Angels: Emissaries of Peace

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 7, 2014

Matthew 1:18-25 ESV

As noted last week, our overall theme for this Advent season is “Advent: Season of Angels,” since the presence of angels is so prominent in all the Advent-Christmas scripture passages, and the mention of angels is so prevalent in most of the beloved Christmas carols.

Since the second candle of the Advent Wreath is the Candle of Peace, I thought it fitting that today’s topic be “Angels: Emissaries of Peace.”  Maybe you noticed that “peace” was mentioned in three of the four stanzas of this morning’s opening hymn, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”

Stanza 1. “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, From heaven’s all gracious King.”

Stanza 2. “Still through the cloven skies they come, With peaceful wings unfurled.”

Stanza 4. “For lo, the days are hastening on . . . When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling.”

And, of course, one of the most beloved Christmas passages of all is the line in Luke’s Christmas story that says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

And so, all this is to say that the idea of angels as emissaries of peace is solidly grounded in the Christmas stories and Christmas hymns.

But I also noted last week that while “angels” in the Bible most often refers to heavenly agents or messengers, sometimes the word “angel” refers to a human messenger or agent.  So here is the question of the day: Where, in today’s world, might we run across angels of peace?

I don’t know about you, but I have been disturbed by all the events that have resulted from the August 9 shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.  For weeks now, one can hardly turn on the morning or evening world news without hearing about more protests, violence, burning of businesses, and looting.  And the protests and violence have spilled over into other parts of the country as well.  Are there any angels of peace in Ferguson, St. Louis, and other cities that have been affected by this racially-charged tragedy?  And if there are, who are they?

A week or so ago, I happened to catch a news segment about one person in particular who is seeking to be an emissary of peace.  On Sundays he is a Black pastor who is preaching and calling for reconciliation and peace.  But Monday through Friday, he serves as a police officer who is out on the streets, in the troubled neighborhoods, where he is also working for reconciliation and peace.  And I am sure there are a lot of other pastors and police officers, just like this Pastor-Policeman, who are striving to achieve peace and reconciliation in the midst of violence and unrest.

And then, what about Pope Francis?  I have a growing respect for the new Catholic Pope.  I feel like Pope Francis has brought a breath of fresh air to the Catholic Church and is edging the Catholic Church toward some positive changes, especially in the area of social issues.  But one of the most important initiatives of Pope Francis is his commitment to “interreligious tolerance and outreach,”1 especially with Jews and Muslims.  The Pope is seeking to foster better understanding, tolerance, and acceptance across religious lines.  A good illustration of this is the Pope’s recent visit to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, a visit which served as a reaffirmation of “his belief in interreligious dialogue.”  While there, Pope Francis had a meeting with the Grand Rabbi of Turkey.  Regarding Islam, the Pope stated, “no one can say that all followers of Islam are terrorists, any more than you can say that all Christians are fundamentalists.”  The Pope paid a visit to Istanbul’s 17-century Blue Mosque.  “He faced Mecca and prayed should-to-shoulder with a senior Muslim cleric.  ‘I came as a pilgrim,’ the pope said afterward.  ‘I prayed above all for peace.’”  From where I stand, Pope Francis might rightly be seen as an angel or emissary of peace.

But what about us?  Are there any ways that we, too, might become angels or emissaries of peace during this Advent season?  The sad truth is, the days leading up to Christmas can be some of the most hectic, stressful, peace-less days of the entire year.  Many of us feel pulled in too many directions.  We allow ourselves to get over-stressed with all the gift-buying, gift-wrapping, grocery shopping, and event-hopping that we feel has to be done.  Then there are the impatient shoppers and inconsiderate mall parking lot drivers to be dealt with. And practically every day our mailbox is filled with end-of-the-year solicitations from organizations pleading for our financial gifts.  If we are not careful, the “season of peace on earth, goodwill toward men” can easily become the season of fighting on earth, hatred toward men.

And so, it behooves us to enter the Advent-Christmas season with a conscious commitment to be emissaries of peace.  Ahead of time we need to make a point, whenever we find ourselves in a less-than-peaceful situation, to try to be a peacemaker in the midst of turmoil: at family gatherings that can sometimes become political, religious, or nursing-old-wounds battlegrounds; in parking lots that can easily look like one of our children or grandchildren’s video games  where one tank tries to zap the other tank as people vie for that one vacant parking spot; in crowded department stores where long lines and short tempers prevail; we can, perhaps, be agents of peace.

In such instances, we just need to step back; take a deep breath; not allow ourselves to be sucked into the downward spiral of turmoil; look for a way to turn the spirit of the moment the other way; and in a soft, reassuring voice seek to bring calm to the situation.  In other words, seek to become emissaries of peace.

One day this past week, I stopped by Dollar General at lunchtime to pick up a few items.  I ran in, quickly gathered up what I had gone in for, and then went to get in line.  There was only one register open and about a dozen people waiting to check out.  So there we were, most of us in a hurry, I surmised, checking the time, some starting to feel impatient.  But then I noticed this one lady at the head of the line who had pulled her rounded-up cart out of line and was letting everyone go ahead of her.  She let at least twenty people go ahead of her, and she was as cool as a cucumber.  What a thoughtful gesture, I said to myself.  It was a little thing, but her act of generosity changed the situation dynamics.

I recently finished reading the Travels of William Bartram, who was an early Quaker naturalist.  I had underlined one of Bartram’s serendipitous prayers, and as I was copying notes to my naturalists’ quotes journal I thought this prayer most appropriate for this Sunday of Advent.  Bartram’s prayer goes like this: “O universal Father!  Look down upon us, we beseech thee, with an eye of pity and compassion, and grant that universal peace and love may prevail in the earth, even that divine harmony which fills the heavens . . .”2

May such be our prayer as well during this Advent season, but also our daily aim: to strive to be emissaries of peace, where peace often is so lacking and so woefully needed in our world.  May it be so.  Amen.

1Deborah Ball, “Pope Calls Extremism a ‘Grave Sin,’”  Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2014.

2William Bartram, Travels and other writings.  Library of America, 1996.

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Angels: Bearers of Hope

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 30, 2014

Luke 1:5-25 GNT

One of the familiar holiday movie classics that will show up on television in the coming weeks is It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.  I enjoy watching It’s a Wonderful Life again and again because of the positive, timeless messages the movie holds for us.  If you have never seen it, you should do yourself and your family a favor and watch it sometime during this holiday season.

It’s a Wonderful Life centers on George Bailey (played by Stewart), the chief officer of a struggling savings & loan, who loses all hope and all faith just before Christmas.  Things look so bad from George Bailey’s vantage point that his hopelessness and despair push him to the point of suicide.  But just as George is ready to end his life by jumping off a bridge into an icy stream, an uncharacteristic angel in human form by the name of Clarence Odbody appears to save him.  Clarence has been sent back to earth to earn his wings, which he will earn if he can help George Bailey make his way through his present crisis.  Thus, Clarence’s mission is to help George Bailey see that things are not nearly as bad as they appear to be.  I am not going to tell you any more of the story for those of you who may not have seen it.  But in short, Clarence becomes for George Bailey an Angel of Hope.

Realizing the very prominent role that angels play in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas stories, as well as the repeated mention of angels in many of the beloved Christmas carols, we decided to frame our Advent services and sermons around the theme of “Advent: Season of Angels,” attempting to look at the messages of the angels from a contemporary perspective.

Which brings me back to today’s topic: Angels: Bearers of Hope.  Such was the angel Gabriel to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the Lukan story that I read today: an Angel of Hope.  The angel Gabriel became an angel of hope for Zechariah and Elizabeth and their people in more ways than one.  First, the angel Gabriel became a messenger of hope by announcing they would finally, after all of those long, barren years, have a son to call their own.  For people of that day and time, being childless was a difficult lot in life, for many different reasons.  For a couple to be childless meant they would not have the joy that children bring to a home.  They would not have anyone to care for them and keep them company in their old age.  They would not have any heirs to whom to leave whatever property or wealth they had accumulated.  But perhaps worst of all, the wife, especially, was burdened with the disgrace of not being able to have children.  Being barren was often seen as punishment by God, who was thought to close up a woman’s womb so that she could not conceive.  And so, we can understand why Elizabeth would exclaim, when she realized she was pregnant, “Now at last the Lord has helped me. . . He has taken away my public disgrace!” (Luke 1:25).  So Gabriel in this story becomes a bearer of hope by promising that Zechariah and Elizabeth would know the joy and gladness that a child brings to the home.

But Gabriel was a bearer of hope in another way.  Their son, whom they were to name John, would bring religious and political hope to the people Israel.  He would be a preacher of righteousness that would turn the hearts of people back to God.  But more importantly (and for our Advent purposes), John would be a forerunner of the long-awaited One.  In other words, something great, long-awaited changes, long hoped-for deliverance were in the works.  And this son to be born would be a big part of it.  Here was a ray of hope for a downcast, oppressed, people.  Gabriel is a bearer of hope .

Now, it falls to each of us to decide how literally, or how symbolically, metaphorically, or mythologically we interpret this and other Advent and Christmas stories that include the presence, actions, and messages of angels.  It is not my purpose either to defend or refute the historical factuality of angels in the Christmas stories that all of us hold dear, or the reality of angels in general.  But when we investigate angels mentioned in the Bible, we find that the subject is broader than we might first think.  Most often the meaning of the word translated “angel” in the Bible is “messenger or agent.”  Sometimes “angel” in the Bible refers to a heavenly being messenger.  But at other times the word “angel” designates a human being who serves as an emissary or messenger for God.  And so, there can be angels of hope among us, whether we recognize them as such or not.

I have told the story a number of times how that in the winter of 2001 I suffered a herniated disk which caused excruciating, almost unbearable, pain for eight weeks.  I went from doctor to doctor, doctor to chiropractor, looking for hope.  Finally I found a surgeon who said he could fix my problem and put an end to my pain.  I had found an angel of hope.

All of us have been following the news of the Ebola epidemic that has brought such suffering, devastation, death, and fright to parts of the world.  Perhaps the Ebola crisis was not so critical in our eyes—until it came to America.  But the reality is all of those doctors and nurses who are laboring in the Ebola treatment centers in Africa and other places are nothing short of angels of hope.  And so are those medical personnel who work with children who have life-threatening illnesses at St. Jude’s and other hospitals like it.  And those who work with people diagnosed with other life-threatening illnesses.   Or those who work with the homeless.  Angels of hope are everywhere, if we only had eyes to see them.  And one need not be in the medical profession or social work to be an angel of hope.  Could it be that any one of us might become an angel of hope to another “Zechariah,” “Elizabeth,” or “George Bailey” who may be at the point of despair or hopelessness?

Many years ago, a young man who found himself working long hours in dark, dingy factory aspired to be a writer.  So time after time he mailed out stories he had written to publishers.  But every time he got a rejection letter in reply.  Finally one day the young man received a letter from an editor who liked what he had written and offered to publish it.  The young man was so ecstatic, that he wandered the streets of London that night crying tears of joy.  Someone had actually liked what he had written.  That someone, that editor, had become an angel of hope to Charles Dickens.  And the rest is history, as they say.

Perhaps a worthy commitment for each of us to make during this Advent season is to determine that we are going to become an angel of hope to at least one other person who is discouraged, at the point of despair, or lonely and in need of some compassion and hope.  Maybe it is someone who is seriously ill.  Maybe it is someone who is homebound, in the nursing home or assisted living.  Maybe it is someone who is homeless.  Other someone who is just having a very difficult time right now.  By reaching out, lending a listening ear, showing human compassion, affirming someone’s human dignity, each of us can become an angel of hope to another.  That may seem like a small thing.  But just think about what a difference we could make if everyone at our services today became an angel of hope to just one other person during this Advent season!

Truly, there are angels among us—angels of hope.  Maybe, just maybe, we—like Clarence Odbody in It’s a Wonderful Life—can get our wings (in a manner of speaking) by becoming an angel of hope during this Advent-Christmas season.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

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Thanksgiving: A Celebration of Connections

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 23, 2014

Luke 9:12-17 GNT

Back in the 1960s, when I was an adolescent, one of the traditional Thanksgiving Day rituals was going hunting; most often rabbit or quail hunting.  So on Thanksgiving morning, while the “women folk” worked to prepare the traditional Thanksgiving feast (I know, it ‘s sexist), all the “men folk” and boys who were old enough to carry a firearm took to the sage fields donned in our khaki-colored hunting coats and pants.  If it happened to be a cold morning, we might wait until the afternoon, until after we had already stuffed ourselves, to take to the fields.  Hunting on Thanksgiving Day does have historical roots, you know.  A visit to the Plimouth Plantation website notes that a part of that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving was the order of the governor who “sent four men on fowling;” in other words, hunting.

Now, I never did really take pleasure in hunting of any sort.  But I was always more than eager to go along on these excursions.  As I have had the opportunity to reflect upon it in my later years, I think my interest in taking to the fields on Thanksgiving Day had much more to do with the joy and satisfaction I experienced in just being out in the world of Nature.  Even from childhood, I have always experienced a sense of connectedness with the natural world, whether it was walking through sage grass fields on Thanksgiving Day, or walking through snow-covered woods on a winter’s day, or walking beside a mountain stream on a summer’s day.  Yes, as I reflect on those Thanksgiving Day hunting excursions to the fields of my home community, I understand now that it was not any satisfaction I derived from hunting, but it was the sense of connectedness with Creation that drew me.  It has only been within the past few years that I have come to realize and understand this.

So, as I have reflected on this these past few days, I have devised the theory that one of the primary elements of the Thanksgiving celebration is the sense of connectedness we experience with the natural world.  The earliest Thanksgiving celebrations, you know, were in fact harvest festivals—a time in the fall of the year when the produce of the earth and gardens was abundant, and when people had a great feast and in gratitude celebrated and enjoyed all the fruits and vegetables from the earth.  We all love to stuff ourselves with turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberries, green beans, corn, rolls, pumpkin pie, and such.  Because it all  tastes so good.  And all of it is so good for us J.

But I submit that as we enjoy these gifts of the earth, there is an underlying sense of connection (most likely subconscious in orientation) with the natural world.  Even as Jesus gave thanks for and blessed the loaves that he lifted up toward heaven before sharing them with the multitude, we—either formally or informally—bless the gifts of the earth that we enjoy on Thanksgiving Day.

The cornucopia, so beautifully illustrated by the one on our communion table, may be seen as a symbol of our sense of connectedness with the earth, more so at this time of year, perhaps, than at any other time.  The pumpkins, squash, corn, and other fruits and vegetables that usually grace cornucopias become visual reminders of how we depend upon the earth for our sustenance.  As I have noted before, we are indeed “earthlings,” made of the dust of the earth and dependent upon the earth for our very survival.  Thanksgiving serves as a good time for us to express our gratitude—our giving of thanks—to the Source of all Being for this earth that is our home and the deep connection we have to it.  As the authors so poetically put it in the book The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons:

“Earth invites us to gather the fruits of her womb.  From soil and vine, from tree and bush she pours out food to humankind and to creatures of the land.  Fields of grain send forth their blessing.  Trees laden with fruit sing sweet songs of nourishment.  Vines thick with pumpkins display their beautiful readiness.  Grapes and tomatoes generously offer their gifts. . . In the midst of all this harvesting, how appropriate that we should pause from our labors to celebrate a festival of gratitude: Thanksgiving.  Earth is our table.  Gratitude turns over in our hearts during this fall season, like an old-fashioned plow turning the soil”.1

So our Thanksgiving Day rituals, which in reality evolved from ancient harvest festivals, are nothing less than a celebration of the vital connectedness that we have with the natural world.

But if I may, I will take this thought one step further.  In addition to Thanksgiving being a celebration of our connection to the earth, it has also become a celebration of our connection with others.  Thanksgiving has become the day that brings people together.  It is considered the one, big family and friends day of the year.  More Americans travel to be with family and friends for Thanksgiving than on any other American holiday.  In fact, I heard on the news that more people travel on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend than any other one day of the year.  If you have ever flown on the Sunday right after Thanksgiving or found yourself stranded on the interstate, trying to return home on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, you won’t doubt that fact.

But the point is, for most Americans, Thanksgiving has come to be looked upon as a day of connecting with family and friends.  On that day, we celebrate the human connections that make our lives special.  Parents and children, children and grandparents, siblings, cousins and in-laws—familial ties that may be given little thought the rest of the year are celebrated on Thanksgiving Day.  Thanksgiving is primarily about coming together around the table, rather than the giving of gifts.  We tend to linger around the table for hours, visiting and conversing with those who mean so much to our lives.  As the Plimouth Plantation website also notes, “The need to connect with loved ones . . . is at the heart of all this feasting, prayerful thanks, recreation, and nostalgia for a simpler time.”

Of course, Thanksgiving as a celebration of connections has historical roots in the very first American harvest festival.  On that day, the Pilgrims celebrated their connections—not only with the earth in the produce of the fields, and with the Creator who they felt had led them to this land and spared their lives through the hard winter, but also with the Native Americans who had helped them survive the preceding harsh winter by sharing their food and guidance about how to plant the food that sustained them.  In that early Thanksgiving observance, connections that crossed racial boundaries were celebrated.

Today, some people take the celebration of connections beyond the family dinner table, as they volunteer to help feed the hungry and homeless at shelters and soup kitchens or community food pantries.

And another thing that makes the American Thanksgiving holiday special is that it is probably the one universal holiday that can be celebrated by people of any religion or culture.  All people have the need to offer gratitude and feel a connection with others and the created order of which all are a part.

So this coming week, as we offer our thanks and express our gratitude, in whatever personal way we may choose to do so, may we also be more conscious of and celebrate more mindfully those vital connections in our lives, our connections with the Earth that make our lives possible and our connections with those special people in our lives that fill our days with love and joy.  Thanksgiving—a celebration of connections.  Amen.

 

1Joyce Rupp & Macrina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons.  Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2005, p. 166.

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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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