Sermon from September 13: Reuben

Reuben
Pentecost XV (O. T. 24)
Genesis 37:12-30

I’m calling this series Unexpected Heroes and I’m beginning with Reuben – the man, not the sandwich. Even though the sandwich was invented in Omaha, it’s the man I’m concerned with. And for the Bible history scholars among you, I’m also more concerned with the story of Reuben the man than with the tribe named for him.

Unexpected heroes are people who did something that moved the work of God forward, even though they were not particularly special themselves. They had warts and flaws, or they were fairly ordinary people, and yet something they did made a surprising difference in the story of God and God’s people. So who was Reuben?

I hope you know who I’m talking about if I say the name Jacob. Jacob was the great patriarch of the people of God, the one also named Israel. Jacob had two wives and two concubines – his wives were Leah and Rachel and his concubines were Bilhah and Zilpah – and by them he had twelve sons and a daughter. The favorite sons were Rachel’s two boys, Joseph (the one with the fancy coat) and Benjamin; Reuben was the eldest son and his mother was Leah.

In that culture, the eldest son is the heir, the one expected to be the new leader of the family, the one to assume the mantle of his father. That could have been, but Reuben blew it; I’ll come back to that. But since Rachel was the favorite of Jacob’s four women, her sons were his favorite sons. If you know the Book of Genesis or if you know the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat then you know that the ten sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah were jealous of Joseph. They were jealous because Daddy gave him nicer presents – such as the fancy coat – and because Joseph had these awful dreams in which they were bowing down to him, like subjects to a ruler.

You heard the story of what the brothers plotted to do to him and what Reuben tried to do to save him. In my book, this makes Reuben an unexpected hero. They had Joseph vulnerable in the wilderness, and resolved to kill him. Reuben argued that, rather than kill him, they should throw him in this pit. But his real purpose was to rescue Joseph. Of them all, Reuben was the only one thinking of their father. They all were consumed with jealousy and anger toward Joseph. Reuben should have felt it most of all, since he was the eldest and the one most likely to be displaced, but instead he was concerned about their father’s feelings. If something happened to Joseph, he feared, it might be the end of the old man.

Unfortunately, his plan to rescue Joseph was foiled, and he was overcome with anxiety. “I, where can I turn?” he cried. His brothers persuaded him to make it look as though Joseph had been killed by a wild animal; as he feared, it hurt old Jacob terribly, but their Father did not die of his sadness. He went on, and so did they.

Now you may know the story of how Joseph became Grand Vizier of Egypt and how the brothers met him again. There is a moment there in which Reuben once again shone. The ten  sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah came to Egypt to buy grain; Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. Before sending them home, he told them, “You must bring your youngest brother with you if you ever want to buy grain from me again.”

Well, after a while Jacob decided to send them to Egypt again, and they reminded him that The Man would not see them unless they took Benjamin with them. Jacob refused. So they said they couldn’t go. Jacob held his ground. They held their ground. Then Reuben said, “Look; here are my two sons. I offer them to you as hostages for Benjamin. Let me look after Benjamin, and I promise you that I’ll bring him back to you.” Jacob started to waver, so brother Judah added his own pressure, “I give you my pledge for him,” and Jacob finally gave in.

So twice Reuben stepped up in a way that showed his willingness to put himself and even his family on the line for someone else’s sake. And maybe you know the result: not only was the family reunited in Egypt, but Joseph’s service there made it possible to save the people of Egypt from famine, as well as his own family. If Reuben had not intervened early, and then stepped up once again, it would never have happened. Reuben is an unexpected hero of the story.

But he had his weaknesses; among them was his father’s concubine Bilhah. When second wife Rachel died, Jacob was overcome with grief. Bilhah was Rachel’s maid, so I imagine that she was too. And Reuben took advantage of her. Perhaps it started out with Reuben consoling her for Rachel’s death, but it went on from there and ended up in bed. There have been, of course, commentators who tried to blame Bilhah – just as there are still guys who like to protest that when a man sexually molests a woman it must be the woman’s fault – but they are the exception. Reuben did it; he was at fault. Jacob knew about it, but he didn’t say anything. Yet.

At the end of his life, Jacob was giving his final words to his sons. That was when he finally said something. He said, “Reuben, you are my first-born, and you’ve always been strong. But you defiled your father’s bed, so you will decline.” Whatever effect that may have had during his lifetime, the long-term effect was that the tribe of Reuben eventually declined and even died out.

So often a lifetime of service is marred by one terrible misdeed. You and I have seen it in our time. It happened to Reuben and to his descendants. But if it had not been for him, the story of Joseph saving the people from starvation and reuniting his family in Egypt would never have happened. Remember that he played a part in moving forward the story of God’s salvation. Remember this too: when the Prophet Ezekiel and the Seer John both had their visions of the Heavenly City, they noticed that the City had twelve gates. One of the gates on the north side of the Heavenly City is inscribed with the name “Reuben.”

You and I are always tempted to classify people as either good or bad, heroes or goats. Most if not all of us are a mixture, ordinary folks with the potential to turn the course of history by doing one right thing, unexpected heroes. Here is one; the next time you enjoy the sandwich, remember flawed, thoughtful Reuben.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Prayers from September 13

We are asked to pray:

  • for those who mourn Harold, long-time kitchen manager at Siena Francis House (from Ann DeLashmutt)
  • for son Scott and daughter-in-law Suzie, whose home and work are threatened by the wildfires in Oregon (from Dawn Dewey)
  • for all those experiencing these times as apocalyptic, with fires, hurricanes, plagues, and bad leadership (from Mike Osborn)
  • for friends Ian and Jhan, who rejoice at the birth of their first child, Marcella (from Bob Keefer)

Lord, in your mercy: hear our prayers.

Worship for now

Clarification on Worship
I need to clarify: my message about Fall worship said that we will change the schedule sometime after Labor Day. WE ARE NOT CHANGING IT YET.
This Sunday we will have in-person worship in the Courtyard at 9:30 am (it will probably be cool; dress appropriately) and the webcast with no congregation present at 10:30.
Stay tuned for news about when that changes.

Sermon from September 6: “Where are you?”

“Where are you?”
Pentecost XIV (O. T. 23); September 6, 2020
Genesis 3:8-11 and John 17:20-26

Sometimes it’s interesting to read a story from a different point of view. When you read a story, you have to stand somewhere. Sometimes the author tells you where to stand: if it’s in first person, then you’re standing inside the head of the narrator. And often there’s a main character, and you pay attention to the story from that person’s point of view. When we read, for example, A Christmas Carol, we pretty much always follow the story from the point of view of Ebenezer Scrooge. I wonder how the story would be different if you stood instead with his nephew Fred, or with Mrs. Cratchit.

I wonder what it would be like to read the Bible from God’s point of view. Although the Bible is a remarkable collection of a lot of different kinds of work, I think of it as telling one overarching story. The history, poetry, fables, essays, and so forth all tell a story about human beings in relationship with one another and in relationship with God. I normally read it from the standpoint of a follower of Jesus; what would it be like to read it from God’s point of view?

I think it would feel like the Lord God’s walk in the Garden at the time of the evening breeze. God has planted a Garden; God has created a man and a woman to tend the Garden and to look after each other, and to look after all the animals; there’s one tree in the Garden that has lovely fruit but God knows what the consequences will be if they eat that fruit, so God warns them they would be better off to leave it alone. On a pleasant evening – similar to many we’ve had here lately in Omaha – the Lord God slips out of Heaven for a while to take a walk in the Garden. Usually Adam and Eve walk along and the three enjoy each other’s company. But today they are nowhere to be found. The Lord God walks along the path, looking to left and right, and then calls out, “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” I think the whole Bible is the story of God calling out that question, “Where are you?” You’re hiding from me; why? What are you afraid of? And Adam answers, “Well, it’s not so much that I’m afraid, but that I don’t want you to see me because I’m naked and I don’t want you to see me like this.” Imagine what it feels like to be the Lord God and to hear that. Why shouldn’t I see you naked? I made you that way! I made both of you, I shaped your very being from my own creative energy, I know every curve, every wrinkle, every bone and muscle and tendon. Why shouldn’t I see you naked? “Well, I’m ashamed.” Ashamed! Ashamed? You are ashamed of your being, ashamed of the way I made you? Just because you’re naked? Who told you that you are naked? I warned you about that tree; you ate from it, didn’t you?

I suspect you know where the story goes from there: the man blames the woman, the woman blames the snake, and when the snake looks around for someone to blame there’s no one left. So instead of walking together in the Garden and enjoying the evening breeze, the man and the woman – and the snake, no doubt – are expelled from the Garden and have to make their way in the world.

So God walks through sixty-six books of the Bible, walks through thousands of years of human history, walks through your life and mine and cries out, “Where are you?” Why are you hiding? Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of that tree that I warned you about?

God walks through the Garden of your life and mine and cries out, “Where are you?” I hide from God, ashamed for God to see me like this. “Who told you that you were naked?” Now, in this part of the sermon, when I say “I” and “me” I’m not talking only about myself, but I’m talking about you, as well. You know who you are. I’m using myself as an example of each of us, hiding among the trees, crouching behind the bushes beside the path, ashamed for God to see me like this.

I hide from God, because I’m ashamed of what I have done and I’m ashamed of what I have failed to do. I hide from God, because I know that somehow that gaze, the piercing look of those eyes, will look straight through my pretensions to the reality inside. God will know that I’m a fraud, that I’m not as good as I pretend to be, that I don’t love as well as I talk about, that I’m hiding a host of things from God and from other people and probably from myself, too. I’d rather hide from God than come clean, come out from behind the trees and admit that yes, I’m naked, and rather ashamed of it.

It’s easy to hide from God. I don’t feel like reading the Bible today; I’m going to play video games instead. I don’t want to write in my journal; let’s find something fun on YouTube. I’ll go for a walk, but I don’t want to listen to the trees or laugh at the squirrels or pray or think; let me put in my earbuds and be sure that my mind is distracted. If I hide from God then I can pretend that I am the person I claim to be, that there is nothing false about me, that I am not naked and ashamed.

I hide from God and I hide from you, my family and friends. What will you do to me if you find out the truth about me? You may hurt me, you may laugh at me. And so we all hide from each other too, because we would rather go through life lonely than admitting we are ashamed of our nakedness. The Men’s Book Club selection for this month is a quite remarkable book[1] and it is shaking me up something fierce. Two best friends are doing the Camino de Santiago together. When a young woman joins them and, at their invitation, opens up about her own life, they begin to contemplate the community they are finding on the road. People talk about their lives with each other, they enjoy one another, and they share a beer together and laugh. And one of them wonders why the Church isn’t like that. He reads the Bible and sees clearly that such a community of people who do not hide from each other is what Jesus tried to form, but that’s not who we are. He has a great line: he says that to be part of the Church you have to lie on your application for admission. He’s right. We hide from each other. When I convene a Church meeting and ask a question designed to get people sharing with each other, usually I’m met by stares and blank silence. No one wants to open up. They want to do business and get on with it, rather than actually know each other a little better. Where are you? I’m hiding here in the bushes; I don’t want anybody to see me as I am.

Adam and Eve are not only stand-ins for each of us, but they represent all of us, as well. The story of the Bible is not only God’s ongoing search for you and me, but also God’s ongoing search for us, for the human race. God calls Abram to be the source of blessing for all the families of the earth; God frees a people from slavery and exile to form a community to be the vehicle of that blessing; God sends Jesus Christ to seek and save the lost, yet we keep hiding in the bushes, afraid of what may happen if God should see us as we are. Perhaps we would have to see ourselves as we are.

How many bushes have we hidden behind over all the years of human history? While God calls out, “Where are you?” we’re busy off at war, conquering one another. We know the right way to live, and we’re going to conquer you and make you live the way we do. And we want your land and your minerals and your petroleum. God calls, “Where are you?” and we’re busy preening in the mirror, admiring our own greatness, our own accomplishments, our own wealth and power. God calls, “Where are you?” and we don’t think we’re hiding at all, we just figure we should get to choose which God we want to answer to.

Last Sunday I said that I don’t know how to pray for our nation and world right now. The massive lies and disinformation that people easily accept make me want to despair. The emotional reactions to buzz-words that substitute for actual thought and the quick recourse to slogans and scarewords drive me to distraction. The way our leaders quickly overlook the difference between the large numbers of people who are protesting social injustice and the small number of people who are taking advantage of social unrest to engage in violence makes me angry. Well, there’s more, and you know it well, but that’s enough of that. I said I didn’t know how to pray for our nation and our world.

I’m going to try this: I’m going to pray that God will find us. I’m going to try to pull myself out of the trees, and meet God in the path, and say, “Here I am. I know I’m naked, and I’m ashamed, but if you can take me as I am then I’ll walk with you.” And, as a preacher, I will continue to urge you to stop hiding from God and to stop hiding from each other. Maybe I can’t get the message to Washington and Moscow and Beijing and Jerusalem, but I can say to you: God loves you, God loves us, God has come in the One who said in his own prayer, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). Come out of hiding; when God walks through your life in the time of the evening breeze and you hear God’s voice crying out, “Where are you?” don’t be ashamed; answer, “Here I am. Would you like to hear my story?”

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck, I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair (Tyndale, 2017)

Sermon from August 30: “He descended into hell.”

“He descended into hell.”
Pentecost XIII (O. T. 22); August 30, 2020
I Peter 3:18-22

One of those books that everybody knows something about but few people actually read is Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first part of which is called “Inferno.” At the beginning of Canto III is the inscription over the Gate of Hell:

Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My Maker was divine authority,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.[1]

Perhaps at some point you have heard that last line, “Abandon every hope, who enter here.” Images of the entrance to Hell may not have all nine lines inscribed over the gate, as described by Dante, but they usually have that last one: Abandon every hope, who enter here.

One of you asked me to preach on the line from the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” I want to talk about that briefly, and before finishing make a connection between what Peter says in the Scripture I read to you about Jesus in Hell and a reality that touches most if not all of us.

There are two things I can tell you about that line from the Apostles’ Creed that I hope will be helpful to your faith and your life in God. The first is emphasized by the way the line comes across in more modern translations of the Creed; they say, “He descended to the dead.” When we say the Apostles’ Creed and we claim that Jesus “descended into hell” we are claiming that he was really dead. That’s why I chose the other Scripture you heard this morning (John 19:31-37). In writing about blood and water coming from Jesus’ side, the Evangelist is making absolutely certain that we know, without a doubt, that Jesus was dead. Ever since the Resurrection there have been those who have claimed that Jesus was not really dead; they claim that people thought he was dead when they laid him in the tomb, but he was really comatose and he recovered.

The main problem with that claim is that if Jesus was not really dead, then he was not really raised from the dead. And if Christ is not truly raised from the dead, then we are living a lie. We believe that eternal life is in Jesus Christ; we believe that he is our living Lord; we believe that he has blazed the trail to the Kingdom of God. All of that is a lie if he was not really dead. And so the Creed makes the claim – as the Evangelist makes the claim – that Jesus was really dead. And now he isn’t!

The other thing to tell you about Jesus going to Hell draws on what I read to you from I Peter. Peter describes the spirit of Christ preaching to the “spirits in prison,” presumably the spirits of the dead. Now, think for a minute: what’s the point of preaching to the dead? The purpose of preaching is to urge people to put our faith in God, to trust in God for salvation in Jesus Christ. Why say that to the dead, unless there is a chance for them to repent and be saved? And that is classically described as the Harrowing of Hell: that Jesus went to Hell, and preached to the spirits imprisoned there. Jesus broke down the gates of Hell not so that he and a conquering army could get in – all he had to do to get in was to die – but he broke down the gates of Hell so that the people inside could get out.

Let’s go back to Dante for a moment. The inscription over the Gate of Hell is a lie. Do not abandon every hope, who enter there. In “Inferno,” Canto IV (52-63), Virgil tells Dante that a Great Lord had come to Hell many years before and carried off a host of people; he came and made them blessed. And later on, as they continue descending, they come to a pile of boulders that had collapsed because of an earthquake just before the Great Lord arrived – remember the earthquake when Jesus died? – and Virgil said that at that moment it was as if the universe had felt the reality of love (XII, 37-45).

Peter is suggesting and Dante is claiming and the Creed is hinting that although Hell is real, nobody has to stay there. C. S. Lewis describes the same thing in his little fantasy The Great Divorce. Do not abandon every hope, who enter there, but listen for the One who speaks to the spirits in prison. This all makes perfect sense to me, but if you want it grounded in a more modern sensibility, let me interpret the images this way: Hell is not so much a place you go to, but something you go through. By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, you don’t have to stay there.

I want to tell you about something beautiful I experienced a couple of weeks ago. Most Monday evenings I’m part of a Zoom meetup of men who are members of WW, formerly “Weight Watchers;” men who are struggling with weight, either trying to lose or trying to keep it off, and struggling with the practical and biological and emotional issues that go with that. A couple of weeks ago we spent most of the meetup talking with Eric, a member of the group and who is about my age, who had written on our social media platform about when he was a Boy Scout and was sexually abused by a leader; Eric was eleven at the time and the leader was about 19 or 20. He did not understand what was happening to him and, since my generation’s parents tended not to talk to their children about sex, he didn’t know how to talk about it.

I won’t go into more detail about Eric’s story; imagine, if you can, the shame he felt for decades. That is one of the horrible legacies of sexual abuse: the victim afterward lives with shame. What I do want to emphasize for you is two things. One is that after he told his story he invited questions. I asked him what were sources of help for him over the years. He said that talking honestly about it helped him. When he started getting serious with a young woman – who later became his wife – he told her about it. And when their children were about five years old, he told them enough to help them understand the difference between good touch and bad touch. Although he went through a very long time of the hell of undeserved shame, he didn’t have to stay there. There was a way out.

The other thing I want to tell you, and which made this conversation such a beautiful experience, is that all the men in the call – some thirty of us, as I recall – stayed with Eric through the whole conversation. Nobody tried to change the subject; nobody got embarrassed that here were a bunch of men talking about an emotional issue and decided to ask when NFL football might return or to tell a joke; nobody chimed in with, “Let me tell you about what happened to me.” Eric told his story; we stayed with Eric; and when that was done, we talked about something else, probably how to deal with the evening munchies or something like that. If your stereotype of a men’s group is that we can’t deal honestly and openly with hard, emotional issues, then you need to pay attention. It was beautiful.

My friend Linde Grace wrote a wonderful memoir of her own journey out of Hell as a result of sexual abuse when she was a toddler.[2] She is the one who helped me learn the difference between “shame” and “guilt.” Guilt is the experience of having done wrong and knowing that you have done wrong; Dante peopled the Inferno with a host of guilty parties, some of them simply his own political enemies. Anyway, you feel guilty because you are guilty. But shame is the experience of being wrong, that you aren’t quite right, and is usually undeserved but the result of some sort of abuse. We offer hope for healing to those who feel shame; we offer forgiveness to those who are guilty. In both cases, nobody has to stay in Hell.

Whether it is said explicitly or not, the reality is that the gates of Hell have been broken down by Jesus Christ; he burst those gates when he emerged from the grave. If you are in Hell, you don’t have to stay there. Christ offers freedom. Do not abandon every hope, who enter there: for the love that shook loose the boulders in Hell will shake loose all our guilt and shame.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Note re: “Eric.” I did not request permission to tell his story, but assumed it since it was publicly posted. I know only his screen name from the WW app and have tried to protect his identity as much as possible.

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995); “Inferno” III, 1-9.

[2] Linde Grace White, Dollbaby: Triumph over Childhood Sexual Abuse (Cedar House, 2005)

Worship this Fall

It has been customary at Presbyterian Church of the Master to change our worship schedule the Sunday following Labor Day; ordinarily we go from one service at 9:30 to two services, 8:00 and 10:30. The latter part of this summer we have been doing two services: in-person at 9:30 in the Courtyard and webcast at 10:30 in the Sanctuary. The plans following are for some Sunday this fall: no earlier than September 13, but possibly later. PLEASE LISTEN TO SUNDAY ANNOUNCEMENTS AND WATCH OUR WEBSITE AND FAMILY & FRIENDS GROUP (FACEBOOK) FOR FURTHER INFORMATION.

Note carefully: we are continuing to worship at 9:30 in the Courtyard and 10:30 via webcast. The following applies to a not-yet-specified date this Fall.

Beginning sometime this Fall, we plan to offer worship in the Sanctuary at 8:00 and 10:30 am. We will carefully monitor how it is going, what attendance is like, and be ready to make a change as needed. The number of people allowed in the Sanctuary is limited to about seventy, so it is best that those who can come at 8:00 do so. Please note:
• If you feel sick, if you live with someone who is sick, if you have recently returned from a COVID-19 hot spot, or you have any hesitation about attendance, DO NOT COME. Plan to watch the webcast.
• Everyone must wear a mask. If you have a respiratory ailment or do not wish to wear a mask, DO NOT COME. Plan to watch the webcast.
• We will take attendance for the sake of contact tracing, in case we learn of a positive case among us.
• The order of worship will continue to include limited singing and congregational participation. Singing and unison speaking must be gentle and in a mask.
• We will not share coffee and cookies; we will not congregate at the doors.
• Seating will be restricted; you must remain at least six feet from people you do not live with. If the Sanctuary reaches capacity, then it will be necessary to be seated in the Commons.

We will not have in-person Sunday School; it is impossible to force children to stay apart from each other. The Christian Education Committee will provide study materials for Sunday School @ Home and teachers will stay in touch with the children. Adult Education will continue on Wednesday evenings at 7:00 via Google Meet.

The 10:30 service will be webcast, so you can continue to watch live from home at that hour or tune in the recording later. This is now a permanent part of our programming.

I wish I could predict how long we will live and worship under these restrictions; much depends on medical science. We will be guided by the scientific consensus and by the responsibility to love one another that our Faith demands.

It strikes me that my final comment should be a positive one: worship is the community’s conversation with God. God is here; that is the important thing. That the people praise and pray to God and that the pastor proclaim the word of God are what matters. As long as we are doing those two things, we are faithful in what we do.

Pastor Bob

Sermon from August 23: Mary the Mother of Jesus

Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Pentecost XII (O. T. 21); August 23, 2020
Mark 3:31-35 (with Luke 1:46-55)

Mary. I once was scolded by a Presbyterian church member for preaching a sermon about Mary. Well, one of you asked me to, and so I’m going to do it again. I wonder what approach you would take if you were asked to talk about Mary. Some of you might talk about motherhood, and the joy and pain it was to be the Mother of Jesus. You have good scriptural basis for that, as Simeon in the Temple said to Mary both that her child would be great – that he was destined for the rising and falling of many – and that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:34-35). Our images at Christmas portray Mary as the contented Mother, happy to have given birth to a baby boy, and our images at Good Friday show her at the foot of his Cross, leaning on the Apostle John for support. You know that Mary.

Perhaps you would like to be theological, and talk about Mary as the one who is the locus for the coming together of Heaven and earth. Mary becomes almost a symbol, more than a person, when she is identified as the Mother of God. A very early conversation in the Church was over the human and divine nature of Jesus, and it was expressed in the question of whether it was proper to refer to Mary in that way, as Mother of God (for those of you who like technical terms, the word is “theotokos”). If you said Yes, then you believed Jesus was truly divine; if you said No, then you didn’t.

I personally am interested in both those approaches, and so I mentioned them. There are probably others we could take. What I propose to do today, though, is look at some snapshots of Mary, some moments in her life that connect with your life and mine.

Mary was a young woman when the archangel Gabriel appeared to her and gave her God’s proposal: that she bear the unique Son of God, who was to be named Jesus. Mary was puzzled; she asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) And the angel gave her an answer, of sorts. It was probably the best he could do; after all, matters related to the work of God can be fiendishly difficult to explain.

But that doesn’t mean we should not ask. I had to look, of course, in John Calvin’s work for something that he had to say about Mary, and he set me on this track. When he was writing about the struggle to understand the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, he wrote this, “But, following the holy virgin’s example, we do not regard it as unlawful for ourselves in a difficult matter to inquire how it can take place.”[1] Perhaps when you have asked a question to try understand something difficult, you were rebuffed. One of you told me the story of a classmate being violently removed from a class by the pastor for asking a question that the pastor thought should not have been asked. This event deeply disturbs me; I love it when people ask me questions about God and I fear that when they don’t, it’s because they are no longer interested in trying to understand.

When I lived in Cincinnati, one of my volunteer activities was for the Friends of the Cincinnati Orchestra. I would go into second-grade classrooms in area public schools and use a curriculum to help the kids know something about and appreciate classical music. And once a year we would go to a concert. I remember once riding on the school bus with second-graders to a concert in Music Hall, and the children found out I was a pastor. They asked me questions about God and the Bible the whole way downtown. I was a little uncomfortable – after all, I was there to help them appreciate music and it was a public school outing – but I simply responded to their questions. I remember that fondly because they had questions and they asked them. As John Calvin said, when we have questions about things that are difficult to understand, we should never be afraid to ask them. Mary wasn’t. She was talking with an Archangel, and she wasn’t afraid to ask!

A second image is from the first chapter of the book of Acts. The Apostles were all gathered in the place where they were meeting after Jesus was taken from them into Heaven, and Luke mentions that also present with them were “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). This is an answer to the story I read you from the Gospel of Mark. While Jesus was going about preaching, teaching, and healing, his family was not particularly happy about it. When Mary and his brothers came to see him, Jesus was downright rude. He seemed to reject them, asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And he added, “Those who do the will of God are my brother and sister and mother.”

I wonder what it took to bring Mary and his brothers around. The next time Mary appears in the story is at the Crucifixion, when Jesus tells the disciple whom he loved – presumably the Apostle John – to take care of her. What about his brothers? Why aren’t they taking care of her? But John does it, takes her into his household, and tradition tells us that when he went to Ephesus to spread the Gospel she accompanied him. Something brought her around, so that she became not only Jesus’ Mother but also his disciple, one of those who did, as he said, the will of God. And Luke says that his brothers did too; in fact, one of his brothers – James – became so devoted to Jesus that he became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13, Galatians 1:19). Mary became Jesus’ Mother by his own definition, the one he thought mattered: she was devoted to doing the will of God. It’s a good reminder that you and I are part of the family of God not because we are born into it; “I’ve been a member of this Church since I was born” is of no importance. What is important is that we are devoted to doing the will of God.

A third picture is represented by the poem that Jean read to you, commonly called by its first word in Latin, “Magnificat.” Sometimes you see in fiction a moment that is of far greater significance than the character realizes. When Bilbo Baggins finds a ring and picks it up; “What’s this?” When Tess of the D’Urbervilles slips the note under the door and it accidentally is hidden under the carpet. You may point to a moment in your life that turned out to have meant more than you knew at the time.

Mary looked at what was happening to her, what appeared simply to be a pregnancy, albeit an unusual one, and she saw enormous social significance. She saw it as a turning point in history, when the lowly would be of greater importance than the powerful, when so-called “losers” are favored over those called “winners.” She saw that what God was doing with her was an example of what God was doing for the world. Somehow, in her mind, it wasn’t about her, but about the amazing work of God.

So, we have Mary the questioner, Mary the follower, and Mary the theologian. She wanted to understand; she wanted to do the will of God; she wanted to see the work of God in her life and beyond her life. One more and I’ll stop: Mary the ponderer. Is that a word? When shepherds told Mary and Joseph and anyone else who would listen what the angel had said to them, Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). She kept that pattern going when she and Joseph encountered Simeon and Anna in the Temple a few weeks later, and then again twelve years later when they took Jesus with them for the Passover and he went missing for a few days. Mary thought about things, she remembered things and pondered them.

Where did Luke get his information for his Gospel? Did he go to Ephesus and talk to Mary in her later years? She probably didn’t keep a diary; she thought back over all that had happened and remembered not only the events but what they meant, the conclusions she came to all those years later. I’m speculating, of course, but I’m in good company.

I think of the many times I have come home from visiting someone: when I meet them for the first time as their new pastor, or when they invite me to call on them, or when I see them in a retirement or nursing home. And I feel such joy at having a soul touch mine, someone who has lived a lot and has shared something of it with me in that brief time. When they tell me what they have treasured, what they have pondered in their heart, and I feel the honor of being invited into the sacred chamber of another’s life. That must have been how Luke felt after talking with Mary, this remarkable woman: questioner, follower, theologian, and one who pondered.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, xvii, 25