Las Cruces, New Mexico is less than an hour away from El Paso, Texas. In the wake of a domestic terrorist attack Brian Hammonds of the First Evangelical Free Church of Las Cruces used the Psalm 23 to respond to the attack in a sermon. It started out loving and pastoral and half way through the EFCA pastor taught that the Lord assigns a unique cross for each person. In the message Brian Hammonds amplified the problem of evil and became a miserable comforter.
“At the EFCA national conference we heard Pastor Collin Smith from The Orchard EFCA in Illinois preaching and one of the things he shared was about Jesus command Luke 9:23 in one of those instances if anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. He emphasized let him take up HIS cross and follow me. Not just the cross. Each of us has a unique cross to bear that is custom fit for us. In God’s sovereign plan he leads us on the paths that he deems right. These are sometimes the paths that lead to suffering. God has given every Christian a custom fit cross to bear so as to sanctify us in the particular areas that they need.”
Brian Hammonds from his sermon on August 4, 2019
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
On Saturday August 3, 2019 a horrific terrorist attack took place in El Paso, Texas. A gunman who believed in white supremacist ideology committed an attack that targeted Hispanics and those of Mexican descent. In his attack on a WallMart 22 people were killed. This blog which writes about the EFCA decided to step back and see how how individual churches nearby responded to the situation. I will get into this more below but here in the Washington, D.C. area I watched how a local church affiliated with the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana denomination responded to a massacre in the Navy Yard. It was an epic fail. And in the Eastern District of the EFCA an event discussing mass shooting in a church was held at Faith Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You can read more about that in, “What do you do in an Active Shooter Situation Inside a Church? The EFCA’s Faith Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania is Discussing that Issue on June 19, 2019.” But before we get into how the First Evangelical Free Church of Las Cruces let’s look at Brian Hammond.
Brian Hammonds preaching
Who is Brian Hammonds?
Brian Hammonds grew up in Tuscan, Arizona. Brian lived in a number of places over the years to include Phoenix, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah and Chicago, Illinois. He attended Arizona Christian University and then went onto Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Brian is married to Yvette, who owns a photography business in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Brian according to my research taught at Steve Clark’s Evangelical Free Church of Salt Lake City. You can read about that 9 Marks EFCA church in, “Evangelical Free Church of Salt Lake City, Utah…Trading the Gospel of Joseph Smith for the Gospel of Jonathan Leeman?” Brian came to the First Evangelical Free Church of Las Cruces in August of 2015. He was called to become the new senior pastor and replace John Powell who was retiring. At the Las Cruces EFCA church he was installed on January 31, 2016. Brian is a Chicago Cubs fan so he might enjoy the following post that was written a while back. “How About Them Cubbies! The Reconciliation of Steve Bartman and the Chicago Cubs, and What the Evangelical Christian Church Can Learn.”
Summary of Brian Hammond’s Sermon Regarding the El Paso Terrorist Attack
Up above you have the link to the sermon at First Evangelical Free Church of Las Cruces. Brian started out by talking about how hard it was to process the news from El Paso. How is was a dark day and how he was thinking about how to explain the mass shooting to his children. He commented about how the weight of tragedy being close to harm. Many people form Las Cruces have been to the mall or the movie theater across the street. He also stated that some members of the congregation have worked with some of the victims in the hospital. Today is a time for grief and not finger pointing. Brian spoke about how they live in the shadow of death. How do you live in a world where people are indiscriminately killed doing everyday behavior such as shopping. He also said that some are going to ask where is God in such a disaster, and Brian said that today he didn’t want to do a defense of God. The question for Christians is how do they go on living in the shadow of death. Brian cried as he spoke and he stated that last night he changed his preaching schedule to address what happened nearby. He felt provoked to do a sermon that was more appropriate for the tragedy that happened.
He chose Psalms 23 which is a comfort to Christians in tragedy and loss. The Lord intimately care for his people even when he leads people into darkness and danger. We’re sheep not the smartest, we need a shepherd. What David is saying is that we lack nothing if we have the Lord. The Lord is my shepherd he restores my soul. He provides lavishly for us in our care. The Lord feeds his sheep in green pastures and one can feast on the holy word of God. Brian spoke abut a family vacation to Glacier National Park in Montana and spoke about a lesson from that experience. Water is life, still water can restore one’s soul. The Lord as a shepherd feeds, leads, guides and protects so that the Lord would be known as loving shepherd. The Lord leads his people to walk in righteousness. The paths he leads us on are right. Even though one walks in the shadow or death we fear no evil. Brian points out that evil is conquered through Christ. The unique aspect of the shepherd is that he lives with his sheep. That is true even this valley that the Lord leads us on.
Brian then spoke about attending the national EFCA One conference where he heard pastor Collin Smith who leads The Orchard in northern Illinois preach on Luke 9:23 on taking up your cross and following the Lord. (Quick side note if you want to read more about EFCA One you can do so in, “Why Sexual Abuse Needs to be on the Agenda of EFCA One in Chicago” , “EFCA One 2019 Report Book” and “A Look at EFCA One in Chicago at Compass Church. Its Schedule, Who’s Speaking and More“) Collin emphasized that the lesson is that we take up the Lord’s cross not just any cross. Each of us has a unique cross to bear that is custom fit for us. In God’s sovereign plan he leads us on the path that he deems right. These are sometimes the paths that lead to suffering. God has given every Christian a custom built cross for that person to bear so that we can be sanctified in a custom manner. We may look at other people and want what they are dealing with but this is the cross that the Lord assigns. We have a custom sanctification plan in a world where hardship and evil exists. David encourages us that he are not alone in the deepest and darkest valley. Sheep are vulnerable but our shepherd is with us. He is there in the suffering and pain. The rod and staff comfort them. Shepherds aren’t sissy. Shepherds have a staff that guides the sheep. They share an intimacy with the sheep because they care for them. Brian then addressed the parable of the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to find the one who is lost. The Lord after all is the good shepherd even when he guides us into dark valleys where evil is present. The Lord is a gracious host and that was an important aspect in the ancient world, hospitality is important. The Lord prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. The Lord anoints our head with oil. Graciousness overflows. Enemies are held back and the Lord takes care us. Even amidst the enemies the Lord prepares a table for us. We all have enemies with some being flesh and blood. Ephesians 6:12 talks about wrestling with enemies that are not of this world. What happened in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio don’t happen without the influence of rulers of the dark world who are in darkness. Psalm 23 tells us the enemies cannot touch us. No one dwelled in the temple but its poetic flair that we will be in the presence of the Lord forever. Tat covenant love, that steadfast love will follow us all of are days.
If we trust and follow the Lord we will be in the presence of the Lord. Jesus brings us into the presence of God. 1 Peter 2:10 is referenced about how we are now God’s people and no longer gentile. A chapter later Peter explains how this is accomplished and how we are brought to God. The Lord protects us from our enemies but he doesn’t promise physical protection. 1 Corinthians 15:2-26 says that the greatest enemy we are protected from is death itself. Paul writes about how God is raising someone from death and that all who believe in Christ will be risen from death. When a believer dies they are welcomes into the presence of God. Ad a table is set for us to feast and dine at. And we will dwell in his presence forever. The work of the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep – that is how we are brought into God’s presence. No matter what enemies exist we can trust Jesus. Despite what valley you are in trust Christ! Brian called on people to trust Christ if they have not. Otherwise we are in rebellion and an enemy of God. Instead of sitting at the table you are at war against God. The day of salvation is today. If you are a believer walking in the dark valleys God is with you. You may not see him but you can trust that he is with you. Even if he is with you. You may not make it out of the valley, maybe in the valley you will meet death. But in the end all enemies will be vanquished. We will all face death one day. Death will stare us all in the face. Any who were killed in El Paso or Dayton who knew Christ are in the Lord’s presence. We weep but we celebrate that they are with Christ. Being a Christian does not save you from suffering and if you believe otherwise you are following a false Gospel. God is always at work through faith. So trust the Lord, lean on him during this time. Brian then spoke about the phrase “Whistling in the Dark” The Lord gives his people his peace. In me you will have peace in the world you will have tribulation. Brian then states that he will email the congregation about “Whistling in the Dark” his former pastor in Illinois put together for the church.
What I Respected About the Sermon
Before I start to analyze Brian Hammonds sermon let me also say this. I listened to his talk three times. Twice in the car while driving and a final time before I sat down and composed this post. The sermon started out well. I respected that Brian Hammonds addressed something in his backyard. Las Cruces, New Mexico is less than an hour away from El Paso, Texas and people from Las Cruces travel to Las Cruces regularly. There has actually been a debate inside evangelicalism about whether or not a church should address a current event. Over at The Gospel Coalition Trevin Wax wrote about this topic which you can read about here. Here in Washington, D.C. I was involved in Fairfax Community Church when the Navy Yard shooting occurred. In that case a man dealing with schizophrenia went on a rampage in the Naval Sea Systems Command on September 16, 2013. 13 were killed by a gunman. After that happened at Fairfax Community Church next to nothing was said. Here was this massacre that happened in Washington, D.C. You have a congregation that had a number of employees from the Defense Department and yet it was like the show must go on. The lightshow on the stage, the ill timed message that was given and more. Fairfax Community Church had become a circus with the head pastor becoming its clown. You can read about that in, “A Tale of Two Churches: Fairfax Community Church and the Problem of Evil.” So in this case I respect Brian Hammonds for tackling a difficult topic in his backyard. That takes courage and this blog respects this EFCA pastor for taking that course of action. The other thing that also came out well is the feeling of lament. The fact that he cried while he spoke about the tragedy. Many evangelicals can seldom show emotion. Honestly I think some believe its sinful to show emotion. But Brian actually came across as a human in acting in that way. This blog respects him for that course of action. The fact that he also chose Psalm 23 is very appropriate as well.
Where Brian Lost Me. God Assigns Your Cross? Really? Even in an Act of Evil? Why Believe in God Then?
Despite all that was said above let em explain as to how Brian lost me and left me feeling numb and sick. I transcribed one part of the talk. Its used as a quote up above and I will re-use it here. Its starts about 12:23 in his sermon. Read it and prepare to discuss the following quote. “At the EFCA national conference we heard Pastor Collin Smith from The Orchard EFCA in Illinois preaching and one of the things he shared was about Jesus command Luke 9:23 in one of those instances if anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. He emphasized let him take up HIS cross and follow me. Not just the cross. Each of us has a unique cross to bear that is custom fit for us. In God’s sovereign plan he leads us on the paths that he deems right. These are sometimes the paths that lead to suffering. God has given every Christian a custom fit cross to bear so as to sanctify us in the particular areas that they need.”
Brian’s talk amplified the problem of evil considerably. Early on in his sermon he said that he was not going to defend God and then in his talk he made God responsible for the massacre. The Lord assigns a cross. One of the aspects of the El Paso shooting that was hard to comprehend was the deaths of Jordan and Andre Anchondo. Two parents were shot to death inside a WallMart and the young child survived. The five year old is asking if she is going to be shot also. If you would like to read more you can do so here. But according to Brian Hammonds the Lord assigns crosses for people to bear. Did the Lord order the execution of two young parents in a large retail store? If that is the case then could one make the argument that the gunman was doing the Lord’s will? And that the shooting was an act of worship? That is a question that must be asked in light of what Brian Hammonds said in his sermon. For me it begs the question why worship a God like that? Why should such a God be respected? This reminds me of what John Piper said after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut that left 26 dead. John Piper said that the Newtown shooting was a warning by God. You can read about that in, “How Reformed Theology/Neo-Calvinism Make the Problem of Evil Worse: John Piper, Adam Lanza and a Massacre in Connecticut.”
So getting back to what Brian Hammonds said if suffering is assigned by God what does that mean?
- Does it mean that its your cross if your father molested you when you were growing up?
- Does it mean that it your cross if you were one of the lucky individuals who survived the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?
- Does it mean that its your cross if you worked late one night and were raped in a parking garage?
- Does it mean its your cross if your family was hit by a drunk driver and you survived but your children did not?
I am fine with a pastor saying “I don’t know.” However when he tries to explain what happened in the end chances are he is going to say something that will make it much worse. Brian Hammonds due to his talk made God the author of evil. Since God assigns your cross – whatever cross it is – then God willed it and desired it to happen. Brian Hammonds earlier on said that he was not going to defend God after the shooting. But in the end he did defend God by attributing the origins of the shooting to God. If that is how evangelical Christianity is going to function then honestly I think atheism is the way to go. One can find more compassion there and not a wrath filled God. A God who creates and originates evil is a monster and one that should not be respected. Because of what Brian Hammonds said, that is where he lost this writer. What started out well became a Greek tragedy. In the end Brian Hammonds undermined himself and his message and became a miserable comforter. Many pastors long for feedback on sermons and hopefully this will give Brian something to contemplate.