Finding God on the Run

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 17, 2018 (Father’s Day)

Genesis 28:10-17 ESV

Jacob was on the run.  He and his twin brother Esau had had a stormy relationship over the years.  Jacob was his mother’s favorite, whereas Esau was his father’s favorite.  There had been sibling rivalry from the beginning, even from their mother’s womb, as the biblical storyteller relates it.

Jacob was a scoundrel; there is no way to deny that.  He had taken advantage of his brother at a time when he was vulnerable and weak, and had robbed him of his birthright.  Jacob was a liar, pure and simple, having lied to his father and deceived him in order to steal his father’s final blessing which, according to culture, belonged to Esau.

Jacob’s act of stealing Esau’s blessing was the last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.  So Esau had grown to hate Jacob for having stolen his blessing.  And Esau said to himself, The time of my father’s death is drawing near; when my father dies, I will kill my brother Jacob.  Their mother got wind of Esau’s plan, so she persuaded Jacob to flee from their home and go live with relatives so that his life might be spared.  Their mother connived by telling the boys’ father that she did not want Jacob to marry one of the local Hittite women and that he needed to go away and find a wife among their own kin.

So being persuaded by his wife, Isaac sends Jacob away to find a wife from among his mother’s kinsfolk, totally unaware of the deception and Esau’s plan to kill his brother.  When Esau learns that his brother has fled, he is not at all happy.  Well, such is the back story to today’s reading.

So it is that while Jacob is fleeing, he stops for the night, finds a place on the ground to sleep, has his dream of the ladder reaching up to the heavens, and the angels of God going up and down the ladder.  Jacob also seems to have had some type of religious experience, as he felt God had spoken to him of a promise of blessing.  When he awoke from his sleep, Jacob felt he had been in the very presence of God.  And so he took the stone that had served as his pillow and turned it into an altar.  Jacob made a vow to God before the altar and promised that if God was with him and blessed him, he would give one-tenth of all he accumulated as an offering to God.

Okay, so here is the point: Jacob was fleeing in fear from his brother Esau, who had intentions to kill him.  In the midst of his journey, Jacob had a profound, life-changing, religious experience.  In other words, Jacob found God on the run.

I got to thinking to myself that perhaps that is often the way it is in life; perhaps finding God on the run may be a more common experience than we might have imagined.  Being “on the run” can take many forms and fashions, you know.  Like Jacob, people can be on the run from danger or life-threatening circumstances.  I think of those women and children on the run from abusive and life-threatening domestic violence situations.  I think of the Jewish and Polish families who were on the run during the Holocaust.  I think of those in the armed forces who find themselves on the run, taking shelter in foxholes or other safe places, escaping enemy fire.  Today I think of refugees who are on the run from oppressive, inhumane governments.  Such life-threatening circumstances that propel us to be on the run in one fashion or another often serve as catalysts for religious experiences and “finding God.”

But, as hinted, there are other forms of being on the run that open us to the presence of the sacred.  There are life-threatening diagnoses and illnesses that can serve as opportunities to be open to the Sacred or “a gateway to heaven,” in a manner of speaking.  On a happier note, getting married and having that first baby might also serve as an opening to the Sacred or “gateway to heaven,” as such profound life experiences can have a way of opening our eyes to the Sacred of life around us.

But in order to get the full picture, we need to read further in Genesis and see how the story of Jacob ends.  Jacob meets and takes sister-wives from his mother’s relatives; he works for his father-in-law, helping his father-in-law grow more prosperous and becoming prosperous himself in the process.  But Jacob the trickster is himself tricked and cheated repeatedly by his father-in-law, and finally to such a degree that it no longer is comfortable for him and his family to live there.  So after several years, Jacob feels the need to return to his homeland and to try to make amends with his brother Esau.  But he doesn’t know what to expect.  He fears that Esau still harbors hatred and revenge in his heart and may still want to kill him.  So Jacob sends messengers on ahead to let Esau know he wants to come back home.  Jacob plans to send lavish gifts of cattle and other livestock upon Esau as a form of apology and a peace offering.  Just hours before the two brothers are to meet, Jacob has a restless night.  He has another dream and encounter – a wrestling match – with an “angel of God.”

The next morning, Jacob awakens to see Esau coming towards him, accompanied by four hundred men.  Jacob humbly bows to the ground seven times before Esau.  And then what follows is one of the most touching scenes in the entire Bible.  Instead of killing or seeking revenge on the brother who had repeatedly lied and deceived and taken advantage of him, “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).  And Jacob said to Esau, “Please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand.  For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (33:10).

A point not to be missed on this Father’s Day is that Jacob was willing to humble himself, confess the wrongs he had done, and try to make amends.  Such is the way with a true father and a true man in general.   It takes a real father and it takes a big man to admit it when he has been wrong and to do what he can to make amends.  The idea of a macho man who can do no wrong and who never needs to apologize or say “I was wrong” is no longer in vogue, in my way of thinking.  Fathers make mistakes too; believe me, I’m speaking from experience!  And the father – the man – who is willing to admit and try to correct his mistakes will be all the more admired for it, I think.

And so, on this Father’s Day we learn some lessons from Father Jacob.  He was a man who was about as flawed as any man could be.  His early life was somewhat of a disaster.  In a time of upheaval, he “found God” while on the run.  Or to put it in the terminology of self-help groups, he was willing to open his life to the Higher Power.  And then as he matured, Jacob sought to set his house in order, confess the wrongs he had committed against his brother, and took steps to try to make amends.

Having an openness to religious experience and a life of faith, being humble enough to admit wrongs, and taking steps to make amends are three attributes worthy of consideration for any father; for any of us, really.  May it be so.  Amen.

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The Bible & Religion – Answers or Questions

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 10, 2018

Psalm 22:1-2; Luke 10:25-29 ESV

Reading from Frederick Buechner

A former United States President, who was known to have an admiration for the Bible, made the statement that “Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face.”1  That is a pretty broad statement.  And I guess that at one time, some 45 years ago, having come from a very conservative Christian background, that I might have accepted that statement at face value and without question.  For many, the Bible is the only book one needs in order to get through life.  And the truth is, the Bible does seek to address many of the mysteries and questions of life.

But today I might not be as ready to accept the proposition that the Bible contains all the answers to all the problems we face.  And others might be more skeptical as well, believing that the challenges of our post-modern world give birth to problems that lie beyond the scope of answers the Bible provides.  Advances in technology and communication, advances in medical science and treatment options and organ donation, advances in human reproduction and genetics, and so on may give rise to questions for which the Bible may not give clear-cut, black-and-white answers.

On the one hand, the Bible does offer answers to many of the questions of life that we ask.  For instance, there is the question that the lawyer posed to Jesus: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Well, Jesus, after responding with a couple of questions of his own, concurred with the answer the lawyer gave: loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and loving one’s neighbor as you love yourself.  That is a pretty clear-cut answer.  And there is the question posed by the Hebrew prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you?”  And then the answer is given: “To do justice, love mercy [kindness], and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

But on the other hand, whether or not the Bible has all the answers to all the problems we face, the Bible itself is full of questions from beginning to end.  How many questions do you think are asked in the Bible?  Have you ever thought about it?  Well, I was curious, so I Googled “How many questions are asked in the Bible?” and the answer that I got was 3,157; or, to be precise, there are 3,157 question marks in the King James Version Bible.  I have to wonder who took the time to sit down and go through the Bible to count all those question marks.  In case I have aroused your curiosity, the top ten books of the Bible when it comes to the number of question marks are as follows: at the top of the list, way ahead of all the others (and not surprisingly), is the book of Job with 325 question marks, followed in a distant second by Jeremiah, Isaiah, Matthew, the Psalms, Luke, John, 1 Samuel, Genesis, and 2 Samuel.

Frederick Buechner, in his daily meditation titled “Questions,” encourages in this regard, “Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives.  Start by listening for the questions it asks.”2  That likely is a way that many of us have never thought of approaching the Bible; in listening to the questions the Bible asks.

And the truth is, we find a lot of questions in the Bible for which no specific, clear-cut answers are given.  A good case in point is the prayer of the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me?”  This is one of the universal, ultimate questions of life with which troubled souls of every age have wrestled.  If there is a loving God, as our faith teaches us and as we want to believe there is, then why do the faithful suffer and sometimes seem to get no help from God?  Why do the godly suffer and sometimes feel abandoned, deserted, forsaken by God, while the wicked often appear to be blessed?  It is the question the psalmists pose time and again, it is the question of Job, and it is the question that Matthew and Mark record having been uttered by Jesus while on the cross.  To repeat, this is one of the ultimate questions of humanity repeated in the Bible, but one for which no clear-cut answer is ever given, that I have found anyway.

There are other ultimate questions of life that the Bible asks which force us to change, take a risk, and/or give of ourselves.  For instance, there is the question of Cain in Genesis, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  (Genesis 4:9).  And closely related is the question the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).  Or as Jesus asks his disciples, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).  Such questions, if we take them seriously, lead to self-examination and sacrificial service.  Such questions call us to make a drastic life change.

Other questions the Bible poses cause us to do some hard thinking so as to arrive at our own answer.  There is the question of Pilate to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).  And another one of the universal questions posed in Job, “If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14).  In contrast to looking inside the pages of the Bible for the ready-made answers we may hope to find there, focusing on the questions of the Bible forces us to do some hard thinking and draw our own conclusions about some of the difficult issues of life and death.  To give other examples, we hear the psalmist ask of God, “What is man . . . that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4).  And “Where shall I go from your Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7).

When it comes to religion, some people are not comfortable with the questions, but rather, are only comfortable with being told all the answers.  Sadly, such churches that claim to provide all the answers and divide every issue between black and white, leaving no room for the grey, often are the churches that attract the masses.

With there being 3,157 question marks in the Bible, there are many more questions raised in the Bible that could be cited, questions for which there are no clear-cut answers, or at least, not answers that we might hope for; questions that force us to change or make a sacrifice; or questions that throw the issue back at us, causing us to do some hard thinking and self-examination.

But maybe – just maybe – one of the beauties of the Bible (the opening quote from our former President notwithstanding) is that the Bible doesn’t always provide the pat answers that we might hope for, but rather, that we can identify with the questions that the faithful of the ages have themselves wrestled with.  That, to me, is one of the biggest benefits and blessings of the Bible: it is timeless and universal in the stories it tells and the problems, struggles, and questions about life and death that the faith communities that produced them share with us.

As we read the stories of the Bible and as we hear the gut-wrenching questions the faithful ask, we identify with them.  Their story often is our story.  And their questions are often our questions.  And even in the cases when no answers are given for the questions that are asked, we feel a sense of community and commonality that transcend time, history and cultures.  There can be a sense of comfort, assurance, and strength in knowing that the questions about faith, life, and death that I ask in the wee hours of the morning were asked by Job, King David of Israel, the psalmists, Naomi and Ruth, and even Jesus himself!

And so in the final analysis, we may often find ourselves turning to the Bible for the answers we may hope to find there, and we may find the answer we are looking for.  But let us not forget to ponder the hard questions also to be found within the covers of the Bible.  Because in pondering the hard questions of the Bible, we experience spiritual growth and maturity.  And we also find ourselves in good company with the faithful of the ages who have wrestled with the ultimate questions of life, faith, and death before us.  May it be so.  Amen.

1Ronald Reagan.  2Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Mediations.  P. 124.

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The Ever-present Battle for Justice

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 3, 2018

Psalm 146:5-9; Ecclesiastes 3:16-17 RSV

A photograph in USA Today a couple of weeks ago (May 21, 2018) caught my eye and jumped out at me and gave birth to today’s sermon topic.  The photograph was of Robert F. Kennedy and farm labor leader Cesar Chavez breaking bread and celebrating a Catholic Mass together.  Kennedy and Chavez, sitting side-by-side, appear to be the most unlikely of companions: Kennedy, a picture of New England wealth and prestige dressed in an expensive suit, and Chavez a picture of poor farm workers in the most common clothing.  Yet, the two men were united in “a shared vision for economic justice for all Americans.”1

It was March 10, 1968.  Kennedy had flown from Washington, D.C. to Delano, California, to join thousands of farm-workers at a Catholic mass celebrating Chavez’s end to a 25-day fast.  The farm-workers looked upon Kennedy as the first major political candidate to support their movement for justice and better working conditions.  At that time, the farm-workers earned less than one dollar per hour and did not have toilets in the fields where they labored.  Kennedy had already been there two years earlier and showed sympathy for their cause, and he already “had a record of supporting the poor and under-served” and addressing poverty and hunger issues.1

Less than a week after that meeting, Kennedy announced he was running for President.  He won the California primary three months later, on June 4, 1968, and then was shot and killed just after midnight at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles – 50 years ago this week.  Hence, the timeliness of today’s sermon focus.  Kennedy’s assassination marked a tragic and pivotal event in U.S. history.  The attack upon Kennedy might also be seen as an attack upon social justice.  His death proved to be a powerful set-back to the causes and forces working for justice in our country.  How might American history have played out differently had Robert Kennedy not been killed and gone on to win the Presidency?

Only two months earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis where he had gone to stand with garbage collectors in their push for justice and better working conditions.  As the attack upon Kennedy can be viewed as an attack upon social justice, so it could also be viewed with the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Those who herald the call and take the stand for justice and positive change, it seems, put their very lives in mortal jeopardy.  Why is that?  Why is there such hatred among many toward justice that they are willing to lynch, shoot, murder, crucify those who work for it?

We dare not forget that justice is a core principle in both Judaism and the teachings of Jesus.  We have seen the belief that justice is at the heart of the nature of God in the 146th Psalm.   The Lord God “executes justice for the oppressed; [and] gives food to the hungry,” the Psalmist proclaims (Psalm 146:7).  The Lord God is concerned with those who are bowed down; the Lord God watches over the sojourners [or immigrants, as some translations render it]; the Lord God upholds the widows and orphans.  Justice.

The writer of the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes warns that God will judge those who replace justice with wickedness.

Justice was at the heart of the eighth-century Hebrew prophet Amos who called to account those who “oppress the poor” (4:1).   And then Amos thundered, “let justice roll down like waters” (5:24).

The Hebrew prophet Micah summed up the entire religion of Israel in one sentence: “to do justice, and to love kindness or mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).

Then Jesus – in the spirit of the psalmist and eighth-century prophets – called his adversaries to account, accusing them of focusing on minor, insignificant issues and placing unnecessary burdens upon the poor and already-oppressed, while ignoring the “weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).  I have noted previously that Christian theologians such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan contend that it was Jesus’ stand for justice for the oppressed and stand against the religious-political establishment that ultimately got him crucified.  To reiterate, justice is at the very heart of what it means to be Jewish, to be Christian, to be religious.

And yet, as we look around us and see all that is going on in the world today, it appears that justice is constantly under attack, sacrificed on the altars of racial prejudice and bigotry, greed, lack of human compassion.  To give a few examples:

In spite of civil rights legislation and measures toward greater justice, Black Americans continue to be discriminated against, and Black men, especially, are the target for unwarranted police brutality and murder.  Spanish-speaking Americans continue to be singled out, dehumanized, and abused and threatened for something as innocent as carrying on a conversation in their native language in a fast-food restaurant, when any others who might carry on a conversation in their native language probably wouldn’t even be noticed.  There seems to be a growing mentality of white superiority – white only country – among many in today’s America.  There seems to be an intense hatred among many of those who want to emigrate to America seeking a better life or asylum, when America was built on immigrants.  Where is the justice in ripping families apart – in separating the breadwinner from a household and leaving the rest of the family destitute, or snatching children from their parents – simply because they are seeking a better life for themselves?  I have to agree with writer Michael Gerson who stated this past week in The Washington Post, “if there is one area where the teaching of the Christian faith is clear, it is in the requirement to care for the vulnerable stranger.”2

And there is a related matter that concerns me: The criteria of what it means to be “Christian,” and especially “Evangelical Christian,” seem to have shifted dramatically in the past decade.  From all appearances, based on much of what we see in the media, anyway, being Christian or Evangelical Christian in America no longer has anything at all to do with morality, compassion, respect, ethical treatment of others, and justice.

In all my forty years of preaching, I can’t remember ever having been as distressed over the state of national and international affairs as I am today.  As we as a nation stray further from standards of morality for our national leaders; further from compassion, respect, and ethical treatment of others; and further from a commitment to justice for the poor and oppressed, we are marching down a dangerous path.

Nineteenth-century naturalist John Burroughs, who began to write a lot about religion in his later years, wrote, “Those nations will become the most powerful that are the most just, the most humane, that develop in the highest degree a world conscience, and realize the most intensely that the nations all belong to one family, in which the good and evil of one are the good and evil of all.”3  One might conjecture that the reverse would also be true: Those nations will become the least powerful that are the least just, the least humane, and that develop in the least degree a world conscience.

And Unitarian minister James Luther Adams contended, “Sin does not derive from the fact that we participate in a material world but rather from our disobedience to the divine demand for love and justice.”

When I think about the fact that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, it causes me to be very sad.  Kennedy had a good heart; he had a heart of compassion and respect for the poor and oppressed of our land, and he was determined to try to do what he could to make a difference.  The fact that he wasn’t given a chance to do so is nothing short of tragic.

But it also makes me sad to realize that fifty years later, a battle is still being waged against social justice, and in many ways our nation seems to be regressing in matters of justice, compassion, and especially in respect for others.

Justice – it has to do with respect and fairness and the ethical treatment of all people and doing unto all others as we would want them to do to us.  Standing for justice is not easy; it can be costly.  But if we don’t take a stand for justice, then who will?  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Rebecca Plevin, USA Today, Monday, May 21, 2018.

2Michael Gerson, The Washington Post online, May 29, 2018.

3John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe.  P. 142.

 

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The Foundation Beneath Us

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 27, 2017 (Memorial Sunday)

1 Corinthians 3:9b-16 GNT

As a teenager, I worked about a year and a half in new home construction.  The summer after I had turned 16, I worked with my uncle and maternal grandfather as a brick mason’s helper.  My uncle and my grandfather (who was a master bricklayer) laid the concrete blocks and bricks, and I did most of the grunt work – making the mud (cement or mortar), hauling the mud in a wheelbarrow or 5-gallon bucket, and carrying and stacking the bricks on the scaffolding they stood on to lay the bricks.  Then after that summer, I worked with another uncle in the afternoons after school and on Saturdays for about a year doing just about everything there is to do in new home construction that didn’t require a license.

Obviously one of the things I learned during my construction experience is the importance of a good, solid foundation.  A substantially-big trench needs to be dug, and a wide, deep concrete foundation needs to be poured so as to support the weight of the structure you are building.  And then getting those first concrete blocks and first bricks on the lowest corner of the house laid just right is of critical importance for the rest of the house structure to rest upon a solid, level, square foundation.  And those first blocks and bricks need to be solid and free of cracks and weaknesses.  The stability and security of the entire house depend upon it.

Well, the Apostle Paul makes an interesting analogy between building blocks and those leaders and members who comprise what he calls “God’s building” or “God’s temple.”  Paul felt that he had “laid the foundation” for the church at Corinth.  This he had done when he established the church during his so-called second missionary journey.  He had been down in the trenches in Corinth, metaphorically speaking, laying the foundation for a Christian church in a very difficult environment.  This he did while also supporting himself as a leather craftsman and tentmaker.  Paul spent several months in Corinth.  But then after he moved on to establish other congregations in other cities of the Mediterranean World, other church leaders had come along to build upon the foundation he had laid in Corinth.

Then a few years later, when Paul wrote his epistles to the Christians in Corinth, he not only reminded them of the foundation that he had laid in founding the church there, but he expanded the metaphor to compare the members of the Corinthian Church to the actual, physical, living building or abode of God’s Spirit.  When Paul says, “you are God’s temple,” the Greek form of “you” is plural, indicating the collective congregation.  As such, the people – the members – became the building blocks of God’s temple, which was in a constant state of being built up for the work of God and edification of all.

In a similar way, the United Church members who have worshiped and served here before us are the foundation beneath us.  Longest-standing member, Dave Hobson, has been sharing with us at the 10 am service through brief historical vignettes some of the stories of those founding members who laid the foundation for this unique United Church.  Today we remember them as dedicated visionaries who ventured to establish a non-traditional, non-denominational church whose philosophy and approach as a church is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.

But those early charter members were themselves original stones.     Their dedication, their sacrifices, and their service provided a solid foundation upon which rests the church we are today.

But in 2018, we are building blocks of a sort who continue to raise the United Church and strengthen and support it for the next generations.  The sort of work we are doing now will determine if the United Church remains strong and viable for the future.  The quality of the materials we use and the quality of our work will be made manifest in days to come.  We certainly don’t want it to be said a generation from now, “Well, there used to be a vital, active congregation that gathered in that historic Chapel on the Hill.  But the members who used to gather there failed in their duties and let it run down.”  I am not suggesting we are leaning in that direction; not in the least!  Things are going quite well, in fact.  But we do well to be reminded every now and then that the responsibility for the future strength of this church rests with us and our generation.

We build with whatever gifts, talents, and resources we have available to us.  Each of us is given some sort of gift, talent, or ability to be put to good use in building up the church.  And each of us is called to give financially as we have received and are able to give so as to keep our church active and strong.  We continue to build upon the foundation that was laid 75 years ago.

But on this Memorial Sunday, we are also reminded in a general way that all those loved ones who have gone before us and are no longer with us are the foundation beneath us.  All of us are who we are because of our ancestors who passed on peculiar traits, abilities, mannerisms, ethics, beliefs and convictions, and other positive characteristics.

Genealogy, or tracing one’s ancestry, is becoming more popular all the time.  All of us have seen those Ancestry.com television commercials about how people are learning through DNA where they came from and how in some cases they can trace their ancestry back to some famous person in history.  My brother, Tim, is most interested in our family ancestry, especially on our mother’s side which has some master furniture makers and cabinet makers in the family tree.  The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we want to remember them.

But in a more refined way, we are reminded that we are who we are as a nation because of the sacrifices of many servicemen and servicewomen who gave their all for the causes of freedom and liberty.  Their service and sacrifices are the foundation upon which our nation, and all the potential we have as a nation, rests.

Frederick Buechner writes of how during a war-time battle, a hand grenade was tossed into a group of soldiers, and how one of the soldiers threw his body on top of the grenade in order to save the rest of his comrades.  One man sacrificed his life so the others might live.  And Buechner observes, “This is an action for which there is no good word because we can hardly even imagine it, let alone give it its proper name. . . .  Who knows why a man does such a thing or what thoughts pass through his mind just before he does it.”  Buechner raises the question as to what each of us might have done had we been in that group of soldiers and how we would feel to be a survivor of such a heroic and sacrificial act.  And then he concludes the meditation by saying, “I can only live my life for what it truly is: not a life that is mine by natural right, to live any way I choose, but a life that is mine only because he gave it to me, and I have got to live it in a way that he also would have chosen.”1

And so, this weekend is the time we set aside to remember those who have gone before us – those original United Church members, family members, and military personnel – and how they gave us the lives, blessings, and freedom and liberty we enjoy today.  They are the foundation stones upon which our church, our individual lives, and our nation have been built.  So we take time to remember them and to whisper a prayer of gratitude for them and the service and sacrifices they offered that helped make us who and what we are today. They are the foundation beneath us.  Amen.

1Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life.  New York: HarperOne, 1992.  Pp. 144-146.

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Pentecost Made Relevant

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 20, 2018 (Pentecost Sunday)

Psalm 133; Acts 2:1-8, 12-13 NKJV

Today is Pentecost Sunday; hence, our red bulletin covers and red chancel paraments.  But what does Pentecost Sunday really mean, anyway?  The church I grew up in didn’t observe Pentecost Sunday that I recall (nor did it observe Advent or Lent).  Perhaps the church some of you grew up in didn’t observe Pentecost Sunday either.  Some churches and denominations celebrate Pentecost and other liturgical Sundays and seasons, and other churches and denominations don’t.  That’s just the way it is.  So what is Pentecost all about – practically speaking?  And why is it important to observe Pentecost one Sunday each year?

Luke is the only New Testament writer who left us any information about Pentecost; and about how a Jewish holy day that had double significance (marking the wheat harvest in the Land of Israel [Exodus 34:22] and also commemorating God giving the Law to the Jews at Mount Sinai) was transformed by the early Church into a day to celebrate the “coming of the Spirit” upon that little group of Jesus followers who continued to meet together after Jesus was crucified and reported to have been resurrected back to life.  Such, Luke tells us, occurred about fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion.

A lot of mystery surrounds that first Christian Pentecost – Jesus’ followers speaking in other tongues or other languages and the ability to understand other languages, the rush of a mighty wind through the room where they were gathered, something resembling flames of fire dancing around the room and resting upon each believer, and an experience of being filled with God’s Spirit. We may feel like asking, as did those who witnessed such things, “What does this all mean?”  Such things may seem far removed from our 21st-century lives and out of the realm of our experience and maybe even what we might want to experience.

And so, we are left asking the question, “Are there any practical, comfortable, beneficial aspects to the observance of Pentecost that are actually relevant to this United Church and the lives we live today?”  Obviously, I think there are.

A key to Pentecost holding meaning for us today may be found in the very first verse of the chapter describing the Pentecost experience: “they were all with one accord.”  In a recent issue of Christian Century magazine, Keri L. Day states, “As a child, my favorite story to recite was the narrative of Pentecost . . . My love for this narrative was not surprising, as I was the child of a Pentecostal pastor.  Each year, the most dramatically staged biblical story in our church was always the story of Pentecost, particularly reciting these words: ‘And they were gathered together in one accord.’”(By the way, did you know that this chapter in acts is said to be the first mention or prediction of the automobile in the Bible?  They were all in one Accord.)

But seriously, the being in one accord at Pentecost speaks of togetherness.  The Jesus followers were “all together in one place,” physically and geographically speaking.  But the thought goes much deeper: they were also all together in one spirit and one frame of mind.  Their common commitment to the Teacher from Nazareth that they had come to know, love, and believe in bound them together in one accord.

Or to put it another way, those early followers of Jesus were bound together in a sense of unity or harmony, not unlike the unity ideal spoken of by the Psalmist, who said, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).  As Luke tells the story anyway, those early believers who soon would be called “Christians” did not yet know the dissensions and divisions that would eventually creep into the fledging Church as it suffered growing pains and sought to define its place in the world.  On the day of Pentecost, at least, there was a sense of togetherness.

Pentecost accord speaks of a sacred bond of living with, worshiping with, serving with, and loving each other.  As we recite together in our table fellowship communion liturgy, “where there is love, there is God, and where there is God, there is love.”  As we read further in Acts about the post-Pentecost church, we find that they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44); that is, they all shared what they had so as to meet the needs of one another, and they took steps to provide for those with special needs – especially widows and orphans who were in the most precarious situations.  To borrow the term of Martin Luther King Jr., Pentecost resulted in “beloved community” where they all took care of one another.  Beloved community is a community based upon God-like Agape, self-sacrificing, altruistic love and compassion, which is based upon justice and shows concern and respect for all.

And then, as Keri L. Day points out, Pentecost accord speaks of “the joy of community [as] the gift of the Spirit.”  Over the years I have come to believe that the purest sign of a true Christian church and the presence of God within that church is the sense of community that binds people together and the joy that issues from being together, whatever the service, meeting, or occasion that draws us here.  Whenever I speak to newcomers, visitors, or others in Oak Ridge about the United Church, one of the things I invariably say is this is a wonderful, open, loving community of faith.   We are a congregation that seeks to live as Jesus would have us to live – love for God and love for neighbor and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.  And as I see it, such is evidence of the Spirit of God in our midst.

I can tell you from past experience that it is a challenge to be minister of a congregation where a spirit of togetherness and the joy of loving community are lacking.  There have been occasions in previous pastorates when I sometimes felt like a firefighter, as I spent a lot of time trying to put out relationship fires that were constantly erupting between different members and different factions of the congregation; a congregation that was actually divided into three factions, with each faction vying to make the decisions and get its way.  Sometimes such factions think (if not actually say), If we could only get rid of that family or that group, then our church would be perfect and would achieve perfect harmony.  The reality was, probably not!

Perhaps you have heard that old saying that such and such would cut off his nose to spite his face.  It can be that way with churches too.  Such churches may run off members as fast as the minister can bring them in.  And there have been a few times in the course of my ministry when I have asked myself, Do these people even know what it means to be Christian? 

Conversely, the true church is the Pentecost Church, the church that shows evidence of the Spirit via loving community and a sense of joy of being together.  There is that wonderful Christian song, which, regretfully is not in either of our hymnals, that says,

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

So again, what does Pentecost mean, relatively and practically speaking?  And why is observing Pentecost one Sunday each year important?  Because Pentecost serves to remind us of the importance of being “in one accord,” in a spirit of togetherness, where we love and care for one another, and experience the joy of sacred, beloved community.  And being in one accord in a beloved, joyous community of faith is an assurance that the Spirit of God is in our midst and that we are, indeed, Pentecost people after all.  May it always be so with this United Church: being in one accord in a joyous, beloved community of faith – Pentecost people.  Amen.
1Keri. L. Day, Christian Century, May 9, 2018.  P. 10.

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Treasures of the Heart

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 13, 2018 (Mother’s Day)

Luke 2:41-51 GNT

“Jesus, you get down from there right now before you fall and break your arm!”

“Jesus, put down that sharp carpenter’s knife before you cut off your finger!”

“Jesus, wash the mud from your hands before coming to the table!”

We may have never thought of Mary having uttered such scolding words to the boy Jesus.  Many of us may have grown up with the idea that Jesus was the golden child, perfect in every way, never sinning, never even making a mistake, never causing his parents any grief.

But considering that Mary scolded Jesus when he was lost from them a couple of days, isn’t it quite plausible that she might have scolded him on other occasions as well.  Can’t you just see Mary grabbing boy Jesus by the shoulders, looking him sternly in the eye, and saying, “Son, why have you done this to us?  Don’t you know your father and I have been worried sick about you?  Why, we didn’t know what had happened to you, thinking you might have been kidnapped, sold into slavery, fallen off the wall of Jerusalem and broken your neck, or God only knows what might have happened to you!”  When we take what is written in the biblical story and then read between the lines, all kinds of possibilities come to light.

Two chapters later in Luke, when Jesus is grown and begins his ministry, the townspeople don’t seem to look upon Jesus any differently than anyone else whom they had watched grow up in the village.  “Is this not Jesus, the carpenter’s son?” they said of him (Luke 4:22).  They couldn’t believe that the little boy they had watched grow up in the streets of Nazareth was capable of saying such things.  The truth is, if Jesus truly was human, as Christian theology early on decreed that he had to have been, then Jesus of necessity would have done things all boys sometimes do, trying the patience of their parents.

Now, let it be said that there is no way to verify the historical authenticity or 100% accuracy of this boy Jesus story.  No one was there with pen and paper to record it.  Perhaps a version of the story was passed on through oral tradition.  But the gospel writer Luke certainly had his literary and theological reasons for including the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple in his gospel.  And, as you know, Luke is the only place we find this story, the only canonical story the early Church left us having to do with the life of Jesus between his birth and when he began his ministry.  There are some  questionable stories about the boy Jesus in non-canonical writings that the Church early on decided were not inspired or worthy of consideration by the faithful.  But this story in Luke of the boy Jesus is all we have to work with from the Christian canon.

At any rate, there is much truth at the heart of Luke’s story and including, perhaps, a Mother’s Day lesson or two as well.

As Luke tells the story, Mary was worried; and rightly so.  Jesus was an exceptional child; there is no question about that, as Luke’s story points out.  But even exceptional children can cause their parents to worry.  And the truth is, worry is a universal trait of motherhood.

It would be nice if motherhood was all sunshine and roses, all fun and games, all joy and no sorrow.  But we all know that is not the case.  From the moment a child is born until a parent and child are separated by death, worry is part and parcel with parenthood.  And much to our surprise, a parent’s worry over a child doesn’t end when that child graduates from high school or college or gets married.  In some cases, the worries are only compounded, as some of us well know.

And then there are the scoldings.  “Jesus!  Why did you worry us so?”  Even the best of mothers resort to scolding their children every now and then, especially when it comes to trying to keep them safe.

When our daughter was two years old, she wandered off from us in a Memphis shopping mall, as all children are prone to do.  Now, we had heard horror stories of children being abducted in Memphis department stores and shopping malls, so for a few minutes we were quite panicked.   Maybe those stories were urban legends; I don’t know.  But that didn’t matter.  We were momentarily mortified nonetheless.  Don’t you think we scolded her a bit after we grabbed her and hugged her?

And when our son was small, he had a habit of darting across driveways, parking lots and highways without looking.  Two or three times – again while we were living near Memphis – he ran out into the path of an oncoming car.  Luckily, in all cases the cars saw him in time to stop or he made it across in the lick of time.  Don’t you think we gave him a good scolding after we grabbed him and hugged him?

What mother or father, in the spirit of Mary and Joseph, has not scolded a child: “Why did you do that?  Don’t you know you frightened me to death?”  “You almost gave me a heart attack!”

But wrapped up with all the worry and necessary scoldings, there are the treasures of the heart that come along with motherhood.  Luke reports that after the worry and after the scolding, as Mary had time to reflect, she “treasured all these things in her heart” (2:51).

So many are the joyous times that become treasures of the heart: bath time with baby and watching baby kick in the water and laugh; reading a story at bedtime; snuggling close to watch a movie together; kicking a soccer ball or passing a softball; special programs, recitals  and award ceremonies at school; family camping trips; the list is endless.  Such times prove to be the best blessings of life and become true treasures of the heart.  And the treasures of the heart are the best treasures of all.

Just as we may have grown up with the idea that Jesus was the perfect, sinless, golden child, we may have had the idea that Mary was the perfect, angelic, flawless mother.  The Church has sort of perpetuated the idea that a sinless son had to come from a sinless mother.  But the truth is, Mary was human too; she had to have been.  And as a human, Mary likely made mistakes as a mother.

When I was a child, the church I grew up in and the church my mother grew up in had special Mother’s Day programs when we sang songs, and recited poems and speeches about mothers.  Mother’s Day sort of carried the connotation that this is the day we remember all those angelic mothers, especially the ones who are no longer with us.  But the truth is, there are few, if any, perfect mothers, or fathers, and there never have been.  Most parents make mistakes, jump to conclusions, may be too demanding, can be short-tempered, and sometimes set a bad example.  That has been my experience, at least.  So mothers (and fathers), if you don’t feel like you have been the perfect parent, go easy on yourself.  You are in good company.  There likely is no perfect mother, and no perfect father, including Mary mother of Jesus and his father Joseph.  That is the way I see it, at least.

But motherhood is to be celebrated nonetheless.  Because mothers do make great sacrifices, work long and hard, have the most important job in the world, exert a tremendous amount of influence upon the future leaders of the world, and often get little recognition for the lives they live, the work they do, and the sacrifices they make.

So today, mothers and grandmothers, we celebrate you and give thanks for you.  And my prayer is that each of you may be greatly enriched with motherhood’s treasures of the heart.  Amen.

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Some Lessons Learned from America’s Pastor

A sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 6, 2018

John 3:16-17; Romans 1:16-17 ESV

The year was 1979.  Our young family had taken a short vacation to visit Raymond and Minnie, a third cousin of mine and his wife, who lived in Middle Tennessee.  Raymond was a minister who had grown up in the same church I had, but was about 20 years older than I was.  So he was one of my early mentors in the ministry, of sorts.

At any rate, soon after we arrived at Raymond and Minnie’s house, they said to us, “Would you be interested in going to Nashville with us tomorrow night to hear Billy Graham preach?”  Billy was holding his second Nashville Crusade (the first had been held in 1954) at the Vanderbilt University football stadium.  Being an aspiring preacher myself, we jumped at the chance to go hear America’s evangelist.

I had seen Billy Graham on television for years.  Whenever Billy had a televised crusade, my parents always tuned in.  So I was somewhat familiar with the crusades and pretty much knew what to expect.  I recall a first cousin to whom I was very close as a boy asking me when we were about twelve or fourteen, “Do you think you might want to be a preacher someday?”  To which I replied, “Well, if I could be a famous preacher like Billy Graham.”  (We all know how that turned out J .)

In many ways Billy Graham was a person to be admired; he had several positive qualities.  Graham has been described as one of Christianity’s “most influential voices.”  It has been said that nearly 215 million people around the world heard him preach, and he preached to more people than any other person in history.  He was included in Gallup’s Top Ten Most Admired Men in the World list almost 60 times, more than any other person.  He authored over two dozen books, wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column called “My Answer,” and founded Christianity Today magazine, among other successes.  Religious historian Martin Marty has said that the Mount Rushmore of Protestant American history would include theologian Jonathan Edwards, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham.

I have always felt that of all the famous television preachers and evangelists, Billy Graham had the most integrity of them all.  For instance, whereas many of the famous television preachers appear to be in it for the money, Billy Graham never was.  Some tv preachers live in multi-million dollar mansions, drive expensive automobiles and/or have their own airplanes to shuttle them around, and preach the prosperity gospel.   A few preach that God wants them to be wealthy and wants us to be wealthy too, but from their lifestyles it would appear that they believe that “charity begins at home.”  But not so with Billy Graham.  Until his death on February 21st, Graham lived in a simple, rustic log cabin in the North Carolina mountains.  And as far as money was concerned, Billy drew a modest salary from the Evangelistic Association which he founded and worked under.

In all his years of ministry, Billy was untouched by personal financial and sex scandals that rocked other famous American preachers, including Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, to name just three.  Billy held himself to a high moral standard, from which he never tottered in all his 99 years.

Billy did what he did with a passion.  From the beginning of his ministry, he had a clear focus and life purpose in mind and he stayed focused and fulfilled that purpose as long as he lived.  Billy’s catch phrase was “The Bible says.”  Two of his signature Bible verses served as today’s scripture readings: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” and “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”  These verses served as a foundation for Billy’s theology and life’s work.

My seminary preaching professor contended that Billy Graham was not the best homiletician.  In other words, from the perspective of crafting the best sermon manuscript, Billy wasn’t necessarily the expert.  However, I hasten to add that the sermon is not the printed manuscript, but rather, the real sermon is the event that takes place between the preacher and the congregation or audience.  And in that regard, Billy was a master.  He was very charismatic, likeable, believable, and persuasive, as evidenced by the attention he evoked from the thousands who sat reverently and quietly in the stadium as he preached, and by the millions of lives he touched over the decades.  And as professors of preaching often say, “a poor sermon manuscript well delivered is always to be preferred over an excellent sermon manuscript poorly delivered.”  Billy was a master speaker who had “a spellbinding presence on the stage,” as one journalist put it.

Billy had the respect of people from all walks of life – from other religious leaders, to famous stars like Johnny Cash, to politicians, including ten or twelve American presidents.

To his credit, Billy moved from a very conservative stance early on to a progressive position on most key social issues.  He refused to support the Christian Right of Jerry Falwell and others when it became prominent in the late 1970s.  He was an ecumenical evangelical who sought to establish relationships and work with everyone.

But Billy Graham was human; hence, he was not perfect.  Billy had his flaws and weaknesses, which he himself readily admitted.  One of Billy’s admitted shortcomings had to do with family dynamics.  His family had its share of problems, just as many families do. He regretted having been away from his family so much.  He and wife Ruth had five children – two sons and three daughters.  They were less than stellar in their behavior at church and other public places.  The two boys were handfuls, guilty of smoking, drinking, driving fast, and at least one of them used illegal drugs, including cocaine.  Three of the five Graham children have divorced, and some have said the Graham Family has manifested signs of family dysfunction.

Billy failed to get actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  To his credit, he did insist on integrating his crusades early on (in 1953 in Chattanooga, to be exact, where he personally tore down the ropes separating whites from blacks).  But he did not join King and other Civil Rights leaders in actively addressing civil rights issues, preferring to stay neutral in order to focus on his message and purpose.  In a 2005 interview, Graham lamented that he didn’t battle for civil rights more forcefully.  “I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma,” Graham admitted.  “I would like to have done more.”

Billy also wished he had stayed clearer of politics.  For instance, one of the issues that would haunt him was his close alliance with President Richard Nixon and defense of Nixon during the Watergate scandal.  Closely related was the embarrassment Billy suffered for having uttered anti-Semitic remarks about Jews during a taped, private conversation in Nixon’s office in 1972, something which tarnished Graham’s reputation somewhat.  Years later, when the comments came to light, Graham couldn’t believe he had spoken such words, but went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and told them he would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness, so badly he felt about the incident.

Near the end of his autobiography titled Just As I Am, Graham says, “Although I have much to be grateful for as I look back over my life, I also have many regrets.  I have failed many times, and I would do many things differently.

“For one thing, I would speak less and study more, and I would spend more time with my family” (p. 852).

As stated early on, in many ways Billy Graham was a person to be admired.  And one doesn’t have to agree with his conservative, evangelical theology and conservative interpretation of the Bible (I certainly don’t in many respects) to admire his positive traits – the passion he put into what he felt was his life calling, his honesty and integrity and high moral character, admitting his mistakes and trying to make amends for them, living the simple life and refusing to be lured by the temptation of wealth, and so on.

One thing I remember most about the Billy Graham Crusades and telecasts was the music.  I can still hear Ethel Waters singing “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” and George Beverly Shae sing “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”  And the services always ended with the Crusade Choir singing “Just As I Am” (hence, today’s closing hymn) as Billy waited for hundreds of people to make their way down the stadium steps where he was waiting to pray with them.

Whatever your view or feelings, likes or dislikes about Billy Graham, he was an American icon who left a profound mark upon American – and world- religious culture, and who influenced millions of lives, including American presidents and other world leaders.  And whatever our theological inclinations, there are lessons to be learned – from his admirable qualities as well as the mistakes he admittedly made – from the 99-year life that William Franklin Graham lived.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

Works Cited: Just As I Am: The Autobiograpy of Billy Graham.  New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1997.

Several newspaper articles, too numerous to cite every one.

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