the church today in India to use the opportunity of this day to think about ministry in the church? Rev. Dr. Vincent has already explained a bit about the World Association for Christian Communication. As part of the Christian principles of Communication brought about by the WACC one principle is that Communication preserves culture. It is important to note that culture is one of the backbones of society. It helps society to identify its roots and look at certain facts. The erosion of culture is not as is suggested by fringe fundamentalist elements in society. The truth rather is that facts have been conveniently forgotten and have been replaced by half-truths and lies. There was early research that suggested that ok and Coca Cola were the most recognized words in the world. Coca Cola must have done quite some advertisement to reach there and what they did was a change in culture. We believe advertisements just like we believe stories. It is a culture pressure. I have already told a story in a couple of classes last week. I would like to relive the story here. It is about Mr. Sharma. Someone tells him that his daughter has run away with someone. In Indian culture that is humiliating and Sharma can’t stand it and he jumps out of the 18th storey of his office. By the 14th floor he realizes that he is not married. By the 12th floor he realizes that he never had a daughter. By the 8th floor he realizes that his name is not Sharma but Varma. Varma it turns out jumped for something which was not even true.

I would like to look at two traditions or story’s today evening which shed some light on Valentine’s day. They are both connected with the church. The first is about the tradition of St. Valentine. Valentine was a Roman Priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudius who persecuted the church at that particular time. He also had an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or families if they died.
The idea of encouraging them to marry within the Christian church was what Valentine did. And he secretly married them because of the edict." Valentine was eventually caught, imprisoned and tortured for performing marriage ceremonies against the command of Emperor Claudius. There are legends surrounding Valentine's actions while in prison. "One of the men who was to judge him in line with the Roman law at the time was a man called Asterius, whose daughter was blind. He was supposed to have prayed with and healed the young girl with such astonishing effect that Asterius himself became Christian as a result."
In the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of a beating, stoning, and finally decapitation all because of his stand for Christian marriage. The story goes that the last words he wrote were in a note to Asterius' daughter. He inspired today's romantic missives by signing it, "from your Valentine.” This was then not a romantic card exchanged by a couple but a more spiritual relationship between two people, one who had known God and another who came to God and through that increased the faith of Valentine. It is a mutual relationship of love which has been brought about by faith. In Matthew 22:37-40 love comes out as the foundation of Christian faith. “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is what happens between the priest and the young lady. This is also why he signs off “Your Valentine.” Bringing love into the realm of morality is wrong and that is what is happening when fringe groups attack the celebration as a Western celebration. It may be true that youngsters are under peer pressure to do something on Valentine’s Day. But instead of bringing out the real meaning of Valentine’s day and what it means, attacking it will serve no purpose.
Valentine’s day should be seen as one opportunity among many to make a difference in the life of someone. It is not a celebration but a living out of one’s faith as is lived out on all other days. Identifying this becomes one of the important aspects of how religion can play a positive role in society and be a voice which identifies what humans can be to each other rather than what they can’t.

The second story or tradition is also from the early church. The early church contrary to what many people in the church think was not a conservative church. It was rather a believing and living church which reached out to people and that was also partly why the church survived. It is fascinating to revisit Tertullian who said that the Romans said of the early Christian community “See how they love one another.” This for me is so inspiringly strong that it draws a parallel with Valentine’s day but more than that it tells us as to how our life should be. “See how they love one another.” Today this has changed into the Christian community being one of the most nagging communities. I asked a church member what he was going to do today. He said he has to take his wife out otherwise she will keep nagging with him. A man once asked a Swami. Sir do you have a formula or a mantra by which my wife will stop nagging? If I come early she nags, if I come late she nags, whatever I do or don’t do, she nags. What can I do? The Swami told him that there is no mantra to help him. But he can start enjoying the nagging. How can I do that? He asks him as to how it was when he first drank wine. It was of course bitter. But now it is not. A few years later the man meets the Swami and the Swami asks him how his wife is. The man replies “She is now a wonderful nagger.” The man said that he started enjoying the nagging. But on the other hand the wife was not nagging but only talking sense to the husband which he now realizes after accepting her.

Justin Martyr talked of the church and said “We bring everything to a common fund for the needy, we pray for our enemies and live together with other races and country folk because of Christ.” Clement said that “A person who has come to know God impoverishes himself/herself for another and someone elses pain becomes our pain and hardship. That is why we tell couples they are mad and blind.

Rodney Stark in his book “The Rise of Christianity” says that the early church did something peculiar. They took care of the poor and the sick, they honoured women and gave them dignity and the church was a multi ethnic local church movement. He further says that Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world. Christianity revitalized life in the Greco- Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. This was why the Romans exclaimed “Look/see how they love one another.” St. Matthew 25:35-36 says “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” This is the essence of Valentine’s day. It should not be seen as a limited relationship between two people but is a community relationship between many, all coming in to help one another. Amen.

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