Blessings of the “In Between Season”

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 14, 2018

1 Kings 19:9-13 GNT; Wendell Berry Poem 2011, III

Today’s sermon is part personal testimony or confession and, hopefully, part theological reflection.  I guess at the conclusion you can decide if I accomplished both – or either.

First, the personal testimony or confession: The month of December proved to be pretty much of a blur for me.  It seemed no time at all between the first Sunday of Advent and New Year’s Eve.  But for some years now, that is just the way Decembers have been.  For various reasons, the two weeks just before Christmas are the two busiest weeks of the year for me, and pretty much for the church office staff as well.  In addition to all the extra Advent and Christmas activities and services to prepare for, we had three memorial services and gatherings in December.

And then there are all the personal responsibilities of December – decorating, gift shopping and wrapping, grocery shopping and meal planning for holiday guests, house cleaning for holiday guests, and so on.  I spent one full afternoon and evening marathon gift wrapping.  Now, hear what I am saying: I am not complaining or whining, just stating the fact that December is always busy, hectic, and at times stressful.  That is just the way it is.  Maybe you can relate.  Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  I loved all the Sundays of Advent, and I enjoy all the extra, special activities throughout the month.

But in recent years, I have begun to look forward to the months of January and February, what I have come to refer to as the “In Between Season” – the season in between Christmas and New Year’s and the season of Lent leading up to Easter.    Yes, I have come to relish the days of January that hold the promise of a little bit of reprieve before we have to jump into spring and summer activities.

But it was not always so.  When I was a child, December was my favorite month of the year, of course, and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were the two most important days of the year.  For weeks we looked forward to, longed for, dreamed of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.  And then December 26 and the days after were a big letdown.  Christmas, with all its excitement, wonder, hope, and mystique, was over.  All we had to look forward to in the coming weeks were empty, grey days and cold weather.  That is the way I thought and felt as a child.

But now as an adult, I find blessing in January days, and I am quite happy when New Year’s Day is over and past and the calendar says January 2.  January 2 through February 13 – these are the days of this year’s “in between season” in which I find much joy and satisfaction.

For these winter days, you see, have become for me a more relaxed, less-stressful time of the year.  I now appreciate the cold, snowy days when I can retreat to my favorite reading spot and cover up with one of my handmade quilts and read a few pages from one of the many books I am working my way through.  I relish being able to look out our kitchen window on cold winter days and watch the birds congregate at my feeders.  I love the frosty mornings when the trees and fields are covered in a glossy coat of ice that shines in the early morning sunshine.  I love the less hectic days when I can actually think more deeply about scripture passages or poetry or books I am reading, and don’t have to churn out sermons quickly because I have too many other busywork projects demanding my time.  The days of January and early February have become days of reflection and rejuvenation which I look forward to more and more as each year passes.  I concur with the authors of The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons when they state, “there is much to wonder and be amazed at in the world of winter.  It is less busy and more reflective, offering space to snuggle close to loved ones, read a good book, engage in a favorite indoor activity, or relax by a fireplace in the long evenings of darkness.”1

Maybe I feel such a way because I am one who has a reflective, contemplative personality.  I really need such quiet, reflective times, and when I am not able to have them, my life seems to get out of balance.  You know what happens when your washing machine gets out of balance with heavy laundry, how it starts thumping and vibrating uncontrollably?  It is unnatural.  Well, I don’t start vibrating uncontrollably, but my life begins to feel out of balance when I don’t have opportunity for quiet, reflective times.

I was happy to run across this past week that poem by Wendell Berry I read to you where he, too, extols the importance of “Quiet.”  He uses the word “quiet” four times in this short poem, linking it with stillness and peace.  And he concludes the poem by saying, “Give thanks to the quiet.”

These in between, quiet, reflective, contemplative times of January and February can be moments of the Sacred, times of inspiration, openings for the “Light of the Holy,” if you will, to break through.  The in between days of January for me are like the rays of the full, winter moon that slip through the crack in your bedroom window curtains to illuminate the darkness of the night.  It is in these quiet, cold, reflective, contemplative days of January when, if I listen just carefully enough, that I may hear – as did the prophet Elijah – the “still small voice,” or the “soft whisper” voice of the Sacred.

Speaking of Elijah, many of us have heard this story about Elijah’s cave epiphany a dozen times or more.  It is one of the most interesting and more pivotal stories in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Elijah was listening for the voice of God to speak to him.  But Elijah didn’t hear the voice of God where he expected to – in the windstorm that split the trees and rocks, in the earthquake that shook the ground, or in the fire that burned up the landscape.  Elijah heard the “still small voice of God” in a “soft whisper.”  Not in the sensational, extra-ordinary, or majestic, but in the in between soft whisper.

When I visited Israel and Jordan, our tour guides took us to visit some 60 “holy sites.”  One of the things I found interesting about that trip was the “holy sites” where I expected to be spiritually uplifted or moved, I wasn’t moved at all.  I am thinking specifically of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which commemorates the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which commemorates the tomb where Jesus was buried).  Now, I don’t intend to be irreverent in any way.  But so much commercialism and controversy have been built up around both of these places, it is hard to get yourself in a spiritual, reflective, contemplative mood.  The word that comes to mind to describe the interior of the Church of the Nativity is gaudiness.  And when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a public argument broke out between clerics of the different denominations that occupy space there.  It didn’t prove to be much of a reflective experience; for me personally, anyway.

But oddly enough, the two places where I was most moved spiritually were quiet places: the Garden of Gethsemane with its hundreds years old olive trees and big limestone rock where Jesus is reported to have prayed on the night of his betrayal and arrest; and on a small boat on the Sea of Galilee on Sunday morning at sunrise.  Those two quiet places were where I felt moved and spoken to.  So the famous holy sites where one would think he would be moved didn’t prove to be so.  It was at those “in between” places, the quiet, meditative, reflective places where I was moved and felt the presence of the Sacred.

It just may be that we are inspired, encounter the Sacred, or “hear God’s voice” in the celebrated Christmas services and activities that we have grown so accustomed to.  I have been, and I didn’t intend to imply otherwise earlier.  I actually enjoyed the four Sundays of Advent more this year than ever before.  And I’ve had others say the same thing.

But we may also be inspired, encounter the Sacred, and be spiritually uplifted in those ordinary, quiet, reflective, contemplative days of January when we can really focus and be open to the Sacred whispers that may come our way.  After all, we are in the season of Epiphany.  So perhaps if we are open to them, we might also experience some little epiphanies of our own during this season in those in between, quiet spaces of our lives.

So, I am enjoying these January days, this in between time, as I open myself to the blessings this season has to offer.  I hope to find myself quietly listening for the “still small voice,” the “soft whisper” of the Sacred.  I hope you will avail yourself of the opportunity to do so as well.  Amen.

 

1Joyce Rupp & Macrina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons.  Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2009.  P. 228.

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New Year’s Bucket Lists

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 7, 2018

Philippians 3:12-16 GNT

Reading from movie The Bucket List

“The ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death.  When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the gods asked them two questions.  Their answers determined whether they were admitted or not.  Have you found joy in your life?  Has your life brought joy to others?  Character Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) in The Bucket List

If you have never watched the movie, The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, then you should do yourself a favor and either rent it or find it on your cable television on demand option and watch it.  And the beginning of the New Year is an excellent time to do so.

The Bucket List is about the friendship that develops between Edward Cole, played by Nicholson, and Carter Chambers, played by Morgan Freeman.  Edward Cole is a billionaire hospital chain magnate, and Chambers, despite his intelligence, never rose above the status of a common laborer, spending his adult life as an automobile mechanic.  Oddly enough, the two very different men find themselves to be roommates in the same hospital room.  And both of them learn that their long-term prognosis is not good, as they both are diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  Eventually the two men become very close friends, realizing that they have a lot in common, intellectually speaking.

While lying in the hospital bed, Chambers keeps working on a secret wish list of things he would like to do before he dies.  Cole discovers it, much to Chambers’ dismay, and encourages him to pursue it, and Cole even adds some things of his own to the list.  Since he has the wealth to finance it, Cole offers to pay the expenses for them to travel the world and check off a bucket list together.  And that is what they decide to do.  And their journey around the world proves to be life changing for both of them in a number of ways.  As I said, you should do yourself a favor and watch the movie.  Or if you have already seen it, it would be worth your while to watch it again on the threshold of this New Year.

Do you have a bucket list?  I certainly do.  My general bucket list includes trying to get a book in print that I have been working on for about four years now.  And anybody who knows me well, knows that my list includes visiting as many of America’s national parks as possible.  And with our grandson, eventually driving all 2,451 miles of historic Route 66 is on my bucket list.  Those are a few of my personal bucket list items; certainly not as grand, but similar to those of Chambers and Cole in the movie.

I am sure some of you may have similar bucket list items involving national or international travel, professional advancement or change in career, educational attainments, or even a list of books you hope to read before year’s end.  Items on a personal bucket list don’t have to be earth shattering to be important to us.  Several years ago, my bucket list included spending the cold, snow-filled winter days reading a stack of literary classics that I had somehow missed in the course of my college and graduate programs.  So I spent several cold, winter days reading the works of Charles Dickens, Dostoevsky, and others.

But there are different categories of bucket lists, you know.  In addition to the “things I want to do” bucket lists, we might also give consideration to the “things I want to BE,” or “how I want to change” bucket lists.

Enter the Apostle Paul.  In the first chapter of Romans, for example, Paul shares that one of his primary goals – i.e. “bucket list” items – was taking the gospel he was preaching to Rome, the center of the then known world.  Paul knew that if he could establish a Christian church in Rome, then there was a good chance that this Christian message could spread to the whole world, since Rome was at the crossroads of the world and as the saying went, “all roads lead to Rome.”  And vice versa, all roads exited from Rome.

But Paul’s “bucket list” went deeper, I believe.  His passage that I read from Philippians is a most appropriate passage when considering bucket lists and when commencing the New Year.  Now, Paul doesn’t use the term “bucket list,” obviously.  But in this passage, Paul speaks of succeeding, perfection, striving, goals, and spiritual maturity.  In other words, Paul had a spiritual bucket list.  He kept striving to become the person he believed God wanted him to be.  He kept straining toward the goal of the high calling he felt upon his life.  He worked to prove himself worthy of the great task he felt had been entrusted to him.

We should have a similar spiritual bucket list, I believe.  Each of us should be striving toward spiritual goals and greater personal maturity.  Each of us, I dare say, could be a better person than we are when it comes to self development and the way we relate to others.  I am reminded of another character Jack Nicholson played, Melvin Udall, in the movie As Good as It Gets, and the iconic line he utters in that movie – “You make me want to be a better man.”  Doesn’t each of us want to be a better man and better woman, personally speaking?

Most of us could stand at least a little bit of improvement when it comes to personality development and spiritual qualities such as kindness, gentleness, understanding, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, selflessness, generosity, and so on.  Most of us could make a point to find more joy in life and bring more joy to others.  I love that quote from The Bucket List where Carter Chambers shares the belief of the ancient Egyptians as he and Edward Cole are sitting at the Pyramids and the question asked when souls reached the entrance to heaven: “Have you found joy in life?  Has your life brought joy to others?”  None of us can ever have too much joy, and none of us can ever share too much joy.

Some years ago, I realized that there had been times when I could have been kinder and gentler than I had been.  So my New Year’s resolution that year was to strive to be kinder in relating to others.  That was the personal quality at the top of my “spiritual bucket list” that year.  I feel like that resolution did make a difference in the overall way I began relating to others.  Like Paul, “I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect.”  Far from it!  But I am still striving.

And so, what I am throwing out as a suggestion this morning is the possibility of a “spiritual bucket list” for the coming year so that this time next year we are more spiritually mature and more perfectly human than we are today.  Perhaps we could adopt five, or maybe just three, spiritual qualities that we are going to work on in 2018 as our spiritual bucket list.  Maybe we could write them on a sticky note and post them on the mirror where we will see them first thing in the morning, or on the refrigerator, or on our computer screen or monitor.  Our list might include such spiritual qualities as mentioned above: kindness, gentleness, understanding, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, selflessness, or greater generosity.  Or maybe mercy, compassion, justice, joy, patience, goodness, or self-control.  Maybe you can think of another trait that is important to you.  A spiritual bucket list would be different for each of us.  But I am a firm believer that having such a list or goal is worthwhile and important.

Naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in his personal journal, “Woe be to us when we cease to form new resolutions on the opening of a new year!”

So, how about we consider two bucket lists for the year ahead?  First, a bucket list of things we hope to do in 2018 – places we want to travel to, books we want to read, personal achievements we want to pursue, and so on.  But then draft a second short bucket list of the better person we want to be and the spiritual qualities we want to focus on.  May it be so as we commence this New Year together.  Amen.

 

 

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Child of Wonder

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 24, 2017 (AM)

Luke 1:26-38 GNT; Reading from Wonder

 “If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.” R. J. Palacio, Wonder

Little two-year-old Teegan Benson of First Baptist Church White Pine, near Dandridge, just couldn’t help herself when it came to snatching Baby Jesus from the manger bed during the church’s Nativity pageant two weeks ago. Little Teegan was playing the part of a sheep. But Teegan loves baby dolls, and Teegan is fascinated by Baby Jesus.  So in the middle of the pageant she decided to grab the Baby Jesus doll from his bed and she started dancing and swaying with it to the choir’s singing of “Away in a Manger.”

Well, three-year-old Collia Weems, who was playing Mary, was quite protective of Baby Jesus, and she jumped up and went and snatched him back and returned him to the manger bed. But Teegan was determined. She ran to the manger bed and snatched the Baby Jesus doll again. And again Mary, or Collia – said to be a stickler for the rules- jumped up and took the Baby Jesus doll back again. By this time the congregation was crying with laughter.

But when the girls got a bit rough and started to wrestle over the doll, an adult stepped in to pull them apart and restore order to the pageant. One of the mothers decided to post the video on her Facebook page, and it went viral. It even ended up on the Good Morning America world news last week.

Aren’t children wonderful! Aren’t all children creations of wonder?

And speaking of children and “wonder,” some months ago one of our members handed me a couple of books and said, “You need to read these.” Now, I often have someone give me a book saying, “You need to read this.” Sometimes what I’m given I connect with, but often I don’t find the same degree of interest in a book that the person who passed it on did. Each of us has his or her unique likes, interests, and tastes when it comes to what we read.

At any rate, I took the books placed in my hands and laid them on a table in my office where all unread books go to rest. There they lay for a couple of weeks – untouched. But it just so happened that our grandson came to visit shortly after that, and as he often does, he accompanied me to the church office. Josiah saw the books lying on my table and he asked, “Where did you get those books?”

“One of my church members loaned them to me and said I needed to read them,” I replied.

“You do need to read them,” Josiah emphatically insisted. So, at the emphatic suggestion of two witnesses, I decided I would read them.

The first and primary book of the series is titled Wonder. It is the story of a little boy named August, but who goes by Auggie, who was born with a severely disfigured face because of a genetic abnormality. This was totally unexpected by Auggie’s parents. When he was born, the attending physician and nurse were physically shaken, and the Baby was whisked from the delivery room before the parents could see him, having no idea what was going on.

Auggie’s mother puts her career on hold to be a stay-at-home Mom to care for and home school Auggie so as to protect him as much as possible from a cold and insensitive world. Auggie endures several surgeries over the years in attempts to alter his facial features so as to make him look as “normal” as possible to others. In order to try to hide from the world, Auggie wears a Star Wars helmet and mask whenever he ventures outside the home on a family outing.

The thing is, Auggie is just like any other kid in every other way – he is very intelligent, he loves Star Wars and playing video games, but the only difference is his facial features are such that anyone who sees him can’t help but stare, feel uncomfortable, and often be very unkind. But the day comes, when Auggie is about 10 years old, when his parents decide he needs to go to school with other children. This means leaving his Star Wars helmet and mask at home.  So he is enrolled in the Henry Ward Beecher Prep School.

Auggie’s family is very apprehensive about sending him out into the world, especially his mother. In the beginning, it is extremely difficult; it is bad, as Auggie is shunned, insulted, and has his feelings hurt repeatedly.

I’m not going to tell you any more so as to spoil it for you in case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie. But I will tell you this: you would have to have a heart of stone to watch the movie and not be teary-eyed through much of it.  It is a story that will pull at your heartstrings.

It was our grandson Josiah’s request that we all go see the movie the day after Thanksgiving as a family outing.  We are so glad we did.  In order to fully appreciate the story, you either have to read the book or go see the movie yourself.

But near the end of the book and the movie, Auggie’s mother describes him as a “true Wonder.” Hence, the title of the book and the title of the movie, Wonder.

Well, as both Luke and Matthew tell the story, Jesus, too, was a Child of Wonder, with a capital C and capital W.  The Virgin Mary “wondered” what the angel’s words meant concerning the annunciation of Jesus’ conception and birth.  All who heard the report of the shepherds “wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (Luke 2:18 KJV).

And then there are the Christmas hymns.  “O Little Town of Bethlehem” speaks of the angels keeping “Their watch of wondering love,” and “How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given.”  Many stories and much myth have been built up around the birth of Jesus, and untold pieces of artwork have been created to portray Baby Jesus as a Child of Wonder, the Child of Wonder par excellence.

But with the birth of Baby Jesus is bound up all the possibilities and good things the world so desperately needs – the potential for peace and love and goodwill and hope for a better world.  As the hymn puts it, “The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight” in the birth of Jesus, the Child of Wonder.

And so every Christmas season, we are drawn anew to Jesus’ birth story, with all its miracles and myths that have been wrapped up with it, because his birth becomes the symbol and prototype for every human birth and the hope and potential and possibilities that every birth embodies.

Yes, every time a baby is born, we don’t know if perhaps we are witnessing the birth of another child that will grow up to change the world.  There is always the potential and the hope for another Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, or Dorothy Day who will drastically change the world for the better.  In every birth there is the hope, the dream, the possibility of another prophet, another great teacher, another wonderful humanitarian.  The Baby Jesus in the Manger serves as that iconic birth of all births that embodies all our hopes and dreams and longings for a better world.

So then, as Sophia Lyon Fahs so eloquently put it in that passage that served as today’s responsive reading, “each night a child is born is a holy night – a time for wondering.”  And though Jesus’ birth in a manger may be the iconic birth that shines forth and to which we are perennially drawn, his birth also reminds us that every child – including all the Teegans who snatch the Baby Jesus from his manger bed, and all the “Auggies” of the world who don’t fit the mold of what a baby should look like – every child that is born is a “Child of Wonder.”  May we recognize them as such.  Amen.

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Committed to Scripture – But to What Degree?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 10, 2017

James 2:8-13 CEB; Reading from Faith of a Pilgrim Father

How committed are we to scripture?  That is the question I am posing day.  The truth is, one does not have to be an evangelical, conservative, or fundamentalist even to be committed to, or have a great love and respect for, the Scriptures.  Marcus Borg, Amy Jill-Levine and John Shelby Spong are all of the most progressive or liberal Christian theologians of our time, but who also are very open about their love and respect for and commitment to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

I have been a lover of and have had a great respect for and commitment to the Scriptures for some 44 years now.  At the same time, the way I view Scripture and my degree of commitment to the Bible have changed dramatically over the years.  But allow me to share the particulars of what prompted today’s sermon in the first place.

I have been closely watching, and with much interest, the goings on between the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City and the Tennessee Baptist Convention.  In case you missed the story, here’s how it went down.  First Baptist Church of Jefferson City recently made a decision to hire their first-ever female senior pastor.  Speaking on behalf of the congregation, John McGraw, First Baptist’s chair of their board of deacons, said he “and others at the church believe God had a hand in the church’s decision to hire [Ellen] Di Giosia [their new pastor].  ‘We didn’t choose her because she was a woman.  She just happened to have all the best characteristics as a pastor that we needed in our local church,’ McGraw said.  ‘There is not one doubt in my mind that God and our church called Ellen to be our pastor.’” When the story first aired on the local television news and was also covered in the Knoxville News Sentinel, I secretly applauded the church for taking such a bold step.

However, as you might imagine, not everyone has responded to the church’s decision with such joy and enthusiasm.  Because of the church’s move, the Tennessee Baptist Convention branded them as a “non-cooperating church,” and the Convention refused to seat the church’s six messengers at the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s meeting that was held in Hendersonville last month.  The Convention’s reason for refusing to seat the church’s delegates and calling them a “non-cooperating church” is because “the convention is committed to Scripture . . . the convention is firm in that only men can serve as senior pastors.”

Now, let me be clear: I am not picking on Baptists.  Rather, I am addressing a theological belief, stance or method of interpretation that has to do with one’s commitment to Scripture, whatever the denominational affiliation.  As I have already stated, I, too, am firmly committed to Scripture.  I have been a lover of the Bible for over 40 years.  But I have learned in my 40 years of ministry, 40 years of reading, studying, and loving the Bible, that there are limits to one’s commitment to Scripture, as I shall explain in a moment.

No specific Scripture verses were cited in the television news story or in the newspaper article that I read, but I am guessing the Tennessee Baptist Convention is basing its platform on a few scattered verses that say women should remain silent in church services, a woman is not to teach or usurp authority over men, and passages that enumerate personality qualifications of men who would be church leaders.

Often the Apostle Paul is cited as the source of such prohibitions against female leadership, when in reality such passages are from books that we now know were not written by Paul, or passages that were inserted into Paul’s letters by later, anti-female editors.  In words that we know are authentically Pauline, he praises female co-workers who most likely were pastors, and most certainly were church leaders.  And in his letter to the Galatians, a book that we know for certain is authentically Pauline, he says, “there is neither . . . male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And Jesus had female followers, most likely female disciples as well, in my opinion.  It was only later, long after both Jesus and Paul were gone, that the church became increasingly patriarchal and delegated women to lesser roles than they had enjoyed in company with both Jesus and Paul.  But when you have an unequivocal commitment to Scripture, it matters not the history or context behind scriptural passages.  You take them literally – cart blanch.

One of the first things I learned in seminary is there have historically been four sources of authority when it comes to beliefs, practice, biblical interpretation, and church life.  You might want to take note of these.  The first source of authority is Scripture – the Bible.  For many Christians, the Bible is the chief, and for some the only, source of authority.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” is a common statement in some church circles.

The second source of authority is experience.  Faith is a personal matter.  Each of us experiences God, the Sacred, or spirituality in our own way.  Experience is important in matters of faith and spirituality.  The spirituality that I find in the natural world is experience-based, for example.  But experience is subjective and should be not relied upon as our only source of authority.

The third source of authority is tradition.  What has the Church said and held to be true down through the centuries?  Most often – not always, but most often – tradition can help keep us on track.  For instance, many of us are old enough to remember the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy when hundreds of misguided souls followed cult leader Jim Jones to Central America where all kinds of bad things resulted.  In the end, the US government sent Congressional representatives down there to investigate, and in short order over 900 men, women and children died after drinking poisoned Kool-Ade. Looking to tradition might have helped avert such a tragedy.

Such leads to the fourth source of authority having to do with biblical interpretation and faith development, which is often ignored or downright rejected – reason.  Enlightened, science-informed reason.  Even if I read it in the Bible; even if my experience seems to be legitimate; even if tradition has for hundreds of years given approval; if my reason – my education, training, science-informed reason, my gut instinct – tells me something is wrong, then I need to listen.  An example: For hundreds of years, Scripture, experience (especially Southern experience), and tradition seemed to sanction the institution of American slavery.  There are biblical verses that instruct slaves to obey their masters.  Many Southerners felt (i.e., experience) that African Americans were less than human.  And Southern tradition, including church tradition (as many Southern churches had slave balconies) for generations had sanctioned slavery.  But ultimately it was enlightened reason that led abolitionists to take a stand and say, “Slavery is not right.  We must put an end to it.”  So you see, when it comes to biblical interpretation and development of our faith, we need to take experience, tradition and reason into account.

Yes, I am committed to Scripture as much as anyone.  But my commitment to Scripture only takes me so far when ancient words that were written for a different age, under different circumstances, and were clouded by certain prejudices and lack of understanding fly in the face of reason.  Who of us will take our child to the town square to be stoned to death if they curse us?  The Bible says it (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9), but reason dictates it is wrong.  Who of us thinks a woman is ritually unclean for several days when she begins her monthly cycle or has a baby?  The Bible says it (Leviticus 12:2), but reason dictates otherwise.  Who of us believes it is wrong to wear clothing made of two different types of thread, cotton and polyester?  The Bible says it (Leviticus 19:19), but reason dictates otherwise.  Other examples could be cited.

So, you see, we can be committed to Scripture, but to what degree?  We interpret Scripture in conjunction with experience, tradition AND enlightened reason.  As Pilgrim Pastor John Robinson told the Pilgrims departing from Europe as they set sail for America, “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”  In other words, understanding and interpretation of the Bible is not static, but is an on-going process.

And so, when it comes to the question of a commitment to Scripture to the degree that women are to remain silent in churches and not be permitted to be pastors or other church leaders, what does our experience and our God-given, 21st century reason dictate?  For me, they dictate that women have every right that a man does to be a preacher, pastor, or any other type of professional, and they should be compensated on the same level as their male counterparts.  But we know that such is not often the case.  I am going to let you in on a little secret: My favorite well-known preachers in America today are women, as they know how to prepare sermons and preach.

The writer of the book of James reminds us that fulfilling “the royal law found in scripture [is] Love your neighbor as yourself.”  When we show favoritism, he says, we are committing sin.  And mercy should overrule judgment.

So when it comes to questions about interpreting Scripture and how we relate to others, the Law of Love and our God-given reason need to guide us.  So, are we committed to scripture?  Most definitely.  But to what degree?  To the degree that the royal Law of Love, in light of experience, and coupled with enlightened, science-informed reason, show us the way.  May it be so.  Amen.

1Holly Meyer, “Congregation, Tennessee Baptist Convention split over female pastor,” Knoxville News Sentinel, Wed. Nov. 15, 2017.

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Holding Out for the Light

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 4:13-16 ESV

It is 5 am on Sunday morning. We arise from our bunks long before sunrise, while it is still quite dark in the mountain valley. Quietly we gather – one by one – in the parking lot, and silently and reverently we cross the bridge over the Middle Prong of the Little River that flows through Walker Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Stealthily we find our trail by flashlight and climb the hill through the trees until we reach the Walker Valley Cemetery.  One by one we select a comfortable spot – on a log, a flat rock, against a tree trunk, or just a spot of open ground – and we sit, in the dark, facing the cemetery, and we wait. We wait in the dark for the dawn chorus of bird songs that we hope will come.

It was the first weekend of May a couple of years ago. I and about 15 other naturalist friends had descended upon the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont for the annual Birds of the Smokies naturalist certification course. Tiffany, our instructor, was as certain that the dawn chorus would serenade us as she was of the dawning of the sunrise itself.

Waiting in the darkness.  The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (9:2). The people of Israel had long waited, as in the dark, for the light of God’s blessing and deliverance to dawn upon them. It had been a long time coming. The prophet assured them the light they longed for was just beyond the horizon.

We need to keep in mind that Isaiah spoke some 700 years before the birth of Jesus.  Isaiah was speaking to the people of his own day, assuring them that one was about to be born who would bring about positive change for the political situation they found themselves in.  This child to be born would deliver them, break the yoke of oppression, set things right.  It was a prophetic word to them –then and there – and initially not a word of promise for 700 years in the future.  Otherwise, Isaiah’s words would have been empty, meaningless words.  Who of us would care about a prophecy of deliverance to take place 700 years from today?  No, Isaiah’s words initially spoke to the people of Judah in the 8th century BCE.

However, the early Church would reclaim this passage from Isaiah as having been fulfilled again in the coming of Jesus.  They saw in Jesus many of the hopeful traits Isaiah had preached about.  That is a thing about biblical passages: sometimes they can appear to be fulfilled again and again.  And Matthew, more than any other New Testament writer, reinterprets the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the birth, life, teachings, and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  “To fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” or something similar is a common phrase Matthew uses time and again to make his argument that Jesus is the refulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

But back to waiting in the dark and the season of Advent.  The season of Advent has some of the same spirit of waiting in the dark for the dawning of light or for the morning chorus to begin. That stanza in the Advent hymn with which we begin the season says it well: “O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer Our spirits by thine Advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

We have said it before: Just as we need the season of Lent and Good Friday to appreciate the full meaning and power of Easter, we need a period of Advent to appreciate the full meaning and power of Christmas.  If we jump directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas and Christmas carols without giving any thought to Advent, we miss out on why Christmas is so important.

Advent begins “in the dark,” so to speak, in a spirit of despair over the state of things in the world, with a sense of longing that wrongs shall be righted, in a spirit of hope for God to intervene to bring positive change in the world.  Hence, the theme of the first Sunday of Advent and the first Advent Candle to be lit is the Candle of Hope.  Hope for a better world; hope that wrongs shall be righted; hope that, as Longfellow’s hymn puts it, “the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail.”  Isaiah’s vision of holding out for the light included the hope that a time would come when the nations

“shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)

And then Isaiah encourages, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (2:5)

And so, we begin Advent “in the dark,” as it were, but hopeful of the coming Light.  Our hope grows stronger and the light shines brighter as we progress through Advent to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

But in addition to holding out for the light, may we also commit ourselves to holding each other in the lightThat sentence requires a bit of explanation.  The phrase “holding someone in the Light” is a Quaker saying.  An online Quaker blog titled “Brothers and Sisters” shares some of the common connotations of “Holding you in the Light.”  Quakers often say, “I will hold you in the Light” when they intend to pray for someone, when they want for someone what God wants for them – peace and healing, and well-being.  “I will hold you in the Light” is the equivalent of lifting a person up to God, lifting them to light and goodness.  To hold someone in the light is to seek, through prayer, to bring that person into deeper contact with the Divine Presence. It is an expression of comfort and love.  The image of light represents the mysterious presence of God.  When we hold a person in the Light, it is like fanning the flame of God within him or her.

Now, in sharing this Quaker teaching on “holding someone in the Light,” I have a personal reason for doing so.  A few weeks ago, I paid several pastoral visits to Martha M., who was the longest-standing member of the United Church.  One day I visited with Martha and her daughter Harriet in the Critical Care Unit of Methodist Medical Center.  They had not received good news that morning.  So at the close of my visit, as I was preparing to leave, I said to Martha, “I will be holding you close in my heart, thoughts and prayers.”  And Harriet, who is a practicing Quaker, responded, “Hold her in the Light.”  I immediately connected with her statement and said, “Yes, I will hold you in the Light.”

During my last visit with Martha at her home about a week later, I “held her in the Light of the Lord’s Prayer,” as I held her hand and prayed with her. That was our last interaction.  She passed away early the next morning.  As members together in a community of faith, is this not what we should be about, not just during Advent, but all through the year – “holding each other in the Light”?

As noted earlier, Advent serves to remind us that often  we find ourselves in the dark; waiting in the dark; suffering in the dark; longing in the dark for a better world; like the people of old hoping for the Light to come.

Oh, back to my Birds of the Smokies story.  Sure enough, just before the light began to penetrate the morning darkness of Walker Valley, one by one the birds began to break out in song. And as each new species began to sing, Tiffany would whisper its name. “Did you hear that one?” Tiffany would quiz. Then she would call it by name. Before the hour had passed, Tiffany had identified over 30 different bird songs.

We had waited in the dark; and at the edge of a cemetery, a symbol of death, no less. But the light had come, and with it a morning chorus of wonderful, joyous birdsongs.

The season of Advent reminds us that in spite of the present darkness so evident in our world, we must always hold out for the Light – and the dawn chorus – to come.  And while doing so, we also hold each other in the Light.  May it be so during this Advent Season and always.  Amen.

 

1Thoughts from this paragraph are gleaned and copied from Brothers and Sisters, the weekly meetup for prayer and community at Daily Kos, 2013/06/23.

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Regrets for What Isn’t – Thanks for What Is

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 19, 2017

Psalm 100; Philippians 1:3-6; 4:11b-13 ESV

For several years now, my Dad has said to us when every Father’s Day, birthday, or Christmas rolls around, “Now I don’t need anything, so you just save your money.”  Such is a very nice gesture on my Dad’s part.  But I rarely, if ever, listen to him and try to think of some gift that would be appropriate anyway.  I often end up buying a gift card so he or my Mom can go pick out something that he might actually need or use.

For a long time, I didn’t really understand where my Dad was coming from in saying, “I don’t really need anything.”  But the older I get, the more I am beginning to understand it.  There isn’t a whole lot that I can think of that I want or need, materially speaking.  Well, other than a nice, new log cabin in the woods (which is more of a fantasy than an actual need).  Occasionally I think of a new book I would like to have.  But my list of material wants is much shorter than it was in previous decades.  I am not sure if it is such because I have accumulated many of the material or earthly things that once were on my wanting list, or if it is because my perspective on such things has changed over time, or a combination of both.

Finding contentment with one’s current situation is a cardinal principle of an authentic spiritual life.  Not that I have arrived there, mind you.  I am not well versed in Buddhist thought, but I seem to recall that one of the principles of Buddhism is reaching a state of contentment and a state of freedom from the desire for material things.

The Apostle Paul touches on the idea of contentment in his letter to the Philippians.  Philippians is probably my favorite of all the authentic Pauline writings in our New Testament.  Such a warm, congenial spirit flows in this letter, and it is free of some of the heavy theological language to be found in some of Paul’s other works.  The letter begins on a note of thanksgiving: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,” Paul affectionately assures his readers.  It is obvious throughout this letter that there is a real bond of love and commitment between Paul and this congregation he had established.  Now, we need to remember that as Paul penned this letter, he was sitting in prison, probably in Rome.

But near the end of the letter, Paul testifies that in spite of his imprisonment and all the troubles he is facing, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (4:11).  What a testimony!  What a perspective on life!  To be content, no matter the situation.  Whether it be plenty or hunger, abundance or need.  Paul proclaimed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  Paul’s faith; the relationships, love and support he had with fellow believers; and the relationship he felt he had with God and Christ all contributed to his sense of contentment in life, regardless of the present circumstances.

But must we not confess that if we were to permit ourselves, it would be easy to be more focused on regrets of what we don’t have versus contentment with what we do have.  It would have been very easy for the Apostle Paul to spend his time in prison bemoaning his present situation and being miserable over what he didn’t have.  Paul could have thought, “Oh, if only I were on a fourth missionary journey!  If only I had gone over there instead of where I did where I got arrested!  If only this, and if only that!  How I wish I had such and such!”  But he didn’t.

I’ve been there a time or two in the past, and perhaps you have too; those times when you allow yourself to be obsessed with what you don’t have or what you want or desire (and not necessarily what you really need).  It is easy for us to fall into the line of thinking of, If I only had that automobile, or if I only had that house, or if I only had that modern convenience, I would be happy.  And such can become our focus to the exclusion of all other considerations.  Obsession over not having one material thing can take precedence over and every other blessing we have in abundance, if we allow it to.

But one of the secret keys to a fulfilled life is not only finding contentment in life, but being thankful for what we already have.  Every spring and every fall, I switch my clothes out in my closet.  So recently I moved all my spring and summer clothes to the back end of my closet, and I moved my fall and winter shirts and pants to the front where I can easily access them.  And I do the same with my winter coats, gloves, hats and such.  And in the process, I invariably run across a nice shirt or pair of pants or sweater that I had forgotten I even owned.  And I have to say to myself, “That is a really nice shirt or sweater!  I had forgotten I even owned that.”  And I pause for a moment of gratitude that I have that and can look forward to wearing it.

Well, this personal confession has a wider application.  When we pause to take inventory of our lives, we realize that we have blessings in abundance that we may have forgotten about; not just items of clothing that make us feel good when we wear them.  But books and artwork, and pieces of family heirloom furniture, and family photographs, and dozens of other objects (perhaps passed down from family members) that bring us joy when we remember that we have them.  But above all, there is the blessing of relationships and the many people who love us, including some relationships and distant friendships that we sometimes forget about.

God grant us the attitude of Henry David Thoreau: “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.”

I realize that it is easy for me – for most of us in the United Church – to talk about finding contentment and being thankful for what we already have since most of us live very blessed lives.  But many of our county and world find life to be much more difficult.  They don’t have a summer wardrobe and winter wardrobe.  They probably do spend a lot of time thinking about what they don’t have rather than what they do have.  I get that.

But you and I have to live our own lives and respond accordingly.  If we can find contentment in what we already have, and if we do have much for which to give thanks, then such is what we are bound to do.  As the authors of The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons put it, “Now is a good moment to gather our thanks.  Now is the time to remember that we have what we need to give us strength and nourishment during barren, fallow times.”

As we remember the Plymouth Pilgrims this week, we are reminded that they could have spent that autumn of 1621 focusing on regrets and bemoaning what might have been and all the suffering and hardships they had endured.  They had found themselves in a harsh, cold environment without the comforts of home they had known in Europe.  They had almost starved to death.  All of them had lost loved ones to illness, exposure to the cold and death.  Nevertheless, they chose to focus their thoughts on gratitude and thanksgiving for the blessings they did have.

Every now and then all of us may find ourselves having regrets over what isn’t, what might have been, or what we don’t have.  But every November, Thanksgiving rolls around to remind us to go through the closets of our lives and take stock of, be reminded of, and to cultivate a more thankful spirit for what we do have.  May it be so for each of us this Thanksgiving week and always.  Amen.

1Joyce Rupp & Macrina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons.  Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2005.  Pp. 220-221.

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Reflections on Ministry with Children

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 12, 2017

Mark 10:13-16 GNT; “Children” by Kahlil Gibran

One of the greatest joys of being a pastor over the years has been my ministry with children.  And many are the lessons that I have learned in my years of working with children.  Permit me to share a few stories with you.

My ministry with children began in the first, small, country church I served as I helped lead and teach in Vacation Bible School.  Then in the second church we served – while I was attending seminary – I was first expected to have a children’s sermon as a part of the Sunday service.  And I have included a children’s sermon in the Sunday worship service ever since, for some 37 years now.  As we all know, when you are talking with children and open yourself to questions and responses, you never know what you are going to get.

In that seminary congregation, soon after we arrived and when I had just begun inviting the children to the front of the church for time together, one little boy stopped me in the middle of one children’s sermon and yelled, “You know what?”  And of course I bit – hook, line and sinker – and I replied, “No, what?”  And the little boy shouted, “My daddy has a big liquor cabinet full of all kinds of liquor!”  Well, what do you do with that?  Now, you have to realize that the majority of members in that congregation were teetotalers.  Most didn’t drink alcohol and looked down upon those who did.  I glanced back in the congregation to watch the little boy’s parents and grandmother – who happened to be one of the chief movers and shakers in the congregation – red-faced and trying to slide under the pew.

In another congregation I served, it happened to be the first Sunday of Stewardship Season, and it was time for the morning offering.  The ushers had already collected the offering and were walking forward, and we had just begun singing the Doxology offertory song.  All of a sudden the back doors of the chapel flung open, and a little boy came running up the aisle, and with a big smile on his face dropped some money in the offering plates.  The nursery attendants, realizing it was about time for the Offertory, had sent him in with their offerings, not realizing we were almost finished.  When everyone realized what was happening, the congregation broke out in spontaneous laughter.  This, I knew, was an opportunity too good to be missed.  “Now that is what I like to see!” I proclaimed, smiling at the little boy; “people who are so excited about giving that they run up the aisle with their offering!”  I couldn’t have staged a better visual lesson on stewardship had I tried.

Another area of ministry with children over the years has been in summer church camps and retreats.  It was a joy studying with junior age kids (roughly grades 3-5) and enjoying the beauties and blessings of Nature together.  I think I shared once the story of one little girl who happened to attend the church I was serving in Texas at the time.  One afternoon at church camp, she and a few other kids came up to me and she asked, “What did you do with that money?”  Her question caused me to panic momentarily, as I was thinking she had entrusted some of her own money to me that the kids brought for the afternoon canteen, where they could buy ice cream, candy bars, and such.  But I couldn’t recall her giving me any money.  So a bit concerned I replied, “What money?”  And she said, “That money your Momma gave you for preaching lessons; ‘cause you sure didn’t use it to learn how to preach!”  Of course she was playing a joke on me – I think – and all the kids got a good laugh at my expense.  But I knew it was all in good fun and it made me smile.

Since coming to the United Church, it has been a real joy for me to establish a rapport with the children of our church and nursery school.  I enjoy those few minutes each Sunday when the children come forward and gather around for a story or object lesson.  I enjoy passing out candy at our Trunk or Treat, working with the children at our Family Christmas Workshop, spending time with the children at our summer Vacation Church School, and other ways.  The kids bless me as much or more than what I do blesses them, I am sure.  It thrilled my heart to read the things the kids wrote on the construction paper leaves for Pastor Appreciation Sunday.

Currently, I am enjoying working with Suzanne and some of our older kids in the Confirmation Class.  We have some great, intelligent kids in this church (parents, pat yourselves on the back), and it is a true joy to be able to converse with them once a month on religious and spiritual topics.  So to reiterate what I said in the beginning, ministry with children has been one of the greatest joys of being a pastor these past 40 years.  But I have a good reason for sharing all these anecdotes with you.

Some general points having to do with children and teenagers can be gleaned from these stories.  For instance, children have something to teach us about straight forwardness, honesty and transparency, as with the little boy and confession about his father’s liquor cabinet.  Parents and grandparents soon learn that children keep us on our toes when it comes to honesty and integrity.  Children may not just open all your closet doors to reveal what is hidden there when guests come to visit, as happened to us once or twice.  They may also open the closet doors of your personal life!  They teach us a lesson in honesty.

Children have something to teach us about giving and doing so joyfully, as in the case of the little boy running up the aisle with the offering.  Many are the good gifts that children and grandchildren have to share with us, and they do so with pride and joy.  How important it is to not only receive such gifts with much appreciation, gratitude and praise, but to emulate their example of also giving joyfully and proudly.

Children have something to teach us about humor and being able to laugh, and to occasionally laugh at ourselves, as in the case of the little girl who critiqued my preaching skills.  How important it is for us to not only get down on children’s level to laugh and have fun with them, but also to be humble enough to see and laugh at our own foibles.

Children and young people have the ability to stretch our minds as we honestly wrestle with them over the hard questions of life and faith, which we do every time we meet with our teenagers for a Confirmation Class.  Intelligent discussions with our children and teenagers can prove to be good for all concerned.  As the Prophet Kahlil Gibran reminds us, our children “have their own thoughts” to be shared with us.

I’ll share a personal example. I slipped and made an off the cuff statement a few weeks ago that by today’s standards is politically incorrect, and our daughter (who happened to be here that day) politely pointed it out to me.  I had not intended to be politically incorrect in the least, but because of her training and field of professional expertise, she picked up on it.  She was correct.  It was a learning experience for me.  My daughter is now 37 years old, but I still learn from her.  But we can learn from our young children and grandchildren and the younger children of our church and Nursery School as well.  As the Prophet says, sometimes we need to “strive to be like them,” rather than seeking to make them like ourselves.

Of all the work, programs and mission we are involved in here at the United Church, nothing is more important than our ministry with children and youth.  We may sometimes be tempted to take such things for granted.  But the Sunday school classes, Unity youth group, Confirmation Class, family and youth retreats, children’s choir and ensemble, and the many special events planned for children and youth throughout the year (Christmas Family Workshop, Christmas Pageant, Easter activities, picnics, Vacation Church School, and so on) are vitally important as we seek to provide Christian instruction, spiritual formation, love and acceptance, a caring community, and more.  But in the process of seeking to provide these opportunities, we also receive much from our children and youth in return.

And just as important is the United Church Nursery School that this congregation has sponsored for well over 50 years.  God bless our children and their parents.  And God bless the dedicated teachers, staff, and volunteers of our Nursery School, as together we engage in the all-important ministry with children.  Amen.

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