The Freedom Times Two Virtue

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 18, 2018

Lenten Series: Virtues for Turbulent Times

Proverbs 17:9; Luke 6:37-38 GNT

Perhaps no virtue to be considered during this Lenten season is more difficult to actualize than the one we are considering today.  Who among us has not faced the most difficult task of needing to forgive someone who has done us wrong, perhaps a great wrong?  Sometimes people do us wrong by accident, without intending to do so, perhaps unconsciously, without even realizing they have wronged us.

At other times, people may do us wrong consciously, intentionally, and maybe even maliciously – with much forethought and malice.  Such poses an even greater challenge when it comes to granting forgiveness.

And yet, such is what Jesus asks of us: “forgive others, and God will forgive you” (Luke 6:37).  And in the Lord’s Prayer that we pray every Sunday: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12-15).  And Jesus’ answer to Peter when he asked how many times we should forgive another who sins against us: seven times seventy (Matthew 18:22).

Why is forgiveness often so difficult?  And what about those cases when forgiveness does not come easily, and for good reason?

Some years ago, I gave a sermon on forgiveness, and one of my female listeners countered that the process of forgiveness should not be trivialized and we should not make people feel guilty who have a hard time forgiving great wrongs.  And making anyone feel guilty over the issue of forgiveness is not my intention today.  She was speaking specifically of women who have suffered years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and/or violence.  To insist that such victims should just forgive and forget such wrongs in an instant, like erasing bad words off a chalkboard, is unrealistic, unreasonable and just plain wrong.  I agree.  Some wrongs that are inflicted run deep to the core of our being.  And some may take years of therapy or counseling to work through before the offended person can forgive.  I totally get that and concur.

The wrongs that can be inflicted by others, even those who are trusted to keep us safe; the wrongs that can be inflicted by those who are driven by evil impulses or severe mental illness, can be horrific.  The recent school shootings, Las Vegas massacre, various forms of physical and sexual abuse, and such are just a few examples.  Forgiveness is not always easy and may not come quickly in some cases.

But why can granting forgiveness often be so difficult, even for minor offenses?  Several years ago, I had the unhappy task of helping conduct the funeral service for a loved one.  The other preacher who spoke after I did was of the very conservative, independent persuasion, and he had had no formal ministerial training whatsoever (no seminary training and no college classes either). His sole credential was his devotion to the King James Version Bible.  When he got wound up, this other preacher started ranting and raving, and preaching the Bible from one end to the other, with none of what he said having any relation to the person we were remembering.

But the thing that struck like a blow to the head was when he shouted, “I don’t need no seminary education to preach God’s Word!”  Such was a direct insult he was hurling at me, it was quite obvious, even though he never mentioned my name.  I was sitting on the platform in the funeral home chapel facing the congregation of 75-80 mourners, and Mary Lou said she could see the muscles bulging in my cheeks as I sat there enduring this tirade and clenching my jaws.  My personal integrity, my pride in my hard work and education had been assaulted, I felt; and I had suffered embarrassment in front of family and friends alike.  I grant you that this offense was minor in the larger scheme of things.  But of all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon me over the years, that has been one of the most challenging when it comes to forgiveness.

When someone intentionally and perhaps maliciously wrongs us, we feel it is an attack upon our personhood, upon our good name, upon our integrity.  Forgiveness is difficult because it requires a concession on our part.

And the truth is, some people would rather die than forgive.  Perhaps you have known such people; they prefer to withhold forgiveness and hold onto a grudge and bitterness and take them to the grave.

Such reminds me of the story about the two neighbors who had a long-running feud over a property line dispute.  When it came time for one of the neighbors to die, he gathered his sons close by his side to give them his parting words.  They drew close and the old man said, “You know how I have held a grudge against our neighbor all these years and have refused to forgive him.  Now that I am about to die, I must forgive him, because Jesus demands that I do so.  But if you ever forgive him, I will come back to haunt you!”

Sadly, some people never get there; to the point of being mature enough and strong enough to forgive, that is.  What a thing to carry into the afterlife, when you stop to think about it!

Not being forgiven by someone is an awful burden to bear.  If I learn that I have inadvertently offended someone, or if I get it in my head that I have offended someone, it worries me.  But then when I speak to that person and am either absolved of my offense or learn that I had not really offended them in the first place, it is a wonderful gift that brightens my day and my week.

I have read that a good many people in hospitals for the mentally ill suffer with tremendous burdens of guilt over wrongs they have done or feel they have done.  So when we extend forgiveness to someone and let them know they have been forgiven, we are bestowing upon them a wonderful gift, a marvelous gift of grace.

But harboring hatred and bitterness and a lack of forgiveness in the heart is also an awful burden to bear. 

Steven McDonald was a young police officer in 1986 when he was shot by a teenager in New York’s Central Park, an incident that left him paralyzed. “I forgave [the shooter] because I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart,” McDonald wrote. While the younger man was serving his prison sentence, McDonald corresponded with him, hoping that one day the two could work together to demonstrate forgiveness and nonviolence. Unfortunately, the young man died in a motorcycle accident three days after his release from prison; but McDonald still travels the country to deliver his message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Christian counselor and author Lewis B. Smedes reminds us, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  So forgiveness is twice-fold liberating.  When forgiveness is granted, it actually sets two people free – the one who is forgiven and the one who forgives.

So, what then, can be the ultimate result of granting forgiveness?  Granting forgiveness is like casting off an emotional ball and chain that has been holding us back from moving forward.  When we forgive, we can in no way change the past, but granting forgiveness can alter the trajectory of our future.

Just as granting forgiveness to another is a marvelous gift of grace to them, releasing bitterness and granting forgiveness is also a gift we give to ourselves.  Granting forgiveness blesses both the giver and the forgiven.  “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive,” Maya Angelou encourages.

Being able to forgive is a sign of growing spiritually, an indication that we are at least striving to grow in Christian virtues and toward authentic selfhood. 

So, what are the personal possibilities for our lives when it comes to forgiveness?  The answer is known only to each of us personally.  Could it be for us, as the sermon title indicates, that forgiveness is the freedom times two virtue?  That it can free the one who is forgiven, and it can also free the one who grants the forgiveness?  May it be so for all of us during this Lenten season and always.  Amen.

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That Which Gives Strength to the Heart

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 11, 2018

Jeremiah 51:46; Acts 27:14-26 GNT

Be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14 RSV

One of the iconic movies of my childhood was The Wizard of Oz.  My first viewings of The Wizard of Oz were in front of our black and white television set.  I remember well when our family was invited to join family friends on a Sunday evening to watch the movie in technicolor for the first time on their new color television set.  And then when we had children of our own, The Wizard of Oz became our daughter’s favorite movie.  So I couldn’t tell you how many times I have seen The Wizard of Oz over the years.

As you know, the four main characters in the story are trying to get to Oz to see the wonderful wizard in hopes that he will grant them what they long for.  For Dorothy it is getting back to Kansas; for the Scarecrow, a brain; for the Tin Man, a heart; and for the Lion, courage.  One has to wonder how much the times in which the book was published (1900) and the movie was first released (1939) had to do with the themes, spirit, and symbolism that are at the heart of this great American film.  Just think about the year 1939 and what was going on in the world.  Hitler and the Nazis were beginning their campaign to take over much of Europe.  The world was teetering on the brink of all-out world war.  We might spend a fair amount of time trying to analyze The Wizard of Oz in relation to world events.  The Library of Congress included the film in its National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

But for our purposes today, we shall focus on one word that keeps cropping up in the film – “courage;” that virtue sought by the cowardly lion – courage: strength of the heart in the face of difficulties, challenges, or the unsettling horrors of life.  Courage: that which enables us to step out or act; or perform the right, the good, the just thing, even in the face of fear.

Courage is a spiritual virtue mentioned in the Bible a number of times.  For instance, in Psalm 27, one of the most comforting psalms, the psalmist encourages, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage” (Psalm 27:14 RSV).  In the early part of the psalm, the author speaks of evildoers, adversaries, and foes.  He speaks of wars, the day of trouble, and enemies.  In the end he mentions feeling forsaken, false witnesses, and threats of violence.  But in confidence he proclaims he will not be afraid, but rather, he will be strong and let his heart take courage.

In the verse I read from Jeremiah, he was seeking to encourage the Jewish Exiles who had suffered much at the hands of Babylon.  Babylonia – the country responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and all the death and suffering that accompanied it – would itself be destroyed, Jeremiah predicted.  And so Jeremiah encouraged, “Do not lose courage or be afraid because of the rumors you hear.  Every year a different rumor spreads – rumors of violence in the land and of one king fighting another.”  The verse could aptly be applied to the world we live in today – “rumors of violence and one king fighting another.”  Can we hear Jeremiah say to us, “Do not lose courage!”?

And then there is the story in the book of Acts of Paul on his journey to Rome getting caught in a violent storm at sea.  They had given up all hope of being saved.  But Paul rose to the occasion to address their fear and bolster their spirits – “I beg you – take courage!” (Acts 27:22 GNT)

As we face different types of challenges in life and in the world around us, we, too, may find ourselves fearful of different kinds of storms that are an ever-present threat over the horizon.  We are, indeed, living in turbulent times that call forth courage to face the problems and wrongs of the world in which we now live.  And I certainly am no prophet in the sense that I would pretend to predict the future (which was not the primary attribute of the Hebrew prophets anyway), but the current state of world affairs causes me to wonder if a day might come when even more courage will be needed to face what we could be called upon to face.

For instance, we heard just week before last that Vladimir Putin, in his address to the Russian people, boasted that they now have nuclear warheads capable of reaching the US and too sophisticated for our intervention.  North Korea had already threatened strikes against US territories.  Those who keep watch on the so-called “Doomsday Clock” moved the hands 30 seconds closer to midnight, now at two minutes until midnight, the closest it has been in yeaers.  Such threats unnerve us, and may even make us fearful as we lie awake in the middle of the night.  In days, months, or years to come, we may be called upon to not lose courage.

Cinema, as you know, often mirrors feelings, emotions, and events of contemporary society.  Earlier I made note of the fact that The Wizard of Oz movie was first released in 1939, on the cusp of world upheaval.  Well, recently we watched another movie which has as its setting the year 1940, one year after the release of The Wizard.  Oscar-nominated Darkest Hour chronicles the appointment of Winston Churchill as England’s Prime Minister during the critical time when the United Kingdom was deliberating a strategy to oppose the Nazi’s as they began their campaign of taking over Europe.  Darkest Hour is a good movie, and it is well worth taking time to watch it if you haven’t seen it.  We learned a lot about that dark hour in world history that we did not know.

For instance, Winston Churchill was not the first choice when the position of Prime Minister needed to be filled, and by and large he was not well-liked by many in Parliament or by England’s King George VI.  So Churchill knew from the start that he had been chosen to lead a people who didn’t like him, who didn’t agree with his policies, and who didn’t really want to follow the path he felt England should pursue to address the great Nazi machine that was threatening England’s survival as a sovereign nation.  And Churchill also realized that he faced an almost impossible situation, and many of England’s military leaders had already conceded defeat and loss of England’s military.  The possibilities looked pretty bleak.

But Churchill rose to the challenge of the tremendous task that had been thrust upon him.  Surprising to many, Churchill’s unconventional approach and unyielding policies proved to be successful and exactly what England needed at that particular time.  At least two words were familiar sound bites that Churchill would use in his speeches to rally England time and again.  One word was “victory.”  And the other word was “courage.”

Churchill, who himself had the courage to never back down, would rally his countrymen time and again to also have courage.  Churchill’s words about courage have been quoted and printed on motivational posters too many times to count:  “Have no fear of the future. Let us go forward into its mysteries, tear away the veils which hide it from our eyes, and move onwards with confidence and courage.”  And “Fear is a reaction.  Courage is a decision.”

So, what is such courage?  “Courage,” as M. Scott Peck put it, “is not the absence of fear; it is the making of action in spite of fear” (Road Less Traveled, 131).  As we read the morning papers and watch the evening news, there is much in the world that might pose a threat to our well-being and life as we know and love it.  Sometimes we may actually find ourselves being afraid of what the future might hold, if not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren.  It is okay to admit and share among friends our inclination to be fearful over the threats of random violence, shootings, acts of terrorism, prospect of war, global warming on the one hand and clean water shortages on the other hand, and on the list could go.  As noted in The Wizard of Oz, “True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.”  Yes, courage is a much-needed virtue in the turbulent, sometimes uncertain world in which we now live; a world fraught with problems, inequities and inequalities, injustices, and wrongs that need to be made right.

But then on a more personal level, many people struggle with life issues – chronic pain, addictions, depression, extreme loss, and other challenges – and find it difficult to just make it from day to day.  For such folk, “courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’” (Mary Anne Radmacher).

So, then, our Lenten virtue of the week is courage: strength of the heart in the face of difficulties, challenges, or the unsettling horrors of life; that which enables us to step out, act, or perform the right, the good, the just thing, even in the face of fear.  Courage: that which we may need to muster to live one day at a time and to put one foot in front of the other.

May the words of that great hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” be our Lenten Prayer: “Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage, For the living of these days.”  May it be so for all of us.  Amen.

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World-changing Virtue Everyone Craves

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 4, 2018

Zechariah 7:8-10; Matthew 9:10-13 GNT

Perhaps you can recall an occasion in your life when you realized that you could have been kinder to someone than you were, and you later regretted it.  Haven’t many of us done so at one time or another?  Since the season of Lent is traditionally a time of confession and absolution for human weaknesses and failures, I will share a personal confession with you this morning.  Maybe you can grant me absolution.

Several years ago, when we were living in Franklin, in Middle Tennessee, and our son was attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, he needed me to package and mail his Sunday dress shoes for a band concert he was to play in.  As I recall, the concert was on Saturday, so I carefully packaged his dress shoes and took them to the local historic Post Office branch in the heart of Franklin on Monday.  I was told that if I wanted assurance that the shoes would arrive by Saturday, I would need to pay for special delivery, which I did.  I paid through the nose just to be sure the shoes reached him on time.  Well, Saturday arrived and our son had not received his shoes, even though I had paid dearly for a 2-3 day delivery.  Finally, on Monday or Tuesday of the following week, he got his shoes, much too late of course, as the concert was already past.

Well, I was peeved at the United States Postal Service.  So the next time I stopped in at the Post Office, I vented a bit and expressed my frustration and dissatisfaction.  My demeanor was less than kind, I regret to admit.  Of course, it was not the fault of the two ladies who worked behind the postal counter, and I well knew that.  I wasn’t angry at them.  But in venting my frustration and dissatisfaction with the US Postal Service in their presence, it appeared that I was attacking them personally.   I later realized what I had done, and I felt really bad about it.  So the next time I dropped by the Post Office, I apologized and stressed that I had not intended to verbally attack them personally, and that my anger had been directed at the United States Postal Service in general.  But the damage had already been done, and I suspected that every time I visited the Post Office after that they said to themselves, “Oh, here comes that crazy guy who chewed us out over the shoes!”

The reality is, everyone craves human kindness.  Not one of us enjoys being scolded or disrespected or looked down upon.  All of us prefer to be dealt with in kindness.  Yet, how easy it is for us to be less than kind as we go about our lives from day to day.  

In case you didn’t know, I can sometimes have a dry – very dry – sense of humor, so that I will occasionally say something that I intend to be in a joking manner, but it may come out as sounding serious and being rude or insensitive.  I think I get that from my maternal grandfather, who sometimes had a loud, boisterous, sarcastic way of speaking.  But when he did so, he never meant any harm in doing it, and he had a heart of gold.  At any rate, there have been many times in my life when I let my mouth run ahead of my brain, so that what I said appeared to be less than kind.

Well, that is one of the personal habits I keep working on.  I have to keep reminding myself that what people need is not sarcastically-laced attempts at humor, but rather, a bit of kindness.

Kindness (and its companion compassion) is at the heart of all true religious practice.  The sixth century BCE Hebrew prophet Zechariah seems to have understood this.  Zechariah was active at a critical time of transition in Jewish history, worship, and religious practice.  Following the Exile, religious practice was moving from emphasis upon animal sacrifices and righteousness based upon the purity system and rituals and such, to a religion of the heart that manifests itself in daily action and the virtues of compassion, justice and kindness.  And so, what developed in Judaism was two sub-strands, one of which continued to insist upon sacrifices, separation, and purity requirements and so on (a system of faith based upon right ritual), and a second sub-strand that focused upon the spiritual principles of justice, compassion, and kindness (or interpersonal interactions and relationships).  Amos, Micah and Hosea were three other Hebrew prophets who lobbied for this type of faith expression.

Well, when Jesus came along, he chose to base his ministry and message upon the sub-strand of Jewish religion stemming from Amos, Micah, Hosea and Zechariah which emphasized justice, compassion, and kindness.  And so, we hear Jesus quoting the prophets as voicing the demand of God: “It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices!”  From Gospel accounts, Jesus snubbed his nose at the sacrificial-purity strand of Judaism.  And such is why Jesus often found himself at loggerheads with the religious establishment of his day, which happened to hold all the power and was in cahoots with the Roman government.  And as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have contended, Jesus’ alignment with the justice, compassion, kindness agenda, in opposition to the oppressive sacrificial-purity agenda, probably contributed to him being crucified.

But the point I was seeking to make here is that Jesus understood – as Amos, Micah, Hosea and Zechariah did before him – that at the heart of true religion and practice is kindness.  Such rings true in modern Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism.  As the Dalai Lama put it, “Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.”

Kindness, as you know, is a much-needed virtue in our turbulent world.  If you look at what is going on in our nation today, I think you will see this divide between being right and being kind.  On the one hand, we see those who stress being right, being separate, all being the same.  And on the other hand we see those who stress being open, being inclusive, being diverse.  On one side are dogmatism and inflexibility to the point of causing human pain and suffering, and on the other side are understanding and kindness.  As we read the morning paper and watch the evening world news, there is so much in our world that breaks our hearts and causes us to question human decency and progress.  But then every now and then, a story about altruistic human kindness in action serves to boost our spirits and provide a ray of hope and restore our faith in humanity.

For instance, I ran across a story this past week about a woman named Heather who works with a team of volunteers to distribute gift bags in the dead of winter around one of the coldest cities in America.  They attach them to trees in city parks and other places where the homeless population gather.  The Ziplock bags contain a scarf, hat and gloves and a note attached to the outside saying “I’M NOT LOST.  IF YOUR STUCK IN THE COLD PLEASE TAKE ME TO KEEP YOU WARM!”  And then there is a handwritten note by Heather on the inside of the bag that reads, “You are loved.”  Heather’s goal is to wrap the homeless in kindness.

The great Greek philosopher Plato is credited with saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  We just never know what that person we sit beside at church, encounter at the doctor’s office waiting room or in the grocery store checkout line, or pass on the street, and so on is going through.  A kind act or kind word could completely turn their day – perhaps their entire world – around.

Thus, kindness is also a world-changing virtue.  Each of us lives within a little world of which we are the center.  That is to say, each of us has numerous relatives, friends, and acquaintances, the totality of which is unique to each of us.  My sphere of influence is somewhat different from your sphere of influence, and so on.  So as I said, each of us lives in a little world of which we are in the center.

Consider your world of influence to be a pond, and you are in the center of that pond.  Whatever action you take has the potential of rippling out across your entire pond of influence, to the very extreme edges of your sphere of acquaintances and influence.  So if you – if I – make a concerted effort to focus on words and acts of kindness, such kindness ripples out across your sphere of influence, perhaps persuading others to devote themselves to words and acts of kindness as well.

But wait, there’s more!  Because everyone is at the center of a different world of their own, then your kind words and actions can influence other spheres of influence, and those can influence others, and so on, like overlapping concentric circles.  Hence, one person completely devoted to a life of kind words and kind deeds can, indeed, help change the world.  For an example, consider the life of St. Francis of Assisi whose life of kindness helped change the world.

Playwright Oscar Wilde said, “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”  It is not enough just to entertain kind thoughts.  What our turbulent world is desperately in need of is people who are willing to commit themselves to changing the world one person at a time, one day at a time, through kind words and kind actions.  May it be so for us during this Lenten Season.  And may our Lenten devotion to kindness become a life-long commitment.  Amen.

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Guarding Human Dignity: Respect

Lenten Series: Virtues for Turbulent Times

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 25, 2018

John 8:2-11; Romans 12:9-13 GNT

Reading from George Fox

Until last month, I had never heard the name Larry Nassar.  And most of you likely had never heard the name either; unless you have kept a close eye on USA Gymnastics.  But now the photo image of the man bearing the name Larry Nassar is one of the most recognized and perhaps most despised images in America.

For, you see, former gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison on sexual assault charges after being convicted of abusing and assaulting over 150 girls and women he had been responsible for treating over the years.  The charges leveled against Nassar would make any conscientious person sick.  Perhaps you saw the video of the distraught father who blasted Nassar verbally in the courtroom for assaulting his daughters and begging the judge to give him just five minutes alone with Nassar before he bolted across the courtroom and lunged at him before court officers restrained him.  Many of us might have been tempted to do likewise had we been a parent in that courtroom.

Nassar’s actions in abusing young girls in such a manner caused me to ask, “What happened to respect?  What was Nassar thinking?  Had he no respect at all for the sanctity of human lives that he used for his own selfish pleasure?”  Respect for humanity dignity – what has happened to it in our world?

Sadly, respect and honor for the other have fallen into disfavor, as so much of what is going on in the world today tragically illustrates.  Take, for instance, the #MeToo Movement.  Women who have been sexually harassed, harmed, and abused have mustered their courage with the charges against Harvey Weinstein and are coming out of the woodwork to admit that they, too, have been disrespected and dishonored and shamed by those in power who have taken advantage of them and used them as objects.  Results of a USA Today survey released just this past week revealed that of hundreds of women connected to Hollywood who responded, 94% stated they have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.  Sadly, women in America have not been afforded the respect and honor rightfully theirs, in spite of the organizations and movements that have sought to make it so.  And even more sadly, the plight of women and girls in some other parts of the world is even much more dire.

Think of the number 10,000.  Now think of that in terms of children – 10,000 innocent children.  It is unfathomable to think it, but that is the number of children in the United States who are victims of sex trafficking every year.  Think about that!  How is it possible that in the United States – supposedly the most civilized, progressive country in the world – that 10,000 children are exploited and trafficked yearly in the United States?  Such facts should make us sick and ashamed.  What has happened to human decency and respect and honor for others, especially for young, innocent children?

Here is the problem, it seems to me: By and large a collective sense of respect and honor for the other in our society has been lost.  Guarding the human dignity of others has not been at the top of America’s priorities, it seems.  The trend seems to be to make myself look good even if it means disrespecting and falsely discrediting others to do so. Disrespect for the worth and dignity of others has become so commonplace that perhaps we have grown numb to it and it has been accepted as the norm.

But from a religious perspective, it is incumbent upon us to look with respect and honor upon every person we encounter, since from a theological standpoint everyone we encounter has been created in the image of God.  Or in the framework of the thought of George Fox, founder of the Quakers, there is “that of God in everyone.”  And so, in every face I look upon, I should see one created in the Divine Image, one who is deserving of respect and honor.

I like something Albert Einstein said: “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”  What a wonderful compliment to the character of the great scientist!  The bottom line of that truth is no one should ever be looked upon and used for selfish pleasure or monetary gain.  Everyone is deserving of respect and honor.    Paul, in one of his most beautiful passages, encourages, “Love one another warmly . . . and be eager to show respect for one another” (Romans 12:10).

Unfortunately, as we flip through other books of the Bible, we will find many instances when respect for others is lacking, especially when it comes to the rights and treatment of women.  I could have selected any number of biblical stories that chronicle women being abused and taken advantage of – the story of King David’s daughter Tamar and the banished women following the return from the Exile as related in Ezra (Ezra 10:44), just to cite two examples.

Jesus, on the other hand, was the exception to the rule.  The stories the early Church left us regarding Jesus’ interactions with and treatment of women show a sense of respect and honor.  Jesus’ interactions with the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman accused of adultery are just two examples of how Jesus proved to be revolutionary and showed respect for the women he encountered.

By the way, as an aside, don’t you find it interesting that in the story of the woman accused of adultery, the man that was with her isn’t even mentioned?  Where was the man who was also a party to infraction?  Why wasn’t the man also brought to the Temple and charged?  Wasn’t he as guilty as the woman?  Perhaps even more so?  The woman, as has often been the case in history, may have been a victim in this story.  She may have been forced to do what she did.  Often women did and still today have to resort to such relations or prostitution, even, as a means to survival.  In many cases prostitutes are the victims, not the real perpetrators.  They feel forced into prostitution in order to survive or provide for their children, or they are victims of forced slavery.  Because of life’s circumstances, we should be less judgmental and more sympathetic for women of our world, as Jesus was with the woman brought to him for stoning, to whom he afforded respect.

Well, what can we do to address the problem of the loss of respect for the other? we ask ourselves.  You and I may feel helpless when it comes to widespread lack of respect and the failure to guard the human dignity of the hidden abused of our nation and world.  What can I do to restore respect for women who have long been harassed and abused and used, and what I can do about the 10,000 children trafficked in America every year? we ask ourselves.  Not much, we may initially conclude.

But the good news is there are numerous organizations that are working to combat trafficking of women and children.  If you Google organizations seeking to combat sex trafficking, dozens of organizations will pop up.  Maybe there is one good organization we might find to support financially and do our little part in trying to put an end to this epidemic, such as the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery sponsored by Senator Bob Corker.

But perhaps the one most important thing that every one of us can do is consider and perhaps change our attitude and actions toward all those we encounter in our daily lives and be more intentional about showing respect toward the other.  We can begin to change the world by showing respect and guarding the dignity of everyone we know locally.  We don’t have to agree with someone to show them respect.  Confucius said, “Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?”

I love the words of that Christian folk tune of the 60s and 70s that says:

“. . . we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.”

Respect for the other must begin in the home, and move out to the community, workplace, soccer field, city government, and so on.  From the community, respect must flow to the state, nation, and wider world.  We must foster respect for both genders, all races and ethnicities, all sexual orientations, and all nations.  Otherwise, we will continue down the path we are on to self destruction.

Respect that seeks to guard the human dignity of every person is a spiritual virtue sorely needed in these turbulent times in which we now live.  We are seeing a revolution in America today, a good revolution that should be forcing every person of faith, every American, to rethink how we look at and relate to others, as we make respect for others and their human dignity a number one priority.  May it be so.  Amen.

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Being True to Self: Integrity

Lenten Series: Virtues for Turbulent Times

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 18, 2018

Luke 4:1-13 GNT

Let’s begin the season of Lent with a true, personal story – about Satan.  At the end of my senior year in high school, I found myself working at Towne Gate Motors, the Ford dealership in Greeneville, Tennessee.  I was one of three guys who cleaned up or prepped new Ford and Mercury cars when they came from the factory.  Since my boss was the new car sales manager, often my job would be prepping new cars to go in the showroom.

Well, the two other guys that I worked with were much older than I was.  And both of them lived rough, rowdy lives.  It was not uncommon for either one of them to go on a drunken binge and be out of work two or three days, either drinking or on a hangover.  I think both of them had seen the inside of a jail cell on more than one occasion.   And it was not uncommon for them to talk about their visits to ladies of the evening.  Their conversation and language routinely were vulgar and very inappropriate.  When an attractive female visited the car lot, well, you can imagine their stares and comments.

One of my co-worker’s nicknames was “Satan.”  I kid you not.  His real name was Kenneth, but everybody at the dealership and anyone in town who knew him called him “Satan.”  I don’t think I ever heard how Kenneth got his nickname.  Perhaps it was because of his snaggletoothed facial expression when he grew angry.  Perhaps it was because of his drinking, carousing, and wild reputation.  Perhaps it was the mean streak in him.  Or all of the above.

Satan tried to get me to have vulgar conversations I didn’t want to have, and he pressured me to do things I didn’t want to do.  For instance, on Friday afternoons after work, he tried to get me to drive him to a liquor store drive-through window to order what he wanted (I think the police knew his car, so he didn’t want to drive), even though I was only 18 at the time.

The long and the short of it was, that working environment became extremely uncomfortable for me, to say the least.  It got to where I woefully dreaded going in to work every morning, knowing I was going to be pressured by Satan to have conversations I didn’t want to have, use language I didn’t want to use, and do things I did not feel comfortable doing.  Days when Satan didn’t show up for work were much happier days, and I hoped when I went in each day that Satan would not show up.  So for quite awhile, I struggled with being true to myself and the pressure to be someone I was not and did not want to be.  It was a matter of personal integrity.  I eventually would leave that job at least in part to get out of that unhealthy situation with Satan.  I went to another position that in appearance was a much better position, but I took a decrease in pay to do so.

And since those teenage years, I have found myself on occasion in other situations when I endured an internal battle of being true to self and maintaining my personal sense of integrity within the situation or circumstances I found myself to be in.  Perhaps you can relate.

Today we begin a Lenten sermon series with the overall theme, “Virtues for Turbulent Times.”  Each Sunday in Lent I will focus on a spiritual virtue with a scriptural background, but a virtue that is vitally important to each of our lives.  But in some cases, we will consider virtues that beg for consideration as we read the daily newspapers and watch the world news.  In other words, virtues to be considered in the coming weeks are timely, relevant, and maybe even of a sensitive nature.

And I think most of you would agree that we are living in turbulent times.  Politics, religious divisions, polarization on key issues, school shootings, white supremacist gatherings, international unrest and US foreign relations with Iran, North Korea, Russia, and so on – such issues sometimes cause us to ask, “What happened to basic virtues that help us get along and keep peace in the world?”  I certainly don’t hope to solve all the world’s problems during the six Sundays of Lent.  But I thought it would be a good time to consider some of the basic spiritual virtues that help make for being authentically human and make for a better life and better world.

So today’s virtue is integrity, or being true to self.  I pulled my American Heritage Dictionary from the shelf just to double-check myself.  And I found that the definition of “integrity” includes adherence to a standard of values; the quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness.

Such, I believe, is something we see in the story of Jesus and his 40-day temptation in the wilderness – the battle for integrity.  This familiar story is found in all three synoptic gospels, so obviously it was paramount in the eyes of the early Church.  And this story is the traditional story for the first Sunday in Lent.  So I am sure many of you have heard it read and preached upon numerous times.  And whether one interprets this story as being 100% historical doesn’t matter; the truth of the story remains the same.

Most often, perhaps, the focus of this story is temptation, and the things that tempt us to stray, fall, or sin; you know, the temptation of vices like strong drink, lust, illicit sex, gluttony, gossip, greed, and so on.  Certainly that is one way to view this story.

But this year I approached this story from a new angle.  As we consider this story, we find that Jesus wasn’t tempted by the vices we commonly think of.  As the story goes, Jesus was tempted to satisfy his physical hunger, a perfectly legitimate human need.  Jesus was tempted by the offer of success.  Who of us doesn’t want to be successful in life?  And Jesus was tempted to be assured of God’s love and care for him.  Who of us hasn’t sought assurance of God’s love, care and protection?  So the things that Satan are said to have tempted Jesus with were not the seedy, common vices we immediately think about.

No, as I considered this story again this year, it occurred to me that the thing Jesus was being tempted to compromise was his integrity.  What the tempter pressured Jesus to do was to not be true to self and to sacrifice his personal integrity.

And when all is said and done, I believe one of the greatest sins we can commit is sacrificing our personal integrity and not being true to our inner self that we know in our heart is right and good.  And as I said earlier, probably all of us have been there at least one time, if not many times, in our lives.  I know I have.

  • As young persons, we may have found ourselves being pressured by peers to do things we did not want to do or that we knew in our hearts was wrong – illegal drugs, shoplifting, destruction of property for the fun of it, bullying the vulnerable and weak, cheating in school, the list is long. If we were not pressured to do such, it is likely that our children and grandchildren are.
  • A job or profession in which we were asked or expected to do things that went against our conscience, things we felt were unethical or perhaps unlawful even.
  • A position in which the working environment made us very uncomfortable because of what the boss or co-workers expected of us, or because of the harassment or pressure to compromise our personal integrity.
  • A position in which we were expected to teach or endorse principles we did not believe in, or sell a product we could not personally endorse.
  • A job or profession that we loathed because it did not match the person we are inside. We knew we should be somewhere else in life, and in the current situation we were not being true to self. I heard a story the other day about a man whose dream in life was to become a professional photographer.  He had applied at and was accepted into the best school of photography in the nation.  But his dad had other plans for him.  His father enrolled him in a college mechanical engineering program.  He said to his father, “But I want to be a photographer.”  But his father said, “You are going to study to be an engineer.”  So that is the way his life went.  When I heard that, it made me so sad.

The scripture says in another place (Hebrews 4:15) that Jesus was tempted, yet without sin.  In other words, Jesus – in the synoptic gospels temptation story, at least – remained true to his inner self and his convictions and values and the person he knew he was and was destined to be.  Jesus remained whole, undivided in his sympathies, and maintained his personal integrity by being true to self.

And as we commence this Lenten Season together, may we, likewise, have the grace to do the same and pray that our children and grandchildren will as well – be true to the inner self and what is good and right; to strive to be the person we – and they – are destined to be; to honor and guard our human integrity.  May it be so for us and may it be so for our children and grandchildren.  Amen.

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A Stream Divided – Fundamentalism and the Social Gospel

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer – February 11, 2018

Micah 6:8; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13a ESV

Picture in your mind the image of how small, trickling tributaries, creeks, and smaller rivers flow and merge to become one mighty stream that eventually flows into the seas.  Many tiny sources of water from mountain springs, rain run-off from hills and valleys, and so on merge to become one.  We are all familiar with such.

But now try to picture in your mind just the opposite or the reverse of that natural phenomenon.  Try to picture one large stream dividing into smaller rivers, then smaller creeks, and smaller and smaller tiny tributaries, and so on.  It is more difficult to imagine that, isn’t it, since such is unnatural?  So if that is too tricky to try to imagine, then try to picture one big river running against a natural obstacle and dividing so as to split and go two separate ways.

Such is the image that I would like to suggest to describe what happened to American Christianity at the turn of the twentieth century – a stream divided. It occurred to me recently that much of what we see in America today in both religion and politics has a basis in the first two decades of the twentieth century – that is from about 1900-1920 – when American Christianity in one sense of the term became as a stream divided.  Two distinct movements in American Christianity greatly influenced Christian denominations and American clergy, and in many respects pitted them one against the other, as the principles, beliefs, methods of biblical interpretation, and so on often were diametrically opposed to one another.

This is an over simplification, but picture American churches and American clergy all swimming downstream in one large river, and then just after the turn of the twentieth century (about 100 years ago) parting ways as the river divided, causing some to split off to the right and others to split off to the left in two divergent streams.  And as I have already stated, that critical time in American Church history was a watershed period that in some respects gave us the divisions and polarized ideologies that we are seeing today.

The first early twentieth-century American movement that would profoundly impact American Christianity and politics was Fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism has as its fountainhead or source the Niagara Bible Conference (1878-1897), which defined the original five tenets or fundamentals of belief:

  • Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of Jesus’ miracles

Fundamentalism arose among conservative Presbyterian theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary.  But it soon spread to other denominations.  Fundamentalism is characterized by strict literalism to scriptures and biblical interpretation, dogmas, and ideologies, and there is a strong emphasis on “ingroup and outgroup” distinctions, purity, and the desire to return to a perfect ideal or previous time when belief and practice were pure and unadulterated.  In strict Fundamentalism there is no place for a departure from the prescribed belief or a diversity of opinion.

The point not to be missed is Fundamentalism as a movement was a reaction against Modernist theology, or liberal theology and higher criticism of biblical texts.  Here “Liberal Christianity” means the philosophical and religious thought that developed and grew out of the Enlightenment.  It gave rise to a method of biblical study, an undogmatic method of understanding scripture by applying the same principles used to understand other ancient writings.  In other words, Liberal hermeneutic principles and what is called “historical criticism” or “higher criticism” seek to understand the particular author’s beliefs and feelings about God, historical and cultural context, the world behind the text, a particular biblical text within the literary whole of a book, and so on.  Such study seeks to determine what the biblical writer was trying to say to the particular community or group for which he was writing at that time and place.  Such study seeks to search for the original sources and forms of a particular biblical text, as well as the particular genre (poetry, letter, law, parable, etc.) of a text.  For instance, many of Jesus’ teachings and parables differ depending upon the gospel you are reading.  Higher criticism seeks to determine the pure and original form of the teaching or parable, and then how the particular gospel writer used it to support his theology and overall purpose.

This, you see, is what Fundamentalism rose up against, contending that the only true way to read the Bible and interpret the scriptures is a literal reading (since the Bible is the revealed “Word of God”) which is to be accepted and believed at face value without taking into account the fact that the individual books of the Bible are products of their time, history, author biases, and cultural context, and the fact that the books of the Bible are forms of literature with different purposes. Such was one stream – Fundamentalism – into which American Christianity diverged in the early 20th century.

The second early twentieth-century American movement that would profoundly impact American Christianity and politics was the Social Gospel.  The curious thing is the Social Gospel movement rose up at the same time as Fundamentalism.  It evolved out of the work and ministry of liberal Christian ministers such as Washington Gladden (a Congregationalist) and Walter Rauschenbusch (a northern Baptist).  Gladden was a prolific writer (including one beloved hymn – “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” – in our hymnals) and religious journalist, in addition to being a successful pastor.  He began speaking out against corruption, economic injustices, labor issues, and so forth.  Historians refer to Gladden as a pioneer and “founding father of the Social Gospel Movement.”

Rauschenbusch was a Baptist pastor in the so-called “Hell’s Kitchen,” a poverty-stricken section of Manhattan that was plagued with overcrowding, organized crime, bootlegging, gangs, and such.  His work, “Christianity and the Social Crisis,” is still considered one of the most important foundational writings of the Social Gospel Movement.

The Social Gospel sought to apply teachings of the Bible to Christian ethics and social problems, especially issues of social justice, economic inequality, poverty, slums, unsanitary living conditions, racial tensions, child labor, poor schools, and so on.   Leaders of the Social Gospel Movement sought to make a reality the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer: “They Kingdom come, They will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The ideas of the Social Gospel would continue to live on and influence a number of mainline American denominations.  It has been described as “the most distinctive American contribution to world Christianity.”  Many of the Social Gospel ideas reappeared in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Now, when we compare side by side Fundamentalism and the Social Gospel as two distinct movements, we find that their religious ideologies, beliefs, and approaches were almost diametrically opposed, as well the American churches and clergy who swayed one way or the other.  Characteristics of Fundamentalism include a private, individual focus which stresses a non-negotiable set of beliefs aimed at personal salvation; a somewhat inflexible approach to life, belief and religious practice; in many cases a non-scientific approach to the world and perceived truth (the threat of Evolution early on); and an emphasis upon purity, separation, and an us-against-them mindset.  The goal of Fundamentalism is to save the world by saving the individual soul through a prescribed step-by-step process.  Two well-known American preachers falling into the Fundamentalist camp are Dwight L. Moody and Jerry Falwell.

Characteristics of the Social Gospel, on the other hand, include a broad, communal, societal focus (grounded in the eighth-century Hebrew prophets Amos and Micah and the justice teachings of Jesus) which is open to different interpretations and faith practices; a freer approach to life, commitment to Ecumenism, and possibly openness to interfaith cooperation with other world religions; an appreciation of a science-informed worldview and reliance upon reason and a rational approach to life and faith; and an openness to other cultures and concern for the oppressed, downtrodden, persecuted, less fortunate, and often overlooked of society.  The goal of the Social Gospel is to save the world by changing and saving society through changed living and working conditions, education, social justice, love and compassion for all.  Two well-known American preachers falling in the Liberal (and probably Social Gospel) camp are Henry Ward Beecher and William Sloane Coffin.

Well, as we consider some of the issues that are constants in the news today, we might easily list them in one column or the other.  Now, very few people today are likely to describe themselves as Fundamentalists or Social Gospel Liberals.  But as we think about such issues as homeless tent cities, immigration, a superior or exclusively-Christian society, an us-against-them mentality, Creationism and Evolution, and so on, it is easy to see the historical basis for them or why some Americans may feel one way about them and other Americans may feel the other way.

And being aware of the historical contexts of Fundamentalism and the Social Gospel helps us understand at least in part why we are where we are in America today, so divided, so polarized, so opposite.  Part of America is the product of one branch of the American Christian stream, and another part of America is the product of the other branch of the American Christian stream that divided 100 years ago.  The sad reality is, the two branches of the stream of American Christianity are so diametrically opposed that it is not likely the two will ever again merge into one; that is my estimation, at least.  The Apostle Paul asked the rhetorical question of the Corinthian congregation: “Is Christ divided?”  Sadly, the answer is yes – Christ, or the Church is greatly divided.

The point to take away from this, I guess, is it is important for us to be knowledgeable of the history and background that took American Christianity in two divergent directions 100 years ago.  And it is important for each of us to make an educated and heartfelt decision as to where we want to jump into the water and swim and do what we can to help save the world.  Amen.

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The Kingdom of God – A Party?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 4, 2018

John 2:1-11 GNT

“The trouble with many [people] is that they have got just enough religion to make them miserable.”  Such is the quote attributed to the famous early 20th century evangelist, Billy Sunday.  And such is a statement that I have observed to be true over the years.

The factors that contribute to “miserable religion” are many.  For instance, in some cases, people were given a heavy dose of strict religious beliefs and rules as children that soured them on religion altogether.  Church involvement and a home environment that dictated you must do this, you can’t do that, you’ll go to hell if you don’t believe and live like this, and so on turned many people against religion at an early age.

Such was the upbringing of famous naturalist John Muir.  Muir was reared in a very strict Christian household.  By the age of 11, he had been exposed to so much Bible reading and indoctrination that he had memorized the entire New Testament and much of the Old Testament.  His father – himself a product of strict Scottish religious background – was harsh, demanding and religiously fundamental in the upbringing of his children.  It was only on Sunday afternoons, and then only occasionally, when John could find enjoyment in the natural world by roaming the fields near his home and enjoying learning firsthand about nature.   In his adult years, Muir would struggle with the battle between the strict Christian religion of his upbringing and his developing spirituality based in nature, or natural religion.  Eventually Muir would leave behind the strict religious beliefs of his childhood, as well as the church he had grown up in, and the cathedrals of nature (as he called them), especially in Yosemite Valley, would become his “church.”  What happens with many like Muir who had religion forced upon them as children is when they become adults and can choose for themselves, they rebel, cease going to church, and want nothing to do with organized religion.  They got just enough religion in childhood to make them miserable.

Others never get beyond an elementary religion of rules and regulations as a means to meeting the demands of a wrathful God and keeping themselves out of the fires of hell.  Religion as such might be looked upon as “life insurance” or “fire insurance” – insurance to assure everlasting life and insurance against the fires of the afterlife.  And so, for them religion is no more than strict rules and regulations.  The mindset or assumption is if something is enjoyable, then it must be wrong.  For such, religion is equated with being miserable.

For others, religion is what you practice because it is what you are supposed to do.  To not do otherwise is sin.  Not reading the Bible and praying every day, not going to church every time the door is open, not being Christian or religious in every sense of the term is sin, pure and simple.  And so, the motivation to be religious for some is guilt.  Guilt is the motivation for being religious, and guilt is the consequence if you fail to be religious as you feel that you should be as your conscience or as someone else dictates that you ought to be.  And so, one may attend church every Sunday simply because if he or she doesn’t, they will be left with loathsome feelings of guilt the rest of the week.

So to reiterate, some people have just enough religion to make them miserable, be it a dose of strict religion in childhood, a regiment of elementary rules and regulations type of religion for the purpose of avoiding punishment, or a guilt-driven religion where guilt acts like an enforcer to keep one line.

But could there be another, more mature way?  Could it be that religion – in addition to some good rules, beliefs, Bible reading and prayer – at its best is a party?  Now, I have to be totally honest with you this morning.  The idea of the Kingdom of God being a party is not my original idea.  Books have been published bearing the title The Kingdom of God Is a Party, and sermons by famous preachers have been preached that were titled “The Kingdom of God Is a Party.”  So I am indebted to others much more famous than I am for the sermon title and concept.

For instance, last week I watched a YouTube video of sociologist and preacher Tony Campolo delivering his “The Kingdom of God Is a Party” sermon.  Now, in case you have never heard of Tony Campolo, he is the Don Rickles of the pulpit.  I heard Campolo preach in person some 30 years ago.  He and comedian Don Rickles could almost pass as twin brothers in looks, mannerisms, and their humorous approach.  Back during the Clinton presidency, Campolo was one of Bill Clinton’s spiritual advisers.  Theologically, I would describe him as a progressive Evangelical.  Campolo’s theology is that of a conservative Evangelical, but he is progressive or perhaps liberal on social issues.

Campolo repeatedly asks the question in his sermon, “What time is it?”  And he expects the congregation to shout back, “It’s party time!”  Such is what Campolo says the good news of the gospel is – party time. And not surprisingly, one of the two New Testament passages Campolo draws upon as the basis of his theology and ministry is the story of Jesus turning the wedding water into wine.

This story of Jesus attending the wedding in Cana and turning the water into wine is unique to John’s gospel.  And as with other stories in the gospel, it is loaded with symbolism, metaphors, and teaching that lie deeper than the surface story itself.  (By the way, as an aside, when I Googled this story just to see what I could find, a number of sites popped up devoted to arguing whether the substance of the miracle was fermented wine or non-alcoholic grape juice, debates which missed the point and reasons of the story altogether.)

But back to some of the metaphors.  The early Christians would come to see Jesus as the divine bridegroom and the Church his bride; hence, the wedding imagery.  The wine would become the symbol of Jesus’ blood that was shed for the world.  Jesus, as the new and best revelation of God, is “the best wine” that was saved until the end.  Such was John’s theology.

Commenting on this story, Campolo says, “Jesus turned the water into wine because he didn’t want the party to end.”  In several places in the gospels (not just in John), Jesus is pictured as one who enjoyed parties and feasts.  He was even accused by his enemies as being one who often partied with the wrong crowd – tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “sinners.”  In fact, Jesus even says of himself, in repeating what his accusers had to say about him, “The Son of man is come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:34 NKJV)

The other passage that serves as a foundation for Campolo’s theology and ministry is, as one might imagine, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The story of the prodigal coming home to a big party and celebration thrown by his father is symbolic in the story of the joy in heaven over those who repent and find their way home to God.  Thus, Campolo concludes, “In the Parable of the Prodigal, the message of Jesus is the Kingdom of God is a party.”

So, what does all of this mean for us, members and attendees of this United Church?  Well, for me it means that our faith, our religious practice, our church attendance should be something that brings us great joy.  Our conception of God is that of a Supreme Power, Being, or Spirit of the universe whose attributes are love, compassion, understanding, and inclusion, not an angry judge whose attributes are wrath, eagerness to punish, and exclusion.

I have long been a firm believer that getting up and coming to church on Sunday morning should be a joy and a pleasure, and that when people make an effort to come here (even on the coldest, rainiest Sundays of the year), they should leave here feeling much better inside and feeling much better about themselves than when they came.  Worshipping together, sitting in meetings together, eating together, and serving together in various ways in the community should be times of celebration and should bring us joy.  We don’t have cake and balloons every time we get together, but coming together should be occasions of joy and celebration nonetheless.  The Kingdom of God – being a member of the church – should be a party!

But I fear that far too much Christian practice in the world today is lacking in joy and celebration, and that is one contributing factor to the decline in church attendance and in the increasing sense of disdain among many for organized religion.  After all, who wants to support organized religion that is nothing more than a book of negative rules and regulations that dictate you shouldn’t do this and you can’t do that, or that makes one feel more guilty about self, or where the services and other gatherings are more like Jerry Springer Show-like family squabbles or funeral home wakes than celebrations of life? Campolo’s contention is Christians should be bearers of joy wherever they go.  And the other part of that Billy Sunday quote I shared in the beginning is, “If there is not joy, you have got a leak in your religion somewhere.”

As Tony Campolo and others have contended, the Kingdom of God – and involvement in church – should be of a joyous, party spirit.  We should celebrate and find joy every time we congregate here.  And to your credit, that is one of the things I love most about this United Church – this is a place to find joy and to celebrate the common faith we share.  So, as Campolo asks in the course of his sermon, “What time is it?”  It’s party time!  Amen.

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