poor in spirit

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.

 

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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)

 

Trisagion: Prayers To Aim With

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us

The Trisagion (thrice holy) Prayer

Let me confess.  As soon as I got my Orthodox Study Bible, I immediately started using the Morning and Evening Prayers without asking any questions.    Common sense should have told me to, at least, look up what the word Trisagion meant.  This probably isn’t a smart move.  It helps to do some reasearch behind the words one uses before using them.  A lot of people fall into false doctrine over repeating stuff they heard, seen, or read without doing any other background investigation.  Fortunately, I came to find the Trisagion to be in line with the scriptures and sound in doctrine as I made it a part of my prayer life.  But, I will strive not to leap before looking and advise others to refrain from jumping too soon as well.

One thing that lead me to pray the Trisagion (follow along with the link) is that part of it is the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 5:9-13, Luke 112-4) that I grew up with.  If Jesus taught us to pray these words, then why not use them.  Granted, everything in scripture should not be taken too literally.  But, the words of the prayer allow us to put God in his proper perspective, calls us to seek his will, directs us in our petitions, calls us to repentance, ask for His protection, and (through the Biblical embellishment) concludes by giving Him the glory and praise.  The Trisagion ends with this bedrock of Biblical prayer.

The first movement of the prayer is an invocation.  We are to approach God with a calmed spirit, acknowledging Him in His fullness and giving him glory.  With the right approach to God, we then call for his presence.  Please note that as well as giving him acknowledgement of his essence, we are inviting him into ourselves.  That’s right, we want God to dwell inside of us.  It is too easy for us to take for granted that we have the Holy Spirit inside of us and have Jesus in our hearts.  Let us be mindful that “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).  We are responsible for “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).   As none of us who are alive are in heaven, it makes sense for us to ask for our ultimate salvation.

Also note that repentance is a part of this invocation.  The call for repentance is underscored by repeating the basic Trisagion Prayer three times:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us

All three Synoptic Gospels teach that the first thing Jesus commanded us to do after his trial in the desert was to “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).  After giving glory to the fullness of God, we are led into humble repentance as the second movement of the Trisagion.To offer up our regular prayers without repentance is arrogant and inexcusable!  In an impromptu moment of great stress or suffering, such an omission is tolerable.  But, when we enter into our regular morning, noon, or evening prayers, repentance is essential.  We do not go to God as if we are sinless.  The Apostle Paul wisely repeats the words of the Psalmist, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10, Psalm 13:3 Orthodox Study Bible, Psalm 14:3 Western translations).  Let us remember that if we repent, God is merciful to forgive us.  As a reminder that we must also forgive others if we seek forgiveness, the last movement of the Trisagion is the Lord’s Prayer.

Why do I find this prayer necessary?  The Trisagion is a perfect series of prayers to calm down my mind and spirit for prayer.  I wake up in the morning groggy, hungry, and wondering if Liverpool FC will win their next match.  In the afternoon, my work duties clog my mind.  I get home, I am thinking about dinner and what I have to do at the church.  And at night, sleep.  This is the prayer that helps me put all other things aside and all of my other prayers in focus.  The written prayers make more sense.  My personal prayers are more settled.  C’mon, I irritate people when I rush to them with babble and dribble.  God is forgiving and merciful.  But, just as I prefer to approach people in a calm and orderly fashion, why shouldn’t I do the same for the One we serve?

I encourage all of my Catholic and Protestant friends to pray the Trisagion.  This pattern of prayer has lasted longer than our denominations have been in existence.  I believe if you use it as part of your regular quiet time for a week, you will see how valuable it is and not pray without it.  And to my Orthodox friends, don’t take this precious jewel of a prayer for granted.  Cherish the beauty and power of the Trisagion and share it with others.

Today’s Sermon: Follow Me

The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.”

John 1:43

It is “Revival Season” among the Baptist churches in our county.  We will have ours next week.  As I was thinking about a theme for us, I couldn’t help but to think of how many of us get caught up in the emotion of the singing and sermons of the week only to fizzle out once when September rolls in.  I pray that worshipers will understand that we are revived to follow and not just to “have church.”

Revive Us Lord (© John Gresham)

 

FOLLOW ME

John 1:35-51 (v.43)

(introduction) We know nothing about Philip’s character when Jesus called him and can assume he was an ordinary man

(antithesis) Yet Jesus called him to do the same thing as the two of John’s disciples and as Simon who Jesus called a “rock”

(propositional statement) Discipleship is the common call for all of us no matter if we are the greatest of saints or worst of sinners

(relevant question)  How does the average person take up the path of discipleship, following Jesus?

(points)

  • rely on reliable sources (v. 35, 36, 44)
  • put aside preconceived notions and see for yourself based on those sources (v.37-39, 46)
  • spend time with Jesus where He is (v. 39, 2:1)

(conclusion) We need no special skill nor dramatic conversion story to follow Jesus.  Just a desire and to be diligent to walk with him.

Foolish Fighting & Wrong Weapons

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Ephesians 6:11-13

Toward Dawn (© John Gresham)

I remember when Matthew Shepherd, a gay man, was brutally beaten and left to die.  I thought that sooner or later some armed homosexual or sympathizer would take up arms against a Christian church, or other organization of the faith for our silence on (and in some cases acceptance of) gay bashing.  Well, it has happened.  Thank God that the security guards at the Family Research Council did their job effectively to prevent a tragic loss of life.  No, I should say, “another tragic loss of life.”  The murder of Sikh worshipers by an ultra-conservative gunman happened two weeks ago.

I cannot help but to wonder if either of these men had a well-developed life of prayer before they decided to pick up arms.  I am willing to bet that they didn’t.  Attempting to shoot unarmed Christians and shooting unarmed Sikh mistaking them for Muslims (who most likely would have been unarmed) is no a sign of someone who makes the serious effort to be more like God.  No, this is the end result of those who believe in their ideology more than the crucified and risen Savior.  A true prayer life requires one to be repentant to an reliant on God throughout the day.  These characteristics call on us to be humble and consider our own faults before becoming angry in our disagreements with others.  With a focus on seeking Godliness, we see that our real enemies are not people who can only harm the flesh.  Our true adversaries are our passions of lust, greed, gluttony, envy, arrogance, and the like.  Even if we were to succeed in overcoming our earthly opponents, without victory over the spiritual enemies we have achieved nothing for our souls.

The problem is not gun ownership nor having a political point of view.  Fingernail files can be used as weapons.  Left and Right are the two sides of the same cheap coin of human rule and both are needed for the coin to have value.  The problem of American society is that we are not truly prayerful.  When we pray, it us usually for God to do something for us or support our point of view.  Instead of being repentant, we point the finger at the sins of others to comfort us as not being as bad as they are.  Instead of reliance on God, we commit ourselves to human reliance to boast of what we have earned or beg for what we deserve.  Humility cannot be born of such characteristics.  These are the planting beds for the very ills which we should seek to overcome.  Combine this sort of prayer with divisive politics and we have an atmosphere for fearful and mistrusting attitudes.  These attitudes are then manipulated by marketing puppet masters and talking heads.  Those who focus left or right rather than inward and above become further rooted in toxicity.  At best, the toxicity is quieted by some sense of basic civility.  At worst, there is a breaking news story at 6 pm.

I urge you to fight the real enemy!  Heterosexual lust is far more damaging to marriage and male-female relationships than homosexual marriage will ever be.  Arrogance kills more Americans than Muslims, Sikh, Jews, and all other non-Christians combined.  We probably are more likely to be killed by someone who says they are Christian than anyone else.  Greed is the real enemy of the hard-working tax payer.  Gluttony traps even the poor in poverty.  To fight these enemies, we must be on the battlefields of our own hearts, minds, and souls.  Our weapons are prayer, scripture, and action.  Our strategy is to walk humbly with the Lord our God.  We must stop trying to exonerate and excuse ourselves and seek the Holy Spirit with an honest and complete assessment of ourselves so that we can be healed.  Then we will properly be able to assist others in the healing process.

I expected some sort of retaliation.  Most likely, it will be met with more retaliation.

What We Bring To The Table: “Come Unto Me”

In my morning and evening prayers, I will either listen to Ancient Faith Radio or an Orthodox Christian chant playlist on You Tube.  Yet, there is something special about this classic hymn from the Church Of God In Christ.

I first heard and sang this at the Hampton University Minister’s Conference in 2007 (I think it was 2007) and fell in love with its melody and lyrics.  The refrain is a musical version of Matthew 11:28-30.  For a people suffering through the lynch mobs and segregation signs back in the day, “Come Unto Me” was a welcome and healing song.  If the Orthodox Church is going to reach out to African-Americans, it would have to reach us with the same message of hope.  I believe it can.  The “how” will be interesting.

 

 

The Greater Glory

A blessed feast of the Transfiguration to all.  Too bad we Baptist haven’t made a deliberate observance of this feast.  It seems like a great reason to have a fish fry.  As much as we love our croakers, spot, and trout (with a crab cake or two on the side); this ought to be the third biggest holiday in Virginia east of I-95.  Yes, I know there is something more important to the feast than the food.  Which brings me to my two-cents of thinking today.

Tidal Flat (© John Gresham)

In the 16th chapter of Mathew, we find Peter pulling Jesus to the side and rebuking him about the foretelling of his trial, death, and resurrection. The idea that the Christ, the Son of the Living God should have to suffer and die at the hands of his enemies seemed foolish.  The disciple, perhaps, thought his heaven-sent Master should continue to be earthly healer, teacher, and prophet that everyone had come to adore.  Maybe this fisherman thought that the One who called him to be a fisher of men should be that political Messiah that would restore Israel to the glories of David and Solomon.  Either way, Peter had his eyes on a lesser glory.  Jesus, the meek and mild, proved to be highly intolerant of anyone who wanted to reduce him down to an earthly purpose.  “Get behind Me, Satan!  You are an offense to Me for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”  (I guess the baby in the manger grew up)

Rather than leave Peter with such a hard rebuke, Jesus showed him and Zebedee’s boys what greater glory looked like.  “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as the light.”  No earthly royal regalia could match it.  “And behold Moses and Elijah appeared to them talking with him.” Talk about a royal court of greatness.  Poor Peter thought that honoring them with earthly tabernacles would be a sufficient means of honoring these three in this glory.  But, before he could finish his sentence, God the Father provided something greater.  “Behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I and well pleased.  Hear Him!”  (Pete, who was that you were trying to correct?).  As Peter, James, and John cowered in fear, Jesus touched and gave them a word of comfort, “Do not be afraid.”  And they saw him alone back in the form they were accustomed to.

I think we sometimes forget that Jesus was not sent here to be known as a social “do-gooder” nor political “values-bearer.”  He came to save the souls of all who would believe in him.  Of course we want to improve our communities and practice moral behavior.  But, when we reduce the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior to earthly pursuits, we become an affront to Jesus.  When He called Peter, “Satan,” it wasn’t because the disciple had a homosexual marriage with a Skinhead inside trader.  Peter tried to re-direct Jesus from his ultimate greater glory.  Today, we commemorate the manifestation of the greater glory of Christ our Lord and that His kingdom is of a law and prophetic spirit that is above the shelters of man’s creation.

We forget the lesson of the Transfiguration when we weld the Christian faith to either side of the political spectrum.  Fr. Seraphim Rose was criticized for his letter stating his case against the popular social struggles for a better world in the 1960’s.  He was no supporter of war, racism, and other evils many Christians struggled against.  But, he wisely saw that if the faithful were not careful, they would take their eyes off of the greater glory of our Lord and let the Left hijack Christianity to a crusade to “make the world a better place.”  A similar thing is happening today from the Right.  We should not support gay marriage, pornography, and other moral ills.  But, in our crusade for family values, we are ignoring our own inward struggles of working out our salvation as we busy ourselves pointing out the failures of others.

Conservative or liberal?  Though we are free to choose between these two sides of the coin of earthly authority (one-sided coins have no value and are physically impossible), we are not allowed to weld our faith in Jesus to either side.  The Transfiguration is a glimpse of the greater glorious kingdom we can be a part of through our Lord and Savior.  Entry into the kingdom and inviting others to join us, this must be our central goal.  My other goal is to fix stuffed flounder in a bag for dinner.

 

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

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.

The Flaw of Faith Alone (Part Two): Lack Of Support

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

A blessed Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  If you haven’t read it, please refer back to my first post on this topic.  Faith Alone gives us freedom from the legalistic Judaism that the Apostles had to preach against and from the Catholic abuses of the Dark Ages in Europe.  But, with freedom comes responsibility.  If we are irresponsible with our freedom of faith, we will be enslaved by our passions, complacency, and even our virtues.  Let us be responsible with our faith in Christ Jesus so that we may grow in spirit and in truth.

Continue To The Light (© John Gresham)

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE (Part Two):  LACK OF SUPPORT

(Introduction) The purpose of Faith Alone was to counter the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences requiring people to give “X” amount of contributions to particular causes or do other questionable acts for the sake of salvation.  It was a doctrine of freedom from abusive priest, bishops, and other hierarchical clergy.

(Antithesis)  We too often use Faith Alone as an excuse from participating in actions and doctrines handed down through the scriptures and early church to help us build and strengthen our faith.  Our typical excuse is, “The Lord Knows My Heart.”

(Thesis)  Faith Alone cannot stand alone.  Without proper support, faith becomes a hollow shell ready to collapse.

(Relevant Question)  What else does faith need to be fulfilling, enduring, and growing?

(Points)

  • Sound Doctrine, not doctrine that sounds good
  • Christ-centered fellowship, not celebrities and fans
  • Prayer life, not lip service

(Conclusion)  Continue daily and steadfastly