Reflections on Zion

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

Psalm 50:1-6 ESV

There have long been spiritual associations—and a spiritual draw—to “Zion.”  For thousands of years, pilgrims have flocked to Zion, otherwise known as Jerusalem.  And the truth is, all of us need our “Zions,” in one sense of the term.

The word “Zion” occurs in the Bible well over 150 times, over half of them in the Psalms and book of Isaiah.  In Hebrew, the word means “hilltop,” “mountain ridge,” or “fortress.”  Zion dates back to the time of King David (the 10th century BCE), whose military forces took the mount and captured the city that later would come to be known as both Zion and Jerusalem.  So the word “Zion” was variously used to refer to the city of Jerusalem, or a part of the city of Jerusalem, as well as its inhabitants.

Theologically, Zion came to be seen as the abode and seat of God.  Over time, the belief grew that God had chosen Zion as his earthly abode, giving it a special status.  In many cultures of that day, you know, the gods were believed to dwell on the mountaintops.  So it was only natural for the ancient Hebrews to come to see the hill of Zion as the abode of their God, “the city of the living God.”  As the seat or dwelling of the living God, Zion’s attributes included both beauty and perfection.  Also attached to the belief that Zion was the abode of God was the idea of protection, that God would always protect Zion; hence, the significance of “fortress,” as mentioned earlier.

Zion would later come to be a synonym for the Jewish Temple and the people’s worship of God that took place there.  In other words, as it evolved into the Jewish cultic center, it was the place where all Israel went to worship and offer sacrifices.  So it is easy to see why the psalmist would say, in the psalm that served as today’s reading, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2 ESV).

I have been to Mount Zion, as I shared in a Wednesday evening program a few months ago.  I have stood on the Temple Mount, where David, and many of the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus himself stood.  Of course, there is no Jewish Temple on Mount Zion today.  There is only the Western Wall, the sole surviving remnant of that Jewish complex that must have been so impressive in Jesus’ day.

Today Jerusalem, or Zion, is probably recognized as the “holiest” or most sacred place on earth, as the faithful from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions flock to it for spiritual pilgrimages and worship, fulfilling in a sense the scriptural prediction of Micah that nations would stream to Zion.  Micah prophesied,

“It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:1-2)

In a sense, Micah’s prophesy has been fulfilled.  Well, such has been the Zion of Israel.

Week before last, we had the great joy of visiting another Zion, just as impressive in its own way.  Zion National Park also has spiritual significance attached to it.  And, I must say, it was a spiritual experience for me to be able to visit it.  I found it to be quite apropos that on the same day we returned from our Utah vacation, there was a full-page article in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Zion National Park.  The writer, Ellen Creager, began her article by saying, “This is a spiritual place.  A glorious place. . . People are coming not only to tour the park but to nourish themselves.”

Some of the sites in Zion even have spiritual names, such as Court of the Three Patriarchs (named for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob); Angels’ Landing, so named because it was said that so high and narrow is the pinnacle, nothing but angels could land there; the Altar of Sacrifice; the Great White Throne; and the Organ.

I found Zion National Park to be awe-inspiring.  Upon awaking in Zion Canyon as the sun starts to crawl down the red sandstone cliffs, you cannot help but stand in awe of the sheer beauty, magnitude, and stories those cliffs have to tell.  Several years ago, while on vacation with our children, we passed through Sedona, Arizona, and were moved by the red rock mountains there.  But the color and beauty and majesty of Zion surpassed anything I have ever seen.  It is easy to see why the huge Visitor Center parking lot is full by 10 am, and why Zion expects to see over 3.6 million visitors this year.

I also found Zion National Park to be spiritually restorative.  Of the five national parks, two national monuments, and one state park we visited, I was most spiritually moved and restored in Zion. Standing in Zion Canyon makes you want to proclaim with the psalmist, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”  And with Jacob of old, “Surely the Lord is in this place!” (Genesis 28:16 ESV).  The marvelous beauties everywhere you turn; the mountain stream; the vastness of the sandstone mountains, with all the tell-tale signs of time; the sense of serenity as you enjoy the Lodge and its natural setting; the sense of something Sacred being there—all of it proved to be restorative to the soul for me.

And I found Zion National Park to be transformative.  Zion is one of those places on earth where you cannot help but be changed by being there.  As you study the red sandstone cliffs and the various layers and colors of strata, you realize how many millions of years it took for layer upon layer upon layer of sediment to be piled and compacted, one after the other, to form them.  And then as you study the scarring of those 1000-foot high cliffs, caused by massive floods, and the forces of wind and rain; and as you consider the depth of Zion Canyon, cut over time by those same floods, you realize that our earth couldn’t have been created a mere 6,000 years ago as Creationists contend.  It had to take millions of years to create Zion’s mountains, and millions more for the forces of Nature to cut and shape them and carve the canyons below them.  So if I had gone to Zion as a Creationist, my faith would have been drastically shaken.  Of course, I didn’t.   But the experience was a transforming one, nonetheless.

This past week I found myself having difficulty transitioning back to everyday life.  Not that I don’t love you all and appreciate being here with you, mind you J .  But I found myself, to draw on another biblical phrase, “longing for Zion.”  Because as noted in the beginning, the truth is, we all need our Zions.  We all need those special places where we are inspired, restored, perhaps even transformed a bit because of having been there.  For the Hebrews of old, the City of Zion (or Jerusalem) was such a place.  And it continues to be such a place for faithful pilgrims from around the world who go there today.  For Mary Lou and me, week before last it was Zion National Park, Utah.  But it need not be either.

Our “Zion” might be as far away as Jerusalem or Zion, Utah.  But it might also be as close as the Great Smoky Mountains, the local arboretum, or even coming weekly to this United Church.  “Zions” can be any number of places that inspire us, restore us, positively change or transform us.  So, what is your Zion?  It is needful that we go there—or maybe, come here—every now and again.  Amen.

1Ellen Creager, “Mighty Zion National Park . . .”  Knoxville News Sentinel, 9E, Sunday, July 19, 2015.

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Purposes, Possibilities, and Problems with Preaching

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

Luke 4:16-21 RSV

In a recent issue of the Christian Century magazine, editor John M. Buchanan relates how that even after retiring from the pulpit three years ago, preaching, in his mind, “remains at the center of things.  Three years after retiring,” he says, “I am still learning to live without the rhythm and weekly demand of preaching, and still pondering the mystery of it.”

Well, reading Buchanan’s article led me to do some thinking this past week about my own life of preaching and the American pulpit in general.  So today’s sermon will in part be a confessional and personal reflections.  This week marks the end of my seventh year with you here at the United Church.  Since moving here in July 2008, I have given over 330 sermons, not counting the wedding homilies and many funeral sermons I have given.  And this year marks the 39th anniversary since I gave my first five-minute sermon at my home church.  Since starting to preach in 1976, I have given in the neighborhood of 1,900 sermons.

I still recall the first sermon I gave in my home church.  I remember the day, the scripture text I used, the topic, and for the most part what I had to say.  It was only 5 minutes long, so I didn’t say a whole lot J.  By the way, as Luke tells the story, Jesus preached one of his first sermons and shared a sense of his own call into the ministry in his home church, or community synagogue.  As Luke tells it, Jesus understood his calling to be a ministry of preaching good news to the poor, imprisoned, spiritually blind, and oppressed, and to announce God’s presence and readiness to save his people.

The act of preaching, you see, was what led me into ministry to begin with.  Way back in 1976, the draw, the desire, and the sense of call that led me down the path I would end up traveling was preparing and delivering sermons.  That was pretty much it.  When I started out, my plans did not include becoming a day-in, day-out minister of a local church.  I just wanted to preach.  But I was soon to learn that for at least 90% of preachers, the everyday demands of being a minister or pastor is part and parcel of the preacher’s task.  And so, I picked up a lot of other duties, and classes, and training along the way, in addition to studying the art, craft, and practice of sermon preparation and delivery.

I can remember as a child of 10 or 12 of being fascinated by churches we passed when traveling on vacation.  And I can remember having conversations with one of my cousins about the possibility of growing up to be a preacher.  And my cousin’s response was, “Well, I guess, if you could be a famous preacher like Billy Graham.”  My mother, unbeknownst to me when I was still a boy, would sometimes say to people, “There is my preacher boy; I expect him to grow up to become a preacher someday.”  In other words, she had a feeling—that mother’s intuition.

But the preaching task is not always easy.  It may surprise you to learn that most preachers, I think, have what might be termed a love-hate relationship with the preaching task.  There are weeks when a preacher is excited about preparing and giving the sermon for the upcoming week, and feels wonderful after that sermon has been given.  Sometimes you feel like you have really said something of importance and that really mattered and needed to be said.  Early in my college studies, one of my English professors helped me to verbalize why I had chosen to prepare for the ministry and become a preacher.  She put me on the spot rather pointedly when she asked me in front of the entire class, “Randy, why was it that you decided to become a minister?”  Voicing such a response in a public setting was totally new to me.  Caught off guard, I fumbled for an answer.  The professor helped me out by exclaiming, “You decided to become a preacher because you feel like you have something to say that needs to be said.  Right?”  And of course I replied, “Yes; that’s it!”  And after thinking about it, I realized it was so.  I had wanted to become a preacher in part, at least, because I felt like I had something important to say.  So there are weeks when you feel like you have said something that really needed to be said and you feel good about it.

And then there are other weeks when preparing that sermon for the upcoming Sunday, and then actually standing in the pulpit to give it, is a chore that you dread about as much as chopping firewood. Sometimes the preacher says things that he or she would rather not say, but he or she feels strongly that they need to be said.  And just think about the responsibility of planning, preparing, and giving 48 fresh, insightful, informative, interesting sermons every year, year in and year out.  I have sometimes thought of how nice it would be if the modern preacher could be like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets of old who only preached when they were inspired and really had something to say, rather than being expected to give a sermon every week of the year just because that is what the preacher is expected to do.

Soon after I started preaching, I confessed to my mentor in ministry one day of how, upon awaking some Sunday mornings and realizing that it was Sunday, of thinking to myself, Oh my God!  It’s Sunday.  I have to preach today!  Instead of expressing shock over what I had said, my mentor in ministry—well-seasoned in preaching that he was and recognized as one of the best preachers in the entire denomination—confessed to me that he often awoke on Sunday morning and his first thought was the exact same thing: Oh my God!  It’s Sunday.  I have to preach today!  Though that was roughly 35 years ago, I often recall and lean on that conversation, and I don’t feel so badly in those weeks when the sermon well appears to be pretty dry, or when the sermon topic is not a comfortable topic, or when the sermon material is quite personal in nature and quite difficult, draining or emotional to share.

And I readily admit that not every sermon I give is an excellent or outstanding, or even good sermon.  I sometimes look at preaching in light of major league baseball statistics: No major league baseball player—not even Babe Ruth—hits a homerun every time at bat, and is not expected to hit a homerun every time at bat.  So it is with preachers and sermons: not every sermon is a homerun.  Some sermons are like triples, some doubles, some singles, and some fall flat like a strikeout.  But every once in a while, preachers may hit a homerun.  Maybe it is the hope of hitting a homerun sermon that keeps preachers going.

But when all is said and done, I have always had a tremendous respect for the American church and pulpit.  Since the founding of America, the American pulpit has had more influence upon American life, perhaps, than any other institution.  In spite of all the flaws and weaknesses of preachers as individuals and humans just like everybody else, the American pulpit has been responsible for untold positive change in America, leading the way in the abolition of slavery, progress in education, encouraging the founding of hospitals and orphanages and retirement homes, leading in the struggle for civil rights, and in general calling America to be its best self.  And so, from a young age I had the desire to be counted among those who stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, hoping to bring comfort, share guidance, encourage hearers to rise to the better persons they can be, and to shed some light on some of the contemporary issues of the day.

I am going to share a secret with you today that none of you have any way of knowing.  By supporting this United Church with your attendance, service, and offerings, you are helping support a cause that is much greater than this local congregation.  You are helping support the great institution of the free, American pulpit.  Many of you may not be aware that for the past three and one-half years, I have maintained an online sermon blog where most of my sermons are published so that anybody in the world who desires can read them.  As of this past Monday, my sermon blog—which you help make possible through supporting this church and supporting me as your minister and preacher—has posted 177 sermons, has had 15,481 visits, by 8,622 different visitors from 55 different countries around the world.  So the positive, progressive, inclusive spirit and message of this church is being broadcast to more people and more places than any of us might have ever dreamed possible!  Truly it is as stated in the book, The Riverside Preachers, “. . . preaching is thus addressed to a whole nation . . . .  Preaching . . . must speak to the nation’s soul, to repent, confess its sins, to change its ways, ‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’”2

Though I sometimes find coming up with a fresh, informative, interesting sermon topic challenging, after 39 years in the pulpit I still love sermon preparation and preaching.  And I still believe in the integrity and power of the American pulpit and its potential for being a positive change agent in the world.  Finally, I am truly grateful for the support that you as individuals and the church as a whole render, making it possible to be a part of that great American institution—the free pulpit.  Amen.

1John M. Buchanan, “Rhythm of preaching,” Christian Century, June 24, 2015.

2The Riverside Preachers.  New York: Pilgrim Press, 1978, p. 14.

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Patriotic Symbols Considered

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

Leviticus 26:1-13 GNT

I can remember many occasions when I was growing up of gathering at the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park near Limestone for family reunions, church picnics, family camping trips, and such.  In case you have never been there, the park is located on the bank of the Nolichuckey River just off Highway 11E, on the Washington County-Greene County line.  When I was a boy, it had numerous picnic tables along the river, a campground, and small log cabin with a big bearskin rug on the floor representative of the cabin where Crockett was born.  And it also had a log cabin gift shop that was the delight of every boy and girl around.  The gift shop smelled of red cedar as soon as you stepped inside, emanating from the numerous red cedar jewelry boxes, wall thermometers, piggy banks, and more.  It was stocked with toy guns, plastic cowboy and Indian figures, pocket knives, coonskin caps, and flags—American flags and Confederate flags.  You can see why such a place would be a delight to any country boy like me.

I recall one occasion quite distinctively when we were there on a Saturday night for a family reunion picnic.  The one thing I wanted from that gift shop was a flag.  And I honestly cannot remember if it was an American flag or a Confederate flag.  But the flag itself was about 18 x 12 inches and was stapled to a small wooden dowel.  The price of the flag was 30 cents.  I was so proud after buying that flag.  I ran through the picnic area the rest of the evening holding that flag high and waving it vigorously.  Even at the young age of six or seven, I knew there was some kind of significance and meaning attached to that flag.  I realized that it was more than just a piece of hemp fabric died red, white and blue, and stapled to a wooden stick.

That’s the way with patriotic symbols like flags—they are charged with meaning for those who display them and love them.  But they can also be charged with meaning for those who loathe them and/or feel oppressed by them.

You don’t need me to remind you of all the coverage in the news of late regarding the controversy over such symbols, and most notably the Confederate flag.  The Confederate flag, which has been a long-held symbol of southern pride and southern heritage for many, has come under renewed fire since it was so blatantly displayed and touted by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who took nine African American lives at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.  But the Confederate flag has also long been a symbol of slavery, bigotry and oppression for others, and has in recent weeks become a symbol of racism more than ever before.

This latest tragedy has served as an eye opener for many Americans who may have never thought about the veiled meaning behind that Confederate flag that many southerners have long taken for granted.  We are used to seeing the Confederate flag on t-shirts, license plates, pickup truck windows, belt buckles, and even state and national park souvenirs, and more.  Many of us white Americans probably have viewed the image of the Confederate flag with little or no thought at all.  Until now.

Consequently, the Confederate flag is being removed from state houses right and left, and images of the Confederate flag are being yanked off store shelves and will no longer be carried or sold through Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon, eBay, Etsy.com, and others.

Now, let me be clear: the primary intent of this sermon is not to pick on or trash the Confederate flag.  My aim goes much deeper.  My purpose is to make us think a bit about all patriotic symbols, the messages they convey, the way they can be emotionally charged, and the dangers that can be inherent in them.

Another symbol that has come under fire in recent days is the statue and bust of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Our Governor has called for the removal of Forrest’s bust from the Tennessee Capital.  Forrest, as you know, was a celebrated Civil War General.  But he was also a wealthy slave trader and is remembered for the massacre of hundreds of black Union Soldiers who had surrendered, many of them on their knees.  He slaughtered them anyway.  Forrest was also the founder and first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that has been responsible for inflicting great oppression, terror, destruction of property, emotional harm, and death upon African Americans for the past 150 years.  So you can see why such an image would be emotionally charged for many.

The ancient Hebrew Torah warned against the making of idols, statues, or carved figures.  Why do you suppose that was the case?  Such items can become loaded with meaning and become objects of affection that detract us from what is really important in life.  The ancient Hebrew leaders, of course, were concerned that idols fashioned in the form of bulls or other animals would steal the affections of the people, away from the true God who had delivered them from Egyptian bondage.

But another point of importance is this: idols or carved images, as objects of devotion, can tend to relieve people of moral obligations and responsibilities.  Such idols and carved images didn’t demand that the people live ethical, moral, just lives.  Idol worship is an easy form of religion, it seems to me, that requires very little of those who engage in it.

But in ancient Israel, idols or carved images also had the tendency of becoming loaded with meaning that went way beyond the image itself.  Idols representing the Canaanite god Baal, the god of fertility, meant offering sacrifices to that god in order to assure agricultural fertility and abundance.  Other idols or carved images invited sexual orgies or temple prostitution.  So the Hebrew lawgiver knew the inherent dangers in idols, carved images, and statues, because for those who revere them, they are loaded with explosive possibilities.

And so, you see, in a nutshell, idols, images and statues have the potential of becoming objects of inordinate affection that detract us from what is really important and that blind us to true moral obligations and responsibilities.  The idol or image can become more important than ethical responsibility or human life itself.  Sometimes people become so attached to idols or images that they become fighting mad when those idols or images are threatened.

Such can be the way with patriotic symbols; with any patriotic symbols.  They are loaded with emotional meaning for many.   But carried too far, such symbols or images can become gods in themselves to which some people pledge their devotion, to the exclusion of what is moral, ethical, right or just.

For these reasons, there are some faith groups, you know, who refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, or any other pledge or oath; not because they do not love America, but because they see any flag as a form of idol.  Such devotion and reverence, they believe, should be rendered to God alone and to the demands of God to live morally, ethically, and justly toward all.

Now, don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  I am as patriotic as any of you are.  I love the American flag, and I recite the Pledge of the Allegiance to the Flag like most of you do.  But my responsibility to God, to the demands of God espoused by the 8th century Hebrew prophets and Jesus to do justice, love kindness, and to live in compassion with others will always take precedence over devotion to the flag or any other symbol.

So the point I have been trying to make is not that we should do away with all patriotic symbols.  Rather, that we realize how patriotic symbols can be loaded with both meaning and passion, and how they can bring joy and pride to some, while at the same time bring pain and suffering to others.  Patriotic symbols have the potential of bringing out the worst in people—bigotry, prejudice, hatred, and violence.

But patriotic symbols also have the potential of bringing out the best in people—love, service, selflessness, and sacrifice.  Patriotic symbols honored aright bring out the best in humanity.

But we should never let any symbol become as a god to us, or cause us to cling to or get fighting mad over that symbol to the exclusion of the positive principles and motivations the symbol was meant to convey.  In other words, human compassion, justice, morality, and ethical dealings with others should always take precedence over any object or type of symbol, patriotic or otherwise.

“Do not make for yourselves idols,” the ancient Hebrew lawgiver rightly warned.  Worship of God, human compassion, guarding the dignity of everyone, justice in all our dealings, and ethical treatment of all concerned—these things should always take precedence over any symbol or emotional attachment we might have to them.  And when that is the case, we see true patriotism in action.  Amen.

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Forgiveness: The Ultimate Challenge

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 28, 2015

Matthew 18:21-35 GNT

Reading from Anne Lamott, Plan B, pp. 45-46

We were all shocked week before last by yet another senseless act of violence that took the lives of nine innocent, beautiful people, who were in the midst of their mid-week prayer meeting, no less.  One of the slain was Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, who had started preaching at the yount age of 13 and was also a South Carolina State Senator, having been elected at the age of 23, the youngest state legislator in South Carolina’s history.

This most recent church shooting reminded us yet again that, seemingly, no place is safe.  And in the eyes of some, no place is considered sacred.  What makes the Charleston tragedy so shocking is the fact that the good folks of Emanuel AME Church had welcomed the shooter into their midst with open arms.  Then after sitting with them in the prayer meeting for an hour, he turned on them and opened fire, while mouthing racial slurs.  Disturbing, unsettling, shocking, to say the least.  This tragedy served to reopen old wounds and resurrect old memories of other senseless shootings.  Dylann Roof, the confessed killer, was an unabashedly white supremacist who flaunted it.  Rev. Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, rightly called the incident “an act of racial terrorism.”

But something almost as shocking is the way that some of the families of the victims have responded to the shooter.  When confronting the accused killer at his bond hearing, a number of them stood to address him, and several told him that they forgave him.  The statement of family member Anthony Thompson is illustrative: “I forgive you, my family forgives you.”  John S. Dickerson, writing in USA Today, stated that “Such forgiveness is unseen in the animal world, is illogical in the rational world. . . Such forgiveness is humanity at its most human, or perhaps most divine.” Dickerson continues, “We have witnessed concentrated, unthinkable evil – met by concentrated, undeserved forgiveness.”1

Just as the Charleston church shooting resurrected old memories of other church shootings, the forgiveness expressed by some of the family members of the Emanuel AME Church’s victims reminded many of the forgiveness the Pennsylvania Amish community demonstrated when a gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster in 2006 and opened fire, killing several sweet, innocent Amish girls.  The grieving families of those girls immediately extended forgiveness to the gunman (who had taken his own life as well), and even visited the gunman’s widow and parents to comfort them, including attending the gunman’s funeral.  You may remember that a book was released that centered on the Amish community’s forgiveness titled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. That Amish community was named the newsmaker of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association and Beliefnet, who cited them for “demonstrating courage, forgiveness, self-sacrifice and love.”  “They really taught everyone how to live our faith and values in a vivid way,” said Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman.

But back to Charleston; we wonder, if we were in the shoes of those Emanuel AME Church’s victims’ families, if we could express forgiveness as readily as some of them have.  And it should be noted that not all of them have been so ready to forgive.  I heard one of the grieving family members confess during a television interview, regarding her forgiveness, “I am not there yet.”  I am not there yet.  I imagine such would be the sentiment for many of us.  Because forgiveness at such a time is hard, if not downright impossible.  Forgiveness in the face of such evil, senseless tragedy, and extreme loss presents the ultimate challenge.

In  one of his hard-to-follow teachings, Jesus talks about forgiving those who have wronged us—forgiving our brother or sister “from the heart,” as he puts it (Matthew 18:35).  Here, and in other places, Jesus (or at least Matthew speaking for Jesus some 50 years later) states that God’s forgiveness of our wrongs is predicated upon our forgiveness of others.  That seems a bit stringent, since we are not God.  We are humans who tend to be vulnerable creatures, who can suffer deep hurt, and who can be emotionally fragile.  We applaud those who say they can forgive so quickly following a tremendous loss.  But for many of us, our extension of “Jesus-like love and forgiveness” may not come so easily.

For most of us, I conjecture, forgiveness for some great wrong or deep hurt is more of a long, drawn-out process that takes time and cannot be rushed.  Forgiveness as such might be compared to the process of grief.  When we suffer the death or loss of someone close to us, there is a grief process that we need to work through in order to arrive at a sense of closure and sense of peace.  We do others a great disservice when we try to force them through the process of grief too quickly.  And we do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t allow ourselves to work through the process of grief as we need to.  And for each individual, the grieving process is different.

Likewise with the process of forgiveness, I believe.  Forgiveness toward one who has inflicted great harm or hurt upon us, as did the shooter in Charleston, is a process that each one must work through individually.  Some may be able to work through it quickly.  But many may not.

This is something that writer Anne Lamott seems to understand.  In doing research for today’s sermon, I ran across some quotes by Lamott about forgiveness, so they drove me to pull from my shelf her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.  Lamott relates how that even two years after her mother had died and she had stored her ashes in the closet, she still had not been able to forgive her for her failings as a mother and the way she had left her feeling wounded and broken.  Anne seems to be saying that forgiveness can be a long process.  But she goes on to say that there comes a time when you just have to give up the bitterness and anger and be done with it, and forgive.  One of the things we often fail to realize is that harboring bitterness, anger and the lack of forgiveness is harder on the one who refuses to give it than it is on the one it is directed against.  Bitterness and anger are like acid eating away our insides, while forgiveness is like a healthy purging of the emotional toxins that we have been storing inside.  As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “We must finally be reconciled with our foe, lest we both perish in the vicious circle of hatred.”

John S. Dickerson, in that same USA Today article I quoted from earlier, states that “Good sometimes overcomes evil via counterintuitive forces: compassion, mercy and forgiveness.”1  And William P. Youngs, in that eclectic bestselling novel, The Shack, that was so popular a few years ago about a father dealing with the abduction and tragic murder of his young daughter, observes (via the voice of God), “Every time you forgive, the universe changes.”Such is truth: forgiveness can be like a chain reaction, leading to reconciliation, the end of conflict, and a better world for all.

But the truth also is, forgiveness can sometimes be hard, very hard; sometimes almost downright impossible.  At such times, forgiveness cannot and should not be rushed.  But when great evil, hurt, and loss are worked through so that forgiveness can be extended, it is a thing of marvelous grace.  And the world is changed for the better because of it.

So we applaud all those greatly affected by the Charleston church tragedy who are able to extend Jesus-like forgiveness so readily and so gracefully.  But at the same time, we dare not judge those who will continue to struggle with the need to forgive the assailant, for months or maybe even years to come.  The ability to forgive in such extreme circumstances—in the face of the ultimate challenge—is a wonderful manifestation of grace.  It is a manifestation of grace that each of us should be striving toward.  But sometimes the good work of grace takes time.  Amen.

1John S. Dickerson, “AME Church Shows How to Forgive,” USA Today, June 22, 2015.

2William P. Youngs, The Shack.  Windblown Media, 2007, p. 235.

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Parable of the Good Samaritan – A Different Perspective

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 14, 2015

Luke 10:30-35 ESV

I spent much of this past week helping with Vacation Bible School.  One of our Bible stories of the week was the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Talking about that parable with the children got me to thinking.

Now, I know that many of us have heard this familiar Bible story time and again.  And some of us may have heard a dozen sermons or more based on it.  And probably 90% of the time the point of those sermons was go and do as the Samaritan did.  Be a good neighbor.  Be compassionate.  Reach out and help someone in need whenever the opportunity presents itself.  In the words of Jesus, “Go, and do likewise.”  And those are, indeed, the primary points the parable aims to make.

But the idea struck me this past week that I have never heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan preached in reverse; and I have never done so myself either.  So today, I would like to do that.

When I say the Parable of the Good Samaritan preached in reverse, what I mean is this: What if we were to put ourselves, not in the sandals of the Samaritan who stopped to help, poured oil and wine on the beaten man’s wounds, put him on his own beast and took him to an inn and cared for him? in the way the parable is most often preached.  But what if we put ourselves in the sandals of the beaten man alongside the road who needed help?  Have you ever heard the parable presented in that way?

The truth is, sooner or later every one of us is the beaten man alongside the road in need of help, in a manner of speaking.  Because the ways that life can leave us bruised and battered are many and varied.  The man beaten and left to die on the side of the road can be a metaphor for any of the tragedies that life can throw at us.  The need for emergency gallbladder surgery, as our daughter experienced week before last, can turn your world upside down for a little while and leave you sort of helpless and dependent upon others to transport you for medical treatment and care for you like the unfortunate man in the story.

A visit to the doctor for a routine exam can result in receiving unwanted bad news about the need for immediate surgery and weeks of radiation or chemotherapy treatments.

The unexpected loss of a loved one by death can leave you feeling lost and bewildered and in need of others to help you deal with all the decisions that have to be made following a death, and maybe even needing the help with day by day living.

The unexpected loss of a job can leave your family in a financial lurch so that help is needed to cover the monthly household expenses or assistance with putting food on the table.

These scenarios are real; I see them, or some variation of them, every month.  A number of them apply to this congregation today.  And as I have already stated, every now and then such tragedies befall every one of us.  So, I have been the man beaten down along the road of life, and chances are you have been too at some point.  All of us find ourselves in need of compassion and care every now and then.

And when we find ourselves to be that man or woman beaten down by life, we need to have the grace to accept the compassion and care offered to us.  Yet, there are many of us who have a hard time accepting care and compassion.  Perhaps we are embarrassed at having to be the recipient of help.  Or maybe there is a sense of privacy so that we are uncomfortable letting others inside our world of need.   Or maybe there is the desire to not be a bother upon other people’s time.  And so, there is the reluctance to let anyone drive us to the doctor or hospital—“No, I can drive myself,” we say.  Or offers to bring food are turned down—“No, we don’t need anything,” is the response, when in reality a casserole or pot of soup would be a tremendous help.  You get the idea.  And probably all of us have turned down offers of help in the past when we could have really used it.

But there are those times when we just need to overlook our embarrassment, rise above our pride or sense of modesty, and let ourselves have the grace to be a recipient of compassion and care.  In fact, I considered titling today’s sermon, “The Grace to Accept Care and Compassion.”

I have grown to love the hymn, “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?”  In fact, it is becoming one of my favorite hymns.  The first stanza goes, “Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?” But then, “Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.”

But on the other hand, we don’t want to go to the other extreme either and abuse the compassion and care that we might draw upon.  And we don’t want to become enablers by letting others abuse the compassion and care we offer.  And, I am sorry to say, practically every month I receive calls for help that would seem to fall into the category of abusing the sense of compassion that this congregation is known to have.  To put it bluntly, there is a small percentage of people in the world—including people in Oak Ridge and Anderson County—who would seem to be taking advantage of the system by chronically and systematically calling upon churches to support them.  For some it has become a way of life.

Consequently, following ADFAC’s guidelines, I began to question the practice of assisting the same people who call for help year after year after year—sometimes at the exact same time every year—because it seems they have come to rely on endless help.  By assisting people with their utilities or rent year after year after year, in many cases we become enablers.  I realize there are some circumstances where people are truly disabled and when life has beaten them down so low that it seems they can never rise above their misfortunes.  And these are exceptions.  But there are others who are chronic in their calls for help, and don’t appear to be trying to help themselves, and don’t always act in ways that are commendable or in ways that are conducive to becoming self-sufficient.  Such being the case, at my suggestion our Church Board has adopted some new guidelines so that help goes to those who truly deserve it.  We don’t want to be enablers of those who might abuse our goodwill and offer of care and compassion.

But there is one more point pertinent for today’s service: The extension of care and compassion is much of what church membership is all about.  When we unite with a congregation like this United Church, we unite with a community of care and compassion.  This is a community where people rejoice with us when we rejoice, and weep with us when we weep, and extend care and compassion in many different ways.  This is a place where, when we are beaten down by life, others gather around us in compassion and seek to lift us up and care for us.  If a church is operating as it should be, there is no other entity quite like it in being a haven for and dispenser of care and compassion for its members when they find themselves beaten down by forces of life.  So today we welcome Eric and Susan and family as the newest members of this wonderful community of compassion and care.

And may what we have done and said here today ever be a reminder to all of us that every now and then all of us find ourselves beaten down by life and in need of someone to offer a compassionate and caring hand and lift us up, as the Good Samaritan lifted up the fallen traveler.  When those times come, may we have the grace to accept that compassionate, caring hand.  And secondly, may we always remember that as a church this is what we are to be about.  This, above everything else, is our reason for being—a place of understanding, caring, and compassion.  Amen.

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The Face of Our Money

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 7, 2015

Mark 12:13-17 ESV

Have you ever taken time to consider the face of our money?  It is really quite interesting when you stop to think about it.  And, it seems, the face of money has always given rise to controversy, as we have seen in today’s scripture reading.  The question at hand was whether Jews should pay tribute to Rome, their oppressors.  Both Mark and Matthew tell the story of how some of Jesus’ opponents questioned him as to whether or not they should pay taxes.  You see, “The pagan religious imagery used on coins violated Jewish rules against making images and idolatry.  The inscription on Roman coins also proclaimed the emperor divine,” which was also a problem for Palestinian Jews.1  Jesus’ opponents posed the question, not so much because they wanted an answer, but to put him in an impossible situation.  Jesus’ reply was, “Give me a coin.  Whose picture is on the money?”  And they replied, “Caesar’s,” or “the Emperor’s.”  “Well,” Jesus returned, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  In other words, if the coin bears the inscription and image of Caesar, then it must belong to him.  Return it to him!  And then be sure to give to God what belongs to God.

So for at least 2,000 years there has been tension between Caesar (i.e., the government) and God.  But American money is even more complicated, in that our money bears the inscription of both the government and God, since our money has U.S. government written all over it, and both coins and paper money have pictures of famous government officials; but our money also includes the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

But what about those faces?  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson—such are some of the famous government officials whose faces grace the money we use on a daily basis.  But let us zero in on Andrew Jackson, since the face of Jackson on our $20 bill has been in the news of late.

I don’t know whether you caught it or not, but there has been quite a discussion in the media over the push to yank Andrew Jackson’s face off our $20 bill and replace it with the image of Harriet Tubman.  I have sort of been following this controversy for about three weeks, and I have clipped and saved articles from The Washington Post, USA Today, and our own Knoxville News Sentinel. There have been a lot of pros and cons shared having to do with replacing Jackson’s image with that of Tubman.

When I first heard about the Women on 20s Campaign to replace Jackson’s picture with one of a woman who has contributed significantly to American history, I secretly applauded it.  And the fact that Harriet Tubman won an online poll out of a pool of 15 different women made it even more delightfully ironic.  Because Jackson, as you may remember, amassed his wealth from the toil of the slaves he owned.  And Jackson was the chief proponent of the Indian Removal Act and the primary one responsible for the Trail of Tears (overriding Congress in the process) that uprooted, enslaved, and drove thousands of Native Americans to their deaths.  The irony is one who enslaved might possibly be replaced by one who helped slaves escape and led them to their freedom.

Well, as you might imagine, the push to actually get Tubman’s photo on our $20 bill has generated a lot of support.  After all, Tubman is a woman to be admired from most any quarter.  She spent most of her youth as a slave in Maryland.  She married a free black man and changed her name.  After escaping from a plantation 1849, she made many trips back to the South to lead slaves to their freedom under the cover of darkness via the Underground Railroad.  This she did at the risk of the penalty of death.  She also was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and her heroic efforts made it possible for many more slaves to gain their freedom.  Later Tubman was a women’s suffrage advocate alongside Susan B. Anthony.  So how could anyone argue with honoring Tubman by putting her face on our money?

One of those writing in support of Tubman’s image is David Swerdlick of The Washington Post’s PostEverything.  Swerdlick writes, “putting a self-emancipated, self-described conductor on the Underground Railroad on a $20 bill is sort of a fitting rebuke to the slave owners who bought and sold human beings as commercial property.”2

Another columnist, DeWayne Wickham, who writes for USA Today, states, “Slavery supporters put a price on her head, paid in U.S. dollars.  How ironic to move her from wanted poster to $20 bill. . . Tubman’s image on the $20 bill, America’s Moses will replace a slave owner.”  Wickham concludes his column by saying, “Putting Tubman’s face on the $20 bill would be a fitting tribute to her achievements.”3

Yet, as you might imagine, opponents for replacing Jackson with Tubman have been many as well, and at least one of the ones who are opposed might surprise you.  Of no surprise are the supporters of our seventh president, especially those who have a vested interest in protecting all things Jackson and the Jackson legacy.  I found it quite interesting that two May 17 editorials in the Sunday Perspective section of the Knoxville News Sentinel—taking up almost a full page—lobbied for keeping Jackson’s face on the $20 bill.4  I wasn’t so surprised when I realized that one of the editorials was written by Daniel Feller, who is editor/director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee.  And I imagine that those folks down at The Hermitage—the home and plantation of Andrew and Rachel Jackson—are much up in arms as well over the loss of Jackson’s image on our $20 bill.

But the opponent that really surprised me is Feminista Jones, a feminist writer from New York City writing for The Washington Post.  Jones, who happens to be a black woman, writes, “There’s no place for women—especially women of color—on America’s currency today.”5  Jones admits that replacing Jackson’s image with Tubman’s at first sounds like a wonderful reversal of fortune.  “But in examining Tubman’s life,” she continues, “it’s clear that putting her face on America’s currency would undermine her legacy. . . Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism.  Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting. . . For every dollar a white man earns from his labor in the United States,” Jones points out, “black women earn 64 cents. . . .  Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets.  She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves.  She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them.”5

Well, Jones makes some good points and gives good reason to stop and think about the whole face of our money issue.  Yet, I have to disagree with her, as I feel the honor awarded to Harriet Tubman in placing her image on our money would outweigh the reasons for not doing so.

Oh, by the way, returning to where I began, later in the same chapter as our scripture text, Jesus tells us that which should be rendered to God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31 ESV).  The money might belong to Caesar, but the entire human person—heart, soul, mind, and strength—belongs to God.  And the fact that the human person belongs to God makes the human person—every human person—sacred.  And that reason alone, the fact that every human is sacred and of inherent dignity and worth, is reason enough to honor Harriet Tubman—who understood the inherent dignity and worth of every person—by placing her image on our $20 bill.  Tubman got it; Jackson did not.  At least, that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 

1The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 673.

2David Swerdlick, “If we’re putting someone new on the $20, Harriet Tubman is actually a perfect choice,” The Washington Post, PostEverything, May 15, 2015.

3DeWayne Wickham, “Tubman earned her right to be on $20 bill,” USA Today, May 18, 2015.

4Daniel Feller, “Why keep Jackson on $20 bill?” And Joe Johnson, “True leader first president to speak in voice of common man,” Knoxville News Sentinel, Sunday, May 17, 2015.

5Feminista Jones, “Keep Harriet Tubman – and all women – off the $20 bill,” The Washington

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What Kind of Church Are We, Anyway?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 31, 2015

Matthew 18:15-20 GNT

Reading from We Would Be Free: The Congregational Way

Whenever I meet with new families who have an interest in church membership, I usually explain the kind of church—polity wise—the United Church is.  The word “polity” has to do with the type of church government peculiar to any particular congregation.  It is the way a church orders itself and conducts its affairs.  I often give a brief description of each type—and there are three—then focus on the type of polity that this United Church operates under.  But I rarely go into detail about the benefits and blessings of our type of polity.  I thought I would do that today.

When it comes to church polity—or form of government—the three are very different.  First, let us consider the Presbyterian, or representative, form of church government.  In this form, congregations are grouped into regional bodies, most often called “presbyteries,” or in some denominations they are called “classes.”  A presbytery or classis may have two, three, four dozen, or more congregations in a geographical area.  Each congregation sends its minister and at least one elected delegate to a presbytery meeting a couple or more times each year, where decisions are made about member congregations, joint mission projects, ordination of ministers, support for institutions of higher learning, and so on.  Three or more presbyteries comprise what is called a “synod,” and all the presbyteries together comprise what is called the “general assembly,” or “general synod.”  At each step of the way, Presbyterian polity is a representative form of church government, where delegates are elected by the congregation or the presbytery to represent the rest of the church.  Those representatives act on reports and resolutions that impact all member congregations.  This form of church government is most like our United States government and the way we elect senators and congressmen and congresswomen to represent us.  In some Presbyterian churches, the greatest seat of authority resides in the presbytery, which makes decisions regarding the ordination of ministers, the oversight of congregations, the approval of pastors for individual congregations, and so on.  Denominations that fall into this category, obviously, are the many branches of the Presbyterian Church, Reformed Church in America, and others.  To be noted is the fact that some of the several thousand 17th century Puritans that came to America were Presbyterian.

A second type of church polity is the “Episcopal” type.  In this type of church structure, congregations are also grouped into regional bodies, such as the district, and then on a larger scale the conference or diocese.  This form of church government is more of a hierarchy, since there are individual church leaders who are given oversight of all the churches in a district or a conference, such as a district superintendant and bishop.  In this form of church government, bishops make the decision as to which minister goes to which congregation.  This type of polity is more similar to a monarchy, in that there is a person, or select group of persons, at the top and decisions are filtered down through the structure to the smallest of congregations.  Denominations that operate under an Episcopal form of church government include, obviously, the Episcopal Church, Methodist Churches, Roman Catholic Church, and some others.

And then the third type of church polity, which is the type of our United Church, is the “congregational” polity.  In this form of church government, the congregation is independent and self-governing.  It makes all decisions regarding the selection of its minister, budget, missions, programs, and so on.  There is no higher body which dictates such matters.  Major decisions such as the selection of the minister, adoption of the annual budget, or a building program are made at a congregational meeting where all official members may vote.  Often, but not always, churches of the congregational order belong to regional groups of churches for fellowship and joint mission projects and the like.  But such larger bodies have no authority over them and cannot dictate beliefs, policy, revenue, or any other matter, as in the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.  Congregations that operate under a congregational polity include Baptist churches, independent Churches of Christ, independent Christian churches, Congregational Churches (spelled with a capital C), many independent congregations like ours, and others.  Also to be noted, most of the New England Puritans, and the Plymouth Pilgrims as well, were Congregational.  Congregational churches take to heart Jesus’ words that even a small group of believers constitute a complete church.

Now, as I already stated, this United Church is of the congregational form of churches (spelled with a lower case c).  However, we use the Pilgrim Hymnal that was produced by the Congregational (spelled with a capital C) Churches, as well as the New Century Hymnal that was produced by the United Church of Christ.  Most, but not all, Congregational Churches went into the merger that brought together four different church strands that formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.  Hence, there is overlap between Congregational and United Church of Christ.  I happen to have standing in both the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the United Church of Christ.  But just to be clear, when I speak of congregational churches from here on out, I am not advocating that our United Church unite with any church body or change our identity in any way.

With all of that information as background, what are some of the peculiar benefits and blessings of the congregational (with a lower case c) form of church polity, since that is who we are?  That is the question of the day.

One obvious benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is freedom.  We are not bound by a set of beliefs that we must adhere to, as in the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches.  We are not told where to send the offerings we collect.  We are free to hire the person we want to be minister or minister’s assistant.  We do not belong to a larger organization that might make a decision on some controversial social or political issue which might be in opposition to our personal beliefs or convictions.

A second characteristic and benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is fellowship.  Congregational churches are bound together by covenant and fellowship, rather than by creeds or confessions of faith.  And my experience here in this United Church is the sense of fellowship is greater than in other churches I have known, maybe because fellowship is the “glue” that binds members together.  And neither are we bound together because we all hold the same opinions politically or socially.  When it comes to hot-button social issues, I imagine we have members on all sides of the issues.  And politically, we have conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, and likely Libertarians, and maybe others.  But that is okay, because it is not thinking or believing alike that binds us together, but it is fellowship and a covenant to work, worship, learn and serve together in love.

A third benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is diversity.  Because we are not bound together by being the same or believing the same way, there is a richness and diversity among us.  Indeed, wasn’t this the foundation upon which this congregation was built?  “Where people come together in their differences…”?

One of the challenges of the congregational way of doing church is we are totally on our own.  We do not have a presbytery, or district, or conference, or diocese, or national organization to lean on for financial support, or for Sunday school or other educational materials, or to send resumes of ministerial candidates, or to give us guidance on social issues stances.  It is up to us to raise funds for our annual budget, and to devise or seek out educational materials that fit who we are, and to come to our own conclusion about issues of the day.  In this way of doing church, it is vitally important for all the members to step up and give as they can give, serve where they can serve, and utilize whatever gift or talent they have been given for the good of the whole.

But in spite of the challenges, I have come to believe that the congregational way of doing church is the best way of doing church.  It suits who I am, and it has worked well for this congregation for almost 72 years.  It is who we are.  But it calls us all to give the best that we can give to assure our future strength and success.  May we rise to the challenge.  I think we will, because that is the kind of church we are.  Amen.

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