Sermon from June 28: Come and Have Breakfast

Come and Have Breakfast
Pentecost IV (O. T. 13); June 28, 2020
John 21:1-19

Next weekend, many of you will enjoy grilling out in celebration of Independence Day. Today’s story is the story of a group of friends having a grill-out. The Lord Jesus, recently returned from death, grills fish and bread by the lakeside, and invites his friends to join him. When I was asked to preach from this story, you asked me to preach on the phrase, “Feed my sheep.” The phrase in the story that always moves me is, “Come and have breakfast.” The two are intimately related, and so I will touch on both.

After breakfast, Jesus and Peter walk off alone, just the two of them, and talk. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and three times Peter says that he does. Many suggest this is to make up for the three times Peter said, “I don’t know him!” Perhaps. And each time Peter assures Jesus of his love, Jesus gives him a command: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

They all come to the same thing: Feed my sheep. The flock is mine, says Jesus. When you see the people out there, lost, frightened, sinful, self-assured, whatever, remember they are mine. I died for them. I was raised to life for them. I pray for them. They belong to me. That’s easy to remember when you’re talking about church people singing a hymn, but let’s think more broadly. It’s harder, isn’t it, when the “sheep” are protestors who are demanding something that bothers you, or in a way that bothers you, or when you don’t understand it? Remember, says Jesus: they are my sheep. I died for them. I was raised to life for them. I pray for them. They belong to me. It’s harder, isn’t it, when it’s a crowd of white supremacists, carrying their hate placards, wearing their hoods, waving their Confederate battle flags? I died for them. I was raised to life for them. I pray for them. They belong to me.

Feed my sheep. The question you raised is about force-feeding and, of course, you’re right: you cannot force someone to accept truth. If you are trying to give a witness to Jesus Christ to someone who does not believe, if you are trying to educate someone who is overtly racist, if you are trying to tell the truths about our history, you cannot compel someone to swallow it. I have found, however, that we mainline Protestant Christians are rarely guilty of trying to force-feed someone. We are more likely to be guilty of failing to profess any convictions at all. We don’t “push” our Christian faith; rather, people are unlikely to realize that we’re disciples of Jesus. We may not be overtly racist, but we fail to be sufficiently anti-racist either.

That is, when it comes to feeding Jesus’ sheep, the question is: what do you have to offer? When someone is hungry, you offer them soup. When someone is lonely, you offer company. When someone needs a connection with the eternal, do you have fish and bread on the grill?

Come and have breakfast. You can’t possibly feed Jesus’ sheep if you don’t have anything to eat. I really don’t want to turn this sermon into a harangue about what you should be doing for your spiritual life, but I do want to invite you to eat more than you are now. And I want to figure out what I need to do to make that easier for you. Peter and his friends brought fish, but Jesus had the fire going and did the cooking. As your Pastor, I want to invite you to come and have breakfast, so that you will be nourished and can feed Jesus’ sheep.

I know that you need to feast on the Word. I’ve done a little polling – not a lot, but some – and have discovered that very few have a disciplined prayer life that includes daily prayer and Bible reading. Rather than scold you about that, I need to apologize that I and my predecessors have not taught you how to do that. How can I expect you to prepare that meal if I’ve never taught you to cook? I’m speaking figuratively, of course. How can you feed Jesus’ sheep the Word of life if your pastors have never taught you to cook? I must consider that.

I know also that you need to feast on a vibrant sacramental life. We do what we can every Sunday to remind you of your baptism. Those of you who use the Presbyterian Church’s order for morning prayer every day say a prayer of thanksgiving for baptism every day. When we remind ourselves of our baptism then we remember that we are Jesus’ sheep, that he died for us, was raised to life for us, prays for us; we belong to him. And we need to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper often enough to remember that we live only because our life comes from God, that our spirits depend on the Spirit of God. Our ancestor in the faith, John Calvin, thought that God’s people should receive the bread and wine every day; every Sunday at minimum. He was right; if we’re going to have anything to feed Jesus’ sheep, then we need to come and have breakfast with Jesus.

There is so much more, beloved. So much more. Jesus’ invitation to breakfast and command to feed his sheep is as wide and various as the number of sheep that Peter and his friends brought on shore (153, in case you’ve forgotten). I think of the joy in the presence of the Lord that moved King David to dance. I think of the struggle of the Preacher that led him to wonder if there is anything lasting we can do before God in his book Ecclesiastes. I think of the opportunity before Queen Esther to save the people of God. There is so much truth, so much wisdom, so much to enjoy for breakfast and then to offer to Jesus’ sheep.

And at this moment in our nation’s story and our nation’s life, we need to feast on the truth of our history. Some of it is sweet as maple syrup and some of it bitter as horseradish, but if we are to feed Jesus’ sheep we must feast on it all. Today I am thinking of Chief Standing Bear, and the truths of our history that we feast on in his name.[1] He was a chief of the Ponca, who were relocated to Oklahoma from their homeland in Nebraska. After his son died there, he returned to Nebraska to bury him, and of course ran afoul of the laws of the white people. His famous trial was a test of habeus corpus; namely, who had a right to such a writ. The law said that any person or party had the legal right to apply for a writ of habeus corpus, so the court had to decide: was a Native American a person?

The lawyer arguing for Standing Bear concluded his argument by saying that it is a libel upon the missionaries who sacrificed so much to bring the Gospel of Christ to the Natives to then turn and say that those Natives are not human beings, with the rights of human beings. But the most stirring words were those Standing Bear himself addressed to the judge:

“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

With those words, Chief Standing Bear offered the food of truth to the court which did, I am glad to say, took it and ate it. The judge’s decision frequently refers to the Christian intention of government and rights given by God in declaring, on May 12, 1879, the full rights of Native Americans before the law.

I did not know anything of that story before I come to Nebraska. We were taught American history as something that started with white people building cities on the east coast and steadily moving west to settle an empty land. It is similar to the story people tell about the founding of the State of Israel, a land without a people for a people without a land, as had been said, except that there were people there, and we don’t tell the story of the burning of their homes and their being forced to live in refugee camps for, so far, seventy-two years. And many of you wish I had not brought that up. If we are going to feed Jesus’ sheep, we must not be afraid to breakfast on the truth ourselves.

I am grateful to be alive in a time when we are struggling to come to terms with the truths of our history, to be freed from the chains of ignorance. “Come and have breakfast,” says Jesus: eat and drink of the Word of God, of the Sacraments, and of the many other facets of life that it would be too easy to avoid. But life is a meal with many courses, much to learn, many things to eat and drink. Come and have breakfast, and then go, feed Jesus’ sheep.

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

 

[1] I recorded this sermon on the shore of Standing Bear Lake. Material about his story is drawn from Joe Starita, “I Am a Man:” Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008). The quotation is on p. 151.

Racism Study July 1

We had a good start to our racism study on June 24; we continue July 1 at 7:00 pm.

The link to join is the same as last week: https://meet.google.com/ach-eefc-byg

Please read the handout here.Racism 101_Handout

From Pastor Bob: On Racism Study

Dear people of God:

I have promised a study on racism, so here is the information so you can participate. I’m using material from “The Thoughtful Christian,” a publishing enterprise under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Although this study is several years old, I believe we will find it helpful.

It’s an 11-week study, and we’ll start Wednesday June 24 and go every week (except when I take vacation in August) until we’re done. I’ll put the schedule at the bottom for anyone who wants that level of detail.

Every week I’ll post a handout for the next session. Your participation will be best if you print or at least read the handout beforehand. Then we will have a one-hour discussion on Wednesdays at 7:00 pm via Google Meet. I’ll repeat this with every week’s handout, but you can participate either of two ways:
The best way is at your computer or tablet, with a camera and microphone enabled, and follow this link: https://meet.google.com/ach-eefc-byg
If that isn’t possible for you, then phone 414-436-7533 and enter code 498 705 924‬#

I hope this will do two things for us: that it will enlighten us to the presence and reality of systemic racism in our society, and how we can combat it; and that it will give us all some face time with each other. Although we will likely soon have worship together, many of you will not be able to participate and I hope this way we will get to spend some together. I have missed you.

As always, be in touch by telephone (402-498-0871) or email (robert.keefer@pcmwindow.org) if you have comments or questions.

Pastor Bob

Probable schedule:
June 24: Why is it so difficult to talk about racism?
July 1: Racism 101
July 8: A History of Racism in the US 1
July 15: A History of Racism in the US 2
July 22: A History of Racism in the US 3
July 29: A History of Racism in the US 4
(August 5 & 12 Vacation)
August 19: White Privilege
August 26: The Bible & Racism 1
September 2: The Bible & Racism 2
September 9: Is Affirmative Action still needed?
September 16: Do segregated churches imply racism?

Assuming we’re able to gather again, I hope we’ll take up “The Welcoming Congregation” again after that!

Sermon from June 14: The Justice of God

The Justice of God
Pentecost II (O. T. 11); June 14, 2020
Revelation 20:11-15 and Amos 5:18-24

I invited you to request stories or Scriptures or topics for preaching this summer, and I begin to respond to those requests today. One of you asked of me, “Please preach on the justice of God.” That is a phrase you hear us use a lot around our Church, and Presbyterians have for decades been particularly given to talking about “justice.” But what do we mean when we say it? And what part does it play in our faith in Christ?

I’m afraid I have to go into full-on college-teacher mode for a bit, and I hope that I don’t lose you. We need to talk about the idea of justice, what we mean when we say it, and then I’ll apply it to the way we live as followers of Jesus. So please listen carefully and I’ll tell you about justice, and then you’ll have some ideas for living.

The two Scripture readings I chose illustrate the various facets of the idea of judgment that I will consider with you. The prophet Amos calls for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Perhaps you’ve heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote this phrase in one of his speeches. The prophet also scolds those who yearn for Judgment Day, figuring that they will be rewarded and “those people” will get what’s coming to them. Judgment Day, the prophet says, will be like running away from a lion, and getting caught by a bear. Or you run into your house and lean against a wall, where a snake bites you. Judgment Day is coming for you. And so in Revelation we see all the world’s people standing before the throne of God, and we are all judged. So, the question is: on what are we judged? What is the justice of God?

Let’s look at justice as a six-sided die: you turn it different ways and see opposite faces, like the numbers on a die. First, let’s consider two faces that go all the way back to Aristotle: retributive justice and distributive justice (Nicomachean Ethics, 1129-1132). Retributive justice is what we’re familiar with when we talk about “the justice system:” it has to do with punishing wrong-doing. When an individual or a corporation commits an illegal act, then retributive justice is applied to punish the wrong-doing.

The opposite face is “distributive justice,” which Aristotle understands as the equitable distribution of social goods, such as honor, money, property, and the like. A just society is one where these goods are appropriately distributed and are not hoarded by a few and kept from the many. And note that we’re not talking just economics here; it isn’t concerned only with money and property. Such social goods as the ability to vote, to hold a position of prestige or power: these are also the concerns of distributive justice.

So one of the questions we are asking ourselves in the United States is whether our system of retributive justice is itself just in the distributive sense. Is there racial bias in the system? Hardly a thinking person could deny that there is. Our Men’s Book Club read Just Mercy – which was recently made into a movie – and it shows clearly the bias against black men in the system. I heard an interview with the leader of a police union, who pointed out the desire of most police officers to root out those “bad apples” among them. Let’s acknowledge that and not label all police officers as individually racist. But that also misses the point: we’re not only concerned with whether a particular officer is racist in the way he treats suspects; we’re concerned with a system that automatically views persons of color as more violent than white persons and so tends to use greater violence in the treatment of persons of color. For at least 150 years, writers have portrayed black men as particularly violent and prone to crime, and recent neo-Nazi propaganda cited even by the President has bogus crime statistics to support that widely-believed lie.[1] Whether particular police officers are racist is less of a concern than the reality that the system is racist, because of centuries of assumptions and propaganda in the social reality underlying the system. The issue is not only retributive justice – punishing “bad apples” – but also distributive justice: a system that is equitable in its treatment of persons.

Let’s turn the die a different way and see something in the Bible: the idea of “justice” in the Bible applies both to the behavior of individuals and the behavior of societies. We seem to have a terrible disconnect in American Christianity: we have a group on one side that is concerned to make sure that people don’t have sex with anyone they shouldn’t, don’t drink too much, and don’t steal from others. And we have a group on the other side that is concerned to make sure that our society is just toward oppressed and marginalized groups of people. And each side thinks the other is misguided. But the Bible clearly cares about both personal morality and social justice. The prophets continually scold the government for denying well-being to those who are marginalized, with particular emphasis on widows, orphans, and resident aliens. That is, the prophets were concerned with the rights of those on the outside of power. But the prophets were also concerned that people keep their marriage vows, that they respect their neighbors’ property, and that they keep the Sabbath. Personal morality and social justice: both facets are inherent to the justice of God.

So perhaps I may think that I bear no responsibility for racial justice because I personally have never enslaved people, nor have I acted in a knowingly racist way against another. Well, good for me as a person trying to be moral. But I am also part of a society, and God is equally concerned with whether my society is just. Have I, as a white man, benefited from a society which is racist? Without a doubt. Yes, I have worked hard all my life; I’ve held a job since I was eleven years old. But I inherited privilege from a society where white people could live where there were better schools than the places where black people were allowed to live; where it was easier for white people to get a job, to rent an apartment, to walk down a street without being stopped and asked, “What is your business here?” The problem isn’t a racist police officer; the problem is a society where we assume that if you see a black person where you don’t expect to see a black person, then there must be something wrong. The Bible calls our attention not only to the justice of individuals, but also the justice of a society.

The other two faces to mention that are part of the Bible’s understanding of “justice” are expressed as relationship: the quality of our relationship with God and the quality of our relationship with one another. The word that Aristotle writes about and that is in the Bible that we translate as “justice” we also translate as “justification” and as “righteousness.” To be just means to seek a good relationship with God and a good relationship with other people. When the prophet Amos said that God hates our religious festivals, you have to keep it in context. The prophet isn’t calling upon us to give up religious observances. He is saying that if we try to practice our religious observances but are content with an unjust society, then God hates our religious observances. Don’t quote the prophet as an excuse for avoiding church; quote the prophet as a call to work on our society’s injustices as part of your religious life. Don’t use the Bible as a prop to gain favor or practice your religion as a substitute for living a just life. I call to your attention today’s hymn at the end of the service: whether you sing along or simply listen to Sarah sing it, please pay attention to the words.[2] These words were written more than a century ago, yet seem timely for our current experience. They reinforce these two faces of justice: God wants to have a just relationship with us; God wants us to have just relationships with each other.

To sum up: the Bible doesn’t often speak of the justice of God, it seems to me, at least not nearly as often as it speaks of the love of God. And I think this is the place to land this sermon. God is loving, God loves us. We, however, are not quite up to loving God or loving one another as God loves. We can, however, strive to be more just. We can seek justice in our relationship with God: pray daily, worship weekly, make regular use of the Sacraments. Let me repeat myself: pray daily, worship weekly, make regular use of the Sacraments. We can seek justice in our relationship with God. And we can seek justice in our relationships with one another: understand the roots of inequality in our society; confess our common sin; advocate for a more just society. Let me repeat myself: understand the roots of inequality in our society; confess our common sin; advocate for a more just society.

These last two faces of the die help us understand what we can do if we truly want to live out the justice of God. I wish to remind you, however, of all six: justice is both distributive and retributive; justice is both personal and social; justice is expressed in our relationship with God and our relationships with each other. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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

[1] https://www.splcenter.org/20180614/biggest-lie-white-supremacist-propaganda-playbook-unraveling-truth-about-%E2%80%98black-white-crime

[2] Henry Scott Holland, “Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendor” (1902), #342 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)

A Call for Action

Dear people of God:

The same group of religious leaders who invited us to #standinsolidarity last Sunday met yesterday to prepare a statement, calling for action in Omaha in response to recent events. I attended the meeting where the document was prepared and I have signed it. The leaders hope that it will be published in the “World-Herald;” if it is and you see my name with it, I want you to know first from me that I have signed it. I will be happy to discuss it with any who care to talk with me about it. The statement follows:

CALL FOR ACTION
Voices United of Greater Omaha
June 2020

As leaders in the greater Omaha faith community, we applaud the new and renewed commitment we have seen by so many to overcoming the obstacles to achieving justice and equality for people of color in our community, nation, and world. We stand in solidarity with you, while acknowledging that commitment is meaningless unless it results in meaningful change.

We also acknowledge that true and lasting change is best ensured when the biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” is upheld even when we are in conflict with our neighbor. To this end, we make the following three proposals to help ensure the safety and well-being of both citizens and law enforcement particularly during times of conflict.

(1) We call upon our elected officials to enact legislation making it illegal for choke holds to be employed by police in situations that are not of immediate threat to their lives.

(2) We call upon the city of Omaha to fulfill with all due haste its commitment to outfit all police officers with body cameras that automatically activate whenever a gun or taser is drawn from its holster.

(3) We call upon our elected officials to enact legislation banning all carrying and use of firearms by the public specifically at public protests and rallies. To be clear, we do not call for a general ban on firearms. Rather, we call for the specific prohibition of firearms by the public in rallies and protests. The presence of such lethal weapons in these places is not only reckless and terror-inducing, but puts both the public and police at greater risk of injury and loss of life.

As clergy and faith leaders, we pray that these proposals make a modest contribution to an ongoing process of reform that will ensure greater justice and safety for all of our neighbors, particularly those for whom justice and protection have been denied in the past.

Sermon from Pentecost: Ruach

Ruach
The Day of Pentecost; May 31, 2020
Psalm 104:24-35

I have a Hebrew word for you: ruach. It describes moving air, both literally and figuratively, so we translate it into English as breath or wind or spirit. So when the Bible talks about the ruach of God, it refers to God’s breath or the wind of God or the Holy Spirit. Picture Genesis 2, when God makes the human creature. God takes clay, and shapes it into a human body, then leans close to its face and breathes into it, and it comes to life. The ruach of God is the source of life for the human creature, Adam’s breath, Adam’s spirit.

Okay, enough language lesson, now let’s have some fun with this Psalm. This is the Psalm for Pentecost, and I want to talk about it backwards. I mean from the end to the beginning. The thing that strikes me about it is that the ruach of God is very much like our breath, like the wind of the world: you can see its effects, but you can’t see it. I know, on a cold day you say that you can see your breath, but that isn’t your breath you’re seeing; it’s water vapor that’s cold enough to be visible; you’re essentially making a bit of fog. Just to be straight about it. Anyway, four short thoughts about the effects of the presence of the ruach of God. Signs of God’s ruach are abundance, playfulness, humility, and a response from the faithful.

Let’s start with the response. I know: good sermon-construction says that I should go through everything else first, then end with how you and I should respond, but I don’t want to do that. I want to get the response part out of the way, and get to the really good stuff to finish with. Besides, if my preaching is imperfect, that’s intentional. Your Church aims to be imperfect, because we know that some of you enjoy complaining, and we want everybody to be happy. Anyway, the poet says that those who are faithful will do the following things in response to the presence of the ruach of God:
They will sing praise to the Lord as long as they live.
They will hope that their words please God.
They will pray for the end of wickedness.

You see where the attitude is? They are God-centered, God-focused. They go to church – when they go to church; when will that be? I’ll talk about that at the end of the service – they go to church not with the attitude, “I hope the preacher will say something I like; I hope the choir will please me,” but rather, “I hope that what I say will please God; I hope that my singing will make God happy.” They approach their day like the woman who told me recently, “My goal every day is to give joy to someone.” Not, “I want something to happen that will make me happy,” but “I hope I give joy to someone.” Now, narrowly in today’s reading, the hope is that you and I give joy to God, but let’s be real: when we do something to give joy to another person, we give joy to God.

Now that was from the last three verses of the Psalm; let’s back up and see what else is there. But please keep this in mind: when the ruach of God – God’s breath, God’s wind, the Holy Spirit – is present in people, they will be God-focused, more concerned with pleasing God than with being pleased.

Just before that the poet says a lot about the dependence of living things on the ruach of God. We depend on God for our breath, our life, our food. We all do, from the whale to the phytoplankton: “All of them look to you to give them their food in due season.” During this pandemic, we have been experiencing vividly how much of our life is beyond our control. We think of ourselves as so independent, so self-reliant, but now we have been face-to-face with the reality that you and I are part of interconnected webs of support and service. Where would we be if grocery-store workers stopped working? We have fretted about meat-packing plants closing and the possibility of rising prices; but what of the folks who have to work in those plants? Their health and well-being matter, and so that piece of the system is threatened. And at root of all this uncertainty is a bunch of DNA surrounded by protein, something called a virus. The question the poet answers in Psalm 104 is, “Is there anything certain as a foundation to all this uncertainty?” When we live through times of uncertainty, it’s easy to think that everything is random, that nothing is dependable. But the poet says, “All of them look to you to give them their food in due season.” Life is uncertain, our social systems are fragile, we’re not as self-reliant as we pretend to be, but underneath it all are the strong arms of a loving God, the God who is creating a world of abundance, the God whose ruach breathes life into the world.

According to the poet, one of those lives is Leviathan, the great sea monster. Leviathan is an interesting figure: he or she goes back to ancient Canaanite mythology, where Lotan is the seven-headed sea monster slain by the god Baal. Leviathan represents chaos, the unfathomable depths of the Mediterranean Sea, and it is always threatening to devour the world. Well, that’s one side of the story. Some ancient literature sees Leviathan as evil, chaotic, and threatening. And then there’s the Book of Job (41), where Leviathan threatens human beings but is led around on a leash by the Lord God. And Psalm 104, where Leviathan is, well, God’s playmate. God made Leviathan to play with in the sea, and the Lord rejoices every time the sea monster breaks water and leaps into the sun.

There’s something playful about the ruach of God. If you look through the Bible, you’ll see that the effect of the presence of God is not to make people sit, bored with reality; in God’s presence, people dance. King David stripped to his skivvies and did the twist before the Ark of God. John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the presence of Jesus. Leviathan sports in the Mediterranean Sea. If your religion is making you too solemn and serious, then you need a dose of ruach. Call me; I’ll write you a prescription.

And the piece of the psalm we read started with celebration of abundance. And that’s why we didn’t need to read the whole psalm: the whole first part of the psalm is a celebration of the abundance of life in the presence of God. I was hiking one day – I can’t remember if it was the mountains of Colorado or the desert of Arizona – and the terrain was rocky. I noticed plants growing through cracks in the rock, clinging to the rock, and I thought, “Life is so persistent! It wants to grow everywhere.”

One of the works of God’s ruach is to encourage life to grow profusely, abundantly, and with great diversity. On the day of Pentecost, one of the signs of that abundance and diversity was the profusion of languages in which people heard the Gospel. You heard the story in our reading from Acts (2:1-21): people came from all over the world, and they heard the good news of God in their own language. Here’s a taste of that:
To readers: We had John 1:5 in a variety of forms and languages: Greek (me), Russian (Mike Osborn), French (Kathy Sutula), German (Kathleen Keefer), Croatian (Chris Krampe), American Sign Language (Ann Thompson), Catalan (me), Latin (Mike Osborn), Spanish (Barb Irvin), English (via electronic communication device, Colleen Collins). If you can, look at the sermon on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JLcZJnhuYA) to get the best experience of it.

One year, long ago in another congregation, on the day of Pentecost, I had a number of people read like that in church. I got an angry letter from a church member, who said that he and his wife were leaving the church because of it. At the time I was upset that he didn’t like something I had done (actually, in light of what I said at the beginning of the sermon, I should have been glad that I had given him something to gripe about! He was probably one of those who enjoyed that). More to the point, I should have realized that the problem isn’t that the Pastor did something he didn’t like; the problem was that he was running from the presence of the Holy Spirit, God’s ruach, since hearing the good news of God in a profusion of languages is a sign that the Holy Spirit is present.

Do you have the Holy Spirit? No, it doesn’t come in bottles. How can you tell? By the sense of abundance and diversity of the presence of the Spirit, by a willingness to let loose and be playful, by the humility of realizing your dependence, and by a faithful response: where your focus is not yourself, but the Lord God, who among everything else puts Leviathan on a leash and takes it out to play.

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

Pastoral Letter: June 1, 2020

Dear people of God:

I feel the need to start my Monday morning by writing to you in reflection on the events of this weekend here in Omaha and throughout the country. The killing of George Floyd has ignited another round of protests, accompanied by violence, as we face the ongoing reality of racial divide and disparity in our society.

The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship’s prayer for Monday morning includes this line: “We pray for understanding to live according to our faith.” What guidance does our faith provide this morning?

First, the Bible (in the prophets, the Psalms, the epistles, the teachings of Jesus) consistently calls people of faith to begin by self-examination. Before pointing a finger or denouncing someone else, you and I ask ourselves, “What role do I play in this situation?” I find it imperative to begin with the reality of white privilege. I admit I had only a vague sense of what that meant until your Church’s Men’s Book Club read Debby Irving’s Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Her well-written, careful analysis of her own life’s story as a middle-class white woman from New England gave content and understanding to the benefits I had only sensed as a white person in America. Before my white siblings rush to make proclamations about anyone, or to assert that you have not been privileged, please read the book, take its lessons to heart, and examine your own life. That is clearly an understanding to live according to our faith: examine your own life.

And take seriously the pain of others. I suspect that most of the violence and vandalism have been committed not by protesters passionately expressing their pain, but by opportunists taking advantage of the situation to commit mayhem. Kathleen worked in one of the neighborhoods most affected by the racial violence in Cincinnati in spring 2001 and she knew many of the neighbors; they knew firsthand who was protesting and who was taking advantage of an opportunity to loot. Please don’t let the violence of some distract you from the pain of those who live with realities most of us don’t grasp. These realities are many, but can be summarized as: if you’re black, and in the “wrong” neighborhood, you become a target. I can hear the angry responses from some of you already, but please, in the name of Christ, read, reflect, and pray.

As always, pray for our city: not only for peace, but also for justice. I hope that we will learn more about the story of the killing of James Scurlock, because rumor and sensationalism easily abound on social media. People of faith should be patient and await proper investigation and information from reliable sources of news. This morning’s psalm was Psalm 57, which includes this affirmation: “In the shadow of your wings will I take refuge until this time of trouble has gone by.” That is our hope not only for ourselves but for all who feel threatened, whether by opportunists or by police, by the authorities or by those who seek to undermine authority. As you live out this week, pray for understanding to live according to our faith.

Pastor Bob

COVID-19 Update 31 May 2020

This information comes from your Session and supersedes what is in the June Voice, which is arriving in mailboxes this week.

WORSHIP
The first service together at the church building will be no sooner than July 5.
As we acquire and install the equipment for live-streaming, we will gradually transition from our current practice of staging the service to one which will more closely resemble what will happen when the people gather. The Worship Committee will be responsible for recruiting people to operate the equipment and they will be invited to observe as we transition, in order to become familiar with the equipment.

SINGING
There will be no group singing for the near future.
When the congregation does gather for worship, we will listen to a soloist who will be placed an appropriate distance from them. Worshipers, wearing masks, may quietly speak or hum hymns with the soloist.

OTHER EVENTS
Outdoor events are permitted under the following guidelines:
Only household groups may be together; at least six feet of separation must be maintained otherwise.
Attendees must all wear masks, bandannas, or other facial coverings.
There will be no shared food or beverage.
If the event is an hour or less, the building will remain locked and restrooms are off-limits.
If the event is longer, and restrooms are needed, then the organizers must have volunteers ready to thoroughly clean the restrooms every half hour.
Indoor events continue under the same restrictions as before.
That is, no more than ten persons, six feet of separation maintained, facial coverings required.

REMARKS
Although there has been a gradual downward trend in percentage of positive tests in Douglas County, it is slight and recent. Furthermore, the opening processes in other states (such as Arkansas) appear to have generated an upward trend. So we believe it wise to “wait and see” if the changes in Nebraska’s practices will likewise generate a spike in new cases.

Singing appears to be particularly problematic. It produces six times more droplets than talking, it sends droplets farther (although no one seems to be able to say how much farther; it is more than six feet but less than twenty feet), and singers breathe more deeply, thus increasing the risk of contracting a disease.

The best spaces for gathering are well-ventilated (to fresh air); one factor that greatly contributes to the spread of a virus is air conditioning. The fact that our Sanctuary has no windows and relies entirely on circulated air makes it one of the worst possible spaces.

I am continuing to have “drop-in hours” on Sunday mornings; I unlock the front doors of the Church about 8:30 and I watch the Sunday service about 9:00. A few of you have taken advantage of that opportunity to come by. Also, the Church office remains open its regular hours for any who want to drop by, talk, or just see friendly faces.

Continue to worship with us online and, above all, continue to seek Christ every day, everywhere, and in everyone.

Pastor Bob

Special Message from Pastor Bob

Dear people of God:

In the abundance of material I’ve received and read with advice about “opening” the church, one theme keeps coming through that has me a bit sheepish. Whenever the writer talks about what people of the Church can do, it says something along the lines of “Continue saying your daily prayers at home.” That has convicted me, because I have never given you any sort of guidance on saying daily prayers at home.

I certainly cannot do that justice in a brief column on website & Facebook, but I can share some thoughts. It would be good to do a video chat about that sometime, if you’re interested. But I do have one suggestion to start with, right now: the Presbyterian Church’s own resources for daily prayer.

Personally, I like holding books, so I use the “Daily Prayer” edition of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship (2018). It is easy to use, has readings for morning & evening every day, and a wonderful variety of prayers to follow the calendar or for particular occasions. There are four services for every day: morning, midday, evening, and night; I do morning and night every day, and evening from time to time. But you can always select from them the portions you want to do. They work well for individuals or for families or groups.

Those who enjoy electronic resources can get the same thing on an app for smartphone or tablet. On the Apple App Store, I see that 25 users have rated it 3.5 out of 5; not bad. You can read more about it on the Presbyterian Church’s website: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/daily-prayer/

The strength of the community at worship and mission depends on the prayerful life of the individuals in that community. I apologize that I have not said anything about this before now, but I hope to work on rectifying that in the future!

Pastor Bob

During the COVID-19 restrictions, I am posting special messages from time to time. This one is from May 29, 2020.