Sermon from November 17: The Egyptians Shall Know

The Egyptians Shall Know
Pentecost XXIII (O. T. 33); November 17, 2019
Exodus 7:1-13

Sometimes I wish that God would come out of hiding. One of my favorite writers, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote a poem (Psalm 1) that begins (translation by Armand F. Baker, altered):

Lord, Lord, why do you let atheists deny you?
Why, Lord, don’t you show yourself to us without veils or uncertainties?
Why, Lord, do you leave us in doubt, with the fear of death?
Why do you hide?
Why did you create in us the longing to know you,
to know that you exist,
only to hide yourself from our eyes?
Where are you, Lord; do you even exist?
Are you a product of my longing, or am I a product of yours?[1]

The Book of Isaiah contains this poem:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake at your presence –
As when fire kindles brushwood
And the fire causes water to boil –
To make your name known to your adversaries,
So that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Does anyone else ever feel that way? The yearning that God would peak out from behind the clouds and show the divine face? That all of our pronouncements about justice would be accompanied by God giving a show of force? Wouldn’t it be great if every time we said something about God’s agenda for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, that God would punctuate our words with some carefully targeted smiting?

I confess that my desire for such public action by the Almighty is only partly out of conviction that the world would be better if all of us obeyed the ways of God. There is also the selfish motivation of wanting everyone to know that I’m right about things. When my friend John was dying of cancer, I sent him a note. He was an atheist and we had a strange and wonderful friendship. Anyway, I wrote to him: If I’m right, I’ll see you again. If you’re right, we won’t know the difference. He liked that, I’m told.

In the midst of giving Moses his orders and cluing him in on events yet to come, the Lord God tells Moses the central motivation for all this: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” (7:5) God intends not only to save the holy people from slavery; God also intends for the Egyptians to know the error of their ways, and to know who really is God. Just so: we not only want to save the world from greed and violence, but we want the greedy and the violent to know the error of their ways, and to know who really is God.

Time to stop for a reality check. Is the real problem where Unamuno puts it, on atheists? Are those who deny that there is any God really the primary offenders against the ways of God? The percentage of the population, at least in the United States, that is explicitly atheist is very low. In my reading of works by and about atheists, I have no reason to believe that they are less likely to work for the well-being of human life and the creation in which we live than are explicitly Christian people. Indeed, I suggest that God has less trouble with those who don’t believe in God than with those of us who claim that we do believe in God, yet insist on wanting God on our own terms. We may say, “I can only worship a God who…” or “I can’t deal with a God who…”

This is not unlike our other relationships. Perhaps you have a friend, and you keep wishing your friend were more attentive, or thoughtful, or adventurous. You want your friend to be someone else, rather than accepting them as they are. Or perhaps you have made a project of trying to change your husband or wife into someone different, rather than doing the loving work of accepting him or her just as they are. We may want a God who fits our description, rather than relating to the God who is.

You know that Kathleen and I just returned from a symposium on C. S. Lewis, so I have to talk about it a little. One of the speakers (Dr. Jerry Root, Wheaton College) talked about Lewis’ intellectual and spiritual commitments, including devotion to reason and to theological reality. He said that what we ought to do is adjust our soul and mind to the plumb line of reality. That is, to stop saying, “I can only worship a God who…” or “This is what I want,” and to start saying, honestly, “This is who God is” and “This is what God has revealed.” We don’t, though; in our society and in our time we are inclined instead to use the power of reason to rationalize our own choices, the speaker said, rather than to adjust our soul and mind to the plumb line of reality.

God told Moses that by the signs God was about to do, the Egyptians would know that the Lord was indeed God. Spoiler alert: they did get it, but it was painful getting there. I am convinced that God is not hiding, but has been fully revealed, and whenever I start to yearn for God to come out of hiding the truth is that I am yearning for God to be revealed on my terms. At risk of wearing you out, a quick review of three ways that God has been fully disclosed to us.

We have the Bible. Some of it is history, some of it is poetry, some of it is allegory, some of it is parable, so it all takes a little work to get at what it’s saying to us. But I’ve been reading the Bible for myself since I was a little boy, and I’m convinced that it isn’t as hard as we usually make it out to be. And in particular, the parts that are most important for us are easiest to understand. And there is a wonderful line usually attributed to Mark Twain, although the evidence is that he probably didn’t stay it. Still, it sounds like him: Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.

Here’s a shorthand picture of how I see the Bible. In Genesis chapter three, Adam and Eve hide from God, because they’ve done something they were warned not to do and they were ashamed that they were naked before God and one another. God wanders through the Garden, crying out, “Where are you?” To me, the Bible is the story of God walking through the Garden, crying out, “Where are you?” while we continue to hide. We don’t need for God to stop hiding; God isn’t hiding. We are, waiting for God to come to us on our terms.

Second, we have the Creation itself. I think John Calvin was right when he said that if our vision were not obscured by our sin, then everything we need to know about God we could learn right from the Creation; but since we persist in arrogance and superstition, we need the Bible to make everything clear.[2] Still, if we pay attention to the facts of biology, physics, astronomy, climate science, geology, and so forth we can learn a great deal about the character and ways of the Creator. I’m not saying that Creation proves the existence of God; I am saying that those who believe in God should pay attention to the realities of Creation in order to learn more about Who God is. Again, as the speaker at the symposium said: adjust our souls and minds to the plumb line of reality.

And what more do we need to know of God than what has been shown us in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, the creativity of God working as a carpenter, a preacher, a teacher, a prophet, a victim, a conquering hero? What a wonderful image our New Testament reading (Luke 9:28-36) gave us! Jesus on the hilltop, his face and clothes glowing with the glory of heaven, talking with Moses and Elijah about his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Madeleine L’Engle writes that she heard a child say once that Jesus is God’s show-and-tell.[3] Again: God has shown us, but are we really paying attention? Do we study Jesus Christ and know him, or do we just praise him and talk about him?

As we will read later, when we return to Exodus after Advent and Christmas, the Egyptians did come to know that the Lord was God. I don’t know if atheists will ever believe in God or if practitioners of other religions will acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God. Frankly, I’m less concerned about that than about whether those of us who confess Jesus to be our Lord and Savior are trying to know Christ and to know the God whom he reveals. God predicted that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened against the truth, and it was for a very long time. My plea to you and to any others who encounter the words I speak today is that you and I not harden our hearts. Rather, open your hearts, let your heart be softened to be open to the ways and will of God. God is not hiding from us, but has been quite open to us in the Bible, in the Creation, and in Jesus Christ. Adjust your soul and mind to the plumb line of reality, the reality that the Lord is God.

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

[1] http://www.armandfbaker.com/translations/unamuno/poems_2.pdf

[2] Institutes of the Christian Religion I, v, 11 and I, vi, 1

[3] Personal comment. I have said that the three writers who have most influenced my view of God and of the Christian Faith are Miguel de Unamuno, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle. I think this is the first time I mentioned all three in a sermon!

Sermon from November 3: Trust the Signs

Trust the Signs
All Saints; November 3, 2019
Exodus 4:1-17

Let’s start by answering a question that some have asked. Our congregation this year has had fourteen deaths in our church family: eleven members and three friends. We are specifically picturing and naming the eleven members, but not the three friends, nor the many other names listed in your bulletin as people you and I remember this All Saints Sunday. Why is that? Are we so exclusive an organization that we care only about our members? Hardly.

It is because of what we believe about the word “saints.” Today is “All Saints” remembrance, and so we need to talk about saints. Roman Catholics have a particular understanding of saints: a person goes through a fairly rigorous process of post-death scrutiny before being declared a saint. That’s not the way we Presbyterians use the word. But we’re not at the other end of the spectrum either, claiming that a saint is anyone who has died and was a pretty good person.

We say that people are “saints” using the word the way the New Testament uses it: saints are those who have professed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and have been part of Christ’s Church to the end. Remember what it means to be a member of a Church: it’s not simply joining an organization. It is to publicly profess that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior and to commit yourself to following him in the life of a particular congregation.

So we remember our eleven siblings in Christ as “saints” because they professed Jesus Christ to be their Lord and Savior and they hung in there with Christ’s Church until their dying day. That isn’t always easy, is it? I’ve had days that I wanted to declare I would never darken the door of a church again; have you? But something always brings me up short; now don’t go all cynical on me and claim it’s the paycheck. I could earn a good living doing something else. That’s not why I’m committed to this Church.

I trust the signs. When Moses told the Lord that the people would not believe God had appeared to him, God gave him some pretty nifty signs to convince them. And, if you keep reading the story, you’ll see that they did trust the signs and believe in Moses. In our Gospel reading (Luke 9:12-20), Peter declares that Jesus is “the Messiah of God;” the story suggests that he came to the realization after seeing what Jesus did with five loaves and two fish. He trusted the sign.

If I believe that Jesus is the Messiah then it logically follows that I must be committed to His Church. The only way I can honestly turn away from Jesus’ Church is to turn away from Jesus; people who claim otherwise, who think they can be Christians without being part of the Church, have simply not paid attention to the Bible. And the signs given us by the saints encourage me to hang in there with Jesus and to hang in there with His Church.

Consider our eleven saints (Sue Mehaffey, Ruth Cook, Andrea Sherman, Dave Perry, Jan Blimling, Barb Oertell, Nancy Perry, Maureen Lambrecht, Cathy Heitmann, Bob Corry, Virginia Graham). Some you know better than others; some you may not have known at all. Some may have given you joy and others may have irritated you. Some you may easily call “saint” because of their virtue; with others you may feel inclined to choke on the word. Every one of them professed that Jesus Christ was Lord and Savior and every one of them hung in there with His Church to the end. When they were not members of this congregation, they were members of some congregation. And at the end, they were part of us.

I cannot go through All Saints without thinking of my mother, who died on All Saints Day five years ago (November 1, 2014). Anna is among the saints, but not because of her exemplary moral character. She was, indeed, a good woman and a great mother, but she was far from perfect. I do not care to tell you of her failings, but I will tell you this: she loved the Lord Jesus and his Church to the end. She was sometimes dismayed by the Church, and couldn’t go along with everything that happened, but her commitment never wavered. Anna professed Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior when she was a girl and she lived that faith until the day she died.

This last thought will show you why we observe All Saints. When my own faith and commitment waver, I think of Anna. And I think of Gaynell Rouse, and Refugio Haddad, and Allen Feldkamp, and Bill Raitt, and Beverly Shaw, and Ken Jensen, as well as so many whose names you would recognize… and I trust the signs. I trust by their profession of faith and their commitment to the end that, somehow, they too saw the God who appeared to Moses and who shared the bread and the fish. And they encourage me to profess the Faith and to live it to the end.

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

 

Sermon from October 27: Nec tamen consumebatur

Nec tamen consumebatur
Reformation Sunday (O. T. 30); October 27, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15

This beautiful “Burning Bush” at the corner of our church building is not what Moses saw, for sure, although such a plant on a Fall afternoon lifts my spirits. I don’t know what Moses did see; he saw something so remarkable that the description we have in Exodus 3 is the best way he could find to describe it.

This wonder called to his attention, and he turned aside from the direction he was going in order to take a look. He found himself on holy ground, and this one moment of turning aside led to his new life’s direction. Perhaps there’s a lesson for you and me right there: if you see something wonderful, that calls you from the path you’ve chosen thus far, there is a danger that God may lead you somewhere different. So best ignore it and continue stubbornly going the way you were.

Today, the last Sunday of October, many Protestants observe as Reformation Sunday, because Martin Luther and others did not stubbornly continue on the path they had chosen, but were called aside by the wonderful work of God. Martin Luther was a priest and professor of Bible, but when God called to him he ignited the fire of the Reformation. We point to October 31, 1517, the Eve of All Saints Day, as the day he set the match to the Roman Catholic establishment, but he had been led that way for a long time before.

We Presbyterians trace our heritage to John Calvin, who was on the path toward becoming a lawyer, when his own convictions led him to turn aside and hear the call of God to reform the Church. Our opening hymn, “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal #624) comes from the movement he led, and he may even have written it himself. The words certainly sound like him. And from his reformation in Switzerland to the Church of Scotland and from there to the Presbyterians of Ireland and then to America is our heritage. And so the emblem and motto I’ve chosen to talk about today is the emblem of the Church of Scotland, going back to 1691[1]. It shows the burning bush, and the motto “Nec tamen consumebatur:” “However, it was not consumed.”

There are two things I hope you will take with you today for your faith in Christ. The first is to come into the presence of God; the second is to be the presence of God.

The voice of the Lord said to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” What makes ground holy? I mean, dirt is dirt, right? But we have places we consider sacred. If you’ve ever been to San Antonio, you’ve probably visited the Alamo. I remember a sign that told us to keep a respectful silence, because the place was a shrine. What made it a shrine? The deaths of between 150 and 250 defenders in 1836 during the Texas Revolution. The memory of what happened there makes the Alamo holy ground, especially for Texans.

But on Horeb, the mountain of God, there was a plot that the angel told Moses was holy ground. Had something special happened there? Had there been a great battle, where many died? Well, you know what made it holy: the presence of God. Moses saw a great sight, and heard the voice of the angel, and knew he was in the presence of the Lord God. At such a moment, an act of reverence is called for, so he was commanded to remove his sandals.

So I’ll say a little about this space and what happens here. There is nothing about this space, as such, that makes it holy ground. We call this the Holy Table – not the altar; there is no altar in Presbyterian churches – because on it we prepare the Lord’s Supper, not because there is something intrinsically holy about this wood. This room is a “sanctuary” not because something in the floor tile makes it sacred, but because this is the room where the people of God gather for worship and prayer. You know that, but it bears repeating.

But when you come here, I hope you come with an attitude of awe and reverence, with the inclination that you ought to do something akin to removing your sandals, because this is holy ground: not because a sign tells you that this is a shrine, but because here you come into the presence of God. Our time of worship is not merely an emotional setting for you to get fifteen to twenty minutes of teaching; it is a real thing of itself; it is conversation with God. When you say your prayers in your room every morning or evening, it is your personal conversation with God. Here we come together as a people in conversation with God. God speaks to us, especially in the Bible, but also in preaching and in the Sacraments. And we speak to God in prayer and in song.

A woman told me a story about how a predecessor of mine taught her something important about worship. After service she mentioned to him that she didn’t particularly like one of the hymns; he asked her, “Whatever gave you the idea that this was about you?” His rather abrupt question taught her to put the focus in the right place. When people say they don’t like the music, or the way the Scriptures are read, or the structure of the liturgy, they simply show they haven’t yet learned what this is about. They’re not here to come into the presence of God; they’re here so that someone will make them happy.

The bush that burned but was not consumed is the wonder that drew Moses’ attention to the presence of God. We Protestant Christians rely not on wonders or show or splash, but on the Word and Sacraments to draw our attention to God. The burning bush reminds us that we are here to experience God, in all the terror and power of the Creator of the atom and of the galaxies.

But, as the Church of Scotland notes on their website, John Calvin pointed out something else about the bush that burned but was not consumed: it also represents the Church, you and me.[2] The Church is aflame with the Word of God, we burn with the news that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, and the Church’s enemies would burn the Church with the fire of Hell. There have been times in history, and there are still places in the world, where the fire is more literal. The Church of Jesus Christ has been cruelly persecuted by those who would suppress the good news that Jesus is Lord. We live in a time when the Enemy’s fire is the fire of apathy. Who cares? What difference does it make to me that Jesus is Lord? I’m content to be my own Lord. Or to let the government be Lord, or my company, or perhaps my daughter’s soccer team.

The Church burns with the Word of God and the Church is burned by the fires of evil and apathy, but the Church is not consumed. Nec tamen consumebatur. “However, it was not consumed.” If we remember that our primary purpose is to be the presence of God in the world, that will have an impact on how we think about ourselves and how we treat one another. I heard a woman say to the Session of her Church, “I have seen God in you.” I think what she meant was that she saw Godliness in the way they behaved, in the way they treated each other and in the way they led their Church in mission in the world.

If we see that our purpose is to be the presence of God in the world, we will get burned. There will be opposition and apathy, both within the Church and in the world around us. But the fire will not consume us, it cannot, because the bush that conveys the presence of God cannot be consumed. The revelation of God’s presence in the world, represented by the burning bush, came to its climax in Jesus of Nazareth, who was burned (figuratively speaking), but not consumed. People followed him not because of the power of his rhetoric or his natural charisma, I believe, but because they recognized in him the presence of God (see Luke 9:1-11, the Gospel for the day). And they killed him, but the Word of God cannot stay dead.

So, to finish where we started: remember the burning bush and what it means. Come to worship, read the Bible, say your prayers in order to come to the presence of God. And be the presence of God for someone. You and I can do that, because we belong to Jesus, who is himself the culmination of the presence of God for the world. Jesus himself was burned, but was not consumed: Nec tamen consumebatur.

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

[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/about_us/our_structure/church_emblem

[2] In his commentary on Exodus

Sermon from October 20: God Remembers

God Remembers
Pentecost XIX (O. T. 29); October 20, 2019
Exodus 2:11-25

I think I’ll start out by pointing out some similarities between the story of Moses and the story of Jesus. Knowing these will help set up the events that are coming in the story; also, if you aren’t interested in the rest of what I have to say, then you at least have something to think about.

Last week we read the story of the birth and infancy of Moses; now suddenly Moses is grown up. The Gospels treat Jesus much the same way. Mark and John don’t even bother to tell us about Jesus’ birth; they don’t consider it important. Luke goes into some detail, then skips ahead to a story about when Jesus is twelve, and then suddenly he’s an adult. Likewise Matthew tells briefly about his birth, then a story about his infancy, then suddenly he’s an adult.

Moses flees Egypt and remains away until the Pharaoh who threatened him dies.

Jesus’ family flees Palestine for Egypt and remains away until the Herod who threatened him dies.

God sent Moses to the people for salvation when they suffered under Egyptian oppression. God sent Jesus to the people for salvation when they suffered under Roman oppression.

But the similarity that I find most compelling is also somewhat subtle: both are strangers among their people. Jesus once said that “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Among his own people he cried out, “How long do I have to put up with you?” (Luke 9:41) and when he goes to Gentiles and heals a demoniac, they ask him to leave (Luke 8:37). And Moses: among Egyptians he is a Hebrew; among Midianites he is an Egyptian; and so he names his firstborn son “Alien” (Gershom), saying, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22).

There was a time when if I said “Alien” you would think of something hidden in Area 51 or from “Star Trek,” but with all the noise these days about aliens I don’t think you’ll be confused. If you picture Guatemalans fleeing gang murders, or Mexicans fleeing drug cartels, or people from any number of places in Africa or the Middle East fleeing constant warfare, then you have a picture of Moses and Jesus the aliens.

So here’s our picture of Moses thus far: passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened. He doesn’t sound too different from any of us. When he sees an Egyptian foreman beating a Hebrew slave, his sense of justice and his passion do not let him say, “I’m not getting involved.” He intervenes, but goes too far. Figuring he can get away with it, he kills the foreman. When he learns he didn’t get away with it, he’s frightened and he leaves the country. There he sees some men harassing a group of women trying to water their sheep, and he stands up for the women. This man has a passion for justice; he doesn’t want to see people mistreated. But he doesn’t always think through his actions. Standing up to the shepherds was the right thing to do; killing the Egyptian was not.

Isn’t it odd that the sisters didn’t invite Moses home with them to meet their father? Hospitality was a great virtue in the ancient world, and you would think that they would have thought for themselves that they should do something to repay Moses for his kindness. Their father, however, sent them back after him. Moses became a real asset to the family, so much so that Reuel (later in the story called Jethro, for some unknown reason) makes him his son-in-law. And, as you know, Moses and Zipporah have a son and name him Gershom: Alien.

After telling us all these events, the story-teller adds a note: the slavery of the Hebrews was oppressive, and their cries came up to heaven, and God remembered the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God remembered. I’m not going to quibble with you about whether God ever actually forgot, but simply look at things from the point of view of the slaves: they suffered for a very long time; it must have felt to them as though God had forgotten them. The story is about to turn to how God rescued them from slavery, and so the prologue says that God remembered the promise God had made to their ancestors.

God remembered. This is where the Scripture is going to instruct you and me today. And the Scripture is taking us to two places: to the people God remembers, and the people God uses to rescue them.

God remembers the slaves, in this story. In our own history as a nation, we can make a good connection there. How many years did African people suffer under slavery before God remembered them? They had many Moses-figures, perhaps pre-eminently Abraham Lincoln. Who today is groaning under oppression, wondering if God has forgotten them, and yearning for God to remember them?

And who will speak for them? You know how the story of Moses unfolds, I suspect; we’ll go into detail over the next several weeks about God sending Moses to speak on behalf of the Hebrew slaves. Who speaks today on behalf of those who wait for God to rescue them?

I’m going to answer two questions some have asked me and others have just others have just whispered to each other in the parking lot. Why, in Church, do we hear about the plight of Palestinians but don’t hear the “other side”? And why do we have a task force looking into how we could welcome LGBTQIA+ persons when we say we want to welcome everyone? Some of you are not going to like what I have to say, so let me remind you of the terms of our life as Christians. You do not have to agree with me. But since you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, you must listen to what your pastor says and consider it carefully. You can reject it, but if you do, you should reject it because you believe it does not accord with Biblical Christianity, not because it doesn’t suit your self-interest.

Why do we, in the Church, listen to the pleas of Palestinians while no one in the Church is presenting the point of view of the State of Israel? If you pay attention to the news, whether television, internet, radio, or newspaper, all you see and hear is the point of view of the State of Israel. Only in the Church is anyone speaking on behalf of Palestinians. I don’t think I even need to discuss the question of oppressor and oppressed, when the public bias in which we live is so evident. We have been conditioned to do two things: to associate the word “Palestinian” with “terrorist,” and to assume that any criticism of the government of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic. That is, of course, ridiculous; you can criticize the government of the United States without being anti-American; you can criticize the government of Russia without being anti-Caucasian; you can criticize the government of Somalia without being anti-African, so surely it is possible to criticize the government of the State of Israel without being anti-Semitic. But we have been conditioned. Very few dare in public to question whether the policies of the State of Israel toward a conquered people are just; only in the Church is anyone daring to speak up.

Likewise, we have a public bias about the relationship of Christian Faith to LGBTQIA persons. Simply: “I’m a Christian; therefore I condemn gay people” and so forth. Studies have revealed that one reason so many young Americans reject the Church is because they have been presented with two ideas: Christians hate science, and Christians hate gay people. Now, neither of those is true, but that is a public perception. Since LGBTQIA persons are condemned by Christians with a public voice, is anyone going to speak up and say, “No, we welcome them”?

In those cases – and in so many others – people may wonder if God will ever remember them. How many of the Hebrew slaves wondered if God would remember God’s people Israel? But God did remember, and God sent Moses, as we will begin to read next week. In today’s reading, though, we learn something about Moses that should encourage you and me: he wasn’t perfect. He was passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened. You’ll see all of that in the stories yet to come. And God was determined to use Moses as the instrument of the people’s salvation.

You and I are passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened. I know you wish you had a perfect pastor, like those you imagine you had in the past. And I wish I served a perfect congregation, like those I sometimes imagine existed in the past. But no pastor and no congregation have ever been perfect. God uses passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened people, like Moses and like you and me, to do God’s will. When God remembers oppressed people, and God wants to use us to rescue them, will we respond?

I don’t know when the world will see justice for Palestinian people. Or, for that matter, for Kurdish people or many other peoples now feeling forgotten. And your Inclusive Church Task Force has concluded that we are not ready, as a Church, to welcome LGBTQIA persons and so will keep working. I always have great hopes for the Church, because it is Jesus’ Church. It’s not your Church; it’s not my Church; it’s Jesus’ Church. The parallels between Moses and Jesus help us realize who we are as the people of Jesus: we are ones who respond to the call when God remembers.

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

 

Sermon from October 13: Imagine

Imagine
Pentecost XVIII (O. T. 28); October 13, 2019
Exodus 2:1-10

How much did Moses’ mother and sister know? We learn later that the sister’s name is Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and his mother’s name is Jochebed (Exodus 6:20); later rabbis said that Pharaoh’s daughter was named Bithiah (cf. I Chron. 4:17). I say all this so I can start calling them by name. Anyway, to my question. I find myself wondering about Jochebed’s decision to put the baby in a basket at that particular spot in the Nile. Did she know that was where Bithiah liked to go to bathe? And did she know that Bithiah was tender-hearted?

So much about this could have gone wrong. Remember that the Pharaoh’s order was to throw male Hebrew babies into the Nile to be drowned (1:22), and here Jochebed entrusts her baby to the very river that is supposed to be the instrument of his death! And when Bithiah found the baby, what could happen? Who gave the order to drown the babies? Pharaoh! Who is Bithiah’s Daddy? Pharaoh! Is it reasonable to expect her to defy her Father’s order, especially when accompanied by attendants who could snitch on her?

Nothing of this story is reasonable. I can’t help but wonder if Jochebed knew what she was doing, but even if she did, she was taking a terrible risk. You and I are inclined to avoid risk, to worry about what might happen, what could go wrong, but Jochebed and Miriam instead imagined what God might do. It would not surprise me if they knew that this was the spot where Bithiah liked to bathe and if they knew the sort of person Bithiah was, because Miriam shows herself to be quite clever. A three month-old needs a wet nurse, and she pops up and volunteers to find one for the Princess. Bithiah agrees, and Miriam finds her… Jochebed. So Jochebed got to nurse her own baby, raise him at least to toddlerhood, and get paid by the Egyptian government to do so! Now that’s clever.

Could you or I have imagined this turn of events? Instead of the Nile being the instrument of Moses’ death, it became the source of his new life; instead of a slave, he becomes a Prince of Egypt; and ultimately he becomes the instrument of his people’s salvation. I don’t think Jochebed and Miriam saw all that, but they did have enough imagination to take a big risk and see the possibility of it turning out well. They imagined possibilities and they followed through.

There are two things that frustrate you and me in the life of the Church, especially, but also in the life of our society: failure to imagine possibilities, and failure to follow through. You may have an issue right now in your family, where some of you are imagining possibilities and others are stubbornly resisting. And you may have that family member that is constantly imagining possibilities and never acting on any of them. Jochebed imagined that the river could save her son, and so she took him to the river. Miriam imagined that her mother could care for her own child and be seen as helping the Egyptians, and so she spoke up. Bithiah imagined a Hebrew slave could be an Egyptian prince, and so she adopted him. Imagine.

People of God, there are two takeaways from this story for us as a Church. One: imagine possibilities and follow through. Now I don’t know if Jochebed imagined what turned out, as I said, but she certainly imagined that the Lord could do something good with this risk she took. Jochebed and Miriam and Bithiah all showed themselves to be women of imagination, of Godly imagination, when they took risks. Jochebed risked her son’s life; Miriam risked her family’s situation; and Bithiah took perhaps the greatest risk of all in defying the law of her own father, the Pharaoh of Egypt. She is remembered by the rabbis as great among devout persons who were not of the people of Abraham.

And the other takeaway is a spiritual lesson. Remember that you are baptized. Moses was supposed to be drowned in the River Nile, but instead the River Nile became the source of his rescue and thus the salvation of his people. Jesus was taken to a Cross for his execution and the Cross became the beginning of his new life and thus the salvation of his people. When you were baptized, you were drowned in the Cross and raised to new life by the Cross; just as the River Nile became the water of rescue for Moses, the font of baptism is the water of rescue for you and me.

To see that takes imagination; imagine what God can do with you and with us now that we have been rescued in baptism, if we will only dare to imagine and to follow through.

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

 

Sermon from October 6: Brave

Brave
World Communion Sunday; October 6, 2019
Exodus 1:8-22

I was telling my friend about our congregational conversation last week around the question of becoming a More Light Church. I told him that the chief desire of those advocating for it is so that people would know that we’re a safe place, that LGBTQIA persons could come here and know they would feel safe. Later in the conversation, my friend said, “I have a question. You said your church wants to be a safe place. Would it be safe for me to come wearing a MAGA cap?”

That’s a good question. Would it be? Some months ago we met a transgender woman who is part of a nearby church which is hostile to transgendered people; she stays because it is her church and her presence forces them to have to deal with her. Is it safe to wear a MAGA cap here or does one have to be brave?

It not only takes courage to go to a place where you don’t feel safe, but it also takes courage to create an environment where people feel safe. It’s easy to welcome those you agree with, those you can feel sympathy toward; you have to be brave to welcome those who differ from you or whose opinions upset you.

The two Scriptures for today come together at that place: the place of bravery. First, Luke (8:16-21) sets the stage for us in two places. Jesus says that when you have light, let it shine. It’s easy to shine light in a place where it’s welcome, but to shine where people don’t want to see it is brave. And then Jesus says that blood family is irrelevant; the people he really considers family are those “who hear the word of God and do it.”

Hold that thought: the Gospel piece is to shine with the light of the word of God by doing it. Then from Exodus is the story of two very brave women, Shiphrah and Puah. When the Pharaoh demanded an explanation for their failure to kill the Hebrew children, they lied. They stood there, heads bowed before the divine monarch, the son of heaven, the ruler of that world’s most powerful nation and the one who held in his voice the power of life and death, and they lied to him. They lied in order to save the children of the people of God. They lied because they feared God.

Yes, they feared God. Those who fear God are able to be brave in the face of anyone who is less than God, even the Pharaoh of Egypt. They were quick and they were clever and they were brave. They heard the word of God and they did it, so Jesus would consider them family. They did not hide their light under a bushel, but let it shine in the darkness of the royal court. Oh, I suppose they could have told the Pharaoh the truth, and they would have been executed and he would have found midwives who would have done his will. No, better that they lied to him and could continue saving the Hebrew children, until he found another means to oppress them. But that’s next week’s story.

There are few people in the Bible I admire more than Shiphrah and Puah. Once when I was preaching about them, I praised them so strongly that a pregnant member of the church said to me afterward, “If I name this child Shiphrah Puah, it’s your fault!” She didn’t; she named her Kelsey, but I enjoyed her admiration for these midwives.

People of God, this is what I hope for us as a community of faith: that we will be brave. I hope we can be brave enough to move outside our comfort zones. I heard an athlete say, “Outside my comfort zone: that’s where the blessing is.” I ask myself what I push myself to do that is outside my comfort zone; if you ask yourself that question, then know that I’m with you. If we’re going to be a church that is Jesus’ family, we have to be willing to hear the word of God and do it, even if we’re afraid, even if it’s outside our comfort zone. I want that for us.

I hope we will be brave enough to be a safe place for anyone who feels unwelcome, even those we would rather not have to deal with.

I hope we will be brave enough to listen to one another and to listen to those not part of us. Last week in our congregational conversation you all spoke clearly and listened to one another respectfully. Now, it’s fun to stand in the parking lot and yell at someone, then walk away, but that’s not what mature people do, not what Christian people do: we speak and we listen.

And I hope that we will be brave enough to live by our principles, to hear the Word of God and do it. I hope that we will make decisions not because we’re afraid of who might get mad or who might leave; people have left the Church and do leave and will leave out of objection to something, but fear of what someone may do should not guide us. Rather, I hope we will be brave enough to hear the Word of God and do it.

So I pray that we will be brave, brave enough to create a comfort zone for those who need to feel safe, and brave enough to go outside our own comfort zones, to where we do not feel safe. Shiphrah and Puah will be our guides.

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

 

Message from September 29: Prayer from the Hiding

Note from the Pastor: On Sunday, young people who participated in the 2019 Presbyterian Youth Triennium led our worship. The theme of the Triennium was “Here’s My Heart,” from the third verse of the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The message of the day was a poem composed and performed by Jordan Petersen. Here is the text.

Prayer From the Hiding

I have spent a lifetime hiding.
Hiding from people
People who taunt, torment, hurt
A twisted, cruel game no one wants to play
But will say nothing against
And so I can be found in a dark corner
Forgotten

Hiding from people
Who want to touch, to kiss, hug
Who mean well but don’t understand that
Sometimes
I can’t stand the suffocation that comes with their embraces
So I can be found
In an undiscovered room
Silent

But usually,
I’m hiding from myself
And the darkness that purrs within my chest
And the emotions I feel so strongly
Too strongly
That they threaten to wash over me
And wipe out those around me
As I stand
Literally the eye in my own personal hurricane
There are more casualties than I care to admit.

I am hiding from the undeniable fragility
Of my terribly human heart.
And maybe it isn’t so terrible of a heart
Its beat a constant reminder of life
Its steady thrumming calms me as I lay half-asleep
But it is fickle
And it can be cruel
It can see someone broken
And mock them instead of being
That smile they desperately need
It can want and take with reckless abandon
Leaving with those taken bits of others’ past
Marking them as its own
And then discarding them
When it grows bored

It can be so hateful
And turn away every kind face
Because it is jealous
Of the smiles that some so easily
To those shining faces
And it is broken
Breaking every day
Each day brings a new fracture
Until they spiderweb out
Leaving me wondering
If a cave-in is imminent

And sometimes I can’t
Help but think
God
If You exist
If you’re there like everyone says
You are
How could You design something
with so major of a flaw?
One that is so sure to be my downfall?

If You’re there
How could You design us to lie
Our untruths like poisoned honey falling from sneering lips
How could You design us to steal
Our hands reaching, snatching, taking
Like vultures on a carcass
How could You design us to sin
With wild and reckless abandon
Straying farther from You
With every crime committed against You

And it leads me back
To that age-old argument.
If You exist.
Because my broken
Volatile
human heart
sometimes can’t
Or won’t
Believe.
Because I there are times
When I cannot feel You
I cannot see You.

Where I cannot find You
As others do
In the eyes of my neighbor
Or the kindness of a stranger
I can only see what is wrong
And there is so much wrong
I am told to look for the good
And I am trying
But my mind pinpoints the wrongs
On the bulletin board in my mind
Red strings attached to show
Wrong
Deceitful
Unjust

Is that something wrong with me?
Is there something so fundamentally broken
Or wrong with me
That I can’t find You?
Or is it that You just aren’t there?
Is your silence extended solely to me?

Sometimes, it feels as if
There is a hole somewhere in my chest
Where doubt has carved a cavern so deep
That I cannot find the end of it.
And maybe
Maybe some small, cowering part of me
Would prefer if You weren’t there
If You didn’t exist
Because then I wouldn’t have to explain
To anyone
How broken I am
And no one would really see

Maybe that small part of me is okay with that
Because it’s terrifying to think that
You have to look down
And see who I am
Because I am a human of contradictions
And I feel ashamed
And so maybe I hide from You too

Because everything
Everything in this world
Seems to point
To taunt
To mock and compare
To tell me I am not good enough
And if I am not good enough for the world around me
How can I possibly hope
To be good enough
For You?

So I hide
And those broken bits of me
That so desperately need healing
Find no refuge and no salvation
Because the belief I once held so strongly
Faded and withered like a poisoned vine
Desperately clinging to life
Unable to stretch further towards the light
Just. Stuck. There.
Desperate for help
Yet unwilling to ask.
Because how can I believe in You
If there is no hope
Of You believing in me?

Plastering on a smile
And throwing a laugh where it is needed
Sometimes, it’s easier to smile
To pretend
Sometimes the laughter is pure and genuine
Although tainted with something darker
And if I close my eyes
There are memories flashing
Behind my eyelids
Like butterflies
And it is as easy as breathing
To declare
“I believe in God”

Then there are days where there is nothing
I do not dare close my eyes
Because I will see this deep pit of nothing
This dark void inside my gut takes form
prowling under my skin like a caged beast
whispering doubts that no amount of sunshine
Or laughter
Can ever take from me

And I want to cry out to the Heavens,
“God! Save me from these feelings,
I am drowning
And I can’t do this alone
I cannot swim through this”
But I do not
Because I don’t know which I’m more afraid of
The echo
Or the answer
And so I hide

You’re called the Rock of Salvation
And all I could think of was the sea
And stones in that murky, sour water
Covered in soft-looking algae
Pulled down by their weight
Whispering secrets and mysteries
To those who dwell below
Forgotten, unseen by those above

And I didn’t want to be like that
I didn’t want you to sink me to the bottom
Below those churning waves
If you are truly a rock then I would plummet
The ocean floor rising to greet me
I didn’t want you to drown me
Overpower me
So that all that’s left of me is a song
At the bottom of the sea

So I hid
When I should have clung to you
Because in my frightened human heart
I never thought of stability
something so steadfast and unmoving
That it is unshakable
I thought of you as an anchor sending me to the bottom
Not one holding me fast
Against any storm
Against any current desperate to pull me away
To rip away every piece of me

But still I hide
Like most of us do
Hiding from Your light, Your warmth
Afraid it will burn our eyes
Instead of drying our tears
Afraid it will forsake us
After we grow to love it so dearly
So we distance ourselves
Shut ourselves in the dark
Because the fear
Of the creatures who dwell with us
Within that dark
Is sometimes easier
To manage, to leash
Than the fear
Of being unworthy
Of Your embraces

And Lord, I am sorry
Sorry that we hide from you
Sorry that I hide from you
You, who have made our
Human hearts in your image
While Yours surely breaks
As we cower
Terrified to be deemed unworthy
By a Father who has shown us
Nothing less than perfect love

A Father who gives his children
All he has and all he is
I am sorry that there are days
Where it seems that darkness
Is my only comfort
I am sorry that I am sometimes afraid
To say I believe in You
Because my fickle heart
Is full of contradictions
And I am sorry
For my broken human heart.

But I want you to know that I am trying
Every day, every hour, every second
Trying to be worthy of You
Because every second of every hour of every day
You battle my darknesses to keep them at bay
You bring back the light to me
When I have given up on the sunshine
When my doubt threatens to drown me
My Rock holds me fast
And when my fragile heart
Threatens to give out
You are there to soothe it, to calm it
I am not perfect
And I struggle to find you
But I promise you every day I will try.

Because it is You who saves
My people
Your people
It is You who offers light in the darkest of nights
It is You whose songs comfort the wailing of many
It is You who heals the weary, the broken
It is You whom we seek
And yes, sometimes
It is You we are
Afraid to find
But it is You who loves us
It is you who knows us
It is you who will try and bring us
Back to you

You knew me before I ever knew you
And no matter where my doubt takes me
You will be there
Waiting for me to come home
So when I come back
Fold me into your arms
Hold me there so my doubt
Is meaningless and shallow
In the light of your fathomless love.
When I return to that place of shadow
Do not fear
For I will find my way back to you
Lead me back
Light up my night
With your starshine.

God, I love you with all of my human heart
It is ever-changing and in turmoil, full of anger and greed
But it is mine
And I will offer it wholly to You.
And maybe that isn’t much
But it’s all I have
And I know deep in my singing bones
That it is enough
That am enough for You

I might be prone to anger so deep
It pours fire into my veins
Scorching my lungs and
Leaving me with crimson-tinged vision
Sadness so profound
It steals the breath from my lungs and
Sends tremors through my body
That I can barely contain
And doubt so agonizing
That every whisper of the wind frightens me
Makes my very soul cry out in despair

But You
Are prone to Love so complete
That you shaped our very lives with it
poured our very souls from it
And Compassion so strong
that maybe I can feel it
in the strength of my bones
Or the height of my shoulders
The current running through my veins
or the praises on my lips
And I am enough for You.
I am everything to You.

So Lord, take my heart
Forgive me for all the missing pieces
Kiss all the fractures
Smooth over the jagged edges
Bind them together with Your Love and Grace
Because You might just be the only thing
Strong enough to hold me together
And that’s okay
Take my heart, Lord
Take and seal it.
Seal it for thy courts above.

© 2019 Jordan Petersen

Sermon from September 22: We Do Not Lose Heart

“We do not lose heart.”
Pentecost XV (O. T. 25); September 22, 2019
II Corinthians 4:1-18

As part of this sermon, the ACE Puppet Troupe performed a piece called “Brave.” Since I cannot reproduce it adequately, I’ve removed portions of the sermon that set it up and responded to it, and left intact the bulk of my thoughts on the subject.

The Apostle Paul had all sorts of reasons to give up. A conservative Jew, when he became a follower of Jesus and started hanging out with Gentiles he was branded a race-traitor. Many of his fellow Christians were suspicious of him, said that he shouldn’t call himself an apostle, and spread rumors about him. Of course, he was frequently in trouble with the authorities, and in one catalog of his sufferings he notes that on five occasions he’s been whipped 39 times, three times beaten with rods and once subjected to stoning (II Corinthians 11:24-25). In the course of his work he also dealt with hunger, shipwreck, and other troubles.

So why did he keep going? He could have made a good living as a teacher, or making tents. Why did he keep preaching the Gospel and founding churches? Why do you and I keep going? Our times are not particularly friendly to a Christian agenda and even church people can be hostile to folks who are honestly trying to follow Jesus. Why do we keep going?

We read this entire chapter from Paul’s letter today because it both starts and ends with the same phrase: “We do not lose heart.” Paul certainly could have lost heart, but he never did. At the beginning of the chapter he said that he did not lose heart because “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry.” He had a strong sense of calling, and when you truly believe that the work you are doing is God’s work, that’s a powerful motivator to keep going. And at the end of the chapter, he said he did not lose heart because the suffering of this present time is stripping away our sinful human nature to make us ready for the glory of eternity. So we do not lose heart.

Part of what kept Paul going was the sense that he was responding to God’s call to him. Another part was anticipating the eternal weight of glory. Yet the key, I’m convinced, is in the heart of the chapter: “The God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). Let me focus you on the big picture and the small picture. The big picture is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness.” Sometimes you need to know that the garbage you’re digging through today connects in some way with a larger, meaningful whole. Paul could keep going because he was convinced he was serving the God who created the universe – and you can’t get bigger than that.

I remember a story in a publication for ministers in which the writer described the lives of clowns in the circus. Apparently the chief occupational hazard was being bitten by chimpanzees. And the writer described the constant annoyances that pastors have to put up with as “chimp bites.” Why put up with them? Because if we didn’t, then we wouldn’t be in the circus! You and I hang in there – we do not lose heart – in our struggle to live by the ways of God because we believe we are living for the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness.”

But the small picture is equally important: that light shines in our hearts in the face of Jesus Christ. A particular person, a carpenter who liked parties, a teacher who took time for children, a suffering Messiah, a risen Savior who invites us to eat and drink with him: that one shines in our hearts, and so we do not lose heart.

My friend and I read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning together, a reflection on his years in a Nazi concentration camp. You heard Steve Bhaerman refer to it last week;[1] he told us that Frankl and his friend vowed to find something to laugh at every day. Another thing in the book was that the writer said that what kept him going every day was that he found a sense of meaning. And it wasn’t something big and grand and glorious: his meaning in his daily existence was the hope of seeing his wife again. The image of her face in his mind kept him alive. It was the small thing.

We do not lose heart if we speak up against racism or bullying, if we join the struggle for the earth, if we love God and neighbor in acts of service, teaching, and salvation… we do not lose heart because it’s about Jesus. This isn’t about me; this isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus. And when we remember that the light shining in our hearts is the light of the Creator, shining in the face of Jesus Christ, then we do not lose heart.

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

 

[1] Comedian Steve Bhaerman spoke at our 10:30 service on September 15 on the subject “The Healing Power of Laughter.”

Sermon from September 15: Dios mio

Dios Mío
Pentecost XIV (O. T. 24); September 15, 2019
Ezekiel 36:22-28

The title of the sermon is inspired by a story I read many years ago. A particular Catholic bishop said that whenever he had a new priest in his diocese, who would be serving a congregation that included Hispanic/Latino persons, he would send that priest to Puerto Rico until he learned to say, “Dios mío:” “my God.” Over the course of my ministry I’ve been privileged to work with Puerto Rican folks, Mexican-American folks, and then this year to visit briefly Nicaragua. Although very different from one another, they all seemed to have this in common: an intensity of personal relationship with God. Dios mío.

That reflects what the Prophet Ezekiel was getting at in this passage. Here’s a recap of what’s going on in the Prophet’s words. Ezekiel has been reflecting on the behavior of God’s people and what led to the collapse of their society and their exile. He said that their failure to live by the ways of God – I could say, failure to obey the Law of God – that that failure caused dishonor to the name of God. Think about it: if one of your children does something terrible, don’t you feel your family’s name has been dishonored? So when the people of God fail to live by the ways of God, the Lord’s name is dishonored.

And so the Babylonians overran the country, destroyed the Temple, and took all the leading citizens into exile. In today’s reading comes the Lord’s promise: I will bring you home, and I will do a heart transplant on you. “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (v. 26). When you and I talk about the heart symbolically, we think of it as the place where emotions are: love, hate, lust, desire for revenge, and so forth. Among ancient Hebrew people, the heart was thought of as the seat of the will: from the heart came what you wanted to do, your goals, the things you set yourself to.

So when the Prophet says that the people used to have a heart of stone, he meant that they were stubborn, they resisted the will of God. And he says that God will give them a heart of flesh, so they would want to do the will of God. If they kept God’s Law at all in the past, he implies, they did so out of fear of punishment. But in the future, they would keep God’s Law – they would live by God’s ways – because they want to; “and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

The upshot of the whole thing: God has shown us how to live, and we have promised to live by God’s ways. When we don’t do it, we dishonor God (not to mention that we’re also messing up our planet and living with violence, poverty, and hunger). And God’s intention is that we live by God’s ways because we want to, not merely because we’re afraid of punishment.

It’s clear, given God’s freely offered forgiveness, that God understands when we fail to live up to the calling of God. When we want to do the right thing, but fail to, God freely forgives. God’s aggravation with us is when we don’t want to do the right thing, when we’re more concerned with protecting our own, grabbing our goodies, or even simply being lazy. When we want to do the right thing but fail, our heart is in the right place. But when we don’t want to do what God is calling us to do, then we are living with hearts of stone.

But Ezekiel says that God will give us new hearts, hearts of flesh, so that we will want to do God’s will. I keep wondering: when? When will my heart be changed, so that I genuinely always desire to do the right thing, when I no longer by my stubbornness dishonor the name of God? Despite Ezekiel’s promises, God persists in allowing us free will, in allowing us freely to choose to ignore God’s ways, to hold onto our hearts of stone.

I hope this makes sense to you and that you can see yourself in this mirror, too. Do you always freely choose to do the will of God, to live by God’s ways? Or do you also find yourself sometimes being selfish, sometimes being lazy, sometimes willfully doing the opposite of what God wants? Even if you’ve learned to say Dios mío and mean it, if you feel a close relationship with the God who loves you, surely there are times when your heart is stubborn and you simply want to serve yourself, not the Lord.

The Lord Jesus is working at showing us the way. For us to follow the ways of God because we want to, rather than because we’re afraid we might go to Hell if we don’t, requires a heart transplant, and Jesus is just the surgeon to do it. As you learn more about Jesus, about his life on earth, his teaching, his priorities, he becomes for you the sort of person you want to be. He touches the heart, the place where we say “my God” and choose our goals and priorities.

One of the great teachers of the Church, Peter Abelard, took a very different look at the Cross of Jesus from some others. While others viewed it as an offering to God, a sacrifice to pay for sins, he looked at it as God’s offering to us. God’s own Son went to the Cross as an expression of God’s love for us, and when we look, really look, at Christ Jesus on the Cross, then we are moved to change for the better: our hearts of stone are melted and become hearts of flesh.

And this occurs to me, too: if I want to know God, if I really want God in my life, where do I turn? Do I follow the rules to try to get God to accept me? If I’m good enough, will God notice me and make me part of God’s life? Or shall I listen to Jesus, who said, “Come to me”? Shall I allow my heart and mind to be opened to Jesus, so that by turning to him I may find myself in the life of God? Well, you know what I think.

I think that God is so fascinating and exciting that I want God in my life, and so I turn to Jesus Christ. And I’ll try, however haltingly, to follow the ways of God, not because I’m afraid I’ll go to Hell if I don’t, but simply because I want to. And when I get lazy or stubborn and don’t want to, I’ll pray that God will change my heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, so that I can truly say: Dios mío.

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

 

Sermon from September 8: Joy in the Ordinary Day

Joy in the Ordinary Day
Pentecost XIII (O. T. 23); September 8, 2019
Psalm 4

To the reader: The Worship Design Group of our Church starts a four-week series today, “Here’s My Heart.” Each week we focus on a different idea about the heart: physical, metaphorical, emotional, spiritual. This week is “God mends broken hearts.”

After Nancy Perry’s burial on Wednesday, I was talking to one of her daughters. I observed what a beautiful day it was; she said, “Yes, Mom would have loved it. Mom was the sort who always noticed things: the blue sky, a flower…” In the midst of her grief, she took joy from the simple memory of her mother’s attentiveness to beauty.

Our focus today is on God’s mending broken hearts. I suspect nearly everyone in this room, at least if you’re over fifteen years old, has had your heart broken at least once. Consider what has helped you heal. A lot of it is beyond your control: the passage of time, the attentiveness of friends, the encouragement of Scripture. What you can control is where you place your attention, what you choose to think about.

Some years ago I memorized Psalm 4 in the New Revised Standard Version; I got the idea from a book by Eugene Peterson about the use of the Psalms in your prayer life.[1] I committed the Psalm to memory and I recite it every night. After I’ve turned out the light from my reading, and before I fall asleep, I recite Psalm 4. The last verse (“I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety”) is what makes it a bedtime psalm, but my favorite verse is the next-to-last. In the NRSV it’s, “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.” It’s a response to the many who ask God for favors; the poet says, essentially, they can have their favors; God has put gladness in my heart.

In The Message (coincidentally, a paraphrase also by Eugene Peterson), those lines are:

Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say.
“More, more.”
I have God’s more-than-enough,
More joy in one ordinary day
Than they get in all their shopping sprees.

“I have God’s more-than-enough.” Because you and I have given ourselves to God, and God’s beauty and bounty are key to our lives, joy in an ordinary day surpasses the thrill of stuff from a bout of big spending. “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.”

God’s work of mending a broken heart is often seen in the subtle ways God works around us: the friend who calls at the right moment, the message that arrives when needed, the sun breaking through clouds. And it is also in teaching us where to put our attention: to notice the blue sky after your mother’s burial, to enjoy a fresh tomato when the sadness piles up, to allow our hearts to receive gladness more than when their grain and wine abound, to take joy in the ordinary day.

The key, I believe, is to trust God. Hearts in our congregation are broken at the many deaths we have had so far this year: Laurie Wilson, Sue Mehaffey, Ruth Cook, Andrea Sherman, Dave Perry, Jan Blimling, Fred Henninger, Barb Oertell, Nancy Pearson Perry, Maureen Lambrecht. People say all sorts of well-meaning things in response to our sadness, and sometimes those things help. The Pastor aims to comfort and encourage us, to help our hearts to heal, from the witness of Scripture. Although people will say all sorts of things about life after death, we really know very little. Here are two things that I think I know, two things that can help mend broken hearts, that I certainly believe.

First: Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. Since Christ is raised, resurrection is real. Christ has gone before us into the tomb and through the tomb and blazed the way to new life. Because Christ lives, we too shall live. And because Christ lives now, every ordinary day is an opportunity to be touched by Christ, to eat and drink with him, or chat with him, or recognize his goodness in a blue sky. Since Christ is alive in your ordinary day, there is joy in your ordinary day.

Second: God is trustworthy. I try not to say much about what resurrection life is like, because the Bible says very little about it and I don’t want to go beyond what the Bible says. So I don’t know what life-after-death is like. But I believe I can trust God, and that God knows what God is doing, and so whatever it means for Laurie, Sue, Ruth, Andrea, Dave, Jan, Fred, Barb, Nancy, and Maureen, God can be trusted to be looking after them.

That’s really all I want to say to you. If you and I can trust God for that, then we can trust God for today and for every ordinary day.

Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say.
“More, more.”
I have God’s more-than-enough,
More joy in one ordinary day
Than they get in all their shopping sprees.

“You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.” Thanks be to God.

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

 

[1] Eugene Peterson: Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row, 1989)