compassion

Today’s Sermon: Preparation For A Manifestation

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves, and there He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white bright light.

Matthew 17:1, 2

This has been a very busy week for me.  We just wrapped up the Pamunkey Baptist Association Annual Session Thursday.  I am blessed to serve as Moderator of a fellowship of 14 African-American churches united in ministry and service.  We have plans in motion to renovate our historic building and provide faith-based services to our county.  I thank God that I am working with spirit led pastors and lay persons.

A Pastoral Brotherhood

Left to right:  Evans White (Providence), Morris Randall (Ephesus), Eli Jones (Wayland), Robert Brown (St. Paul)

Shawn Knight (Baptist Liberty), John Gresham (Trinity), Shelwood Claude (Bethany), and Wilbert Talley (Third Union)

PREPARATION FOR A MANIFESTATION

Matthew 17:1, 2

(introduction) the Transfiguration was a glorious manifestation of God

(antithesis) even less dramatic manifestations catch us flat-footed

(propositional statement) Peter’s discipleship is a model for us to best handle God’s manifestation

(relevant questions) How do Peter’s six days before the Transfiguration parallel our preparation for manifestations

(points)

  • Knowing Jesus is Lord (16:16)
  • Being honest with how we see Jesus at the risk of being rebuked (16:22, 23)
  • Continuing to follow Jesus despite our spiritual struggle

(conclusion)  If we continue to seek Christ diligently, He will show himself to us

Here a Chick-Fil-A, There a Chick-Fil-A: Dormition Day One

So, I can be an idealist trying to make a better and fair world for everyone by boycotting a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  Or, I can be a defender of the biblical principles and the first amendment by eating at a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  I couldn’t have made up such silliness if I tried.

Firstly, I think the LGB&T community (it’s most radical elements, perhaps I should say) have picked a foolish fight.  Nowhere in Chick-Fil-A’s corporate policy nor general operations do they check the sexual preference status of potential customers or employees.  If this were the case, than legal argument can be presented.  But, the president of a company has every right to express his religious beliefs in a religious magazine.  It seems that you are showing the same sort of intolerance you want to defeat.  Hypocrisy only defeats your cause.

And to the conservative minded, I can’t help but to wonder where were your “Defend Freedom of Speech” voices when the Dixe Chicks were being boycotted and Rev. Jeremiah Wright was being cursed for his cursing.  Somewhere between 60% to 65% of all heterosexual marriages end in divorce.  Is this the result of LGB&T bullying, or that we are disobedient to the biblical principles that promote lasting unions between men and women?   Somehow, I don’t think eating fast food in the name of freedom will make these statistics any better.

There is a good reason why we should consider taking up the Fast of the Dormition.  That for the next 14 days we stop trying to have things our way and submit ourselves to God’s will.  That we sacrifice our pleasures and seek his purpose in our lives instead.  It will take more than two weeks of veganism to heal the social-political rift in our nation.  But, the Dormition is a good time for us to take a breath and think about something more important.  Putting aside sensual desire to bear something greater than one’s self.  Yielding to the will and Spirit of God even when it moves beyond one’s  expectations.  Mary did these things.

It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.  More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word.  True Theotokos, we magnify you.

Benediction of the Morning and Evening Prayer, The Orthodox Study  Bible

What We Bring To The Table: Howard Thurman

I do read books, watch You Tube videos, and listen to podcast from the Orthodox Church.  Chances are that I may eventually become a convert, though no time soon.  But, there are some people and things about the African-American Protestant faith that I am not willing to easily discard.  In fact, I believe that we have some important offerings that can enhance the cause of Orthodoxy in America.  Every now and then, I will promote the best of what we bring to the table of the ancient faith.

Howard Thurman was a mystic and theologian who led believers to search for the root of bonding with God.  While many preachers were content to “Whoop” and holler.  Thurman called on his congregants, students, and listeners to think and concentrate on matters of the spirit.  It is easy to see emotionalism as a part of our church practice.  But, Thurman saw something more meaningful through our experience of slavery and segregation.  That we have to reach a point of silence and reflection.  From this point, what he calls the “centering moment,” we can then yield ourselves to the spirit higher than our own and be directed by it.  True faith has little to do with external expressions of religious acts.  But, it has everything to do with our internal pursuit of something more meaningful.

With such spiritual insight, Dr. Thurman was one of the most influential theologians of our faith.  It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King often traveled with a well-worn copy of one of his books.  The church he founded, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, still exist as do many of his books.  For those unfamiliar with this man, I suggest his book “Disciplines of the Spirit” as a good introduction to his thought and theology.

 

Today’s Sermon: Let Jesus In Your House

I want to thank Sub-Deacon Paul Abernathy for bringing up this text in one of his talks at the Ancient Christianity Afro-American Conference.  If this guy were a Baptist, he would be a pastor somewhere.  Well educated, articulate, young; yeah, this brother would be a star among preaching circuits and revival services.  But, a sub-deacon?  Perhaps we should learn from such humility.

LET JESUS IN YOUR HOUSE

Matthew 8:14-15

(antithesis) Why should we let Jesus into our house when the Centurion in Matt. 8:5-13 didn’t?

(thesis) As following disciples, rather than passer-by strangers, we should seek the Lord’s presence in our innermost selves.

(relevant question)  What are the advantages of such a presence in our lives?

(points)

  • Christ blesses the goodness that we already have (Peter’s mother in law in his home v. 14)
  • Christ sees and ministers to our relatively insignificant ailments (she had a fever and he touched her hand v.14, 15)
  • Touched by Christ, we are empowered to serve others whomever they are (she served them v.15)

(conclusion)  Don’t settle for a great passing faith.  Build your life in the presence of Jesus Christ.

A Need To Return

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:13, 14

Sunrise through Darkness (© John Gresham)

Before they ever heard of the Jesus Prayer or could read anything in English, the slaves in America cried out, moaned, and sang the most profound of all Negro Spirituals:

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Have mercy Lord, have mercy Lord on me

It was the song of the whipping post, sexual assault, auction block, and tobacco field.  They didn’t know why they were going through such a horror.  The way the slave masters taught about God was wrong. The slaves had sense enough to know that somewhere there was a God of mercy.   If they sought Him with their whole lives in the midst of their anguish, He would answer them.  This Negro Spiritual continued through the days of Jim Crow.  With growing aspirations in the face of burning crosses and segregating signs, the prayer was still prominent on our lips as it came from the depths of our experience.  The youngest child memorized it quicker than the alphabet.  Seasoned saints remembered it if they forgot everything else.

Those dreadful days of our fathers and great grandmothers will not rise again, Praise the Lord!  And yet as we have moved from slave cabin to share cropper shack to nice house to the White House, we have lost a part of the prayer.  No, all of the words are still there.  But the depth and meaning of the prayer, I fear, has been lost in the complacency of progress and the antics of our modern worship.

Are these words even mentioned in our churches anymore?  And if so, how much weight do we put on them?  Are these words spoken in our prayer closets?  Wait, do we even go into our prayer closets and expose ourselves to the merciful God as we were once exposed to unmerciful racist?  And if this simple song/prayer way good enough for the ancestors who endured the absolute worst conditions, isn’t it good enough for we who live in a far better world?

Listening to a lecture from Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy, he challenged a conference of mostly Afro-American Orthodox believers to live their faith with the same tenacity of the early church fathers such as Saints Anthony, Athanasius, and Moses.  For we who are not Orthodox Christians, we can certainly look at the prayer lives of those who were in bondage and second class citizenship and imitate them.  Pray from the depths of spirit and sufferings, not simply for the stuff of this world.  Pray in deep humility, and not as if we deserve anything.  In the words of our Lord, “This man went down to his house justified … he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Let us return to the prayer life of those who were before us.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Thursday): Ending The Journey (this part of it)

Tomorrow is the Feast of St.s Peter and Paul.  I intend to eat a fair amount of dead animal.  I may wake up early to spend some time on a mountain Saturday.  Sunday, I will attend divine liturgy at a Greek Orthodox Church.  This journey of the Apostles Fast is coming to an end.  In all honesty, I am going to miss it.  Oh, I will still maintain and seek to expand my prayer life.  And I will keep the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as be more conscious of my eating on other days.  But, the weeks of fasting have been very interesting and inspiring for me.  God revealed and reminded me of his truth.

Daybreak (© John Gresham)

Prayer means more than giving thanks, praises, and asking for stuff.  Prayer is seeking unity with the Lord.  For those who are new to following Jesus, praying without a disciplined spiritual life can be expected.  But, a shallow perception of communication with God must be outgrown.  The seeking of divine guidance must be perpetual in our hearts and minds.  Too often, we pray for immediate results.  We live in a culture that seeks tangible and well-defined conclusions, and the sooner the better.  This is a very dangerous prayer life.  Suppose we get the results when and the way we want them?  Then arrogance quickly sets in as if we are proven better than others because we have the results.   Complacency is another risk; that one need not pray again unless another need or want arises in our lives.  Suppose we don’t get the results, or get them in a later time in a way that doesn’t please us?  Two possibilities are ready to distort our souls. We may disbelieve in the loving God who answers prayer as we didn’t get our results.  We may also chase after spiritual snake oil salesmen posing as ministers of the Gospel who boast that they can get you the results we are looking for.

A consistent and perpetual seeking of God; this is the type of prayer that doesn’t rely on gratifying results.  When they come, one with such a prayer life remains humble.  When they don’t come, the one remains patient and relies on God’s wisdom.  Results and lack of them are mere stones on the pathway to the eternal.  This is one reason why hermits and monastics can remain in secluded prayer unbothered by the world around them.  This is one reason why the martyrs faced death with a sense of joy and peace in mind.  If we were all thrown to the gladiators and wild beast or were made to live in ascetic cells, having this sort of prayer life would be a bit easier as we would have nothing else to seek after and death would be just moments away.

The challenge for us who are not in monasteries and coliseum is to be consistent and perpetual seekers of God.  This is why the morning and evening Orthodox prayers guide us in seeking mercy.  This is why there are prayers of the Hours and cycles of fasting.  This is why monks, nuns, and other seekers desire an inward prayer of the heart and silently move their lips as they offer up the Jesus Prayer.  The early church fathers gave us traditions of fasting and prayer that have encouraged the rejection of this world and withstood great persecution.  Arrogance, complacency, disbelief, and gullibility await those who have no depth in their spiritual selves.  Thus, our prayers must be continuous to withstand and overcome these adversaries.

Thank you for your time.  I pray God will also bless you in the journey of life.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Tuesday): Cyprian and Nicodemus

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, …

John 3:1, 2

The Path (© John Gresham)

Before I began to seriously consider Orthodoxy, I was drawn to St. Cyprian of Carthage.  First of all, I thought the name sounded cool and I was proud of the fact that he was an African.  I have an icon of him (I printed from an online image) beside the computer in my study at home as a reminder to avoid pornography websites.  I began to watch websites that talked about how horribly the women are treated in the industry and have no desire to indulge in it again.  I never prayed to the icon (as Orthodox and Catholics are falsely accused of).  Nor did I even think to venerate him, unless naming my Second Life avatar after him and living as an Orthodox monk was a way of paying him deep respect and admiration.  The icon was there when the Holy Spirit freed me from that sinful desire.  Thus, I consider Cyprian as one in the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1, 2) that interceded for me.

As I have become increasingly diligent about the ancient faith, I am seeing myself in the light of another in that cloud whose walk with Jesus is a forerunner of mine.  Nicodemus was a well-trained religious authority.  He had status and clout among the Jewish hierarchy and as long as he towed the party line, all would be well with him.  But, he met this man who had kicked over the money tables, did a number of signs, gave a strange answer of his authority, and didn’t set up a clique to rival the Jews right then and there.  Instead of dismissing the rabble-rouser, this Pharisee and Priest saw that he must have been sent by God, asked questions, and listened.  He would later be rebuked by his colleagues for suggesting that the Galilean be fairly investigated before being completely denounced.  At the burial of the Crucified One, he brought one hundred pounds of aloes and myrrh.  In some Christian and Jewish traditions, Nicodemus was martyred for accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

I am a Baptist among Baptist.  My certification of studies comes from one of the most respected African-American seminaries.  I have pastored for 15 years and serve as a Moderator of a local association.  I now serve on a state-wide commission for evangelism.  If I play by the rules and work my contacts in high places (and finish my M.Div.), my star could rise in the Baptist faith.

But, I saw this faith that gave the world the first confession of Jesus and compiled the Bible.  This faith that never considered skin color to be a badge of racial supremacy nor inferiority from the time they were first called Christians.  This faith that gives guidelines in pursuing a spiritual life and becomes a way of life.  I am observing Orthodoxy the same way Nicodemus observed Jesus.  The more I see, listen, and understand; the more I accept it.  Because of my position, I cannot follow the faith right now.  There will come a time of conversion.  I pray that when that day comes, that I will have the courage to do it, even if it means martyrdom.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Saturday): Did Jesus Have A Liturgy?

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you:  do this in remembrance of Me.

Luke 22:19

 

Daylight Despite Clouds (© John Gresham)

Okay, so far in my self-study and practice of Orthodox Christianity, I can see the logic and benefits.  Take the prayer life; using the prayers written in the Orthodox Study Bible and other sources has reignited a sense of my need to pursue God with discipline and diligence.  I was trying to do that on my own with some measure or another of success.  But, following these prayers that have been handed down from the church fathers has been an extra push for me.  Trying to observe the Hours (I am not too sharp at midnight, but I am trying) reminds me of my need for the Holy Spirit through out my day.  Fasting is the best medicine for the body and it does the budget a world of good too moving from a meat to plant-based diet.  I even see the wisdom of iconography.  I refuse to rush into converting as there is no Orthodox Church within a 30 mile radius of my home and I have much to do as a Baptist pastor to seek lost souls, strengthen the saints, and serve my community.

I also confess that divine liturgy intimidates me.  Seriously, all of that chanting, incense, and prayers is far more than we have in our order of service.  And I don’t speak anything other than American English.  Even the Jordanville Prayer Book has words in it that I didn’t learn in seminary.  Shouldn’t worship be simple and easy enough to understand so that a messenger can read it (Habakkuk 2:2)?  Did Jesus have a liturgy?

He probably did.  Think about it, the Last Supper took place not on any old day of the year.  It was on the Day of Unleavened Bread.  Certain scriptures had to be read and prayers prayed by Jews in order to properly celebrate what God did for his people.  More than likely, Jesus followed the prescribed order of worship that was handed down to him since the days of Moses.  But, then Our Lord did something else.  He redefined that meal with his own body and blood.  That we are to come together with the bread and wine in remembrance of him.  The Apostle Paul handed the tradition down to the Corinthian believers and other church fathers did the same as well.  Liturgy can be described as the public spiritual connection to the God of Israel, connected to God the Son and our Savior Jesus Christ, and all who believe in him.

Liturgy is not a spectator sport.  Reading books and watching You Tube videos are not enough.  I will have to attend before I can make any decisions of if I think this is right for me.  I will have a few opportunities to get away from my church and attend the Sunday morning worship in a couple of Orthodox churches between now and mid-September.  I will also attend Homecoming Services among my fellow Baptist.  May God reveal the truth to me.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Thursday): A Pattern of Preaching

 A 10 minute sermon? This is proof that the center of Orthodox worship is not on the preached word. There is simply no way I can get away with a 10 minute sermon. I had better not preach much more than 20 minutes. But, we Baptist are expected to give an introduction, antithesis, thesis, relevant question, 3 points that support the thesis, and a conclusion. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with what the Vladyka said. I just find this form of preaching strange. I will keep watching and learning.

As a Baptist who has decided to journey toward Orthodox Christianity, I expected that I would say something to draw criticism from one side or the other.  I thought one of my colleagues would be the first to question my icons or wonder if I started “praying to Mary instead of Jesus.”  Nope, instead I have been “taken to the woodshed” by archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Canadian Orthodox Monastery of All Saints of North America.

In my comments on his sermon, I meant no criticism of his content.  I am certainly not ready to debate the man on theology.  I didn’t say that the length of his message was too short in the context of Orthodox Worship.  I said, perhaps in too many words, that a ten-minute sermon is not the norm for the Baptist Church.  He disagreed with my observation that “the center of Orthodox Worship is not on the preached word” (the Eucharist is the center, even he said that), and gave a stern repost to my comment, “I found this form of preaching strange.”

  • Not true. The entire Liurgy preaches the Gospel. As with the Ancient Church, the centre of Orthodox Worship is the Eucharest. Only for the Gnostics was this not the case. I have seen & been Sectarian neo-Gnostic (Protestant) self-worship services. The consist in screaming, howling preachers who have to crack jokes, howl like dogs at the moon, torch singers, rock bands, feel-good-about-yourself empty, meaningless songs and self-congratulatory outbursts. All is emotion, self-centred and vain.

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

  • Do you really consider rock bands, the cheapening of the name of Christ Jesus, torch singers, tap dancers, joke-cracking preachers, howling, thereatening, leaping and dancing across the state slapping the bible up and down, prowling the stage cursing people and a purly Gnostic message could be considered “preaching the word” or “worshipping?” Would Christ stop at your concession stand in the lobby for soda and pop-corn before going into a multi-million dollar business centre called a “church?”

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

 I am more than aware of the abuses of worship in the modern Christian worship and seek to avoid them like the plague.  And I confess to being a little humorous and very loud in the pulpit.  I am not ready to debate the Archbishop on theology as he is far more knowledgable and wise than myself.  But, I will defend the pattern of sermon construction that has been handed down to me from years of Baptist preaching.

I have been taught to give an introduction as a way to lead people into the message.  The antithesis brings the congregation into the particular problem that is common in our daily lives.  The thesis is the answer to the problem based on the scripture that is read.  A relevant question inquires that the preacher can properly apply the scripture to the problem (like in algebra where one has to show the whole equation and not just write down the correct answer).  The preacher then gives his points (usually three) with scriptures in the same context as the given text.  All is summarized in the conclusion that proclaims the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Can Archbishop Puhalo or someone else tell me what is wrong with this form of preaching?  Sure, I have heard many ministers use text out of context, stray away from the thesis, focus more on a celebratory conclusion rather than other elements of the message, and other abuses.  I admit guilt to not writing and preaching the best constructed sermons.  But when followed correctly, listeners (who pay attention) leave worship with a clear understanding of the text and how to apply the Gospel to daily living.  Other than the theological differences between the Baptist and Orthodox, this form of preaching is a good thing.

And let me leave today risking more wrath.  Orthodox Christians who want to call us Protestants fake, frauds, Gnostics, and other things (one You Tube commentator calls us “transvestites”); you need to go out and evangelize.  In my 45 years on this earth, I have had plenty of Jehovah’s Witnesses approach me, Mormons visit my home, Black Muslims sell me newspapers and bean pies.  I have yet to have an Orthodox Christian approach me.  I have had to take the time and look things up online for myself.   If any religion or denomination has the truth, it is the church that was founded in A.D. 33.  But, the only time most of us hear about this church is when a Greek festival is going on.  Plenty of people who were brought up in Protestant churches are leaving or aren’t that dedicated to the faith.  There is a rich harvest for you to pick from.  Black Americans will especially appreciate the fact that Africans were among the founders of Orthodoxy.  If God is not pleased with our heterodox beliefs, shame on us.  But, if we are remaining heterodox because we have never heard the Gospel coming from you Orthodox, you share in our shame.

I thank God that I was raised and serve as a Baptist.  I am equally grateful that I have found the rich history, heritage, and spirituality of Orthodoxy (and have applied for membership in St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline).

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Wednesday): The Mind

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

How many clichés and quotes are there that teach that a man will wind up where his mind is?  My late grandfather-in-law and mentor, Rev. Carter Wicks, used to say that “A Man Is His Mind.”  If his and other similar words are true, I think it pays for us to do more than periodical reality checks.  We need daily monitoring and adjusting.  Because there are so many strong temptations to keep us thinking about the things of the world rather than the things of God.  This is not to say that we should all become strict monastics and leave everything we have to live in a cave the rest of our lives for the sake of prayer and contemplation.  But, unless prayer throughout the day becomes a part of our lives, we risk our faith eroding into spiritual uselessness.

I am not simply talking about the obvious sins that hold us down such as lust, anger, hate, greed, and the like.  Anything that separates us from the love of God and love for our fellow-man is carnal.  Take politics (and throw it in a cesspool where it belongs), conservatism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin of our need for earthly government.  We will all take a different stance from one another for various reasons.  But, in order for a coin to have any value, it has to have both a head and tail.  Both sides must work in cooperation with each other.  Due to the presence of wealth and winner-take-all power hyped up by the likes of Fox and MSNBC, we have harsher polarizing arguments than constructive agreements.

What saddens me is that Christianity is buying into this earthly coin and the argument that we must staunchly defend one side or the other.  As people of this nation, of course we will have opinions of which direction this nation should take.  But, we who have been given the Gospel of God’s redeeming love should never give into vilifying those whose political opinions do not match our own.  If anything, we should be a mediating force between (no, above) the right and left and seek Godly solutions to our national, state, and local problems.  As Martin Luther King Jr noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” rather than being a thermostat that controls the temperature in a house, the church has become a thermometer that only measures and reflects the temperature.  And when we spend more time reflecting our chosen sides rather than seek after something of far greater value, we make ourselves useless (and sometimes harmful) to the Gospel.

So, to my brothers and sisters to the left and right, I make this suggestion.  For every minute you spend watching Fox News or MSNBC, spend a minute and a half in honest and sincere contemplative prayer.  For every moment listening to Beck or Maddow, spend a moment and a half in self-reflection in light of the Lord who created and loves both equally.  Most of us who are in our 40’s have, perhaps, another 30 to 40 years to call ourselves Americans.  Where we go after that depends on where we have put our minds.  If we have set our minds on earthly divisiveness and strife based on one side or the other of a political coin that will eventually be destroyed, that is where we can expect to spend eternity.  If we have set our minds on seeking spiritual purity and loving others, we will be in that place of eternal wholeness.