Month: September 2012

Thoughts on Today’s Gospel Reading: Luke 5:12-16

So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed

Luke 5:16

I am gearing my sermons and lessons to the command Jesus gave to the first disciples, “Follow Me.”  It was very easy for me to use the Gospel readings for the past two Sundays to preach from that theme.  For today’s Bible Study, we neither see a Master Teacher giving lessons from a borrowed boat nor telling a confessing sinful fisherman that he will catch men from now on.  In fact, we don’t see Jesus wanting attention at all.

Our Lord is in a certain city, perhaps on his way to a synagogue to teach a lesson, when a man full of leprosy comes to him seeking a cleansing.  Jesus is full of compassion and willingly heals the man.  But after it happens, Christ tells the man not to anyone but to the priest and make the prescribed Mosaic sacrifice.  The miraculous act of our Lord’s compassion was directed to be met with sobriety and order.  Human nature, either by the healed man’s disobedience or the observation of others who told of what happened, makes such a directive almost impossible.  In the words of the African-American music tradition:

I couldn’t keep it to myself what the Lord has done for me

Of course, Jesus does not retaliate against him and bring the leprosy back on him.  But, now Christ is unable to move about as freely as he would like.  Masses of people are now coming to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.  More than likely, the Lord healed those who came to him.  With the added stress of expectations and hopes of so many others weighing on him, Jesus needs to do something to handle the situation.

In the text of the Orthodox Study Bible, the word often is italicized to highlight the point of how important prayer is.  Except for medical professionals, we aren’t expected to heal people.  But, we all deal with more stress than we would like.  And at any moment, someone can spill our secrets, misuse our kindness, and demand more of us.  Stress can keep us from being effective.  It has been proven that it can kill us.  Frequent prayer is the means Jesus used to continue in wisdom and compassion.

To follow Jesus, we should follow his rule of prayer in the text.  Go somewhere to be to yourself as much as you can and pray.  Union with God enables us to handle the normal expectations of life and the added stress of the unexpected.  Being in crowds may feed the ego.  But, it starves the soul.  Find your wilderness, closet, mountain top, or somewhere else where you can be alone.  Pray often.  The morning mumble and mutterings while eating a doughnut is not enough to sustain faith.  One should take advantage of break times and lunch during the work or school day.  Even if long, audible prayers are not possible, concentrated and concise prayers are just as effective.  Either must be done in sincerity.  If we seek solitude and prayer often, we will also be able to live in wisdom and compassion.

 

Today’s Sermon: Confession and Discipleship

… “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  … “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”

Luke 5:8, 10

Farewell Friend (© John Gresham)

Saturday was the funeral for my colleague, Dr. Leo Wagner.  Before his death, I shared with him my interest in Orthodox Christianity.  He was enthusiastic about my pursuit as we African-Americans have little exposure to the ancient faith.  He was aware of the role Africans played in helping to form the church’s doctrine and told me that he looked forward to hearing how or what Orthodoxy could contribute to our churches.  I pray that he is watching my journey with Athanasius, Cyprian, Mary of Egypt, and all of the other saints from all corners of the faith.

Praying birthday blessings to my wife.  In her illnesses, Brenda has taught me more about life than perhaps if she were well.  I would like the thorns of MS and bipolar disorder be miraculously removed from her.  But, the grace of God is sufficient.

CONFESSION & DISCIPLESHIP

Luke 5:1-11

(Introduction)  Peter showed great faith in letting Jesus teach from his boat and then go out and fish after an unsuccessful night (vv. 5-7)

(antithesis)  The miracle and simply following Jesus afterward is not what made Peter a disciple

(thesis)  Peter’s confession was the pivotal point that endeared him to Jesus (and the astonishment of his companions vv. 8-10)

(propositional statement)  There can be no true discipleship without true confession

(relevant question)  What makes true confession so crucial to following Jesus?

(points)

  • Confession identifies the mercy of Christ as the source of our blessings (v. 8)
  • Confession puts us in a state of humility (v. 8)
  • Christ confirms confessors (v. 10)

(conclusion)  If we short-change God on our confessions, we short-change ourselves from the fullness of walking with him

Of Struggles and Saints

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Dr. Leo C. Wagner (© John Gresham)

I bid a fond “farewell” to a wise pastor, skilled preacher, excellent instructor, and good friend.  Rev. Dr. Leo C. Wagner died yesterday morning.  Here was a man who could have remained in Chicago, perhaps finding a congregation that would have paid him handsomely.  But, the Lord led him to the small town of West Point, VA to pastor Mt. Nebo Baptist Church.  Rather than seek to make his own ministry shine individually, Dr. Wagner engaged himself to work with and lead the Pamunkey Baptist Association as Moderator for a term.  He knew how to joke with people and to give Godly advice at the right moment.  His compassion was felt by public school students in town as well as seminarians at Virginia Union University.  We lost a giant in the Baptist church and a friend to all who knew him.  Lord have mercy and bless his widow.

Today is Monday.  Gosh, how we bemoan the beginning of the work and school week.  As if we are facing some sort of torture.  I confess that I sometimes look at my bills and how they crush my meager paychecks and wish I had the salary I was once earning.  I look at my wife’s illnesses and wish I could enjoy the times when she was mentally and physically healthy.  Yeah, I write stuff that is very spiritual.  But, I am a man with the same wishes and desires as anyone else.  I struggle with the same temptations and anguish over my failures and sins.

But, each morning, I consider the saint that is commemorated  for the day.  Today, the martyrs Sophia and her daughters, Faith, Hope, and Love are remembered for their faithfulness to death.  A mother was forced to watch her teen and pre-teen girls be subject to extremely cruel tortures and beheadings and then bury them.  Then she died at their grave 3 days later of a broken heart as she didn’t leave their side.  With the loss of Dr. Wagner, I am even more mindful that others have struggled and run the race of life before me and endured far greater hardship.  Who am I to whine about my difficulties?  What right do I have to hold on to bad habits?  No, this great cloud of witnesses surround me as an example to keep fighting, running and struggling.

And above all, there is Christ.  He went from a heavenly home to a womb and manger.  His own people rejected him.  Crowds misunderstood him and wanted only magic tricks and miracles.  Where there were once cries of honor, he heard shouts for his crucifixion.  There is no crown without a crucifixion nor sainthood without struggle.

HAIL JESUS!

 

Today’s Sermon: The Demand of Self-Denial

I am back in the pulpit this morning.  I thank God for my friends, Rev. Randolph Graham and  Rev. Keith Lewis, who preached in my place and for my college buddy Dr. Wayne Weathers, for his stirring Homecoming message.  We were blessed to have the word of God delivered by Dr. Vincent Smith, Dr. Reginald Davis, Min. Marlene Fuller, and Pastor Willie Barnes for our revival services.

Again, I am most grateful to Fr. David Arnold and the St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church (OCA) and Fr. James Purdie and the St. Basil the Great (Antiochian) Orthodox Church for the wonderful Divine Liturgy, hospitality, and friendship.  Had I not known Christ or had been a nominal Christian, I would have asked to be a catechumen.  But, I must remain where I am until the Lord calls me to do otherwise (besides, gas cost too much for me to drive all the way out to Powhatan or Poquoson).

Yes, we had a great revival at Trinity Baptist Church.  Now that we have been revived, let us follow Jesus more closely!

Outward (© John Gresham)

 

THE DEMAND OF SELF-DENIAL

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

(introduction) We African-Americans have suffered external denial

(thesis) In the midst of that time, we cultivated lessons of (internal) self-denial to survive

(antithesis) With our liberation, we no longer consider self-denial important to our faith

(propositional statement)  Without self-denial, it is impossible to follow Jesus

(relevant question)  What makes self-denial so crucial?

(points)

  • self-denial puts ego aside (v.35)
  • self-denial holds the soul higher than earthly gain (v.35, 36)
  • self-denial gives us the strength to bear the cross (v.34)

(conclusion)  Shun the shallow theology of Gospel “catch phrases” and let the mind of Christ be in us (Philippians 2:5 – 8)

 

Confession: Accountability, Humility and Trust in the Body of Christ

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

John 20:23

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I John 1:9

I spent my final day of vacation from Trinity Baptist by visiting another Orthodox Church.  Today, it was St. Basil the Great Antiochian in Poquoson.  Poquoson is one of few places in Virginia east of I-95 I had never been to.  I never had much of a reason to.  The little bit of town that I did see seemed to be a nice bedroom community.  I didn’t visit the communities of the legendary “Bull Islander” watermen.  The next time I do, I will make it a point to buy some good fresh seafood.  But, today was all about worship at the church of the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline.  About 20 years ago, the Antiochians opened their doors to some 2,000 Evangelical Christians giving them Chrismation into the Orthodox faith.

Even before the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by the deep spirituality of the ancient faith.  During the 9:15 Matins service, the priest, Fr. James Purdie, gave the sacrament of Confession to any who would come forward.  Yes, Confession.  A few (churches aren’t packed at one hour prayer services where there is more standing than sitting) people, in turn,  came up to the icon of the Theotokos, whispered their confession to Fr. James.   He then whispered back and they seemed to be in a conversation inaudible to the rest of the congregation.  Then he placed a portion of his priestly vestment over the person’s head and proclaimed their sin.  The forgiven believer kisses the icon, makes the sign of the cross, and takes their place back in the congregation prepared to receive the Eucharist (Communion).

Now, I can hear my fellow Baptist turn their noses up in disdain.  “You ain’t gotta do all that to repent.  Jesus knows your heart.  All you got to do say is, “Lord, I’m sorry.  Please forgive me in Jesus Name.  Amen.”  And there was a time in our rural congregations that a young lady that was pregnant or had a child out-of-wedlock had to repent before the whole church before she could take communion again, change membership to another church, or get married.  Rarely did the guy she slept with have to go through such an ordeal and many other sins didn’t require such a process.  So, the way it was practiced, confession was unfair (especially since some ministers and deacons were known womanizers) and burdensome.  As more and more children were being born out-of-wedlock, the sacrament seemed to be a hindrance to church attendance.

Yet, there is something to be said for the accountability, humility, and trust that I saw today.  Not that every sin needs to be confessed to a priest in Orthodoxy.  But, he is the spiritual Father of the congregation and is responsible for giving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  So, if one is troubled by a serious or recurring wrong, he or she has the responsibility to let the priest know of this and repent with the priest offering an understanding ear, encouragement, and practical solution to the sin as well as a proclamation that the sin is forgiven.  To come and confess one’s sin is a sign of humility and spiritual maturity.  That one doesn’t play off his or her missing the mark as something to be nonchalantly brushed aside in private or in some little box in a corner.  Orthodox confession is done where people cannot hear what is being said, but they know that something is being said and forgiveness is proclaimed.  It takes courage and a sense of trust in one’s priest and church family that the confession will not be material for gossip and speculation.  If I had to leave before the Divine Liturgy, Matins and the Confessions were enough for me to praise God for.

“So Rev., are you trying to say we ought to have confession in the Baptist church?”  I am not sure how it can be introduced or reintroduced.  Nor do I dare say that all is perfect among the Orthodox with this sacrament.  But, let us consider what we have in our lack of a sacrament of Confession.  We are accountable to no one.  I don’t have to tell pastor nothing.  All he is supposed to do is visit grandma in the nursing home and get his shout on so I can pat my foot and feel good about myself.  We are not humble.  We would rather talk about how “blessed and highly favored,” we are than to express any sort of public humility.  And we continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of mistrust by not having the courage to trust.  And if pastors aren’t challenged with the responsibility to forgive sins, they can be tempted to be irresponsible with their own sins.  We can put on great performances of “whooping” sermons and “sanging” choirs and soloist.  But without accountability, humility, and trust in the body of Christ; we are missing something in our walk with the Lord that is far more valuable than cultural expressiveness.

I don’t know.  I will work on the Sunday School lesson and my sermon this week and be back serving at Trinity next Sunday.  Maybe I should keep silent and just chalk this up as a “grass looks greener on the other side of the fence” episode.  Or, perhaps the Lord will bless me (or someone else) with a way to explain Confession so that my fellow Baptist can understand it’s value even if they don’t agree to do it.  And if we want to do it, how do we bring such a sacrament to a church that doesn’t even see Communion as a sacrament?

Songs That Moved Me: New Year’s Day

I will be with you again

“New Year’s Day” by U2

I still remember the moment I heard it.  I was in the hallway on my way to the kitchen back in my teens.  Turning on the radio, expecting to hear the Duran-Duran sort of pop stuff or the newly emerging (or should I say expanding) sound of hip-hop when something very different hit my ears as I was tuning into various stations.  Piano?  Who the heck plays that in a song?  And an off-tone, flat piano at that.  The riff was haunting.  Not quite like Black Sabbath’s “devil’s third.”  But it rang with a melancholy that sincerely begged me to listen.  So, I did.

The voice of the singer gave words of hope and bemoaning.  Things should change.  I want them to do so badly.  But, “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”  Lyrically, he took my hand through a rapturous possibility of the anticipated newness.  An ecstatic union girded with a pledge, “I will begin again.”  The obligatory “bridge” was established with that same haunting tone of the piano now laced with the muted wail of a guitar echoing in tear like unison.  Another guitar overlays yet intertwines with its predecessor with an apex that brought me back to the vocalist yearning for the possibility to come true.  Alas, conditions won’t allow for the desire to be met.  “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”

And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis

“Where Do We Go From Here?”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nothing Changes on New Year’s Day

Icons and the Black Church: The Time Has Come

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnared us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Today, I used one of my vacation Sundays to worship at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond VA.  Like Father Moses Berry before me, I was stunned to see the huge icons of St. Moses the Ethiopian and the Saint of the church both looking like the African men that they are.  I also couldn’t help but notice that the icons of Christ and Mary on the iconostasis were also a bit brown in colour as well as some of the others on the walls.  Except for three smaller icons that were bowed to and kissed, I didn’t see anything that looked like worship of a “graven image.”  The pictures were more like going to your uncle’s house with photos of the family “old heads” on the wall over the sofa.  The focus of the worship was on Jesus with the sermon coming from the Gospel reading, the music taken straight from the Psalms (a couple of chants were entire Psalms), constant prayers for God’s mercy, and the Eucharist as the climax of the worship.

My Living Room Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

With so few Orthodox churches in our communities and our focus on the Civil Rights struggles, I can understand why older generations of black ministers didn’t learn and teach about the many African saints who are honored by the ancient faith.  With greater access to information through the internet, and immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, it is far easier to learn about the church.  The Brotherhood of St. Moses The Black has been promoting Orthodoxy to the African-American community for over two decades.  So, there is information out there about saints, patriarchs, monks, nuns, and martyrs from the “Motherland.”  As Protestants, we need not venerate such icons.  But, as a people who wants to celebrate its rich past, it only makes sense that we learn about the Orthodox saints from Africa.  And as they worked and worshiped with Europeans and Middle Eastern people, we can also give respect to some of the other great heroes of our united Christian past such as St. John Chrysostom, Isaac the Syrian and American saints such as Herman of Alaska and Peter the Aleut.  Christianity is universal and iconography shows this.

Yes, I know what the Second Commandment is.  It is also repeated in Exodus 20:23 as well.  Icons are not gods.  Nowhere in Orthodox doctrine and worship will you find anyone calling them gods.  Icons of the saints are pictorial reminders of those who lived godly lives and for us to follow their example.  Believers cross themselves (which is a physical expression of the Gospel), bow to, and kiss the icons as a matter of reverent respect and not worship.  Had the saints been alive, they would be greeted with handshakes, hugs, and kisses like we do with all other living people who we respect and love.  The Israelites and Jeroboam made golden bulls and said, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  Solomon made idols of the gods of his foreign wives and they led his heart away from the Lord.  I have yet to meet any Orthodox cleric or layperson to hold up an icon and say, “This is God.”  They are icons that are worshiped with and not worshiped themselves.

A few of the Saints: ( l – r from lthe bottom) Sophia, Fulvainus-Matthew, Anthony, Elesbaan, Moses the Ethiopian, Cyprian, Djan-Darada, Maurice, Athanasius, and Mary of Egypt. (thanks to Bro. John Norman, the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Detroit Chapter, and St Innocent Orthodox Church in Redford MI)

Let’s not use tradition nor narrow-minded biblical interpretations (the Bible was compiled by the Orthodox Church) deny us from the encouraging stories from the men and women of God from our African past.  Let us recognize them as members of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us  as we focus on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1, 2).