Cultural Influences on Religious Practice

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

1 Corinthians 12:1-3 CEB

Some people have this idea that religion—specifically their religion—came directly from heaven.  That it was God-inspired, if not God-given.  That their religious practice by nature has been divinely-sanctioned and blessed.  Consequently, all kinds of atrocious acts can, and often do, follow from the belief that my religious beliefs and practices are of divine origin.  It can lead to “God told me so,” or “God told me to do this.”

However, could it be that religious belief and religious practice often are born as reactions to cultural trends and influences?  That is to say, could it be that the unique culture a person is born into and reared in, or that he finds himself to be in as an adult, has more influence on his religious beliefs and practice than he might realize or care to admit?

A case in point is the early Christian statement of faith, “Jesus is Lord!”  This is the shortest and one of the earliest creedal affirmations in the New Testament.  The phrase “Lord Jesus” or “Lord Jesus Christ” is used several times in the New Testament.  But the specific phrase “Jesus is Lord” is used in the 1 Corinthians 12 passage that I read, as well as in Romans (10:9), and maybe a couple of other places (cf. Philippians 2:11), depending upon the translation that is chosen.  There are certain Christian denominations where you will hear quite frequently today, “Jesus is Lord!”  And you may also see it posted on church signs.  Other denominations avoid the phrase like the plague.  Why is that?

It is always important, I think, to try to understand the origins of religious beliefs and practices within their context—the time, setting, and circumstances within which they arose.  Such certainly is the case with the early Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord!”  To understand it, we must go back to the first century and what was taking place culturally and politically at the time.

The pure and simple truth of the matter is when Christianity was born, the Roman Emperor was referred to as “Lord.”  At the height of the Roman Empire’s power, there were those who looked upon the Emperor as a god; or at least a son of God.  From the beginning there was conflict between the way of Jesus and the mighty Roman Empire.  To look upon the Roman Emperor as a god, and to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” was anathema (something accursed) to the Jews and early Christians alike.  So as a reaction to the cultural practice and political constraints of the day that called upon Roman citizens or subjects to acknowledge the emperor as Lord, the early Christians in essence revolted and proclaimed “Jesus is Lord!”  For the early Christians, it was imperative to recognize Jesus as being sovereign over their lives and church.

It is well known that a number of the Roman emperors of the first century were oppressive, hedonistic, decadent, murderous tyrants.  And so, we can see why it was important to the Apostle Paul and other Christian leaders to deny allegiance to Caesar as their ultimate lord and master and to proclaim, as Paul calls for it in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, “Jesus is Lord.”  In short, a cultural agenda that expected citizens to acknowledge the emperor as lord led, at least in part, to the early Christian practice of proclaiming Jesus as Lord.  The proclamation became an early Christian creed, and it stuck and is still proclaimed by many Christians and churches today, perhaps without some even being aware of the early context and background.

Fast forward 1800 or so years to the early 1900s and the rise of Christian Fundamentalism.  The Christian Church went about 1850 years without any belief system as unique and stringent as the Christian Fundamentalism we are familiar with today.  But this is another case where culture impacted religious beliefs and practice, and in a big way.  How did it happen that way?

Although the foundation for Christian Fundamentalism had already been laid, it was the new theological liberalism and historical-critical study of the Bible, cultural modernism, and the theory of evolution that really fueled and propelled forward the Christian Fundamentalist movement.  Of the particulars that might be seen as the foundation stones for Christian Fundamentalism, one was the Evangelicalism that emerged during the American revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the 18th and early 19th centuries through the preaching and teaching of George Whitfield and others like him and the weeks-long frontier camp meetings.

A second foundation stone was Dispensationalism, a movement that was made popular by the fundamentalist Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, which divided all history into seven different stages called “dispensations,” with the final stages being a bodily return of Jesus and rapture of true believers, period of great tribulation, and a 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth.

A third foundation stone for Fundamentalism was a conservative theology that came out of Princeton Seminary, primarily with the commentaries of professor Charles Hodge who stated that the Bible was divinely inspired and without error, since God dictated its contents to the biblical writers who wrote them down, a view also known as “biblical inerrancy.”

Then a fourth foundation stone for Fundamentalism was the 12-volume study guide called The Fundamentals, published between 1910-1915.  This volume stressed the core beliefs of Fundamentalism:

  • inerrancy of the Bible
  • literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding miracles and the Genesis creation accounts
  • virgin birth of Jesus
  • bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
  • substitutionary atonement of Jesus1

But as noted earlier, it was the combination of the new theological liberalism and historical-critical study of the Bible, cultural modernism, and the theory of evolution that caused many conservative followers to rise up in opposition and helped shape, strengthen, and galvanize those with Fundamentalist beliefs which made it a universal force to be reckoned with.

Since 1930, many fundamentalist churches in North America and from other parts of the world have affiliated with the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, which was renamed the IFCA International in 1996.  A number of conservative Bible colleges soon cropped up to train ministers in the Christian Fundamentalist tenets, including such institutions as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Bob Jones University in South Carolina.  These colleges often used the Scofield Reference Bible and nothing but the King James Version.  Fundamentalist preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would have a huge impact, not only on American religion, but in American politics as well.  True to Christian Fundamentalist roots, these late 20th century Christian Fundamentalist preachers continued to define their beliefs and practices as an opposition to what they believed to be godless liberalism.

And so, these two examples—the early Christian statement of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” and the Christian Fundamentalist movement—show how Christian belief and practice often are influenced by current cultural trends and changes.  Rather than being heaven-dropped principles, religious beliefs and practices often are human-driven reactions to cultural shifts and demands.

With the early Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord,” one can understand why and sympathize with the early Christians who had such a distaste for acknowledging the Roman emperor as Lord.  It was a form of rebellion to the state as well as an affirmation of faith.  Who of us would have wanted to confess the Emperors as “Lord” either?

In the case of the rise of Fundamentalism, it was an attempt to resist change (perhaps out of fear), hold onto the status quo, and define themselves over and against the liberals.

One thing all this causes me to ask is, Is there such a thing as “pure, God-given religion”?  Religion is always influenced by the culture in which it finds itself.  It has been that way from the very beginning.  Sometimes religion incorporates cultural beliefs and practices, and sometimes religion pushes back against cultural beliefs and practices.  Sometimes religion does both of these well, and at other times not so well.  An important thing is for us to be aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it.  God grant us the wisdom to assimilate wisely and well when we assimilate, and react wisely and well to cultural practices and trends when we react.  Amen.

1Some material summarized from Wikipedia online encyclopedia.

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But Then Comes Sunday!

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

John 20:1-10 GNT

Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, one who was very close to Jesus; and those disciples who had accompanied Jesus as his inner circle of friends were plunged into darkness on that day that we now call, curiously enough, Good Friday.  Shock.  Disbelief.  Bewilderment.  Agony.  Despondency.  Such are some of the emotions they must have experienced on that fateful Friday and Saturday of long ago.  The dark tomb where the battered body of Jesus was laid, and the dark path the women walked early that Sunday morning, were tangible reminders of the inner darkness that had shrouded their souls.

Matthew notes, in his account, that during that time while Jesus hung on the cross and up until his death, “the whole country was covered with darkness” (27:45 GNT), a statement that bespeaks of the emotional and spiritual mood as much or more than the physical reality.  What had taken place was just wrong.  It was nothing short of brutal, violent, unmitigated injustice and violence.  Jesus had questioned and stood up to the powers that be—the religious-political domination system that oppressed and welded an unholy sword against anyone who might question or appear to be in opposition—and the Mighty Roman Empire counted Jesus among the thousands they crucified.  Sometimes bad stuff happens to good people for no good reason.  And when it does, it can throw us into the pit of darkness.

Being plunged into such emotional and spiritual darkness is a universal experience common to all humankind.  Sooner or later, all of us find ourselves engulfed in human darkness of one sort or another.

For some families, as it was with the family of Jesus, it may be the sudden and violent death of a loved one, throwing them into the darkness of shock.  A car or bike accident; a shooting, or some other form of violent death; a fall down the stairs; or as in the case week before last in the French Alps, a senseless plane crash taking lives of loved ones.  In my years of ministry, I have known people who have been thrown into the darkness of many such unexpected tragedies.

Closely related is the darkness of a serious illness, devastating diagnosis, extended hospitalization, weeks or months of rehab or therapy; medical crises that upset the family routine and stability, perhaps including the loss of work by the primary family breadwinner.

Then there can be the emotional, relational darkness when the family unit begins to disintegrate, or start to unravel and come apart at the seams.

Or the jolt one gets when you go into work one day, and out of the blue you are given a cardboard box and told you have one hour to pack up all your personal belongings and turn in your keys and you are escorted out of the building.

Such is the way it often is in life.  You are moving along, things seem to be going well, and out of the blue life throws you a cross that seems impossible to bear.  Tragedy or trouble strikes, plunging you into an abyss of emotional or spiritual darkness.

But then when you think you cannot go on, then comes Sunday!  Following the darkness of Good Friday there dawns the sun and hope of Easter Sunday!  Finding an empty tomb, and hints that Jesus was alive again, was the furthermost thing from the mind of Mary as she made her way down that dark path on that Sunday morning.  When Mary was at her lowest, when the darkness that engulfed her was the darkest, then came a dawn of light and a spark of hope.  And sometimes that little spark of hope is all we need to find new strength, new resolve, new determination to go on.  And maybe—just maybe—that is one reason that Easter Sunday—the largest church attendance Sunday of the year—has such wide appeal, even for those who don’t go to church any other Sunday of the year, because of that hint of light and spark of hope.

Few of us will ever find ourselves in Mary’s sandals, walking down a dark pathway to a burial tomb to complete the burial rites of a loved one who has died.  No, I think Easter has come to mean something more for those of us who live in the 21st century.  Easter, I believe, has come to embody or signify the common hope of humanity that following life’s darkness, there is the possibility of light.  In the midst of our despair, there may come a reprieve.  During those times when all seems lost, there is the dawn of hope that a better day will come.

One day I was at home looking out our kitchen window, as I often do.  I have two birdfeeders outside our kitchen window, and I often look out to see what woodpeckers might happen to be visiting.  But one day when I looked out, I spied a patch of leaves at the base of a giant oak tree in our woods where a distinct circle of sunlight, that was able to peek through the trees above, was shining.  It was almost like God was shining a giant flashlight on a small patch of leaves, or holding a cosmic magnifying glass and letting the sun shine radiantly on one small circle, like we used to hold a magnifying glass as kids over a small patch of grass or leaves.  And the thought that came to me was the God of creation was sending the message to stop, take notice, look.

I have sort of been thinking about Easter that way this past week.  As the gospel writers tell the story, Easter is when God shined a giant, cosmic light upon a dark tomb, and upon the world in general, and said, “Stop.  Take notice.  Look!  I am sending you a giant ray of hope for all the tragic forms of darkness that befall humanity.” For all the unexpected and tragic deaths; for all the debilitating diagnoses; for all the emotional relationship disasters; for all the unexpected work terminations and life transitions—Easter is an ever-living bearer of hope of a better day and the promise that the darkness will eventually give way to light and life!

And so today, we gather here to affirm our belief.  The belief that ultimately good will overcome evil.  The belief that beyond the darkness, there is light.  The belief that in the midst of despair, there is still reason to hope.  The belief that life and love are stronger than death!

Yes, Good Fridays—days of unexpected, uninvited, extreme darkness—will come to all of us, sooner or later.  There is no way around it.  But the everlasting message of Easter is that dark Friday will pass.  And then comes Sunday!  Amen.

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The Many Faces of Jesus

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 29, 2015

John 18:28-38a GNT

When the gospel writer John included in his passion story the scene of Pilate questioning Jesus, he was being much more universally prophetic than he could have ever imagined.  According to John’s account, Pilate posed two very pointed, all-important questions to Jesus: “Are you a king?” and “What is truth?”  Incidentally, all four gospels include Pilate’s first question, “Are you a king?” (or, “Are you the king of the Jews?”).  But John alone includes the second question, “What is truth?”  Ever since that fateful day, much ink has been spilled, an untold number of books have been written, and many debates have ensued as men and women have tried to answer these two questions—and more—about Jesus.  More books probably have been written about Jesus than any other person who has ever lived.  Was—is—Jesus the king of the Jews?  If not, who was he?  And just what is truth when it comes to Jesus, who he was, and his place in world?

As we ponder Pilate’s questions regarding Jesus on this Palm-Passion Sunday, we do well to remind ourselves that those faithful pilgrims who gathered on the Mount of Olives on that first Palm Sunday must have had a variety of preconceptions as to who Jesus was, depending upon each one’s frame of reference.  Messiah.  Deliverer.  Prophet.  A new King from the line of David.  Bringer of peace.  Zealot.  Insurrectionist.  All of these ideas and more must have been swirling in the minds of those gathered in Jerusalem that day as Jesus made his way down the Mount of Olives on a donkey and into Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish  religious power and authority.

But the question regarding the true Jesus is as relevant today as ever.  On Interstate 40, coming from Crossville toward Oak Ridge, at mile marker 315, there is a giant billboard that reads, “Who is Jesus?”  And below the question a phone number is given that one can call to learn “The Truth.”

As we consider the person of Jesus at the start of this Holy Week, we find that the Jesus that has come down to us through history is a Jesus of many different faces.  That is to say, there is no one, universally-accepted, golden standard of Jesus that is honored in churches across the world.  No, the perceptions that people have of Jesus are many and varied.

Within the pages of the New Testament alone we find several different portrayals of Jesus, including, but not limited to, the long-awaited Messiah who would deliver Israel from their enemies and release them from the hold of the mighty Roman Empire; to an itinerant rabbi who taught in parables and shed new light on what it means to be a child of God; to a compassionate faith healer who went about doing good; to the One chosen by God to oppose and conquer the forces of evil;  to the advocate for justice for the marginalized and oppressed; to the Lamb of God who would become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  These are just some of the faces of Jesus that we see in our New Testament; there are more.

But there are other faces of Jesus that prevailed in the early decades of Christianity that didn’t even survive, as Bart Erhman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, elaborates upon in the course titled Lost Christianities that the adult Sunday school class is viewing on Sunday mornings.1  Early Christianity was very diverse, much more diverse than most Christians today probably would like to admit.  It was only when Constantine in the early fourth century felt the need to unify the Christian religion that many forms of early Christianity (and many conceptions of Jesus as well) were weeded out and declared heretical.

Some 100 years ago, the great humanitarian, African doctor, biblical scholar, and writer Albert Schweitzer sought in his monumental work published in 1906 (translated into English in 1910), The Quest of the Historical Jesus, to go back in time and recover the true Jesus stripped of all the layers of interpretation that his followers had placed upon him over the centuries.  Basically, Schweitzer concluded that modern man really cannot understand the real Jesus, since we are so far removed from the time in which Jesus lived.  But basically, Schweitzer concluded that Jesus epitomized “late Jewish eschatology,” believing that the end of time was imminent, and that his preaching and ministry would help bring about the end of history.

I find it interesting that when we read the prominent biblical scholars and theologians of our own day that each of them, in his or her personal interpretation of Jesus, presents a different picture than the others.  For instance, since I mentioned Bart Erhman, it is interesting that his picture of Jesus is similar to that of Schweitzer’s.  Erhman believes Jesus was what he calls an apocalyptacist, one who believed and preached that the end of the world was near and called his hearers to make changes in their lives and help usher in the Kingdom of God.  Such a view can be supported from the gospels of Mark and Matthew, for example.

John Shelby Spong presents a picture of Jesus as one in whom “people met God.  ‘God was in Christ,’ they said—and we say with them—because life, love and being flowed through the fullness of his humanity” (Jesus for the Non-Religious, 289).2  Echoing somewhat the thought of 19th century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Spong believes that Jesus was one who understood what it really means to be fully human, to fully love, fully serve, fully give of self.  By so doing, Jesus revealed God and the will of God for the world.

Marcus Borg’s picture of Jesus seems to be multi-faceted.  In his watershed book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg describes Jesus as filling a number of roles.  Borg’s four faces of Jesus include the following:

  • “a spirit person, one of those figures in human history with an experiential awareness of the reality of God.”
  • “a teacher of wisdom who regularly used the classic forms of wisdom speech (parables, and memorable short sayings known as aphorisms) to teach a subversive and alternative wisdom.”
  • “a social prophet similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel.”
  • “a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church” (Meeting Jesus Again, 30).3

Well, I have great respect for all these biblical scholars I have mentioned, but I don’t always agree with each one’s particular perception of Jesus in every detail.  As we have seen, they don’t always agree with one another either.  But that is okay.  I have my own perception of Jesus—a compassionate, itinerant teacher of spiritual wisdom whose primary message was compassion, and in compassion reached out to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized of his day who opposed and stood up to the powers of oppression—and when I think of being a follower of Jesus, that Jesus is the One I seek to follow.

But the pertinent question is, When you think about the face of Jesus, who do you see?  Or to put it another way, Who is Jesus to you?  I am guessing that if we were to pose the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” to every member of this United Church, and really press for an answer, we would get a variety of responses.  And who is to say that one perception of Jesus is better or more correct than another?

Perhaps the fact that the persona of Jesus is so complex, and different facets of Jesus appeal to so many diverse circumstances, helps account for his wide appeal and influence down through the ages.  Jesus continues to speak to new generations as the interests and concerns of the times continue to change.  And in the final analysis, maybe we don’t need to pigeonhole Jesus, one particular face of Jesus, but rather, just let Jesus be the many-faceted person that he is.  Amen.

 

1Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (DVD series).  The Teaching Company, 2002.

2John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious.  New York: Harper One, 2007, p. 289.

3Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, p. 30.

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Christian Celebrations and Nature Connections

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 22, 2015

Luke 22:7-23 GNT

Is there any connection between Christian holidays and the natural order of the world?  Between the cycles of Nature and the Christian liturgical year?  Such is the question I have been mulling lately and felt moved to pose this morning.  Now, more than any other time of the year, just seems like a good time to think about it.

We are now in the fifth week of the season of Lent, that period of soul-searching, spiritual discipline, study, and for some fasting, that looks forward to the great Christian celebration of Easter.  Have you ever thought about where the name “Lent” comes from?  From way back, I had in mind that the word “Lent” is a shortened derivative of the Old English word “lencten,” a word associated with the spring time of the year when the days begin to lengthen.  So I checked the big Webster’s Dictionary in the church library, which confirmed what I remembered.  The word “Lent” is a derivative of the Old English word “lencten,” and the Middle English word “lente,” meaning spring.  So, right off the bat, the Christian season of Lent is named after the natural season of the year—spring—when the days begin to lengthen and grow warmer.

And then there is passion or Holy Week.  The passage chosen from Luke is just one sampling from the gospels that recount the story of Jesus’ last Passover Supper with his disciples before his betrayal, trial, and death on the cross.  So our Christian Maundy Thursday and Good Friday observances have as their basis and origin the Jewish festival of Passover.  But how was—and is—the time of the Jewish festival of Passover determined from year to year?  Well, we find that Jewish holy days are based on a lunar calendar which begins in the fall of the year.  So Jewish Passover is held at the full moon, on the 15th day of the Jewish month Nisan (the seventh month of the Jewish year).  From the beginning, the crucifixion of Jesus has been associated with the Jewish Passover, and often Passover and Good Friday coincide or fall very close together, but not always.  And if they do so, it is only because of the way astronomical occurrences line up.

We read in the Old Testament that the ancient Hebrews had any number of festivals that were held during particular times of the lunar year. There are several references in the Old Testament, especially, to the “new moon” and special observances that were held on “new moon” days.  Evidently, the idea carried over to some of the early Christians, as the writer of the New Testament book of Colossians felt moved to say, “Don’t let anyone judge you about eating or drinking or about a festival, a new moon observance, or Sabbaths” (Colossians 2:16 CEB).

Which brings us to Easter.  As hinted earlier, sometimes Easter falls near the end of the Jewish Passover, but not always.  Why is that so?  In the early centuries of the Church, there was a desire to always celebrate Easter on a Sunday (the day of the week tradition says Jesus arose from the dead), whereas the beginning of Passover can fall on any day of the week, depending upon the phases of the moon.  So at the Council of Nicea of 325 CE, it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon that comes on or after the vernal equinox.  Hence, the Christian celebration of Easter is both a solar-based (spring equinox) and lunar-based (first full moon) holy day.

The decision as to when to celebrate Christmas is a slightly different story.  Of course, no one really knows when Jesus was born, but it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in December, and many think Jesus’ birth was really in the spring of the year.  After all, there was no birth certificate.  The mention in Luke’s Christmas story of shepherds watching their flocks in the fields, many think, suggests the spring lambing season.  So why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25?  There are a number of possibilities, some more confusing to me than enlightening.

One explanation for celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 has to do with an earlier form of a Roman (lunar) calendar.  In the ancient Roman lunar calendar, December 25 would have been March 25.

But the most popular explanation for the decision to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 is it was set to coincide with pagan observances that were already being celebrated—the late December Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Roman feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on December 25, and so on.  One idea was that if the formerly pagan peoples were already celebrating these pagan holidays around the time of the winter solstice, they could replace the pagan deities with Christ, and eventually the day would transition from a pagan to a Christian holiday.  Or to put it another way, there would be a transition from celebrating the birth of the sun (s-u-n) at the time of the winter solstice to the celebration of the birth of the son (s-o-n) of God, who was seen as “the Light of the world.”

So, it appears that the days chosen to celebrate the two most important Christian holy days—Easter and Christmas—do have connections to the natural orders of the universe, the winter and spring solstices and phases of the moon, possibly a much greater connection than any of us might have ever imagined.

Should this be a problem for Christians that the holiest of Christian holidays were and are determined by the position of the sun and phases of the moon?  For those who have an extreme aversion to anything smacking of “pagan,” it may very well be a problem.   But before we get all up in arms, let us not forget that many of our Christmas and Easter customs were originally pagan in origin that were adopted and “baptized” by Christians and given new meanings.  The Easter egg was an ancient pagan symbol celebrating new life and spring.   The egg as a symbol was adopted and given new meaning.  Just as chicks break forth from the egg shell to new life, Jesus broke forth from the tomb to new life.  Bunnies have their origin in the old pagan festival of Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility from whom the word “Easter” came, whose symbol was the rabbit or hare.

And when it comes to Christmas customs, Christmas evergreens, mistletoe, and the Yule log were customs celebrated by the pagans of old.  Such were adopted by Christians along the way and given new meanings and symbolisms.

The adoption of pagan practices and symbols is nothing new.  Many of the practices of the ancient Hebrews (such as slaughtering of rams to atone for sin or seek the favor of the gods) were adopted from the Canaanite tribes and, as my Old Testament professor Virgil Todd always said, were baptized or immersed into the Jewish faith.  It has always been that way, as Judaism and Christianity have assimilated cultural practices and customs and “made them holy” by giving them new contextual meanings.

But whether one is adverse to or comfortable with such assimilation depends in large measure upon how we look at things.  To locate Christian holy days according to the position of the sun or the phases of the moon can also be a way of saying that maybe there is something Sacred—something Holy, something of God—in the natural order of the world and the changing of the seasons.  If you look at it from that perspective, then Christmas and Easter can in a manner of speaking be seen as being doubly-holy, in that they speak of the birth and death of Jesus—God’s revelation to the world—but also because their celebration is tied to the solstices of the sun and the phases of the moon created and blessed by the God of Genesis in the beginning.

So, I personally have no problem at all with the celebration of Jesus’ passion, Easter, and Christmas being tied to the movement of the Earth in relation to the sun and the phases of the moon, or the fact that some Easter and Christmas customs were adopted from pagan or Earth-based religions and blessed and given new meaning.  From my perspective, it all is holy.  For doesn’t the opening page of the Bible say that after creation God looked at the Earth and its vegetation and the sun and the moon, and “God saw that it was [all very] good”?  Amen.

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When Just Men Die

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 15, 2015

Matthew 27:15-27 KJV

Perhaps you heard the news, and were surprised as was much of the literary world was, that a decades old manuscript written and hidden away by Harper Lee was discovered in February among her personal papers.  The novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, is actually a prequel to Lee’s world famous To Kill a Mockingbird.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been hailed as “one of the best American novels,” and “one of the most beloved books of the 20th century.”  But Mockingbird, released in 1960, is the only book that has ever been published by Lee, who is now 88 years old and in an assisted living facility.  Supposedly, Go Set a Watchman, which is set to be released in July of this year, was written before To Kill a Mockingbird was.  Many people have already placed pre-publication orders for Go Set a Watchman.

As an aside, a fact that I learned only recently is Harper Lee and Truman Capote, the author of another best-seller, In Cold Blood, were neighbors and best friends in Monroeville, Alabama, and Lee accompanied Capote on his trips to Kansas for research and gathering material for the book that drastically changed his life, and not in a positive way.  In fact, some have contended that Lee should have been listed as a co-author of In Cold Blood, so involved she was in the process.

Harper Lee stated in an interview in 1964 that she had “never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird.”  Yet, the book spent 80 weeks on the best-seller list, has sold 30,000,000 copies, and has been translated into more than 40 languages.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1961.  And most of us are familiar with the movie of that name starring Gregory Peck.

The point that is most pertinent today is that To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of small-time attorney Atticus Finch who is court appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a 19-year-old white woman.  As the story goes, Tom had been a long-time friend and handyman to his accuser, helping her whenever she needed things done around the house or yard.  According to the story, it was the white woman who invited Tom inside her house when everyone else was away, and she came on to him.  But it just so happened that her abusive father showed up and saw what happened through the window, then beat her up for her actions.  Both of them then placed blame for her bruises on Tom Robinson, adding to their story that he had also raped her.

Such was an all too-common occurrence in the pre-Civil Rights South—good men falsely accused because of the color of their skin.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, the main character, Atticus Finch, bemoans “the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. . .” (p. 232).1  “In our courts,” Atticus continued, “when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins” (pp. 251-252).  Too many times the Black Man in our country has been the scapegoat.  Too many Black Men have been falsely identified, falsely accused, falsely condemned, and wrongly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  And Mockingbird notes that during the time period when the novel is set (1935), rape was a capital offense in Alabama.  And the state could ask the jury for the death penalty, even on the basis of circumstantial evidence (pp. 250-251).

But we know that false accusations and false convictions cross all racial lines.  Many have been those who have been falsely accused, condemned, convicted, imprisoned, and sent to death row.   It has been proved that a significant percentage of prisoners condemned to death row were and are innocent of the crime they were accused of.  Every so often we hear in the news of another prisoner being released from death row following years of incarceration after it was proved by DNA, the real perpetrator coming forward, or other evidence that they were innocent.  Over the centuries, how many innocent men—and women—sentenced to death row were actually murdered by the State?  One can only imagine—and shudder in horror—to think of the innocent men who have been hanged, shot, electrocuted, or put to death by lethal injection.  Many states still practice barbaric forms of the death penalty, in spite of the high percentage of false convictions and problems associated with all forms of capital punishment.  An article just this week in the Wall Street Journal educated me on the fact that two U.S. states—Alabama and Florida—will still impose the death penalty even when the 12-member jury is divided, not in total agreement.2

But here is the point: It is a sad fact—an undisputed fact—that too often just men are falsely accused and die unjustly because of it.  Which brings us to Jesus and the passage selected from Matthew.  Now, I concede that it is not possible to actually know exactly what was said the day Jesus was tried and found guilty of death.  As Bishop Spong often points out, there was no secretary or scribe there that day taking notes.  But for argument’s sake, let’s go with the story as Matthew tells it.  According to Matthew’s version, both Pilate and his wife realized that Jesus was a just man unjustly accused and brought before him as a candidate for the death penalty.  I chose the King James Version of the Bible as the text for this sermon because of the way it renders the verses in question.  According to the story, when Jesus was brought before Pilate, Pilate’s wife sent a message to him saying, “Have nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19 KJV).  Then later, Pilate himself, after washing his hands in front of the crowd as an attempt to discharge himself of the responsibility for the whole affair, is quoted as saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (27:24).  More modern translations render it “righteous man” (ESV, CEB) or “innocent man” (NRSV, GNT NLT).

Now granted, in the eyes of the mighty Roman Empire, according to their laws the sentence of death for Jesus—who was deemed to be an insurrectionist—was justified.  In fact, likely it was Jesus’ opposition to the unholy alliance between the Roman Empire and the religious establishment of his day that got him crucified.  In that regard, Jesus was no different from dozens or hundreds of insurrectionists of his day.  The Romans were known for crucifying thousands deemed as troublemakers.

But then after his death, Jesus’ followers, who sought to make sense of it all from a Jewish religious perspective, came up with a number of reasons as to why he ended up dying.  At first, they were devastated, bemoaning the fact that upon Jesus they had pinned all their hopes for the deliverance of Israel, even speaking of his death as murder (Luke 24:19-21; Acts 7:52).   Then there were those who proposed that it was in God’s plan all along that Jesus die for the sins of the world (Romans 5:7-8).  And then the theology developed that Jesus himself felt and knew this was his mission from the beginning (Mark 9:31).  In recent years, the thought among progressive and liberal Christian scholars is that it was never within the plan of God for Jesus to die as he did, but rather, Jesus died because he stood for justice and truth and in opposition to an unjust, oppressive, evil system.  And so, the powers that be killed him.  But, the thinking also goes, God took the awful tragedy of Jesus’ death and turned it into something good.

Regardless of how one might believe about the why or how of Jesus’ condemnation and death, I think all of us would quickly agree that Jesus didn’t deserve the horrible death he experienced.  No one does.  The things recorded by the gospels that Jesus said about the powers that be of his day were true.  No one should be killed for speaking the truth.  No, in the realm of truth, Jesus WAS a just, righteous, innocent man who died an unjust, unrighteous, blood-guilty death.

The sad truth is, a lot of just men and women—like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird—die and little or no good at all comes from their deaths.  The world suffers a great loss and there is not an iota of benefit that results from it.

But then at other times, just men who have given their lives for a good cause—and we could cite many, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and most notably Jesus—die and by the power of God’s grace something tragic is transformed into something wonderful.

We would to God that we might strive to live our lives in such a good and just way that were we to unjustly die, how we have lived and what we have done might, likewise, be turned into something good for the world.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Cited: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.  New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

2Jess Bravin, “Court Will Review Florida’s Capital-Punishment System,” Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, March 10, 2015.

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Facing our Fear of Failure

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 8, 2015

Psalm 27:1-5, 14; 1 John 4:18 ESV

What are you most afraid of?  The truth is, as humans we are subject to all kinds of fears.  When our fears become excessive or irrational, they are called phobias.

  • some people suffer from hydrophobia, the fear of water
  • others are prone to claustrophobia, the fear of tight or close places
  • some have autophobia, the fear of being alone
  • while others have botanophobia, the fear of plants
  • some have papaphobia, intense fear of the Pope
  • others suffer gamophobia, fear of marriage
  • there is even euphobia, the fear of good news

Hundreds of fears or phobias have been identified, and if you go online to phobialist.com, you, no doubt, may find a phobia or two you didn’t even know you had.  Some years ago, Kevin Wood, a minister friend of mine, coined some phobias of his own.  Kevin has identified:

  • steeplephobia, the fear of going to church
  • volunteerophobia, the fear of being asked to volunteer or do something in the church
  • then there is pulpitphobia, the fear of standing behind a pulpit or preaching.

I am inclined to believe that all of us have fears of one kind or another.  Fear has been with the human race from the beginning.  As the ancient story in Genesis goes, no sooner had Adam eaten the forbidden fruit than we see him hiding and hear him saying to God: “I was afraid . . . and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10).  It is impossible, I suppose, to live in our modern world without some degree of fear.  Perhaps we have a fear of cancer or some other life-threatening illness.  Perhaps we fear nuclear war and the destruction of life as we know it.  As we grow older, we may fear death or running out of money in retirement.  Interestingly enough, the famous monk and Christian thinker, Thomas Merton, said that “the root of all war is fear.”

A bit of healthy fear can be good for us.  Over the years, after having made thousands of home visits, I have learned to have a healthy fear of big, vicious, snarling, teeth-showing dogs.  It is good to have a healthy fear of deep, swift-moving water.  But fear is not good for us when it becomes a crippling obsession.  Our lives are not meant to be controlled by unwarranted or irrational fears.  While working on this sermon, I happened to read an article by writer Meg Barnhouse in this issue of UU World about how she faced her fear of tarantulas when she found one under the tent while camping.1

What I want to do this morning is look at one fear or phobia in particular, but then also consider possible help for other fears in general.  The fear that I would like to focus on is the fear of failure. We live in a performance-driven, success-oriented society.  If you perform according to a set standard, then you are judged a success.  If you don’t perform to a certain standard, you are judged a failure.  Nobody wants to be a failure.  It’s just not the American way.  As General George Patton put it in that famous quote: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”  That is a very strong statement!

But the truth is, not one of us is free from failure in one form or another.  As preacher Fritz Kunkel put it, “Failure and defeat are part of human life as well as success and victory.”2

I am afraid (there’s a form of that word fear again) that many have allowed this success-failure dichotomy to influence thinking about God or the life of faith.  Perhaps Adam and Eve’s descendents did inherit the fear of standing before God.  If we are not careful, we might catch ourselves thinking:

God loves a winner, but God despises a loser.

God supports the successful, but God abandons the failure.

God loves the saint, but God loathes the sinner.

We may fear that we will fail God, and subsequently, we may also fear abandonment by God in our greatest hour of need.  Some who fail may fear that God will execute his wrath and judgment.  Martin Luther, the great 16th century Protestant reformer, often wrote, prior to his discovery of God’s marvelous grace, of his great fear that God would find him out as the worst of sinners and bring down his wrath upon him.

For many, this fear of failure manifests itself in the excessive drive (what we might term their “overdrive”) to be successful in their business or profession, leading them to work long, ungodly hours so their boss or company won’t be disappointed, or their dedication will be noticed, or their position will be secure.  The fear of failure can affect so many aspects of our lives.

The Apostle John talks about fear; fear of failure, I think.  John, in the one verse that I read, talks about fear of judgment.  He talks about fear of punishment.  John talks about this relationship between humans and God.  In this relationship, there is no place for fear.  There should be with God, or the Divine, a relationship of harmony and love.  In this harmonious relationship, there should be no fear.  “Perfect love casts out fear,” John says.  To live in perfect harmony and love with God is to live victoriously over the fear of failure and punishment.  It is God who is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31).  If God is for us, then why should we fear God, and why should we go around all the time afraid that we will err or fail and then be cast off?  As we mature in our thinking, and as our love is perfected, we learn that we no longer need to fear God.  So what if we do make a mistake?  As rock singer Billy Joel put it in a song a few years ago: “you’re only human; you’re gonna make some mistakes.”  God will not strike us for it.

And remember that the great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” that goes:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

(but also) And grace my fears relieved.

The psalmist also spoke about fear.  In psalm 27 that I read from, he speaks of evildoers, enemies, war, trouble, punishment, abandonment by parents, and violence.   Yet, in spite of all those things, he said, he would not fear:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;

Whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

Over and over we read these words in the Bible: “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid.”

Much of our fear of failure, and our fear of living in general, may result from the fact that we try to face the heavy strains of life with inadequate or misinformed spiritual ideas and do not rest in the promise of grace or draw strength from the community of faith that might support us.

During an assignment in India during World War I, a young British officer (who would become a famous preacher and theologian) by the name of Leslie Weatherhead had opportunity to watch some of the great rug-weavers of India.  As he walked among the weavers, he turned to his guide and asked, “What happens if the weaver makes a mistake?”  The guide answered, “If he is a great enough artist, he will weave the mistake into the pattern of the rug.”  So it is in life and faith.  We have the assurance that our blunders, mistakes, and failures can be woven into a beautiful and useful life.  As an ancient Chinese philosopher (Laotzu) saw it, “failure is an opportunity” (Tao 79).

When thinking about what we perceive to be failure in our lives, we need to remember five simple things:

1) It is okay sometimes to fail; failure is a part of life, and it is through failure that we learn and grow.

2) No failure is final until we give up and quit.  The naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “A man can get discouraged many times but he is not a failure until he begins to blame somebody else and stops trying.”

3) Success may be much closer than we realize.

4) Some failure in life may be necessary to sensitize us to our true lives, the true self.

5) Sometimes what we perceive to be failure is not really failure at all.  I have shared previously how the poet Walt Whitman wrote of his great literary classic, Leaves of Grass, “from a worldly and business point of view Leaves of Grass has been worse than a failure” (683).  Yet, untold thousands of copies of Leaves of Grass have been sold.

Psalm 27 invites us to trust more, to have more faith, and in the process let go of some of our fear.  And the New Testament writer known as John was convinced that perfect or mature love casts out fear.  We are loved and have intrinsic value and worth, come what may, even if we do sometimes fail and are not perfect.  We can have assurance, we can have confidence, we can have freedom—freedom even from the fear of failure.  Amen.

 

1Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Tarantula,” UU World, Spring 2015.

2Fritz Kunkel, Ministers Manual 1985.  New York: Harper&Row, 1984, p 12.

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Good Guilt?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 1, 2015

Psalm 32:1-7 CEB

Consider these scenarios with me.  A friend or neighbor’s spouse passes away, and you intend to send a nice sympathy card.  But your life is hectic, so you never do get around to sending that card.  Then a few weeks later, you run into your friend or neighbor at the grocery store, and when you do, you remember that you never got around to sending that sympathy card.  You feel guilty about it.

You snap at your child or grandchild for moving stuff around on the dining room table and misplacing an important file or computer flash drive.  Even though your child swears he or she didn’t touch it, you send them to their room anyway.  Later that day you find the “misplaced” file or flash drive in your work bag, where you had placed it and forgotten about it.  Now you feel guilty for yelling at your child.

You stop at a traffic light at an interstate on ramp.  A homeless man walks up to the car trying to sell you one of those newspapers that gives homeless people a small source of income and that is intended to help them get back on their feet.  For a second you consider rolling down your car window and giving him a dollar, but then you decide not to and press the gas pedal hard as soon as the light changes.  Later you feel guilty for not doing your part to help the man.

Guilt.  As progressive or liberal Christians, we don’t talk a whole lot about guilt.  But whether we want to admit it or not, most of us experience a fair amount of guilt on a regular basis.  As stated by Swiss physician and writer, Dr. Paul Tournier , “The question of guilt arises in every man, and it demands an answer” (Tournier, 211).1  Drawing on Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, Tournier says, “All . . . are exiled, impoverished and all feel guilty; all yearn for the wealth of the home they have abandoned, and for forgiveness” (Tournier, 212).  And an article on guilt in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, notes that “By fifth grade, children have pretty well-defined tendencies to feel guilt and shame. . .”2

Today’s scripture reading gives us a peek into the mind of the psalmist for whom guilt was a powerful force in his life and faith.  For the psalmist, guilt was like a heavy hand weighing upon him.  It was like a great flood that threatened to overwhelm him.  Guilt for the psalmist was like an unwelcome force within his body that sapped the energy right out of him.  And so the psalmist could proclaim, Happy is “the one the Lord doesn’t consider guilty. . .” (32:2 CEB).

The subject of guilt gives rise to any number of questions: Is guilt always justified?  Is guilt ever justified?  Can there be “true guilt” and “false guilt”?  Can guilt actually be beneficial to us?

Now, at the onset, we need to acknowledge that guilt often is used—and misused—as a form of power and control.  It is used by some people to get others to do what they want them to do, as in the case of abusive situations.  There are many churches that use guilt as a motivator, in order to boost attendance and offerings.  In such churches, if you miss Sunday morning services, or don’t attend Sunday evening services, or Wednesday evening prayer meeting, or don’t give a full 10% or more of your income, you are made to feel guilty.

I can tell you a funny story in this regard.  Many years ago, when Mary Lou and I were very young, we got up one Sunday morning to find that a 4-5 inch snow had fallen overnight.  We were every-Sunday church attendees and never missed, but we decided we would not try to go to church services that morning.  Rather, we would listen to a service on the television or radio (I don’t remember which).  Well, it turned out that the television or radio preacher we listened to poured on the guilt for staying home and missing church because of a little bit of  snow.  So, letting the guilt get the best of us, we decided we needed to get ready and go to church, even if we were late.  It just so happened that the house we were living in was on a hill.  As I drove down the gravel driveway in our Ford Maverick, the car slid off into the ditch, and there we were—stuck.  Luckily there was no damage to our car.  But we did learn a good lesson: You shouldn’t let others impose unfounded guilt upon you.

Which brings me back to the book by Paul Tournier that I discovered while in seminary titled Guilt and Grace.   Tournier distinguishes between what he calls “true guilt” and “false guilt.”  What I find most important is what Tournier has to say about “False guilt . . . that which comes as a result of the judgments and suggestions of men” (Tournier, 67).  It was Tournier’s definition of “false guilt”—that most impressed me at a time when I needed it most.

In that Wall Street Journal article, it is noted that “Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has identified five types of guilt . . . four types of guilt are unproductive, she says.  These include guilt about something you didn’t do but wanted to . . . guilt about something you only think you did [but didn’t really] . . . guilt about not doing enough to help someone else . . . and guilt about being better off than someone else.”2

But could it be that guilt can sometimes actually be our friend, good for us?  Tournier thought so.  “Guilt becomes ‘a friend because it leads to the experience of grace,’” Tournier said.   During those times in our lives when we, like the Prodigal, feel overwhelmed with guilt and feel that we may have sunk to our lowest, we—also like the Prodigal—are in the best position to feel like we are the recipients of the greatest experience of grace.  And Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal article, agrees.  She says, “A little guilt can be good for you.  If you’ve engaged in bad behavior, you’ll probably benefit from feeling guilty about it,” Bernstein says.2

Guilt also is beneficial as a form of societal control.  We have to admit that a lot of crimes never take place because of the force of guilt that acts like a psychological monitor of sorts—at least in most people.  “A study of criminals, published in the journal of Psychological Science in March 2014, found those who felt guilty were less likely to break the law again than those who felt no guilt.”2

Closely related, guilt can be beneficial as a sort of moral compass that helps keep one on track—in most people, at least.

Finally, guilt can be helpful in prompting us to restore broken relationships.  Bernstein contends, “Guilt is a useful emotion.  It pushes people to repair the harm they did.”Returning to a scenario I used in the beginning, when we yelled at our child or grandchild for moving things around and losing an important file or flash drive and sent them to their room, once we realized that the lost file was our own doing, we felt guilty.  Our sense of guilt for falsely accusing our child or grandchild leads us to ask forgiveness and make things right, which results in the relationship being restored.  That may be a simplistic example, but you get the idea.

As noted earlier, most of us suffer guilt on a fairly regular basis.  Sometimes guilt can be a positive motivator in our lives.  But often the guilt we experience may be unfounded or self-imposed, without any real basis.  Bernstein asks, “How can you tell if the guilt you are feeling is good or bad?  First,” she advises, “ask whether what you feel is rational.”2

The short of it is, sometimes the guilt we experience is justified.  In those cases, we do well to address our guilt by seeking to correct the wrong we have done or restore the relationship that has been broken.  But often the guilt we feel is unfounded, self-imposed, false guilt.  At such times, may we have the grace to just let it go.  Amen.

 

1Paul Tournier, Guilt and Grace.  New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

2Elizabeth Bernstein, “A Guilty Feeling Can Be Good, as Long as It Isn’t Misplaced,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2014

 

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