Autumn Blessings, Autumn Wonders

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 27, 2015

Joel 2:18-19, 21-26 GNT

“He has given you the right amount of autumn rain.” Joel 2:23 GNT

The arrival of autumn means it soon will be leaf-raking time again, something that I look upon as a mixed blessing.  You see, as with many Oak Ridgers, our house is surrounded by several large trees—tulip poplars, hickory nut, oak, and the like.  So when the leaves start falling, they really start falling.  As our daughter and son-in-law—who toured our house for us before we bought it, while we were still living in New York—said,  “The one thing that stuck out about the house and lot was the great amount of leaf maintenance that will be required.”  Many of you know what I am talking about.

However, in spite of the leaf maintenance, autumn has become my favorite season of the year.  And I actually enjoy raking leaves for a few hours, at least, especially during the last week of October.  The swoosh of dry leaves being corralled by the rake, or being parted and crunched by walking feet.  The array of colors—yellow, brown, red, and gold—dappled across the lawn.  The fallen leaves’ herald of Halloween soon to come (my second favorite childhood holiday), and memories of trick or treating with brother through the neighborhood.  But then, more importantly for today’s purposes, there are the spiritual lessons I find in autumn and the leaf-raking process as well.

For instance, leaf-raking speaks to me of the need to tidy up and bring a sense of order to things.  What is leaf-raking if not a tidying up of your lawn?  We carefully blow or push leaves into a center pile or upon a tarp, being careful to rake in and around the corners of the house.  We rake and push, rake and push, until the lawn is all tidied up and in good order.

Such can be a subtle reminder that periodically we need to tidy up our lives as well, in a spiritual or maybe a relational sense of the term, or both.  To give you an example from our own lives, this past summer—just before we flew out to Utah—Mary Lou and I finally did what we should have done years ago: we met with our attorney down in Jackson Square and prepared our wills.  In all fairness, I should tell you that Mary Lou had been trying to get us to do that for years.  And both of us had prepared simple hand-written wills several years ago and tucked them away in our home safe.  But this past summer, both of us felt it was imperative that we do it right and do it now.  So we did.  That was one loose end of our lives that needed tidying up.

But tidying up our lives can take so many different forms.  It might mean restoring relationships with loved ones or friends we have become estranged from, either by asking for or by granting forgiveness.  Tidying up our lives might take a religious turn, as we work out feelings about God or the Church or our relationship with the Universe.  Tidying up our lives might have to do with our job or profession and the need to make a change so as to follow our heart or do what we feel we are really called to do in life.  Or a decision related to retirement.

And there is a related thought about leaf-raking and tidying up: I find that leaf-raking provides a wonderful opportunity to think and meditate upon some of those important issues of life.

Second, falling leaves and trees going dormant speak of the universal need for a time of rest.  Some of us push, push, push all the time, seven days a week, at least 50 weeks of the year.  There are always more jobs that need to be done, projects that need to be completed, meetings that need to be attended, places we need to go, calls that need to be made, and the list goes on.  There never is time to rest and just be, it seems.  We feel that our worth is determined by what we do, rather than by who we are.

The coming of autumn serves as a gentle reminder that even as some parts of Nature need to undergo a time of rest, so we, too, need periods of rest so as to be restored and readied for new periods of service.  Consequently, we were given the Sabbath as one day in seven to rest and be restored.  We need times of holiday and vacation apart from the everyday demands of life where we can be rejuvenated and recharged.  Such is what the national parks do for me.  You likely have your own avenues of finding much-needed rest.  Yes, examples in the natural world where certain plants and animals are heading toward a time of rest is a reminder that our bodies and spirits need periods of rest as well.

Third, dead leaves are a solemn reminder of the cycles of life, and that death is a natural part of earthly existence.  Now, it is true that way too often death comes tragically and prematurely.  An automobile accident; a massive heart attack or stroke at a young age; or some other unexpected tragedy that takes the life of a loved one long before the average life expectancy.

But death does not have to be looked upon as an enemy in every instance.  Sometimes—as in the case of someone who has lived a good, long life but now suffers chronic, unbearable pain from which there is no relief; or one whose quality of life has long since gone—in such a case death might be looked upon as a welcome friend.  Over my years of ministry, I couldn’t tell you how many people have shared with me that they welcomed and longed for death.

I have been following the story of former President Jimmy Carter (the one President I have been fortunate enough to meet and shake hands with, by the way) who learned a few months ago that he is battling cancer of the brain.  I don’t think Carter is welcoming death, but he testified in a news conference that he is at ease and faces his unknown future with confidence.

Naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “If life is good, death must be equally good, as each waits upon the other” (Accepting the Universe).  And Joseph Campbell contended, “One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life” (The Power of Myth).  Falling, dead leaves that will decay and return to the earth, then come to life again in new flora, serve as visual reminders that death (and rebirth) is a natural aspect of life in our universe.

And fourth, that final leaf-raking and cleaning up the lawn (which occurs for me around the last week of November) is an affirmation of a job well-done.  I don’t know about you, but when all the leaves have fallen, and when I have raked up and carried off that last pile, I feel a certain sense of satisfaction in a task completed and a job well-done.  There is an inner joy in knowing I have tackled and completed that job, and I am done with it,  until next year at least.

How wonderful it is when we can view our lives in general with that same type of satisfaction, that we can take pride in a life’s job well-done.  I am reminded of that often-quoted parable of Jesus in which the master says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21 KJV).  The completion of leaf raking in the fall could be an annual reminder for us to take inventory of our lives in general and determine if we are able to take pride in a job well-done the past year.

Well, as shared in the beginning, as I have grown older, I have come to look upon autumn as my favorite season of the year, for many different reasons: the fall colors, frosty mornings, warm days and cool nights, fall festivals, autumn moons, the list is long.  But as you should have also gathered, autumn also holds spiritual meaning for me as well.  The world of Nature has many lessons to teach us in each season of the year, and autumn is no exception.

So may I suggest that we enter this autumn season with eyes wide open to the autumn wonders around us, with deep gratitude for the blessings peculiar to this time of year, and with open minds and open hearts to the deep spiritual lessons autumn has to teach us.  May it be so.  Amen.


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Findings on Social Interaction and Touch

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 20, 2015

Mark 1:40-45 ESV

Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him.” ~Mark 1:41 ESV

We have long said that church attendance and involvement are good for us.  It seems such is true in more ways than one.  We know that church attendance should be spiritually good for us.  And we may have conjectured that church attendance might be psychologically or emotionally good for us.  But have we ever entertained the possibility that church involvement might also be physically good for us?

I owe this morning’s sermon idea to two of our members, Dr. Paul Spray and Mr. Bill Dritt.  Dr. Spray passed on to me an article from the Mayo Clinic titled “Hold my Hand.”  And Bill Dritt mentioned in a conversation a study that their daughter, Paula, had shared on the relation between social interaction and getting sick.  Though totally unrelated, both of these articles were shared with me within a few days of one another, and both point toward a common theme and important truth.  I have learned over the years that when the same idea comes to me at the same time from different sources, maybe I should be careful to listen and then pass along what I hear.

In the Mayo Clinic’s  “Health Letter” article, “Hold my hand: The power of touch,” it is pointed out that “Multiple studies have shown that feeling isolated from others has a number of negative health effects, including accelerated aging, depression, cognitive decline and increased risk of heart disease.”1  On the other hand, the article notes the important role of companionship, especially when facing difficult circumstances.  “Connecting through touch or just being present in a quiet, mindful way can bridge the divide between individual—and unique—sorrows and provide immeasurable comfort,” the articles contends.

The article then goes on to point out the great importance of touch, and how that in infants, touch is more important than verbal interaction.  Other studies have shown how that in orphanages, for example, where babies are kept in cribs and are not touched or cuddled, they fail to thrive and end up having both physical and psychological problems that babies who are regularly touched and cuddled do not have.

The Mayo Clinic article notes how that “Touching between a couple can increase positive feelings about the relationship.”  And “hand-holding . . . with a spouse but even with a stranger” can relieve stress.  “A compassionate touch or presence can help to alleviate pain and discomfort.”  And “An arm around the shoulder of a family member or a friend in need of comfort” is so much more beneficial than an email.  The bottom line is nothing can take the place of the human touch!

Such reminded me of the story about Jesus that served as today’s reading, that is recorded by all three synoptic gospels.  According to the gospel writer Mark, Jesus began his ministry right off the bat exercising the healing touch.  In today’s story, it was a man with a dreaded skin disease who begged Jesus for healing.  In that day, a number of skin diseases were lumped under the umbrella of “leprosy.”  And Jesus did the forbidden, the unthinkable—he reached out and touched an untouchable!  Touching a leper was something you just didn’t do.  Not only might you contract the disease yourself, but the act itself made one ritually or religiously unclean.  But Jesus did it, time and again.  Was there something supernatural or miraculous about Jesus’ touch?  Or was there, way back then even, recognition of the fact that there is a sense of healing in the human touch?  Or perhaps a combination of the two?

A modern-day saint who, more than any other, perhaps, knew the power of the human touch was Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  This Albanian-born nun spent much of her life extending a loving, comforting touch to the poor, leprous outcasts of India.  Mother Teresa said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted . . .”  Now, it is doubtful that any of us will ever be in the situation to touch the poor, leprous outcasts of India or any other country in the way that Mother Teresa did.  But all of us have opportunities to exercise the comforting touch, nonetheless, and we just need to be cognizant of that fact and be careful and intentional to do so.  Our members who will be going on the Mission Trip in a few weeks will have a wonderful opportunity to extend a healing touch to some of the poorest of Nicaragua.   But we don’t have to travel to Central America to extend a healing touch.  Whenever we visit someone in the hospital or nursing home, an appropriate human touch can mean more than we might ever know.  Too often, hospital patients and those in nursing homes feel isolated; and sometimes because of their illness feel themselves to be “untouchable,” even.  Now, in some cases, when the patient has MRSA or C-Diff or some other highly contagious illness, we have to be cautious about the manner and extent of human contact.  But in most cases a handshake if the patient extends their hand, or a light pat on the shoulder or forearm, can convey a powerful feeling of acceptance, concern, love and well-being even.  So reaching out to touch someone appropriately, as Jesus did, can be a powerful gesture and can contribute to better physical health and emotional well-being.

And closely associated with touch is the power of social interactions.  In another article titled “Build Your Immunity!” Dr. Christiane Northrup states, “I’ve always believed that community equals immunity.  Many studies have shown that support from social and spiritual connections boosts immunity (and also provides protection against heart disease, mental illness, and many other health conditions.)”2

The Dritt’s daughter, Paula, was kind enough to call me to discuss a study in which volunteers allowed themselves to be exposed to the Rhino virus that causes the common cold.  These volunteers submitted to having the Rhino virus sprayed up their noses.  Then each of them was followed to see which ones got sick and which ones didn’t.  When the results were tabulated, it was found that those subjects who had at least three positive social interaction outlets—church, book club, bridge club, coffee group, etc.—did not get sick like the other subjects who were more or less alone or socially isolated.  Thus, the ramification was that having social ties and interaction with others is not only psychologically good for people, but physically good, holding physical health benefits as well.  As a pastor, I would have to say that being active in church can lead to a healthier life!

Perhaps one reason those who have multiple social interaction outlets tend to be healthier than those who are loners is they are happier and have a more positive attitude and outlook upon life.  A certain cancer patient connected to this congregation was recently told by doctors that those who are undergoing chemo treatments and who have a positive outlook tend to have better outcomes than those who don’t.  Having a close circle of social ties seems to contribute to such a positive attitude and outlook.

There is yet another story I have been following of late that has bearing upon today’s topic.  Maybe you have been following the story of the bones, the “remains of a previously unknown humanlike species [named ‘Homo naledi’],” discovered recently in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa.3  The bones are thought to represent “an early offshoot of humankind . . . raising questions about the origins of ritual burial and self-awareness.”  Such has been touted as extraordinary, spectacular, “likely the largest single discovery of early human remains in Africa.”  If estimations are correct, “the Homo naledi species is likely 2.5 million to 2.8 million years old.”4   One of the members of an international team that flew to South Africa in summer 2014 was Zach Throckmorton, professor at LMU.  “As the team studied the fossils, they determined that the individuals were deliberately placed in the chamber [about 100 yards from the cave entrance]—but not all put at the same time.”  The passageway to the bones is so small, they advertised for small scientists the world over who would be small enough to crawl through the tight spaces.  Ultimately, six small women were chosen for the task.  But the fact that the bones had to be carried so far through the narrow passage “means Homo naledi had the mental and behavioral capacity to do this repeatedly.”

But the point that really struck me, and that is pertinent for today’s sermon, is it “shows compassion is ancient. . .  Humans have been cooperating and caring for each other longer than we’ve been humans” Throckmorton said.4   Now, if all these findings prove to be true, it illustrates that the existence of human compassion, concern and care date back millions of years.  Could it be that compassion, care, and community concern is in our DNA?

  The bottom line is all of need appropriate human touch—holding hands, a warm hug, a pat on the shoulder or forearm; and all of us need social interaction and community support such as regular church attendance and involvement provides.  Our lives can be so much richer and healthier through appropriate touch and social interactions.  But we also have within us the power to change the lives of others for the better through appropriate touch and the concern and support we render in religious community.  May it be so for all of us.  Amen.

1, August 2015.   2Dr. Christiane Northrup, “Build Your Immunity!”  3Robert Lee Hotz, “Bones of Humanlike Species Discovered,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2015.  4MJ Slaby, “Historic find has ET tie,” Knoxville Neews Sentinel, September 11, 2015.

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An Open Door

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 13, 2015

Matthew 7:7-11; Revelation 3:7-8 CEB

“I have set in front of you an open door that no one can shut.” ~Revelation 3:8 CEB

Perhaps you remember that black & white television game show, Let’s Make a Deal, that gave away prizes, but the prizes were behind three closed doors.  So the contestants could not see what they were getting.  They had to choose between Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number Three.  And then they were stuck with whatever prize—or lack of prize—was behind that closed door.  Well, how much better in life when we have open doors so that we can actually see what lies there, and can make an educated decision, as it were.  But often in life the doors we are faced with are not open doors.  At various times we are faced with closed doors, not really knowing how things will go if we decide to enter through them.

Take, for instance, that new job or position.  When it comes to changing jobs, there are times in life when we may be faced with more than one possibility—two different places of employment present themselves at about the same time.  Both Mary Lou and I have been there once upon a time, and you may have been there too.  And you had to choose which door, or job, you wanted to pursue.  Most often we may think we are peering into a wide open door when we accept a new position, but often we only see the most visible, surface, aspects of that position.  Often there is the hidden fine print, or office politics, or difficult personalities, or problems with the company that you don’t see until you have chosen and walked through that door and committed yourself to it.

Several years ago, I was contacted by two different churches in the same state within a week or so of one another, wanting me to become their minister.  So I was faced with a two-church-door dilemma.  I chose the one that seemed to fit me and our family best; that looked most promising at the time.  But after I committed to that church and actually moved and started to work, within two weeks I realized there were internal problems that weren’t visible from outside the interviewing door.  One problem was there were several personality clashes and cliques that were constantly at each other’s throats.  And the second problem was at the first board meeting it came to light that the congregation was $14,000 in the red.  No savings or CDs, but $14,000 in the red.  My young ministerial skills were tested right off the bat.  Perhaps some of you could tell a similar story.  I repeat what I said earlier: How good when in life we are faced with wide open doors, so that we can really see what lies across the threshold!

Well, Jesus talked about doors.  And Jesus spoke of the need to go in search of doors of opportunity, and the need to go knocking on doors.  “Search, and you will find,” Jesus said.  “Whoever seeks, finds.  And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).  Rarely in life do doors of opportunity come to us; rarely do they just show up on our doorsteps, so to speak.  Those who are successful in life are the ones who have gone searching for doors of opportunity and have knocked on those doors, probably repeatedly.

John the Revelator, speaking for Jesus, also spoke of an open door.  “I have set in front of you an open door . . . “ (3:8 CEB) John quotes Jesus as saying to the church in Philadelphia.  Now, if you have ever studied the Book of Revelation, you may remember that it was an apocalyptic letter that was originally addressed to seven different churches in Asia near the end of the first century.  The letters were addressed to an “angel” or “messenger” in each of the seven churches.  The church located at Philadelphia received one of the most positive letters of the seven.  But the pertinent point for today’s purposes is the fact that there was given to the Church of Philadelphia an “open door of opportunity” for outreach, growth and development.  In spite of the smallness of the church at Philadelphia, they had great potential and a great opportunity lay before them.

Such is the way it happens periodically in the course of different churches’ histories—every now and then, an open door of opportunity presents itself.  And when that door of opportunity comes along, it behooves churches to take advantage of it; to walk through it.

Such words might have been addressed to this United Church.  For all practical purposes, we are a small church.  But in spite of our smallness, our “little power” to use John’s terminology, we have great potential.  And I believe at least a couple of wide open doors have presented themselves to this United Church of late.

The first wide-open door of opportunity is the interest and increased participation of young families with children.  There was a time not too many years ago when it was difficult for this church to attract young families with children because we had so few young families with children participating.  In order to have a strong children and youth program, you need critical mass.  So the lack of children and youth and the desire to attract children and youth can become a catch 22.  You need to attract families with youth and children, but it is difficult to attract families with youth and children if you only have a handful of youth and children already participating.  We lost a couple of families with children and youth because of that.

But thankfully, as the result of the hard work, dedication, and creativity in our Sunday school and Education, and children’s and youth departments, things have turned around.  It is not uncommon now to have 15 or 20 children come up for the children’s sermon and then go to Sunday school.  As noted in the “Chapel Chimes”, on one Sunday recently, we had 28 children and youth in attendance at the 10 o’clock service, constituting about 30% of the attendance that day.   So we now have an open door of opportunity to really do some good work with children and youth and their families as we have a good foundation to build upon.  We want to continue to walk through that open door and follow where it leads us.

A second wide open door of opportunity of late is the Alexander Guest House Assisted Living Facility that will soon open.  Ever since I arrived here in 2008, and long before that, the old Alexander Guest House was a tremendous liability to this church.  The old, dilapidated building turned many potential members away, I am convinced.  Because the first thing to be seen upon turning off Kentucky Avenue was not this Chapel, but that old, run-down eyesore of a building.  But now, with its renovations almost complete, the Guest House presents an open door of opportunity to us.

A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with the Executive Director and Activities Director, and we discussed ways that we can partner together for our mutual benefit.  The Guest House should be good for our church, and our church should be good for them.  They are eager to get their residents up here who want to attend our services.  And they are eager to partner with our Nursery School and plan special events—such as having seasonal crafts or parties for the children—and invite the children down to interact with the residents.  And we are willing to go down and lead devotional services or present slideshow programs and the like.  We have been presented with a wonderful open door of opportunity to welcome some of their residents to our services and fellowship events; some of them who already have historic ties to this Chapel; some who may actually end up becoming members of this United Church.

So today, on this Homecoming Sunday, we express gratitude for the positive situation we find ourselves in today.  There are so many good things happening, so many wonderful possibilities awaiting us, so much potential to be realized.  And there are wonderful wide-open doors of opportunity set before us.  But having doors, and even knocking on doors, is not enough.  Once those doors of opportunity open, you have to actually walk through them.  May we joyously walk through those wide-open doors together!  Amen.

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The Secret to Loving Work

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 6, 2015

Psalm 128:1-4 ESV

Reading on work from Kahlil Gibran

“You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.” Psalm 128:2

There is work; and then, there is work.  In other words, there are some types of work that we love doing.  And there are other types of work that we loathe doing.  And there is a vast difference between the two.  Some people love the work they do so much that they don’t want to quit and go home at the end of the day, so they end up working 50, 60, or 70 hours or more each week.  And then there are other people who dread every minute they spend in their work, and watch the time clock from the moment they arrive until the second they leave.  In my earlier, teenage years, I had a couple of jobs like that.  Perhaps you did too.  But sadly, for most workers of the world, I imagine, it is this way.  They work day in and day out, not because they love the work they do, but because they have to do that work in order to survive and/or support their families.

And so, if we are of the fortunate ones (the psalmist would say “blessed ones”) who happen to love the work we do or the lives we live, we should rejoice and consider ourselves to be blest indeed.

Early 20th century mystic writer and poet, Kahlil Gibran, had a lot to say about the love of work.  I chose just a portion of his section on work from his beloved classic, The Prophet, for today’s reading.  (By the way, Gibran was a Lebanese-born American writer who happened to be one of the best-selling authors of all time.  The Prophet was just one of many books he published, but it is considered his literary masterpiece and sold around 3 million copies.)

But Gibran points out that labor is an vital component of earthly existence.  It has been that way from the very beginning.  So to be able to look favorably upon one’s work—to love one’s work—is in essence to love life itself.  And when a person has learned to love life through the labor he or she is engaged in, he or she has learned one of the greatest secrets of life itself.  And to be able to work in love is a tie that binds one to the earth, to others, and to God.

Gibran encourages those who work to do whatever they do in love, as though they were performing that act for their beloved.  In other words, one whose work is weaving cloth should weave every thread as though it were being done for the one she loves.  One who is a bricklayer in home construction should lay every brick in love as though he were doing it for his beloved.  One who is a farmer should sow seeds in love, as though his beloved would eat all the fruit that is produced.  You get the idea.  To put such love and passion into the work we do results in a number of ramifications.  One ramification is we approach our work with a great deal of respect and pride.  Another is the work we do becomes much greater in quality.  A third ramification is we approach our work with much greater appreciation and honor.

I am reminded of that classic tale from the Middle Ages.  A traveler came upon a construction site in France, but he could not tell what was actually being built.  The traveler approached one of the stone cutters who was hard at work and asked him, “What are you doing?”

The man, very disgruntled, and obviously very unhappy with the job he was having to do, replied, “I’m cutting these huge boulders with the most primitive of tools and putting them together in the way I’ve been told to do.  I’m sweating in this heat, and my back is hurting, and I’m totally bored.  I wish I didn’t have to do this hard and meaningless job!”

The traveler moved on quickly to a second worker and asked him the same question: “What are you doing?”

This worker replied, “Well, I have a wife and children at home, so I come here every morning, and I work these boulders into regular shapes, just as I’m told to do.  The work gets repetitive, but it does help feed my family, and that’s all that really matters.”

Somewhat discouraged, the traveler moved on to a third worker and asked him the very same question: “What are you doing?”

The third worker looked up at the traveler with a gleam in his eyes, and he pointed up toward the heavens and exclaimed, “Why, I’m building a cathedral!”  You see, all three workers were doing the exact same job.  But it is all a matter of perspective.  The third worker obviously had learned to work with love.

But when it comes to working with love, I think writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said it best and hit the nail on the head in a way no one else has done.  Buechner said, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”  I think Buechner may have been addressing those who are searching for their life’s calling.  His message may have been aimed at those who were trying to find their place in the world, what they were supposed to do with their lives.  Buechner may have been speaking to those who were trying to “find themselves,” to use an expression from the 1960’s.  And the answer he arrived at was this: Your calling in life—that which you should give your life to—is that which brings you the most joy, but also meets a need in the world.  It sounds so simple, but how profound it is; so simple that most people miss it.  How blessed we are when our passion in life, that  passion or interest in life that brings us so much joy, can also become our life’s work, which also intersects with the world’s need!

But regarding this United Church, the reality is a number of our members are retired; no longer in the workforce.  Is there anything of relevance in all of this for those of you who are retired?  Well, of course there is!  Because those who are retired and no longer in the workforce can have a hobby, can volunteer for some non-profit organization, and can financially support a worthy charitable organization that meets a need in the world.  So we ask ourselves, How can I use the hobby that brings me so much joy to brighten or make better the lives of others?  Maybe those living in retirement, assisted living, or nursing homes?  Or maybe at-risk kids who would benefit from learning a new skill?

We can ask, Where can I volunteer in an area that is of great interest to me so as to improve our community and better the lives of others?  A number of our United Church members have already been doing this.

We can ask ourselves, What charitable organization represents an area that is of great interest to me, that I can support with my charitable donations?

So whatever that interest or passion or hobby is that brings us so much joy, how blest we are when we can find a way to experience that joy and passion either in the work we do, in the hobby we pursue, in the volunteer position we commit to, or in the check we write to that charity that makes a difference in people’s lives and helps make the world a better place.

So in the final analysis, it is possible to work in love.  And learning to work in love, and using that thing we love in our everyday lives, and in such a way to meet a need in the world—this is one of the secrets of a fulfilled, happy life.  May it be so with each of us.  Amen.


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Why I Am Religious

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

Luke 4:42-44 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Under the Broom Tree

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

1 Kings 19:1-8 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Encouragements to Endurance

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

Jonah 1:17-2:10 CEB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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