Sunday, May 25, 2014

Because I Live (May 25, 2014)

Because I Live
John 14:15-21
May 25, 2014[1]

Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter—a season of seven weeks, seven weeks of celebrating the joy of the Resurrection.  It has been a season filled with challenges:  challenges to respond to the Risen Lord; to remember our identity as Children of God; and to remember the promise Jesus made to be with us even to the end of the age.  We have had a few additional highlights along the way—such as Confirmation Sunday, when ten young people proclaimed their faith in Jesus Christ, and one of their parents also took the step of becoming a member of Cunningham.  We have had the joy of singing hymns of the Gospel.  We have come a long way.
But today, we return again to the Resurrection as our theme.  We have had six weeks to ponder the mystery of the Good News.  Today, however, it is time to look more deeply at the question “Why is the Resurrection important to me today?”
The answer appears in today’s Gospel Lesson.  Before Jesus was executed, he said to His followers, “Because I live, you also will live …” (John 14:19b).
Notice that these words were spoken by Jesus in the present tense, but in these words He give us a future promise.  Because I—the One who is “the resurrection and the life”—because I live, you also will live (John 11:25).  There two layers of promise here.
There is the hope for all of us that we too will learn what eternal life with God will be like.  There is a future tense for all of us.  Not that we understand exactly what that life will be like, but we get glimpses, once in a while.  Perhaps it comes to us in those moments when we witness one we love crossing that threshold from life into eternal life.  Perhaps it comes to us when, in the middle of our struggles to cope with our present, we receive a word of assurance, a word of hope, that this life is not all there is.  But try as we might, we cannot really “know” in an experiential sense what the future will be like until we get there.  We have to wait for it.  That is why we refer to “eternal life” as our Christian “hope.”  The Apostle Paul wrote that, “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24b-25).  We wait with hope in the One who said, “because I live, you also will live.”
There is a second layer of meaning here in these words of Jesus.  Bear in mind that when He spoke these words two thousand years ago, what we call the present moment was a future moment to Him.  Could it be that Jesus was not referring to our hope for eternal life in the future, but to our lives in the present.  Could it be that Jesus was suggesting that through Him, the One who is the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), we can discover eternal life now, in the present dimension?  After all, Jesus did tell his followers that He came that they—and we—“may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). 
Yet so much of the time, we walk around in prisons—prisons that we ourselves have helped to build around us; prisons of brokenness, enslavement to unhealthy living, broken relationships, guilt.  All the product of our own past actions and the actions of those around us.  It is the law of cause and effect at work—what some religious traditions call “karma.  In so many ways, we let the lives of our past dictate who we are today and who we will be tomorrow.
But Jesus Christ calls us to freedom.  We no longer have to be slaves to who we are—He calls us to become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).  He calls us to be transformed and restored into the image of God in which we were created.  We no longer have to be slaves to our past.  Our past does not have to hold us forever, any more than that tomb in the rock could hold Jesus.  Jesus came to free us.  Because He tasted death but lives again, we too can be freed from the live-enslaving histories of our past.  Because He lives, we too can live—in the present moments of our lives.
Carla Lee introduced me to a podcast called “The Moth,” where you can hear people tell the stories of their lives.  The one rule they must live by is that they must tell their stories without notes.  Other than that, just about anything goes.  Sometimes, that freedom leads to stories that I would not repeat from this pulpit; but sometimes, I hear life-changing stories.  I heard one of those stories this past week.
Kevin McAuliffe is a fourth grade teacher in New York City.  As a child, Kevin had developed normally until, at the age of thirteen, he developed an obsession with washing his hands.  He would wash his hands over and over again, like a surgeon, until they became red and chapped.  He would hold his hands upright, trying to avoid touching anything.  He refused to go to his own bedroom, fearing that something awful had taken up residence there that would get him.  He wouldn’t go to the barbershop because he feared contamination from the scissors.  His sister tied his shoes for him, so that he wouldn’t get germs from his shoes and shoelaces—germs that were just waiting to attack.  He “was a wreck.”  His parents came up with one last solution—to send Kevin alone to New York City—a place where Kevin was convinced that “germs were born.”  But Kevin had a brother named Michael, the trailblazer in the family, who had graduated from college and was living in Manhattan.  Maybe Michael a visit with Michael would serve as a sort of “intervention.”  Michael was intense, one of those personalities that overtook every room in which he entered.  Kevin didn’t know how he would ever make it back alive.  He describes his search on the train to find the seat with the fewest stains on it.  He arrived at his brother’s apartment.  Michael didn’t ask Kevin about his craziness—he just said to him, “we are going out.”  Kevin gulped and instinctively went to the sink to wash his hands.  Just as he put his hands into the water, Michael stopped him and said “you aren’t washing your hands this weekend.”  They ate dinner at a restaurant in New York, and as Kevin adjusted to the notion that he could live without the chains of his compulsion, for the first time in ages he felt normal again. 
He did okay until they were walking back to the apartment and, on the way, his old compulsion started taking over again.  Kevin discovered that the sidewalk was a minefield of spots—spots that he was certain could destroy him.  Kevin focused on the spots, taking great care to avoid stepping on a single one—it could contaminate him forever.  They almost had made it back to the apartment when he stepped on one last spot, and his world fell apart.  Once again, he was defiled.  Now, all he could think about was how he was going to get rid of the only pair of shoes that he had brought with him to New York.  When they got back to the apartment, Michael could tell that something was wrong.  When he finally could get Kevin to tell what had happened, Michael said nothing.  He simply got up, walked over to the defiled shoe, picked it up, and licked the sole.  He said, “Kev, I’m still alive.”  He sat back down.  Kevin felt great like a great weight had been lifted from him.  He was not cured immediately that night, but he discovered how good it could feel to win a battle.  He discovered that he could live free from the fears that had broken him.[2]
That story was not told from a religious perspective; but I can see in that story such a graphic portrayal of what God did for us through Jesus Christ.  When God saw our brokenness, when He saw that we would not listen to His messengers, He took the step of becoming one of us.  In the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth, He showed us how to live abundantly, how to love divinely.  He literally tasted death, so through His resurrection, He could say to us, “See, I am still alive.”  Because I live, you also will live.
We no longer need to be contaminated by the spots on the sidewalks of our lives.  We can be freed to live in the present.  And by living fully and freely in our present, we can face the future unafraid.  As one writer put it, “The more I trust in God and allow Him to lead me the more I experience hope in Him, who raises me up from weakness, poverty and pain to the joy of His Resurrection.” [3]
Yet, we seem to spend so much time focusing on the life-denying circumstances that surround us. 
What does it mean to live in hope of the Resurrection?  It does not mean that we will live without weakness, poverty or pain.  It does not mean that we will not experience physical death.  But it does mean that we are free to live abundantly, free from the fears and chains that have bound us, in whatever circumstance we face, whether in weakness or in strength, in pain or in comfort, in life or in death or in life beyond death. 
Because I live, you also will live.  I pray that you will live in that hope today.  May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Kevin McAulliffe, “Sink or Swim” on The Moth:  True Stories Told Live.  Recorded August 28, 2012; broadcast on April 28, 2014.  Accessed on May 24, 2014 at
[3] Father George Aschenbrenner S.J., “Examen,” Fr. John English, ed., viewed on the internet on May 20, 2014 at 070510A.pdf

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Singing the Good News (May 18, 2014)

Singing the Good News
Psalm 150
May 18, 2014[1]

On the afternoon of March 30th of this year, the Charlottesville District Youth sponsored a “Fifth Sunday” Worship Service that was held here in Cunningham Church.  Approximately 60 youth attended.  It was a true service of worship that culminated in the sharing of Holy Communion.  The entire service was very moving; but the most amazing thing to me was the music.  I expected a group of teenagers to surround themselves with Christian rock music but there was no band here.  To my surprise, the greatest energy of the service came from the singing of hymns.  Just as we have been doing this morning, the kids would call out the hymn number of their favorite hymns and we would sing two verses.  We spent more than 45 minutes singing hymns—hymns of all varieties., mostly hymns from the traditional United Methodist Hymnal.
Those youth had discovered something that Methodists have known for hundreds of years and that people of all faiths have known for thousands of years—the power of music to connect us with God.  As we sing these songs of faith, we find a perfect example of something in which the sum is greater than its parts.  It isn’t only the basic ingredients of rhythm and pitch, melody and text, spun together in a particular way.  Until a human voice lifts its voice in song, all we have are notes on a page.  It isn’t only the skill of a gifted musician like Wally White; we certainly are blessed to have Wally share his gifts with us week after week, but the power of the hymn is greater than the musician.  I have heard lots of talented musicians perform the music with great technical ability but no soul.  It isn’t only the poetry.  Some of our hymns are beautiful poems complete with rhyme, meter and imagery, but others are simply statements of faith, straight from the heart.  It isn’t only religious theme or the setting.  It isn’t only the emotional connection.  In some way that I can’t fully explain, our hymns of faith have an ability to lift our souls to God.
The Psalm that we read this morning commands us to “praise the Lord.”  The Psalmist tells us to Praise the Lord in his sanctuary, in community.
The Psalmist tells us to praise the Lord for his mighty deeds.  He invites us to remember the ways God has blessed us in our past as a way of acknowledging God’s power to save us in the present and in the future.
The Psalmist tells us to praise the Lord through our music—with the lute and the harp with tambourines and dance; with strings and pipe; with cymbals, even the loud crashing cymbals. 
The Psalmist urges, “let everything that breathes, praise the Lord!”  This is not a suggestion—this is stated in the imperative.  Do it. 
But it isn’t a command being forced on us from the outside.  I don’t sing hymns because someone told me to.  I can’t help but sing.  From my earliest days in church, the hymns of faith have been part of my life. 
·      I remember, even as a toddler, going to Sunday School, sitting in those little wooden folding chairs, singing “Jesus Loves Me, this I know.”
·      I remember sitting in the second or third row with my best friend, Keith.  As we learned to read, we practiced our reading skills on the words of the hymns.  We even took turns finding ways to twist the hymn titles out of context.  We sang gospel hymns then—what many have called the “Old Hymns” but which, in fact, weren’t so old.  Most of the so-called “Gospel Hymns” dated back to the childhood of my parents.  If you really want to sing “the old songs,” you would need to go back to the days of Martin Luther and J. S. Bach.  Or even further back to the days of plain chant. 
·      I remember when my concept of singing my faith expanded, at a time when Christian Folk Musicals were just becoming the “thing to do.”  You may not realize it, but the song “Pass It On” actually originated as part of a musical written by Ralph Carmichael and Kurt Kaiser entitled “Tell It Like It Is.”  I learned that song directly from Kurt Kaiser himself, when he appeared at a Youth for Christ rally in Winona Lake, Indiana.
·      I rediscovered the majesty of the formal hymns of the church while singing with my high school and college choirs, and while practicing for a time some other religious traditions. 
·      Hymns have been formed a part of the most important times in my life.  When Carol and I got married, one of the most memorable moments of the ceremony was when the entire congregation stood to give thanks by singing “Now Thank We All Our God.”  Within thirty minutes after my mother died, my dad and my brothers and sisters and I all stood in a circle in that room affirming the truth that “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.”  The day of my ordination was made especially meaningful because of the way my ordination class stood and sang “I’d rather be a servant in your heavenly house than to be a king living anywhere else…  Lord, I offer up myself to you.”
John Wesley knew the power of hymn singing to lift our souls.  Have you ever read his “Directions for Singing” in the front of our hymnal?  You will find it in the introductory pages, the page with the Roman numeral vii.  I know that many will become fixated on paragraph IV, the one that says, “Sing lustily and with a good courage.”  But I hope you also will let your eyes move down to paragraph VII:  “Above all sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually, so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”[2]
St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, is often quoted as having said, “He who sings prays twice.”  That is a nice catch-phrase, but it isn’t quite accurate.  I understand that a better translation of the Latin that Augustine wrote puts it this way, “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyously; he who sings praise, is not only singing, but also loving Him whom he is singing about/to/for. There is a praise-filled public proclamation in the praise of someone who is confessing/acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) there is deep love.”[3]
What makes our hymn singing so special is the song that we bring to it—not whether we can sing skillfully or not, but whether our song represents the song of the love.  Do you have great love for God?  Then sing out!  Not because someone told you to, but because you can’t help it.  Let your song be an act of loving God.  “Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord!”
May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] John Wesley, “Directions for Singing,” from Selected Hymns, 1761.  Reprinted in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), vii.
[3] Fr. John Zuhisdorf, “Who sings well prays twice… NOT!” from Father Z’s Blog, posted on the internet on June 19, 2006 at

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Listening for the Shepherd's Voice (May 11, 2014)

Listening for the Shepherd’s Voice
John 10:1-10
May 11, 2014[1]

Our Gospel Lesson presents us with an interesting question:  How can we hear the voice of God?  Easy enough question?
Hardly.  Nothing in John’s Gospel is particularly “easy”—John is filled with some heavy theology.  We find fewer stories that we find in the other Gospels, and the stories that we do find are the set-up for long discourses about who Jesus is.  If you examine the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, you will find extensive use of parables proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God.  When you place John next to Matthew, Mark and Luke, you will find a much more extensive proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the One who is ushering in that Kingdom of God.
What is the proclamation we find in our reading this morning?
We find Jesus as the gate through which the sheep pass to enter into the sheepfold (John 10:1).  He is a living gate—not just a passive one that can open or close with the wind.  He is a living gate who knows his sheep.  This living Gate is one who uses His own body to guard the narrow way that provides entry into the sheepfold.  An intruder who would steal away one of Jesus’ flock has to contend with Him first.  A sheep who wants to wander away has to find a way to first get through the Gate—this Gate doesn’t act as a prison door, denying freedom to those who follow Him—this Gate respects the free will and choice of the Sheep to choose whether they will remain in the fold.  But even in giving the sheep their freedom, this Gate always is calling, beckoning, inviting the Sheep to remain with Him.
But Jesus is more than the Gate.  Jesus is both the Gate and the Shepherd himself.  He is the One who leads us—whether our path takes us beside streams of living water or through the valley of the shadow of death, our Shepherd leads us.  He knows that sheep tend to be followers, not leaders.  That is why it is so important that they follow the true Shepherd and not an imposter.
How do we tell the real from the imposter?  Jesus gives us a couple test questions that we can use.
The first test question is “how does a would-be leader enter into the sheepfold?”  Does the would-be shepherd try to sneak in, disguised, trying to gain entry by climbing over the wall or waiting for a moment when the Shepherd is occupied with someone or something else?  Jesus says that those who do not “enter the sheepfold by the gate but climb in by another way” are bandits and thieves (John 10:1).  Jesus proclaims himself to be the gate through which one must enter to gain access into the sheepfold.
There is a second test question:  “do the sheep know the voice of the Shepherd?”  Jesus says “the sheep follow Him [the true shepherd] because they know his voice” (John 10:4).  Sheep are led, they are not herded, and they are led by the voice of the Shepherd.  There are lots of voices calling us.  How can we distinguish which voice belongs to the true Shepherd?
First, we have to listen.  This is part of the reason that I have been emphasizing this year the listening part of prayer.  So often, we fill up our prayer time with our own voice that we don’t give the Shepherd a chance to speak to us.  We are so busy hearing the sound of our own voices that we don’t listen to His voice.  Did you notice the words in our Call to Worship this morning saying, pleading, “Oh, that today you would hearken to His voice!” (Psalm 95:7).  That word “harken” is not one that we often use today.  It means to “listen to” or “to hear,” but in a very special sense.  It means that we pay attention to and heed the voice to which we are listening.  It means obedience.  If we wish to follow Jesus as our Shepherd, we need to pay attention to and we need to obey His words. 
Do you remember the saying of Jesus, quoted by Matthew: “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16-20)?  John gives us a similar litmus test here.  False shepherds come to “steal and kill and destroy;” Jesus, the true Shepherd, has come that they sheep might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  The word used here for “life” doesn’t mean biological life; it means eternal life—life of a different sort.  Life here refers to the “absolute fullness of life, both essential and ethical, which belongs to God.”  It means “real and genuine life, a life active and vigorous, devoted to God, blessed, in the portion even in this world of those who put their trust in Christ.”[2]
And yet, this life is not so much a possession as it is a way of living.  I have so often conflated the words of verse 10 to refer to the “abundant life;” but, in a way, that is redundant.  Life, by definition, (at least the sort of life that Jesus is describing) is always abundant.  But it is distinguished here by the manner in which we hold it.  We hold it abundantly.  I think of a cold mountain spring in Emlenton, Pennsylvania that we used to pass by when we were kids.  My dad would tell us to remember to turn off the water when we were finished.  Of course, there was no way for us to do that.  The water from that spring was abundant.  It just kept bubbling from the side of the mountain.
Do you want to know which voice is the voice of the true Shepherd?  Follow the voice that leads to life.  This voice is the voice that Mary heard in the resurrection story that we read just a few weeks ago—a voice that Mary didn’t recognize until Jesus called her by name (John 20:16).  This is the voice that calls you to life, to reconciliation, to love.
There is one further irony that occurred to me in this lesson.  Jesus is more than the Gate, and Jesus is more than a shepherd.  I may be mixing metaphors here a little bit, but Jesus also becomes one of the sheep.  He becomes the Lamb of God. This is the message of the incarnation—that God, the “Word,” became flesh and lived among us.  (John 1:14).  He lived among us and in doing so He showed us how to live and how to love.  But He also showed to us how to walk through that valley of the shadow of death that we mentioned earlier.  As the lamb, Jesus Christ became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  John the Baptist proclaimed this message about Jesus when Jesus came to be baptized (John 1:29).
This same Jesus beckons to us as the Shepherd to follow Him.  As the Gate, Jesus provides us the way.  And as the Lamb, Jesus becomes one of us, offering up himself for us all. 
And this morning, he calls us by name.  O that today you would hearken to his voice.  May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2]  Viewed on the internet on May 11, 2014.