Women Who Can Change the World

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 14, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28 GNT

It saddens me, and perhaps you as well, to see people separated by cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers.  It is unnatural—we might even say un-godly—for people to be divided into the haves and have-nots; to be corralled like cattle by barbed wire fences, concrete barricades, and the like.  Yet, such has been the way of the world through time.

When I traveled to the Holy Land some years ago, such is exactly what I saw – barbed wire, concrete barricades, etc.  Jews can’t go here.  Palestinians can’t go over there.  There is a place for Christians in this part of Jerusalem, a place for Jews in another part of town, and still another place for Muslims in another section of town.  And men go to this side of the Wailing Wall, while women have to go to that side.  So one’s ancestry, religion, and gender in effect throw up invisible – yet very real – barriers that tend to divide and separate people one from another.  It is that way today in so many parts of our world.

People separated by cultural and ethnic boundaries certainly was the situation in Jesus’ day as well.  The gospel reading I chose for this Mother’s Day relates the story of a woman—a mother—who  found herself restricted by such gender, cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers.  She was a Canaanite, descended from the original inhabitants of the land at the time when the Jews came from Egypt and settled in Canaan.  Thus, she was a Gentile, a non-Jew, one of the “have-nots” of that day and time.  Her kind were commonly referred to as “dogs,” a derogatory term not unlike some of the derogatory terms that are used to denigrate people today, words that most of refuse to utter.  Yet, a mother is still a mother, regardless of her ancestry, religion, or culture.  Great mothers are to be found in all cultures, ethnicities, and religions.  And the Canaanite woman proved to be one of the great mothers of the world.

For, you see, the Canaanite mother possessed some characteristics that great mothers have in common.  Like, for instance, persistence, or perseverance.  This unnamed mother in today’s story was one who was persistent in faith.  She had persistent faith in the power of God manifested in the ministry of Jesus.  She had faith that God wants the sick to be well, especially a sick child.  Her faith was tested when Jesus at first ignored her.  But she did not give up.  And Jesus commended her before everyone in her village: “Woman, great is your faith!”

She was also persistent in hope.  In spite of the fact that she was a woman, a Gentile begging at the feet of a Jewish rabbi, and a “dog” in the eyes of many, unworthy of the Master’s attention, she was persistent in hope that there might be enough of God’s grace leftover for her child who was ill.

And she was persistent in love.  Her motive was pure—a great love for her daughter that led her to risk reputation and public scorn by falling down at the feet of Jesus and begging for a crumb of grace.  Preacher John Killinger describes this woman as “one of the beautiful women of the Bible.  She was beautiful in her love for her daughter.”1  No greater force on earth can be found than a mother’s love for her own.  It is a love that shows itself in action, that loves without credit, and that leads one to pour oneself out for others for the sheer joy of doing it.  This woman would not give up.  She would not take “No” for an answer.  She was determined and persistent.

Motherhood today requires no less dedicated and persistent faith, hope, and love.  Many mothers today, not unlike the Canaanite woman, find themselves facing tremendous odds.  Some are enslaved by poverty (often called “the working poor”) that forces them to work two or more jobs to support their children.  Others make themselves a human shield between their child and an abusive father and husband.  Others take on big insurance companies to get them to cover the medical procedures they should be covering for their children.  I cannot help but think of our own daughter who has spent hundreds of hours on the telephone and writing e-mails and letters to insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals on behalf of our grandson and granddaughter, lobbying for the services they have needed.  And still other mothers ignore their own hunger, and sacrifice their own nutritional health, so that their children may eat.  In faith, hope, and sacrificial love they persevere for the sake of the children they love.

Preacher Killinger tells a beautiful story of one such woman he knew personally who demonstrated such persistent faith, hope, and love on behalf of her child.   Margaret Howard lived in Richmond, Kentucky.  Margaret was a good, solid woman of the hills who managed a small bookstore in spite of the fact that she only had an eighth-grade education.  She had married when she was fourteen.   But she was a woman of rare qualities.  When one of her daughters had a brain tumor at the age of seven, the doctors removed much of the right hemisphere of her brain.  They told Margaret the girl would probably be a mere vegetable for the rest of her life.  But Margaret wouldn’t accept the doctors’ judgment.  She nursed the child and prayed for her.  She saw an article in the newspaper about a special operation being performed in Canada that might improve her daughter’s condition.  The operation would cost several thousand dollars.  Margaret’s family was dirt poor and didn’t have seventy dollars, much less several thousand.  But Margaret prayed some more and told others of her plight.  Someone ran an article in the newspaper, telling their story.  Enough money was raised for the operation.

When Margaret and her daughter arrived in Canada, they didn’t have the proper papers, so the authorities would not let them off the plane.  Margaret persuaded the airport officials to call the Canadian government.  She told the government officials that she was from the Commonwealth of Kentucky and needed to get her daughter to the hospital.  For some reason, the officials thought she was related to the governor of Kentucky.  So they sent an ambulance and limousine to take her and her daughter to the hospital.  The doctors at the hospital took x-rays, studied them, and said they did not want to operate.  But Margaret said, “There’s a power higher than you that obviously wants you to.”  The doctors did operate, and the girl lived an almost normal life until she was a young woman.1  A mother’s persistent faith in God, persistent hope in spite of the odds, and persistent love in action secured a wonderful blessing for her sick child.  Mothers often have to overcome great odds to be a mother.

But as we return to the Canaanite woman, it might be said of her that because of her persistent faith, hope, and love she changed the course of world religion.  For, you see, we also find this story in the gospel of Mark.  And in Mark’s view, it was Jesus’ encounter with this Gentile woman that in part led him to turn to the Gentiles with his message of good news and grace.  Up to this point Jesus’ ministry had been limited to the Jewish people.  This woman proved to Jesus and the disciples that Gentiles, too, could have faith in God, a sacred hope, and a loving heart.  So after his encounter with this Canaanite mother, Jesus began sharing his good news with other Gentile towns.

How many other mothers, after the example of this unnamed Canaanite woman, have anonymously played a part in altering the course of the world because of their persistent faith, unfaltering hope, and sacrificial love?  How many mothers today are changing for the better the future of our world because of the faith, hope, and love they exert on behalf of all children?  Women in America today are taking a greater role than ever, perhaps, in marching, protesting, and advocating for a better world, better health care and coverage for children, and other things.

The truth is any mother—or any father for that matter—through persistent faith, persistent hope for the betterment of her child, and persistent love in action can not only make a difference in the life of her child, but can possibly change the world for the better.  We as parents and grandparents have the power to make a difference!

So, happy Mother’s Day, mothers and grandmothers.  In persistent faith, hope, and love, may we all go forth to change the world for the better.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1John Killinger, ”The Mother Who Changed the World,” 1995 Ministers Manual, pp. 95-98.

 

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Everyday Sacraments

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 7, 2017

Mark 8:1-9 GNT; Reading from John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe

The word “sacrament” is one of those theological, churchy words that have been around almost as long as the Christian Church has been in existence.  Oddly enough, “sacrament” is not a word to be found in the Bible, traditional Bible translations, at least – not even once.  A look in my American Heritage Dictionary yielded the following: Sacrament: “A formal Christian rite . .  . esp. once considered to have been instituted by Jesus as a means of grace.  Often The Eucharist.”

One country church I served right out of seminary referred to the Eucharist or Holy Communion as “The Sacrament.”  It was customary to observe Communion just once each quarter, or four times a year, after the teachings of Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli.  Part of the rationale for only observing Holy Communion once every quarter may have been the idea that if you observe it too often, it becomes commonplace and loses some of its significance.  But when we did celebrate Communion, or “The Sacrament,” in that particular congregation, it was considered to be a special, sacred occasion.  The persons who were responsible for preparing the Communion elements took their task very seriously.  They filled the tiny juice cups in the silver trays and prepared the broken bread with the most reverent of hands.  This was the Holy Sacrament of the Church.

But the primary meaning and importance of the term “sacrament” is that phrase, “means of grace.”  A sacrament in the teaching and history of the Church has indicated those special rites which convey or impart or become a “means of grace;” a way in which believers experience the grace of God.

Originally there were seven sacraments acknowledged by the Church: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Penance, Anointing the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Protestant Reformers chose to narrow the official sacraments of the Church to two: Baptism and the Eucharist (otherwise known as Communion or the Lord’s Supper).

Now, on the one hand, I am glad for the Protestant Reformation for many different reasons, one of them being the fact that we observe only two instead of seven sacraments.  Some Christian groups, you know, don’t observe any sacraments at all – not even Baptism or Communion – feeling that life itself is a sacrament, or honoring special rites is a form of idolatry which dishonors God or Christ.  But then on the other hand, perhaps the Catholic Church was onto something in seeing other actions such as Confirmation, Anointing the Sick or Matrimony as sacraments in that they can, indeed, be channels or experiences of grace.

Well, in case you are wondering where in the world I am going with all of this talk about sacraments and grace, I will just come right out and tell you: Could it be that many everyday activities could also be viewed as “sacramental,” in that many of the blessings of everyday life are in effect experiences of grace?  I want to contend that God’s grace or the grace of life is not limited to being baptized or celebrating Holy Communion.  Certainly Baptism and Holy Communion are, indeed, channels or means to receiving and experiencing grace.  Every time we celebrate Communion or Table Fellowship here at the United Church, as we have today, and then join hands to sing together the Lord’s Prayer, it is an experience of grace.  But God help us if we only experience grace the day we were baptized or whenever we come together on the first Sunday of the month to celebrate Holy Communion!

No, I have come to believe that everyday life is full of experiences of grace, and hence, that many of our everyday experiences can be viewed as “sacramental,” if we look upon them as such.  For instance, mealtime with family or friends can be a moment of grace, and hence, sacramental in nature, if we make it so.  I tend to think that whenever Jesus broke bread, blessed it, and shared it with those close to him, as related in today’s gospel story from Mark, it was a graceful, sacramental moment.

But can’t it be that whenever we sit down at the table with loved ones that such moments can have sacramental overtones and become experiences of grace?  Of course, we may have to be intentional in the manner in which we make mealtime moments of grace.  I am not sure that the practice of individual family members warming something in the microwave at will and taking it to their room or carrying it in front of a television set and eating alone could be considered a sacramental, grace-filled moment.  Perhaps it could be.  And I am not sure that a meal where every family member tries to outtalk everyone else or that turns into a heated argument over some family issue can be considered a sacramental, moment of grace.  Perhaps it can.  Anything is possible with God, the scripture says.  But the family meal or meal with friends where gratitude is present, and where everyone is in a state of harmony, and where love and acceptance and support are shared, and where each one’s dignity and worth are affirmed can very certainly be a grace-filled, and hence, sacramental experience for all concerned.

Some, like naturalists John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, and others, have considered being in harmony with the world of Nature to be grace-filled, sacramental moments.  As Burroughs put it in Accepting the Universe, “Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance.  Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.”  In Leaf and Tendril, Burroughs said, “we find . . . God in the common, the near, always present, always active, always creating the world anew.”

Thoreau, in Walden, said a similar thing: “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things I did. . . .  Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”  In the thought of Burroughs and Thoreau and others like them, living in harmony with Nature is a religious rite of sorts, a communion with the Divine, and hence, a grace-like or sacramental experience.

Other more contemporary writers have also spoken of experiences of grace in everyday life.  Contemporary writer Anne Lamott talks a lot about grace in the day-in and day-out experiences of life.  And so does poet Mary Oliver.  Likewise did Fredrick Buechner, who said, “Taking your children to school . . . Eating lunch with a friend. . . Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, . . .  If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The key, perhaps, to experiencing grace in everyday life and finding God in the natural world is the lens through which we view life and the world around us.  Whereas one person might look upon a family gathering around a holiday table to be a sacramental, grace-imparting experience, another might look upon the same meal as a stressful obligation to be endured.  Whereas one person might welcome a hike to a Smoky Mountain waterfall on a warm, summer’s day as a sacramental exercise and opportunity to commune with the Divine, another person might view the same experience as a tiresome walk in the summer heat.  I guess it all comes down to the fact that sacraments, grace, religion, the Sacred, and such have to do with faith and the eyes of faith which become the lens through which we see life and the world around us.  I rather like something Mary Oliver says in this regard.  Oliver wrote, “You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity.  I’ll take grace” (Winter Hours).  So will I – take grace, that is.

Yes, it all boils down to how we view life and the world around us.  So many are the everyday experiences that might be seen as being sacramental in nature – gifts of grace – if we receive them as such.  Everyday sacraments.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

 

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The Emmaus Road of Disappointment (A Place to Share Our Stories)

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-35 GNT; Reading from Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Stories.  How important are the hearing and telling of stories to our lives!  From our earliest childhood, we have memories of parents, grandparents, teachers, and others telling or reading us stories.  The right stories can help shape and mold us into the person that we are.  And, curiously enough, the importance of stories to our lives only grows stronger the older we become.

Have you had the experience of reading the same story time and again, and then one day when you read it again you see something totally different?  I have read the Emmaus Road Easter story numerous times – too many times to count – over the years.  But as I read it again the past couple of weeks, I read it in a whole different light.  You see, when I have read the Emmaus Road story previously, I have focused primarily on the ending of the story, an ending that is positive and happy.  And, I imagine, that is the way that most people choose to read the Emmaus Road story – focusing on the “happily ever after ending” that concludes with the two followers of Jesus recognizing the resurrected Christ when they entered the house and broke bread together around the table.  “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,” the text says.  With hearts full of joy and excitement, they run back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they have seen the risen Christ alive!

Well, why wouldn’t we want to read the Emmaus Road story that way?  After all, it is one of the most beloved Easter stories the early Church passed on to us.  It is a warm and fuzzy story that makes us feel good inside.  It affirms the early Church’s belief that the spiritual Christ could be experienced after his death whenever his followers gather in his name.

But if we do not get in such a hurry, but rather take time to enter into the beginning of the story, we look at the Emmaus Road story in a totally different light.  We see it as the Emmaus Road of Disappointment.  As we look closer, we see that the Jesus follower named Cleopas and his unnamed companion are walking a lonely road of defeat.  It is obvious that they are sad, downcast, and hopeless.  They share how that this Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had come to love and believe in as the One sent by God, had been tried, condemned to death, crucified on a Roman cross, and buried.  That is not how the story was supposed to end.  Many of Jesus’ followers had given up everything in order to follow him.  They had pinned all their hopes on him.  But “we had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free!” they bemoaned (Luke 24:21).  Therein is the key to the tone of the story – “we had hoped!”  But now, as they walked the lonely road from Jerusalem feeling lost and devastated, all hope was gone.

Jeffrey M. Gallagher, writing in Christian Century magazine, quotes Frederick Buechner who quipped that Emmaus is the place where “we throw up our hands and say ‘Let the whole [expletive] thing go to hang.  It makes no difference anyway.’”  Emmaus is the place of hopeless desolation.1

For each of us, the Road to Emmaus can be that lonely, sad road of defeat where all hope seems to be lost.  Most of us, if we have lived long enough, have been on the Emmaus Road of Disappointment a few times.  Election night when everything we had pinned our hopes on was lost.  The hospital emergency room visit that wasn’t successful.  The pink slip found on your desk at work.  The late night phone call bearing bad news.  The doctor’s office consultation that brought a devastating diagnosis.  The relationship broken beyond repair.  The rejection letter in the mail from the college or graduate school of your choice.  The sad, lonely, hopeless roads to Emmaus are many and varied.

And when we walk that road of disappointment, it can make us feel like we are completely alone; that nobody knows what we are going through; that we are the only one suffering such an ordeal; that it is no use to try, so we might as well give up; that there is no light whatsoever at the end of the tunnel.

But one of the most comforting assurances of this story is that we are not alone on the road of disappointment; there is always a friend to walk with us.  One of the points that Luke was seeking to make is that the early Church continued to have a sense of the spiritual presence of the risen Christ, which gave them comfort and courage to face the future.  From this passage and others like it would develop the doctrine of the spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Father of Reformed theology John Calvin would develop his idea of the spiritual presence of Christ whenever the sacrament of Holy Communion is rightly administered, a belief adhered to by millions of Christians the world over.

In the surface story, of course, Cleopas has his companion who is walking and talking and commiserating with him.  Such is a point whose importance is not to be missed.  Walking and talking with a companion who commiserates with us over some life problem is great therapy.  Each of us should be so lucky as to have a close companion with whom we can walk and talk and who can support us during those disappointing moments of life.  And the good news is most of us don’t have to look far to find such a companion, if we have our eyes open to the possibilities – a spouse, best friend, neighbor, co-worker, fellow church member, or gym buddy even can be that companion to walk with us on life’s roads of disappointment.

There is another important point that we need to draw out of this passage: The Emmaus Road of Disappointment is a place to share our stories.  It is interesting in Luke’s account that the risen Christ (whose identity is hidden to these two followers) invites the sad, downcast, hopeless disciples to share their story.  And they do, as already noted.  They share their shock, sadness, disappointment, and sense of hopelessness in losing the one they had come to know, love, and put their hopes in.

The opportunity of being able to share a story of sadness, defeat, and hopelessness is so important for us to embrace.  For, you see, those who work with people who are suffering trauma, grief, or facing a terminal illness or grave medical diagnosis tell us that one of the things they most need, and one of the things we who seek to minister to them need to provide, is the opportunity to tell their story.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned in my sermon the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.  As Gawande points out, “For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. . . .   the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.”2   The primary point that Gawande is making is that when it comes to end-of-life issues, one of the most important things to be remembered in relation to those who are facing death is the importance of their life’s story and the opportunity to share and write their own ending to that story.

But I have learned over the years it is often important in the course of pastoral ministry to encourage people to tell their story or the story of their loved ones they have lost.  Telling the story helps us move to acceptance and helps with the grieving process.

But regardless of our life stage, each of us needs a companion with whom we can share our story, and conversely, each of us needs to be the companion for someone else who needs to tell their story.  As Jeffrey M. Gallagher observes, “Is this not the way God so often enters our lives?  Not in the miraculous, but in ordinary taking, blessing, breaking, and giving.  In the hug of a friend we haven’t seen in a while . . . in breaking a trail through the woods . . . With our eyes opened in the midst of this everyday reality, we are reminded that all is not lost.  We are not defeated or alone.  Love has won . . . We see, and we begin to understand – and in that instant, Emmaus is gone.”1

Yes, every now and then, all of us find ourselves on a sad, lonely, desolate road of disappointment and defeat.  It is part and parcel with living.  When we do so, we may think we are alone.  But we aren’t really.  There is always a companion to journey with us.  And as we journey together, we share our stories.  And being able to share our stories with another can make all the difference in the world.  How important to be able to share our stories on life’s roads of disappointments.  May it be so for each of us.  Amen.

 

1Jeffrey M. Gallagher, “Living the Word,” Christian Century, April 12, 2017.

2Atul Gawande, Being Mortal.  New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.  Pp. 238, 243.

 

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Sermons Carved in Stones

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 23, 2017

Job 28:9-13 GNT; reading from John Muir

“. . . the sublime rocks were trembling with the tones of the mighty chanting congregation of waters gathered from all the mountains round about, making music that might draw angels out of heaven. . . God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons!” ~John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

At one point in the gospel of Luke, Jesus makes reference to the stones crying out (Luke 19:40).  At first, such an idea may strike us as being a bit far-fetched.  Stones – crying out?  How could that be possible? we may wonder.  It is one of those verses of scripture that has always intrigued me.  Stones are not alive.  Stones are not capable of speaking.  Stones have nothing to say to us.  Or then again, do they?

I believe, along with naturalist John Muir, that the stone formations of Zion, Yosemite, and a thousand other places in our world do have something to say to us, if we are willing to look and listen.  Stones and magnificent stone formations have something to say about the Creative Energy at the heart of the universe that gave birth to the landscapes of the earth through the great mystery of creation and the creative forces that over time have shaped and molded these natural cathedrals and altars.

One of the experiences I had during my naturalist certification classes at Tremont was walking out into the woods with the instructions of picking up some natural object and serendipitously giving a five-minute interpretative talk about that object.  I chose a small, smooth stone and “told its story” about how it had at one time been part of a huge boulder, had broken off, been washed and tumbled down the mountain for years until it was polished smooth.  The point was, every natural object has a story behind it, including stones.

I often speak of my newfound love and passion for America’s national parks.  Of all the national parks we have visited to date, if I could pick just one of them to return to, it would have to be Zion in Utah with Yosemite running a close second.  I fell in love with Zion’s red sandstone bluffs that have been carved, scarred, and polished over eons by wind, rain, and the Virgin River that meanders through Zion Canyon.  When we visited there a couple of years ago, I found myself standing in awe time and again as I stared up at those marvelous stone edifices.

My thoughts and feelings resonate with those of Muir.  Of all the classic American naturalists, I suppose I most closely identify with Muir, his philosophy, theology, and passions for the natural world.  Muir, it seems, was partial to Yosemite.  In voicing his sense of awe when standing before the majestic stone edifices in Yosemite, Muir exclaimed, “God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons!. . . . The very rocks seem to tingle with life . . . .  all the rocks are dear friends, and have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh. . . .  No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.  Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life.”

If that Great Mystery we commonly refer to as “God” was and is responsible for Creation, as the Judeo-Christian faith has always contended it to be, then there is, indeed, a sense of the Sacred inherent within the forces and Energy that have created these beautiful natural wonders of the world, as well as within them today.  Zion, Yosemite, and other such places are living sermons set in stone, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

And as John Muir believed and spent his later years seeking to protect them, I believe these sacred places should be protected and preserved for all generations.  Yet, such might not necessarily be the case.  One of the other national parks boasting beautiful stone edifices is Arches.  So many are the sermons in stone inscribed all over those sandstone arches – unsurpassed natural beauty, perseverance through the storms of time, and the ongoing creative process that shapes, molds, and polishes them to perfection.  I don’t know how anyone could stand under the North Window Arch and not be inspired with the sermons carved in stone.

Yet, those magnificent natural stone structures are in grave danger today; threatened by the practice of fracking.  In case you are not familiar with it, fracking is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc., so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.  The problem is, tremors and earthquakes have resulted from some fracking, causing much damage to homes, businesses and natural landscapes.  I was shocked to learn a few months ago that there are those who want to begin the process of fracking a mere 20 or so miles from Arches National Park.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is on the verge of opening over 80,000 acres of land just miles from Arches and Canyonlands National Park for oil drilling and the dangerous new method of gas drilling called fracking.  If this does come about and the same thing happens there that has happened in other places, those iconic sandstone arches and the natural beauty and sermons carved in stone inherent within them are in danger of collapsing. Not only would such a tragedy be a major loss as far as losing some of the sacred wonders of the natural world.  Think of what the loss of those arches would do to the local economy that depends upon the tourism dollars to survive!  Such a move is nothing short of extreme shortsightedness, greed, and a total disregard for the Earth, its conservation and protection, and the generations that forever will be left with the destruction left behind long after what little bit of resources are carelessly extracted for monetary gain.

This past week, while searching the scriptures for passages that speak to the idea of sermons carved in stone, I read that passage from Job chapter 28 in a whole new light, in a way I had never before considered it.  And I have read the book of Job numerous times; it is one of my favorite books.  The passage could be interpreted as calling into account human folly that digs through the rocks of the earth and changing the natural landscape, void of wisdom and understanding.  The writer of Job says,

“Miners dig the hardest rocks, dig mountains away at their base. . . . they tunnel through the rocks” (Job 28:9-10 GNT).

“[Man] dams up the streams so that they do not trickle,” (Job 28:11 ESV).

“But where can wisdom be found?  Where can we learn to understand?” (Job 28:12 GNT).

I have spoken in years past of my disdain of another practice, mountaintop removal mining, a practice that blasts the tops off of ancient mountains and leaves them desolate and bare.  The runoff clogs the mountain streams, causing floods and other devastation, and pollutes the drinking water of all those downstream from the mining.  Sacred mountains that were millions of years in the making are desecrated and devastated in a matter of weeks in order to get at a narrow band of coal that will be burned up and gone in no time.  It is nothing short of a grave sin against Creation.

And while I am on the subject of coal, many environmentalists contend that the chief culprit of air pollution plaguing the earth and contributing to global warming is the use of fossil fuels, with coal being the worst contributor of pollution of them all.  But I have digressed from my original topic a bit, which is that mountains of stone have much to say to us, if we are willing to look and listen.

As caretakers of the Earth, we are called to action.  And for many of us, it is a religious issue as much as an environmental issue.  The opening chapters of the book of Genesis give humankind the mandate to be caretakers over Creation.  Our Judeo-Christian heritage, which teaches us about the Sacred Energy and activity within Creation, and the spirit of Earth Day call us to think about the natural wonders of the Earth and what they have to say to us about respect, reverence, conservation, and care.  Is the practice of fracking, which can result in tremors and earthquakes, leaving much damage in its wake, something we are comfortable with?  Do we want any more mountaintops blown off for the sake of mining a little bit of coal that will be gone in no time?  Do we really want to go back to the days of dependence upon the burning of coal, to the detriment of our Earth’s atmosphere?

If we answer “No” to any or all of these questions, then there are small steps we can take to make a difference – contact our representatives, sign online petitions, and support the efforts of John Muir’s Sierra Club and other such environmental groups.  Let us do what we can to protect the Sacred Earth entrusted to our care.

Yes, Jesus spoke of the possibility of the stones crying out.  The beautiful and majestic stone cathedrals (as Muir liked to refer to them) do have much to say to us of natural beauty, the creative process that formed them, and the Sacred Spirit of God inherent within them.  There are sermons carved in stone with much wisdom to share, for those who will have eyes to see and ears to hear them.  May it be so.  Amen.

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Holding On, Letting Go, and Moving Forward

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 16, 2017

John 20:1-18 GNT

When I get comfortable with the way things are, I sometimes would rather they not change.  Take, for instance, going to the grocery store.  When you have gone to the same grocery store for a few years, you get acquainted with where everything is.  And there is a certain amount of comfort in going through the aisles and checking off your list.  And when you only need one or two items, and are in a real hurry, you can run in and go straight to aisles 10 and 12, grab your items, run to the self checkout, and be on your way.

But then when you go in one day to find everything rearranged, it can throw you.  “What is this?” you exclaim.  I experienced this a few months ago when I ran into Food City for communion bread.  In case you didn’t know, Food City remodeled and expanded a few months ago, and they rearranged everything.  I went to one corner of the store looking for communion bread, where it had always been, only to find the Pharmacy.  And the deli and bread section was now on the opposite corner of the store, where the Pharmacy used to be.  I didn’t like it – at first anyway.

Well, most of us are creatures of habit.  We do not like change when we are happy with the way things are.  We like for things to stay the same, and when things threaten to shift or change in our lives, we can get very uncomfortable.

So when we are faced with some tragic or life-threatening change, it throws us into a real panic mode.  A significant change or tragedy threatens to undo us.  All of a sudden we may feel like a boat that has been un-tethered from its mooring, to be carried out to a violent sea by a raging storm.

The inclination is to hold on for dear life to that which we know and are comfortable with.  Such had to be the way with those intimate followers of Jesus.  They had gotten to know and love him.  They had grown comfortable by being in his presence, sitting at his feet and listening to his stories and teachings.  Jesus had instilled within them a vision of what the world could be like within the Kingdom of God.  He had given them hope of a better life.  He had become their beloved Teacher, and they his faithful followers.  It was comfortable being that way.

And then in a matter hours, their world was turned upside down.  An arrest in a garden while at prayer.  A speedy mockery of a trial the next morning.  And by noon strung up on a Roman cross.  And all in the space of about 15 or so hours.

So they were thrown into shock, disbelief, anger, grief, and the longing for things to just be the way they were.  And so, in John’s resurrection story, we see Mary Magdalene, one of those closest to Jesus, wanting to hold onto Jesus for dear life.

Mary’s response is the universal response – we want to hold on to our loved ones, and we want to hold on to life as we know it.  We do not want to let them go.  But we then hear Jesus say to Mary, “Do not hold on to me” (20:17).

For there comes the time when we just have to let go.  Mary Magdalene, as well as all the others who were so close to Jesus, had to resign themselves to the fact that the Jesus they had come to know and love was no more.  Whatever idealistic hopes and dreams they had pinned upon Jesus as a messianic deliverer from their Roman oppressors, or the bringer of a change in the world order, had failed to materialize.  Rome, it seemed, had been the victor yet again.  Rome had killed their Jesus and all the hopes they had pinned upon him, just like it had killed hundreds of others who had questioned their authority and called to account their injustice and oppression.

And so, the followers of Jesus were faced with the reality of needing to let go of the past with its unrealized dreams and expectations, as well as the Jesus that no longer was.

We, too, sometimes find ourselves in the same situation.  As much as we would love to hold on to the past and those we love, we know that in reality things change, tragic events happen, loved ones die when we don’t want them to.  As much as we want to hold on and keep things the way they are, we reach points in our lives when we have to let go.

Mary Oliver offers us some poignant lines at this point.  In her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” Oliver says,

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

Now, such is not to say that we should not grieve those whom we lose by death.  And such is not to specify an acceptable length of time for the grief process.  The grief process for everyone is different.  Some people grieve the loss of loved ones for years, as did my grandmother who grieved the loss of my grandfather for seven years.

But in the process of letting go of a time and circumstances that will never again be, there must be a looking forward to a future filled with new hope and new possibilities.  And such is exactly the situation that the followers of Jesus found themselves in.  “Do not hold onto me,” we hear Jesus say to Mary Magdalene.  “But go to my brothers” and tell them what you have seen and heard.  Go forth into the future with new hope, new possibilities, a new message of Good News to share with the world!

The Easter message is the message that death, and oppression, and injustice are not the end of the story.  But God has vindicated Jesus by bringing new life out of the tragedy of death, and by laughing in the face of the powers of the world that would oppress and seek to kill the truth.

And so, the Jesus that his followers had known was gone; crucified and buried.  But the Spirit of Jesus would continue to live on in the parables he taught, the teachings he had shared, the kindness and compassion he had lived, the death he had died standing up to injustice and oppression, and the spiritual presence his followers would experience whenever they gathered in his name to pray and break bread together.  The future before them was much more glorious than any of them could have ever imagined!

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book titled The Last Week, state regarding the “stories that sum up the central meaning of Easter . . . Jesus lives.  He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way.  He is no longer a figure of flesh and blood. . . .  this is one of the central affirmations of Easter: He is a figure of the present, not simply of the past.”

But the early followers of Jesus had to let go of the past as they had known it in order to look forward to the future before them filled with new hope and possibilities.

And as I have stated, there come those times in our own lives when we, too, have to let go of a past that no longer exists or no longer serves us well in order to be able to look forward to the future that can be.  And the reality of this truth is different for each of us.  It could be a broken relationship, a change in job or profession, letting go of a bad habit or addiction that is draining the life right out of us, or opening ourselves to a change in life direction.

The reality of life is things do change; nothing ever stays the same.  We can try to pretend that things have not changed and try to hold on to a life that no longer exists.  Or like those followers of Jesus, we can let go of what we had hoped might have been and look forward to the future that actually is with new hope and confidence.  Is not this an Easter message for us – today?  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.  Pp. 204-205.

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The Courage to Stand Close

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 9, 2017

Matthew 26:47-50, 55-56; 27:45-50, 55 GNT

In writing about caregivers and human responses to suffering, and how we relate to those loved ones who suffer and for whom we may feel a responsibility, the authors of the Caregivers Bible note that “It is hard to be a caregiver.”  It is a real challenge to stand by one who is suffering.

And the experience of Jesus and those close to him provide a good framework for considering the challenge of standing close to those in our own lives who suffer.  In the Passion Week narratives, different responses to suffering are illustrated.

One human response to the suffering of those we know is to flee.  It is said that when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, “all the disciples left him and [fled] ran away” (Matthew 26:56).  Indeed, one of the key themes of Holy Week and the passion of Jesus is the sense of abandonment that he experienced during his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  During his so-called trial, Peter sat outside in the courtyard.  And when someone stated that he had been with this Jesus of Nazareth, Peter denied it and answered, “I swear that I don’t know this man!” (26:72).   And as Jesus was hanging on the cross, his male disciples for the most part were nowhere to be found.

One reason that Jesus was left to stand alone, no doubt, was all those who followed him were afraid.  They feared for their own lives, if it was determined that they were associated with this “Messiah figure,” this trouble maker, this possible insurrectionist who might attempt to gather forces to rise up against the powers that be.  They feared for their lives.

But another reason that Jesus may have stood alone during his sufferings is the fact that standing close to someone in the midst of extreme suffering is not easy.  It is difficult to stand by and watch someone suffer and feel helpless.

But there is also the feeling of inadequacy – of not knowing what to do or what to say; of not being able to fix things.  God forbid that we should be asked hard questions of the one suffering about why this suffering come, or what is the meaning of it all, or why doesn’t God hear their prayers and heal them, and so on.

So when someone we know is in the midst of deep suffering, the easiest thing to do is to flee.  “Out of sight, out of mind,” as the old saying goes.

 A second response to suffering, as depicted in the passion story of Jesus, is to maintain a safe distance.  Such is illustrated by the women who were “looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee and helped him (27:55).  Such is the way that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell it, anyway.  Some women were there, but not too close.

We, like the women, may be most comfortable keeping our distance as well from the suffering of those we know.  We don’t flee completely, but we keep a safe distance physically and emotionally.  It is much easier that way.

Now, in discussing this topic, I am in no way being judgmental, because the temptation to flee or maintain a safe distance from the suffering of others is common to all of us – yours truly included.  It is human nature to shy away from suffering, or even the appearance of suffering.  Over my 40 years of ministry, I have gone to stand beside numerous hospital beds of those who were suffering and near dying.  It is never easy, and it certainly is not something any of us look forward to.  I will come back to that thought in a moment.

But a third response to suffering that is depicted in the passion story of Jesus, at least as the gospel of John relates it, is the courage and willingness to stand close to those who suffer.  John departs from the three synoptic gospels in reporting that “Standing close to Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister . . .  and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).  As John tells it, these three women didn’t flee, they didn’t keep a safe distance, but they stood close by throughout Jesus’ ordeal of suffering and death.

That, according to the Caregiver’s Bible, is the response of the caregiver as well: to “be fully present and vested,” to “remain fully present, fully involved,” to “stand by the cross of suffering” as it were.  Regarding the role of caregivers in standing close during suffering it is said, “When we stand this close to those who suffer we feel their pain and suffer as well. . . We cannot fix.  Instead, we stand in the presence of suffering – in all our strength and in all our brokenness – and thereby transform suffering and make it holy.  When we do this, we find ourselves, like Mary . . . standing on holy ground – watching, waiting, caring.”1

In this same vein of thought, one of our members passed on to me a copy of the book that the New Horizons Book Club had been reading titled on living, written by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan.2  Egan notes that the most powerful thing that she as a chaplain, as well as the most powerful thing that any of us can offer in the midst of someone’s suffering, is our presence.  “The best thing to alleviate the suffering of the soul is the kindness of another human being,” Egan contends.  And then one of the most poignant statements Egan has to offer: “There is power in being present with people who are dying.”

And “power in being present” brings me back to what I alluded to and promised to return to earlier.   A call to rush to the hospital Emergency Room or ICU or Hospice bedside is never a call we want to receive.  However, I am quick to admit that those times when I have had the occasion to offer an end-of-life prayer for or to be present with the terminally ill or dying, I have found those times to be of the most significant experiences I have had as a minister and/or friend.  As the Caregiver’s Bible points out, in such times when I have been present with a family when a loved one passed away, I felt like I was standing with them on holy ground.

A few years ago, I ran into Bob Benning, who for a long time was CEO of Ridgeview Mental Health Center.  Bob and George Mathews, who was the Chairman of our Church Board when I came to the United Church, were very close friends.  George was the CEO at Methodist Medical Center while Bob was at Ridgeview.  On the day in question that I ran into Bob, George had just learned that his lung cancer was terminal.  And Bob shared with me that he had read and recommended to George a book titled Being Mortal, written by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School.  Bob also suggested that it is a book I ought to read as well.  The book is not an easy read, as it devotes a lot of time to case studies of those who were seriously ill or dying, as well as a lot of history on the development of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospice care, and so on.  But in the book Gawande points out that in relating to those who have a terminal illness, the important thing is “You sit down.  You make time.”3  And you listen.  In other words, you stand close and are present.

As we commence this Holy Week, one of the things we remember is that Jesus for the most part bore his suffering alone.  For whatever reasons, most of those who had been close to him fled or kept themselves at a safe distance.  Most of his followers didn’t have the courage to stand close in his greatest hour of need.

But the truth is, at some point each of us will be faced with the challenge of standing close to a friend or loved one in their hour of suffering.  It is not easy.  It is not something that any of us want to consider.  And to do so takes great courage.  But standing close with one who is suffering is also one of the greatest gifts that we can offer.  We can’t fix things.  We can’t make them well.  We can’t make everything all right.  But what we can do is be present with them.  And when we have the courage to stand close and be present with one who suffers, we find ourselves standing on holy ground.  Amen.

  1Caregiver’s Bible: New Revised Standard Version.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.

2Kerry Egan, On Living.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2016.  Pp. 68, 205, 23.

3Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.  P. 182.

 

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Good News for Everyone

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

Matthew 11:2-6 GNT

We do well, every now and then, to be reminded what the New Testament word “gospel” really means.  In the original Greek, the word translated “gospel” in most English Bibles means good news or glad tidings.  And so, the message that Jesus came preaching to the populace of his day, and the message that the Apostle Paul and others like him carried across the Mediterranean World, was literally a word of good news.  It was a message that spoke to the lives of the people where they were.  It was a message that offered them a ray of hope in their oppressed lives.  It was a message that brought joy in situations of despair.  God’s love for all, the promise of forgiveness, the hope of life after death – such was the good news the message of Jesus brought to the world.

And such is the import of the passage read from Matthew: “the Good News is preached to the poor,” the text says.  But accompanying the word of Good News preached to the poor in this passage are the physical blessings as well that graced the peoples’ lives. Wherever Jesus went, lives were touched and made better because of the Good News present in both his words and deeds.

And so, whenever people gather at a Christian church for worship, study, or fellowship, the word that should be shared and the word that should be heard is Good News!  In other words, the Christian message at the heart or core is a word that should give us hope, increase our faith, and fill us with joy.  And such is a standard of measurement or barometer that we should employ to critique all that we do together as a church community.

Yet, you know as well as I do that this is not always the case in all Christian churches.  I have known a few churches over the years where what was preached from the pulpit was anything but good news.  I have known churches where the messages you heard left you feeling much worse about yourself when you went home than before you went.

And I have known preachers who seemed to have the idea that the preacher’s task is to pour on guilt, focus on personal sins and shortcomings, and step on as many toes as possible in the course of the Sunday sermon.  And if that isn’t done, then the sermon has been a failure.  Now hear what I am saying: I am not trying to be judgmental or critical of other preachers.  To each his or her own, I guess. I am just stating facts.

And then there are some of the television preachers.  I think of one television preacher in particular who always seemed to be mad every time I heard him preach.  I never remember seeing him smile.  I never saw any hint of joy or love in his presentation.  And I wondered if he really understood the meaning of the word “gospel.”

But we here at the United Church take a different approach.  We don’t preach hell fire and brimstone, or tell people how bad they are, or use guilt as a way to motivate people.  I often tell people who inquire about our beliefs or our approach to faith, we don’t tell people how bad they are; but rather, we tell people how good they can become by reaching their God-given potential.  There is a vast difference between the two approaches.  Our aim – as the Christian aim in general should be – is to share Good News for everyone – Good News of hope, Good News of possibilities, Good News of our potential to be the best person we can be with the grace that is given us.

Focusing on Good News is what interpreting the Bible should be about as well.  And such is what the American Bible Society set out to do 50 years ago.  An article in a December issue of Christian Century magazine1 celebrated the fact that the Good News Bible (which is in our Chapel pews) celebrated the 50th anniversary of its appearance in 2016.  Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament and Psalms in Today’s English Version made its appearance in September 1966 following two and a half years of work.

The process behind the translation and publication of the Good News Bible was a revolutionary moment in the history of Bible translation.  For you see, the translators of the Good News Bible used for the first time something called a “dynamic equivalence,” or “meaning-for-meaning” or “thought-for-thought” approach rather than a literal “word-for-word” approach in translating from the original Hebrew and Greek texts.  This approach “represented an important chapter in the post-Protestant Reformation quest to make the Bible accessible and readable to as many people as possible,” and it also “set the stage for other dynamic equivalence Bibles and paraphrases such as The Message, The New International Version, and The New Living Translation.”  The aim was that the English-speaking public “could read the Bible in a language that was (in the words of ABS publicity materials) as ‘fresh and immediate as the morning newspaper.’”

The Good News Bible was to become one of the most successful publications in American history.  The original New Testament was priced at 25 cents.  In the first year of its publication, the American Bible Society distributed over 5.5 million copies of the new translation, and by the end of 1967 that number had reached over 8.5 million.  In May 1971, the book had the distinction of becoming “the all-time paperback best seller, and by the end of 1971 it had reached the 30 million mark.”

In addition to the words of the Bible in modern English, the Good News Bible included 378 universal line drawings to illustrate the text.  The Good News Bible was and is, indeed, a Bible for everyone.  It was adopted and endorsed by Christians and denominations both progressive and evangelical and conservative.

The translation’s name would evolve from Good News for Modern Man: Today’s English Version to Good News Bible to Good News Translation.  In 1992, the second edition of the entire Bible was released, which includes some minor revisions to make the meaning of the text clearer, as well as make the text more gender inclusive when both men and women were intended in the original languages.

Generally speaking, new translations of the Bible are iffy undertakings, and new translations come and go (other than the beloved King James Version, that is).  There have been literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different English translations of the Bible over the past five centuries.  Some have proved to be short-lived, failures even.  But the Good News Bible has withstood the test of time, as Bible translations go.

For those who are not bound to the Elizabethan English of the King James or Revised Standard Versions, the Good News Translation is an excellent choice for reading the Bible in today’s vernacular tongue.  Such is what the early English Bible translators like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale had hoped for and were willing to give their lives for.

Yes, Christianity is all about Good News – words of Good News spoken from the pulpit and classroom, and words of Good News from the pages of scripture.  Such is what we are to be about in this United Church – a refuge of Good News for all who come here.  And with all that is going on in our country and world at large today, how people need to hear a word of good news!  And how important is a Sabbath Day of spiritual refreshment, and how important is a place like this Chapel on the Hill that can be an oasis of good news for all of us who become wearied by life.  May it always be so – may this always be a place that offers Good News for everyone.  Amen.

 

1John Fea, Christian Century, December 21, 2016.

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