Why I Am Religious

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 30, 2015

Luke 4:42-44 ESV

Jesus “departed and went into a desolate place . . . And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” ~Luke 4:42, 44

If you consider yourself to be religious, why are you religious?  Such is a question we may not have ever seriously considered, unless we have been prodded to do so.

While doing some theological brainstorming a few weeks ago, Suzanne asked me that very question: Why are you religious?  And so, I ended up taking some time to respond, jotting down some notes on a piece of paper.  But after I reflected upon that conversation, I decided the topic might be sermon worthy and worth sharing with you.

From an early age, I was drawn to the Bible and religion.  And being a minister in organized religion—the church—provided me with a wonderful avenue to study in-depth the Bible, theology, and church history.  It was never enough for me to just read the Bible and take every word literally at face value.  But I soon felt the importance of understanding every book of the Bible—its historical context, the original worldview and purpose of the different writers, and so on—so as to really understand the messages of the Bible as they were originally intended to be understood.

And I also found fascinating the blending and intertwining of different Christian movements and denominations, and how different Christian groups united, separated, merged or almost merged, worked together or worked against one another, and so on.  So one factor that led to my religious interests was curiosity about the true messages of the Bible and fascination with American church history and theology.  But wait, there are more reasons that I consider myself to be religious.

For instance, religion speaks to the human spirit about the ultimate issues of life.  Or to phrase it another way, religion gives us a lens through which to view life in its totality.  Religion provides us with a way to view the world and to live in the world.  It truly is, as Rabbi Harold Kushner contends, “Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing . . . It has to teach our eyes how to see the world.”

A.Powell Davies said it in a similar way: “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life.  It is life—life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose. . . .  Religion claims the whole of life as its province, and business is a part of life. . . .  Religion . . . should go into all parts of life.”

Religion, in speaking to the human spirit about the ultimate issues of life, has something to say about birth and death, and everything in between—sickness and trouble, love and marriage, the way to true happiness and dealing with extreme loss, our place in this vast universe, and hope for some existence in the great beyond.

For too many people, religion is a one day a week affair, something totally separate from the rest of life and the other six days of the week.  And so, one day a week is considered a religious day—a holy affair—and during the rest of the week religion has no bearing whatsoever.  But that is not the way true religion works.  True religion is a seven-day-a-week outlook and way of life.  As philosopher William James succinctly put it in his classic, Varieties of Religious Experience, “Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”

There is another reason for my being religious: In many ways, I resonate with the spiritual insights I find in the church’s literature, liturgy, and hymns.  There are ways that my spirit is fed through religious worship and life in the church.  There are many places in the scriptures where I find comfort and strength.  There are many hymns in our hymnals that are uplifting to my soul.  There are times when, in preparing and giving a sermon, it speaks to my soul, perhaps, more than to any other.  This is especially true when I can prepare and give a sermon on a topic that is of deep interest to me personally.

John Burroughs, a famous early 20th century naturalist whose ideas evolved into what might be termed spiritual naturalism, stated in one of his more philosophical works, Accepting the Universe, “I am convinced that no man’s life is complete without some kind of an emotional experience that may be called religious. . . .  Religion, as I use the term,” he says, “is a spiritual flowering, and the man who has it not is like a plant that never blooms.”4   Religion gives me opportunity to both exercise and expand my own spirituality.

Yet another reason I chose to be religious is because I believe in the institution of the church as a positive influence and possible change agent in the world.  I addressed this topic a few weeks ago in my sermon titled “Purposes, Possibilities, and Problems with Preaching.”  So I don’t want to rehash everything I said then.  But I continue to believe in the American Church and American Pulpit as the most positive force in our nation to address social injustices; begin, promote and support humanitarian causes; bring comfort, hope and help to the suffering; give guidance on major issues of the day; and so on.

A final, but certainly not least, reason I will share as to why I am religious is I appreciate the sense of community the church offers and makes possible.  I am of the opinion that one of the primary reasons many people become active and remain active in a church is because of the sense of community the church provides.  For some people, the church is the only avenue of community they have, and for them Sunday is the highlight of their week.  A good religious community is one that affirms us, supports us, encourages, and helps us.  It is the place that rejoices with us when we rejoice and weeps with us when we weep.  In this regard, Ana-Maria Rizzuto notes, “Religion is . . . the most important and enduring institution providing a sense of identity and belonging in the majority of societies existing in the world today.”

There is a common expression these days, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  Perhaps you have heard someone say it or have even said it yourself.  Some people think, it seems, that the terms are mutually exclusive; that you have to be one or the other—spiritual or religious—but you can’t be both.  But I disagree.  I think one can be both religious and spiritual.  Jesus was.  Sometimes we are tempted to forget that Jesus was a very religious Jew who celebrated the Jewish religious festivals and regularly attended services in synagogues, as pointed out in today’s scripture reading.  Jesus was religious in that he observed the Jewish Sabbath and publicly read and studied the Jewish scriptures.

One definition of “religious” is faithful adherence to an “integrated system of expression.”  That Jesus was.  I believe Jesus realized the great potential for good inherent in religion.  But he also realized that the religious system of his own day could stand much improvement.

On the other hand, one could also say that Jesus was spiritual, in that he also leaned toward the mystical and often sought out lonely, natural places for periods of prayer and meditation and communion with the Divine.  He also drew spiritual wisdom and inspiration from the world of nature and based much of his teaching upon it.  So Jesus was both religious and spiritual.  We can be also.  That certainly is the way it is with me.  I find benefits in being religious through the institution of the church, but I also find benefits in being spiritual, especially in the context of the natural world.

So, I have shared some of the major reasons that I have been and continue to be religious.  Maybe some of those reasons resonate with some of you.  But I am sure that some of you could bear witness to other reasons of your own.

It is not always so, as we too often see in the news where religious zeal goes awry, resulting in prejudice, oppression, violence and murder.  But religion properly expressed is a good thing; a very good thing.  And we can be both religious and spiritual. We don’t have to choose one or the other. Amen.

 

1Harold Kushner, Who Needs God.  New York: Pocket Books, 1989, Pp. 27, 30.

2George N. Marshall, A. Powell Davies and His Times.  Boston: Skinner House Books, 1990, Pp. 3-4, 15, 225.

3William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 39.

4John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe, pp. 107, 115.

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Under the Broom Tree

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 16, 2015

1 Kings 19:1-8 ESV

You need not raise your hand, but have you ever had one of those “woe-is-me, I’m all alone, nobody loves me, it’s no use trying” kind of days?  Or weeks?  Or months?  The kind of week that the prophet Elijah had, as recounted in today’s story?

Elijah has always been considered one of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets.  He is named in the New Testament about 30 times, mostly in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Jesus often made reference to Elijah, and at times spoke of John the Baptist as being a new and greater Elijah. Jesus’ disciples and others sometimes compared him to Elijah. And there are Jesus stories that draw on Elijah stories.  So Elijah’s stature and importance in the Jewish faith, right up to the time of Jesus and beyond, is unquestionable. Still today, Jews include an empty chair for the prophet Elijah at their Seder meals.  And yet, we find that Elijah was a man of clay just like the rest of us.

As a bit of background, Elijah was a devoted follower and ardent defender of Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews.  But in the 9th century BCE, the Hebrew God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Elijah was not the only god that vied for the people’s affections.  One of the major rivals to the Hebrew God was Baal, a Canaanite storm god and agricultural fertility god.  Baal had two faces: he was believed to send devastating storms, but he also sent needed rains to make crops grow.  And it just so happened that the Israelite King Ahab had married Jezebel, a Sidonian, who was a devotee of both Baal and Asherah, one of the three great goddesses of the Canaanites.  Asherah was often known as the “mother goddess,” and in statues and figurines was depicted as a nude.  In fact, Jezebel and Ahab supported hundreds of prophets of both Baal and Asherah, and they ate at the palace table.  Even worse, Jezebel had killed prophets of the Hebrew God.

As the story goes, because of the wickedness of the land, it had not rained in Israel for three years, resulting in a severe drought and famine.  After three years, Elijah summoned the 450 prophets of Baal to a showdown.  They would determine who was the true God, Baal or the God of the Hebrews.  Two bull sacrifices were prepared on altars of wood.  Elijah invited Baal’s prophets to choose one of the two sacrifices and then pray to their god, asking him to send down fire and consume their sacrifice.  All day long they tried, but all to no avail.  So then Elijah called upon the God of the Hebrews, who sent down fire and consumed the sacrifice, wood, and even the water Elijah had poured in the trench around the sacrifice.  Elijah then had the prophets of Baal killed.  That is a part of the story we just as soon not be there, but it is.

Well, Jezebel placed a bounty on Elijah’s head, threatening that he would be killed as well before another day passed.  So we find Elijah running in fear for his life into the wilderness.  He finds a broom tree, sits down under it, and starts to pray that he might die.  The broom tree was actually a bush or shrub, the branches of which were used to make brooms, as you might imagine.  So here we have Elijah out in the wilderness, sitting under a broom tree, having his own woe-is-me, I’m all alone, nobody loves me, it’s no use pity party.

But looking at the story more seriously, we also have one of the classic stories in the Bible of a severely depressed man who wished to die, perhaps harboring inclinations to suicide.  So it is a serious story.

As hinted in the beginning, many likely can relate to Elijah and his woe-is-me, I’m all alone, nobody loves me, it’s no use trying episode.  If it is not something we have experienced personally, then it most certainly is something we have seen in a friend or relative.  Most of us have either had our own, or have tried to support someone else’s “under the broom tree” episode.  Physically, Elijah was sitting under a broom tree.  Emotionally, Elijah was in a deep, dark hole.

When under the broom tree, so to speak, it is easy to only see life one way—as hopeless and all gloom and doom, as being in a deep, dark hole with no way of escape and very little, if any, light shining through.  Over the years, I have journeyed with many who have been in that deep, dark hole where all seems hopeless.  It is a tormenting place to be.

But the truth is, often those “under the broom tree” experiences are not really as bad as they appear to be.  Consider the experience of being in a dark cave.  From one vantage point, it may appear as though there is nothing but darkness and no hope of light whatsoever.  But a quick turn around a bend in the cave’s path might reveal a sliver of light in the distance from the cave’s opening.  More walking yields more light, until at last you are back to the light of day.  Sometimes the experience of depression can be that way.  When in the deep hole of depression, all may seem to be darkness.  But a step or two forward may reveal a small shaft of light that grows bigger and brighter with each step forward.

It was revealed to Elijah that he was not alone, there were those who loved him, there was a bright future ahead of him, and there was grace to see him through.  If we—or those close to us—could only remember such when we encounter one of those “under the broom tree” episodes: we are never alone, there are many who love us, there most often is a bright future ahead of us, and there is grace to see us through.

Well, as Elijah had found himself to be exhausted, weak, and run-down, an angel (or “messenger” as some modern translations render it) provided him with food and drink that gave him the strength he needed for the journey that lay ahead of him.  “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you,” the messenger encouraged.  So Elijah “arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food . . . to the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:7-8).  Such can also be seen metaphorically.  Anyone who has suffered one of those “under the broom tree” episodes has a long journey ahead to recovery and wholeness.  There are spiritual, personal, communal resources that are needed for the one journeying from the wilderness of depression.  And often the services of a professional counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist and/or medication are in order as well.

While in Zion National Park, as we prepared to hike the River Walk Trail that leads to The Narrows, we were told to bring food and plenty of drinking water with us. We would definitely need it for the journey ahead of us. And so, we filled our hiking backpack with fruit and nut trail mix, peanut butter and crackers, and took plenty of drinking water as well. It is especially imperative for those who plan to venture up The Narrows—which is hiking in the Virgin River itself with sandstone walls on either side, with water reaching at times waist-high—to have plenty of provisions, as hikers sometimes find themselves stranded. Flash floods can result in hikers being cut off from civilization and help until the floodwaters recede.  But lest I leave the wrong impression, we did hike the entire River Walk Trail as far as the entrance to The Narrows, but that was as far as we went. We had food and water, but we were not prepared for wading a waist-deep, cold river!  Veronica, our resident park ranger, did hike up The Narrows and other members of our congregation may have as well.  But we found that the journey up the river that day was just too great for us.  Nevertheless, the necessity for proper provisions for the journey was not lost on us, whether that journey be a hike into the wilderness, or a journey from the depths of depression.

Every now and again, we (or someone close to us), like Elijah, find ourselves in the situation where we feel the journey is just too great for us.  We may just want to sit down under a broom tree in self-pity.  But as with Elijah, it is also important that our eyes be open to the life provisions that are already at our disposal.  It is important that we realize, and that we help those we love realize, that we are not alone, there are those who love us, there can be a bright future ahead of us, and there is an unseen provision of grace to help see us through.  Amen.

 

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Encouragements to Endurance

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 2, 2015

Jonah 1:17-2:10 CEB

Jonah’s testimony, “my endurance was weakening” (2:7 CEB), is a feeling many of us, no doubt, have been able to identify with every now and again.  I chose the Jonah passage as today’s reading, and specifically the Common English Bible rendering of it, because I love the way that one particular verse is translated. And I love the human emotion that is depicted in it.

Now, I have given sermons on Jonah in the past, and the intent of today’s sermon is not to get into questions about the factuality of the story, the question about miracles, or the author’s overall purpose in writing the book of Jonah.  I covered most of that in my sermon titled “Jonah: The Tale Behind the Fish,” which, by the way, is included in my sermon collection, Light from the Hill.  But as the author of this little book paints the picture, the prophet Jonah—as he struggles within the fish’s belly—finds himself growing weaker, getting more and more discouraged, perhaps in danger of losing hope, and feeling his sense of endurance ebbing away.  So what I would like to do is look at this part of the story metaphorically.

As already noted, many of us can relate and recall a time when we felt our endurance weakening, ebbing away.  For some, it may mean thinking back in time for several years.  For others, it may be not so long ago.  Life, and the demands and pressures of life, can sometimes wear us down.  The pressures of job or profession; the financial demands of our times, when it is hard to make ends meet, even with both partners working; chronic pain or prolonged treatments that suck the life right out of you; weeks or months of being the caregiver for a loved one.  Unexpected troubles—for some, it seems, one after the other—tend to chip away at our resolve and endurance.

So like the character Jonah, we may sometimes feel that we have been cast into the deep; that we are fighting one boisterous wave after another; that we are drifting aimlessly and getting nowhere.

In the scriptures, by the way, the word translated “endurance” in more traditional versions like the King James Version can mean to be able, to hold up, to bear up, or to stand strong.  Life situations can test our endurance, as we all know.  So when we find our endurance weakening, what can we do?  Well, not to be too simplistic, but maybe a few suggestions would be in order.

When life tests our endurance, we need to be sure we are taking proper care of ourselves.  We need to eat right—eat enough and eat healthy foods, and not just fill ourselves with sugar or junk foods.  We need to be sure to get enough exercise.  I have found that a brisk nature walk always gives me a boost.  We need to get the proper amount of rest and sleep as well.  And we need to take time to play or express our creativity through some hobby we love.

Secondly, when we find our endurance weakening, we need to let ourselves lean on others who love and care for us and are more than ready to support us.  As that old pop song of the ‘70s by Bill Withers aptly put it, “We all need somebody to lean on.”  In fact, most of the words of the song are quite appropriate for today’s topic.  You might go to the Internet and Google it.

Third, when we find our endurance tested, we may find that we have within ourselves unrealized strength and resources we didn’t even know we had.  Maybe it is the way we are designed.

And when we find our endurance waning, we certainly don’t want to let go of the hope of a better day to come.  Hope is the lifeblood—perhaps at times the life support—of the suffering and oppressed.  Hope is like a tree’s root system that enables that tree to hold on and endure when being unmercifully tossed about by the wind.  Hope is like the solidly-anchored pilings of a beach house that raise it up and hold it fast and enable it to endure during a hurricane.  Yes, hope is like all of these things and more that helps us to hold on when we feel our endurance waning.

Last week I spoke of some of the spiritual lessons and inspiration I gained in Zion National Park.  If I may, I would like to share another bit of inspiration I gained during our visit to Arches.  Arches was our first destination, as we set out to experience Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, as they are called.  We longed to see and photograph for ourselves those iconic red sandstone arches that have graced untold calendars, greeting cards, coffee table books, and more.  Our first hike was to the popular Windows Arches, a close cluster of three arches that are easy to get to and photograph. From the parking lot, the North Window and Turret Arches are easily seen. But you have to hike past the North Window and over a slight hill in order to see the South Window and realize that the two are part of the same structure. I learned from another photographer that if you stand in one particular spot on the south side of Turret Arch, you can capture all three arches in one photograph.

The North and Turret Arches are such that you can walk right up to them and peer through to the great expanses on the other side. You can also stand directly under the North Window and Turret Arches and stare up at the age-old natural structure, which I did, capturing a few photographs while focusing directly above.

As I stood under those massive sandstone arches, they spoke lessons to me, both spiritual and deep. One of those lessons had to do with endurance.  Those iconic sandstone arches have endured for thousands, maybe even millions, of years, withstanding the forces of wind and rain, violent storms and lightning, and God alone knows what else.  Those arches became a symbol and encouragement to me of endurance; and the ability of the human spirit to endure through the difficult storms of life.  For when you stop to think about those arches, you realize they span several feet with nothing but air and empty space underneath them.  They really are in quite a precarious situation.  And yet, they endure through storms and time.  They find strength and support in the two ends where they touch the ground, as well as in their unique design.  So it can be with the human spirit.

And so, while sitting in the In Reach Committee meeting the week after we returned from Utah, I was inspired to take a couple of our Arches photographs and create note cards to share with our members who are going through difficult times as an encouragement to endurance.  And we do have a number of members who have, and are, facing prolonged challenging circumstances.  And who may feel their sense of endurance being tested.  I, perhaps better than anyone else, know how many members we have who are enduring challenging situations.

So, when we, like the character Jonah, feel that our endurance is weakening, let us not give up so quickly.  May we try to remember to take proper care of both our bodies and our spirits; let us lean on those around us who love and care for us; let us draw on those hidden resources that may surface only when called upon to do so; and may we never let go of hope that an end to our trouble may be in sight and a better day is coming.  May we remember the arches that have stood through storms and time—encouragements to endurance.  Amen.

 

 

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Reflections on Zion

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 26, 2015

Psalm 50:1-6 ESV

There have long been spiritual associations—and a spiritual draw—to “Zion.”  For thousands of years, pilgrims have flocked to Zion, otherwise known as Jerusalem.  And the truth is, all of us need our “Zions,” in one sense of the term.

The word “Zion” occurs in the Bible well over 150 times, over half of them in the Psalms and book of Isaiah.  In Hebrew, the word means “hilltop,” “mountain ridge,” or “fortress.”  Zion dates back to the time of King David (the 10th century BCE), whose military forces took the mount and captured the city that later would come to be known as both Zion and Jerusalem.  So the word “Zion” was variously used to refer to the city of Jerusalem, or a part of the city of Jerusalem, as well as its inhabitants.

Theologically, Zion came to be seen as the abode and seat of God.  Over time, the belief grew that God had chosen Zion as his earthly abode, giving it a special status.  In many cultures of that day, you know, the gods were believed to dwell on the mountaintops.  So it was only natural for the ancient Hebrews to come to see the hill of Zion as the abode of their God, “the city of the living God.”  As the seat or dwelling of the living God, Zion’s attributes included both beauty and perfection.  Also attached to the belief that Zion was the abode of God was the idea of protection, that God would always protect Zion; hence, the significance of “fortress,” as mentioned earlier.

Zion would later come to be a synonym for the Jewish Temple and the people’s worship of God that took place there.  In other words, as it evolved into the Jewish cultic center, it was the place where all Israel went to worship and offer sacrifices.  So it is easy to see why the psalmist would say, in the psalm that served as today’s reading, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2 ESV).

I have been to Mount Zion, as I shared in a Wednesday evening program a few months ago.  I have stood on the Temple Mount, where David, and many of the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus himself stood.  Of course, there is no Jewish Temple on Mount Zion today.  There is only the Western Wall, the sole surviving remnant of that Jewish complex that must have been so impressive in Jesus’ day.

Today Jerusalem, or Zion, is probably recognized as the “holiest” or most sacred place on earth, as the faithful from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions flock to it for spiritual pilgrimages and worship, fulfilling in a sense the scriptural prediction of Micah that nations would stream to Zion.  Micah prophesied,

“It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:1-2)

In a sense, Micah’s prophesy has been fulfilled.  Well, such has been the Zion of Israel.

Week before last, we had the great joy of visiting another Zion, just as impressive in its own way.  Zion National Park also has spiritual significance attached to it.  And, I must say, it was a spiritual experience for me to be able to visit it.  I found it to be quite apropos that on the same day we returned from our Utah vacation, there was a full-page article in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Zion National Park.  The writer, Ellen Creager, began her article by saying, “This is a spiritual place.  A glorious place. . . People are coming not only to tour the park but to nourish themselves.”

Some of the sites in Zion even have spiritual names, such as Court of the Three Patriarchs (named for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob); Angels’ Landing, so named because it was said that so high and narrow is the pinnacle, nothing but angels could land there; the Altar of Sacrifice; the Great White Throne; and the Organ.

I found Zion National Park to be awe-inspiring.  Upon awaking in Zion Canyon as the sun starts to crawl down the red sandstone cliffs, you cannot help but stand in awe of the sheer beauty, magnitude, and stories those cliffs have to tell.  Several years ago, while on vacation with our children, we passed through Sedona, Arizona, and were moved by the red rock mountains there.  But the color and beauty and majesty of Zion surpassed anything I have ever seen.  It is easy to see why the huge Visitor Center parking lot is full by 10 am, and why Zion expects to see over 3.6 million visitors this year.

I also found Zion National Park to be spiritually restorative.  Of the five national parks, two national monuments, and one state park we visited, I was most spiritually moved and restored in Zion. Standing in Zion Canyon makes you want to proclaim with the psalmist, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”  And with Jacob of old, “Surely the Lord is in this place!” (Genesis 28:16 ESV).  The marvelous beauties everywhere you turn; the mountain stream; the vastness of the sandstone mountains, with all the tell-tale signs of time; the sense of serenity as you enjoy the Lodge and its natural setting; the sense of something Sacred being there—all of it proved to be restorative to the soul for me.

And I found Zion National Park to be transformative.  Zion is one of those places on earth where you cannot help but be changed by being there.  As you study the red sandstone cliffs and the various layers and colors of strata, you realize how many millions of years it took for layer upon layer upon layer of sediment to be piled and compacted, one after the other, to form them.  And then as you study the scarring of those 1000-foot high cliffs, caused by massive floods, and the forces of wind and rain; and as you consider the depth of Zion Canyon, cut over time by those same floods, you realize that our earth couldn’t have been created a mere 6,000 years ago as Creationists contend.  It had to take millions of years to create Zion’s mountains, and millions more for the forces of Nature to cut and shape them and carve the canyons below them.  So if I had gone to Zion as a Creationist, my faith would have been drastically shaken.  Of course, I didn’t.   But the experience was a transforming one, nonetheless.

This past week I found myself having difficulty transitioning back to everyday life.  Not that I don’t love you all and appreciate being here with you, mind you J .  But I found myself, to draw on another biblical phrase, “longing for Zion.”  Because as noted in the beginning, the truth is, we all need our Zions.  We all need those special places where we are inspired, restored, perhaps even transformed a bit because of having been there.  For the Hebrews of old, the City of Zion (or Jerusalem) was such a place.  And it continues to be such a place for faithful pilgrims from around the world who go there today.  For Mary Lou and me, week before last it was Zion National Park, Utah.  But it need not be either.

Our “Zion” might be as far away as Jerusalem or Zion, Utah.  But it might also be as close as the Great Smoky Mountains, the local arboretum, or even coming weekly to this United Church.  “Zions” can be any number of places that inspire us, restore us, positively change or transform us.  So, what is your Zion?  It is needful that we go there—or maybe, come here—every now and again.  Amen.

1Ellen Creager, “Mighty Zion National Park . . .”  Knoxville News Sentinel, 9E, Sunday, July 19, 2015.

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Purposes, Possibilities, and Problems with Preaching

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 12, 2015

Luke 4:16-21 RSV

In a recent issue of the Christian Century magazine, editor John M. Buchanan relates how that even after retiring from the pulpit three years ago, preaching, in his mind, “remains at the center of things.  Three years after retiring,” he says, “I am still learning to live without the rhythm and weekly demand of preaching, and still pondering the mystery of it.”

Well, reading Buchanan’s article led me to do some thinking this past week about my own life of preaching and the American pulpit in general.  So today’s sermon will in part be a confessional and personal reflections.  This week marks the end of my seventh year with you here at the United Church.  Since moving here in July 2008, I have given over 330 sermons, not counting the wedding homilies and many funeral sermons I have given.  And this year marks the 39th anniversary since I gave my first five-minute sermon at my home church.  Since starting to preach in 1976, I have given in the neighborhood of 1,900 sermons.

I still recall the first sermon I gave in my home church.  I remember the day, the scripture text I used, the topic, and for the most part what I had to say.  It was only 5 minutes long, so I didn’t say a whole lot J.  By the way, as Luke tells the story, Jesus preached one of his first sermons and shared a sense of his own call into the ministry in his home church, or community synagogue.  As Luke tells it, Jesus understood his calling to be a ministry of preaching good news to the poor, imprisoned, spiritually blind, and oppressed, and to announce God’s presence and readiness to save his people.

The act of preaching, you see, was what led me into ministry to begin with.  Way back in 1976, the draw, the desire, and the sense of call that led me down the path I would end up traveling was preparing and delivering sermons.  That was pretty much it.  When I started out, my plans did not include becoming a day-in, day-out minister of a local church.  I just wanted to preach.  But I was soon to learn that for at least 90% of preachers, the everyday demands of being a minister or pastor is part and parcel of the preacher’s task.  And so, I picked up a lot of other duties, and classes, and training along the way, in addition to studying the art, craft, and practice of sermon preparation and delivery.

I can remember as a child of 10 or 12 of being fascinated by churches we passed when traveling on vacation.  And I can remember having conversations with one of my cousins about the possibility of growing up to be a preacher.  And my cousin’s response was, “Well, I guess, if you could be a famous preacher like Billy Graham.”  My mother, unbeknownst to me when I was still a boy, would sometimes say to people, “There is my preacher boy; I expect him to grow up to become a preacher someday.”  In other words, she had a feeling—that mother’s intuition.

But the preaching task is not always easy.  It may surprise you to learn that most preachers, I think, have what might be termed a love-hate relationship with the preaching task.  There are weeks when a preacher is excited about preparing and giving the sermon for the upcoming week, and feels wonderful after that sermon has been given.  Sometimes you feel like you have really said something of importance and that really mattered and needed to be said.  Early in my college studies, one of my English professors helped me to verbalize why I had chosen to prepare for the ministry and become a preacher.  She put me on the spot rather pointedly when she asked me in front of the entire class, “Randy, why was it that you decided to become a minister?”  Voicing such a response in a public setting was totally new to me.  Caught off guard, I fumbled for an answer.  The professor helped me out by exclaiming, “You decided to become a preacher because you feel like you have something to say that needs to be said.  Right?”  And of course I replied, “Yes; that’s it!”  And after thinking about it, I realized it was so.  I had wanted to become a preacher in part, at least, because I felt like I had something important to say.  So there are weeks when you feel like you have said something that really needed to be said and you feel good about it.

And then there are other weeks when preparing that sermon for the upcoming Sunday, and then actually standing in the pulpit to give it, is a chore that you dread about as much as chopping firewood. Sometimes the preacher says things that he or she would rather not say, but he or she feels strongly that they need to be said.  And just think about the responsibility of planning, preparing, and giving 48 fresh, insightful, informative, interesting sermons every year, year in and year out.  I have sometimes thought of how nice it would be if the modern preacher could be like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets of old who only preached when they were inspired and really had something to say, rather than being expected to give a sermon every week of the year just because that is what the preacher is expected to do.

Soon after I started preaching, I confessed to my mentor in ministry one day of how, upon awaking some Sunday mornings and realizing that it was Sunday, of thinking to myself, Oh my God!  It’s Sunday.  I have to preach today!  Instead of expressing shock over what I had said, my mentor in ministry—well-seasoned in preaching that he was and recognized as one of the best preachers in the entire denomination—confessed to me that he often awoke on Sunday morning and his first thought was the exact same thing: Oh my God!  It’s Sunday.  I have to preach today!  Though that was roughly 35 years ago, I often recall and lean on that conversation, and I don’t feel so badly in those weeks when the sermon well appears to be pretty dry, or when the sermon topic is not a comfortable topic, or when the sermon material is quite personal in nature and quite difficult, draining or emotional to share.

And I readily admit that not every sermon I give is an excellent or outstanding, or even good sermon.  I sometimes look at preaching in light of major league baseball statistics: No major league baseball player—not even Babe Ruth—hits a homerun every time at bat, and is not expected to hit a homerun every time at bat.  So it is with preachers and sermons: not every sermon is a homerun.  Some sermons are like triples, some doubles, some singles, and some fall flat like a strikeout.  But every once in a while, preachers may hit a homerun.  Maybe it is the hope of hitting a homerun sermon that keeps preachers going.

But when all is said and done, I have always had a tremendous respect for the American church and pulpit.  Since the founding of America, the American pulpit has had more influence upon American life, perhaps, than any other institution.  In spite of all the flaws and weaknesses of preachers as individuals and humans just like everybody else, the American pulpit has been responsible for untold positive change in America, leading the way in the abolition of slavery, progress in education, encouraging the founding of hospitals and orphanages and retirement homes, leading in the struggle for civil rights, and in general calling America to be its best self.  And so, from a young age I had the desire to be counted among those who stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, hoping to bring comfort, share guidance, encourage hearers to rise to the better persons they can be, and to shed some light on some of the contemporary issues of the day.

I am going to share a secret with you today that none of you have any way of knowing.  By supporting this United Church with your attendance, service, and offerings, you are helping support a cause that is much greater than this local congregation.  You are helping support the great institution of the free, American pulpit.  Many of you may not be aware that for the past three and one-half years, I have maintained an online sermon blog where most of my sermons are published so that anybody in the world who desires can read them.  As of this past Monday, my sermon blog—which you help make possible through supporting this church and supporting me as your minister and preacher—has posted 177 sermons, has had 15,481 visits, by 8,622 different visitors from 55 different countries around the world.  So the positive, progressive, inclusive spirit and message of this church is being broadcast to more people and more places than any of us might have ever dreamed possible!  Truly it is as stated in the book, The Riverside Preachers, “. . . preaching is thus addressed to a whole nation . . . .  Preaching . . . must speak to the nation’s soul, to repent, confess its sins, to change its ways, ‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’”2

Though I sometimes find coming up with a fresh, informative, interesting sermon topic challenging, after 39 years in the pulpit I still love sermon preparation and preaching.  And I still believe in the integrity and power of the American pulpit and its potential for being a positive change agent in the world.  Finally, I am truly grateful for the support that you as individuals and the church as a whole render, making it possible to be a part of that great American institution—the free pulpit.  Amen.

1John M. Buchanan, “Rhythm of preaching,” Christian Century, June 24, 2015.

2The Riverside Preachers.  New York: Pilgrim Press, 1978, p. 14.

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Patriotic Symbols Considered

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 5, 2015

Leviticus 26:1-13 GNT

I can remember many occasions when I was growing up of gathering at the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park near Limestone for family reunions, church picnics, family camping trips, and such.  In case you have never been there, the park is located on the bank of the Nolichuckey River just off Highway 11E, on the Washington County-Greene County line.  When I was a boy, it had numerous picnic tables along the river, a campground, and small log cabin with a big bearskin rug on the floor representative of the cabin where Crockett was born.  And it also had a log cabin gift shop that was the delight of every boy and girl around.  The gift shop smelled of red cedar as soon as you stepped inside, emanating from the numerous red cedar jewelry boxes, wall thermometers, piggy banks, and more.  It was stocked with toy guns, plastic cowboy and Indian figures, pocket knives, coonskin caps, and flags—American flags and Confederate flags.  You can see why such a place would be a delight to any country boy like me.

I recall one occasion quite distinctively when we were there on a Saturday night for a family reunion picnic.  The one thing I wanted from that gift shop was a flag.  And I honestly cannot remember if it was an American flag or a Confederate flag.  But the flag itself was about 18 x 12 inches and was stapled to a small wooden dowel.  The price of the flag was 30 cents.  I was so proud after buying that flag.  I ran through the picnic area the rest of the evening holding that flag high and waving it vigorously.  Even at the young age of six or seven, I knew there was some kind of significance and meaning attached to that flag.  I realized that it was more than just a piece of hemp fabric died red, white and blue, and stapled to a wooden stick.

That’s the way with patriotic symbols like flags—they are charged with meaning for those who display them and love them.  But they can also be charged with meaning for those who loathe them and/or feel oppressed by them.

You don’t need me to remind you of all the coverage in the news of late regarding the controversy over such symbols, and most notably the Confederate flag.  The Confederate flag, which has been a long-held symbol of southern pride and southern heritage for many, has come under renewed fire since it was so blatantly displayed and touted by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who took nine African American lives at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.  But the Confederate flag has also long been a symbol of slavery, bigotry and oppression for others, and has in recent weeks become a symbol of racism more than ever before.

This latest tragedy has served as an eye opener for many Americans who may have never thought about the veiled meaning behind that Confederate flag that many southerners have long taken for granted.  We are used to seeing the Confederate flag on t-shirts, license plates, pickup truck windows, belt buckles, and even state and national park souvenirs, and more.  Many of us white Americans probably have viewed the image of the Confederate flag with little or no thought at all.  Until now.

Consequently, the Confederate flag is being removed from state houses right and left, and images of the Confederate flag are being yanked off store shelves and will no longer be carried or sold through Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon, eBay, Etsy.com, and others.

Now, let me be clear: the primary intent of this sermon is not to pick on or trash the Confederate flag.  My aim goes much deeper.  My purpose is to make us think a bit about all patriotic symbols, the messages they convey, the way they can be emotionally charged, and the dangers that can be inherent in them.

Another symbol that has come under fire in recent days is the statue and bust of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Our Governor has called for the removal of Forrest’s bust from the Tennessee Capital.  Forrest, as you know, was a celebrated Civil War General.  But he was also a wealthy slave trader and is remembered for the massacre of hundreds of black Union Soldiers who had surrendered, many of them on their knees.  He slaughtered them anyway.  Forrest was also the founder and first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that has been responsible for inflicting great oppression, terror, destruction of property, emotional harm, and death upon African Americans for the past 150 years.  So you can see why such an image would be emotionally charged for many.

The ancient Hebrew Torah warned against the making of idols, statues, or carved figures.  Why do you suppose that was the case?  Such items can become loaded with meaning and become objects of affection that detract us from what is really important in life.  The ancient Hebrew leaders, of course, were concerned that idols fashioned in the form of bulls or other animals would steal the affections of the people, away from the true God who had delivered them from Egyptian bondage.

But another point of importance is this: idols or carved images, as objects of devotion, can tend to relieve people of moral obligations and responsibilities.  Such idols and carved images didn’t demand that the people live ethical, moral, just lives.  Idol worship is an easy form of religion, it seems to me, that requires very little of those who engage in it.

But in ancient Israel, idols or carved images also had the tendency of becoming loaded with meaning that went way beyond the image itself.  Idols representing the Canaanite god Baal, the god of fertility, meant offering sacrifices to that god in order to assure agricultural fertility and abundance.  Other idols or carved images invited sexual orgies or temple prostitution.  So the Hebrew lawgiver knew the inherent dangers in idols, carved images, and statues, because for those who revere them, they are loaded with explosive possibilities.

And so, you see, in a nutshell, idols, images and statues have the potential of becoming objects of inordinate affection that detract us from what is really important and that blind us to true moral obligations and responsibilities.  The idol or image can become more important than ethical responsibility or human life itself.  Sometimes people become so attached to idols or images that they become fighting mad when those idols or images are threatened.

Such can be the way with patriotic symbols; with any patriotic symbols.  They are loaded with emotional meaning for many.   But carried too far, such symbols or images can become gods in themselves to which some people pledge their devotion, to the exclusion of what is moral, ethical, right or just.

For these reasons, there are some faith groups, you know, who refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, or any other pledge or oath; not because they do not love America, but because they see any flag as a form of idol.  Such devotion and reverence, they believe, should be rendered to God alone and to the demands of God to live morally, ethically, and justly toward all.

Now, don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  I am as patriotic as any of you are.  I love the American flag, and I recite the Pledge of the Allegiance to the Flag like most of you do.  But my responsibility to God, to the demands of God espoused by the 8th century Hebrew prophets and Jesus to do justice, love kindness, and to live in compassion with others will always take precedence over devotion to the flag or any other symbol.

So the point I have been trying to make is not that we should do away with all patriotic symbols.  Rather, that we realize how patriotic symbols can be loaded with both meaning and passion, and how they can bring joy and pride to some, while at the same time bring pain and suffering to others.  Patriotic symbols have the potential of bringing out the worst in people—bigotry, prejudice, hatred, and violence.

But patriotic symbols also have the potential of bringing out the best in people—love, service, selflessness, and sacrifice.  Patriotic symbols honored aright bring out the best in humanity.

But we should never let any symbol become as a god to us, or cause us to cling to or get fighting mad over that symbol to the exclusion of the positive principles and motivations the symbol was meant to convey.  In other words, human compassion, justice, morality, and ethical dealings with others should always take precedence over any object or type of symbol, patriotic or otherwise.

“Do not make for yourselves idols,” the ancient Hebrew lawgiver rightly warned.  Worship of God, human compassion, guarding the dignity of everyone, justice in all our dealings, and ethical treatment of all concerned—these things should always take precedence over any symbol or emotional attachment we might have to them.  And when that is the case, we see true patriotism in action.  Amen.

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Forgiveness: The Ultimate Challenge

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

Matthew 18:21-35 GNT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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