He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

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

Job 2:11-13 NLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to that popular song, the concluding words go:

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

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

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

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The Time for Reading the Signs

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

Matthew 16:1-3 NLT

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

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

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

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

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;

Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2Burroughs, pp. 3, 9.

 

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Mutual Consideration and the Ties That Bind

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

1 Corinthians 10:24-33 NLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Considering That Other Taboo “S” Word

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

Psalm 130; Matthew 27:1-5 GNT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Utilizing Resources to Feed the Need

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

Leviticus 19:9-10 NLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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