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.