What about the coronavirus?

Since the question has been asked, let me share our current thinking on the question of public health. We will continue with our regular programming – including worship, study, fellowship, and mission – unless the Health Department instructs otherwise. Treat the current situation the way you do cold and flu season: wash your hands regularly, stay home if you are sick, and stay home if your weakened condition makes you especially vulnerable. As I said recently, if we need to cancel gatherings, we will use other means to minister the Word of God. Watch our website and Facebook page. – Pastor Bob

Sermon from Lent II: Flourishing

Flourishing
Lent II; March 8, 2020
Exodus 20:8-12

Dan Price is CEO of a credit card processing company named Gravity Payments. In 2015 he decided to try something with his company, something for which he has been both lambasted and praised. He decided to raise the minimum salary of everyone in the company to $70,000 a year. Of the 120 employees, seventy got a raise and thirty of them had their compensation doubled just like that. How did he pay for it? He reduced his own salary from $1.1 million to $70,000. Colleagues scolded him. Rush Limbaugh called him a communist. Two senior staffers quit because they said it was unfair and that junior staffers would slack off.

As it happened, junior staffers did not slack off. They actually get more work done, because they have been able to focus on their jobs, rather than worry about other things. They have had the money to buy homes; they have felt more confident about starting families; two-thirds of them have reported they’ve cut back on their debt significantly and many are debt-free. What has been the impact on Price himself? He takes more modest vacations now than he used to. Oh, and the company has increased its business.

Price is happy about the impact on the people in his organization, but he says he doesn’t feel the experiment was a success, because other companies are not rushing to follow suit. The income disparity between CEOs and workers has continued to grow. When he’s been told he should have kept the huge salary and done good things with it, he said that our society has been relying on billionaire philanthropists for too long and what we really need is more “justice and integrity engineered and designed into our system.”[1]

The two commandments we are concerned with today – “Remember the Sabbath” and “Honor your father and your mother” – are both directed toward a life of flourishing and toward justice. Let’s talk about justice first. When I read to you the entire Commandment about the Sabbath, I hope you noticed something important: I hope you noticed that God commands not only the covenant-keeper to take one day in seven off of work, but everybody in the household gets the day off. You don’t get to take a day off by making your servant do the work for you; everybody is equal. The Commandment to keep Sabbath is a great equalizer: it applies to the one who is trying to have a good relationship with God, and to the children, workers, livestock, and immigrant laborers. You don’t work and you don’t make anybody else work: everyone is equal.

Speculation around the meaning of “Honor your father and your mother,” has centered around the idea that you treat them with respect, simply because they are the ones who gave you life. Whether they were good parents or terrible parents is immaterial; you must treat them seriously. At least, you make sure they are cared for in their old age. And the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church extends that attitude to everyone in a position of authority: presidents and pastors, executives and teachers. Whatever you think of them personally and whether you like their decisions or not, the Covenant-keeper treats them with respect. And I noticed something about the Commandment which I (at least) think is worth mentioning: in a culture that was heavily patriarchal, in which people are known by their father’s names and frequently a mother’s name isn’t even remembered, the Commandment says to honor your father and your mother. Both are treated with respect; the Commandment is an equalizer.

Both Commandments are equalizers: fathers and mothers are treated alike; parents and children are treated alike; employers and employees are treated alike; citizens and immigrants are treated alike. No, it isn’t communism; it’s Biblical justice. And both are intended so that the Covenant-keeper will have a life of flourishing. It’s an old cliché, but bears repeating: No one ever sighed on their deathbed, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” It may happen, but I suspect that it’s rare that someone would look back on their life and regret not having put in more hours at work and given less attention to their family, their friends, and their spiritual life. Yet we always feel the pressure to give more time to the company, to pursue more dollars, to ignore family and friends and God.

The commandments help us resist that pressure and listen to the calling of our hearts to pay attention to what is of lasting importance: that friend who always makes you smile, a nourishing prayer life, the well-being of the ones who gave you life.

I admit I may be stretching it a bit, but I see in this an implication worth mentioning. The pursuit of enough money to live on is essential, and having work that is in itself meaningful is a great blessing. But, basically, the provision of food, shelter, and pleasure is something we share with all animals. It marks no real difference between us and wolves or wildebeests. All animals pursue food, shelter, and pleasure; right? So how do we nurture our humanity?

Go to the Joslyn and sign up for a class in painting, or listen to a docent talk about what makes a work of art particularly good. Don’t worry about how much money it fetches at auction; ask why it’s worth paying attention to. Listen to music and think about why you like it. Read Kooser’s weekly column on poetry. Come to worship when you don’t feel like it and try to open your heart to the presence of God. We are living in a time and place where we are inclined to judge everything by its monetary value: we don’t evaluate a college major by how it will help a person become a more well-rounded human being, but by how much money it is likely to generate.

Resist. Resist our society’s pressure to judge everything by its dollar value, by its contribution to the economic engine, with no regard to its contribution to our basic humanity. I think a major part of what God was trying to do in laying down the fourth and fifth commandments was to help God’s people break out of the cycle of judging people by their productivity – work seven days a week, and when people can’t work any longer (such as father and mother), throw them away – and help them create a society where people could flourish as human beings. The modern pressure to go back to a seven-day work week, where people are judged by their productivity and are otherwise subject to being thrown away, is of the devil.

Resist. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). When we serve God, we open ourselves to celebrating our basic humanity; we open ourselves to true flourishing.

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

[1] cbc.ca/radio/asithappens Seattle CEO who pays workers at least $70K US says it’s paying off in spades. March 2, 2020.

Sermon from March 1 on Commandments 1-3

 

One God Is Enough
Lent I; March 1, 2020
Exodus 20:1-7

We were in a church on top of a hill in rural Nicaragua, a place called “Windy Hill” (Loma de Viento), doing a seminar with pastors and church leaders and inaugurating their course of study in the Seminary program that sponsored my visit. I was enjoying the exchange with these folks so much I strayed mightily from my notes on the Book of Hebrews. These pastors and scholars were young – 20s and 30s – and intensely interested in what we were doing. Well, most of them were. I’m not going to pretend they are any more virtuous than anyone else: at least one of them was leafing through the book he had been given instead of paying attention to what I was saying.

Anyway. We were talking about our service to God being more a matter of the heart than a matter of following particular rules, and that led us in a novel direction. I asked them what practices help them deepen their relationship with God: what do they do to have time in the presence of God? One man told us that when he drives he doesn’t listen to the radio, but he imagines God is seated next to him and he has a conversation. Another man talked about a particularly meaningful communion service they had recently had in his church.

And then the man who would a bit later be elected President of the group spoke up. He said that he had gone through stages in his life. For a long time his prayer life was asking, asking, asking; talking, talking, talking (“pidiendo, pidiendo, pidiendo; hablando, hablando, hablando”). Then he went through a change, and now most of his time with God is spent listening, listening, listening (“escuchando, escuchando, escuchando”). He is mostly silent, waiting for God to speak to him in some way, listening for God’s words to him. He said, “What God has to say to me is more important than anything that I have to say to God.”

My response was, “So young, yet so wise.” He is young – much younger than I – and he has learned something important that I have yet to learn, since my prayer time is still more devoted to what I have to say to God than to listening for what God has to say to me. For those of us who are working on our relationship with God, in these first three commandments God tells us some things about God: that God is the one who rescues from slavery, that God is jealous, that God’s name is precious. My general theme for thinking about these things is integrity of relationship with God. That is, you and I are here in the church-house because we want to have a relationship with God. Just as in any other relationship, some things are necessary in order to make it a good relationship.

A side comment: if you grew up Roman Catholic or Lutheran, you learned a list of the Ten Commandments that’s a little different from the way most other Christians list them; that difference really isn’t significant for this series so I’m not going into it, but I’m happy to talk with any of you who are interested. I just wanted to mention that in case you feel something about the list isn’t quite right and you’re not sure why.

So, these first three commandments tell us some things about God we should remember if we want to have a good relationship with God. The first thing is that the Lord God is the one who rescued God’s people from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery; therefore, we should have no other gods in our lives. That got me thinking: you and I are certainly heirs in the Faith of those who were rescued from slavery in Egypt, and we tell their story as our story, but since you and I have never been conscripted to help build a city for the Pharaoh, I started wondering what sort of slavery we may have to deal with. Where is our Egypt?

It’s different for different folks, I know, but the common thread is your Egypt is wherever something has power over you and you are not completely free. Where is your Egypt? Is it social media? Does that suck you in, draining the hours away as you chase one rabbit after another, causing you to doubt your own worth if you don’t get a certain number of “likes” on your recent post? Or maybe it’s the cell phone itself, so that you can’t sleep unless you know it’s nearby, you panic if you realize you’ve left the house and it isn’t with you. Is it screens, work, food, alcohol, drugs, or some other addiction? Where is your Egypt?

The Lord God is God enough to free you from that slavery, if you will cooperate with God. Leaving Egypt was not easy for the Hebrews, and they constantly yearned to go back; your Egypt and mine will always call to us to come back, to turn our backs on the God who is working to set us free and to return to slavery or addiction or whatever you want to call it. God’s desire is for our freedom, and if we single-mindedly put our hope on the Lord God and do not let other gods get in the way, then we will cooperate with the Lord God in the project of setting us free. Have no other gods but the Lord God and claim your freedom.

The second thing we learn is that the Lord God is a jealous God. Yep, jealous. Or “zealous;” the problem we have is they’re the same word in Hebrew. They’re also the same word in Greek and in Spanish. For some reason, this intense emotion is considered one thing in these other languages but we English-speakers divide it between the good kind – zeal – and the bad kind, jealousy. Whichever way you translate it, you get the sense that the Lord God is intensely devoted to… God’s people.

Maybe that’s why we traditionally translate it as “jealous,” because God’s people keep wandering after any god who comes along in skinny jeans, promising happiness. So the commandment warns against making idols. The Lord’s yearning for a relationship with people is constantly frustrated by people’s interest in other gods. Since that’s the way the story keeps going, I suppose “jealous” is a good translation. But however you translate it, please think of it this way: the Lord has an intense passion for people, and wants to be in relationship with people. This interest in us is so strong that when we reject it God’s anger lasts for three or four generations. But I hope you noticed that God’s love and mercy are much stronger: the anger lasts for three or four generations, but the committed love lasts for a thousand generations. God rescues from slavery, and God is intensely interested in us.

And the third Commandment tells us that God holds accountable anyone who misuses the divine name; God’s name is precious. And though it’s a good idea to refrain from the casual epithet such as “Oh my God!” (OMG) and the like, I think God is even more concerned with slapping the Lord’s name onto projects and programs that the Lord would not endorse. Let’s leave it at this: be humble about using the Lord’s name. Don’t claim that you have the Lord’s endorsement for your position, your party, your candidate, your idea, your project unless you have pretty good Biblical and theological evidence that you’re right about that. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus advises us not to use the name of God in making an oath, because we really don’t have any place invoking God’s name in that way; just let your word be good.

Okay, that was a lot of stuff, but here’s another, practical thought. One of the primary missions of the Church is to help people have a real relationship with God. Do you know anyone who may be looking for that in their lives? Have you invited them to come here with you? I was listening to a man talk about his upcoming retirement from a high-profile job, and he mentioned that one of his intentions was to spend more time and attention going deeper into his Catholic faith. Then he referred to something I knew about from my years of studying and teaching Hinduism: that in India they have a notion of “stages of life.” You spend the first part of your life as a student, then you devote yourself to having and raising a family. When you’ve accomplished that, then your next task is to work on your spirituality.

Many of us have been working on our spirituality our entire lives; wonderful! But perhaps you know someone middle-aged or older who is ready for that now: invite them to church. Let me put it this way: sometimes I hear people say, “What the church needs is more young people.” I’m going to be critical of that statement in two ways. First, it isn’t necessarily true that the Church needs young people. The story is that once Stalin was talking to the Metropolitan of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin crowed, “Look at your churches! They’re full of grandmothers. Where will you be when they’re all dead?” And the Patriarch replied, “We’ll have a new generation of grandmothers.” He was right; the Russian Orthodox Church survived the Soviet Union and is doing fine. So if you’re concerned about church membership, don’t focus just on a particular demographic: focus on anyone who is open to a relationship with God.

But my central criticism of that statement – “The Church needs more young people” – is that it’s completely turned around. We aren’t interested in what the Church needs. We’re interested in who needs the Church. Don’t look around for members to recruit for the institution. Listen for those you know who may be ready to look into having a spiritual life. They may be young, or they may be at a stage of life that they’re interested in spiritual things. Don’t invite them because the Church needs them. Invite them because they need God.

The young pastor in Loma de Viento has a head start on that stage of life. Open your ears and listen for God to speak to you about your own spiritual life, and open your ears and listen for friends and family who may be looking for a spiritual life themselves. The Lord God, who rescues from slavery and is passionate about people, is here for us.

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

 

Pastor Bob’s March Message

Dear people of God:

I know that many of you enjoyed my pictures, videos, and messages in our Facebook “Family and Friends” group. Thank you for your comments and for sharing my Nicaragua experience.

It’s hard to put in a few words all the positive takeaways from the week. One thing to mention is the profound sense of blessing I took from the people of the Church praying for me the Sunday before I went. I really was nervous about this, not knowing what to expect or what would be expected of me in these seminars, not knowing if what I planned to do would be of any benefit, not knowing if my command of Spanish would be up to the task. Andy Cook’s strong prayer, the children’s strong presence, and your strong backing all helped me face the challenges.

And then I was blessed by being there. I met wonderful folks, both those who lead the mission center and the pastors and church leaders I met in Estelí, Tipitapa, La Concepción, and the country near Matagalpa and near Santa Teresa. Their stories, questions, insight, and above all interest in learning about the Bible touched me. And, of course, their friendliness: they wanted to connect with me as much as I wanted to connect with them.

It strikes me now, as I reflect on that week and as I anticipate the beautiful Lent services the Worship Design Team has in mind, that what really stays with us is the connections we make. Some of them may remember what I said about the Greek word “apaugasma,” but many more of them will remember that I listened to them, laughed with them, and ate with them.

And that, above all, is what I will likewise remember about the friends I made and the other folks I connected with in Nicaragua: we listened to each other, laughed together, and ate together. Sounds like the Church at our best, doesn’t it?

Pastor Bob

 

Sermon from February 26: Love Carved in Stone

Love Carved in Stone
Transfiguration; February 23, 2020
Exodus 20:1-17
(with Matthew 5:17-20)

This happened many years ago. My friend was having an affair with a soprano in his choir. I knew about it – I think she told me about it – and I kept quiet for a long time, wondering what I should do. Finally I decided that since I was his friend, I should talk to him about it. So I took him out to dinner, and I said to him, “I’m concerned about your relationship with **.” That was the beginning of a long spiritual and emotional journey for him, as he dealt not only with his adultery but also with the deep personal issues that led to it.

One of the things he told me later was that he had learned something about the Ten Commandments. He said they were there not to ruin our fun, not to put restrictions on us so that we could not do what we wanted, but to protect us. The commandment against adultery, for example, is not because sex is bad. The commandment protects us from the terrible mess we make of our lives and the lives of those we love when we don’t observe healthy boundaries.

Maybe you knew that already. I didn’t, but I may have suspected it; my friend learned it in his own personal experience. His learning demonstrates one of my beliefs about God’s commandments: God wants the best for us. The study of the Commandments that Kathleen is leading this year on Friday evenings in our Omaha home puts it well, and I’ve stolen the title as the topic of my sermon: the Ten Commandments are “Love Carved in Stone.”

This Lent, the Worship Design Group has devised a series that works through the Commandments as a way of discovering how God wills the best for us. Today’s message is a sort of introduction to the series, some reflections on the Commandments in general. They are an expression of God’s love for us, as well as a guide for how we can express our love for God. As a guide for healthy relationship, the Commandments are “Love carved in stone.”

My friend Lindsey asked our Exodus study group once, “Can you think of a system of law anywhere or in any age that doesn’t somehow reflect the Ten Commandments?” These ideas are somehow fundamental to a healthy relationship with God, with God’s creation, with ourselves, and with each other. There was a terrific movie back in 1977 called “Oh, God!” John Denver played Jerry, the grocery store manager selected by God to be God’s messenger, and God was played by George Burns. I was looking for just the clip I wanted, and couldn’t find it, but as I remember it, the message that God wanted Jerry to give to the world was, “It can work.” Just do the things I’ve been teaching you to do, and the world can work. It’s that simple, and that difficult. If you’ve ever tried to keep all ten Commandments, then you know it’s difficult.

Imagine, though, what the world would be like if we did in fact put no other gods before us, so that we hungered and thirsted for God, not for money, power, and the most “likes” on social media. Imagine what it would be like if we did all refrain from theft, and adultery, and murder, and so forth. Imagine what it would be like if we did all step off the treadmill one day in seven to devote time and energy to God, ourselves, and our families and friends. It can work. God wants it to work. God has expressed not only in the Ten Commandments but in many other religious traditions and systems of laws a natural order that would work, if we would follow it. It would create peace among peoples. It would prevent abuse, human trafficking, and professional misconduct. It would bring honesty and fair fighting to our political systems. It would save the planet’s living things from the ravages of climate change. It would work, if we human beings would simply do it. God gives it to us because God loves us and wants our social systems to work, wants our lives to flourish. The Ten Commandments are love carved in stone: God’s love for us.

And the Commandments can be an expression of our love for God. Sometimes your husband or wife or friend or partner asks you to do something, and you don’t really understand why, but you do it because you love them and they asked you to do it. Frankly, we can make a good case for the “why” of all these Commandments – and I’m going to try to do so during this Lent series – but that’s beside the point. It is simply enough that we love God and God asked us to do this.

Behaving this way shows who we are and to whom we belong. On Sundays that I see a sea of red, and it isn’t Pentecost, I know that you are expressing a sense of belonging. You wear your red shirts with a big “N” because you together belong to something. Sometimes when you’re out you wear a “PCM” shirt to show to what church you belong. Some schools use uniforms, and the uniform is a way of showing belonging, such as here at the Korean Christian Academy in Tipitapa, Nicaragua.

Keeping the Ten Commandments is a way of showing that we belong to the Lord God. I remember talking with an Orthodox Jewish woman; she told me she had three teenage boys. One comment she made during our conversation was that they had never been to a high school football game. Why? Because the games are on Friday evenings, during the Sabbath. They keep Sabbath, and they don’t need to ask why: they keep Sabbath because it is what they do, it is part of their identity, it shows who they are and to whom they belong. You may remember that Senator Lieberman walked to Senator McCain’s funeral, because it was held on the Sabbath, and observant Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. It is who they are; it shows to whom they belong. Whether or not they ask, “Why?” they do it because they love the Lord God. The Ten Commandments are love carved in stone: God’s love for us and our love for God.

That helps me understand what Jesus means when he says that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. We talk a lot, especially around Christmas, about how the life and works of Jesus fulfill the prophets, but now I get what he means when he says that he fulfills the Law of God. God’s Law shows us God’s love for us and shows us how to love God. God’s Law shows us how valuable we are to God and how to respect ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. Is that not true of Jesus? Do not the teachings of Jesus show us our great worth in the sight of God, and the best ways to love God, ourselves, one another and the world in which we live? And does not Jesus’ gift of himself on the Cross make clear the breadth and wonder of God’s love for us?

Yes, of course. The Ten Commandments are God’s love carved in stone. Jesus Christ is God’s love shaped in flesh.

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

Sermon from February 2: Requiem for Amalek

Requiem for Amalek
Epiphany IV (O. T. 4); February 2, 2020
Exodus 17:8-16

Do you have a bogeyman, an enemy that you love to hate? I hope not, but it is not uncommon to identify some group of people as a perpetual enemy, as inherently wicked, and therefore to be feared, hated, and – if possible – exterminated. A few weeks ago I spoke of the impeachment of the Governor of Arizona when I was living there. I recall that any time Governor Mecham would get in any sort of trouble he would blame it on “homosexuals and dissident Democrats.” You got to believe there were homosexuals and dissident Democrats hiding behind every saguaro cactus, waiting to pounce.

How many perpetual enemies have we had over the centuries, and how hard has it been to overcome deep-seated hostility to people simply because of who they were or where they came from? Frequently our own government over the years has tried to identify someone as the enemy, as the people who are to be hated and feared. Whoever they happen to be at any given time, I hear an echo of Moses’ declaration at the end of today’s Scripture.

That is the sad side of the story I just read you. I remember this story from my childhood, and how inspired I was by the image of Moses holding his staff high. And even more inspiring was the image of Aaron and Hur standing to either side of him, holding up his arms. What a great sermon that would make: you may be the person standing to someone’s side, holding up their arms, inspiring others to victory. Indeed, that was the sermon I originally intended to preach.

But another line has stuck in my consciousness and I must address it: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). Moses said that in response to the Lord’s having indicated the intention of blotting out Amalek and the memory of Amalek. No one really knows why the Lord took such a dislike to Amalek, although some ideas have been ventured. What is the case is that Amalek, the Amalekites, became the bogeyman, the perpetual enemy, the foe lurking behind every bush. The only good Amalekite is a dead Amalekite.

Israel has other, hostile encounters with Amalek in the Exodus and during the settlement and conquest of Canaan. King Saul loses his right to dynasty because of problems with Amalek; the wicked Haman who plots to destroy all the Jews of the Persian Empire is said to be of the remnant of the Amalekites. And after generations of hostility, there is this line in the First Book of Chronicles: “[The Simeonites] destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites that had escaped” (I Chronicles 4:43). Israel found its final solution and, in the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, the last known Amalekites were wiped out.

Most of us in this room will wonder why a people will carry deep-seated hostility toward a particular group through multitudes of generations, while knowing that our own ancestors have done so. Sometimes we look at the hostilities of other groups and alternate between appalled and amused; we think of ourselves as more enlightened, above such hostilities. We would never give in to the idea that the Lord has perpetual war on any group from generation to generation. Or would we?

Whom does God love to hate? Now before you reflexively say, “No one,” please look deep in your heart and examine yourself. Is there anyone whom you assume to be the enemy of God? Homosexuals and dissident Democrats? Muslims? The One Percent? I’m not going any further. Because rather than focus on our own enlightened attitude, we need to focus on Jesus.

By Jesus’ day the Amalekites were long gone, but for his people the Samaritans were the group everyone loved to hate. When Jesus’ family would travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, they didn’t go the shortest route, because that would take them through Samaritan territory. Instead, they would detour, in order not to come into contact with Samaritans. It makes me think of white folks refusing to go into certain neighborhoods, or the way African American folks are subject to suspicion or even assault if they do go into certain neighborhoods. Anyway, Jesus gently dealt with the hostility of his people to the Samaritans by making a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories. He could have made the hero an Amalekite, but there were none anymore.

In July 1620, a group of Puritans who were living in the Netherlands left for England, there to board a ship for the New World, the Mayflower. Before they left the Netherlands, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them on their way with a sermon in which he said that people of the Reformation were always in danger of getting stuck where they were. Lutherans would not go beyond the teachings of Luther and embrace the insights of John Calvin, he said. And he added that Puritans and others who learned from John Calvin must not suppose that the understanding of the Christian Faith should stop there. He said, “For I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word.”[1] The image of more light breaking forth from the Word of God has stuck with the heirs of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

Our challenge, as disciples of Jesus, is not to get stuck in a way of thinking that supposes that the Lord has perpetual war against anyone, even Amalekites; instead, we look for more light to break forth from the Word of God as we study the Bible, live the Bible, and seek to follow Jesus. Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of a story; he welcomed great crowds from all over (Matthew 4:25, from the day’s Gospel reading), including people he was not supposed to associate with. We look to the words and way of Jesus for the more light that breaks forth from the Word of God.

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
to notions of our day and sect, crude, partial and confined:
no, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred:
the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.[2]

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

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Robinson-English-minister

[2] George Rawson, “We Limit Not the Truth of God” (1853) (in the public domain)

Pastor Bob’s February Letter

Dear people of God:

I heard a story recently on the radio that angered me; some of you may be angry at me for writing about it. But it feels right, given who we are as a church and that February we think of as the month of love.

A Lesbian couple in Tennessee were unable to adopt a child through their church’s social service agency, because it is the agency’s policy not to place children with same-sex married couples. Tennessee state law protects the right of faith-based agencies to refuse to serve same-sex married couples (Note: Neither Nebraska nor Iowa has such a law).

Now, I am not angry about Tennessee state law, specifically; I am not writing to you about state support for discrimination against LGBTQIA+ persons. Rather, I am angry with the ongoing assumption that Christian faith demands exclusion of such persons from our life, witness, worship, and social services. Whenever there is a public conversation about the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons, the general assumption is that Christians are opposed to equal rights.

These two women in Tennessee are active members of their congregation, yet the denomination of which they are a part has identified them as unsuitable to adopt a child, simply because they are both women. No consideration was given to their Christian faith, their financial stability, their ability to provide a good home. “We are Christians and therefore we consider you to be wrong” is the message.

Will we speak up and say that “We are Christians and therefore we are opposed to rights for LGBTQIA+ persons” does not follow logically? That we, like many congregations, welcome all who trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation?

One more note, which Chris Petersen mentioned in our recent gathering. He and I learned that the Human Rights Campaign asked LGBT young people if their church accepted them as they are. The results: 8% said “Yes;” 22% said, “Not at all;” 53% said they didn’t know. They didn’t know if their own church would accept them. If we do not say it, how will people know?

Pastor Bob

 

Sermon from January 26: The Rock Was Christ

The Rock Was Christ
Epiphany III (O. T. 3); January 26, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7

Once again, the people of God have a legitimate concern, and they express it by whining. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” The story has a strong tradition in the Bible, mostly as a warning not to test God, but I’m going to follow another tradition, one that is less literal and more metaphorical. I’ll try to explain it clearly; if I fail, please ask me questions later.

I feel the Holy Spirit compelling me to pursue two lines of thought, actually: a question of justice and a question of faith. The question of justice is the simple question of the availability of water for God’s people. Without going into detail, I suggest that the availability of fresh water is going to be one of the major resource issues of the near future. It will doubtless always be plentiful for those who live in favorable climates and who have plenty of money, but faithful people do not make decisions about availability of resources by who lives where or has plenty of money.

In the United States we have plentiful fresh water and we use it for everything: drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets, irrigation, watering golf courses… but you recall the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the State decided to save money and did not look at the consequences that held for real people. Anyway, we in the US typically use fresh water for everything, but in much of the world fresh water is much less available. They have designed ways to use “grey water” – water that has been used for washing – for appropriate purposes, such as irrigation and flushing toilets. Some US golf courses use grey water. And our homes can be re-engineered to use grey water as appropriate.

The availability of fresh water is an issue of justice for disciples of Jesus, because Jesus said explicitly that when people are thirsty, those who are faithful see that they have something to drink (Matthew 25:35). When I was in Haiti I saw the work of Presbyterian missionaries who were helping homeowners develop fresh-water retention systems so they would not have to walk miles to get water. Some of you know of the work of those working to provide fresh water in South Sudan and elsewhere. Yet the issue is more than simply one of charity, but also a question of justice. There are places where the powerful control the supply of water and use it to keep others carefully controlled, such as the State of Israel does to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Those who are disciples of Jesus and see that some are thirsty consider all appropriate remedies: engineering, mission work, and political action.

That was quick-and-dirty, but I think that question is relatively straight-forward. The other question I want to explore is more subtle. Let’s leave aside the matter of the people quarreling with Moses and doubting the love of God and instead focus on the reality that God did provide what they needed, and in a rather dramatic way. Moses struck the rock, and water came from it. They were somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula, approaching the Mountain of God. It was called Rephidim, but Moses called it Massah (“test”) and the rock was called Meribah (“quarrel”). The people had plenty to drink.

Now here’s the curious thing. In the Book of Numbers (20:2-13) a very similar story is told. The people are at Kadesh, and they have no water, so they quarrel with Moses about it. God gives slightly different instructions to Moses, but Moses doesn’t obey God fully; even so, water comes from the rock, and Moses names the rock Meribah, the same name as the rock at Rephidim.

The rabbis and the story-tellers and the interpreters have noticed these similarities, and they have wondered. Did the same thing happen twice? Or did it happen once and there are two different versions of the story? A poet, writing in the psalms, suggested that it happened at least twice and maybe more often (Psalm 78:15). One ancient writer, noticing that the rocks in two different places have the same name, suggested that in some way the rock was following them (Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 10:7).

Time out. I know that metaphorical and figurative readings of stories are difficult for some folks. I don’t mean that as a judgment; it is simply that different people think in different ways. But this is an example of why metaphorical and figurative readings are so important to me. After sixty-three years of experience, I am deeply convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is the means by which God reveals to us eternal truth, and that none of it is simply to be passed over. But I also cannot swallow the notion of a rock picking itself up and following the people through the desert. Figuratively speaking, it works for me. When the people needed water, Moses drew it from a rock, and the source was there whenever the people needed it. In a figurative sense, the rock was following them, because it was always there.

The Apostle Paul was writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, and he was trying to convince them that they should pay attention to the stories of the Bible. He picked up on this particular story, and he wrote to them:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud
and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the
spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:1-4)

I don’t think that Paul believed that a rock was following them around, or even necessarily that Christ was following them around. He’s speaking figuratively. Everywhere the people went they found the water they needed. And they are our ancestors in faith; not literal ancestors, and they were not the literal ancestors of the people of Corinth either. But in faith in God they are our ancestors, and as they were baptized by passing through the Red Sea, we were baptized in the baptistery or font; as they ate the manna, we eat the Lord’s Supper. And they drank from the rock that followed them; the rock from which we drink is Christ.

The Rock was Christ. How do I share with you what I have found in Christ? I’ll start with Scripture. A Psalm that has meant a great deal to me is Psalm 63, which begins:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
My soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you,
As in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)

I thirst for God. I have plenty of fresh water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, thanks to having been born and raised in comfort. But the part of me that is more than a consuming animal, my humanity, yearns for the life of the Spirit. Much of that thirst is quenched by the human arts, by music and theater, by poetry and visual art and by sports, but I thirst for the eternal. As the psalmist wrote, I thirst for God, for the living God, as in Psalm 42:

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Ps. 42:2)

Jesus once was having a conversation with a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s Well, and they were talking about water. He said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). The conversation continues, but the point Jesus gets across to her and which she comes to believe is that Jesus himself is the source of living water.

I was raised in the Christian Church; my parents took me to the Presbyterian Church of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to be baptized and we went to Sunday School every Sunday all our lives. I went to Confirmation Class every Wednesday afternoon for a year, to a teens Bible Study one evening a week, and to youth choir and youth group every Sunday evening. So when people ask when I knew that Jesus was my Savior, I answer that there was never a time that I didn’t know that Jesus was my Savior.

But… I have had many occasions to turn away from it all. I’ve described them to you over the years. My intellectual doubts as a thinking person; my emotional reactions to having been mistreated by Christian people; and other things too, including the appeal of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it all comes down to this: can I turn away from Jesus Christ? Because to turn away from Christian faith and practice, to turn away from the Church, is to turn away from Jesus Christ, which to me is like walking in the desert, finding water – fresh water, cold and sweet – and turning away from the water. I was thirsty, I have drunk deeply of the source of living water, and I don’t want it any more. Does that make sense?

One day I was having lunch with my colleagues; you know them, the ministers who are part of our family, who worship with us and help me at the Lord’s Table and who joined me in offering the oil of reaffirmation of faith a couple of weeks ago. We were having lunch, and I was expressing my sadness at the apparent decline of the Church. Look at all the empty chairs; a lot more of them are empty than a few years ago. I worry about that, as do some of you, and I asked my friends, “What does the Church need? Does it need a new program? A new pastor? A different way of doing things? Different music? What does the Church need?” and one of my colleagues said, “Jesus.”

My friend is right. Wherever you and I wander in this desert, the rock follows us. Many of our human thirsts are satisfied by what we experience in Church: the music, the arts, the stories, the laughter. But the deepest human thirst is the thirst for God, the thirst for that which is eternal, and the source of living water to satisfy that thirst is Jesus Christ. We can find music, art, stories, and laughter in many places, but only in His Church can we find Jesus Christ. Our ancestors drank from the rock, and the rock was Christ.

A final thought: the living water is meant for anyone who is thirsty. When Jesus said to offer something to drink to someone who is thirsty, he meant that literally. Do the work of mission and of justice so that the thirsty have water. But I’m sure he also meant it figuratively. When you know someone is thirsty for God, for the living God, offer them the living water that you have found in Jesus Christ. As it is written at the end of the Bible:

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Revelation 22:17)

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

 

Sermon from January 19: Bread of Heaven

Bread of Heaven
Epiphany II (O. T. 2); January 19, 2020
Exodus 16:1-21

I was looking through some things the other day and I happened across a note from February 1988; a member of the church I was serving (in Arizona) had written to my mother to express her appreciation for my sermon the previous Sunday. I remember that day: the House of Representatives of Arizona had just impeached the Governor, and the prospect of his trial and removal from office was tearing us apart. I don’t remember what I preached about, except that I remember calling upon the faithful to pray for the Senate, to pray for the Governor, and to pray for the people of Arizona.

I don’t know why my Mother kept that note, except that she kept nearly everything, but I know why I’m keeping it now that it has come to me: it is manna. It is bread from heaven. What I’m about to say is not meant to elicit anything from you – please don’t take it that way – but to tell you something of what God does for me. Much of the time I feel as though I’m wasting my life, as though I am not doing anything worthwhile, and there are often those who volunteer to point that out to me, sometimes forcefully. But once I preached a sermon that helped someone so much that she sent my mother a note to express her appreciation. God feeds me bread of heaven when I am choking on the ashes the world offers.

Last Sunday we read how God saved the Hebrew people from the Egyptians’ pursuit; they crossed the Red Sea and were free to start making their way to the Promised Land. After about six weeks they began to complain that they didn’t have enough to eat. Their memories are faulty: they remember “sitting by the fleshpots” when in fact they were working as slaves on the Pharaoh’s construction projects, but it is true that they ate. So they complain against Moses and Aaron; God responds by giving them “bread from heaven.”

When they saw it, they didn’t know what it was; they said (in Hebrew), “Man hu?” which means, “What is it?” From that question, “Man hu?” comes the word manna. One thing you can think whenever someone says the word “manna” is the question, “What is this stuff?” You and I may not recognize the bread of heaven when it comes. If you take time to think about it this afternoon – and this sounds like a good topic for your Sunday dinner conversation – you may realize that God has answered a need of yours in a way that you did not immediately recognize. “Man hu?” you said. What is this stuff?

I hope you and I can learn to express our need for bread from heaven in some way other than complaining about it. I wonder what God would have done if the people had begun to pray, “Lord, we’re hungry; please help us.” The Lord sometimes has strange ways of answering and the answers aren’t always immediate, but the Lord does respond to prayer. Sadly, every time the people of the Exodus have a need, they seem to express it by complaining, by accusing Moses of taking them into the wilderness to kill them, or by whining that they should have stayed in Egypt. I hope you and I find better, more positive ways to express our need than by whining. But whether whining or praying, God gives the bread of heaven.

Some connected thoughts. When the Devil tempted Jesus to turn the stones into bread, the Lord replied that a human being does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). Sometimes what we need is something to eat, and that is what comes to us; but very often the manna that God gives is something you can’t put your hands on but what you really need. You think you need a particular job but what God gives you is a change of perspective. You think you need to win the lottery but what you receive is the encouragement to keep going. You get my drift.

I frankly don’t want to get into the question of what “really” happened in response to the people’s hunger. That God should provide enough honey-wafers to feed 600,000 people every day for forty years seems a bit far-fetched, but I’m willing to accept it. And I’m also willing to accept your skepticism, because I can’t see a literal-historical reading of this story as an article of faith. The story is what it is, and it shows God responding to human need. And I know that God does respond to human need, sometimes in surprising ways. Man hu? What is this stuff?

But there are also ordinary things that God provides, day after day, that feed us with the bread of life. God has given us the Bible, a compendium of sacred stories and thoughtful reflections, and holy poetry, all intended to feed our spirits with the presence of God. God has given us the ministry of preaching, wherein a flawed, human interpreter enters into the holy place and struggles to come out of it with a word from the Lord. God has given us the Sacraments, reminding us that everything spiritual is also material, that God saves through water, that God feeds our spirits with Christ just as bread and wine feed our bodies. God gives us prayer; God gives us wise writers and teachers and mentors who help us keep our focus. These things are so unsurprising that sometimes you may even find them boring. You may also find oatmeal boring, but I can hardly start a winter day without it.

The other side of God’s giving us all this is our duty to receive it obediently. Moses carefully gave the people instructions about the manna: collect just as much as you need for the day (except Fridays; there won’t be any on Saturday, so collect twice as much on Friday – verses 22 to 30). Some people didn’t listen; they thought they needed to have extra – whether they wanted a snack at midnight or they didn’t believe there really would be manna the next day, I don’t know. At any rate, they didn’t listen, it went foul, and Moses was angry. I didn’t keep reading, but if you read on in the story you’ll see that Moses was quite clear that there would be no manna on Saturday – the Sabbath – so don’t bother looking for it. Some folks went out looking anyway, so Moses got angry again.

Our duty is to receive obediently the bread of heaven that God gives us. God gives us the Bible; it does you no good if you don’t read it. God gives you preaching; it does you no good if you don’t pay attention. God gives you the Sacraments; they do you no good if you ignore your Baptism and you stay away from the Lord’s Supper. I would like to go into a rant right now about the Church’s failure to be obedient about the Lord’s Supper by making it so rare, but I’ll let that go for now. People give all sorts of excuses, including “It wouldn’t be special,” but the root of the problem still is disobedience. God provides the bread of heaven, but doesn’t force-feed it.

Here’s one more connected thought to finish with. Once Jesus was having a heated conversation with a crowd, and they said to them, “God gave our ancestors bread from heaven to eat. What work are you doing?” Jesus responded that the manna that Moses arranged for was not the true bread from heaven. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then he added, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:30-35)

The reason the Bible feeds us is the Bible is the testimony to Jesus Christ. The word of the preacher is to point us to Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of God make us part of the life of Jesus Christ. These are all good in various ways, but they feed our need because they bring Jesus Christ to us. I don’t really need that note sent to my Mother to be my manna, because the Lord Jesus witnesses to me that my value is in the reality that I am part of his life. But the note helps.

Feed on Jesus Christ. Start reading the Gospels, if you haven’t, and get to know your Savior. Listen for testimony about Jesus in preaching. As you go about your day, look for and listen for signs of the presence and work of Jesus Christ in and around you. Take advantage of the Sacraments. A note: the Presbyterian Church publishes a wonderful guide for daily prayer, and every morning there is a prayer of thanksgiving for baptism. It helps me to remember that I am not my own Savior and that I depend on God by giving thanks, every morning, for my baptism.

That may be the take-away you and I need as confident, middle-class North Americans: as self-reliant as we think we are, if we are honest we realize that we depend on God for our lives. Day after day, as the people saw the manna, they knew they depended on God. So do you and I: we depend on God for the bread of heaven.

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

Sermon for January 12: The Lord Is Fighting for Us

The Lord is Fighting for Us
Baptism of the Lord (January 12, 2020)
Exodus 14:5-31, 15:20-21 (with Matthew 3:13-17)

The actions we are doing in the next part of this service (Reaffirmation of Baptism, Ordination and Installation of Deacons and Ruling Elders) carry the message so well that I don’t need to talk much. I implore you to pay close attention to the words and actions of what is to come.

But I wish briefly to emphasize two things in response to the readings. The first thing: how did the Egyptians react to what was happening to them in the Sea? They cried out, “The Lord is fighting for the Israelites!” To be people of God in the world is a constant struggle: you struggle against messages and influences from movies and television and social media and politics. Right now we are struggling to be peaceful and responsible and Christ-like in a polarized and militaristic environment. The Lord is fighting for us. The Israelites were afraid that they would be killed there at the sea, and all Moses’ attempts to reassure them failed. But God told Moses what to do, and he did it, and then the people had to take the risk to step out into the sea. They did it, Egypt close in pursuit. And the Lord saved them.

I am persuaded that if you and I remain true to our confession, if we stay committed to the way of Jesus Christ despite the increasing social pressure to give in to hate and fear, that the Lord fights for us. The Israelites had a concrete, human enemy: the Egyptians were coming to return them to slavery. That is not our issue: Iran is not our enemy; President Trump is not our enemy. Our enemy is rising blood-lust, militarism, and polarization. And our enemies are the voices in our heads: the voice that says that you’re no good, God can’t love you; or that says that you’re so good that you don’t need for God to love you.  Whatever our enemy may be, the Lord is fighting for us. Step out in faith and God will take care of the enemies of God’s people.

And the second thing is to remember that all Israel passed through the sea together. Moses encouraged them, Moses lifted his staff, but Moses did not cross over alone. Our Church’s Book of Common Worship often reminds us that our baptism is an echo of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea; they were saved through the water and so were we. And we all crossed together.

We are all the Church together. Consider the ministries we do that are effective and that have lasted. They were not started by a pastor; were they? The ministries we have that persist and serve well have been started by the Board of Deacons, or a group of women who got together, or a committee of the Session. Research has shown that for something in the Church to succeed and endure, it must come from the people and not from the Minister, but the Minister must be visibly supportive of it. We were all baptized into Christ, we together are the Church of Christ. I’ll continue to raise the staff and lead our prayer and worship, but we are all called to step into the Sea together. So now let us reaffirm our life together in Christ.

Then followed the Service of Reaffirmation of Baptism.

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