Catching Fire!

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 24, 2015

Acts 2:1-4 CEB

Today, as is often the case in the later part of May, we celebrate two significant holidays on one day—Memorial Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.  In light of the fact that we anticipated receiving new members this morning, I thought it most appropriate to frame my sermon around the Pentecost theme, since that day spoken of in the second chapter of Acts is a day when many responded to Peter’s sermon and were baptized and became members of the new Christian community.

What really happened on that Pentecost Day is hard to say.  The events of that day must have been indescribable.  Because the word “like” is used in an attempt to describe what occurred—“a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house.  They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.”  And we must remember that Luke attempted to describe the event some 35 or more years after it happened.  And maybe the description was meant to be symbolic or metaphorical than literal.

But all speculation aside, something significant had to have happened on that day that would come to be celebrated as Christian Pentecost, because that little band of Jesus’ followers were motivated and energized to go forth into the then-known world to spread their message and establish new Christian fellowships and churches.  And often they did so at great personal risks and in the face of great dangers and persecution, and even with the prospect of death for doing so.  Something happened to cause them to catch fire!  So perhaps the tongues of fire that appeared to rest upon each one present is more symbolic than not of the inner fire that ignited within that small band of Jesus-followers that led them to go forth to also set the world on fire, as it were.

Such is the nature of new movements, of which early Christianity is the prime example.  New religions or denominations begin as energetic movements that are propelled forward by people who are on fire for a cause they consider to be world-changing, and for which they are willing to give their very lives, if necessary.  Many examples could be cited to illustrate the point.  I think of Congregationalism that was born in England among some who sought to purify the Church of their day, and by others (the Pilgrims) who sought to separate themselves altogether and worship in freedom as their consciences dictated.  With those early Puritans and Pilgrim separatists, a Congregational fire was born that grew in America and abroad, to the extent that at one time Congregational congregations in America numbered well over six or seven thousand.

I think of George Fox and the early Quaker movement that, likewise, found fault with the Church of their day, and how the early Quakers were on fire, as it were, and were willing to be persecuted and thrown into prison in order to follow their convictions and share their beliefs that the Light and Word and Spirit of God are shared with every man and woman without any need for priest or other mediator, and there is that of God in every soul.

I think of the early Wesleyan movement that drew eager and hungry souls by the thousands who gathered in classes to study the Bible, pray, and discuss “methods” (root for the word “Methodists”) of living a holy life in the world.  The Wesleyan movement caught fire, and Methodists were to become the second largest Protestant denomination in America.

We could cite more examples, and you might think of an example that I might not, of new churches, new religions, and new denominations that began as a movement of people who were on fire with a new vision or for a worthy cause.  And in the early days of a movement, there is a lot of excitement.  And rapid growth.  And the tendency to be on the cutting edge.  And the willingness to take risks.

I think we could rightly say that this congregation began as a movement of people who caught fire with a vision to organize a united church that would bring together people from a great variety of denominations and religious backgrounds to learn, worship, and serve, bound together by a sense of unity, fellowship, and covenant, rather than a common creed or set of beliefs.  And it was a success story, as we all know.

The not-so-good news about movements is, generally speaking, they don’t continue as movements.  In the case of religious movements, they tend to evolve into institutions.  And when movements evolve into institutions, that initial fire fades; passion to spread their message, the excitement, and original vision and reason for coming into existence wane.  The foci and concerns of the institution are much different than were the foci and concerns of the original movement.  Replacing the passion to share the unique message that brought the movement into being are worries about maintenance and self-preservation.  Maintaining buildings and raising budgets can easily become the organization’s primary objective.  And when that happens—when a group loses sight of its original purpose, vision, and reason for being—something is lost and there is the danger that decline can set in.  And it has happened that way much too often.

I know, and you probably know, too, of churches that at one time were growing, thriving congregations, but have long since declined, died away, and closed their doors.  I mentioned once such a church building that I often passed while walking to class for my doctor of ministry studies in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.  The windows and doors of the church building were boarded up with sheets of plywood, and the lot was overgrown with weeds, some as high as my head.  It was a pitiful sight.  The strange thing was this abandoned church building had at one time been a very beautiful and stately building.  It was in an otherwise nice, suburban neighborhood with very nice, expensive houses on either side and all down the street.  I could not help but wonder what happened there that the once-thriving congregation withered away and died.  I so wish now that I had inquired and learned the story behind the church’s demise.  Did they stray from their original vision and mission?  Did they become too focused on buildings and budgets?  Were there personality conflicts in the congregation that proved deadly?  These factors and more can all contribute to a church’s decline.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.  Even churches that have evolved into institutions, even churches that have seen decline, can catch fire again and find new energy and refocus on their original vision.  There is a church in the community where my maternal grandparents lived—the church that my mother attended as a girl—that was a thriving country church when I was a boy.  But over the years, the congregation began to dwindle, for various reasons.  Some members died off.  Others moved away.  Others lost interest.   And still others left for more evangelical churches.  At its lowest point, the attendance dropped to about 14 on any given Sunday.  In my own mind I had pretty much administered last rites to the church.  But in the past year or so, that congregation has experienced new life.  The members caught fire again, as it were, like a bed of faint embers fanned by a puff of wind can reignite into a raging fire.  My parents passed by that church the other Sunday morning at church time (they had taken flowers to my grandparents’ grave for Decoration Day), and they said the church parking lot was full of cars.  It is possible for a declining church to catch fire again!

That is at least one of the positive messages of Pentecost.  No matter how old the congregation, no matter if a church has evolved from a movement into an institution, by being open to new life, refocusing on its original vision and reason for being, and by recommitting to the sense of mission that gave birth to it, or by finding a new vision and mission, a church can catch fire again.  Might it be so with this United Church?  I think it certainly might.  But we must be willing to let it be so and work to make it so.  Indeed, may it be so with us!  Amen.

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Religion, Superstition, Reason, and Faith

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 17, 2015

Acts 8:9-13, 18-24 GNT

One of the things that Dr. John Ed Gardner, my seminary preaching professor, taught me is that sometimes sermons just need time to simmer.  That is, sometimes a preacher needs to unconsciously mull over a sermon topic for weeks, months, or years, even.  Some topics require more time for reflection and unconscious deliberation than others do.

Well, such is the way with today’s sermon topic, “Religion, Superstition, Reason and Faith.”  While sorting through papers on my desk week before last, I ran across some sketchy notes stapled to a newspaper article I had saved from the Wall Street Journal back in November. The title of the article was “Village Healers Cloud Ebola Fight.”  The article pointed out how that in the Ebola-plagued villages in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Africa, the village faith healers were making it difficult for Red Cross health workers and others to do their jobs in treating the sick.  In some cases, the village faith healers were downright antagonistic to those who had come to help the sick and dying, insisting they go back home.  Village faith healers had been treating those stricken with the Ebola virus by rubbing tree-leaf mud packs on the fevered bodies and with other “miracle cures” involving roots, tree bark, and such.  In many Pentecostal churches, pastors were attempting to bring about healing by prayer and laying on of hands for the ill.  In one place, locals blamed a rising death toll from the Ebola virus on witchcraft or the harvesting of bodily organs.

Now, as I read these stories, it struck me as a good example of how religion, or faith, often bleeds over into superstition.  Which reminded me of the story I shared with you from the book of Acts of how the Apostles Peter, John, and Phillip, in the early days of Christianity, had to deal with a man who sought to mix religion with magic, or superstition.  Simon, it seems, sought to use religion, magic, and superstition for personal gain, not unlike some of the witch doctors and village faith healers of Africa.  Simon wanted power to perform what he deemed to be miracles in order to advance his own personal agenda, it seems.  The apostles stopped short of pronouncing a curse upon him for thinking he could use the power of God for his own benefit.  Such scared the daylights out of Simon so that he begged the apostles to pray for him so that no evil would befall him for his misguided motives.

Well, after mulling over the thought of how religion or faith can easily bleed over into superstition, my next thought was how that much of religious practice among many world religions and Christian denominations includes—by degree—elements of what many outside the Church might call superstition.  Some religions and Christian denominations contain more elements of superstition than others, while some may contain hardly any hint of superstition at all.   The definition of “superstition,” by the way, is “1. A belief held in spite of evidence to the contrary. 2. A belief, practice, or rite resulting from ignorance of the laws of nature or from faith in magic or chance.” (The American Heritage Dictionary)

Now, I don’t want to get too specific or detailed and tread upon anyone’s sacred, personal beliefs or practices.  I struggled right up to 9:59 and the start of worship to share my own experience and convictions without offending any of you.  But I will mention two general examples of how beliefs contrary to the laws of nature tend to creep into Christian practice.  One way is the recitation of some ancient Christian creeds and confessions of faith.  (As a side note, this is one of the issues I had with the denomination of my upbringing—the pressure to recite some of the ancient Christian creeds, especially when I attended various denominational gatherings, and to swear allegiance to a confession of faith.  This is one reason I was drawn toward Congregationalism, as Congregationalists are non-creedal and non-confessional.)  There are some phrases and ideas in some of those ancient creeds that defy science, reason, and modern understanding.  For instance, the ideas that after his death Jesus descended into hell, and then after showing himself alive sailed off into the heavens and took a throned seat on the right hand of God.  These are statements that millions of Christians affirm every week and from which draw great comfort.  Either reason is checked at the front door of the church when reciting these ancient words.  Or else, they are interpreted symbolically and those who recite them don’t believe everything they are saying.  Those creeds were written from a first century worldview in which the earth was flat.  But the ritual itself has become a sacred tradition, and in many cases the sacred tradition takes precedence over scientific understanding and reason.

The other example of how religious practice or faith can be contrary to science, reason, and the laws of nature involves Christian hymnody.  Some of the hymns in most hymnals—beloved hymns that most of us love to sing—also contain phrases and ideas that some might consider to lean toward “superstition.”  But they are a part of our faith and we sing them anyway and derive much comfort from them.  Consider, for instance, the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” and its lyrics.  Have you ever stopped to think about those lyrics from a scientific, modern worldview perspective?  The believer taking wings and flying off into the sky?

And Christmas hymns can also contain phrases that defy human reason and that people of science and reason would be hard-pressed to take literally.  But we love them and sing them anyway!  (As another side note, when I first came to this United Church, I was given the same instructions I was given when I first moved to First Congregational Church in Albany, New York: “We only sing Christmas carols from the red Pilgrim Hymnal!”  And I strongly agree.)   Some of the words in our black hymnal have been changed in order to be politically correct.  We don’t like anyone messing with those beloved Christmas hymns, even if we don’t take every line literally and they can sometimes defy human reason and the laws of nature.

There are other examples and rituals that I might mention that contain ideas that most of us don’t take literally, but they, likewise, are rituals that bring much comfort, and tradition and comfort outweigh reason in such cases.  But you get the idea.  The truth is, it is difficult, I believe, to hold a religion of any kind without there being at least a hint of what many outside might consider to be superstitious.  And perhaps that is okay, as long as our religious ideas and practices don’t bring hurt to ourselves or anyone else, contrary to the case of the African faith healers or witchdoctors whose superstitious ideas and practices kept the people from getting proper medical care.

So, the truth is, religion by nature tends to include other-worldly ideas that defy human reason and are contrary to the laws of nature, ideas that we may not always take literally.  As already shown, in extreme cases, such might result in hurting, rather than helping, people.  And when that happens, religion (in my estimation) has gone awry and is not all it could and should be.

So, what is the cure?  What is it that can save religion from itself, as it were?  What is it that can save religion from being pure superstition or other worldly?  What ingredients make it possible for religion to pass the test of both faith and reason?  I struggled to come up with a definition of good, practical religion that moves beyond the realm of superstition.  But here is what I came up with: “Religion creates a safe space to seek to define, connect with, and experience the Sacred; and religion creates loving community, fosters genuine compassion, and joins people in altruistic service to humanity.”  Shall I read that again?  “Religion creates a safe space to seek to define, connect with, and experience the Sacred; and religion creates loving community, fosters genuine compassion, and joins people in altruistic service to humanity.”  That is my definition of practical religion, at least for today.  And if religion truly does this and does it well, then maybe it is okay if religious practice does include some hint of superstition, or other worldly ideas that are not necessarily taken literally, that many would define as tradition, as long as those ideas don’t hurt anyone.

But when religious practice becomes nothing more than superstitious beliefs and practices, or other worldly in focus, and brings hurt to humanity in the process, there is a problem.  But religion that entails other-worldly ideas and historic traditions and rituals that bring comfort, mixed with a safe space to explore that which is believed to be Sacred, that creates loving community, that fosters genuine compassion, and motivates people to altruistic service—religion as such is good for us.  At least that is the way I see it.  Amen.



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When Our Name Is Mud

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 3, 2015

Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

April 14 marked an important 150-year anniversary.  You noted it, I am sure.  It was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater.  As you may remember, the assassination happened just four days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse at Appomattox, Virginia.

Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a very famous, popular, and well-paid actor.   Booth was also a very disgruntled Confederate sympathizer who despised Lincoln and was vehemently opposed to the abolition of slavery.  So for some days, Booth fumed and was out to get Lincoln.  At first his plan was to kidnap Lincoln, but then learning that Lincoln was going to be at Ford’s Theater, he decided it was a good opportunity to kill him instead.  Booth had such status as an actor, he could come and go throughout Ford’s Theater at will.

After shooting Lincoln in the back of the head, Booth jumped from the President’s box onto the stage.  One story has it that Booth injured his leg in the jump.  But another story has it that Booth’s leg was injured later that evening when his horse fell on it during his flight south.  At any rate, Booth suffered an injured leg and ended up at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, just before sunrise on April 15, some 25 miles from Washington.  Dr. Mudd later testified that Booth told him the injury had occurred when his horse fell on him.  Could the story that the horse injured his leg have been just that—a story that Booth told to conceal the truth?  Or a story that Dr. Mudd told to try to protect himself?  Perhaps the real story will never be known.  But giving Dr. Mudd the benefit of the doubt, he treated Booth’s injured leg as any physician would do in keeping with the Hippocratic oath.  And Booth went on his way.

However, for aiding the assassin, Dr. Mudd was accused of helping Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and then of treating his broken leg and helping him escape the authorities afterwards.  Mudd was accused, arrested, convicted of conspiracy, and imprisoned, escaping the death penalty by a single vote.  He would serve about four years in prison, but he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released from prison in 1869.

Now, if you are like me, you have always been under the impression that the familiar phrase, “your name will be mud,” originated with Dr. Samuel Mudd’s act of kindness to John Wilkes Booth, an action that led to his name being soiled and his reputation being ruined because of what he had done in aiding the President’s assassin.  That is what “your name will be mud” means: If you do such and such, your name will be mud—dirtied, tarnished, forever ruined.

However, we did a bit of research and found that the phrase “your name will be mud” having originated with the kindness of Dr. Samuel Mudd likely is a myth.  Research has shown that the phrase appeared long before Lincoln, Booth and Dr. Mudd, as it has been found in one book dated 1823, and possibly another book as early as 1708.  So it appears that the phrase “your name will be mud” being associated with Dr. Samuel Mudd is merely an interesting coincidence.

With all of that having been said, the truth of the matter is, Dr. Samuel Mudd’s name (spelled M-u-d-d) did become “mud,” (m-u-d) because of the fact that he did what most any physician is bound to do in treating an injury and relieving human suffering.

Well, as I was reminded of all these things a few weeks ago with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, it got me to thinking about Dr. Mudd and the phrase (which I now know likely was only coincidental) “your name will be mud.”  You know, there have been many incidents in the course of history when someone went out on a limb to do the right thing, the kind thing, the compassionate thing, only to have their name become “mud.”

Now, of course there are many things that a person could do that are wrong, immoral, or unethical that could result in their name becoming “mud.”  But that is not what I am talking about.  I am focusing in on all those acts of conscience, compassion, kindness, justice or righteousness that people do that may not be popular at the time and that may lead to their name becoming mud.

Jesus made mention of such; not in so many words, and not by using the term “mud.”  But when he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10-11 ESV), I think he was in essence saying, “Blessed are you when your name becomes mud for doing what is right.”  What was Jesus trying to say?  That there is a peculiar blessing, or unique sense of satisfaction, that comes to those who do what is right in the face of adversity?  Or that there will be deferred blessings, deferred recognition, or deferred honor for those who are persecuted for doing what is right?

We owe a tremendous debt to many who have gone before us who stood up for the truth, who stood against injustice and oppression, who spoke out on behalf of scientific discoveries and progress, who led in the push for better medical and psychological understanding and treatments, in spite of the fact that at the time they were misunderstood and hated and given a bad name because of the unpopular stands they took.

The movie Selma pointed out how that Rosa Parks—when she became associated with the Montgomery bus boycotts—lost her job as a seamstress and for a time couldn’t find another job because no business in town wanted to be associated with her.  In other words, for a time Rosa Parks’ name might as well have been “mud.”  History books are full of those whose name was marred for a time because of what they did or stood for.  Later—sometimes years or decades or even longer later—there was a reversal in public sentiment, and after being proven right, their names were celebrated.

Of course, as hinted earlier, none of us wants our name to become “mud” because we are guilty of some great wrongdoing.  But the question is, Has there ever been an instance when our name might have become “mud” because we committed an act of human kindness, or did what was right, or stood up for the rights of someone else when it was not popular to do so?

Every now and then, we hear on the news of a so-called “Whistle-blower”—someone in a company, organization, airline, or other entity, who is aware of some gross wrong, evil, or great danger to the public and goes public with that information, even though it means that their name becomes “mud” for having done so.  But in such cases standing on the cause of what is just and right and good outweighs the personal loss that ensues.

The problem is, sometimes when faced with challenging situations in life, we have to make a decision immediately—on the spot.  When such decisions are thrust upon us, may it be so that we have the grounding, the foresight, the fortitude, courage, and grace to do the right thing, even if it means for the time-being our name becomes “mud.”  To paraphrase Jesus, “Blessed are you when your name becomes ‘mud’ for doing what is right.”  Amen.



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Lessons Learned from a Church Innovator

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 26, 2015

1 Corinthians 9:19-22 GNT; Reading from Believing in the God Who Believes in You

In 1988 we were living in Denton, Texas.  The last few days of June, we loaded up our minivan and embarked on a westward journey, and, of course, we visited a number of national parks along the way.  On Sunday—which happened to be the July 4th weekend—we found ourselves in the Los Angeles area.  One of the places I was looking forward to visiting was the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.  So Sunday morning found us attending worship in the Crystal Cathedral, a 2,800-seat mega-church constructed primarily of glass and filled with lush, green plants, and boasting one of the finest pipe organs in the world.  Since it was the 4th of July weekend, a patriotic service was planned for the day.  We were happy to be there, but we were quite disappointed that the founder and senior minister of the famed Crystal Cathedral, Dr. Robert Schuller, was on vacation and absent that day.

You see, I had discovered Robert Schuller and his writings at a time when I was searching for a more positive message to try to counter-balance the conservative church and theology I was a part of.  Schuller had done the very same thing, and seemingly quite successfully.  Robert Schuller was reared in a Dutch family in the state of Iowa, a family that belonged to the Reformed Church in America, which formerly had been known as the Dutch Reformed Church, one of the more conservative Calvinist branches of the Presbyterian-Reformed family of churches.  In fact, as a part of his seminary studies, Schuller compiled an index to John Calvin’s four-volume Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that had become the theological basis for classic Calvinism.  But having been influenced by the writings and thought of another famous Dutch Reformed minister, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who became famous with his best-selling book titled The Power of Positive Thinking, Schuller and his wife Arvella set out to start an innovative new church by preaching a new, positive gospel in a very unique setting.

In 1955, during the post-World War II booming economy and time when the automobile was becoming an important part of the family dynamic, Schuller thought outside his church’s theological box and came up with the idea of starting a new church at a family drive-in theater.  So as America was taking to the automobile, Schuller and his wife moved to Southern California with $500 and started holding Sunday church services at a drive-in theater.  He set a podium and small organ upon the roof of the concession stand, and the new church’s motto was, “Come as you are in the family car.”  His hope was to appeal to people who would not ordinarily go to church.  So cars would pull into one of the drive-in parking spaces and hang the speaker to their car window.  True to the Apostle Paul’s drive to become all things to all men in order to reach some, Schuller took to the drive-in theater and the automobile to reach as many as he could reach with his positive gospel.  The idea worked, and by 1961, the new church had a brick building to house its ministries.

But Schuller didn’t stop there.  He also tapped into the growing television audiences, and in 1970 he started televising his Sunday services, which he called the “Hour of Power.”  Then in 1980, Schuller led in the building of the 2,800 seat glass-and-steel sanctuary in Garden Grove, which he called the “Crystal Cathedral,” at the cost of $3 million.  It provided parking spaces for 500 cars, so attendees could either attend services via their automobiles as they had done at the drive-in theater, but by turning on their car radio, or park and come inside the glass cathedral.  The ministry peaked in the 1990’s, with the “Hour of Power” being broadcast to about 20 million viewers in about 180 countries around the world.

Schuller’s message resonated with many people because it was a blend of four ingredients—traditional worship service, which Schuller maintained to the end (the “dignity of worship,” as one has said of him); biblically-based sermons; combined with a blend of pop psychology; and Schuller’s unique message of “Possibility Thinking” and the love of God that enables people to overcome life’s hardships.  He sought to focus on the positive aspects of Christian faith.  Schuller’s innovations and successes led to his being recognized as one of the early fathers of the megachurch movement that would soon have such an impact on the American church.  Schuller would publish more than 30 books, some of them becoming bestsellers.

Well, it would be nice if the story ended there, but it doesn’t.  In 2006, Schuller, nearing 80 years of age, retired from the ministry he had founded, and it was all downhill from there for the megachurch and its ministry.  There were problems with the transition of leadership.  Schuller’s son, Robert A. Schuller, was installed as the pastor of the Crystal Cathedral but only lasted for two years.  One of Schuller’s daughters, Sheila, then took over, but after two years she resigned and started a new church of her own.  The church and its television ministry fell into deep debt due to a drastic drop in viewers and offerings, and ultimately ended up in bankruptcy, so much so that the Crystal Cathedral had to be sold in order to pay off debts.  It was purchased by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2011.  Then in 2013, the senior Schuller was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer.  Schuller died on April 2 at the age of 88 in an assisted-living facility.  The past nine years was a sad and disheartening ending to one of America’s greatest church success stories.

Now, you may be one who has little love for any megachurch or television preacher.  And that is okay.  Most of them I don’t care for either.  But as I noted earlier, the writings and approach of Robert Schuller appealed to me at a time in my life and ministry when I needed them.  Finding myself in a conservative Presbyterian-Reformed denomination like Schuller found himself in, I was needing help in getting away from a conservative, evangelical background and frame of reference and framing a positive message more in keeping with our times and my own convictions.  So I found some support in Schuller’s positive approach and writings.

Now, I will quickly admit that Schuller made mistakes.  He was not perfect by any means.  And I certainly do not idolize him, so don’t get the wrong impression.  But I think there are a few lessons to be learned from Schuller, who was at one time an American icon pop preacher in a similar way that Henry Ward Beecher was in another century.

For instance, Schuller was a true innovator who thought outside his church’s theological box.  Who would have thought of setting a pulpit and organ on the roof of a drive-in theater concession stand?  Who would have thought of building a 2,800-seat sanctuary of nothing but glass and steel so that you could look out at the world of Nature while worshiping?  And even though he was raised and educated in classic Calvinist theology, Schuller departed from it to preach the love of God and power of everyday faith.

Schuller was willing to take risks.  He took a tremendous risk climbing upon that concession stand; not only the risk of falling off.  But what if no one came?  What if the media branded him a nut?  What if he failed?  He took a risk by starting a television ministry.  And he took a big risk in even dreaming about a completely glass structure to be built in Southern California.

Schuller successfully blended the biblical world with contemporary trends and concerns.  Schuller continued to preach the Bible (the last account I had, he was using the New King James Version of the Bible) and the love of God and the power of faith in a person’s life, but mixed it with popular psychology and addressed to contemporary issues and needs.  But when you stop to think about it, that is what popular preachers have done all along.  I think of famous preachers like George Whitefield, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Henry Ward Beecher, all who used the same approach successfully.

Schuller proved that you can hold onto traditions that are good like the traditional worship service (i.e., “the dignity of worship”) and, at the same time, be a man of the times in which you live.  In contrast to many megachurch pastors who would follow and introduce the so-called contemporary worship style, Schuller held onto the traditional worship service format, and until he retired did so quite successfully.

The pertinent question is, Can we here at the United Church learn and apply anything from Schuller’s story and successes?  I think we can.  Sometimes we need to take off our blinders that will only let us see things one way, right in front of us, and look outside the box.  Sometimes we just need to take a risk in order to move forward.  And to our credit, I think we have taken a few risks in recent years to add a new position to our church staff and fund some new programs for children, youth and families.

I have been here long enough for most of you to know that I believe we can successfully and thoughtfully blend biblical texts with contemporary trends and issues.

And I believe, like Schuller did, in holding onto the “dignity of worship” in the traditional way we do it.  Contemporary worship services that consist of standing and singing praise choruses for 15 minutes, followed by nothing more than a scripture reading, sermon, passing an offering bucket, and a closing invitation and prayer appeal to many.  But it has never appealed to me.  I think we do well to continue our traditional worship service accented with a variety of music and a contemporary message.

We may not agree with everything Robert Schuller stood for, preached or did, but we do have to give him credit for being the church innovator that he was.  And his positive message touched and changed many lives.  When we were at the Crystal Cathedral, we were amazed at the many support groups the church provided for those recently divorced, struggling with addictions, out of work, grieving, and so on.

May it be so that this United Church is innovative, willing to take a few calculated risks, mix the good traditional with current issues and concerns, promote a positive message, and in the process change many lives.  Yes, may it be so.  Amen.

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Lessons on Interconnectedness

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 19, 2015

Psalm 8 CEB; Reading from Aldo Leopold

As Americans we may grow up with the idea of “rugged individualism,” perhaps a holdover from our ancestors and frontier days when pioneers struggled to survive in the wilderness and against the elements.  It is an idea that may cause us to view ourselves as separate individuals, responsible for our own survival, progress, and success.  An idea that may cause one to pit self against the rest of the world.  We may still see such an idea in the business world, for example, a cut-throat world where practically anything goes in order to succeed, get ahead, or climb the corporate ladder.

But this idea of rugged individualism also can affect one’s relationship with the natural world, a world that might be seen as being harsh, hostile, unfeeling, and uncaring.  And so, one could possibly feel like it is me against Nature; an attitude leading, perhaps, to antagonism and maybe apathy in the way Nature is viewed and treated.  But is there another, better way to relate to the natural world?

One of the early naturalists to write about the need to view Nature sympathetically and who stressed the interconnectedness of all creation was John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.  One of Muir’s most poignant and most famous quotes is, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”Muir also wrote, “nothing in Nature stands alone.”

Later conservationist Aldo Leopold would further develop the idea of the interconnectedness of everything on the earth.  It has only been within the past year that I have discovered and grown to appreciate Aldo Leopold.  Leopold was born in the state of Iowa in 1887, but later lived, worked and wrote in Wisconsin and the Southwest.  He took a job with the U.S. Forest Service and spent his life working in wilderness management, ecology, and conservation.  His classic work, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, is looked upon as one of the foundational works in the environmental movement.  In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold would write, “We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.  This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.”3

In an essay titled “The Arboretum and the University,” Leopold wrote, “Ecology tells us that no animal—not even man—can be regarded as independent of his environment.  Plants, animals, men, and soil are a community of interdependent parts, an organism.”4  Leopold wrote of how when you find disease or decline in one part of Nature, the cause may likely be in another part.  Each part of Creation, and how it is used or misused, is connected to and affects other parts of Creation.  We are not separate from the natural world, after all.  But humans and every part of the natural world are bound up in a web of interconnectedness and mutuality.

I do not recall reading anything in Leopold’s writings about the Amazon Rain Forests, but such might serve as a good illustration of the principles he stood for and wrote about.  As you may already know, the Amazon Rain Forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate.  The exotic trees are being cut down for use as lumber, the land is being cleared for farmland and for the grazing of cattle, and so on.  Now, one might first think that the loss of trees and other flora way down in South America would have little impact on our lives here in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

But the truth is, what happens in the Amazon Rain Forests happens to the whole world.  One reason this is so is because a high percentage of medical drugs that we depend upon—including cancer drugs—are only found in the plants that grow in the Amazon Rain Forests.  But another reason what happens in the Rain Forests is important to all of us is the Rain Forests are what are called “carbon sinks.”  They soak up much of the carbon gases given off by the rest of the world, and then give off much of the oxygen that every living thing on earth needs to survive.  When the Rain Forests are gone, the carbon sinks are gone, as well as the source of much of the world’s oxygen supply.  To paraphrase John Muir’s observation, “When we try to pick out anything [in the Amazon Rain Forests] by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

This understanding of interconnectedness and mutuality is an understanding far advanced of what the biblical writers could have ever imagined. It is interesting, I think, that the psalmist on the one hand looks upon humans as being somewhat small and insignificant in the universal scheme of things when he asks, “what are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them?” (Psalm 8:4 CEB)  But then he turns and pictures humans as being almost divine, crowned with “glory and grandeur [honor],” and given dominion over the rest of Creation.  This last thought gave rise to the traditional biblical view that humans are at the top of the created order pyramid and were given a divine mandate to rule over the rest of Creation.  But such a view can and has led to misuse and abuses of the rest of Creation, which has been looked upon as something to be taken from and used to man’s benefit and pleasure without much sense of responsibility or accountability.

And so, waters have been overused and polluted, many beyond human consumption and use.  Some animals have been hunted and killed to extinction.  Forested lands that are necessary to prevent erosion and to absorb carbon from the atmosphere have been and continue to be decimated.  Some fish have been caught to extinction or the verge of extinction.  And all of it was based on the attitude that humans are free to do with the natural world at will and for our own selfish interests.  Not only have humans been arrogant and, can I say “sinful,” in our relations with the rest of Creation.  But through misuse and abuse, we have “shot ourselves in the foot,” as the saying goes, in the process, to our own detriment.

In a few weeks, I will be taking my sixth class in the naturalist certification program at Tremont of the Smokies.  The first class I took almost two years ago was “Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies.”  But the interesting thing is even though we went to the mountains, woods, fields, and ponds in search of the reptiles and amphibians we were studying, we didn’t find a single live snake or turtle the entire time we were there, and only a half dozen or so frogs.  I thought back to my childhood, when I could go to any farm pond around and see turtle after turtle floating on the surface, and frogs abundant lining the banks.  One of the things I learned that week is in just a few short years, many of our reptiles and amphibians will be extinct.  Scientists estimate that over 160 species of reptiles and amphibians have already become extinct over the past few decades.  There are already about 40 percent less in some species than there were a few decades ago.

One of our instructors of that “Reptiles and Amphibians” course was Dr. John Maerz, Professor at the University of Georgia, who teaches one of the largest classes on reptiles and amphibians in the world.  Dr. Maerz is known around the world as an activist for putting a stop to the decimation of turtles, and was largely responsible for the passage of a law to prohibit the wholesale selling and shipment of our southern turtles by the thousands to China.  Since turtles tend to live long lives, the Chinese believe that eating turtles will increase human longevity as well.  Our southern turtles were being collected and put live into wooden crates by the thousands, possibly tens of thousands, and shipped to China, where many of them died before they ever got there.

Now, turtles may not be high on our agenda or list of concerns.  But that is just one example of how human insensitivity has affected our southern ecological balance.  When one part of the ecological environment is severely damaged or driven to extinction, it affects all the other parts.  We find it “hitched to everything else in the universe.”

And so, the one thought I wanted to convey on this Earth Day Sunday is that we are not separate individuals when it comes to our relationship with other parts of Creation.  Any adverse action we do to any part of Creation likely has an impact on other parts, perhaps the whole.

Returning to the psalmist, “What is man?  “What are human beings?”   We are intricately interconnected, part and parcel with the whole of Creation.  But because of our advanced development and ability to reason and plan and influence Creation more than any other creature upon the Earth, we have a holy mandate and the greater responsibility to deal with Creation with extreme care and the utmost of respect.  Amen.


Works Cited:

1John Muir, “First Summer in Sierra,” Muir.  Library of America, 1997.

2John Muir, Proposed Yosemite National Park,” Muir.  Library of America, 1997.

3Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac,  A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings.  Library of America, 2013.

4Aldo Leopold, “The Arboretum and the University,” A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings.  Library of America, 2013.


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Cultural Influences on Religious Practice

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 12, 2015

1 Corinthians 12:1-3 CEB

Some people have this idea that religion—specifically their religion—came directly from heaven.  That it was God-inspired, if not God-given.  That their religious practice by nature has been divinely-sanctioned and blessed.  Consequently, all kinds of atrocious acts can, and often do, follow from the belief that my religious beliefs and practices are of divine origin.  It can lead to “God told me so,” or “God told me to do this.”

However, could it be that religious belief and religious practice often are born as reactions to cultural trends and influences?  That is to say, could it be that the unique culture a person is born into and reared in, or that he finds himself to be in as an adult, has more influence on his religious beliefs and practice than he might realize or care to admit?

A case in point is the early Christian statement of faith, “Jesus is Lord!”  This is the shortest and one of the earliest creedal affirmations in the New Testament.  The phrase “Lord Jesus” or “Lord Jesus Christ” is used several times in the New Testament.  But the specific phrase “Jesus is Lord” is used in the 1 Corinthians 12 passage that I read, as well as in Romans (10:9), and maybe a couple of other places (cf. Philippians 2:11), depending upon the translation that is chosen.  There are certain Christian denominations where you will hear quite frequently today, “Jesus is Lord!”  And you may also see it posted on church signs.  Other denominations avoid the phrase like the plague.  Why is that?

It is always important, I think, to try to understand the origins of religious beliefs and practices within their context—the time, setting, and circumstances within which they arose.  Such certainly is the case with the early Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord!”  To understand it, we must go back to the first century and what was taking place culturally and politically at the time.

The pure and simple truth of the matter is when Christianity was born, the Roman Emperor was referred to as “Lord.”  At the height of the Roman Empire’s power, there were those who looked upon the Emperor as a god; or at least a son of God.  From the beginning there was conflict between the way of Jesus and the mighty Roman Empire.  To look upon the Roman Emperor as a god, and to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” was anathema (something accursed) to the Jews and early Christians alike.  So as a reaction to the cultural practice and political constraints of the day that called upon Roman citizens or subjects to acknowledge the emperor as Lord, the early Christians in essence revolted and proclaimed “Jesus is Lord!”  For the early Christians, it was imperative to recognize Jesus as being sovereign over their lives and church.

It is well known that a number of the Roman emperors of the first century were oppressive, hedonistic, decadent, murderous tyrants.  And so, we can see why it was important to the Apostle Paul and other Christian leaders to deny allegiance to Caesar as their ultimate lord and master and to proclaim, as Paul calls for it in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, “Jesus is Lord.”  In short, a cultural agenda that expected citizens to acknowledge the emperor as lord led, at least in part, to the early Christian practice of proclaiming Jesus as Lord.  The proclamation became an early Christian creed, and it stuck and is still proclaimed by many Christians and churches today, perhaps without some even being aware of the early context and background.

Fast forward 1800 or so years to the early 1900s and the rise of Christian Fundamentalism.  The Christian Church went about 1850 years without any belief system as unique and stringent as the Christian Fundamentalism we are familiar with today.  But this is another case where culture impacted religious beliefs and practice, and in a big way.  How did it happen that way?

Although the foundation for Christian Fundamentalism had already been laid, it was the new theological liberalism and historical-critical study of the Bible, cultural modernism, and the theory of evolution that really fueled and propelled forward the Christian Fundamentalist movement.  Of the particulars that might be seen as the foundation stones for Christian Fundamentalism, one was the Evangelicalism that emerged during the American revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the 18th and early 19th centuries through the preaching and teaching of George Whitfield and others like him and the weeks-long frontier camp meetings.

A second foundation stone was Dispensationalism, a movement that was made popular by the fundamentalist Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, which divided all history into seven different stages called “dispensations,” with the final stages being a bodily return of Jesus and rapture of true believers, period of great tribulation, and a 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth.

A third foundation stone for Fundamentalism was a conservative theology that came out of Princeton Seminary, primarily with the commentaries of professor Charles Hodge who stated that the Bible was divinely inspired and without error, since God dictated its contents to the biblical writers who wrote them down, a view also known as “biblical inerrancy.”

Then a fourth foundation stone for Fundamentalism was the 12-volume study guide called The Fundamentals, published between 1910-1915.  This volume stressed the core beliefs of Fundamentalism:

  • inerrancy of the Bible
  • literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding miracles and the Genesis creation accounts
  • virgin birth of Jesus
  • bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
  • substitutionary atonement of Jesus1

But as noted earlier, it was the combination of the new theological liberalism and historical-critical study of the Bible, cultural modernism, and the theory of evolution that caused many conservative followers to rise up in opposition and helped shape, strengthen, and galvanize those with Fundamentalist beliefs which made it a universal force to be reckoned with.

Since 1930, many fundamentalist churches in North America and from other parts of the world have affiliated with the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, which was renamed the IFCA International in 1996.  A number of conservative Bible colleges soon cropped up to train ministers in the Christian Fundamentalist tenets, including such institutions as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Bob Jones University in South Carolina.  These colleges often used the Scofield Reference Bible and nothing but the King James Version.  Fundamentalist preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would have a huge impact, not only on American religion, but in American politics as well.  True to Christian Fundamentalist roots, these late 20th century Christian Fundamentalist preachers continued to define their beliefs and practices as an opposition to what they believed to be godless liberalism.

And so, these two examples—the early Christian statement of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” and the Christian Fundamentalist movement—show how Christian belief and practice often are influenced by current cultural trends and changes.  Rather than being heaven-dropped principles, religious beliefs and practices often are human-driven reactions to cultural shifts and demands.

With the early Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord,” one can understand why and sympathize with the early Christians who had such a distaste for acknowledging the Roman emperor as Lord.  It was a form of rebellion to the state as well as an affirmation of faith.  Who of us would have wanted to confess the Emperors as “Lord” either?

In the case of the rise of Fundamentalism, it was an attempt to resist change (perhaps out of fear), hold onto the status quo, and define themselves over and against the liberals.

One thing all this causes me to ask is, Is there such a thing as “pure, God-given religion”?  Religion is always influenced by the culture in which it finds itself.  It has been that way from the very beginning.  Sometimes religion incorporates cultural beliefs and practices, and sometimes religion pushes back against cultural beliefs and practices.  Sometimes religion does both of these well, and at other times not so well.  An important thing is for us to be aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it.  God grant us the wisdom to assimilate wisely and well when we assimilate, and react wisely and well to cultural practices and trends when we react.  Amen.

1Some material summarized from Wikipedia online encyclopedia.

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But Then Comes Sunday!

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 5, 2015

John 20:1-10 GNT

Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, one who was very close to Jesus; and those disciples who had accompanied Jesus as his inner circle of friends were plunged into darkness on that day that we now call, curiously enough, Good Friday.  Shock.  Disbelief.  Bewilderment.  Agony.  Despondency.  Such are some of the emotions they must have experienced on that fateful Friday and Saturday of long ago.  The dark tomb where the battered body of Jesus was laid, and the dark path the women walked early that Sunday morning, were tangible reminders of the inner darkness that had shrouded their souls.

Matthew notes, in his account, that during that time while Jesus hung on the cross and up until his death, “the whole country was covered with darkness” (27:45 GNT), a statement that bespeaks of the emotional and spiritual mood as much or more than the physical reality.  What had taken place was just wrong.  It was nothing short of brutal, violent, unmitigated injustice and violence.  Jesus had questioned and stood up to the powers that be—the religious-political domination system that oppressed and welded an unholy sword against anyone who might question or appear to be in opposition—and the Mighty Roman Empire counted Jesus among the thousands they crucified.  Sometimes bad stuff happens to good people for no good reason.  And when it does, it can throw us into the pit of darkness.

Being plunged into such emotional and spiritual darkness is a universal experience common to all humankind.  Sooner or later, all of us find ourselves engulfed in human darkness of one sort or another.

For some families, as it was with the family of Jesus, it may be the sudden and violent death of a loved one, throwing them into the darkness of shock.  A car or bike accident; a shooting, or some other form of violent death; a fall down the stairs; or as in the case week before last in the French Alps, a senseless plane crash taking lives of loved ones.  In my years of ministry, I have known people who have been thrown into the darkness of many such unexpected tragedies.

Closely related is the darkness of a serious illness, devastating diagnosis, extended hospitalization, weeks or months of rehab or therapy; medical crises that upset the family routine and stability, perhaps including the loss of work by the primary family breadwinner.

Then there can be the emotional, relational darkness when the family unit begins to disintegrate, or start to unravel and come apart at the seams.

Or the jolt one gets when you go into work one day, and out of the blue you are given a cardboard box and told you have one hour to pack up all your personal belongings and turn in your keys and you are escorted out of the building.

Such is the way it often is in life.  You are moving along, things seem to be going well, and out of the blue life throws you a cross that seems impossible to bear.  Tragedy or trouble strikes, plunging you into an abyss of emotional or spiritual darkness.

But then when you think you cannot go on, then comes Sunday!  Following the darkness of Good Friday there dawns the sun and hope of Easter Sunday!  Finding an empty tomb, and hints that Jesus was alive again, was the furthermost thing from the mind of Mary as she made her way down that dark path on that Sunday morning.  When Mary was at her lowest, when the darkness that engulfed her was the darkest, then came a dawn of light and a spark of hope.  And sometimes that little spark of hope is all we need to find new strength, new resolve, new determination to go on.  And maybe—just maybe—that is one reason that Easter Sunday—the largest church attendance Sunday of the year—has such wide appeal, even for those who don’t go to church any other Sunday of the year, because of that hint of light and spark of hope.

Few of us will ever find ourselves in Mary’s sandals, walking down a dark pathway to a burial tomb to complete the burial rites of a loved one who has died.  No, I think Easter has come to mean something more for those of us who live in the 21st century.  Easter, I believe, has come to embody or signify the common hope of humanity that following life’s darkness, there is the possibility of light.  In the midst of our despair, there may come a reprieve.  During those times when all seems lost, there is the dawn of hope that a better day will come.

One day I was at home looking out our kitchen window, as I often do.  I have two birdfeeders outside our kitchen window, and I often look out to see what woodpeckers might happen to be visiting.  But one day when I looked out, I spied a patch of leaves at the base of a giant oak tree in our woods where a distinct circle of sunlight, that was able to peek through the trees above, was shining.  It was almost like God was shining a giant flashlight on a small patch of leaves, or holding a cosmic magnifying glass and letting the sun shine radiantly on one small circle, like we used to hold a magnifying glass as kids over a small patch of grass or leaves.  And the thought that came to me was the God of creation was sending the message to stop, take notice, look.

I have sort of been thinking about Easter that way this past week.  As the gospel writers tell the story, Easter is when God shined a giant, cosmic light upon a dark tomb, and upon the world in general, and said, “Stop.  Take notice.  Look!  I am sending you a giant ray of hope for all the tragic forms of darkness that befall humanity.” For all the unexpected and tragic deaths; for all the debilitating diagnoses; for all the emotional relationship disasters; for all the unexpected work terminations and life transitions—Easter is an ever-living bearer of hope of a better day and the promise that the darkness will eventually give way to light and life!

And so today, we gather here to affirm our belief.  The belief that ultimately good will overcome evil.  The belief that beyond the darkness, there is light.  The belief that in the midst of despair, there is still reason to hope.  The belief that life and love are stronger than death!

Yes, Good Fridays—days of unexpected, uninvited, extreme darkness—will come to all of us, sooner or later.  There is no way around it.  But the everlasting message of Easter is that dark Friday will pass.  And then comes Sunday!  Amen.

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