A Root Cause of Many of the World’s Problems

 

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 15, 2017

1 John 4:7-9, 18 ESV

“What drives hate?” These are the first words on the first page of the January 4, 2017, issue of the Christian Century magazine.  Century editor, Peter W. Marty, shares that he had spent a day in December at the White House with rabbis, imams, and Christian clergy who had come together to learn as much as they could about the character of hate and the role that religious communities play in building a more humane world.1  By some estimates, hate crimes in the US have risen in recent months.

Well, Marty’s editorial got me to thinking about hate, and from where hate issues; what ignites and fuels it; in short, what could possibly be the root cause of hate, as well as some of the other problems of the world.  If we could get to the root cause of hatred and its siblings – prejudice, bigotry, persecution, and the like – then maybe we could eradicate at least some of the hatred in the world.

A totally different, but related, article in a recent edition of The Washington Post listed some of what are projected to be the major religion stories of 2017.  At the top of the list is “religious freedom.”  And we know that the antithesis of religious freedom is religious prejudice, bigotry, and hatred.

So, what might be the root cause – or one of the root causes, at least – of hatred and its associates?  The answer, I have decided, is in one word “fear.”  Fear can lead to suspicion, prejudice, bigotry, and ultimately hatred.  And as we all know, the outcome of hatred can be acts of violence.

Now, I have never been a real big fan of Christian theologian C.S. Lewis.  I tried to read C.S. Lewis while in seminary, but what I read just didn’t connect with me.  However, in his editorial, Peter Marty hits the nail on the head when he quotes C.S. Lewis who wrote in The Screwtape Letters, “Hatred is often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of fear.  The more he fears, the more he will hate.”  To paraphrase, if I don’t know you, then I may fear you.  And if I fear you, then ultimately I may hate you.  Such has been proven to be the case over and again in American history.  A few examples:

From colonial days, there was fear of the Black man, who wanted to “rape our white women.”  And such fear led to hatred of the Black man, which led to beatings and lynching, tar and feathering, and so on.

During World War II, there was fear of Japanese Americans.  Such fear was at least in part related to racism, which in turn led to innocent American citizens being rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps.

Many Americans are totally ignorant about the religious beliefs and practices of those who follow Sikhism, Shintoism, Islam, Buddhism and other world religions.  So if we don’t know them, we may fear them.  And if we fear them, it is deemed okay to hate and persecute them.

Those who have never personally known gay, lesbian or transgender persons may fear them.  And lack of knowledge and fear can lead to hatred, and hatred to acts of violence.

You see, the long and short of it is, as humans we tend to fear the unknown.  And one human coping mechanism to dealing with our fears of the unknown is to suspect, demonize, and grow to hate them.

So then, if fear is one of the root causes of hatred in the world, what might be its cure?  That is the million dollar question.  The Christian answer is love – love is the antidote to the hate of the world.  As Peter Marty says, “people of deep faith . . . [are] focused on wearing down hate-filled souls through beautiful acts of love.”1

Such is why I chose that reading from the First Letter of John.  John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 ESV).  Or as the Common English Bible renders it, “perfect love drives out fear.”

But before we are able to love someone who is of a different religion, nationality, ethnicity, worldview, or sexual orientation, we may need to get to know them.  Getting to know someone can dissolve away fear, which can lead to love, which results in doing away with hatred.

Allow me to share another, personal example: Prior to moving to Albany, New York, we had served pretty traditional, southern, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant congregations.  But moving to First Congregational Church in Albany – the capital of the state of New York and somewhat of an international city, with some 14 colleges and universities – proved to be a whole new experience.  We lived in a neighborhood that had a heavy population of Catholics, Conservative Jews, diverse nationalities, and some Hasidic Jews.  The lab tech who drew my blood every six months at the local hospital lab was Pakistani (and he was wonderful, by the way).  The congregation included not only white Congregationalists, but a few of Indian descent, African American descent, Jewish background, a Wiccan, and a few patients from the large Psych hospital down the street from the church.  But this was also our first encounter with openly gay and lesbian, same-sex couples who regularly attended church together.

Now, in my earlier years of ministry and previous congregations, I would have feared such diversity and the presence of “non-traditional” members.  I would have feared for the unrest or controversy that might have ensued within the congregations because of the vast diversity.  But you know what, when we got to know all those folks, we grew to love them, and all fear melted away.  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”  King also said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

An important American official wrote to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, affirming that “the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, [and] to persecution no assistance.”  Would you care to guess when that letter was written and by whom?  It was written at the end of the 18th century by President George Washington.  Could it be affirmed that what Washington declared about the United States giving bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance has always been the case, is the case today, and will be the case in the future?  Must we not confess that our nation has not always lived up to Washington’s promise?  And the current prospects seem iffy at best.

In summary, I am convinced that at least one root cause of hatred and other such problems that plague our country and our world is fear; fear of the unknown.  What and whom we don’t know, we fear.  And what and whom we fear, we can very easily come to hate.  And what and whom we come to hate, we feel justified in persecuting.

A cure for fear and hatred is getting to know.  So a positive step that each of us can take toward improving relations in our community and in our world is to make a point to get to know that person who is different by race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.  And when we really get to know, we may learn to love.  And love will cast out fear and its resulting consequence, hatred.  May it be so for us.  And God grant that it may be so for America.  Amen.

 1Peter W. Marty, “What drives  hate?” Christian Century, Jan. 4, 2017, p. 3.

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Forty Years of Ministry – Reflections Past and Present

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 8, 2017

1 Timothy 4:11-16 ESV

The last week of December was a significant milestone for me of sorts, and for Mary Lou and our children as well.  As the year 2016 closed, I completed 40 years of preaching and ministry.  I felt like 40 years of preaching and doing ministry was “sermon worthy,” and some reflections on ministry – both past and present – might prove to be interesting, instructive, and affirming.

That scripture passage that I read to you from the first letter of Timothy was a significant passage that served as a guiding star for me, in a manner of speaking.  Letting no one despise your youth, giving yourself to public reading of scripture and exhortation, not neglecting the gift you have within you, and the council of elders who give their blessing for ministry were all things that spoke to my life in an uncanny way as I struggled with commencing the path to ministry. That passage became my passage.  As suggested in that passage, like the supposed recipient of that letter who appears to have been quite young, I, too, was quite young when I began preaching – only 21 years of age.  The month I turned 22 was when I began “full-time” church work.

In those early years, I only got two vacation Sundays a year, which meant I preached at least 50 sermons every year for several years.  Eventually I worked up to three vacation Sundays a year, and then four, which meant preparing only 48 sermons a year.  The last few years, I have been fortunate to have our Director of Education and Assistant to the Minister preach six sermons a year.  And often it has worked out that I had a funeral or memorial service to prepare during those weeks that Suzanne has been scheduled to give the upcoming Sunday sermon, which has been a tremendous help.  But I guesstimate that over the past 40 years, I have delivered close to 1900 sermons, not counting wedding homilies and funeral and memorial service homilies.

The denomination I grew up in and entered the ministry in permits preaching (in the early years of the denomination it was called “exhortation”) before ordination or even before completing college and seminary.  One who feels called to preach and the ministry meets with a Committee on the Ministry, and if he or she is deemed to be gifted for preaching and ministry, then a blessing is given to preach and visit the congregation, but not to perform weddings or serve communion or other official duties.  Such was my case.  It was deemed that I did, indeed, have the passion, gifts, and calling for preaching and ministry, so I was given the Committee’s blessing and began preaching every Sunday at a little country church of about 60 members in January of 1977.  Our Sunday attendance generally ranged from 30-35.  On a special Sunday such as Easter, we might have 40 or 45.

But what was it that drew me to the ministry at that young age? you may be asking.  Pure and simple, it was sermon preparation and delivery.  My primary motivation for ministry in those early years was writing sermons.  I was drawn to taking a biblical passage or idea and then composing a sermon around it.  Initially I had no thoughts of being a full-time minister of a church, with all the day-in and day-out responsibilities that having oversight of a congregation entails.  I had seen some ministers get crossways with their congregations, or with a few powerful personalities in their congregations, with the result of the minister being run off.  I really didn’t relish such an idea J.  My original idea was to be a lay preacher or traveling preacher, filling in on Sundays or preaching special services, with no other responsibilities other than sermon preparation and delivery.

But God, the Universe, the church, or those I looked to for guidance had other plans.  I soon found myself on the fast track toward full-time Christian ministry and began making preparations accordingly.  During both my college work and my seminary work, my primary focus of interest was preaching and classes that I felt would enhance my preaching ministry.  So in college I majored in Philosophy & Religion with a second major in English writing and literature.  I took two college classes on logic, which were a tremendous help in organizing sermon material.  I loved literature, because it gave me material to draw from for my sermons.  And in seminary, and much later in my doctor of ministry program, I took more classes on sermon preparation and delivery than any other topic.  And I probably have read more books on the subject of sermon preparation and preaching than any other topic.

As an aside, I was reminded last week of a joke that a little girl played on me at church camp one year.  In those early years I spent a week each summer as a church camp counselor, taking along some of the children from the congregations I was serving.  One summer’s day, a third or fourth grade girl who attended the congregation I was serving came up to me at church camp and jokingly said, “What did you do with that money?”

Confused, thinking she had given me some of her money at the beginning of the week to take care of, I replied, “What money?”  She returned, “That money your Momma gave you for preaching lessons, because you sure didn’t use it to learn how to preach!”  And then she and the other kids skipped off, getting a good laugh at my expense.  Well, maybe you feel the same way today, wondering what I did with that money I was supposed to use for preaching lessons! J.

At any rate, as I said, I soon found myself in full-time church ministry, with all the day-in, day-out responsibilities and problems that are peculiar to being a local church pastor.  I served churches early on that were known to be difficult congregations because of the strong personalities and the different factions that were at odds with each other.  There were times when I got very discouraged and wondered whether I should stay in ministry.  But it was always the love of sermon preparation and preaching that kept me there.

Feeling the need for a change of pace, in 1989 our family moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where for 13 years we labored to gather a new congregation from scratch, grow a church, build a church building, and try to establish a strong, self-sufficient congregation.  That was the most difficult work – both emotionally and physically – I have done in ministry.

Then after years of struggle with my own personal theology and sense of self, I changed denominations as I identified with New England Congregationalists and transitioned to the United Church of Christ in 2002.  Then in 2008 we moved here to this United Church.

Well, fast forward to the present – I still have a love of sermon preparation and delivery.  I still relish coming up with and developing a sermon idea and starting a new sermon on Monday morning.  But I am willing to confess that some weeks it is a challenge to compose a new, fresh, interesting, informative sermon, and at least 46 times a year.

But as I reflect on the present, in addition to my love of sermon preparation, there is something more that energizes me in ministry; and that something more is this community, this special church family.  We have grown to love this church family dearly, and we are as close or closer to the people here than in any other congregation where we have been.  Yes, the real joy of ministry here has become the associations with you all – the members – and the loving relationships we have formed here.  I find it a real joy gathering here for services, Coffee Hour, Wednesday on the Hill potlucks, In Reach meetings, and other special gatherings because of the friends and smiling faces that I find each time I come here.

I appreciate the way that Richard and Joy Smith, Suzanne’s parents, put it.  As some of you know, Richard is a retired Baptist pastor.  He and Joy love coming to church here.  And if they didn’t live in Nashville, they would make this United Church their church home.  Richard has said of this United Church on more than one visit here, “This is what a church community is all about.”  That is a pretty significant statement, coming from one who spent several years as a pastor himself.  And I whole-heartedly agree with him.

So my conclusion this morning is an invitation – an invitation for you to pat yourselves on the back.  And if you can’t reach around to pat yourself on the back, then reach over and pat your neighbor on the back.  The United Church of Oak Ridge is a place where I feel free to preach as I feel led to preach.  But it is also a loving, supportive community of friends that makes coming here to preach an even greater joy.  So I thank you for that.  Amen.

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Stars, Wise Men and More – The Truth Behind the Stories

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 25, 2016

Matthew 2:1-12 ESV

There has been much speculation and much ink spilled over the Christmas Star, the Wise Men, the nature of the Christmas angels, and more over the centuries.  And each of these things does make for interesting topics to ponder.

For instance, biblical scholars, astronomers, and many others of different walks of life have gone to great lengths to try to precisely identify what constituted that Christmas star that is said to have guided the Wise Men or Magi to the Baby Jesus.  It has been conjectured to have been a super nova, a comet, or an alignment of the planets that constituted this unique light in the sky that caused the Wise Men to set forth on their journey and led them to the Christ Child.

And speaking of the Wise Men or Magi, who were they anyway?  What was their real profession?  And where did they come from?  And how many Wise Men were there?  And what were their names?  All of these questions and more have been researched, explored, and debated for 2,000 years.

And what about those Christmas angels?  What were they like?  What did they really look like?  How many of them appeared to the shepherds?  Do such beings actually exist and make appearances in our world?

And then there are the shepherds.  Why would an angel appear to shepherds, of all people on earth?  What role do they really play in the Christmas stories?

And finally, there is the manger.  Was it a side room or lower room of an inn?  Was it a wooden stable down the street?  Or as tradition says, was it a grotto or a cave?

As I have indicated, many have gone to great lengths over the centuries in efforts to accurately identify and prove as fact the nature of that Christmas star, the historical truth and identity of the Wise Men, the certainty of the angels appearing to the shepherds, and more.  And for so many Christians, the integrity of the Christmas stories rests upon the actual, historic accuracy of these Christmas icons.  In other words, for the Christmas stories to be true, the star, wise men, angels, and so on must be proved and accepted as fact.

And such is where I was some 40 years ago.  If you could have seen me studying the Christmas stories 40 years ago, you would have witnessed me pouring over biblical commentaries, Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries and such  trying to determine what that Christmas star really was, and where the Wise Men came from and what their nationalities were, what those angels were really like, and so on.  But is setting out to prove as fact and historically accurate all of those Christmas icons the only way to find meaning in the Christmas stories?

Another – and I have decided better – way to approach the Christmas stories and those Christmas icons is to try to see the truth behind the stories and symbols.  Was Matthew more interested in us trying to determine the nature of that Christmas star, or the truth behind the star that he was trying to share with the world?  Was it important to Matthew that we really know where the Wise Men came from, what their nationalities and names were?  Or was he more concerned that we understand what the Wise Men stood for?  And was Luke’s aim to cause the Jesus followers to speculate and debate the nature of those Christmas angels and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (as was debated at one time in church history), or to see behind the angels to the truth about this Child as he saw it?

We have said it here at the United Church more than once – the power and beauty behind a good story, behind any story, lie not in the historical accuracy or the unmitigated facts of the story, but in the truth behind the story or the truth behind the symbols or metaphors that story contains.  And such is certainly the nature of the Christmas stories.  One doesn’t have to believe in every historical detail or fact in the Christmas stories to love and appreciate them and take truth from them.

Take the star, for instance.  To me, the truth behind the Christmas star – regardless of what that star may or may not have been – that Matthew was trying to get across is the birth of Jesus was a cosmic event.  It was an event that was bound up in the order of the universe.  For Matthew, the birth of Jesus was unlike any other that had come before or would come afterwards.  For the ancients, the rising of a new light in the sky indicated the birth of a new king.  Matthew’s point was that Jesus was a new king, the new King of the Jews, but of cosmic proportions.

The Wise Men symbolized the fact that though Jesus was the new King of the Jews, he was much, much more.  He was also to be King of the Gentiles who also recognized his royalty and traveled from afar bringing gifts suited to royalty after the manner of those who had traveled to King Solomon  of old bringing him gifts.  Jesus was to be King over the whole world.

The angels?  Well, they signify that the birth of Jesus was of heavenly origins and heavenly blessed.  For Luke, Jesus’ birth was not just an ordinary birth.  It was other worldly.

What was the significance of the shepherds?  As I have pointed out previously, the shepherds were of the lowliest of society of that day.  In Luke’s frame of reference, Jesus came for all the lowliest of the world – the outcasts, oppressed, prostitutes, tax collectors, crippled, and others who were shunned and looked down upon in Jesus’ day.  And the shepherds, who were also often looked down upon, embody the good news of Luke’s Christmas story, revealing that the love of God revealed in the birth of Jesus is for everyone – no one excluded.

And what about the fact that Jesus was born in a manger, whatever the nature of that manger might really have been?  Jesus was born in the lowliest, most humble of circumstances, making him accessible to the most common people of the earth.  But could Luke also have been foreshadowing by pointing out just as there was “no room in the inn” for the Baby Jesus, there would be no room for him in the world?

We could go on.  But the point is, if we get too caught up in trying to prove the facts or explain the physical aspects of the Christmas stories, we may miss out on the powerful spiritual and theological truths behind the stories.  And it is the spiritual and theological truths that really hold meaning for our lives and that continue to draw us back to those stories time and again.

So, when we consider all those elements of the Christmas stories that all of us have come to love – the star, Wise Men, angels, shepherds, and the like – the question to ask is not, “Are these things historically true, 100% factual in every detail?”  Who can really know that, as no one was there to record the events when they actually happened?

Rather, the question to ask is, “What do these things mean?”  What meaning, what hope, what good news, what promise is behind the physical images or icons?  For Matthew, these Christmas icons symbolize the cosmic and other-worldly nature of Jesus, one unlike any other.  For Luke, these Christmas icons are the good news that Jesus’ birth was blessed by heaven, and Jesus was born for everybody; none of the earth’s lowliest are excluded from the love and grace of God revealed in the birth of Jesus.

We thank God for these wonderful, beautiful stories and Christmas images that have become such a cherished part of our faith – the manger, shepherds, angels, Wise Men, and star.  Our lives are so much the richer for them.  But we thank God even more for the powerful spiritual and theological truths behind the stories and images.  Therein really lies the good news for our lives.  Amen.

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Seize the Joy!

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 18, 2016

Psalm 30:4-5 ESV; Luke 1:26-44 CEB

“Don’t Hesitate,” by Mary Oliver

The words “joy” and “rejoice” are two of the most common words during the Advent-Christmas season.  They crop up everywhere.  For instance, we find the words joy and rejoice at least five times in the biblical Christmas stories:

The angel to Zechariah, foretelling the birth of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, “you will have joy and gladness” (Luke 1:14).

Elizabeth’s exclamation that “the baby in my womb [John the Baptist] leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44).

The angel Gabriel to Mary, “Rejoice, favored one” (Luke 1:28 CEB).

The angel to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10).

And of the Wise Men, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (Matthew

2:10).

And then as you would imagine, “joy” and “rejoice” show up in several Christmas carols:

“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!”

“Shepherds, why this jubiliee?  Why your joyous strains prolong?”

“Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies;”

“Good Christian men, rejoice, With heart and soul and voice;”

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,”

“O tidings of comfort and joy,”

And then one of the most popular of all, “Joy to the World!  The Lord is come:”

You get the picture – Joy and rejoicing are at the very heart of the Advent-Christmas season.  So it should not surprise us that the fourth candle of the Advent Wreath would be the Candle of Joy.

Yet, not everyone experiences this radiant joy –  this sense of delight or gladness – that is so much a part of the Advent-Christmas season during the month of December, even those who might be expected to be the most joyous.  I clipped a cartoon from the Wall Street Journal this past week depicting Santa Claus stretched out on a therapist’s couch and confessing to the therapist, “It’s not easy always being jolly” (“Pepper . . . And Salt,” WSJ, 12-12-16).  Perhaps some of us can relate to that.  For a variety of reasons, many find the days leading up to the holidays to be the most joyless days of the year.  Financial stresses, from not having money to pay the bills, to no money to buy Christmas gifts for loved ones; less sunlight and more hours of darkness, leading to Seasonal Affective Disorder; missing loved ones who have died, as an empty chair at the table or around the Christmas tree is a reminder of the loss, making Christmas the hardest time of all; and other situations can make for a joy-less Advent-Christmas season for many.

But every now and then, we do well to be reminded that even in some of life’s darkest days and hardest situations, at least some joy is possible.  Fellow United Church of Christ preacher Lillian Daniel pointed this out in a recent online devotional.  Daniel says, “Don’t promise me that I will be happy.  Tell me instead about joy.  Happiness is a feeling,” Daniel contends, “brought on by inner and outer circumstances.  But joy is a theological concept that speaks to more than feelings or circumstances.” Daniel quotes a Harvard psychology lecturer who observes, “joy is the intersection of deep pleasure and deep meaning.  Joy can occur even in unhappy situations. . . Joy is pure grace, a gift that is bigger than our human imaginations and sneaks up on us like a silent friend with a soft should to cry on.  Joy is big enough to contain our deeply felt tears,” Daniel concludes (UCC still speaking Daily Devotional, Nov. 30, 2016).

Yes, as Daniel points out, joy can be present even in the midst of pain, sacrifice, or loss.  The psalmist of old knew and testified to this when he said, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5 ESV).  A good example of this is a funeral or memorial service.  When we gather here in the Chapel for a funeral or memorial service, we have suffered a great loss, one of the greatest losses known to humankind.  And as we do so, none of us are really happy.  But at the same time, most of our funerals and memorial services are also now looked upon as celebrations of life.  Even as we gather during our time of grief and loss, there is still a sense of deep, abiding joy for the life that our loved one lived, how they touched our lives, and how they helped make the world a better place.  And for many there is joy because of the hope that cherished for some sort of existence or life beyond death.

And yet, I am inclined to think that often joy doesn’t just come to us, whether we are open to it or not.  As Daniel points out, “joy is pure grace, a gift. . .”  But joy doesn’t necessarily force itself upon us.  We have to be open to it.  A gift is something that needs to be received and appreciated.  As we consider the Christmas stories, Mary had to make herself open to the unexpected joyous news that she – as an unwed teenager – was with child.  And the “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” had to be open to the angels’ message of “good tidings of great joy” and make a conscious decision to “go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass” (Luke 2:8, 10, 15 KJV).  What if the shepherds in the Christmas story had not been open to the gift of joy – the grace of joy – as it was presented to them?  What if the shepherds had hesitated or argued among themselves – It’s too late in the night to go trapsing off to Bethlehem.  It’s too cold.  I’m too tired.  What if they had not been open to the joy?  They would have missed out on the greatest blessing ever.

And so, I fear that all too often we miss out on so much of life’s joys because we were too busy, too preoccupied to notice, perhaps too skeptical to open ourselves to the possibilities.  And that is why if an experience of joy presents itself to us, we need to be open to it, we need to embrace it, we need to receive it as the sacred gift of grace that it is.

Surely this is one of the most important lessons to be learned in the season of Advent – Seize the joy! when it avails itself to us!  And such is why I chose that short reading by Mary Oliver titled “Don’t Hesitate.”  “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.  Give in to it.”  How many times in life have we hesitated in the presence of joy!  How many times in life have we ignored joy, been too busy, gone on our not-so-merry way, missing out on the gracious gift of joy as it came to us?

Christmas gatherings with family and friends present wonderful opportunities for us to be open to the joy as it presents itself to us.  But let’s just be honest with ourselves: It can be so easy to have the attitude of, “Well, let’s just go and get this family dinner or neighborhood gathering or work office party over and done with.”  Anyone care to admit you have been there?  But what if we went into such situations with a conscious intent of engaging in some real conversation with someone, or with the determination to be open to some good news that someone might have to share with us, or with the aim of doing some kind deed or saying some kind word to brighten someone’s day.  Perhaps if we did so, we might open ourselves to some gracious gifts of joy.

Yes, joy and rejoicing are at the heart of the Advent-Christmas season.  Let’s be careful that we don’t get so caught up in the hectic pace, the factors that can lead to stress, and the personality differences we have with others that we miss out on the joy and rejoicing that we sing about.  May our fourth Sunday of Advent resolve be that we are going to seize the joy!  Amen.

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What Is Our Business Anyway?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 11, 2016

Amos 5:14-15; John 13:34-35 ESV

Reading from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

What is our business as a church, anyway?  That is the question of the day.  In some respects, the American Church seems to be floundering.  Perhaps the American Church is in the midst of an identity crisis and is unsure of what its business really is.  On the one hand, thousands of small churches of several Christian denominations close their doors every year.  On the other hand, the past couple of decades we have witnessed the rise of several so-called “mega-churches,” entities that look somewhat like small corporations with structures and parking lots that are very similar to shopping malls.  And some of the things that are offered inside these mega-churches remind one of shopping malls as well – juice bars, workout rooms, food courts, bookstores, and more.  I am not passing judgment, mind you.  I am just stating the facts and reminding us how the American Church is undergoing transformation and, at the same time, possibly changing its “way of doing business.”

And as you well know, different churches and different denominations can sharply disagree over what the nature of the Church’s business is.  Priorities of different churches range from nothing but saving souls, to withdrawing and separating from the world, to instruction in holiness and saintly perfection, to promoting lives of prosperity, to comforting the troubled, to demonstrating and marching and political activism, to going on mission trips and running soup kitchens, and more.  With so many different churches having such diverse ideas of what it means to be a church, it causes us to ask again, “What is the church’s business anyway?”

The church’s business has always been a point of controversy and cause for disagreement, even from the earliest days of the Jesus movement.  We see the problem surface, for example, in the book of Acts from the issue of which groups of people the church should be reaching out to, to how the church should collect and spend its money, to how involved the church should be in social issues (i.e., taking care of orphans and widows), to guidelines regarding who should be included and who should be excluded from its fellowship and what restrictions should be placed upon membership, and so on.  The followers of Jesus sought to hash out these issues as they met in church councils where they passionately debated their differences of opinion and tried to come to some consensus among themselves.  At least part of what they were seeking to hash out had to do with the nature of what the church’s business ought to be.

But the issue of the business of the people of God reached much further back than the first-century church.  There were differences of opinion among the ancient Christian ancestors – the Jewish people – as to what the business of the Jews, the Covenant Community, should be as well.  And the business of the Covenant Community evolved and matured over time, culminating in the Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah.  Amos concluded that the purpose of God’s people is to seek to do good, to love the good, and to work for justice in the land.  Isaiah would come along and add that the purpose of God’s people is to be a servant people and a light to all the world.

And then some 800 years later, Jesus came along in the spirit of those 8th century prophets, echoing and refining the call to be a light to the world, to focus on mercy and justice, and to live lives of compassionate service.  But Jesus also added the injunction to love: “A new commandment I give to you,” Jesus said, “that you love one another; . . . By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  In these six little, yet oh so powerful words – “light, mercy, justice, compassion, service, and love” – we see a summary of what Christ-followers and God-followers in general are to be about.  This is to be our business individually; and this is to be our business collectively as a church.

The nature of our business is echoed by Charles Dickens through the voice of Marley’s Ghost in that all-time classic, A Christmas Carol.  I love that little book.  And I love watching one of the many movie versions of the story.  In fact, I have our DVR set to tape two different versions in the coming week so I can watch it again.  Did you know that at least 20 different movie versions have been made of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?  And it has been played out on the stage too many times to number?

And let us be reminded that A Christmas Carol is not a cute little children’s Christmas story, as we might sometimes be inclined to think.  No, A Christmas Carol was a biting social commentary on the social injustices that were prevalent in the London of Dickens’ day.  Dickens was a passionate social critic who sought social reform, using his writings and fame and influence to speak out against poverty, child labor, slavery, and other injustices of the day.  He also worked to help get prostitutes off the street.

The passage that I read to you can be looked upon as a pivotal thesis of the entire story.  When Scrooge says to the ghost of his deceased business partner Marley, “You were always a good man of business,” Marley’s ghost screams back a point Dickens was trying to get across to the readers of his own day.  And it is the point that we dare not miss as well as we seek to determine the nature of our business today: “’Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.’”  This is my all-time favorite Dickens’ passage, and in my opinion one of the most important passages he wrote.  It gives me chills every time I read it anew or hear Marley’s Ghost exclaim it in the movie.

In having Marley’s Ghost say what he said, Dickens was echoing the 8th century Hebrew prophets, and especially Jesus.  Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence – these are all our business as well!

There was a time in the American Church – just over 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century – when the Church seemed to have a clearer vision of what its business was.  It was a movement that is looked back upon as the “Social Gospel Movement.”  Two American ministers – Congregationalist Washington Gladden and an American Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch – are credited as the two of the fathers of it.  Gladden is best known for writing the hymn, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.”  He was one of the first to insist that Christian commitment should be translated into action in order to address current social problems.  Or to put it another way, Gladden called for a “universal application of Christian values in everyday life.”  The Social Gospel Movement sought to bring the Christian Gospel to bear upon social issues and injustices in the areas of poverty, slums, mandatory education and health care for the needy, labor reforms (including abolishing child labor and regulating the number of hours worked each week), providing daycare, and other issues.  In other words, the leaders of the Social Gospel Movement channeled the spirit of Charles Dickens, it seems – and the Hebrew prophets and Jesus before him – as they understood that “mankind is our business.  The common welfare is our business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, are all our business!”

Now, on the one hand, the spirit of the Social Gospel Movement continued to live on in the work and policies of some who came later – in the New Deal of FDR and the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., to name two.  But on the other hand, much of the American Church seems to have forgotten about this all-important business of the church, as movements in other directions – the prosperity gospel, feel-good religion, Fundamentalism, hyper Evangelicalism, demonstrations and marches and political activism – have taken center stage.

But in the end, the 8th century prophets and Jesus call us back to the Church’s real business, if we are willing to read them and hear them.  And every year at this time, Charles Dickens’ serves to remind us as well of what our everyday business, as individuals and as a congregation, is really about.  As with Scrooge, we do well to heed the reminder while we still have time to do so:  Humankind is our business.  The common welfare is our business; mercy, justice, compassion, service, charity, forbearance, and benevolence – these are all our business!  May it be so with us during this Advent-Christmas season, and in the year ahead as well.  Amen.

 

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The Soul’s Last Defense

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 27, 2016

Psalm 42:5-11; Matthew 12:15-21 ESV

Poem #254 by Emily Dickinson

Hope – from the beginning of human history it has been the soul’s last defense.  So it is fitting, and it should not surprise us, that the theme for the beginning of the season of Advent would be hope.  But not only is today the beginning of Advent; today is also the beginning of the Christian Church year.  Lectionary readings, some Sunday school curricula, and many ministers’ worship and sermon resources begin with the first Sunday of Advent.  So what more appropriate note to begin the season on than the note of hope?

Perhaps that is one reason that the first Sunday of Advent is one of my favorite services of the entire year.  You notice that the service begins on a somber note with the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  The words of the hymn reinforce the somber mood: “lonely, exile, gloomy clouds, death’s dark shadows, envy, quarrels, and strife.”  The Invocation and the Responsive Reading also acknowledge the darkness, cold, and period of waiting.  But as the service progresses, we gradually move from the opening somber mood, emphasizing more the gift of hope, to a more upbeat mood as we look toward the Light, ending the service on a note of joy by singing, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”:

“Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;

dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.”

But back to hope.  As I said, from the beginning of human history, hope has been the soul’s last defense.  In so many of life’s situations, hope is the eternal thing we hold onto.  In times of trouble, illness, calamity and loss, the last thing we cling to is hope that things will change for the better,that restored health will come, that a better day is waiting.  We see this throughout the ancient book of Job, for instance.  So much of the story of Job is about hope that his voice will be heard, that he will be vindicated, that justice will be done.

When the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness comes, we cling to hope that there is a cure.  The last defense of families who have missing loved ones is hope that they are still alive and will be found.  Families who live in impoverished communities where the opportunities for employment have closed or moved out of state cling to hope that something will come along to make things better again.  Yes, when nothing else is left in life – when health is threatened, when the family finances are in ruins, when the country or the world seems to be in shambles – the last thing to go is hope.  And if all hope is gone, so goes life itself.  The loss of all hope can cause people to give up and die, or go in a different direction and commit horrific acts of violence.  Indeed, hope is the essential, foundational support that upholds the human soul.

We see this clinging to hope in the Psalms over and again.  I could have chosen from any number of the Psalms that deal with hope.  But Psalm 42 seemed to be most appropriate for the day.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?” the Psalmist asks.  “And why are you in turmoil within me?”

I say to God, “Why have you forgotten me?  Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”

Even though this psalm was written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, the spirit of it makes it such that it could have been written the year Jesus was born.  The mood of the Jewish people was somber when Jesus was born into the world.  They were living under the harsh oppression of the mighty Roman Empire.  They found life oppressive, both politically and religiously.  They hoped and longed for a Messiah, a deliverer, to set them free, make things right, give them a better life.  As Isaiah the prophet had also put it hundreds of years earlier, and was later quoted by the gospel writer of Matthew, they longed for the One who would “bring justice to victory,” One in whom the whole world would find their hope.  Yes, the early Jesus followers saw in him the manifestation of hope they had been longing for.

Thus, throughout the season of Advent, we lift up the hope that Jesus brought to the world and that the celebration of his birth brings to us anew.  And in keeping with our Advent theme, “All I Want for Christmas,” don’t we all have to acknowledge that one of the things that we need and desire most during the Advent-Christmas season is renewed hope – hope of health and happiness for ourselves and those we love, hope for a better world, hope for restored relationships, hope for a life blessed with love?

It follows that imparters of hope is what we are to be about as well, individually and collectively as a congregation.  Offering hope to our members, the community and the wider world is at least part of our calling, our mission, and our privilege.  To give a few examples, every month our In Reach group gathers to write cards of encouragement to 40-50 of our members and extended church members.  For many who receive those cards, they are nothing short of missives of hope that convey the message, “Someone still remembers me; someone is thinking of me; someone is praying for my recovery or well-being; someone is there that I can call upon in the time of need.

Whenever we make a visit to the hospital, nursing home or retirement home, one of the graces that we carry with us is the gift of hope.  Whenever we counsel with someone who is wrestling with a problem that seems insurmountable or hopeless, by listening and asking questions and exploring options, we are extending hope.

When people of our community call for financial assistance on their utilities or rent and we say we can offer some help, we offer hope that their heat will stay on or they will not be evicted.  To share just one example, we recently received a phone call from a young, single (widowed) mother of two who is struggling to make ends meet.  The thing she needed most, she said, was an electric heater to keep her and her kids warm, because she had not come up with the big deposit to have the gas turned on in her new apartment.  A quick trip down to Ace Hardware to pay for a heater from the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund offered her some much needed hope.  She was more than grateful.

We could cite other examples.  But by being the open, loving, caring, supportive community of faith that we are, in so many different ways we are bearers of hope to those who enter our doors.  That has been a prophetic vision of what the faith community is intended to be from at least the 7th century BCE and the prophet Isaiah.

Regarding hope, poet Emily Dickinson had some insightful perspectives.  That is why I chose as a third reading for today one of her poems, the one in which she compares “Hope” to a “thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all –“  What I hear her saying is hope is that ever-present entity that hangs on during the storms and gales of life, refusing to let go.  Hope is that thing in the soul that gives warmth and comfort during those cold, difficult periods of life.

And so, returning to the psalmist, in spite of the turmoil raging all around him, he was able to say to his own soul: “Hope in God: . . . my salvation and my God.”   That might be our Advent testimony as well, in spite of all that troubles us and causes us to be downcast; in spite of all the violence and political and religious turmoil swirling in the world around us.  Advent comes bearing the torch of hope – hope that Jesus’ birth does make a difference; hope that the Christmas message will continue to change hearts and lives; hope that peace and goodwill will grow stronger across the earth.  That is the Advent hope.  May we embrace this hope anew as we begin the season of Advent together. Amen.

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Some Practical Considerations Involving Gratitude

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 20, 2016

Psalm 100 ESV; 2 Corinthians 9:8-12 GNT

You may have heard or possibly even remember singing the old gospel hymn titled “Count Your Blessings.”  The hymn counsels that during times of trouble, discouragement, burdens, bouts of envy over others’ successes, and times of conflict to focus upon your blessings rather than bemoaning the negative things in your life.  And the refrain goes,

“Count your blessings, Name them one by one; Count your many blessings, See what God hath done.”

Well, our first response might be that such is a bit simplistic or a shallow perspective upon life.  Life is not always that simple and clear-cut so that you can just turn off all those negative things that you are dealing with and put on a happy face as you count your blessings.  And to be honest with you, I had completely forgotten about that gospel hymn; I hadn’t thought about it for years.

But then, in preparing today’s Thanksgiving sermon, that “Count Your Blessings” hymn jumped from the back recesses of my mind after reading an article that someone sent me that was published last December in the Denver Post.1  The article is titled “For the new year, focus on what is positive in your life,” and it was written by Neil Rosenthal, a licensed marriage and family therapist and published author.  Rosenthal begins his article with the contention that putting more effort into being grateful holds the possibility of being life-transformative.

Rosenthal reminds us that if we focus our attentions on all the bad things in our lives, we will end up feeling lousy all the time.  That is sort of elementary, isn’t it?  Conversely, only when we focus our attentions on what is good in our lives will we feel better.  What Rosenthal suggests is keeping a running list or a personal journal of sorts of all the positive experiences, people, and events in your life that you can be grateful for.  Did you meet a new friend?  Did you accomplish something good?  Were you able to exercise a skill, talent or creativity that recharged your battery?  Did you bless someone else’s life by being kind or generous?  Were you proud of yourself for successfully facing a challenge or adversity?  Did someone show love to you?  Did you in some way experience personal growth?  Have you set an exciting goal for your life for the future?  Can you anticipate something exciting in the days or weeks ahead, such as travel, a new class, or beginning a new hobby?   Any and all of these examples could easily become reasons for gratitude and thanksgiving.

And so, drawing on the thought of the Apostle Paul, a spirit of gratitude or thanksgiving is a natural response to the graces evident in our lives.   It is somewhat of a law of nature: instances of grace and blessing lead to our response of gratitude and thanksgiving.  Or, we might look upon it as a case of cause and effect – grace and blessings naturally result in gratitude and thanksgiving.  And so, if we take time to consider or catalog the many instances of grace or blessing occurring in our lives (as suggested above), the outcome of gratitude and thanksgiving are the almost-certain byproducts.

Paul also seems to indicate in this second letter to the Corinthians that the spirit and practice of generosity and a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving can be contagious and have positive, rippling effects in the community.  Generosity begets more generosity, resulting in thanksgiving; and thanksgiving and gratitude tend to multiply like yeast rolls rise and expand, sharing their wonderful aroma and flavor with all concerned.  Gratitude and thanksgiving have a way of reproducing themselves.

We all know how one negative personality can adversely affect the whole group, whether it be at a family gathering, a church committee or board meeting, or throughout an entire congregation.  Conversely, one positive personality who is always gracious and thankful and smiling can bring a positive atmosphere wherever they go.  I may have mentioned some years ago a former church member and music director in one of the churches I served.  Lou was always smiling and always positive and always joyful and always complimentary.  In that particular church sanctuary, the choir was to the right of the pulpit.  It didn’t matter when I turned to look at the choir.  Lou was always sitting on the front row of the choir, and he was always smiling.  So any time I needed some affirmation in the course of a sermon, I would turn and look at Lou who would be smiling at me.  And both Lou and his wife, Louise, had a gracious spirit and regularly said “Thank you.”  “Thank you for the sermon today.” Or, “Thank you for the visit.”  And their gracious, thankful spirit was contagious.

Now, I have to admit that I am one who doesn’t say “thank you” nearly often enough.  Maybe you feel the same way about yourself.  Why do you suppose that is?  I surmise that one reason may be that we just take it for granted that others know we are grateful, so we don’t have to verbalize it.  I am especially guilty with loved ones, as I don’t always say “thank you” when they do something nice for me.  I guess I just take it for granted that they know I am grateful.  But do they?  But how might our lives, our families, our circle of friends, our community of faith be different if we all were more intentional about actually verbalizing and demonstrating our gratitude and thanks?

And just as things that happen in our lives worthy of gratitude and thanksgiving are many and varied, so are the opportunities for us to say a word of thanks to others: Thank you for that dish you brought to Wednesday night potluck.  Thank you for the good job you did in planning that program.  Thank you for that phone call or visit or “Thinking of You” card when I really needed it.  Thank you for sharing your music, or singing, or other talent.  Thank you for your help on that project or for the good job you did in leading that meeting.  The possibilities are endless.

And there is one more thing having to do with practical considerations involving gratitude: Expressing gratitude and thanks to others is a way of building bridges that can help connect our divided world.  Writer Alan Epstein suggests, “Thank someone for something.  Go out of your way today to acknowledge the generosity of a person you know.  It doesn’t matter if you have known this man or woman your entire life, or have just met him or her and don’t know if you will ever see the person again.  Thanking him for a service rendered, or a favor given, or for help of some kind will enlarge your personal community to include yet another person.

“Do you patronize a business establishment that always provides you with excellent service?” he asks.  “Thank the proprietor, or tell an employee how much you appreciate the way you are treated every time you walk in. . .

“Thanking someone for a service rendered builds community, as well as friendship.  It makes even the most insignificant encounters, like a stranger holding the door for you at the deli, all the more meaningful.  It’s a way for two people who will probably never know each other’s names to connect, even for a moment.”2

And so, the bottom line is, it seems that “counting our blessings” as that old gospel hymn says and cultivating a spirit of gratitude and being more intentional about showing our thanks to others hold the possibilities of transforming our own lives, transforming the world by multiplying the spirit of thanksgiving, and of building bridges of connection with others.  Gratitude and thanksgiving are, indeed, good for the soul, good for the community, and good for the world at large.  May it be so with each of us this Thanksgiving week and always.  Amen.

 

1Neil Rosenthal, The Denver Post.  Thursday, December 31, 2015.

2Alan Epstein, How to Have More Love in Your Life.  Quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, pp. 490-491.

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