Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Whom Are You Looking For (April 20, 2014--Easter Sunday Worship Service)

Whom Are You Looking For?
John 20:1-18
April 20, 2014[1]

I can imagine a bit of what Mary was going through.  I have known the feeling of going back to the cemetery the day after the funeral was over, after the tent had been taken down and all the people had gone, wanting to spend a few moments by myself, in quiet, to reflect, to remember, to pray.
But I can’t begin to fathom what Mary must have felt when she discovered that the grave had been opened up, and it was empty!
After the awful way in which Jesus was executed, you would think that “they”—whoever “they” were, would leave him alone.  But, as she told Peter and the other disciple, “they” have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2b). 
But determined as she is, she follows Peter and the other disciple back to the garden.  Maybe she can find out who the grave robbers are.  Maybe they left some sort of clue in their hurry.  Maybe she can find a witness to the event, or maybe one of them won’t be able to keep themselves from bragging about their deed.  In reality, though, Mary cares far less about finding out who “they” are than she cares about finding the body of Jesus, so she can spend some moments in quiet, reflecting, remembering, praying.
She peeks again in the open cave that had served as a tomb, and she finds two men, dressed in dazzling white, sitting right there at the very niche where she had seen Joseph and Nicodemus place His body.  The men look up at her and ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 13a).  She still is so beside herself with grief that she doesn’t even note anything different or unusual about these two strangers.  All she can do is repeat the same words that she spoke to Peter—“They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”  (v. 13b).
She hears a noise from behind her and she quickly turns around.  She sees someone nearby.  A gardener, perhaps.  She approaches him, her eyes still blurry with tears, her heart racing, pounding.  Her mind still in a fog.  Maybe he knows something.  Maybe he can help her?
She races up to him.  By this time, her emotions overcome her completely and without the least bit of embarrassment, she weeps freely.  The man is filled with compassion as he asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  (v. 15). 
Maybe this man knows.  Without lifting her eyes, without really hearing his words or his voice, Mary immediately assumes a “take charge” manner and begins to question, almost accuse this Man.  “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (v. 15b).
It is only when Jesus tenderly, firmly calls her name, “Mary,” that He is able to break through her preconceived notions of what has taken place.  Only then are her eyes opened to see the Risen Lord.  And she falls to the ground, reaching out for Him, trying to hold on to Him so that she will never lose Him again.
We fall into that same trap, as well.  We have a notion of who Jesus is—of how we should encounter Him.  We expect to find Him in a certain time and place and under certain conditions.
Some of us look for the miracle Jesus, expecting Him to do our bidding whenever we want.  We overlook the purpose for the miracles that Jesus performed during his earthly ministry:  His miracles were not performed for our convenience but for the Glory of God.  We don’t recognize that the Jesus who is with us in our hour of need, who has bourn our griefs and carried our sorrows (see Isaiah 53:4), the Jesus who wept at the loss of his friend Lazarus—this is Jesus the Risen Christ.
Some of us look for the philosopher Jesus.  Like Pontius Pilate, we would prefer to engage in dialogue with Jesus about “what is truth” (see John 18:38) and we fail to recognize the One standing before us who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  We like the ethical Jesus—the one who urged His followers to “turn the other check” and follow a path of nonviolence (Matthew 5:39).  But it is a far different matter when we hear Jesus invites us to take up our own crosses daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). 
Some of us look for Jesus in judgment, still waiting for Him to come and make all things right in the world.  There is some element of truth here—we do read about a day of reckoning.  But if we continue to wait for Jesus to come in judgment, we might miss the One who came to “seek and to save that which is lost” (see Matthew 18:11).  And if we engage in some honest self-examination, we might come to find that we ourselves might not be quite so ready to face Christ in judgment.
Some of us just aren’t sure who to look for or where to look for Him.  We just keep looking, hoping that somehow, we will recognize Him when we find Him. 
I had an “aha” moment this week when thinking about this search for Jesus.  The New Revised Standard Version quotes Jesus as asking, “Whom are you looking for?”  The New International Version, the one used in your Pew Bibles, translates the question almost in the same way:  “Who is it that you are looking for?”  But the Greek word that is used probably would be better translated as “seeking.”  Whom are you seeking?  The word “seeking” connotes to me a sense that we are doing more than just looking around—it is far more active, engaged.  It is the same word that Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount when He urged us to “seek first the Kingdom of God…” (Matthew 6:33).  
It is one of those mysteries of our faith that seem to be contradictory, and yet it isn’t.  It goes right up there with “lose your life to find it,” or “give and you shall receive.”  On the one hand, in order to find the Risen Christ, you have to give up your assumptions about when and where and how He will appear to you.  And yet, to give up your assumptions does not mean that you give up the search.  Even the Apostle Paul, as he neared the end of his life, wrote of the deepest desire of his heart:  “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings … (Philippians 3:10).  Time after time, God assures His people, “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
But the best part is that just when Mary is at her lowest point, she finds out that Jesus has been looking for her all along.  He sees her sorrow and he calls her by name.  Jesus, the Son of God, desires to be in relationship with us even more then we desire to be in relationship with Him.  He is continually with us, watching us, accompanying us, inviting us to “abide” in Him.  Jesus, the One who completed His earthly ministry by promising to His followers, “… remember, I will be with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Whom are you looking for this Easter?  Are you willing to give up your own preconceived notions about who Jesus is and experience the Jesus who is with you?  He is calling your name.  And when you recognize Him, can you join with Mary and with the unending cloud of witnesses who proclaim, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18)?
May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at the Easter Service of Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

Guard Duty (April 20, 2014 - Easter Sunrise Service)

Guard Duty
Matthew 28:1-10
April 20, 2014[1]

There is a small detail in Matthew’s telling of the Resurrection Story that often escapes attention.  It is tucked away in verse 4:  “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
How ironic it is that Roman guards—placed there to eliminate any chance of the disciples stealing the body of Jesus and then claiming resurrection (Matthew 27:62-66)—actually become the only first-hand witnesses on record to the resurrection.  In a further ironic twist, the religious leaders end up bribing some of the soldiers to get them to spread a story that the disciples had come in the dark of night to do exactly what the Roman soldiers had been placed on guard duty to prevent (Matthew 28:11-15).  Never mind that the soldiers in question would have to admit that they had fallen asleep at their post.  It seems a rather strange tail.  That shows the length that fear and deception will drive us.
But think about the experience that those guards went through.  To be there on the scene when the angel of the Lord came and rolled back the stone.  “His appearance was like lightening, and his clothing white as snow” (v. 3).
Who has lived to witness such an event and survived to tell the tale!  But they were conflicted—conflicted by their loyalty to the emperor, their interest in self-preservation, and their own personal greed that was fed by the bribes offered by the religious leaders.  They may have been scared to death by the event that they witnessed, but in a spiritual way, they had died long before.
The angel took on the duty of standing watch at the tomb and of greeting the two women that came at daybreak to grieve.  The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”  In contrast to the soldiers, the angel told the women to not be afraid, and proclaimed the message that echoes throughout the intervening centuries:  “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”  (v. 6).  The angel invited the women to see for themselves—the tomb was empty.  He commissioned the women as the first evangelists—“Go and tell his disciples.”
The women reacted very differently than the guards.  They were left, running with “fear” but also running “with great joy” (v. 8).  They now were on guard duty, but of a very different kind.  We often think of “guards” as keeping someone closed up, in prison.  But it also can mean a relationship of trust, a duty of care.  In this sense of the word, the guard becomes a custodian.  The women now had custody of the Good News of the Resurrection.  They were entrusted to deliver the news to the disciples, together with the instruction to go on to Galilee to meet the Risen Lord.  They followed the angel’s direction and left, bearing the news that they had received from the angel.  On their way, they encountered the Risen Christ—Jesus himself met them and greeted them.
Their news was no longer a second-hand report; they now had first-hand information that Christ was alive!  No more hearsay evidence for them.  The news that they carried was their own first-hand report.  The Risen Christ was direct proof that God had power over death itself.  That was the news that they guarded with their lives, with their witness, as they ran to meet the disciples.
Since that first Easter morning, the news of the Resurrection has been handed down from generation to generation, announcing at the break of dawn that Christ is Risen.  We who are present this morning are the custodians of that news.  What will we do with the news that has been entrusted into our care?
Will we, like the Roman guards be paralyzed with fear?  Or will our testimony be corrupted by a world that can’t see the Risen Lord?
Will we, like the women, react with a mixture of fear and joy—fearing that it is too good to be true and yet too good to keep to ourselves?
But the biggest question of all:  will we be open and alert to the many ways that the Resurrected Christ meets us on our journey?  Will we permit our spiritual eyes to be opened, giving us the vision to see what the world cannot?  And how will we respond?  Will we, like Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” fall at his feet, take hold of his feet, and worship him?
We are on guard duty this morning with the greatest news that the world has ever heard.  Christ is alive!  He is alive in you, and He is alive in me!  We are custodians with this news.  What will you do with the news?  Let’s spread the word!  Alleluia!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Sunrise Service on Easter Sunday at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Prayers for Maundy Thursday (April 17, 2014)

Prayer for Maundy Thursday
April 17, 2014
John 13:1-17, 31b-35[1]

We begin with a question:  what is the prayer of your heart on this Maundy Thursday?
This year, my life has been enriched by a new understanding about prayer that I learned from a book written by William Barry, a Jesuit writer and spiritual director.  Barry defines prayer as a “conscious, personal relationship with God.”[2]  It has changed many of my underlying assumptions about prayer. 
Whether I consciously thought about it this way or not, I approached prayer as a one-way communication.  I sent messages to God, sometimes saying thank you, sometimes asking for things, without really expecting any response to be coming back to me.  My prayers became a sort of “To Do” list for God. 
But to view prayer life as a conscious personal relationship with God changes the dynamics of prayer completely.
It is conscious.  It takes intentionality.  I don’t “accidentally” pray.  I take time to be with God.
It is personal. It means that God takes an interest in me—personally—and I take an interest in God. 
But most importantly, prayer is relationship.  It is not a one-way monologue.  It is conversation.  It is speaking and it is listening.  It is giving and it is receiving.  It serving and it is being served.  God desires a personal relationship with you and me even more than we desire a relationship with God.  God is continually reaching out to us, inviting us, challenging us, sometimes correcting us, encouraging us, offering us His wisdom and guidance and love.
Let’s take a few moments to look at our Gospel Lesson through this prism of “Prayer as Relationship.” 
I invite you to mentally transport yourself through time and space into that room with Jesus and his disciples.  Can you picture yourself as one of the disciples, reclining at Table with Jesus and the others? It is suppertime.  The sun is settling lower in the sky.  Shadows are lengthening, and candles are lit to enable us to dine. 
In this borrowed room, no one is present to serve as “host” for this meal:  there is no one to provide the normal courtesies that are expected in this day and age, no one to take your cloaks, and no one to invite you to sit for a moment, to rinse your hot dusty feet in cool water.  You and the rest of the disciples glance around, looking to see if someone will be shamed into taking on that lowly, servant role of washing everyone’s feet.
Then you see something astonishing, even a bit embarrassing.  Jesus himself takes off his cloak, his outer garment.  He reaches for a towel and wraps it around his waist; he slowly pours water into a basin. Then he approaches the disciples.  He loosens their sandals, and He begins to wash their feet, one disciple at a time.  This is the first prayer I find in tonight’s lesson, and it isn’t a prayer in which the disciples say anything to Jesus; this first prayer is Jesus’ invitation:  “let me serve you.”
Foot washing was a lowly task.  Feet were dirty and smelly.  In that day, as well as the present, to show someone the bottom of your feet was to insult them, to degrade them.  The one who washed the feet of the guests was a lowly servant indeed.
None of the disciples are about to take that on that role of servant this night.  They are more likely to argue about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom.  Their relationship is more one of competition, of jockeying for position.
But Jesus takes the initiative to show His followers what true discipleship is all about.  One by one, Jesus serves His followers—with the only sound coming from the pouring and dripping and splashing of water--until He reaches Simon Peter.  As he so often does, Simon Peter speaks.
Did you ever think of this conversation between Simon Peter and Jesus as prayer?  There certainly is communication here, but the communication gets awkward.  It is a prayer, of sorts, but it is prayer with misunderstanding; it is a prayer of holding back.
Peter says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (v. 6)
Jesus answers, “you will not understand at the moment what I am doing, but later on, you will get it” (v. 7).
Peter is appalled at the notion.  You will never wash my feet” (v. 8a).  It’s as though he is saying, “there are parts of me that I don’t want you to see; parts about me that I don’t want you to know.  Maybe we should keep this relationship a bit more distant.”  Did you ever feel that way in your own relationship with God—that there are some things that you would rather keep to yourself?
But Jesus replies with firmness:  “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8b).  Unless you let me serve you, you don’t belong with me. Jesus is telling Peter that their relationship needs to change.  He invites Peter to a prayer of submission, to let go of the pride that separates them.  He invites Peter to close that gap.
Peter quickly changes his tune.  “Well, if that’s the way it works, then don’t just stop at my feet; keep on going.  Wash my hands and my head also” (v. 9). 
Do you ever feel as though your relationship with Jesus goes that sort of roller coaster ride?  Sometimes, you just want to go through the formalities and keep Him at arms length.  Sometimes the ride gets pretty rough, and you want Jesus to be as close to you as possible.  And sometimes we want to get as far away from Him as possible—sometimes (like Peter) we even deny Him.
But Jesus knows who we are.  He knows that we are mixtures of good and bad, faith and doubt, courage and fear.  His words “not all of you are clean” (v. 11) can be read as a reference to Judas, but it also can point out that Jesus knows that none of us have yet reached that “Ivory Soap” standard of being 99 and 44/100% pure.
In our prayer relationship with Jesus, we would like for Jesus to see only the parts of us that we are proud of.  We hope Jesus will catch us in the act when we bring food for the Food Pantry, or when we drop a few extra dollars into the plate for world relief.  But we hope he might be looking the other way when we are screaming at the kids to get up for school or watching the clock for our spouse to get home or when we cut off that slow driver hogging the left lane. 
Yet, Jesus knows us inside and out.  Do you remember the words of Psalm 139, which say, “You have searched me and known me.”  (v. 1).  “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” (v. 4)  “For it was you who formed my inward parts… (v. 13).  God already knows all about us; we pray a prayer of examination to bring to our own condition to our own awareness—to remind ourselves just how much we need God. Psalm 139 concludes with a prayer of examination:  “search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (vs. 23-24).
What if Peter would have prayed this prayer of self-examination that Thursday night—how might that have changed Peter?  How might it have changed Judas? O how we need to be ever mindful of the evil possibilities that lie within us.  To search our hearts, to offer up to God our weakness and frailties.  That act of self-examination and surrender is prayer.
How might it change us if on this Maundy Thursday, we prayed that prayer of self-examination? 
But there is one more aspect of our prayer relationship with Jesus that we still need to consider on this Maundy Thursday.  Jesus speaks an invitation to the remaining disciples—an invitation to love.  When Jesus completes his servant task of foot washing, He asks his followers, “Do you know what I have just done to you?  If I, your Lord, have washed your feet, you should follow my example.”  (v. 14).   At the end of our Gospel Lesson, Jesus puts it succinctly:  he commands that we “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.”  (vs. 34-35).
So many times we claim that we can’t hear God speaking to us, but we hear it so plainly in these words:  “love one another.”  “Serve one another.”    In our Prayer for Maundy Thursday, Jesus invites us to love and to serve.
In your prayers, in your relationship with Jesus on this Maundy Thursday, what is the prayer of your heart? 
Do you hear the invitation of Jesus to let Him serve you?
Is your relationship one of holding back, of keeping at arms length, trying to hide something in your heart and life?
Or are you able to submit, recognizing that Jesus “knows [your] every weakness”?[3]
Are you praying a prayer of self-examination?  Are you asking Jesus to search you, test you, and look for every streak of wickedness that remains within you?
Do you hear Jesus speaking to you, inviting you to a new way of living, a new way of serving, a new way of loving?
Christ has given the invitation.  The next step is yours.  How will you respond?
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached on Maundy Thursday at a joint service of Cunningham United Methodist Church, Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Haden Chapel United Methodist Church, Palmyra United Methodist Church and Salem United Methodist Church, held at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] William A. Barry, S.J., God and You:  Prayer as a Personal Relationship, (New York:  Paulist Press, 1987), 12.
[3] Joseph M. Scriven, “What a Friend with have in Jesus” (1855), reprinted in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 526.