Getting Out of the Way of God (or the Good)

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 1, 2016

Acts 11:1-18 CEB

There is an old, old story, which you may have heard, about a church deacon (or it could have been a church board member in general) who opposed anything new that came before the congregation.  If the new idea represented progress or change, he was against it.  At a congregational meeting one Sunday, someone stood up and proposed that the church purchase and install a new chandelier for the narthex, or entrance area of the church.  As you might expect, the deacon immediately jumped to his feet to oppose it.  And he said, “Well, I’m agin’ it.  First of all, we can’t afford it.  Second of all, we don’t have room enough to store it.  And third of all, we don’t have anybody who can play it!”

But on a more serious note, in my many years of ministry, I have run into people who, curiously enough, stood in the way of the Good; or in the way of progress; or it might even be said in the way of God.  By the passion with which they stood in the way of the Good, or progress, or way of God, you would think they felt it was their God-appointed calling to do so.  Whether it meant installing new lighting to make the worship or educational space more modern-looking and conducive to seeing, or starting a new adult Sunday school class to attract younger adults, or to reach out to the community in an effort to attract new families and grow, or making some other change so as to better fulfill the mission of what a church is supposed to do, there have been those who were “agin’ it,” who dug their heels in, and stood in the way.

Well, I was reminded of all of this a few weeks ago when I read a devotion or meditation where the writer made mention of that passage in Acts where Peter relates his vision which influenced him to welcome Gentile believers into the new Christian movement.  Previously, you see, Peter had been against welcoming Gentiles.  The key verse is where Peter says, “Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17 ESV)  God forbid that I be the one to thwart God’s plan!  God forbid that I stand in the way of something of God that would bring blessings and benefits to others!  God forbid that I be the one to prevent something good from taking place!

This situation that involved Peter being open to change and getting out of the way of the plan of God—as he saw it at least—proved to be a critical juncture and watershed moment in the history of the fledging Jesus movement.  Had Peter and others like him not been open to allowing the Gentiles into their fellowship, Christianity might have died a premature death.  Had the early Christ movement been limited to Jewish believers, it might have withered and died before the end of the first century.  How critical it was that Peter and his comrades get out of God’s way so that the Christian movement could grow and thrive!

Well, thinking about all of this led me to ask myself, “Why is it that people—why is it that we ourselves sometimes—choose to stand in the way of God, way of progress, or way of the Good?”  Now, let me assure you that in giving this sermon, I have no axe to grind, no agenda, no big change in mind, and there was no issue that prompted it.  But the devotion or meditation that I read that prompted it spoke to me about an issue that is common to every church and to every one of us at one time or another.  And what is that old Ben Franklin adage?  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Often, I decided, people may stand in the way of the Good out of a fear of change.  Perhaps it is due to the mentality that says, “We have done it this way for the past 50 years, gosh darn it, so why should we change now?”  Or maybe we fear change so much because we think change will lead to all kinds of chaos and mayhem.  I am sure that there were Jewish Christians who feared if they let those Gentiles into the church without making them first become practicing Jews that all kinds of chaos and mayhem and pagan rituals would ensue to tear things apart.

Many of us are uncomfortable with changes from the ways we have become accustomed to doing things.  We fear that life as we know it will break down if we allow changes to creep in.  We are familiar with the known, but we fear the unknown that we cannot yet see.  And so, we dig in our heels to resist change, even though that thing we are resisting happens to be something good, perhaps even the “way of God.”

Sometimes, perhaps, people stand in the way of the Good because of downright stubbornness.  This is my way, or our way, the way we have always done it, and by golly it is the right way and we are going to continue doing it that way!  So the battle becomes not so much about which way is the best way, but a matter of personal ego or pride and not wanting to lose.  I think this can be true for religious leaders, world leaders, and especially politicians.  The issue of what is best for everyone concerned can get lost in the determination to win or be number one at any cost.

Yet a third reason people sometimes stand in the way of the Good can be jealousy or not wanting to give up control.  I have seen this play out over and again in some of the churches I have known.  (Not in the United Church of Oak Ridge; let me make that clear, but in other churches I have known.)  From the very beginning of my ministry I have had a commitment to trying to help the churches I have served grow to their full potential.  Because what is the opposite of church growth?  It is church decline, which can ultimately lead to church death.  So from the very first small congregation I served, I have studied and sought to put into practice solid church growth principles and ways of extending hospitality, which means, of course, reaching out to and welcoming new members.  But the sad truth I learned early on is not all congregations want to grow beyond their current size.  One reason is growing equals welcoming new members, and new members may upset the status quo, and new members may eventually desire places of leadership, which in turn means those places of leadership currently held by those in control may be threatened.  And so, out of jealousy, some persons stand in the way of growth, the way of God, what would actually be good for the congregations they seek to control.

Now granted, discerning what is actually good for a congregation is not always easy.  I understand that.  And we as church leaders are often faced with decisions which affect the congregation and its image in the community and possibly its future success.

But as individuals and families, we also often face decisions and have to determine the best course of action for our individual lives or the life and well-being of our family.  Sometimes we find ourselves trying to discern what is really good for us, what course of action would mean progress, or perhaps for some the “way of God” for our lives.  We don’t want to stand in the way of that which would ultimately be good for us or the course of action that God would approve of for us; but sometimes making that determination is not always easy.  So what do we do when we are faced with such dilemmas about the ultimate good, true progress, or the way approved by God?

Returning to Peter and his dilemma and decisions that pertain to the church, I think it is important that we let ourselves and our actions be governed by compassion, justice, and what is truly best for the well-being of all concerned; that we not resist change simply because it is change without considering the merits and benefits involved; and that we put our own ego and sense of pride aside in deference of the common good.

And when it comes to decisions about what is good, true progress, or a way that would be approved by God for our individual lives or life of our family, I have learned over the years to trust my gut.  I have considered life decisions in the past, and every time I would think about moving in that direction, my gut would feel like it was tied up in knots.  I have made a few choices in life that at the time didn’t feel completely right, but I went ahead and did them anyway, and they later proved to be a mistake.  By the same token, I have made many choices in life that I felt very relaxed and good and at peace about at the time, and they proved to be the right step.

When it comes to following in the way of God, someone has said that if the course of action you choose is true to your true, inner self and it makes you happy, then it probably is something that God would approve of.  It is something to ponder.

We will in the future, no doubt—as individuals, families, and as a congregation—be faced with decisions which call us to discern the best course of action, the way of the Good, or the way of God.  When we are, may we (like Simon Peter) have the grace and wisdom to not stand in God’s way, but to make way for the Good.  Amen.

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Life Lessons from a Music Legend

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

Matthew 7:1-5 ESV

He was a young man of 21 incarcerated in San Quentin Prison in California, serving time for burglary.  His had been a rough life from the start.  Similar to the Joad Family in John Steinbeck’s historical novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his family had pulled up stakes during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, and in the 1930’s had migrated to California in search of a better life.  But also like the Joad Family, that better life they failed to find.  The best housing his father could come by was a converted railway boxcar.  This was the only home the young man had known.

To add insult to injury, when he was only 9 years old his father died, leaving him and his mother to get by the best they could.  So the young man fell in with the wrong crowd.  By the time he was a teenager, he was already hopping freight cars, engaging in petty larceny, having run-ins with the law, and spending time in juvenile rehabilitation facilities.  Thus, he finally ended up in the famed San Quentin Prison, where he would serve between 2 ½ – 3 years for the crime he was accused of.

Then in 1958, an up-and-coming country singer by the name of Johnny Cash came to San Quentin to perform for the prisoners.  The young man in question was inspired by Cash’s concert; he decided to make something good of his life.

Having taken up a guitar himself at the age of 12, after that Johnny Cash concert he put his heart and soul into music when he was paroled in 1960 at the age of twenty-three.  He always credited Johnny Cash’s concert with turning his life around.

By 1962, he had signed a recording contract.  In 1963, his song titled “Sing a Sad Song” entered the charts.  He had, indeed, turned his life around and was on his way to Country Music stardom.  In his 1968 hit, “Mama Tried,” he paid tribute to his mother and sang of “turning 21 in prison,” which he had done, and “no one could steer me right, but Mama tried.”  He wrote and sang songs about hardships, the plight of the common man, highways and freight trains, lost loves, marriage, daily struggles, national pride, and patriotism.  Over a 53-year song writing, singing, and recording career, he would record dozens albums and have 38 Number 1 Country hits.  Other popular Merle Haggard songs include “Sing Me Back Home, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” and “Okie From Muskogee.”

Now, why am I telling you all of this? you may be wondering.  Well, there are several reasons.  One, Country legend Merle Haggard died on April 6, on his 79th birthday, of pneumonia, which he had been battling for months.  Two, I sort of have a personal connection to Haggard.  As a teenager, I played in a Country band and actually sang some of Merle Haggard’s songs.  But in the early 1970’s, I got a backstage pass and was privileged to meet Merle Haggard and stand beside him before he went onstage.  He was a very small, short, quiet, unassuming man, but one who took his role as an entertainer very seriously.

But none of those reasons are sermon-worthy reasons; I realize and admit that.  But the life lessons we can learn from Merle Haggard as they apply to the teachings of Jesus are sermon worthy.  And that is where I have been headed with all of this.  Now, I am quick to also admit that Merle Haggard was no saint.  Even after his release from prison and rise to stardom, he still had his faults and lived somewhat of a rough life.  But there was also some good in Merle Haggard, as evidenced by the fact that he also sang and recorded gospel songs.  So, what are some of the life lessons we learn as they apply to the teachings of Jesus?

One life lesson that I was reminded of from Merle Haggard is our choices in life often are influenced by life situations over which we have no control.  One could have pronounced quick judgment on Haggard for his juvenile delinquency, larceny, burglary, and incarceration, and written him off as a no-good menace to society.  And some maybe did.  But don’t we have to stop and consider and take into account what it would have been like to grow up in poverty as a post-Dust Bowl, end-of-the-Depression era child whose family lived in a converted railroad car?  On top of that, his father died when he was 9, leaving him and his mother practically destitute.  All of this reminds me of that old saying to the effect that before you judge me, walk a mile in my shoes.  Too often, I fear, we are quick to judge others by what we see of them, without knowing or taking into account the shoes they have worn and the miles they have walked, metaphorically speaking.

Such is why I chose that passage for today where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  Too often we are quick to judge others, or at least tempted to judge others, because we don’t know the back story.

And this leads to another related point, and that is often when others at school or work or somewhere else seem to be treating us badly, we say, “Why is so and so acting this way, after all I have done for them?  Why are they treating me this way?”  We are inclined to take it personally, as though they are intentionally try to hurt us or make life difficult for us.  But I often have to remind people who share their stories with me that it may not be about you at all.  It may be all about that other person and what is going on in their life that makes it appear that they are intentionally being hurtful, ungrateful, or thoughtless to you.  It may not have anything at all to do with you.  Such reminds me of that famous saying that has been attributed to a number of people: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  If we could always remember that, we might be slower to pronounce judgment.  And to be honest, I sometimes have to remind myself that it may not have anything to do with me.  It may be all about them and what is going on in their life.

Another life lesson of which I was reminded by Merle Haggard’s life is we should never forget the potential of a positive influence.  Remember that Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world . . . let your shine before others . . .” (Matthew 5:14, 16).  In other words, be a positive example.  Seek to inspire others.  Now, we have to admit that in performing that concert at San Quentin, Johnny Cash had no idea that what he was doing would be an inspiration to those inmates who were listening to him perform.  Well, maybe he did; but I doubt it.  Such just goes to show all the more how we never know what we say or what we do is being watched by others and might have a positive impact on their life.

Yet a third life lesson we learn from Merle Haggard’s life and the teachings of Jesus is that positive change is possible.  There is always hope for change, reform, or transformation.  This point reminds me of Jesus’ Parable of the Barren Fig Tree.  A landowner had a fig tree planted.  For three years he went to it in search of fruit, but found none.  He called his servant and gave instructions to have it cut down.  But the servant advised the landowner to not give up hope, but to leave it another year, fertilize it, nurture it, and have hope that it would bear fruit the following year.  Such encourages us to strive to be more like the hopeful servant, not giving up hope that positive change is possible for those who have erred, but giving them a second chance, just like those who had hope in a young adult who had been incarcerated in San Quentin and gave him a second chance to make something good of his life.

So, you see, this sermon is not so much about extolling the person of Merle Haggard as it is about putting human faces on the teachings of Jesus and those who impacted his life: Being slow to pass judgment until we know the full story behind a person’s life; never forgetting the importance of a positive example and its potential to inspire someone else’s life; and always remembering that positive change is possible.

The teachings of Jesus have lasted 2000 years for a reason.  They have much to teach us about our relationships with others and how to encourage others to become the better person they can become.  May be so for us.  Amen.

 

 

 

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Creation, Earth Day Hymn (re-posted with alternate tunes)

God, Whose Face Shines Through Creation

Words (C) 2016 Randy K. Hammer          Tune: HYFRYDOL – RH Prichard

Alt. Tune: AUSTRIAN HYMN – FJ Haydn

God, whose face shines through creation; God whose glory is revealed:

In the earth’s array of colors, in the rivers and the hills;

Ancient mountains, lakes and oceans, rocks and trees, and flowers too;

Anywhere our eyes do focus, there your face shines clearly through!

 

God, whose might is manifested in the planets swirling round:

In the billion bright stars shining, in the stars yet to be found;

In the universe wide expanding, galaxies still yet unseen;

In the splendor of the moonlight, even in the sun’s radiant beams!

 

God, whose love shines new each morning with the rising sun on high:

In the earth’s sure changing seasons, in the graceful geese that fly;

Seed time, harvests, golden meadows, autumn bounty, ripe, full fields;

Frosty mornings, trees ice-laden, your great love far and wide’s revealed!

“God, Whose Face Shines Through Creation” Copyright (C) 2016 by Randy K. Hammer.  All rights reserved.

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Earth Day Hymn (Alternate tunes)

God, Whose Face Shines Through Creation

Words (C) 2016 Randy K. Hammer          Tune: HYFRYDOL – RH Prichard

Alt. Tune: AUSTRIAN HYMN – FJ Haydn

 

God, whose face shines through creation; God whose glory is revealed:

In the earth’s array of colors, in the rivers and the hills;

Ancient mountains, lakes and oceans, rocks and trees, and flowers too;

Anywhere our eyes do focus, there your face shines clearly through!

 

God, whose might is manifested in the planets swirling round:

In the billion bright stars shining, in the stars yet to be found;

In the universe wide expanding, galaxies still yet unseen;

In the splendor of the moonlight, even in the sun’s radiant beams!

 

God, whose love shines new each morning with the rising sun on high:

In the earth’s sure changing seasons, in the graceful geese that fly;

Seed time, harvests, golden meadows, autumn bounty, ripe, full fields;

Frosty mornings, trees ice-laden, your great love far and wide’s revealed!

“God, Whose Face Shines Through Creation” Copyright (C) 2016 by Randy K. Hammer.  All rights reserved.

 

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Cultivating Creation Wonder

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

Psalm 77:11-20 ESV; Reading from Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder

I had heard the name “Rachel Carson” over the years, but I didn’t really become acquainted with her until three years ago.  It was late spring or early summer 2013.  I was anticipating taking a six-week study and travel sabbatical, and I was trying to decide upon a theme for my study and a focused project I could work on.  I knew that I wanted to focus my attention on creation, the Earth, ecology, and environmental concerns.  So one day while browsing the Nature section at our local Books-a-Million, a book caught my eye that seemed to be right up the ally I was hoping to travel.  It had an attractive green cover, and the short blurb on the back confirmed it was a book I needed to read.  The book was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

Now, many of you, no doubt, have read and became familiar with Silent Spring years agoI must admit that Silent Spring can be a bit technical at times, and it is not always easy reading.  But I finished it during my sabbatical and felt it was a good foundation for my studies and the other ten or so books on the Earth, ecology, and the environment I read that summer.  About that same time I received as a gift another one of Carson’s works, The Sense of Wonder, a book that is much easier to read and leans more toward the naturalist writings with which I feel more at home.

But for those who are not familiar with Rachel Carson, she spent most of her professional life as a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  But she also established herself as a naturalist writer, as well as an environmental advocate.  Silent Spring was a landmark book, published in 1962, that challenged our government and our nation as a whole on the wisdom of approving and using insecticides and pesticides such as DDT and Malathion without knowing the long-term consequences of doing so.  It raised the issues of decreasing wildlife, possible birth defects, and illnesses such as cancer and leukemia.  Carson is credited with helping keep the American Bald Eagle from extinction.  Because of her work, advocacy, and writings, Carson was instrumental in birthing the American environmental movement.  Carson made people think about the vital relationship between the environment and the human body and the effect that one has upon the other.  One of Carson’s classic quotes is “in nature nothing exists alone.”

Echoing the thought of the psalmist, one of the key concepts in Carson’s overall thought is “wonder.”  Wonder is a word that keeps cropping up in her writings.  “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder . . .” Carson wrote.  “Drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see,” she urged.

I will return to Carson, but in terms of wonder, let’s look for a moment at the thought of the psalmists and the psalm that served as our first reading today.  In this psalm, as in many of the psalms, the Hebrew poet links God as Creator and sustainer of the universe with the natural world.  For this psalmist, anyway, God is a “hands-on” God whose presence and power are manifested in Nature.  “I will remember your wonders of old,” the psalmist affirms.  “You are the God who works wonders.”

He continues in Psalm 77 to enumerate some of the wonders of creation that caused him to stand in amazement: the waters of the seas; the clouds that pour down rain; the lightning that splits and lights up the sky; the quakes that shake and rattle the earth.  Though not all of them include the word “wonder,” there are several creation psalms that celebrate the power and wonders manifested in the natural world.  I love the creation psalms, and they are some of the oldest literature in the Hebrew Scriptures.  These psalms call us, as well, to stand in amazement, wonder, and awe as we study the world of Nature.

Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “wonder” either in the passage where he encourages us to “Look at the birds air” and to “Consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:26, 28 ESV), I think he would have concurred with the psalmist and probably had a profound sense of wonder and respect for the natural world.

Well, returning to Rachel Carson, one of her hopes was that we might pass on to our children and grandchildren this  sense of wonder for the natural world.  In one of her most quoted passages, Carson expressed her wish that she could have the influence so that the “gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder . . .”  But then she goes even further and says, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”  What a joy befalls us as parents and grandparents and church leaders to try to instill and nurture the sense of creation wonder—an awe and admiration—in our children and grandchildren and children of our congregation by taking a walk with them in the woods; exploring the life that is present in mountain streams; taking them to a zoo to discover the diverse forms of animal and marine life in the world; helping them to learn to identify birds, trees, and flowers; and so on.

I feel blessed in that at least one of my grandchildren seems to have a naturalist leaning and love of the natural world like I do.  He enjoys filling the birdfeeders with me, and taking photographs of flowers and butterflies.  He has even started his own photo blog similar to my own; although, I can’t imagine where he got the idea to do so J .

And instilling a sense of wonder and awe for the natural world is one of the things Suzanne and I have sought to do in many of our Vacation Bible Schools these past few years.  “God’s Amazing Creation” (which focused on animals), “God’s Blue Earth” (which focused on water), and “God’s Green Earth” (which focused on plants) are three of past years’ VBS themes.  I think one of our callings and joys as a congregation is to instill within our children a sense of sacred wonder for all creation.

But for Rachel Carson, Earth wonder doesn’t just stop with a sense of wonder, awe, elation, and admiration for the beauty, majesty and complexity of the natural world.  For Carson, wonder is necessarily connected with humility and responsibility.  “Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions,” Carson noted, but “they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”  In another place Carson noted, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

I think that creation was a mixture of both wonder and sadness for Carson, as maybe it should be for all of us.  As she stood in wonder, amazement, and admiration of the beauty and complexity of life on earth, she also stood in sadness, alarm, and trepidation, realizing that the human race was responsible for putting all life on earth in great jeopardy through the use and release of toxins.  Carson’s sadness, alarm, and trepidation led her to do what she could to halt or at least slow down the forces of destruction as she saw them in her own day.

Few, if any, of us will ever write a book or become a recognized advocate for the environment on the scale that Rachel Carson did.  But maybe there are small steps that we can take to slow down destructive practices, as well as promote restoration to the earth in our own little part of the world.

As we continue to observe Earth Day this week, there are many to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for leading the way before us.  And one of those without a doubt is Rachel Carson.  From Carson we are encouraged to discover or rediscover that sense of “Creation Wonder” celebrated by the psalmists of old, pass on this sense of wonder to our children and grandchildren, but also to let our sense of wonder lead us to more responsible living and action.  May it be so for us, as individuals and as a congregation.  Amen.

Works Cited: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.  New York: Mariner Books, 1962.            Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder.  New York: Harper & Row, 1998.

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The Empowering Potential of Forgiveness

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, April 10, 2016

John 21:1-19 CEB

The post-Easter story of Jesus sharing bread and fish with some of his closest disciples at daybreak on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius is so rich with meaning and symbolism one hardly knows where to begin.  As I considered this story again this past week, I was reminded of that wonderful Native American saying: “I can’t say for sure it happened exactly this way, but I know it is true.”  In other words, sometimes the truth contained in a story lies much deeper than the historical facts or the literal words on the page.  So much truth having to do with early Christian beliefs, traditions, and teaching is packed into this delightful story.  It is one of those stories that lends itself well to following along in the pew Bible in front of you.

First, let’s consider some of the rich symbolism at play in the story.  We find Simon Peter and his companions once again on the Sea of Tiberius in their fishing boats.  It is as though the story has come full circle.  The Christian story began as Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and called Peter and Andrew, and James and John to follow him and become fishers of men.  This story ends with Jesus again calling Peter and the others to forsake their fishing boats and come “Follow me.”

Jesus instructs them to cast their net “on the right side” so as to catch fish.  They do so, and the net is full, so full you would think it would break; but it doesn’t.  I interpret this as being symbolic of “catching men” and having a full net, if they do it right.  Commentators point out that the verb having to do with them hauling or pulling in the net of fish is closely related to the verb used elsewhere in John to draw men and women to God through Jesus.  According to the book of Acts, Peter was responsible for bringing multitudes into the new Christian movement—a full net, if you will—with his sermon on Pentecost.

The text says Peter “was naked.”  In other words, he had removed his outer clothes so as to keep them dry as he worked with the nets in the sea.  When he realized it was Jesus standing on the shore, Peter wrapped his coat or outer garment about him.  To me the fact that Peter “was naked” says more about his emotional and spiritual state than it does about his physical appearance.  How do you think Peter would have been feeling, considering the fact that he had denied knowing Jesus three times the night he was arrested?  I think Peter would have been feeling quite guilty, ashamed, and vulnerable in the presence of Jesus, signified by the word “naked.”

And speaking of denying Jesus three times, and jumping ahead in the story a bit, it is no accident or coincidence that three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” corresponding, no doubt, to the three times Peter had denied knowing him.

Jesus taking the bread and giving it to the disciples, as well as the fish, is intended to be reminiscent of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  In fact, this story takes place not too far from where the miracle of the loaves and fishes and feeding of the 5,000 is said to have occurred.

Well, such are some of the most important elements of Christian tradition and symbolism that are at work in this story.

But then there are the important theological and emotional elements inherent in this story as well.  As already noted, there is the call to come follow and become a fisher of men.  There is the solemn warning that following Jesus entails sacrifice.  Jesus warns Peter that his life will end with a cross of his own.

But as I interpret it, one of the most important and perhaps less obvious points of this story has to do with forgiveness.  As already noted, Peter, along with the other disciples, had deserted Jesus on the night of his arrest.  All of them forsook Jesus and fled.  But Peter had also denied knowing Jesus as he stood outside in the courtyard where the trial was taking place.  Three times someone questioned Peter about being a companion of Jesus, and three times Peter denied it, finally pronouncing a curse and swearing he didn’t even know the man.

Now, it is interesting that in this story, Jesus never comes right out and says to Peter, “Peter, why did you deny knowing me?”  Jesus never singles Peter out in front of the other disciples to scold or chastise him for his failure.  Jesus doesn’t hold a grudge and take a leadership role away from Peter because of his failure and denial.  No, instead Jesus gently asks Peter, “Peter, do you love me?”  Though it is unspoken, but inherently understood, Jesus forgave Peter and affirmed his confidence in Peter and reaffirmed the bond of friendship between them as though the denial had never taken place.

And even though Jesus never comes right out and asks Peter why he denied him, and Jesus never comes right out and says, “Peter, I forgive you,” Peter knew.  I believe deep in his heart Peter knew that Jesus forgave him, reaffirmed confidence in him, and had commissioned him to be a representative in the world, if we take this story at face value.  I believe Peter realized the empowerment of forgiveness!

But have you ever stopped to consider how things would have turned out differently had Jesus not forgiven Peter for his denial and abandonment?  What if Jesus had written Peter off as being a traitor never to be trusted, or as being totally unreliable, or not worthy of a second chance?  How history would have turned out so much differently had Jesus not extended the grace of forgiveness and given Peter a second chance!  Had Jesus not extended the grace of forgiveness, Peter could have gone off into seclusion.  He could have lived out the rest of his life wracked with a guilty conscience.  He could have let his overwhelming sense of guilt lead to insanity.  Or worse, had he not experienced the grace of forgiveness, Peter could have ended up like Judas, taking his own life to escape the overwhelming burden of what he had done.

But because of the sense of empowerment that the grace of forgiveness worked in his life, Peter did become a number one ambassador for the Jesus movement, the one to whom the “Keys of the Kingdom” seemed to be given, the one that the Church Universal would look back upon as the Vicar of Christ.  How wondrous is the empowering potential of forgiveness!

Now, it seems to me that there are some important points in this story that hold wisdom for us and the lives we live today.  It is important for us to be reminded of the empowering potential of forgiveness in our everyday relationships.  Withholding forgiveness from another can have far-reaching negative effects.  I have to wonder how many lives of people incarcerated in our prisons, and how many lives of those housed in institutions for the mentally ill, have been severely impacted and negatively altered by either withholding forgiveness from someone who wronged them, or by being overwhelmed with guilt and remorse because someone in the formative years of their lives withheld forgiveness from them.

But on the opposite side of the issue, I have to wonder how many people just like Peter have gone on to make something wonderful of their lives because of the grace of empowerment that blessed their lives when someone forgave them a great wrong, and thus, setting them free.

The truth is, we hold within us—both as individuals and collectively as a congregation—the power to set others free from an overpowering sense of guilt as we extend to them the grace of forgiveness.  When others approach us with a sincere sense of remorse and guilt, seeking our forgiveness and blessing, we owe it to them to extend the empowering grace of forgiveness and set them free to make something good of their lives.

Yes, the Church has long entertained the belief that Jesus entrusted to Simon Peter the “Keys of the Kingdom of God.”  Whether we accept that view or not, it seems obvious that by extending the grace of forgiveness to Peter, Jesus empowered him with a new beginning and the confidence to go forth and make something wonderful of his life.

But the truth is, and the good news is, the same “Keys of the Kingdom” are entrusted to us.  That is, we, too, have within us the empowering potential of forgiveness.  May it be so for each of us in our daily lives, and may it be so for us collectively as a forgiving community of faith.  Amen.

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The Road to Emmaus

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, April 3, 2016

Luke 24:13-35 CEB

I would like to make one thing clear from the start: I have never heard God or Jesus audibly speak to me.  I have never heard a loved one who has passed speak to me.  And I have never seen a ghost.  So I have no personal experience with such things.

However, I have known people who have claimed to have heard the voice of God.  And I have known people who claimed to have heard a loved one who had passed speak to them.  And I have known people who claimed to have seen a vision or image of a loved one who had passed—a ghost, you will.

In one church that we served, we had two members who shared interesting stories with me.  Both of these members were sane, honest, upright, and trustworthy members.  One was on the church board, and the other a Sunday school teacher.  I had no reason whatsoever to question the stories they shared with me in confidence.  And since they shared their stories in confidence, I would never reveal their true identity.

One member shared how that some years after her mother had passed, she was sitting alone on a bench in a beautiful memorial garden when she heard a voice behind her speaking to her, calling her by name.  She recognized it as the voice of her mother.  She turned to look, but there was no one there.

The other member shared how that during the baptism of one her children, she looked to the back of the sanctuary and saw the image of her father standing there as I was baptizing her baby.  Her father had been dead for some years.

Now, as I said, these stories were shared with me in the strictest of confidence and independently of one another.  And because I knew these two members well, I had no reason to question their stories or their sincerity.

Well, I was reminded of these two stories as I reflected on Luke’s story about the road to Emmaus.  This story, by the way, is probably my favorite of all the Easter stories recorded in the four gospels.  The road to Emmaus story is a “warm and fuzzy” story.  But if we try to interpret this story as being 100% literally, factually, and historically accurate, it might perplex us a bit.  For instance, Luke says this happened “that very day,” the day the followers of Jesus found the empty tomb.  Two of his followers were walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.  Jesus happened along and joined them.  But they did not recognize him.  Why was that?  Why would they not recognize the very one they had known and were talking about as they walked?  But then we are told that after persuading Jesus to go into the house or inn with them (for it was nearly evening, and the day was almost over), they did recognize him when he took the bread, blessed it, and broke it.  Then he vanished from their sight.  Even though it was evening, the two followers returned the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples.  That is a total of 14 miles in one afternoon and evening!  It is possible, I suppose, but it is curious.

However, Marcus Borg contends that this story is more of a parable than an actual historical event.  Borg suggests that the true meanings of this story lie deeper than the literal words on the page.  As a parable, this story is intended to mean, according to Borg, that:

  • “The risen Christ journeys with us, is with us, whether we know it our not.
  • Sometimes there are moments when we do recognize this.
  • One of the ways the risen Christ comes to us is in the blessing, breaking, and sharing of bread. The Eucharistic overtones of this story are unmistakable,”1 Borg reminds us.  Indeed, the main point of this story has to do with the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Communion.  In other words, as the early followers of Jesus shared the bread and the cup as he had done with them, and in remembrance of him, it was as if they felt Jesus’ very presence in their midst.  And such is one of the reasons they felt like Jesus continued to live.

Such may also be why Protestant reformer John Calvin developed his theology of what is called by those of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches “the spiritual presence of Christ in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”  Whereas those of the Catholic Church had taught that the bread and the wine are miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ, a doctrine called transubstantiation; and Luther developed his own theory of what happens in, around, and under the bread and wine in Communion called consubstantiation; Calvin believed that nothing miraculous happens to the bread and wine or juice, but the “spiritual presence” of Christ is somehow especially present whenever Holy Communion is rightly administered.  And Calvin had biblical support for believing it so.

Now, I leave any belief about the miraculous involving the celebration of Holy Communion to each of you to decide for yourselves, just as I leave it to each of you to decide the merit of Calvin’s teaching about the “spiritual presence of Christ” when Holy Communion is celebrated.

But perhaps all of us can relate to the experience of feeling like a loved one who has passed is still present around the table at family gatherings.  Even though that person has died, because of the memories you have of them, the image of their face and smile you will forever hold dear in your mind and heart, how they were such a vital part of your family circle, the place where that person sat at the table, and so on—because of all these things it can feel like the person is spiritually present with you.

Frederick Buechner gave us a beautiful piece in this regard, a piece that I often use at memorial gatherings and graveside services.  Buechner wrote, “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are.  It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us.  It means that if we meet again, you will know me.  It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”

Maybe that is what the two church members I cited earlier did.  Maybe they were able to summon back their loved one, they could still see their face and hear their voice and speak to them in their hearts.  I don’t know.  But there was a special something that enabled one to hear the voice of her mother and the other to see the image of her father.

As we read the post-Easter stories of Jesus and his followers, there is a lot of mystery and there are a lot of unanswered questions that we would like answered.  Maybe Frederick Buechner and his comforting words can help us to understand how at least some of those early disciples could still remember the Jesus they knew; they carried something of him with them; they could summon him back to their minds, especially when they broke bread and shared the cup as he had done with them previously.  It means that even though he had died, they could still see his face and hear his voice and speak to him in their hearts.

In such a way, they could all say, “Jesus lives!”  Perhaps it is a perspective worth considering.  Amen.

1Marcus Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most.  New York: HarperOne, 2014, pp. 128-129.

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