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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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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