God in the Garden Theology Revisited

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 22, 2018 (Earth Day)

Genesis 3:8-13, 21-23 ESV

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”  Have you ever taken time to ponder that verse?  It’s different; it’s a bit unique in comparison to what we read in most of the Bible.  It is a very striking image, you will have to admit – God, the Creator, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.  Why do we find such a verse here where God is portrayed in very human terms, immanently connected to creation and to humans, and in other places see a picture of God as a very withdrawn, other-worldly, transcendent presence?

One of the first things we learned in college Bible survey courses and seminary Old Testament classes is that the different stories we find in the opening books of the Bible did not originate from the same pen.  Biblical scholars began theorizing in the 19th and early 20th centuries that the writings of at least four different sources – four different religious traditions – were woven together in the first five books of the Bible by later editors whose aim was to present a uniform story of the workings of God among the early Hebrews.  And so several years ago, scholars agreed on the JEPD theory of biblical authorship.  In the book of Genesis we find literature from the first three: J, standing for the Yahwist tradition, the tradition that refers to God as Yahweh; E, signifying the Elohist tradition, the tradition that refers to God as Elohim; and P, representing the Priestly tradition, the tradition that is concerned with the work of the priests, sacrifices, purity laws, etc.

Now, it should be stated that the four-source or JEPD theory, also called the documentary hypothesis theory, is just that – a theory.  Some have questioned parts of it in recent years, but without question the theory holds a lot of truth and is very helpful in interpreting the Bible and understanding what might otherwise be seen as contradictions in the biblical texts.

For instance, in the very first chapters of Genesis we are struck with the presence of two separate creation stories that differ in their accounts of the process of creation.  And then we find two different Noah and the Flood stories that also differ in their details and emphases.  Understanding that two different sources – often one from the northern tribes of Israel and the other from the southern tribes of Israel – were woven together to tell the stories is very helpful.

But for today’s purposes, I chose to focus on one of the JEPD traditions, the J or Yahwist tradition, the one responsible for today’s scripture reading from Genesis chapter three.  Characteristics of the Yahwist tradition include the following:

God is always referred to as Yahweh

The holy mountain where the Law was received is always called Sinai

The peoples of Palestine around the Hebrews are called Canaanites

And (for today’s purposes) God is anthropomorphized – that is, God is given very human characteristics and human feelings by the Yahwist writer.  To repeat the verse of the day: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”  Now, there are two facets of this Yahwist story that speak to us pointedly on this Earth Day.

First, the Yahwist paints a picture of God – the Creator – having an intimate relationship with the natural world.  Earlier in this book, the Yahwist presents the image of God stooping down and scooping up dirt in his hands in order to fashion man – Adam – from the dust of the earth.  And then God performs a divine CPR of sorts by breathing into Adam the breath of life. When the man and his wife commit what is deemed to be “sin,” it is God who fashions clothes for them from the skins of animals.  The point is, in the view of the Yahwist writer, God or the Sacred was present in and intimately connected with the natural world which God had made.

Now, the image the Yahwist presents of a God in almost human form walking in the Garden of Eden is just that – an image.  We do not interpret such literally.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.  We don’t have to take the image of God in the garden literally in order to embrace the idea of God being intimately connected to Creation.

By and large, the idea of God walking in the garden of the world – intimately related to Nature – was abandoned for the idea of a transcendent God who set the universe in motion and then stepped away from it.  Science, the Enlightenment, rational thought, perhaps the theory of Evolution – all of these movements provided alternative ways of thinking of creation and the God or power behind it.  So God, likewise, was cast out of the Garden of Eden.

But it seems to me that by casting God out of the garden we suffer a great loss.  By removing God from Creation, or the world of Nature, we deprive ourselves of the blessing of the Sacred in everyday life.  And so, I think that from an Earth Day perspective, the Yahwist writer invites us to return God or the Sacred to the garden of the world, as we again train our ears to listen for God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and train our eyes to see God in the colorful wildflowers and singing birds along the path.

The other facet of the Yahwist tradition that speaks to us on this Earth Day is the intimate connection the Yahwist writer makes between Adam, or man, and the soil.  Michael D. Coogan drew attention to the fact that the Yahwist writer emphasized a close relationship between humans and the soil, and that initially man lived in harmony with the soil.  Also, the Yahwist shows a connection between human sin or corruption and the soil.  Because of human sin and failure, the soil, too, is cursed and man suffers the consequences of his actions.

My goodness, could there be any more pointed sermon for this Earth Day emphasis?  We are meant to have an intimate relationship with the soil – with the Earth.  From the good Earth we all come, from the good Earth we draw all of our support and sustenance, and to the good Earth at last we shall all one day return!  How more intimate could we get with the soil than that?

But because of our human folly and the corruption brought about by our own foolish actions, the soil from which we come, live, and shall return is cursed and contaminated.  Through our own foolish living – pollution, disrespect, desecration, overuse, depletion, etc. – we are driving ourselves right out of the garden of the world.  As Thomas Berry reminds us, “What is needed is a new spiritual, even mystical, communion with Earth . . . a sensitivity to Earth’s needs, a valid economy of Earth. . . .  Restoration of this sense of the natural world as divine manifestation has a special urgency because of the devastation that we are presently causing to the natural world.”1

Luckily, there is hope for us today on both counts regarding the Yahwist’s teachings.  On the one hand, the idea of God as still being in the garden of the Earth continues to be carried on through the thought and works of such thinkers and writers as Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox, and Sam Keen.  Such folk are calling us back to seeing the Sacred within the natural world around us.  In case you are interested in exploring this topic further, Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing, Thomas Berry’s The Sacred Universe, and Sam Keen ‘s  Sightings are good starting places.  In the words of Matthew Fox, ”The universe itself, blessed and graced, is the proper starting point for spirituality.”2

And the Earth Day movement and a number of organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and so on remind us of the vital relationship we have with the soil, calling us back to a respectful view and use of the Earth – respectful care, conservation, recycling, planting trees, careful management, an intimate relationship, and other ways.

So, on this Earth Day I celebrate the Yahwist writer of the Bible and the imagery and teachings he left us, drawing an intimate relationship between God or the Sacred and the natural world, and reminding us of humanity’s intimate connection to the Earth.  As we observe this Earth Day, may we be open to hearing God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and in the song of the birds above, and in the rustling grass, and even in the pitter patter of raindrops on the ground.  May we revisit God in the garden theology.  May it be so.  Amen.

1Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.  Pp. 73, 83.

2Matthew Fox, Original Blessing.  New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000.  P. 26.

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It’s You I Like

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 15, 2018

Matthew 19:13-15 GNT

Reading from Fred Rogers, “It’s You I Like”

I stopped by the local Post Office a couple of weeks ago to purchase stamps; but not just any stamps.  I went in search of a particular stamp that had just been released.  The clerk asked how many sheets I wanted, 20 stamps to a sheet at $10 each.  I asked for four sheets – $40 worth of first class stamps.  Now, I rarely purchase that many stamps at a time, even at Christmas time when I am preparing to mail Christmas cards.  But I wanted to be sure I have enough of these stamps to last me for awhile.  In case you haven’t already figured it out, I bought 80 Mister Rogers commemorative stamps that were released on March 23.  As an aside, I was back at the post office this past week mailing our income tax forms, and the clerk told me that they were already out of the Mister Rogers stamps and didn’t know if or when they would be getting more.  Obviously, the Mister Rogers stamps are a hot item, as I suspected they would be.

Now, I grew up before Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on PBS.  But my kids watched him.  This year is the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood going national; hence, the commemorative stamp.  A documentary movie is set to be released this summer about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks.

When the Post Office clerk seemed a bit surprised that I was purchasing so many Mister Rogers stamps, I explained that I am an admirer of Rogers and his work; furthermore, I lament the fact that we don’t have more Fred Rogers today in place of some of the role models we do have.  In essence I said, “How today’s world needs more Mister Rogers!”

Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained to the unique calling of ministry to children through media.  His wife, Joanne, relates that “he began each day with prayers for a legion of family and friends and, in general, for the peacemakers of the world.  Reading the Bible was also part of this early morning routine. . . He worked hard at being the best he could be.”  And he worked hard “at being other-oriented (not self-centered).”

Rogers began producing his pioneer show for children at a Pittsburg public television station in 1966.  Two years later, the show went national.  Hence, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is celebrating its golden anniversary this year, as already noted.  Rogers received honorary degrees from more than forty colleges and universities, and in 2002 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Each Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode begins with Rogers singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as he changes into his signature cardigan sweater and sneakers.  On days when I have worn a sweater to church, it has been said of me on occasion, “I see you’re wearing your Mister Rogers sweater today,” a statement that I take as a compliment.  By the way, one of Rogers’ sweaters now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

But what was it about Fred Rogers that makes him “sermon worthy?” some may be asking.

Could it be that Fred Rogers is worthy of remembrance because he mirrored the teachings and example of Jesus of showing respect for children for the special individuals that they are?  And speaking of Jesus, the way that Jesus respected and interacted with children was unique to that day.  Famous Scottish biblical commentator William Barclay referred to this story read from Matthew as “the loveliest incident in the gospel story.”

Perhaps the attitude of the disciples who tried to keep the children away from Jesus was the general attitude of the day – children are not to be a bother.  Children are to be seen and not heard.  Children could not be allowed to “interrupt some otherwise important and serious conversation” (Layman’s Bible Commentary).  But such was not the attitude of Jesus.  In the eyes of Jesus, no one was unimportant, and receiving and blessing children was important and was serious conversation and business.

We see the same respect and devoted interaction with children in the life and work of Fred Rogers.  He taught us the importance of listening – really listening – to children.  Rogers’ wife, Joanne, notes that Fred was always a good listener for as long as she knew him.  And Fred himself said, “The purpose of life is to listen – to yourself, to your neighbor, to your world and to God and, when the time comes, to respond in as helpful a way as you can find . . . from within and without. . . .  listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another.  Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift.”

And when Fred Rogers talked to children, he talked on their level.  He didn’t talk down to children, and he didn’t talk up to children; he talked to them on their level.  Such is something that is not that easy to do.  And some of us may wish we had done it more with our own children.

Fred Rogers let children know – regardless of their race, nationality, differences, or physical or mental challenges – that he liked each one just as he or she was.  As one of Rogers’ admirers says, “When someone looks you in the eye . . . and tells you that ‘I like you just the way you are,’ it’s very powerful.”  It can be life-changing, in fact.

I shudder when I think of the influences upon our children today.  When I consider of some of the entertainment that our children and grandchildren are immersed in – violent television shows; violent, female-degrading, misogynistic video games; loud, violent music – it makes me cringe.  There was a segment this past week on Good Morning America on the degrading of women in video games and a group that has formed to combat it.  We have to wonder if some of the graphic, violent movies and video games that today’s kids and grandkids are soaking up like sponges is going to come back to bite us, or perhaps if it isn’t already biting us, as evidenced by the rash of school shootings and other violence.

And also when I think of the role models that are influencing our kids and grandkids – especially among national and world leaders – and the disrespect for women and minorities, and the name calling and reputation smearing, it makes me shudder.  When our children hear the news and the way that our leaders lie, curse, call each other derogatory names, and so on, what can we expect of them as they become teenagers and adults?

I have to repeat what I said to the Post Office clerk: How the world needs more Fred Rogers and less of the examples and role models that are influencing and shaping today’s kids!

Actress Sarah Silverman, who is helping celebrate Fred Rogers’ life, said, “He’s essential right now.  His teachings and beauty and love and patience and care and empathy and compassion are our only salvation right now.”

If we could pick just one Mister Rogers sound bite that sort of encapsulates Fred Rogers’ interactions with children, it might well be “It’s You I Like.”  Rogers let children – indeed, all people – know that regardless of their differences or human imperfections or mental or physical disabilities or challenges or ethnicity, he accepted and celebrated them just the way they were.  Where do we see such in our country and world today?  Rogers said, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is. . . It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

As I noted in the beginning, it is obvious that I am a Fred Rogers admirer.  He set a shining example of what it means to be authentically human and an authentic follower of the teachings of Jesus.  I would like to hope that each of us individually and that we as a congregation collectively might strive to be as open, respectful, kind, and affirming as Fred Rogers was in his life and work.  How wonderful it would be if we could look the other in the eye – regardless of who the other might be – and say, “It’s you I like.”  May it be so.  Amen.

 

Quotations taken from The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, Fred Rogers.  New York: Hyperion, 2003.

 

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The Proof Is in the Fruit

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 8, 2018

Matthew 7:15-20 ESV; Reading from Rumi

This past weekend, we were having a big Saturday morning family breakfast, and our daughter picked up a jar of strawberry jam – which happens to be both her and my favorite – to read the ingredients.  And she commenced to read out loud, “Ingredients: Sugar – the first ingredient is sugar, then strawberries,” she lamented.  Well, that was disappointing, as both of us love strawberry jam, and both of us try to watch our sugar intake.  It was discouraging to learn that fruit was not the first or primary ingredient.

Some of us are old enough to remember that television commercial some years ago that said, “The proof is in the fruit.”  In other words, the quality and the taste and the natural purity of the product were evidence of its goodness.  The proof was in the fruit!

Well, Jesus basically said the same thing 2,000 years ago – the proof of a true follower, the proof of a true prophet, the proof of a true leader is in the fruit that life produces.  A good life does not produce corrupt fruit, nor is a corrupt life capable of producing good fruit.  You will know them by their fruits!

But when it comes to quality control, when it comes to inspecting and grading the fruits of life, what standard is to be used?  That is the question.  Because, as you well know, there are so many in today’s world who profess religious faith, or who quote the Bible or some other sacred text, or who talk the talk, as they say.  But when we look at their lives, it makes us wonder a bit, doesn’t it?

Matthew’s contention is that deeds alone are inadequate if they issue from an inner life that is corrupt.  Such is hypocrisy, pure and simple.  And neither are good intentions alone enough.  The sincere inner life reveals itself via outward matching deeds and actions.

My good friend, Sister Kitty, had an answer for the question regarding the sincerity or purity of the religious life, an answer I am happy to share with you today.  But perhaps a brief bio of Sister Kitty is in order.  Sister Kitty was a Catholic Nun that Mary Lou and I had the privilege of getting to know during our six years in Albany, New York.  Sister Kitty was a trained and well-known, well-beloved Spiritual Director who also taught courses at a local Catholic School of Theology and Ministry.  Among the classes that Sister Kitty taught were introductory courses to Spiritual Direction, which I had the privilege of attending.  Sister Kitty also was responsible for introducing me to the works of Parker J. Palmer and one of my all-time, top ten favorite books, Let Your Life Speak. She had one of the sweetest, most Christian, most genuine personalities of anyone I have ever known.  At any rate, Sister Kitty shares a standard by which to judge or measure the genuineness of faith and/or proof of spiritual growth in the Christian life.

Sister Kitty asks, “Are we more loving?”  When we examine ourselves and the ways in which we relate to others, are we more loving to others than we were ten years ago, five years ago, one year ago?  If we could have diagrammed our heart into a pie chart five years ago, dividing our thoughts and actions into non-loving and altruistic loving percentages, and then do it again today, would the altruistic loving percentage have grown to cover a greater proportion of our heart?  Are we striving to grow in loving thoughts, words, deeds, and actions as each year, each month, and each week passes?

Fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez told the story of a four year old child whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife.  Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there.

When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy replied, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

Hafez observes, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth
‘You owe me’
Look what happens with a love like that,
It lights the whole sky..”

Yes, the proof of a life of growing spirituality is in the growing commitment to loving thoughts, words, deeds, and actions that seeks to light up the lives of others.

Sister Kitty’s second question by which to measure the genuineness of faith and a growing spirituality is, “Are we more forgiving?”  Is our commitment to being more forgiving of others growing?  Is it greater than it was ten years ago, five years ago, one year ago?

A friend shared a story with me in confidence a few weeks ago, and without revealing the names of those involved, I would like to share the story with you.  I have thought a lot about this story in recent weeks, and it speaks to the point at hand.  This friend was in a community meeting with others in similar positions of leadership, and my friend made a comment which another person took personally and interpreted as being offensive, even though my friend did not intend for her comment to be taken in the way that the other person interpreted it.  The other person got angry and jumped her case, and my friend immediately apologized and stressed that she had not intended the comment to convey the message that had been heard.  Even though my friend continued to apologize, the other person refused to forgive, and to this day the other person will not speak to my friend because of the one remark that was misinterpreted.

If we are unwilling to forgive – especially when someone inadvertently offends us and begs our forgiveness – then how can we hope to ever have a mature faith?  Asking ourselves, “Are we more forgiving?” is one form of measurement we can use to judge our own personal developing spirituality.

Sister Kitty’s third proof of a genuine faith and developing spirituality is, “Is our hunger for justice growing?”  Is life less and less about me, less about only looking out for Number One and my wants, needs, and selfish desires, and more about the needs of others and a greater commitment to issues of justice?  An approach to life that only thinks of stroking the ego and getting what I want regardless of how it affects everyone else is an immature, infantile worldview.  But a life growing in commitment to the rights and well-being of others is a life illustrating a maturing spirituality.  It seems to me that the older we get, the more expansive should be our circle of concern for the rights, needs, and well-being of others.

Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle – in speaking of our goals, visions, and dreams in life – advises in his best-selling book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, “Make sure your vision or goal is not an inflated image of yourself and therefore a concealed form of ego . . . Feel how that activity [that is, our goal, vision, dream, etc.] enriches or deepens not only your life but that of countless others.  Feel yourself being an opening through which energy flows from the unmanifested Source of all life through you for the benefit of all” (pp. 304, 305).

As I sat in Sister Kitty’s class sessions on Spiritual Direction, if I heard her say it once I probably heard her say it a dozen times: “Are we more loving?  Are we more forgiving?  Is our hunger for justice growing?”  Such, Sister Kitty stressed, is evidence of a genuine, growing, developing, maturing spirituality.  As a true, shining example, servant of Jesus, Sister Kitty well knew that “the proof is in the fruit.”

Yes, the contents of a jar of jam should be true to what the label says it is.  And so should our lives.  The spiritual fruit that we produce – love, forgiveness, commitment to justice – should be true to and match our claims of faith, proceeding from a sincere inner life.  The proof is, indeed, in the fruit.  May it be so with each of us.  Amen.

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April Fools

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 1, 2018 (Easter Sunday)

Psalm 42:1-5; Luke 24:1-7, 13-27 GNT

I’m afraid I have bad news for all you parents.  You are going to have some very unhappy children following today’s service.  So just be forewarned.  I was just informed via a text message that someone stole all the plastic Easter eggs earlier this morning, obviously to get the candy inside.  April Fools :-).

When I was a child, I loved April 1st and the opportunity to play April Fool jokes on family and friends.  And, I have to admit, I was pretty good at it.  “It’s started snowing!”  “The neighbor’s cows are out and running all over our yard!”  “The back of your pants are ripped!”  “School has been cancelled today!” These and other such harmless April Fool jokes delighted both the joker and jokie.

Well, much ado has been made about Easter falling on April 1st this year.  This is the first year that Easter has fallen on All Fools Day since 1956, and it won’t happen again until 2029.  So today could be my only opportunity ever to preach an All Fools Day Easter sermon.

But it would be most appropriate if Easter were to fall on April 1st every year.  For, you see, the joke is on them; on those who thought that by condemning Jesus to death and killing him on a Roman cross they could silence him and do away with him.

Someone has said that Good Friday was an evil world’s “No” to Jesus.  It was an emphatic “No” to the message he taught, to the life he lived, and to the resistance he exerted toward the powers that be.

The powerful “No” of the world that resulted in Jesus’ death was hard for those faithful followers to swallow.  The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is indicative of the mood – sadness, bewilderment, devastation, hopes dashed on the stone that had been rolled before Jesus’ tomb.

This is probably my favorite of all the Easter stories we find in the four gospels.  And the phrase that stands out to me in the story is where one of the distraught disciples says, “we had hoped. . .! (Luke 24:21).  We can hear the great disappointment and disillusionment in those three little words – “we had hoped!”  Those closest to Jesus had pinned all their hopes on him as a deliverer, one to set them free and lead them into a bright future.

But when they saw this Jesus, whom they had followed and grown to love, and upon whom they had pinned all their hopes, when they saw him condemned and hung upon a Roman cross, all those hopes dissipated.

Most of us have been there, haven’t we?  We can think of times when we had pinned all our hopes on a person who turned out to be far from what we expected them to be.  Times when we pinned all our hopes on that new, perfect position or occupation that didn’t pan out or that proved to be full of problems or ethical dilemmas.  Times when we pinned all our hopes on an invention, a dream, an investment, or something else that was going to turn things around for us.  Who of us has not said, “But I had hoped!”?  Yes, we can relate to those followers of Jesus and the way the world’s emphatic “No” can dash our hopes and dreams on the rocks of life.

But the reports that came from the tomb and the good news that began to circulate about him on Easter morning was the Divine “Yes!” to Jesus.   The reports of his resurrection and the way Jesus would live on in the hearts, minds, and lives of his followers, empowering them to take his message of Good News to the whole world, was a Divine Vindication before the whole world.  And the fact that the spirit of Jesus and the message he taught and the movement to which he had given birth did not die, but to the contrary came to exuberant life, was a vindication that the world could not deny or ignore.

Indeed, that first Easter morning gave rise to a new and far better hope than the hope that had been dashed three days prior.  It was as Paul Tillich contended in his little iconic book, The Courage to Be, “ . . . our only hope is the hope that appears when the situation is beyond hope itself, or hopeless” (p. xvii).  The Easter morning hope was a hope that caught the followers of Jesus by surprise.  Throughout the gospel accounts of that morning, several words convey the emotions and surprise of the disciples to what they saw and heard: fear, alarm, distress, terror, bewilderment, sadness, weeping, and finally giving way to joy and hope.

There was a Washington Post article this past week by Bart Ehrman who has written extensively on Christianity and the Bible.  Ehrman contends that in 30 CE, or the time Jesus was crucified, there were only about 20 close, dedicated followers of Jesus.  Within 300 years, that number had grown to about 3 million Christians, including the Roman Emperor Constantine.  Within another 100 years, the number of Christians had grown to well over 30 million.  Today there are an estimated 2 billion followers of Christ in the world.  But the fact that the Roman Empire that put Jesus on a Roman cross within three centuries would itself become Christian constituted, perhaps, the greatest joke of all!

You know, we can be at our bottom-of-the-barrel lowest.  Life can throw us into the darkest of dark pits and make us feel like there is no way out.  We sometimes strain to see just a faint ray of light at the top of the dark, emotional pit we have been thrown into.  We may be ready to give up, despairing of humanity, despairing of anything good, despairing of life itself.

But then something happens – catching us by surprise – that casts a ray of hope into our darkness, and we are given a new infusion of life and vitality to march valiantly into the future.  Such is what transpired on that Easter morning.

Yes, the All Fools joke was on them; on those who tried to silence Jesus and the movement surrounding him by putting him to death on a Roman cross.  Easter morning was the “Guess What? Punch line” that turned the world upside down.  The reports of the women who went to the tomb and testified that it was empty gave birth to the “Last Laugh” in the face of a system and world bent on evil.

Some churches have long celebrated the Sunday after Easter as “Holy Humor Sunday” or “Laughter Sunday,” emphasizing the point that Easter was God’s joke on Satan or an evil world.  This year, with Easter falling on All Fools Day, it seems appropriate to take note of the great cosmic joke early and join in the laughter today.

The Apostle Paul said of himself in one place that he was “a fool for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  May we also be fools for Christ – Easter fools – as we join in the celebration and joy of the day, and embrace the hope that Easter embodies.  May it be so for us.  Amen.

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 25, 2018

Lenten Series: Virtues for Turbulent Times

Luke 22:39-54a GNT

In the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;” midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, that is.  For here in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see humanity and the extremes to which humans can go.

The Garden of Gethsemane – what a place it is.  Of all the sites I was privileged to visit when I traveled to the Holy Land, the Garden of Gethsemane was one of the two places where I felt most moved and felt that we were standing in sacred space.  This past week, I pulled my personal Holy Land travel journal from the shelf to read what I had written the afternoon I visited the Garden of Gethsemane.  Here are my reflections from back then: “The most moving visit thus far was in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Gethsemane Church.  The traditional rock where Jesus was supposed to have prayed . . . is located inside the church to the left of the altar. . . The church goes by three names – Church of Gethsemane, Church of Agony, and Church of the Nations.  Twelve different nations donated materials for the [construction of the] church.”  There under the 2,000-year-old olive trees, I was able to be refreshed a bit, collect my thoughts, and meditate on all I had thus far seen and heard.

It was there in this grove of olive trees that Jesus took his closest disciples following their Last Supper in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The Garden lies a half mile or so down the hill from Jerusalem and across the Kidron Valley, and at the foot of the Mt. of Olives from which Jesus had descended before entering Jerusalem on a donkey on what came to be called Palm Sunday.

In the Garden of Gethsemane we see a snapshot of humanity sinking to its lowest extreme.  Commencing here in the Garden, and developing over the next 12 hours to follow, we see humanity at its ugliest.  At the fountainhead of “ugly” was betrayal.  Judas – a trusted follower and friend – betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies.  Some accounts say Judas did so for thirty pieces of silver.  Another theory is that Judas saw in Jesus a revolutionary who might be pressured to lead a revolt against Roman oppression, and by betraying Jesus he would force Jesus’ hand and push him to gather his followers and organize a resistance.  Whatever his motive, the bottom line was Judas was guilty of betrayal.  Jesus uttered the stinging response, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48 ESV).  When Jesus was condemned to death, Judas later regretted his actions and went before the authorities, confessing, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4 ESV).  Out of remorse, Judas threw down the silver on the Temple floor, ran out, and took his own life (Matthew 27:5).

Jesus is arrested by armed guards.  Thus begins what is described as the time of the “power of darkness.”  An innocent man is condemned to die, is scourged, beaten, mocked, and humiliated.  And then he is hung on a Roman cross to die the worst possible death known to humankind.

What was it that led to humanity’s sinking to its ugliest that night in the garden?  Was it human greed that would sell another for thirty pieces of silver?  Was it lust for power and a power and control struggle in the religious soul of Judaism?  Was it fear in the hearts of the religious authorities that Jesus’ preaching about compassion and justice and calling out oppression would usurp their authority and pull the rug out from under their system of religious control over the common people?  Was it fear on the part of the Roman government that this prophet from Nazareth might actually lead a revolt, as the Maccabean Family had done some 200 years earlier?  Was it guilty consciences that could not tolerate the truth Jesus preached that struck too close to home?  What was it, in fact, that released the power of darkness from the Pandora-like box of evil and that caused that night in the Garden of Gethsemane to become the worst of times?

And could it be that the same forces at work that night in the garden are responsible for the “ugly,” instances of the betrayal of the innocent, men and women selling out their souls for greed, and a struggle of power against truth we see evidence of in the turbulent times in which we now live?

But then on the flipside, in the Garden of Gethsemane we also see a snapshot of humanity rising to its most exemplary extreme.  Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was also the best of times.  In contrast to Judas’ betrayal, the hours spiraling into the abyss of darkness, the greed, the inhumanity to man, and ultimately murder of the innocent, in contrast to all of that we see humanity at its very best in the actions of Jesus.  From the gospel accounts, it appears that Jesus knew he was destined to suffer and die because of the things he had taught, the oppression and injustices he had exposed, and the religious authorities he had called to account.  I don’t want to suffer and die, Jesus in agony prayed to God, so if you can take this suffering from me, then please do so.  But if not, “Not my will . . . but your will be done” (Luke 22:42 GNT).  If suffer and die for the truth he had taught and stood for and the causes of justice and rightness that were at the heart of his movement was inevitable, then he was willing to sacrifice self.

It was during my visit to the Garden of Gethsemane and standing over the large rock where tradition says Jesus prayed “not my will, but thine be done” where I felt most connected to the life and death of Jesus.  There at midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Jesus’ actions made it the best of times as he demonstrated the virtue of self-sacrifice.

There is a scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin where Legree, the slave master, instructs Tom to whip a fellow female slave because the slave master felt she had fallen short on her work.  Legree says to Tom, “take this yer gal and flog her.”  But Tom refuses to do so.  Legree picks up a cowhide whip and assaults Tom by striking several heavy blows across his face.

“There!” Legree shouts, as he stopped to catch his breath and rest; “now, will ye tell me ye can’t do it?”

“Yes, Mas’r,” said Tom, putting up his hand, to wipe the blood that trickled down his face.  “I never shall do it, – never! . . . .  Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but as to my raising my hand agin any one here, I never shall, – I’ll die first!”  The slave master then commands two giant-sized men, whose “fiendish faces might have formed no unapt personification of powers of darkness,” to drag Tom away and beat him unmercifully.

Where, today, do we see the virtue of self-sacrifice in action?  If the daily news is an accurate account, we see far more betrayal, greed, inhumanity to man than we do self-sacrifice.

Preacher and writer Maxie Dunham told the story of two small boys who walked into a dentist’s office one day and waited to speak with the doctor.  When the dentist came into the waiting room, the older of the boys said, “Doctor, I want a tooth taken out, and I don’t want any gas, and I don’t want it deadened, because we are in a hurry.

The dentist smiled and said, “Well, you’re quite a brave young man.  You say you want a tooth pulled, but you don’t want any gas and you don’t want it deadened?”  And the older boy said, “That’s right, ‘cause we’re in a hurry.”

“Well, okay,” the dentist said, “but show me which tooth it is.”  And the boy turned to his younger friend and said, “Show him your tooth, Albert!”  Isn’t that the way of the world?  Everybody wants things to be done, but few are willing to pay the price, expecting someone else to make the sacrifice!

But occasionally our hearts are warmed by isolated examples of personal self sacrifice for the good of others.  There are a few Zaevion Dobsons in the world, the 15-year-old football player who used his own body to shield three girls from the spray of bullets fired by passing gang members.  And then there is the occasional Sonny Melton of Paris, Tennessee, who also shielded his wife from the bullets that killed dozens in the Las Vegas concert massacre.  There is the occasional story of the person who donates a kidney to a complete stranger, putting her own life in danger so another can continue to live.  There are a few examples of self sacrifice on a grand scale similar to that of Jesus and Uncle Tom.  But they seem to be much fewer and farer between than the greed, selfishness, and inhumanity to man that we hear about almost on a daily basis.

I began the sermon with a quote from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Curiously enough, Dickens’ novel also ends on a note of self-sacrifice, with the less than stellar character Carton sacrificing his life for another.  Carton pays a visit to a condemned man, Darnay, in prison just before the later is to be executed.  Carton, who is similar in appearance to the condemned man, tricks Darnay into changing clothes with him, drugs his friend to unconsciousness, and has his friend dragged out of prison to a waiting carriage.  Consequently, Carton – whom guards think is Darnay – is taken to the guillotine with the knowledge that he has finally done something to give his life meaning.  And Carton says just before his death, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”

Well, we won’t give our lives on the cross like Jesus.  We may never use our bodies as a human shield to protect another from being whipped or shot.  We likely will never give up a kidney to a total stranger.  But I want to hope that if or when the occasion arises for me to make a sacrifice on behalf of another or for the cause of justice, truth, the right, or the good, I will be able to do it and have the satisfaction of saying, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done before.”  Amen.

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The Freedom Times Two Virtue

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 18, 2018

Lenten Series: Virtues for Turbulent Times

Proverbs 17:9; Luke 6:37-38 GNT

Perhaps no virtue to be considered during this Lenten season is more difficult to actualize than the one we are considering today.  Who among us has not faced the most difficult task of needing to forgive someone who has done us wrong, perhaps a great wrong?  Sometimes people do us wrong by accident, without intending to do so, perhaps unconsciously, without even realizing they have wronged us.

At other times, people may do us wrong consciously, intentionally, and maybe even maliciously – with much forethought and malice.  Such poses an even greater challenge when it comes to granting forgiveness.

And yet, such is what Jesus asks of us: “forgive others, and God will forgive you” (Luke 6:37).  And in the Lord’s Prayer that we pray every Sunday: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12-15).  And Jesus’ answer to Peter when he asked how many times we should forgive another who sins against us: seven times seventy (Matthew 18:22).

Why is forgiveness often so difficult?  And what about those cases when forgiveness does not come easily, and for good reason?

Some years ago, I gave a sermon on forgiveness, and one of my female listeners countered that the process of forgiveness should not be trivialized and we should not make people feel guilty who have a hard time forgiving great wrongs.  And making anyone feel guilty over the issue of forgiveness is not my intention today.  She was speaking specifically of women who have suffered years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and/or violence.  To insist that such victims should just forgive and forget such wrongs in an instant, like erasing bad words off a chalkboard, is unrealistic, unreasonable and just plain wrong.  I agree.  Some wrongs that are inflicted run deep to the core of our being.  And some may take years of therapy or counseling to work through before the offended person can forgive.  I totally get that and concur.

The wrongs that can be inflicted by others, even those who are trusted to keep us safe; the wrongs that can be inflicted by those who are driven by evil impulses or severe mental illness, can be horrific.  The recent school shootings, Las Vegas massacre, various forms of physical and sexual abuse, and such are just a few examples.  Forgiveness is not always easy and may not come quickly in some cases.

But why can granting forgiveness often be so difficult, even for minor offenses?  Several years ago, I had the unhappy task of helping conduct the funeral service for a loved one.  The other preacher who spoke after I did was of the very conservative, independent persuasion, and he had had no formal ministerial training whatsoever (no seminary training and no college classes either). His sole credential was his devotion to the King James Version Bible.  When he got wound up, this other preacher started ranting and raving, and preaching the Bible from one end to the other, with none of what he said having any relation to the person we were remembering.

But the thing that struck like a blow to the head was when he shouted, “I don’t need no seminary education to preach God’s Word!”  Such was a direct insult he was hurling at me, it was quite obvious, even though he never mentioned my name.  I was sitting on the platform in the funeral home chapel facing the congregation of 75-80 mourners, and Mary Lou said she could see the muscles bulging in my cheeks as I sat there enduring this tirade and clenching my jaws.  My personal integrity, my pride in my hard work and education had been assaulted, I felt; and I had suffered embarrassment in front of family and friends alike.  I grant you that this offense was minor in the larger scheme of things.  But of all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon me over the years, that has been one of the most challenging when it comes to forgiveness.

When someone intentionally and perhaps maliciously wrongs us, we feel it is an attack upon our personhood, upon our good name, upon our integrity.  Forgiveness is difficult because it requires a concession on our part.

And the truth is, some people would rather die than forgive.  Perhaps you have known such people; they prefer to withhold forgiveness and hold onto a grudge and bitterness and take them to the grave.

Such reminds me of the story about the two neighbors who had a long-running feud over a property line dispute.  When it came time for one of the neighbors to die, he gathered his sons close by his side to give them his parting words.  They drew close and the old man said, “You know how I have held a grudge against our neighbor all these years and have refused to forgive him.  Now that I am about to die, I must forgive him, because Jesus demands that I do so.  But if you ever forgive him, I will come back to haunt you!”

Sadly, some people never get there; to the point of being mature enough and strong enough to forgive, that is.  What a thing to carry into the afterlife, when you stop to think about it!

Not being forgiven by someone is an awful burden to bear.  If I learn that I have inadvertently offended someone, or if I get it in my head that I have offended someone, it worries me.  But then when I speak to that person and am either absolved of my offense or learn that I had not really offended them in the first place, it is a wonderful gift that brightens my day and my week.

I have read that a good many people in hospitals for the mentally ill suffer with tremendous burdens of guilt over wrongs they have done or feel they have done.  So when we extend forgiveness to someone and let them know they have been forgiven, we are bestowing upon them a wonderful gift, a marvelous gift of grace.

But harboring hatred and bitterness and a lack of forgiveness in the heart is also an awful burden to bear. 

Steven McDonald was a young police officer in 1986 when he was shot by a teenager in New York’s Central Park, an incident that left him paralyzed. “I forgave [the shooter] because I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart,” McDonald wrote. While the younger man was serving his prison sentence, McDonald corresponded with him, hoping that one day the two could work together to demonstrate forgiveness and nonviolence. Unfortunately, the young man died in a motorcycle accident three days after his release from prison; but McDonald still travels the country to deliver his message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Christian counselor and author Lewis B. Smedes reminds us, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  So forgiveness is twice-fold liberating.  When forgiveness is granted, it actually sets two people free – the one who is forgiven and the one who forgives.

So, what then, can be the ultimate result of granting forgiveness?  Granting forgiveness is like casting off an emotional ball and chain that has been holding us back from moving forward.  When we forgive, we can in no way change the past, but granting forgiveness can alter the trajectory of our future.

Just as granting forgiveness to another is a marvelous gift of grace to them, releasing bitterness and granting forgiveness is also a gift we give to ourselves.  Granting forgiveness blesses both the giver and the forgiven.  “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive,” Maya Angelou encourages.

Being able to forgive is a sign of growing spiritually, an indication that we are at least striving to grow in Christian virtues and toward authentic selfhood. 

So, what are the personal possibilities for our lives when it comes to forgiveness?  The answer is known only to each of us personally.  Could it be for us, as the sermon title indicates, that forgiveness is the freedom times two virtue?  That it can free the one who is forgiven, and it can also free the one who grants the forgiveness?  May it be so for all of us during this Lenten season and always.  Amen.

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That Which Gives Strength to the Heart

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 11, 2018

Jeremiah 51:46; Acts 27:14-26 GNT

Be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14 RSV

One of the iconic movies of my childhood was The Wizard of Oz.  My first viewings of The Wizard of Oz were in front of our black and white television set.  I remember well when our family was invited to join family friends on a Sunday evening to watch the movie in technicolor for the first time on their new color television set.  And then when we had children of our own, The Wizard of Oz became our daughter’s favorite movie.  So I couldn’t tell you how many times I have seen The Wizard of Oz over the years.

As you know, the four main characters in the story are trying to get to Oz to see the wonderful wizard in hopes that he will grant them what they long for.  For Dorothy it is getting back to Kansas; for the Scarecrow, a brain; for the Tin Man, a heart; and for the Lion, courage.  One has to wonder how much the times in which the book was published (1900) and the movie was first released (1939) had to do with the themes, spirit, and symbolism that are at the heart of this great American film.  Just think about the year 1939 and what was going on in the world.  Hitler and the Nazis were beginning their campaign to take over much of Europe.  The world was teetering on the brink of all-out world war.  We might spend a fair amount of time trying to analyze The Wizard of Oz in relation to world events.  The Library of Congress included the film in its National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

But for our purposes today, we shall focus on one word that keeps cropping up in the film – “courage;” that virtue sought by the cowardly lion – courage: strength of the heart in the face of difficulties, challenges, or the unsettling horrors of life.  Courage: that which enables us to step out or act; or perform the right, the good, the just thing, even in the face of fear.

Courage is a spiritual virtue mentioned in the Bible a number of times.  For instance, in Psalm 27, one of the most comforting psalms, the psalmist encourages, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage” (Psalm 27:14 RSV).  In the early part of the psalm, the author speaks of evildoers, adversaries, and foes.  He speaks of wars, the day of trouble, and enemies.  In the end he mentions feeling forsaken, false witnesses, and threats of violence.  But in confidence he proclaims he will not be afraid, but rather, he will be strong and let his heart take courage.

In the verse I read from Jeremiah, he was seeking to encourage the Jewish Exiles who had suffered much at the hands of Babylon.  Babylonia – the country responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and all the death and suffering that accompanied it – would itself be destroyed, Jeremiah predicted.  And so Jeremiah encouraged, “Do not lose courage or be afraid because of the rumors you hear.  Every year a different rumor spreads – rumors of violence in the land and of one king fighting another.”  The verse could aptly be applied to the world we live in today – “rumors of violence and one king fighting another.”  Can we hear Jeremiah say to us, “Do not lose courage!”?

And then there is the story in the book of Acts of Paul on his journey to Rome getting caught in a violent storm at sea.  They had given up all hope of being saved.  But Paul rose to the occasion to address their fear and bolster their spirits – “I beg you – take courage!” (Acts 27:22 GNT)

As we face different types of challenges in life and in the world around us, we, too, may find ourselves fearful of different kinds of storms that are an ever-present threat over the horizon.  We are, indeed, living in turbulent times that call forth courage to face the problems and wrongs of the world in which we now live.  And I certainly am no prophet in the sense that I would pretend to predict the future (which was not the primary attribute of the Hebrew prophets anyway), but the current state of world affairs causes me to wonder if a day might come when even more courage will be needed to face what we could be called upon to face.

For instance, we heard just week before last that Vladimir Putin, in his address to the Russian people, boasted that they now have nuclear warheads capable of reaching the US and too sophisticated for our intervention.  North Korea had already threatened strikes against US territories.  Those who keep watch on the so-called “Doomsday Clock” moved the hands 30 seconds closer to midnight, now at two minutes until midnight, the closest it has been in yeaers.  Such threats unnerve us, and may even make us fearful as we lie awake in the middle of the night.  In days, months, or years to come, we may be called upon to not lose courage.

Cinema, as you know, often mirrors feelings, emotions, and events of contemporary society.  Earlier I made note of the fact that The Wizard of Oz movie was first released in 1939, on the cusp of world upheaval.  Well, recently we watched another movie which has as its setting the year 1940, one year after the release of The Wizard.  Oscar-nominated Darkest Hour chronicles the appointment of Winston Churchill as England’s Prime Minister during the critical time when the United Kingdom was deliberating a strategy to oppose the Nazi’s as they began their campaign of taking over Europe.  Darkest Hour is a good movie, and it is well worth taking time to watch it if you haven’t seen it.  We learned a lot about that dark hour in world history that we did not know.

For instance, Winston Churchill was not the first choice when the position of Prime Minister needed to be filled, and by and large he was not well-liked by many in Parliament or by England’s King George VI.  So Churchill knew from the start that he had been chosen to lead a people who didn’t like him, who didn’t agree with his policies, and who didn’t really want to follow the path he felt England should pursue to address the great Nazi machine that was threatening England’s survival as a sovereign nation.  And Churchill also realized that he faced an almost impossible situation, and many of England’s military leaders had already conceded defeat and loss of England’s military.  The possibilities looked pretty bleak.

But Churchill rose to the challenge of the tremendous task that had been thrust upon him.  Surprising to many, Churchill’s unconventional approach and unyielding policies proved to be successful and exactly what England needed at that particular time.  At least two words were familiar sound bites that Churchill would use in his speeches to rally England time and again.  One word was “victory.”  And the other word was “courage.”

Churchill, who himself had the courage to never back down, would rally his countrymen time and again to also have courage.  Churchill’s words about courage have been quoted and printed on motivational posters too many times to count:  “Have no fear of the future. Let us go forward into its mysteries, tear away the veils which hide it from our eyes, and move onwards with confidence and courage.”  And “Fear is a reaction.  Courage is a decision.”

So, what is such courage?  “Courage,” as M. Scott Peck put it, “is not the absence of fear; it is the making of action in spite of fear” (Road Less Traveled, 131).  As we read the morning papers and watch the evening news, there is much in the world that might pose a threat to our well-being and life as we know and love it.  Sometimes we may actually find ourselves being afraid of what the future might hold, if not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren.  It is okay to admit and share among friends our inclination to be fearful over the threats of random violence, shootings, acts of terrorism, prospect of war, global warming on the one hand and clean water shortages on the other hand, and on the list could go.  As noted in The Wizard of Oz, “True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.”  Yes, courage is a much-needed virtue in the turbulent, sometimes uncertain world in which we now live; a world fraught with problems, inequities and inequalities, injustices, and wrongs that need to be made right.

But then on a more personal level, many people struggle with life issues – chronic pain, addictions, depression, extreme loss, and other challenges – and find it difficult to just make it from day to day.  For such folk, “courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’” (Mary Anne Radmacher).

So, then, our Lenten virtue of the week is courage: strength of the heart in the face of difficulties, challenges, or the unsettling horrors of life; that which enables us to step out, act, or perform the right, the good, the just thing, even in the face of fear.  Courage: that which we may need to muster to live one day at a time and to put one foot in front of the other.

May the words of that great hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” be our Lenten Prayer: “Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage, For the living of these days.”  May it be so for all of us.  Amen.

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