God, Hurricanes, and Other Considerations

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 24, 2017

Jonah 3:1-4:2, 11 ESV

Is there a connection between God and natural disasters?  Is the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures responsible for such catastrophic events?  Or to look at it from another angle, are such natural disasters that take innocent human life, destroy thousands of homes and businesses, costing billions of dollars in property loss – are they punishment from God for human sin or the result of human folly?  For some, such questions may be totally off base, absurd even.  But for others, the questions may be quite real.  In two different conversations this past week, two different people connected God with the recent hurricanes in one way or another.

And in the wake of the recent hurricanes, we have been hearing all kinds of explanations as people try to come to grips with and understand why such things happen.  Someone blamed the hurricanes on lesbians or support of the LGBT community.  Such is not the first time they have been scapegoats for the world’s troubles.  When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, prominent television evangelists were quick to blame it on various American sins.  One prominent, conservative television evangelist linked Hurricane Katrina to “legalized abortion” and the selection of Ellen Degeneres to host the Emmy Awards.  Another one attributed Hurricane Katrina to a New Orleans Gay Pride Parade.

Regarding the recent hurricanes, a famous television and movie actress blamed the disasters on the election of Donald Trump; punishment upon America for a bad choice in a president.  Disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker declared of Hurricane Harvey, “this flood is from God,” punishment for the former mayor of Houston attempting to subpoena ministers’ sermons.  And I am sure that some of you have heard other explanations regarding the cause of the recent weather disasters, or maybe have even entertained other possible reasons of your own.

Sometimes the Bible isn’t very helpful when it comes to explaining catastrophic natural events.  Or to phrase it another way, the way the Bible is interpreted often isn’t very helpful in trying to understand things that happen in the world.

Today we know why such things as hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning and thunder, massive floods, and other such phenomena happen.  There is a science to the natural conditions that go into the formation of a hurricane or tornado, and meteorologists can predict far in advance when conditions are right for hurricanes or tornadoes to develop.

In July, our grandson, Josiah, and I visited Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.  One of the biggest sections is the weather exhibit.  They have hands-on machines where you can manipulate conditions in a controlled environment so as to change the weather patterns in order to manufacture a tornado or a tidal wave.  It is pretty amazing stuff!

But in biblical days, when most of the books of the Bible were written, they had no such knowledge.  The ancients often attributed natural events such as windstorms, lightning and thunder, floods and other things to the direct will and action of God; often the will and action of an angry God.  We see this from the first book of the Bible.  And so, the great flood in Noah’s day (and I believe there was some kind of great flood in the ancient Mediterranean world, as it is mentioned in other ancient religious texts as well), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a number of the Psalms that speak of the destructive forces of nature, and so on were attributed to the direct will and action of God.  That is how they explained the unexplainable back then – the actions of an angry God.

I believe that early religious impulses were influenced by the sense of awe and mystery evoked by natural phenomena and the attempts of humans to gain protection from natural dangers by seeking to appease the God or gods responsible for them.

And so, for the writer of the little book of Jonah to speak of God threatening to bring disaster upon the great city of Nineveh unless they repented is totally understandable.  Such was the way that the people thought of God.  As the story of Jonah goes, the wickedness of Nineveh was so great that God called Jonah to sail there to preach repentance.  An interesting thing is in the beginning of the story it is not specifically stated that God himself threatens to send disaster upon Nineveh.

As we read this delightful little story, we need to remember that the story of Jonah is not a historical recounting of a conversation that actually occurred between the prophet and God.  Had such a conversation actually occurred, who would have been there, like a court stenographer, to write everything down?  And who would have been there with Jonah in the fish’s belly to record Jonah’s beautiful, poetic prayer to God, which is actually in the form of a psalm?  No, we must remember that the Jonah story is merely the vehicle or framework the writer used in order to make the theological points he wanted to make.  So as we read this story, we must remember that the truth and the meaning of Jonah go much deeper than the surface story which involves the prophet being swallowed by a great fish and the threat of disaster if the people of Nineveh didn’t repent.  The overarching point of the story is not God’s threat of sending disaster upon Nineveh.

Rather, the primary point of the entire story of Jonah is the prophet’s words extolling God’s goodness, grace, and steadfast love.  The key theological verse of the entire book is Jonah’s prayer directed to God when he says, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2).  That is the one verse we should focus on from the four chapters of the book.  The fact that God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and not a God who takes pleasure in sending disaster is precisely the point we are to take away from this story!

So rather than support the point that God is the sender of disasters, which was the ancient view and serves as the springboard of the story, the real point of Jonah (as I interpret it, anyway) is that God is not one who sends disaster and misery upon the world.  The God of the writer of the book of Jonah is a gracious and merciful God, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting of disaster.

And most of us in the United Church, I think, believe that, and in our sane, rational moments realize that there is no connection between hurricanes and an angry God or human failure.  Unless, of course, we consider the increase in the number and severity of hurricanes due to man-made global warming.  But that is a different topic altogether and a different sermon for another day.

But the point for the original hearers of Jonah’s story goes even further.  The Ninevehites were the enemies of Israel.  By stressing God’s love and mercy to the people of Nineveh, the author was trying to expand the conception of God, not only as a gracious and merciful God, but as the God of all the nations – including Israel’s hated enemies!  The thought of the book of Jonah was a step forward in Hebrew theology toward recognizing the universal love of God that extends, not just to Israel, but to the whole world!

Jonah is a post-exilic work; that is, one of the books that was written after the Jewish Exile in the sixth century BCE.  The Exile – when Israel was overrun, the beloved Temple was destroyed, and many of the Jews were carried off into Babylon – was an earth-shattering, watershed event for the Jewish people.  It brought into question everything they had believed about God, their sacred Temple, their religion, their favored and special status in the world, and so on.  It was during and after the Exile that Jewish worship and practice were transformed, giving birth to a different form of Judaism.

Accompanying these changes was a change in worldview and conception of God who was no longer seen to be the peculiar God of the Jews, but the Creator God of the entire world.  The storyteller theologians of Jonah and the little book of Ruth as well were leaders in this progressive movement that understood and portrayed the God of the Hebrews to be a gracious and merciful God, abounding in steadfast love, and open and inclusive to all peoples of the world, Jews and Gentiles alike.

And so, when disaster strikes, it is human nature to seek a cause or to place blame as a means to making sense of things and gaining a sense of security that things happen for a reason or that God is in control.  And often catastrophic events are termed “acts of God,” and may or may not be covered under some insurance policies. Such is a good “catch-all” phrase when folks don’t have an explanation for things or need somewhere to place blame.  It’s an “act of God.”

But the God that the author of Jonah reveals to us – and the God that Jesus would affirm some 500 years or so later – is not a God who sends hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or any other natural disaster.  In the words of the prophet, we know that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” and takes no pleasure in disaster and human suffering.  Thanks to the writer of Jonah.  And thanks be God!  Amen. 


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Providing for the Least

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 17, 2017

2 Samuel 9:3-11; Matthew 10:42 GNT

The story of David and Jonathan is one of the more interesting stories in the Hebrew Bible.  The complete story spans several chapters in the books of First and Second Samuel.  Jonathan was King Saul’s son, and hence, David’s brother-in-law, since David had married Saul’s daughter, Jonathan’s sister, Michal.  But the relationship between David and Jonathan ran much deeper than brothers-in-law.  We see in the story of David and Jonathan one of the closest friendships (what might be described today as a “bromance”) in the entire Bible.

The scriptures speak for themselves.  It says when David and Jonathan got to know each other, “Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life . . . And Jonathan and David made a covenant together because Jonathan cared about David as much as he cared about himself” (1 Samuel 18:1, 3 CEB).  When David began to win favor in the eyes of the people, and King Saul became jealous of him, things went sour between David and Saul, and Saul tried to have David killed.  But Jonathan pledged his loyalty to David and helped him escape his father’s murderous attempts upon David’s life.  When, with Jonathan’s help, David had to flee to escape Saul’s wrath, both David and Jonathan cried “as they kissed each other; [and] David’s grief was even greater than Jonathan’s” (1 Samuel 20:41 GNT).

Well, Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle and David’s kingship was firmly established.  David mourned the death of Jonathan, and he wrote and sang a lament in his and Saul’s honor.

Then one day sometime later, King David inquired of his advisers if there was anyone left of King Saul’s family to whom he might extend some kindness.  Such brings us to today’s reading, where David is informed that his dear friend Jonathan has a son still living, Mephibosheth, who happened to be crippled.  Thus, we have the touching story of King David taking under his care Mephibosheth, promising to always provide for him and give him a place at the palace table for as long as he lived.  So Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son who was crippled, “lived in Jerusalem, eating all his meals at the king’s table,” just like one of the king’s sons (2 Samuel 9:13GNT).

Now, we realize that David decided to take in and provide for Mephibosheth most likely because of David’s close friendship with Jonathan and in his memory.  But I want to also project a bit of human kindness upon David, hoping that he at least in part did what he did by choosing to provide for what Jesus would later refer to as “one of the least of these.”  The story of David and Mephibosheth is one of the few stories in the Hebrew Bible that specifically speak of extending special kindness and care to someone with a disability; to one of the “least of these” of the world.

The least of these – who are they?  As we study Matthew’s gospel and the places where he mentions “little ones” or “the least of these,” we find that the terminology is quite broad.  But we can safely say that in many cases Matthew the gospel writer, and Jesus whom he quotes, means by “the least of these” the poor and desperate; those who have little or no hope; which included and continues to include those with physical and mental disabilities.  For such folk it is difficult, if not impossible, to work and support themselves.

In the gospels, we see on a number of occasions Jesus reaching out to, embracing, and ministering to what he referred to as “the least of these” – the crippled, blind, infirm, leprous, severely mentally ill, and others.  Such were the marginalized of the day.  They were looked down upon, ignored, judged, often ostracized, and without much hope in the world.  But Jesus saw them as human beings, as children of God.  He embraced them.  He offered them hope.  And if we believe in miracles, he on occasion extended healing to them.

Park of being a follower of Jesus, and part of being a Christian church, is caring for “the least of these” in whatever ways we can.  As Christians individually, and as a church collectively, being compassionate and offering care to “the least of these” of our community and wider world should be a part of who we are; it should be in our DNA, if you will.

As I spoke of last week, as a blessed people we owe a debt of love to the less fortunate about us.  And the church by its very nature does not exist for itself alone, but for service and mission to the world around it.  The United Church has always acknowledged our “debt of love” to the less fortunate of our community and wider world, which we seek to address through our local and wider world mission support.  It is so important that we support as much as we can the work of ADFAC, the Ecumenical Storehouse (which our church helped start), Habitat for Humanity, and other agencies that assist “the least of these” of our community.

A good percentage of our support of those in need goes through my Pastor’s Discretionary Fund.  Much of that goes to the City of Oak Ridge and a lesser amount to Clinton Utilities Board to assist people in keeping their electricity on.  A smaller percentage goes toward rent assistance, prescriptions, and groceries.  But our church seeks to minister to “the least of these” in Central America and other developing nations as well.  Whenever I am given special gifts to my Pastor’s Discretionary Fund, which may be used at my own discretion, I sometimes send a small check to the Morgan Scott Project, a cooperative outreach of several churches to the impoverished of Morgan and Scott Counties.  And our United Church Women’s Circle has its programs that also seek to reach out to “the least of these” of our community and wider world.

But from a broader perspective, part of just being human – regardless of religious leanings – is caring for “the least of these” of our world.  To be authentically human is to demonstrate compassion and care for “the least of these” among us.  Such is what society does – it seeks to care for “the least of these” among us, those who cannot, by no fault of their own, care for and provide for themselves.  This is what we as humans and society do.

And so, when I hear our politicians talk about drastically cutting government programs that will adversely affect “the least of these” among us so as to “save money” or divert these funds to other areas such as defense, it makes me shudder.  Cuts to areas like health insurance, Medicaid, Social Security benefits, and educational programs for physically and mentally challenged children will drastically and negatively affect the health and well-being of thousands, probably millions, of American adults and children.  Such is contrary to who we are and what we should be about.

Now, I realize this is a very complex issue.  Yes, there is abuse.  There are those who abuse the system and receive services and income and support who shouldn’t, those who could support themselves.  I know, because I deal with it regularly with people who call the church asking for help on their utility bills, or rent money, or wanting gas money, or a motel room for the night.  Of the dozens of calls we get each year, there is a small percentage that seek to take advantage of the system.  But by the same token, there are many more who qualify as “the least of these” among us, people who have debilitating physical or mental disabilities, or extreme life circumstances, that render them incapable of caring for and supporting themselves.  These are the ones we are called to minister to.

So when it comes time to consider a church budget and outreach giving, and thoughts and discussions about reform in government programs aimed at helping the physically and mentally challenged of our society, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  As a church, society, and a nation, we must insist that care and help for “the least of these” of our world who are truly deserving of a decent quality of life is maintained.  As followers of Jesus, a church, a society, as humans, it’s what we do – care for “the least of these” among us.  Amen.

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I Owe! I Owe!

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 10, 2017

Matthew 22:35-40; Romans 13:8-10 ESV

Perhaps you have seen that bumper sticker bearing an image of the Seven Dwarfs and a play on their song, “Hi Ho!  Hi Ho!” from the movie Snow White: “I owe!  I owe! It’s off to work I go.”  Isn’t that the sentiment of many working Americans?  The sentiment of some of us here?  “I owe!  I owe!  So it’s off to work I go.”  Most Americans owe on something – a home mortgage, one or more automobiles, educational loans (either for themselves or for their children), medical bills, or other expenses.  And many Americans owe up to their eyeballs, and live from paycheck to paycheck, and are just two or three paychecks away from financial disaster.  And a dream that many of us have, especially as we are getting closer to retirement age, is to be debt-free – to owe nothing.

But the two scripture passages chosen for today’s service lead us to look at owing from different angles.  These two passages happen to be the New Testament Christian Lectionary passages that many churches who follow the Lectionary will hear read today.  As I read over these passages this past week, Paul’s instructions to “owe no one anything, except to love each other” jumped out at me and seemed most appropriate for this Homecoming Sunday, as well as for these troubling times in which we now live.

The context of Paul’s words to the Romans has to do with paying taxes to the government.  Paul said to pay taxes to those who collect them, for in many ways they use those taxes to our benefit.  He goes on to encourage his readers to pay to everyone what is owed to them, to be in debt to no one, if possible.  Such helps us guard our good name and reputation.  If we have to owe anyone anything, it should be a debt of love.

And then Paul’s words that follow explaining that “love is the fulfilling of the law” concur with the teaching of Jesus that the greatest commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures is love for God and love for neighbor.  Such sums up the teachings of the Law of Moses and the words of the prophets.  And so, the idea of owing a debt of love can be considered from any number of angles this morning.

For instance, on this Homecoming Sunday, we reminded of the great debt of love we owe those who went before us to establish this United Church that we all cherish today.  We are grateful for that little group of people who met in the town cafeteria some 74 years ago to discuss establishing a new church.  We are grateful for the vision, and dedication, and determination to establish a new church free of binding creeds and confessions, a church where people could come together in their many differences, but become one in their search for God.

Although the United Church is non-denominational, not affiliated with any denomination or association of churches, we are a church most closely related to the Congregational Churches, in that we are congregational in polity and governance, use Congregational hymnals,  and we are bound together by a covenant to walk together in love and unity, and not by uniform belief or doctrine.  Consequently, this United Church is unique and unlike any other church in the greater Oak Ridge area.  It is wonderful, open community of faith!  And what a debt of love we owe to those who had the foresight and vision to make it what it is today.

But we know that as a church we cannot survive on the service and sacrifices of the past.  To maintain this United Church for our children and grandchildren, it falls to us to serve, support, and sometimes sacrifice to help keep this church strong.  Such is part of the debt of love we owe to those who will come after us, so that they can continue to enjoy the benefits of this United Church that we enjoy today.

Second, as we think about the tremendous humanitarian crisis in Texas and neighboring states and now in Florida, we realize we owe a debt of love to those whose lives have been devastated by floodwaters and loss of homes and livelihoods.

This past Wednesday, my Jeep’s gas gauge had fallen toward empty, and on the way in to church, I had to stop at Kroger and fill up.  This was the first time I had had to fill up since the price of gas jumped about 45 cents a gallon because of the loss of production of the oil refineries affected by Hurricane Harvey.  When I saw the dollar total on the gas pump, I said Ouch!  That really hurt my wallet!  But as I was bemoaning the dent in my wallet, it occurred to me that such is relative.  An additional $7.48 (for that is what the price difference amounted to) was nothing in comparison to what those poor folks in Texas and Louisiana and now Florida are suffering.  I have no reason at all to complain, I thought to myself.

I think that we who have it so well off do owe a debt of love to those who are suffering.  Today it is the folks in Texas and Louisana.  This coming week it will be our friends and neighbors in Florida.  Next year it could very easily be us who are in dire need through some other type of manmade natural disaster, such as tornadoes.  So I encourage us as individuals and families, and collectively as a congregation, to consider what we might do to alleviate a little bit of human misery as we reach out in love to those whose lives have been, and will be this coming week, devastated by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Third, as we think about the climate of hatred and separatism that has revived in America in recent months, we realize that we owe in response – not revenge or hatred – but love, which is the only power that has any hope of correcting the world’s great wrongs.  When we see anger, hatred, and acts of violence, it may cause us to become angry (and rightly so), and tempted to hate in return, and want to strike back.  But in our saner moments, we realize we can’t fight fire with fire.  We can no longer live by the ancient rule of “an eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  As that adage that is often attributed to Mohandas Gandhi reminds us, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

But as we look to recent history, we realize that the ones who really made a difference and helped bring about positive change in the world did not do so through violence and hatred, but through non-violent means and through the power of love.  Both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. serve as shining examples of that.  But the prime example and illustration of one who altered the world through love was none other than Jesus himself.  And anyone who would claim to be Jesus’ follower and would bring about positive change in the world today will also find a way to utilize the power of love and non-violent means.

In the final analysis, most of us live pretty blessed lives.  We are who we are and we have what we have because of the service and sacrifices of those who came before us.  And a Christian principle from the beginning, and a tenant at the heart of all great world religions, is to share with those who have greater need.  And we know that any changes that happen in the world will not last and will be of no consequence if they are not wrought by the power of love.

So, if we owe any debt at all to the world, it is a debt of love, no matter how you look at it.  As I said in the beginning, “I owe!  I owe!”  But don’t we all?  Owe a great debt of love, that is.  Amen.



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The Narrow Way (A Different Perspective)

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 3, 2017

Malachi 2:10; Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

One of our Colorado experiences was touring a number of the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, including the one called Balcony House. Now, we are glad we toured Balcony House first and got it out of the way.  Because of the ones we visited, we found Balcony House to be the most difficult by far. To get to Balcony House, you have to descend dozens of steep, steel steps, the railing of which had been made hot by the afternoon sun. When you get to the bottom of the steps, you walk a short path around the side of a cliff. Then you realize that in order to get into Balcony House, you have to climb a tall ladder that is resting on the face of the cliff.  Fair warning – as you climb the ladder, don’t look down!  But then, to get out of Balcony House, you have to get down on your hands and knees and crawl through two, six-foot-long, narrow rock tunnels that are only 18 inches square. You stand for a moment and you ask yourself, Can I do this?  Mary Lou went first, ahead of me, and I have her photograph starting through that narrow tunnel, but I thought it best that I not share that photograph with you today.

Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate. . . The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life.”  I have been thinking about these words of Jesus in light of our Balcony House experience, as well as in light of current events in our country.  The narrow way puts a squeeze on us. It is not easy. It is uncomfortable. The narrow way makes us uncertain, causes us to question ourselves, our fitness, and our abilities.

Well, such is the way I have been feeling the past few weeks in regards to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in relation to the current climate of hatred and violence in America in general. I have felt squeezed as in the narrow way that is not easy. I have been uncertain as to what I should do and how I should respond to the hatred, violence, white supremacy, and anti Semitism that seems to be growing and tearing our nation apart. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 38 hate groups are currently operating in the state of Tennessee alone.  That is disconcerting!  All that I have been hearing and seeing in the news of late regarding the changing climate in our nation has caused me great inner angst and turmoil. What do I need to do, and how do I need to respond as a Christian minister and as a private citizen?

On Monday afternoon, August 14, I received an email from Jake Morrill, minister of our neighboring Unitarian Universalist Church, informing me that a number of Oak Ridge clergy were planning to present a joint statement of unity that evening to the Oak Ridge City Council denouncing hatred, white supremacy, racism, and anti Semitism and asking the Council to adopt a similar statement in response.  Would I consider standing with them? Jake asked.  I was caught a bit off-guard, because this was the first I had heard about the statement, and thus, I had not even had a chance to read it.  So I felt caught between a rock and a hard place, as it were.  Should I go and stand with my fellow Oak Ridge clergy against hatred, white supremacy, racism, and anti Semitism, especially since I wasn’t even sure of how the statement read?

My deeply-held convictions – both as an individual follower of Jesus and as a minister of a church – is that hatred, white supremacy, racism, anti Semitism, and the violence that often results from them are dead wrong and in direct opposition to being a Christian.   But should I take a public stand?  Could there be repercussions, toward me personally or toward our congregation from members of the so-called alt-right?   And how would all members of our congregation feel about me taking a public stand?  I felt squeezed into a narrow way that made me feel uncomfortable, uncertain, and indecisive.

Well, I talked it over with Mary Lou over dinner, and we decided that based upon our personal convictions of equality, inclusivity, tolerance, and justice, that I should go and stand with our fellow Oak Ridge clergy as the joint statement against hatred, white supremacy, racism, and anti Semitism was read to the Oak Ridge City Council.  So I drove to City Hall, and fifteen minutes before the meeting was to start, an email from Jake came in giving the text of the statement, which I sat in my car and read on my phone.  Fortunately it was a statement that I could wholeheartedly endorse.  So I went into the meeting, and when the presenters rose to read the statement, I rose with them – 16 Oak Ridge clergy in all.  The Mayor asked each of us to state our name and the religious community we represented, which I did.  But since I had not had a chance to sign the statement prior to the meeting, and since all of us were not included in the photo that appeared on the front page of the Oak Ridger the following morning, there was no public evidence of me having been there in support of the statement, unless you were at the meeting or watched it on television.

One of my favorite Old Testament verses is the one I read from the Hebrew prophet Malachi. Malachi said, “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?  Why then are we faithless to one another?”  If God is Creator of all that is, which is a core belief of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, then how can anyone who believes in God as Creator be a white supremacist or racist, thinking the white race is favored over all others?  And how can a Christian be anti Semitic when Jesus himself was a practicing Jew and when Christianity came from the cradle of Judaism?

And how can one read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he speaks of loving, respecting, and forgiving others, and at the same time be filled with hatred toward others because of their skin color, race or ethnicity?  It is interesting that Matthew places Jesus’ words about entering by the narrow gate that leads to life immediately after the Golden Rule – “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”  And then immediately after, the words about entering by the narrow gate.”  I had never thought about the connection until I worked on this sermon.  It seems to me that anyone who tries to condone or whitewash or rationalize hatred, racism, white supremacy, or anti Semitism is dead wrong, be it a private citizen, minister, governor, senator, or even the president. From my viewpoint, one has to take a stand against such issues, but such tends to put us in that uncomfortable, narrow, between a rock and a hard place position of not knowing exactly how to take a stand.

Well, on Friday, August 18 (four days after the City Council meeting), I was invited to a meeting for Oak Ridge clergy and community leaders that was held at First Baptist Church for the purpose of following up on the City Council meeting.  From my perspective, the most important thing that happened that morning was going around the room and introducing ourselves, where we were from, and what our fears and hopes are regarding the current, volatile climate in America. And one of the concerns that was shared by a few of us is that we need to respond, but do so carefully and cautiously so as to not be responsible for instigating a white supremacist demonstration or inviting  hate groups into Oak Ridge if they are not already here by doing the wrong thing.

So, how do we let our values of equality, justice, tolerance, inclusivity, and love be known if or when we are faced with blatant hatred, white supremacy, racism, and anti Semitism?  The issue forces us into a narrow way, a hard way, a way that puts the squeeze on our sense of comfort and security.  The answer may be different for each of us.  Some feel the need to participate in anti protests or marches.  Others are more comfortable responding online by signing petitions and donating to organizations that seek to work through the courts or other ways to bring about positive change.  Perhaps you saw where actor George Clooney and his wife Amal have pledged to donate $1 million to fight hate groups in America.  I have to agree with what Clooney said, “There are no two sides to bigotry and hate.”  Others – such as a group of Oak Ridge clergy – choose to draft and/or support a public statement to the city government, asking our city leaders to be pro-active in taking a stand against any efforts that might arise promoting hatred, racism, white supremacy, or anti Semitism.

As a Christian congregation which claims to follow the teachings of Jesus it is important that we let it be known that we promote equality, tolerance, justice, and love, and we will not give place in our congregation to hatred, racism, white supremacy, or anti Semitism, or any other form of abuse based on race, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation.

The issues that confront our nation today force us into the narrow way of decision and action of some sort.  It can be difficult, unsettling, and uncomfortable.  The way of the narrow gate is hard, Jesus said, and those who find it are few.  But it is also the way that leads to life, he promised.  May it be so for each of us individually and for us collectively as a congregation.  Amen.

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Moving Beyond Our Backstories

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 20, 2017

Exodus 3:7-12; 4:10-13 CEB; John 1:43-46 ESV

If you keep up with pop news, then you know that Country Music legend Glen Campbell passed away earlier this month.  Campbell brought a different flavor to the Country & Western genre of music with hits like “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Try a Little Kindness,” and others.  To be honest, back in the days when I was playing and singing Country songs myself, I never was a real big Glen Campbell fan because of his particular flavor of music.

Nevertheless, one has to admire Campbell for a number of reasons: Campbell reportedly sold some 42 million records during his career; he overcame a severe battle with alcohol and drug addictions and years of self-destructive living as he completely turned his life around, “accepted Jesus Christ” (to quote Campbell himself), and began “singin’ a new song.”  But the thing that jumped out at me about Glen Campbell and his life as I thought about a sermon for today is that Campbell was able to move beyond his “backstory” in order to make something significant of his life.  Glen Campbell’s early backstory was being born into a poor, Arkansas farming family and growing up looking at the backside of a mule as he followed a plow to help support his dirt-poor family.

Backstories.  Going way back in time, if anyone had a back story to overcome, another man who would leave a profound mark on the world had it.  He was born in a difficult time; adopted as a baby because his own family couldn’t take care of him and keep him safe; accused of murder and wanted by the government, causing him to run for his life, becoming a fugitive in the wilderness; and he had some type of speech impediment.  That is a lot to overcome.  And yet, he did it to become one of the most iconic personalities known to humankind.  I am talking, of course, about Moses.

As the story goes, Moses’ life was threatened by an evil king, as were the lives of all the Hebrew baby boys born at the time.  So his mother put him in a basket and floated him down the river, hoping someone who could properly care for him would rescue him.  Found and adopted by the Pharoah’s daughter, he grew up in the Egpytian palace.  Then one day, when he had become a young man, he saw an Egyptian beating one of his own Hebrew people, so he killed the Egyptian and buried his body in the sand.  When word got out, Moses had to flee for his life.  He ended up in the wilderness watching his father-in-law’s sheep.  There he had a vision and felt called by God to return to Egypt to deliver his people from bondage and slavery.  But Moses began to cite one excuse after another, trying to convince God that he was not the man for the job, with the final excuse being his “slow mouth and thick tongue.”  Yes, Moses had a backstory to overcome.

And so did Jesus.  Born into a poor, peasant, uneducated family (as far as we know) from the “back water” village of Nazareth, Jesus (humanly speaking) was not what you would call a prime candidate to be the Messiah.  When Nathanel heard his friend Philip say that he had found the one they had all been waiting for – Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth – Nathanael replied, “Nazareth!  Nazareth?  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  For, you see, such was a common byword of the day – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  So Jesus had his own backstory to overcome if he was to leave his mark on the world.

Do you have a back story?  Do you know what a backstory is?  I had never really thought about the term until we saw a news segment a couple of months ago on a writer who had just published a book which chronicles the lives of several young people who overcame very challenging backstories, as he put it, in order to make something special of their lives.  And the news segment got me to thinking.  And I realized that most of us have a backstory of one sort or another.  Granted, some people’s backstories are much more challenging than others.  But most of us have something in our early lives that we could have let hold us back, had we chosen to do so.

According to the dictionary, “backstory” is “a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot.”  Thus, it originally was a literary or artistic term, having to do with the development of the history or background of a character in literature, drama or film.  But in real life, the backstory can be seen as that past history, early experiences, severe challenges that one has to overcome in order to be successful or make something significant of his or her life.

Someone from East Tennessee who serves as a prime example of overcoming a challenging backstory to become successful is Dolly Parton.  There is hardly anyone who doesn’t know Dolly’s backstory about being born into Appalachian poverty in a one-room cabin in a Sevier County mountain hollow.

But as noted earlier, many of us have a personal backstory – a traumatic experience, a challenging life situation, a personal characteristic over which we had no control – to overcome.  Maybe while in elementary, middle school or high school, we were very small – the smallest kid in our class.  Or maybe we were the biggest kid in our class.  In either case, maybe we were picked on or bullied all through school because we were the smallest or the biggest kid in our class, or because we looked different in some other way.

Maybe, as in the case of my Dad, we lost a parent at an early age and had to grow up fast and go to work at a young age to help support the family.

Maybe it was a physical or mental disability that made us different and that made everyday life a challenge.

Or maybe it was debilitating depression that shackles one in a world of darkness.

Or maybe it was some form of physical or emotional abuse that robs one of a sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Or maybe it was race, or ethnicity, or the community or neighborhood where we grew up.

Or on the lighter side, maybe – as in my own case – it was our peculiar accent (drawing on the story of Moses and his speech deficiency) that caused others to make fun of the way we talked.  Whenever I have left the comforting shelter of East Tennessee to live in other parts of the country, I have had to confront those who found joy in commenting on my peculiar East Tennessee–Western North Carolina accent.  When we first moved from extreme East Tennessee to extreme West Tennessee to attend seminary, there were those who liked to say, “I just loooove to hear him talk.”  The strange thing to me was their West Tennessee drawl sounded a lot funnier to me than my own accent did.  But one of my fellow seminary students and colleagues in ministry at the time in a group of churches that united for joint services throughout the year even referred to me in jest as “the golden-tongued East Tennessean.”

Then when we moved to Albany, New York – well, you can imagine the comments I got.  During the six years we lived in Albany, there probably wasn’t a week that went by when at least one person didn’t ask me, “Where are you from?” because of the way I talked.  I finally started replying, “I’m from the South – the Bronx,” just to throw them off.

And so, throughout all of these years of being a preacher, I have been very self conscious about my accent.  Granted, it is not a huge backstory to overcome; in fact, in the big picture, it is miniscule; pretty insignificant.  But it is a part of my backstory and something I could have let deter me from staying in the ministry for the past 40 years.

Many members of our United Church, I have no doubt, could speak of a very challenging, life-threatening, despairing-of-life-itself backstory that you overcame so as to be sitting  here as you are today.  And to each of you for whom such is true, I applaud you.  As Henri Nouwen points out in his iconic little book, The Wounded Healer, we learn to use our past pains as a source of strength and as a means to reaching out to and offering help and hope to others.  A sharing of our stories and suffering enables us to move forward.1

But it seems to me that one attitude that might be common to all who overcome a challenging backstory to succeed is “By God (and I mean that in a reverent sort of way), by God I am going to overcome, be victorious, going to succeed in spite of my backstory.

So it was with Moses, and Jesus, and Glen Campbell, and Dolly Parton, and countless others we could name today.  “By the grace of God I am going to overcome, I am going to be victorious, I am going to succeed in spite of my backstory!”  And may it be true for each of us as well, regardless of what our backstory might be.  Amen!

1Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer.  New York: Image Books, 1979.  Pp. 93, 100.

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Journeys and Relationships

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 6, 2017

Ruth 1:1-19a GNT

The month of July was a month of journeys for me. That was the way I chose to spend much of my sabbatical-vacation time.

For those who might be interested (and those who aren’t interested can nap or meditate for a couple of minutes), my journeys began with a Route 66 road trip with our soon-to-be, 11-year-old grandson, Josiah.  Early Sunday morning, July 10, he and I set off from Brentwood to Chicago, where we spent the night in a guest room at the Quaker House in Hyde Park, a place where I had stayed some 14 years ago while I worked on my doctor of ministry degree. After a day of fun in Chicago, we found the “Begin Route 66” sign on Adams Street in downtown Chicago, and drove every mile of Route 66 across Illinois and into St Louis, where we enjoyed another day of fun before returning home.

The following weekend, Mary Lou and I journeyed to Townsend, and on Sunday morning we attended the outdoor “church of God,” better known as Clingman’s Dome.

The next weekend Mary Lou and I both drove to Brentwood where we spent the night with our daughter’s family. The next morning we flew to Colorado where we journeyed through Rocky Mountain National Park, to Four Corners (the only place in the country where four states come together at one point), journeyed through Mesa Verde National Park and toured several cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people, and journeyed up to Pikes Peak, which boasts an elevation of 14,115 feet and the highest railway in the world. Then on the last day of our Colorado journeys, we toured Castlewood State Park.  During the month of July, I drove over 3,600 miles, not counting the flight miles to Denver.

To say that I enjoyed all of these sabbatical journeys would be a gross understatement. During that time I saw some breathtaking natural landscapes, beautiful wildflowers, and captivating wildlife, including elk, deer, moose, longhorn sheep, a coyote, and a black bear.

But as rich as those experiences were, they were made all the richer by having a companion to journey with me. Had I taken all those journeys alone, the experiences would have been oh, so much poorer.

That is a point that came home to me this past month – life experiences and journeys are nothing apart from the relationships with those who journey with you. How fortunate I was to have perfect traveling companions for all my sabbatical journeys. Josiah and I were alone on the road together for a total of 1199 miles, spread over four days. Not once during that time did he whine or complain or object to any suggestion I made. He was the perfect traveling companion, and I told him so a number of times. The Route 66 journey was made so much richer because of his presence and the close relationship that we share.

Likewise, the other journeys I enjoyed were made so much richer by having Mary Lou as a traveling companion and the relationship we share. I wouldn’t even have thought about heading to Colorado alone. Though the Colorado landscapes are breathtaking, the journey was much more rewarding for having her along as a traveling companion.

Well, there is a deeper truth at work here, a truth we see in the beautiful story of Naomi and Ruth. Now, we cannot be absolutely sure that this story is 100% historic fact, in every respect, at least.  Nevertheless, the story is true in many ways.

A curious thing about this little story is it is one of the most widely drawn from passages in marriage ceremonies. But the story is not about a husband and wife, but about a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

For today’s purposes, Ruth and Naomi find themselves on a journey. They had found themselves in extremely difficult circumstances.  Naomi had lost her husband and both of her sons to death. Ruth had lost her husband as well, who was Naomi’s son. They were left to fend for themselves as two widowed women in a foreign land.

So together Naomi and Ruth decide to set forth on a journey to Israel, Naomi’s homeland, in hopes they can start a new life there. That is what they do – they journey to Bethlehem together.

But the important point not to be missed today in this delightful story is the relationship that binds Naomi and Ruth together. Though they were not blood kin, these two were inseparable. “Don’t ask me to leave you! Let me go with you,” Ruth pleads.  “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and that is where I will be buried.  May the Lord’s worst punishment come upon me if I let anything but death separate me from you!”  What beautiful, powerful words!

As a side note, in the first church I served right out of seminary, it was surprising to me that two of the most active members who attended church together were a mother-in-law and daughter in-law. Like Naomi and Ruth, Vada and Melva had both lost their husbands (the father and son), but their relationship was so good that they continued to live in the same house, attend church together, and travel together. I remember once when I was visiting in their home, they gladly told me of their recent journey together to Hawaii.  A modern day example of Naomi and Ruth, they were.

Relationship – the journey to Bethlehem would have been nothing apart from the relationship that bound Naomi and Ruth together.

And that is the way with the journey of life. The one essential thing, the bottom line in the endeavor of life, is relationships. If we don’t have meaningful relationships and traveling companions, then the journey of life means nothing, or “isn’t worth squat,” if you will pardon my language.  As Henri Nouwen put it, “Friendship has always belonged to the core of my spiritual journey.”

And so, it seems to me that one of the most important tasks that fall to all of us is to cherish, nurture, be grateful for, and to strengthen all the relationships in our lives. 

What does this mean?  It means to make a friend we have to be a friend. It means truly loving those around us and letting them know we love them by all we do and say. It means being kinder, gentler, more compassionate, more understanding, and more helpful.

The importance of relationships and companions on the journey becomes all the more apparent every time we lose another beloved member of this United Church, as has been the case the past two weeks with the untimely passing of Delores.  Delores’s passing has affected all of us who knew her.  This experience has caused us all to realize just how much Delores and our relationship with her meant to us.  It has reminded us of how important are those personal encounters – those parting words and parting hugs.  Did we share a hug the last time we were together? we are wont to ask ourselves.  Did I say “I love you”? upon parting?  Did that person really know how I felt about her or him?

And then on the happier side, the importance of relationships and companions on the journey of life became apparent yesterday as we celebrated the marriage of Rachel and Corentin.  I know how much they appreciated all the United Church members who came to celebrate with them and congratulate them on this joyous milestone of life.

We have heard it said, “Life is about the journey, not the destination;” or something like that.  Such is true.  Life IS all about the journey.  But the journey is meaningless apart from our companions who journey with us and the relationships we share along the way.

So may we determine that we are going to be more mindful of, more grateful for, and more considerate of the relationships of all those important people in our lives with whom we share this journey of life.  May it be so.  Amen.


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Straddling the Fence of Civil Responsibility

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 2, 2017

1 Peter 2:13-17 GNT; Reading from Henry D. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

If it were possible for us to be in Concord, Massachusetts, ten days from today, I imagine we could take part in some pretty significant birthday celebrations; especially if we had the opportunity to gather around Walden Pond.  And if I hadn’t already made summer plans that will take me in a different direction, I might even try to go there myself.  For, you see, July 12 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s most celebrated thinkers and writers.  Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to over 20 volumes.

Most people who know of Thoreau think of him as an American naturalist.  Such is the way that I most often think of him.  Thoreau is best known, perhaps, for his iconic work, Walden, or Life in the Woods.  Walden was one of the first American works on getting back to nature and extolling the virtues of simple, natural, and frugal living.  Poet Robert Frost wrote of Thoreau’s Walden, “In one book . . . he surpasses everything we have had in America.”  (As an aside, it was on July 4, 1845, when Thoreau moved to a small hut he had built on land borrowed from Ralph W. Emerson on the shore of Walden Pond.)

Many naturalists, conservationists, and environmentalists may even look upon Thoreau’s Walden as their “second Bible.”  Thoreau’s call to use resources wisely, to preserve “wildness,” to abolish slavery, and to live more mindfully vastly influenced the conservationist and environmentalist movements in America, the establishment of the National Parks System, the abolitionist movement, and perhaps the thought of contemporary poets like Mary Oliver.  Conservationist E.O. Wilson called Thoreau “the founding saint of the conservation movement.”

But the other work that Thoreau most often remembered for is his long essay titled “Civil Disobedience.”  At least part of “Civil Disobedience” was written from jail, after Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax, believing that doing so was supporting the institution of slavery.  “Civil Disobedience” has been described as “the most influential political essay written by an American.”1  Both Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that they learned about the moral basis of resistance and how to put it into practice from Thoreau’s essay.

“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?”  Such is a question that might sound like it had been framed just this week.  Yet this is a question that Thoreau asked in 1848 as the United States engaged in war with Mexico.

To try to put Thoreau’s thought into simpler terms, how does one determine the limits of civil obedience or civil disobedience?  How far does one go in respecting and supporting a government when one feels that government is too far afield of what is right or is downright wrong?  It isn’t a new question, by any means.  It is as old as government itself.

Which brings us to the interesting passage read from the Letter of 1 Peter (which certainly wasn’t written by the Apostle Peter, by the way, who had been long dead when this letter was written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century).  “For the sake of the Lord submit yourselves to every human authority: to the Emperor, who is the supreme authority, and to the governors, who have been appointed by him to punish the evildoers and to praise those who do good . . . respect the Emperor.”  Now, at face value, such a directive seems logical.  But the curious thing is this letter was written during a time of persecution, when Christian believers who were the first recipients of this letter were being persecuted, possibly by the same government they were told to respect!  There were periods during the last half of the first and early part of the second centuries when the Roman emperors actively persecuted the Christians of the Empire.  What in the world was the writer of this letter thinking?

Well, one consideration here is the author was encouraging the Christians of the Empire to try to not do anything so as to appear unpatriotic, and by so doing, bring the wrath of the government down upon them.  In other words, the reason to respect the Emperor was practical in nature, so as to not incite further persecution.

Yet also contained within these verses is a great conundrum, what biblical commentator David L. Bartlett calls “the almost paradoxical vision of civic behavior that 1 Peter – and other early Christian writings – commends.”2  Christians are slaves to God alone, yet are commended to “Live as free people,” while at the same time encouraged to submit “to every human authority . . . and respect the Emperor.”  It all sounds a bit like doubletalk, doesn’t it?  How can one do all three – be a slave to God alone, yet live as free people, and submit to every human authority?

And so, now you know where today’s sermon title, “Straddling the Fence of Civil Responsibility,” comes from.  We are raised to be patriotic – say the Pledge of Allegiance and respect the American flag – and have respect for government leaders – senators, governors, and the President – but how do we do that if the government or officials contradict our faith convictions and what we feel to be right?  How do we continue to be supportive of our leaders and government during those times when what is happening seems to be in diametric opposition to the ways of God, as we see them?  Or to put it another way, what do we do when we feel the call of God upon our lives and the way of government are totally opposite?  How do we responsibly straddle the fence between our faith and government when they seem to be polar opposites?

Such are questions that many are asking in America today, especially surrounding the debate on healthcare coverage and who should and shouldn’t be included and excluded.  But by the same token, they are the same questions that others asked during Obama’s administration.  And the same is true all throughout history.  The same questions Henry David Thoreau raised in “Civil Disobedience” never go out of fashion and are still being asked today.  “Unjust laws exist:” Thoreau contended, “shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”  “As people of conscience,” Thoreau stated, “we declare our commitment to translate our values into action.”

And so, when we feel our government or the laws of our land are in need of change, there are many different courses of action we can, and perhaps should, take: Some write letters to the editor; others call their senators or representatives; others choose to put their energies into marches and protests; and still others (like Thoreau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and others ) are willing to go to jail because of their convictions.

In the end of the essay Thoreau would conclude, and I like what he said, “I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.”  Such is a good rule of measurement and principle toward which we should strive both as citizens and Christians, I believe – a government that treats each “individual with respect as a neighbor.”  It is a lofty ideal toward which to aim, but perhaps one that Jesus would call for.  “Render to Caesar (the Emperor, the government) the things that are Caesar’s, and render to God the things that are God’s.”  And in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus reminds us that we are our neighbor’s keeper.

Periodically what we feel the call of God upon our lives to be leads us to work to change governmental policies and laws so that all citizens are respected as a neighbor.  At least that is the way I see it.  May it be so.  Amen.


1Richard Higgins, UU World, Summer 2017.  Pp. 32-37.

2David L. Bartlett, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.  Pp. 274-275.

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