The Soul’s Last Defense

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 27, 2016

Psalm 42:5-11; Matthew 12:15-21 ESV

Poem #254 by Emily Dickinson

Hope – from the beginning of human history it has been the soul’s last defense.  So it is fitting, and it should not surprise us, that the theme for the beginning of the season of Advent would be hope.  But not only is today the beginning of Advent; today is also the beginning of the Christian Church year.  Lectionary readings, some Sunday school curricula, and many ministers’ worship and sermon resources begin with the first Sunday of Advent.  So what more appropriate note to begin the season on than the note of hope?

Perhaps that is one reason that the first Sunday of Advent is one of my favorite services of the entire year.  You notice that the service begins on a somber note with the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  The words of the hymn reinforce the somber mood: “lonely, exile, gloomy clouds, death’s dark shadows, envy, quarrels, and strife.”  The Invocation and the Responsive Reading also acknowledge the darkness, cold, and period of waiting.  But as the service progresses, we gradually move from the opening somber mood, emphasizing more the gift of hope, to a more upbeat mood as we look toward the Light, ending the service on a note of joy by singing, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”:

“Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;

dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.”

But back to hope.  As I said, from the beginning of human history, hope has been the soul’s last defense.  In so many of life’s situations, hope is the eternal thing we hold onto.  In times of trouble, illness, calamity and loss, the last thing we cling to is hope that things will change for the better,that restored health will come, that a better day is waiting.  We see this throughout the ancient book of Job, for instance.  So much of the story of Job is about hope that his voice will be heard, that he will be vindicated, that justice will be done.

When the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness comes, we cling to hope that there is a cure.  The last defense of families who have missing loved ones is hope that they are still alive and will be found.  Families who live in impoverished communities where the opportunities for employment have closed or moved out of state cling to hope that something will come along to make things better again.  Yes, when nothing else is left in life – when health is threatened, when the family finances are in ruins, when the country or the world seems to be in shambles – the last thing to go is hope.  And if all hope is gone, so goes life itself.  The loss of all hope can cause people to give up and die, or go in a different direction and commit horrific acts of violence.  Indeed, hope is the essential, foundational support that upholds the human soul.

We see this clinging to hope in the Psalms over and again.  I could have chosen from any number of the Psalms that deal with hope.  But Psalm 42 seemed to be most appropriate for the day.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?” the Psalmist asks.  “And why are you in turmoil within me?”

I say to God, “Why have you forgotten me?  Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”

Even though this psalm was written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, the spirit of it makes it such that it could have been written the year Jesus was born.  The mood of the Jewish people was somber when Jesus was born into the world.  They were living under the harsh oppression of the mighty Roman Empire.  They found life oppressive, both politically and religiously.  They hoped and longed for a Messiah, a deliverer, to set them free, make things right, give them a better life.  As Isaiah the prophet had also put it hundreds of years earlier, and was later quoted by the gospel writer of Matthew, they longed for the One who would “bring justice to victory,” One in whom the whole world would find their hope.  Yes, the early Jesus followers saw in him the manifestation of hope they had been longing for.

Thus, throughout the season of Advent, we lift up the hope that Jesus brought to the world and that the celebration of his birth brings to us anew.  And in keeping with our Advent theme, “All I Want for Christmas,” don’t we all have to acknowledge that one of the things that we need and desire most during the Advent-Christmas season is renewed hope – hope of health and happiness for ourselves and those we love, hope for a better world, hope for restored relationships, hope for a life blessed with love?

It follows that imparters of hope is what we are to be about as well, individually and collectively as a congregation.  Offering hope to our members, the community and the wider world is at least part of our calling, our mission, and our privilege.  To give a few examples, every month our In Reach group gathers to write cards of encouragement to 40-50 of our members and extended church members.  For many who receive those cards, they are nothing short of missives of hope that convey the message, “Someone still remembers me; someone is thinking of me; someone is praying for my recovery or well-being; someone is there that I can call upon in the time of need.

Whenever we make a visit to the hospital, nursing home or retirement home, one of the graces that we carry with us is the gift of hope.  Whenever we counsel with someone who is wrestling with a problem that seems insurmountable or hopeless, by listening and asking questions and exploring options, we are extending hope.

When people of our community call for financial assistance on their utilities or rent and we say we can offer some help, we offer hope that their heat will stay on or they will not be evicted.  To share just one example, we recently received a phone call from a young, single (widowed) mother of two who is struggling to make ends meet.  The thing she needed most, she said, was an electric heater to keep her and her kids warm, because she had not come up with the big deposit to have the gas turned on in her new apartment.  A quick trip down to Ace Hardware to pay for a heater from the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund offered her some much needed hope.  She was more than grateful.

We could cite other examples.  But by being the open, loving, caring, supportive community of faith that we are, in so many different ways we are bearers of hope to those who enter our doors.  That has been a prophetic vision of what the faith community is intended to be from at least the 7th century BCE and the prophet Isaiah.

Regarding hope, poet Emily Dickinson had some insightful perspectives.  That is why I chose as a third reading for today one of her poems, the one in which she compares “Hope” to a “thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all –“  What I hear her saying is hope is that ever-present entity that hangs on during the storms and gales of life, refusing to let go.  Hope is that thing in the soul that gives warmth and comfort during those cold, difficult periods of life.

And so, returning to the psalmist, in spite of the turmoil raging all around him, he was able to say to his own soul: “Hope in God: . . . my salvation and my God.”   That might be our Advent testimony as well, in spite of all that troubles us and causes us to be downcast; in spite of all the violence and political and religious turmoil swirling in the world around us.  Advent comes bearing the torch of hope – hope that Jesus’ birth does make a difference; hope that the Christmas message will continue to change hearts and lives; hope that peace and goodwill will grow stronger across the earth.  That is the Advent hope.  May we embrace this hope anew as we begin the season of Advent together. Amen.

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Some Practical Considerations Involving Gratitude

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 20, 2016

Psalm 100 ESV; 2 Corinthians 9:8-12 GNT

You may have heard or possibly even remember singing the old gospel hymn titled “Count Your Blessings.”  The hymn counsels that during times of trouble, discouragement, burdens, bouts of envy over others’ successes, and times of conflict to focus upon your blessings rather than bemoaning the negative things in your life.  And the refrain goes,

“Count your blessings, Name them one by one; Count your many blessings, See what God hath done.”

Well, our first response might be that such is a bit simplistic or a shallow perspective upon life.  Life is not always that simple and clear-cut so that you can just turn off all those negative things that you are dealing with and put on a happy face as you count your blessings.  And to be honest with you, I had completely forgotten about that gospel hymn; I hadn’t thought about it for years.

But then, in preparing today’s Thanksgiving sermon, that “Count Your Blessings” hymn jumped from the back recesses of my mind after reading an article that someone sent me that was published last December in the Denver Post.1  The article is titled “For the new year, focus on what is positive in your life,” and it was written by Neil Rosenthal, a licensed marriage and family therapist and published author.  Rosenthal begins his article with the contention that putting more effort into being grateful holds the possibility of being life-transformative.

Rosenthal reminds us that if we focus our attentions on all the bad things in our lives, we will end up feeling lousy all the time.  That is sort of elementary, isn’t it?  Conversely, only when we focus our attentions on what is good in our lives will we feel better.  What Rosenthal suggests is keeping a running list or a personal journal of sorts of all the positive experiences, people, and events in your life that you can be grateful for.  Did you meet a new friend?  Did you accomplish something good?  Were you able to exercise a skill, talent or creativity that recharged your battery?  Did you bless someone else’s life by being kind or generous?  Were you proud of yourself for successfully facing a challenge or adversity?  Did someone show love to you?  Did you in some way experience personal growth?  Have you set an exciting goal for your life for the future?  Can you anticipate something exciting in the days or weeks ahead, such as travel, a new class, or beginning a new hobby?   Any and all of these examples could easily become reasons for gratitude and thanksgiving.

And so, drawing on the thought of the Apostle Paul, a spirit of gratitude or thanksgiving is a natural response to the graces evident in our lives.   It is somewhat of a law of nature: instances of grace and blessing lead to our response of gratitude and thanksgiving.  Or, we might look upon it as a case of cause and effect – grace and blessings naturally result in gratitude and thanksgiving.  And so, if we take time to consider or catalog the many instances of grace or blessing occurring in our lives (as suggested above), the outcome of gratitude and thanksgiving are the almost-certain byproducts.

Paul also seems to indicate in this second letter to the Corinthians that the spirit and practice of generosity and a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving can be contagious and have positive, rippling effects in the community.  Generosity begets more generosity, resulting in thanksgiving; and thanksgiving and gratitude tend to multiply like yeast rolls rise and expand, sharing their wonderful aroma and flavor with all concerned.  Gratitude and thanksgiving have a way of reproducing themselves.

We all know how one negative personality can adversely affect the whole group, whether it be at a family gathering, a church committee or board meeting, or throughout an entire congregation.  Conversely, one positive personality who is always gracious and thankful and smiling can bring a positive atmosphere wherever they go.  I may have mentioned some years ago a former church member and music director in one of the churches I served.  Lou was always smiling and always positive and always joyful and always complimentary.  In that particular church sanctuary, the choir was to the right of the pulpit.  It didn’t matter when I turned to look at the choir.  Lou was always sitting on the front row of the choir, and he was always smiling.  So any time I needed some affirmation in the course of a sermon, I would turn and look at Lou who would be smiling at me.  And both Lou and his wife, Louise, had a gracious spirit and regularly said “Thank you.”  “Thank you for the sermon today.” Or, “Thank you for the visit.”  And their gracious, thankful spirit was contagious.

Now, I have to admit that I am one who doesn’t say “thank you” nearly often enough.  Maybe you feel the same way about yourself.  Why do you suppose that is?  I surmise that one reason may be that we just take it for granted that others know we are grateful, so we don’t have to verbalize it.  I am especially guilty with loved ones, as I don’t always say “thank you” when they do something nice for me.  I guess I just take it for granted that they know I am grateful.  But do they?  But how might our lives, our families, our circle of friends, our community of faith be different if we all were more intentional about actually verbalizing and demonstrating our gratitude and thanks?

And just as things that happen in our lives worthy of gratitude and thanksgiving are many and varied, so are the opportunities for us to say a word of thanks to others: Thank you for that dish you brought to Wednesday night potluck.  Thank you for the good job you did in planning that program.  Thank you for that phone call or visit or “Thinking of You” card when I really needed it.  Thank you for sharing your music, or singing, or other talent.  Thank you for your help on that project or for the good job you did in leading that meeting.  The possibilities are endless.

And there is one more thing having to do with practical considerations involving gratitude: Expressing gratitude and thanks to others is a way of building bridges that can help connect our divided world.  Writer Alan Epstein suggests, “Thank someone for something.  Go out of your way today to acknowledge the generosity of a person you know.  It doesn’t matter if you have known this man or woman your entire life, or have just met him or her and don’t know if you will ever see the person again.  Thanking him for a service rendered, or a favor given, or for help of some kind will enlarge your personal community to include yet another person.

“Do you patronize a business establishment that always provides you with excellent service?” he asks.  “Thank the proprietor, or tell an employee how much you appreciate the way you are treated every time you walk in. . .

“Thanking someone for a service rendered builds community, as well as friendship.  It makes even the most insignificant encounters, like a stranger holding the door for you at the deli, all the more meaningful.  It’s a way for two people who will probably never know each other’s names to connect, even for a moment.”2

And so, the bottom line is, it seems that “counting our blessings” as that old gospel hymn says and cultivating a spirit of gratitude and being more intentional about showing our thanks to others hold the possibilities of transforming our own lives, transforming the world by multiplying the spirit of thanksgiving, and of building bridges of connection with others.  Gratitude and thanksgiving are, indeed, good for the soul, good for the community, and good for the world at large.  May it be so with each of us this Thanksgiving week and always.  Amen.

 

1Neil Rosenthal, The Denver Post.  Thursday, December 31, 2015.

2Alan Epstein, How to Have More Love in Your Life.  Quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, pp. 490-491.

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Who Teaches Whom?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 13, 2016

Isaiah 11:6-9 ESV

A few months ago, we switched television cable companies, and we had to do some re-learning and reprogramming on our television remotes.  We also have a Roku device (anyone know what Roku is?) which gives us access to movies through Amazon Prime and Netflix via the Internet.  That needed to be programmed as well.  I was struggling with the remote programming.  One of our grandsons, who happened to be nine at the time, said to me, “Give me the remote.”  And he took it from me, and his little fingers began to fly across the buttons.  In less than a minute he had completed the programming.  It makes you feel sort of stupid, doesn’t it?  So as I noted in today’s “Thought for Meditation,” whenever we need electronic technical advice, I go to the expert – our now 10-year-old grandson.

Segueing to today’s sermon title, such raises the question, “Who Teaches Whom?”  I grew up in an environment where it was understood that adults did the teaching and children did the listening and learning.  Adults had the answers, and custom said you didn’t question an adult’s authority.  An old saying in my home community was, “Children are meant to be seen, not heard.” But today we are much more open to the idea that children may have much to teach us – if we are willing to listen and learn – just as we have much to teach them.

In sharing my thoughts with you today, part of what I have to say is a personal confession of sorts.  If I could rewind my life to the time when our children were of nursery school and elementary school age, I would do a lot of things differently.  One of the things I would do differently is be more understanding and less authoritarian, and I would spend a lot more time talking with and listening to our children and I would be more open to what they might have had to teach me.  And now I have no doubts but what our children could have taught me more, had I been more open to listening to them and willing to take the time to do so.

But as with many parents and grandparents my age, in some ways I am trying to do differently with my grandchildren than I did with my children.  I am trying to be more open, more willing to listen, have a humbler spirit, realizing that I can learn from them.  Perhaps those of you who are grandparents can relate to that.

Well, the sermon text for today from Isaiah speaks of a time when children will do the leading.  The time of universal peace and harmony spoken of when “a little child shall lead” a calf and a lion together obviously was a prophetic dream that has not yet been realized.  As we look at our world today – a world that in many ways is marred in chaos and filled with violence and political, racial and religious divisions – the prophet’s vision of a time of universal peace and harmony seems even more unrealistic and unattainable today than perhaps in a long time.  But every now and then, a story comes along that lifts our spirits and instills a sliver of hope.

To give an example, you may recall seeing on the news back in September the story of the little girl who addressed the Charlotte, North Carolina, City Council.  Zianna – a young, African American girl of 10 or so – delivered her emotional message with tears streaming down her face: “It’s a shame that our fathers and mothers are killed and we can’t see them anymore.  It’s a shame that we have to go to their graveyard and bury them.  We shouldn’t have tears.  We need our fathers and mothers to be by our side.”  The Charlotte City Council, as well as the country at large, was moved by Zianna’s plea.  To expand upon the prophet’s dream, “a little child shall lead them.”  And as the Psalmist put it, “out of the mouths of babes” (Psalm 8:2).

Perhaps you have heard of Joni and Friends Camps for families who have children with disabilities.  The organization was started by Joni Eareckson Tada, who as a young woman of 17 became a quadriplegic through a swimming diving accident.  Joni became famous as an artist who paints by holding the brush in her mouth.  Joni’s disability instilled within her the passion of starting a Christian organization to support families with children who have severe physical and mental disabilities.

At a Joni and Friends camp a few years ago, a four-year-old girl with developmental disabilities became the social butterfly of the week.  She happily flitted around to smile at anyone and everyone she saw, and she made no distinctions regardless of the age, race, or severe physical disability of those she engaged with.  She would walk up to someone in a wheelchair, regardless of what they looked like, and touch them on the arm and offer them a smile of acceptance.

Now granted, the little girl was limited in her perception and understanding, and she didn’t know enough to make distinctions based upon appearances.  However, the lesson the little girl embodied should not be lost – how much better off the world would be if we, like her, could look past the disabilities and differences, race and religion, and offer a loving touch and smile of acceptance to others who are different.

Allow me to share one more story.  Alex, a six-year-old boy from Scarsdale, New York, wrote a letter to President Obama, asking him to send a Syrian refugee to live with his family.  “We will give him a family, and he will be our brother,” Alex wrote.  In his request, Alex was referring to the five-year-old boy whose picture was widely circulated after he was rescued from his bombed-out house in Aleppo.  The White House published Alex’s letter, and the president read it at a UN Summit on Refugees.  In keeping with the prophet’s dream, God grant that a little child might lead us.

The truth is, children have so much to teach us in so many different ways, if we are willing to listen and learn from them.  Not only about how to program our computers or electronic gadgets, but about peace and harmony, honesty and integrity, acceptance and tolerance.

Well, the United Church Nursery School is a place where children are accepted and appreciated, regardless of their differences.  It is a place where children are held in high esteem.  Our Nursery School has been a place where for well over 50 years children are respected and listened to.  And our Nursery School philosophy includes the idea, I believe, that we can learn from the children as well as teach them, if we are willing to engage with them.

So again today, we set aside this second Sunday of November as a day to celebrate the wonderful mission of our United Church Nursery School to the greater Oak Ridge community, our Nursery School teachers who do what they do on little pay as a labor of love, and  our dedicated Nursery School parents.  But let us today primarily celebrate our church and Nursery School children who are persons in their own right and who have much to teach us, if we are willing to listen and learn and sometimes let them lead us.  May it be so.  Amen.

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One Necessary Thing

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 6, 2016

Luke 10:38-42 CEB; reading from Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island

This story of Martha and Mary can be viewed as somewhat of a radical story.  That is to say, this story makes a radical point that should not be overlooked, especially in today’s climate.  And such has to do with Jesus’ elevation of women.  In sitting at Jesus’ feet as a disciple, Mary was acting outside the assigned role of women; in short, Mary was assuming the role of a male disciple, something that was beyond the practice of the day.  Women’s roles were subservient roles.  By permitting Mary to sit at his feet and learn as though she were a male disciple, Jesus was elevating her status far above the status women of the day enjoyed.  Perhaps that is one reason that Martha got so upset.

But as a side note, this is not the only instance when Jesus elevated the status of women.  There are several stories that relate how Jesus showed respect for women and, by all appearances, treated them as equals – granting the requests of women who came to Jesus and asked for healing, for themselves or for their children; the Samaritan woman at the well with whom Jesus engaged in a long theological discussion; the woman taken in adultery; and the women disciples.  And yes, I believe that Jesus had women disciples – Mary Magdalene being one of them – who enjoyed the same status as his male disciples.  And being truthful, when it came down to the wire on the day Jesus was crucified, the women disciples showed greater loyalty than the men did, sticking by him while his male disciples fled.

But the radical point here being, Jesus respected women, treated women as equals, and elevated their status in the world.  What happened? we wonder.  The Apostle Paul treated women as equals as well, and women were some of his best and most valuable partners in ministry.  The anti-women letters attributed to Paul were written after Paul’s death in his name, and passages were later inserted into Paul’s authentic letters by editors who opposed women in places of authority.  But that is another sermon for another day!

But over time women lost the status and respect Jesus had afforded them.  And still today women are belittled, disrespected, unappreciated and underpaid for the work they do and the contributions they make.  We need to do what we can to change that.  So as I said, this is a radical story.

But then we turn to Mary’s sister, Martha.  “One thing is necessary,” Jesus said to Martha.    The existential question is, “What is the one thing that is necessary” that Jesus had in mind?  That is the primary focus of today.

As we seek to answer the question about the one necessary thing and properly interpret this story, we again must read it within its context.  In delving into this story, the first thing we notice is it comes immediately after Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and the question of the lawyer about what must be done to inherit eternal life.  Such is no coincidence.  Luke had his reasons for pairing the stories of the Good Samaritan and the visit to the home of Martha and Mary.  The Good Samaritan story is about “a certain man,” and the Martha and Mary story is about “a certain woman.”1  In order to truly understand the full meaning of this chapter, we have to take the two stories together.  And the two stories together are like two halves of a piece of jewelry that once put together form the shape of a heart.

But before we understand how the two story pieces fit together, we bring questions to this particular story, don’t we?  Questions like, Why was Martha chided for working hard in the kitchen, preparing a nice meal for Jesus?  Who could complain about that?  I certainly wouldn’t.  And the fact is, Martha was simply performing the role and duties assigned to her as a woman of that time.  Why would she be chastised for doing what women were expected to do?  It just doesn’t seem right, does it?

But you see, this is where a bit of informed biblical study and looking at the gospel as a literary whole is helpful.  Whereas the story of the Good Samaritan just before this story emphasizes love of neighbor through action, this story of Martha and Mary emphasizes love for God through hearing God’s word.  So taken together, the two stories provide a picture of the true or complete disciple of Jesus who demonstrates in his or her life both love of God and hearing God’s word (illustrated by Mary) and love of neighbor that proves itself in action (illustrated by the Good Samaritan).  And together these stories illustrate the answer to the question of the lawyer that comes just before them: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).  The answer given was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (10:27).  The two stories together illustrate that and bring it all together.

And so, to answer the question, “What is the one necessary thing?”, it is loving God with all one’s heart and hearing and loving God’s word.  In Luke’s eyes, our duty to love God and being obedient to God’s word take precedence over all other concerns – all other preoccupations, worries and distractions – of life.  But this one necessary thing must be coupled with loving one’s neighbor that shows itself through action.  As put by biblical commentator R. Alan Culpepper, “As a composite, they are model disciples: ‘those who hear the word of God and do it’” (8:21).1

But then, to make this story relevant, we must try to apply it to our individual lives.  Most of us would have to confess that, like Martha in the story, we are preoccupied with and distracted by and worried about many things in life.  And periodically we need to ask ourselves if all of those things that we are preoccupied with and distracted by are worthy of our time and energies.  As Thomas Merton reminds us, “If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.  Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be in our lives.”2

Yes, we have to ask ourselves if all of those preoccupations and distractions that drive us are worthy, beneficial, just, and true.  Are we putting our resources, time, talents, and energies into things that will last?

In this vein of thought, all of our United Church members should have received in the mail a loyalty letter from our Finance Committee and Church Board, including a pledge card toward the 2017 church budget.  It is important for all of us to give consideration to our lives, where we are putting our resources, time, talents, and energies, and then ask if we are adequately including God, church, and community (neighbors) as we prioritize our lives.  Remembering the story of Martha and Mary and the Good Samaritan, we need to be sure we are giving place to the one necessary thing – love of God and love of neighbor – and not letting ourselves be preoccupied and distracted by other frivolous or fleeting concerns of life.  Making a committed pledge to the church based on what we receive and how our lives have been blessed, and supporting this church financially assures that we are contributing to something that really matters and will last.  So reiterating the Finance Committee’s request, I hope each of us will prayerfully and seriously consider our pledge and support for our church’s programs and ministries in the year ahead.

To paraphrase Jesus in another place, what does it profit if we gain the whole world and then fail in the one thing in life that is necessary?  Now, please don’t get me wrong and think I am equating the “one necessary thing” with financial giving; I am not.  But I believe that one tangible demonstration of our commitment to the one necessary thing as Jesus spoke of it can be through the pledges we make and the offerings we give.

The bottom line and the paramount point for each of us to take to heart is as we prioritize our lives, may we not allow ourselves to be distracted by and preoccupied with things that don’t really matter while forgetting the one necessary thing – love of God and love of neighbor.  Amen.

 

1R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 231.

2Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island.

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An Inspiring, Early Reformation Story

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 30, 2016

Luke 6:27-36 ESV

I stated in my October “Chapel Chimes” newsletter article that one of my favorite worship services of the year is Reformation Sunday, which is always the last Sunday of October.  I noted that had it not been for the Protestant Reformation, churches of the Free Church tradition like our United Church would not have been possible.  We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the forward-thinking reformers who sacrificed so much to make the Christian faith and the scriptures available to all.

When we think of the Protestant Reformation, a handful of the better-known reformers may come to mind – Martin Luther (who gave us the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), John Calvin, John Knox, and a few others.  But in reality, the Protestant Reformation was a collective effort of many different church leaders, pastors, Bible translators, and others, from a wide spectrum of theological beliefs.  Of course, practically all the reformers started out as Catholics or from the Church of England.  But they would branch out into numerous new sects, movements, and eventually Christian denominations – Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists, Anabaptists, and others.  And each one in his or her own way contributed to the umbrella movement that would later come to be remembered as the Protestant Reformation.

Among those early reformation groups were those who were called “Anabaptists.”  The word “Anabaptist” means “re-baptizer” or “to baptize again.”  Common Anabaptist beliefs were only adult baptism is valid and . . . true Christians should not bear arms, use force, or hold government office (American Heritage Dictionary).  In other words, Anabaptists did not believe in infant baptism, believing that only consenting adults able to make a mature, rational decision should receive the rite of Christian baptism.  And Anabaptists for the most part were pacifists.  The sad thing is that early on Anabaptists were sorely persecuted, by Catholics and other Protestants as well.  Some of the common and well-known Anabaptist groups are different kinds of Baptist churches, Amish, Brethren, and Mennonites.

It is a true and little-known story about one of those early Mennonite reformers that I stumbled across recently and found to be inspiring and wanted to share with you today on this Reformation Sunday.  Dirk Willems was a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist.  Willems chose to be baptized as a young man, thus rejecting the infant baptism uniformly practiced at the time.  Willems also opened up his home for several other adults to be re-baptized.  These actions led to Willems’ condemnation by the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands.  Willems was arrested and imprisoned, and he spent several months in captivity where he devoted much time to prayer.  All the while he received little food to sustain him.

However, Willems was able to escape using a rope made out of knotted rags.  It was winter time, and the moat around the palace where he was imprisoned was frozen.  Well, a guard saw Willems escape and commenced to chase after him.  Because Willems was very small and light – perhaps half-starved from meager prison rations – Willems was able to cross a frozen pond that was covered in a thin sheet of ice.

However, the guard who was pursuing him was much heavier, and he broke through the ice.  The guard started yelling for Willems to help him as he thrashed about in the icy water.  Willems was vindicated, it seemed.  It might appear that it was God’s will to spare him and drown his pursuer.  Willems could keep running and be free, as all of us might be tempted to do.

But no, Willems turned back, reached down into the icy water, and pulled his pursuer to safety.  One good turn deserves another, we would want to think.  Since Willems had saved his pursuer’s life, his pursuer should spare his life in return.  But again, not so.  As soon as they reached dry land, Willems was re-arrested by the guard he had rescued and returned to prison where he was held until he was burned at the stake for his heresy of Anabaptist convictions near his hometown on May 16, 1569.  Today Dirk Willems is one of the most celebrated Anabaptist martyrs.

Now, there are several different directions we might go with this story and a number of truths we might draw from it.  One universal truth of this story is that the reformers took the Bible seriously.  In fact, one of the points that is noted about Anabaptists – and reformers in general like Martin Luther – is they insisted on holding to the Bible as their sole guide for faith and practice.  There is no doubt but what Dirk Willems knew by heart Jesus’ teachings in Matthew and Luke about loving your enemies, doing good to those who hate you expecting nothing in return, blessing those who curse you, and praying for those who abuse you (Luke 6:27-28).  Leaving his pursuer to drown there in the icy water might have been the prudent thing for Willems to do.  But he felt deep in his heart – based on the teachings of Jesus – that going back to save his pursuer was the only right thing to do.  And so he did.

Another truth following closely from the first that I take from Willems’ story is the reformers held fast to their convictions, even with the prospect of losing their lives to do so.  Several of the early reformers – William Tyndale and John Huss to name just two – who had a passionate conviction that the Bible should be translated from Latin into English did so with the realization that their lives were in jeopardy for doing so.  Because of his conviction that every Englishman have the Bible in his own language and his own hands, and because of his work in Bible translation, Tyndale was arrested, imprisoned, tried and found guilty of heresy, strangled, and then burned at the stake in October 1536.

A third truth to be gleaned from the reformers is they were on the cutting edge and willing to take risks.  The Reformers let themselves be influenced by human advancements and changes that were coming about in society, things like rational thought, the Enlightenment, the invention of the printing press, new scientific understandings about the nature of the universe, and so on.  They were willing to think outside the “box of tradition” and the mindset that “this is the way we have always done it.”  The fact that the Bible had only been available in Hebrew, Greek and Latin didn’t necessarily make it right.  The fact that only educated clergy could read and study the Bible didn’t necessarily make it right either.  The fact that the Bible had only been produced by handwritten copies didn’t constitute a sacred law either.  All those reformers were willing to be on the cutting edge of thought, think outside the “box of tradition,” and were willing to take risks to further Christian thought and meet the needs of the people as society changed.

One thing about reformation is it is not a one-time, once-and-for-all event.  Reformation by its very nature is an ongoing affair.  As people of the Reformation, we were not reformed back then and that is all there is to it.  As people of the Reformation, we continue to be open to reform, new ideas, change, and so on, as we are take into account society’s advances, new technology, greater scientific understanding, and so on.

I pity today’s church that hasn’t moved into the 20th much less the 21st century by making use of the Internet, social media, and technological advancements.  Every once in a while I encounter a congregation that makes me wonder, and I go to the Internet in search of their church website to learn more about them.  (I have one particular congregation in mind, but I won’t say which one.)  And occasionally I find they don’t even have a church website.  When I try to Google them, nothing comes up.  I am forced to wonder, How can such a church continue to survive in our technological age?

I started making use of the Internet early on in the 1990s by writing and sending my Midweek Messages to connect with every church member who had a home computer and Internet.  However, at the same time, I have to confess to you that I still have much to learn about technology and utilizing it to our church’s advantage.  For instance, written and audio sermon copies are posted on our church website, but we haven’t moved into podcasting and a Twitter account as some large churches have done.  To be honest, I don’t even know how to Tweet!

So the bottom line is, yes, we are reformed.  But we still have reforming to do so as to keep up with the times and remain relevant to society.  And in keeping with the spirit of the reformers, keeping up with the times and remaining relevant means taking the Bible seriously if not literally; having and holding fast to our convictions (and we here at the United Church do have convictions); and being on the cutting edge and willing to take a few risks.  May it be so for us on this Reformation Day and always.  Amen.

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How Much Stuff Is Enough?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 16, 2016

1 Timothy 6:6-10 ESV

Last Sunday’s sermon included a couple of references to the fact that the tiny, stooped-over, Albanian nun that all of us had known for decades as Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now known as Saint Teresa.  Pope John Paul II had beatified her in 2003.  And Pope Francis canonized her on September 4 – a mere six weeks ago today.

I have long been an admirer of Mother Teresa.  As pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mother Teresa is admired all around the world as “an icon of charity, having spent half a century caring for the ‘poorest of the poor’ in India.”1  Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity from nothing with only 12 followers.  Today Missionaries of Charity members number more than 5,600 in 139 countries, running hospices, homeless shelters, homes for the mentally ill, among other things.  We admire the dedication of Mother Teresa in living a life of compassion with the poor, ill, outcasts, and dying of India, realizing that few, if any, of us could ever do what she did.

I also have a few of Mother Teresa’s books on my shelves and have been inspired by her short sayings and some of her prayers.  I identify with and appreciate the universal outlook she had, believing that “Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, etc., all have access to the same God.”1  And I take comfort in knowing that even she often doubted her faith and the presence of God in her life.  Yes, I have been inspired by the life, example, and writings of Mother Teresa since my seminary days when I bought her little book titled, A Gift for God.

But then as I read articles about Mother Teresa being canonized by Pope Francis, a couple of things I read having to do with her Missionaries of Charity jumped out at me and, I must confess, disturbed me a bit.  And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  In talking about the stringent requirements for those who aspire to becoming permanent members of the Missionaries of Charity, it was noted that they must go through a nine-year trial period.  But the fact that really set me to thinking is that for all Missionaries of Charity, “all their possessions must fit into a small box and visits to relatives are limited to one every 10 years.”  Such is intended to guard “against attachment to earthly goods and relationships.”  A spokesman for the Missionaries of Charity went on to explain, “A member must always be ready to ‘pick up your stuff, put it in your box and off you go.’”1

Now, stop momentarily to think about that: Limiting all your earthly possessions to what you can put in a small cardboard box!  I envision a box that copy paper comes in—about 18” long by 12” wide and 10” high.  My gut reaction when I first read that was, No way!  That seems to be a bit extreme, harsh even.  How in the world could I choose from among my earthly possessions so as to pair it all down to a small cardboard box?  I have way too many things that I love, cherish, am attached to, and that help define me and are a part of who I am.  Beloved books, a stack of favorite Bibles of various translations, family photos, cameras, cherished pocket knives given to me by family and friends, favorite articles of clothing (national park tee shirts, favorite sweater, favorite winter coats), cherished carpentry tools, beloved pieces of furniture, quilts my wife has made for me, not to mention my Jeep!  Limit my earthly possessions to one small cardboard box?  No way!  And most of us feel that way, I imagine.

But the Missionaries of Charity requirements regarding earthly possessions do have a biblical basis, as we have seen from today’s reading.  Now, the Apostle Paul has long gotten credit for writing the letters to Timothy and Titus. But few biblical scholars today believe that Paul actually wrote these letters.  They are much later in composition than Paul’s time, and back in that day it was common practice for someone’s followers to write in their mentor’s name.  The letters hold truth nonetheless.

At any rate, whoever the writer of this epistle was, he warned against becoming too attached to earthly belongings, reminding his readers of all times that “we brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of this world (1 Timothy 6:7).”  Channeling the spirit of Paul, he said, “if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content (6:8).”

Now, all of this thought about limiting earthly possessions to a small cardboard box led me to some random considerations that may be common to you as well. For instance, the reality is that for thousands – probably millions – of our world, limiting their earthly possessions to a small cardboard box is no problem at all; it is more a reality than a problem.  For many in developing nations, if they have food and clothing, they are content, because that is all they can ever hope to have and all they may long for as each new day begins.

But the number whose earthly belongings are limited to a small cardboard box is much greater now than it was ten days ago, as Hurricane Matthew wiped out the homes and possessions of thousands in the Caribbean and up the East Coast.  For these poor souls, limiting their earthly possessions is no longer a problem or a conscious choice.  Occasionally we need to be reminded of that.

Another random consideration is the confession that we do have too much stuff. I am reminded of this every time I go down to our basement and see all the “overflow stuff” that ends up there because we don’t have anywhere else to store it.

Why are we saving that?  Well, it is too good to get rid of.

Why not get rid of that?  Well, we might need it someday.

Why not give that away?  Well, we have sentimental attachment to it.

Our daughter has reminded us on more than one occasion – and rightly so, I must admit – that we need to have a massive yard sale and get rid of some stuff, because someday when we are dead and gone, she doesn’t want to have to deal with it.  And I understand that.  We have had the task of sorting through and getting rid of massive piles of stuff that relatives left us and siblings to sort.  And our daughter and son-in-law had the task of sorting through and getting rid of massive piles of stuff that a relative of his left behind.  It can be an overwhelming task!

Someone in our congregation shared the story of how after the parents had died, the children climbed into the attic of their house to find it packed with stuff, and one of them made the comment, “This is child abuse!”  And yet, how many of us at or nearing retirement age would have to plead guilty?

But the truth of the matter is, for those of us who have become accustomed to accumulating and being attached to “our stuff,” downsizing and pairing back our earthly belongings doesn’t come easily.  I see this all the time with those who face the prospect of leaving their homes of 40, 50, or 60 years to move into a small assisted living studio or apartment.  As Bill Clinton once remarked, “I feel your pain.”  It can be a painful experience, but one that all of us will eventually face.  Although some may be a bit farther along than others, we are all in this boat together.

One of my favorite tv shows of late is “American Pickers” aired on the History Channel.  “American Pickers” chronicles the adventures of two antique pickers and their assistant who travel the United States in search of unique and rare  antiques and Americana; things like old metal gas station and car dealership signs, bicycles, antique metal toys, and so on.  But the pertinent point here is the fact that the collectors and hoarders from whom they try to buy these items are often reluctant or unwilling to let them go because of their sentimental attachment to the stuff.

Now, when I started this sermon, I broke one of the cardinal rules of seminary preaching class – I had no idea where I was going with it.  My early preaching professor, Dr. John Ed Gardner, taught us to write your conclusion first; that is, know where you are going with your sermon development and stay on track to make sure you get there.  But I didn’t really know where I was going with today’s topic, “How Much Stuff Is Enough?”

But I think where I want to go is to suggest that all of us take the idea of limiting our earthly possessions to a small cardboard box as a motivator to start thinking about how much stuff is enough.  And then slowly start the process of limiting purchases, asking, “Do I really need to add that to all my stuff?”; gradually scaling back; slowly giving away; and so on, while blessing someone else’s life with something we don’t need any more but they do need, and by making it easier on our children or grandchildren who will someday have to sort through it all.

Yes, the Missionaries of Charity requirement of limiting all your earthly possessions to a small, cardboard box has led me to do some thinking and start addressing the question that beckons to be answered by all of us – “How much stuff is enough?”  May we at least start thinking about it.  Amen.

 

1Francis X. Rocca, “Teresa’s Other Lifework: Building a Religious Order.  Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, September 3-4, 2016.

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Taking a Broad View of Contemplation

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 9, 2016

Psalm 145:1-9 CEB; Reading from Mother Teresa’s, A Gift for God

Today’s sermon is actually a sequel and further development of one of the points of last Sunday’s sermon which dealt with two characteristics of classical Christianity – contemplation and compassion.  To give a quick recap, last week I quoted contemporary Christian writer Brian McLaren, who suggests in his new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, that Christians should “rediscover their faith . . . as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion.”

Well, I have given a number of sermons on the topic of compassion over the years.  Compassion in my view is the defining characteristic of the spirit and ministry of Jesus and should be the defining characteristic and life goal of every Christian.  But I have touched on the subject of contemplation much less frequently, if at all.

I suggested last week that perhaps if we here at the United Church have room for improvement, it might be in providing more opportunities for contemplation, but broadly defined – prayer, study, meditation, spirituality, and in other ways that nourish the soul.  And the two keywords in my suggestion were contemplation and broadly; seeking to expand our perception of and appreciation for contemplation in various venues, so as to make it accessible and rewarding to all of us.

Now, I realize that spiritual contemplation properly speaking is a narrow field of Christian practice followed by a small percentage of the faithful over the centuries.  And I must offer a disclaimer: I am no expert on the subject of contemplation by any means; I would never pretend to be.  I am just a student who has much to learn on the subject like some of the rest of you.

But many who lived contemplative lives did so as hermits, in isolated places, out of the mainstream of society.  For instance, during the third and fourth centuries, there were those who are known today as the Desert Fathers who moved to the deserts of Egypt so as to live solitary, contemplative lives.  The Desert Fathers sought to grow spiritually and know God; they sought to center their lives on charity, hospitality, and compassion.  Many of the reflections of these faithful were collected and have come down to us as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

As indicated with the Desert Fathers, one of the primary venues for the contemplative life was monasticism.  One of the many monks who gave his life to contemplation was Brother Lawrence.  Brother Lawrence was a 17th century Parisian monk.  And from him we get the Christian classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.  Brother Lawrence learned to practice the contemplative life when he was assigned to work in the monastery kitchen washing pots and pans.  It is said that “for some fifteen years [he] ‘found great ease in doing things’ there.”  Later Lawrence was later given the task of cobbling shoes, and in this task he also “found delight.”

A late 13th and early 14th-century contemplative was Meister Eckhart who spoke of the “little spark of God” concealed within humanity and preached to the common people about “the unity of God and man.”  Other fairly well-known persons who lived contemplative lives were Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.  More contemporary contemplatives were Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, more recently known at St. Teresa.

True to the spirit of the contemplative life, each of these persons I have mentioned sought to see or know or come to a vivid awareness of God.  Each one gave time to deep consideration of things spiritual, but also spiritual experience and not just rational thought.  As we have read from the writings Mother Teresa left us, “We need to find God and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence. . . We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

At the same time, many who are known for having lived contemplative lives did so while going about daily life.  I have already noted Brother Lawrence who was contemplative, but also spent much time in the monastery kitchen and then later as a cobbler of shoes.

Meister Eckhart was an active theologian and philosopher.  Thomas Merton was an active writer of some 70 books, as well as a social activist.  Mother Teresa – now St. Teresa – was founder and leader of the Missionaries of Charity and gave her life to ministering to the poor, sick and dying.

Well, the point I am trying to make is one can, but doesn’t have to, move to an isolated monastery in the desert in order to live a contemplative life.  I want to contend that one can live a contemplative life while going about his or her everyday life in the world.

And so, we have arrived at the crux of the sermon: Could it be that one can be contemplative – broadly speaking – as we engage in those activities that nourish our souls?  I am referring to such activities as music, writing, reading, painting, pottery making, quilting, photography, woodworking, cooking, hiking, even gardening.  I contend that if we make them so, each of these activities and more can be conducive to contemplation in the broad sense of the term.  But we have to be intentional in making them so.  Such activities can be opportunities for spiritual contemplation, meditation, prayer even.

To cite just one example from our offering of activities here at the United Church, our Prayer Shawl Group is a perfect example of an activity that seeks to combine the art of knitting or crocheting with prayer and meditation.  The original intent of the Prayer Shawl movement was to combine the making of shawls for the sick and others needing encouragement with prayers for whomever the recipient will be as the shawl is made.  So when the shawl is given to someone, it is not just an article of clothing made of yarn; it is a visual and tangible embodiment of the many hours of love, concern, and prayerful thought that went into its making.  Such was the original intent of the Prayer Shawl Ministry.

On a personal note, it has been no secret that for me visiting our national parks and standing in awe of Nature’s majesties proves to be a religious experience.  I, in the spirit of today’s psalmist who said, “I will contemplate your wondrous works,” find myself in contemplation in the world of creation.  And then nature photography becomes a contemplative exercise for me as well.

But many of you have your own interests and activities which lead you to lose yourself in the experience, and give you opportunity to contemplate and think deeply about God, religion, life, faith, spirituality, and so on.  I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever but that contemplative Brother Lawrence had some deep religious thoughts and insights while he was washing pots and pans and cobbling shoes.  If Brother Lawrence could have a deep, contemplative thought while cobbling a brother’s shoe, why can’t I be in contemplative thought while standing before Half Dome or the General Sherman giant sequoia tree, or watching an orange-pink sunrise, or building a piece of furniture in my woodshop?

And by the same token, why can’t you be in deep contemplative thought while making a prayer shawl or Chrismon’s ornament, or playing the piano, or reading or writing poetry, or painting a picture, making a piece of pottery, quilting, taking a nature photograph, cooking, gardening, hiking, or something else?

So my ultimate aim in today’s sermon is really threefold: First, to celebrate activities that we are already engaged in that are conducive to contemplation and meditation; second, to raise awareness of the importance of the contemplative life; and third, to encourage us as a congregation to consider additional ways to enhance and increase opportunities for contemplation in our common life.

The truth is, none of us is likely to move to the desert or mountaintop so as to pursue a solitary life dedicated solely to contemplation.  But I don’t believe God expects that of us either.  The good news is that some of the greatest Christian saints the world has ever known were contemplative and produced profound spiritual insights while they were also deeply engaged in real life in the world.  That being the case, it seems to me that you and I could enjoy some contemplative living as well.  And our lives – and our church – would be so much richer for doing so.  May it be so.  Amen.

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