Perspectives on Human Perfection

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 19, 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:48 ESV

And Moses spoke to all the children of Israel, saying, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).  And Jesus spoke to his disciples, saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  Well, that sets the bar of living pretty high, doesn’t it?  Who among us is ready to stand and say that we are either holy or perfect?  Is such a thing even humanly possible?  Or could it be it is an ideal, or a goal toward which we may aim?  Or could it be that human holiness or perfection means something totally different than what we may think?

There was a movement in America that began in the mid-19th century that was actually called the “Holiness Movement” that stressed the possibility of human perfection.  The idea emerged from Methodism (or Wesleyan theology) and John Wesley’s teaching and doctrine having to do with a second work of grace (sanctification) that leads to Christian perfection.  Holiness adherents believe that a “second work of grace” or “second blessing” can take place after personal salvation, an experience that enables one to live a holy life.  Several factors in European and American religious history served to support the Holiness Movement: the Protestant Reformation, Pietism in Germany, Quietism in Quakerism, the Evangelical Revival in England, the First Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening in America, and the American camp meeting revivals.  All of these smaller movements lent support to the idea of the Holiness Movement and those who were drawn to it.

Although the Holiness Movement had its roots in Wesleyan theology, leading personalities from a number of denominational backgrounds would also play a role, such as Congregationalist Thomas Upham, Presbyterian evangelist Charles G. Finney, Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith, and Salvation Army co-founder Catherine Booth, just to name a few.

Traditionally, adherents of the Holiness Movement have expected members to obey strict moral and behavioral rules, including prohibiting any use of alcohol, any form of gambling, any form of dancing, any movie-going, and so on.  Holiness groups also have often placed prohibitions upon owning or watching television; women wearing makeup, jewelry, shorts or swimsuits; and other such things.

Over the last 150 years or so, a number of denominations and smaller associations have splintered off the Holiness Movement, including the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of the Nazarene, Church of God, Salvation Army, Pentecostal Holiness Church, just to name a few that we may be familiar with.

The question is, as I raised it early on, Is a state of holiness and human perfection really possible?  Such an idea may be predicated on the belief that humans – when first created – knew such a state of perfection, before the so-called “Fall from Grace.”  Perhaps the idea is that if there ever was a time when humans, as created by God, were really innocent and free of sin before falling to temptation, then with God’s grace humans could return to such a state of perfection.  But such is predicated on the fact that one takes the creation accounts in Genesis literally.  If, however, one does not interpret the Genesis creation accounts literally – as many of us may not – then there never was a state of human perfection, and subsequently a “Fall from Grace” to begin with.  If that is the case, then perhaps there is another way altogether to interpret the biblical injunctions to “be holy” and/or “perfect.”

Let’s consider first Jesus’ injunction – at least as Matthew records it – to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  What is really meant by that word “perfect”?  The connotations of the Greek word that is translated “perfect” in most English Bibles means “ended,” or “complete.”  In fact, the Common English Bible translates the verse this way: “just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” That puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it?  For you see, when we consider the verse “be perfect” or “be complete” within its context (and we should always interpret a verse within its context), we find that Jesus has been talking about showing love and forgiveness in all our relationships: with our enemies, relatives, neighbors, societal relationships, and so on.  So the import of the verse is to be complete or perfectly inclusive in demonstrating love, compassion, and forgiveness in all our relationships, as God is complete or inclusive in demonstrating love, compassion, and forgiveness to all.  Jesus’ injunction to “be perfect” has nothing to do with moral perfection; at least not in this particular instance.

Then as we consider the word “holy” in Leviticus, we find that it means “separate” or “set apart.”  As we think about the time and circumstances, there were good hygienic and dietary reasons for the emphasis upon being separate or set apart.  A lot of the “holiness laws” in Leviticus were concerned with not getting food poisoned or contracting and spreading contagious diseases.   Such is to say that there were practical as well as religious reasons for the “holiness code” within the covenant community.

Some of the laws had to do with being different from the peoples around them, not participating in their worship of idols, indulging in their questionable practices, and so on.  Some of them were aimed at establishing and maintaining a well-ordered society and protecting the family unit, property rights, and so forth.  Granted, as we read the book of Leviticus today, we may think some of the prohibitions to be a bit extreme, silly, or down-right bizarre.  But regarding this particular chapter in Leviticus, biblical commentator John H. Hayes notes, “The ethical teachings of the OT find their apex in this [19th] chapter [of Leviticus] . . . ‘Holiness’ is understood as more than just ethical excellence; it is behavior that imitates God’s behavior” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

Therein is the crux of the matter in regards to the idea of holiness.  For if we again consider the verse, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” within its context, we find that it all has to do with the way God’s people were instructed to live in relation to others: looking out for the poor, stranger and aliens of the land by leaving remnants of grain and grapes for them to gather; respecting the property of others; dealing honestly with others; paying decent and honest wages to workers; dealing justly with everyone-rich and poor alike; not taking vengeance or using violence; but instead, loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  These are the instructions that come right after the injunction to “be holy.”  To “be holy” is to demonstrate behavior that mirrors or imitates the behavior of God.

And so, when we think of being holy in these terms – in a way that affects how we deal with others in society and in our daily lives; and when we think of being perfect as being complete in showing love, compassion and forgiveness in all our relationships – then it portrays holiness and perfection in a whole different light.

My honest gut conviction and belief is there never was a time of human perfection.  There never was a time of human innocence and so-called “Fall from Grace.”  Rather, I have been wont to believe that humankind could progressively move toward a more perfect state, if we could learn to live together in love and compassion as Jesus taught us.  But the idea that any one human might have some mystical experience that would impart human perfection seems to me to be a bit out of reach.  Maybe there is some holy man or holy woman somewhere in the world today who has reached a state of complete holiness or human perfection.  But I have never yet met one.  And I am not sure that is a possibility for most of us.

But the good news is all of us can be more “holy” as we care for others as God is said to care; and we can strive toward being more perfect, as Jesus described it, as we learn to care more for the less fortunate and learn to relate to others with forgiveness, love, and compassion.   Such is my perspective on being holy and perfect.  As such, may it be so for us.  Amen.

 

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Seeds of Possibilities

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 12, 2017

Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23 ESV

When I was a boy of 12 or so, it was about this time of the year when fruit tree catalogs and vegetable and flower seed catalogs started to appear in our family mailbox.  My Dad was the one who was most interested in the tree catalogs.  He has tended a small apple, pear, and peach orchard for as long as I can remember.  My Grandmother was the one who was most interested in the seed catalogs.  She was an avid gardener of flowers, and when she was able she made sure that our lawn was adorned with flowers and flowering shrubs of many varieties.  Well, it was only natural that I would inherit some of my Dad’s and Grandmother’s love for plants and trees.

But another thing that came in the mail about this time of year was a business offer from the American Seed Company for a young person like myself to fill out an order form for 50 packages of vegetable and garden seeds and order them on consignment.  Often my Grandmother would help me choose which seeds would be most popular.  I would place the order, and when the box of seeds came in the mail I could then go door to door in our neighborhood selling the packages of seeds at retail cost, and when all the seeds were sold, I would send the American Seed Company about one-third of what I had collected, and I got to keep the rest.  The seeds came in a nice, little rectangular box, which made them easy to transport on my bicycle.  Such was a good exercise in helping an adolescent gain some early business experience.

But those multi-colored, attractively-packaged packets of vegetable and garden seeds also represented a world of possibilities.  Each one of those tiny seeds in each one of those fifty packets represented potential – stalks of sweet corn and hills of green beans, English peas and carrots, summer squash and stalks of okra; yellow zinnias and blue, climbing morning glories; and much, much more.

That is the way with seeds – they contain worlds of possibility and potential.  And such is one of life’s miracles and great mysteries – how such tiny seeds produce such wonderful things to eat and such magnificent natural beauties that brighten our world.

Such brings us to Jesus’ Parable of the Sower.  This familiar parable reminds us that the potential and possibilities are always embodied within the seeds that are sown.  But sometimes environment has everything to do with the seeds’ failure or success.  Seeds that are dropped on rocky ground, the hard footpath, or among weeds or thorns don’t hold much promise of living or reaching their potential.  One of the sad truths of life is that many good seeds are lost.

Of course, in Jesus’ parable, the “seed is the word of the kingdom” of God.  It represents the good news Jesus embodied and taught.  Jesus realized that there would be mixed reactions to his message and mission.  Some of his followers would take Jesus’ words of living in the realm of God and plant them and produce a wonderful harvest in the world.  In fact, the person who was to become Jesus’ most ardent disciple – Paul of Tarsus – draws on the seed-planting analogy in his first Letter to the Corinthians.  Paul wrote regarding preaching the good news and planting new churches, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).  Because of Paul’s efforts, and others like him, in sowing the good seed of Good News and planting churches, the Jesus movement spread across the world.

But Jesus also realized that not everyone would be receptive.  The number of disciples that Jesus actually gathered in his lifetime probably was much smaller than we might imagine.  Several reasons could be cited for this; among them is the fact that Jesus was not the only itinerant preacher or messiah figure of his day.  And also, perhaps because the message of Jesus was so radical, too radical for many people to embrace, especially the political-religious establishment.  It may very well be that some of Jesus’ radical words helped get him crucified.

Nevertheless, the potential and possibilities of the Good News of the realm of God as Jesus saw it were always present in those metaphoric seeds that he passed down to us.

But let’s expand the box a bit as we think about the seeds we sow.  Let us include as seed possibilities the kind words that we speak to others, the positive example that we set, the altruistic acts of compassion that we perform, and the counsel and encouragement we provide others for their lives.  Every time we go out of our way to say a kind word to someone who is really needing one, we are dropping a good seed into the soil of life that may make a difference in the future.  Every time we counsel another person, or encourage others to stretch themselves, follow a dream, or utilize their gifts and talents, we are dropping a good seed into the soil of life that may someday produce astounding results.  But sometimes it may take years for us to see the positive results of our actions.

Allow me to share a personal example. In the late 1980’s, I was minister of a congregation in Denton, Texas.  Now, Denton is a university town, with Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas being two of the largest influences and largest employers in town.  It is not surprising that the congregation we served almost always enjoyed the attendance of a few university students.

Well, there was a nice, young university couple named Jeff and Janine who started attending our church.  I befriended Jeff and Janine and got acquainted with them as I participated in some of the young adult activities sponsored by the church.  Jeff and I talked a few times about his interests and such and future plans, but there was nothing definite.

Well, some years later, after we had long left Denton and moved to a new church start in Franklin, Tennessee, I heard from Jeff.  He made contact to inform me that because of my influence upon his life, he, too, had decided to become a minister and had recently been ordained into the ministry.  I had had no idea.  But the seeds I had dropped evidently had taken root and grown.  Now, that is just one life example.  Many others could be cited.

But dropping seeds of possibility into the soil of life certainly is not limited to ministers of churches.  All of us – in our daily routines and sphere of contacts – have the opportunity to drop seeds of possibilities into the lives of others.

Actor Denzel Washington compiled a book titled A Hand to Guide Me.  It is a collection of several dozen stories contributed by famous, successful people about how their success in life was based on the positive influence and encouragement of others.  In the Introduction, Denzel says, “Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who didn’t want for positive influences in his or her life. . . .  We’re all destined to leave some kind of mark . . . .  we all get where we’re going with a push from someone else. . . .  you can draw a line from every great success back to some rock-solid foundation.  A parent.  A teacher.  A coach.  A role model.  It all starts somewhere.”1

But there are a few things we need to bear in mind as we think about dropping positive seeds of possibility in the soil of life.  One thing is, as pointed out earlier, not every seed we drop will take root and grow.  That is a fact of life.  But we should not let that fact make us lose heart.

A second thing to bear in mind, as already noted, is often it takes time for a seed of possibility that we drop to germinate, sprout and grow.  It may be months or years before anything good comes from the positive influence we exert or the encouragement we share.

And then a third thing to remember is that some positive seeds we drop will make a difference.  And this is a point that we need to remember as we seek to be a positive influence and work for positive change in today’s climate.  It would be so easy for us to get discouraged as we think about the state of our country and world today and decide that anything we might do is useless.  But of the positive seeds that we sow, some will take root and grow and will make a difference.  It may take awhile for a positive outcome to come about, but the good deeds that good people do in the world, and positive influence we seek to exert, will not be lost in the end.  We have to have faith that this is so!

And so, the time for planting vegetable and garden seeds may be a few months away.  But the time for planting seeds of possibility in the soil of life and in the lives of others is now.  There is no better time than the present, as they say. May we all be more alert to the opportunities to do so, trusting that the positive influence we exert, the good deeds we do, and the seeds of possibility that we sow will, indeed, make a difference.  May it be so. Amen.

 

1Denzel Washington, A Hand to Guide Me.  Des Moines: Meredith Books, 2006.

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The Delicate Balance of Sharing Light

 

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 5, 2017

Matthew 5:13-16 ESV

Reading from “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop

You know what happens when you give small children flashlights to play with, don’t you?  We gave each of our five grandchildren a small flashlight for Christmas as a stocking stuffer that we had run across at a bargain sale, one of a different color for each grandchild.  Almost invariably when you give a young child – any young child – a flashlight to play with, he or she is going to shine it directly in somebody’s eyes.  To draw from that current insurance television commercial, “when you’re a child, that’s what you do.”  And so, you then have to remind the child to not shine the light directly in anyone’s eyes.  It is not comfortable; it is impolite; and that is not what flashlights are made for; well, unless you are an eye doctor, and then it is okay.  But the point is this: the flashlight was made for a noble purpose – to illuminate the darkness.  But when the flashlight is misused in such a way that it causes discomfort or threatens someone’s nerves, it fails in its purpose and loses its appeal.

Well, it is the same with shining the light of religion: when shining the light of religion or faith is properly done, it is a good thing.  These words attributed to Jesus about his followers being “the light of world” who are to let their “light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14, 16) are some of the most familiar and most beautiful in the New Testament.  Many of us learned these verses as children in Sunday school, as well as the familiar song based upon them, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine.”

Today’s Responsive Reading, based upon the words of 18th-century Father of American Universalism, John Murray, also are based upon this passage.   Decades ago, Murray struck a chord with me with his positive approach to God and religion when he instructed his followers, “You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine.  Use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.  Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”  Murray’s words were a reaction to the stern, judgmental, somber preaching and teaching of his day that destined much of the human population to hell, causing alarm and robbing people of any hope of fellowship with God or a blessed afterlife.

The message I take from those words of Jesus is as his followers, we are to let the light of love, compassion, service to others, and a positive influence shine in both our words and actions.  And such an interpretation opens up a whole world of possibilities about how to practically do that.

But when the light of religion or faith is misused or directed in the wrong way, it loses its appeal and fails in its purpose.  And it causes dis-ease and makes those on the receiving end downright uncomfortable or hostile even.  Or to put it another way, none of us wants to have “the light of religion” forced upon us.

Allow me to give you an example from American history.  The sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” by Puritan leader John Winthrop, is one of the classic pieces of early American literature.  It is one of the first pieces assigned  in college American Lit courses.  The sermon was delivered aboard the ship Arabella in 1629 as a group of Puritans made their way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Winthrop would be elected Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  His sermon en route to the colony was a rousing treaty which laid out a plan of living together in love.  But in his conclusion, Winthrop reminded his Puritan companions that theirs was a God-given mission to “be as a city upon a hill,” because “the eyes of all people” would be upon them.  In other words, they had an awesome responsibility to be a light to the world.  As I read Winthrop’s sermon, I must confess that it is a beautiful piece of early American literature.  And I believe Winthrop’s motives and heart were pure when he delivered it.

Yet, most of us recall our American history well enough to know that although the Puritan endeavor had its positive aspects, it had its negative aspects as well.  To put it plainly, the Puritans could be quite inflexible at times.  Someone has said that the Puritans did come to America at least in part for religious freedom – their own religious freedom.  But they were not as keen on granting the right of religious freedom to others who thought differently.  And so, the Puritans sought to not only be that “light to the world” and that “city set upon a hill,” but to force their own particular kind of light upon all around.  People who deviated from that particular form of light were silenced, banished, persecuted, or worse, as in the cases of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, to name just two.

As Garry Wills puts it in his book titled Head and Heart: American Christianities, “It would be very hard to overstate the importance of Puritanism in American culture . . . .  The founders of the New England colonies did not come to America to protect any variety in religious practice, or to assert the primacy of the individual’s conscience.  Far from it.  They came to set up the one true faith where corrupt versions of it could not intrude. . . .  It would be a mistake to look for religious tolerance in seventeenth-century New England.”1  The Puritans, and other religious groups as well, felt the mandate to be that “light to the world” that Jesus talked about.  But how to actually go about sharing that light with the world was always the question.  And oftentimes the “light” that such religious groups sought to share was overbearing and downright misguided.  Being true to one’s own religious beliefs and impulses, and sharing those beliefs and impulses as light to the world, was and always has been a delicate balancing act.

And how to be “a light to the world” is still a delicate balancing act today.  Most of us struggle with the mandate of how to be “a light to the world,” don’t we?  All of us probably have been on the receiving end of someone else trying to force their version of the “light” upon us.  Some of us have seen such practices, and others of us may have been on the receiving end of zealous Christians or those of other religions who sought to shine the light of their particular brand of religion in such a way that we were made very uncomfortable.

All of us probably have had religious groups appear at our front door who wanted to come in and share their religious thoughts with us, in hopes that they might convert us.  Some of us have had the experience of a zealous Christian forcing a religious track in our hand at a restaurant or other public place.  And some of us may have had friends or relatives who cornered us and tried to force their brand of Christianity upon us in order to “get us saved.”  Well, as that current CarMax television commercial points out about people not wanting to be pounced upon when they visit a car lot, “People don’t like that!”  It is the same with religious pressure.

But we are still left with Jesus’ injunction to be “a light to the world.”  What do we do with it?  From my perspective, we become “light to the world” by being a positive example to others in a non-threatening sort of way.  We become light through genuine acts of love and service to others, without exerting any pressure in the process.  We become light through our acts of kindness and compassion.  We become light by sharing a positive witness about our church and the wonderful community, love, fellowship, support, and spiritual growth that takes place here, without pressuring anyone to visit us if they don’t want to.  We can be light to the world by inviting our friends and neighbors to church without shoving the light in their faces.  A number of our members and regular attendees today are here because a friend or neighbor invited them to come here.  And all of them are glad they did.  Being “a light to the world” is vitally important to a congregation like ours.  It is the manner in which we become “light to the world” that makes all the difference.

The Puritans had the right idea in that they were, indeed, a “city upon a hill” and the eyes of the world were upon them.  But their failure was in “forcing their brand of light” upon everyone within their reach by being short-sighted, intolerant, judgmental, and controlling in all matters of life and faith.

For almost 75 years, this United Church has, likewise, been as “a city upon a hill.”  We, too, are called to be light to the community around us.  But we do so with tolerance, openness, compassion, and kindness.  Light is wonderful when it is projected in the proper way.  May it be so for us.  Amen.

1Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities.  New York: Penguin Press, 2007.  Pp. 6, 19, 21.

 

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Values – Who Needs Them, Anyway?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 29, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12 ESV

In looking to be inspired for today’s sermon topic, I glanced at my church desk calendar and saw that today’s Lectionary gospel reading, that many churches who follow the Christian Lectionary will hear read today, is this passage from Matthew  known as The Beatitudes.  And I thought to myself, How timely!  We seem to be at a critical time in our nation today when a fresh look at The Beatitudes is in order.  Because the values presented in The Beatitudes and the verses following them seem to be in short supply in today’s world.

And I really wanted to read more than just the twelve verses I read to you.  I would have liked to have read the entire Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), but I feared that your patience would wear thin, if I tried to read three full chapters of the Bible to you this morning J.  But the truth is, the verses that follow The Beatitudes are an elaboration upon or explanation of sorts on these ten verses that begin, “Blessed are . . .”

As a personal sidenote, it just so happens that I was privileged to stand on the spot where Christian tradition says the Sermon on the Mount was delivered, and I have a photo of myself standing there.  And the Mount of Beatitudes is actually a hillside rather than a mountain as we think of mountains, a hillside that overlooks the Sea of Galilee.  A beautiful little church has been built on the site, and you can Google “Church of the Mount of Beatitudes,” if you are interested in seeing it.

However, the Sermon on the Mount, of which The Beatitudes constitute a Prelude of sorts, is more likely Matthew’s summation of Jesus’ teachings, rather than a literal sermon that Jesus preached at one sitting.  Such seems to be the consensus of most biblical scholars today, a consensus with which I concur.  After all, it is not likely that Matthew or anyone else was sitting there on the hillside and taking shorthand of a sermon that Jesus might have given, on this day or any other day.  And how could Matthew or whoever the writer was have remembered verbatim such a lengthy sermon anyway?

No, the way these three beautiful chapters are constructed – and they are some of the most beautiful and favorite chapters of the Bible – they would seem to indicate that this material was well thought-out in an orderly fashion, making the material one of the most beautiful pieces of ancient literature.

The Beatitudes and the verses that follow give us values by which to live our lives.  For instance,

“Blessed are the meek” (5:5), “Blessed are the merciful” (5:7), “Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:9).

In addition to the Beatitudes, in the verses that follow we also find the following positive values upon which we can base our lives:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44).

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (6:12).

“Judge not, that you be not judged” (7:1).

“Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (7:12).

Yet, the Christian values we see in the Sermon on the Mount seem to be in short supply today, as already noted.  We seem to be living in a time when civility is in very short supply.  Instead of the values and principles just named, we see a lot of pride, intolerance, violence, finger-pointing and passing judgment.  And because of the climate in our country today, many people feel helpless and are at a loss of what to do in the face of such anger, division, polarization, insensitivity, and such.  Some feel led to protest and march.  That is the way that works for them to help them deal with the issues of the day and the rapid changes they see taking place.  Others who do not feel comfortable protesting and marching may seek other ways to lift up positive reactions to the negativity evident in our country and world.  The two approaches need not be exclusive one to the other.  Someone could easily do both.

Regarding a positive approach, this week’s news brought a ray of hope that things could, indeed, be different in the world.  And as is often the case, it is little children who offer to lead us.  You may have seen what I am getting ready to share on the world news or read about it in a newspaper or online.  I am talking about the Kids for Peace 2017 Great Kindness Challenge.  The Great Kindness Challenge was launched in Carlsbad, California, in 2012 (just five years ago) with only three schools.  The program was created to promote inclusion and compassion among students.  This year’s Great Kindness Challenge was this past week – January 23-27.  But in five years the annual program has grown from three schools to over 12,000 schools in all 50 US states, as well as 90 countries.  Kids for Peace announced that this year’s program will unite over ten million students in kindness.  And I think I heard an update to the effect that since the story ran on Good Morning America this past Monday, another 1,000 schools have come on board.

The program stated, “with many people feeling that our country is more divided now than ever, there is a great need for unity, compassion, love, and respect in our schools, communities, country, and world.  The Great Kindness Challenge proactively creates a culture of kindness in schools nationwide.”  They sponsor “a simple checklist of 50 kind acts.”  Some of the acts of kindness include sharing daily kindness quotes, “Be Kind” t-shirts, inspirational “Post It” messages on students’ lockers, a variety of school-wide community service projects, smile at 25 people, help your teacher with a needed task, help a younger student, sit with new kids at lunch, and so on.  The idea is that “When students perform kind act after kind act, kindness becomes a habit.  And when kindness becomes a habit, peace becomes possible.”  I believe that if we can instill a culture of kindness and compassion in today’s kids, there may be hope for positive change in the future.

The truth is, if we were to study and take to heart the teachings in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, our lives would be all the more better for them.  It is obvious that if everyone lived by the “Kindness Principle” and the other principles found in the Sermon on the Mount – humility, tolerance, mercy, peacemaking, forgiveness, no finger pointing and name-calling, and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us – we would live in a much more humane, more peaceful, less violent, more civil world.

Such values would change how we relate in our families, resulting in more shared household duties, less arguments around the dinner table, more peaceful and happier car rides, and so on.

Living by such values would change community dynamics, resulting in more civility, enhanced ecumenical relationships, and more joint human services to the less fortunate of our community.

If everyone chose to live by The Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, we would realize a much better world, with less international strife, more assistance to developing countries, and less money spent on weapons of war and more money spent on humane endeavors.

So, may I propose a Beatitudes – Kindness Challenge of my own?  May we extend the Great Kindness Challenge to include this coming week, as we commit ourselves to coming up with 15 intentional acts of kindness to others in our family, workplace, community relationships, church community, doctor’s office waiting room, hospital, grocery store, and any other place we may find ourselves the next seven days?  With the many and diverse associations that most of us have, 15 intentional acts of kindness in one week shouldn’t be that difficult.  That is only two additional kind acts per day.

Values, such as found in The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount – who needs them?  Our families need them, our community needs them, and our nation today desperately needs them.  Values for living that we find in The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are the “glue” that literally holds society and the world together, and perhaps the only “super glue” that can mend the fractured world that we live in today.  May it be so.  Amen.

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To Whom Shall We Be True?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 22, 2017

Hebrews 10:22-25 ESV

Reading from Parker J. Palmer’s, Let Your Life Speak

To whom shall we be true?  That is the question I am posing for the day.  The answer, I suppose, depends upon whom you talk to.

And the responses to the question, “To whom shall we be true?” could be many and varied, and I suppose multiple answers for any one person would be in order.  For instance, if we were to poll a group of married couples, many, no doubt, would reply, “I should be true to my partner or spouse.”  And that would be a commendable answer.

Others might be quick to say that we should be true to God or to Christ.  And that would be a commendable answer as well.  Biblical references – either directly or indirectly – are many regarding being true to God, true to Christ, to the faith, true to scriptural teachings, and so on.  Thus, the unknown writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encouraged his Christian readers to “draw near [to God] with a true heart” (10:22).

Faithful Jews seek to be true to God and the Torah (or Law).  Faithful Christians seek to be true to the teachings of Jesus, especially as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7.  I don’t mind sharing that I seek to be true to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, while at the same time confessing that I sometimes fall short.  Maybe some of you feel the same way.

Others of a patriotic mind might say that we should be true to our country, or to the flag, or to our servicemen and servicewomen.

Still others seek to be true to the principles of justice and equality, and they devote their lives to these causes.

And as I have already indicated, many of us might give multiple answers, stating that we seek to be true to several or all of these examples noted thus far.  And we may say “Amen!” and applaud such personal dedication to being true.

But there is one other person to whom we should be true, and such may not always be the case.  Too many people live their whole lives seeking to be true to something or someone, yet fail in being true to one person who really matters.  And that is being true to self.

We are all familiar with that famous Shakespeare line: “This above all; to thine own self be true.”  What a simple statement, yet how much truth and importance are packed into that one short line!  In a slightly different version, Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  My, how I wish I could have taken that to heart and began heeding it decades ago!

Such precipitates another personal confession.  (It seems that I have been sharing a lot of personal confessions lately, beginning with Christmas Eve.  Maybe it has to do with age or with being in the ministry forty years. J)  But here is today’s confession: In the early years of my ministry, I preached sermons that contained statements that I felt were expected of me; I developed my sermons and said things that others wanted me to say.  In other words, I preached “doctrinal sermons” based on traditional, orthodox, Christian beliefs as stated in our denominational Confession of Faith.  When you are a young preacher just starting out, you seek to please those who hold the keys to your ordination and placement in a congregation.  And so, you prepare and preach good, doctrinal sermons based on good, orthodox teaching, whether you have really thought through what you preach or not.  And in public worship, you recite the ancient creeds – Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed – because that is what you do when you are a minister in a confessional church.  And you continue to do such, because that is expected of you, even if/when you begin to question in your own mind whether or not you really believe some of those ancient, traditional statements of faith.

Well, such was the way with me.  I continued to affirm traditional statements of doctrine in my sermons, and I continued to recite those ancient Christian creeds when it was expected of me, even though I had begun to read outside my “denominational box” and had begun to question in my own mind whether I really believed some of those things or not.  This led to a real bind of conscience.  I began to struggle inwardly, as I was leading worship and the recitation of the creeds when I had begun to question some of those ancient teachings.  For years I struggled with the disconnect, and with my own sense of self, and with my self-worth and integrity.  Such led to the question of whether I should stay in ministry at all, or if I should change denominational affiliation and move to a non-creedal, non-confessional, progressive-liberal denomination that fit where I was and where I could be my authentic self.

As a bit of aside from the story, some years ago, I read a powerful statement that struck home and stuck with me, and I have tried in vain to find it the past couple of weeks.  The author said, “Woe to the man who proclaims one thing from the pulpit, but believes another thing in his heart!”  Yet such was the dilemma I was beginning to face.

And so, what I did was change denominational affiliation, moving to one that fit, as I have shared in sermons previously.  And this United Church, of course, proved to be a perfect fit for me, as this congregation is non-creedal, non-confessional as well, which does not preach or teach doctrine or dogma.  As I often tell newcomers or those inquiring about the United Church and what we believe, here at the United Church we don’t preach and teach what people must believe; rather, we preach and teach how Jesus would have us to live – lives of compassion, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, living lives of service to others, and seeking to do justice, and so on.  And more so than at any other time in my forty years of ministry, I feel that I can teach and preach freely, and I feel that I am true to myself in whatever I share with you from this pulpit.  I do not share anything from our pulpit that I don’t feel or believe in my heart.  I seek to be as authentic with you as I can be.

But wait, there is more: being true to oneself is not the private domain of preachers by any means.  Each of us, regardless of vocation or profession – in his or her own way – must discover the true, inner self, and then to that self be true.  As Parker Palmer so beautifully points out in his book, Let Your Life Speak – one of my top ten, all-time favorite books – each of us must discover and be that person that is inside of us and not try to pretend that we are something else and not try to live our lives in a role that is not authentic to who we were created to be.  As Palmer so well learned of his own life, we can go to great lengths to try to please others and try to fit the mold of what we think they want us to be, and be miserable in the process.  But I don’t think that is what God expects of us.

I heard someone put it this way a couple of weeks ago: to find meaning in life is to discover our talents, skills, and passion; and then to find purpose in life is to find a way to utilize those talents, skills and passion in the service of others.

As Shakespeare wisely understood, if we are to our own selves true, then we won’t be false with others either.  And when we can be true in all areas of our lives – true to partner or spouse, true to God or Christ, true to the principles of justice and equality, and completely true to self – well, such makes for a peaceful state of mind and contented life,

There is an old Jewish tale about the great Hasidic leader Zusia who has a dream about dying and standing before the angels of God.  In his vision, the angels don’t ask him why he wasn’t Moses, or why he wasn’t Joshua; but rather, they ask him, “Why weren’t you Zusia?”  Such is a question we don’t want asked of us when we come to the end of our days – “Why weren’t you you?”

Because each of us was created in a unique and different way.  And much of the joy of life comes in discovering who that unique and different self is, and then to that self being true.  May it be so for each of us.  Amen.

 

 

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A Root Cause of Many of the World’s Problems

 

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

1 John 4:7-9, 18 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forty Years of Ministry – Reflections Past and Present

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

1 Timothy 4:11-16 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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