One of Each Color

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 19, 2014

1 Corinthians 1:10-13 CEB

I am going to share something with you this morning that most of you may not know about me: I am a Jeep lover.  The love of Jeeps must have been infused in my blood, since my love of and desire to own a Jeep goes back many years to when I was a teenager.  Terry, one of our neighbors, who also happened to be a fishing buddy of my dad, owned this old, rough, baby blue Jeep that we all rode in when we went to the river fishing.  The Jeep had no top, no carpet, and a few holes in the floor where the rust had eaten through the metal.  As I began to think about getting my learner’s permit and driver’s license, I pestered Terry to sell me that Jeep.  And Terry’s response was always the same: “Your dad would shoot me if I was to sell you this old Jeep!”

Well, years passed, and I never got my Jeep.  Then in the 1990’s, when it came time to think about trading cars, I looked at Jeeps.  But for one reason or another, I didn’t buy one.  In the spring of 2002, when we were considering moving to Albany, New York, I again looked at Jeeps.  But again, for various reasons, I didn’t buy one.  After moving to New York, we were again considering trading cars, and I persuaded Mary Lou to consider a Jeep.  We drove a couple, but the ones we drove just didn’t seem to fit.  Then about four years ago, I finally took the plunge and bought my first Jeep; a starter Jeep.  Well, here is the point I am driving at (did you get that pun?): Now that I actually have a Jeep, every time I pass another beautiful Jeep of a different color on the Turnpike, or see another beautiful one of a different color in a parking lot, I say to myself, “Man, look at that pretty Jeep!  I want one of that color!”  It is still a Jeep, but it is one of a different color with slightly different options, perhaps. I want that one, and that one, and that one!  One of each color.

Now, in case you have been wondering, I am driving toward a spiritual point.  The Jeep story is simply a metaphor or analogy for a spiritual truth.  Ever since my teenage years, I have also had an interest in spirituality and religion.  There has never been any question about that.  By the time I was 20 years old, I was being drawn toward the ministry.  But soon after my graduation from seminary, I started considering denominations “of a different color,” so to speak.  After graduating from seminary, I knew I still wanted to be a preacher and minister, but I was just not sure that the denominational color I was wearing was right for me.  So as my circle of acquaintances expanded outside my own denominational family of origin, as I encountered ministers from other Christian denominations—“Ministers of a different color,” so to speak—I began to study their history and beliefs, and for awhile I would think, I want to be that denominational color!

The first denomination outside the one of my upbringing that I encountered and began to study was the United Church of Christ.  Now, I had heard of the United Church of Christ, but I really didn’t know anything about them.  So I began to study their background, history, and beliefs.  I liked what I learned.  And for a long time I had a “secret love affair” with the United Church of Christ and longed to be their color, but there was no way for me to get there from where I was. This desire began and continued about the time we moved to Denton, Texas.

However, while serving in Denton, Texas, through the local ministerial association, I met a minister who happened to be Unitarian.  I had no idea who Unitarians were and what they believed, so I went to the local library.  I liked what I learned about early Unitarians who had such a profound impact on American culture—William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  And for awhile, I wanted to be their color.  But there was no way to get there from where I was.

In the early 1990’s, after we had moved from Texas to Franklin, Tennessee, I learned about New England Congregationalists who had not joined in the merger that was to become the United Church of Christ.  (As a historical sidenote, some 5,500 Congregational denominations voted to be a part of the 1957 merger with a couple of German churches that resulted in the United Church of Christ; but some 400-500 Congregational Churches refused to merge and retained their independence and the Congregational name.)  For a long while, I wanted to convert to the Congregational color.

About this same time, I discovered the Universalists and studied extensively their history and thought, and wished I could be transformed to the classic Universalist color.  But alas, no separate Universalist denomination (in the classic sense of the term) exists today, so that didn’t happen either.

Then in 2002, I learned for the first time that my great-great-great grandfather Hammer was a Quaker who became minister of a Church of the Brethren congregation near Johnson City, Tennessee.  Before then, I had no idea that there was a Quaker or a minister in my ancestry (so unbeknownst to me, preaching must have been in my blood too).  So I began studying the history and thought of Quakerism, and met some Quaker friends in New York, and for a time considered becoming their color.

Now, by this time you may be thinking that I must have somewhat of a fragmented or indecisive personality.  But I assure you there is a happy ending to it all.  Just as we crossed over into a new millennium, I ended up being accepted as a minister in both the Congregational Churches and the United Church of Christ, and I have standing in both of those denominations today.  We ended up going to the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, of Albany, New York, where we served for six years.  It was a good fit and a good six years for us.

But then, we needed to move back south.  In 2008 we were able to move here to this United Church, a congregation which embraces a wide diversity of denominations and beliefs.  I feel like it was almost like I was destined to become minister of this United Church, because here I can be multi-colored, as it were, as I can draw from all those denominational colors that I studied and fell in love with over the years.  I can, and do, draw sermon thoughts from the Congregational, United Church of Christ, Unitarian, Universalist, and Quaker traditions.  And since coming here, I have discovered and am also able to draw from naturalists and the Earth-related spiritual tradition as well.  I am still committed to preaching and ministry, just as I was when I began 38 years ago.  But now I am blessed in that I don’t have to limit myself to one denominational color only.  I can draw from a variety of marvelous faith colors, which makes ministry here at the United Church so much richer.

Paul, in writing to the Corinthian Christians, addressed those who had divided themselves into factions, some saying, “I belong to Paul,” others saying, “I belong to Apollos,” others, “I belong to Peter,” and still others saying, “I belong to Christ.”  It makes one wonder what Paul would have to say today about the plethora of Christian denominations and sects that can be so vastly different and often fight with one another over minor doctrinal issues.  It is sad that we Christians feel that we have to be so divided.

But since Christian divisions is the case, and it isn’t likely to ever change, the other side of it is if we are willing to step across those lines that divide us into groups—Congregationalists, United Church of Christ, Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others—there is a richness to be found and drawn from that can make our church and our lives all the more richer and fuller.  That has been my experience, anyway.  Each Christian tradition has unique and positive elements to offer.  From the Congregationalists we have the history and traditions of the Plymouth Pilgrims, including our Thanksgiving holiday, but also liberal Christian thought that has been on the cutting edge of social change from the beginning, such as openness to women in the ministry and abolition of slavery.  From the United Church of Christ we get the emphasis upon justice for all.  From the Unitarians we get rational Christianity (through early Unitarians like Channing, Parker, and Emerson).  From the Universalists we get the concept of the universal love of God for all and the “Love is the doctrine of this church. . .” that we often recite responsively.  From George Fox and the Quakers we get the ideas of the “Inner Light” that speaks to each of us and “that of God in everyone.”  I am so glad that I have been given the freedom to draw that which is best from a variety of denominational colors.

Yes, I am a Jeep lover.  I probably always will be.  I only wish it were possible to embrace all those many different Jeep colors I see every time I am driving around town!  But, again, that is only a metaphor.  I also love preaching and the ministry.  I probably always will.  But in preaching and the ministry I am more fortunate in that I can, and do, enjoy drawing from a variety of denominational colors.  That is one of the factors that helps make this United Church such a very special place.  I celebrate our rainbow of faith colors, and I hope you do too.  Amen.

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The Meaning of Membership

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 5, 2014

Romans 12:4-10 GNT

Today is one of those special days that bring great joy to a minister; a day when two of our young persons have been confirmed as members of our church.  We are blessed in that the United Church has some wonderful kids and teenagers.  And those becoming members today represent the United Church’s finest.

I thought it appropriate in my short sermon today, to spend a few minutes primarily speaking to these young persons.  But hopefully what I have to say will also be of interest to everyone, and will maybe serve as a refresher for all of us.

Church membership.  What are the benefits of belonging to a faith community in general, and to this United Church congregation in particular?  As young persons, you may not today fully appreciate the loving, supportive community this United Church offers.  But someday you may better appreciate this congregation and the religious background, support, and encouragement that has been given to you over the years.

I have said it many times, both inside this church and to people I meet outside this church: The United Church is the seventh congregation I have served in my 38 years of ministry.  And without a doubt, this United Church is the most loving, harmonious, supportive, congenial congregation I have ever worked with.  I would go so far as to say this church is unique.  I have never known another quite like it.  So as young people, you may not realize what a blessing it is to have been taught, nurtured, encouraged, and loved in this congregation.

Briefly put, what is the meaning of membership?  What does it mean to belong to a congregation like this United Church?

  1. Belief.  In this United Church, we don’t have a creed or confession of faith one has to subscribe to in order to become a member.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have beliefs.  It just means we don’t dictate what one has to believe.  Rather, we seek to encourage each member to formulate his or her own informed beliefs in accordance with the positive view of God, faith, human nature, science, and human progress this congregation stands for.  I often tell people who inquire about our congregation, my aim is not to preach dogma or doctrine—what one should believe—but rather to preach practical sermons about how a Christian should actually live his or her life.
  2. Encouragment.  Some churches and ministers feel it is their responsibility to remind members how sinful they are every time they come to church.  They use guilt as a motivator to boost attendance, and may preach hellfire and brimstone as a threat to keep members in-line.  Here at the United Church, instead of telling members how sinful they are, we encourage members to discover their untapped potential and how good they might become, to be the best that they can be.
  3. Support.  In this congregation, we agree to walk together and support one another, not only in each one’s quest for spiritual or religious truth, but also support one another in the joys and sorrows of life.  Here we love, comfort, celebrate, forgive, and pray for one another.  Here we rejoice with each other when there is cause to rejoice, and we weep with one another when life makes us weep.  Our In Reach Group is a unique arm of this congregation that puts this support into action.
  4.  Talents.  In this community of faith, we encourage each member to discover, develop to the fullest, and exercise for the good of this community and our wider world the personal talents and abilities that each of us has been given.  Such is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in the passage read from Romans.  Just as in the human body where each organ or appendage has its unique function for the good of the entire body, in this body—the church—each of us is gifted in some way so as to contribute to the well-being of the whole, to our own personal satisfaction, and for the betterment of our community and wider world.  Teaching, preaching, serving, encouraging, sharing, showing kindness, helping, administrating, loving—each of us has abilities and talents to be used in the service of the church and in the service of others.  One of the joys and responsibilities of being a church member is discovering, developing, and utilizing our particular gifts that help others, support the church, and help make the world a better place.

There are other things that might be said about the meaning of membership.  But these four having to do with beliefs, encouragement, support, and talents are enough to chew on for today.  In case you haven’t noticed, the combined first letter of each of these areas comprises an acronym—B-E-S-T: Best.  Choosing to become a member of a church like this United Church is one of the BEST decisions that one can ever make.  As noted by Dr. Robert Schuller in today’s Thought for Meditation, “Nothing can be more important to a healthy, self-respecting, honored life than joining a community in which people affirm each other.”

I am extremely grateful for those who became members today and those who will become members later this month.  I am also extremely grateful that some six years ago things worked out so that I could become a member of this unique community of faith.  My hope and prayer is that today, and in years to come, those who have become members today, as well as those who will become members later this month, will also feel the same way, believing it was one of the best decisions ever made.  Amen.

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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 28, 2014

Job 2:11-13 NLT

Some of us are old enough to remember that 1969 pop tune by the Hollies titled “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”  Some of the lyrics go like this:
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

I was reminded of this song when Suzanne, our Director of Education, shared a picture circulating on the Internet of two men on a subway.  One was a Jewish man, Isaac Theil, wearing a Yarmulke.  And the other was a black man wearing a hoodie.  In the photograph, the black man has fallen asleep and is resting his head on the shoulder of the Jewish man, who does nothing to awaken him or push him away.  Theil later explained, “there is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race.  He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.”  When we went back to the Internet to search the story again, after I had already titled and started this sermon, one of the links showed the picture with the caption, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” J  At least one word that would describe both the popular song and the picture is empathy—identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

We see some wonderful stories of empathy in the Bible.  One of the classic passages in the Bible having to do with human empathy is, undoubtedly, Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke’s gospel.  Most of us know that parable by heart, how the despised Samaritan empathized with the fallen and beaten Jewish man by the side of the road, and in compassion ran to him, tended to his wounds, hoisted him upon his own donkey, and carried him to an inn and paid for his care.

In the Old Testament, or Hebrew scriptures, one of the classic examples of human empathy is the passage I read from the book of Job.  Job’s three friends, upon hearing of all the disaster that had befallen him, traveled to Job in order to comfort and console him.  Now initially, Job’s three friends showed true human empathy and compassion and got it right.  “When they saw Job from a distance . . . Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief.”  And here is the really good part: “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights.  No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words” (Job 2:11, 12-13 NLT).  To reiterate, Job’s friends got off on the right foot.  In the beginning, they did well.  But then it was all downhill from there.  In other words, after their initial encounter with Job, they said and did all the wrong things.  Job’s friends blew it when they broke their silence and dominated the conversation with their much talking, self-righteous condemnation and judgment, blame-placing, and citing the reasons for all his troubles.

Empathy is such an important human attribute.  But sometimes in trying to be empathetic, if we aren’t careful, we can blow it (as did the friends of Job) by doing and saying all the wrong things.  Some of us may have memories of when we were going through a very difficult time; maybe we were suffering some painful or potentially life-threatening illness.  Or maybe someone close to us had died.  Or maybe we had suffered the breakup of a significant relationship.  And those close to us, in trying to be a help or empathize with us, said something that didn’t help, but only made us feel worse.  We might admit we have been the recipient of such misguided empathy.  And if we were to be truthful, we might also have to admit that we have also been the source of misguided or unhelpful attempts at empathy.  When someone close to us is suffering, we feel that we should say or do something to help make things better, to solve the problem and make everything all right.  In our haste, we may not always say or do that which is most helpful.

So, what is true empathy?  What does it look like?  How do we genuinely show empathy to someone?

  1. Empathy is seeking to put ourselves in the place of another. To try to feel what they are feeling, experience what they are experiencing, see life from their perspective.  It is to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”  To empathize with another is to ask ourselves, “If I were in the situation that Person X is in, what would I be thinking, feeling, experiencing?  What would my immediate, practical needs be?”
  2. To empathize is to identify with another in our common humanity. As such, true empathy crosses gender, racial, political, and religious lines, as in the case of the Good Samaritan and in the case of the two men on the subway.  As actress Meryl Streep said, “The greatest gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.”
  3. To empathize is NOT to have all the answers, give a reason or cause of another’s troubles, or offer a solution that will make everything all right. In being empathic, instead of doing most of the talking and providing solutions to another’s suffering, we do better to mostly listen and ask questions, the right kind of questions; questions such as, “What are you feeling?  What practical thing can I do to help you?”
  4. To empathize is NOT to utter shallow clichés or platitudes that can do more harm than good. Things that people sometimes say following a death such as “He is in a better place,” or “At least you had him X number of years,” or “God never puts more on us than we can bear,” or “We cannot question God’s will,” or “God needed an angel,” generally speaking are not helpful and may do more harm than good.
  5. To empathize is NOT to say “I know exactly how you feel,” unless, of course, you have been in the exact same situation and you do know exactly how someone feels. But even then, when we have been in a similar situation, the other person’s life experience, social support group, resources, worldview, and so on are different from our own.  So can we really ever say, “I know exactly how you feel”?  Now, I will say this: Whenever I encounter someone who is suffering extreme back pain because of a back problem and/or severe sciatic pain, I will often say, “I can empathize with you,” because I can.  But for me to say, “I know exactly how you feel” would be quite presumptuous on my part, because I have no idea what is going on in that person’s head.
  6. To empathize is NOT to spend time talking about your own past pain or suffering. It is to focus on the person you are empathizing with and his or her pain and suffering.

Returning to that popular song, the concluding words go:

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
He’s my brother
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

The late Maya Angelou stated, “I think we all have empathy.  We may not have enough courage to display it.”  Maybe we do need courage—the courage demonstrated by the Good Samaritan—to show our empathy to others, especially those who are different from us.  Should that be the case, then may our prayer be this: “God, grant me the wisdom, and God grant me the courage, to empathize with the pain and suffering of others, even as I want others to empathize with me. Amen.”

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The Time for Reading the Signs

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 21, 2014

Matthew 16:1-3 NLT

Reading from “A Sharp Lookout,” Signs and Seasons, by John Burroughs

This is the time of the year—with the approach of fall this week—when some people study the signs of the natural world in order to predict the weather of the coming months.  Permit me to elaborate.  When I was a boy, there were certain members of the community—usually the older members of the community—who, in the fall of the year, would predict the kind of winter we were going to have by observing the signs of nature.  For instance, the number of morning fogs in the month of August predicted the number of snowfalls to be expected that winter.  The height of bees’ nests, the size of the brown and black rings on the wooly worms, and other such natural phenomena also predicted how mild or how cold and harsh the upcoming winter would be.  Maybe some of you can recall various natural signs or predictors that were spoken of in the community of your upbringing.

Of course, for years the recognized expert for observing the signs of nature and predicting the weather around these parts was Helen Lane, the lady we knew as the “Crab Orchard Woman.”  Someone even wrote that Helen Lane put Crossville and Crab Orchard on the map because of her newspaper column and weather predictions based on her observations of the natural world.

Observing the signs of nature in order to make predictions is age-old.  Even in Jesus’ day, folk had learned to observe the natural signs around them and make predictions about the weather.  The words of Jesus that I read from Matthew have been made into a little rhyme that we are all familiar with:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;

Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.

In another place Jesus noted that when they saw a cloud building up in the west, they knew it was going to rain.   And when they observed a wind start to blow from the south, it was going to be hot (Luke 13:54-56).

About a year ago, I discovered the writings of early naturalist John Burroughs, who is considered one of America’s first great nature writers.  Burroughs was a native New Yorker, who lived in the Catskill Mountains, and was a close observer of the natural world.  Burroughs counted among his circle of friends Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison.  Among Burroughs’ rivals was another naturalist, John Muir.  Burroughs and Muir had opposing philosophies and preferences regarding the natural world.  Burroughs’ first major book to be published after he gave up his day job of being a bank examiner to devote his life to farming and nature writing was Signs and Seasons.  Burroughs is important because of the impact his writings had on the rise of the conservation movement, “his belief in the oneness of creation,” and his emphasis upon “treasuring ‘one’s own landscape.’”1  In the passage I read to you, Burroughs, likewise, discusses observing the sky in order to predict upcoming weather.

But the important point I want to stress from Burroughs’ nature writings are the words “observe” and “observation” that keep cropping up in his writings again and again.  Burroughs wrote, “the place to observe nature is where you are; . . . .  The good observer of nature holds his eye long and firmly to the point. . . “2  I could read passage after passage where Burroughs talks about observation from many different angles.  Suffice it to say, as I have learned in my naturalist studies at Tremont in the Smokies, one of the most important tools of the naturalist is keen observation.  We can learn so much if we cultivate a keen observation of the natural world.  And by the same token, we miss out on so much when we fail to observe the miracles and inter-connectedness of the natural world around us.  And for various reasons, the beginning of autumn is a good time to be reminded of that.

However, when Jesus spoke about observing the signs of the sky, he had another, deeper motive in mind.  According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus was more concerned with his hearers being present in the moment and observing the spiritual signs right before their very eyes.  One who was seeking to show them the way and nature of God was in their very midst, but they could not see it.  They wanted Jesus to perform some miraculous sign to show them that he was really authentic.  But if they only had eyes to see and ears to hear the signs around them, Jesus contended, they would already be convinced.

Perhaps Jesus was also concerned with the observation of religious and political signs of the times.  In Jesus’ day, there was an unholy alliance between the political powers (the mighty Roman Empire) and the religious powers (the religious elite who had control of the Temple and synagogues).  The truth is, mixing religious fervor with political power can produce a volatile situation.  It did in Jesus’ day, and we see such every day in the news.

It is a basic fact of life that those who excel in life, those who are successful in life, are keen observers of the signs of the times.  Successful inventors and entrepreneurs are those who are keen observers of life and discerners of the signs of the present moment.  People who are successful in investing in the stock market are able to discern the cutting edge of change and observe the signs of the times.  Successful authors are people who are able to discern the signs of the times and what people are longing to read.  Prominent philosophers and theologians are those who are able to observe and discern the signs of the times and connect to the present moment in a relevant way with philosophical and theological thought.  Best-loved poets, like Mary Oliver, who wrote, “It is what I was born for—to look, to listen,” are able to keenly observe life and the natural world and convey meaningful images in the words they write.  You get the picture.

And so, the point being is how important it is for us to cultivate a keen observation of the signs all around us: how important to observe the signs of life, the natural world, religious thought, political movements, technological changes, and so on, so that we are not caught off-guard, fumbling in the dark, or left behind as the world moves on or is undergoing upheaval or unprecedented change.

As I think about these things, I have more questions than answers.  For instance, as we observe the signs of religious terrorism around the world, what does this mean for the future of America and the sacrifices we will be called upon to make?  As we observe the signs of the stock market that just keeps rising and rising, what does it mean for our financial security and how we should be prepared for an unexpected drop or change in the market and investments?  As we observe the signs of change in American churches and American religious makeup in general, how do we as a traditional congregation need to change or at least be flexible in order to keep up with society’s perceptions of what church worship services and programs should be?

The point is, Jesus understood it.  Naturalists like John Burroughs understood it.  Contemporary poet Mary Oliver understands it.  One of the most important lessons we can learn in life is to be awake, be alert, be a keen observer of what is seen, felt, and going on in the world around us.  In other words, may we cultivate the habit and the ability of observing and reading the signs of the times.   Amen.

1John Burroughs, Signs and Seasons.  New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008.  P. xii.

2Burroughs, pp. 3, 9.

 

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Mutual Consideration and the Ties That Bind

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 14, 2014

1 Corinthians 10:24-33 NLT

Let’s start with a story; a true story.  Some years ago, in a previous congregation, there was a retired couple that I will refer to as Sam and Bonnie.  Sam and Bonnie were in their early to mid-eighties at the time.  They had sort of become discontented with the church before we arrived and had all but stopped attending.  But they took a liking to us and started attending regularly and became, in fact, two of my strongest supporters.  We became very close.  About once a year, Sam and Bonnie would invite us to their home for dinner.  Now, Bonnie had severe rheumatoid arthritis in her legs and hands, which made walking and climbing steps very difficult.  Nevertheless, she attended church as long as she could, even though it meant climbing several marble steps to get into the sanctuary.  And eventually Bonnie all but gave up cooking, since the arthritis in her hands made it so difficult.  So, sweet, thoughtful, and caring man that he was, Sam took over the cooking and dish washing.

Well, one evening Sam and Bonnie again invited us over for an evening of visiting and dinner.  We sat in their living room and visited awhile before dinner.  Then Sam announced it was time for appetizers and suggested we move to the dining room table.  The table was set with their fine silver on a lovely table cloth.  Bonnie, Mary Lou and I took our seats, and Sam went into the kitchen to bring our appetizers.  In a moment he proudly returned with four big shrimp cocktail appetizers, containing eight big shrimp each.  And if we preferred over the cocktail sauce, he placed a bowl of homemade horseradish sauce in the middle of the table.

Now, you have to realize that I have never liked shrimp.  I dislike like the taste, and I don’t like the texture.  I had never eaten a whole shrimp in my entire life.  But here I was at Sam and Bonnie’s table, with eight big shrimp staring me in the face which Sam had proudly prepared and proudly placed in front of me for my enjoyment.  I had no idea what to do, since I didn’t think I could swallow and stomach one of the shrimp, much less eight.  At the same time, I could not imagine telling Sam that I didn’t like shrimp, and I did not want to run the risk of hurting his feelings.  So I was faced with a dilemma; a real shrimp conundrum.

Well, Mary Lou—knowing how much I disliked shrimp and knowing that I did not like horseradish sauce either—was watching me and wondering how I was going to handle the situation.  What do you think I did?  Well, after taking a deep breath, I decided there was just one acceptable course of action.  I would have to eat the shrimp and at least pretend that I liked it.  So one by one, I took those shrimp off my plate and I made myself open my mouth, chew, and swallow them, down to the very last one.  I think I even dipped one of them in the horseradish sauce.  And when the last shrimp was gone, I smiled and thanked Sam for the wonderful cocktails.  I did it for Sam, and out of consideration for him, and because of the bond of love between us, and the ties that bound us together.

Sometimes that is what you do when you live together in religious community—out of consideration for one another, you make concessions, you think about the feelings of others, you sometimes do things for the good of the relationship that you would rather not do.

The Apostle Paul touched on this a bit in his first letter to the Corinthians.  Granted, the situation in Corinth was quite different, to say the least.  Corinth was a city filled with temples to numerous gods and goddesses.  Oftentimes meat would be symbolically sacrificed in these pagan temples, and then later sold in the marketplace for food. And so, if one happened to be a strict Christian whose conscience forbade having any association with a pagan god or meat ceremonially dedicated to one of the pagan gods or goddesses, you see where a problem could ensue if someone invited you to their home and served you such meat.  This may seem trivial to us, but for Christians of the Corinthian Church it was a real problem which called for a practical response.  So in his letter, Paul sought to address the issue of Christian freedom and how one exercises his or her freedom without causing offense to someone else.  Paul in effect said, “I personally may have no qualms at all about eating meat that has been ceremonially dedicated to an idol or in a pagan temple.  But if it offends another member of the church for me to do so, then I won’t do it. “  In another place (Romans 14:21) Paul talks about drinking wine.  Some felt it was perfectly acceptable to drink wine and saw it as a gift from God, whereas others were teetotalers and felt drinking wine was wrong.  So in that case, Paul said, “Though I personally can drink wine with a free conscience, if to do so in the presence of another member of the church offends them, then I will refrain from doing so when we are together.”

One of the key words in Paul’s advice to the Corinthian Christians is “consideration;” consideration for the conscience and feelings of others in the community of faith.  And consideration goes both ways.  If it will offend someone for you to eat something, then out of consideration don’t eat it or drink it when you are in their presence.  By the same token he says, “Eat whatever is offered to you . . .”  In other words, out of consideration, if you can at all, eat whatever someone gives you so you don’t offend them by not doing so.

One of the things that makes a religious community like this United Church so special is we care for one another.  And we are considerate of one another.  And we are sensitive to the feelings of one another.    Granted, it is not this way in every religious community.  And it hasn’t always been in every church or faith community I have been a part of.  But it certainly is here, and that is one thing that makes this United Church such a special place and a place to come home to.

But the fact that we are caring, considerate, and sensitive doesn’t mean that we always agree with one another.  One may claim to be conservative and the other liberal.  One may be a dyed in the wool Republican and the other a dyed in the wool Democrat.  One may enjoy a daily glass of wine and another may be a staunch teetotaler.  And when we have our monthly board meetings, we don’t always agree on the best course of action on some of the issues we address.  But  in all of these instances, at least in all of the ones I have witnessed since becoming your minister, we are congenial, considerate of the other person’s opinion, sensitive to the other person’s feelings, and we have a genuine care for one another in spite of our differences of opinion.

We are a religious community.  But just what is community?  How do we define it?  Community gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, an extension of home and family, and a system of values.  But to bind ourselves together in religious community is to also bind ourselves together in covenant.  And this is what separates us from any other organization to which we might belong.

I have mentioned it in a sermon before, but the 1629 church covenant of the Congregational Church of Salem, Massachusetts, is such a beautiful and important piece of church history, and it seems so fitting for the spirit of this United Church.  That church covenant read: “We Covenant with the Lord and one with an other; and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”  For me, the operative words in that Covenant are we “do bind ourselves . . . to walk together. . .”   We may not always have the exact same opinions.  We may not always agree on the issues.  We may not always interpret a Bible passage in the exact same way.  Some may love shrimp, and others of us may not.  Nevertheless, we bind ourselves to walk together in mutual love, consideration, sensitivity, and caring.  There is an apt African proverb that says, “If you want to walk fast, go alone.  If you want to walk far, go with others.”

This is what makes for authentic religious community—mutual consideration and commitment to the ties that bind us together.  We are so blessed in that this United Church is a model example of what a religious community ought to be.  I am truly grateful that some six years ago you have made me a part of it.  Amen.

 

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Considering That Other Taboo “S” Word

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 31, 2014

Psalm 130; Matthew 27:1-5 GNT

Traditionally there have been topics that have been considered too taboo—too unmentionable—to talk about in public.  One of those taboo “S” words—suicide—has come to the forefront recently with the untimely, August 11th, death of actor Robin Williams.  The world was thrown into a state of shock when it was revealed that Williams had hung himself.  As days passed, we learned that not only had Robin Williams battled depression and drug abuse, but he had in recent months learned that he had Parkinson’s disease.

There was a time when a great deal of stigma was associated with suicide and it was only discussed in whispers.  And at funerals or memorial services of those who had taken their own lives, suicide was never or rarely ever mentioned, as ministers or priests danced around the cause of death as if it was a sin to even mention suicide from the pulpit.  In some Christian traditions, suicide has been considered a mortal, unforgiveable sin, and those who took their own lives were forbidden from being buried in certain cemeteries.  One famous commentator posted a message saying he had lost all respect for Robin Williams because he had taken his own life.  As noted in a USA Today article, “Too many people don’t understand depression as a medical issue.  They see it as a moral failing.”

But thankfully, the world has changed somewhat, and suicide and the circumstances preceding suicide are better understood.  And suicide is no longer the taboo subject that it once was.  And one ray of sunshine accompanying Robin Williams’ tragic death is that it gives opportunity for the topic of suicide to be openly discussed and, hopefully, better understood.  Again quoting USA Today, Williams’ death can help others better understand and show compassion “by putting a sympathetic human face on the problem of mental illness.”1

As I approach this topic today, I do so with a certain amount of trepidation and with as much sensitivity as possible.  I want to treat the subject in a very delicate manner, in part because most of us have been touched by it personally in some way.  But I also approach the topic, not just as an armchair philosopher or theologian, but from a very personal frame of reference.  Some years ago, I had a minister acquaintance who took his own life—also by hanging.  When you lose someone you know or who is very close to you, it puts a whole different face on the difficult subject of suicide.

Sadly, the number of suicides in the United States has remained high—about 39,000 deaths each year—while other forms of death have fallen.  More people die in the U.S. from suicide than in car accidents or from the AIDS virus.  Or to put it another way, over 100 people a day die by suicide in the United States.  Alarmingly, Americans in the same age bracket of Robin Williams (who was 63) are committing suicide at an increasing rate, making suicide in middle to late-middle-aged adults (baby boomers) higher than any other age group in America.  That is to say, “suicide rates for adults aged 45-64 rose 40% from 1999 through 2011, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Suicide is so hard on the family.  And it opens up all kinds of hard questions and raw feelings of guilt, remorse, and often anger.  Often it has been said of someone who took his or her own life, “What was he or she thinking?  How could he or she have been so thoughtless to inflict such horrible pain on those left behind?”  The reasons that lead people to take their own lives are many and varied and often poorly understood.

Some—as in the case of Judas Iscariot—take their own lives because of a sense of overwhelming remorse or guilt for something they have done, some great tragedy that cannot be undone.  When Judas realized that his actions had been responsible for having an innocent man condemned to the most tragic death imaginable, he could no longer live with himself.

Others choose the route of taking their own lives due to a sense of hopelessness.  When life circumstances become too difficult to manage and there seems to be no hope whatsoever that things will ever change for the better, death often is seen as a welcome way of escape.  Being the primary caretaker for a loved one who has extensive medical problems and requires round-the-clock care; living daily with extreme, chronic pain for which there is no relief; the emotional feeling that one has committed moral failure, disappointing and losing the respect of family and friends; any of these reasons and more can lead to a sense of hopelessness and make suicide seem attractive.  I remember many years ago, my dad had a co-worker who was accused of taking company tools and supplies home in his lunchbox at the end of the day for his own personal use.  Rather than face the loss of his job and embarrassment of being charged and possibly imprisoned, he took his own life.

Often, as in the case of Robin Williams, suicide results because of mental depression, a state—the deep, dark hole—which most often the person cannot control.  Depression, we now know, often results because of chemical imbalance in the body or brain, a condition that one who suffers from it cannot control any more than one can control the effects of asthma, a heart condition, or cancer.  Some years ago, after walking offstage from a cheering audience, Williams stated, “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people.  But not to myself.”3  Often when one is in the deep, dark hole of depression, there seems to be no hope, no way out of the mental and emotional torment.  So when someone says of one who has taken his own life, “What was he thinking?” the truth is, often those who are in the deepest, darkest depression, seeing no way out, are not thinking.  And they should not be  judged unmercifully because of it.  Until one has been in the deepest, darkest pit of depression from which there seems to be no way out, or has had a close loved one who has been there, you can’t really understand what people go through.

And so, I would hope that the world—and that we too—can look at the illness of depression and depression’s sometimes most tragic end with a bit more sympathy, understanding, and compassion.  It is important that we not treat those who have considered or attempted suicide as outcasts, but we embrace them with open arms and understanding.  And if we have had a loved one who attempted or even succeeded at suicide, it is important that we not be angry at them or hold it against them.  Often those who attempt suicide and fail are able to get past and rise up from the depths of their despair, like the proverbial phoenix rising up from the ashes, to live fulfilling, productive lives.  Those who wrestle with the illness of depression and thoughts and/or attempts at suicide deserve every ounce of compassion and love we can extend them.  Because if there is a God up in heaven, I believe that is the way God views those who struggle with the daily agony of depression, the sense of utter hopelessness, or that feeling of complete moral failure for which there seem to be no amends.

Unless we have been where Robin Williams and others like him have been, we should be slow to judge and condemn and eager to extend understanding and compassion.  Amen.

 

1Liz Szabo, USA Today, Aug. ?, 2014.

2Zusha Elinson, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13, 2014.

3Dick Cavett, TIME Magazine, Aug. 12, 2014.

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Utilizing Resources to Feed the Need

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 24, 2014

Leviticus 19:9-10 NLT

It is a terrible thing to be hungry.  To go to bed at night with an empty, gnawing stomach.  To feel hunger pangs with nothing to alleviate them.  If you have ever been really hungry, you know the feeling.  Fortunately, I was raised in a family that always had something to eat.  We were never without food in the house.  But a few times as a child I refused to eat what was set before me at suppertime because it did not suit my taste, and then later that night, when all had gone to bed and all were fast asleep but me, I got hungry.  But it was a hunger of my own making, and was no one else’s fault but my own.  And it was minor compared to the hunger regularly suffered by many.

There are a lot of people in our world, in our country, in our county who are hungry on a regular basis.  And there are a lot of children who go to bed hungry every night by no fault of their own.  A USDA government report notes that in 2012 14.5% of U.S. households were food insecure, which means that “at times during that year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members. . .”  Of households with children, 20% suffered food insecurity.  But alarmingly, of households consisting of a single mother and children 35% were food insecure. And for these people, and especially these children, our hearts go out.  If we could have one prayer completely answered, it might be that there would be no more hunger in the world, but that the resources that are available might be shared so that all might have food to eat.

Jesus is quoted as having said, “you have the poor with you always” (Mark 14:7).  It does seem that there has been a segment of the population designated as “poor” from the earliest recorded history.  I read to you a couple of verses from the ancient Jewish code of law and conduct that made provisions for the poor of the land.  (By the way, of all the chapters in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the 19th chapter of Leviticus is one of the most interesting and possibly most important.)  In the verses I read, the people were instructed to not strip their grain fields, or vegetable fields, or vineyards clean, but to leave some for the poor, sojourners, immigrants or other folk without land, so they could glean the last remnants of grain, vegetables, or fruits to alleviate their hunger.

An excursion may be a bit off the point, but not much.  I recall a scene in that American classic, The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joad Family and hundreds of others like them arrive in California hoping to find jobs picking fruit.  When they arrive, the oranges are ripe and falling to the ground, and all these California transplants are on the verge of starvation, but they are forbidden from picking up and eating the fruit that has fallen to the ground and is rotting.  So much food on the ground, but none that could be eaten by starving children.  It is such a moving scene.  What a travesty!  What an injustice! we want to cry out as we witness such scenes.  In writing that scene, John Steinbeck was not making it up.  He was not writing fiction; but rather, he was chronicling what was taking place during that critical time of American history during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

But back to the present.  While much of the world enjoys extravagant food and throws much food away, much more of the world is starving for crumbs “from the rich man’s table,” to paraphrase a line from Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:21).  There is such an imbalance of food distribution in the world.  Measures could be taken so as to better feed much of the world, if all the world’s peoples could agree and band together to do so.  As Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently put it, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Well, there are new movements across the world, and in many American cities, to address the problem of hunger and share available resources to meet the need.  This summer I ran across two new terms I had never heard before that piqued my interest.  One term is “Food Forests,” and the other is “Urban Agriculture.”

Food Forests is the movement that has shown up in American cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, and even nearby Johnson City, Tennessee.  A food forest occurs when a city or urban area sets aside undeveloped land such as part of a city park, greenway, vacant lot, and so on to plant several layers—tall trees, short trees, shrubs, above-ground fruits and vegetables, and below-ground root foods—of perennial food sources.  The layers of a food forest look like this: first there is the canopy, which is the tallest of fruit and nut-producing trees.  Then are planted shorter or dwarf fruit and nut-producing trees.  Below these are planted perennial shrubs such as berry bushes and briars.  Appropriately mixed in are vines such as grapevines or climbing bean vines.  Next there are planted above ground vegetables and herbs.  Then there are root plants such as carrots or potatoes.  Finally, there is a layer of edible ground cover such as strawberries and mushrooms.  Of course, everything can’t be perennials, such as bean vines, but as much as possible things that are planted are perennials that produce year after year without having to be replanted.  Or to put it another way, those who design food forests plan them so as to be self-sustaining.

The largest such food forest is located in Seattle, called the Beacon Food Forest, that covers seven acres.  In nearby Johnson City, a church has donated land for a food forest that happens to be next to a food pantry.  So the produce of the food forest will be offered free to hungry people of the area.  The idea has caught on, and similar food forests are being planned all over Johnson City.

Another term that is being used is “urban agriculture” and is very similar to food forests and could even take the form of a food forest, I suppose.  Urban agriculture simply signifies cities taking vacant land—such as vacant, downtown lots that previously were nothing but trash-collectors and eyesores—and turning them into community gardens where a variety of fruits and vegetables are grown and are free for the taking by hungry residents.  Small farms are now cropping up in urban areas all across the country.  Of course, such small, urban garden plots and food forests require volunteers to make decisions about what and how things are planted and grown.  And in the case of elaborate food forests, a lot of groundwork and planning must go into the project early on.  But once the planning and planting are completed, for the most part the plots become self-sustaining after a few years, requiring minor care.  As with volunteers who oversee Habitat for Humanity building projects, I am sure there would be volunteers in most cities who would be ready to help plan, plant, and oversee food forests and other urban agriculture projects.

And so, bringing the idea home, could such a thing as a food forest or urban agriculture on a smaller scale be a viable consideration for Oak Ridge?  Could some of our city park land or greenbelt be set aside and designated as food forest land?  Or could some of the unattractive vacant lots in Oak Ridge be transformed into urban gardens?  And where would we go to start the conversation?  It seems to me that the concept is worthy of consideration.

Jesus’ statement that “the poor you have with you always” doesn’t have to be interpreted as meaning that is the way it has to be.  I don’t believe Jesus was saying there should always be poor people; rather, that is just the way it is.  We may not be able to change the hunger problems of the whole world, but we might be instrumental in helping address the hunger problems in our own backyard where a large percentage of school children receive free breakfasts and lunches.  The land is available, such as unused Haw Ridge Park on Edgemoor.  And resources in Oak Ridge are abundant.  And I feel certain ample volunteers would be available as well.  Surely there is something that together the citizens of Oak Ridge might do to utilize the resources to feed the hunger need. Amen.

1USDA online report.     2Food Forests information was taken from The Mini Page, July 5-11, 2014.

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