Straddling the Fence of Civil Responsibility

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 2, 2017

1 Peter 2:13-17 GNT; Reading from Henry D. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

If it were possible for us to be in Concord, Massachusetts, ten days from today, I imagine we could take part in some pretty significant birthday celebrations; especially if we had the opportunity to gather around Walden Pond.  And if I hadn’t already made summer plans that will take me in a different direction, I might even try to go there myself.  For, you see, July 12 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s most celebrated thinkers and writers.  Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to over 20 volumes.

Most people who know of Thoreau think of him as an American naturalist.  Such is the way that I most often think of him.  Thoreau is best known, perhaps, for his iconic work, Walden, or Life in the Woods.  Walden was one of the first American works on getting back to nature and extolling the virtues of simple, natural, and frugal living.  Poet Robert Frost wrote of Thoreau’s Walden, “In one book . . . he surpasses everything we have had in America.”  (As an aside, it was on July 4, 1845, when Thoreau moved to a small hut he had built on land borrowed from Ralph W. Emerson on the shore of Walden Pond.)

Many naturalists, conservationists, and environmentalists may even look upon Thoreau’s Walden as their “second Bible.”  Thoreau’s call to use resources wisely, to preserve “wildness,” to abolish slavery, and to live more mindfully vastly influenced the conservationist and environmentalist movements in America, the establishment of the National Parks System, the abolitionist movement, and perhaps the thought of contemporary poets like Mary Oliver.  Conservationist E.O. Wilson called Thoreau “the founding saint of the conservation movement.”

But the other work that Thoreau most often remembered for is his long essay titled “Civil Disobedience.”  At least part of “Civil Disobedience” was written from jail, after Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax, believing that doing so was supporting the institution of slavery.  “Civil Disobedience” has been described as “the most influential political essay written by an American.”1  Both Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that they learned about the moral basis of resistance and how to put it into practice from Thoreau’s essay.

“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?”  Such is a question that might sound like it had been framed just this week.  Yet this is a question that Thoreau asked in 1848 as the United States engaged in war with Mexico.

To try to put Thoreau’s thought into simpler terms, how does one determine the limits of civil obedience or civil disobedience?  How far does one go in respecting and supporting a government when one feels that government is too far afield of what is right or is downright wrong?  It isn’t a new question, by any means.  It is as old as government itself.

Which brings us to the interesting passage read from the Letter of 1 Peter (which certainly wasn’t written by the Apostle Peter, by the way, who had been long dead when this letter was written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century).  “For the sake of the Lord submit yourselves to every human authority: to the Emperor, who is the supreme authority, and to the governors, who have been appointed by him to punish the evildoers and to praise those who do good . . . respect the Emperor.”  Now, at face value, such a directive seems logical.  But the curious thing is this letter was written during a time of persecution, when Christian believers who were the first recipients of this letter were being persecuted, possibly by the same government they were told to respect!  There were periods during the last half of the first and early part of the second centuries when the Roman emperors actively persecuted the Christians of the Empire.  What in the world was the writer of this letter thinking?

Well, one consideration here is the author was encouraging the Christians of the Empire to try to not do anything so as to appear unpatriotic, and by so doing, bring the wrath of the government down upon them.  In other words, the reason to respect the Emperor was practical in nature, so as to not incite further persecution.

Yet also contained within these verses is a great conundrum, what biblical commentator David L. Bartlett calls “the almost paradoxical vision of civic behavior that 1 Peter – and other early Christian writings – commends.”2  Christians are slaves to God alone, yet are commended to “Live as free people,” while at the same time encouraged to submit “to every human authority . . . and respect the Emperor.”  It all sounds a bit like doubletalk, doesn’t it?  How can one do all three – be a slave to God alone, yet live as free people, and submit to every human authority?

And so, now you know where today’s sermon title, “Straddling the Fence of Civil Responsibility,” comes from.  We are raised to be patriotic – say the Pledge of Allegiance and respect the American flag – and have respect for government leaders – senators, governors, and the President – but how do we do that if the government or officials contradict our faith convictions and what we feel to be right?  How do we continue to be supportive of our leaders and government during those times when what is happening seems to be in diametric opposition to the ways of God, as we see them?  Or to put it another way, what do we do when we feel the call of God upon our lives and the way of government are totally opposite?  How do we responsibly straddle the fence between our faith and government when they seem to be polar opposites?

Such are questions that many are asking in America today, especially surrounding the debate on healthcare coverage and who should and shouldn’t be included and excluded.  But by the same token, they are the same questions that others asked during Obama’s administration.  And the same is true all throughout history.  The same questions Henry David Thoreau raised in “Civil Disobedience” never go out of fashion and are still being asked today.  “Unjust laws exist:” Thoreau contended, “shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”  “As people of conscience,” Thoreau stated, “we declare our commitment to translate our values into action.”

And so, when we feel our government or the laws of our land are in need of change, there are many different courses of action we can, and perhaps should, take: Some write letters to the editor; others call their senators or representatives; others choose to put their energies into marches and protests; and still others (like Thoreau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and others ) are willing to go to jail because of their convictions.

In the end of the essay Thoreau would conclude, and I like what he said, “I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.”  Such is a good rule of measurement and principle toward which we should strive both as citizens and Christians, I believe – a government that treats each “individual with respect as a neighbor.”  It is a lofty ideal toward which to aim, but perhaps one that Jesus would call for.  “Render to Caesar (the Emperor, the government) the things that are Caesar’s, and render to God the things that are God’s.”  And in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus reminds us that we are our neighbor’s keeper.

Periodically what we feel the call of God upon our lives to be leads us to work to change governmental policies and laws so that all citizens are respected as a neighbor.  At least that is the way I see it.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Richard Higgins, UU World, Summer 2017.  Pp. 32-37.

2David L. Bartlett, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.  Pp. 274-275.

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Benefits of Being Awed

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 25, 2017

Job 37:14-16, 21-24; 38:12, 18 GNT; Reading from John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk

Do you have any plans to be awestruck, amazed, or lost in wonderment this summer?  I sure hope so, because it would be to your benefit to do so.  I certainly hope to be awed – awestruck, amazed, and lost in wonderment in the midst of God’s amazing creation – at least a few times in the coming weeks.

As many of you know, one week from tomorrow I will be starting a short summer sabbatical and vacation.  Or to put it more correctly, the second half of a sabbatical that I began four years ago.  When I came to this United Church nine years ago, a clause in my contract granted a three-month sabbatical after five years of service, something that is now pretty standard in many denominations.  Feeling that three months was a long time to be out of the pulpit and away from the church, I negotiated with the Church Board at that time to take half of the sabbatical in 2013 and save the second half (6 weeks) for a later date.  Well, we have arrived at that later date.  I will be here next Sunday and be back the first weekend of August to lead in Rachel Hoelzer’s wedding celebration on Saturday and preach on that Sunday.  Then I hope to take the following seven days after that as the end of my sabbatical time.  During my time away, Suzanne will be leading services for you and providing you with some very thought-provoking sermons, as she always does.

Throughout the month of July and some of August, I plan to embark upon another short Route 66 trip with our grandson; Mary Lou and I have a 9-day trip to Colorado planned, to Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde, and Four Corners; I hope to do some hiking and picture-taking in some of Tennessee’s state parks that I have never visited; catch up on some reading; and try to finish a book I started four years ago.  But as already noted, one of the things in general that I hope to do is be awed.

Standing in awe before God’s creation is the spirit of the verses read from the Book of Job.  Some of the most poetic and most beautiful verses in the entire Bible having to do with awe, amazement and wonderment in contemplation of creation are found in these chapters of Job.  The passages in Job express the feelings that many of us have when witnessing a thunderstorm and watching lightning flash from the sky, or when witnessing a beautiful rose-colored sunrise or orange-tinted sunset.

“At God’s command amazing things happen,” the writer of Job proclaims;

“wonderful things that we can’t understand” (37:5).

Thunder, lightning, snow, frozen rivers, the tides of the seas, the rising of the sun and the dawn of the day, the stars of the sky, and the ways of animals in the wild – all these aspects of creation “fill us with awe,” as Job puts it.

Naturalist John Muir, in the spirit of these verses from Job, was, likewise, awestruck by the natural world, within which he saw the footprint of the God of Creation.  For instance, Muir was fascinated by thunderstorms he witnessed in Yosemite Valley.  He wrote in this regard, “many of Nature’s finest lessons are to be found in her storms. . . .  Storm clouds on the mountains – how truly beautiful they are! . . . .  A good storm-cloud full of lightning and rain on its way to its work on a sunny desert day is a glorious object.”1

Of the Sierra Nevadas, Muir would write, “The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God. . . .  Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, . . .  in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. . . .  The very rocks seem to tingle with life, and God is felt brooding over everything great and small.”2

Four years ago, at the beginning of my sabbatical time, Mary Lou and I stood in awe as we gazed at a beautiful golden sunset in the Florida Keys on the 4th of July (which, by the way, was soon followed by a majestic thunderstorm).  Two years ago we stood in awe before a beautiful sunrise in Bryce Canyon National Park, something that we had not planned on doing the night before, but which ended up being nothing short of a spiritual experience and one of the highlights of our trip.

But as hinted at earlier, being awestruck, amazed, and lost in wonderment in the midst of creation is beneficial for us, not only emotionally and spiritually, but physically as well.  The genesis for this sermon was a Parade insert in the Sunday newspaper I had saved from back in October.  The title of that particular Parade issue was “Awe,” and the title of the article was “Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness.”  The article points out that “new studies show that [Awe] is a dramatic feeling with the power to inspire, heal, change our thinking and bring people together.”  “’Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things,’ says psychologist Dacher Keltner. . .  In 2013, Keltner’s lab kicked off Project Awe, a three-year research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.”  Awe is described as “dumbstruck wonder,” and “it’s now thought to be a basic part of being human that we all need,” along with other necessary emotions.

Some of the benefits of awe that have been observed include binding us together – “we realize we’re a small part of something much larger;” keeping “us still and attentive”. . . making “us nicer and happier” . . . and altering “our bodies [as a] positive emotion that most strongly predicts reduced levels of cytokines, a marker of inflammation that’s linked to depression.”  “Studies have linked exposure to nature with lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems, and more.”3

I mentioned earlier taking the first half of my sabbatical four years ago.  It was one of the most beneficial things I have ever done in my forty years of ministry, bringing much-needed restoration to my soul and charting me in a whole new direction of spiritual amazement and wonder and theological study.  I was renewed, re-energized, and recharged for these past four years.  So I am walking, and working, proof that being awed in God’s creation holds many emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits.  And I anticipate that this upcoming sabbatical time will provide the same type of benefits.

But one need not take a sabbatical to realize the benefits of being awestruck.  There are so many things in our world that can fill us with awe, if we have our eyes, ears, and other senses open to them: as already noted from both Job and John Muir, watching a summer thunderstorm from our kitchen window; experiencing a beautiful sunrise or sunset; standing before a waterfall; looking up at the Milky Way; standing at the base of a giant sequoia tree; looking out across a Smoky Mountain vista; holding a newborn baby; or even finding a nest of baby birds in your front porch flowerpot.

A couple of weeks ago, I kept seeing a bird fly from the big flowerpot on our front porch.  I finally discovered a nest cradling five spotted bird eggs.  Finally catching the mother on them, I identified them as a Carolina Wren.  After about a week, the eggs hatched.  I watched the mother and father bring food to the baby birds, which now filled the nest like a clump of sardines.  But the thing that most amazed me about the baby birds was their rate of growth.  They seemed to double in size overnight.  The way the eggs hatched and the rate the baby birds grew was a thing of wonderment indeed.

So as I asked in the beginning, Do you have any plans to be awed – awestruck, amazed, lost in wonderment – this summer?  It might be as far away as Colorado, or it might be as close as our own backyards as we marvel at a tiny wildflower, gaze up at the stars or the full moon, or discover a nest of baby birds.  The key is to be open and receptive to the miraculous in our very midst.  And the benefits of being awed are priceless.

May we be given the spirit of the writer of Job and the vision and passion for nature of John Muir so that we, too, may know the benefits – emotional, spiritual, and physical – of being awestruck in God’s amazing creation! Amen.

 

1John Muir, “Stickeen,” “Snow-Storm on Mt. Shasta,” and “Grand Canyon of the Colorado.”    2John Muir, “My First Summer in the Sierra” and “Mountains of California.”  3Paula Spencer Scott, “Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness.”  Parade, October 9, 2016.  Pp. 6-8.

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Some Words Dads & Husbands Aren’t Likely to Hear

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 18, 2017

Luke 15:11-32 ESV

As fathers, and husbands, we hear a lot of words from our children and our spouses through the years.  Some words that we hear make us happy, and others make us very sad.  Some words make us proud of the person we are, and others may cause us to be ashamed.  Some words are words of praise for the person we are and the good that we do, while other words may be words of judgment that call us to account for our weaknesses.  Some words that come to us cause us to celebrate (as in the case of “You have a healthy baby girl or healthy baby boy”), while other words that come to us bring us great sadness (as in the case of “Your grandbaby will be born with a rare disorder”).

As I have thought about the approach of Father’s Day these past few weeks, I have spent some time reflecting on words that I as a father, grandfather, and husband have heard over the years.  As with all fathers, grandfathers, and husbands, it is a mixed bag of words, happy and sad, joyous and regretful.

But then I began to focus on some words that dads, granddads, and husbands are not likely to hear, not very often, anyway;  but some words that all of us would do well to consider.

For instance, “You should spend more time at the office” are some words most men are not likely to hear.  There are exceptions, of course.  Most men, I conjecture, are tempted to spend more time in their job and less quality time with their family than they should, and thus, are unlikely to be accused of not spending enough time at the office or on the job.

It is a balancing act, to be sure.  Being a husband and father brings responsibilities and pressures to provide, get ahead, and maybe work a little extra so as to make possible special things like nice Christmas gifts or a nice summer vacation or some other family activity, or working extra so as to put away money for college.  So we may sacrifice time with family to provide for family.  But the key is walking that fine line and finding that ideal balance between work time and family time.

Which leads us to the words, “You spend too much time with me,” that most men are not likely to hear.  These words could apply to one’s spouse as well as to one’s kids or grandkids.  I dare say that any of us have been accused of spending too much time with our kids, grandkids or spouse.

I once read the results of a survey that asked kids if they had the choice of getting more material stuff – toys, electronic gadgets, and such – or getting to spend more time with their dads, which would they choose?  Most kids would choose more time with their dads.  Many wives might say the same thing.

Most men aren’t likely to hear the words, “You help out around the house too much.”  There once was a time, I guess, when virtually no men helped out around the house by cooking, doing laundry, vacuuming, ironing, caring for the kids, washing dishes, and so on.  It was that way in the community where I grew up, anyway.  But times are a’changin’ as they say.  A greater sense of equality is evident, and more men are sharing household responsibilities than ever before.

Another survey revealed that many wives see husbands sharing the household chores as a romantic thing.

How about the words, “You say ‘I love you’ way too often”?  Are these words that any of us have ever heard – “You say ‘I love you’ way too often”?  It is easy for us to just take for granted that our kids, grandkids, or spouse know we love them, so we don’t have to say it so often; right?

Now, I suppose that one could let saying “I love you” become an obsession, so that you feel you need to say it to someone 50 times a day.  If that were the case, then one might very well hear the words, “You say you love me too much.”  But I imagine that very few of us could be found guilty of using the “L” word too often.

But all of us need and want to hear the words “I love you” from those close to us.  And I would say we should hear it and say it at least a couple times a day.  To know that we are loved by those important to us, and to actually hear it rather than having to wonder whether we are really loved, is important affirmation that contributes to our self-esteem and well-being.

How about the words, “You smile at me too often”?  I am often the recipient of just the opposite words: “Why don’t you smile more?”  Some people seem to have the gift of a wonderful, beautiful, pleasant smile that brings joy to everyone they encounter.  Others of us tend to be more reserved – maybe even considered to be solemn – and would do well to make a point to smile more often.

Again, smiling at someone we love is a form of affirmation, acceptance, and maybe even a demonstration of love.  And I am betting that few of us have ever been accused of smiling at our kids, grandkids, and spouses more than we should have.

Then how many of us have heard the words, “You hug me too much”?  Just as all of us are better off for hearing a loved one say “I love you” at least daily or a few times daily even, all of us are better off for being hugged and giving hugs every day.  I once read another report that noted that hugs are not only emotionally good for us, but they are physically good for us as well, causing the release of healthy hormones in the body that boost good health and resistance to illness and disease.

Recently our grandson spent a few days with us, and as he was getting ready to go to bed, he said, “I need to be sure and get in my seven hugs for today,” which I thought was a pretty neat thing for him, a 10-year-old, to say.

One of the daily funnies I read religiously is “Family Circus.”  If you Google “Family Circus” cartoons on hugging, dozens come up that have been published over the years.  This past Sunday’s “Family Circus” hit the nail on the head again when it showed several pictures of various family members hugging and the little girl saying, “God invented hugs to let people know you love them without saying anything.”

Well, when it comes to stories having to do with fathers, the truth is there are not a lot of positive ones to be found in the Bible.  There are a lot of biblical stories about fathers who missed the mark or downright failed, and we certainly can learn from their mistakes.  But there are very few stories or examples of good fathers in the Bible to be emulated, I am sorry to say.  But then there is the story of the Prodigal Son and his father.  I think the father of the Prodigal comes about as close to being a good father as we will find in the entire Bible.  Granted, there is a lot of theological meaning buried in this story that Jesus and Luke had in mind for their own day, much deeper than the surface story itself.

But as Jesus portrays him, I picture the father of the Prodigal seeing his wayward son walking down the path toward home in the distance.  And the good father takes off running toward his son, with open arms and a big smile upon his face, and as they meet, the father embraces the son with a big hug, smiles at him and says, “I love you; welcome home!”  If I have to choose any image from the Bible for this Father’s Day, that is the image I want to choose to reflect upon.

So, fathers, grandfathers and husbands, do we stand guilty today?  Could we be found guilty of spending too much time with our kids or significant others, guilty of being too helpful around the house, guilty of saying “I love you” way too often, or guilty of smiling at and hugging our loved ones too much?  I certainly hope so.  But if not, we can always change our ways.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

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Genesis Chapters 1-3: Answers or Questions?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 11, 2017

Genesis 1:1-28 ESV

Reading from John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism

 Genesis chapters 1-3 – some of the most beautiful literature in the entire Bible; indeed, some of the most beautiful literature in the world at large.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Such are some of the best-known and best-loved words of all time, cherished by Jews and Christians alike.  Some of us may have memorized these words in elementary school.

Yet, these same words, and the verses that follow, have also proved to be some of the most controversial words known to humankind.  These words have at the same time been ammunition for Creationists and something to be refuted by many evolutionists.  One would think that the issue might have been settled once and for all in the 1920s with the John T. Scopes trials.  But in the minds of many, the battle regarding Creationism and Evolution is still raging.

The problem over the opening chapters of Genesis, as well as with other stories in the Bible, lies not within the Bible itself, but rather, in the manner in which such biblical stories are interpreted.  For, you see, when reading the opening chapters of Genesis and other biblical chapters like them, there are so many different ways such stories can be interpreted – historically, literally, symbolically, figuratively, or metaphorically – to name just a few ways.  Some choose to interpret the entire Bible (including the opening chapters of Genesis) literally and as historic fact.  This approach to reading the Bible may include the belief and stance that the Bible provides all the answers to all of humankind’s questions.  So such an approach leads one to read the opening chapters of Genesis in search of definitive answers regarding how our world – our universe- came into being.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” is a slogan I have heard in this regard.

Others choose to turn to biblical scholarship, which tries to determine when and where such words were actually written, what was going on in the life and history of the people who wrote them at the time, and the underlying purposes the writer may have had in mind when writing them.  (As a side note, you my have seen the news stories this past week regarding the recent discovery in the Sahara Desert of homo sapiens fossils that have been determined to be 300,000 years old, a far cry from the 6,000 years from the creation of Adam and Eve, as held by Creationists.)

But in recent years, I have come to believe that there is another way to look at the opening chapters of Genesis.  This approach to the Creation stories is not to find definitive answers, but rather, to try to understand the questions that the writers may have been asking in formulating these stories.  As writer Michael Dowd notes, “For as long as humans have used words to communicate and think, we have been telling stories to answer the fundamental questions of existence:

Where did we come from? – the question of origin

Where are we going? – the question of destiny

What happens when we die? – the question of finality and continuity”1

John Shelby Spong says it a similar way: “The Bible becomes . . . a historic narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in the eternal quest to understand life, the world, themselves, and God.”In other words, in this approach we view the Bible in terms of the questions our ancient religious ancestors were asking, and some possible answers they came up with, based on the knowledge and understanding that was available at the time such stories were written.

For instance, it seems obvious that the first big question being asked in the Creation stories is, “How did it all come to be?  Where did the universe come from?”  Isn’t that the one, big question of the ages asked by humans and addressed in some story form in many religious traditions of the world?  The creation of the universe is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, mysteries known to humankind, something men and women have been in awe and wonderment of from the time of thinking, questioning human beings.  So at least one of the aims behind the Creation stories (and there were others, for sure) was an attempt to address the overarching question regarding how everything in our world and the sky above came to be.  It was an attempt to provide a story or starting place to answer one of the universal questions of life, and, thus, should not be interpreted as dictation from God about how Creation came to be.

Another question the Creation stories seek to address, I believe, is, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”  Early men and women suffered sickness, injury, and pain just as we do.  Surely they questioned why such suffering had to be.  Why such pain and suffering is a reality in our world is another one of the great questions of humankind that was asked way back then and is still asked today in hospital beds all around the world.  Why do people – especially good people – have to suffer?  The Creation stories seek to address the question of pain and suffering in the world.  There must be a good reason for it, the ancients conjectured.

Part of the question regarding suffering is why men and women have to work so hard to support themselves, which brings tiresome toil, sweat, back pain and much more.  In growing food, one must contend with thorns and thistles and pests that threaten to rob farmers of their produce, and there is suffering in the hot sun to till the land for food.

And for women – well, the Genesis stories also touch on the pain of childbirth.  Why does such a joyous event – the birth of a baby – have to involve such physical pain?  That just doesn’t seem right, does it?  It is a mystery.  Well, the answer given is that men and women, when first created, must have offended the God who created them, so the punishment was suffering pain in childbirth, because of the sin of the first woman who ate and enticed her partner to eat the forbidden fruit.  I have even heard someone place the blame of pain at childbirth and other pains of womanhood upon Eve.  “All this monthly pain is all Eve’s fault,” was the statement made.  Such is the result of the ancients asking the question about pain and suffering.

There is the question regarding the nature of human life.  How is it that there is breathing, walking life upon the earth?  What force or agency can be accounted for regarding breathing, walking, thinking, reasoning humans?  Why is it that a human body is a living, breathing, walking miracle?   That is the question.  The answer given is the life-giving Creator fashioned man from the dust of the earth and then breathed into him the breath of life.  The mysterious thing is one may be a breathing, living, walking, thinking person one moment, then be a non-breathing, non-living, non-thinking body the next minute.

Which leads to the next question regarding death.  “Why do men and women, as well as other created creatures, die?”  Why do we all of a sudden stop breathing, living, walking, and responding?  If the world were created perfect, a paradise, then there wouldn’t be any death, would there?  Death is another one of the great mysteries of life, a mystery we still don’t understand today.  So again, there must be a good reason for death to have entered the “perfect world” that had been created.  Such is a question posed by the writer of at least one of the Creation stories.  The first man and woman must have offended the God who created them by being disobedient, by doing something they were told not to do.  So the consequence was physical death, for them and all their descendents after them.

Well, as we delve deeper into the following chapters in the book of Genesis, other questions in the minds of the ancients might be cited, such as, “Of all the creatures of the world, why is the serpent most universally feared?  Where does rain come from, and how did it come to be that rain started falling upon the earth?  How and why did murder enter the world?  How and why are there so many different languages in the world?  What is the cause for massive natural disasters, i.e., the great flood?  And more.

Part of the timeless beauty of the scriptures is that the questions of the ancients are also our questions, and vice versa.  One of the primary functions of religion is, is it not? is to seek to address the ultimate questions of life.  Religion from the beginning has sought to deal with and provide answers for the realm of Mystery.

And so, when we read the Bible, we find there the universal questions of humankind, many of the same questions that we struggle with today.  So we find ourselves in good company, companions in a long line of the faithful who were seekers after God and seekers after the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

So in the end, we should not view the Bible as always holding all the answers to life’s ultimate questions.  But rather, as in the case of Genesis, we identify with the faithful of old in asking the timeless questions about life’s greatest mysteries.  At least, that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 

1Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution.  New York: Viking, 2007.  P. 21.

2John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.  Pp. 32-33.

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In Praise of (Religious) Poetry

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 4, 2017

Joel 2:28-29 ESV; Mary Oliver, “I Want to Write Something So Simply”

How many of you like poetry?  It takes a special inclination, I guess, to be an avid poetry enthusiast.  It certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea.  One of the United Church’s past resident poets, Mona Raridon, often said something to the effect that you can hardly give away your published books of poetry, much less sell them!  Such is a truth I have come to realize as well, having self-published some of my own poems about a year ago.  Poetry collections are not in high demand, unless you happen to be someone like Mary Oliver, who is “unmatched in terms of poetry sales in the American market.”1

But let me ask another question: How many of you like to sing hymns?  More of us do, perhaps.  But the truth is many of our beloved hymns were born as poems that were later set to music.  For instance, that familiar Christmas hymn that many of us here at the United Church love, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was first a poem before it was later set to music.  Likewise Katherine Lee Bates’ poem, “Pike’s Peak,” was later set to music and the title changed to “America the Beautiful.”  Finally, poems by Christian poet Christina Rossetti were later set to music, as in the case of the hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Well, allow me to ask one more question: How many of you like the Psalms?  Perhaps more of us would answer in the affirmative of liking the psalms than enjoying reading poetry.  But for the most part, the Psalms are poetry, many of which were set to music for Temple worship much like a number of our hymns were originally poems that were set to music for church worship.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1); “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where does my help come?” (Psalm 121:1); “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).  All three of these beloved verses are Hebrew poetry.

Much of the material in the Bible, in fact, that we have all come to love and embrace was in its original form poetry, pure and simple.  Debra Dean Murphy, writing in a recent issue of Christian Century magazine, notes that “For theology and liturgy, poetry has always mattered.  Scripture begins and ends with poetry and contains swaths and snatches of it throughout its vast remainder.  The rites of Christian worship across the centuries have endured in part because they are poetry in the mouth, poetry in the ear, poetry to live by.”1  It may surprise some to learn that today’s scripture text from the prophet Joel which speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out upon all flesh in its original form was Hebrew poetry.  The early Church would embrace and reinterpret this ancient Hebrew poem to describe the event that gave birth to the Christian Church on the day of Pentecost.

And though Jesus himself didn’t write anything personally as far as we know, some of the words attributed to Jesus, as quoted by Matthew and Luke anyway, border on the poetic.  I am thinking of the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3); and “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin” (Luke 12:27).  So, the point to be taken thus far is that poetry (especially religious poetry) is a vital and rich part of our lives.

But what is it about poetry that makes it so appealing and vital to our lives?  Well, good poetry – poetry that withstands the test of time, anyway – tends to be universal in its message.  Good poetry often touches on themes with which most people can identify; it may touch on human emotions that are common to everyone.  Such is pointed out by Mary Oliver in her poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simple.”  Her aim, she says, is to write something

that even

as you are reading

you feel it

and as you read

you keep feeling it

and though it be my story

it will be common,

. . .

so that by the end

you will think—

no, you will realize—

that it was all the while

yourself arranging the words,

that it was all the time

words that you yourself,

out of your own heart

had been saying.”2

In other words, often good poetry does resonate; it does make us feel like the poet’s experience is our experience.  Such, I think, is why the poetry of the Psalms is so meaningful – the Psalms touch on every human emotion and experience.

This leads to another point: Good poetry invites us into an experience.  In an economy of words, a good poem thrusts us into a life experience that we can visualize and almost feel with our senses.  Take, for instance, Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Immediately we feel ourselves being transported to a patch of woods being covered by a December’s snow:

“Whose woods these are, I think I know;

His house is in the village though

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.”

As far as classic American poets are concerned, Robert Frost is by far my favorite.  But as for contemporary American poets, my favorite is Mary Oliver, as most of you should know by now.  In her book titled A Poetry Handbook, Oliver notes, “The poem is an attitude, and a prayer . . . .  poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”3  Indeed, here we get to the kernel of the issue: good poems are bread for the soul!  Good poems feed the spirit – they affirm the feelings, longings, joys, sorrows, and so many other emotions that are common to the human soul.  Poems validate our emotions, fill us with joy, and give us comfort when we are troubled.

And of all the poets today, Mary Oliver serves as a voice for many as she is a mystic of the natural world, brings theology to bear upon everyday life in the world, invites us “into wonder,” and reminds us to be present in the moment and “To pay attention . . . our endless and proper work.”4

As Debra Dean Murphy points out in her Christian Century article, “the best orators and authors throughout history have won over their audiences with poetic speech.”1  The Hebrew prophet Amos: “let justice roll down like waters,/and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” – poetry.  The Hebrew prophet Micah: “what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love kindness,’ and to walk humbly with your God?” – poetry.  Abraham Lincoln ‘s Gettysburg Address: “Fourscore and seven years ago . . .” – not a poem, but poetic language, certainly.

And so, the conclusion of the matter is that poetry – and for many of us religious poetry – is so much more a part of our lives than any of us may have previously realized.  Poetry as presented in the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets; poetry by folks like Robert Frost and Mary Oliver; and poetic language by great orators like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, and certainly Jesus himself – such words are part of who we are as individuals, Christians, Americans, and even residents of planet Earth.

Good poetry affirms us, comforts us, challenges us, and at times even changes us.  So how can we not stand in praise of the poetic?  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Debra Dean Murphy, “Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems,” Christian Century, April 25, 2017.

2Mary Oliver, “I Want to Write Something So Simply,” Evidence.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.

3Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook.  Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 1994.  Pp. 114, 122.

4Mary Oliver, “Yes! No”

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Who You Going to Listen To?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 28, 2017

Proverbs 16 (selected verses); reading from Parker J. Palmer’s, Let Your Life Speak

Today’s message was prepared primarily with our graduating high school seniors in mind.  At the same time, what I have to say today may be applicable to those of all ages – graduating seniors or senior adults – because it is never too late to hear the “Voice” that speaks to us, calling us to be our authentic self, even in our retirement years.  We are reminded that the renowned American folk artist Grandma Moses didn’t hear that “Voice” calling her to seriously pick up a paintbrush until she was 78 years old.  Her paintings – which she initially sold for $3-5 – would eventually bring thousands of dollars and grace the covers of magazines, be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, and be displayed in numerous museums and galleries around the country and world.

But the question of the day – for high school seniors and senior adults alike and everyone else in between – is which voice are we going to listen to when choosing a path to follow and/or seeking to be our authentic self?  Because the voices that beckon to us – the voices crying out to be heard – are many and varied.

I was reminded this past week of one of the scenes in that classic movie starring Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate.  Now, I hasten to say that not every scene in The Graduate is suitable for a church discussion, as most of you well know.  But the scene I am referring to is when the character Benjamin, played by Hoffman, is at the graduation celebration party that his parents have thrown for him.  As Benjamin is milling around the party, different people keep asking him what he plans to do or telling him what he should do with his life.  And one family friend in particular corners him to give him advice.  (As a side note, the line I am going to share with you was named No. 42 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotations.)  The family friend says, “I just want to say one word to you.  One word.  Are you listening?” When Benjamin replies, “Yes,” the family friend says, “Plastics.”  The future is in plastics.  But the point here being, it is obvious that Benjamin is totally confused about what to do with his life, and all the voices urging him to go this way or that doesn’t help matters at all.  Such vocation confusion resonates because it is a universal feeling among young people setting off into the world.

I imagine that our graduating seniors have a cadre of competing voices as well about what they should do with their future – where they should go to college, what field of study should be pursued, what business or profession should be entered into, the position that will pay the most money, and so on.  Voices of teachers, guidance counselors, well-meaning relatives, neighbors, ministers and churches, and yes, even parents as well.  I have come to believe that our task as parents and grandparents is to try to listen to and seek to facilitate discussion, focusing on helping children and grandchildren discern the most important “Voice” of all in choosing their own path into the future.  It might not change at all the course they choose, but then again it might actually be a help to them.

And then there are the voices of the media, social media, contemporary idols and role models, sports stars, rock stars, and others who serve as “voices” and color the picture of who we should seek to become.  With all the competing voices out there calling out to us, which voice is to be listened to as we plan our lives and look to the future?

Young people, there is some wonderful reading and good, practical advice in the book of Proverbs from which I read to you.  I would encourage you to read the book of Proverbs sometimes.  The last verse I read to you reminds us that “What you think is the right road may lead to death” (16:25).  Let’s interpret that as not just physical death; but death of the soul or spirit may be the result if we find ourselves on the wrong road in life.  A lot of people are walking around in the world physically alive, but void of inner life.

But finding the right path in life – the path that is compatible with the inner person one is – can lead to a life of joy and life abundant.  And that is where listening to the right “Voice” comes into play.

As a graduation gift, we are giving each of the graduating seniors a copy of Parker J. Palmer’s little, but oh so powerful, book, Let Your Life Speak.  I discovered this book some 10-12 years ago, but how I wish I could have had it when I was a graduating high school senior.  It is one of my Top 10, all-time favorite books, one I will not loan  out.  I encourage our graduates to take time to read this book, as it has life-changing potential.  In the first half (55 pages), Palmer talks about voices and vocation.  In choosing our life’s vocation, we need to be careful about which voice we listen to.  We are all tempted to heed the voice promising success or status; to choose one profession or position over another because it promises to make us rich or famous. But as Palmer himself realized, choosing a vocation based solely upon success or status, riches or fame, will not lead to happiness and may, in fact, make us physically or emotionally ill.

What Palmer advises in deciding upon a vocation or path in life is to refrain from listening to the voices “out there” that call us to become something or someone that we are not.  But rather, he advises to listen to the Voice “in here,” inside of us, which calls us to be the person we were born to be, to fulfill the selfhood given us at birth.1  The question becomes, What is your gift, what is your personal passion, what energizes you and gives you joy?  This is the “Voice” that speaks to us.

Now, being the true Quaker that he is, Palmer is quick to share his own belief that this inner Voice is the “image of God in which we are created,” or what Quakers call “the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person.”  Mystic Thomas Merton called it “true self.”  “The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity.”  No matter what we call it, the inner “Voice” is that voice to which we should above all other voices try to be true.  What is our inner, created self saying to us about who we are and what we should do with our life?  By doing otherwise, we will never be true to our inner self, and likely will not find the ultimate joy that comes from being the person we truly are and sharing that person with the world.

Suzanne Blokland forwarded an article to me on 13 habits of extremely confident people.  The article lists 13 negative habits that we all need to give up in order to boost self-confidence.  At least three of the habits are applicable to the subject at hand regarding which voice we are going to listen to.  The article suggests giving up “Caring too much about what other people think. . . stop trying to meet other peoples’ expectations.”  Also, give up “Asking others for their opinion before formulating your own.  Become the expert of your experience.”  And then the third habit to give up that applies to our theme of the day is stop “Wasting time comparing yourself to others.”2

Well, whether one is a graduating high or college senior, or a senior adult, or someone in between, it is important that we discern among all the voices that beckon to us.  We do well to listen to the Voice deep within that calls us to follow the path that is representative of our true self.  It may be choosing the course of study that fits, it may be deciding upon a vocation or change in vocation, it may be deciding to become a volunteer in some organization with whose mission we resonate, or it may be pursuing and exercising a creative talent or gift (as in the case of Grandma Moses) that we have long been drawn to but never attempted.

Call it what you will: the Voice of the true, inner self; the Voice of the Spirit; the Voice of “that of God in everyone”; or the Voice of personal identity and integrity.  To that Voice above all may we seek to be true, whatever our age may be.  Amen.

 

1Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000.  P. 10.

2Matthew Jones, flipboard.com/@IncMagazine, May 18, 2017.

 

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Reflections on “Near Death Experiences”

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 21, 2017

Psalm 18:1-7; Luke 13:4 GNT

I ask your indulgence, that I might share a personal story this morning.  Because I feel privileged – no, I feel blessed – to be standing here before you today.  Because, you see, I could have very easily been lying in a cemetery this morning.  Four weeks ago today I had what I have been referring to as a “near death experience.”

Now I realize that the term “near death experience” most often refers to the experience of coding, or dying momentarily, perhaps seeing a bright light in the distance, and being brought back to life.  I did not have that type of experience, and I want to make that perfectly clear.

No, when I say I had a “near death experience,” what I mean is I came as close to being killed as I have ever come in my entire life.  I sort of feel like the psalmist who said, “The danger of death was all around me; the waves of destruction rolled over me” (Psalm 18:4 GNT).  Here is how it happened.

It was that weekend four weeks ago when we had all that heavy rain.  As I was driving home following church and lunch about 12:30 on that Sunday, it was pouring buckets as I drove toward the west end of town where we live.  As I prepared to turn up Newport Drive, I thought to myself, With all the rain we have been having, saturating the ground, I sure hope our big trees don’t start toppling over onto our house.  A minute later I pulled into our driveway, just enough to get off the street.  Since it was still raining hard, I stopped at the mailbox to get my Sunday newspaper.  I reached down and grabbed my umbrella, cracked open the door of my Jeep about six inches, pushed the umbrella open, and at that instant I heard a loud crack and saw my next door neighbor’s giant oak tree falling towards me.  The tree took down power lines at the back of my Jeep, sparks rained down from the transformer right above me, hot oil from the blown transformer covered the side of my Jeep and even the sleeve of my suitcoat, and the top of the tree brushed the driver’s side of my Jeep just as I was about to step out onto the driveway.  The utility lines from the pole to our house were sagging in front of me.  The top of the tree was not only in our driveway, but it completely covered Newport Drive and even broke off a tree in the neighbor’s yard on the opposite side of the street.

Immediately I started trying to call Mary Lou, who was coming up the street behind me in her car, to warn her of the danger of the downed power lines.  For a moment I just sat there in the Jeep in a daze, not knowing if I should get out or drive under the sagging utility lines to the bottom of the driveway.  Finally I put my vehicle in gear and slowly eased down the driveway, holding my breath all the while.

No one recognized it as such, but our driveway was pictured on the front page of the Oak Ridger newspaper on Friday, April 28.

Now, here is the point: Had I been just a few seconds earlier or later, or a few feet this way or that, I could have been under the top of that tree, or I could have been under those power lines and sliced in two when they came crashing down. Or, had both Mary Lou and I been a few seconds earlier, it could have been her car under that tree or those power lines when they came crashing down.

For the next 24 hours, I found myself in a daze, in a very somber, pensive state of mind.  A few seconds and a few feet one way or the other could have meant a quick and certain death.  “The danger of death was all around me; the waves of destruction rolled over me.”

There have been only two other similar occasions in my lifetime that I can recall.  Once – not long after Mary Lou and I were married – I was dead tired after a night of driving and stepped off the street curb at Myrtle Beach almost in the path of a speeding car I had not seen coming.  I felt the wind of the car as it sped by me.  The other time was just a year and half ago.  It was just before Christmas, and I was walking through the Walmart parking lot, juggling several bags of canned goods for our Christmas food boxes.  I looked down to shift some of the plastic bags from one hand to the other, and I heard someone shout “Stop!” and glanced up to see a car speeding backyards – in reverse – through the parking lot towards me, and I jumped aside just in time to avoid being run over.  But the experience I had four weeks ago certainly was the most frightening experience of the three.

Someone remarked that if I have nine lives, I certainly have used three of them.  But on a serious note, such “near death experiences” cause you to stop and think and ask questions.  And I bet that some of you could recount such “near death experiences” of your own, perhaps even more unsettling than what I have experienced.

Such occurrences remind us of how very fragile and uncertain life is.  In a split-second’s time (and that tree falling towards me and the power lines coming down all happened in no more than two seconds) life can change drastically.  In the snap of a finger, Mary Lou could have become a widow, my children fatherless, my grandchildren without a grandfather, and this church without a minister.

The fragile and uncertain nature of life leads to a number of other ramifications; such as, be careful and cautious where you tread!  In the case of the falling tree, there was nothing I did to cause it or might have done to avoid it.  By mere chance I happened to pull into our driveway at the same instant that giant oak tree decided to uproot itself and come crashing down.

But sometimes by carelessness we can bring such close calls upon ourselves.  For instance, driving a car 100 miles per hour, or climbing far higher upon a ladder than one ought to climb, or choosing to swim in swift-moving water can put us in life-and-death situations.  So we do well to be careful and cautious so that we don’t bring unnecessary “near death experiences” upon ourselves.

The fragile and uncertain nature of life also says to us make every moment of life count.  Live in the moment.  Live in love, and let others know you love them.  Whenever possible, when saying goodbye to family and friends, do so on happy terms.  It could be your last goodbye.

The fragile and uncertain nature of life causes us to question.  Why do such things happen in life?  Why was my life spared by a few seconds one way or the other, while a woman in Lincoln County, Tennessee, was struck and killed by a falling tree in her yard that same week?  Was my life spared by the grace of God? (I would like to think so.)  Or is being spared or not being spared a matter of chance?  We can find support for both positions in the scriptures.

Jesus and his hearers struggled with interpreting a disaster that happened in their day, when a tower fell on eighteen people, killing them all.  Why did it happen?  Was it because they were sinners and being punished for their sins?  Jesus said, “No indeed!”

The day after that giant tree fell towards me, I walked in TN Bank and related my experience to the ladies down there, and one of them said, “Obviously you still have work to do.”  Is there a reason why one is spared and another is not?  Or is life bound up in mystery which we can never fully understand, at least on this side of eternity?  As much as we would like for it to be so, there are not always easy, pat answers to life’s questions.

Well, whether God, or the Spirit, or Jesus was looking out for me four weeks ago today so that I was spared from being crushed or electrocuted, I really don’t know.  As I noted earlier, I want to think that it is so.  But such an experience causes you to stop and think about how fragile and uncertain life really is, how important it is to live in the moment and to always live in love, and (in the spirit of the psalmist) how blessed it is to be alive.  That’s my story; thank you for letting me share it with you and reflect upon it today.  Amen.

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