Magnificent Things that Cannot Be Captured

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 16, 2014

Job 42:1-6 CEB

This past Friday night, we had the opportunity to attend the Annual Salon and Gallery Walk of the Camera Club of Oak Ridge, held at the New Hope Center.  Truly there are some wonderful and very talented photographers in Oak Ridge, including our own Yvonne Dalschen.  Yvonne again this year took several first-place blue ribbons.  And she claimed Best of Show in both the colored and black and white print categories.  As one strolls past the hundreds of photographic entries, it can almost be overwhelming.  Such exquisite artwork.  Such creativity and diversity.  Such interesting subject matter.  Such a gallery truly is a feast for both eyes and soul.

Then yesterday, we attended the Pilot Club’s craft fair held at the Oak Ridge Civic Center.  There is always at least one photographer there as well selling his photographs.  Of course, my primary interest is nature photography, especially landscapes, trees, flowers and black bears.

But I must confess that as an amateur photographer myself, I sometimes get frustrated when taking my own pictures, especially landscapes.  I find that it often is impossible to capture with a camera what one sees in the world of nature.  I have often stood in awe as I looked across a forest or mountain landscape, and so wanted to capture on film the image my eyes were seeing.  But I have also often been disappointed with the image my camera captured.  A case in point is a recent photograph I took of the Great Smoky Mountains.  As we drove across the Smokies through Newfound Gap, we saw some gorgeous landscapes on the North Carolina side.  And I shot several photographs, trying to capture the natural beauty we beheld.  But then when we later viewed my pictures, the images we saw nowhere near compared to what we had actually seen with our eyes.  Such is often the case.  Sometimes there is no way to capture the majesty, vastness, and wonders of the natural world.  Another good case in point is the Grand Canyon.  How would you capture on film the majesty and awesomeness of the Grand Canyon?  Or Niagara Falls?  Some things in life—such as mountain landscapes or the Grand Canyon or massive waterfalls—can be experienced, but they are beyond capturing on film, beyond description, beyond explanation, beyond adequately sharing with another.  There is no way I would adequately describe the majesty of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.  In the words of Job, such are “wonders beyond comprehension” (Job 42:3 CEB).

And so it is when I think about God—the Divine, the Sacred, the Holy One.  Or when I think about the Great Mysteries of the universe.  God, or the Sacred, or the Great Mystery may be experienced, but when you get right down to it, God is beyond description, beyond explanation, beyond adequately sharing with another.  Such happens to be one of the primary messages of the book of Job.  As the ancient story goes, Job and his friends had conversed long and hard about God and the ways of God, and Job’s friends seem to have felt like they had God and the ways of God all packaged up in a neat little box.  But one of the conclusions of the book is that knowledge of God and the ways of God are beyond understanding and description.  One may experience God or the Sacred, but one can never hope to adequately understand or offer an accurate description or explanation of God.

But you wouldn’t know this by listening to some religious television or religious radio, where many popular preachers seem to fully understand God, speak for God, and sometimes even say “God told me such and such.”  As I have grown older and wiser, I am more and more suspect of anyone who claims to have an intimate knowledge of God and says God told me such and such.

Several years ago, I knew a minister who was known for leading mission trips to various places—building simple houses for impoverished peoples and such.  And the work that was done by this minister and his mission groups was good work.  There is no disputing that.  But this particular minister had an uncanny way of getting others onboard to support whatever project he was working on.  This minister had the habit of going up to someone and saying something like, “God told me that he wants you to go on such and such mission trip.”  Or “God told me that he wants you to become a member of the church board.”  Or some other such declaration.  I don’t know about you, but that approach troubles me greatly.  The “God told me” mentally can, and often does, become an excuse to promote one’s own agenda, and the end can, and often does, justify the means to get there, even if it means resorting to persecution and violence.

The original point was that God and God’s ways are beyond description and explanation, and it is scary whenever religious groups and religious leaders claim to be receiving direct communications from God.  I recall the words of John Shelby Spong, in his book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: “God for me is a reality that can be experienced, but when I try to speak of this experience, I discover that God always transcends the grasp of my explanations” (11).1  On his blog, Spong responds to a question by saying, “I believe I can experience God, but I can no longer define God in theistic terms.”

But we seem to have this need or desire to understand and analyze everything and dissolve away all mystery.  There is a need among many to clearly define the concept of God, and maybe even bring God down to our level, so that God becomes a good buddy or Santa Claus-type figure.  Perhaps the thinking is if I can completely understand God, then I will know how to please God and I will also know how to get what I want from God.

But earliest attempts at religion were born in the womb of mystery.  And could it be that when we seek to dispense with all religious mystery, we lose some of what makes religion meaningful for us?  True, there are parts of religious expression that involve the moral aspect, relational aspect, kindness and compassion aspects, and justice aspect.  But there are other parts of religion that involve the Great Unknown, the Other-Worldly, the Mystery.

All of which brings me back to my original thesis that there are just some things in life that can be experienced, but not captured.  From my vantage point, I don’t ever hope or expect to be able to comprehend, understand, or adequately describe to another the Sacred, the Divine, that which we call “God.”  I may at times talk about, and maybe even try to explain what I mean by the Sacred, the Divine, or God, just as I will keep trying to capture with my camera those magnificent landscapes of Nature of which I stand in awe.  But I realize that sometimes I will just have to be content knowing I cannot adequately capture or describe that which is majestic, awe-inspiring, “beyond my comprehension” (to use Job’s terminology).  Sometimes I will have to just be content with the experience itself.  But isn’t that in part what religion is all about?  Amen.

 

1John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious.  New York: HarperOne, 2008.

 

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Teaching: Calling It As It Is

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 9, 2014

James 3:1 GNT

Henry David Thoreau is remembered as one of America’s most iconic figures.  He is famous as an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist and naturalist.  His book Walden, or Life in the Woods, is an American classic.  But it is hard to make a living as a naturalist.  Most early naturalists like Thoreau were able to support themselves by writing and publishing natural history articles and essays for various nature magazines.  But some sought other ways to earn a living.  For a while Thoreau tried his hand at teaching school and tutoring.  He had a brief tenure at the Concord, Massachusetts, elementary school, but resigned in short time after refusing to administer corporal punishment to his students.  Henry and his brother John founded their own academy to teach as they saw fit, but that only lasted a few years.  For another short time, Thoreau tried his hand at tutoring, but this, too, was short-lived.  In Thoreau’s own words,

I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain.  As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure. (“Economy,” Walden)

Thoreau proved to be more adept as a philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist and Nature writer than a teacher.  And so it has been with many other famous Americans over the years.  Not everyone is suited to the teacher’s task.

The Apostle James contended that “not many of you should become teachers.”  James’ contention was that teachers in the Church would be judged more strictly than others.  From his perspective, no doubt, the eternal destiny of souls depended upon teachers rightly teaching the word of truth and leading people in the right way.  And so, James’ contention was that one should deliberate long and hard before becoming a teacher in the Church.

But when we consider teaching in general—whether it be public school teachers, Sunday school teachers, or nursery school teachers—there are other reasons that not everyone should become a teacher.  Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.  Not everyone has the skills, passion, and dedication for the teacher’s tasks.  I, like you probably, had teachers who should have been in another line of work.  Teachers who had abrasive attitudes, little patience for dealing with children, little passion for the teaching craft.  It showed in their demeanor that they did not find joy in teaching or relating to students.  Maybe they were teaching because they needed a job, because teachers were in short supply, and they could fill the slot.

Back in the 1990s, when I was working on a Master’s degree in literature, I found out that because I already had one Master’s degree (in divinity) and 15 graduate level hours in English literature, I was qualified to teach English writing and literature on the community college level.  So for a couple of years I was an adjunct instructor at Columbia State Community College.  I taught English composition, American literature, and Introduction to Humanities.  The money I made paid for the degree I was working on.  But that was some of the hardest work and longest hours I have ever exerted in my life!  I found myself spending hour upon hour grading dozens of essays and exams.  And then there was the necessary preparation.  And then the actual class time.  All the hours added together, I doubt I made minimum wage.  Any ideas I might have had about becoming a full-time professor of English writing and literature quickly vanished!  So I applaud all our teachers.  Teachers rarely ever are compensated for the work they do and the hours they put in.  As Thoreau put it, a teacher’s expenses often are out of proportion to his income.  And as Thoreau also points out, if one considers going into teaching for the sole reason of making money, she should stay away from it!

But there is more.  I think it takes a special kind of person to be a successful teacher.  Teaching, I am inclined to believe, requires a special passion, an inner gift, even.  It takes a special kind of person to love and embrace children of all dispositions.  Not everyone can embrace a child who may have ADD or ADHD, or who may be feeling homesick or ill.  Not everyone can deal with a crying child or wipe a runny nose.  But some people are suited for the teacher’s tasks.  All of us, probably, can remember teachers from our past who were meant to be teachers.

Probably my favorite teacher of all time, and the one who exerted the most influence upon me, was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Trivett.  Mrs. Trivett was a dear, grandmotherly-type of person who had also taught my dad when he was a child.  So by the time I had her, she was well into her sixties.  When I started to school, I was homesick for two full weeks or more.  I had a bad case of Yellow Bus Fever.  Every morning I got up with the tummy ache and stood crying as I waited for the bus.  Mrs. Trivett would take me upon her knee, and squeeze me close, and reassure me that it would get better.  About 9:30 in the morning, we would have recess, a time when we could buy a carton of milk for 3 cents and eat a snack we had brought from home.  A few of the children came from very impoverished families and didn’t have anything to bring.  Often Mrs. Trivett would bring cookies and crackers from home to share with the children who had none.  Mrs. Trivett loved teaching, especially reading. Mrs. Trivett was meant to be a first-grade teacher, something she did into her 70s when she was forced to retire.

I think of that statement by William Ellery Channing: “There is no office higher than that of a teacher of youth, for there is nothing on earth so precious as the mind, soul, character of the child.”

One of my favorite books is the little volume by Parker Palmer titled Let Your Life Speak.1  Parker tells of how in the middle of graduate school he discovered that he loved teaching.  He states, “I could have done no other: teaching, I was coming to understand, is my native way of being in the world” (21).  But instead of going into teaching, he took a job in Washington, D.C. as a community organizer.  Sometime later, he took a year-long sabbatical from that job, spending it at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia.  His plan was to stay one year then go back to his job in Washington, D.C.  But he was invited to stay at Pendle Hill and become Dean of Studies.  So for the next decade he remained at Pendle Hill, continuing to “experiment with alternative models of education.”  Palmer is well-known for several books he has written on theories of education.  Family and friends kept asking him why he was wasting his Ph.D. teaching at a small retreat center.

While at Pendle Hill, Palmer was offered the opportunity to become the president of a small educational institution.  He knew it would be a much more prestigious position than the one he currently held.  His picture would be in the newspaper regularly.  Yet, Palmer found this career change to be quite vexing.  The more he thought of being in that position the more his stomach was tied in knots.  Parker, a Quaker himself, called some of his colleagues together in a Quaker clearness committee to help him make a decision.  A clearness committee gathers in a circle around one who needs help making a decision and spends about three hours asking questions that help one clarify a decision he is trying to make.  Parker relates how one member asked him what he would like most about being president of the educational institution that was calling him.  Parker responded by giving several answers of what he would not like about leaving his teaching position at Pendle Hill.  The poser of the question gently reminded him, “I asked what you would most like?”  Palmer continued to state what he would not like about leaving his current position and not like about the new position.  Finally when pressed he said, “I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it” (46).  There was a long silence.  The one who had posed the question finally returned with another question, “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?” (46).  Parker realized that his desire to be president had more to do with his ego than what he should be doing with his life.  He realized his calling was to be a teacher.  So he called the educational institution and withdrew his name and has been teaching ever since.

While not everyone should consider becoming a teacher, and some people simply are not meant to be teachers, some people definitely are.  The conclusion of the matter for me is teaching is a calling.  A special calling.  So today, may we celebrate the teachers among us, whether they be public school teachers, Sunday school teachers, or nursery school teachers.  Teaching is not an easy job.  It requires long hours, hard work, special skills, much patience, and I would reemphasize a special calling.  And the financial rewards are far too lenient.  Yes, we celebrate and express our gratitude for those among us who feel and answer the teaching call.  Amen.

1Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

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Where Are You Going to Invest?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 2, 2014

Matthew 25:14-29 NLT

Two weeks ago I began my sermon by sharing my love of Jeeps, how I have wanted a Jeep since my teenage years, and how that every time I pass a beautiful Jeep of a different color, I want one of that color too.  I drew a spiritual analogy to my interest over the years to different denominational colors.  Well, there is a bit more to the Jeep story that I wanted to share with you today.  Over the past few months, the Italian carmaker Fiat became the major stockholder in the Chrysler Corporation, which includes the brands Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, and Jeep.  So the official name of the newly merged automobile company is Fiat Chrysler.  The CEO of the new company is Sergio Marchionne  (marc-e-o’-ne), who has high hopes for boosting the sales of both Fiats and Chryslers (including the Jeep brand) worldwide.  Sergio is passionate about making Fiat Chrysler a stronger global enterprise.

Well, a few weeks ago I read in the Wall Street Journal where that Fiat Chrysler stock, under the ticker name FCAU, was going public.  I knew that if I could at all, I wanted to buy some stock in this newly organized company.  So I watched for the opening, but then waited a few days to see what would happen with the price of the stock.  Well, it just so happened that along about that time, the stock market took a dive.  So I continued to wait until I thought it was about as low as it was going to go, and then I bought a few shares of FCAU stock.  So far I have done okay.

Now, the point of this sermon is NOT that I am advising you to buy stock in Fiat Chrysler.  I would never advise anyone on how to invest in the stock market, as it can be so unpredictable and volatile.  The point I want to share with you, and expound upon from a spiritual standpoint, is why I bought stock in Fiat Chrysler.  I did so because of my own personal passion, beliefs, and affinity with the Jeep brand.  I am passionate about the Jeep, its history, and reputation.  I believe in the Jeep product.  But I also believe in Sergio Marchionne who has been described as being “obsessed with quality”1 and wants to address any problems with any of the Chrysler brands and boost and multiply Jeep success worldwide.  So I bought stock in it.  Or to put it another way, I invested in the Jeep brand via the Fiat Chrysler Company because of my passion, beliefs, and affinity with the product they produce and the passion of the CEO at the helm of the company.

Now, people who deal in the stock market will be quick to tell you that you also need to do your homework and make sure you are making a wise investment and not investing on feelings alone.  I get that.  But the point is, I invested in something I believe in and am passionate about.  And I will not invest in something that I do not believe in and am not passionate about.

Several years ago, our favorite restaurant happened to be O’Charley’s.  Our entire family loved the restaurant so much we bought a little bit of stock in it.  We kept it a few years and then sold it when we needed the money, and we made a decent profit on it.  We certainly would not have bought stock in a restaurant we didn’t like or didn’t believe in.

Well, in the parable attributed to Jesus by Matthew, Jesus talks about investing.  In the particular translation I chose for today, the word “invest” is used three times.  If we were to narrow the message of this parable to one concept, it probably would be this: dedicated investing in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus calls for wisdom, devotion, diligence, and a certain amount of risk.  He calls for followers to make responsible use of the resources and talents that each one is given.  He calls upon hearers to take good care of that which is entrusted to us.  The principle for Christian giving in a nutshell is proportionate giving: each one giving in proportion to what he or she has received and is able to give.  That is Christian financial stewardship pure and simple.

We sit here today in our comfortable Chapel, and we can see our children and grandchildren receive spiritual development in our Sunday school classes, and we can take pride in our three-star nursery school only because of the investments of those who have gone before us.  We were able to install sixty-some energy efficient windows in our education and office building, make needed repairs to the roof, make improvements to both our Chapel floor and education building because of the investments of those who have gone before us.  We are able to support an almost half-time Director of Education and resource for families with children and Assistant to the Minister position because of the investments of those who have gone before us.

But when it comes to the day-to-day operation of the United Church, we depend upon the investments of those who are here today.  Our investments, our gifts, enable us to keep the doors of our church open, provide full-time services and pastoral care, provide Sunday school and many special activities and events throughout the year for our children and teenagers.  Special events like this past Sunday’s Trunk or Treat and Fall Fest, the Christmas Family Worship coming up in December, the UNITY youth retreat at Camp Wesley Woods planned for January—these things are possible because of the financial investment that we make in this church.  And when it comes to outreach, the hundreds of families that we touch throughout the year through our Community & Worship Service mission gifts and my Pastor’s Discretionary Fund are possible because of our financial investment.

Most of us believe in this United Church, who we are, and what we stand for.  And so, we are happy to invest in this place we believe in.  And just as with Fiat Chrysler who has a CEO that is passionate about extending the Jeep brand, you have leaders here in this United Church who are passionate about this church and working hard to make this church successful.  Our Board members, Sunday school teachers, all of our paid church staff, Suzanne, and yours truly—all of us are passionate about this church, and all of us are working hard and have a vested interest in the continued success and growth of this congregation.  A couple of months ago, I conducted evaluation interviews with the six church employees I supervise.  On questions having to do with job satisfaction and passion for this church, all scores were 4 or 5 on a scale where 5 was positive or great.  That being the case, then this United Church is a place where all of us can invest with confidence.

All of our active members should have received a Loyalty Letter this past week from our Finance Committee and Church Board.  We hope that each one will prayerfully and faithfully consider the resources that have been given and then pledge toward next year’s budget accordingly.  I invest in what I believe in and am passionate about, including this United Church.  It falls to each of us to consider what we believe in and are passionate about, and then answer the question, “Where and how much are we going to invest?”  Amen.

1”Sergio Marchionne: Resurrecting Chrysler,” CBS News, March 25, 2012 (available on YouTube).

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Scary Things Done in the Name of Religion

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 26, 2014

Acts 7:54 -8:3 GNT

Reformation Sunday—which is always the last Sunday of October and falls within one of the most beautiful weeks of the year—happens to be one of my favorite Sundays of the year.  It is, in my estimation, a Sunday that deserves recognition by all churches of the Protestant persuasion, but especially by free churches like this United Church.  Had it not been for the Reformation and the blood spilled by many of those courageous reformers, we might not be able to freely assemble here in this church the way we do today.

One of the early Protestant Reformers to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude, but one who doesn’t always get credit for being an important reformer, was William Tyndale (tin’dl).  Tyndale was born about the same time as the more famous Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, in the late 1400s.  Whereas Luther was German, Tyndale was an Englishman.  Tyndale was an exceptional biblical scholar who was educated at Oxford and Cambridge and had an excellent knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible; and he was a master of seven languages.

Tyndale’s hope was to give England a Bible that even the poor people might read.  Thus, he felt that everyone should have the Bible in their native tongue.  Up to this point, you see, the Bible was inaccessible to the majority of people, as it was only available in Latin.  And so, Tyndale began to translate the Bible into English.  Immediately he encountered difficulties.  A number of times he had to gather up the work he had done and flee from one city to another to escape those who opposed what he was doing.  His desire to translate the New Testament from Latin into English was seen by many to be a betrayal of the sacred Latin text; blasphemous, even.  But by 1526, Tyndale had managed to produce the first complete English translation of the New Testament.  Severe criticism and controversy ensued.  In spite of the persecution he suffered, Tyndale began working on an English translation of the Old Testament, but was far from being finished before his untimely death.

Because of his desire to put a copy of the English Bible into the hands of all his countrymen, Tyndale testified that he suffered “poverty, exile, bitter absence from friends, hunger and thirst and cold, great dangers and innumerable other hard and sharp fightings.”1  On May 21, 1535, Tyndale was kidnapped and imprisoned, where he remained until October of the following year.  In August 1536, Tyndale was tried, found guilty of heresy, stripped of his priestly office, and then handed over to the secular powers for execution.  On October 6, 1536, Tyndale was strangled to death and then burned at the stake.  What was his crime?  It was translating the Bible into English.  Just before he died, Tyndale is said to have cried, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Although his life was prematurely snuffed out, Tyndale’s legacy would live on, as his English translation of the New Testament would serve as a foundation for many other English versions that would follow, including the beloved King James Version.

But here is the point: What atrocities often are committed in the name of religion! Such atrocities are probably as old as religion itself, as evidenced from that passage in Acts where Stephen, one of the first deacons of the early church, was stoned to death in the name of religious zealotry.  As the story goes, Stephen had preached a sermon on how God had worked within the Jewish people—through Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and others—to accomplish God’s will.  But when Stephen mentioned God’s servant, Jesus, who had been unjustly condemned to death and crucified, as Luke tells the story the crowd turned against him and stoned him to death.  And one of those consenting to Stephen’s death was a young, religious zealot named Saul, who would later experience a radical conversion and become the Apostle Paul.  But why such anger and rage and violence over words?

William Tyndale was killed because he translated the Latin Bible into English.  But during that time period and the hundred years or so that followed, there were many burnings at the stake, and beheadings, and other forms of execution, often over doctrinal differences—words, ideas, intangible beliefs that can in no way be proved one way or the other.

Have you ever considered what leads religious people to go against common sense, to go against human decency and kindness, to go against all rational thought so as to commit such atrocities—such scary things—in the name of the religion they serve?

I have given this a lot of thought.  And I have concluded that the unholy trinity of fear, power, and control have a lot to do with the scary and atrocious things that are done in the name of religion.  It just may be, and often is I submit, that those who are in religious power fear change and the loss of control.  Feeling that “our” religious way is the right way, and it is a way that is being threatened, then whatever actions are necessary to maintain our way, the “right way,” seem justified. For instance, during the Dark Ages, the religious elite held power over the masses who were at their mercy.  The fact that the Bible was available only in Latin not only meant that those in religious power were the only ones who were educated to read it, but also the only ones who could interpret it.  If Tyndale were to translate the Bible into English, and in conjunction with the invention of the printing press, then all Englishmen could have a copy and read and interpret it for themselves, resulting in less reliance upon the religious authorities, and hence, a loss of influence and power.

When we think about fundamentalist religious groups today—both in our country and in the Middle East and other places—isn’t it the unholy trinity of fear, power, and control that often motivates the atrocious actions that may define them?  The religious groups that subjugate women, seeking to keep them in their place, fear the loss of their secure, male-dominated culture if women are allowed the same rights, privileges, and freedoms as men.  Why, to allow women to smoke, drive a car, wear dresses that show the calves of their legs, or not wear a veil so as to show their faces in public could lead to un-thought-of losses of power and control!

Several years ago, I was asked to serve on a YWCA Task Force Against Domestic Violence.  The eventual fruit of that Task Force was the opening of a local shelter for abused women and children.  During those years I learned a lot about the dynamics of domestic violence, which included becoming acquainted with the domestic violence Power and Control Wheel.  A chief motivator for domestic abuse is the perpetrators’ sense of need to exercise unwarranted power and control over wives and children, to the extent that it often results in physical and emotional violence.  But I submit that fear is also part of the power and control mix, as the abuser fears loss of control, fears losing his spouse (who often is seen as a sexual object), if she is allowed freedom to come and go as she pleases.  There may also be an underlying fear of the loss of the abuser’s sense of manhood should his wife be given equal rights and privileges.

The sad thing is this fear of the loss of power and control that is manifested in abusive spousal situations can, and often does, bleed over into people’s religious lives.  Hence, fundamentalist Christian groups often insist upon the subjugation of women, proclaiming from the pulpit that women should be subject to their husbands, ought not wear makeup, ought not wear shorts or pants, ought not work outside the home, and so on.  So fear, power, and control become religious-sanctioned rules.  And should the woman try to break out of this expected role, physical abuse may follow.  And when the wife goes to speak to the preacher about the abuse, she may be instructed to submit to her husband, because that is what the Bible says to do.

I have strayed a bit from my original topic, but not much.  The point is the same whether it involves a strict, religious church in the Cumberland Mountains, or a strict religious group in the Middle East: Often the unholy alliance of fear, power, and control will lead people to commit horrible atrocities in the name of religious devotion.

Well, returning to where I began, yes, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those reformers like William Tyndale who gave his life to produce the first scriptures in the English language.  But the Church is always in need of change and reform.  As we think about the Church at large of our own day, let us ask (1) where is reform needed today?  And (2) in what ways is the unholy alliance of fear, power, and control opposing such needed reform?

During this “scariest” (Halloween week) week of the year, may we determine that we will never be party to any power or any action that is responsible for atrocities in the name of religion.  Amen.

1F.F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 13.

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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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