How Much Stuff Is Enough?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 16, 2016

1 Timothy 6:6-10 ESV

Last Sunday’s sermon included a couple of references to the fact that the tiny, stooped-over, Albanian nun that all of us had known for decades as Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now known as Saint Teresa.  Pope John Paul II had beatified her in 2003.  And Pope Francis canonized her on September 4 – a mere six weeks ago today.

I have long been an admirer of Mother Teresa.  As pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mother Teresa is admired all around the world as “an icon of charity, having spent half a century caring for the ‘poorest of the poor’ in India.”1  Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity from nothing with only 12 followers.  Today Missionaries of Charity members number more than 5,600 in 139 countries, running hospices, homeless shelters, homes for the mentally ill, among other things.  We admire the dedication of Mother Teresa in living a life of compassion with the poor, ill, outcasts, and dying of India, realizing that few, if any, of us could ever do what she did.

I also have a few of Mother Teresa’s books on my shelves and have been inspired by her short sayings and some of her prayers.  I identify with and appreciate the universal outlook she had, believing that “Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, etc., all have access to the same God.”1  And I take comfort in knowing that even she often doubted her faith and the presence of God in her life.  Yes, I have been inspired by the life, example, and writings of Mother Teresa since my seminary days when I bought her little book titled, A Gift for God.

But then as I read articles about Mother Teresa being canonized by Pope Francis, a couple of things I read having to do with her Missionaries of Charity jumped out at me and, I must confess, disturbed me a bit.  And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  In talking about the stringent requirements for those who aspire to becoming permanent members of the Missionaries of Charity, it was noted that they must go through a nine-year trial period.  But the fact that really set me to thinking is that for all Missionaries of Charity, “all their possessions must fit into a small box and visits to relatives are limited to one every 10 years.”  Such is intended to guard “against attachment to earthly goods and relationships.”  A spokesman for the Missionaries of Charity went on to explain, “A member must always be ready to ‘pick up your stuff, put it in your box and off you go.’”1

Now, stop momentarily to think about that: Limiting all your earthly possessions to what you can put in a small cardboard box!  I envision a box that copy paper comes in—about 18” long by 12” wide and 10” high.  My gut reaction when I first read that was, No way!  That seems to be a bit extreme, harsh even.  How in the world could I choose from among my earthly possessions so as to pair it all down to a small cardboard box?  I have way too many things that I love, cherish, am attached to, and that help define me and are a part of who I am.  Beloved books, a stack of favorite Bibles of various translations, family photos, cameras, cherished pocket knives given to me by family and friends, favorite articles of clothing (national park tee shirts, favorite sweater, favorite winter coats), cherished carpentry tools, beloved pieces of furniture, quilts my wife has made for me, not to mention my Jeep!  Limit my earthly possessions to one small cardboard box?  No way!  And most of us feel that way, I imagine.

But the Missionaries of Charity requirements regarding earthly possessions do have a biblical basis, as we have seen from today’s reading.  Now, the Apostle Paul has long gotten credit for writing the letters to Timothy and Titus. But few biblical scholars today believe that Paul actually wrote these letters.  They are much later in composition than Paul’s time, and back in that day it was common practice for someone’s followers to write in their mentor’s name.  The letters hold truth nonetheless.

At any rate, whoever the writer of this epistle was, he warned against becoming too attached to earthly belongings, reminding his readers of all times that “we brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of this world (1 Timothy 6:7).”  Channeling the spirit of Paul, he said, “if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content (6:8).”

Now, all of this thought about limiting earthly possessions to a small cardboard box led me to some random considerations that may be common to you as well. For instance, the reality is that for thousands – probably millions – of our world, limiting their earthly possessions to a small cardboard box is no problem at all; it is more a reality than a problem.  For many in developing nations, if they have food and clothing, they are content, because that is all they can ever hope to have and all they may long for as each new day begins.

But the number whose earthly belongings are limited to a small cardboard box is much greater now than it was ten days ago, as Hurricane Matthew wiped out the homes and possessions of thousands in the Caribbean and up the East Coast.  For these poor souls, limiting their earthly possessions is no longer a problem or a conscious choice.  Occasionally we need to be reminded of that.

Another random consideration is the confession that we do have too much stuff. I am reminded of this every time I go down to our basement and see all the “overflow stuff” that ends up there because we don’t have anywhere else to store it.

Why are we saving that?  Well, it is too good to get rid of.

Why not get rid of that?  Well, we might need it someday.

Why not give that away?  Well, we have sentimental attachment to it.

Our daughter has reminded us on more than one occasion – and rightly so, I must admit – that we need to have a massive yard sale and get rid of some stuff, because someday when we are dead and gone, she doesn’t want to have to deal with it.  And I understand that.  We have had the task of sorting through and getting rid of massive piles of stuff that relatives left us and siblings to sort.  And our daughter and son-in-law had the task of sorting through and getting rid of massive piles of stuff that a relative of his left behind.  It can be an overwhelming task!

Someone in our congregation shared the story of how after the parents had died, the children climbed into the attic of their house to find it packed with stuff, and one of them made the comment, “This is child abuse!”  And yet, how many of us at or nearing retirement age would have to plead guilty?

But the truth of the matter is, for those of us who have become accustomed to accumulating and being attached to “our stuff,” downsizing and pairing back our earthly belongings doesn’t come easily.  I see this all the time with those who face the prospect of leaving their homes of 40, 50, or 60 years to move into a small assisted living studio or apartment.  As Bill Clinton once remarked, “I feel your pain.”  It can be a painful experience, but one that all of us will eventually face.  Although some may be a bit farther along than others, we are all in this boat together.

One of my favorite tv shows of late is “American Pickers” aired on the History Channel.  “American Pickers” chronicles the adventures of two antique pickers and their assistant who travel the United States in search of unique and rare  antiques and Americana; things like old metal gas station and car dealership signs, bicycles, antique metal toys, and so on.  But the pertinent point here is the fact that the collectors and hoarders from whom they try to buy these items are often reluctant or unwilling to let them go because of their sentimental attachment to the stuff.

Now, when I started this sermon, I broke one of the cardinal rules of seminary preaching class – I had no idea where I was going with it.  My early preaching professor, Dr. John Ed Gardner, taught us to write your conclusion first; that is, know where you are going with your sermon development and stay on track to make sure you get there.  But I didn’t really know where I was going with today’s topic, “How Much Stuff Is Enough?”

But I think where I want to go is to suggest that all of us take the idea of limiting our earthly possessions to a small cardboard box as a motivator to start thinking about how much stuff is enough.  And then slowly start the process of limiting purchases, asking, “Do I really need to add that to all my stuff?”; gradually scaling back; slowly giving away; and so on, while blessing someone else’s life with something we don’t need any more but they do need, and by making it easier on our children or grandchildren who will someday have to sort through it all.

Yes, the Missionaries of Charity requirement of limiting all your earthly possessions to a small, cardboard box has led me to do some thinking and start addressing the question that beckons to be answered by all of us – “How much stuff is enough?”  May we at least start thinking about it.  Amen.


1Francis X. Rocca, “Teresa’s Other Lifework: Building a Religious Order.  Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, September 3-4, 2016.

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Taking a Broad View of Contemplation

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 9, 2016

Psalm 145:1-9 CEB; Reading from Mother Teresa’s, A Gift for God

Today’s sermon is actually a sequel and further development of one of the points of last Sunday’s sermon which dealt with two characteristics of classical Christianity – contemplation and compassion.  To give a quick recap, last week I quoted contemporary Christian writer Brian McLaren, who suggests in his new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, that Christians should “rediscover their faith . . . as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion.”

Well, I have given a number of sermons on the topic of compassion over the years.  Compassion in my view is the defining characteristic of the spirit and ministry of Jesus and should be the defining characteristic and life goal of every Christian.  But I have touched on the subject of contemplation much less frequently, if at all.

I suggested last week that perhaps if we here at the United Church have room for improvement, it might be in providing more opportunities for contemplation, but broadly defined – prayer, study, meditation, spirituality, and in other ways that nourish the soul.  And the two keywords in my suggestion were contemplation and broadly; seeking to expand our perception of and appreciation for contemplation in various venues, so as to make it accessible and rewarding to all of us.

Now, I realize that spiritual contemplation properly speaking is a narrow field of Christian practice followed by a small percentage of the faithful over the centuries.  And I must offer a disclaimer: I am no expert on the subject of contemplation by any means; I would never pretend to be.  I am just a student who has much to learn on the subject like some of the rest of you.

But many who lived contemplative lives did so as hermits, in isolated places, out of the mainstream of society.  For instance, during the third and fourth centuries, there were those who are known today as the Desert Fathers who moved to the deserts of Egypt so as to live solitary, contemplative lives.  The Desert Fathers sought to grow spiritually and know God; they sought to center their lives on charity, hospitality, and compassion.  Many of the reflections of these faithful were collected and have come down to us as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

As indicated with the Desert Fathers, one of the primary venues for the contemplative life was monasticism.  One of the many monks who gave his life to contemplation was Brother Lawrence.  Brother Lawrence was a 17th century Parisian monk.  And from him we get the Christian classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.  Brother Lawrence learned to practice the contemplative life when he was assigned to work in the monastery kitchen washing pots and pans.  It is said that “for some fifteen years [he] ‘found great ease in doing things’ there.”  Later Lawrence was later given the task of cobbling shoes, and in this task he also “found delight.”

A late 13th and early 14th-century contemplative was Meister Eckhart who spoke of the “little spark of God” concealed within humanity and preached to the common people about “the unity of God and man.”  Other fairly well-known persons who lived contemplative lives were Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.  More contemporary contemplatives were Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, more recently known at St. Teresa.

True to the spirit of the contemplative life, each of these persons I have mentioned sought to see or know or come to a vivid awareness of God.  Each one gave time to deep consideration of things spiritual, but also spiritual experience and not just rational thought.  As we have read from the writings Mother Teresa left us, “We need to find God and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence. . . We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

At the same time, many who are known for having lived contemplative lives did so while going about daily life.  I have already noted Brother Lawrence who was contemplative, but also spent much time in the monastery kitchen and then later as a cobbler of shoes.

Meister Eckhart was an active theologian and philosopher.  Thomas Merton was an active writer of some 70 books, as well as a social activist.  Mother Teresa – now St. Teresa – was founder and leader of the Missionaries of Charity and gave her life to ministering to the poor, sick and dying.

Well, the point I am trying to make is one can, but doesn’t have to, move to an isolated monastery in the desert in order to live a contemplative life.  I want to contend that one can live a contemplative life while going about his or her everyday life in the world.

And so, we have arrived at the crux of the sermon: Could it be that one can be contemplative – broadly speaking – as we engage in those activities that nourish our souls?  I am referring to such activities as music, writing, reading, painting, pottery making, quilting, photography, woodworking, cooking, hiking, even gardening.  I contend that if we make them so, each of these activities and more can be conducive to contemplation in the broad sense of the term.  But we have to be intentional in making them so.  Such activities can be opportunities for spiritual contemplation, meditation, prayer even.

To cite just one example from our offering of activities here at the United Church, our Prayer Shawl Group is a perfect example of an activity that seeks to combine the art of knitting or crocheting with prayer and meditation.  The original intent of the Prayer Shawl movement was to combine the making of shawls for the sick and others needing encouragement with prayers for whomever the recipient will be as the shawl is made.  So when the shawl is given to someone, it is not just an article of clothing made of yarn; it is a visual and tangible embodiment of the many hours of love, concern, and prayerful thought that went into its making.  Such was the original intent of the Prayer Shawl Ministry.

On a personal note, it has been no secret that for me visiting our national parks and standing in awe of Nature’s majesties proves to be a religious experience.  I, in the spirit of today’s psalmist who said, “I will contemplate your wondrous works,” find myself in contemplation in the world of creation.  And then nature photography becomes a contemplative exercise for me as well.

But many of you have your own interests and activities which lead you to lose yourself in the experience, and give you opportunity to contemplate and think deeply about God, religion, life, faith, spirituality, and so on.  I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever but that contemplative Brother Lawrence had some deep religious thoughts and insights while he was washing pots and pans and cobbling shoes.  If Brother Lawrence could have a deep, contemplative thought while cobbling a brother’s shoe, why can’t I be in contemplative thought while standing before Half Dome or the General Sherman giant sequoia tree, or watching an orange-pink sunrise, or building a piece of furniture in my woodshop?

And by the same token, why can’t you be in deep contemplative thought while making a prayer shawl or Chrismon’s ornament, or playing the piano, or reading or writing poetry, or painting a picture, making a piece of pottery, quilting, taking a nature photograph, cooking, gardening, hiking, or something else?

So my ultimate aim in today’s sermon is really threefold: First, to celebrate activities that we are already engaged in that are conducive to contemplation and meditation; second, to raise awareness of the importance of the contemplative life; and third, to encourage us as a congregation to consider additional ways to enhance and increase opportunities for contemplation in our common life.

The truth is, none of us is likely to move to the desert or mountaintop so as to pursue a solitary life dedicated solely to contemplation.  But I don’t believe God expects that of us either.  The good news is that some of the greatest Christian saints the world has ever known were contemplative and produced profound spiritual insights while they were also deeply engaged in real life in the world.  That being the case, it seems to me that you and I could enjoy some contemplative living as well.  And our lives – and our church – would be so much richer for doing so.  May it be so.  Amen.

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Jesus Kidnapped

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 2, 2016 (World Communion Day)

Matthew 14:13-21 CEB

The impetus for today’s sermon came from a New York Times article someone passed on to me titled “What Religion Would Jesus Belong to?”  The writer of the article, Nicholas Kristof, begins by noting that “One puzzle of the world is that religions often don’t resemble their founders.”1  “Many faiths have lost sight of their founders’ teachings,” the article contends.

Kristof goes on to quote Brian D. McLaren, one of today’s most popular and most adept writers on contemporary Christianity.  “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for” notes McLaren.  McLaren has also written in his new book, The Great Spirit Migration, “We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped [hence today’s sermon title] and held hostage by extremists.  His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously doesn’t believe.  As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as anti-poor, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant and anti-science.  That’s not the Jesus we met in the Gospels!”1

Well, I have to agree with McLaren—much of today’s Christianity is far from what we read about Jesus, his teachings, his attitude, and actions, and far from the spirit of the early Christian movement.  It seemed that this World Communion Day—which has as its theme Christian unity—would be a good opportunity to address this topic.

The truth is, it has been a common occurrence that religions tend to stray from the original spirit and intents of their founders as they transition from movements to organizations.  The article points out that this has been true not only for Jesus, but for Muhammad and the Buddha as well.  In all three cases—Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha—it is as though the founders of these religions have been kidnapped by extremists who use their name to propagate extreme teachings and despicable acts in their names.

When it comes to religious movements, organizational concerns, positions of leadership, and the innate human thirst for power tend to entice and corrupt and lead religious movements away from their roots and core principles.  The Jesus that we see depicted in much of Christianity today is totally foreign to the original, Galilean Jesus.  Jesus wouldn’t know himself as depicted by many today who claim to be his followers and speak in his name.

So what McLaren calls for in his new book, and what Kristof seems to be proposing in his article, is “for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life. . . .”

McLaren cites two characteristics of the original Jesus and suggests that today’s Christians try to adopt or return to them.  Curiously enough, these two characteristics are present in the scripture reading from Matthew.

The first characteristic of Jesus that McLaren notes is contemplation.  He suggests a Christian’s lifestyle today also be “rooted in contemplation.”  Today’s gospel story speaks of Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place by himself (14:13).  And rather than being a one-time occurrence for Jesus, we find in the gospels that it is something Jesus did often.  He often sought out lonely, desolate, private places for prayer, meditation, and contemplation. And many of the Christian saints have done likewise.  Some of the greatest, classic, devotional writings in the Christian library came to us as the written experiences of the followers of Jesus who spent their lives in contemplation.

And so, the suggestion is that Christians today would be so much closer to the spirit of the original Jesus, and the world would be so much better off, if we were more committed to lives of contemplation than we are concerned about what McLaren calls “a problematic system of beliefs.”

One of the primary points the Times article makes is there is marked decline in the interest in many about Christian doctrine and organizational bureaucracy; and hence, the migration away from organized religion.  But at the same time “there’s also a deep impulse for spiritual connections.”  And so, the implication is that churches today would do well to spend less time focusing on systems of doctrine and church bureaucracy, and more time on promoting lives of contemplation; i.e., prayer, meditation, spirituality, study, and other activities that nourish the soul.

Then the second characteristic attributed to the original Jesus and also noted in today’s gospel story is compassion.  “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith . . .and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks.  “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?” he asks.

Today’s gospel story says, “When Jesus . . . saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick” (14:14).  Then when the people became hungry, Jesus again had compassion for them and set about giving them something to eat.  Concern for and ministry to the sick and hungry—such defined the original Jesus who gave himself to a life of compassion.

Kristof suggests in his article, “If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world – and surely Jesus would applaud as well.”  What Kristof says inspires him are “the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters . . . a Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, an evangelical physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, [and] a rabbi battling for Palestinian human rights. . .”  In other words, people who put compassion into action.

So when we again consider all that goes on in the name of Christianity today, we realize that a life of contemplation and compassion is alien to much that seeks to pass itself off as true Christianity.  As McLaren suggests, it appears that Jesus has, indeed, been kidnapped.

But then as we bring this closer home and think about our United Church, we realize we aren’t too far off base, as this is a church that has never been concerned with doctrine, dogma, or a system of beliefs.  As I perceive the spirit of this United Church and try to describe it to outsiders or newcomers (as I did again this past week when someone called inquiring about our church beliefs), we are more concerned about learning how Jesus would have us live our lives in the world than what Jesus would have us believe.  We don’t argue beliefs or doctrines here; we try to live lives of compassion and service in the world

If there would be room for improvement here at the United Church, perhaps it would be in offering more opportunities for contemplation, in various manifestations.

And so, today’s sermon might have also aptly been titled “Two Characteristics of Classical Christianity: Contemplation and Compassion.”  On this World Communion Sunday when we seek to find common ground with true Christians the world over, may we do so in emphasizing contemplation (broadly defined to include prayer, meditation, spirituality, study) and compassion.  If more Christians and churches focused on contemplation and compassion, the world would, indeed, be a much better place.  May it be so.  Amen.

1Nicholas Kristof, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?” The New York Times, Sunday, September 4, 2016.

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Parable of the Gates of Separation

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 25, 2016

Luke 16:19-31 CEB

As I was looking to be inspired with a sermon topic for today’s service, I noticed that the passage selected as today’s reading happens to be the gospel Lectionary text for today.  For those not familiar with the Christian Lectionary, it is a system of four Scripture readings—a gospel, Old Testament, Psalm, and other New Testament reading—for every Sunday and every holy day of the year, based on a three-year cycle—years A, B, and C.  Many mainline, liturgical denominations follow the Christian Lectionary religiously.

But then, as I also thought about today being our Nicaragua fundraising lunch day, I decided that this parable, most commonly known as the Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, was also most appropriate for the theme of the day.  But for today’s purposes, I chose to rename the parable, “Parable of the Gates of Separation.”  Because so much of this parable has to do with separations. 

Obviously, the first gate of separation in the parable has to do with the physical gate that separated the poor, disease-ridden man Lazarus from the opulence and extravagance of the rich man who lived just on the other side.  Some translations say Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, and others say he was carried to the rich man’s gate every day, or even thrown at the rich man’s gate.  On one side of the gate the rich man fared sumptuously, eating the best food and wearing the best clothes money could buy.  On the other side of the gate the poor man craved for even the bread crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  A picture is drawn of two totally different worlds separated by one, thin gate.

Now what was Jesus trying to say when he first told this parable?  And then what was Luke trying to say by placing this story precisely where he did in his gospel narrative?   And why did the New Testament Church feel it was worth preserving?  The truth is, Jesus had his reasons for telling the story, and Luke had his reasons for including the story where he did, and the New Testament Church had its reasons for circulating and preserving this story.

Well, as Luke tells it, Jesus was conversing with those who put love of wealth over love for God.  The rich man represents those who serve mammon (riches, worldly gain, inordinate love of or attachment to material goods) rather than serving God.  The rich man lived in a gated community, consciously separating himself from the poor of his neighborhood.  But the story is placed within the larger context about money, and inordinate love for money, and being faithful with the money and other material goods that are entrusted to us.

Well, as the story goes, both men die.  We are wont to ask, “Did Lazarus die of starvation while lying at the rich man’s gate?  Did he die of malnourishment while the rich man threw table scraps out his back door?  Did he die from the sores for which he could get no medical relief?  Did Lazarus freeze to death one night lying at the gate?”

And what might have killed the rich man?  Over eating?  Illness—diabetes, heart disease, etc.—brought on by eating too many rich foods?  We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter, since this story is a parable and not a factual account, every detail of which we should not take literally.

But then we ask why this story was important to Luke and why he placed it precisely where he did in his gospel.  Well, it is common knowledge that Luke was an advocate for the poor and critic of those who loved and misused wealth.  In Luke’s framework, to the poor belong the Kingdom of God.  In Luke’s eyes, Jesus (and hence God) was partial to the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.  So the first gate of separation in this parable is the gate separating the poor of the world from the callous rich of the world who love their money more than they love God and fellow humankind.

The second gate of separation in the story is the gate between the blessed dead and the doomed dead.  Now, as already noted, this parable is just that: a parable that seeks to make a spiritual point (or points), but was not intended to be taken literally in every detail.  But as Jesus and Luke tell this colorful story, there was a “gate” or chasm that separated the world of the dead—those who had died, having lived faithful lives of love and service to God and humanity, and those who had died, having lived “unfaithful,” calloused lives of apathy toward God and humanity.  The faithful are said to have been ushered into the presence of faithful Father Abraham, and the unfaithful are said to have been transported to a lake of fire of punishment.  Although both Jesus and Luke may have believed that all will be judged by God in the afterlife according to their faithfulness or lack thereof, the idea of the unfaithful being transported to a lake of fire for eternal punishment while being able to see the faithful in paradise across a vast divide is not to be taken literally.  The idea of the doomed suffering in a lake of fire and being able to see the saved in Paradise and talk with Abraham is really sort of bizarre when you think about it.  Such was an image Jesus used, I believe, for dramatic effect in order to make his points.  Yet, many over the centuries have, and many still do today, take the images literally, believing the “unsaved” will be cast into a lake of fire for all eternity.

But the precise details of the afterlife is not the primary point of the parable.  The parable is not really about going to hell.  The primary points have to do with the gates that divide humanity between the rich and the poor, and the warning against loving money and earthly holdings more than loving God and humanity, especially needy humanity.

Whereas most parables have one main point, this parable is a two-pointed parable.  If we read the parable closely—especially the last two verses (30-31)—we see that the other primary point has to do with Jesus rising from the dead.

But regarding the gates theme, we know that the gates that separate today are many and varied.  We could spend a long time discussing the gates in America that separate and divide us.  In the course of each week most of us probably maneuver around a number of “invisible gates” that are mentally erected between the rich and poor, Black and White, liberal and conservative, Christian and Muslim, straight and gay, and you fill in the blanks.

But for today’s purposes, we want to focus on the gates that separate us as comfortable Americans from the poor and underprivileged of Nicaragua.  And in making that statement, I don’t intend to be disparaging in any way to our Nicaraguan friends.  I accompanied our Mission Team to Nicaragua in 2009, as a number of our United Church members have done over the years.  And during that week I met so many wonderful people and made some wonderful Nicaraguan friends.

But the truth is, many of the folks in Nicaragua have not had, and do not have, the privileges that most of us here in Oak Ridge take for granted.  Many live in very primitive housing, with no medical care, in great need of eye glasses and dental care, and in need of medications and vitamins.  It might be said that a “gate of opportunity” is the dividing wall between us.  But we have another chance this October to penetrate that dividing gate a bit, as we lend mission team support to those who will bless many in some of the villages in Nicaragua, taking along medicines, eye glasses, a caring presence, and especially love and compassion.

But in addition to donating to this wonderful mission opportunity, may we also be more intentional about opening up and removing those invisible—but real nonetheless—gates of separation  that exist in our country, our community, and our day-in and day-out lives.  The gates that divide are real and many.  It is up to us to open them up.  Amen.

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Some Ways Hymns Are Born

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 18, 2016

Psalm 5 ESV

At the 10 am service on September 11, Ed Blakeman sang a new hymn I had recently written to the familiar tune Finlandia.  A number of our members requested that I share the words, which I did send out this past Monday as an Inspirational Moment of a different order. Someone asked how such a hymn comes about.  And as I thought about the question and an answer I might want to give, as well as the influence that the Psalms had on the composition of that hymn, an idea for a sermon evolved.

“All Through the Night” is not the first hymn I have written.  We sang another one of my hymns, “God Whose Face Shines Through Creation” (to the tune Austrian Hymn), in April in observance of Earth Day.  Like a few others at the United Church, I have also written several dozen poems.  And in many respects, writing words for a hymn is very similar to writing a poem, except in the case of a hymn you have to work within the restraints of the number of beats or measures in each line of the hymn tune that is chosen.

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself when it comes to writing words to a hymn or a poem, but for me the idea for either a hymn or a poem is born with an image that strikes me in a particularly strong way.  Once I have an image in my mind, a phrase takes shape around that image which sets the cadence and rhythm for the entire piece. To give a few examples from poems I have written, watching a cardinal out a bedroom window one cold, winter’s day inspired this image and first line:

“A Cardinal with an apple-colored coat,” a line having ten syllables (called iambic pentameter), which set the tone for each of the lines that were to follow.

The image of yellow forsythias blooming in a fence row inspired this beginning stanza:

“Forsythias blaze

With the yellow of sun

Along property lines

On this early March morning.”

One more example of an image that set the pace of a poem—spring raindrops:

“Big Spring raindrops holding fast to bare trees,” another image that developed into a phrase or line of ten syllables.

And so, to reiterate, for me most often a poem or words to a hymn are born with an image that gives rise to a phrase, which charts the course for the entire piece.

But another source of inspiration obviously can be some dramatic event or experience that profoundly speaks to the soul.  In the case of the hymn, “All Through the Night,” the image was the violence and massacre at the Orlando nightclub earlier this year, which gave rise to the lines,

“How long, O Lord, I cry and often wonder,

shall violent men, their hateful deeds impart?

And evil win over the good that men do?

And senseless killing rage throughout the land?”

And so, in that case it was an event and an image that gave rise to the hymn which expresses dismay over the growing violence in our land, but also the prayer and longing that someday things can be different.

Such brings me to the thought of the psalmist and Psalm 5 that served as today’s reading.  As I thought about the inspiration for “All Through the Night,” I had in the back of my mind the spirit of the psalmists who in several different psalms speak of evil men, violent deeds, nighttime restlessness, crying out to God, asking “How long?” and so on.  One might even say that I was channeling the general spirit of the psalmists without actually quoting any particular psalm in speaking of acts of violence.  And many of the psalms, you know, were originally meant to be sung as hymns in Temple worship.

As I reviewed some of the psalms, Psalm 5 seemed to be very close to the spirit of “All Through the Night.”  But what was it that inspired Psalm 5? we wonder.  The threat of “enemies” seems to have led to this particular prayer—and possibly hymn—of the person who penned Psalm 5.  Images that he uses to describe these enemies are evil, deceitful, bloodthirsty, and destructive.  Perhaps these enemies had posed a personal threat to the psalmist in some way.  Or maybe he saw these enemies in a general sense as enemies of God because of their evil deeds, violent acts, deceitful ways, plans of destruction, and what appeared to him to be blatant disregard for the laws and ways of God.  Or maybe the psalmist had in mind some national crisis which threatened the peace and well-being of the Jewish people.  No doubt but what some tangible event inspired the psalmist to pen these words that, by their very subject matter and nature, have had a universal appeal.  The Psalm can even be seen as relevant for us today as we think about acts of terrorism and continued violence in the news every day.

As already noted, often, a visual image coupled with some emotion-stirring event gives rise to a poem, prayer, or hymn.  For instance, a few years ago, a visual image connected to an emotional experience led me to write a little poem titled “Bird’s Nest.”  It was a terribly cold, blustery February day, about 10 degrees the best I can recall, with a stiff wind blowing, when I was assisting in the burial of a former church member in a country cemetery.  As we drove through the cemetery to the funeral tent, I spied an empty bird’s nest—completely void of life, of course—in the top of a bare, prickly bush.  The bird’s nest—empty and void of life—served as a fitting metaphor, I thought, for the lifeless body we were returning to the earth.

In many cases, it has been an image of the senses—some moving scene witnessed with the eyes, some unsettling sound heard with the ears, some traumatic experience that struck the emotions—and event together that inspired many of the hymns that we hold dear.

For instance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was moved by the sound of church bells ringing on Christmas Day in 1864 contrasted by canon blasts of the Civil War.  Those auditory images—Christmas bells and blasting canons—inspired him with the phrase, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” the first line of a poem that has become a popular Christmas carol.  But the canon blasts was a solemn reminder that there was no peace on earth that Christmas Day, at least not in the war-torn American states or in Longfellow’s life.

Julia Ward Howe was touring Washington D.C., also during the Civil War, and as she observed the image of Union troops gathered around their campfires at night, that image gave birth to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  One has to wonder if it was the phrase, “the watch fires of a hundred circling camps” that set the entire hymn in motion.

Katherine Lee Bates was taking a train ride from New England to Colorado when the visual images of wide, spacious blue skies; fields of grain; and purple mountains gave birth to the lines,

“O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!” developing into a hymn that in the opinion of many should be our national anthem.

You get the picture—a striking image coupled with some moving experience or event has been the genesis of many a beloved hymn and poem.

And then for the most part, we want our poems and our hymns to end on a note of hope.  Such is the way that many, if not most, of the psalms conclude.  The author of Psalm 5 concludes his poetic prayer on a positive note:

“Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy,

and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.”

Such is what I sought to do in “All Through the Night”:

“At break of dawn I lift my eyes and sunward; and see the rays roll back the clouds of gloom.

A gleam of hope shines through to give assurance that kindly deeds shall in the end prevail!

That humankind can someday live together in perfect peace and harmony and love.”

And so, a striking image, that gives rise to a phrase that sets the tone for rhythm and cadence that progresses to an expression of hope—such is the way that poems and hymns take shape in my mind.  And doing such, I believe, is following a pattern we see in many of the psalms.  Of course, I would never compare my paltry writings to the beauty and majesty we find in the Psalms.  But I hasten to acknowledge the inspiration I have gained from the Psalms for over 40 years, in my life, my ministry, and the pieces I am inspired to write.

So thank you for letting me share my experiences with you.  But sources of inspiration are all around us.  May we be open to the inspiring images that life sends our way.  Amen.

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In Celebration of Church Friends

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 11, 2016

Proverbs 27:9-10; 18:24 CEB; Reading from Ralph W. Emerson’s essay “Friendship”

One of the blessings we celebrate on Homecoming Sunday is friendship.  Friendship—perhaps more so than worship style, theology, the music program, or the quality (or lack thereof) of preaching—is what brings a lot of people here, some practically every time the doors are opened.  Not only do friendships and fellowship constitute a big reason for our Wednesday on the Hill gatherings, but for Sunday morning worship, Sunday School, and Coffee Hour as well.

The ancient book of Proverbs has some things to say about friendship. And so does American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. And so, I thought it most appropriate on this Homecoming Sunday to spend just a few minutes thinking about and celebrating friendships.  As Emerson observed, “Friendship should be surrounded with ceremonies.”  And what better ceremony than Homecoming Sunday?  So today’s sermon—rather than being a deep, theological treatise—will be words of affirmation and celebration.

The truth is, it often is easier and more natural to feel closer to friends in this United Church than it is to some family members.  Some, in fact, may consider this United Church family their family, so close are the bonds of friendship that have been forged here over the years.  Truly it is here in this United Church, as Proverbs says, “there are friends who are more loyal than family” (18:24 CEB).  Or as the English Standard Version renders it, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

Why do you think that is so?  Why is it that there can be a friend who sticks closer than a brother or sister?  Maybe one reason is we tend to forge friendships with those of like mind; with those of like outlook upon life; those of like philosophies about faith, religion, and/or politics.  My outlook upon life, my worldview, my religious views, and so on are much closer to those of my friends here at the United Church than with most of my extended family members.  In fact, it would be impossible for me to even have a conversation about faith, religion, or worldview with some of my extended family members.  We wouldn’t even be speaking the same language.  Some of you may be able to identify with that.

And friends are available in the hour of need.  When we have a personal or family crisis, it is our friends here at the United Church who are there for us to support us and walk through the crisis with us. Whereas for many of us, family members live far away and often aren’t even aware of the severity of the situation we are going through.

A few years ago, when our family faced some real crises, it was some of you—members of this United Church—who were there at the hospitals and stepped forward in other ways to show your support.  As already noted, for many, this United Church is a family away from family.  For others, for all practical purposes, it may be their only family—period.

Another thing about friends is they are the ones who allow us to be ourselves.  Or as Emerson put it, “A friend is one before whom I may think aloud.”  A friend is one with whom we can pour out our souls, share our deepest fears or inner pains or greatest disappointments, or reveal our wildest dreams.  We allow true friends to see that side of us that no one else may ever see.

True friends become our confidants, our advisers, our sounding board, or just a good listener as we pour our hearts out.  Most of us probably could think back to times in our lives when talking with a friend proved to be a crucial help at a difficult time or turning point in our lives.  I could name several friends, but I think of my good friend, Lawrence, who is a retired minister and pastoral counselor who lives in Smyrna, Tennessee.  When I was struggling with the decision of changing denominational affiliation, and which denomination would be the best fit and best move for me, time after time Lawrence was there to listen and gently ask questions and try to assist me in discerning the path I should follow.  That is the nature of true friends.

And friends are one primary measure of our personal wealth.  I once titled a funeral homily “The Wealth She Had,” noting that the person whose life we were celebrating died a wealthy woman.  And in saying that she was a wealthy woman, I was referring not to material wealth or monetary holdings.  Because I had no idea how much financial wealth she left behind.  There are many ways to measure a person’s wealth, you know.  Remember that Jesus said, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12;15 ESV).  I noted in that funeral homily that one way that her life was enriched was by her friends and neighbors.  In another place Emerson said: “God evidently does not intend us all to be rich, or powerful, or great, but He does intend us all to be friends.”

A poet put the same sentiment in verse, when he said:

“Of all the many blessings that our gracious Father sends,

I thank Him most of all today for loyal hearted friends.”

The bottom line that really matters, when all is said and done, is the quality of friendships we have nurtured and the wealth of true friends we have in our lives.

And so, with all of that having been said, if a church is being what it ought to be, it will do whatever it can to foster friendships.  It is a proven principle in church growth studies that many people will not stay involved in a church if they do not make and enjoy  the company of friends in that congregation.  And there is only a window of opportunity for those friends to be made.

As often happens when I am working on a sermon—coincidentally or providentially, you decide—an article comes my way that speaks to the topic I have already chosen.  This past week it was an article in The Washington Post on how to attract young people to your church.  I printed off the article to see what it had to say, but as I started reading it I soon realized that it also speaks to today’s sermon about church friends.

As the article points out, “it turns out cool [rock bands, flashy worship services, etc.] isn’t what young people want. . . 1,300 young churchgoers, ages 15 to 29, told us what they want: authenticity and connection.”1  When the authors of the article analyzed “the terms that young adults used to describe the churches or parishes that they chose, we [the article’s authors] noticed repeated words: welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable and caring.”  And “warmth is more than superficial community.  It’s ‘like family’” young people told them again and again.

The authors cite five ideas to help churches become warmer communities: meals, intergenerational worship, envisioning your worship space like a family room, peer friendships, and helping newcomers assimilate.

So the bottom line is, when it comes to church, and when it comes to life in general, nothing compares to, and nothing can take the place of, true, genuine friendships.  Perhaps Emerson said it best for all of us: “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends.”  Isn’t it so on this Homecoming Sunday?  Amen.


1Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin, “To attract young people to your church, you’ve got to be warm.  Not cool.”   The Washington Post, September 6, 2016.

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Work with a Purpose

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 4, 2016

Genesis 29:15-30 CEB

As I thought about a sermon for this, another Labor Day weekend, I decided I wanted to depart from the usual, traditional readings I have chosen in the past from the book of Ecclesiastes and such.  The book of Ecclesiastes is full of comments and advice about work, and it is the old “standby” when it comes to sermon texts on the topic of labor.  But I also wanted to speak to work as it applies to each of our lives.

So as I thought about the idea of labor in the Bible, I remembered this delightful story in the book of Genesis about Jacob and his sister-wives.  (As a side note, had there been television back in Jacob’s day, he could have hosted the original tv reality show called “Sister Wives.”)

But the pertinent point for today’s story has to do with Jacob and his work and the fact that he was willing to work seven long years in order to gain the hand in marriage of the beautiful young woman Rachel with whom he had fallen madly in love.  The story says that even though Jacob worked for his future father-in-law Laban for seven full years, “it seemed like a few days” because Jacob loved Rachel so.

But wait—there is more!  When Laban tricked Jacob on their wedding night and sent the older daughter Leah to the honeymoon suite, he asked Jacob to promise to work another seven years, and he would give him Rachel to be his wife as well.  Now, there is a lot going on between the lines in this story, and some of it causes us to question.

For instance, one thing that is going on in the mind of the storyteller is the fact that all his life Jacob had been the trickster—the deceiver.  He had been the one to trick his brother Esau, taking from him his birthright and their father’s final blessing.  So strained had the relationship become between Jacob and his twin brother Esau, that Esau was ready to kill him.  So their mother sent Jacob away to dwell with relatives to avoid his brother’s wrath.  And it was in the company of their relatives that Jacob the trickster met and fell in love with Rachel.  But in an ironic turn of events, the trickster—the deceiver—now becomes the one who gets tricked, deceived, by his father-in-law, who takes advantage of him the way Jacob had always taken advantage of his brother Esau.

And then we ask, “Well, how could Jacob have not known that it was Leah in his honeymoon suite instead of Rachel?”  Well, wedding customs in that day helped conceal the deception, including the use of heavy veils worn by the brides and possibly heavy drinking before and during the wedding festivities.  Such may have contributed to Jacob not really knowing who he was marrying or honeymooning with.

But the primary point of today’s sermon has to do with work.  And the fact that Jacob was willing to work seven years for the one he loved, and then an additional seven years when his father-in-law took advantage of him.  In short, Jacob’s work was work with a purpose.  And in that regard it was not a burden at all for him.

Work can become quite monotonous and burdensome when there is no perceived purpose involved.  It is sort of like being in a detention camp or on a military base where you are forced to dig holes in the dirt every day, only to fill them back in and do the same thing the next day.  What purpose is there in such activities?

But most of us have probably been there at some point in our lives—not digging literal holes, but feeling like we were working with no perceived purpose in view.  And sadly, there are too many people in our world today who do such day in and day out.

When there is no purpose attached to our work, one of the dangers is burnout.  I remember reading a book that a friend loaned me several years ago by Harold Kushner who observes that a person can work long hours each week if there is a sense of enjoyment, accomplishment, or some positive reward or purpose involved.  But burnout can occur when we work and we don’t have the feeling that our work is making any difference.

A few years ago there was a lot written on the subject of clergy burnout and how a lot of ministers were experiencing burnout by working and being on call long hours each week and feeling that what they were doing wasn’t really making a difference.  You could go into a Christian bookstore and find any number of titles on clergy burnout.  But burnout certainly isn’t limited to clergy.  Whatever one’s job or profession, if one feels that all the long hours and hard work aren’t really making a difference, then the propensity to burnout is much greater.

In his book titled When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Kushner observes, “the key to our happiness, to our being able to find pleasure in our work, is the sense that we are using our abilities, not wasting them, and that we are being appreciated for it.”1

So then, when one is engaged in work with a clear purpose attached, and the feeling that our work is making a difference, the work becomes much more enjoyable, rewarding, and worthwhile.  So the father or single mother who not only works one but possibly two jobs with the purpose of supporting a spouse and/or sending children to college so they can have a better life than they had may have a real sense of satisfaction in their hard work because they have a noble purpose in view.  We have all read of the single mother who may spend her days mopping floors in order to send her children to college, and is happy to do so.  One who can see work as a labor of love—as the Prophet Gibran noted—will find much greater satisfaction in it.

But yet another by-product of work, in addition to providing satisfaction because of the greater purpose attached to it, is providing meaning.  Kushner goes on to say in that chapter I quoted from earlier, “We work so that our days will not be empty of meaning.”2  There is the key, isn’t it?  We may gripe and grumble about going to work day in and day out, but the truth is work gives our lives meaning as well as purpose.  One of the basic human needs is to feel like our life matters.  And one big way that our lives matter is through the work we do, whether that work be a paid job or profession, volunteering, or taking care of a family or other loved ones.

And many people, when they retire, have a difficult time and may even fall into depression because that thing that they often grumbled about and sometimes loathed was actually what gave their life meaning.  And without that work and life’s meaning, they feel lost.  I could name people who worked for 40 years at the same job, and when they retired fell into mild depression because they didn’t know what to do with themselves.  A good way to address that problem is finding a way to do some part-time consulting work or volunteering and utilizing those work skills to help others, as several members of our congregation have learned to do.

Naturalist John Burroughs observed, “The wealth that comes to a man through his efforts in furthering the work of the world and promoting the good of all is the only worthy wealth.”3

And so, Labor Day weekend gives us the opportunity to think about and possibly ask some questions about the work we do, whether that work be to earn a living, take care of a family, or volunteer for some charitable organization that seeks to meet human need.

Is there a worthy or noble purpose in the work that I am doing?

Can I view my work as a labor of love for others?

Does my work (or consulting or volunteering) provide my life with a sense of meaning and purpose?

If we can answer in the affirmative to these questions, then maybe those answers will provide a different—and more positive—lens for viewing the work we do week in and week out.  Work with a purpose—may it be so.  Amen.


1Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.  New York: Pocket Books, 1986, p. 149.  2Ibid, p. 150.

3John Burroughs, Leaf And Tendril.  Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1908, p. 258.

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