Regrets for What Isn’t – Thanks for What Is

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 19, 2017

Psalm 100; Philippians 1:3-6; 4:11b-13 ESV

For several years now, my Dad has said to us when every Father’s Day, birthday, or Christmas rolls around, “Now I don’t need anything, so you just save your money.”  Such is a very nice gesture on my Dad’s part.  But I rarely, if ever, listen to him and try to think of some gift that would be appropriate anyway.  I often end up buying a gift card so he or my Mom can go pick out something that he might actually need or use.

For a long time, I didn’t really understand where my Dad was coming from in saying, “I don’t really need anything.”  But the older I get, the more I am beginning to understand it.  There isn’t a whole lot that I can think of that I want or need, materially speaking.  Well, other than a nice, new log cabin in the woods (which is more of a fantasy than an actual need).  Occasionally I think of a new book I would like to have.  But my list of material wants is much shorter than it was in previous decades.  I am not sure if it is such because I have accumulated many of the material or earthly things that once were on my wanting list, or if it is because my perspective on such things has changed over time, or a combination of both.

Finding contentment with one’s current situation is a cardinal principle of an authentic spiritual life.  Not that I have arrived there, mind you.  I am not well versed in Buddhist thought, but I seem to recall that one of the principles of Buddhism is reaching a state of contentment and a state of freedom from the desire for material things.

The Apostle Paul touches on the idea of contentment in his letter to the Philippians.  Philippians is probably my favorite of all the authentic Pauline writings in our New Testament.  Such a warm, congenial spirit flows in this letter, and it is free of some of the heavy theological language to be found in some of Paul’s other works.  The letter begins on a note of thanksgiving: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,” Paul affectionately assures his readers.  It is obvious throughout this letter that there is a real bond of love and commitment between Paul and this congregation he had established.  Now, we need to remember that as Paul penned this letter, he was sitting in prison, probably in Rome.

But near the end of the letter, Paul testifies that in spite of his imprisonment and all the troubles he is facing, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (4:11).  What a testimony!  What a perspective on life!  To be content, no matter the situation.  Whether it be plenty or hunger, abundance or need.  Paul proclaimed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  Paul’s faith; the relationships, love and support he had with fellow believers; and the relationship he felt he had with God and Christ all contributed to his sense of contentment in life, regardless of the present circumstances.

But must we not confess that if we were to permit ourselves, it would be easy to be more focused on regrets of what we don’t have versus contentment with what we do have.  It would have been very easy for the Apostle Paul to spend his time in prison bemoaning his present situation and being miserable over what he didn’t have.  Paul could have thought, “Oh, if only I were on a fourth missionary journey!  If only I had gone over there instead of where I did where I got arrested!  If only this, and if only that!  How I wish I had such and such!”  But he didn’t.

I’ve been there a time or two in the past, and perhaps you have too; those times when you allow yourself to be obsessed with what you don’t have or what you want or desire (and not necessarily what you really need).  It is easy for us to fall into the line of thinking of, If I only had that automobile, or if I only had that house, or if I only had that modern convenience, I would be happy.  And such can become our focus to the exclusion of all other considerations.  Obsession over not having one material thing can take precedence over and every other blessing we have in abundance, if we allow it to.

But one of the secret keys to a fulfilled life is not only finding contentment in life, but being thankful for what we already have.  Every spring and every fall, I switch my clothes out in my closet.  So recently I moved all my spring and summer clothes to the back end of my closet, and I moved my fall and winter shirts and pants to the front where I can easily access them.  And I do the same with my winter coats, gloves, hats and such.  And in the process, I invariably run across a nice shirt or pair of pants or sweater that I had forgotten I even owned.  And I have to say to myself, “That is a really nice shirt or sweater!  I had forgotten I even owned that.”  And I pause for a moment of gratitude that I have that and can look forward to wearing it.

Well, this personal confession has a wider application.  When we pause to take inventory of our lives, we realize that we have blessings in abundance that we may have forgotten about; not just items of clothing that make us feel good when we wear them.  But books and artwork, and pieces of family heirloom furniture, and family photographs, and dozens of other objects (perhaps passed down from family members) that bring us joy when we remember that we have them.  But above all, there is the blessing of relationships and the many people who love us, including some relationships and distant friendships that we sometimes forget about.

God grant us the attitude of Henry David Thoreau: “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.”

I realize that it is easy for me – for most of us in the United Church – to talk about finding contentment and being thankful for what we already have since most of us live very blessed lives.  But many of our county and world find life to be much more difficult.  They don’t have a summer wardrobe and winter wardrobe.  They probably do spend a lot of time thinking about what they don’t have rather than what they do have.  I get that.

But you and I have to live our own lives and respond accordingly.  If we can find contentment in what we already have, and if we do have much for which to give thanks, then such is what we are bound to do.  As the authors of The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons put it, “Now is a good moment to gather our thanks.  Now is the time to remember that we have what we need to give us strength and nourishment during barren, fallow times.”

As we remember the Plymouth Pilgrims this week, we are reminded that they could have spent that autumn of 1621 focusing on regrets and bemoaning what might have been and all the suffering and hardships they had endured.  They had found themselves in a harsh, cold environment without the comforts of home they had known in Europe.  They had almost starved to death.  All of them had lost loved ones to illness, exposure to the cold and death.  Nevertheless, they chose to focus their thoughts on gratitude and thanksgiving for the blessings they did have.

Every now and then all of us may find ourselves having regrets over what isn’t, what might have been, or what we don’t have.  But every November, Thanksgiving rolls around to remind us to go through the closets of our lives and take stock of, be reminded of, and to cultivate a more thankful spirit for what we do have.  May it be so for each of us this Thanksgiving week and always.  Amen.

1Joyce Rupp & Macrina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons.  Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2005.  Pp. 220-221.

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Reflections on Ministry with Children

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 12, 2017

Mark 10:13-16 GNT; “Children” by Kahlil Gibran

One of the greatest joys of being a pastor over the years has been my ministry with children.  And many are the lessons that I have learned in my years of working with children.  Permit me to share a few stories with you.

My ministry with children began in the first, small, country church I served as I helped lead and teach in Vacation Bible School.  Then in the second church we served – while I was attending seminary – I was first expected to have a children’s sermon as a part of the Sunday service.  And I have included a children’s sermon in the Sunday worship service ever since, for some 37 years now.  As we all know, when you are talking with children and open yourself to questions and responses, you never know what you are going to get.

In that seminary congregation, soon after we arrived and when I had just begun inviting the children to the front of the church for time together, one little boy stopped me in the middle of one children’s sermon and yelled, “You know what?”  And of course I bit – hook, line and sinker – and I replied, “No, what?”  And the little boy shouted, “My daddy has a big liquor cabinet full of all kinds of liquor!”  Well, what do you do with that?  Now, you have to realize that the majority of members in that congregation were teetotalers.  Most didn’t drink alcohol and looked down upon those who did.  I glanced back in the congregation to watch the little boy’s parents and grandmother – who happened to be one of the chief movers and shakers in the congregation – red-faced and trying to slide under the pew.

In another congregation I served, it happened to be the first Sunday of Stewardship Season, and it was time for the morning offering.  The ushers had already collected the offering and were walking forward, and we had just begun singing the Doxology offertory song.  All of a sudden the back doors of the chapel flung open, and a little boy came running up the aisle, and with a big smile on his face dropped some money in the offering plates.  The nursery attendants, realizing it was about time for the Offertory, had sent him in with their offerings, not realizing we were almost finished.  When everyone realized what was happening, the congregation broke out in spontaneous laughter.  This, I knew, was an opportunity too good to be missed.  “Now that is what I like to see!” I proclaimed, smiling at the little boy; “people who are so excited about giving that they run up the aisle with their offering!”  I couldn’t have staged a better visual lesson on stewardship had I tried.

Another area of ministry with children over the years has been in summer church camps and retreats.  It was a joy studying with junior age kids (roughly grades 3-5) and enjoying the beauties and blessings of Nature together.  I think I shared once the story of one little girl who happened to attend the church I was serving in Texas at the time.  One afternoon at church camp, she and a few other kids came up to me and she asked, “What did you do with that money?”  Her question caused me to panic momentarily, as I was thinking she had entrusted some of her own money to me that the kids brought for the afternoon canteen, where they could buy ice cream, candy bars, and such.  But I couldn’t recall her giving me any money.  So a bit concerned I replied, “What money?”  And she said, “That money your Momma gave you for preaching lessons; ‘cause you sure didn’t use it to learn how to preach!”  Of course she was playing a joke on me – I think – and all the kids got a good laugh at my expense.  But I knew it was all in good fun and it made me smile.

Since coming to the United Church, it has been a real joy for me to establish a rapport with the children of our church and nursery school.  I enjoy those few minutes each Sunday when the children come forward and gather around for a story or object lesson.  I enjoy passing out candy at our Trunk or Treat, working with the children at our Family Christmas Workshop, spending time with the children at our summer Vacation Church School, and other ways.  The kids bless me as much or more than what I do blesses them, I am sure.  It thrilled my heart to read the things the kids wrote on the construction paper leaves for Pastor Appreciation Sunday.

Currently, I am enjoying working with Suzanne and some of our older kids in the Confirmation Class.  We have some great, intelligent kids in this church (parents, pat yourselves on the back), and it is a true joy to be able to converse with them once a month on religious and spiritual topics.  So to reiterate what I said in the beginning, ministry with children has been one of the greatest joys of being a pastor these past 40 years.  But I have a good reason for sharing all these anecdotes with you.

Some general points having to do with children and teenagers can be gleaned from these stories.  For instance, children have something to teach us about straight forwardness, honesty and transparency, as with the little boy and confession about his father’s liquor cabinet.  Parents and grandparents soon learn that children keep us on our toes when it comes to honesty and integrity.  Children may not just open all your closet doors to reveal what is hidden there when guests come to visit, as happened to us once or twice.  They may also open the closet doors of your personal life!  They teach us a lesson in honesty.

Children have something to teach us about giving and doing so joyfully, as in the case of the little boy running up the aisle with the offering.  Many are the good gifts that children and grandchildren have to share with us, and they do so with pride and joy.  How important it is to not only receive such gifts with much appreciation, gratitude and praise, but to emulate their example of also giving joyfully and proudly.

Children have something to teach us about humor and being able to laugh, and to occasionally laugh at ourselves, as in the case of the little girl who critiqued my preaching skills.  How important it is for us to not only get down on children’s level to laugh and have fun with them, but also to be humble enough to see and laugh at our own foibles.

Children and young people have the ability to stretch our minds as we honestly wrestle with them over the hard questions of life and faith, which we do every time we meet with our teenagers for a Confirmation Class.  Intelligent discussions with our children and teenagers can prove to be good for all concerned.  As the Prophet Kahlil Gibran reminds us, our children “have their own thoughts” to be shared with us.

I’ll share a personal example. I slipped and made an off the cuff statement a few weeks ago that by today’s standards is politically incorrect, and our daughter (who happened to be here that day) politely pointed it out to me.  I had not intended to be politically incorrect in the least, but because of her training and field of professional expertise, she picked up on it.  She was correct.  It was a learning experience for me.  My daughter is now 37 years old, but I still learn from her.  But we can learn from our young children and grandchildren and the younger children of our church and Nursery School as well.  As the Prophet says, sometimes we need to “strive to be like them,” rather than seeking to make them like ourselves.

Of all the work, programs and mission we are involved in here at the United Church, nothing is more important than our ministry with children and youth.  We may sometimes be tempted to take such things for granted.  But the Sunday school classes, Unity youth group, Confirmation Class, family and youth retreats, children’s choir and ensemble, and the many special events planned for children and youth throughout the year (Christmas Family Workshop, Christmas Pageant, Easter activities, picnics, Vacation Church School, and so on) are vitally important as we seek to provide Christian instruction, spiritual formation, love and acceptance, a caring community, and more.  But in the process of seeking to provide these opportunities, we also receive much from our children and youth in return.

And just as important is the United Church Nursery School that this congregation has sponsored for well over 50 years.  God bless our children and their parents.  And God bless the dedicated teachers, staff, and volunteers of our Nursery School, as together we engage in the all-important ministry with children.  Amen.

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That Person a Saint! Really?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 5, 2017

Job 15:14-16; Philippians 4:21-23 NKJV

Do you consider yourself to be a saint?  I imagine that most of us do not think of ourselves as being very “saintly.”  The idea of “saint” may conjure up images of someone who is very pious; someone who spends much time in prayer and reading the scriptures; perhaps someone who attends prayer services several times a day; or someone who devotes her life to caring for the sick and dying.  And if that is the mental image that we have of a “saint,” I think we probably would not be totally incorrect.

But there are a number of different Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “saint” in traditional English translations of the Bible; in the King James Version, for example.  Most often the word “saint” is used to signify one who is “set apart, separate or holy.”  Both the speaker in Job and Paul in his letter to the Philippians have in mind those “set apart, separate or holy” in the verses I read.  And it is interesting that Paul uses the word “saint” to include “they that are of Caesar’s household” as well, presumable those who had converted to Christianity (Philippians 4:22).

But one Hebrew word form (chasid) for saint signifies one who is “pious” or “kind.”  Such is the form of “saint” that is used when the Psalmist says, the Lord “preserveth the souls of his saints” (Psalm 97:15), and “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).  That last definition – “kind” – is the one I prefer and want to concentrate on today.

But in looking at biblical saints, we find that not all those spoken of, or at least alluded to, in the Bible as such are what we might initially think of as being “saintly.”  The book of Hebrews (as we read last Sunday) mentions a number of the ancients and alludes to them as being people of faith, “saints of old,” if you will; but by today’s standards many of them had questionable reputations, to say the very least.  Noah got drunk after the flood and found himself in an embarrassing situation, Jacob was a swindling scoundrel, Rahab very likely was a prostitute, Moses was a murderer, Samson had a weakness for deceptive women, and David was a warrior and an adulterer, just to cite a few of those listed as the faithful or saints of old.

Indeed, we might be hard-pressed to name any of the “saints of old” mentioned in the Bible who lived perfect, holy, pious, exemplary lives that we would want our children or grandchildren to emulate.  As we have seen, the philosopher of Job questions the purity or righteousness of those thought to be saints.  “Behold he[God] puts no trust in his saints, And the heavens are not pure in his sight” (Job 15:15).

Also, those whom the Church might look back upon as saints were not all so saintly in real life either.  Take, for instance, Martin Luther whom I spoke of last Sunday as providing the spark 500 years ago this past week that set fire to the Protestant Reformation.  I purposely did not make reference to it in last Sunday’s sermon, but Martin Luther was far from being a saint in a personal, life-of-perfection sense of the term.  Luther’s life and personality were filled with faults, as many have been quick to point out in editorials of late.  At the top of the list of Luther’s faults was the fact that he was very anti-Semitic and hate-filled toward the Jews.  Luther said and wrote some terrible things about the Jewish people that led to much harm over the centuries.

But others whom some might look back upon and venerate might also be cited as being far from perfect.  John Calvin, the one who is considered to be the “Father of Presbyterianism” and who framed the doctrine of some 70 million Christians of the Presbyterian and Reformed faith gave his consent to burning Michael Servetus at the stake because of Servetus’s Unitarian, rather than Trinitarian, theology.  Calvin, as pious as he endeavored to be, was far from living a perfect life as well.

Such are just two examples.  Many others could be cited.  But the point is when it comes down to perfect, pious, holy lives, the prophet Isaiah got it right, and Paul repeated it when they said, “there is none righteous, no not one” (Isaiah 41:26 and Romans 3:10).

But curiously, even some of those whom we might think of as saints did not think of themselves as such.  For instance, Mother Teresa of Calcutta never thought of herself as being a saint.  Teresa often questioned her own worthiness and relationship with God and often questioned whether God might have forsaken her.  In her own words, Teresa once lamented, “I am unworthy – I am sinful – I am weak.”1

I venture so far as to say that anyone who thinks himself or herself to be a saint is not.  It seems to me that one of the criteria of a true saint is a healthy dose of humility.  Such Teresa of Calcutta had, without a doubt.

But the question is, If those traditionally thought of as being saints were not all that “saintly, righteous,  pious, or perfect” then what is it that makes one a saint?  Well, could it be that a saint is one who rises to the occasion to do God’s work, meet the present crisis, and do what needs to be done for the betterment of humanity and advancement of the Good?

As I was thinking out loud about what I wanted to say in today’s sermon, Suzanne suggested I mention Oskar Schindler.  Some of you may remember the movie that was popular in the early 1990s titled Schindler’s List.   Schindler, a businessman, put his life and livelihood on the line to save the lives of 1200 Jews during the Holocaust.  He did this by employing the Jews in his Polish enamelware and ammunitions factories.  He went to extremes, including paying off the Nazis with elaborate bribes, in order to keep his Jewish workers safe.  Schindler’s expenses in sparing the lives of those Jews eventually resulted in personal bankruptcy and poverty.  If we think of Schindler, that is what we think of  – that slice of his life and his actions in saving the lives of countless Jews who would have otherwise been lost.  Oskar Schindler rose to the occasion and did what needed to be done for the betterment of humanity and the cause of the Good.  In that sense of the term, Schindler proved to be “kind,” one Hebrew designation of a saint.

But when we look at the life of Schindler more closely, we realize that he was far from being holy or pious.  His initial action in employing the Jews in his factories was purely for financial gain (he could get the Jewish workers for lower wages) and had nothing to do with kindness or concern for their welfare.  That attitude changed over time and in the end he did what he did out of a genuine kindness.  But in other areas of his life, Schindler was arrested several times for public drunkenness, and he was a womanizer, having several different affairs with other women.  So his overall life was far from being spotless.  But regarding his rising to the occasion to save 1200 Jewish lives, and eventually being motivated by kindness, Schindler might aptly be seen as a “saint.”  In fact, because of his actions, Schindler was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli Government in 1963.

Such could be a general principle as we look back at history: Saints are those who rose to the occasion to do God’s work, meet the present crisis, and did what needed to be done at that time and place for the betterment of humanity and advancement of the Good.  In that sense of the term, Moses, Rahab, and other biblical characters; Reformer Martin Luther; Oskar Schindler, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa were all saints because they rose to the occasion and did the work of God, out of kindness worked for the betterment of humanity, and advanced the cause of the Good in the world.

So again, I pose the question: Do you consider yourself to be a saint?  In the sense of a perfect, pious, sinless, holy life, probably none of us do.  But in the sense that we might rise to the occasion to do the work of God, through kindness meet the present humanitarian need, and work for the advancement of the Good, those who come after us might indeed look back upon us as “saints.”  You just never know.  But could it be so for each of us?  Amen.

1Paul Murray, I Loved Jesus in the Night: Teresa of Calcutta, A Secret Revealed.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008.  P. 21.

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Happy Birthday, Reformation!

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 29, 2017

Hebrews 11:1-2, 32-39a GNT

It probably hasn’t occurred to you, but this Tuesday, October 31st, is a significant day for all of us of the Protestant faith.  Tuesday happens to be the 500th anniversary of the birthday of the event that is looked upon as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Hence, today’s sermon title, “Happy Birthday, Reformation!”  For, you see, it was exactly 500 years ago this All Hallows Eve that a young, obscure, Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  It was an act that proved to be the spark that ignited the movement that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

The issue that ignited Luther’s anger and fueled his reforming spirit seems to have been the selling of indulgences, documents in which the Pope at that time guaranteed remission of sins and entrance into heaven for all who made a financial contribution toward the construction of St. Peter’s Church in Rome.  One seller of indulgences at the time went so far as to promise that “even if a man had raped the Virgin Mary he could still go straight to heaven if he purchased” an indulgence.1  All Hallow’s Eve (what we call Halloween, the day before All Saints Day) was a day of significance in the selling of indulgences; hence the day Luther chose to formally post his complaints, having decided it was time for someone to step forward to address the many wrongs he saw in the Church of his day.  His 95 Theses listed points that he hoped would lead to discussion and change in the Church’s beliefs and practices.  Or as biographer Roland H. Bainton puts it, “He was merely inviting scholars to dispute and dignitaries to define.”2

Luther’s efforts were advanced by the invention of the printing press only a few decades earlier, and he used the new technology to his advantage.  It has been written that Luther alone “was responsible for one fifth of all works printed in Germany between 1500 and 1530.”“In short order they [the 95 Theses] became the talk of Germany.”2  I am of the opinion that had Martin Luther been living today, he would have been pastor of one of today’s contemporary mega-churches, because of his questioning traditional beliefs and practices, his use of cutting-edge technology, and his innovative approaches.

We may fail to appreciate the fallout of Luther’s actions, which caused much controversy to say the least.  Luther was condemned by Church authorities as a heretic, on more than one occasion feared for his life, and in 1521 was formally excommunicated by the Church.  When summoned before authorities, Luther refused to retract anything he had said or done.  “Here I stand,” he was quoted as stating, “may God help me, I can do no other.”  From that time forward, the wheels of reform were set into motion; or to use my previous metaphor, the fire that had begun as a spark with the posting of the 95 Theses was now raging, and there was no putting it out.

“But why?” you may be asking, “should we care about and be concerned with something that happened 500 years ago, and in Germany?”  Such an event may seem far removed from our 21st century lives and our church involvement.  Well, the answers are many and varied.

For instance, the Protestant Reformation made possible the great variety of faith expressions that color today’s religious landscape.  I am going to step out on a limb and conjecture that at least one of the reasons that church involvement and attendance in America have continued to remain higher than in many other countries of the world (some European countries, for example) is the great variety of religious options open to us.  The more options available to people, the more they tend to get involved and participate.  Such is human nature.  The Reformation made possible all those branches of Protestantism that we have learned to take for granted – Baptists, Churches of Christ, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, and even Unitarians and Universalists.  Although country dwellers are often a bit limited in their choice of churches, most town and city dwellers in America have a wide choice of churches to attend, choosing what seems to fit them best.  Such would not have been possible had it not been for the Protestant Reformation.

And then, the Protestant Reformation helped make possible the freedom of religious expression.  Thanks to the Reformation, we are not locked into a set of beliefs, forced to adopt ancient creeds or confessions which go against what our personal consciences, convictions, and reasoning dictate.  Prior to the Reformation, to question doctrines and beliefs laid down by the Church resulted in one being branded as a heretic (as in the case of Luther and other Reformers).  And in some cases, the crime of heresy resulted in death – being burned at the stake or some other torturous death, not unlike those cited in the book of Hebrews that served as today’s scripture reading.  This passage could have been written in reference to the Reformers!

But as an aside, it must sadly be confessed that even some of the Reformers themselves continued to insist upon conformity in belief and practice, but conformity to their beliefs and practices as they had redefined them.  Different new Christian sects were severely persecuted early on, such as the Anabaptists, Quakers, Universalists, and others.  Even those of the Reformation who came to America seeking religious freedom continued for a time to insist that their way was the only right way.  Many of those who had fought for reform soon became rigid and domineering, thinking they had refashioned the true Church.  Some of the original 13 colonies were more uncompromising than others, which led Roger Williams to establish Rhode Island as a religious haven for dissenters. So it took awhile for the spirit of the Reformation to permeate all aspects of the religious landscape, but we can be grateful for the results that eventually led to a much greater freedom of religious expression.

Third, and perhaps of most interest to us, the Protestant Reformation made possible churches like this United Church that we all love.  I have said it time and again: the United Church is a unique community of faith, unlike any other in Oak Ridge.  An independent, progressive-thinking community of faith is a rare thing these days.  There are a lot of independent congregations in America.  There is no doubt about that.  But the vast majority of America’s independent churches are evangelical, conservative, or fundamentalist in their approach and beliefs.

We do not have a creed or confession like other socially progressive-thinking churches in town, such as First Presbyterian.  But at the same time, we are more Christian-centered than the Unitarian Universalist Church, for instance.  Such is not a criticism toward either of those churches by any means; just a general statement of fact.  The United Church finds itself somewhat in the middle, between First Presbyterian or First United Methodist on the one hand (creedal churches), and the Unitarian Universalist Church on the other hand.  Regarding the “personality” of the United Church, we have the best of all worlds, in my opinion.

Allow me to share a personal story I have shared before.  For some years I had dreamed, hoped and prayed to be able to move to an independent congregation having an open, inclusive, progressive or liberal Christian theology; and, of course, a congregation that was also a loving community of faith that understood what it means to actually be a church community, and how to be engaged in mission in the local community and wider world.  For awhile it seemed like a pipedream or an impossibility that such a move was possible.  But then by chance – or was it by providence? – we saw an ad in the Christian Century magazine, calling for pastoral resumes.  There was no way for us to know it at the time that I sent my resume, but as it turned out, this United Church ended up being exactly the type of congregation I had dreamed of, hoped for and prayed for.  So thank you for being the fulfillment of my dream and answer to my prayers!

But the reality is, had it not been for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation he sparked 500 years ago this Halloween Day, this United Church might not have ever been possible.  Many are the positive benefits that the Protestant Reformation made possible for us.  But if for no other reason than the fact that the Protestant Reformation made possible this United Church, today it gives me great joy to say, “Happy Birthday, Reformation!”  Amen.

 

1Richard J. Evans, “The Monk Who Shook the World,” Wall Street Journal, April 1-2, 2017.

2Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950.  Pp. 63-64.

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Family By Choice

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 22, 2017

Mark 3:31-35 CEB

Reading from Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 46

At a recent United Way training on understanding the dynamics of poverty, we were asked to participate in an exercise where all present lined up and responded to questions having to do with privileges and disadvantages in our families of origin.  We were instructed to take steps forward if we qualified for various privileges (such as being born to well-educated parents, etc.), or take steps backward if we had suffered disadvantages (such as living in poverty as a child and being food deprived).  The point of the exercise was a visual demonstration of the difference that birth advantages versus disadvantages makes in the starting line of life and how they affect the possibility of success in different peoples’ lives.  The family one is born into has a profound impact upon one’s place in the world and future successes and/or failures.  That is an elementary fact of life.

But at least one thing that all humans living on the earth – indeed, all humans who have ever lived on the earth – have in common is we have absolutely no choice in the matter of the family we are born into.  Or to put it another way, not one of us chose our family of origin.  None of us enjoyed the benefit of a pre-birth consultation to determine if we would prefer to be born into an African American, Asian, Caucasian, Native American, or any other family ethnicity.  And neither did we have the benefit of choosing the economic status of our family of origin – dirt poor, filthy rich, or somewhere in between.  Nor were we consulted as to whether we would like to be born into a well-educated or an uneducated family.  Each of us is born into a world not of our own choosing, and it befalls each of us to make the best of our world with the lot we are cast.

An obvious ramification of this is we should be less quick to judge others because of their station in life, or even for some of their life choices, because one’s birth family has so much to do with how people live their lives and the choices they may make.  Such was illustrated in various ways at the United Way training recently.  As the old saying goes, we should be slow to judge another until we have walked a mile in his or her shoes.  Or, we should be slow to judge another because none choose their family of origin and the starting gate of life that is thrust upon them.

A contemporary issue, which I had not set out to preach on today and which certainly is not the primary point of the sermon, but which occurred to me as I was working on this sermon, is the still undetermined plight of the so-called DREAMers, an acronym for young adults who were brought to the US as minors by their parents and meet certain criteria. Generally speaking, these DREAMers had no choice in their family of origin and country of birth, and probably most of them had no choice in being brought to America.  Should we be slow to judge them, and should we be hesitant to deport them, when they had no say so in the matter?  Such are questions our elected officials are struggling with today.

Well, to reiterate, one of the foundational points I wanted to make this morning is none of us got to choose the family we were born into.  And such calls forth a bit of compassion on our part as we realize that no one chose their family of origin or their lot in life.

But there is a second point that needs to be stressed on this day when we celebrate the addition of new members into our church fellowship: The church family becomes our family by choice. 

The church – especially the small church – is a type of family.  Now, this can be a good thing, or it can be a not-so-good thing.  Some churches I have known over the years were like dysfunctional families.  Factions and fighting, divisions and debating – eh, eh, eh!  Christine R. Bartholomew, in a past issue of Christian Century magazine, shared a cute quip when she said, “Sometimes church life is more like an episode of the Jerry Springer Show than like an episode of Leave It to Beaver” (Sept. 22, 2009).  One indicator of such dysfunctional church families is as soon as the benediction is pronounced, no one stands around to talk and visit, and everyone flocks to their cars and in a matter of minutes the parking lot is deserted.  Such is not a good sign.

But fortunately this United Church family is just the opposite.  There is a true sense of unified family spirit here.  Members stand around to visit.  And many go to Coffee Hour to visit some more.  There is a wonderful spirit of caring and support among and for all our members.  As the Apostle Paul puts it in one of his letters, here we rejoice with those who rejoice and we weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).  For many of us, this United Church provides a family for us; or at least a family away from family.

The short gospel story we read earlier hints of this sense of church family.  I have always found this story about Jesus and his mother and brothers to be a very curious story.  This is another story that must have been central to the early Church, as all three Synoptic Gospels include it.  As Mark tells the story, Jesus pointed to his followers who resonated with his message and mission as the real members of his family.  “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister and mother,” he proclaimed.

The import of this pronouncement is we may be closer to and more compatible with members of our church family – our family by choice – than we are to some members of our birth family, or our extended birth family anyway (cousins, aunts, uncles, and the like).  Such is certainly true for me, and probably true for some of you as well.  As Preacher John Killinger puts it, “For all its faults, the church is still the number-one place for love and fellowship in the world, even ahead of the family, which is often dysfunctional and disheartening” (Preaching the New Millennium, p. 61).

Writer Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, passes on a story that her minister, Veronica, of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, shared of how when she was about seven years old, her best friend got lost one day.  The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark.  She was very frightened.  Finally a policeman stopped to help her.  The policeman put her in the passenger seat of his patrol car, and they drove around until she finally spotted her church.  She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You could let me out now.  This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”

Lamott observes, “And that is why I have stayed so close to mine – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home.” (Traveling Mercies, p. 55).

Unlike the families into which we are born, apart from any conscious decision on our part, the church family is a family we choose to be a part of.  It is a voluntary association of like-minded souls who covenant (or agree) to walk together in love, unity and service.  As Christian Russian writer Dostoevsky put it, “Everyone ought to have at least one place where people feel for him!”  The church family – our family by choicecan be and should be that place where others feel for us.  May it be so for all of us who have chosen the United Church family.  Amen.

 

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Anchor Texts for Tumultuous Times

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 8, 2017

Mark 4:35-41; Hebrews 6:17-19a GNT

As I have noted in other sermons recently, and as you are well aware, we are living in tumultuous times.  Racial unrest.  White Supremacist and hate group rallies.  Random acts of violence and senseless killings in Charleston, Orlando, Charlottesville, Las Vegas, and other places.  Tensions between the United States and North Korea, Iran, and other countries.  And then there has been one natural disaster after another – hurricanes, massive flooding, wildfires, and earthquakes.  We live in tumultuous times!

Sometimes we may feel like the disciples of Jesus as related in today’s gospel story.  We sometimes may feel like we are in a small boat in the midst of a violent storm in the middle of a raging sea.  The winds of adversity blow us around unmercifully.  The violent waves of trouble wash over us and threaten to destroy us.  We feel tossed about indiscriminately by life’s circumstances that are beyond our control.

This story of Jesus and his disciples in the storm-tossed boat is one of those stories that was cherished by the early Christians who were also living in tumultuous times.  The story must have been central to the early Church, as it is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Some scholars point out that this is one of the post-crucifixion, post-Easter stories that was colored by belief in the Christ of faith.  The storm-tossed boat or ship for the early Christians served as a metaphor for the Church that felt threatened during times of persecution and trouble.

As those early followers of Jesus felt threatened by persecution from the Roman Empire – perhaps even fearing for their lives – they took great comfort in a story about Jesus and some of his disciples being in a small fishing boat in the midst of the Lake of Galilee when a storm came up, which could happen on a moment’s notice.  And they took great comfort in believing that they were not alone in their troubles, not alone in facing their persecutions.  They felt that in some way the Spirit of the Jesus they had known and chosen to follow was with them to keep them safe and would bring calm to the troubled waters of life that threatened them.  The Jesus who they believed had calmed the waves for the disciples in the storm-tossed boat became Jesus who could calm the waves of trouble and persecution for those who believed in him now in the storm-tossed Church.

When we face tumultuous times, feeling like we are in a storm-tossed boat of life, we long for an anchor to hold us fast.  The author of the book of Hebrews speaks of “hope as an anchor for our lives” (6:19 GNT).  Such is what the early followers of Jesus sought to cling to, I am inclined to believe – the hope that the same Jesus who had accompanied the disciples in a storm-tossed boat would also accompany them in their trouble-tossed lives.

But in addition to hope, I have been thinking about how important are what I have termed “anchor texts for tumultuous times.”  In other words, just as the early followers of Jesus took comfort and gained strength from the stories about Jesus that they circulated and shared again and again, for thousands of years the faithful have taken comfort and gained strength in biblical texts during those tumultuous, trying times of life.

For instance, one of the best-known, best-loved, and most-used passages in the Bible is Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  This psalm has been an anchor text, bringing comfort and strength to millions at the time of death and for funeral and memorial services; an anchor text for tumultuous times that brings a sense of comfort, assurance, and peace to many of us.

Psalm 46, which served as today’s responsive reading, is a passage that I have found to be an anchor text during those tumultuous, trouble-filled times of my life.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Think of the Jews who had to hide themselves from the Nazis, as chronicled by the movie about Corrie ten Boom and her family titled The Hiding Place.  Those Jews who daily feared for their lives no doubt found Psalm 32 to be an anchor text for their tumultuous times.  “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble” (Psalm 32:7).

Or think of prisoners of war, like Senator John McCain, who have spent years in confinement and found solace in reading or reciting from memory comforting passages from the scriptures or familiar liturgical prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer.

Another POW, Howard Rutledge, tells about his plane being shot down over Vietnam. He parachuted into a little village, where he was attacked, stripped naked and imprisoned.  For the next seven years, he endured brutal treatment, sometimes shackled in excruciating positions and left for days in his own waste. Rats the size of cats crawled around his cell. Later, he wrote a book about his ordeal titled In the Presence of My Enemies and spoke of the importance of Scripture.

In solitary confinement, there was no minister or Bible for answers to the spiritual matters of life he had long neglected.  So Rutledge thought back to his Sunday School days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and tried desperately to recall snatches of Scripture, sermons and hymns of his childhood. Rutledge and fellow POW’s, like Harry Jenkins in a nearby cell, struggled to rediscover their faith. They would often use priceless seconds of communication to help each other recall Scripture verses and Bible stories.  He described how much time he spent trying to remember what he heard growing up in Sunday School and was amazed at what he did recall. Looking back, he realized the importance of memorizing verses from the Bible as a child.

“I never dreamed that I would spend almost seven years (five in solitary confinement) in a prison in North Vietnam or that thinking about one memorized verse could make the whole day bearable,” he relates. (Jan White, Internet article, adapted)

In trying situations such as these, and others, passages of scripture or familiar prayers become anchors for the soul, providing comfort, assurance, hope, and peace during tumultuous times.

But perhaps we could broaden the idea a bit, to include verses of poetry or beloved hymns that can also serve as anchors for the soul during trying times.  For instance, just as the 23rd Psalm has been an anchor for millions of passings, funerals, and memorial services, so has the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”  You may recall that when President Obama spoke and sought to bring comfort to the members of the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, following their tragedy two years ago, he broke out in song by leading “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”  Other hymns that bring such comfort are “Be Still My Soul,” “Abide With Me,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and others.

But for some, poetry can serve as an anchor for the soul as well.  Poems by John Donne, Alfred Tenneyson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and contemporary Mary Oliver can bring much-welcomed solace during those tumultuous times of life.

As we bring this thought closer to home, we are moved to ask ourselves, “What are my anchor texts for tumultuous times?”  What passages of scripture, or beloved hymns, or verses of poetry, or selections from literature can I call forth to give a sense of comfort, assurance, hope or peace during life’s trying times?  When I am wrestling with a problem for which there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel; when I have received an unwanted and unsettling report from my doctor or medical tests; when I am lying awake in bed at 3 am in the morning with a troubled mind; what anchor text can I recall that will say to my mind or soul, like Jesus to the angry waves, “Peace.  Be still!”?

Having such anchor texts is not a sign of weakness.  We all need them and never know when we might need to draw from them.  Maybe a worthwhile and highly-beneficial spiritual practice for all of us would be to begin collecting or writing down in a small journal a collection of personal anchor texts – scripture verses, hymn stanzas, verses of poetry, etc. –  for these tumultuous times in which we now live.  Think about it.  Amen.

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Our Shrinking World

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 1, 2017 (World Communion Day)

Romans 12:1-21 CEB

The world has changed dramatically over the past fifty years.  It seems that way to me, at any rate.  I grew up in a very WASP rural community in extreme East Tennessee.  White, Anglo-Saxon, conservative Protestants – this is all we knew within a ten-mile radius of our home.  The most radical religious group that we knew about in our little, sheltered world was the Full Gospel Holiness Church located at the foot of the mountains.  We thought they were a bit extreme in their highly-emotional worship, but we didn’t fear them.

The small elementary school where my siblings and I attended, and where my Dad had attended before us the first year the school was opened, had less than 250 students, every single one of which was white, Anglo Saxon Protestant, if they attended church at all.  We had heard about Catholics, I suppose, but we didn’t know any personally.  And any religious traditions beyond that – Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others – we had never even heard of, and we wouldn’t have even known what someone might have been talking about had such words been mentioned.  And I didn’t get acquainted with African Americans until I started high school, and then there were only three African American students in the entire school.  So as you can see, the world I grew up in was quite small.  Maybe some of you could tell a similar story.

So enrolling in college at East Tennessee State University to begin preparations for the ministry was good for me.  It opened my eyes in many different ways to new cultures and new religions.  Then when we moved to Denton, Texas, in 1986, our worldview began to enlarge a bit more.  Denton is a university town, boasting two major universities – the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University.  Denton had an international flavor we had hitherto not known.  Our son’s two best friends were Alli, whose family was Muslim, and Mehir, whose parents were Hindu and had settled in Denton from Bombay, India.  Our daughter’s best friend was Carolena, whose parents had come to Denton from Ukraine.

Then when Mary Lou and I moved to Albany, New York, in 2002, our worldview grew even bigger.  Boasting fourteen colleges and universities (the last count I had), the greater Albany area was even more international in make-up than we had known Denton to be.

But concurrently with our moves from one part of the country to another, which caused our personal worldview to grow larger, at the same time, because of the rapid advancements in technology, the Internet, social media, and the spread of other world religions across America, the world in general has gradually been shrinking. Or to put it another way, the definition of “small world” has changed from what it was fifty years ago.  Fifty years ago, a small world (from my perspective, anyway) meant a very isolated, limited view and limited experience of the world.  Today a small world means just the opposite – a world where everyone knows everyone, where news is constant, where communication is instantaneous, and a world which no longer offers us a place to hide or isolate ourselves.

In today’s world, our President can Tweet something about the dictator of North Korea, and the dictator knows it immediately, and vice versa.  In today’s world, an ISIS general on the other side of the world can post a recruiting message on social media and get an immediate response from a desperate, angry young person in America.  In today’s world, we are just one finger press away from all-out nuclear war and mass destruction.  Our world has shrunk dramatically these past five decades.

Thus, it seems to me that a change in attitude and approach to the changed world in which we live is desperately needed.  And so, as I thought about the shrinking world in which we now live, and the grave crises which we currently face in this drastically-altered world, as well as the fact that today is World Communion Day (a day which stresses world harmony), the one passage that came to mind that seemed most appropriate is Paul’s chapter on “Transformed relationships” (CEB) in his letter to the Romans.

Now, as an aside, Paul gets a bad rap among many, largely because he is misunderstood and many of the disturbing passages that are attributed to Paul weren’t really written by him at all.  They are either in books that were attributed to Paul early on but have since been disqualified as authentic Pauline letters; or the hard passages that make us cringe were inserted into Paul’s letters by later editors who wanted to make the works more patriarchal.

At any rate, one of Paul’s most beautiful, most helpful, and most universal passages is found in this 12th chapter of Romans that served as today’s reading.  In these verses, reminiscent of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul gives wonderful instructions on how to best get along with others in the world.  And if we ever needed instructions on how to better get along with others in the world, it is now; I think you would agree.

  • For instance, “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think . . . Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else” (12:3, 16). In order to get along with others in the world of different cultures, ethnicities, and religions, we can no longer believe ourselves to be better than all the rest.  World harmony necessitates a bit of humility, something some of our world leaders could seriously consider.  Humility does not mean degrading ourselves; it means viewing others as equals.
  • The small world in which we now live is much like Paul’s metaphor of a human body. All parts of the body need each other, and we can’t cut off or destroy one part of the world body without damaging the whole.  Each country of the world has something good to contribute to the whole, if we can focus on our common needs and what we agree on, instead of letting differences divide us.
  • “Bless people who harass you – bless and don’t curse them. . . Don’t try to get revenge” (12:14, 19). It seems that on today’s world stage the belief in diplomacy is almost forgotten, having been replaced with cursing, name-calling, and eagerness for revenge.
  • “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” (12:18). Thankfully, there is still a minority in our world who realize the importance of peaceful solutions to problems and that are committed to steps that lead toward peace among all.  How we need more such peace-minded people who have influence in the world to step forward and carry the banner of peace today and seek to work through diplomatic means!
  • “Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (12:21). Could it be possible that there are other approaches to the problems that plague our world today rather than being bent on revenge?  Is it possible that there might be diplomatic, peaceful ways America could approach North Korea and Iran and other countries, offering them something good that would benefit their countries as a whole in exchange for better relations?  I don’t know, as I certainly am not versed in world politics and diplomacy.  But it is worth some consideration.

But what about the immediate world of Oak Ridge in which we live and work each day?  That is about all you and I can address, isn’t it?  What might these words of Paul say to us?

  • Consider your neighbors as equals.
  • Think of our Oak Ridge Community as a body with different members, all of which need each other.
  • Bless and try to understand any who might curse you.
  • Seek to live at peace with all your neighbors.
  • And try to transform difficult neighborhood situations by offering something good.

Yes, we live in a shrinking world.  A smaller world calls for different ways of interacting and more diligence in keeping our small world in balance.  Prejudice, bigotry, self idealization and self glorification, thinking we are better than others and our way is the only right way – these attitudes and actions that accompany them are no longer possible in the world in which we now live.  The world can no longer stand such naïve, self-exalting attitudes and actions.  If our world is to survive (and I feel the jury is still out on that), as Paul calls us to, nothing short than peoples being transformed by the renewing of our minds will save us and our shrinking world.  May it be so.  Amen.

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