A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 19, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:10-13 CEB
I am going to share something with you this morning that most of you may not know about me: I am a Jeep lover. The love of Jeeps must have been infused in my blood, since my love of and desire to own a Jeep goes back many years to when I was a teenager. Terry, one of our neighbors, who also happened to be a fishing buddy of my dad, owned this old, rough, baby blue Jeep that we all rode in when we went to the river fishing. The Jeep had no top, no carpet, and a few holes in the floor where the rust had eaten through the metal. As I began to think about getting my learner’s permit and driver’s license, I pestered Terry to sell me that Jeep. And Terry’s response was always the same: “Your dad would shoot me if I was to sell you this old Jeep!”
Well, years passed, and I never got my Jeep. Then in the 1990’s, when it came time to think about trading cars, I looked at Jeeps. But for one reason or another, I didn’t buy one. In the spring of 2002, when we were considering moving to Albany, New York, I again looked at Jeeps. But again, for various reasons, I didn’t buy one. After moving to New York, we were again considering trading cars, and I persuaded Mary Lou to consider a Jeep. We drove a couple, but the ones we drove just didn’t seem to fit. Then about four years ago, I finally took the plunge and bought my first Jeep; a starter Jeep. Well, here is the point I am driving at (did you get that pun?): Now that I actually have a Jeep, every time I pass another beautiful Jeep of a different color on the Turnpike, or see another beautiful one of a different color in a parking lot, I say to myself, “Man, look at that pretty Jeep! I want one of that color!” It is still a Jeep, but it is one of a different color with slightly different options, perhaps. I want that one, and that one, and that one! One of each color.
Now, in case you have been wondering, I am driving toward a spiritual point. The Jeep story is simply a metaphor or analogy for a spiritual truth. Ever since my teenage years, I have also had an interest in spirituality and religion. There has never been any question about that. By the time I was 20 years old, I was being drawn toward the ministry. But soon after my graduation from seminary, I started considering denominations “of a different color,” so to speak. After graduating from seminary, I knew I still wanted to be a preacher and minister, but I was just not sure that the denominational color I was wearing was right for me. So as my circle of acquaintances expanded outside my own denominational family of origin, as I encountered ministers from other Christian denominations—“Ministers of a different color,” so to speak—I began to study their history and beliefs, and for awhile I would think, I want to be that denominational color!
The first denomination outside the one of my upbringing that I encountered and began to study was the United Church of Christ. Now, I had heard of the United Church of Christ, but I really didn’t know anything about them. So I began to study their background, history, and beliefs. I liked what I learned. And for a long time I had a “secret love affair” with the United Church of Christ and longed to be their color, but there was no way for me to get there from where I was. This desire began and continued about the time we moved to Denton, Texas.
However, while serving in Denton, Texas, through the local ministerial association, I met a minister who happened to be Unitarian. I had no idea who Unitarians were and what they believed, so I went to the local library. I liked what I learned about early Unitarians who had such a profound impact on American culture—William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And for awhile, I wanted to be their color. But there was no way to get there from where I was.
In the early 1990’s, after we had moved from Texas to Franklin, Tennessee, I learned about New England Congregationalists who had not joined in the merger that was to become the United Church of Christ. (As a historical sidenote, some 5,500 Congregational denominations voted to be a part of the 1957 merger with a couple of German churches that resulted in the United Church of Christ; but some 400-500 Congregational Churches refused to merge and retained their independence and the Congregational name.) For a long while, I wanted to convert to the Congregational color.
About this same time, I discovered the Universalists and studied extensively their history and thought, and wished I could be transformed to the classic Universalist color. But alas, no separate Universalist denomination (in the classic sense of the term) exists today, so that didn’t happen either.
Then in 2002, I learned for the first time that my great-great-great grandfather Hammer was a Quaker who became minister of a Church of the Brethren congregation near Johnson City, Tennessee. Before then, I had no idea that there was a Quaker or a minister in my ancestry (so unbeknownst to me, preaching must have been in my blood too). So I began studying the history and thought of Quakerism, and met some Quaker friends in New York, and for a time considered becoming their color.
Now, by this time you may be thinking that I must have somewhat of a fragmented or indecisive personality. But I assure you there is a happy ending to it all. Just as we crossed over into a new millennium, I ended up being accepted as a minister in both the Congregational Churches and the United Church of Christ, and I have standing in both of those denominations today. We ended up going to the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, of Albany, New York, where we served for six years. It was a good fit and a good six years for us.
But then, we needed to move back south. In 2008 we were able to move here to this United Church, a congregation which embraces a wide diversity of denominations and beliefs. I feel like it was almost like I was destined to become minister of this United Church, because here I can be multi-colored, as it were, as I can draw from all those denominational colors that I studied and fell in love with over the years. I can, and do, draw sermon thoughts from the Congregational, United Church of Christ, Unitarian, Universalist, and Quaker traditions. And since coming here, I have discovered and am also able to draw from naturalists and the Earth-related spiritual tradition as well. I am still committed to preaching and ministry, just as I was when I began 38 years ago. But now I am blessed in that I don’t have to limit myself to one denominational color only. I can draw from a variety of marvelous faith colors, which makes ministry here at the United Church so much richer.
Paul, in writing to the Corinthian Christians, addressed those who had divided themselves into factions, some saying, “I belong to Paul,” others saying, “I belong to Apollos,” others, “I belong to Peter,” and still others saying, “I belong to Christ.” It makes one wonder what Paul would have to say today about the plethora of Christian denominations and sects that can be so vastly different and often fight with one another over minor doctrinal issues. It is sad that we Christians feel that we have to be so divided.
But since Christian divisions is the case, and it isn’t likely to ever change, the other side of it is if we are willing to step across those lines that divide us into groups—Congregationalists, United Church of Christ, Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others—there is a richness to be found and drawn from that can make our church and our lives all the more richer and fuller. That has been my experience, anyway. Each Christian tradition has unique and positive elements to offer. From the Congregationalists we have the history and traditions of the Plymouth Pilgrims, including our Thanksgiving holiday, but also liberal Christian thought that has been on the cutting edge of social change from the beginning, such as openness to women in the ministry and abolition of slavery. From the United Church of Christ we get the emphasis upon justice for all. From the Unitarians we get rational Christianity (through early Unitarians like Channing, Parker, and Emerson). From the Universalists we get the concept of the universal love of God for all and the “Love is the doctrine of this church. . .” that we often recite responsively. From George Fox and the Quakers we get the ideas of the “Inner Light” that speaks to each of us and “that of God in everyone.” I am so glad that I have been given the freedom to draw that which is best from a variety of denominational colors.
Yes, I am a Jeep lover. I probably always will be. I only wish it were possible to embrace all those many different Jeep colors I see every time I am driving around town! But, again, that is only a metaphor. I also love preaching and the ministry. I probably always will. But in preaching and the ministry I am more fortunate in that I can, and do, enjoy drawing from a variety of denominational colors. That is one of the factors that helps make this United Church such a very special place. I celebrate our rainbow of faith colors, and I hope you do too. Amen.