The State of Religion in America

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 17, 2014

Luke 6:27-36 NLT

Reading from The Essential Dalai Lama

When you read the sermon title for this morning, “The State of Religion in America,” your first inclination may have been that I would be speaking on the state of Christianity in America, the continual tug of war between Christian Conservatives and Christian Liberals.  But that is not what I have in mind, so you can erase that idea from your mental chalkboard.  Rather, my focus is the state of other world religions in America and how things have changed in recent years so that America’s religious climate is becoming so much more diverse.

On the airplane en-route to Great Falls, Montana, last month, I was reading a recent issue of Christian Century magazine when one short article in particular jumped off the page at me.  Actually, it wasn’t really an article, but a quarter-page, colored graphic of all 50 U.S. states that gave some startling statistics.  The title of the entry was “State of Religion: The second-largest religion in each state as of 2010.”  While Christianity remains the largest religion in every one of our 50 states, the second-largest religion in each state varies according to which area of the country you are looking at.  I was surprised at what I saw, to say the least.

For instance, in the Northeast (New England states plus the states of New York, Pennsylvannia, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, and Tennessee), the second-largest religion is Judaism.  That didn’t surprise me at all.  In the middle Atlantic and southeastern and some Midwest U.S. states, for the most part the second-largest religion is Islam.  This includes some 20 states.  The only exception in the southeastern region is South Carolina, where the second-largest religion is the Baha’i religion.  In Arizona, the second-largest religion is Hinduism.  But then the most surprising revelation to me is the second-largest religion in our western states (California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma). Would you care to guess what the second-largest religion in those states is?  It is Buddhism.  My first reaction upon absorbing all of this was that line of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Now, we could take this data and deduce any number of observations, and possibly conclusions, from it.  It could also give rise to any number of questions.

One observation is that the idea that America is a “Christian nation” is a fallacy.  It is true that Christian principles and mores tend to be predominant in our culture.  But to those of other world religions, to hear politicians refer to America as a “Christian nation” must be somewhat offensive.  Often we hear someone talk about returning America to its Christian roots, as though the forefathers of our nation were all practicing, conservative Christians.  Such was just not the case.  Early on our nation had a diversity of religious persuasions, in addition to its diverse Christian population, which included Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics, just to name a few.  But there were also Jews, Muslims, Deists, Rationalists, and even Agnostics.  And it was the intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution to accommodate such religious diversity.  To say that our nation’s forefathers had in mind founding a strictly Christian nation is a fallacy, I think.  Religious diversity has been here all along.  But my perception is our nation continues to get more religiously diverse as time goes on.

One big question that the data I shared with you raises in my mind is this: Why is Christianity becoming less dominant, nationally speaking, as other religions like Islam and Buddhism continue to grow in membership and influence?  An article this past week in the Wall Street Journal on Islam in America noted that the Muslim population in the U.S. is expected to more than double by the year 2030, making them as numerous as American Jews and Episcopalians.1  Or to frame the question another way, What is it about these other, growing world religions that is so attractive so as to draw Americans into their folds? Is Christianity failing in some way?  Has Christianity in recent decades or recent centuries strayed from its core, an important core that might be found in other religions who take it more seriously?

Now, I don’t know enough about American Islam to comment on my own question in that regard.  But I have done a wee bit of study in Tibetan Buddhism, and in that regard I can understand why some Americans are being drawn to it.  I have great respect for the Dalai Lama, who is the chief spokesperson for Tibetan Buddhism, and I think he has some things to teach us, if we are open and willing to listen.

As I understand the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and teaching, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism (as he practices it anyway) is compassion.  To quote the Dalai Lama himself, “I believe the purpose of all the major religious traditions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts.”2  In this same book the Dalai Lama includes a chapter on the teachings of Jesus, in which he quotes Jesus, specifically Jesus’ teachings on loving our enemies.  My conviction is that the heart of Christianity, as Jesus taught it in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is also compassion.  In that parable, Jesus said, when the despised Samaritan saw the man beaten on the side of the road, “he felt compassion for him.”  Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “now go and do the same” (Luke 10:33, 37 NLT).  In another place in Luke, as I read for our text today, Jesus is quoted as saying, “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36 NLT).

So basically the point I wish to make here is that at the core, the teachings of Jesus and the Buddhist teachings of the Dalai Lama are both centered around compassion. So after thinking about it, it is no surprise to me that in our 13 western states, the second-largest religion after Christianity is Buddhism.  But the question that still bugs me is this: Has Christianity strayed from its core and become so obsessed with peripheral issues that it is losing members to other religions like Buddhism that supply what Christianity is lacking?  Or to phrase the question another way, If Christianity as a whole focused on the core teachings of Jesus about compassion, grace, forgiveness, and service to suffering humanity, would there be such an exodus to other religions as we are witnessing in the world today?

These are hard questions that we may not want to hear; but they are, perhaps, questions we need to be asking ourselves.  Such is why I feel that churches like this United Church are so important to our community and our wider world.  It falls to us, and a few select churches like us, to hold forth the banner of compassionate Christianity that focuses on compassion, grace, forgiveness, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, tolerance, inclusiveness, and service to humanity.  There is far too much exclusiveness and hatred in some churches that bear the Christian name; far too much finger-pointing because all do not believe exactly the way some think you should believe; far too much judging others because of their sexual orientation or other differences that don’t fit into some preconceived mold.

Diversity in religious thought, belief, and practice is a given.  We just have to learn to accept it and deal with it in a constructive manner.  The Dalai Lama concludes that chapter from which I read earlier by saying:

“If we try to unify the faiths of the world into one religion, we will also lose many of the qualities and richnesses of each particular tradition.  Therefore, I feel it is better, in spite of the many quarrels in the name of religion, to maintain a variety of religious traditions.  Unfortunately, while a diversity of religious traditions is more suited to serve the needs of the diverse mental dispositions among humanity, this diversity naturally possesses the potential for conflict and disagreement as well.  Consequently [and this is really the most critical point], people of every religious tradition must make an extra effort to try to transcend intolerance and misunderstanding and seek harmony.”3   He puts it well.

The truth is, we are not going to change the religious makeup of America.  Things are what they are, as they say.  But we do need to learn how to view the growing religious diversity in America.  And we do need to be open-minded enough to think that we might actually learn something from other world religions, if we would let ourselves.  Hear me loud and clear: I am not suggesting that we need to become Buddhists or anything other than Christians.  The Dalai Lama doesn’t believe that either.  He doesn’t try to convert anyone to Buddhism.  Rather, his aim is to encourage every person to be true to the religion they profess, and to be the very best of that religion that they can be.

So the last point I would make—and the most important—is we need to be sure that we are being true to the core teachings of the faith we profess—compassion, love, forgiveness, grace—and in such a way that others will be drawn to our Way instead of being turned off and turned away.  Amen.

 1Wall Street Journal, A3, August 15, 2014.     2Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings.  New York: Viking, 2005.  P. 250.     3Ibid, p. 252.

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Dealing with Defeat

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 10, 2014

1 Samuel 4:1-5 NLT

Perhaps you noticed all the red, white, and blue signs dotting the landscape the past several weeks.  I am being a bit tongue-in-cheek.  How could you have missed them?  If you drove past the old Wildcat Den, which now houses the Oak Ridge Visitor’s Center, you know what I am talking about—hundreds of political signs, signs piled on top of signs!  As I drove past those signs coming to church and returning home, I had two thoughts about them.  The first thought was how tacky they looked.  But then, after I got past the tackiness, I had a second thought.  And that thought was How many of those whose names are printed on those signs will suffer defeat!  And it made me feel a bit sorry for them.

The truth is when all is said and done when the final November election comes and goes, at least half, and probably much more than half, of the candidates who paid for and placed their signs all over town will in the end be losers–defeated.  And for awhile, I let myself think about all those idealistic candidates who won’t be hosting victory parties, who won’t be going home elated and celebrating, and who may go home not feeling very good about themselves at all.  What about all of those candidates who go home suffering defeat?  But one need not be a political candidate to experience the agony of defeat.  The agony of defeat comes in many forms and fashions.

Defeat often causes us to question.  We may question why such a thing was allowed to happen to us.  We may question our relationship with a benevolent God or the karma of the universe.  We may question ourselves—our abilities, our perception in the eyes of others, perhaps even question our dignity and self-worth.

I have read a snippet of a story involving a defeat suffered early on by the Israelites.  The Israelites were attacked by the Philistines, one of the Canaanite tribes that at times proved to be a formable foe of the Israelites.  Goliath the giant, you may remember, was a Philistine warrior.  When the Philistines defeated the Israelites, killing four thousand of them, as the teller of the story relates it, the Israelites started questioning.  Why this defeat?  Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated like this?  Maybe the Lord is not with us.  What can we do to make sure that God is with us in battle?  Well, the Israelites decided they had been defeated because they had not carried the Covenant Box—traditionally called the Ark of the Covenant that they believed enshrined the Lord’s presence—with them in battle.  So they sent messengers to go fetch the Ark of the Covenant.  When the Ark of the Covenant arrived, all the Israelites shouted so loudly the Philistines heard them and grew afraid.  When the Philistines heard that the Ark of the Covenant was to accompany the Israelites in battle, they really became afraid.  So the Philistines girded up their bravery and courage and shouted to their soldiers, “Be brave, Philistines!  Fight like men. . .” (GNT)  And so, the Philistines engaged in battle again with the Israelites.  They fought hard and defeated the Israelites yet again, who went running to their homes.  “There was a great slaughter,” the storyteller relates it.  This time “thirty thousand Israelites were killed.”  And not only that, but the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and carried it off to the temple of their god Dagon.  If the Israelites had questioned the reasons for their defeat before, don’t you know they questioned even more after a second, even greater defeat?  Yes, defeat often leads us to question.

But sometimes the right kind of questioning following defeat can be good for us.  It can lead to greater self-knowledge—help us to better see what our strengths and weaknesses are, help us clarify what it really is that we want to be and do, and lead us to work on our approach so that we minimize or improve our weaknesses and maximize or greater utilize our strengths.  Football coach Tom Landry said, “I’ve learned that something constructive comes from every defeat.”

All of us, at different points in our lives, know the agony of defeat.  Suffering the breakup of a relationship.  Failing to get into that school or graduate school that you had your heart set on.  The loss of a job, maybe due to company downsizing.  Or not getting that perfect job that you had your heart set on and you just knew that you were going to get.  Did you get every job or position you applied for and may have had your heart set on?  If you did, consider yourself lucky.  Few of us do.

I will let you in on a little secret.  In the past, there were churches I applied to but didn’t work out, pulpits that I had my heart set on but I didn’t get.  More than once I thought I had found the perfect congregation—the perfect fit for us.  So I sent my resume, and in one case, I even had a telephone interview with the Search Committee and an in-person interview with the Senior Pastor and Associate Pastor.  It was a large, multi-staff congregation.  I was given the impression that I had a good shot at being selected for the position I had applied for.  So you can imagine the great disappointment I suffered when I got that “Dear John” letter thanking me for my time and interest, but informing me that they had chosen another candidate (from the other several dozen applicants who had applied for the position).

But in applying to this United Church, I feel that I ended up exactly where I was supposed to be and where I am the happiest.  Everything turned out for the best.  So, the point being here, sometimes we suffer defeat only to realize a greater good elsewhere that we might not have known otherwise.  Too often we are inclined to think of a defeat as the end of the road, when in reality defeat may just be a 90-degree bend in the road that keeps us from seeing a greater success that lies just around the corner.  Robert Ingersoll encouraged, “The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.”

An American poet, described by some as being the father of American poetry and the greatest poet America has thus far produced, believed his life’s work to be a failure.  Curiously, the work that he gave his entire life to is now considered an American classic.  The poet said of his work, “from a worldly and business point of view Leaves of Grass has been worse than a failure.”  The poet was Walt Whitman, of course, known to virtually every high school and liberal arts college student in America.  If Whitman could have only seen around the bend and known what a literary success Leaves of Grass would become.

It may be a cliché, but defeat can also serve to make us stronger.  You may have heard about the young man who suffered one defeat after another.  He ran for state legislature, but lost.  He was in love with a young woman who died, leaving him forlorn.  Twice he was a candidate for the position of speaker of the state House of Representatives, but was both times unsuccessful.  He sought his party’s nomination for Congress, but failed.  He sought an open U.S. Senate seat, but didn’t get enough votes.  His name was placed in nomination as a vice-presidential candidate, but again failed to get enough votes.  So it would seem that he suffered one defeat after another.  That young man’s name was Abraham Lincoln.

But what we don’t hear about were Lincoln’s many successes that offset his defeats.  Such successes included being elected company captain of the Illinois militia; being appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois; he was elected and re-elected to the Illinois state legislature; he received license to practice law in Illinois state courts, elected to Congress; and finally was elected President of the United States.  Lincoln’s defeats strengthened him for other successes.

Defeat can be somewhat like the blacksmith’s fire that strengthens us for future challenges.  Or to put it another way, defeat can be a training ground for future, greater success!  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (who wrote the bestseller On Death and Dying) wrote, “The most beautiful people we have know are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”

We are made to wonder how many of the defeated political candidates of Anderson and Roane Counties will try to turn their defeat into something positive: Asking questions that will lead them to better self-understanding, and how they can better utilize their strengths and overcome their weaknesses, and letting their defeat make them stronger for future challenges.  But the real question this morning is when we suffer defeat in our lives, can we do likewise?  Amen.


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The Makings of a Miracle

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 3, 2014

John 2:1-11 GNT; “Miracles” by Walt Whitman

Even after all these years, I must confess that I still don’t have a completely clear—black and white—opinion about miracles.  I still find myself struggling somewhat with what actually constitutes a miracle.  Maybe some of you feel the same way.  My old American Heritage Dictionary defines miracle like this: “An event that appears unexplainable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.”  That seems like a pretty plain, clear-cut definition that sums up the meaning of miracle.  But then what qualifies as “unexplainable” or “supernatural” is subjective and open to debate.

Christian theologians, from conservative to progressive on the spectrum, can be ambivalent and divided on the issue of the historicity of biblical miracles.  Liberal Christian theologian John Shelby Spong, in his book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, makes it clear that he does not believe that the supernatural miracle stories attributed to Jesus in the gospels are to be taken literally.  He sees them as vehicles of proclamation, a way in story form for the early Church to say what it believed about Jesus.  For instance, Spong believes the miracle story of Jesus walking on the water was a story the early Church used to proclaim that the God who created the world (whose Spirit “moved over the face of the waters” at creation), this same God was present in the person of Jesus, who was also lord over the waves.  The feeding of the multitudes miracle stories, Spong contends, were intended to say that “to know Jesus . . . was to discover that he met the deepest hunger in the human soul, because he was the ‘bread of life’” (Spong, p. 73).1

Which brings me to today’s miracle story from the gospel of John.  I was not able to find any pertinent comment by Spong on the Wedding at Cana miracle story.  That is not to say he hasn’t commented on it, but only that I couldn’t find anything in his books that I have on my shelves.  But more moderate Christian theologian, Marcus Borg, does comment on John’s story of Jesus turning the water into wine.  The question is, Did it happen factually and historically just as John says it did, that Jesus turned several big clay pots full of water into the best wine possible?  Or were other, deeper spiritual meanings hidden there in the story?  As Borg points out in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, the turning the water into wine story is loaded with religious symbolism (as Borg puts it, “a richly symbolic narrative”) aimed at saying something about the person of Jesus.  Borg says, “if we focus on the event’s ‘happenedness,’ we easily become distracted and miss the point. . . the meaning of this story does not depend upon its ‘happenedness.’  Instead, it is a ‘sign,’ as John puts it.  Signs point beyond themselves.”  Borg notes several important symbols in the story, such as marriage which is often used as a metaphor in the Bible for the relationship between God and Israel.  Jesus is often spoken of as the bridegroom of the Church.  “A wedding could thus symbolize the intimacy of the divine-human relationship.”  But Borg contends that the primary meaning in the water-into-wine story has to do with the good news about Jesus and what he was about: “it is about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last” (Borg, 204-205).2  So, it would seem that both Spong and Borg interpret the New Testament miracle stories metaphorically, vehicles to point to a deeper meaning about the nature of Jesus and how the early Christians experienced him following his death.

It falls to each of us to decide for ourselves if we take the miracle stories of the Bible to be 100% historically or factually true, or if we interpret them as religious stories which were products of their time and intended to convey deeper spiritual meanings about the nature of Jesus and the meaning he had for the early Church and can have for our lives as well.

But then, the question still remains about whether miracles—supernatural happenings or acts of divine intervention—happen today.    Sometimes we hear of things happening in life that that can seem to have no other explanation.  We often hear the word “miracle” used in the news:

One sole survivor (maybe a child) in a tragic plane crash.  “It is a miracle,” some would say.

A person with stage four cancer all of sudden is found to be disease free.  “They have had a miracle!” someone proclaims.

A family in financial ruin, maybe where one or both partners have lost their job, receive a big, unexpected check in the mail from some anonymous benefactor, and it is seen by them to be a miracle.

You get the idea.  We could come up with one hundred different scenarios that might qualify as a miracle.  But then, the rational, scientific mind might come along and pooh, pooh such ideas, saying that there is no such thing as divine intervention in the natural order of the world, and that there is no such thing as a miracle as a supernatural event or act of God.  Again, each of us must decide for ourselves whether or not miracles occur today.

But then, some people approach the idea of miracles from a whole different perspective.  Or to put it another way, some people look at the subject of miracles through an entirely different lens.  For some people, life is filled with miracles.  Such seems to have been the thought of poet Walt Whitman who said,

“. . . who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles”

For Whitman, every day of life held countless miracles—walking barefoot on the beach, standing under trees in the woods, enjoying a fulfilling relationship with a loved one, watching honey bees make honey, bird-watching, watching the sun go down or a night sky full of stars, or gazing at the moon, considering the waves of the ocean and the fishes of the sea.  All of these moments and aspects of life Whitman saw as miracles.  So he said,

“To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.”

Adopting Whitman’s thought, we could sit here all day and compose a massive list of life’s miracles, if we allowed ourselves the freedom and time to do so.  When we think about how a tiny acorn falls into the ground and sprouts and grows to become a mighty oak tree, it is a miracle; whenever a baby is born with all the organs, bones, muscles, and so on in the proper place and functioning properly, it is a miracle; when we think about all the plants and trees that hold healing powers and from which we get the drugs to make us well, it is a miracle; when we think of the intricate medical procedures that doctors can now do, like transplant major organs and perform microscopic procedures, it is a miracle; when you think that human knowledge is such that men were put on the moon 45 years ago and in recent history a spacecraft was put on Mars, it is a miracle.

Last weekend, my wife and I gathered with our two children and our five grandchildren in Chattanooga for a fun weekend.  Saturday afternoon, as I stood in the motel hallway and watched our granddaughter—who the doctors said of her when she was born that she might never walk—as I stood and watched her literally run down the hallway smiling and laughing, and as I watched her dance with happiness, I felt like I was watching a miracle.  To watch your four-year-old granddaughter not only walk but run and dance, when the doctors said she likely would never be able to walk, you are witnessing a miracle.  So in many ways, I have to agree with Whitman in believing that life in all its facets is nothing but a big bundle of miracles, one after the other.

But returning to where I began, somewhere deep inside I still want to believe in the possibility of miracles.  I guess my upbringing leads me to hold onto the tail of the hope that sometimes honest-to-God miracles are possible and do happen.  When you experience a time in your life when the physical pain is so severe you can hardly stand to face another day; or when you have a child or grandchild seriously ill in the hospital in ICU, and you don’t know whether they will live or die; or when the doctor gives you devastating news about those test results; it is hard to not wish for a miracle!  Naturalist John Burroughs said, “The spirit of a man can endure only so much and when it is broken only a miracle can mend it.”

With all of that having been said, the other side of the issue is that it is important to live with our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts open to the many miracles of life that happen all around us every day.  Amen.

 1John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious.  New York: HarperOne, 2007.

2Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.  New York: HarperOne, 2001.

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Reflections on the Beauty-Filled Soul

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 20, 2014

Deuteronomy 8:1-3 NLT; Selection from John Muir

Maybe you can recall a time when you were at a big family reunion, or maybe it was one of those all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, when there was so much good food at hand and so much variety that you stuffed yourself beyond full so that you could not have taken in another bite.  Anybody care to admit that you have had such an experience?  You were filled up to the brim; to paraphrase the psalmist, your stomach almost runneth over.

Week before last, I had a similar kind of experience.  But it was not food that filled me up, and it was not my stomach that was full.  It was my soul that was filled with the natural beauty we took in at Glacier National Park in Montana.  Now, I have to admit that one of the primary reasons we chose to visit Glacier National Park was to see some of the remaining glaciers before they are all gone.  Of the 150 glaciers that used to be in Glacier National Park, only 25 remain today, and they are shrinking rapidly; and some of them are inaccessible and, unless things change, they are predicted to be gone completely in just a few short years.  But let me warn you: If you plan to go to Glacier National Park just to see the glaciers, I would caution you against going.  Because getting a glimpse of three or four of the remaining glaciers is just a fraction of what one experiences in Glacier National Park.

The greatest benefit of going to Glacier is the vast, abundant, and diverse beauty to be found there.  Practically everywhere you turn in the Park some form of breath-taking beauty meets the eye: stone mountains (no two of them alike) capped with snow against an azure-blue sky; blue-green waters cascading over burgundy-colored rocks; breath-taking waterfalls falling from giant mountain slopes; more species and colors of wildflowers than can be counted; crystal-clear lakes bordered by majestic mountain peaks.  I shot over 725 pictures myself on my camera and iPhone, and my wife shot 400-500 more on her camera and iPhone.

As we were hiking the Swiftcurrent Trail in the Many Glaciers area of the Park on the last day of our visit, I thought to myself on the return hike back out, My soul is full; I don’t think I can take in any more beauty.  I was saturated.  After awhile, you can feel overwhelmed with the abundance and variety of beauty around you.

But the truth is, our souls need natural beauty just as our stomachs need bread.  For the first reading this morning, I chose the ancient Hebrew text that says, “people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of [God].”  Both Matthew and Luke quote Jesus as saying these words during his time of temptation in the wilderness.  For the ancient Jews, “the word of God” was interpreted to be the Law, the Torah.  For most traditional Christians today, “the word of God” is interpreted to be the Bible.

But let’s think outside the box a bit.  By thinking outside the box, the “word of God” might be interpreted more broadly than written words on a page, more broadly than we might initially think. There is a sense in which creation—the natural world—can be considered the “word of God,” what is sometimes referred to as “Natural Revelation.”  Natural Revelation holds that the word, the nature, the awesomeness, the majesty of the Creator is revealed and may be acquired within the marvels of creation itself.  To open ourselves to creation is to feed upon—soulfully speaking—the living word, the nature, the awesomeness, the majesty of the Creator, in whatever fashion you might interpret that.  Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwritinga wayside sacrament.   Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.”

And in his writings, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, spoke of “sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals. . .” and “the glorious page of Nature’s Bible.”  Muir also wrote of the “natural beauty hunger” that is the common lot of humanity and that has been addressed in a myriad of ways.  As put by Muir in our second reading, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Yes, to feed on beauty—especially the beauty of the natural world—is something our souls desperately need.  To feast on the beauty of the natural world is restoration for the soul.  I cannot help but also draw on the psalmist, who said,

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).  The beauties of the natural world are like spiritual food for the soul.

Natural beauty also has the power to alter human behavior.  Studies have shown that in cities where people live near parks and natural green spaces, the rates of violent crime are lower than in similar cities and neighborhoods where no natural green spaces exist.  In one study, “public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence.”1  Time spent in nature helps people to relax and renew themselves, reducing mental fatigue, irritability, aggression, and violence.  Such data illustrate why parks as small as A.K. Bissell Park here in Oak Ridge, or large parks like Central Park in New York City, are so important.  Visiting a park or other natural green space during the lunch hour or on the weekend or as a week-long vacation can result in being rejuvenated for the afternoon or week or year of work ahead.

We are so fortunate in this country that a few of our presidents realized the importance of setting aside those beautiful spaces which became our national parks, not only as means of preserving perpetually the beauties of our natural world, but also as  places of respite for the human soul.

The beauty of the natural world—God’s creation, if you will—that we soak in through our senses becomes a permanent part of us.  As I noted earlier, we took several hundred photographs in Glacier National Park that we will cherish forever.  Soon after we returned, I made two of my favorite photographs the home page and locked screen wallpaper, or background, on my cell phone.  So now, every time I pick up my phone, I will fondly remember Running Eagle Waterfall and Avalanche Lake.

But in a greater and much more important sense, the beauty that we experienced in the wildflowers, waterfalls, mountain vistas, tranquil lakes, and so on will be a permanent and positive part of our memory and psyche.

But the good news is, one doesn’t have to travel to Montana to soak in the beauty of God’s creation, or the natural world.  There is much natural beauty to be had right here in East Tennessee.  The lesson for us is to have our eyes open.  To be observant. When life makes us weary, then we should head to the hills, as it were, or to the woods or greenway, or to a wildflower garden to feed our weary, hungry souls. Or to say it poetically,


Come, come away, my friends,

The beauty of the world beckons.

Look up to a mountain,

Wade in a stream,

Take notice of a wildflower, until now you’ve never seen.


When you start to feel weary and restless,

When there’s an unexplained hunger in your soul,

Let the beauties of the world delight you,

The restorative power of Nature revive you,

Nourish you and make you whole.
We are part and parcel with Nature,

A piece of an interconnected whole

One with the flowers, rivers, and trees.

So, come, come away to Nature,

And experience the beauty-filled soul.

1Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571.

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Some Patriotic Hymns: Their Makeup and Messages

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 6, 2014

Leviticus 25:10a; 1 Timothy 2:1-2 CEB

Americans—in general—love patriotic songs.  And we have several to choose from.  I have my favorite, and perhaps you have a favorite patriotic song or hymn as well.  There are some interesting stories behind many of America’s patriotic hymns, stories which can serve to enrich these hymns as we sing them, when we know a bit of the history behind them.  And so today, I thought I would give a sermon of a different order, looking at a few of the most popular patriotic hymns and the messages they convey, and then draw a few conclusions.

For instance, consider the patriotic hymn “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”  A young man of only twenty-three or twenty-four (sources vary) by the name of Samuel Francis Smith was a seminary student at Andover Theological Seminary, near Boston, Massachusetts.  Samuel was studying to become a Baptist minister.  On a gloomy February day in 1831 or 1832 (again, sources vary), Samuel was looking through a collection of German hymn tunes that had been given to him by a friend and choir director by the name of Lowell Mason.  One source says that as a seminary student, Smith was very poor and took on the translation work to help make ends meet.  Mason had asked Smith to translate the German lyrics into English.

Well, Smith ran across one German tune in particular that he really liked, which happened to be the tune for a German patriotic hymn, “God Bless Our Native Land.”  Feeling that the tune itself was patriotic in spirit, Smith decided to write American patriotic words to accompany the German tune.  The interesting thing is for some 100 years, the same piece of music had also served as the tune for the English patriotic song “God Save the Queen,” which Smith later said he had never heard.  Smith picked up a scrap of paper, and in about 30 minutes he had written the words to the beloved patriotic song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” The new patriotic American hymn was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, or 1832 (still yet, sources vary), at a children’s Independence Day celebration at the Park Street Church in Boston.  Originally “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” had five stanzas.  But the fifth had a negative tone toward Great Britain, so it was later dropped from the hymn.

Samuel Francis Smith went on to become one of the outstanding Baptist preachers of the 19th century.  He later wrote other hymns, about 150 in all, but he is best remembered for his great gift to America, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”  And to think that Smith wrote the hymn in 30 short minutes!  So there was no particular incident or historical event that inspired “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as with some other patriotic hymns that Americans hold dear.

When we consider the hymn “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” perhaps better known as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” many southerners do not realize that it was written as a northern Civil War hymn.  In November 1861, just a few months after the start of the Civil War, American writer Julia Ward Howe was touring Union army camps near Washington, D.C. with the Reverend James Freeman Clark and her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who was a member of President Lincoln’s Military Sanitary Commission.  Dr. Howe was a well-known scholar in the education of the blind.  The Howes were Unitarians, fervent abolitionists, and supporters of the Union.  During the course of their visit, they heard the troops sing some of the popular war songs, including “John Brown’s Body.”  The story goes that Reverend Clarke suggested to Mrs. Howe that she should write some new lyrics to the popular tune.  She replied that she had thought about doing just that.

Early the following morning, as Mrs. Howe later described it, she “awoke . . . in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain.  I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, ‘I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately.’”  As history has it, Mrs. Howe wrote the lines of the hymn on a scrap of Sanitary Commission paper.  Just three months later, February 1862, the hymn was published in The Atlantic Monthly. 

As with many beloved hymns, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” presents some theological challenges to progressive-minded Christians.  Many of the lyrics are biblically based, drawn from a number of books of the Bible.  Phrases like “the coming of the Lord,” “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” “sifting out the hearts of men,” “his judgment seat,” and so on all bespeak of divine judgment.  The hymn links the biblical idea of the judgment of the wicked at the end of time with the American Civil War.  In other words, the hymn more or less equates the judgment day of the Lord with the destruction of Southern armies by the Union Army of the North.  And it portrays God as a vengeful God of wrath, which is interesting considering Howe’s Unitarian (and possibly Universalist) leanings.  Although she wrote much, Julia Ward Howe is best remembered for “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.”

Softer in tone is the hymn “God of Our Fathers.”  It was written by 35-year-old Daniel C. Roberts, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Brandon, Vermont.  The story has it that Roberts wanted a new hymn for his congregation to sing to celebrate the American Centennial in 1876.  And so, he wrote “God of Our Fathers” and his congregation sang it to the tune of a Russian hymn.

Some years later, in 1892, Roberts anonymously sent the hymn to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to be considered by the commission that had been formed to revise the Episcopal hymnal.  If they accepted the hymn, he would then send them his name.  They did.  The editor of the new hymnal and George W. Warren, an organist in New York City, were commissioned to choose a hymn for the celebration of the centennial of the United States Constitution.  They chose Roberts’ text, but Warren wrote a new tune for it and called it “National Hymn.” The hymn was first published in 1892 in the new hymnal.

Many people think that another patriotic hymn, “America the Beautiful,” should have become our national anthem.  Congregationalist Katharine Lee Bates was an English professor at Wellesley College.  In 1893, she took a train trip to Colorado Springs where she was to teach a short summer session at Colorado College.  Several of the sights along the way inspired her.  One day she traveled with a group to the top of Pike’s Peak.  There, she later related, was where the words to the hymn began to come to her.  As she later wrote, “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of the fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”  When she returned to her hotel room, she commenced to put the words down on paper.  The poem, which originally she titled “Pike’s Peak,” was first published in the July 4th edition of the weekly newspaper, The Congregationalist, in 1895.  At that time the poem was given the title “America.”  For some time, the poem was sung to a number of popular tunes, including “Auld Lang Syne.”  But in 1910, Bates’ poem was set to the tune “Materna” that had been written by composer Samuel A Ward in 1882.

As I said, some would prefer that “America the Beautiful” be our national anthem instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in part because of the war imagery in the latter.   “America the Beautiful” has been called “an expression of patriotism at its finest,” since it voices appreciation and wonder for our nation’s physical beauty and abundance without any reference to war or triumphalism.

And so, we have considered four popular American patriotic hymns.  Two were written by women, and two by men.  Denominationally, there was a Baptist, Unitarian, Episcopalian, and a Congregationalist.  Two include belief in God’s direct action in national affairs, and two celebrate the beauties and blessings of America and American freedom.  But all of the hymns were written because the composers were moved, inspired, as they contemplated American history or considered the beauty and blessings of our land.

And whether we have a taste for patriotic hymns or not, we can relate to being inspired and moved and grateful when we consider the awesome and complex beauty and blessings of this great land we live in.  Amen.



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You May Be Closer than You Think

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 29, 2014

Psalm 126; Acts 17:22-28 ESV

One year before our children got married, the four of us took a trip to New York City.  But not wanting to drive into the city itself, we made reservations at a Day’s Inn in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge.  We arrived late in the afternoon and parked our car in the Day’s Inn parking lot, and there it would stay until we were ready to leave town.  The next morning we got up real early and caught a city bus across the George Washington Bridge, which carried us to the subway station.  We caught a subway to downtown Manhattan.

We saw as many sites as we could see in one day—the World Trade Center, Central Park, Empire State building, and so on.  And then we finished off the afternoon by doing some shopping (well, more looking than shopping) at Tiffany’s, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Macy’s.  (We did find several bargains in the Macy’s bargain basement.)

Now, I had told my family, “I want us to be out of here and back to our hotel before dark.  It was summertime, and it didn’t get dark until almost 9:00 o’clock, so we thought we would have no problems.

Well, we shopped until 7:00 o’clock or so, and I said it was time for us to start toward the subway.  So here the four of us went, toting at least two shopping bags each, in search of our subway stop.  We got there and it was not running.  The subway line we needed was broken down, and they had no idea when it would start again.  We would need to walk several blocks, we were told, to catch another line to carry us back to the George Washington Bridge bus stop.

Now remember, we had walked all day long all over lower Manhattan.  And we were carrying bags of bargains and souvenirs.  But here we went traipsing across several city blocks in search of a subway line that was running.  By the time we found one and got on, it was after 8:30.  Darkness was threatening to creep over the city, and I was starting to panic.  But at least we were on a subway that was moving us in the right direction.

The subway arrived at the bus stop around 9:15 p.m. the best I recall.  We got off and walked to the bus stop.  It was dark, and very quiet.  We were the only tourists standing there with a half dozen or so other people, who didn’t look anything like us.  It made us a little uncomfortable, to say the least.  We waited, and waited, and waited for a bus to arrive.  Finally one arrived that was going to Ft. Lee, New Jersey.  We climbed on and sat down, relieved that we were still alive and finally on our way to the hotel.

Well, it just so happened that our hotel was on the opposite side of a divided, busy freeway that was separated by a tall fence down the middle.  As we approached the Days Inn, I walked up to the driver and said, “That is our hotel, where we want off.”  We drove what seemed like forever past the Days Inn.  I watched the Day’s Inn sunburst disappear in the distance behind us.  The driver pulled up to a bus stop and pedestrian crossover bridge.  We got off.

Again it was dark.  Very dark.  We walked down to the pedestrian bridge and walked across the busy highway in almost total darkness.  And then when we got to the other side, we realized there was no sidewalk!  And our hotel was nowhere in sight.  We found ourselves on the edge of a busy freeway where cars were whizzing by about 70 miles per hour.  And we were trotting up the side of the highway toting our Macy’s bags and souvenir in total darkness, except for the car lights that briefly illuminated us as black Cadillac’s and Lincoln Continentals sailed past us.  I have never been more scared in all my life.  All I could think of was mobsters rolling down the windows of their black Lincoln Continentals and mowing us down with their machine guns.  Or drug dealers looking for a buck pulling over and mugging and robbing us and taking our Macy’s bags.

We walked in terror for about a quarter of a mile until we reached one of those glass bus stop cubicles.  We decided it best to step inside and wait for the next bus to pick us up and carry us to the door of our hotel.  We waited another ten minutes or so, and finally we saw a bus coming.  The bus pulled up to the stop, the door swung open, and it was the same driver and same bus we had gotten off of some 20 minutes earlier.  I walked up to the door and looked at the driver, and he said, “That’ll be $8.00.”  I said, “But you just let us off on the other side about 20 minutes ago.”  “I’m sorry,” the driver said expressionless, “but it will be $8.00.”

Not wanting to put my family in any more danger than we had already been in, I paid the $8.00 and we sheepishly climbed on the bus with our Macy’s bags and took our seats.  The bus started up and immediately rounded a short curve.  And lo and behold, just around the short curve—less than a quarter of mile from where we had been sitting—was the shining sunburst of the Days Inn.  The bottom line is, we were much closer than we thought.

But isn’t that the way it often is in life?  Often—at times when we feel lost, bewildered, so far away from our goal—it turns out that we are much closer than we thought.

I have shared how that about this time last year, I was looking for a retreat center where I could spend a few days focusing on Earth-related issues, the environment, and Nature.  For weeks I searched the Internet, and considered retreat centers in Nashville, North Carolina, and as far away as Pennsylvania.  When I was about to give up, I stumbled across the Naturalist Certification Program at Tremont in the Smokies, just an hour’s drive from here.  Without realizing it, I was much closer to what I was looking for than I had ever imagined.  Like the Hebrews who sang the 126th Psalm after being able to return to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile, and whose good fortune was an unexpected joy, it was like a dream.  I was filled with laughter and joy.

But, there can also be a bit of theological truth in this idea of you may be closer than you think.  Some folks go through life trying to find God, or trying to appease an angry God, or feeling alienated from God, when all the time, the loving God they seek has been right there all along.  As Paul preached to the Athenians, “he is not far from each one of us . . . in him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  Or as the poet Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, put it, “Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.”

A good case in point was the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther.  For years Luther longed for and sought the experience of a loving, forgiving God.  Luther practically ruined his body, his digestive tract, through self-mortification and extensive fasting, trying to appease God for his sins and find a sense of spiritual peace.  And then one day Luther had the revelation that the loving, forgiving God that he had been seeking all along had been there all the time.  The window of enlightenment that allowed the darkness to be dispelled and enabled him to see this loving, forgiving God that Luther had been seeking was the window of grace.  Luther had been much closer to the God he sought than he had thought, had ever imagined.

And so it is in so many aspects of our lives.  The good news for us when we are searching, when we find ourselves in the midst of a major life transition, when we may feel alienated, or when we may think that goal is far out of reach—the good news is we may be closer than we think.   We should never give up hope.  Or to put it another way, that shining sunburst that we may be looking for may be just around the dark corner of our current experience—closer than we think.  Amen.

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Why the Caged Bird Sings: Some Lessons from Maya Angelou

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 22, 2014

Psalm 102:1-8 ESV; “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou

She was only three years old when her parents divorced.  From that time on she was shuffled from one place to another—Chicago, California, and Arkansas.  As a child of eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.  After her uncles murdered the man who had raped her, she became virtually silent until she was twelve, speaking only to her brother.  By the age of 17 she was an unwed mother.  She was a high school dropout.  In the course of her life she would work as a madam in a brothel, a dancer, and as the first female and first Black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.  She would prove to be a self-taught, self-made person, going on to become an actress, poet, director, playwright, composer, singer, college professor, speaker of six languages, recipient of more than 30  honorary college degrees, and author of 36 books (including poetry, advice books, cookbooks, children’s books, and prose).

Her breakthrough as an author was her 1969 debut autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  She achieved worldwide fame when she had the distinction of being only the second poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration.  She would receive an Emmy nomination for her acting in the mini-series Roots, a National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maya (MY-uh) Angelou (AN-juh-loe), who died on May 28th at the age of 86, may not be remembered as one of the best poets that America has ever produced.  But she certainly will be remembered as one of the most famous Black writers and one of the most influential African Americans of our time.

There is much to be learned from the diverse life that Angelou lived, the speeches she gave, and the writings she left us:

One lesson has to do with the way we relate to others.  Angelou was an activist for equality and tolerance.  In remembering her, Angelou’s son, Guy B. Johnson, noted, “She lived her life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being.  She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”  Angelou contended that parents should instill within their children early on the importance and goodness of diversity.  “While I know myself as a creation of God,” she said, “I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”  One of Angelou’s most-remembered sayings is “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  In her adult life, Angelou demanded respect from others.  But she also demonstrated respect for others in return.

A second lesson has to do with courage.  When asked by a friend what she considered the greatest virtue, she stated it was courage.  It took courage for Angelou to rise from her troubled childhood and caged station in life to step out and become the person she became.  In the first part of her extended autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou recounts how as a child it was difficult for her and her brother to understand why their parents divorced and then gave them up to their grandmother to raise them.  As an African American girl growing up in the depression years and a time of extreme segregation, she felt like a caged bird. But even a caged bird can learn to sing.  And that is what Maya did.  But it took extreme courage for her to overcome the harsh and bitter circumstances of her early years to do so.

Courage is one of those emotional staples of life that each and every one of us has to draw on every now and then.  For example, it takes courage for a child, teenager, or adult even, to go to a new school.  One of our grandsons had attended preschool, kindergarten and first grade at a wonderful church-related private school where he had thrived in an affirming, caring atmosphere and the class sizes were small.  But then last year when our kids moved, he had to switch to a big public school with a different atmosphere and where class sizes are much larger, more like twenty-eight.  It takes courage for a child to do that.  And it takes courage for a child to transition from middle school to high school, and from high school to college.  But it also takes courage for an adult to go back to college and make a career shift after years of working or staying at home.

Many are the scenarios in life that call forth courage from within us.  And Maya Angelou can serve as a good example of one who exercised courage in the most adverse circumstances.  In  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she tells of how as a teenager she walked into the employment office in San Francisco, demanding to be considered for the job of streetcar conductor they had advertised.  It took courage for her to do that.  “Courage,” Angelou said, “is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.  You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

A third Angelou lesson has to do with paying it forward.  “When you learn, teach.  When you get, give” is one of the most important lessons Oprah Winfrey gained from Angelou.  This is a quote, in fact, from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Angelou said, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

One of the maladies of our time is so many people are only interested in what life and others can give them, and they give no thought to what they can and should give to others in return.  In my years of being a pastor, I have found it to be true in churches as well.  It is tempting to seek out a church where I can get all my likes and needs met, without being willing to give of myself in return.  I suspect that is one reason that so many people are attracted to mega churches where numerous support groups, sporting activities, exercise groups, and so on are offered, where those who attend can pick and choose what appeals to them most without making a commitment to the whole or giving anything back.  But churches or any other organization cannot survive if everyone comes with open hands seeking what they get, without offering anything in return.  “To whom much is given,” Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “much will be required” (Luke 12:48).  Maya realized this.

A fourth lesson we gain from Maya Angelou is there is always hope for a fresh start.  In her now famous poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, Angelou included the line, “Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings.”  Certainly, with the many new beginnings that Maya experienced in her life, she proved her words to be true.

In her poem, “Still I Rise,” that served as our second reading today, she concludes by saying,

Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise


Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

And so, courage.  Tolerance.  Grit.  Determination.  Perseverance.  Self-confidence.  Such are some of the personal attributes that molded and helped make Maya Angelou the person she was.  When you think about how a young, Black girl who was shipped across the country to live with her grandmother at the age of three, raped at the age of eight, dropped out of high school and became an unwed mother by the age of 17, worked in a brothel and as an exotic dancer, then rose to become a respected world-renown figure, example, and mentor to many other successful figures of our age like Oprah Winfrey, it is pretty astounding.

Whoever we are, whatever our life circumstances, whether we like poetry or not, we have to admire Maya Angelou and be grateful for the example she left us, the lessons she taught us, and the legacy she leaves behind.  Amen.

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