Committed to Scripture – But to What Degree?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 10, 2017

James 2:8-13 CEB; Reading from Faith of a Pilgrim Father

How committed are we to scripture?  That is the question I am posing day.  The truth is, one does not have to be an evangelical, conservative, or fundamentalist even to be committed to, or have a great love and respect for, the Scriptures.  Marcus Borg, Amy Jill-Levine and John Shelby Spong are all of the most progressive or liberal Christian theologians of our time, but who also are very open about their love and respect for and commitment to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

I have been a lover of and have had a great respect for and commitment to the Scriptures for some 44 years now.  At the same time, the way I view Scripture and my degree of commitment to the Bible have changed dramatically over the years.  But allow me to share the particulars of what prompted today’s sermon in the first place.

I have been closely watching, and with much interest, the goings on between the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City and the Tennessee Baptist Convention.  In case you missed the story, here’s how it went down.  First Baptist Church of Jefferson City recently made a decision to hire their first-ever female senior pastor.  Speaking on behalf of the congregation, John McGraw, First Baptist’s chair of their board of deacons, said he “and others at the church believe God had a hand in the church’s decision to hire [Ellen] Di Giosia [their new pastor].  ‘We didn’t choose her because she was a woman.  She just happened to have all the best characteristics as a pastor that we needed in our local church,’ McGraw said.  ‘There is not one doubt in my mind that God and our church called Ellen to be our pastor.’” When the story first aired on the local television news and was also covered in the Knoxville News Sentinel, I secretly applauded the church for taking such a bold step.

However, as you might imagine, not everyone has responded to the church’s decision with such joy and enthusiasm.  Because of the church’s move, the Tennessee Baptist Convention branded them as a “non-cooperating church,” and the Convention refused to seat the church’s six messengers at the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s meeting that was held in Hendersonville last month.  The Convention’s reason for refusing to seat the church’s delegates and calling them a “non-cooperating church” is because “the convention is committed to Scripture . . . the convention is firm in that only men can serve as senior pastors.”

Now, let me be clear: I am not picking on Baptists.  Rather, I am addressing a theological belief, stance or method of interpretation that has to do with one’s commitment to Scripture, whatever the denominational affiliation.  As I have already stated, I, too, am firmly committed to Scripture.  I have been a lover of the Bible for over 40 years.  But I have learned in my 40 years of ministry, 40 years of reading, studying, and loving the Bible, that there are limits to one’s commitment to Scripture, as I shall explain in a moment.

No specific Scripture verses were cited in the television news story or in the newspaper article that I read, but I am guessing the Tennessee Baptist Convention is basing its platform on a few scattered verses that say women should remain silent in church services, a woman is not to teach or usurp authority over men, and passages that enumerate personality qualifications of men who would be church leaders.

Often the Apostle Paul is cited as the source of such prohibitions against female leadership, when in reality such passages are from books that we now know were not written by Paul, or passages that were inserted into Paul’s letters by later, anti-female editors.  In words that we know are authentically Pauline, he praises female co-workers who most likely were pastors, and most certainly were church leaders.  And in his letter to the Galatians, a book that we know for certain is authentically Pauline, he says, “there is neither . . . male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And Jesus had female followers, most likely female disciples as well, in my opinion.  It was only later, long after both Jesus and Paul were gone, that the church became increasingly patriarchal and delegated women to lesser roles than they had enjoyed in company with both Jesus and Paul.  But when you have an unequivocal commitment to Scripture, it matters not the history or context behind scriptural passages.  You take them literally – cart blanch.

One of the first things I learned in seminary is there have historically been four sources of authority when it comes to beliefs, practice, biblical interpretation, and church life.  You might want to take note of these.  The first source of authority is Scripture – the Bible.  For many Christians, the Bible is the chief, and for some the only, source of authority.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” is a common statement in some church circles.

The second source of authority is experience.  Faith is a personal matter.  Each of us experiences God, the Sacred, or spirituality in our own way.  Experience is important in matters of faith and spirituality.  The spirituality that I find in the natural world is experience-based, for example.  But experience is subjective and should be not relied upon as our only source of authority.

The third source of authority is tradition.  What has the Church said and held to be true down through the centuries?  Most often – not always, but most often – tradition can help keep us on track.  For instance, many of us are old enough to remember the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy when hundreds of misguided souls followed cult leader Jim Jones to Central America where all kinds of bad things resulted.  In the end, the US government sent Congressional representatives down there to investigate, and in short order over 900 men, women and children died after drinking poisoned Kool-Ade. Looking to tradition might have helped avert such a tragedy.

Such leads to the fourth source of authority having to do with biblical interpretation and faith development, which is often ignored or downright rejected – reason.  Enlightened, science-informed reason.  Even if I read it in the Bible; even if my experience seems to be legitimate; even if tradition has for hundreds of years given approval; if my reason – my education, training, science-informed reason, my gut instinct – tells me something is wrong, then I need to listen.  An example: For hundreds of years, Scripture, experience (especially Southern experience), and tradition seemed to sanction the institution of American slavery.  There are biblical verses that instruct slaves to obey their masters.  Many Southerners felt (i.e., experience) that African Americans were less than human.  And Southern tradition, including church tradition (as many Southern churches had slave balconies) for generations had sanctioned slavery.  But ultimately it was enlightened reason that led abolitionists to take a stand and say, “Slavery is not right.  We must put an end to it.”  So you see, when it comes to biblical interpretation and development of our faith, we need to take experience, tradition and reason into account.

Yes, I am committed to Scripture as much as anyone.  But my commitment to Scripture only takes me so far when ancient words that were written for a different age, under different circumstances, and were clouded by certain prejudices and lack of understanding fly in the face of reason.  Who of us will take our child to the town square to be stoned to death if they curse us?  The Bible says it (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9), but reason dictates it is wrong.  Who of us thinks a woman is ritually unclean for several days when she begins her monthly cycle or has a baby?  The Bible says it (Leviticus 12:2), but reason dictates otherwise.  Who of us believes it is wrong to wear clothing made of two different types of thread, cotton and polyester?  The Bible says it (Leviticus 19:19), but reason dictates otherwise.  Other examples could be cited.

So, you see, we can be committed to Scripture, but to what degree?  We interpret Scripture in conjunction with experience, tradition AND enlightened reason.  As Pilgrim Pastor John Robinson told the Pilgrims departing from Europe as they set sail for America, “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”  In other words, understanding and interpretation of the Bible is not static, but is an on-going process.

And so, when it comes to the question of a commitment to Scripture to the degree that women are to remain silent in churches and not be permitted to be pastors or other church leaders, what does our experience and our God-given, 21st century reason dictate?  For me, they dictate that women have every right that a man does to be a preacher, pastor, or any other type of professional, and they should be compensated on the same level as their male counterparts.  But we know that such is not often the case.  I am going to let you in on a little secret: My favorite well-known preachers in America today are women, as they know how to prepare sermons and preach.

The writer of the book of James reminds us that fulfilling “the royal law found in scripture [is] Love your neighbor as yourself.”  When we show favoritism, he says, we are committing sin.  And mercy should overrule judgment.

So when it comes to questions about interpreting Scripture and how we relate to others, the Law of Love and our God-given reason need to guide us.  So, are we committed to scripture?  Most definitely.  But to what degree?  To the degree that the royal Law of Love, in light of experience, and coupled with enlightened, science-informed reason, show us the way.  May it be so.  Amen.

1Holly Meyer, “Congregation, Tennessee Baptist Convention split over female pastor,” Knoxville News Sentinel, Wed. Nov. 15, 2017.

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Holding Out for the Light

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 4:13-16 ESV

It is 5 am on Sunday morning. We arise from our bunks long before sunrise, while it is still quite dark in the mountain valley. Quietly we gather – one by one – in the parking lot, and silently and reverently we cross the bridge over the Middle Prong of the Little River that flows through Walker Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Stealthily we find our trail by flashlight and climb the hill through the trees until we reach the Walker Valley Cemetery.  One by one we select a comfortable spot – on a log, a flat rock, against a tree trunk, or just a spot of open ground – and we sit, in the dark, facing the cemetery, and we wait. We wait in the dark for the dawn chorus of bird songs that we hope will come.

It was the first weekend of May a couple of years ago. I and about 15 other naturalist friends had descended upon the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont for the annual Birds of the Smokies naturalist certification course. Tiffany, our instructor, was as certain that the dawn chorus would serenade us as she was of the dawning of the sunrise itself.

Waiting in the darkness.  The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (9:2). The people of Israel had long waited, as in the dark, for the light of God’s blessing and deliverance to dawn upon them. It had been a long time coming. The prophet assured them the light they longed for was just beyond the horizon.

We need to keep in mind that Isaiah spoke some 700 years before the birth of Jesus.  Isaiah was speaking to the people of his own day, assuring them that one was about to be born who would bring about positive change for the political situation they found themselves in.  This child to be born would deliver them, break the yoke of oppression, set things right.  It was a prophetic word to them –then and there – and initially not a word of promise for 700 years in the future.  Otherwise, Isaiah’s words would have been empty, meaningless words.  Who of us would care about a prophecy of deliverance to take place 700 years from today?  No, Isaiah’s words initially spoke to the people of Judah in the 8th century BCE.

However, the early Church would reclaim this passage from Isaiah as having been fulfilled again in the coming of Jesus.  They saw in Jesus many of the hopeful traits Isaiah had preached about.  That is a thing about biblical passages: sometimes they can appear to be fulfilled again and again.  And Matthew, more than any other New Testament writer, reinterprets the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the birth, life, teachings, and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  “To fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” or something similar is a common phrase Matthew uses time and again to make his argument that Jesus is the refulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

But back to waiting in the dark and the season of Advent.  The season of Advent has some of the same spirit of waiting in the dark for the dawning of light or for the morning chorus to begin. That stanza in the Advent hymn with which we begin the season says it well: “O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer Our spirits by thine Advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

We have said it before: Just as we need the season of Lent and Good Friday to appreciate the full meaning and power of Easter, we need a period of Advent to appreciate the full meaning and power of Christmas.  If we jump directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas and Christmas carols without giving any thought to Advent, we miss out on why Christmas is so important.

Advent begins “in the dark,” so to speak, in a spirit of despair over the state of things in the world, with a sense of longing that wrongs shall be righted, in a spirit of hope for God to intervene to bring positive change in the world.  Hence, the theme of the first Sunday of Advent and the first Advent Candle to be lit is the Candle of Hope.  Hope for a better world; hope that wrongs shall be righted; hope that, as Longfellow’s hymn puts it, “the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail.”  Isaiah’s vision of holding out for the light included the hope that a time would come when the nations

“shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)

And then Isaiah encourages, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (2:5)

And so, we begin Advent “in the dark,” as it were, but hopeful of the coming Light.  Our hope grows stronger and the light shines brighter as we progress through Advent to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

But in addition to holding out for the light, may we also commit ourselves to holding each other in the lightThat sentence requires a bit of explanation.  The phrase “holding someone in the Light” is a Quaker saying.  An online Quaker blog titled “Brothers and Sisters” shares some of the common connotations of “Holding you in the Light.”  Quakers often say, “I will hold you in the Light” when they intend to pray for someone, when they want for someone what God wants for them – peace and healing, and well-being.  “I will hold you in the Light” is the equivalent of lifting a person up to God, lifting them to light and goodness.  To hold someone in the light is to seek, through prayer, to bring that person into deeper contact with the Divine Presence. It is an expression of comfort and love.  The image of light represents the mysterious presence of God.  When we hold a person in the Light, it is like fanning the flame of God within him or her.

Now, in sharing this Quaker teaching on “holding someone in the Light,” I have a personal reason for doing so.  A few weeks ago, I paid several pastoral visits to Martha M., who was the longest-standing member of the United Church.  One day I visited with Martha and her daughter Harriet in the Critical Care Unit of Methodist Medical Center.  They had not received good news that morning.  So at the close of my visit, as I was preparing to leave, I said to Martha, “I will be holding you close in my heart, thoughts and prayers.”  And Harriet, who is a practicing Quaker, responded, “Hold her in the Light.”  I immediately connected with her statement and said, “Yes, I will hold you in the Light.”

During my last visit with Martha at her home about a week later, I “held her in the Light of the Lord’s Prayer,” as I held her hand and prayed with her. That was our last interaction.  She passed away early the next morning.  As members together in a community of faith, is this not what we should be about, not just during Advent, but all through the year – “holding each other in the Light”?

As noted earlier, Advent serves to remind us that often  we find ourselves in the dark; waiting in the dark; suffering in the dark; longing in the dark for a better world; like the people of old hoping for the Light to come.

Oh, back to my Birds of the Smokies story.  Sure enough, just before the light began to penetrate the morning darkness of Walker Valley, one by one the birds began to break out in song. And as each new species began to sing, Tiffany would whisper its name. “Did you hear that one?” Tiffany would quiz. Then she would call it by name. Before the hour had passed, Tiffany had identified over 30 different bird songs.

We had waited in the dark; and at the edge of a cemetery, a symbol of death, no less. But the light had come, and with it a morning chorus of wonderful, joyous birdsongs.

The season of Advent reminds us that in spite of the present darkness so evident in our world, we must always hold out for the Light – and the dawn chorus – to come.  And while doing so, we also hold each other in the Light.  May it be so during this Advent Season and always.  Amen.

 

1Thoughts from this paragraph are gleaned and copied from Brothers and Sisters, the weekly meetup for prayer and community at Daily Kos, 2013/06/23.

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Regrets for What Isn’t – Thanks for What Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections on Ministry with Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That Person a Saint! Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Birthday, Reformation!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Family By Choice

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

Mark 3:31-35 CEB

Reading from Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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