What Really Matters in the End

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 29, 2016 (Memorial, Graduation)

Matthew 25:31-45 CEB

Again this past week I found myself at a sermon crossroad, or sermon dilemma.  Would I prepare a sermon on Memorial Day, remembering and honoring those who have passed from us?  Or, would I prepare a sermon on graduation, honoring and speaking to those of our church family who are graduating this month?  Or, would I somehow try to combine the two and speak to both?  Well, I chose the latter—an attempt to combine both themes and seek to find common ground between them.  And when I got down to the bottom line, it really was not that difficult.

For, you see, one of the characteristics or attributes that makes for a comforting funeral or memorial service is the same characteristic or attribute that makes for a successful life as one graduates and sets off into the world.  And then, after I realized the commonality between the two, the passage that came to mind was Jesus’ Parable of the Judgment of the Nations.

One of the key teachings we see in this parable has to do with relationships.  Now, in considering the parables, we need to bear in mind that they were not intended to be taken 100% literally, historically, or factually true.  Parables are earthy stories that point toward greater spiritual truths.  So we should not read this parable literally as though a time will come when Jesus will sit on a throne somewhere and divide humanity into two camps—the good and the bad, the saved and the lost, and so on, and throw the unrighteous into a lake of fire.  Our scientific minds won’t let us go there.

Rather, in parables such as this one we need to look for the deeper, spiritual meaning Jesus was seeking to convey.  One such spiritual meaning in this particular parable is the importance of human relationships and relating to others as persons of inherent dignity and worth and deserving of our respect and care, even those who are marginalized, on the fringes of society—the hungry, homeless, destitute, sick, and imprisoned.  One of the points Jesus is trying to make is even “the least of these” is deserving of our respect and care.

The curious thing about this parable is it doesn’t demand that one believe or confess anything.  The criterion for being “saved” in this parable is whether one has loved others, given one’s life in loving relationships, especially to the disadvantaged and downtrodden.  And when we relate to such people in genuine respect, love and care, it is as though we are relating to Jesus himself.

Someone who served as a wonderful living example of this was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who is an encouragement to each of us to look into the eyes of others with respect, love, care, and human compassion.  As you know, Mother Teresa spent her life loving and caring for poor lepers of India, “the least of these” whom few would be willing to love.

Now, I will readily confess that I am nowhere near the person that Mother Teresa was; few, if any, of us are.  That is to say, that I haven’t always related to others in the exemplary way this parable calls for.  Perhaps you haven’t either.  I think some of the factors that keep us from relating to others in the way that we should are fear, not wanting to get too involved in the problems of another, feeling inadequate to address the real needs of others, and so on.  And so, this parable of the Judgment of the Nations proves to be difficult for us.  It makes us uncomfortable, because we realize that we do not reach out to the poor, homeless, sick, and imprisoned in the stringent way this parable calls for.  But such are the nature of the parables of Jesus—they challenge us to move beyond our comfort zone and call us to a different, higher, more human, reality that we currently know.

With all of that having been said, when we think about Memorial Day and remembering those who have passed on, we realize that one of the most important attributes that make memorable the lives of those we remember is the way they related to others.  The funeral or memorial services and eulogies that are “easiest” for me to plan are for those church members and friends who gave their lives in loving, compassionate, serving relationship to others.  And when I prepare my funeral or memorial service thoughts, what I have to say is so much richer if the person has given themselves in service to others and related to others in a genuine, caring, compassionate manner.  Likewise, the most popular and most inspiring eulogies given by family members are those that reminisce about quality relationships—family camping trips, coaching Little League Baseball, being a Girl Scout leader, a volunteer for non-profits and social service agencies that seek to improve the lives of others, and so on.  The best memories of those passed from us have to do with loving relationships.

But also, when we think about graduates and setting forth into the world, we also realize that one of the most important considerations for graduates to keep in mind is the importance of human relationships.  Indeed, one of the most important lessons we can learn in life is that money, success, climbing the corporate ladder, and a prestigious position don’t really matter if one isn’t rich in human relationships and relating to others in a loving, caring, compassionate, respectful manner.

Allow me to cite two examples to illustrate the point.  Consider Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla.  In 2013, they announced that they were donating 99% of their stock, or $992 million, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that supports several non-profits.  I think they have done a similar thing since then.  It appears that Mark and Priscilla realize that making money is not the only goal in life.  It is reaching out to and relating to and sharing with “the least of these” Jesus spoke about.

And then consider the example of Prince Harry, grandson of the Queen of England.  In recent years, Prince Harry has taken up the mantle of a true humanitarian by reaching out to and relating to servicemen and servicewomen who have been wounded in action or are suffering mental illness by his establishment of and participation in the Invictus Games.  But the point here being, in spite of his privilege and status, Prince Harry is reaching out to and relating to a different sort of Jesus’ “least of these.”

So, my word to any and all graduates of our congregation is never forget what is really important in life—human connections, respecting and relating to others, caring for and serving the needs of others in whatever way you can, and never forgetting the “least of these” Jesus spoke of who are on the fringes of society.

 The bottom line is when all is said and done, and when we reach the end of our days, what really matters is the human relationships we have nurtured and how we have respected, related to, cared for, loved, and served others.  Being truly human and seeking to be a help to others—no matter how small in the eyes of the world they might be—this is what really matters in the end.  At least that is the way I see it.  Amen.

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Religious Insights from Emily Dickinson

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 22, 2016

Genesis 32:22-28 CEB; Poem #49 by Emily Dickinson

Pre-Readings Note: Occasionally I am asked how long it took to prepare such and such a sermon.  The answer for some sermons is a lifetime.  In other words, in some cases, years of study, reflection, and experience go into the composition of a sermon.  Well, such is the way with today’s topic.  It has been years in the making.


Have you ever despaired over the death of loved ones?  Or been perplexed by the hiddenness of God?  Or felt that your prayers rose no higher than the ceiling above you?  Or vacillated over the reality of life after death?  Have you ever felt like you were in a wrestling match with God?  If so, then today’s topic may be of interest to you, and you may identify with Emily.

One of my English instructors during my freshman year in college often remarked that one of his favorite things to do—especially on a rainy day—was to curl up with Emily.  In addition to being an English instructor, he was also a Presbyterian minister, so his comment was quite innocent.  What he meant was one of his favorite pastimes was curling up with his favorite copy of the poems of Emily Dickinson.  It was a passion of his to read and try to interpret what Dickinson was seeking to say.  Well, such was my first exposure to Emily Dickinson, who was often referred to as “that Poet of Amherst.”  But it would be some eighteen years later before I would become better acquainted with Dickinson’s poetry in the course of a master’s level class on American literature.

Then ten years after that—when I paid our son a visit at his post-doctoral office at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst—I stopped by the nearby Emily Dickinson home where she lived and wrote and died.  Not unlike my college English instructor, I, too, have grown to love and admire Emily.  A couple of years ago, it dawned upon me that Dickinson’s poetry is ripe with poignant quotations that go well with my nature photographs.  And so, I began to combine two things that that are meaningful to me and that I find rewarding—nature photographs and poetry.

And so, I set a goal for myself of reading The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, all 1775 of them, totaling some 716 pages.  It took me several months to accomplish it, but I did it.  Now, if you are familiar with the poetry of Emily Dickinson in the least, you know that she often is not easy to understand or interpret.  Dickinson is quite elusive at times.  So in many cases, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what she was trying to say.  And a poem that on the surface may appear to be child-like simple can hold deep symbolic meaning pertaining to the poet’s own struggles with life or faith or the pressing issues of her day.  She often touched on contemporary issues of technology and science.  Consequently, after making my way through her poems, I decided I needed to also read a biography.  So just a couple of weeks ago I completed a fairly recent, award-winning Dickinson biography by Roger Lundin titled Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.

Well, this past week happened to be the 130-year anniversary of the death of poet Emily Dickinson.  So I felt it was a good time to bring together in a sermon some of the religious insights of that poet from Amherst.  Not in every way, certainly, but in many ways some of her religious convictions and leanings and questioning resonate with my own and, I am betting, with yours as well.  Lundin says of Dickinson, “Her poetry is in large measure about belief . . . she explored the full range of human experience in her reflections upon such subjects as God, the Bible, suffering and immortality. . .  Emily Dickinson stands as one of the major religious thinkers of her age”(3).  Lundin continues, “throughout her adult life, in her poems and letters, she brilliantly meditated upon the great perennial questions of God, suffering, the problem of evil, death, and her ‘Flood subject, immortality” (4).  In her poems and personal letters, Dickinson quoted from thirty-eight different books of the Bible, with the King James Bible being her most often quoted source.

There are certain objects or concepts that show up in Dickinson’s poetry over and over.  On the lighter side, she loved writing about bees, butterflies, and birds.  But on a heavier note, Dickinson seemed fascinated with the subject of death, maybe because her life was touched with death so often, as she lost in short order a number of people who were so close to her.  “In a span of less than three years, she would lose her mother, her [10-year-old] nephew, a beloved friend, and the only man she ever seriously considered marrying” (Lundin 243).   As already noted, she wrote much about immortality.  Her biographer writes, “Of all the articles of the Christian creed, the one that Dickinson most fervently longed to believe was that of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting; and in assuring others of its truth, she steadied her own wavering faith” (236).  Although “Dickinson had no certainty about the life beyond the grave . . . she also refused to believe that, having created the entire universe, God would let it all be given over to death” (261).

But a paramount point to be remembered is the fact that as with Jacob of old, Emily Dickinson was one who spent her entire life wrestling with God.  And her poetry was the primary platform for doing so.  Lundin says of her, “She remained . . . one who wrestled with God and who continued to write in his shadow until the very end” (243).  Indeed, one of the most important and most pertinent aspects of Dickinson’s poetry has to do with her struggles with religious faith and her wrestling with God.  For instance, Dickinson did not let herself be swayed by the emotional revival that came to Amherst and the church her family attended; she refused to make a public profession of faith in the way that most of the other young people she knew had done.  And by the same token, Dickinson struggled long and hard over the decision to join the Congregational Church in town that had played such a vital role in her family; but she never did.  Maybe it was because of all the human suffering she witnessed; maybe because of the disappointments she experienced in human relationships; maybe because of the many deaths she suffered of those close to her; and maybe because she had failed to have an answer to prayers she had prayed.  Emily “wrestled with God all her life.”  That wrestling with God plays out in many of the poems she wrote.

Such wrestling manifested itself in Emily’s thoughts about prayer.  She experienced God to be hidden, absent; and that absence was a source of great pain for her.  Therefore, she depicted prayer “as a gesture as futile as that of a bird stamping her foot on the air” (150).  In one of her poems she confessed:

Of Course – I prayed –

And did God Care?

He cared as much as on the Air

A Bird – had stamped her foot –

Consequently, for Dickinson “prayer is something we fling into the hollow of the divine ear . . . a form of self-expression and not an occasion of divine communication” (148).

Not surprisingly, Dickinson also wrote much on the topic of suffering.  A curious note of interest is Dickinson had a difficult time relating to God whom she felt was withdrawn, unknowable, and somewhat unapproachable, as already noted.  But she closely identified with Jesus, but primarily through his passion and suffering.  “I like a look of Agony,” she wrote, “Because I know it’s true.” (241)  Lundin notes that “For Dickinson, crucifixion was important as an example of suffering love and not as an act of atonement” (172), and “the suffering of Jesus had put a human face upon God for Emily” (254).  “She trusted Jesus because he had suffered unspeakable grief . . .” (242). Whereas “God the Father was often her foe, then God the Son was her trustworthy friend” (169).  Yet, similar to many of the Christian mystics and saints (Mother Teresa, for example), “At certain points, Dickinson despaired even of Jesus, when she feared that he, too, might become silent and as distant as the heavenly Father” (177).

Well, such are some of the major religious insights of Emily Dickinson, who has been described by some as America’s greatest poet.  But the pertinent point for a Christian sermon is the fact that many of us can, no doubt, identify with Emily as one who wrestled with God.  As noted earlier, who of us has not been brought to the precipice of despair over the death of a loved one, or a number of loved ones in short order?  Who of us has not felt like we were wrestling with God over the problems of suffering and death of the innocent?  Who of us has not had the experience of the awful hiddeness or absence of God?  Who of us has not felt like our prayers went no farther than the ceiling over our head?  Who of us has not wondered about immortality, life beyond death, but at the same time struggled to make ourselves believe it?  In any or all of these religious struggles, we may identify with the poet of Amherst who gave poetic voice to such struggles in a way no other American poet has ever done.  Hence, one might say that Emily Dickinson was not only America’s greatest poet but also humanity’s greatest poet (after the psalmists) as pertaining to wrestling with God and the existential religious questions regarding suffering, the efficacy of prayer, death of the innocent, and everlasting life.  In such ways, we can identify with her.

But in spite of all her struggles, questioning and wrestling, Emily also sought to see the beauty in life and nature, and in that regard I love and resonate with her poetry as well.

“I dwell in possibility- “ she wrote.

“How good – to be alive!

How infinite  – to be

Alive . . .”  Amen!


Cited: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, Roger Lundin.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

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

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

Acts 11:1-18 CEB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life Lessons from a Music Legend

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

Matthew 7:1-5 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

God, Whose Face Shines Through Creation

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

Alt. Tune: AUSTRIAN HYMN – FJ Haydn

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

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

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

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


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

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

In the universe wide expanding, galaxies still yet unseen;

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Earth Day Hymn (Alternate tunes)

God, Whose Face Shines Through Creation

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

Alt. Tune: AUSTRIAN HYMN – FJ Haydn


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

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

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

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


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

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

In the universe wide expanding, galaxies still yet unseen;

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Cultivating Creation Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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