Monday, March 31, 2014

Prayer for Times of Blindness (March 30, 2014)

Prayer for Times of Blindness
John 9:1-41
March 30, 2014[1]

I know that many of you have had, and are having, struggle with eyesight, so you have a personal stake in a lessons restoring vision have a personal.  I understand.  I know what it is like to hear the eye doctor say, “you have a torn retina.  We should operate as soon as possible so you don’t lose your vision in that eye.”  I know what it is like to keep your head in the same position for days after the surgery to keep that gas bubble in place to allow the retina to reattach.  All to keep my eyesight.
The man in our Gospel Lesson did not have that experience.  He had been blind since birth.  He had never had known the red fire of a sunset or the glory of the first streaks of light of the morning sky.  He never had seen a multi-colored carpet of wildflowers on a meadow.  He had never seen the image of a perfect rose, or the innocent, trusting gaze of a baby’s eyes.
So what was his prayer for his time of blindness?  Did he ask for healing?  No—he didn’t even know what he was missing. 
You may remember the story of the healing of Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus had lost his vision, so he knew what he was missing.  He was sitting beside the road, pleading for mercy, and Jesus asked him, “what do you want Me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus answered, “let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  (Mark 10:51-52).  So Bartimaeus prayed two prayers:  he prayed for mercy, and he prayed for sight restored. 
But this man was different.  Since he had been blind since birth, he didn’t have any concept of what sight was. Jesus gave him his sight anyway.  He was able to discover a new dimension in living.  He could see.
But in a way—in a spiritual way—the man still was blind.  He knew that the man called “Jesus” had smeared some mud on his eyes and told him to go wash it off.  He had no understanding about who the man was or where he had gone (v. 11).  During his interrogation by the Pharisees, as they pressed him for his opinion about who Jesus was, the man first began to experience the limits of his spiritual vision.  He answered, “He is a prophet” (v. 18).  These words set the Pharisees into a frenzy like swarming hornets.  Some kind of prophet he is.  If he were truly a prophet, he would have waited one more day to comply with the Sabbath laws. 
The man was desperate to get away from them so he could enjoy his new gift of sight.  So they turned their interrogating search light on the man’s parents.  They readily admitted the limits of their understanding.  “This is our son.  He was born blind.  We don’t know how he sees.  We don’t know who opened his eyes.
They go back to the man.  “Give God the glory,” they said.  “This man is a sinner.”  To which the man replies, “One thing I do know, that although I was blind, now I see” (v. 25). 
Let me pause here for an observation.  Did you notice, that whenever the man tried to engage in theological speculation, he simply invited arguments back by the Pharisees; but when he simply told his story about what the man had done, the scoffers could not argue.  Like Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, he offers “just the facts.”  “I was blind, but now I see.”  The most powerful witness you can make is to tell the facts about what God has done in your life.  You don’t need a seminary education; you just need to tell your story.  What has God done in your life?  How has He touched you? 
I fear that so often, I fail to take note of God’s work in my life; perhaps you struggle with that same problem.  We take the mysteries of life, breath, birth, consciousness, thought—and we give them scientific explanations.  We lose sight of the awesomeness of the God who is behind these mysteries.  Don’t get so caught up in the theology, the “head part” of religion, that you lose track of the most important element—the story of what God has done in your life.
We aren’t finished with this man yet.  More importantly, God isn’t finished with him yet, either.  The man does not have 20/20 spiritual vision yet.  He still doesn’t know the truth about the man that healed him.  So Jesus gets more direct.  “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  “Who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him” (vs. 35-36).  As I have told you before, when you read the word “believe” in the Bible, you shouldn’t think in terms of something that goes on in the mind.  To believe is not something you do by nodding in agreement to some theological statements.  I love the various creeds of the church; but you don’t believe by reciting the words of the creeds.  To believe is to trust.  To trust so much that you put your trust into action. 
So Jesus says as clearly as He can, “I am he.”  And the man makes his profession of faith:  “Lord, I believe” (v. 38).  He says it matter-of-factly, but it is far more than a fact.  It is a matter of the heart.  He has experienced who Jesus is.  At long last, the eyes of his soul have been fully opened and Jesus has revealed to the man just who Jesus is.  So the man falls to his knees and worships Him.
I suspect that this is where so many of us get stuck.  We can be so much like the religious leaders who opposed Him.  If Jesus doesn’t conform to our preconceived notions of who He is, we argue against Him.  We remain blind.  But when we let go of our speculations and let Jesus reveal Himself to us, when we simply accept Him with simple awareness and trust, He opens our eyes. 
The Lesson goes on with a bit of a twist.  Jesus then says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (v. 39).  I visited one of our parishioners this past week in her hospital room at UVA and we spoke about this Gospel Lesson.  She asked the question:  “why does Jesus speak about ‘judgment’ here?”  As I thought about her question, I had to agree.  The tone of the statement seemed out of keeping with the rest of this particular story.  We do teach about Christ in judgment.  A different writer named John speaks on the Island of Patmos about the final judgment; but it seems like such an abrupt change in direction, from today’s story about healing to a story about judgment.  But the Greek word that is used here is clearly one of judgment.
I found some help when I turned to The Message, a translation by Eugene Peterson.  Listen to Peterson’s translation of this verse:  “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”[2]
In this instance, at least, all that Jesus needs to do as “judge” is to be Himself, bringing “everything into the clear light of day.”  In the chapter before this, Jesus had proclaimed these words, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  Those who have spiritual vision, those who can see the light, will walk in the light.  Those who are spiritually blind will not.
So, how is your spiritual vision this morning?  Have you been able to see the power and the presence of God working in your life?  God may not come to you in ways that seem as miraculous as giving eyesight to the blind man; but keep in mind, that Jesus used some very ordinary means—a little mud and a little spit—to do the extraordinary.  Are there ordinary ways in your life that God has touched you?
·      Has God given you the ability to open your eyes this day to see “the beauty of the earth and the glory of the skies"?[3]  Don’t try to explain it; offer to Him your hymn of grateful praise.
·      Has God given you the ability to appreciate the joy of ear and eye, for the mystic harmony that links sound and sight?  Then don’t try to explain it, but join in the music and sing your hymn of grateful praise.
·      Has God given you the joy of human love—the love of brother, sister, parent child, friends on earth, friends above?  Then offer to God your hymn of grateful praise.
But if this is a day when you can’t see these things, if you are struggling with pain this morning, can you sing “Open my eyes, Lord?”
If this is a day when the pain of grief has reminded you of a loved one who is gone, can you still sing, “Open my eyes, Lord?”
If this is a day when you face uncertainty about who you are, and about who God is, can you still trust and sing, “Open my eyes, Lord?”
So what are the prayers for times of blindness?  I can think of three of them:
·      A prayer for revelation:  “Open my eyes, Lord.  I want to see Jesus.”
·      A prayer of trust:  “Jesus, I trust in You.”
·      A prayer of thanksgiving: thank you, Lord.
May these prayers be in your hearts and minds this day!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2002), 1939.
[3] Folliot S. Pierpoint, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 92.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Prayer for Times of Thirst (March 23, 2014)

Prayer for Times of Thirst
John 4:1-42
March 23, 2014[1]

Have you ever been really thirsty? 
My times of physical thirst have been limited.  O, there may have been some times when mowing the lawn that I came back into the house and really appreciated a tall, cool glass of water.  There may have been some times when getting ready for various medical things that I was told “nothing by mouth.” 
But I remember reading books about sailors stranded at sea who were surrounded by water but didn’t have anything to drink—how they would collect morning dew from their sails before the sun would steal it away from them.
If I remember the movie Castaway correctly, one of the keys to Tom Hank’s survival was finding a way to capture and store fresh water.  It’s been a long time since I have seen the movie, but I recall seeing a severely dehydrated Hanks quivering as he took a drop of moisture that had collected on a leaf.[2]
But it’s not only something that happens in the movies.  I read a report that this past week, Jose Salvador Alvarenga traveled from his home in El Salvador to Mexico to tell Roselia Diaz, mother of 23-year old Ezequiel Cordoba, how her son died after about four weeks at sea because he wasn’t able to adjust to some of the desperate measures that had to be taken to survive at sea.  News reports said that Alvarenga and Cordoba had drifted some 6,000 miles at sea on a small fishing boat—from Mexico to the Marshall Islands, meandering in and out of the currents.[3]
I have never been thirsty like that. 
I don’t know if the Children of Israel had reached that point of desperation in our Old Testament Lesson when they came to Moses and demanded that he give them something to drink (Exodus 17:2).  They were in the middle of the desert, wandering in the wilderness following their escape from Egypt, and they were so thirsty that bondage in Egypt seemed preferable to the suffering that they were undertaking.  “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3b).
Give me something to drink.  It’s a cry that is so simple, so basic, so profound.  It reflects one of the most fundamental needs of the human body.  It also reflects one of the most fundamental needs of the human soul.
It was a fundamental need that Jesus captured in his conversation with the woman at the well. 
The setting is awkward.  Jesus chooses to travel through Samaria on his way back to Galilee from Judea.  I recall the strange phrase from the King James Version that says, “He must needs to go through Samaria” (John 4:3).  Not because it was convenient, not because there was no other route.  It was his destiny.
Jesus sits by the well.  He is tired.  It is about noon.  He sees a Samaritan woman approach with her water jar.  It is an unusual time of day to draw water from the well.  Most women come much earlier in the day for this task.  But maybe this particular woman doesn’t want to be in the company of other women, doesn’t want to face their stone cold glances, their gossip, or their silence.  So she comes at noon when she expects to be alone.  She finds the figure of Jesus sitting beside the well.
Then she hears Jesus asking her for some water.   She is astonished.  His accent indicates that he is Jewish, from Galilee.  The racism that divides the Jews from the Samaritans is deeply rooted, going back centuries.  But Jesus does not permit himself to be limited by the boundaries of gender, geography and race.  When the woman questions why he would even speak to her, he points out to her that if she knew who He was, she would be begging him for a drink of living water.
When she inquires further about how could He provide her with water—he has no bucket—Jesus makes it clear that the water which he provides is different—that those who drink from his water will never be thirsty again.  And the woman then says to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15).
The woman is amazed.  Jesus lets her know that He knows all about her.  She runs to tell her people about this incredible man, this prophet.  They are so impressed that Jesus stays in Sychar for two days.  Many come to believe in Him—not because of the woman’s story, but because they have heard Jesus for themselves. 
The Bible makes it clear that God cares about our thirst—both physical and spiritual. We recited a portion of Psalm 95 this morning in our Call to Worship.  There are verses later in that same Psalm in which seem to indicate that God was impatient with the Israelites on that day at Meribah.  God speaks in the Psalm, “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.  For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.’  Therefore in my anger I swore, “they shall not enter my rest.’”  (Psalm 95:8-11). 
God was impatient and angry at the Israelites, not because of their thirst, but because of their hardness of heart.  Time after time, God had come to their rescue, but they were so quick to forget, so slow to trust.
That seems to be a familiar refrain with God’s children.  God takes care of us.  But over time, we grow complacent.  We forget the source of our help.  We become bitter.  We complain.  We forget our identity as children of God.
On another occasion in the history of the Israelite, after another period of hardness of heart, another time of bondage and repentance, God called His children home. He heard the cry of His children by the waters of Babylon, where they sat down and wept as they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1).  God invited His children to remember who they were.  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…  Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live…  Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”  (Isaiah 55:1-7).
But sometimes, it is hard to remember. 
·      It can be hard to remember when, as a parent, we are struggling to manage a household, earn a living, care for our children, love our spouses and squeeze out some time for ourselves.
·      It can be hard to remember when, as an employee, we try to manage the tensions between a faith that places under certain ethical demands of honesty, integrity, loving our neighbor that don’t always seem to fit with the amoral demands of our employers.  Honesty, integrity and loving your neighbor don’t always show up in the profit column.
·      It can be hard to remember, when a person we love, if not we ourselves, becomes ill, when we face the uncertainties of medical treatment, hospitalization, and we are reminded of our mortality.
·      It can be hard to remember when we see news stories that scare us, hear from politicians who capitalize on our fears (both sides of the aisle).
But God urges us to remember.  To remember who we are, and to remember who God is.  To remember each day with grateful hearts the many graces He has offered us.  To examine our conscience each day to keep our hearts tender.  To remember that we are baptized in the waters, the waters of the Holy Spirit.
And, to remember in our times of thirst, to ask for a drink of the living waters.
That is our prayer for times of thirst.  Lord, fill my cup.  Give me something to drink.
Are you thirsty today?  Come to the waters!
May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Cast Away, directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by William Broyles Jr. (Twentieth Century Fox, 2000).
[3] Rafael Romo, “New chapter in castaway's story: Keeping promise to companion who perished,” (CNN: March 19, 2014), viewed on the internet on March 23, 2014 at

Monday, March 17, 2014

Prayer for Times of Rebirth (March 16, 2014)

Prayer for Times of Rebirth
John 3:1-21
March 16, 2014[1]

Here is one sign that I bet you don’t see on TV during football, baseball or basketball games:  “John 3:17.”  You always see “John 3:16”—a reference to the verse that many of us memorized when we were children, a verse that many people believe summarizes the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But if we read only the 16th verse, we are missing a treasure trove of Jesus’ teaching about life in the Spirit! 
This morning, I would like to invite you to walk with me through this dialogue of Jesus, focusing on it from the standpoint of what is the prayerful response to this story.  Keep in mind the definition of prayer that I have been using this year in what we have called the “Year of Prayer:”  prayer is a conscious personal relationship with God.  It can include words; but it is more than words.  Prayer is relationship.  It is intentional.  And it is personal.  And in the case of this morning’s Gospel Lesson, the prayer that is called for is a prayer of response.
In our Gospel Lesson this morning, John follows a familiar pattern that we find in his Gospel.  John’s theology does not come from the story itself; the details of the narrative are sparse.  They serve only to set up a dialogue between Jesus and the other character in the narrative—in this case, Nicodemus.  The dialogue then evolves into a lengthier teaching by Jesus.
In this case, a respected leader of the Jewish people seeks out Jesus by night (v. 2).  The text doesn’t say why Nicodemus came at night; we tend to fill in the gap by assuming that Nicodemus was not sure as yet how he would respond to Jesus.  He wasn’t sure if he was ready to go public and declare himself to be a follower of this teacher from Galilee.  But all of that is our own speculation—the Gospel only says that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.  But I ask you to note that regardless of the reason that Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night, Jesus does not criticize him for it.  Jesus meets us at our point and time of need. 
Nicodemus begins the conversation with a compliment.  He tells Jesus that “we” know Jesus is a “teacher who has come from God” (v. 2).  Note that he says “we” and not “I.”  He includes himself in this declaration, but he makes it general.  So far, we do not see a personal declaration of faith; we see general statement that Jesus has the attention of the Jewish people of whom Nicodemus is a part.
Jesus doesn’t appear to be in a mood to speak in niceties.  Jesus is not going to permit Nicodemus to beat around the bush, to hide behind the generalities.  There is a dualistic nature in our response.  We respond as part of a community; so Nicodemus’s inclusion of himself as “we know” is correct.  But it also is individual.  The individual must determine whether to be a part of the community response.  So Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one” can see the kingdom of God, no one can be part of this community of Spirit, unless they are “born from above” (v. 3).
Many of you might be surprised to hear the translation from which I am reading use the phrase “born from above.”  We all have learned this verse translated as “born again.”  In fact, the Greek word that John uses in this Gospel can be translated as “again,” or “anew” or “from above.”  Part of the difficulty is that people have seized on these words to make them into a formula for becoming a Christian—be “born again.”  Now don’t get me wrong—I believe that there is a time and a place in which we are called on to respond to the Gospel; but it is not a slogan or a simple formula.  The life of the Spirit is not a journey that is concluded at the “birth;” it is a life-long journey, a life-long commitment.
Nicodemus responds to Jesus with a question.  He is not one to dive head first into the water of the Spirit, he wants to know what he is getting into.  So he asks Jesus what Jesus means.  Unfortunately, Nicodemus gets caught up in the metaphor of birth rather than the life that birth entails.  He asks a “how” question rather than a “why” question.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (v. 4).  It can be so easy to avoid the substance of a life-changing experience by getting caught up in the process, the mechanics. 
But Jesus does not want to let Nicodemus get lost in the how question.  Rather than getting caught up in the how, Jesus reaffirms his point.  No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit”  (v. 5).  This is the first time in the conversation that Jesus interjects that word “Spirit.”  He makes it clear, just to make sure that Nicodemus doesn’t continue to be lost in the metaphor, that Jesus is talking about a very different sort of birth.  But this birth in the Spirit is “sort of” like physical birth.  Note the reference to water.  There is the water of physical birth—it is part of that process of birth that a baby leaves the waters in which it has lived in safety for nine months to emerge into a new phase of living.  This emergence into new physical life is marked by an emergence from the waters of the womb.  So too is the emergence of life in the Spirit.  There is water present—a reference to baptism—but there is more.  There is Spirit present.
But what exactly is this “Spirit” to which Jesus refers?  We still want to pin things down with our earthly, materially-focused minds.  You can’t pin down Spirit.  “The wind blows where it choses.  You hear the sound of it, you see its effects, but you don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going.”  So it is with the Spirit.  You see the results, but you don’t see the how.  You can see the effects of the Spirit on someone who has been “born of the Spirit”—St. Paul refers to the “fruit of the Spirit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22)--but you can’t say precisely how the Spirit produces that fruit in us.  It just happens.  That’s the way it is with those who have been born of the Spirit (v. 8).
Jesus tells him “don’t be surprised” when I tell you that you must be born from above (v. 7).  Focus on that little word “must.”  I used to read that word as a command:  “you must be born from above.”  But I have grown to learn that it is not so much a command as a simple statement of fact.  In order to live in the spiritual realm that is God’s, it is necessary that you be born into that spiritual realm.  In the same way that a baby needs to be pushed through the birth canal into the new life outside, so a spirit needs to be pushed through the trauma of birth to recognize the life of the Spirit for which it has been formed.
I discovered this week another possible way to read this little word “must.”  Did you ever invite someone to your home by saying “you must join us for dinner”?  Deborah Kapp points out that we can read this as an invitation.  Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to let the Spirit change his life![2]
Nicodemus still doesn’t get it.  He asks another “how” question.  “How can these things be?”  (v. 9).  Jesus asks a “how” question of his own.  “How can you be a teacher and not understand? (v. 10).
Jesus then describes his basis for His own spiritual understanding.  He has been there; He has seen what it means to live a life in the Spirit.  I testify as to what I know, what I have seen.  You have to trust me.  (v. 14). 
You will note that I am using the word “trust.”  Most English translations of the Bible use the word “believe.”  The Greek word that is used is pistis.  Pistis can be translated as “believe,” but I have found, at least in my own life, that to say “believe” makes it sound to much like a matter of the head, of understanding, of a “how” question.  So many people have difficulty entering into the life of the Spirit because they get hung up on the how question.  You don’t need to understand the “how” of the Spirit; you have to trust the Spirit.
On Friday night, I was driving outside of Richmond on Rt. 288.  I was in the far left lane of the highway and, just opposite the exit ramp for Midlothian turnpike, I saw a car in front of me with its backup lights on, and then it turned 90 degrees to move over to the exit ramp.  In that moment, I didn’t stop to ask how my brakes would work.  I didn’t care about the “how;” I cared that they worked. 
This brings us to a tricky area:  how much is our entry into the life of the Spirit the result of our own action, and how much is it something that happens to us?  I didn’t chose to enter into this physical life; it happened when my tiny body was mature enough to be able to handle the outside world.  Through the mysterious process that we call childbirth, I was pushed out of the comfy existence that I was accustomed to, and I entered a new phase of existence.
Could that also be the case with the life of the Spirit?  Do we choose to experience that life, or are we propelled into it?  Is being born into our Spiritual existence something that we decide to do, or does God propel us into new realms of living? 
I run into the danger with my own question of getting hung up on the how question.  There is one thing that I am sure of:  the life of the Spirit requires something on our part.  At a minimum, it requires trust.  Just as we were born to trust our parents in this physical life, so too, we must trust our heavenly parent in the spiritual life.
So, what is our prayer for time of rebirth?  It is a prayer to trust. 
What does it mean to trust in God, whom we cannot see?
·      * We give up control
·      * We nurture our identity
·      * We are transformed
·      * We want what God wants.
Our prayer for rebirth is a prayer of trust.  “Jesus, I trust in you.  I put my hand into your hand.  I put your heart in my heart.”
This prayer of trust is not a one-time event—it is a continuing process.  We are not born in the sense of completed action—“been there, done that.”  We are continuing to be born, continuing to experience new adventures in the life of the Spirit.  There is a beginning point; but it is a matter of continuing, whatever our status in the spiritual journey, to say to Jesus “I put my trust in you.”  May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Deborah J. KPP, “John 3:1-17:  Pastoral Perspective” in David L. Barrett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word:  Year A, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 70.