The Season that Evokes Thanksgiving

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 22, 2015

Psalm 95:1-7 ESV

With all that has gone on in the world in recent weeks, for some the giving thanks may not come so easily.  You probably know what I am talking about.  Natural disasters—wildfires in the West, massive flooding in different parts of the country, and devastating tornadoes in many of our United States—have left many Americans homeless.  How can a family get themselves into a thankful frame of mind when they no longer have a kitchen or dining room where they can have a meal together as a family, or even a roof over their heads to call home?

There are also those who have lost their jobs and are living on the edge of survival.  And others who have lost loved ones by death in recent weeks; some under tragic circumstances.  How can those in such situations find it within themselves to muster up a spirit of thanksgiving?

All of us have been intimidated by acts of violence by sick gunmen who have taken innocent lives at movie theaters and other such public places.

Finally, the entire world is living under the constant threat of terrorism and mass violence at the hands of deranged radicals who are spreading throughout the world like a silent, undetected cancer and may show up at anytime and anywhere, taking dozens or even a hundred of more innocent lives at one time.  The recent, orchestrated attacks in Paris have served as a sobering reminder that the ISIS threat is not contained like we may have let ourselves believe it had been.  Rather, we are all the more uneasy at the prospects of mass violence, perhaps, than ever before.  All of the violence may be making us afraid to attend concerts, large sporting events, the movie theater, or even the shopping mall.  So with all of this going on, how in the world can anyone in their right mind be able to shift into a joyful spirit of Thanksgiving? some may be thinking.

We tend to find timeless inspiration at this season of the year in the story of the Pilgrims; that little group of religious separatists who made their way from Holland to America aboard a small ship called the Mayflower.  The Pilgrims certainly knew what it was to face trouble, adversity and an uncertain future.  As related by Plymouth Governor William Bradford in his account, they suffered one ordeal after another prior in their attempts to migrate to America.  First of all, some of them were imprisoned because of their faith and quest for religious freedom.  Then families were separated, as some of them prepared to set sail for America while others had to stay behind, some of them hoping to join them later; while others knew they would probably never see one another again.  Then one of the sea captains they hired to bring them to America tricked them and ran off with their money.  Another ship on which they loaded all their personal belongings began to sink and they had to return to port, unload, and wait for another vessel.  This necessitated leaving Europe much later in the year than they had planned, causing them to arrive at the coast of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the cold of winter.  Many of their number died of cold and exposure that first winter on American soil.

Yet, the following November, the few Pilgrims who survived held a thanksgiving harvest festival.  How could they possibly have been in the spirit to give thanks, we wonder, after all the adversities they had suffered and when many of their loved ones—children, wives, husbands, or parents—had been laid to rest in the cold earth?  Yet, the Pilgrims found themselves to be full of gratitude and needing to express thanksgiving for the blessings of life as they saw them.

But why was it that the Pilgrims chose November for their thanksgiving harvest festival?  Was the time of their thanksgiving festival coincidental? Or a random choice?   I think not.  I believe there were many good reasons that the Pilgrims chose the time of the year that they did for celebrating their big thanksgiving festival.

For one, they were so grateful for surviving that first, harsh winter.  It had been rough; my, had it been rough!  They arrived too late in the year to adequately construct shelter before the cold winds and snows of winter set in.  How cold they must have been!  I have tried to imagine what their experience must have been like.  I am one who cannot stand to be cold.  As a teenager, I worked several months after school and on Saturday for an uncle in new home construction.  I have stood and shivered many a cold, winter’s day in an open structure, trying to hammer a nail or cut a piece of galvanized pipe when my hands were almost too cold to move.   But at least I had a nice, warm home to go to at day’s end.  But how could those Pilgrims survive an entire winter in the cold without adequate shelter to keep them warm at night?  Nevertheless, the ones who survived were of a thankful spirit the following autumn.

The Pilgrims were also thankful for the food they had been able to grow and had just harvested—the corn (or maze), pumpkins, beans, and other vegetables the Native Americans had helped them to grow—and for the natural fruits and nuts of the earth, the wildlife around them, and the game their Native American neighbors shared with them.

And, no doubt, they were grateful for the warm days of autumn and the beauties of the fall season they had just experienced (and there is nothing quite like a New England fall).

So all of these blessings—most of them tied to that peculiar season of the year—evoked a spirit of thanksgiving as a natural expression of what they were feeling inside.  It was only natural that the Pilgrims observe their harvest thanksgiving celebration when they felt their lives to be blessed, when the blessings of harvest, wildlife and game shared by their Native American neighbors, the beauties and bounty of the fall season, and the warm days of autumn converged to elicit a thankful response from within.

I think this current season of the year, more than any other time of the year, tends to evoke within the human soul a spirit of awe, wonder, gratitude, and thanksgiving.  Looking out across the landscape and seeing the vibrant fall colors; going to a pumpkin patch with your children or grandchildren; shopping at the produce market for all those fresh fruits and vegetables of the fall harvest; gathering around the table with family and friends to enjoy seasonal feasts; all of these things tend to speak to the human spirit and move us to want to express gratitude and thanksgiving.  It is a natural spiritual or religious response to all those blessings peculiar to this time of the year.  We might even say we have an inner need to render thanks or gratitude.   This time of the year is that one, unique time of the year that prompts us, as the Psalmist expressed it, to sing, make a joyful noise, and come together in a spirit of thanksgiving as we consider the beauties and bounty of the earth that bless both body and soul.

And so, as we think about those Pilgrims who held that first American thanksgiving harvest festival, in one sense of the term we might say, “How could they have done otherwise?”  When the beauties and bounty of the earth had blessed the Pilgrims’ lives, how could they have not held that thanksgiving harvest festival?  It was the natural thing for them to do.

And today and this week, when we, likewise, consider the beauties, bounty, and blessings bestowed upon us at this peculiar time of year, expressing gratitude and thanksgiving just seem to come naturally to us as well.  How could we do otherwise?  Amen.


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And the Last Shall Be First

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 15, 2015

Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16 ESV

“What are they doing here?  They don’t belong here!  Get those children away from here so they don’t trouble the Master!”  Such is what we might have heard, had we been present when the disciples sought to keep parents from bringing their children to Jesus.

We most likely read or hear the stories of Jesus and the children with romanticized eyes or ears.  In other words, we may picture Jesus embracing the children, playfully bouncing them up and down on his knee, and then gently blessing them while the twelve disciples, and maybe the religious leaders, smile and nod their heads in approval.  But it likely was not that way at all.

For, you see, in that day and time, children had no status whatsoever.  They were nobodies. The act of Jesus welcoming the children and placing them before those listening to him as an example to be followed was likely a shock to all who witnessed it.  It may have even been viewed as subversive; perhaps even insulting. As with the case of many of Jesus’ parables, his action of blessing the children and setting them up as examples of faith may have been intended to be confrontational.

Such is not to say that Jesus was insincere in welcoming and blessing the children. But setting them up as examples of what is required to inherit the kingdom of God could have had multiple layers of meaning.  It could have been viewed as an indictment to those who were supposed to be examples in the faith.

One thing is certain, at least from the gospel writer Mark’s perspective: Jesus receiving and blessing the children, and setting them up as an example of faith, was a stern instructional jab aimed at the disciples who argued among themselves about who was the greatest, and in light of the request of James and John to sit on either side of Jesus in a place of honor.

In the eyes of Jesus’ hearers, children were the least; they were last; they may have had about the same status as other non-persons of the time. So by placing a child in their midst and setting him or her up as an example to all, Jesus was turning conventional thinking of his day upside down. But in the realm of God, the last would now be first.

Of course, in the course of history, giving children first place has not always been the case.  And it is not always the case even today.  We need only recall the Industrial Revolution years when children were forced to work long hours and long work weeks in dark and hot or cold factories.   Sadly, many children in the world today still work long hours and long work weeks in sweatshops or factories, under terrible working conditions, in order to help support their families.

And it breaks our hearts to know the awful truth that many children have been and still are today sold into slavery and sex trafficking.  And even in America, of all places in the world, there are thousands of underage children who are held captive and used and abused in the sex trafficking trade.  I have no way to prove this, of course, but I have read that much underground sex trafficking takes place in conjunction with major world sporting events, such as the Super Bowl.  How could such a thing be permitted in the 21st century in what is supposed to be the most advanced nation in the world?

And so, in keeping with the spirit of Jesus –as well as human reason and using compassion as our guide—we must give first place and priority to children in our thoughts, lives, actions, and, when possible, our social activism.

Well, with all that having been said, today we gather to celebrate the children in our midst.  And we recognize our teachers and celebrate our United Church Nursery School, where for well over 50 years children have been given top priority.  We can take pride in the fact that here at the United Church, and in our Nursery School, what the world often has considered to be the least or last have long been given first place.  As pointed out in the Philosophy & Goals of the Nursery School, children are “respected as individuals” and each child is celebrated “as a unique individual.”  The wonderful ministry that the United Church performs through the Nursery School is not celebrated enough.  I think if Jesus were here today, he would give hearty approval to our United Church Nursery School and the way this community of faith puts children first.  I think Jesus would give our Nursery School three stars.

We often hear it said that our children are the church and the world of tomorrow.  I realize it has become a bit clichéd, but the children in our midst are also the church of today, bringing new life and new hope to this congregation.  And we are trying our best to live that out in this United Church as we plan several special events each year with children and families in mind.  (As a side note, the next special event for children and families is our annual Family Christmas Workshop on Saturday, December 5.  We hope you will plan to bring your children or grandchildren to this fun event.)

I went to the Internet and my files to see what I could find on the importance of children.  I thought I would share some of the more poignant quotes with you:

“Every child you encounter is a divine appointment.” (Wess Stafford, President Emeritus of Compassion International)

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” (Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa)

“Children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven.” (Henry Ward Beecher, Congregational minister and social activist)

“The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him.” (Pablo Casals, Spanish cellist and conductor)

But now I would like to speak from personal experience.  We have five grandchildren.  And one of the things that I have learned as a grandparent is each of the five is quite different.  They are different in their personalities, their interests, and their physical and intellectual abilities.  Never once have I wished that all five of our grandchildren were alike.  Never once have I thought, Oh, I wish this one had the abilities of that one.  What I have learned is to love and celebrate each of the five for the unique individuals they are.  I don’t expect one to read or count like another.  Neither do I expect one to play sports or be artistic and creative like the other; or vice versa.  I celebrate the abilities and interests of each grandchild individually.  And I celebrate the tiny steps of achievement of each one, based on his or her level of ability.

That, I believe, is the way with our United Church and Nursery School, and the way Jesus would have it be.  Could it be that when our Nursery School teachers and Sunday school teachers take the many children who enter our doors each week upon their knees and nurture and love them, they are in essence becoming Jesus incarnate?

Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, Jesus said.  It may not always be so in the world.  But in the realm of God, the last are to be first, and the least are to be the greatest of all.  As we support our Nursery School, we are part of helping make it so.  Amen.

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The Making of a Saint

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 1, 2015

Philemon 1-7 ESV

What does All Saints Day have to do with the United Church? you may be asking.  I realize that churches of the free tradition like our United Church generally don’t revere the saints or observe All Saints Day.  But there is no reason that we can’t learn a thing or two from the spirit of the day.

As a point of information, All Saints Day always falls on November 1st, the day after Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve.  All Hallows’ was a day set aside in the Church Year to remember the dead, most specifically the saints and martyrs.

When it comes to saints, of course, there are “Saints” proper, spelled with a capital S.  And then there are saints in general, spelled with a lower case s.  Saints proper refers to those special Christians beatified (blessed) and then canonized by the Church and acknowledged as Saints who deserve special recognition, such as St. Francis of Assisi whom we all know and most of us admire.

But when we think of someone being a saint, certain traits may come to mind: someone who dresses a certain way; someone who lives a life of extreme piety; someone who spends much of the day on his or knees in prayer and/or reading the scriptures; someone who has renounced all worldly goods and income so as to live a life of poverty; someone who was martyred for the faith; maybe even someone who lives a perfect, sinless life in every sense of the term.  These may be some of the images that come to mind when we think of the saints.  But just how many of these traits actually represent the true nature of the saints?

To be sure, to be canonized as a Saint, certain criteria must be met:

  • First, “Two verifiable postmortem miracles. Canonization (sainthood) requires two miracles, whereas beatification (blessed) requires only one.
  • Second, evidence of having led an exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation, having died a heroic death (martyrdom), or having undergone a major conversion of heart where a previous immoral life was abandoned and replaced by one of outstanding holiness.

Formally declared saints are chosen ultimately by the pope, but only after a thorough investigation of the life, writings, and legacy of the saint candidate. No stone is left unturned. Testimony from witnesses and experts, physical evidence, and the entire life of the person is examined with fine detail. Every skeleton in the closet is taken out, and all dirty laundry looked at — if any exists, that is.” (from For Dummies)  Well, such are the criteria for all those special saints.

But then, there are saints in general who are mentioned in several books of the Bible; the saints of old, and contemporary saints who meet certain criteria or exhibit certain characteristics.  Such is what is most pertinent for our purposes today.  The word translated “saint” in our English Bibles has different meanings, depending upon the context.  Various meanings of the word translated “saint” include kind, pious, set apart, separate, or holy. Often in the New Testament, members of the Church are referred to as saints.  Such is the case in Paul’s letter to Philemon that served as our reading this morning.

But the real question is this: What makes for a saint in today’s, 21st-century world?  Are there saints living today?  Living in Oak Ridge?  Maybe saints in this United Church, even?  And if so, what are the qualities that go into the making of a true saint?

As I have reflected upon the making of a saint in today’s world, a few character and personality traits have come to mind. For instance, one trait that seems to characterize those viewed as saints is humility.  I think of Francis of Assisi who gave up his family’s wealth in order to identify with the poor.  Francis once gave what was described as “a wonderful sermon on holy humility, teaching them that the greater the gifts and graces which God gives us, the greater is our obligation to be more humble, because without humility no virtue is acceptable to God.” (The Little Flowers of St. Francis)

A second trait characteristic of saints seems to be compassion.  The modern-day saint who comes to mind in this regard is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who spent most of her life showing compassion to the poorest of the poor lepers of Calcutta, India.  Regarding compassion, Mother Teresa said, “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” (A Gift for God)

A third trait common to saints seems to be service.  I think of the 17th-century French-born monk, Brother Lawrence, who relished working in the monastery kitchen, peeling potatoes for his brothers and washing pots and pans.  For Brother Lawrence, peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans was not only a form of service to those of his monastic community.  It was also a way that he exercised his own spirituality.  Brother Lawrence said, “we ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” (The Practice of the Presence of God)
One interesting observation is in all three of these saints, the traits of humility, compassion, and service overlapped and complimented each other, almost like a “Trinity of Saintly Traits.”  And at least two of the three Saints I have mentioned did not feel themselves to be saintly or holy at all.  Francis testified, “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.”  And Mother Teresa felt much the same way, often feeling that she was unworthy of God’s love.  She once said, “I am unworthy – I am sinful – I am weak” (I Loved Jesus in the Night). 

Yes, what made these three saints “saintly” was not any personal sense of superiority or holiness; it was just the opposite.  No, what made these saints “saintly” was their sense of humility which they exemplified each day, their hearts of compassion that led them to reach out to hurting humanity, and the giving of their lives in service to others.

One more curious thing about sainthood is it is not a state that one can aspire to, as one might aspire to become President of the United States.  In fact, to actively pursue the title of saint would negate one ever being recognized as such, it seems.  To say, “Look how humble I am” betrays the spirit of humility.  And to be compassionate or serve others solely with the goal in mind of being recognized a saint is a sham.  So actively seeking sainthood is a lost cause from the onset.

However, that having been said, I think we can still learn from the examples of the saints and strive to live our lives so as to demonstrate greater humility in relation to life and to others, seek to be more compassionate with all we encounter each day, and seek more ways to be of service to humanity, especially suffering humanity.

With that being a base of criteria for the making of a saint, I think we can accurately say that there are, indeed, saints in Oak Ridge; saints among us.  I think I may have actually encountered a few.  Amen.

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Sodom Revisited in Bount County (or, A Second Look at Sodom)

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 18, 2015

Genesis 18:20-21; 19:1-13 CEB

If you follow the Knoxville-area news, then you likely are aware of the resolution presented to Blount County earlier this month calling for God’s mercy and that Blount County be spared the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah.  The resolution was proposed by Commissioner Karen Miller, “who wanted to add to the agenda a resolution asking Blount County residents to be spared from God’s wrath” over the issue of same-sex marriage licenses.1  About 120 attendees showed up for the meeting, some in favor of the resolution and holding up their Bibles, and others in opposition to the resolution, most dressed in the color red.  As it turned out, the resolution wasn’t even considered, as an opening vote to adopt the agenda failed, cancelling the commission meeting in which the resolution would have been formally presented.

Well, most of you know that I rarely criticize people for their personal stands on controversial social issues.  But when I heard the news about the proposed resolution in an effort to spare Blount County the same fate of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, my first thought was Really?  Do some citizens of Blount County, Tennessee, really equate themselves, think themselves to be on the same plane, with the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah?  Isn’t there a bit of warped egotism or pretentiousness at play there, to actually think that the same destruction that was said to have befallen Sodom would befall Blount County, Tennessee?

But then the whole issue got me to thinking about how great a misconception there is about what really happened in Sodom.  And so, I thought the recent events provided a good opportunity to revisit this ancient story.  And as we do so, it seems that there are two different issues involved: First, just what were the sins of Sodom that gave it the reputation of being such a bad place deserving of divine wrath?  And second, if there was, indeed, a historical place, and it was destroyed in the sensational manner that Genesis says that it was, what might some of the explanations for Sodom’s destruction be?

First, what were the actual sins of Sodom?  The fact of the matter is, the truth is most often overlooked or misinterpreted.  But the scripture speaks for itself, in Genesis and in other books of the Bible: “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless,” it states (Genesis 18:20 CEB).  As we turn to the next chapter, we are told what some of those injustices were.

As the story goes, two divine messengers were sent to Sodom to assess the situation and rescue Lot—Abraham’s nephew—from the sinful city.  The two messengers planned to spend the night in the town square.  Lot, knowing the dangers that threatened them, pleaded with them to come inside his house to spend the night.  They finally conceded and did.  After dinner, when it was time to go to bed, the men of Sodom—young and old alike—surrounded Lot’s dwelling and called out to Lot to bring out his guests so that they might “know them intimately.”  That is a very polite way of putting it.  To put it bluntly, the men of Sodom intended to have sex with the two divine visitors, by force if necessary.  And as it turned out, they did try.  Lot implored them to not do such an evil thing.  He was responsible for the safety of the two visitors.  In an effort to protect his guests, Lot offered them his two virgin daughters as sex objects instead, a deplorable act in and of itself, which only goes to show how Lot had been affected (or infected) with the evil spirits of injustice that prevailed in Sodom.

The men of Sodom didn’t accept Lot’s offer, so they tried to break down his door in order to get at the two strangers being housed under his roof.  They intended to do as much or more violence to Lot himself if need be in order to satisfy their carnal desires.  As the story continues, the two divine guests grabbed Lot and dragged him back inside the house, then struck the men of Sodom with blindness.  Yet, the men still groped for the door, trying to get at the strangers. The biblical writer has the two divine visitors say, “The Lord has found the cries of injustice so serious that the Lord has sent us to destroy” this place.

Now, there are at least two issues at work having to do with the great injustices of Sodom.  On the one hand there was the issue of hospitality.  In that time and place, hospitality to strangers, and especially to visitors that you took under your roof, was paramount.  The ancient code dictated that a homeowner be hospitable and protect visitors at any cost.  So the desire of the men of Sodom to harm these strangers in itself was considered to be a grave injustice.

But much more serious was the injustice of sexual violence that prevailed in Sodom, and the prevailing spirit that allowed it to be commonplace.  The real sin of Sodom was not in any particular act, but the reality of forced sexual interactions—sexual violence—which is always the gravest of sins.  The intended sexual acts desired by the people of Sodom did not constitute an act of love or caring.  The perpetrators threatened the visitors with mob or gang rape!

When we look to other places in the Bible that refer to the sins of Sodom, largely speaking there is no reference to homosexual activity or any sexual references at all for that matter.  The prophets Isaiah (1), Jeremiah (23:14), and Ezekiel (16:49-50) all make reference to Sodom in comparison to the sins of Judah or the false prophets, but they do so listing a host of other sins and injustices, such as pride, idolatry, and ignoring the cries of the poor and needy.  The only New Testament book that makes reference to the sins of Sodom as being sexual in nature is the little Letter of Jude who uses the phrase “immoral sexual urges” (Jude 7 CEB).

But especially to be noted is the fact that when Jesus spoke of Sodom, the sins he made mention of were inhospitality and unbelief (Matthew 10:14-15; 11:23).  So as you can see, the case against Sodom and Gomorrah is quite complex, and not as simple and clear-cut as many are want to think.  The real sins of injustice prevalent in Sodom were without question inhospitality and violence to strangers; ignoring the cries of the poor and needy; but also lack of human respect which played out as unrestrained sexual violence.

But there is a second consideration concerning Sodom which has to do with how and why it was destroyed.  On the one hand, the ancients had a way of looking back at catastrophic events and trying to determine a source and reason for them.  So if Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed as the Bible says they were, then those who knew of the disaster would naturally try to determine a source (i.e., God) and reason (i.e., great sin on the part of those who lived there).

If you have ever watched episodes on the History Channel or National Geographic Channel that seek to explain by natural events the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, then you know that various theories of the sensational destruction have been postulated.  It is interesting to note that in the area around the Dead Sea, where Sodom and Gomorrah were located, there were a lot of tar pits (Genesis 14:10).  One theory has it that internal pressure and gases under the earth’s crust caused explosions that propelled hot, burning tar into the sky, which rained down on the cities.

Another theory has it that an asteroid swept across the area (and I think there is historical evidence that such a thing did happen), raining burning rock as it passed over, explaining the fire and brimstone falling from the sky.  So it is not inconceivable that some natural disaster occurred, which naturally was viewed by the ancients as punishment from God for gross sinfulness.  Though some today still consider natural disasters to be a direct action of God for punishment for sinfulness (as some television preachers contended when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans some years back), most of us see such disasters simply as natural occurrences.  But if “the cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah” were, indeed, countless, as the biblical writer records; and if such a natural disaster did, indeed, occur that wiped out those cities, then it was only logical that the ancients put the two together as an act of God.

But let us return to where I began and the attempts of some to spare Blount County the same fate that befell Sodom and Gomorrah.  If we are going to talk about the sins and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we need to have all the facts and really know what we are talking about. When we start talking about the cries of injustice having to do with inhospitality to the homeless, sexual violence and sex trafficking of the innocent, pride, and refusing to hear the cries of the poor and needy, then we will have started talking in earnest about issues that really matter; issues that mattered in Sodom and Gomorrah, and issues that matter in Blount County and Anderson County, Tennessee!  Amen.


1Hayes Hickman, Knoxville New Sentinel, October 7,


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Flawless Leaders – Great Expectations?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 11, 2015

1 Chronicles 11:1-3; 29:26-30 CEB

What do you know about the life and times of King David of Israel?  Our United Church children, in their Sunday school classes the past few weeks, have been learning the Bible stories relating to the life and reign of King David.  I have read the story of David many times over the years, but recently I have been reading it again in the new Common English Bible.  And as I read the many chapters of the Old Testament devoted to David, his conquests, his reign as King, his exploits, and his dysfunctional family, it never ceases to amaze me that David is remembered as Israel’s greatest king, in spite of the checkered life that he lived and all the skeletons hanging in his family closet.

And David is remembered as the greatest king Israel ever had.  After Jesus and Moses, I am guessing there is, perhaps, more space devoted to David in the pages of the Bible than any other person.  A search of a Bible concordance reveals that the name “David” occurs almost 1200 times.  If you go to Jerusalem today, one of the historic sites where the tour guide likely will take you to is David’s Tomb; not that David’s remains are actually buried there, but it is more of a representative site to honor the king, who, according to the scriptures, was actually buried in Bethlehem, the City of David.

But what was it about David that caused him to stand head and shoulders above all of Israel’s other kings?  Well, it appears that David was a good-looking and charismatic young man, as well as an accomplished poet and musician.  David was also a celebrated soldier and servant of Israel’s first King Saul.  He is known for taking the city that would become Jerusalem, the Holy City; for bringing solidarity to the tribes of Israel and greatly strengthening them; for making a name for Israel in the world; and for initiating the construction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (although it would be his son Solomon who would actually oversee its building).  Those are some of David’s strengths and achievements.

But then, David had his weaknesses and failures as well.  He was a warrior with blood-stained hands who raided towns indiscriminately, killing men and women alike and taking as booty all their livestock, clothing, and anything else of value they could find (1 Samuel 27:8-12).  Perhaps David’s best-known failure was the taking of Bathsheba, the wife of one of his faithful soldiers, Uriah.  The worst of it was when Bathsheba found herself to be pregnant with the King’s child, David had Uriah sent to the front lines of battle where he was sure to be killed; this way he could legally take Bathsheba to be his wife.  From that time forward, the house of David was racked with trouble and one dysfunctional family episode after the other.  The baby Bathsheba conceived by David died in infancy.

David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar, and for the most part got away with it; David did virtually nothing.  Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, murdered Amnon in revenge.  David and Absalom became estranged, and eventually Absalom conspired against his father David and sought to usurp the throne and become king himself, forcing David to run for his life from his own son.  In the heat of battle, Absalom was killed, and in spite of the fact that he tried to take his father’s throne, David was thrown into mourning for him.  One of the well-known cries of grief in the Bible is David’s “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33).  Following David’s death, another son, Solomon (also born to Bathsheba), took the throne, and through forced labor did much building and improvements in the land.  But under Solomon’s reign the kingdom split in half, becoming the Southern Kingdom known as Judah and the Northern Kingdom known as Israel.

Now, the point of all this historical review is to simply say that David, who is remembered as Israel’s greatest king, was also greatly flawed!  Obviously it was not perfection on David’s part that attributed to his reputation of greatness.

Fast forward 3,000 years.  Sometimes we are tempted, I think, to look at our political leaders through rose-colored glasses.  When we focus our sights on a candidate we like—one who strikes a chord and speaks to the issues in a way that we agree with—we may be tempted to idealize that candidate and set them up on a pedestal.  We may let ourselves start to think that our candidate can do no wrong.

And the same may hold true as we look back in history—we may idolize certain political leaders of the past, in all political parties, forgetting or overlooking any character flaws or weaknesses they had.  History books rarely tell the whole story.  There are a lot of things about our past presidents and other political leaders that most of us never learned in elementary or high school.  We tend to idealize and romanticize the past, and often cover up those skeletons in the closest.

I don’t need to tell you that we are in the midst of a very interesting presidential campaign.  And one of the primary tactics of some of the presidential hopefuls, at least, is to draw attention to the flaws and weaknesses of their opponents, sometimes to the neglect of actually offering solutions about how to solve the issues that all of us are concerned about.

But the truth of the matter is, there are no perfect or flawless leaders, either of the past or the present.  All politicians and other leaders have their flaws and weaknesses and skeletons hanging in their family closets.  The imperfections, flaws, and weaknesses of some may appear to be much worse than those of others.  But to get biblical and quote the Apostle Paul, who himself quoted the Psalmist, “none is [completely] righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10; cf. Psalm 14:3).  And the same applies to ministers and other leaders in the church.  In spite of the fact that some church members tend to idealize or idolize their minister or priest, (I hate to break the news to you) there is no perfect, flawless minister or other church leader either.  We are all fallible humans.

So as we listen to the presidential hopefuls and all the political rhetoric for the next thirteen months—including all the finger-pointing, name-calling, and light-shining on the candidates’ flaws and weaknesses—may we try to remember that in reality, none of them have or will live perfect, flawless lives.  And a perfect, flawless life has never been a guarantee of good political leadership.  We know that some of our past presidents who were known for striving to live good, moral lives were not always the best leaders.  And reversely, some of the best presidents America has had led lives that were far from perfect or flawless.  The idea of flawless leaders, or flawless anybodies for that matter, is nothing more than that—an idea; and an unrealistic idea at that.  So as we consider all those political candidates and their flaws and imperfections, we need to remember that they probably have a few skeletons hanging in their family closet.

But let us take this one step further.  All of us in the church are, likewise, imperfect human beings who have, do, and will make mistakes and live less-than-perfect lives.  And rare is the family that doesn’t have at least a few moldy skeletons hanging in the family closet!  So if your family closet has few skeletons in it, take heart; you’re in good company.

So our purpose in coming together in the church is not to celebrate our goodness or perfection, but rather, to struggle together with life in this world and seek to encourage one another to stand strong, support one another when we struggle, and lift each other up when we fall.

So as we live and work and serve together, we cut each other a bit of slack.  There is an old saying that I really like—“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  As we look at public servants, as well as those we live and work with each day, may we be careful about formulating exaggerated expectations.  Amen.

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A Cat and a Dog in a Burlap Sack: A Metaphor

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 4, 2015

Matthew 14:1-12 CEB

Do you know what a burlap sack is?  I grew up on a small farm; fifty or so years ago, burlap sacks were quite common and often used in various ways.  The primary use for burlap sacks was for bagging up ears of field corn to take to the mill to be ground into feed for livestock.  But burlap sacks could also be used to sack up potatoes and the like.  Occasionally, one might use a burlap sack to transport an unwanted animal to another part of the country.

Last week, as I was mulling over a topic for today’s service, and thinking about the constant clash of politics and religion in our country, it occurred to me that the state of American politics and religion might be compared to putting a cat and a dog in a burlap sack and tying a twine string about the opening and then letting them go after one another.  Now, I would never do such a thing, but you can visualize that can’t you—throwing a cat and a dog in a burlap sack and listening to them attack each other?  Such seemed to me to be a fitting metaphor for the constant clash between American religious beliefs and politics.

But before we get into that, let it be noted that religious convictions and social issues (which almost always bleed over into politics) have been at each other’s throats for millennia.  That is why I chose the story involving Herod and John the Baptist.  According to John’s strict religious code of morality, it was not right for Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great) to be married to the divorced wife of his half-brother Phillip.  One commentator also suggested that Herodias was also Herod’s niece.  In John’s eyes, such a relationship was incestuous, and according to Jewish purity laws was strictly forbidden.  And so, John confronted Herod, which angered the ruler, but not to the point of actually killing him.  But Herod’s wife had the upper hand and devised a scheme to have John’s head.  The long and the short of this was religious morality and convictions clashed with a social issue, which spilled over into politics.  And such has been going on ever since.  We are constantly being confronted with religious-political issues that challenge, and maybe even threaten us.

Consider, for instance, the Catholic hospitals and related social service agencies whose pro-life, anti-abortion beliefs have clashed with government health care initiatives that mandate them providing birth control to their employees.  It appears that faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals that oppose some or all forms of birth control may take their case to the Supreme Court.  Views over the morality of birth control based on religious convictions range from the very simple (i.e., sex is for the purpose of procreation alone) to the extremely complex (i.e., termination of a pregnancy via the “Morning After Pill” or abortion).  So availability of birth control for all provided by health insurance plans is one instance where religious beliefs clash with politics or government programs.

Consider, as another example, the controversy over the Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.   Her religious beliefs—which she says precludes her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples—have clashed with American politics, to the extent that she has even served time in jail for contempt of court.  But the bigger point is, religious beliefs and interpretation of the Bible and actions of the courts over equal rights regardless of sexual orientation have clashed and likely will continue to clash for some time.

Consider presidential candidate Ben Carson’s recent statement when asked if he could support the idea of a Muslim being an American President.  At first Carson seemed to give an unequivocal “No,” that he could not.  Carson stated that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”  But then after the fallout, he later sought to qualify the statement by saying he would support a Muslim becoming an American President, if the candidate could put the US Constitution above his religious beliefs and the Koran.

On the one hand, the US Constitution makes clear that religion is to play no role in a candidate’s fitness for office.  Article VI of the US Constitution states “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  But on the other hand, both you and I know that the reality is as American voters we have in the past and many of us will in the future cast our vote based upon our own religious leanings or prejudices.  Such is not to say this is a bad thing; it is just the way things are.  An Atheist or Buddhist or one of some other non-Christian faith running for office would likely be as problematic for most Americans, as we tend to fear or distrust that which we don’t know or understand or is not “like us.”  But the original point is, the religion (or lack of religion) that a candidate professes is another instance of the clash between American religion and politics.

Now, in all of these cases, including the religious-social issue clash between John the Baptist and Herod, the basis for the clashes seems to be individual reverence for and interpretation of the scriptures. 

In John and Herod’s case, it was John’s strict interpretation of the Torah that forbids incestuous relationships, a point upon which all of us likely agree with John.  But from Herod’s perspective, having numerous wives (maybe even family members), often for political purposes, was the norm.

In the case of Catholic hospitals and other agencies and the issue of birth control, again verses can be cited from the Bible to support their position.

In Clerk Kim Davis’s case, the belief that marriage licenses should not be issued to same-sex couples is based on purity law verses in the Bible that forbid same-sex relationships.  Those on the opposite side of the fence who advocate for equal rights for same-sex couples might appeal to stories in the Bible that speak of close, loving, same-gender relationships (and the stories are there), as well as compassion and not purity as being the primary concern of religion.

In Ben Carson’s comment about a Muslim becoming an American President, his view and many like him may be based on fear of Islam or fear of the Koran and the fact that it is not the Bible that we know and love.

But what it all boils down to in the final analysis, it seems to me, is how one interprets the Bible—as a document that was dictated by God, the infallible, unchanging Word of God; or as the religious views, struggles, and opinions of the people who wrote the Bible in the social, political, pre-scientific age that they lived.

As a rule, I do not tell anyone how they should believe, especially on hot button issues that can be so controversial.  And let me make it clear that my intent in this sermon is not to pass judgment on anyone I have mentioned and it is not to say that any of the people I have mentioned are wrong in their position.  But as I interpret Jesus, the over-arching rule when approaching such religious-politic issues is compassion.  The heart of Jesus’ message, ministry, teaching, and actions centered around compassion.

So when it comes to our interpretation of the Bible; when it comes to the question of birth control and/or the yet-to-be conceived or unborn; when it comes to the question of equal rights and marriage licenses for same-sex partners; when it comes to political candidates and their religious affiliation; in all cases (in my humble opinion) as we work through these difficult issues, may we let compassion be our guide, for those on both sides of the issues.  Amen.



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Autumn Blessings, Autumn Wonders

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 27, 2015

Joel 2:18-19, 21-26 GNT

“He has given you the right amount of autumn rain.” Joel 2:23 GNT

The arrival of autumn means it soon will be leaf-raking time again, something that I look upon as a mixed blessing.  You see, as with many Oak Ridgers, our house is surrounded by several large trees—tulip poplars, hickory nut, oak, and the like.  So when the leaves start falling, they really start falling.  As our daughter and son-in-law—who toured our house for us before we bought it, while we were still living in New York—said,  “The one thing that stuck out about the house and lot was the great amount of leaf maintenance that will be required.”  Many of you know what I am talking about.

However, in spite of the leaf maintenance, autumn has become my favorite season of the year.  And I actually enjoy raking leaves for a few hours, at least, especially during the last week of October.  The swoosh of dry leaves being corralled by the rake, or being parted and crunched by walking feet.  The array of colors—yellow, brown, red, and gold—dappled across the lawn.  The fallen leaves’ herald of Halloween soon to come (my second favorite childhood holiday), and memories of trick or treating with brother through the neighborhood.  But then, more importantly for today’s purposes, there are the spiritual lessons I find in autumn and the leaf-raking process as well.

For instance, leaf-raking speaks to me of the need to tidy up and bring a sense of order to things.  What is leaf-raking if not a tidying up of your lawn?  We carefully blow or push leaves into a center pile or upon a tarp, being careful to rake in and around the corners of the house.  We rake and push, rake and push, until the lawn is all tidied up and in good order.

Such can be a subtle reminder that periodically we need to tidy up our lives as well, in a spiritual or maybe a relational sense of the term, or both.  To give you an example from our own lives, this past summer—just before we flew out to Utah—Mary Lou and I finally did what we should have done years ago: we met with our attorney down in Jackson Square and prepared our wills.  In all fairness, I should tell you that Mary Lou had been trying to get us to do that for years.  And both of us had prepared simple hand-written wills several years ago and tucked them away in our home safe.  But this past summer, both of us felt it was imperative that we do it right and do it now.  So we did.  That was one loose end of our lives that needed tidying up.

But tidying up our lives can take so many different forms.  It might mean restoring relationships with loved ones or friends we have become estranged from, either by asking for or by granting forgiveness.  Tidying up our lives might take a religious turn, as we work out feelings about God or the Church or our relationship with the Universe.  Tidying up our lives might have to do with our job or profession and the need to make a change so as to follow our heart or do what we feel we are really called to do in life.  Or a decision related to retirement.

And there is a related thought about leaf-raking and tidying up: I find that leaf-raking provides a wonderful opportunity to think and meditate upon some of those important issues of life.

Second, falling leaves and trees going dormant speak of the universal need for a time of rest.  Some of us push, push, push all the time, seven days a week, at least 50 weeks of the year.  There are always more jobs that need to be done, projects that need to be completed, meetings that need to be attended, places we need to go, calls that need to be made, and the list goes on.  There never is time to rest and just be, it seems.  We feel that our worth is determined by what we do, rather than by who we are.

The coming of autumn serves as a gentle reminder that even as some parts of Nature need to undergo a time of rest, so we, too, need periods of rest so as to be restored and readied for new periods of service.  Consequently, we were given the Sabbath as one day in seven to rest and be restored.  We need times of holiday and vacation apart from the everyday demands of life where we can be rejuvenated and recharged.  Such is what the national parks do for me.  You likely have your own avenues of finding much-needed rest.  Yes, examples in the natural world where certain plants and animals are heading toward a time of rest is a reminder that our bodies and spirits need periods of rest as well.

Third, dead leaves are a solemn reminder of the cycles of life, and that death is a natural part of earthly existence.  Now, it is true that way too often death comes tragically and prematurely.  An automobile accident; a massive heart attack or stroke at a young age; or some other unexpected tragedy that takes the life of a loved one long before the average life expectancy.

But death does not have to be looked upon as an enemy in every instance.  Sometimes—as in the case of someone who has lived a good, long life but now suffers chronic, unbearable pain from which there is no relief; or one whose quality of life has long since gone—in such a case death might be looked upon as a welcome friend.  Over my years of ministry, I couldn’t tell you how many people have shared with me that they welcomed and longed for death.

I have been following the story of former President Jimmy Carter (the one President I have been fortunate enough to meet and shake hands with, by the way) who learned a few months ago that he is battling cancer of the brain.  I don’t think Carter is welcoming death, but he testified in a news conference that he is at ease and faces his unknown future with confidence.

Naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “If life is good, death must be equally good, as each waits upon the other” (Accepting the Universe).  And Joseph Campbell contended, “One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life” (The Power of Myth).  Falling, dead leaves that will decay and return to the earth, then come to life again in new flora, serve as visual reminders that death (and rebirth) is a natural aspect of life in our universe.

And fourth, that final leaf-raking and cleaning up the lawn (which occurs for me around the last week of November) is an affirmation of a job well-done.  I don’t know about you, but when all the leaves have fallen, and when I have raked up and carried off that last pile, I feel a certain sense of satisfaction in a task completed and a job well-done.  There is an inner joy in knowing I have tackled and completed that job, and I am done with it,  until next year at least.

How wonderful it is when we can view our lives in general with that same type of satisfaction, that we can take pride in a life’s job well-done.  I am reminded of that often-quoted parable of Jesus in which the master says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21 KJV).  The completion of leaf raking in the fall could be an annual reminder for us to take inventory of our lives in general and determine if we are able to take pride in a job well-done the past year.

Well, as shared in the beginning, as I have grown older, I have come to look upon autumn as my favorite season of the year, for many different reasons: the fall colors, frosty mornings, warm days and cool nights, fall festivals, autumn moons, the list is long.  But as you should have also gathered, autumn also holds spiritual meaning for me as well.  The world of Nature has many lessons to teach us in each season of the year, and autumn is no exception.

So may I suggest that we enter this autumn season with eyes wide open to the autumn wonders around us, with deep gratitude for the blessings peculiar to this time of year, and with open minds and open hearts to the deep spiritual lessons autumn has to teach us.  May it be so.  Amen.


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