Forgiveness: The Ultimate Challenge

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 28, 2015

Matthew 18:21-35 GNT

Reading from Anne Lamott, Plan B, pp. 45-46

We were all shocked week before last by yet another senseless act of violence that took the lives of nine innocent, beautiful people, who were in the midst of their mid-week prayer meeting, no less.  One of the slain was Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, who had started preaching at the yount age of 13 and was also a South Carolina State Senator, having been elected at the age of 23, the youngest state legislator in South Carolina’s history.

This most recent church shooting reminded us yet again that, seemingly, no place is safe.  And in the eyes of some, no place is considered sacred.  What makes the Charleston tragedy so shocking is the fact that the good folks of Emanuel AME Church had welcomed the shooter into their midst with open arms.  Then after sitting with them in the prayer meeting for an hour, he turned on them and opened fire, while mouthing racial slurs.  Disturbing, unsettling, shocking, to say the least.  This tragedy served to reopen old wounds and resurrect old memories of other senseless shootings.  Dylann Roof, the confessed killer, was an unabashedly white supremacist who flaunted it.  Rev. Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, rightly called the incident “an act of racial terrorism.”

But something almost as shocking is the way that some of the families of the victims have responded to the shooter.  When confronting the accused killer at his bond hearing, a number of them stood to address him, and several told him that they forgave him.  The statement of family member Anthony Thompson is illustrative: “I forgive you, my family forgives you.”  John S. Dickerson, writing in USA Today, stated that “Such forgiveness is unseen in the animal world, is illogical in the rational world. . . Such forgiveness is humanity at its most human, or perhaps most divine.” Dickerson continues, “We have witnessed concentrated, unthinkable evil – met by concentrated, undeserved forgiveness.”1

Just as the Charleston church shooting resurrected old memories of other church shootings, the forgiveness expressed by some of the family members of the Emanuel AME Church’s victims reminded many of the forgiveness the Pennsylvania Amish community demonstrated when a gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster in 2006 and opened fire, killing several sweet, innocent Amish girls.  The grieving families of those girls immediately extended forgiveness to the gunman (who had taken his own life as well), and even visited the gunman’s widow and parents to comfort them, including attending the gunman’s funeral.  You may remember that a book was released that centered on the Amish community’s forgiveness titled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. That Amish community was named the newsmaker of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association and Beliefnet, who cited them for “demonstrating courage, forgiveness, self-sacrifice and love.”  “They really taught everyone how to live our faith and values in a vivid way,” said Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman.

But back to Charleston; we wonder, if we were in the shoes of those Emanuel AME Church’s victims’ families, if we could express forgiveness as readily as some of them have.  And it should be noted that not all of them have been so ready to forgive.  I heard one of the grieving family members confess during a television interview, regarding her forgiveness, “I am not there yet.”  I am not there yet.  I imagine such would be the sentiment for many of us.  Because forgiveness at such a time is hard, if not downright impossible.  Forgiveness in the face of such evil, senseless tragedy, and extreme loss presents the ultimate challenge.

In  one of his hard-to-follow teachings, Jesus talks about forgiving those who have wronged us—forgiving our brother or sister “from the heart,” as he puts it (Matthew 18:35).  Here, and in other places, Jesus (or at least Matthew speaking for Jesus some 50 years later) states that God’s forgiveness of our wrongs is predicated upon our forgiveness of others.  That seems a bit stringent, since we are not God.  We are humans who tend to be vulnerable creatures, who can suffer deep hurt, and who can be emotionally fragile.  We applaud those who say they can forgive so quickly following a tremendous loss.  But for many of us, our extension of “Jesus-like love and forgiveness” may not come so easily.

For most of us, I conjecture, forgiveness for some great wrong or deep hurt is more of a long, drawn-out process that takes time and cannot be rushed.  Forgiveness as such might be compared to the process of grief.  When we suffer the death or loss of someone close to us, there is a grief process that we need to work through in order to arrive at a sense of closure and sense of peace.  We do others a great disservice when we try to force them through the process of grief too quickly.  And we do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t allow ourselves to work through the process of grief as we need to.  And for each individual, the grieving process is different.

Likewise with the process of forgiveness, I believe.  Forgiveness toward one who has inflicted great harm or hurt upon us, as did the shooter in Charleston, is a process that each one must work through individually.  Some may be able to work through it quickly.  But many may not.

This is something that writer Anne Lamott seems to understand.  In doing research for today’s sermon, I ran across some quotes by Lamott about forgiveness, so they drove me to pull from my shelf her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.  Lamott relates how that even two years after her mother had died and she had stored her ashes in the closet, she still had not been able to forgive her for her failings as a mother and the way she had left her feeling wounded and broken.  Anne seems to be saying that forgiveness can be a long process.  But she goes on to say that there comes a time when you just have to give up the bitterness and anger and be done with it, and forgive.  One of the things we often fail to realize is that harboring bitterness, anger and the lack of forgiveness is harder on the one who refuses to give it than it is on the one it is directed against.  Bitterness and anger are like acid eating away our insides, while forgiveness is like a healthy purging of the emotional toxins that we have been storing inside.  As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “We must finally be reconciled with our foe, lest we both perish in the vicious circle of hatred.”

John S. Dickerson, in that same USA Today article I quoted from earlier, states that “Good sometimes overcomes evil via counterintuitive forces: compassion, mercy and forgiveness.”1  And William P. Youngs, in that eclectic bestselling novel, The Shack, that was so popular a few years ago about a father dealing with the abduction and tragic murder of his young daughter, observes (via the voice of God), “Every time you forgive, the universe changes.”Such is truth: forgiveness can be like a chain reaction, leading to reconciliation, the end of conflict, and a better world for all.

But the truth also is, forgiveness can sometimes be hard, very hard; sometimes almost downright impossible.  At such times, forgiveness cannot and should not be rushed.  But when great evil, hurt, and loss are worked through so that forgiveness can be extended, it is a thing of marvelous grace.  And the world is changed for the better because of it.

So we applaud all those greatly affected by the Charleston church tragedy who are able to extend Jesus-like forgiveness so readily and so gracefully.  But at the same time, we dare not judge those who will continue to struggle with the need to forgive the assailant, for months or maybe even years to come.  The ability to forgive in such extreme circumstances—in the face of the ultimate challenge—is a wonderful manifestation of grace.  It is a manifestation of grace that each of us should be striving toward.  But sometimes the good work of grace takes time.  Amen.

1John S. Dickerson, “AME Church Shows How to Forgive,” USA Today, June 22, 2015.

2William P. Youngs, The Shack.  Windblown Media, 2007, p. 235.

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Parable of the Good Samaritan – A Different Perspective

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 14, 2015

Luke 10:30-35 ESV

I spent much of this past week helping with Vacation Bible School.  One of our Bible stories of the week was the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Talking about that parable with the children got me to thinking.

Now, I know that many of us have heard this familiar Bible story time and again.  And some of us may have heard a dozen sermons or more based on it.  And probably 90% of the time the point of those sermons was go and do as the Samaritan did.  Be a good neighbor.  Be compassionate.  Reach out and help someone in need whenever the opportunity presents itself.  In the words of Jesus, “Go, and do likewise.”  And those are, indeed, the primary points the parable aims to make.

But the idea struck me this past week that I have never heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan preached in reverse; and I have never done so myself either.  So today, I would like to do that.

When I say the Parable of the Good Samaritan preached in reverse, what I mean is this: What if we were to put ourselves, not in the sandals of the Samaritan who stopped to help, poured oil and wine on the beaten man’s wounds, put him on his own beast and took him to an inn and cared for him? in the way the parable is most often preached.  But what if we put ourselves in the sandals of the beaten man alongside the road who needed help?  Have you ever heard the parable presented in that way?

The truth is, sooner or later every one of us is the beaten man alongside the road in need of help, in a manner of speaking.  Because the ways that life can leave us bruised and battered are many and varied.  The man beaten and left to die on the side of the road can be a metaphor for any of the tragedies that life can throw at us.  The need for emergency gallbladder surgery, as our daughter experienced week before last, can turn your world upside down for a little while and leave you sort of helpless and dependent upon others to transport you for medical treatment and care for you like the unfortunate man in the story.

A visit to the doctor for a routine exam can result in receiving unwanted bad news about the need for immediate surgery and weeks of radiation or chemotherapy treatments.

The unexpected loss of a loved one by death can leave you feeling lost and bewildered and in need of others to help you deal with all the decisions that have to be made following a death, and maybe even needing the help with day by day living.

The unexpected loss of a job can leave your family in a financial lurch so that help is needed to cover the monthly household expenses or assistance with putting food on the table.

These scenarios are real; I see them, or some variation of them, every month.  A number of them apply to this congregation today.  And as I have already stated, every now and then such tragedies befall every one of us.  So, I have been the man beaten down along the road of life, and chances are you have been too at some point.  All of us find ourselves in need of compassion and care every now and then.

And when we find ourselves to be that man or woman beaten down by life, we need to have the grace to accept the compassion and care offered to us.  Yet, there are many of us who have a hard time accepting care and compassion.  Perhaps we are embarrassed at having to be the recipient of help.  Or maybe there is a sense of privacy so that we are uncomfortable letting others inside our world of need.   Or maybe there is the desire to not be a bother upon other people’s time.  And so, there is the reluctance to let anyone drive us to the doctor or hospital—“No, I can drive myself,” we say.  Or offers to bring food are turned down—“No, we don’t need anything,” is the response, when in reality a casserole or pot of soup would be a tremendous help.  You get the idea.  And probably all of us have turned down offers of help in the past when we could have really used it.

But there are those times when we just need to overlook our embarrassment, rise above our pride or sense of modesty, and let ourselves have the grace to be a recipient of compassion and care.  In fact, I considered titling today’s sermon, “The Grace to Accept Care and Compassion.”

I have grown to love the hymn, “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?”  In fact, it is becoming one of my favorite hymns.  The first stanza goes, “Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?” But then, “Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.”

But on the other hand, we don’t want to go to the other extreme either and abuse the compassion and care that we might draw upon.  And we don’t want to become enablers by letting others abuse the compassion and care we offer.  And, I am sorry to say, practically every month I receive calls for help that would seem to fall into the category of abusing the sense of compassion that this congregation is known to have.  To put it bluntly, there is a small percentage of people in the world—including people in Oak Ridge and Anderson County—who would seem to be taking advantage of the system by chronically and systematically calling upon churches to support them.  For some it has become a way of life.

Consequently, following ADFAC’s guidelines, I began to question the practice of assisting the same people who call for help year after year after year—sometimes at the exact same time every year—because it seems they have come to rely on endless help.  By assisting people with their utilities or rent year after year after year, in many cases we become enablers.  I realize there are some circumstances where people are truly disabled and when life has beaten them down so low that it seems they can never rise above their misfortunes.  And these are exceptions.  But there are others who are chronic in their calls for help, and don’t appear to be trying to help themselves, and don’t always act in ways that are commendable or in ways that are conducive to becoming self-sufficient.  Such being the case, at my suggestion our Church Board has adopted some new guidelines so that help goes to those who truly deserve it.  We don’t want to be enablers of those who might abuse our goodwill and offer of care and compassion.

But there is one more point pertinent for today’s service: The extension of care and compassion is much of what church membership is all about.  When we unite with a congregation like this United Church, we unite with a community of care and compassion.  This is a community where people rejoice with us when we rejoice, and weep with us when we weep, and extend care and compassion in many different ways.  This is a place where, when we are beaten down by life, others gather around us in compassion and seek to lift us up and care for us.  If a church is operating as it should be, there is no other entity quite like it in being a haven for and dispenser of care and compassion for its members when they find themselves beaten down by forces of life.  So today we welcome Eric and Susan and family as the newest members of this wonderful community of compassion and care.

And may what we have done and said here today ever be a reminder to all of us that every now and then all of us find ourselves beaten down by life and in need of someone to offer a compassionate and caring hand and lift us up, as the Good Samaritan lifted up the fallen traveler.  When those times come, may we have the grace to accept that compassionate, caring hand.  And secondly, may we always remember that as a church this is what we are to be about.  This, above everything else, is our reason for being—a place of understanding, caring, and compassion.  Amen.

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The Face of Our Money

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 7, 2015

Mark 12:13-17 ESV

Have you ever taken time to consider the face of our money?  It is really quite interesting when you stop to think about it.  And, it seems, the face of money has always given rise to controversy, as we have seen in today’s scripture reading.  The question at hand was whether Jews should pay tribute to Rome, their oppressors.  Both Mark and Matthew tell the story of how some of Jesus’ opponents questioned him as to whether or not they should pay taxes.  You see, “The pagan religious imagery used on coins violated Jewish rules against making images and idolatry.  The inscription on Roman coins also proclaimed the emperor divine,” which was also a problem for Palestinian Jews.1  Jesus’ opponents posed the question, not so much because they wanted an answer, but to put him in an impossible situation.  Jesus’ reply was, “Give me a coin.  Whose picture is on the money?”  And they replied, “Caesar’s,” or “the Emperor’s.”  “Well,” Jesus returned, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  In other words, if the coin bears the inscription and image of Caesar, then it must belong to him.  Return it to him!  And then be sure to give to God what belongs to God.

So for at least 2,000 years there has been tension between Caesar (i.e., the government) and God.  But American money is even more complicated, in that our money bears the inscription of both the government and God, since our money has U.S. government written all over it, and both coins and paper money have pictures of famous government officials; but our money also includes the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

But what about those faces?  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson—such are some of the famous government officials whose faces grace the money we use on a daily basis.  But let us zero in on Andrew Jackson, since the face of Jackson on our $20 bill has been in the news of late.

I don’t know whether you caught it or not, but there has been quite a discussion in the media over the push to yank Andrew Jackson’s face off our $20 bill and replace it with the image of Harriet Tubman.  I have sort of been following this controversy for about three weeks, and I have clipped and saved articles from The Washington Post, USA Today, and our own Knoxville News Sentinel. There have been a lot of pros and cons shared having to do with replacing Jackson’s image with that of Tubman.

When I first heard about the Women on 20s Campaign to replace Jackson’s picture with one of a woman who has contributed significantly to American history, I secretly applauded it.  And the fact that Harriet Tubman won an online poll out of a pool of 15 different women made it even more delightfully ironic.  Because Jackson, as you may remember, amassed his wealth from the toil of the slaves he owned.  And Jackson was the chief proponent of the Indian Removal Act and the primary one responsible for the Trail of Tears (overriding Congress in the process) that uprooted, enslaved, and drove thousands of Native Americans to their deaths.  The irony is one who enslaved might possibly be replaced by one who helped slaves escape and led them to their freedom.

Well, as you might imagine, the push to actually get Tubman’s photo on our $20 bill has generated a lot of support.  After all, Tubman is a woman to be admired from most any quarter.  She spent most of her youth as a slave in Maryland.  She married a free black man and changed her name.  After escaping from a plantation 1849, she made many trips back to the South to lead slaves to their freedom under the cover of darkness via the Underground Railroad.  This she did at the risk of the penalty of death.  She also was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and her heroic efforts made it possible for many more slaves to gain their freedom.  Later Tubman was a women’s suffrage advocate alongside Susan B. Anthony.  So how could anyone argue with honoring Tubman by putting her face on our money?

One of those writing in support of Tubman’s image is David Swerdlick of The Washington Post’s PostEverything.  Swerdlick writes, “putting a self-emancipated, self-described conductor on the Underground Railroad on a $20 bill is sort of a fitting rebuke to the slave owners who bought and sold human beings as commercial property.”2

Another columnist, DeWayne Wickham, who writes for USA Today, states, “Slavery supporters put a price on her head, paid in U.S. dollars.  How ironic to move her from wanted poster to $20 bill. . . Tubman’s image on the $20 bill, America’s Moses will replace a slave owner.”  Wickham concludes his column by saying, “Putting Tubman’s face on the $20 bill would be a fitting tribute to her achievements.”3

Yet, as you might imagine, opponents for replacing Jackson with Tubman have been many as well, and at least one of the ones who are opposed might surprise you.  Of no surprise are the supporters of our seventh president, especially those who have a vested interest in protecting all things Jackson and the Jackson legacy.  I found it quite interesting that two May 17 editorials in the Sunday Perspective section of the Knoxville News Sentinel—taking up almost a full page—lobbied for keeping Jackson’s face on the $20 bill.4  I wasn’t so surprised when I realized that one of the editorials was written by Daniel Feller, who is editor/director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee.  And I imagine that those folks down at The Hermitage—the home and plantation of Andrew and Rachel Jackson—are much up in arms as well over the loss of Jackson’s image on our $20 bill.

But the opponent that really surprised me is Feminista Jones, a feminist writer from New York City writing for The Washington Post.  Jones, who happens to be a black woman, writes, “There’s no place for women—especially women of color—on America’s currency today.”5  Jones admits that replacing Jackson’s image with Tubman’s at first sounds like a wonderful reversal of fortune.  “But in examining Tubman’s life,” she continues, “it’s clear that putting her face on America’s currency would undermine her legacy. . . Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism.  Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting. . . For every dollar a white man earns from his labor in the United States,” Jones points out, “black women earn 64 cents. . . .  Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets.  She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves.  She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them.”5

Well, Jones makes some good points and gives good reason to stop and think about the whole face of our money issue.  Yet, I have to disagree with her, as I feel the honor awarded to Harriet Tubman in placing her image on our money would outweigh the reasons for not doing so.

Oh, by the way, returning to where I began, later in the same chapter as our scripture text, Jesus tells us that which should be rendered to God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31 ESV).  The money might belong to Caesar, but the entire human person—heart, soul, mind, and strength—belongs to God.  And the fact that the human person belongs to God makes the human person—every human person—sacred.  And that reason alone, the fact that every human is sacred and of inherent dignity and worth, is reason enough to honor Harriet Tubman—who understood the inherent dignity and worth of every person—by placing her image on our $20 bill.  Tubman got it; Jackson did not.  At least, that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 

1The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 673.

2David Swerdlick, “If we’re putting someone new on the $20, Harriet Tubman is actually a perfect choice,” The Washington Post, PostEverything, May 15, 2015.

3DeWayne Wickham, “Tubman earned her right to be on $20 bill,” USA Today, May 18, 2015.

4Daniel Feller, “Why keep Jackson on $20 bill?” And Joe Johnson, “True leader first president to speak in voice of common man,” Knoxville News Sentinel, Sunday, May 17, 2015.

5Feminista Jones, “Keep Harriet Tubman – and all women – off the $20 bill,” The Washington

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What Kind of Church Are We, Anyway?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 31, 2015

Matthew 18:15-20 GNT

Reading from We Would Be Free: The Congregational Way

Whenever I meet with new families who have an interest in church membership, I usually explain the kind of church—polity wise—the United Church is.  The word “polity” has to do with the type of church government peculiar to any particular congregation.  It is the way a church orders itself and conducts its affairs.  I often give a brief description of each type—and there are three—then focus on the type of polity that this United Church operates under.  But I rarely go into detail about the benefits and blessings of our type of polity.  I thought I would do that today.

When it comes to church polity—or form of government—the three are very different.  First, let us consider the Presbyterian, or representative, form of church government.  In this form, congregations are grouped into regional bodies, most often called “presbyteries,” or in some denominations they are called “classes.”  A presbytery or classis may have two, three, four dozen, or more congregations in a geographical area.  Each congregation sends its minister and at least one elected delegate to a presbytery meeting a couple or more times each year, where decisions are made about member congregations, joint mission projects, ordination of ministers, support for institutions of higher learning, and so on.  Three or more presbyteries comprise what is called a “synod,” and all the presbyteries together comprise what is called the “general assembly,” or “general synod.”  At each step of the way, Presbyterian polity is a representative form of church government, where delegates are elected by the congregation or the presbytery to represent the rest of the church.  Those representatives act on reports and resolutions that impact all member congregations.  This form of church government is most like our United States government and the way we elect senators and congressmen and congresswomen to represent us.  In some Presbyterian churches, the greatest seat of authority resides in the presbytery, which makes decisions regarding the ordination of ministers, the oversight of congregations, the approval of pastors for individual congregations, and so on.  Denominations that fall into this category, obviously, are the many branches of the Presbyterian Church, Reformed Church in America, and others.  To be noted is the fact that some of the several thousand 17th century Puritans that came to America were Presbyterian.

A second type of church polity is the “Episcopal” type.  In this type of church structure, congregations are also grouped into regional bodies, such as the district, and then on a larger scale the conference or diocese.  This form of church government is more of a hierarchy, since there are individual church leaders who are given oversight of all the churches in a district or a conference, such as a district superintendant and bishop.  In this form of church government, bishops make the decision as to which minister goes to which congregation.  This type of polity is more similar to a monarchy, in that there is a person, or select group of persons, at the top and decisions are filtered down through the structure to the smallest of congregations.  Denominations that operate under an Episcopal form of church government include, obviously, the Episcopal Church, Methodist Churches, Roman Catholic Church, and some others.

And then the third type of church polity, which is the type of our United Church, is the “congregational” polity.  In this form of church government, the congregation is independent and self-governing.  It makes all decisions regarding the selection of its minister, budget, missions, programs, and so on.  There is no higher body which dictates such matters.  Major decisions such as the selection of the minister, adoption of the annual budget, or a building program are made at a congregational meeting where all official members may vote.  Often, but not always, churches of the congregational order belong to regional groups of churches for fellowship and joint mission projects and the like.  But such larger bodies have no authority over them and cannot dictate beliefs, policy, revenue, or any other matter, as in the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.  Congregations that operate under a congregational polity include Baptist churches, independent Churches of Christ, independent Christian churches, Congregational Churches (spelled with a capital C), many independent congregations like ours, and others.  Also to be noted, most of the New England Puritans, and the Plymouth Pilgrims as well, were Congregational.  Congregational churches take to heart Jesus’ words that even a small group of believers constitute a complete church.

Now, as I already stated, this United Church is of the congregational form of churches (spelled with a lower case c).  However, we use the Pilgrim Hymnal that was produced by the Congregational (spelled with a capital C) Churches, as well as the New Century Hymnal that was produced by the United Church of Christ.  Most, but not all, Congregational Churches went into the merger that brought together four different church strands that formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.  Hence, there is overlap between Congregational and United Church of Christ.  I happen to have standing in both the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the United Church of Christ.  But just to be clear, when I speak of congregational churches from here on out, I am not advocating that our United Church unite with any church body or change our identity in any way.

With all of that information as background, what are some of the peculiar benefits and blessings of the congregational (with a lower case c) form of church polity, since that is who we are?  That is the question of the day.

One obvious benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is freedom.  We are not bound by a set of beliefs that we must adhere to, as in the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches.  We are not told where to send the offerings we collect.  We are free to hire the person we want to be minister or minister’s assistant.  We do not belong to a larger organization that might make a decision on some controversial social or political issue which might be in opposition to our personal beliefs or convictions.

A second characteristic and benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is fellowship.  Congregational churches are bound together by covenant and fellowship, rather than by creeds or confessions of faith.  And my experience here in this United Church is the sense of fellowship is greater than in other churches I have known, maybe because fellowship is the “glue” that binds members together.  And neither are we bound together because we all hold the same opinions politically or socially.  When it comes to hot-button social issues, I imagine we have members on all sides of the issues.  And politically, we have conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, and likely Libertarians, and maybe others.  But that is okay, because it is not thinking or believing alike that binds us together, but it is fellowship and a covenant to work, worship, learn and serve together in love.

A third benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is diversity.  Because we are not bound together by being the same or believing the same way, there is a richness and diversity among us.  Indeed, wasn’t this the foundation upon which this congregation was built?  “Where people come together in their differences…”?

One of the challenges of the congregational way of doing church is we are totally on our own.  We do not have a presbytery, or district, or conference, or diocese, or national organization to lean on for financial support, or for Sunday school or other educational materials, or to send resumes of ministerial candidates, or to give us guidance on social issues stances.  It is up to us to raise funds for our annual budget, and to devise or seek out educational materials that fit who we are, and to come to our own conclusion about issues of the day.  In this way of doing church, it is vitally important for all the members to step up and give as they can give, serve where they can serve, and utilize whatever gift or talent they have been given for the good of the whole.

But in spite of the challenges, I have come to believe that the congregational way of doing church is the best way of doing church.  It suits who I am, and it has worked well for this congregation for almost 72 years.  It is who we are.  But it calls us all to give the best that we can give to assure our future strength and success.  May we rise to the challenge.  I think we will, because that is the kind of church we are.  Amen.

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Catching Fire!

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 24, 2015

Acts 2:1-4 CEB

Today, as is often the case in the later part of May, we celebrate two significant holidays on one day—Memorial Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.  In light of the fact that we anticipated receiving new members this morning, I thought it most appropriate to frame my sermon around the Pentecost theme, since that day spoken of in the second chapter of Acts is a day when many responded to Peter’s sermon and were baptized and became members of the new Christian community.

What really happened on that Pentecost Day is hard to say.  The events of that day must have been indescribable.  Because the word “like” is used in an attempt to describe what occurred—“a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house.  They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.”  And we must remember that Luke attempted to describe the event some 35 or more years after it happened.  And maybe the description was meant to be symbolic or metaphorical than literal.

But all speculation aside, something significant had to have happened on that day that would come to be celebrated as Christian Pentecost, because that little band of Jesus’ followers were motivated and energized to go forth into the then-known world to spread their message and establish new Christian fellowships and churches.  And often they did so at great personal risks and in the face of great dangers and persecution, and even with the prospect of death for doing so.  Something happened to cause them to catch fire!  So perhaps the tongues of fire that appeared to rest upon each one present is more symbolic than not of the inner fire that ignited within that small band of Jesus-followers that led them to go forth to also set the world on fire, as it were.

Such is the nature of new movements, of which early Christianity is the prime example.  New religions or denominations begin as energetic movements that are propelled forward by people who are on fire for a cause they consider to be world-changing, and for which they are willing to give their very lives, if necessary.  Many examples could be cited to illustrate the point.  I think of Congregationalism that was born in England among some who sought to purify the Church of their day, and by others (the Pilgrims) who sought to separate themselves altogether and worship in freedom as their consciences dictated.  With those early Puritans and Pilgrim separatists, a Congregational fire was born that grew in America and abroad, to the extent that at one time Congregational congregations in America numbered well over six or seven thousand.

I think of George Fox and the early Quaker movement that, likewise, found fault with the Church of their day, and how the early Quakers were on fire, as it were, and were willing to be persecuted and thrown into prison in order to follow their convictions and share their beliefs that the Light and Word and Spirit of God are shared with every man and woman without any need for priest or other mediator, and there is that of God in every soul.

I think of the early Wesleyan movement that drew eager and hungry souls by the thousands who gathered in classes to study the Bible, pray, and discuss “methods” (root for the word “Methodists”) of living a holy life in the world.  The Wesleyan movement caught fire, and Methodists were to become the second largest Protestant denomination in America.

We could cite more examples, and you might think of an example that I might not, of new churches, new religions, and new denominations that began as a movement of people who were on fire with a new vision or for a worthy cause.  And in the early days of a movement, there is a lot of excitement.  And rapid growth.  And the tendency to be on the cutting edge.  And the willingness to take risks.

I think we could rightly say that this congregation began as a movement of people who caught fire with a vision to organize a united church that would bring together people from a great variety of denominations and religious backgrounds to learn, worship, and serve, bound together by a sense of unity, fellowship, and covenant, rather than a common creed or set of beliefs.  And it was a success story, as we all know.

The not-so-good news about movements is, generally speaking, they don’t continue as movements.  In the case of religious movements, they tend to evolve into institutions.  And when movements evolve into institutions, that initial fire fades; passion to spread their message, the excitement, and original vision and reason for coming into existence wane.  The foci and concerns of the institution are much different than were the foci and concerns of the original movement.  Replacing the passion to share the unique message that brought the movement into being are worries about maintenance and self-preservation.  Maintaining buildings and raising budgets can easily become the organization’s primary objective.  And when that happens—when a group loses sight of its original purpose, vision, and reason for being—something is lost and there is the danger that decline can set in.  And it has happened that way much too often.

I know, and you probably know, too, of churches that at one time were growing, thriving congregations, but have long since declined, died away, and closed their doors.  I mentioned once such a church building that I often passed while walking to class for my doctor of ministry studies in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.  The windows and doors of the church building were boarded up with sheets of plywood, and the lot was overgrown with weeds, some as high as my head.  It was a pitiful sight.  The strange thing was this abandoned church building had at one time been a very beautiful and stately building.  It was in an otherwise nice, suburban neighborhood with very nice, expensive houses on either side and all down the street.  I could not help but wonder what happened there that the once-thriving congregation withered away and died.  I so wish now that I had inquired and learned the story behind the church’s demise.  Did they stray from their original vision and mission?  Did they become too focused on buildings and budgets?  Were there personality conflicts in the congregation that proved deadly?  These factors and more can all contribute to a church’s decline.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.  Even churches that have evolved into institutions, even churches that have seen decline, can catch fire again and find new energy and refocus on their original vision.  There is a church in the community where my maternal grandparents lived—the church that my mother attended as a girl—that was a thriving country church when I was a boy.  But over the years, the congregation began to dwindle, for various reasons.  Some members died off.  Others moved away.  Others lost interest.   And still others left for more evangelical churches.  At its lowest point, the attendance dropped to about 14 on any given Sunday.  In my own mind I had pretty much administered last rites to the church.  But in the past year or so, that congregation has experienced new life.  The members caught fire again, as it were, like a bed of faint embers fanned by a puff of wind can reignite into a raging fire.  My parents passed by that church the other Sunday morning at church time (they had taken flowers to my grandparents’ grave for Decoration Day), and they said the church parking lot was full of cars.  It is possible for a declining church to catch fire again!

That is at least one of the positive messages of Pentecost.  No matter how old the congregation, no matter if a church has evolved from a movement into an institution, by being open to new life, refocusing on its original vision and reason for being, and by recommitting to the sense of mission that gave birth to it, or by finding a new vision and mission, a church can catch fire again.  Might it be so with this United Church?  I think it certainly might.  But we must be willing to let it be so and work to make it so.  Indeed, may it be so with us!  Amen.

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Religion, Superstition, Reason, and Faith

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 17, 2015

Acts 8:9-13, 18-24 GNT

One of the things that Dr. John Ed Gardner, my seminary preaching professor, taught me is that sometimes sermons just need time to simmer.  That is, sometimes a preacher needs to unconsciously mull over a sermon topic for weeks, months, or years, even.  Some topics require more time for reflection and unconscious deliberation than others do.

Well, such is the way with today’s sermon topic, “Religion, Superstition, Reason and Faith.”  While sorting through papers on my desk week before last, I ran across some sketchy notes stapled to a newspaper article I had saved from the Wall Street Journal back in November. The title of the article was “Village Healers Cloud Ebola Fight.”  The article pointed out how that in the Ebola-plagued villages in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Africa, the village faith healers were making it difficult for Red Cross health workers and others to do their jobs in treating the sick.  In some cases, the village faith healers were downright antagonistic to those who had come to help the sick and dying, insisting they go back home.  Village faith healers had been treating those stricken with the Ebola virus by rubbing tree-leaf mud packs on the fevered bodies and with other “miracle cures” involving roots, tree bark, and such.  In many Pentecostal churches, pastors were attempting to bring about healing by prayer and laying on of hands for the ill.  In one place, locals blamed a rising death toll from the Ebola virus on witchcraft or the harvesting of bodily organs.

Now, as I read these stories, it struck me as a good example of how religion, or faith, often bleeds over into superstition.  Which reminded me of the story I shared with you from the book of Acts of how the Apostles Peter, John, and Phillip, in the early days of Christianity, had to deal with a man who sought to mix religion with magic, or superstition.  Simon, it seems, sought to use religion, magic, and superstition for personal gain, not unlike some of the witch doctors and village faith healers of Africa.  Simon wanted power to perform what he deemed to be miracles in order to advance his own personal agenda, it seems.  The apostles stopped short of pronouncing a curse upon him for thinking he could use the power of God for his own benefit.  Such scared the daylights out of Simon so that he begged the apostles to pray for him so that no evil would befall him for his misguided motives.

Well, after mulling over the thought of how religion or faith can easily bleed over into superstition, my next thought was how that much of religious practice among many world religions and Christian denominations includes—by degree—elements of what many outside the Church might call superstition.  Some religions and Christian denominations contain more elements of superstition than others, while some may contain hardly any hint of superstition at all.   The definition of “superstition,” by the way, is “1. A belief held in spite of evidence to the contrary. 2. A belief, practice, or rite resulting from ignorance of the laws of nature or from faith in magic or chance.” (The American Heritage Dictionary)

Now, I don’t want to get too specific or detailed and tread upon anyone’s sacred, personal beliefs or practices.  I struggled right up to 9:59 and the start of worship to share my own experience and convictions without offending any of you.  But I will mention two general examples of how beliefs contrary to the laws of nature tend to creep into Christian practice.  One way is the recitation of some ancient Christian creeds and confessions of faith.  (As a side note, this is one of the issues I had with the denomination of my upbringing—the pressure to recite some of the ancient Christian creeds, especially when I attended various denominational gatherings, and to swear allegiance to a confession of faith.  This is one reason I was drawn toward Congregationalism, as Congregationalists are non-creedal and non-confessional.)  There are some phrases and ideas in some of those ancient creeds that defy science, reason, and modern understanding.  For instance, the ideas that after his death Jesus descended into hell, and then after showing himself alive sailed off into the heavens and took a throned seat on the right hand of God.  These are statements that millions of Christians affirm every week and from which draw great comfort.  Either reason is checked at the front door of the church when reciting these ancient words.  Or else, they are interpreted symbolically and those who recite them don’t believe everything they are saying.  Those creeds were written from a first century worldview in which the earth was flat.  But the ritual itself has become a sacred tradition, and in many cases the sacred tradition takes precedence over scientific understanding and reason.

The other example of how religious practice or faith can be contrary to science, reason, and the laws of nature involves Christian hymnody.  Some of the hymns in most hymnals—beloved hymns that most of us love to sing—also contain phrases and ideas that some might consider to lean toward “superstition.”  But they are a part of our faith and we sing them anyway and derive much comfort from them.  Consider, for instance, the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” and its lyrics.  Have you ever stopped to think about those lyrics from a scientific, modern worldview perspective?  The believer taking wings and flying off into the sky?

And Christmas hymns can also contain phrases that defy human reason and that people of science and reason would be hard-pressed to take literally.  But we love them and sing them anyway!  (As another side note, when I first came to this United Church, I was given the same instructions I was given when I first moved to First Congregational Church in Albany, New York: “We only sing Christmas carols from the red Pilgrim Hymnal!”  And I strongly agree.)   Some of the words in our black hymnal have been changed in order to be politically correct.  We don’t like anyone messing with those beloved Christmas hymns, even if we don’t take every line literally and they can sometimes defy human reason and the laws of nature.

There are other examples and rituals that I might mention that contain ideas that most of us don’t take literally, but they, likewise, are rituals that bring much comfort, and tradition and comfort outweigh reason in such cases.  But you get the idea.  The truth is, it is difficult, I believe, to hold a religion of any kind without there being at least a hint of what many outside might consider to be superstitious.  And perhaps that is okay, as long as our religious ideas and practices don’t bring hurt to ourselves or anyone else, contrary to the case of the African faith healers or witchdoctors whose superstitious ideas and practices kept the people from getting proper medical care.

So, the truth is, religion by nature tends to include other-worldly ideas that defy human reason and are contrary to the laws of nature, ideas that we may not always take literally.  As already shown, in extreme cases, such might result in hurting, rather than helping, people.  And when that happens, religion (in my estimation) has gone awry and is not all it could and should be.

So, what is the cure?  What is it that can save religion from itself, as it were?  What is it that can save religion from being pure superstition or other worldly?  What ingredients make it possible for religion to pass the test of both faith and reason?  I struggled to come up with a definition of good, practical religion that moves beyond the realm of superstition.  But here is what I came up with: “Religion creates a safe space to seek to define, connect with, and experience the Sacred; and religion creates loving community, fosters genuine compassion, and joins people in altruistic service to humanity.”  Shall I read that again?  “Religion creates a safe space to seek to define, connect with, and experience the Sacred; and religion creates loving community, fosters genuine compassion, and joins people in altruistic service to humanity.”  That is my definition of practical religion, at least for today.  And if religion truly does this and does it well, then maybe it is okay if religious practice does include some hint of superstition, or other worldly ideas that are not necessarily taken literally, that many would define as tradition, as long as those ideas don’t hurt anyone.

But when religious practice becomes nothing more than superstitious beliefs and practices, or other worldly in focus, and brings hurt to humanity in the process, there is a problem.  But religion that entails other-worldly ideas and historic traditions and rituals that bring comfort, mixed with a safe space to explore that which is believed to be Sacred, that creates loving community, that fosters genuine compassion, and motivates people to altruistic service—religion as such is good for us.  At least that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 

 

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When Our Name Is Mud

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 3, 2015

Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

April 14 marked an important 150-year anniversary.  You noted it, I am sure.  It was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater.  As you may remember, the assassination happened just four days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse at Appomattox, Virginia.

Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a very famous, popular, and well-paid actor.   Booth was also a very disgruntled Confederate sympathizer who despised Lincoln and was vehemently opposed to the abolition of slavery.  So for some days, Booth fumed and was out to get Lincoln.  At first his plan was to kidnap Lincoln, but then learning that Lincoln was going to be at Ford’s Theater, he decided it was a good opportunity to kill him instead.  Booth had such status as an actor, he could come and go throughout Ford’s Theater at will.

After shooting Lincoln in the back of the head, Booth jumped from the President’s box onto the stage.  One story has it that Booth injured his leg in the jump.  But another story has it that Booth’s leg was injured later that evening when his horse fell on it during his flight south.  At any rate, Booth suffered an injured leg and ended up at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, just before sunrise on April 15, some 25 miles from Washington.  Dr. Mudd later testified that Booth told him the injury had occurred when his horse fell on him.  Could the story that the horse injured his leg have been just that—a story that Booth told to conceal the truth?  Or a story that Dr. Mudd told to try to protect himself?  Perhaps the real story will never be known.  But giving Dr. Mudd the benefit of the doubt, he treated Booth’s injured leg as any physician would do in keeping with the Hippocratic oath.  And Booth went on his way.

However, for aiding the assassin, Dr. Mudd was accused of helping Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and then of treating his broken leg and helping him escape the authorities afterwards.  Mudd was accused, arrested, convicted of conspiracy, and imprisoned, escaping the death penalty by a single vote.  He would serve about four years in prison, but he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released from prison in 1869.

Now, if you are like me, you have always been under the impression that the familiar phrase, “your name will be mud,” originated with Dr. Samuel Mudd’s act of kindness to John Wilkes Booth, an action that led to his name being soiled and his reputation being ruined because of what he had done in aiding the President’s assassin.  That is what “your name will be mud” means: If you do such and such, your name will be mud—dirtied, tarnished, forever ruined.

However, we did a bit of research and found that the phrase “your name will be mud” having originated with the kindness of Dr. Samuel Mudd likely is a myth.  Research has shown that the phrase appeared long before Lincoln, Booth and Dr. Mudd, as it has been found in one book dated 1823, and possibly another book as early as 1708.  So it appears that the phrase “your name will be mud” being associated with Dr. Samuel Mudd is merely an interesting coincidence.

With all of that having been said, the truth of the matter is, Dr. Samuel Mudd’s name (spelled M-u-d-d) did become “mud,” (m-u-d) because of the fact that he did what most any physician is bound to do in treating an injury and relieving human suffering.

Well, as I was reminded of all these things a few weeks ago with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, it got me to thinking about Dr. Mudd and the phrase (which I now know likely was only coincidental) “your name will be mud.”  You know, there have been many incidents in the course of history when someone went out on a limb to do the right thing, the kind thing, the compassionate thing, only to have their name become “mud.”

Now, of course there are many things that a person could do that are wrong, immoral, or unethical that could result in their name becoming “mud.”  But that is not what I am talking about.  I am focusing in on all those acts of conscience, compassion, kindness, justice or righteousness that people do that may not be popular at the time and that may lead to their name becoming mud.

Jesus made mention of such; not in so many words, and not by using the term “mud.”  But when he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10-11 ESV), I think he was in essence saying, “Blessed are you when your name becomes mud for doing what is right.”  What was Jesus trying to say?  That there is a peculiar blessing, or unique sense of satisfaction, that comes to those who do what is right in the face of adversity?  Or that there will be deferred blessings, deferred recognition, or deferred honor for those who are persecuted for doing what is right?

We owe a tremendous debt to many who have gone before us who stood up for the truth, who stood against injustice and oppression, who spoke out on behalf of scientific discoveries and progress, who led in the push for better medical and psychological understanding and treatments, in spite of the fact that at the time they were misunderstood and hated and given a bad name because of the unpopular stands they took.

The movie Selma pointed out how that Rosa Parks—when she became associated with the Montgomery bus boycotts—lost her job as a seamstress and for a time couldn’t find another job because no business in town wanted to be associated with her.  In other words, for a time Rosa Parks’ name might as well have been “mud.”  History books are full of those whose name was marred for a time because of what they did or stood for.  Later—sometimes years or decades or even longer later—there was a reversal in public sentiment, and after being proven right, their names were celebrated.

Of course, as hinted earlier, none of us wants our name to become “mud” because we are guilty of some great wrongdoing.  But the question is, Has there ever been an instance when our name might have become “mud” because we committed an act of human kindness, or did what was right, or stood up for the rights of someone else when it was not popular to do so?

Every now and then, we hear on the news of a so-called “Whistle-blower”—someone in a company, organization, airline, or other entity, who is aware of some gross wrong, evil, or great danger to the public and goes public with that information, even though it means that their name becomes “mud” for having done so.  But in such cases standing on the cause of what is just and right and good outweighs the personal loss that ensues.

The problem is, sometimes when faced with challenging situations in life, we have to make a decision immediately—on the spot.  When such decisions are thrust upon us, may it be so that we have the grounding, the foresight, the fortitude, courage, and grace to do the right thing, even if it means for the time-being our name becomes “mud.”  To paraphrase Jesus, “Blessed are you when your name becomes ‘mud’ for doing what is right.”  Amen.

 

 

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