Somewhere Between the Darkness and the Light

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 2, 2018

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; John 1:1-5 ESV

Why is observing the season of Advent at church so important?  Why not just jump all over into celebrating Christmas as soon as the Thanksgiving decorations are taken down and packed away?

As I noted in my December Chapel Chimes article, the church I grew up in commenced singing Christmas carols right after Thanksgiving.  Being a country church, we were not in the least liturgically-minded.  We celebrated Christmas, Easter, and World Communion Sunday.  But we didn’t observe the Season of Advent (or the Advent wreath) or the Season of Lent.  So I was not even familiar with the Season of Advent until I went off to seminary and learned more about the Christian liturgical calendar and different seasons of the Church Year.  The small congregation where I preached in West Tennessee while attending seminary introduced me to the Advent wreath, the best I recall.

But the older I have grown, the more I have learned to appreciate the liturgical seasons of the year, and especially the Season of Advent.  I love this first Sunday of Advent and all that it stands for.  Today’s service is one of my favorite of the year.  And today, you see, is the very first day of the beginning of the new Church Year.

Thus, I love the mood and structure of the first Sunday of Advent service.  We always begin the service (and hence, begin the new Church Year again) on a somber, longing note: “O Come, O come, Emmanuel!”

“O come, thou Day-spring, come and cheer Our spirits by thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

O come, Desire of nations, bind All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

Those hymn words are much more appropriate for the our time than we might have ever realized.

And our responsive reading is also a reminder that we begin the season in a time of darkness, when the sky is grey, the trees are bare, and the days are short and the nights are long.  (As a side note, it is apropos, I think, that the season of Advent coincides with the darkest season of the year.)  But as we progress through the service, we move from the opening somber spirit to a lighter, more positive tone, so that by the time we close the service with the hymn, “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus,” we leave on a joyful, hope-filled note.

I love the spirit of Advent and the role that it plays in the annual religious drama.  Advent takes us back to the time before Jesus was born, to the time when the Jewish people were yearning and praying for a long-awaited One, a Deliverer.  Thus, the Season of Advent is the time of anticipation, longing, and waiting.

Most of us have known that time of anticipation of longing and waiting for a child or grandchild to be born.   It is a time of joyful preparation – buying baby furniture and baby clothes; preparing the nursery; preparing ourselves emotionally for the new life that will become the center of attention; and so on.  So Advent is important as a time for anticipation and preparation, just as the nine months of pregnancy is an important time of preparation before that baby is born.  To jump from Thanksgiving right into full-fledged Christmas celebrations at church would be like jumping from conception right to the birth.  We need some Advent time of preparation (i.e., time to prepare the manger bed, in a manner of speaking) to be reminded of why the birth of Jesus mattered to the ancient world and why his birth matters to our world today.

I love the emotions and spiritual themes that Advent represents.  I have already mentioned the anticipation and longing.  But another Advent emphasis is waiting in the darkness for the coming of light.  Hence, the perennial passages read from Isaiah and John.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).  And “the light shines in the darkness,” John proclaimed, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5 ESV).

Just as the Jewish people of Isaiah’s day and the Jewish people of the first century knew that there was something wrong with the world, we know such as well.  We all well know that there is so much not right with our present world – violence, suffering, prejudices, persecution, inequalities, and oppression.  The beginning of Advent acknowledges that all is not right with the world, but there can be a better day as people again commit themselves to the principles of justice and righteousness embodied in that One born in a manger.

I love something that minister-writer Frederick Buechner said in this regard: “this metaphor of Isaiah’s [i.e., people walking in darkness] is a very relevant one for us and our age because we are also, God knows, a people who walk in darkness. . . If darkness is meant to suggest a world where nobody can see very well – either themselves or each other, or where they are heading, or even where they are standing at the moment; if darkness is meant to convey a sense of uncertainty, of being lost, of being afraid; if darkness suggests conflict, conflict between races, between nations, between individuals each pretty much out for himself when you come right down to it; then we live in a world that knows much about darkness.”Such is why Isaiah’s theme of walking in the darkness is such an appropriate theme for Advent.

And another important Advent theme, as well as a basic human need, is hope.  It is no coincidence that the first candle of the Advent Wreath is the Candle of Hope.  Indeed, the first spiritual principle of the first Sunday of Advent is the principle of Hope for things to come, hope for an end to the present darkness, and hope for a better world.

Frederick Buechner continues, “Somewhere between the darkness and the light.  That is where we are as Christians.  And not just at Advent time, but at all times.  Somewhere between the fact of darkness and the hope of light. . . .  The challenge of it is that [the Light] has not come yet.  Only the hope for it has come, only the longing for it.  In the meantime we are in the dark, and the dark, God knows is also in us.  We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us and hallow us, to liberate us from the dark.  Advent is like the hush in a theater just before the curtain rises.”2

And so, we cling to those words of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, words echoed in the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: “the Dayspring from on high shall visit us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79 NKJV).

So you see, taking the Season of Advent seriously, if only for a Sunday or two, is important.  Because during Advent, we pause.  We pause to acknowledge the darkness.  We pause to recognize that all is not right with the world.  We pause to commit ourselves to a better way and a better day.  But Advent also reminds us to hold onto hope that the Light will come.  Amen.

 

1Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations.  New York: HarperOne, 1992.  P. 266.

2Ibid, pp. 314, 315.

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Rest Now, While You Can!

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

Ezekiel 34:11-15; Matthew 11:28-30 GNT

Today is what I like to refer to as an in-between Sunday.  We are in-between Thanksgiving Day and the first Sunday of Advent (which is next Sunday, which is next Sunday, by the way).  And once the first Sunday of Advent arrives, for some of us it will be a busy blur until after New Year’s Day.  It has proven to be that way for me and the other office staff the past several years, anyway.  For ministers and church staff, the month of December is the busiest month of the year by far, and there are almost more special activities, programs, and services than we can juggle.  I make reference to this about every year, so some of you may think I am beginning to sound like a broken record.

But then, some of you may already feel like you are caught up in the busy blur, the holiday madness, if you were among the 116 million Americans pushing your way through the Black Friday crowds in order to get those holiday bargains.  I, personally, prefer to stay at home on Black Friday, spending time with family and maybe doing a bit of Christmas thinking.  I just can’t seem to get into the Christmas gift buying spirit until the calendar rolls over to December.  But to each his own, as they say.

Well, regardless, today and this week could be a time for all of us to rest and reflect and renew ourselves before we leap into the Advent-Christmas season.  Hence the sermon title, “Rest Now, While You Can!”

I was reminded of late, and I got to thinking, of how “rest” is a prominent biblical concept that we may have never really considered.  But the word “rest” pops up dozens of times throughout the Bible, variously denoting such things as a place of rest, a cessation or Sabbath, to be still, keep silence, to be at ease, or to be quiet.  The first instance of rest being used in the Bible is in the second chapter of Genesis, of course: God “rested on the seventh day from all the work which He had done.  Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2-3 NKJV).  The thought is repeated in the Ten Commandments, reiterating that as God rested on the seventh day, so shall men and women.  And so, from the beginning and at the heart of the Jewish faith there was endemic the importance of holy rest.

Whenever I read the 23rd Psalm for memorial or graveside services, I always read from the King James Version of the Bible because of the beauty and cadence of the language.  But for today’s Thought for Meditation, I purposely chose the Good News Bible because of its emphasis upon rest: “The Lord is my shepherd; . . . He lets me rest in fields of green grass . . . “

Then when we turn to the verses read from the prophet Ezekiel, we hear echoes of the psalmist and a promise to lead the Jewish people to “a place of rest” (Ezekiel 34:15 GNT).  (Jesus would later draw upon the thought and imagery of Ezekiel, by the way).  But what was it in Ezekiel’s day that made the promise of rest so attractive to the Jewish people?  Well, Ezekiel began his prophetic ministry at the time of the Babylonian Exile when Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the Jewish people had been forced out of their land, taken captive, and scattered among the nations.  It was a time of death and destruction, turmoil and trouble, discouragement and loss of hope, and regret and restlessness.  But the prophet Ezekiel spoke a word of good news to the Jewish people, promising that God would act as a good shepherd to gather his scattered people and bring them back home and provide for their needs and give them much-needed rest.

Then as noted earlier, Jesus drew upon the imagery of both the psalmist and Ezekiel, and other Hebrew prophets, of the shepherd caring for the lost sheep of Israel and leading them to a place of rest.  Thus, in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 GNT).  What was the situation in Jesus’ time that his invitation to come find rest was so attractive then?  Well, in Jesus’ day, the people were not exiled, but they were living under the oppressive hand of the mighty Roman Empire.  The people were burdened by the taxing and imperial rule of Rome.  The New Interpreter’s Study Bible notes that “Rest often refers to being free of imperial rule.”  So in issuing his invitation to come to him in order to “find rest for your souls,” Jesus was not only drawing upon classic Jewish thought, but he was also making a political statement against Rome!

The truth is, governments can be oppressive; and many governments in the world are oppressive.  Political agendas can suck the life right out of a nation and its people. I don’t know about you, but after this last election, with all of its name calling, negative television ads, lying and falsehoods and twisting the truth, I was simply worn out and ready for some rest from it all!  And as we watch the daily news and all that is going on in our nation and world – natural disasters one after the other, gun violence every week it seems, and so on – our souls cry out for rest from it all.  So I heartily welcome this in-between time on the heels of all the political rhetoric and on the threshold of holiday busyness as a time of rest, reprieve, and renewal.

But then, some of us are rest-less souls who think we have to be busy all the time.  We think or feel that if we are not actively busy and accomplishing something “productive,” we are failing somehow.  And we feel guilty at the thought of doing nothing.  Hence, we are slow or reluctant to take time for “holy rest.”

As already noted, we have a few days before the beginning of the Advent-Christmas Season proper, along with the busyness, stress, and at times down-right madness.  This in-between time can be a much-needed time of holy rest, reprieve and renewal – if we will let it be.  Taking time for holy rest is a good thing, sanctioned from the opening pages of the Bible.  And you have heard before, no doubt, that famous line by St. Augustine included in today’s responsive reading: “O Lord, You have created us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

But if we feel we can’t just do nothing this coming week, then let us seek to engage in some activities that at least have a spiritual element to them, such as listening to Handel’s Messiah; doing some light holiday decorating that has a spiritual element to it, such as bringing out and setting up that nativity scene; or baking something in the kitchen for those in need or who are homebound.  May we consider doing something that renews and lifts the soul.

But what I have to say, I say to all of us (yours truly included) – “Rest now, while you can!”  Amen.

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Cultivating a Constant State of Mind

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 18, 2018 (Thanksgiving)

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 GNT

Can changing our state of mind change our lives, positively and perhaps dramatically?  Is it possible that just by focusing upon and dedicating ourselves to one important virtue that we can find greater happiness in life?  And isn’t greater happiness and a greater sense of joy something that all of us long for?

Two weeks ago, some twenty of us gathered at the John Knox Center south of Kingston for our annual Family Fall Retreat.  Our theme for this year’s retreat was gratitude, or being grateful.  All of our planned activities – opening meditation, a gratitude log table centerpiece, a gratitude sunflower craft, a gratitude scavenger hunt, and so on – revolved around learning to be more grateful.  We noted that when we hear the word “gratitude,” Thanksgiving Day may be what immediately comes to mind.  And Thanksgiving Day is certainly an appropriate time to stop and express gratitude for all the blessings and graces that fill our lives throughout the year.  And I hope that as all of us gather with families and friends this coming Thursday, that we will be grateful; that our hearts will be full of gratitude.  But God help us if we only take time out of our busy lives to express gratitude one special day of the year!

Rather, as we explored the idea throughout our Family Retreat, we emphasized that true gratitude is not just a one-day-a-year affair.  Gratitude, if it is genuine, is a constant state of mind.  True gratitude is a spiritual practice that becomes a way of life.  It is a daily focus that gets our mornings off on a positive note, that helps guide our thoughts and actions throughout the day, that helps us to be mindful of life’s blessings, in spite of any challenges or problems we might be facing at the time, and helps us to end the day on a positive note.  And the really good news is this: To cultivate gratitude, or being grateful as a daily constant state of mind throughout the entire year, holds the promise of untold life-changing benefits.

For instance, a daily life of gratitude is the foundation of a personal, soul-satisfying life of spirituality.  As the great statesman Cicero put it, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”  Learning to look at the world through the lens of gratitude can change every other aspect of our lives.

One of our United Church members shared with me recently that she keeps a daily gratitude journal, in which she writes down three things each day for which she is grateful.  She says it is a spiritual practice that has completely changed her perspective on life.

Naturalist Henry David Thoreau – who is well known for keeping an extensive journal himself – described a journal as “a book that shall contain a record of all your joy.”  I love that.  Such is an interesting practice worthy of being considered by all of us.

Many people struggle with developing an active and meaningful spiritual practice in their lives.  Perhaps the piece of the spirituality puzzle that has been missing is gratitude, and if we were to begin a life of spiritual practice with gratitude as the foundation, then other pieces would fall into place.  A spirit of gratitude can be like a medicinal tonic for the soul.

A closely related benefit of a constant, grateful state of mind is better physical health.  Grateful people tend to eat better and exercise more and have an overall healthier lifestyle than ungrateful people do, and they report feeling healthier than other people.  And writing in that gratitude journal just before retiring for bed has been shown to improve sleep.  Recognizing all we have to be grateful for – even during difficult times in our lives – can foster resilience and greater strength.  Being grateful can change our mood, which in turn can cause our bodies to release healthy hormones, which in turn can lead to greater psychological health and inner joy.  A leading gratitude researcher, through multiple studies, has learned that gratitude leads to increased happiness and the reduction in depression.  So being grateful as a daily focus and spiritual practice can change our spiritual, psychological, and physical lives!

But a commitment to expressing gratitude is also one of the most important habits we can cultivate to positively change the lives of others.  Someone has said, “Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other” (Randy Pausch).  By showing our gratitude to others, we can positively change their day and outlook for the better as well.  And when we express gratitude to someone and show our appreciation to them, it promotes an atmosphere conducive to establishing a relationship, perhaps a new friendship even.

But even more significant, perhaps, living a life of gratitude can positively change the world.  Grateful people are more likely to relate to others in a more congenial manner, as those with a grateful spirit tend to be more sensitive and empathetic toward others.  Grateful people tend to look for the good in the world and in others, which naturally leads to more congenial interactions and relationships.  In short, grateful people tend to be less aggressive and more open and accepting, leading to more peace and understanding in the world.

I had never in all my years of preaching, the best I can recall, selected as a Thanksgiving sermon text verses from the book of Ecclesiastes.  But as I read that insightful little book again recently, the passage I read earlier struck me as a most appropriate reading for the day.  As the wise preacher of Ecclesiastes points out, being grateful and looking at the world through the lens of gratitude transforms every good thing into a gift of grace, resulting in joy.  In short, the preacher’s formula is this: Gratitude sees everything in life as a gift, leading to a life of joy.

Johannes Gaertner writes of gratitude in his little book titled Worldly Virtues, “To adopt gratitude as the basic tenor of one’s life – gratitude for being alive, for being free, healthy, and intelligent, gratitude for the senses and their pleasures, the mind and its adventures, the soul and its delights – is to have discovered the highest and ultimate function of gratitude.”

Well, back to that idea of a gratitude journal.  Just think of the list of life’s blessings, gifts, and graces we would have if all of us made a commitment to write down three new blessings every day for which we could offer gratitude.  At the end of a year, we would have recorded over 1,000 blessings, gifts, and graces.  Wouldn’t that be conducive to always looking at life through the lens of gratitude, conducive to looking at the glass of life as being much more full than empty?

Report after report shows that a daily spirit of gratitude leads to greater success in life, greater joy, and greater happiness.  And it isn’t joy that leads to gratitude, as we might be inclined to think.  Rather, being grateful leads to joy, reaffirming the statement of Cicero that gratitude is, indeed, the greatest and the parent of all other virtues.

So, let us all give thanks and express gratitude this Thursday as we gather around those tables with family and friends.  But may we also at least consider being more intentional about adopting gratitude as a foundational virtue and way of life throughout the year.  Who knows?  Gratitude could change our lives.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

Cited: Amy Morin, “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude that Will Motivate You to Give Thanks Year-Round.”

Henry David Thoreau, Journal:

Johannes A Gaertner, World Virtues.  New York: Viking, 1990, p. 18.

 

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Relating to Our Children

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

Mark 1:21-22 GNT; Reading from Parker J. Palmer’s, The Courage to Teach

Some years ago, a boy of 7 found himself being humiliated in school because he was a slow reader.  Danny, you see, struggled with dyslexia, a condition that makes reading and language very challenging.  But Danny was fortunate to have what he termed a savior – a teacher who understood him and emphasized his math skills and appointed him to pass out milk and graham crackers to the other kids in his classroom.  Speaking as an adult to 375 other adults at an educators’ convention, Danny testified that he was only able to stand and speak to them because of the caring compassion of that teacher who took an interest in him.  Maybe you have heard of Danny, as in actor Danny Glover.  To what extent did Danny’s “savior-teacher” positively impact his life?  We just never know how the way we relate to the children in our lives may turn their lives in a whole new direction.

What I have to share with you today, though most appropriate for teachers of any setting – whether it be a teacher in Nursery School, Sunday school, public school, or even higher education – is also applicable to any of us who relate to children in any capacity – parents, grandparents, coaches, scout leaders, an aunt or uncle of young children, a neighbor of children down the street, what have you.  Because whatever our role in the lives of children may be, by default we take on the role of a teacher, whether we realize it or not.  So to reiterate, if you have any connection to children in any capacity, then hopefully what I have to share with you today will be relevant.

When I began to seek inspiration for today’s sermon – a topic having to do with children – I turned to Parker J. Palmer for help.  For those who don’t know, Palmer is a well-known Quaker writer, spiritual retreat center leader, and educator.  His little book titled Let Your Life Speak is one of my all-time, top-ten favorite books.  Parker is well known for his writings on self discovery and vocation.  But he is also well-known, and his books are required reading in many schools, for his theory of education.

Well, I happened to have an unread copy of Parker’s book, The Courage to Teach, which I pulled from my shelf and began to read.  I got as far as the introduction and first chapter titled, “The Heart of a Teacher.”  That first chapter alone gave me much food for thought and inspired the sermon topic, “Relating to Our Children.”

Palmer contends that successful teaching issues from an inner core of identity and integrity.  In other words, we relate to children from the core of who we are inside.  To be a successful leader and teacher of children, it helps to have self awareness and confidence.  And it helps if what we say and do with children issues from a life of integrity.

Such is just one reason that Jesus was such a powerful teacher, I think, as pointed out by today’s gospel reading.  Jesus spoke from the inner core of his being, a core of self identity, integrity and confidence.  What Jesus spoke issued from within, from who he was, from his very nature.  Thus, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus spoke as one with authority.

Relating to children successfully requires authenticity – being as authentic as possible with them.  And children can tell when we are being authentic and when we are not.  Palmer speaks of qualities that make for “good teachers and bad teachers,” as reported by students he has interviewed over the years.  And he says it is the personal element that is infused in the task; a sense of enthusiasm for what is being taught or conveyed that makes for a good teacher.  “Bad teachers,” on the other hand, “distance themselves from the subject they are teaching.”1

All of us might think of teachers we had in school who were excited and enthused about what they were doing.  We could tell that what they were saying was personal and coming from within.  And then we might also think of teachers we had who were just going through the motions.  They distanced themselves from both the task of teaching and the students as well.  It was evident that such teachers saw what they were doing as a job and weren’t really present with either the subject being taught or the pupils they were teaching.  I could, and will, easily name teachers I had who fell in both camps, and perhaps you could too.

To elaborate on the point further, it is important that we relate to children – in whatever capacity – from the heart.  In the case of teachers, if what we are doing is not from the heart, then perhaps another occupation might be considered.  As Palmer puts it, “If a work does not gladden me . . . . I need to consider laying it down.”2

Naturalist Henry David Thoreau tried his hand at teaching school a couple of times, and both times he tried, it proved to be a failure.  Thoreau did not have it within him to be a teacher for various reasons.  He was not really teaching from the heart.  And Thoreau himself says in that regard, “As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.”3

I was so fortunate to have for my first grade teacher (I did not attend nursery school or kindergarten) a grandmotherly saint of a woman named Mrs. Trivett.  Mrs. Trivett had taught my father before she taught me, and she taught my brother after me.  Mrs. Trivett taught first grade until they forced her to retire.  When any of us got homesick or were sad or not feeling well, Mrs. Trivett would take us upon her lap and hold us close like a grandmother and let us know that she loved us and she loved being our teacher.

And then another elementary teacher I had a few years later was just the opposite.  She was distant, cool and aloof.  You never really knew what she was thinking.  Mrs. R., I would conjecture to say, taught and related from the head, not the heart.  Parker Palmer says, “The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open. . .”4

We are very fortunate in that our United Church Nursery School teachers, and our United Church Sunday School teachers, all relate to our kids from the heart.  They teach because they love to teach and because they love the kids they teach.  What they do is a true labor of love with a capital L.  And it shows in the growth that both our Nursery School and Sunday School have experienced.

I applaud all of our teachers – any one, in fact – who works with children, especially troubled and trouble-making children.  It is not always an easy task.

There was another young man, this one 14 years of age, who had the reputation of being so hopelessly bad that his school district had a hard time finding a classroom teacher who would teach him.  Finally, a new teacher was determined to try.  Taking all the stories about that Marcy boy’s incorrigibility into account, the new teacher analyzed and decided to try to relate to him with kindness, justice, goodwill and confidence.  To this the teacher dropped seeds of ambition, hope and self-reliance.  The teacher’s efforts had positive effects, and the Marcy boy’s life began to change.

The young student dropped his bad habits, began to study hard, went to college and graduated with honors.  He studied law and went into military service in 1812.  Eventually he would become associate justice of the Supreme Court, United States Senator, Governor of New York, and finally Secretary of State.  His name was William L. Marcy, formerly a hopeless, incorrigible teenager in whom a compassionate teacher saw potential and the image of God.

In considering this topic, I cannot help but think of Fred Rogers who was such an important figure in the field of child development and theory, because Rogers understood the importance of being authentic with children and relating to them from deep within, and loving all children from deep within his heart.

As I noted earlier, whatever our role with children – teacher, parent, grandparent, coach, scout leader, aunt or uncle, or a neighbor of children down the street – authentically relating to children and relating from the heart is paramount.  And as we do so, we cannot begin to calculate the positive impact we may be having upon young lives.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998. P. 11.         2Ibid, p. 30.

3Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods.         4Palmer, p. 11.

 

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Sharing Your Lunch?

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

John 6:3-13 GNT

Several years ago, the church I was serving had a group of senior adults that adopted the name, “The Lunch Bunch.”  One designated day a month, the first Wednesday of each month perhaps, about 8 or 10 of us (all retired except me) would meet at the church about 10 am, and we would carpool to some area point of interest and then have lunch together at some well-known restaurant.  One “Lunch Bunch” excursion was to Lynchburg, Tennessee, for a tour of the Jack Daniels Distillery, a tour of the historic downtown area of Lynchburg, and then lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s.  Now, in case you have never heard of it, Miss Mary Bobo’s is a historic boarding house, a true Lynchburg treasure, that continues today as a family-style restaurant, where (according to their website) “Diners pass communal plates of Southern lunch fare in an elegant, antebellum-style mansion.”  They offer some of the best southern cooking and desserts you will ever have the privilege of tasting.  But here is the point not to be missed: You can’t just walk into Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House and expect to be seated.  No sir!  One can only hope to sit at Miss Mary Bobo’s table if you have made advance reservations.  And if you make reservations for a group of 10, you had better make sure all 10 show up, or else you pay for the ones who don’t. And the opposite is just as true: if you make reservations for 10, you had better not bring 11, because one won’t be seated.

Well, we took a poll prior to our Lynchburg excursion, and the best I remember, seven of us said we planned to go.  So that is the number we gave Miss Mary Bobo’s when we called to make our reservations.  But when we met at the church that morning to go, we had an extra person show up who had not indicated that he was going.  Well, both the member of our group who had suggested Miss Mary Bobo’s and who knew the drill and I were nervous during the drive down to Lynchburg, knowing we were short one reservation.  We did our tour of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and the downtown area, then at noon we made our way to the Boarding House.

When we entered the front door, we explained that an additional person had come with us, and we asked if they could just set another chair at the table.  The answer was No; an emphatic No!  We had made reservations for seven, and that was the number that would be seated.  We didn’t understand, since they had extra dining chairs around the room, and food is shared communal style by passing the full platters and bowls around the table.  But there was no bending the Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House rules.  One of our number would have to do without.

Obviously this was very unsettling to say the least.  All of us had our hearts set on the wonderful meal we had been looking forward to for weeks, and all eight mouths were watering for the scrumptious fare we were anticipating.  It didn’t seem right that one of us would have to go hungry.

Well, Bobby, the one who had suggested Miss Mary Bobo’s in the first place, and the one who had driven all of us in his big, eight-passenger van, offered to bow out.  He had a first cousin who lived in Lynchburg, he said, so he could go and visit with her while the rest of us ate.  And that is what he did.  Bobby gave up his seat at the table; Bobby gave up his wonderful (and it was wonderful!) Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House lunch so someone else could eat.  It has been almost 20 years since that happened, but it is still vivid in my mind, such an impression it made upon me.

It probably comes as no surprise to most of you that I love to eat.  One of the highlights of the day is getting to sit down and enjoy my lunch – or breakfast or dinner.  Whenever we travel, one of the things I love the most is staying in the historic lodges and being able to anticipate and enjoy breakfast or dinner in the dining room.  And even when we are staying in a regular motel, I look forward to the free continental breakfast.  And I don’t like going without a meal.  In fact, if I don’t get a meal at the traditional meal time, I might get grumpy.  So by nature, I am not one who relishes the idea of giving up my lunch!

But as the Apostle John tells the story, that is exactly what the little boy who found himself in the crowd of people who had gathered to hear Jesus preach agreed to do – give up his lunch of five little loaves of barley bread and two fish, if doing so would help feed those around him who were hungry.

Now, there are some interesting points surrounding this story.  For instance, all four gospels include this story, so evidently it was of great importance and held much meaning for the early church.   It “occupied a central place in the oral tradition about Jesus.”1  And it is the only miracle story that occurs in all four of the gospels.  For the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the story was important because of its eucharistic overtones, and the elements, language, and similarity to Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper on the night he was betrayed.  For John, the imagery and meaning go a step further, as he uses this story to support his teaching that Jesus is the Bread of Life who provides spiritual food to sustain all who believe.  Such becomes evident if we read on to verse 25 of this chapter.

Another interesting footnote is the fact that John is the only one who attributes the five loaves and two fish to a little boy.  In other words, in the other three gospels, the donor of the loaves and fishes is not identified.

But one of the biggest questions that progressive-thinking inquirers bring to this story is, Did it really happen the way that the gospel writers seem to say that it did?  In other words, did Jesus really only have the five small loaves and two fish to work with, and by some astounding miracle keep breaking and multiplying those five small loaves and two small fish in such a way that one little boy’s lunch actually fed thousands of people?  That is the way many of us were taught in Sunday school.

But could it be that the story itself is more the clothing for a deeper spiritual truth, more important than a literal, physical interpretation of the story?  And could there be another, more plausible interpretation, more satisfying to those of a scientific mind?

One interpretation of this story is that the little boy’s selfless act of generosity in giving up his lunch served to inspire selfless generosity in others who had also brought bread and fish.  It is highly unlikely that among the crowd that had gathered that no one else had brought lunch along.  As the little boy gave up his lunch, and others gave up their lunch, such inspired more and more to give up their lunch too, which was brought and laid before Jesus, who broke and distributed it all so that all were fed.  In fact, Matthew Fox, in his wonderful book titled Original Blessing, says in this regard, “the real miracle that Jesus wrought was not a quantitative magic trick of turning five loaves and two fishes into thousands.  The true miracle was that Jesus got people to let go, to share with one another.”  And then Fox quotes another writer who says, “The event itself was not a miracle of multiplication; it was a remarkable example of sharing.  The ‘miracle’ was that so many men should suddenly cease to be possessive about their food and begin to share, only to discover that there was more than enough to go around.”Each of us must determine if we choose to interpret the story as an astounding physical miracle or as a massive act of generosity miracle.  Either way, it was a miracle of sorts.

Well, as already noted, today is Loyalty Sunday on the United Church calendar.  Our church treasurer and finance committee, on behalf of the entire church board, have drafted and mailed a loyalty letter which all of our members should have received, and asks all United Church members to consider making a generous pledge toward next year’s programs, ministries, and missions.  We are not asking for anyone to give up their lunch.  But the request is for all of us who love this United Church and historic Chapel on the Hill, and what we stand for and what we do here, to consider sharing what we have been given as selflessly and generously as we can do, so that we can continue all the wonderful ministries, missions, and programs that bless countless lives.

The truth is, as the story of the little boy’s lunch illustrates, sharing begets more sharing, and generosity begets more generosity, with the result being that the needs of many are met.  May it be so as members of this United Church as well.  Amen.

 

1Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX.  Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995.  P. 593.

2Matthew Fox, Original Blessing.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2000, p. 170.

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One Secret to Finding Life Contentment

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 28, 2018

Mark 2:18-22 NKJV

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Would you be interested in learning one of the secrets to finding contentment in life?  After meeting the basic needs of life – food, shelter, and such – isn’t that something that most of us seek, finding contentment in our life and work?  Before this sermon is ended, I hope to share with you at least one of the secrets to a contented life.  But I will do so by way of a different type of sermon format, via true stories of those who discovered this life secret.

First, the story of a young man named Isaac.  Not Isaac in the Bible, but an Isaac of another era.  This Isaac was born some years after the Protestant Reformation, and I have never heard him referred to as a reformer.  But in my eyes, Isaac was one of the most significant, late-in-time reformers, to which the Christian Church owes a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Born in 1674 in England, Isaac at a young age decided to become a minister.  The son of committed religious Nonconformists, he found himself among the “Independent” Christians of the time, and is remembered as one of the early English Congregationalists.  Possessing a very intelligent mind, Isaac soon gained the reputation of being an astute theologian, lucid writer, and forceful preacher.  While still very young, Isaac was called to be pastor of the large Mark Lane Congregational Chapel in London.  He espoused religious opinions that were more nondenominational or ecumenical than was common for the day.  (He would fit right in here at the United Church.)  The theological books he wrote were used as textbooks at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Yale.  He also wrote a book on Logic that became extremely popular as well.

But what Isaac is most remembered for is his hymn writing, his true passion in life, which is an interesting story to say the least.  There is a story to the effect that when Isaac got serious about the worship and liturgy of the church of his day, he complained to his father that the hymns the church was singing left much to be desired.  You see, up until this time, the only hymns that were sung in church services were scriptural passages (mostly the Psalms) set to music.  Well, supposedly his father said to him in effect, “Son, if you don’t like the hymns the church is singing, then write some new ones.”  And Isaac replied, “I will.”  And that is what he set out to do.  In his lifetime, Isaac would write over 600 (one source actually says 750) hymns, most of them while he was a young man under the age of 30 during his first pastorate.  Isaac’s influence in hymn writing was so great that he is recognized as the “Godfather of English Hymnody.”

I am sure you recognize some of the hymns that Isaac left us: “Joy to the World!” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  But here is the point: Isaac Watts saw a need, and using his passion he set out to address it.  What Isaac Watts achieved was a significant change in Christian worship by incorporating “original songs of Christian experience.”  To draw upon the teachings of Jesus, what Isaac Watts had done, in effect, was to “put new wine into new wineskins.”

Fast forward 250 years to a young Midwestern preacher named Robert.  As a young minister, Robert went to California, to a growing area that was in need of a new church for the people who were moving there.  But Robert was able to think outside the traditional church box.  In 1955, a time when people were finding joy in automobiles and drive-in movie theaters, Robert decided to take advantage of that, so he began his new church by use of a drive-in movie theater.  He also rented a 300-seat, former Baptist church building, about four miles from the theater.  He would lead a service of worship at the church at 9:30 am on Sundays, then go to the movie theater for a second, drive-in service.  He would set a pulpit on the roof of the concession stand, and families would come to the drive-in theater to attend outdoor church.  His wife played the small organ to provide music, and his sermons and prayers would be broadcast through the speakers that attached to car windows.

In time, Robert would be recognized as one of the early and most successful mega church pastors.  Eventually the church would be the so-called Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.  The ministries they provided for the community numbered several dozen.  At one time Robert’s televised “Hour of Power,” which was broadcast for 40 years, was one of the most popular and most successful religious shows on television.  Robert’s passion was preaching the positive aspects of the Christian faith, believing that the message of Jesus has the power to change lives.  But here is the point: Robert Schuller saw a need in Orange County, California, and he set out to address it.  Schuller “put new wine into new wineskins.”  In one of his many books, Schuller said, “The key to a successful church is to find a need and fill it; find a hurt and heal it.”

And then there is Frederick’s story.  Born in 1926, Frederick’s life was forever changed when his father committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning when Frederick was only 10 years old.  Frederick grew up with little or no associations with church.  Frederick decided he wanted to be a writer, so that was his focus in school.  But in 1955, Frederick wandered into Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City where the famous George Buttrick was preaching.  Buttrick’s sermons so inspired Frederick that he felt inspired to attend seminary and become an ordained Presbyterian minister himself.  And that is what he set out to do.

But when he was ordained, it was to a unique ministry of religious writing.  Eventually Frederick would author more than 30 books and lecture extensively.  In his own words, Frederick saw his ministry as being that of defending the Christian faith, “to present the faith as appealingly, honestly, relevantly, and as skillfully as I could.”  The overall theme of his work as a writing preacher and theologian “is his regard for the appearance of the divine in daily life.  By examining the day-to-day workings of his own life, [Frederick] Buechner seeks to find God’s hand at work.”  But here is the pertinent point for the topic at hand.  Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Frederick Buechner put new wine into new wineskins.

But let us not forget Barbara’s story.  Barbara was ordained as an Episcopal priest and spent two decades in parish ministry.  Such a good preacher is she that she has made it as the only female on the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world list.  Through her published writings and sermons, Barbara gained national notoriety as a much-sought-after preacher and lecturer.  So many people began flocking to her small Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia, that they had to go to several services every weekend to accommodate the crowds.  But the demands of parish ministry began to take its toll upon Barbara, and she was at the point of burnout, so she made the decision to leave parish ministry.  Now Barbara Brown Taylor devotes her life to teaching at Piedmont College and Columbia Theological Seminary, writing and publishing, and finding God in the world.  “The point is,” as Barbara Brown Taylor defines it, “is to find something that feeds your sense of purpose.”

And so, each of these I have mentioned, who was an innovator in his or her own right, found a piece of the puzzle to finding contentment in life.  Now, it is true that each one of these is/was an ordained minister.  But what each of them learned apples to everyone – to all of us – regardless of what our vocation in life might be, even if we are retired.

Each of these I have mentioned might also be rightly viewed as a reformer in his or her own right.  Each one found the secret of putting new wine into new wineskins.  Such is always a challenge for us as a congregation as well, isn’t it – to find ways in our programs, ministry and outreach – to put new wine into new wineskins.

Putting it all together, as promised earlier, one of the secrets to a life of contentment – whether we be working, retired, or a volunteer – it to find and match your personal passion in life with a need of the community or world; find a hurt and with your passion heal it; match what brings you deep gladness with the world’s deep need.  Our passion – our gift, our talent, our chief interest in life, that which brings us great joy – applied to a human need makes for a wonderful combination.  May it be so with each of us as well.  Amen.

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Reading the Signs

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 14, 2018

Matthew 16:1-3; Luke 12:54-56 NRSV

“The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry

It is that time of the year when Helen Lane – were she still living – would be making her predictions about the type of weather we might expect this winter.  Some of you are old enough or local enough to know who I am talking about.  When I was a child, my parents and my grandmother referred to her as “the Crab Orchard woman.”  For several years, I only knew her by that title – “the Crab Orchard woman.”  I would be an adult before I would come to know her by her given name, Helen Lane.

Lane, it has been said, put Crab Orchard and Crossville on the map because of her weather predictions based on the signs of Nature, which were printed in the Crab Orchard and Crossville newspapers and then picked up by other publications.  Natural signs such as size of spider webs, the thickness and color of wooly worm coats, the height of hornets’ nests, the number of fogs in August, and so on were the criteria Helen Lane used to predict the type of winter that could be expected.

Some may brush off such predictions based upon Nature’s signs as silly superstition.  But could it be that such natural phenomena actually illustrate the marvelous interconnection, what Unitarian Universalists refer to as the interdependent web, of the natural world?

Observing the signs of Nature in order to make predictions is age-old.  Even in Jesus’ day, folk had learned to observe some natural signs around them and make predictions about the weather.  The words of Jesus from the gospel according to Matthew (16:1-3), where he talked about observing the color of the sky in the evening and the early morning, have been made into a little rhyme that we are all familiar with:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;

Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.

And then in Luke Jesus noted that when they saw a cloud building up in the west, they knew it was going to rain.   And when they observed a wind start to blow from the south, they knew it was going to be hot (Luke 13:54-56).

Jesus’ concern, of course, went much deeper than the ability to read the signs of Nature in order to predict the next day’s weather.  Of paramount importance, Jesus sought to explain, is reading the signs of the times; being cognizant of the present moment and what is going on around us, and taking steps to respond accordingly.  Using his prophetic voice, Jesus called out those who “know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3).  His hearers, Jesus contended, could not see God’s workings in their very midst.  They were blind to the political and religious realities of the present moment.  They were unable to interpret the present time.

Reading the signs of the times – herein lies the crux of the matter.  By the way, I went to my dictionary to review the possible meanings of the word “crux” just to assure myself that I had used the word properly.  And here is what I found: “Crux. 1. A crucial or vital moment; critical point. 2. The basic, essential or central feature.  3. A puzzling problem.”  And I thought to myself, What an appropriate word for the topic at hand. When we think about the signs of the times and all that is going on in our nation and world, critical and puzzling are most apt and descriptive words.  But is it a truth, indeed, as Jesus suggested, that sometimes we can read the signs of nature better than we can read or make sense of the signs of the times?

I must confess that when I try to read the signs of our time, I am left bewildered, confused, and sometimes even depressed. Consider with me some (just a few; certainly not all) of the signs of the times that may leave many of us feeling bewildered, confused, and at times depressed:

  • Speaking of nature, consider the change in weather patterns, the melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers, and the increase in the severity of natural disasters, such as the hurricanes we have experienced of late.  Many scientists attribute these changes to manmade global warming.  But at the same time, measures put in place previously to curb carbon dioxide emissions (the main culprit of ozone depletion) and other pollutants and protect the earth and environment have been relaxed or set aside or are in danger of being abolished. The top scientific body keeping a watch on climate change has warned that countries of the world have about 10 years to take steps to decrease CO2 emissions and slow global warming or we will suffer the consequences.  An article in yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel noted that NOAA has attributed the recent devastating Hurricane Michael at least in part to warmer waters in the Gulf, due to global warming.  All the while, places on the earth that help clean the air of carbon dioxide emissions, such as the tropical rain forests, are being destroyed for profit at an alarming rate.  Such are warning signs of coming ecological disaster.  The interdependent web or interconnection of the natural world takes on a whole new meaning when we look at it from a global perspective.
  • Consider the sign of sharp polarization in our government and our nation as a whole. Our national government is divided right down the middle, and our country as a whole appears to be sharply divided as well.
  • Consider the sign of an increase in white supremacy hate groups and white supremacy ideology and the position among some that slavery was not really that bad. More saddening and disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that there are thousands held in slavery yet today – sexual slavery, for instance, including children – even in the United States.
  • Consider the sign that on the one hand some instances of sexual assault are being dealt with very aggressively with the #MeToo Movement, as in the cases of actor Bill Cosby and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, but then on the other hand we also see instances when blame and ridicule are heaped upon the victims of sexual assault, a sign of disparity, especially when politics are involved.

Such are just a few of the signs of the times that leave me feeling bewildered, confused, and disturbed; signs that the soul of our nation (as in the case of sexual slavery) and the future of the earth (as in the case of global climate change) are hanging in the balances.  The question is, where do we find ourselves in all of this, and how do we respond?  What does all of this say to us?

I think the first thing these signs say to us is be alert.  In looking to the scripture passages of the day, we are advised to be cognizant of and give serious thought to what is going on about us in our nation and wider world.  As much as we would like to turn a blind eye to the issues of our time and bury our heads in the sand, we should try to refrain from doing so.

The signs say get involved.  Think seriously about current affairs, seeking to look at all sides of the issues. We do well to give educated consideration to the issues at hand, and then by all means vote our consciences during this upcoming election.  For those who want to do more, get involved in a group that is seeking positive change in one or more issues that you are passionate about.

Some signs might say take a lesson from the cycles of Nature.  Just as Nature moves in a never-ending cycle – summer, fall, winter, and spring – so does history to some extent.  In other words, the pendulum of conservative versus liberal swings back and forth in our country.  Things may move toward the progressive end during one administration, bringing  with it change, but when some fear progression and change are going too far, they may feel threatened and push back so much that the pendulum begins to swing back toward more conservative ways of doing things.  Then when the pendulum swings toward more conservative ways and values, some fear things will swing too far into the past, so they push back and urge the pendulum of thought to move toward progression and change again.  And thus, the cycle of history goes back and forth.

And then there are times when we, like Wendell Berry, just have to take a break from it all, as we realize that we alone are not going to solve all the world’s problems.  Berry testifies that when “despair for the world grows” in him, and he fears of what his life and his children’s lives may be, he retreats to Nature.  And then he says, “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”  When the problems of the world get to be too much with us, sometimes we just have to retreat to the world of Nature so that we may be refreshed and get our battery recharged so that we can again be who we need to be and do what we need to do.

Signs often are for announcing a warning – rough or crooked road ahead; road closed; falling rocks; dead end; and so on.  Signs warn of a crucial or vital moment or critical point.  As such, signs call for action lest we bring trouble or disaster upon ourselves.  As we read the signs of the times and are aware of all that is going on in the world around us, we educate ourselves about the issues and we get involved and do what we feel we should and can do – vote, petition, contribute, write letters, call our legislators, and some may feel strongly enough to march or protest – to make a positive difference.  May each of us take action as we feel led to do.  But whatever we do, let us not ignore the signs of the times.  Amen.

 

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