In Praise of Awe

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, January 24, 2016

Genesis 28:10-22 ESV

Have you ever had the experience of looking at the same thing time and again, and every time seeing it in exactly the same way?  But then one day, when you look at that same thing again, you see it in a totally different light.  Maybe you see something that proves to be an epiphany.  Perhaps you even see something that Wows! you.

I have read this colorful story of Jacob and his ladder numerous times over the years.  But when I read it again recently, I was inspired by this story in ways I had never been before.

For one thing, as I considered this ancient story again, a possible sermon title or topic came to mind: “Good News and New Hope for Scoundrels.”  For, you see, Jacob was a scoundrel of the worst kind; “a scoundrel from the word go,” as preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor puts it.1  Jacob, as you may remember, was the second-born of twins.  This meant that his twin brother Esau (who was born first) was the rightful heir to their father’s best blessing and choice inheritance, or birthright.  We may not think such was right, but that was the way it was back then.  But with the help of their mother, Jacob—ever the sly, cunning one—figured out a way to cheat his brother Esau out of his birthright, as well as their aged father’s blessing.  The enmity and strife got so bad between the brothers, that Esau had thoughts of killing Jacob after their aged father passed away.  Their mother, also fearing for Jacob’s life, sent him away from home to live with relatives.

So it was that during Jacob’s flight from home that he stopped at a place called Luz to spend the night.  And as Jacob slept, he had this fantastic, life-changing dream of a ladder reaching up to the heavens and angels ascending and descending on the ladder.  Jacob also felt that he heard the voice of God blessing him and making promises to him of a prosperous future yet to come.  Such is the way the ancient story goes.  Thus, the assurance that there can be good news and new hope, even for scoundrels!

And then, there was a second thing about this story that struck me in a new way having to do with awe-inspiring experiences of life.  So powerful and real was Jacob’s experience, that he felt God in that place in an extraordinary way.  Such was his experience that he set up the stone he had used as a pillow and renamed the place Beth-El, which means “the House of God.”  “El” was one of the early Hebrew names for God.  Thus the word, “Beth-El,” meaning house of God.  “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” Jacob proclaimed.  “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  “How awesome is this place!”  Now, here is the point I aim to stress: What previously had seemed to Jacob to be an ordinary place proved to be an awe inspiring place!

And such makes me wonder if it couldn’t be the same for you and me—if some of those “ordinary” places where we find ourselves might prove to be “awesome” places, if we were to open our eyes to see the sacredness present there; if we were to open ourselves to the awe-inspiring “Beth-Els” along the road of life.

Barbara Brown Taylor thinks so.  And such is the thesis of her 2010 book titled An Altar in the World.  In her thoughts on the Jacob story, Brown observes regarding her own life, “I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is. . . .  Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”2

And so, I chose to title this sermon “In Praise of Awe.”  The idea is one that has naturally evolved within me these past few years.  The older I get, the more occasions I find to stand in awe of life, “Beth-Els” along the journey, and the natural world around me.

As most of you know, for two and a half years now, I have been seriously engaged in naturalist studies, through the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, but also through the voracious reading of the works of the classic naturalists.  Some of you may have wondered about this.  But just to set the record straight—if, indeed, it had any need to be set straight—my naturalist studies have overlapped with and complimented my theological studies and inspirational and devotional thought.  Consequently, naturalist studies have resulted in greater and more numerous “Beth-El” experiences, akin to that one experienced by Jacob of old.  As Richard Dawkins even admitted, “All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation.”

And so, those “ordinary” objects and experiences of life take on a whole new appearance and often end up being awe-inspiring encounters.  Such was the case this morning when I was leaving for church in the dark and saw a gorgeous, giant moon hanging just above the horizon in the western sky.  When I look at a tree, which at one time I might have said, “Oh, that is a nice tree,” I now may do so with an attitude of awe, as we did standing before a 2,000-year-old bristlecone pine tree at Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah this past summer.

A recent article on the “DailyGood: News that Inspires” website titled “Top 10 Insights from the Science of a Meaningful Life 2015” caught my eye; one point did in particular on experiencing awe.  The point was “Experiencing awe makes us, well, awesome.”  It was noted that “Several studies published in 2015 suggest some profound, previously overlooked benefits associated with awe, which is defined by researchers as feeling like we’re in the presence of something larger than ourselves—be it a natural wonder, a work of art, or feats of athleticism or altruism—that defies our understanding of the world and makes us feel like we’re just one small part of a vast, interconnected universe.”3  The section goes on to note that “A paper published in April in the journal Emotion linked awe to special health benefits . . . results revealed that awe was the emotion most strongly associated with . . . better health. . . .  A separate study, published in June in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that awe might not only boost our health but also make us more kind and helpful to others.”

So the bottom line seems to be that experiences of awe are good for body, soul and personality and character.  As scientist Albert Einstein said, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

Let’s return to where I began—the experience of looking at the same thing time and again, and every time seeing it in exactly the same way, but then one day when you look at it again seeing something totally different.  Could it be that the difference is on rare occasions we are more open, more willing to see, more sensitive to wonder and the potential Sacred that presents itself to us?  Could it be that at some rare times much more than others we are more open to being awestruck?

And the avenues and opportunities that can prove to be awe-inspiring are varied and beyond number—for those who are open to seeing them: the natural world around us, the vast universe where new discoveries are being made every day as with the evidence of a new planet in our solar system that astronomers announced this past week, the miracle of birth, the wonders of science and medicine, the marvels of the human spirit and human sacrifice. In any and all of these ways and more we may find ourselves being awestruck and feeling that how awesome is this experience; this is the gate to heaven!

I cannot help but think of those poignant lines by poet Elizabeth Barret Browning, which seem to point to the burning bush experience of Moses more so than the ladder to heaven experience of Jacob.  But the words are applicable nonetheless:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. . .”

Yes, the older I get, the more “Beth-El” encounters, more awe-inspiring experiences that seem to come to me.  With Jacob of old I find myself thinking more often, “How awesome is this place!  This is the gate of heaven.”  My hope and prayer is that it might be more so for all of us.  In praise of awe.  Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World.  New York: HarperOne, 2010. p. 15.

2Ibid.

3http://www.dailygood.org

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Can Anything Good Be Said About Pain and Suffering?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, January 31, 2016

Job 2:11-13; Acts 17:1-3 ESV

Have you ever struck your thumb with a hammer?  I mean really hard?  I have.  The pain hurts like the dickens.  And chances are when you do so, you let loose a string of non-church words.  As a teenager, I spent some time working with my uncle in new home construction.  On occasion, while driving a nail, I would strike my thumb with the hammer, as all carpenters do every now and then.  And when I did so, one of my co-workers had the habit of saying, “Oh, it will feel so good when it stops hurting.”  And he was right.  But put that thought on hold for a bit, as I will return to it later.

Perhaps you took notice of the recent passing of colorful and somewhat controversial one-time Tennessee political figure John Jay Hooker.  Hooker died under Hospice care in Nashville on January 17.  One family friend referred to him as being “larger than life.”  Hooker had been suffering from metastatic melanoma.  In his political career heyday, Hooker had success and notoriety as an attorney whose work caught the eye of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and he worked as special counsel to Kennedy and even lived in Kennedy’s house for awhile.  He was an original investor in HCA (Hospital Corporation of America).  Then during the sixties, seventies and nineties, Hooker unsuccessfully ran for the office of Tennessee Governor, and he even had aspirations for the office of President.  But a failure in a fried chicken franchise cast a shadow upon Hooker and his career, from which he never really recovered.

But the point that is pertinent for today’s topic is this: when Hooker was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year and was told he had about six months to live, it proved to be a turning point for him; he dedicated the remainder of his life to a new purpose.  Hooker became a Tennessee voice for the cause of physician-assisted suicide.  Of course, Hooker died without realizing his latest dream of seeing Tennessee enact a physician-assisted suicide law.  And such a law is a sermon topic in itself for another day.

But the point for today’s purposes has to do with human pain and suffering.  And I think that may have been what John Jay Hooker was really concerned about—the reality and universality of human pain and suffering, especially in instances where there is no hope of recovery or cure.  The truth is, human pain and suffering is common to each and every one of us.  Suffering is part and parcel with the human condition, and not one of us is going to escape it forever.  Indeed, human suffering and the eventual end—death—is the great leveler of all creatures on the earth.

The problem of human pain and suffering is one of the oldest topics to be wrestled with, questioned, and debated by thinking men and women, as seen in the ancient book of Job.  One of the primary questions that the book of Job wrestles with has to do with the source and cause and reasons for human pain and suffering.  As the book unfolds, the so-called friends of Job have their answers regarding the how and why of human suffering, answers that Job does not buy.  And Job has his own perspective on the how and why of human suffering.  And ever since then, humankind has added to the laundry list reasons for human pain and suffering in the world.

Now, I would not pretend to think that my thoughts on human pain and suffering are exhaustive or the final say on the topic.  To think such would be ludicrous.  After searching through my own paper files, I went to the Internet in search of some poignant thoughts on the topic of human suffering, and as you might imagine, there were dozens of such websites.  One website alone posted 1,472 quotes related to suffering.  It is sort of overwhelming and daunting to even think about it.

But what I thought I would do is just think out loud for a bit, mentioning some of the more common responses to human pain and suffering.  And as different forms of media often include a disclaimer, “The sentiments contained herein are not necessarily the opinion of the publisher (or preacher, as the case may be).”  So may it be today.  That is to say, I don’t personally agree with each of the common responses to human suffering that I am going to share with you.

  1. One of the oldest and most common responses to human pain and suffering is that suffering is God-sent. Such is the stance taken by the friends of Job—“Your suffering, Job, was sent to you by God.  What other explanation could there be?”  We also see this idea in some of the psalms.
  2. Following closely on the heels of this belief is that suffering is punishment for sin or wrongdoing, either known or unknown. Again, we sometimes see this in the psalms.
  3. A third belief is that suffering may not be God-sent, but suffering is sometimes permitted by God so that good may result.  Such seems to have been one of the early Christian beliefs as the early Christ-followers wrestled with the whys and how of the crucifixion of Jesus.  If Jesus was the Son of God, God’s Annointed One, why did God allow him to die a shameful death at the hands of evil men, the political powers of the day?  To many, it just didn’t add up.  One explanation was that God must have allowed Jesus to suffer and die (as Paul is said to have preached in the book of Acts), in order to accomplish his redemptive purpose for the world.  To many it was the only explanation that made sense.
  4. A different view is that instead of God sending suffering, God draws closer to those who suffer. This seems to be writer Anne Lamott’s theological frame of reference.  Hence, writer Lamott writes, “God is present wherever people suffer.  God’s here with us when we’re miserable. . . The suffering of innocent people draws God close to them.”
  5. Another contradictory view to the idea that suffering is God-sent is suffering is just the way with earthly existence; suffering often comes to us without rhyme or reason. We should not try to find a reason for it or explain it, but rather, focus on finding a way to deal with it.  Such we see in the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, a philosophical work that often contradicts the black and white certainty that suffering is punishment for sin as we see it portrayed in the psalms, proverbs, and by the friends of Job.
  6. Another view is suffering can be turned into something good. “The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” Sufi poet Rumi  A good example might be parents who lost their children to drunk drivers on the highway who later founded MADD to help educate the public about the problem with drinking and driving.
  7. Suffering is actually good for us, as it tends to purify, mold, refocus, and possibly strengthen us. This seems to be a popular response of many in order to get the upper hand on suffering, to turn suffering on its ear, so to speak, so as to not be defeated by suffering.  For instance, the writer Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”   Likewise, contemporary Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”  And Rachel Naomi Remen, in Kitchen Table Wisdom contends, “in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness.”
  8. Suffering can give us a new perspective on things. Remember my opening illustration of striking my thumb with a hammer, and the idea that it will feel so much better after it stops hurting?  Suffering can lead us to feel differently, think differently, and look at our lives differently.  When he learned that he had less than a year to live, John Jay Hooker saw life in a totally new light and found a whole new purpose in living.
  9. A view held by some, a small some, is suffering should be welcomed. Mother Teresa of Calcutta seems to have embraced this view. “I think it is very good when people suffer. To me that is like the kiss of Jesus,” she said.
  10. And then a view of suffering that all of us can embrace is suffering, when supported by others, is so much easier to bear than suffering borne alone.

Again quoting Rachel Naomi Remen, “Perhaps the healing of the world rests on just this sort of shift in our way of seeing, a coming to know that in our suffering and our joy, we are connected to one another with unbreakable and compelling human bonds.”3

What do I believe about pain and suffering? You may be asking.  I believe suffering is not God-sent, nor is it punishment for sin.  I believe that pain and suffering are part of life on earth and often happens by chance.  Sadly, often suffering is human-inflicted.  But I also believe that suffering can give us a new perspective on life, and it often can be turned into something good.

The truth is, whenever we are in situations where people have or are suffering—in hospital rooms, the Emergency Room, funeral homes, and other places—we often hear all kinds of statements that people give in response to human suffering.  Some of them are not so good, when you stop to think about them.  And I cannot dictate to you your beliefs about human suffering, and you cannot dictate to me my beliefs about suffering either.  But what we all can do is stand with each other, support each other, encourage and help each other when we endure times of suffering, as we all will at one time or another.  May it be so with all of us.  Amen.

 

1Knoxville News Sentinel, Monday, January 25, 2016, 11A.

2Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.  New York: Riverhead, 2005, p. 8.

3Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, p. 140.

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Gifts of Science, Gifts of Religion

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, January 17, 2016

Daniel 1:1-5 KJV

As you well know, we now live in a nation that is divided in several different ways.  Perhaps it has always been that way; I don’t know.  But it just seems to be so now more prominently than any other time I can remember over the past few decades.

If we listen to the world news, it doesn’t take long to realize that we are a nation that is divided politically.  On one side of the fence we have the ultra-conservatives who are vying for the office of President.  And on the other side of the fence we have those who are liberal or ultra-liberal.  And there seems to be a great divide between the two, as well as between those who cast their support one way or the other.

We are also a nation that is divided religiously.  On one extreme we have those who see things from an exclusively Christian point of view.  Then on the other extreme we have those who try to be more open and inclusive and interfaith-minded.

Not so prominent and visible, perhaps, is a divide between what I would like to call the “science-minded” and the “religious-minded.”  That is to say, on one extreme there are at least some for whom science is the only viable worldview, the only lens through which to see the world.  A good contemporary example of this might be astro physicist Stephen Hawking for whom science is everything and who gives no place to religion at all.  And on the other extreme, religion and a literal interpretation of the Bible or other sacred text is the only viable worldview, the only lens through which to see the world.  A good example of this might be the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which emphasizes “biblical authority” and ignores many scientific findings and places dinosaurs alongside Adam and Eve some 6,000 years ago.

But for most of us here at this United Church, the tension between science and religion probably is not much of an issue at all.  So in one sense of the term, I may be “preaching to the choir today,” as they say.  And I would like to go on record at the start by noting that what I have to say today is not exhaustive by any means, or the final word on the matter.  On the contrary, what I have to say is more of a discussion or idea starter than anything else.

But my premise is that both science and religion are our friends, and they should be friends with each other.  Both science and religion have wonderful gifts to share with us, and they should be allies instead of enemies.  But as you know, it has not always been that way, and it is not so in every community or in every case today.  There are still many in our world, and in our country, who choose to cling to one or the other and feel that science and religion are at odds with each other.  And for some, the twain never shall meet.

On the science side, there are definite gifts that science brings to us.  And I am not a scientist, so some of you could enumerate the benefits or gifts of science much better than I.  But these are some of the gifts of science as I see them, one who is not a trained scientist.

One gift of science has to do with the method with which reality is discovered or arrived at; the scientific method of hypothesis, experiment, collection of data, results, and so on.

Another gift of science has to do with facts.  In many ways, science presents us with facts about how things actually are in the world.  A classic debate between religion and science had to do with the prevailing worldview prior to Copernicus and Galileo.  The prevailing view was that the earth was the center of our universe and the sun and everything else revolved around the earth, the center of God’s creation.  But when learned men used science to explain why the moon went through phases and so on, the facts proved that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around.  However, such knowledge did not set well with the Church (organized religion), so Galileo was condemned for a number of decades.  But eventually the facts of science won the day, as they almost always eventually do.

Another closely-related gift of science is science seeks to deal in reality rather than mystery.  One area where science has proved to be of inestimable value is in the field of healthcare, both physical and mental.  We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to science for medical advances and discovering that the cause of mental illness is often due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and the spread of diseases is caused by germs and bacteria that can be passed from one human to another, and not because of a curse, the work of the devil, demon possession, or the need for blood-letting, as religion used to teach.

We could go on, but all of us here get it—science graces our lives with many wonderful gifts.

But then, religion has its own gifts to share with us as well.  And such is the real impetus for this sermon.  Now, I have to confess that the idea for this sermon was a long article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in an October edition of the Wall Street Journal.  Rabbi Sacks makes some good points about why religion remains so important to the world and to human experience in general.  So I would like to expand upon Rabbi Sacks’s comments to formulate my own short list of gifts that religion (religion done right, that is) brings to us.

One gift that religion gives us is a sense of meaning.  Rabbi Sacks observes, “Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning.  That is why no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion.”Religion seeks to give meaning to those important life passages—birth, coming of age, marriage, suffering, and death—in a way that no other institution or entity in life does.  A good example of this is the entire book of Job that wrestles with and seeks to impart meaning to the universal experience of human suffering.

Another gift of religion is direction.  Religion offers the hope that we are not just random cells that have come together for a brief period of time.  Rather, religion seeks to provide a sense of purpose to our lives and affirms that life is a sacred journey, both with the Divine and with others.

A third gift of religion emphasized by Rabbi Sacks is “a code of conduct and a set of rules for the moral and spiritual life. . .”  Science seeks to give us an explanation for the beginning of life on earth, but religion seeks to give us guidelines for making the most of life while on this earth in the context of human relationships.  And so, the Jewish religion gave us the Ten Commandments to help us avoid mass chaos and live peaceably together in human community–“Thou shalt not kill, Thou shall not steal, and so on.”  The Christian religion gave us the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount to show us how to live together in Christian community.

And following closely is another gift of religion that emphasizes the number one ethic of the life of faith—the ethic of love and compassion and service to others, especially suffering humanity.  One of the greatest gifts that issues from religion should be the formation of a compassionate religious community—“the beloved community”—to use Martin Luther King, Jr’s term—where love, care, support, empathy, and so on are shared with members of that community and with the world in a way not found anywhere else, as celebrated in that wonderful hymn, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”  Such a religious community pools its resources so as to feed the hungry, take care of and seek to heal the sick through religious-founded hospitals, establish homes to care for orphans, and so forth.

Rabbi Sacks sums up his article in one powerful, succinct paragraph when he says, “We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the insistence on peaceful modes of resolving conflicts, forgiveness for the injuries of the past and devotion to a future in which all the children of the world can live together in grace and peace.”  Such seemed to me to be most appropriate thoughts for this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

And so, it seems obvious that both science and religion do have unique gifts to offer us.  And the two should not be considered incompatible one with another.  My hope is that what I have said will encourage the more scientific-minded to have greater appreciation for the gifts of religion, and that the more religious-minded will have greater appreciation for the gifts of science.  But also to celebrate these wonderful gifts of religion that are so relevant for this Martin Luther King weekend.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Jonathan Sacks, “Swords into Plowshares,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3-4, 2015, C-2.

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Home Alone

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 10, 2016

Luke 2:41-52 ESV

Someone has pointed out a similarity between the passage read from Luke and that contemporary movie that has become a Christmas classic.  You know the one I am talking about, starring Macaulay Culkin, about a sharp, 8-year-old boy who is left behind—home alone—to fend for himself a couple of days before Christmas.  Kevin, the lead actor of the movie, proves to be too clever for two would-be burglars who plan to rob his family’s house while everyone is supposed to be in France for the holidays.  Indeed, with all the booby traps and other devices that Kevin rigs up, he proves to be wise beyond his years.  We played this 1990 movie again with our grandchildren over the Christmas holidays, and it was a joy to watch them laugh and cackle at Kevin’s shenanigans.

With a little imagination, we can easily make the connection between Kevin being left at home alone by his family, and the boy Jesus being left at “his Father’s home” alone by his own family.  As Luke tells the story, the boy Jesus—though himself being 12, a few years older than Kevin—proved to be too clever for both his parents and the Temple teachers.  Indeed, as Luke relates it, as a 12-year-old boy, Jesus was already wise beyond his years.

As you no doubt know, this story of boy Jesus in the Temple is the only “authoritative” story we have of the childhood of Jesus.  Indeed, it is the only authoritative story we have of Jesus from his infancy until the time he was baptized as a man and began his own ministry, about 30 years of age.

Now, when I say “authoritative,” I am qualifying my statement because, as some of you may also know, there are “non-authoritative” stories of the childhood of Jesus in the extra-biblical writings that were deemed unworthy of the attention of the faithful and that were lost away from public view.  Most of these stories come from the pseudepigraphous Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ.  The dictionary defines pseudepigrapha as 1. “Spurious writings, esp. writings falsely attributed to Biblical characters or times. 2. A body of Jewish religious texts written between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D….”  Some of the stories are quite bizarre and even disturbing, as they don’t always portray the boy Jesus in a positive light.  But there are two rather well-known stories that are interesting.

One such story relates how that when Jesus was a boy, he and some other boys were playing on a rooftop.  One of the boys fell off the roof and was killed.  All of the boys fled in fear except Jesus, who was left alone with the dead child.  When the parents of the dead boy arrived, they accused Jesus of pushing their son off the roof.  Jesus leaped down from the roof and cried out to the fallen boy, “’Did I throw you down?’  And the boy arose at once and said, ‘No, Lord, you did not throw me down, but raised me up’” (The Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ).  This story, it appears to me, has the flavor of a post-resurrection story, as do some other stories in our four gospels, and may have been intended as a foreshadowing of the resurrection stories.

Another well-known story of Jesus’s childhood pictures him again playing with other boys.  As they were playing in the mud, Jesus fashioned some clay animals—donkeys, oxen, birds and other animals.  Jesus told the other boys that his animals were better than theirs, because he was going to bring his creations to life, which he did.  The animals began to walk and to eat and drink, and the birds took off in flight.  When the other boys went home and told their parents what had happened, they said Jesus was a sorcerer and that in the future they should avoid, shun, and refuse to play with him ever again.

Now, what do we make of such stories?  Do we take such stories literally?  In the case of the pseudepigraphous stories, some of them are hard to digest, and we don’t even want to consider that they are true.  But what about the more positive ones, bringing a dead child back to life, and giving life to clay birds?  It seems to me that such stories were intended to reinforce the traditions about Jesus as a miracle worker, even from his childhood.  And also to reinforce the early Christian belief that “in him was life,” to borrow a phrase from John’s canonical gospel (John 1:4).

When we return to Luke’s story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, one could very easily interpret a number of elements as serving to foreshadow things to come in Jesus’s adult life:

Jesus conversing with the religious teachers as a 12-year-old boy is a foreshadowing of Jesus conversing with the scribes and Pharisees as an adult, proving himself to be more excellent in understanding than they were.  The verse, “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and answers” (2:47) will be paraphrased two chapters later in Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in the Nazareth synagogue (4:22).

Jesus’s statement to his parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” foreshadows his calling God his father as an adult.  It is interesting that these are the first words on record that Jesus spoke.  So that verse—“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”—conveys the main point of the story that Luke wants to impress upon us.

The story seeks to impress upon the reader the boy Jesus’s “dawning awareness” of self-identity and relationship to his Father God, something that Mary and Joseph seem to be totally oblivious to in spite of the miraculous birth narratives Luke has related involving them.  The passage has definite Christological overtones.

Luke’s statement that “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” serves as a positive foundation and transition just before Luke launches into the beginning of Jesus’s adult ministry.

And the phrase, “after three days they found him in the Temple” has been interrupted by some as being symbolic, referring to the three days that Jesus was in the tomb.  In the gospels, “three days” is often used symbolically that way.

Now, with all of that having been said about the childhood narratives about Jesus, let’s shift gears and see if there is anything we can learn from this parents-and-child-story as it may relate to our own children and grandchildren.

Luke paints the picture that Jesus was unique.  None of us would argue with that.  But in another sense of the term, every one of our children and grandchildren is unique and special.  We should strive to never forget that and let each one become the person they are and not try to make them into a sibling, someone we want them to be, or anyone else in the world.

There are going to be times of disconnect, break-downs in communication and times when our children and grandchildren are on one plane and we are on another.  Luke’s words of Jesus, “Did you not know….” And saying that Mary and Joseph “did not understand…” are universal in scope in parent and child relationships, are they not?

Luke portrays Jesus as an adolescent who is in the process of self-discovery and self-realization.  But as we all know, this is a process that all of our children and grandchildren go through.  It can be a difficult time.  It takes much wisdom and patience and sensitivity to journey with our children through the process of self-discovery and self-realization.  And some of the things that help a child with self-identity include family ties and relationships; family values; a positive home atmosphere where individualism is nurtured; religious community; and a spirit of openness, being willing to listen, and attentiveness.

Well, as in the movie Home Alone, after the parents return to find that their son is okay, with Jesus’s parents there is also a giant sense of relief.  But there are also, it seems, a better understanding, better communication, and a more mature relationship between son and parents, and parents and son.

Isn’t that something all of us can hope for and work for after periods of separation and disconnect and misunderstanding, whether it be with our children or grandchildren, or in any of our adult relationships—better understanding, better communication, and a more mature relationship?  May it be so for all of us.  Amen.

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Timeless Truth in the Story of the Wise Men

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 3, 2015

Matthew 2:1-11 KJV

This coming Wednesday, January 6, is Epiphany, the day that much of the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.  When it comes to the Wise Men among students and scholars of the Bible, there is a wide divergence of beliefs. On the one end of the spectrum you have those who interpret the story quite literally and who go to great lengths to try to determine precisely who the wise men were, where they came from, the exact time they traveled, the nature of the star they followed, how they were destined to visit Baby Jesus in Old Testament prophecy, and so on.

Then on the other end of the spectrum you have scholars who see the Wise Men more as a literary device of Matthew, as being symbolic in nature; in short, a wonderful story created by Matthew in order to make a profound theological statement.  Well, it is up to each of us to “pay our money and make our choice,” as the saying goes.  And I imagine that if we took a poll in this United Church, we would find a wide divergence of beliefs here as well.

Regardless of where each of us comes down on the literal nature or the symbolic nature of the Wise Men, at the very heart or core of this story is profound truth.   And I hope to explain why.

There are many words or ideas we could pursue in considering the story of the Wise Men’s visit to the Baby Jesus.  But it occurred to me this past week that one word, one idea, or one indisputable truth that is at the heart of this story is fascination. The journey of the Wise Men, and the intrigue with which they searched for the Child, and the exotic gifts that they gave him, are all indicative of a keen fascination with Jesus.  It was fascination that led them to travel the great distance in search of the Child.  And fascination that led them to say, “we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”  And the fascination illustrated in the story of the visit of the Wise Men is a fascination that only grew stronger with the passage of time.  And that continued fascination is at least one truth at the heart of the this colorful story.

This extreme fascination with the person of Jesus was what led the gospel writers to set down their own unique accounts of the birth, life, teachings, and death of Jesus some 35-60 years or so after his death.  And I am not just talking about the four gospels we have in our Christian Bibles.  I am including the numerous other gospels like the gospels of Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and others who were just as fascinated with the Jesus persona, but gospels that the powers that be of the times were not considered worthy reading for the faithful; and so, they were not included in our Christian Bible.

Since the first and second centuries, this fascination with Jesus has led to the publication of countless books about him, one who has not only been a most popular figure in human history, but also one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and elusive ones as well.  And the Enlightenment, modernity, and post-modern world have not tamed this Jesus fascination in the least.  In fact, it only seems to grow stronger with the passage of time.  Borg, Crossan, Levine, Spong, Wright—such are just a few of the contemporary biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the real Jesus and the biblical world in which he lived.

A long article in the current issue of Smithsonian magazine titled “Unearthing the World of Jesus” quotes John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed in their book, Excavating Jesus, by saying, “. . . archaeologists and historians are [still] searching for the man of history as much as the figure of faith.”1   Such is to say that 2,000 years after his birth, the fascination with Jesus, the world in which he lived, who he really was, and so on has not waned in the least.  To reiterate, the fascination with Jesus seems to grow even stronger as time goes on.

As John Dominic Crossan points out in Excavating Jesus, there is a marvelous complexity that went into the makeup of the four gospels in our Bible with which we are all familiar.  It is not as simple as Matthew’s story, Mark’s story, Luke’s story, and John’s story.  Biblical scholars are still trying to unravel and understand the many different traditions that went into the formation of those four gospels.  To give you just a taste of the complexity, both Matthew and Luke relied upon Mark’s gospel (the earliest one of the four we have preserved) for their stories.  But both Matthew and Luke also relied upon another lost source known as Q, which includes common sayings in both Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark or John.  But to go a step further, common sayings from the so-called Q source and sayings from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (that was only discovered in the mid-twentieth century) were drawn from yet another lost source.  On a personal note, this is a source I would like to have access to, and I would like to know more about its origin and the context from which it came.  Hopefully someday hidden material will come to light to help us better understand this piece of the Jesus traditions puzzle.

But getting back to the primary point of the sermon, the fascination with Jesus, his teachings, and the world in which he lived and the world that revolved around him is as keen today as it ever has been.  And what all of this says to me is we all still have much to learn from Jesus and from and about the teachings attributed to him that have come down to us through several different early Christian traditions that merged together to form the books we have today.

We may take comfort in that simple picture of Jesus that we may have learned in children’s Sunday school some fifty, sixty, or more years ago.  But today we realize that the Jesus we learned about in our childhood was much more complex than we might have ever imagined.

When we join the caravan of modern day wise men and wise women scholars who have also searched diligently for the Child of Bethlehem, in one sense of the term we become wise men and wide women with them.  May it be so as we enter this Epiphany season and the New Year ahead of us.  Amen.

 

1Ariel Sabar, “Unearthing the World of Jesus,” Smithsonian, January-February 2016.

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Finding Wonder in the Unexpected

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, Dec. 20, 2015

Matthew 1:18-25 ESV

Sometimes life is the bearer of unexpected news that tends to turn our world upside down, throwing all of our well-laid plans into disarray.  A visit to the doctor brings news that you will have to have major surgery.  Or you are given another diagnosis that is hard to bear.  Or you are awakened by a late-night telephone call with someone on the other end saying, “I am sorry to have to tell you this . . ..”  Or just when you think things are going well at work, your boss calls you into the office and gives you a pink slip.  The possible scenarios of unexpected and disruptive twists and turns in the road of life are endless.  And most of us have experienced them at one time or another.

Enter the story of Joseph.  Joseph, we assume, was going about business as usual as a peasant carpenter.  His focus was on making plans for the future.  He was happily engaged to a young maiden named Mary.  But before they came together, Joseph found out that Mary was already with child.  With Mary’s two words—“I’m pregnant”—Joseph’s whole world was turned upside down in an instant.  All his relationships were immediately changed—his relationship with Mary, his relationship with his neighbors, his relationship with his religion.  His situation changed from one of joy and planning for a happy future with his young bride to one of hurt and anger and confusion about how to deal with a presumably unfaithful and pregnant fiancée.  This is the way things are revealed, when we read between the lines of the gospel story.

This put Joseph in a perplexing situation.  In that day and time, both by culture and by law, engagement such as that entered into by Joseph and Mary was a binding contract.  “Sexual intercourse by a betrothed virgin with another man betrayed the commitment to future marriage and so was [considered] adultery.  The law (if enacted) permitted execution after public trial (Deut 22:23-27).”Surely Joseph wanted to keep the law of his people; he wanted to do the “right thing.”  But was the “right thing” to abide by the ancient scriptures and have his fiancée publicly tried and possibly executed?  Or was the right thing something else?  What would he do?  Joseph decided to dismiss Mary quietly without making a public disgrace of her.  He would not exercise his right to call for a trial and punishment as the law prescribed.  In short, instead of letting himself be bound by the letter of the written law, he decided to follow the moral law of mercy.  At this point, it is said, Joseph had a dream in which it was revealed that the child being carried by Mary was according to the will of God.  And Joseph was encouraged to go through with the wedding, taking unto himself a young woman already with child, because this was the Divine will for his life.  Such is the way Matthew tells the story.

Biblical commentator M. Eugene Boring notes that Matthew was writing for “Jewish Christians who had always reverenced the Law, [but] they sometimes found themselves torn between strict adherence to the letter of the Torah [Law] and the supreme demand of love to which their new faith called them. . . .  Joseph is pictured as ‘righteous,’ even though he had decided to act out of care for another person’s dignity rather than strictly adhere to the Law. . . .  Joseph stands . . . as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples—indeed for each reader of the Gospel.”  That is to live our lives according to the higher law of love for God and neighbor.

It is not difficult to see a similarity between Joseph’s conundrum and our own.  “We want to ‘do the right thing’”when we are faced with a difficult decision.  But what is the right thing?  How do we always know?  We sometimes find ourselves caught between Law and Grace, do we not?  Does doing the right thing always mean taking a literal view of the Law or of scripture?  Or, aren’t we in fact sometimes bound by a higher law, the law of divine love, mercy and compassion?  There are a lot of people in our country today who are determined to do the right thing because they feel that they find instructions in the Bible or other religious book or teachings telling them to do so.  And so they persecute segments of society, taking a few ancient verses as their platform and rationale for believing what they believe and doing what they do, while denying other verses of scripture of even greater importance.  Others commit acts of violence or terrorism because they feel their religious book instructs them to do so.  As Jesus said, they focus on the minor commandments and neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23).  One example is how for centuries many used the Bible to justify the institution of slavery, because a few verses in the Bible talk about how to treat your slaves.  And some churches prohibit women from speaking in church or even teaching men in Sunday school, because of a few verses in the Bible.  Our church does well in that we are not biblical literalists, but we, as did Joseph, choose to abide by the higher law of Christian love, mercy and compassion.  And in that we do well.

But let us return to where we began and how life often deals us the unexpected. How do we deal with those unexpected disruptions that life sometimes sends our way?  And how do we cope when we feel we may be called upon to perform a task or serve in the church in a way we had never before considered?  One thing we have to do is take the long view—focus on the future and not just the present moment.  What if Joseph had selfishly focused on the present moment and refused to be a loving husband to Mary and father to Jesus?  But he didn’t.  Joseph was able to see the big picture and put things into perspective.

Sometimes we have to change, or adapt, to deal with life’s disruptive crises.  At such times, I believe, when we are called to disruptive changes in our lives, it is said to us, as the angel is reported to have said to Joseph, “do not be afraid. . . God is with you.”  That is a hope of Christmas, is it not?  If the birth of Jesus holds any hope at all for us, it is “Fear not!  God is with us!”  As I quoted in the Midweek Message this past week, in the words of television journalist Charles Kuralt, “The Christmas message [is] that there is life and hope, even in a rough world.”

Some more good news of Christmas is that often the unexpected disruptions of life can turn out to be marvelous gifts of grace.  By embracing the uninvited disruption that came into Joseph’s life, he was blessed with a marvelous baby boy that would change the course of the whole world.

Now, as already noted, sometimes the unexpected and uninvited disruptions that life throws upon us are tragic; and it is difficult for us to find any good in them at all.  I understand that.  But often those uninvited disruptions in our lives, those unsought challenges that come our way, those changes in life direction that come unannounced and unwanted—often they can turn out to be the most wonderful blessings in disguise.  I have a traveling story to that effect.

Several years ago, when we were traveling on our summer vacation with our kids, we were on Interstate 75 somewhere in the state of Michigan.  It was getting to be late in the day.  We did not have motel reservations for the night.  As dark was approaching, our gas tank got very low.  We kept driving and looking for an exit, but there were none.  Finally we came upon an exit and got off and proceeded toward some little town in search of gas.  Low and behold, as we were looking for gas and lodging, we came upon a state penitentiary and we kept seeing signs that read, “DO NOT pick up hitchhikers.”  Well, this made us feel good, with an almost-empty gas tank.   But we eventually found gas and we also found a little Mom and Pop motel.  Always the inquisitive one, I asked about the local penitentiary, and I was assured that much of the motel’s business were family members who came to visit prison inmates.  This made us feel even better.

At any rate, we had a good night, and the next morning I asked the motel owner if there was anything nearby that might be of interest to us.  And of course there was!  We had happened upon the Frankenmuth exit, a beautiful little Bavarian town that had wonderful Bavarian bakeries, restaurants, candy stores, a covered bridge, and a huge town square Glockenspill.  That unexpected, off-the-beaten-path side excursion—that at first appeared uninviting—turned out to be one of the highlights of our vacation.

Life can sometimes be like that.  That surprise baby; that loss of a job; that other life disruption; such events can sometimes prove to be wonderful bundles of joy of surprise.  That unexpected baby can become the light of your life.  That loss of a job can lead to an even better job.  I like a common Quaker saying: “Way closes, way opens.”  In other words, when one disappointment comes, it makes way for another greater blessing to replace it.

An Advent challenge for us is to take—as did Joseph, the husband of Mary—those uninvited and unexpected disruptions that life sends our way and be open to the wonder that might accompany them.  Finding wonder in the unexpected.  May it be so for us.  Amen.

 

1New Interpreter’s Study Bible.     2New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. VIII, p. 136.    3On the Road with Charles Kuralt, p. 316

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Wonder in Personal Relationships

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 13, 2015

Luke 1:39-56 ESV

A November 30 article in the Knoxville News Sentinel titled “Christmas is all about Jesus” caught my eye.  Perhaps it caught your eye too.  Please note in speaking about this story I am not criticizing.  But the story related how some Clarksville, Tennessee, pastors are printing thousands of red signs with white lettering that read, “Christmas is all about Jesus.”  The signs are intended to be posted on front lawns across the state of Tennessee.  Such reminds me of another slogan that has been around for some decades that I used to see printed on front car license plates: “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.”  Pastor Jimmy Terry, who originated the “Christmas is all about Jesus” idea, was recently joined by other area ministers in his efforts to distribute at least 100 signs to each of Tennessee’s 95 counties.  Their hope is to make the entire month of December a celebration of Jesus.

Now, on some points I can’t argue with the Clarksville pastors, who believe that Christmas has become more about shopping than celebrating the birth of Christ.  “We have let these holy days become commercial holidays,” one of the pastors said.  “It has just turned into a way for merchants to make money; we have lost the meaning of Christmas,” he continued.1   We all know that at midnight on October 31st, all the Halloween costumes and decorations are removed from the shelves and replaced by Christmas decorations, as merchants hope to sell as much as possible.

In a similar vein, we have been hearing and reading in the media the differences of opinion over using the terms “Christmas” and “holidays” among presidential hopefuls, as well as our own state government officials and representatives from the University of Tennessee over whether the proper term is “holiday celebrations and parties, or Christmas celebration and parties.”  If you read the Knoxville News Sentinel, you couldn’t have missed reading about it, as it has been in the paper almost every day.  It all may sound new; but it is really not.  It is an age-old controversy played out over and again; only the players involved change from year to year.

But back to those signs.  As I thought about it, it occurred to me that the slogan, “Christmas is all about Jesus,” may sound good in theory, to many Christians at least.  But we all know that in practice that is not the way it is, nor the way it has ever been.  Such is to say that there never has been a time when December was a month solely devoted to celebrating Jesus (as the Clarksville pastors hope for it to be) and contemplating nothing but his birth and “lifting up the name of Jesus,” to use their phraseology.  The celebration of Christmas has always been a mixed bag of goods, both secular and sacred.  In fact, I pointed this out in a December 2012 sermon titled “A Secular or Sacred Christmas?”  In a nutshell, I noted back then that from the beginning of formal Christmas celebrations, secular, pagan customs were adopted and mixed with the sacred story and Christian customs.  And it has been that way ever since.

But the point that I really want to stress today is for most of us the celebration of Christmas is a broad, multi-faceted affair that includes observance of Jesus’ birth and how he altered our world, but also additional observances, traditions, and rituals that may have nothing at all to do with the birth of Jesus; but observances, traditions, and rituals that are good nonetheless.

Now, last Sunday I spoke about the importance of Advent and Christmas services, decorations, and rituals in the context of the church, so I am not going to repeat all of that today.  But if you weren’t here, you can visit my sermon blog and read it, if you’re interested.

But if we could isolate what Christmas really means to each of us—in addition to the celebration of Jesus’ birth and all the special services, hymns and music, and so on that go into that—I am guessing that for many of us the joy of Christmas has to do with personal relationships.

A big part of Christmas, for me anyway, has been spending time with loved ones; family gatherings on or near Christmas to share a wonderful meal together and maybe exchange gifts as tokens of our love one for another.  When I was growing up, our family always went to my maternal grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve, where we enjoyed a big, wonderful meal together, then gathered around a Christmas tree in a living room that was filled with presents.  Every single person there—and in those early days there were 13 of us in all—had a number of gifts to open.  That was a highlight of the year, and something we kids looked forward to all year long. As we grew and the older ones of us started to get married, we took our spouses, so that the number continued to grow to 20-25, until both of those grandparents passed away.  On Christmas Day, we always gathered with my parents and my wife’s parents.  Then on Christmas night, we gathered with all the Hammer clan, my Dad’s side of the family.  There were 30+ of us that gathered for those occasions.  And I bet for many of you, Christmases past in large measure involved gathering with loved ones to share a special meal and maybe Christmas gifts as tokens of love.

But during the Christmas season, we also look forward to gathering with fellow church members for special meals (like the wonderful Women’s Circles Christmas Program and Luncheon this past Tuesday) Special Coffee Hours, and so forth.  Some look forward to sharing a special Christmas-time meal with co-workers, or civic groups, or some other small group that they belong to.  You can’t really say that such Christmas gatherings with loved ones are celebrating the birth of Jesus in the strictest sense of the term, but they are good and good for us nonetheless.

And then there is the gift buying and gift giving that is so much a part of our culture.  Now, the strictly religious person may say that the gifts we buy for each other are reminiscent of God’s great gift to us in Jesus, or of the gifts the Wise Men are said to have presented to the Baby Jesus.  But in reality, when we are checking off our list at Walmart or the shopping mall looking for that perfect gift for each of our family members or friends, we aren’t really thinking about the gifts of the Magi, are we?  Probably not.  But that doesn’t nullify the integrity of that gift buying in the least, does it?  We buy those gifts out of love for those close to us, and because of the personal relationships that mean so much to us.

Yes, could it be that in the final analysis, much of the meaning for Christmas is wrapped up in personal relationships and spending special time with those who are dear to us—family members, friends, co-workers, and fellow church members?  And such an idea is not too far from the biblical text that we read this morning.  For the story relates how Mary, when she learned that she was pregnant with Baby Jesus, traveled to the hill country where she spent time with her relative Elizabeth, who also happened to be pregnant.  We could probably spend a fair amount of time speculating and discussing all the reasons for Mary’s journey to the hill country to see her relative Elizabeth.  Did she go to the hill country because she was a pregnant, unwed teenager?  Perhaps.  But certainly at such a pivotal time in Mary’s life, it was only natural that she wanted to be with family.  Perhaps she had heard that Elizabeth, too, was pregnant.  At any rate, the story illustrates the importance of personal relationships, being with those we hold dear, during those special times in our lives.

Harold Kushner tells a beautiful story of how he was sitting at the beach one summer day, watching two children—a boy and a girl—working hard to build an elaborate sand castle by the water’s edge.  The sand castle had gates, towers, a moat around it, and rooms inside.  Just when they had nearly finished their sand castle, a big wave came along and knocked it all down and washed it away.  Kushner observes that he expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work.  But instead, they took off running a bit farther up the shore, laughing and holding hands, and then sat down to start another sand castle.  Kushner says, “I realized that they had taught me an important lesson.  All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand.  Only our relationships to other people endure.  Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up.  When that happens,” Kushner says,  “only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.”2

Now, if we can apply that thought to our Christmas customs and celebrations, it seems to me that putting a sign in your yard and the mixed bag of ways—both secular and sacred—that we celebrate throughout December don’t really matter that much.  I think that deep down in our hearts, Christmas observances that most of us find most meaningful have to do with the wonder we experience in our personal relationships, and being able to hold hands and share the joy with those we love.  And that is a good thing.  Amen.

 

1Knoxville News Sentinel, Nov. 30, 2015, 13A

2Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough

 

 

 

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