Success in Spite of Setbacks

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 21, 2016

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV

One of the photographs I took in Yosemite Valley was on the path to Mirror Lake.  It was of a large pine tree that had a big, sharp boulder embedded in its side.  It was difficult to determine if the boulder had rolled into the tree at some point after the tree had commenced growing, or if the boulder had been there all along and the trunk of the tree had grown around the boulder’s sharp edges and taken its shape from it.  But as can be seen from the photograph (which is posted on the Reflective Naturalist, my photo blog), so embedded in the trunk of the tree is the huge boulder, it has merged with and become part of the tree itself.

We could easily say that the boulder long ago became somewhat of a “thorn in the side” of the pine tree, irritating it, testing it, most likely even endangering its health and well-being.  Yet, from all appearances, the pine tree adapted to the large and painful “thorn in its side” and has continued to grow, thrive, and be successful in spite of the tremendous obstacle that has been cast upon it.

When I saw that tree, I was reminded of the passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where Paul shared his own experience of having a thorn in his side cast upon him.  There has been much speculation by biblical scholars over the centuries about what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” might have actually been.  It appears that it could have been some sort of bodily disease or chronic illness that troubled Paul.  Some have conjectured it was a debilitating eye disease, because of other places where Paul speaks of having to write with such large letters (Galatians 6:11) and the fact that the Galatian Christians would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to Paul, had it been possible (Galatians 4:15).

Others have conjectured that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was some sort of physical temptation that he struggled with; some issue that became a spiritual battle for him.  Still others have suggested that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” could have been an enemy or enemies who troubled or persecuted him.  We likely will never know.  But it really doesn’t matter.  The point is there was some problem, weakness, illness, or other challenge that plagued Paul constantly that made daily living or keeping the faith difficult for him.

Well, Paul relates how that he prayed over this problem three times that the “thorn in his flesh” might be removed and he could go on with his life.  But it wasn’t.  The problem didn’t just magically disappear because he prayed that it might.  Rather, Paul relates that instead of having the problem removed, he received grace enough to deal with it.  Grace as such can equal invisible, previously-unknown strength and ability to deal with life challenges in ways we might have never dreamed to be possible.  Some of us can look back over the years and some of the trials and troubles that we personally or our family has endured, and at times we wonder how we ever made it through such a trying ordeal.  Perhaps it was nothing short of grace—God’s grace and the grace of a loving, supportive community—that got us through it.  And such illustrates how important a loving, supportive community like our United Church becomes when we or our families are enduring the storms of life.

But regarding that “thorn in the flesh,” through grace Paul learned to continue with his life and be successful in his work—preaching across the Mediterranean World and establishing numerous churches, and writing more books of our New Testament than any other writer—in spite of the problem that plagued him.  He learned that when he was weak—humanly speaking—then he was made strong.

History books are full of stories of those who had tremendous burdens thrust upon them—physical handicaps, crippling conditions, debilitating illnesses—and yet, they were able to rise above those conditions so as to live productive, satisfying, and successful lives.  We might study the life of Helen Keller who was both blind and deaf, yet became famous around the world because of her lectures, writings, and inspiration to all with physical handicaps.  We might study the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who didn’t let the crippling effects of Polio stop him from becoming the longest-sitting President of the United States and one of the best presidents America has ever had.  We might study the life of the great composer Beethoven who became deaf, but who continued to compose some of the most beautiful pieces of music known to humankind.

Much more unfamiliar to the world was a man by the name of Harold Wilkie.  Harold was born without arms and hands.  So to do everyday things that most of us do with our hands and take for granted, Harold had to learn to do with his mouth or his feet. But Harold didn’t let his severe disability stop him.  He became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and excelled in many different ways.  As you might imagine, Harold became a spokesperson and advocate for all persons with disabilities.  Harold became a living example of how one can—in his or her weakness—become strong.

Another writer of the last century who sheds light on this topic of finding strength in our weakness was Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who wrote 39 books, but is perhaps most famous for a little book titled The Wounded Healer.1  The Wounded Healer was actually written for ministers who found and who still find their traditional roles crumbling in an ever-changing world.  But one of the points that Nouwen makes is that everyone lives a broken life.  There is no life free of pain, problems, brokenness, or woundedness.  Every one of us is wounded in some way, including ministers.  Nouwen wrote, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.”   I would suggest that all of us might be compared to handmade earthen pottery, every piece of which has some flaw or imperfection or wound, some greater of them being greater flaws or imperfections or wounds than others.

But Nouwen continues, “The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’  When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

As we see, Nouwen’s contention is that it is from our woundedness that we are able to reach out to and minister to others.  Nouwen says, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope. . . .”

Well, Nouwen continues as he expands the thought from individuals to the ministry of churches: “A Christian community is therefore a healing community, not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision. . . and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.”

Nouwen, not unlike the Apostle Paul, endured his own internal struggles—an emotional “thorn in the flesh,” we might say—including a struggle with his own self-identity and sexuality.  Curiously, and to his great credit, in his later years, Nouwen dedicated his life to working with mentally and physically handicapped people at the Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Well, what we learn from both Henri Nouwen and the Apostle Paul is it is our very weakness that gives authenticity to our relationships with others, as well as our message and work; we find that in our weakness we are actually made strong.

And as with the pine tree with the large boulder wedged in its side, we, too, can often overcome, thrive, and be successful or content in life, in spite of those thorns—or large boulders, as the case may be—that life throws our way.  May we be inspired by the examples of those who have gone before us who overcame and thrived in spite of their thorns and boulders.  And may we all have the grace and the strength to do so as well.  Amen.

1Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer.  Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979, pp. 93, 94.

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What to Do with that Anger

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 14, 2016

Ephesians 4:25-26, 31-32 GNT

Witnessing a public fit of anger can be an unsettling experience.  I have witnessed a few fits of anger over the years, and no doubt you have as well.

To give an example, the day we were scheduled to return from our vacation, I received a 4:15 am text informing us that our flight had been cancelled.  That is not the kind of wake-up call you like to get.  But we still had to jump up and pack up, return our rental car, catch a shuttle four miles to the airport, and then stand in line at the ticket counter to get re-booked.  When we finally arrived at the airport ticket counter, there were hundreds of other stranded passengers standing in line ahead of us.  After about three hours of standing in line, we finally were booked on an early morning flight for the following day and given a hotel voucher to spend the night.  But then we had to lug all of our luggage to the other side of the airport to catch a shuttle to our hotel.  We were warned that the shuttle could only carry so many passengers, and if the number standing in line exceeded the number of seats, those who were left would have to arrange their own transportation.

Another couple on our same flight happened to be the first ones in line for the hotel shuttle.  They only had one small carry-on bag each, which they thought would be a plus for them.  But unbeknownst to all of us, the shuttle driver was counting bodies as he loaded checked bags into the back of the van.  So when it came time to get on the shuttle, this couple who arrived first were told they had not been counted and might not get to board.  Well, they were quite upset, as you might imagine, as most of us would be.  And what ensued was a fit of anger toward the shuttle driver which proved to be an unsettling and embarrassing situation for everyone standing there.

Anger—what do we make of it?  What do we do with it?  Is anger (or wrath as it was also called) a deadly sin, as it was long ago characterized as being?  Is anger always wrong?   Or is anger sometimes justified?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that unchecked anger can lead to all kinds of trouble, pain, and disaster.  One of the most obvious results of anger can be violence against another, murder, or mass murder, or even terrorism.  We hear of it in the news practically every day.  And all of us are familiar with the term “going postal.”  Loss of a job, an unfaithful spouse, being a victim of a crime such as robbery or rape, being passed over for a promotion, having your flight cancelled and being stranded when you need and want to go home—such things and more can result in anger that might manifest itself in a fit of rage, violence, or even murder.  So it is easy to see why there are so many warnings against anger in the Bible and other places of well.

Speaking of the Bible, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians left us a classic—and somewhat enlightening—passage on the subject of anger.  I checked and compared a number of different Bible translations so as to see different shades of meaning.

The old King James Version renders Ephesians 4:26: “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”

The English Standard Version: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

The Common English Bible: “Be angry without sinning.  Don’t let the sun set on your anger.”

And the Good News Translation, which I liked best and served as today’s reading: “If you become angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day.”

The import behind this verse seems to be that sometimes it is okay to be angry, but just don’t let your anger lead you to doing something reckless, foolish, sinful, or violent!

But what about Jesus?  What was his opinion and teachings about anger?  Curiously enough, there are only two verses in the four gospels really connecting Jesus with the word “anger.”  The first is in Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment” (Matthew 5:22 CEB).  A curious thing is some ancient manuscripts add the words “without cause,” so the verse would read, “everyone who is angry with their brother or sister without cause will be in danger of judgment.”

And the other gospel reference connecting Jesus with the word “anger” or “angry”  is the story, as recorded by Mark, about when Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and healed a man with a paralyzed hand.  The authorities were hoping to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing—healing or working on the Sabbath Day.  So it says that “Jesus was angry as he looked around at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong” (Mark 3:5 GNT).  (There is the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple, but that story doesn’t actually use the word “anger” or “angry.”)

A recent newspaper article on anger got my attention that might hold some wisdom for us.  The article is titled “It’s okay for Christians to be angry.  What matters is what you do with that anger.”1  The article notes “how central anger has become in American politics,” revealing itself at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.  The author says, “There’s a widespread idea that anger is unsuitable for followers of Jesus Christ.  That’s plausible: Anger is dangerous.  It can twist our motivations and cloud our decision-making.  Worse, it can lead us to harm others.  In the public arena, unbridled anger can fuel gross injustice.

“But in fact, Christian tradition endorses anger.  Scripture teaches us that anger is a natural and necessary emotion.  It’s not a sin to be angry.  It’s what you do with your anger that counts.

“All anger has an object.  We get angry about something or at someone. . . It’s crucial to ask what the object of our anger is.”  He notes that if we are not careful, we may “direct that anger toward people who are not significantly to blame.”  He suggests that when we are angry for a good cause, we must not let our anger override our respect for others.

The article goes on to suggest that if we just sit on our anger and let it simmer, it is likely to turn into “slow-burning resentment.” But anger can be used as a motivator to spur us to action to bring about needed change or something good.  If we handle anger correctly, it can transition in problem-solving.

The author concludes and summarizes the article by saying, “Christians are called to examine the objects of our anger critically and honestly.  Christians are called to refrain from unjustly seeking vengeance on the ones we blame for our ills.  Christians are called not to dwell in anger, but to move through it toward constructive actions.  Christians are called to respect even those with whom we are angry.”

The truth is, there are many things in the world that might rightly lead us to be angry: a matter of injustice, against us personally or against another individual or against some group of society in general; acts of violence; cases of oppression; incidents of abuse.  To name just a few examples, some of the issues that should make all of us angry are child sexual abuse and exploitation, including child prostitution; human trafficking and human slavery; mass genocide by deranged and corrupt dictators.  These all-too-common realities of our world should make all of us angry.  The question is this: What can we do to channel our anger in such a way that we can make a positive difference in the world?  It is a difficult question to answer, isn’t it?

But then the anger that most of need help dealing with results from the frustrations and challenges of our everyday lives: that insensitive person at work, the gym, or maybe in our family that seems to go out of their way to frustrate us; the person who loses our medical records or other important paperwork; that cancelled flight; and you can fill in your own blank.  Can we at such times transform our anger into problem-solving or constructive action or turn it into a positive outcome?

Well, returning to that fit of anger that we witnessed at that hotel shuttle stop, we felt that the shuttle driver handled the situation wonderfully.  Never once did he raise his voice in return.  Throughout the whole ordeal he remained calm, polite, respectful and continued to smile.  And he went above and beyond the call of duty to get the couple on the shuttle bus by asking a father to hold a child on his lap, freeing up one seat for the husband, and pulling out the emergency seat behind the driver’s seat for the wife.  There was a sigh of relief and applause by the other 21 persons on the bus that the incident had been resolved and peace had been restored.  But had the shuttle driver dug in his heels and responded with anger in kind, the outcome could have been much different.

No, it is not necessarily wrong or a sin to get angry.  Even Jesus did so on at least one or two occasions.  The question is, What do we do with that anger?  And can we use our anger as a motivator to transform a situation and turn it into something good?  May such be an example for all of us.  Amen.

1Ryan McAnnally-Linz, ”It’s okay for Christians to be angry.  What matters is what you  do with that anger.”  The Washington Post, July 26, 2016.

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Answers and Questions, Marvels and Mysteries

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 7, 2016

Sirach 38:34-39:8 NRSV

On our “bucket list” is visiting as many of the major US national parks as possible as long as we are able to travel.  To date, we have visited 21 of the 59 major parks, and several of the additional hundreds of national monuments, historic sites, seashores, and wildlife refuges.  This summer’s travels took us to four California national parks: Death Valley, Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and Sequoia.  And again this year, as in years past, on more than one occasion I found myself standing in awe and marveling at some of the sights we beheld: the marvelous, brilliant colors of Death Valley landscapes; the breath-taking majesty and beauty of the polished granite formations of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite Valley; the massive, 2000+-year-old sequoia trees in King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.  We were able to stand before the two largest (by volume) living things on earth: the Generals Sherman and Grant giant sequoia trees.  You can stand in their presence and admire and marvel, but there is no way to either adequately photograph or describe to another the experience of standing before such majestic stateliness.

Also, as in vacations past, I was again struck by the great mystery of how such wonders of Nature come to be.  How was granite compressed and created deep within the earth, and then exposed and polished over eons of time to create something as majestic as El Capitan?  How does a tiny seed fall from a giant sequoia tree, land upon the earth at just the right place and time, and spout and grow and persevere so as to become the largest and longest-living thing on earth?  How is the terrain cut and carved so as to produce King’s Canyon that is several thousand feet deep?  And in a general sense, where in the world did all the elements and materials come from to begin with so as to produce such beautiful, impressive landscapes?   Such, for me anyway, constitute mysteries of the highest order!

Well, as I pondered these considerations and sought to place them within a religious or spiritual context, it occurred to me that religion from the earliest days has been concerned with marvels and mysteries, questions and answers.  In that light, I was reminded of the very fitting passage from the book of Sirach, which not only speaks of religious wisdom and understanding, but also being “at home with” obscurities and mysteries.

It very well may be that the earliest religious inclinations of humankind revolved around mysteries and marvels of the natural world.  Religious inclinations and rituals based upon the cycle of the seasons; admiration for the sun, moon and stars; believing the Divine was the cause of storms and other natural phenomena—such things evoked within early, thinking humans religious impulses, beliefs, and practices.

So it was only natural for religion to begin to try to provide answers for all the questions and mysteries evoked by natural phenomena: Where did it all come from?  Who made it?  How do we live so as to appease the power behind it all so as to assure good harvests, plenty of food to eat, and safe-keeping from storms and natural disasters.  And so, uncomfortable with the mysteries of life, religion sought to provide all the answers.  Sometimes the answers that religion provided were intended to be taken literally, and sometimes the answers given were meant to be symbolic or metaphorical.

We know that from the beginning within the Judeo-Christian tradition religion has been concerned with providing answers to life’s questions and mysteries.  Who is God?  How should humans live so as to best get along in society and the world?  What does the Almighty require of us?  What happens after death?  Such are some basic questions that religion early on sought to address.  And such resulted in Jews and Christians being called “People of the Book.”  That book includes Genesis and stories of creation; Exodus and the Ten Commandments; the eighth-century prophets like Micah, Hosea and Amos; Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew; letters of Paul addressing the mysteries of resurrection and life after death; and much more that seek to provide the answers.

And many of the answers that religion has given over the millennia have been invaluable to life on earth and human progress: You shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness; do justice and love kindness; do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and so on.  Yes, the answers religion gave often were right on target.

But at other times the answers religion gave were not quite as accurate and on target.  For instance, there was the answer that the earth and the rest of creation were created in six twenty-four hour days, just over six thousand years ago, in the year 4004 B.C.E.   There was the answer that the earth is the center of the universe with everything else—the sun, moon and stars—revolving around it.  There was the answer that erratic, unexplained behavior that today would be diagnosed as mental illness was caused by demon possession.  Perhaps it was in the areas of mystery where religion sought to provide the answers that it wasn’t always on target.

However, there are still branches of religion, including conservative branches of the Christian Faith, that feel they have to give this-is-the-way-it-is answers to every question of life and every mystery of creation.  A prominent American evangelist once made the statement that all the answers to all the questions that mankind has are to be found in the Bible.  And the recently-completed “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky, has caused no small controversy because of its cut-and-dried approach to creation of life on earth, which includes dinosaurs walking around with Adam and Eve.

But it seems to me that intrinsic within religion by its very nature is embracing the mysteries of life and creation.  That is one thing about religion that may make it different from science—religion seeks to embrace and hold and foster reverence for the great mysteries of creation and life itself.  At least that is the way I experience it.

And so, when I stand before the marvels and mysteries of creation and the natural world, such becomes for me a type of spiritual or religious experience.  Standing before El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and strolling through the Giant Forest of sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park was nothing short of a spiritual, religious experience for me.  You can’t help but stand in rapture and awe before such marvels and wonders.  Now, I realize that science has provided interpretive plaques that seek to explain how El Capitan was created and how the giant sequoia trees have been able to grow as they have and resist numerous forest fires and other possible destructive forces so as to survive and reach the stature they have.  Yet, for me that doesn’t diminish in the least the wonder and awe, mystery and marvel that I experience in their presence.

I like the way that American mythologist and comparative religion writer Joseph Campbell put it: “Anyone who has had an experience of mystery knows that there is a dimension of the universe that is not that which is available to his senses. There is a pertinent saying in one of the Upanishads: When before the beauty of a sunset or of a mountain you pause and exclaim, ‘Ah,’ you are participating in divinity. Such a moment of participation involves a realization of the wonder and sheer beauty of existence. People living in the world of nature experience such moments every day. They live in the recognition of something there that is much greater than the human dimension.”

And so, the bottom line is I am truly grateful for the practical answers—“the wisdom of all the ancients,” as Sirach puts it—that religion has provided for the world about how to get along in families, society, and the world at large—the Ten Commandments; the prophets’ emphasis on justice and kindness; Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount and his teachings on compassion, forgiveness, service, and so on.

But at the same time, I am “at home with the obscurities of parables,” to quote Sirach again; grateful that religion as I practice it gives room for embracing and reverencing the marvels and mysteries of life and creation.  Though I appreciate many of the answers to life that our religious tradition offers, at the same time I do not have to know all the answers to all of life’s questions and mysteries.  I am content standing in awe and holding in reverence and “meditating on” the great mysteries of life and the marvels of creation and the natural world.  And religion should give us space to do that: hold in reverence the marvels and mysteries of life and creation.  That is the way I see and experience it at least.  Amen.

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Part of the Problem or the Solution?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 31, 2016

Romans 12:9-21 ESV

A liability or an asset?  A hurt or a help to the world?  Part of the problem, or part of the solution regarding all that is wrong in the world?  I am sure that every one of us would reply, “Of course I am an asset, a help, and part of the solution!”  But are we really–always?

What prompted and inspired today’s sermon were two different articles that captured my eye by two different writers about three weeks apart in The Washington Post.  The first article, “Pastor refuses to mourn Orlando victims,” was written by Lindsey Bever which, unknowingly at the time, served as a precursor for the second one.  This article is about the preacher of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento, California, who not only refused to mourn the 50 victims who were slain at the Orlando nightclub a few days earlier, but actually praised the brutal attack as a good thing.  In his sermon pastor Roger Jimenez suggested their deaths were well deserved and that “God says that they deserve the death penalty for what they do.”  He also said, “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die.  The tragedy is—I’m kind of upset that he [the gunman] didn’t finish the job.”1  Referring to what he called “sodomites,” Jimenez added, “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.” Jimenez’s congregation describes itself as an “independent, fundamental, soul winning, separated, King James Bible believing church.”

It was rightly noted by a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign that there was nothing at all Christian about Pastor Jimenez’s sermon.  Instead of offering sympathy or comfort to the survivors and the loved ones left behind, he was boldly preaching hatred from a supposed Christian pulpit.

The second Washington Post article that caught my eye was written by Tony Evans, pastor of a Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas.  The article’s title is just as provocative, but in a different way:  “America’s current violence can be traced to Christians’ failures.”2  Evans states, “Our troubles can . . . be traced directly to ineffective  Christians.  One of the real tragedies today is that the Church as a whole has not furthered God’s light, equity,  love and principles in our land in order to be a positive influence and impact for good in the midst of darkness, fear and hate.”

Well, I have to agree with Evans on that point.  Too often throughout history, the Church has not furthered God’s light, equity, love and principles.  There have been many occasions when the Church has been dead wrong; many periods when the Church has been on the wrong side of the issues; too many instances when the Church has been more of the problem than the solution to the world’s predicaments.

After hearing about Pastor Jimenez’s sermon, the first thought that came to my mind was the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, whose members travel all across America to protest and spew their hatred at the funerals of soldiers killed in battle and following other tragic events.  Their official website is “GodHatesFags.com,” and their contention is that tragic deaths, even of innocent victims, is God’s wrath and punishment upon America for our sins.  Such hatred and hurt that the members of Westboro Baptist Church bring to suffering survivors tends only to compound the problems of the world rather than help to solve them.

I was also reminded of the comments of prominent televangelists following Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans, to the effect that the hurricane was God’s punishment upon a sinful city and sinful America in general.

But then we could re-live history and recount many times when churches or the Christian Church in general have been part of the problem rather than the solution: the Christian Crusades, Salem Witch Trials, defending the institution of slavery, opposing the Civil Rights Movement and equality for all, support for Adolf Hitler (some German churches early on at least), and so on are just a few instances when churches have been on the wrong side of the issues.

As I continued reading Evans’ article, although I agreed with his premise that America’s violence can sometimes be traced to failure of Christians and churches, I found the solutions he offered to be somewhat shallow and in need of a bit of elaboration and development.

One of the problems is this: All too often individuals and churches can think they are an asset, a help to the world, and part of the solution when in reality they are just the opposite.  That is a problem with religion in general, I guess—it can foster tunnel vision.  I am sure that Pastor Jimenez is totally convinced in his own mind that he is doing “the Lord’s work” by preaching hatred against the LGBT community.  And I am sure that the members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, are convinced that they are doing “the Lord’s work” and helping make the world a purer, better place by their public demonstrations and condemnation of our nation’s sins.  But it seems to me that such individuals and such churches have missed the essence of Christianity entirely and are blinded to the way of Jesus and the real purposes of Christian faith.

Thankfully, Pastor Jimenez’s inflammatory sermon, which was posted on You Tube, received a lot of feedback by those who abhor Jimenez’s stance and hateful words.  For instance, Robert Lynch, a Catholic bishop in central Florida, wrote on his blog, “Sadly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people.”1

Shifting gears, I realize that the Apostle Paul at times can come across as being somewhat judgmental himself, and not everyone looks upon Paul with the greatest affection.  In fact, Pastor Jimenez based part of his hate-filled sermon on a verse in the first chapter of Romans where Paul quotes the book of Leviticus.  However, in his same Letter to the Romans (as we have seen in today’s scripture reading), Paul also left us a beautiful passage and marvelous instructions on how we should live as Christians and relate to others and get along in the world, so as to be an asset rather than a liability to the Faith, so as to be a help to the world instead of a hurt, and so as to be a solution for the world’s brokenness rather than compounding the problem.

Love that is genuine; blessing rather than cursing those we disagree with; weeping with those who weep rather than adding to their sorrow; living in harmony with others; being humble rather than proud and judgmental; returning good rather than evil for wrongdoing; living peaceably with all rather than stirring up strife; being kind to those who claim to be our enemies rather than seeking vengeance.  Such are guidelines for living and getting along with others in the world and ways to be an asset, a help, and solution to our broken world rather than being a liability, hurt and part of the problem.

Now, none of us at this United Church would ever go to the hateful extreme that Pastor Roger Jimenez went to in his hate-filled sermon.  None of us at this United Church would ever protest with the members of Westboro Baptist Church.  I am convinced of that.  But to be honest, we still have to ask ourselves if we are an asset rather than a liability, a help instead of a hurt, part of the solution rather than problem on a smaller scale as we live our lives each day.

For instance, how do we fare if we tell, or even laugh at, a joke that belittles others of a different sexual orientation, different race, or different ethnic origin?  How do we fare if we don’t stand up for the rights of the under-privileged, disabled, or mentally or physically-challenged?  How do we fare if we lump all members of a particular world religion or other social group into one, big despised category?  In such cases are we hurting or helping the world’s brokenness?  Are we part of the problem or solution to helping make the world a better place for all concerned?  In asking these questions, I am speaking to myself as well, since I have not always been as sensitive and considerate in the past as I could have been.  In May 2000, along with 50 other ministers and directors of education, I was touring Israel and Jordan.  I was laughing and joking with some of my traveling companions when I made a comment about a certain group of society that I should not have made.  One of my traveling companions called me on it.  I haven’t done it since.  I have grown over the years.

You see, when we hear of such extreme examples of hatred and malignity as Pastor Jimenez, Westboro Baptist Church, and others like them, we may cringe in horror that they are the ones who are representing the name “Christian.”  But when we use a spiritual microscope to examine our own lives and actions, we may find that we are not 100% pure or without fault either.  But isn’t that at least a part of what being a Christian, or a member of a religious community, is all about?  Isn’t it about gradual self-improvement, seeking to correct our shortcomings, faults, and weaknesses, growing and learning how to be the better people we can be?  Isn’t being involved in a faith community—in direct opposition to Verity Church in Sacramento and Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas—about striving toward being an asset, a help, a part of the solution so as to make the world a better, more peaceful place?  If not, then what good is religion to the world anyway?  At least that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 

1Lindsey Bever, “Pastor refuses to mourn Orlando victims: ‘The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die,’” The Washington Post, June 15, 2016.

2Tony Evans, “America’s current violence can be traced to Christians’ failures,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2016.

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Journey Toward Hope

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 17, 2016

Job 4:1-6 CEB; Reading from The Grapes of Wrath (17)

When John Steinbeck wrote that “The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West,” he was referring to the so-called “Mother Road,” historic Route 66, that first, complete cross-country highway that ran from Chicago to the California coast.  And the “migrants” that Steinbeck referred to were the post-Depression, Dust Bowl-Era farmers who lost everything due to drought, dust storms, and the banks who took their homes and farms right out from under them.  With no land, and no homes to live in, thousands of farmers loaded up what personal belongings they could in whatever old trucks or cars they could find, and they set off from Oklahoma and other states on US Route 66 toward the West—the “Promised Land” of California—not unlike pioneers a century earlier had set their faces westward in covered wagons.

Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is one of the greatest American novels, which contributed to Steinbeck receiving the Nobel Prize in 1962.  It is one of my two favorite American novels.  My affinity with The Grapes of Wrath and Route 66 goes way back.  In the late 1980’s, I picked up a paperback copy of the novel at a mall bookstore.  I found it to be one of the most powerful books I had ever read, as Steinbeck brought to life the heartache and hardships of poor farmers who lost everything and set to the highway in search of a better life and chronicled the trials and tragedies they experienced along the way.  I became hooked on Steinbeck as an author and ended up reading every one of Steinbeck’s novels and novellas, and eventually wrote a Master’s thesis on him and his works.

And the movie, The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, is one of my all-time favorite movies as well, and one of the American classics.  If you have never seen it, you should do yourself a favor and rent it and watch it.

So traveling that “great cross-country highway,” historic Route 66, has long been on my personal bucket list.  Three weeks ago, right after the Coffee Hour, I picked up our grandson Josiah in Brentwood, and the two of us commenced a Route 66 road trip across Missouri, the corner of Kansas, and eastern Oklahoma.  It was a marvelous week for both of us, far more wonderful than I had even imagined it would be.

One of the highlights of the trip was stopping at a roadside monument and the last remaining stretch of the original nine-foot-wide roadbed between Miami and Afton, Oklahoma.  It is called the “ribbon highway,” because on either side of the narrow pavement is a ribbon of concrete.  It was a moving experience to stand on that original, 1930’s roadbed where so many desperate migrants like Steinbeck’s Joad Family traveled in a desperate attempt to find a better life for themselves.

And then there were the old, narrow, steel bridges they crossed; and the historic gas stations where they stopped for Ethyl for their gas tanks, water for their radiators, and air for their tires; the historic motels where weary travelers lodged (at least the ones who could afford it); and the diners where those who could afford it stopped for a bite to eat.

Well, as I have reflected on Steinbeck’s novel and on the Route 66 experience itself, I realized that for many who traveled that historic highway it was nothing short of a journey toward hope.  Hope for a better day; hope of landing a decent job with livable wages; hope of having enough to eat; hope of a nice little house for their families—these were the hope-filled dreams that led thousands to pull up stakes and travel the “Mother Road” across America.  Steinbeck chronicles all of it in The Grapes of Wrath, and even emphasizes hope when he notes, “the things they hoped form in the new country.”  It was nothing short of a journey toward hope!

Today’s entire service was framed around the topic or theme of hope—the Thought for Meditation, Responsive Reading, some of the hymns, and the scripture reading all have to do with hope.  Hope is as vital to a healthy existence and a well-balanced soul as water and correct nutrition are to the body.  With hope we can endure all kinds of trouble, tragedy and trials.  But when all hope is gone, so is the will to live.  We all need hope; it is one of the basic human hierarchical needs.

And so it is that from ancient days—as may be inferred from the 4th chapter of Job—religion has been a source of hope for humankind.  “Isn’t your religion the source of your confidence; the integrity of your conduct, the source of your hope?” it is asked of Job (Job 4:6 CEB).  Granted, the object of hope that religion imparts changes over time.  The hope that religion may have imparted three thousand years ago was different from what it imparted two thousand years ago.  And the hope religion may have imparted two thousand years ago was different from the hope religion imparted one thousand years ago.  And the hope that religion imparted in early 20th century America was different than the hope that religion imparted in the 1960’s Civil Rights era.  And so on.

To elaborate, for early humans, religion offered the hope of appeasing the gods so as to procure fertile fields and abundant crops, or perhaps assure safe-keeping from storms and natural disasters.  Religion in the time of Jesus and the Apostle Paul offered hope of a restored, resurrected body after death.  Religion in the Dark Ages offered hope of escaping Purgatory and the torment of hell.  Religion at the turn of the 20th century (often called the Social Gospel Era) offered hope that humankind was evolving toward a more perfect existence where all would be clothed and fed and war would be no more. Religion of the 1960’s America offered the hope of brotherhood and sisterhood and justice and equality for all.  Still today in many poor, economically-deprived rural and mountain communities, religion offers the hope of a heaven after death free of pain, hunger, and poverty.  Whatever the pressing issues of a people at any given time, religion often picks up the mantle of hope and seeks to impart it so as to make peoples’ lives tolerable and richer.

Curiously, from the words that have come down to us in the gospels, Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say about hope per se.  That is to say, Jesus didn’t actually use the word “hope” that much.  And yet, Jesus devoted much of his life and message to imparting hope to a people oppressed.  It is said that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 ESV).  Luke shares that when Jesus began his ministry, he quoted the prophet Isaiah as his own personal mission:  to proclaim good news, bring recovery of sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Lord’s favor; in short, to be a bringer of hope (Luke 4:18-19).  And in various ways, Jesus reached out to the people and sought to offer them hope for their lives.

 And still today any worthwhile religion seeks to impart hope of some sort.  All of the foregoing that I have shared was the easy part.  But when I proceeded to ask in what ways is our church imparting hope—or in what ways should we be imparting hope—the answer didn’t come so easily.  But if our congregation is to be relevant for today, if we are to continue to be vital and strong, we have to be an imparter of hope to all who darken our doors.  What is the hope that the United Church of Oak Ridge imparts?  In what tangible ways does the hope we offer become living and real?

Perhaps one of the reasons that at least some of the so-called mega-churches are so attractive to so many is because of the element of hope that they offer.  For instance, Joel Osteen and the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, offer the hope that God wants his people to be happy and prosperous.  Decades earlier, television evangelist Oral Roberts did the same thing and built a religious empire on preaching the hope that if we give to God financially, God will give back many times over. It is easy to see the attraction for those who are longing, hoping for happiness and wealth.

Well, I am not going to offer members of the United Church of Oak Ridge that kind of hope of prosperity and wealth.  I think making the hope of wealth, prosperity and constant happiness a church’s primary focus and platform is poor theology and a bit shallow.  But the need to offer our members hope exists nonetheless.

As I have reflected on the hope we offer these past few days, here are some ideas I have come up with.  You might add points of hope of your own.

As I see it, the United Church of Oak Ridge offers:

The hope of a loving, supportive community of faith that cares about and supports its members during both good times and bad;

The hope of a place that supports the search for religious truth without dictating the answers or criticizing differences of opinion;

The hope of a better community and better world because of the various mission projects we support, both locally and abroad;

The hope of a more harmonious, peaceful world because of the love, tolerance, openness, and respect we exhibit in our daily lives, and because of what our church stands for;

The hope that the good lives that we live and the good that we do will not be in vain;

The hope of a God who is love who welcomes all;

The hope that whatever awaits us after death, it will be good.

Such is what I believe we are about here at this United Church.  And in that regard, we, too, are on a journey together toward hope.  And we all need hope.  Amen.

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An Attribute of a Successful Leader

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 10, 2016

Mark 3:13-19 GNT

For eleven years—from 1991 through the summer of 2002—I wrote a weekly, inspirational newspaper column that was first published in the Williamson Leader newspaper in Franklin, then the Williamson A.M. section of The Tennessean.  In 1998, one of those columns focused on the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt.  At the time, Pat had led the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team to its sixth national women’s basketball championship.  Perhaps even more noteworthy was the fact that it was the Lady Vols’ third championship win in as many years.  At the time, the Lady Vols were touted as the best women’s basketball team since women began playing collegiate basketball.

It could be argued that Pat Summitt is the best-known and most successful figure in women’s basketball—or perhaps sports in general— to date.  Indeed, Pat had become something of an icon, not only locally, but nationally as well.  One close to her referred to Pat as “an ambassador to the state.”  That Pat Summitt was, and much more.  It is not possible to list all of Pat’s achievements, but briefly she was an Olympic medal winner, was the most winning coach ever, enjoyed eight national championships, was inducted into the “Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (1999), and was recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  When we lost her from a premature death to early onset Alzheimer’s disease week before last, we lost a part of all of us.

Now, don’t infer from my comments today that I am trying to paint Pat Summitt as a saint.  Though she was a woman of deep Christian faith, Pat, no doubt, had her shortcomings and weaknesses, just like the rest of us do.  Some of those imperfections have been the subject of editorials.

But anyone who can do what Pat did over the years has to have something positive going for them.  And there have to be lessons that can be learned and wisdom to be gained from someone who has been so successful and so influential.

Following their 1997 championship win, Pat was asked what she thought contributed to their success.  And this is what she said: “You win with people.  People that are loyal and committed to what you want to do are important.”  Wel, I went on in that newspaper article to enumerate some of the keys that led to the success of the Lady Vols team as a whole.

But in actuality, several values and attributes helped make Pat the successful woman she was; values like commitment (she never missed a day of school from kindergarten through high school);  treating everyone with respect  (“She treats everyone the same whether he’s the president or the janitor,” a friend said of her); and a drive toward excellence.

But as I have been reading about Pat Summitt, her life, and her achievements since her passing, I have honed in on one attribute in particular that contributed to her success as a coach and a leader.  And that attribute was striving to bring out the best in others.  A fellow coach said of her, “Pat got everything she could out of her girls” (Rick Howard).  Among all her achievements is the fact that Pat could boast a 100 per cent graduation rate among Lady Vols players who completed their four seasons of eligibility.  And dozens of her former Lady Vols players went on to become coaches themselves.  Pat’s former player, successor, and dear friend, Holly Warlick, said, “It simply amazes me the impact Pat has made on so many people’s lives, people that Pat didn’t even know.  It’s God’s gift to her.”  Yes, one of Pat Summitt’s passions and gifts was bringing out the best in those around her.

But that is one of the key attributes of great coaches and great leaders in general—they have a way of seeing and seeking to bring out the best in others.  Great leaders tend to see the potential in those around them, potential that even their protégés may not even see themselves.  And such leaders have a gift of encouraging, pushing, drawing out, developing, nurturing, and honing the hidden potential in others.  This is true, I think, whether one be a coach, supervisor or boss, one who holds a political office, a school teacher, or minister of a church.

One such leader who long ago saw and brought out the best in those around him was none other than Jesus.  As the gospels tell it, Jesus, as a spiritual Coach, chose twelve of those who were following him, became a mentor to them, taught and nurtured them, pushed them beyond their experience and comfort zone, and sent them forth into the world to become coaches themselves who eventually altered the course of the world and changed history.  Untaught fisherman, a tax collector, and others were encouraged to teach, preach, organize churches, confront government authorities, and more as they were mentored by the One who called them and believed in them.

Well, at one time or another, most all of us find ourselves in a leadership role.  As I typed that last sentence, I remembered that some years ago I had acquired a book titled Lead Like Jesus by Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges.  These authors contend that “Anytime you seek to influence the thinking, behavior, or development of people in their personal or professional lives, you are taking on the role of a leader” (p. 5).  And so, the authors contend that a mother, friend giving advice, corporate executive, teacher, nurse, local pastor, high school coach, government official, and others often find themselves in a leadership role.  I think we could add grandparents to that list as well.

They see true leadership as being servant leadership, which includes humility and being concerned with others and their growth and development more than building up our own selfish ego.  Such an attribute—focusing more on others and bringing out the best in them rather than building up our own ego—may be in short supply these days.  It is a lesson that some of our political candidates might consider and take to heart.

The book continues by saying, “One aspect of a job well done as a servant leader is how well we have prepared others to carry on after our season of leadership influence is completed.  Our leadership legacy is not just limited to what we accomplished, but it includes what we leave behind in the hearts and minds of those with whom we had a chance to teach and work” (p. 45).  That statement holds truth for all of us, regardless of our station in life.  The book goes on to suggest that we ask ourselves a few questions: “How well am I doing in preparing others to take my place when the time comes?  Am I willing to share what I know and provide opportunities to learn and grow for those who will come after me?” (p. 46)

Oh, by the way: Back to that newspaper column that I wrote about Pat Summitt in 1998.  I mailed a copy of it to Coach Summitt, generally addressed to her at the University of Tennessee, but I didn’t have much hope that she would even receive it, much less take time to read it.  But you know what, a few weeks later I was delightfully surprised when I received a personal, handwritten note from Pat on a University of Tennessee note card thanking me for the column and mailing a copy to her.  Who was I that a winning coach and Tennessee icon would take time out of her busy schedule to sit down and write me a personal note?  But that was Pat.  It didn’t matter if you were President or a lowly pastor of a small church and small-town newspaper columnist, she treated you with respect.

We can express gratitude, I think, for people like Coach Pat Summitt who inspired us with her drive toward excellence, commitment to the task at hand, respect for all regardless of their station in life, and the way she—like Jesus before her—sought to bring out the best in those around her.  May we strive to do the same.  Amen.

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A Reason for Freedom

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 3, 2016

Galatians 5:13-15; James 1:22-27 ESV

The concept of “Freedom,” which we so cherish and celebrate this weekend, is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood and most abused concepts known to humankind.  When some people think of freedom, they may immediately think of I, me, my individual rights and privileges to think as I want to think, do as I want to do, and live as I want to live, to the exclusion of or without consideration of anyone else.

But should freedom—true freedom—exist in a vacuum?  In other words, should freedom be free of obligations and responsibilities?   Or, could it be that freedom is, in fact, tethered to obligations and responsibilities, to something larger outside of myself?  To entertain such a thought may seem like an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms.  I admit that.

But when our founding fathers spoke of and wrote about freedom, I don’t believe they had in mind the license to do as we darn well please, without some restraints and restrictions and responsibilities accompanying it.

We might even choose to look at the idea of freedom as freedom from and freedom to.  For instance, I imagine our founding fathers had in mind freedom from tyranny, freedom from injustice, freedom from oppression, freedom from unreasonable taxation without representation, and freedom from overbearing rule.

But our founding fathers also envisioned freedoms to: freedom to bear arms, freedom to assemble in religious meetings without harassment, freedom to pursue happiness, freedom to work hard and pursue one’s trade or profession and make a living and accumulate wealth and acquire property, and so on.

But as already noted, our founding fathers probably did not envision freedom as a license to do anything I please apart from the rights, privileges, and well-being of others.  In other words, my freedom should not impede the freedom of my neighbor.

And freedom doesn’t mean elevating self above others.  Such means that in the exercise of my freedom, I must not treat others as a means to an end.  Here is an example.  Several years ago, when I was a teenager and playing in a Country & Western band, we did several shows for a man who came to town whose stated objective was to raise money for the disabled and/or developmentally challenged.  Of course, he printed and sold tickets to the shows, but he also went to all the businesses in the area and sold ads for a printed program handbill.  He paid us a nominal amount of $100-125, rented the VFW meeting hall, paid himself a salary I am sure, and the rest was supposed to go the charities he had signified.  Now, we never had any way to verify that any of the money actually went to those charities, but we always wondered about it.  In other words, there was always the question in our minds if he actually used the disabled and developmentally challenged of our community as a means to an end of making himself rich.

In a similar way, we remember that a couple of Tennessee charities that were supposed to be raising money for cancer research and patients were exposed a few months back, as it was learned that the majority of the money raised was filling the pockets of the CEOs.  All of us would agree, I think, that such acts constitute an abuse—downright corruption—of freedom.  Freedom does not give us the license to use others as a means to an end.

So clearly, our freedom from and freedom to come with obligations and responsibilities.  To cite a few other examples, we may have the freedom to bear arms, but we are not free to use our firearms to go around murdering people because they look, believe, or love differently from the way we do.  Our nation was built on the lofty ideal of freedom to be as we are, as long as we don’t infringe on the well-being of others.  So while I may own a firearm, freedom dictates that I use that firearm responsibly and do not use it to bring harm to others.

We have the freedom to drive the highways and roam across this great nation of ours as we desire.  We have some marvelous, beautiful national parks in America that are said to belong to all of us.  But our freedom to roam our great country at will and enjoy those magnificent natural landscapes does not free us from paying taxes to support those national parks or to keep up the highways that get us there.  Some Americans feel they should be totally free of paying taxes and supporting government programs of any form.  But are they willing to stop driving the highways and streets, willing to stop drinking the water and using the electricity our municipalities provide, stop depending upon police and fire department services, and so on?

Many Americans cherish the freedom to attend the church or other religious center of their choice and would get fighting mad if someone told them they couldn’t do that any longer.  But not as many are willing to grant the same freedom of choice to others whose beliefs and religious practices are quite different from their own.  But the meaning of freedom is that I can worship where and how I choose, but I have to give the same freedom to others, regardless of their Christian denomination or world religion, whether it be Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Islam, or something else..  I may be free to worship and practice as a progressive or liberal Christian, but I have to be willing to defend the right of others to worship and practice whatever religion they so choose—provided that their religion accords with the same freedom principle and brings no hurt to others in the process.

So it seems obvious that a part of the make-up of freedom itself is my responsibility toward everyone around me as I take measures to assure that they have the same freedoms that I do.  I may be free, but I am not totally separate from others.

In the final analysis, the way of true freedom—the way of biblical freedom, anyway—is the way that can’t be separated from the larger community and world of which I am a part.  The Apostle Paul left us a classic passage on Christian freedom in his letter to the Galatians, which reminds us that freedom should never be divorced from the Law of Love, which was cited by Jesus as being the Supreme Law which should dictate every other aspect of our lives.   And so, the Apostle Paul reminds us that tied to our freedom are the requirements of both love and service.  From a Christian perspective, being free from tyranny, guilt, fear, unreasonable demands of the Law, and so on means we are able to use our freedom in a positive way, to love and serve others for the betterment of all concerned.

I have an affinity with and ministerial standing with the Congregationalists, as I have noted in sermons past.  I love the Congregational platform and devotion to the three F’s—Faith, Freedom, and Fellowship.  The Congregational Way is Faith in the teachings and leadership of Jesus; Freedom to gather and order a local church apart from the dictates and control of any denominational hierarchy (sounds a bit like this United Church, doesn’t it?); but also Fellowship with other Christians and churches which join in loving service to the world.  So for Congregationalists, Freedom is one branch of a trinity, as it were, which is vitally connected to Faith and Fellowship and service.

So, the reason for freedom is not so I can separate myself and do as I please.  The reason for freedom is that I might be a loving, serving, part of that which is much greater than myself, as I use my freedom to make a positive difference in the world.  May it be so for us.  Amen.

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