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Randy K. Hammer
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer – February 10, 2019
Luke 5:1-11 GNT
I am a fair top water swimmer. But to be honest with you, I get a little uncomfortable when I venture out into deep water to the point that my feet can no longer touch the bottom. I think I was conditioned such by my parents when I was young. For, you see, neither of my parents learned to swim. So they were all the time cautioning me and my brother, “You be careful that you don’t fall into that river and drown!” You see, my boyhood home is about a half-mile from the Nolichuckey River, so in the summertime we would often go to the river fishing. And when we did, it always made my mother and grandmother nervous, and for good reason. Drownings in that river were not unheard of, as there are swirls or natural whirlpools in that river that are nigh impossible to get out of alive once you have fallen into them. I remember well the time when a neighborhood boy did drown less than a mile from our house, and how people from the neighborhood gathered on the riverbanks, keeping vigil, while rescue personnel drug the river until they found him.
Also, when I was about 10 years old, I had two great uncles and a second cousin who drowned in the ocean. They had been out in a small deep sea fishing boat, and before they got back to shore a violent storm came up. The waves threw four of the family members out of the boat into the deep, churning waters. One survived, but the other three did not. Just two years prior, we had vacationed with one of those great uncles and cousin, who was exactly my age, and that great uncle had taken me farther out into the Florida surf than I really wanted to go.
And then, I recall another incident when, as an adult, we were vacationing on the Gulf Coast, and one lazy afternoon I was floating on an inflatable raft just beyond the point where the waves started to form. But I did not realize that the tide was oh so slowly taking me farther and farther from shore. When I finally decided to return to the shore, I jumped off the raft, but to my dismay, my feet did not touch the ground! I was immediately thrown into panic mode. I quickly hoisted myself back upon the raft, lying on my stomach, and I frantically started pawing the water in attempts to paddle toward the shore. I made it back to shore safely (obviously), but that was one time that my heart was racing overtime. All of this is to say that there can be a great deal of discomfort or fear, even, of launching out into the deep – literally and figuratively speaking.
“Launch out into the deep” (KJV) were the instructions Jesus gave to Simon Peter. Of course, the surface meaning for Peter was to literally push the boat out farther into deeper water where the fish were more likely to be found. But little did Peter and his companions realize that the command to “launch out into the deep” held much more serious implications, metaphorically speaking. Indeed, this entire passage is full of symbolism and metaphors that we could easily miss if we only focus on the physical elements and the miraculous catch of fish, which in itself is a metaphor.
Most obvious is the metaphor of “fishing for men,” which is another way of saying from henceforth Peter and his companions would be concerned with attracting converts to the way of Jesus. The sign of the fish, you know, would become a secret, identifying symbol of followers of the way of Jesus. Early Christians would draw a simple outline of a fish on the outside of their homes, for example, as a secret sign that they were Jesus followers. No longer would Peter and his companions concern themselves with drawing fish into a net; their all-consuming passion would be drawing men and women into the Kingdom of God as Jesus had presented it. And the large haul of fish in the story is a symbolic foreshadowing of the large number of converts that resulted from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, as Luke reports later in the book of Acts.
And then there is the metaphor of the boat. In early Christian thought, the boat would become a symbol of the church. During times of persecution, the early Christians would find comfort in reminding themselves that even though their metaphoric boat of the church was being tossed about unmercifully, they could rely upon the resurrected Jesus who was in the boat with them to keep them safe and to calm the waves of turmoil and trouble churning all around them.
But the most serious of the metaphors in this story, perhaps, is that of “launching out into the deep.” If Peter, Andrew, James, and John had realized that fateful day the full import of Jesus’ command, of what “launching out into the deep” was to really mean for their lives, one wonders if they would have “left everything and followed” him, as the text indicates; or if they might have done like the prophet Jonah and took off running down the beach in the opposite direction. They left everything – their fishing boats and equipment, their livelihoods, and their families in order to follow this charismatic prophet from Nazareth. What a commanding presence Jesus must have had that they “left everything and followed him”!
But did they realize just how deep the water was that day that they were being called to launch out into? Initially they faced several months of itinerant wandering about the towns, villages, and countrysides of Judea and Galilee. That probably was the easiest of what lay in store for them. But after Jesus’ death, they faced the awesome responsibility of continuing his movement, which would not be an easy task. Before too long they would face many hardships and persecutions. At least three of the four who left everything on the beach that day would die terrible deaths. The Book of Acts relates that James was the first to die (by the sword), not long after the Day of Pentecost, killed by King Herod (Acts 12:2). Tradition says Andrew and Peter were both crucified; Peter upside down. Of the four fishermen on the beach that day, John is the only one who is said to have lived a long life and died a natural death. “Launch out into the deep” – if they had only known what that would mean for them, metaphorically speaking!
But bringing it closer to home, launching out into the deep can be a metaphor for moving beyond our comfort zone. Such can be true in a number of ways. For instance, as we grow and mature in faith or spirituality, we will encounter periods when we are pushed beyond our comfort zone theologically. It can be threatening or unsettling to have the foundational beliefs bestowed upon us in childhood questioned or tested. Several years ago, a relative who was searching for resources to help her grow in her faith and spiritual understanding, asked me to recommend some books or authors that I thought would be helpful. And so, one of the books I recommended that had been a milestone for me was John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, one of my all-time favorite books. She ordered it and started to read it, and it proved to be quite unsettling to her and threw her into a personal and spiritual tailspin. I had thought she was ready for such a step of faith, but she wasn’t. By suggesting she read John Shelby Spong, I had thrown her into deep water before she was able to swim.
From time to time, I (or Suzanne) may present a sermon which beckons some of our members to venture further out into the deep waters of faith, theology, or religious-social issues than some would like to go.
And for some, all the talk this past year about better security measures may have felt like we were forcing them out into unfamiliar and unwelcome areas where they would rather not go.
(By the way, a few of our members have mentioned to me the small signs posted on the outside of the educational building that say, “WARNING! Surveillance Cameras in Use!” And some have commented, “Oh, we have security cameras now,” or “Why are they telling us we are being recorded?” The truth is, there were security cameras in use long before I came here over 10 years ago. They have been running constantly for 12-14 years, ever since the time when someone broke into the church office. The signs were put up to help deter strangers who might be considering mischief or committing a crime, such as people who use our back parking lot late at night.)
But the original point was, some security measures intended for the greater safety of our members, and especially our children, and greater protection of our church property may make some feel like they have been thrown into deep water over their heads before they were prepared to do so.
But the truth is, in a broad, general way our religious faith and Christian convictions may from time to time make us feel like we are being led out into the deep, to places we never imagined we would go and to beliefs we never envisioned we would entertain. As I noted in the beginning, the deep can be frightening for some of us. Our faith may lead us to take stands we never thought we would take – because we come to the realization that it is the right thing to do. And to draw upon the words of reformer Martin Luther, we realize that we “can do no other.”
Yes, following the way and teachings of Jesus, what the early Church called “discipleship,” of necessity can take us to beliefs, positions, and places we never dreamed we would go. So we should not be surprised if there are times, every now and then, when we hear the call or feel the tug to “launch out into the deep.” May we have the grace to do so when necessary. Amen.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 3, 2019
(With a tribute to poet Mary Oliver)
Exodus 15:19-21 GNT
Readings from Mary Oliver – “Why I Wake Early” and “Trying to Be Thoughtful in the First Brights of Dawn”
Have you ever considered just how important religious poetry is to life and faith? It would be difficult to imagine the Bible without poetry. As writer Debra Dean Murphy states in Christian Century magazine, “For theology and liturgy, poetry has always mattered.” If we were to extract all the pages of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, that were in their original form poetry, we would be left with just a fraction of the Bible we have come to know and love, including the most beloved passages in the Bible. Now, I did not sit down and calculate the percentage of pages in the Bible that are arranged in poetic form. But Professor Mark E. Wenger, of Columbia International University, did. Professor Wenger states that over 8,600 verses of the Bible are poetry, or about 27% of the Bible overall. Of those 8,600 verses, about 8,200 are in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, which means that about 35% of the Old Testament is poetry. Sixteen books of the Old Testament are entirely or predominantly in poetic form.
If we were to extract all the poetic writings in the Old Testament, then there would be no more Psalms, Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes. They would be gone, including the beloved “The Lord is my shepherd,” and “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills” psalms, as well as the “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” passage. Also gone would be the books of Job, the Song of Songs, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah; some pages from Genesis and Judges; and much of the beloved material from the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, and others.
The short poetic passage I read earlier from Exodus that celebrates the Israelites’ victory over the armies of Pharoah, the Song of Miriam, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, passage in the Bible. And curiously enough, it is attributed to a woman, the sister of Moses. But the passage indicates that from the earliest days of recorded Hebrew history, they were expressing their faith and theology in poetic form.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that some 5% or 395 verses of the New Testament are poetry. If we were to extract the poetic passages from the New Testament, gone would be the Beatitudes, the Song of Mary (“my soul magnifies the Lord”), and Jesus’ inaugural sermon text in Luke.
If we did not have the poetry of the scriptures, not only would we miss the poetic beauty and cadence of the Bible’s poetry, but we would be deprived of the spirituality and deep theological teachings contained within them as well. Humanly speaking, some of the poetry of the Bible touches on the deepest of human emotions such as love, passion, jealously, rage, and forgiveness. Spiritually speaking, the beloved poetry of the Bible provides us with assurance, comfort, and hope. And theologically speaking, the beloved poetry of the Bible includes some of the deepest theological insights and some of the most pressing theological questions posed by humankind.
So the importance of the poetic spirituality and theology to be found in the Bible cannot be overstated. In short, the beloved poetry of the Bible is what makes the Bible what it is. As I said in the beginning, it would be difficult to imagine the Bible without the beloved poetry that makes the Bible what it is.
With all of that having been said, in a similar vein of thought, it would be difficult to imagine contemporary American poetry without Mary Oliver. Over the course of the past 50 years, Oliver changed the poetic landscape of America with her unconventional poetry which has touched the hearts and lives of millions, including yours truly. In case you haven’t already heard, Mary Oliver died on January 17 at the age of 83 from lymphoma. Writing in The Washington Post, Maggie Smith referred to Oliver as “arguably America’s most beloved best-selling poet.” Oliver’s collection, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984. And her New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. Over the years, Oliver produced over 30 books of poetry.
Even though Oliver was not a theologian or even what one might call a “church person,” her poems often touch on theological themes and she addresses such religious ideas as grace, prayer, God, Holy Communion, and what happens after death. As Debra Dean Murphy put it, as quoted in the Christian Century magazine, through her poetry Oliver encourages “a deeply theological vision of the world.” NPR stated that “she channels the voice of somebody who it seems might possibly have access to God. I think her work does give a sense of someone who is in tune with the deepest mysteries of the universe.” And religious naturalist Matthew Fox writes that Oliver “was a profound creation centered mystic who awakens us all to the healing powers of nature.”
Indeed, Oliver won the hearts of many because so many of her poems link spirituality and nature. In other words, Oliver experienced God in the natural world, creatures, and places that would never occur to most of the world. An example is Oliver’s poem, “On Traveling to Beautiful Places”:
“Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.”
And in her poem, “Song of the Builders,” she relates:
“On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –
a worthy pastime.”
And she goes on to relate how she found spiritual inspiration in a cricket going about its work.
In “I Wake Close to Morning” Oliver asks:
“Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?”
Oliver also had a lot to offer regarding prayer, of which she says in the poem “Whistling Swans”:
“Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don’t worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.”
In the poem titled “Praying” she advises:
“. . . just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
And from her poem, “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate,”
“Every morning I want to kneel down on the golden
cloth of the sand and say
some kind of musical thanks for
the world that is happening again – another day –
from the shawl of wind coming out of the
west to the firm green
flesh of the melon lately sliced open and eaten. . .”
And then in what is probably her most famous poem, “The Summer Day”:
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.”
Mary Oliver teaches us the importance of being observant, in the moment, mindful –
“It is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
To lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself over and over
in joy, . . .’ (“Mindful”)
“How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything . . .
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” (“Yes! No!”)
“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” (“Upstream”)
Oliver has much to say about death and the afterlife, and some of her poems are now used by Hospice Chaplains at the end of life and often quoted at funerals and memorials services. One of the most comforting quotes about death is when she observes:
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us –
as soft as feathers –“ (“White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”)
Well, there is so much more that might be said about Mary Oliver, if we but had the time. Connie Green, whom some of you know, has taught a three or four session ORICL class on the poetry of Mary Oliver. But probably Oliver’s most poignant lines, also from the poem “The Summer Day,” have spoken to, and in many cases continue to haunt, millions:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Matthew Fox, in his tribute to Mary Oliver, relates how that two years ago he heard her address a full auditorium, holding everyone’s attention for two hours. Fox relates, “Her last words were addressed ‘to the young people’ . . . to whom she wanted to leave ‘everything I have learned about life after 83 years.’ Three things: 1. Pay attention. 2. Be astonished. 3. Share your astonishment.” That is what Mary Oliver did for 50 years in her role as a poet. And that is at least part of what religious poetry as found in the Bible does as well: It calls us to pay attention, to be astonished, and to share or express our astonishment through gratitude, thanks, and praise. It was so for Mary Oliver. May it be so for us. Amen.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 27, 2019
Luke 4:16-22 GNT
Though it has been almost 43 years, I still well remember the first “sermon,” and I use the word “sermon” loosely, that I gave at my home church when I made the decision to commence preparing myself for the ministry. I remember the scripture text I had selected (1 Chronicles 7:14) and the title of my message. The little country church was pretty full that day, and a few people came solely because I was presenting my “inaugural sermon.” All eyes in that little country church were upon me, as all held their breath and sat on the edge of their seats, just waiting to hear what I had to say. Well, I may be embellishing the story just a little bit J. My presentation lasted all of five minutes.
Then a few weeks later, I would stand before the spring meeting of East Tennessee Presbytery, where the ministers and elder delegates from 19 congregations were gathered in the biggest and most liturgical church of the presbytery, to deliver the opening devotional meditation as a prelude to being officially accepted as a candidate for ministry by the presbytery. I well remember my scripture text (Psalm 46) and the title of that message that day as well. Again, all eyes of the gathered assembly were upon me, all were holding their breath and were sitting on the edge of their seats, and all ears were waiting to hear what this young whipper-snapper had to say. I am stretching it again, perhaps. And again, my presentation lasted all of five minutes.
Although in both instances I didn’t say anything profound or worthy of writing home about, in both cases I got positive feedback and words of affirmation, what I needed at that moment to commence the arduous journey before me. But one comment in particular gave me the encouragement and confidence I sorely needed. The minister of that large downtown church where the presbytery meeting was being held, the man who would become my mentor in ministry and who would five years later preach the sermon at my ordination service, came to me and said, “I appreciated your meditation.” Coming from him, a minister that all of the presbytery, indeed all in the entire denomination, looked up to, was a powerful affirmation that did me much good and served as a solid footing for the beginning of my ministerial journey.
Well, I thought about all this as I considered today’s scripture text. Luke shares with us what appears to be the earliest recorded sermon – his inaugural sermon – delivered by Jesus in his home synagogue in Nazareth. Everyone in the synagogue “had their eyes fixed on him,” Luke says. I can just imagine that they were holding their breath, and they were sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what this hometown boy was about to say. If we consider the verses just before the passage I read to you, it appears that this was not the first sermon Jesus had delivered. Because Luke says that “He taught in the synagogues and was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15) before he returned to Nazareth where he had been brought up to reveal to his homefolk his sense of call to a public ministry, a ministry based upon an image drawn from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.
We cannot help but wonder what type of response Jesus got from those closest to him. At first, everyone was impressed by Jesus’ opening words and “marveled at the eloquent words that he spoke.” They couldn’t believe that this was the son of Joseph who had grown up in a carpenter’s shop down the street.
As Jesus expounded upon the words of Isaiah, he revealed his model for ministry to be one of the Spirit, of word, and of action. Such a model for ministry as Jesus outlined is worthy of our consideration today. Indeed, if we want to have a vital, meaningful, effective church ministry, must we not seek to follow this model that Jesus gave his life to?
Foundational to the ministries and programs of the church are the workings and presence of the Spirit, in whatever way each of us envisions or defines “Spirit.” “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!” Such were the first words of Jesus’ inaugural address that set the tone for all that he would be about.
As a Christian minister, I have always tried to give place to the Spirit to work, guide, lead, bless, and enlighten. To give a few examples: seeking a sermon topic from week to week; selecting the hymns for each Sunday’s service that compliment the scripture reading and sermon topic; en-route to a hospital emergency room or intensive care unit when I know I am going to be called upon to offer a prayer, perhaps an end-of-life prayer; or when seeking wisdom about how to mediate a difficult conversation. At such times I try to be open to the Spirit for guidance, inspiration, and direction.
Now, I readily confess that I don’t fully understand “the Spirit,” and don’t ask me to explain or define what I mean by “Spirit.” But in the course of my ministry I have had too many experiences that some might say were coincidences, but I knew were otherwise. Experiences such as my showing up at a home or hospital room at precisely the right moment when someone was passing. Or the closing hymn of a worship service in which the words of that hymn perfectly complimented and brought home the message of the sermon, but I had not consciously planned it that way. Or in the midst of that difficult conversation in which I had no idea what I was going to say, the perfect words came out.
I am inclined to believe that poet Mary Oliver, who passed away recently and whom I will remember in next week’s sermon, was open to the Spirit, or what she might have termed the “Mystery,” which she refers to in one of her poems as another name for God. I think a lot of artists in a variety of artistic mediums would testify that they are open to inspiration from outside themselves. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron speaks of God as the “creative energy” of the universe (p. xii). Cameron says, “Learn to accept the possibility that the universe is helping you with what you are doing. Become willing to see the hand of God and accept it as a friend’s offer to help with what you are doing” (p. 119).
But there is another way to consider the importance of “Spirit” within the life and ministry of a church, and that is a sense of vitality, relevance, and energy that attracts people and feeds people spiritually, in contrast to church services, meetings, and programs that are lifeless, irrelevant to contemporary life, and just plain dead. Many of us may have been in services that were lifeless and boring, that were dead on arrival, so to speak. And we have also been in services that had a “spirit” about them, services that spoke to us, that stirred our souls, and that inspired us with the life and truth that resonated with our hearts and lives.
The second part of Jesus’ model for ministry involves the spoken word – a word of “good news to the poor.” The Christian message, the word to be proclaimed by its very nature, is to be good news of what God has done and continues to do. So any Christian preaching or teaching that comes across as bad news, condemnation, or judgment is not the gospel, as the meaning of the word “gospel” is “good news.”
Jesus felt that he was chosen to bring good news to the poor. Within Luke’s worldview or frame of reference, “the poor” is a broad term encompassing the marginalized who are overlooked and taken advantage of by society; those excluded by society and religion due to any number of factors, such as economic destitution, gender, race, physical maladies that branded them as being “unclean,” ethnicity, and so on. And in Luke’s gospel, more than in the other three gospels, we see Jesus reaching out to those who had been marginalized – the crippled, untouchable lepers, tax collectors, ostracized women, hated Samaritans, and others.
It is interesting that later in the chapter from which we read, Jesus, in drawing a parallel to his own ministry, draws illustrations from the Hebrew prophets Elijah and Elisha and instances when they reached out to the marginalized of their day: in one case a non-Jew helpless widow, and in the other case a leprous non-Jew government official.
A point to be taken is that a proper model for ministry not only of necessity dictates that the words that we preach, teach, and share in conversation be words of good news, hope, and acceptance, but also that the good news we embody include the marginalized of our own day, those suffering financially by no fault of their own, segments of society that suffer oppression and persecution, and so forth.
Such leads to the third part of Jesus’ model for ministry which involves not just words, but deeds or actions. “To set free the oppressed” speaks of the active voice. And Jesus’ ministry would include the actions of loving, touching, feeding, and healing. And no less is required of any church that seeks to be what the church should be and that seeks to be relevant to the community and wider world. It is important that our Spirit-inspired services, and our good news words shared through preaching and teaching, be accompanied by deeds of service, mission, and outreach. And so, we set aside a percentage of our annual budget to support wonderful agencies in our community that are meeting physical and emotional needs of our neighbors, and we give ourselves in volunteer service to such places as Aid to Distressed Families in Anderson County, Ecumenical Storehouse, TORCH, Methodist Medical Center, and other agencies that are meeting human needs.
But we also touch dozens of lives every year through my Pastor’s Discretionary Fund, as we help people keep their utilities on, pay their rent, and buy medications they cannot afford to buy. This past week, in fact, we were able to get electricity restored to a couple whose power had been cut off. The husband is disabled and requires around-the-clock oxygen with the help of an oxygen concentrator, which requires electricity. Within two hours we were able – through the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund – to get their electricity reconnected. That is just one example of many of how we as a church put our words of good news into good deeds. But each of us – in our individual lives – can make a point to put our faith into loving actions and good deeds with whomever we encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Yes, in his inaugural sermon, Jesus laid out for his hearers his sense of call to ministry. But he also presented a model for ministry that we do well to always strive to emulate – Spirit-inspired services, programs and meetings; words of good news; and deeds of service to the poor and marginalized of our world. May it always be so for us, as we commit ourselves to Jesus’ model of ministry of the Spirit, the word, and of action. Amen.
Cited: Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: Putnam, 1992.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 20, 2019
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16 GNT
Those preparing for parish ministry are often reminded in the course of their seminary studies of the fact that as ministers we are expected to wear many hats, similar to the way a general practitioner in medicine does. I have long seen the role of the parish minister to be that of a general practitioner of spirituality or religious leadership. The minister’s job would be so much simpler, perhaps, if he or she were assigned to one primary task such as making hospital visits, or leading Bible study classes, for instance. If a minister were expected to do one particular task only, then he or she could devote more time to study and improving and perfecting that single task without the distractions of a dozen other dissimilar tasks. In a few large churches, such may actually be the case, where each area of ministry is specialized. In large churches there may be the preaching minister, counseling minister, visiting minister, and so on. But it certainly is not so in small churches like ours.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that the wide range of activities expected of a parish minister also makes for variety throughout the week, a fact that makes parish ministry attractive to some who thrive on variety, and sometimes the unexpected, and get bored easily with a limited number of tasks.
When I attended seminary, the many tasks of general parish ministry sometimes were lumped together under three primary categories, all beginning with the letter “P” – pastor, priest, and prophet. Under each of these categories would be listed a number of practical, week-in, week-out duties or activities.
For instance, under the heading or category of pastor might be listed such activities as preaching spiritual growth sermons, pastoral counseling, visiting members in the home, going to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, teaching Bible or spirituality classes, church administration, community building, and so on.
Under the heading or category of priest might be listed such activities as praying for members who are ill or facing surgery, administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, offering end of life prayers with the dying, perhaps conducting funerals or memorial services, performing wedding ceremonies, and so on.
And then under the heading or category of prophet might be listed such activities as preaching sermons in the spirit of the 8th century Hebrew prophets that shine a light on problems and sins of society, the things going on in the world that we know in the recesses of our hearts are not right; educating the congregation on social issues on which Christians should take a stand; taking a public stand before the City Council against racism and acts of hatred, and so on.
Now, assigning different parish ministry duties to such categories is not a perfect model, and the different categories in many ways overlap.
But the writer of the book of Ephesians stresses the need for evangelists, pastors, teachers, and prophets. This particular passage does not mention the role of priest, but priestly functions for those in positions of church leadership can be deduced from other places in the Bible. He mentions the roles of pastor and prophet as being important, and curiously separate, roles in the life of the church. But his point is that all gifts or roles should work together for the building up and well-being of the whole body, the church. He stresses the need for humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and especially unity in the life of the church. All the gifts or roles should work together to build up the body or community of faith. He stresses the need to “speak the truth in love.” And then he concludes, “So when each separate part works as it should, the whole body grows and builds itself up through love” (Ephesians 4:16 GNT). In other words, the roles or functions of pastor, priest, teacher, and prophet all are necessary for the body or community of faith to be complete and mature, and all should work together in tandem and in unity.
But there are times when the three primary roles of the parish minister – pastor, priest and prophet – come into conflict, causing unrest within the minister, within the congregation, or in both. There can develop what I have termed the “pastoral-prophetic dilemma.” The question becomes in the mind of the conscientious minister, “Where do I find the proper balance in my sermons and leadership when it comes to being pastor, priest, and prophet?” It is safe territory, you see, when sermons are always pastoral in nature; sermons that support people in their personal struggles and that try to impart hope and strength and guidance for facing the demands of life each week. A number of renowned preachers of the past became famous for their pastoral care sermons. One such preacher of the last century was Norman Vincent Peale, the American pastor of positive thinking. Preachers known for their effective pastoral care sermons tend to be popular.
But prophetic sermons, on the other hand, are not always safe territory. As already noted, prophetic sermons are sermons that name and call out the ills and sins of our world in the spirit of the 8th century Hebrew prophets such as Amos and Micah. Such sermons point a finger at places of injustice, racial discrimination, acts of hatred toward a certain segment of society, those taking advantage of and oppressing the weak and disadvantaged, immorality in places of leadership, and so on. Sometimes calling out the ills and sins of our world can border on the political side of life. And that can sometimes be dangerous. A number of great preachers of the past became famous for their prophetic sermons, such as Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, who denounced from the pulpit the horrible institution of slavery. One of the most obvious prophetic preachers, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King, as the American prophet of the 20th century, called out the ills of poverty and the sin of segregation and the injustices of society based on the color of one’s sin.
My view is that no minister can perfectly wear all three hats – pastor, prophet, and priest – in perfect balance. Each minister (as the biblical writer points out) may feel more gifted or more comfortable in one of the three areas than in the other two. Regarding the three roles of pastor, priest and prophet, I have felt most gifted, most comfortable, and most proficient in the role of pastor which manifests itself in preaching pastoral sermons, teaching, visiting the sick and aging, and community building. When I met with the pulpit search committee almost 11 years ago, I understood my call here to be that of a pastor who would work toward community building, attracting new families and much-needed growth. And that is what I have sought to do. I have never really viewed myself in the primary role of a prophet. Prophetic sermons can be edgy, they can be uncomfortable to preach and uncomfortable to sit through; prophetic sermons have the danger of alienating some of the members of a congregation, and sometimes prophets are not allowed to hang around too long! Jesus was a prophet, and so was Martin Luther King, Jr. You know what happened to both of them – one was crucified and the other was shot!
Yet, every now and then, I find myself being “called” to take up the prophetic mantle and preach a prophetic sermon on a current issue that I feel needs attention. To phrase it a different way, as a preacher with a conscience, sometimes I feel compelled to address an issue, whether it is comfortable to do so or not. But I know that when I do, there will be those in the congregation who disagree, and I may run the risk of alienating them. And herein lies the pastoral-prophetic dilemma: do I (and does Suzanne when she preaches – we have had several conversations on this subject) always preach pleasant, pastoral, feel-good sermons in order to ensure a harmonious community? Or do we follow our consciences and preach a prophetic sermon every now and then that may cause discomfort in the minds of some, when we feel compelled in our minds and hearts to do so? Such, you see, is the pastoral-prophetic dilemma.
The truth is, in our United Church we have a wide range of theological beliefs and political sympathies. It has always been that way; such is the manner in which the United Church was founded. There are some members on one end of the spectrum who would like for every sermon to be a prophetic, calling out the injustices of our contemporary world sermon. And they may not be happy that most sermons preached here are more of the pastoral, community-building genre of sermons. And then on the other end of the spectrum, there are members who are uncomfortable whenever a prophetic sermon is preached. And so, as minister I sometimes feel caught up in the pastoral-prophetic dilemma and that preaching and leadership is a balancing act.
So I guess my goal in this sermon, today, is simply to raise awareness that a minister of necessity is charged with wearing a number of hats – sometimes that of pastor, sometimes that of priest, and sometimes that of prophet. And I hope everyone has a little bit better understanding of the primary roles and hats – pastor, priest, and prophet – that every parish minister must wear.
All spiritual gifts, all ministerial roles, are important and necessary in the overall life of the church and the church’s response to and involvement in contemporary life and what is going on in the world. And I appreciate your understanding and support, even if I am not always wearing the particular hat you would like for me as your minister to wear. Amen.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 13, 2019
Psalm 119:17-18, 105-106; Luke 2:41-52 GNT
Several years ago, when our kids were still at home and our family of four was doing a lot of driving back and forth across the state of Tennessee, a funny thing happened that holds a lesson for those of an open heart and open mind. It was one of those many times when we had gone to visit family, most likely over the Christmas holiday, and we were returning home. My Mom had baked a big ham and she had given us four big slices to take home with us, or to eat on the road, if we so desired. We had placed the ham in our cooler, which we always carried with us in the car or van. After being on the road for a number of hours, we began to get hungry and decided to stop at a fast food restaurant. Since we had four big slices of ham in the cooler, we decided that what would be really good would be four hot biscuits; we would just buy four plain biscuits, and maybe a soft drink for each of us, and make ham biscuits, and that would satisfy us.
So we exited the interstate and went into a Hardee’s Restaurant, used the restroom, and then we walked up to the counter to order. And I said to the young man behind the cash register, “Uh, we were wondering if we could just order four plain biscuits.” Now, as I said, we had been on the road for awhile, and we were already tired and road weary, so we must have looked pretty depressing to the young man behind the counter. And we later wondered if it was his first day on the job because of the manner in which he responded. Because the young man leaned in close over the counter and whispered, “Wouldn’t you like some fried chicken to go with them biscuits?”
Well, being dead tired from driving, I wasn’t thinking real clearly. The first thought that occurred to me was they had fried chicken in the bin that was about to expire and they needed to get rid of. So I replied, “Well, I guess so.” So the young man took our money for the four biscuits, put the biscuits in the paper sack, and then he added four big pieces of fried chicken. We left Hardee’s feeling good about our good fortune; we not only had ham biscuits to enjoy, but we had fried chicken as well!
It was only after we were driving down the interstate and enjoying or ham biscuits and fried chicken and were talking about it that it occurred to us that the young man probably thought that we were so poor that we could only afford to pay for four biscuits (reminiscent of that scene in the classic movie The Grapes of Wrath where the Joad family stops at a roadside diner and can only afford to buy a 10-cent loaf of bread). But for the Hammer Family, such was not the case at all. We had money; but we had gone in just looking for hot biscuits for our ham slices. But the young man obviously had interpreted the situation otherwise. Things aren’t always as they seem to be.
We have all watched those television programs in which the plot of the show is a big misunderstanding – things are not at all what they appear to be to one or more of the main characters in the story. The Andy Griffith Show is one of those programs in which the plot often is based on a misunderstanding and where things are not as they seem to be to one of the main characters. In one episode, Barney is convinced that Andy is getting engaged, so he gets the entire town to plan a big surprise engagement party for the happy couple. But it was all a big misunderstanding, and there was no engagement at all. Things aren’t always what they seem to be.
Jumping to conclusions; a distorted view of reality; not seeing things as they really are; and thinking of the worst possible outcome. Haven’t we all been guilty of such at one time or another? Often in life, circumstances result in someone jumping to the wrong conclusion, convinced that things are far different than what they actually are.
Many of us may have been guilty of entering a conversation late and getting only part of the facts and then jumping to conclusions. Things weren’t really what they appeared to be at all.
The same unexpected event, throwing a wrench into the day, could happen to two different people, and to one it might be received with a grain of salt, and the other might go to pieces thinking it is the end of the world. Things are not always as they seem to be.
And some of us, you know, tend to immediately jump to the worst possible outcome whenever a life problem comes along, no matter how minor that crisis may be. In reality, things are not really what they seem to be at the time.
What it all boils down to is the fact that there is reality – what is really the truth, the actual state of things – and then there is our perception of reality – the way we filter things and interpret life experiences. Two people may hear the same report, statement, or story, and to one it may be perceived as nothing out of the ordinary and to the other it may be perceived as the worst possible news.
In Luke’s story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, can’t you just see in your mind’s eye Mary and Joseph jumping to conclusions and entertaining the worst possible outcome in the disappearance of their boy Jesus? “Joseph, I fear the worst has happened to Jesus!” We can just hear Mary say. “He may have been kidnapped. Or he could have fallen off the wall in Jerusalem and broken his neck! O Joseph, how will we ever find him in that crowd?” Can’t you just see and hear how frantic the worried parents were during the course of those two-plus days until they were reunited with him?
I well remember an incident when our son was in high school. He had gone to a party at the home of one of his classmates. And when it got to be well past his curfew, we began to get worried, which was not like our son at all. This was in the day before every kid had a cell phone. About 1 am, the mother of one of our son’s friends started calling us, frantic and worried sick as well. Her daughter had called her from the party about midnight to tell her that our son was bringing her home, but it was well after 1 but they had not arrived. Well, I immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusion. We knew that the crooked country road between our house and the house of the young woman he was taking home ran right alongside the Harpeth River, and there were no guardrails. So 1:30 in the morning found me driving that crooked river road looking for our son’s car along the river. All turned out well. They finally showed up around 2 am, I think. The girl had been having some relationship problems and just needed someone to listen, and they had found a place to talk and had lost track of time. Things are not always as they might seem to be.
But as in the case of the boy Jesus, things were actually much better than they seemed to be. Jesus was where he felt he needed to be, in his Father’s house, as was our son, who felt he needed to be present for a friend.
The truth is, so many problems in our world ensue because we jump to conclusions and think the worst before we get all the facts. Misunderstandings, broken relationships, ruptured families; perhaps even national conflicts and wars are possible because things are not what they seem to be and people jump to conclusions and assume the worst before getting all the facts.
Sometimes we are made to wonder how as Americans we can all look at the same set of circumstances, the same issues, and see two different pictures and come to exact opposite conclusions.
The keys to avoiding having a distorted view of reality, jumping to conclusions, thinking the worst possible outcome, and having misunderstandings, it seems to me, are: first, waiting until we get all the facts and make sure we have our facts straight; second, open and honest communication, when possible; communicating and speaking the truth in love, along with getting the real facts, could prevent a lot of problems in our lives and in the world. And third, we do well to try to remember that things aren’t always as they initially seem to be. Sometimes a request for hot biscuits is just that and nothing more – a desire for hot biscuits. Amen.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-16 NKJV
Perhaps you read of the disappearance of the Baby Jesus figurines in northern East Tennessee in the weeks just before Christmas. Baby Jesus was stolen from a Nativity scene in Kingsport for the second year in a row. The Kingsport Jaycees organize the city’s Nativity display. The Baby Jesus stolen in Kingsport last year was never recovered, so following last year’s theft they tethered Baby Jesus to the display. Thieves were still able to steal Jesus again this year, nonetheless. The Kingsport Baby Jesus has an estimated value of $1,200.
In Greeneville, the decades-old Baby Jesus figure was also stolen. It was taken from a city park following a free park event. This was not the first time the Greeneville Baby Jesus had been stolen either. A group of “youngsters” stole the Greeneville Baby Jesus about seven years ago, but they later returned him to his rightful place.
Well, the good news is both Baby Jesus figurines were recovered this year. The Kingsport Baby Jesus was returned a few days before Christmas, and the Greeneville Baby Jesus was found lying in a ditch by a water department employee. So in both cases, Baby Jesus was returned to his rightful place.
Well, when I read those stories, I thought to myself, There must be a sermon in there somewhere! My first sermon title idea was “Stealing Jesus.” But that didn’t seem right. So then I came up with “Returning Jesus to His Rightful Place.” That title is not perfect either, and one could start down a number of rabbit trails with that one. But the birth stories of Jesus are about putting him in his rightful place, metaphorically speaking.
I decided the best course of action is to try to let the scripture text, its context, and the time when the text was actually written dictate the direction this sermon would take.
From the onset let it be stated that Matthew’s account of the visit of the Wise Men or Magi to the Baby Jesus is one of those stories where the truth contained within it is above and beyond the literal details of the story. Whether or not all the details surrounding the story of the Wise Men or Magi traveling to Jerusalem and Bethlehem are historically accurate is up for debate among many progressive biblical scholars. And the historicity of the details is inconsequential to the great truths embedded within the story, as we shall see. As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it in their book, The First Christmas, “Quite apart from whether [the birth stories] happened, what did they and do they mean?” (p. 36).
Matthew’s birth story is in many respects a politically-subversive story, a fact we may have easily missed as we have heard this story told again and again.
For instance, considered within the time that Jesus was born, the story gives Jesus a place of superiority over King Herod, the recognized king of the Jews. Right off the bat, Matthew sets up Jesus as one who is at odds with the political and religious establishments of the world. Who is the real “King of the Jews?” Such is the question Matthew poses.
King Herod, as the story goes, feels threatened by this newborn king who is hailed by the Wise Men of the world as being the new “king of the Jews.” And so, Herod sets out to have this threat – this so-called baby king of the Jews – killed.
Now, one of the truths contained within this birth story is that Matthew presents Jesus as the new and better Moses by drawing several parallels between Jesus and Moses in his opening chapters, as well as throughout his entire gospel. Just as an evil king sought to have the baby Moses killed, an evil king sought to have the baby Jesus killed. As Moses came out of Egypt, so Joseph takes the Baby Jesus to Egypt and then out again. As Borg and Crossan point out, anyone living in the first century who knew biblical tradition immediately saw the striking similarities between Exodus 1-2 and Matthew 1-2. “From the very beginning of his life, therefore, Jesus was already the new Moses and Herod was the new Pharaoh” (p. 42).
From the earliest Christian traditions, then, Jesus is given by the early Christians a place of superiority above Herod and all political systems of the world.
Which leads us to consider the actual time period when the gospel of Matthew was written, because the time in which a piece is written colors what is written. To put it in question form, what was Matthew seeking to say to the readers of his own generation and the time the gospel was actually written down? And what was going on in the Roman world at the time?
Matthew’s gospel likely was written sometime between 80-95 CE. During that time period, Domitian was the Emperor of Rome. Domitian had the reputation of being a ruthless ruler, known for his savage cruelty. He would become in Christian tradition an antichrist figure, “a beast rising out of the sea,” demanding worship from “the inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 13:1-18).
So the underlying thought in Matthew’s birth story that proclaims Jesus was born to be “King of the Jews” is that Jesus is superior to all “Herods” of the world, including the Roman Emperor! The truth embedded in the gospel is that Jesus’ rightful place is in contrast to, above and beyond, and over all the rulers of Rome and all the Kingdoms of the world!
Or to phrase it another way, the kernel of truth embedded in these subversive birth stories of Matthew, and Luke as well, is that Jesus and the truth he embodied, taught, and stood for reigns above the earthly rulers and kingdoms of this world.
Early on in Christian history, long before Matthew’s gospel was written, an early Christian confession of faith was “Jesus is Lord.” Now, some years ago I was turned off by that confession, “Jesus is Lord,” because I only heard it uttered repeatedly by those whose faith expression seemed to me to be shallow, hollow and for show. But at the time I didn’t understand, and I am not sure that they understood either, the biblical and historical context of what they were saying – “Jesus is Lord.” But the early Christian context for “Jesus is Lord” was this: not Herod, not the Roman Emperor, not the Roman Empire, not any of the kingdoms of this world, is Lord. Jesus is Lord, and his teachings, his truths, his life claims are above all. For this reason many of the early Christians were willing to die rather than honor as Lord the Roman Emperor.
For you see, in the Roman world, the one who was called the Son of God, Lord, savior of the world, light of the world, and bringer of peace was Caesar – the Roman Emperor. Emperor Domitian is said to have claimed the titles of “Lord” and “God” for himself. The early Christians rebelled against that idea. By proclaiming Jesus to be Lord and King, the early Christians were being quite subversive as they committed themselves to a higher truth and more perfect way than the ruthless, immoral Roman Emperors and the violent Roman Empire. As Borg and Crossan put it, to use any of the titles ascribed to the Roman emperors in referring to the newborn Jesus would be high treason (p. 63).
Now, what does all of this historical background involving Jesus and Herod and emperors of Rome have to do with us today, in the 21st century? Borg and Crossan contend that “The birth stories subvert the dominant consciousness of the first-century world as well as our own” (p. 38, emphasis mine). The contemporary truth we take from the subversive birth stories of both Matthew and Luke is that the claims of Jesus and the truths he embodied and taught rise above and are superior to any rulers, kings, monarchs, dictators, or presidents of the world. When what we know to be right and true and just as taught by Jesus comes into conflict with wrongs, falsehood, and injustice of rulers or kingdoms of the world, we have to make a choice.
As the early Christians made their choice declaring Jesus to be the “King of the Jews” over the Herods and Pharoahs of the world, and as they honored Jesus as Lord, Savior, and Son of God over the Roman Emperors of the world, we, too, are beckoned to do the same.
What it all boils down to when all is said and done is the decision of putting Jesus in his rightful place, letting his precepts of rightness and morality and justice guide our thoughts and our actions, even if it means standing in opposition to the rulers and kingdoms of the world. May we have the grace and strength to do so if or when necessary – putting Jesus in his rightful place. Amen.
Cited: Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Do you remember that scrawny-looking Christmas tree in the classic Charlie Brown Christmas? The first Christmas that Mary Lou and I were married, we were quite limited in our financial resources. That is a fancy way of saying we were poor. We didn’t have money to go buy an artificial tree or a live tree at a Christmas tree lot like many do and like we would do in later years. So we went to the woods behind our house and cut a spindly little pine tree that you would swear we tried to copy from the Charlie Brown Christmas. And we made most of the ornaments to go on it out of construction paper and whatever else we could find.
Now, I might tell you that we did splurge that December in buying the first vinyl LP record album of our married life – Elvis’s Blue Christmas album, which we bought at the grocery store where we shopped for $5. But that was about the extent of our Christmas extravagance. In spite of what might have appeared to many to be the saddest of situations, we didn’t know any better. Hence, that first Christmas, with our meager resources, was one of the most joyous Christmases in all our years together. You don’t need an expensive Christmas tree and elaborate decorations to have Christmas joy.
Joy—Luke’s gospel accounts of the pre-birth and birth stories of Jesus are colored by great joy. “You will have joy and gladness,” the angel says to Zacharias when announcing that he and Elizabeth will have a son in their old age. Luke relates that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of her kinswoman Mary, the mother of Jesus, the babe (i.e., the one to be known as John the Baptist) leaped in her “womb for joy” (1:44).
And then Luke tells the story of lowly shepherds who heard that familiar message, “I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The implication is that any shepherds who might have been present at Jesus’ birth were filled with joy.
But historically, there wasn’t much during that time period to be joyous about. As already noted this month, the Jewish people lived under the oppressive hand of the Roman Empire. Oppression, injustice and violence often were the order of the day.
And when it came to shepherds, they didn’t have much to be joyous about either. Shepherds were about as low on the social ladder as one could get. Shepherds were often shady characters who were looked down upon by the rest of society. If you lived in that day and time and were having a dinner party, you probably would not want the shepherds stopping by.
But as one who had a keen interest in the lowly and marginalized of society, Luke the gospel writer thought it important to note that even shepherds could be the recipients of God’s joy made known in Jesus. And that is why Luke included the account of the angels announcing the news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and made the point that they were the first to visit the Christ Child in the manger. If God’s good news is for shepherds, then it is for everyone. If shepherds were meant to be recipients of God’s blessings, then no one is left out.
Another message illustrated through the shepherds is that joy—true joy—is to be found in places we might never expect it, like in a pasture field at night or in a lowly stable.
Curiously later in Luke, he quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!” (Luke 6:22-23). There is that “leap for joy” phrase again. Now, that seems sort of odd, doesn’t it? Rejoice and leap for joy when people hate you, exclude you, and revile you?
But the truth is, the presence of joy is not dependent upon what we might call “happy circumstances.” True joy can be present among those who are poor, oppressed, or suffering. History tells us that people who have been persecuted because of their faith or social activism; and individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr., who have been imprisoned by an unjust system, can radiate a sense of joy. Because real joy is deep-seated in the human soul and alive despite outward circumstances.
And there is a difference between joy and happiness. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh put it, “For happiness one needs security, but joy can spring like a flower even from the cliffs of despair.” One of my favorite trees and favorite woods to work with is the red cedar tree. I have often been amazed while driving down interstate highways to see healthy, vibrant cedar trees growing out of a wall of rock. More adverse circumstances could not be imagined for a tree to grow. But out of those adverse circumstances a beautiful, evergreen tree shares it beauty with the world. So it can be with joy. Sometimes a beautiful demonstration of joy can radiate from the most adverse circumstances of life. I have stood by the nursing home or hospital bedside of persons who were very frail and ill and some very close to death’s door. But emanating from them was the beautiful quality of spiritual joy.
Few of us know perfect lives free of any worries or troubles of some sort. Most people and most families struggle in some way, with physical ailments or limitations, family issues or dysfunction, addiction, relationship issues, financial woes, and so on. But in spite of all that, it is still possible to know joy.
I am reminded of a story that Dr. Billy Graham tells in one of his books. As I have noted previously, I never agreed with all of Billy Graham’s conservative theology, but I did appreciate his honesty and integrity and willingness to admit when he was wrong. At any rate, Billy noted that one of the most delightful Christians that he ever met was a pastor who at one time had been an international tennis champion. The man had been imprisoned some years before, but after only a week they threw him out of jail. The man asked his captors why they had thrown him out. And they replied, “Because a prison is supposed to be a jail, an unhappy place, and you’re making it a [joyous] place!” “I was only teaching the Bible and praying,” the man explained to Billy with a wry smile. (Just As I Am, p. 612).
“I bring you good tidings of great joy,” is the timeless message that falls upon our ears again this Christmas season. It is a message that might lead us to set aside some time to take inventory of our lives to see how much joy we find there. Do we find joy in the simple things of life – in our faith or spirituality, in being together with family or friends, in the bonds of our faith community, in recounting the many blessings that grace our lives, and in the simple Christmas messages of hope, peace, love and joy? As Frederick Buechner pointed out in our responsive reading, even the simplest of life experiences, like laughing out loud with a friend or taking a walk in the first snowfall of the season, can give birth to great joy.
Despite what the department store circulars and television commercials might try to tell us, we don’t need “things” to have true joy. In fact, we will not find true joy in “things,” and the many things that we may acquire may in the long run only detract from a sense of joy.
Yes, the Christmas message is true joy may be found in the most common circumstances and simplest mangers of life—those occasions when everyday life intersects with the Sacred. May it be so with us during the end of this Advent and beginning of this Christmas season. Amen.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 16, 2018
Luke 15:1-7; 1 John 3:1 GNT
Jesus, it would first appear, had an odd way with arithmetic; so much so that he likely would not have been hired as a mathematics teacher or a public accountant. Minister-writer Frederick Buechner goes so far as to say, “Jesus’ arithmetic . . . was atrocious.”1 Now, those are Buechner’s words, not mine J. But bear with me and permit me to explain.
For instance, consider the mathematical proposition that “one is greater than ninety-nine.” Such is the premise Jesus proposes in the parable of the lost sheep that served as today’s gospel reading. That is really a bit hard to accept when you stop to think about it – mathematically speaking, that is. Such sort of flies in the face of the theory of choosing the greatest good with the greatest number in mind, doesn’t it? Leave 99 sheep alone in the “wilderness,” as other versions translate it, in order to go off looking for one little lost lamb? How many of us would likely be willing to do that?
Now, just think about it. Suppose that you are hired as a shepherd to watch and care for a flock of 100 sheep. It is your responsibility to keep watch at all times to guard those sheep against the ravages of wolves, coyotes, or whatever other danger might pose a threat to their safety. You are expected to keep them all safe, sometimes putting your own life in jeopardy if need be. How quick would most of us be to leave the 99 to their own devices, not knowing what danger might come along in our absence, while going to search for the little one that is lost? Surely, Jesus, 99 are of more value than one, aren’t they?
Take for instance another mathematical theory of Jesus: the more one gives away, the more he will have. We find this teaching in the gospel of Luke as well, where Jesus says, “Give to others, and God will give to you. Indeed, you will receive a full measure, a generous helping, poured into your hands . . .” (Luke 6:38 GNT). So, if you want to receive, then give! And the more you give, the more you will have. It just doesn’t add up, does it?
The capitalistic way is not to give away, but to accumulate as much as you can. If we don’t look out for number one, then who will? So giving, and giving extravagantly, flies in the face of our basic instinct of wanting to acquire and accumulate.
Consider Jesus’ teaching that we should forgive those who do us wrong, not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven. You may recall that “Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?’ ‘No, not seven times,’ answered Jesus, ‘but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21 GNT). Those numbers just seem to be a bit unreasonable, don’t they? Who of us wants to forgive someone who does us wrong 490 times? Such a high number of forgiving seems to be reckless or compromising, doesn’t it?
And then there is the teaching regarding paying workers the same wages whether they labored nine hours or one hour. Jesus spoke a parable about those who worked in a vineyard from 9 in the morning until evening and how they received one silver coin (the daily wages of a field laborer), while those who were hired at 5 pm the same day were given the same pay – one silver coin as well. Those who had worked in the hot sun all day long complained to the owner that if those who had not started working until the day was almost done received a silver coin, then they should have been paid much, much more. Wouldn’t all of us feel the same way? Wouldn’t we feel cheated if we had worked nine hours and received the same pay as the ones who had only worked one hour? What is wrong with that picture? we are wont to ask. With that kind of accounting and business practices, one couldn’t stay in business very long, we are inclined to think. What was Jesus thinking?
Well, such are just some of the examples of Jesus’ arithmetic and teachings involving numbers. What can we make of it all? Or to look at it from another angle, when we add all these mathematical teachings of Jesus together, what is the bottom line? Could it be that in the Divine order of things, there is greater truth to be discovered? Could it be that there is an alternate reality in Jesus’ mathematical formulas? I think there is.
When we look closely at the bottom line of all these examples, we find a common denominator – Love; the unequivocal, unconditional, unending, far-reaching love of God. The story of the one lost sheep in the wilderness highlights the far-reaching love of God and the extremes to which God will go in order to seek out and care for every little one.
The saying to the effect that the more we give away results in having more affirms God’s love and the fact that we cannot out give God.
In the question regarding how many times we should forgive those who sin against us, what Jesus was really saying is forgiveness is open-ended. “Seven times seventy” is meant to represent infinitude. The bottom line of forgiving our brother or sister seven times seventy has to do with the love and grace of God that forgives time and time again. The love, forgiveness and grace of God are infinite and unending.
And the bottom line of the parable of the workers in the vineyard is that all are saved equally by the love and grace of God. The entrance into the realm of God is a level playing field, and whether we are the first one or the last one through the gate, all enter through the same door of unconditional love and unmerited grace.
We have been reminded a few times throughout the month that ours is a nation sorely divided. There is the temptation to choose sides, to draw battle lines, to separate ourselves from those people. The Advent Candle of Love not only reminds us of the great love of God personified in the person of Jesus, but it also calls us to commit ourselves anew to putting love at the center of our lives and letting sacrificial love become a controlling factor in all we do and say, not only at Christmas time, but all throughout the year.
And as the arithmetic of Jesus has reminded us, true love shows concern for the least one among us – the overlooked, the outcast, the one who is not like us, the poor immigrant worker in the vineyard, even the one we don’t particularly care for. True love doesn’t always take into account what doing a good deed is going to cost me. True love doesn’t keep track, making sure that all get their just deserts, and that we get what is coming to us first. True love doesn’t always consider the bottom line.
Yes, Jesus, as God’s emissary, operated under an alternate reality when it comes to arithmetic and numbers. Life’s bottom line in the accounting system according to Jesus is unmerited grace and unconditional love. And in the final analysis, grace and unconditional love are all that really matter.
Perhaps you have seen the Natalie Portman Miss Dior perfume commercial now airing on television. The fast-moving commercial shows Miss Portman engaging in a number of extreme physical activities. And then she utters the final line: “And you? What would you do for love?” That is really the Advent question for us, isn’t it? What will we do for love? Amen.