Seeking Sanctuary

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 22, 2015 (1st in Lent)

Mark 1:32-39 GNT

A wonderful depiction of how those in the helping professions need to regularly get away for a time apart—to a place of sanctuary—is the movie titled What About Bob?  What About Bob is the story of psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Richard Dreyfuss), who also happens to be an aspiring famous author.  Opposite Dr. Marvin is a new and overly OCD, neurotic, multi-phobic patient, Bob Wiley (played by Bill Murray), who threatens to drive the good doctor crazy.

Well, Dr. Marvin is all set for a month-long summer family vacation in a small New Hampshire town.  While there, he is scheduled for an interview with Good Morning America to promote his new bookDr. Marvin gives patient Bob strict orders to not contact him while he is away.  But the thought of Dr. Marvin’s prolonged absence is more than Bob can handle, so he connives his way past Dr. Marvin’s answering service and finds out exactly where Dr. Marvin and his family are vacationing, and he tracks them down.  And so, throughout the family’s entire summer vacation, Bob weeds his way into all the family activities, becoming close friends with Dr. Marvin’s wife and kids.  And the longer it goes, the healthier Bob becomes and the crazier Dr. Marvin becomes.  In the end, Dr. Marvin totally loses touch with reality and ends up an invalid, while Bob has blossomed into a healthy, outgoing individual.  In the process, Bob has sucked the life right out of Dr. Marvin.

As I noted at the beginning, the movie is a wonderful example, especially for those in the helping professions, of how we need to take care of ourselves by taking times apart.  All of us—but especially those who deal with the problems of others day in and day out—need time away; need places of sanctuary.

“Sanctuary” is a concept rich in meaning that goes way back.  We may most often think of “sanctuary” as a place of safety or refuge.  Such it often is.  But “sanctuary” can also signify a place of the Spirit, a place of soul restoration.

One message in the scripture passage I chose for this first Sunday in Lent is even the strongest individuals need sanctuary every now and then.  One could rightly say that as Mark tells his story, which is repeated in other gospels as well, Jesus was in the helping profession.  People constantly came to Jesus seeking healing, comfort, solace, or release from whatever demons that plagued them.  If we can accept the gospel writers at face value, people pressed upon Jesus night and day to the extent that he could barely find time to rest.  And so, in Mark’s story that I read to you, very early in the morning, long before sunrise, Jesus got up and went out of town to a deserted place, where he prayed.  In other words, Jesus was seeking time apart.  He was seeking a place of sanctuary.  A place where he could be restored and rejuvenated.  A place where he could rest his body, but also re-energize his soul.  He needed that regularly, as we all do.  One of the favorite places that Jesus was wont to retire to for prayer and renewal was the Garden of Gethsemane, a beautiful and peaceful grove of olive trees in the valley below Jerusalem.  We should not forget that the traditional story for this first Sunday in Lent is that of Jesus going into the wilderness for a vision quest of sorts where he fasted and prayed for several days prior to beginning his ministry.  As the gospels show, Jesus would return to the desert, wilderness, or lonely places, time and again.

Just as Jesus had his favorite places of sanctuary, so do we need a place of sanctuary that suits our needs.  One of the books that I received for Christmas is by local author, J. Greg Johnson, and is titled Sanctuary: Meditations from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  In fact, it was this book that prompted and inspired today’s sermon.  Johnson writes from a Christian perspective and blends his Christian thoughts with his own life journey, as well as information about various trails and historic places in the Great Smoky Mountains.  He relates how for him the Great Smoky Mountains has proved to be a wonderful place of sanctuary and how he often has found solace, comfort, new insights, and new hope in the time he has spent there.  In one of my favorite passages from the book, Johnson says, “Perhaps sanctuary is found not behind fortified walls and locked doors, like in the monastic days of old, but rather it is found in that place where we can open ourselves up, unlock those things we’ve kept closed up inside of us and tear down the walls that separate us from God and others. . . .  Sanctuary is a place of grace, where unmerited and unconditional love flow freely, where acceptance is unquestioned and affirmation comes quickly and often” (Sanctuary, 151).1

I most like Johnson’s idea that “sanctuary is a place of grace.”  I, too, have experienced a form of grace—a feeling of oneness and connection, inner peace, spiritual renewal in my own visits to the Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier National Park, Fall Creek Falls, and other places.  I can also recall a summer afternoon many years ago when we were vacationing with our kids in the Florida Panhandle; an afternoon when I lay half awake and half asleep on the beach, listening to the tide roll in.  As I did, I felt a unique sense of peace and oneness with the world.

The beginning of Lent can serve as an excellent reminder to us that all of us need places of spiritual renewal where we can be rejuvenated, be restored, experience new spiritual insights, find new hope; in short, find sanctuary.  Robert Benson, in his book, Living Prayer, notes, “Every so often, a clock seems to go off in us, or a question, and we find ourselves hungry for some bit of silence and solitude and rest and quiet” (Living Prayer, 97).2   For some, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be that place of silence, solitude, rest, quiet, or sanctuary.  But it need not be.  Sanctuary for each of us can be found in any number of places and ways.  Some may find sanctuary at a lakeside cabin or at the seashore.  Some may find it hiking at the Arboretum, Frozen Head or Obed, or some other state or national park.  Some may find sanctuary while gardening, or fishing, or reading, or traveling, or quilting, or baking, or painting, practicing Yoga, or making music, farming, or writing poetry.  Some may find sanctuary reading the Bible or praying, sitting in a favorite chair in a special spot, or even coming to services here at this United Church.

Wherever and in whatever form each of us seeks sanctuary, the important thing is that we keep seeking it until we find it.  The season of Lent has traditionally been a very intense spiritual time; a time of introspection, self-examination, soul preparation.  Sometimes we may do this well in the company of others, as during Sunday morning worship services, adult Sunday school, or our Wednesdays in Lent study of the authentic letters of Paul.  But for some of us, nothing takes the place of those times of solitude, those times apart, in lonely places or places of natural beauty, or places—like our chapel—that have a sense of the Sacred.

When the Bob Wileys of life—metaphorically speaking—just seem to be more than we can bare; when the world gets to be too much with us, as it often did with Jesus; when we feel like we are nearing our wit’s end, the end of our rope, or “on our last nerve,” as some say in New York; it is time for some sanctuary, some time apart.  Such times of sanctuary can be times of rejuvenation and renewal, but also of new insights, renewed hope, and spiritual growth.  May it be so for each of us during this Lenten season.  Amen.

1J. Greg Johnson, Sanctuary: Meditations from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Flat Creek Publishing, 2009.   2Robert Benson, Living Prayer.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.

 

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Tribute to One Who Taught Us about Christian Compassion

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 15, 2015

Luke 6:32-36 CEB

Selection from Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity

 By the time I had graduated from college with a major in Philosophy & Religion, and then graduated from seminary, I had been exposed to a plethora of different theologies and approaches to interpreting the Bible.  One would think that by the time you spend four years in college and another three in seminary, you would have a crystal-clear conception of what to think, and believe, and how to interpret the Bible.  Maybe some do.  But such is not necessarily the case.  At least, it wasn’t that way for me.  Being exposed to so many different theologies and so many different ways to approach and study the Bible can sometimes serve to only muddy the waters of belief rather than providing clear insight into one’s own theological self.  In my case, in addition to all the Bible and religion courses I took in college and seminary, I had friends and relatives telling me, “You should study this theologian or you should read that devotional writer,” authors that sometimes were even more diverse and extreme than those of my formal studies.  And visiting bookstores doesn’t always help matters either.  Because when you peruse the bookstore shelves of religion and Christian devotional writings, you will find a wide range of approaches and interpretations, with all writers telling you this is the truth, but often those writers are in diametric opposition one to another.

And so, it is possible to graduate from college and seminary and find oneself floundering in a sea of theological approaches and beliefs, rather than being self-assured and having a clear vision of what I, personally, believe and hold to be true.  Such was my experience, anyway.

But then I heard about this new Christian theologian that I ought to read.  So I bought a copy of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and I read it.  Upon first reading I found the book to be informative, but not life-changing.  A few years later, I read it again.  And that reading was life-changing.  I can tell you exactly where I was when I read the chapter in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time that proved to be one of those epiphany, light bulb experiences.  Mary Lou’s position had taken us to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to plan a special weekend seminary on baseball and religion.  As she sat in her planning meetings, I sat in the car and re-read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  As I read Borg’s explanation of the two prevailing religious emphases of Jesus’ day—that of the politics of purity and the other, the politics of compassion—it was like the floodgates of understanding had burst open.  In contrast to the dominant force of the Pharisees, who insisted upon complete purity, Jesus came on the scene as an advocate of the 8th century Hebrew prophets’ message, which was a dedication to the politics of compassion.

Borg went on to explain that “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.”1 (Meeting Jesus Again, 46)  Borg showed me that some of the verses in the Bible that often are translated “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 ESV), can rightly be translated “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36 CEB).   Furthermore, when we look at the two most beloved parables that Jesus taught—the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son—both of them have at the heart the primary theme of compassion.  In the story of the Good Samaritan it is said, as rendered by some translations, “A Samaritan . . . came to where the [wounded] man was.  But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion” (Luke 10:33 CEB).  And in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is said of the prodigal returning home, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion” (Luke 15:20 CEB).  To repeat myself, it was like I had seen a bright light from heaven, as it became clear to me that the heart of the message of Jesus—the heart of true Christianity—is compassion.  And the essence of the life centered around the teachings and way of Jesus is a life of compassion.  Christian theologian Marcus Borg was the one responsible for helping me gain enlightenment, as it were, and get my grounding and find my voice as a Pastor-Theologian.  And for that, I feel that I owe Marcus Borg a great debt of gratitude.

Borg also presented a view of God that resonated with me at a time when I was struggling with my own conception of the nature of the Divine.  Borg said, “the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us.  God is the nonmaterial ground and source and presence in which, to cite words attributed to Paul by the author of Acts, ‘we live and move and have our being.’” (Meeting Jesus Again, 14).  In his subsequent book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Borg again presents an alternative way of thinking about God: “God brings forth the universe from God’s being.  Because the universe comes out of God’s being, it is in some sense ‘God-stuff.’”2 (Reading the Bible Again, 74) This “model affirms the presence of God within and beyond the universe. . .” Again, I resonated with Borg’s thought and said to myself, Here is a conception of God that I can adopt and work with.

Though I have also realized an affinity in many respects with theologian John Shelby Spong, the approach of Marcus Borg, I believe, is most agreeable with my own approach, and helped me clarify what I do believe, whereas Spong helped me clarify what I don’t believe.  Borg became for me, and for many others of our country, the preeminent Christian theologian of our times.  In all, I have read six of Borg’s books, I think.

A few years ago, I made contact with Marcus Borg and invited him to come to Oak Ridge and, specifically, this Chapel on the Hill.  For a few weeks Borg held open the possibility.  But then he revealed that he had received two other invitations from the area, one of them being St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Farragut.  Ultimately—since Borg and his wife were Episcopalians—he ended up declining my invitation and accepted the invitation of St. Elizabeth’s and the local Episcopal Diocese and spent a weekend there lecturing.  I and a few others from this United Church drove down to hear Borg’s lectures.  I am glad I did.  Because I was shocked when I heard a few weeks ago that Marcus Borg died on January 21, succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis.  The world of Christian theology and biblical studies has suffered a great loss.

Marcus J. Borg was born in North Dakota in 1942, into a traditional Lutheran family, although he would later move to the Episcopal Church where he remained the rest of his life.  He attended Concordia College in Minnesota and found himself fascinated by the New Testament.  He accepted a fellowship to do graduate work at Union Seminary in New York City where he focused upon the Jewish background of the gospels and Jesus.  He did further studies at Oxford, and eventually accepted a position at Oregon State University where he taught religion for about 28 years.  Along with his friend, John Dominic Crossan, Borg became a leader in the Jesus Seminar.  During his career, he wrote more than 20 books.

In a Christian Century blog, Katherine Willis Pershey shared: “many progressive Christians identify Borg as the person who made space for them to return to—or remain in—the Christian faith. . . .  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time . . . was exactly what I needed to read. . . .  We mourn the loss of a biblical scholar, a fine writer, an unexpected evangelist, and a faithful Christian.”3  I could not have said it better.

With the passing of Marcus Borg, we have lost a theological giant.  We will sorely miss Borg’s continued contributions to the field of Christian and biblical studies.  For those who have never met Marcus Borg and his writings, I would highly suggest Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity.

I thought it appropriate on this Valentine Sunday, a day when we are thinking about love, to pay tribute to Marcus Borg as the one who taught us that the nature of God, the teachings of Jesus, and the heart of Christianity is, pure and simple, love and compassion.  Thank you, Marcus.  Amen.

 

1Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

2Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.  New York: HarperOne, 2001.

3Katherine Willis Pershey, The Christian Century online, Jan. 22, 2015.

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Never Again, Never Again?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 8, 2015

Esther 3:1-13 GNT

My first real exposure to Auschwitz and the Holocaust was the book and then the 1975 movie titled The Hiding Place.  It is the pre-World War II story about Corrie and Betsie ten Boom and their Christian Dutch family, and how they hid several Jews in a secret hiding place over their father’s watch-making business at the beginning of the Holocaust.  Several members of the small congregation I was serving drove several miles to a theater to watch it as a group.  It made a profound impression upon me.

As most of you probably know, January 27 was Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Jews from Auschwitz, the Polish concentration camp, by the Soviet Army.  Some 300 survivors returned to Auschwitz to commemorate the liberation on January 27, 1945.  It is estimated that more than 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, and 90% of them were Jews.  Of course, there were many death camps, but about one in six Jews who died during the Holocaust died at Auschwitz.  Also killed there were gay men, lesbians, Soviet prisoners of war, Christian Poles, Romani (Gypsies), and others.  In an excellent Wall Street Journal article, Jonathan Sacks calls the Holocaust “the greatest crime since human beings first set foot on Earth.”1

Some who gathered to remember that eventful day uttered “Never again, never again,” expressing the hope that the world will never again let such a human atrocity take place.  Yet, a number of articles I have read in recent days question the never again hope.  Several writers have noted a return to anti-Semitism around the world.  The excellent, two-page Wall Street Journal article by Jonathon Sacks is titled “NEVER AGAIN,” but the “N” in “NEVER” is Xed out.  Sacks notes that “An ancient hatred has been reborn. . . .  For Jews, ‘never again’ has become ‘ever again.’”  Another article by Charles Krauthammer published by The Washington Post is titled, “Do we really mean ‘never again’?”

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, in an Associated Press release, noted, “For a time, we thought that the hatred of Jews had finally been eradicated.  But slowly the demonization of Jews started to come back.  Once again young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets of Paris and Budapest and London.  Once again, Jewish businesses are targeted.  And once again, Jewish families are fleeing Europe.”3  In that same Associated Press article, it is noted that “a rise of anti-Semitism . . . has made many Jews fearful of walking the streets . ..”3

Both Sacks and Krauthammer agree that “The rise of European anti-Semitism is, in reality, just a return to the norm.  For a millennium, virulent Jew-hatred—persecution, explusions, massacres—was the norm in Europe until the shame of the Holocaust created a temporary anomaly wherein anti-Semitism became socially unacceptable.  The hiatus is over.  Jew-hatred is back.”

When we consider history, it does, indeed, seem that Jews have been a target for prejudice and violence from the very beginning, all the way back to the biblical time of Esther.  In that ancient story, the Jews living in Persia were targeted because of their different customs, monotheism, and refusal to bow down to anyone but God alone. So wicked Haman hatched a plan to exterminate all the Jews within the Persian Kingdom.  As the story goes, Queen Esther (also a Jew) put her own life on the line to save her people.  This story became the impetus for the Jewish Festival of Purim, which is still celebrated today.

Ever since, Jews have been falsely accused and blamed for all kinds of things, and persecuted as a consequence.  During the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of desecrating the sacramental bread Christians used in communion, poisoning wells, spreading the plague, causing the Black Death, and more.  In other words, Jews have become scapegoats for whatever trouble happened to be ailing humanity at the time.

There was a time, you know, (around the turn of the 20th century) when many preachers preached that humanity was growing toward human perfection, to a state when there would be no more mass wars, no more genocide; instead, there would be growth toward greater compassion, understanding, peace and cooperation among humankind.  Well, then along came World War I which knocked a big dent in that theory.  And then about 25 years later came the Holocaust, which totally wiped out any idealistic hope that humanity had moved anywhere near human perfection.

Maybe such human atrocities as the Holocaust, and the return to anti-Semitism today, happen in part because there is an innate human tendency to look for a scapegoat for any and all trouble that comes our way.  When a plague, or mass epidemic, or massive natural disaster strikes, many people feel the need to explain the reason for it and find someone to blame for it.  You may recall that when Hurricane Katrina struck, some fundamentalist Christian preachers quickly found scapegoats to blame for the hurricane, which, they contended, was a manifestation of God’s wrath and punishment.  But for some reason, the Jewish people have been labeled as a cause and branded as someone to blame more than any others.

Curiously, Charles Krauthammer contends that the current “threat to the Jewish future lies not in Europe but in the Muslim Middle East, today the heart of global anti-Semitism.”  He continues, “Iran openly declares as its sacred mission the annihilation of Israel.”2  What is curious about all of this is the Iran of today was the Persia of Esther’s day.

Jonathan Sacks puts an interesting twist on his Wall Street Journal article when he contends that in the process of making scapegoats, people see themselves as victims.  Victims in turn look for more scapegoats, so the whole scapegoats and victims phenomenon becomes a vicious cycle.  Sacks contends that the cure for the world’s hatred problems lies in letting go of hate and to stop seeing yourself as a victim.  He says, “To be free, you have to let go of hate.  You have to stop seeing yourself as a victim—or else you will succeed only in making more victims.”1

Sacks continues, “Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of love, not of hate.  We must listen and heed the survivor in Auschwitz . . . when he said, ‘I don’t want to be here again’—for that is the end of the road that begins in hate.  All of us—Jews, Christians and Muslims, brothers and sisters in Abraham’s family—must choose another way.”1

It saddens me greatly when I hear on the world news or read in the newspapers of the religious and ethnic hatred, persecution, and violence that are spreading, like monstrous social cancers, across our world.  Won’t humanity ever learn? I wonder.  Will humanity ever progress beyond the hatred, suspicion, narrow-minded and arrogant thinking that makes some feel superior to others?  Will humanity ever progress beyond the idea that hatred, persecution, and genocide are justified?  Didn’t the world learn anything at all during the Holocaust?  The scary thing is that should the hatred and violence and terrorism continue to escalate, there now is the potential to not just wipe out one religion or one ethnic group, but possibly to annihilate the whole human race.

May we who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus on love, forgiveness, compassion, and peace-making; may we who believe that where God is there is love, and where love is, there is God; may we choose to follow another way and truly believe, and truly try to live out, the cry of “Never again!  Never again!”  Amen.

 

1Jonathan Sacks, “NEVER AGAIN,” The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, January 31-February 1, 2015.

2Charles Krauthammer, “Do we really mean ‘never again’?”  The Washington Post, January 209, 2015.

3Associated Press.  Published in The Oak Ridger, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

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State of the Church Address

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 25, 2015

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11 GNT

Some of you, no doubt, watched the President’s State of the Union Address this past Tuesday, what has become in our country an every January ritual.  Well, to paraphrase what practically every U.S. President says, regardless of political affiliation, “Members and friends of this United Church, I am happy to report to you today that the state of the United Church is strong.”  To elaborate upon the report I gave at the annual Congregational Meeting in December, there are many indicators that the United Church of Oak Ridge is thriving.  I would like to highlight a few of those indicators this morning, and then also include a suggestion or two for maintaining the strength that we enjoy today.

  1. One indicator of the strength of this United Church is the growth in young families with children. Six years ago, it was common to have no more than four to six children come up for the children’s sermon, and no more than six to eight children in Sunday School.  Those who regularly attend the 10 o’clock service know it is not unusual these days to have twelve to fourteen, or as many as 18, come up for the children’s sermon.  Add to those our teenagers who also go to Sunday School, as well as those in the Nursery, and we may have as many as two dozen children on any given Sunday, which often constitutes 20-25% of the 10 o’clock attendance.  Almost three dozen children participated in this year’s Christmas pageant, with a total attendance at that service of 170, the largest pageant attendance in the past seven years.  Great thanks is due to Suzanne, our Director of Education, for the wonderful work she is doing; Janet Robertson, our Sunday School Superintendent; and our wonderful core of Sunday School teachers (Lauren Blair, Patricia Gebhart & Laura Hammons) and substitutes and Nursery attendants who are doing a superb job.
  2. A second indicator of the strength of this United Church is the quality of fellowship. There currently is a spirit of fellowship in this church that is unsurpassed in any other congregation I have served.  It is a wonderful feeling to go to Coffee Hour and see people visiting, hanging around, and enjoying being together.  Some Sundays people don’t seem to want to leave, which is a good thing.  And the same is true for our Wednesday on the Hill dinners and programs.  There is a wonderful spirit of fellowship and concern for one another.

I have seen churches in other places where when the benediction was given, all the members scrambled to their cars and were gone, without any hanging around to visit or socialize.  Such is not a good sign.  But it is a wonderful sign of a church’s health when you see a full fellowship hall of members visiting, showing interest in each other’s lives, and enjoying being together.

  1. Following closely as a third indicator of the United Church’s strength is the harmonious spirit that is evident. Everyone is eager to work together for the common good.  We have had an excellent and active Church Board.  Some of our Board Members put in enough hours for this church that they should be on the payroll.  Our meetings are always harmonious, even if all members sometimes have a different opinion, and everybody is most interested in the common good.  As far as I know, there are no cliques or factions in this congregation.  Rather, there is the feeling that we are all on one big happy boat together (maybe the Love Boat? J )
  2. A fourth indicator of the United Church’s strength is our sound financial footing. Our offerings fell way down during the summer months, which put us several thousand dollars behind our projection.  And it caused a wee bit of concern for our Church Board.  We feared we might end the year with a sizeable deficit.  But things picked up in November, and then we had a wonderful December financially, to the extent that we ended 2014 in good shape.  But even if we had ended the year in the red, we have a contingency fund from previous years where any annual surplus goes that we could have fallen back on.  We don’t want to draw on our contingency or special gift funds any more than we have to.  It is always a good thing and morale booster when we end the year with more income than we paid out in expenses.  But financially, we are in good shape.
  3. A fifth, but certainly not least, indicator of the strength of this United Church is its mission-mindedness. Something I often say, when I am trying to describe the United Church to those in the community who don’t know us, is the members of the United Church don’t just talk about, and certainly don’t argue about faith; rather, our members actually put faith into action in their daily lives by the way they live with integrity, volunteer, and serve in so many different ways: NHC Sunday morning worship services, the Ecumenical Storehouse, Methodist Medical Center volunteers, many avenues of outreach through Church Women United, working with ADFAC, sending a number of our members on the annual Nicaragua Mission Trip, supporting the Grace Lutheran Church Food Pantry, a number of our members who volunteer to help people file their Income Taxes, donating to several local and world mission and humanitarian projects—such are just a few of the ways we collectively and as individual members live out our faith and mission to the community and wider world.  Like the apostle said of the Thessalonian Church, whenever I have the opportunity, I give thank for you and boast about you and the way you put your faith into action.

At this point I probably should clarify a point that was made at our annual congregational meeting.  We noted that in the twelve months prior to our congregational meeting, we had given more than $24,000 to mission and humanitarian causes.  I noted that $5,600 was funneled through my discretionary fund to support various mission endeavors.  Since we did not adequately explain how that was, there was some concern that the $4,800 that comes from our Community & World Service Committee for my Discretionary Fund was included in the $5,600, which made it appear that it was being counted twice.  But that was not the case.  The additional $5,600 was money that came from outside the Community & World Service funds, a big chunk of it from our children and teenagers who raised funds for Heifer International and Second Harvest Food Bank of Knoxville.  Other sources were special gifts for our Nicaragua missioners, donations for the December food baskets, and other special gifts people give to help folks with utilities and such.  So all in all, our church does give something over $24,000 each year to many different causes that can rightly be seen as outside missions.

So, those are some of the positive indicators that the state of this United Church is strong.  As I said at the congregational meeting, we are not just alive; in many ways we are thriving!  As one of our Board members stated this past Wednesday, “Now is an exciting time to be a member of this church!”

But as I noted in the beginning, we also need to take steps to remain strong.  A recent “Ministry Matters” article titled “The Secret Reason Why Good Churches Die” caught my eye.  Now, as I have made evident, the United Church of Oak Ridge is thriving and far from dying.  But we want to keep it that way, don’t we?  So naturally I read the article to discover the secret reason that churches die.  The author states that even churches who seem to be doing all the right things—caring about each other, holding inspiring services, doing their best to reach out to the world, having committed leadership and supportive lay members—can still die.  Then the author mentions some of the theories that are often given for the demise of churches.  But then she shares the “one hidden reason” she believes churches die:  “The secret reason good churches die is they lack a vision.”  But not just any vision, like reaching out in love to the community and world.  No, she is talking about a new vision of yet unrealized results.  Another one of our Board members touched on this during this past week’s Board meeting.  It needs to be a vision that stretches the church beyond its current status quo and comfort zone.  It needs to be a vision that involves some risk.  She concludes the article by saying, “Envision a future that expands assumptions about what is possible . . . take risks. . .”1

A contemporary example of visioning might illustrate the point.  Just days ago, we watched as Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell envisioned and achieved the impossible—something that had never before been done and most thought couldn’t be done.  They scaled the 3,000-foot granite wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan using only their bare hands and their feet and safety ropes to catch them when they fell.  It took them 19 days, sleeping and eating on the face of the granite wall, but they did it.

As a congregation, what might our vision—what might our wall of the future—be?  How do we need to enlarge our vision so as to go where we have not gone before, in order to nurture and continue the strong health our congregation experiences today?

Yes, the state of our United Church is strong.  May all of us together continue to work, and dream, and envision together, so that we remain strong and grow even stronger for the future.  Amen.

 1Rebekah Simon-Peter, “The Secret Reason Why Good Churches Die,” Ministry Matters, January 12, 2015.

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Crossing Bridges

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 18, 2015

2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NLT

I was a mere ten-years-old fifty years ago when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the Civil Rights Marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  So I really can’t remember much at all about those marches and turbulent days of our nation’s history.  But my dad had a habit of watching the evening world news whenever possible.  So I sometimes would be playing in the floor with my brother in front of our black and white television set during news time.  I recall seeing and hearing more about the Viet Nam War and the daily casualty count than I do about those Civil Rights Marches.  But I do have vague memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Civil Rights speeches and activities.  And I do recall overhearing conversations about King and his activities at the local country store.  It may be that more of those country store conversations around the pot-bellied stove about King and his activities were negative than positive.  I am sorry to say that in the sheltered enclave of East Tennessee where I grew up, King and his motives probably were not understood and appreciated.

At any rate, you may recall there were three marches on the highway stretching from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, in March 1965; marches that led later that year to the Voting Rights Act.  The first march took place on Sunday, March 7, 1965, and was nicknamed “Bloody Sunday” after its 600 marchers were attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  State troopers and others attacked the marchers with billy clubs, tear gas, and whips.  Some were beaten unconscious.  A second march was begun on March 9, but the marchers turned and walked back to the church where they had started.  King had hoped for federal protection, which I guess was not there.  Later that night, a white group murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to participate in the second March.  Alabama Governor George Wallace refused to offer protection for the marchers, so President Lyndon Johnson committed to do so.  So for the third march, held on March 21, the marchers were protected by 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, as well as several FBI agents and Federal Marshals.  The marchers arrived at the Alabama State Capitol on March 25, 1965.

As I thought about the events of that watershed year, the idea of “Crossing Bridges” stood out to me, for a couple of reasons.  First, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the symbolic threshold of crossing over into a new era.  Now, let it be stated that such violence as was inflicted on those marchers is never justified.  But it was almost like it was necessary that the event that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” had to happen in order to propel forward the Civil Rights progress.  If those marchers hadn’t been beaten, and if minister-activist James Reeb had not been murdered in connection with those marches, would Federal assistance been sent, and would the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have come to pass?  No doubt it would have eventually come about.  But it could it be that crossing that bridge helped bolster and more quickly advance the Civil Rights successes?

A second reason that the idea of “Crossing Bridges” stood out to me is that it can become a metaphor for those difficult bridges that all of us at some points in our lives are faced with.  Now, I have to be quick to confess that I have never been faced with a bridge crossing anything close to what those marchers faced on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, similar to the trials and tribulations that the Apostle Paul enumerated—imprisonment, whippings, beatings, stoning—in his letter to the Corinthians.  And I would conjecture that most of us here today haven’t faced such a bridge either.

And to be totally honest with you, had I been old enough and cognizant enough of what was going on back then, I don’t know if I would have had the gumption and fortitude to be one of those 600 marchers who crossed that Edmund Pettus Bridge to face billy clubs, tear gas, and whipping.   I wonder if I would have had the nerve to even start across that bridge, not once, but three times, knowing the likelihood of what lay on the other side.  Admittedly, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a unique event in American history in one sense of the term, because of its magnitude, publicity, and the issues at stake.  And we shouldn’t expect such a challenge to present itself very often.  Some of us may live our entire lives without such an historical experience ever presenting itself to us.

However, there are big bridges and there are small bridges.  Though we may not have been at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, in the course of our lives many of us are faced with smaller bridges that call forth a decision from us.  And I am betting that sometimes we cross those smaller bridges successfully, and at other times we feel so intimidated that we withdraw and retreat.  And in so doing, we may experience a sense of failure or disappointment with ourselves.

There are those “smaller” bridges involving issues of fairness and justice.  Suppose we are in a department store or restaurant in Turkey Creek.  Someone from a racial minority or someone wearing a burqa or turban, obviously of another world religion, walks up to be waited on ahead of us.  But the clerk or restaurant hostess knowingly passes over this person and gives us preference because of our race and looks.  Do we defer to the other person in an attempt to be just and fair, or do we see it as a streak of good luck and go with the flow and jump ahead?  A small bridge of fairness and justice.

Sometimes those bridges involve standing in opposition to that we believe in our hearts is wrong.  Some months ago, I shared how that some years ago I was at a Christian gathering where there was a debate going on over capital punishment.  For a long while I sat and listened to a number of Christian leaders stand and speak in favor of the death penalty.  Their reasoning was because the Old Testament Law of Moses condones and in some cases even encourages it.  The thing that struck a nerve in me that day was the seemingly absence of any Christian compassion after the manner of Jesus.  So the longer I sat, the more I fumed.  Finally, when I could not sit quiet any longer, I rose to my feet, approached the microphone and spoke.  And here is what I said: “I claim to be a Christian, a follower of Christ.  The way of Jesus was a way of compassion.  I don’t believe Jesus condoned the death penalty, and as one of his followers, I don’t either.”  And then I sat down.  That was my small bridge of decision on that day.

But crossing bridges can take an even different form as we face life decisions and relationship challenges: making a medical decision about a loved one regarding prolonging life when there is no hope of recovery, or letting nature take its course; forgiving a friend or relative who does or says something that hurt us.  And maybe you can think of some past bridges of decision of your own.

As I noted in the beginning, fifty years ago Dr. King’s motives and activities probably were not well understood and appreciated by my family members and neighbors in the community where I grew up; an all-white, all-Protestant community.  They probably felt that they didn’t really have a stake in those marches.  They probably didn’t feel that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was their bridge to cross.  Which is to say that not every bridge to be crossed in life is looked upon by everyone as their bridge to cross.  But then again, maybe some bridges are bridges that should be crossed by everyone.  The matter of race relations and social justice may be one of them.

But the truth is, sooner or later, all of us are faced with bridges of decision—social justice and fairness bridges, standing in opposition to what we feel in our hearts is wrong bridges, challenging relationship bridges, or serious life decision bridges.  In one form or another, those bridges will come.  We might do well to mentally prepare ourselves for the bridges that are down the road.  And may we take inspiration from those who have crossed those bridges ahead of us—the Apostle Paul, Dr. King and all those Civil Rights marches, and others—and pray that we, too, have the strength to likewise cross life’s bridges of decision with grace.  Amen.

 

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A Future Actualized, but not yet Realized

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 11, 2015

Hebrews 11:1-2, 6, 8-11 CEB

“The Substance of our Faith” was the opening activity and focus for the day at yesterday’s annual Board Retreat.  So for our Board members who happen to be here today, a bit of what I have to say this morning will be a repeat.  But I thought the idea was worth reviewing, expanding, and expounding upon for today’s services, as all of us think about the year ahead in the life of our church.

A couple of months ago I made a comment in one of our Board meetings to the effect that although we have to run the church like a business in some respects, in other respects we cannot always run a church just like we would run a business.  I think this is true for a number of reasons, one of them being that in the church we are primarily dealing with volunteers, and you cannot relate to volunteers in the same way you relate to paid employees.

But another important reason we cannot run the church in exactly the same way we run a business is because in the church we have to give room for the “faith factor.”  There are times when we have to give room for people to “be moved by the Spirit.”  A case in point is when we adopt the coming year’s budget.  Our budget always runs quite a bit higher than the dollar amount of pledges we receive during November.  The reasons for that are that some people give generously, but do not pledge.  And sometimes people give significant gifts above and beyond what they may have actually pledged in November.  And then we also receive out-of-the-blue nice gifts throughout the year that are like icing on the cake.  So in adopting our budget for the coming year, we always do so giving place to the “faith factor,” predicated on faith of gifts to come that are not presently seen, and cannot be seen.

The “faith factor” is what the unknown author of the book of Hebrews had in mind when we wrote, “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see” (Hebrews 11:1 CEB).  Or as the English Standard Version renders it, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).  Although we don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews or the specific group to whom it was written,  we do know that Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who had faced and were continuing to face severe persecution because of their Christian faith, such that they were tempted to abandon their Christian faith altogether.   The purpose of the writer was to encourage them to stand strong and continue to be faith-ful, giving many examples of the saints of old who had also faced severe trials and tribulations but nevertheless remained faithful.  In chapter 11, the so-called “faith chapter of the Bible,” the writer calls by name many of these so-called saints of old—Abraham and Sarah, Noah, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, Rahab, and many more—saints who lived by the faith principle, facing seemingly impossible situations and overcoming tremendous odds in order to realize the hoped-for outcome of their faith.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  So it was with the saints of old, and so it can be with us.

Allow me to share a personal example of faith as the conviction of things not seen.  In 1989, the Hammer Family moved to Franklin, Tennessee, in Williamson County, what was at that time one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, to start a new church.  I had been hired and had been given a bit of training by our denomination to be what was called a church planter.  There was no congregation, no building, no offering plates, not even a hymnal.  The one thing the denomination did have was money from the sale of church property to fund the gathering of a new congregation.  But we also had a vision of a new church—the type of personality it would have, the form the worship services would take, and some of us even had a vision of a church building that would not be constructed until almost 10 years later!  So in the fall of 1989, we pulled up stakes and bought a small, new house in Franklin and began knocking on doors in search of unchurched families who might be interested in learning about a new church.  After two and one-half months we had gathered 8-10 families, about 40 people in all, who would become the core group of the new congregation.  Slowly we grew over the years:  from an average worship attendance in those early months of about 30 .  And then from 30 to 40 to 50.  And from 50 to 60.  But there were many times when I grew very discouraged.  We would gain new members and seem to be making progress, and then we would lose members who were transferred out of state.  In one month alone we lost three of our core families.  We would plateau and go for months without growing at all.

Finally we reached an average Sunday attendance of 80, outgrowing the temporary worship space where we were meeting.  Then it came time to hire an architect.  And then we had to satisfy the Franklin Building & Codes office.  Then we had to find a contractor who could build the new church building at a price we could afford.  Finally the day arrived when we had completed and moved into that new colonial sanctuary.  We had a special Sunday afternoon celebration, and the sanctuary was packed.  The church that we had envisioned as the object of our faith ten years earlier finally became a visual reality.

Now, I tell you that story not to brag about the quality of our faith, but to share how in that instance, faith for us was the “conviction of things not seen.”  But it was not easy.  It was the hardest church work I have ever done in my life.  But that is the way of faith: it is not always peaches and cream, or a bed of roses.  It was not for the saints of old, and it is not for us either.  As I said, there were numerous times when I got so discouraged I didn’t know what to do.  At such times, a friend or family member would offer the encouragement I needed to continue working toward the object of our faith.

Permit me to also share some examples involving this congregation.  I have faith that our congregation is going to be blessed in unthought-of ways during 2015.  In some cases, those blessings are already in process and are certain to come, but as of today, they are yet unseen to those of us gathered here.  I have faith that new faces and new families are going to walk through our doors and become active participants in this congregation.  It may be new residents down the hill at the Guest House Assisted Living facility; it may be families who are planning to relocate to Oak Ridge during the summer months; it may be friends of our members who see our church website or keep seeing all the positive things that are going on here on our church Facebook page.  New people are coming here this year; I have faith of it, but today we just don’t know exactly who they are.  Will we give the impression that we have been expecting them, like distinguished guests?

When it comes to finances, I have faith that our congregation will receive some nice financial gifts this year.  Some of them are already in the making.  I have faith of it, but today we just can’t see exactly how much they will be or where they will come from.

This year ahead will bring us wonderful times of celebration, fellowship, and learning.  Birthday and anniversary celebrations, game night, Vacation Bible School, Trunk or Treat, the Family Christmas Workshop, and other occasions yet unplanned.  I know the Fellowship Committee are going to have some wonderful Wednesday on the Hill events this year.  I can visualize them, and I know they are coming, but I just can’t show them to you today.  Will we be eager to participate and invite our friends and neighbors to join us?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  The spiritual or religious life of necessity requires a certain amount of faith—faith in the Sacred or Divine, faith in a Higher Power, faith in the power of love and the bonds of community that bind us together, faith in the journey itself, or faith even in the Great Mysteries of the universe that defy explanation.  Each of us has faith, to some extent, in that which is unseen.

As we begin this new year as a congregation, may we begin it in an attitude of faith.  We take first steps of faith, even when we don’t see much of the road ahead.  We believe that wonderful things lie in wait for us, even though we cannot see them with our eyes today.  That is the meaning I have in mind of a future actualized, but not yet realized.  Faith that good things lie in store for

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What About that Star?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 4, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12 KJV

In a Washington Post article this past week about the Bethlehem star, David A. Weintraub notes that the star of Bethlehem gives rise to any number of astronomical questions.  “Is the star’s biblical description a pious fiction or does it contain some astronomical truth?” he asks.1  Weintraub rightly notes that stars do not move, as Matthew’s story seems to imply.  He says, “virtually all the stars remain fixed in their places.”  “The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things [i.e., move at random to a designated place], nor can a comet, or Jupiter, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets or any other actual bright object in the nighttime sky.”  However, by the end of the article, Weintraub concedes that an actual astronomical occurrence involving Jupiter which began in April in the year 6 B.C. is a possible explanation for the star the wise men are said to have seen in the east.

The writer of the gospel of Matthew is the only writer in the New Testament to make mention of Wise Men traveling to visit the Christ Child.  And he is the only one to make mention of the star that has played such a prominent role in Christmas pageants down through the ages.  From whence came the star in Matthew’s nativity story?  Was there a special star that shone over the place where Jesus was born?  Was it a comet?  An unusual alignment of the planets?  Many have been, and continue to be, the theories over the centuries attempting to explain through natural phenomena the so-called “Star of Bethlehem.”

But we must also ask if Matthew’s star is to be taken literally, or if, perhaps, the star in Matthew’s story is more symbolic or mythological in nature, holding a deeper meaning than the literal, physical star in the sky.

As we read and seek to interpret Matthew’s gospel, we do well to remember that Matthew’s approach and way of writing was to retrieve and interpret, or re-interpret, Old Testament passages and apply them to Jesus in an effort to prove that Jesus was, indeed, the long-prophesied, long-awaited One of the Jewish people.  And so, Matthew quotes passage after passage in an effort to establish Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures.  He sometimes does this better than he does at other times.

Which brings us back to the star.  From whence did Matthew find a scriptural basis for the star of Bethlehem?  There is an obscure passage in the Old Testament book of Numbers that many students of the Bible have latched onto in order to find a prophetic basis for the star of Bethlehem that heralded Jesus’ birth.  That short passage reads, “there shall come a Star out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17 KJV).  Was this a passage that Matthew had in mind when he sought to base his star story on ancient Hebrew prophecy?

But the most important point of the star of Bethlehem story does not involve the star itself, but what the star symbolized and was intended to convey by Matthew.  The star is above all a symbol or sign pointing to something much greater than itself.  If we fail to understand this, then we miss Matthew’s point altogether.  Matthew’s purpose was to prove that Jesus was a king, the long-awaited King of the Jews.  And he used the current belief that new or unusual signs in the sky were indications of the birth of royalty.

And so, in Matthew’s story, the royalty or kingship of Jesus is emphasized in two different ways: first, by the appearance of “his star in the east,” whatever form that “star” might have taken, that announced the birth of royalty.  And second, the royalty or kingship of Jesus is emphasized by the kings, magi, or wise men who came to worship him—kings worshiping THE King, so to speak.  For the writer of Matthew, these two facts should be proof enough that Jesus was the newborn King of the Jews.

But the star can serve as a symbol or metaphor in yet another way; a way which may resonate with some more so than the miracle of the star signifying the kingship of Jesus.  The star can serve as a metaphor or symbol of the human quest.  In following the star, the wise men or magi were on a quest; they were searching.  Searching for the object of the star.  Searching for newborn royalty to whom they could pay homage.

Some of us spend much of our lives on a quest.  For some it is a quest after religious or spiritual truth.  Such has been the way with me, anyway.  From the moment I felt drawn toward ministry, I, like the magi, set forth on a quest to find religious and spiritual truth.  My quest took me down many different roads, the reading of hundreds of books, many graduate courses, and untold conversations.

For some the star may represent the quest after inner peace.  To such, to find the truth about God, God’s requirements, the nature of the afterlife, brings a sense of calm or peace to the soul.  At one time early in my spiritual journey, I found myself there as well.

For others, the star may represent the quest toward self-discovery.  I think the last decade or so has found me more in this questing mode.  My star quest has not been so much about religious truth or inner peace these past few years as it has been more about greater enlightened self-discovery, who I am, and what I hold to be of absolute meaning and importance in life.

The older I get, the more I sort of see life to be like a sieve that one might use at one of those roadside attractions where you look for gold or semi-precious stones; the process of sorting through everything that comes your way and eliminating all the dross, that which holds little or no meaning or value, in order to discover those few precious items that are of value.  Life as such is a quest, and the older we get, the more selective we get in the things we feel are of value.  The more selective we become in the stars we seek to follow.

So the real question this morning is not do you believe that there actually was a literal star of Bethlehem that led Wise Men or magi to the Baby Jesus.  But rather, what does that star symbolize to you in regards to who Jesus was, and more importantly perhaps, what does that star say to you about your own personal quests in life?  Because when all is said and done, each of us must decide what we believe about Jesus and how that belief changes our life, if at all.  And each of us must engage in our own personal quests that will lead us to the spiritual or religious truth we are seeking, those things that we hold to be of highest value, as well as to more enlightened self-discovery.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1David A. Weintraub, “Amazingly, astronomy can explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem,” Washington Post, December 26, 2014.

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