Sermon from October 10: I Am Andrew

I Am Andrew
Pentecost XX; October 10, 2021
John 6:1-21

I am Andrew, disciple of Jesus, brother of Simon Peter. My brother and I had a fishing business together and did very well until Jesus came along and turned our lives upside-down. It was a good thing, to be sure, but my life did not end with a comfortable retirement in Bethsaida after a successful career in fishing, as I had expected. It ended on a Cross.

Well, I grew up in Bethsaida, learning fishing with my brother from our father. My friend Philip was also from Bethsaida and we were always good friends. When John the Baptizer started preaching at the Jordan River, I spent some time with him, and Philip did too, because I’ve always wanted to learn whatever I could to be a better follower of God. When Philip and I were with John one day this Jesus walked by and John said, “Look! Here is the lamb of God!” Well, that was a revelation. “Lamb of God” must mean that John thought this man was the one destined to be the salvation of Israel, so we left John there and followed Jesus. Jesus asked us why we were following him, and I said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He invited us in and we talked all day. I was convinced that John was right, so I went and found my brother and took him to Jesus. I said, “We have found the Messiah.”

That began three years of living with Jesus and learning from Jesus. It was a struggle, because his ideas were so strange, but compelling, you know? And we saw so many remarkable things. Our friends James and John, the sons of Zebedee, also became disciples, and somehow Simon – whom you call Peter – and James and John became Jesus’ inner circle. While those three clustered around the front, Philip and I hung together in the second rank, and then the others. Actually, Judas often seemed closer to Jesus than anyone, which made what happened later even more of a surprise.

It seemed to be my role to make connections whenever necessary. For example, when we were on a hillside and he was teaching and everyone was growing hungry, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we going to feed all these people?” Philip said that there was no way we could raise enough money to feed them. I said, “Well, here is a boy with five loaves of barley bread and two fish, but how far will that go with this many people?” You know what happened then; Jesus fed the crowd and then we gathered enough leftovers for the twelve of us each to have food for the next day.

Likewise, when were in Jerusalem that last week before Jesus’ crucifixion, some Greek visitors came to us and said to Philip, “We wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps they sought out Philip because he spoke such excellent Greek. Well, he wasn’t sure what to do, so he of course found me and together we went to Jesus. This must have been a sign Jesus was looking for, when foreigners would come to seek him, because he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” I was not sure why the arrival of some Greeks was a sign, but I understood what he meant when he said he was going to be “glorified:” the time had come for him to die for the salvation of Israel.

You know, I suppose, that after Jesus was arrested we all scattered and hid; we assumed they would come next for us. And probably they would have. Then we had those remarkable forty days after he was killed and raised to new life: we ate with him and drank with him; we enjoyed grilled fish at the lakeside; we had a chance to learn some more. And then, at last, he left us.

I do not know how much you know of what happened after that. The Holy Spirit came upon us in power and we had wonderful success in turning people’s hearts to Jesus. Thousands of people in Jerusalem came to believe that he was the Messiah and they trusted in him for salvation; it was a wonderful, exhilarating time. Then when the leaders of Judea began to feel threatened, the persecution began. My brother was imprisoned; our friend James was executed. We hid for a while and then we finally did what Jesus had told us we would do: we scattered to different directions in order to tell the world about Jesus.

I headed north to the Black Sea area; I spent much of my time in Byzantium, which was later called Constantinople and which you know as Istanbul. I made my way to Kyiv and then to Greece and was preaching about Jesus in the port city of Patras. The Governor there, Aegeas, ordered me to stop preaching about Jesus, but how could I stop telling the truth? So I defied his order, for which I was condemned to die by crucifixion. Well, crucifixion was the standard punishment for enemies of the State, but I felt myself unworthy to die the same way my Savior had died. So the Cross on which I was killed was an X-shape. One of the crosses you display here during Lent is called a St. Andrew’s Cross and your Pastor’s stoles have an X on the nape for the St. Andrew’s Cross.

Let me digress a moment by telling you a story about the Cross named for me. After I died, parts of my skeleton were preserved in different places. That was common among ancient Christians as a way of showing respect for the Apostles and other martyrs. Anyway, because of dangers from the east, early in the eighth century some of my relics were taken to Scotland, to the city now known as St. Andrews. You think of that city in connection with golf, but it’s named for me for a holier reason. Then during one of the many times the English sought to subject Scotland to their tyranny, Óengus II led a vastly outnumbered army of Picts and Scots against the Angles. Before the battle, he saw in a deep blue sky an X-shaped cross of fluffy white clouds, just like the cross on which I was executed. He vowed that if he won the battle, he would name me as the patron saint of Scotland. He did win, and I was so named, and the white X-shaped cross (called the Saltire) on a sky-blue field is the flag of Scotland, and November 30, St. Andrew’s Day, is the national day for Scottish people.

Well, what more should I say to you? I have sometimes reflected on my career as an apostle, and there are two things that stand out to me. One of them is that it seems that it was my job to bring other people to Jesus. I brought my brother Simon Peter to Jesus. I brought the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish to Jesus. And, with my buddy Philip, I brought those Greeks to Jesus. So it is no surprise to me that I should have brought people in Byzantium and Ukraine and Greece to Jesus, and that I would be sentenced to death because I refused to stop bringing people to Jesus. I wonder if some of you may not also be in that position: your job seems to be to bring other people to Jesus. They will doubtless remember you for it, even if you do not.

The other thing to say to you is that it would be easy, I suppose, for me to be envious. I brought my brother to Jesus. I helped Jesus to call James and John. So, Peter, Andrew, James, and John should have been the Big Four. But read your Gospels. Who went with Jesus into the room with Jairus when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead? Peter, James, and John. Who was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus? Peter, James, and John. Who was nearby in the Garden of Gethsemane? Peter, James, and John. Why was it always, “Peter, James, and John” and not, “Peter, Andrew, James, and John”?

I do not know. And after a long time of reflection I find that I do not care. I do not need to be honored as one of those at the center. I can be an also-ran. Are not some of you also-rans? You look at what your classmates from school have accomplished, and even though you have had a good life so far still you could be envious of them. Maybe you also have a famous sibling and you are tempted to be envious. I am Andrew, just Andrew. I’m not one of the Big Three; I’m not remembered as the First Pope or the first Apostle to be martyred or the author of a Gospel. It is nice that Scottish people have parties on the anniversary of my death. But I know that I am in the second rank, not at the center like my brother. And I’m fine with that. My job was not to become famous; my job was to bring people to Jesus. And that is what I did.

I am Andrew, disciple of Jesus. What can be more important than that?

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

Source information:

Whenever the Gospel accounts conflict, I went with John’s version, since the text for the day was from John.

Scripture sources: John 1:35-42; 6:8-9; 12:20-26; Mark 3:18; Acts 1:13

Information about his later ministry and martyrdom from Wikipedia and other online sources.

I extrapolate his friendship with Philip from the frequency with which they are mentioned together in the Bible.

 

Sermon for World Communion: In the World

In the World

World Communion; October 3, 2021

John 1:1-18

Last Sunday I wondered what I could do about church. I knew I would eventually watch the webcast of our service, but my travel schedule was such that I knew I wouldn’t see it on Sunday. The timing of my layover in Philadelphia was such that I also didn’t plan to look for a church downtown to attend. On the train that morning I had said Morning Prayer from my Presbyterian Daily Prayer book and my Bible, but I do that every day. What was I going to do about Sunday? I mentally shrugged my shoulders and figured, “Probably nothing.”

After my train got into Philadelphia I put my luggage in the Metropolitan Lounge and went for a walk. I exited 30th Street Station and walked down Market Street, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, the morning joggers and folks walking their dogs. As I got close to City Hall, I heard music. It was attractive, so I started looking for the source. When I got to a small park, I knew I was close; I realized I was hearing a praise song and I saw a woman dancing. Of course I walked over. There among the people enjoying their donuts and coffee and the joggers running through was a small gathering of Christians, holding worship in a city park.

The music stopped and the preacher began. He read some lines from I Samuel and some more from II Samuel, announcing his theme would be, “Trust the Process.” He stumbled over words as he read the sermon, which made it all rather hard to listen to. More than once I decided to move on, but I stopped myself. I told myself the quality of the delivery didn’t matter if the preacher had a word from the Lord, so I stayed and listened. I was encouraged by what he said, as he used the story of David to tell his listeners to trust whatever process God is putting them through. After he finished and another speaker came up to encourage people to give their lives to Jesus, I did resume my walk, thinking about the wonder that the Holy Spirit had led me to church, because church wasn’t confined to walls but was worshiping in a park in downtown Philadelphia.

For the month of October, the “Year of Bible” has us in the Gospel of John, which begins with some of the most beautiful and theologically dense poetry in the New Testament. I enjoyed Cindy’s reference a couple of weeks ago to “sound theology;” there is a wealth of sound theology in these words. One important theme that sounds loudly is that in Jesus Christ the Word of God was in the world. If you’d like, on Wednesday evening during my Zoom Bible study we can talk more about the many implications of John’s use of this idea of the “Word,” but what arrests me today is that the Word was “in the world.” You don’t need to climb a mountain to seek the hermit who lives up there; you don’t need to spend hours in a library poring through obscure texts. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” The Word of God is in the world: in synagogues and on hilltops and on the Sea of Galilee and in a park in center city Philadelphia while joggers run through and a wandering Presbyterian minister tells himself to stop being critical and listen.

How will we recognize the Word? Our Church’s Mission Statement is to “Seek Jesus Christ every day, everywhere, in everyone.” I have sometimes joked with you that while we seek him, I wonder if we will recognize him when we find him. John tells us how to recognize the Word of God in the world, too. “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Even though the preacher stumbled over his words and his illustrations were sort of silly, I knew that his words were the Word of God because they were filled with grace and truth. He encouraged people to trust that God was taking them somewhere in the process; he used Scripture faithfully and well; he was not there to judge anyone by the Law but to encourage them in the name of Jesus.

Two weeks ago Cindy introduced the Book of Hebrews by telling us that the congregation receiving the message was tired; I was certainly tired before I took my vacation. I think most if not all of us are tired of the so-called culture wars of our time and I don’t think they’ll be over any time soon. Rather than ignore the news or check out of the struggle, can we find the Word of God in that struggle? After all, John says that the Word was in the world; he didn’t check out of the struggles and the culture wars of his era but he put them in perspective with the wonderful stories he told, always pointing to grace and truth. Can we find grace and truth in our time?

A few stories come to mind. An old friend of mine used to write reflections he called Glimpses of Grace. One that is vivid is something he saw in his neighborhood. A neighbor girl had a cat that she loved; one day the cat escaped the house and, while running across the street, was hit and killed by a car. The little girl was heartbroken. Early the next morning, before hardly anyone else was up, my friend saw a neighbor woman out in the middle of the street with a brush and a bucket of soapy water; she was scrubbing up the blood still on the pavement, so the little girl would not have a constant reminder every day she walked to school or went out to play of the tragic death of her cat. Later in his Gospel, John gives us a picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and wiping them with the towel around his waist. For years, my picture of grace and truth has been a neighbor lady scrubbing a cat’s blood off a village street.

Although I strive to love everyone in my care, some people of course stand out. One of them is Ruth, whom I knew more than 30 years ago when she was in her 90s. She invited me to tea at her home and she served me tea, toast, and chilled tongue on her mother’s china. She told me that it was the first time she had used that china since her mother died; I said I was honored and she replied, “You should be!” Well, she also told me about her grandson, whom she didn’t understand. He had gotten a divorce from his wife and had taken up with a man. She didn’t understand what it meant to be gay. But she also said that it didn’t matter if she understood, because she loved him. When I look for the Word in the world, full of grace and truth, the Word looks to me like Ruth, looking across her cup of tea, telling me she didn’t understand her grandson but she knew she didn’t have to understand; she needed only to love him.

Of course, these are pictures in my life. I’m sure you have similar pictures. The picture we all have in common is the Cross of Jesus, which Cindy reminded us last week was not the result of some mugging but was his freely chosen destiny for the sake of our salvation. I don’t think you and I need to understand the doctrine of the atonement – none of the Gospels, including John, explains it, but they all focus on the Cross – for us to be able to look at the Cross of Jesus and see the fullness of grace and truth. When you look for the Word of God in the world, look for the Cross. I don’t necessarily mean an illuminated Cross towering over a building or on a billboard; I mean look for people loving sacrificially, look for grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

It has not escaped my notice that today is World Communion. John said that the Word “came to what was his own, and his own did not accept him.” Our translation says “his own people” but that’s because a translator was trying to make sense of it; in reality it simply says “his own,” which could mean his own family didn’t accept him; his own nation didn’t accept him; or his own race, the human race, all of us, didn’t accept him. We have all had a struggle accepting grace and truth, because law is so much easier to grasp.

Yet grace and truth are for everybody: John calls the Word “the light that enlightens everyone” and says the “life was the light of humanity.” The Word is for the whole world; this day of World Communion we rejoice that the Word is in the world and for the world, and not for us alone. The Word is for a little girl who lost her beloved cat, for Ruth’s grandson, and for a church gathered in a park in center city Philadelphia. Yet the Word is for us, the Word is our light, the Word is our life. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

Sermon from September 5: The Unchained Word

The Unchained Word
Pentecost XV; September 5, 2021
II Timothy 2:1-13

Let me get this out the way right up front: if you have done any study of the New Testament, you may have been taught that Paul probably didn’t write II Timothy. Well, that was a prevailing scholarly opinion for over a century, but is not universal. There are good reasons to claim that Paul did write this, so I’m going to go ahead and speak about the author as Paul. And frankly, it doesn’t matter a whole lot, anyway. It’s still in the Bible.

Paul writes that he is committed to the gospel that claims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, long expected by God’s people, and that Jesus is raised from the dead. In that light, he starts out by reminding us of the importance of passing on that gospel from one generation to the next. Human survival depends on people passing on lots and lots of knowledge from one generation to the next, and that includes the knowledge of God.

Let me dive into this a little deeper. Paul says that the Gospel is that Jesus is the Son of David and that he is raised from the dead. As the Son of David, Jesus is the human figure that people have longed for; he is the hope for salvation, the way of peace, the vehicle for God to turn this world more and more into the kingdom of God. God had promised David that he would have an heir who would be the righteous ruler of God’s people; Jesus is that heir. So Jesus is our salvation; Jesus is our hope.

Paul says that Jesus is raised from the dead: that means that he is alive, he is our living Lord, whom we can know and serve. He gives us grace; he receives our praise. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Paul doesn’t write, “Remember doctrine about Jesus;” he writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David.” I emphasize this to make clear the most important aspect of transmitting the Faith from one generation to the next. It is not most important to teach doctrines; Paul didn’t say to remember the doctrine of the Resurrection, but to remember Jesus Christ, who is raised. It is not most important to help young people become good church members. It is most important to teach each generation to know Jesus Christ. When you parents take vows of baptism, your promise is not merely to pass on information about Jesus to your children. Your promise is to help them to know Jesus.

If we fail to do it, I believe God will find a way to get it done, but we will have missed our opportunity. Though Paul is in chains for the gospel he serves, the word of God is not chained. If we chain our lips and do not teach a generation to know Jesus Christ, God will find a way to get the unchained word out just the same. But we will have missed out.

Now, to emphasize the seriousness of dedication to the gospel of Jesus, Paul gives us some compelling images: the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. Can you identify with any of these? I know we have quite a few veterans in our congregation, and I wonder if Paul’s words ring true. He says that the soldier is not to get bogged down in trivialities, but is to have single-minded focus on the orders of the superior officer. Here’s a moment from my own life that illustrates that for me. For many years I played the role of the Lord Mayor at the Ohio Renaissance Festival. Now, in 16th-century England, mayors were not elected; they were appointed by the Earl or other noble responsible for the town. So I used to joke that I was a politician, but that I needed only one vote to stay in office: the vote of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

The soldier is devoted to the army’s discipline. The athlete is devoted to their sport. You may have enjoyed the Olympics this summer and admired the skill of these young athletes. Perhaps you heard or read about the hours they put into training, and the other aspects of life they neglect in their discipline. Perhaps you know dancers, and their hard work and training, and their strict diet and other discipline. And Paul also notes farmers, who if they work hard deserve to receive the benefits of the harvest.

Likewise, to know and follow Jesus Christ takes discipline. Worship, study, service, and prayer all interfere with other aspects of life, but they are worth the prize of knowing Jesus. Paul often uses the image of the athlete, and the reward of wearing the laurel wreath after winning the race. In our day, we would talk about the gold medal: all the training, discipline, and sacrifice are rewarded by wearing the gold medal. Likewise, the disciplined spiritual life is rewarded by knowing Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David.

Paul finishes the section I read by quoting an old hymn, and it gives me a chance to say something about perfectionism. That is always the danger in any undertaking: the danger of being a perfectionist, so that if I cannot do it flawlessly, then I’m not going to do it at all.

Imagine you’re driving to Kansas City. You have a destination in mind, but you get distracted and miss your exit. Do you give up and go back to Omaha? No, you get back on track and find another way there. Is there a soldier who never gets off task? Is there a runner who never has a bad day? Is there a farmer who never misses a chore that should be done?

If you undertook the Year of the Bible but missed some days, and therefore figured you should just give up: please, try again. If you try to pray every day but missed last Thursday: don’t stop. If you’ve given to the last three emergency appeals and need to take a break to marshal your resources, you can give again later. If you fell out of the habit of attending worship, start again.

The hymn says, “If we deny him, he will also deny us; If we are faithless, he remains faithful – For he cannot deny himself.”

That felt contradictory to me until I found some help to understand it. This is what I take it to mean. If you intentionally turn away from Christ, if you deny your vows to him and leave his Church, then he will deny you as well. But if you are struggling to follow him, but don’t get it perfectly; you are trying to be faithful, but find that you are faithless, well, you still belong to Christ. If you are faithless, despite your best intentions, he will not be faithless to you. Christ cannot deny himself, and you are part of Christ.

If you forget all the rest of this sermon, please remember that: when you are struggling to live by the unchained word of God, you are part of Christ. When you are in his Church, you are part of Christ. When you remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David, you are part of Christ. The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
If we deny him, he will also deny us;
If we are faithless, he remains faithful –
For he cannot deny himself.

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

Sermon from August 29: Practical Matters

Practical Matters
Pentecost XIV; August 29, 2021
I Timothy 3:1-13

Personally, I prefer Paul when he’s being theological: when he’s writing about the grace and work of God, rather than when he’s addressing organizational matters. Some of you may prefer pieces such as this one, when he’s being down-to-earth and practical. And there are those of you who don’t much care for Paul’s work at all, who will be glad when we finally get done with his epistles and turn to other Scriptures. September 19: Cindy will be preaching from the Book of Hebrews, which is not about a male barista. And also was almost certainly not, despite what you may have heard, written by Paul.

Most of the first epistle to Timothy is about leadership in the Church: the ministry of pastors, elders and deacons. Yes, verses 1 to 7 is about “bishops” or “overseers,” and the analogous office in our Church is that of the Ruling Elder. Don’t think of a guy in a robe and a fancy hat; think of your Session meeting and praying together to decide whether or not we should use wine with communion; who may use our building for gatherings; and so forth.

And please note that Paul assumed that these bishops and deacons would be men, although the ambiguity of translation of verse 11 is such that it may refer to female deacons. Just because Paul assumed they would be men doesn’t mean that God intended that they should always and only be men. But that’s another story. I thought I should point that out, given some of what it says.

Rather than expound on the qualifications for Elder and Deacon, which I could do, I feel called instead to talk with you a bit about theory and practice, about theology and polity, about the “why,” the “what,” and the “how.” Some years ago an Elder in the Church said to me, “This didn’t turn out to be what I expected. I thought we would sit around thinking beautiful thoughts.” It is a frustration of mine that we spend more time at Session meetings talking about money than talking about God, and my Elder was feeling that. It should be said, though, that what we believe is shown both by what we do and by the process we use to do it.

Some churches believe that all authority in the church resides in the clergy, and so the Pastor makes all the decisions about worship, the Sacraments, the building, and money. We Presbyterians are at almost the opposite extreme: almost all authority resides in the Session, and the Pastor has very little authority. And that is because we believe that all individuals are sinners, and even pastors are likely to be driven by self-interest, so it is better for authority to be lodged in a group of people who pray together, listen to each other, and decide together, rather than for such authority to be lodged in an individual.

When that process breaks down, there is something wrong. If people are unwilling to serve on the  Board of Deacons, then there probably should not be a Board of Deacons. Deacons can serve in commissioned ministry without being on a Board. If people are unwilling to teach Sunday School, then maybe the Church should not have a Sunday School. If people are unwilling to serve on the Session… well, then the Presbytery takes over and decides whether that Church maybe doesn’t need to exist any longer. The Church cannot function without ordered leadership.

Why? Because the Church of Jesus Christ is not a building where folks come to get a religious fix from a holy person: the Church of Jesus Christ is a community of people called by Jesus to follow him, witness to his grace, and baptize in his name. We are a group of disciples dedicated to making disciples; that is who we are, that is what we believe, and leadership is the means we have to do that. It’s both theoretical and practical; it is theology and polity.

Our public life is analogous. It has become popular to say nasty things about politics, and that’s probably because politics has become so nasty. Politicians have found that the best way to get elected is not to promote the benefits of our ideas or our party, but to convince people that the opponent is a baby-hating scumbag. Since, if you listen to everybody, our politics is dominated by baby-hating scumbags, it is no wonder that we despise politics.

But politics is simply the means by which people work together to get things done. There is good politics and bad; there is republican democracy and there is authoritarianism. You cannot have a human community without some sort of politics, some means of making decisions and getting things done. If you avoid politics then you are checking out of the community. That is the practical matter in which we express who we are and what we are about, whether we’re talking about the politics of our SID or city, our State or our nation, or the politics of the local school board or the Garden Club. What we do and how we do it are expressions of what we believe.

And sometimes it is a good idea to stop and ask ourselves why we do what we do. All human communities, not only churches, can easily fall into the habit of continuing to do something simply because it is what we do. If you know this story, please be patient as I tell it. A young man was fixing a ham for supper, and before putting it in the oven he cut about an inch off one end and set it aside to be cooked separately. His wife asked why he was doing that and he said, “That’s how my mother does it.” The next time they visited his mother, they asked her, “Why do you cut off the end of the ham before you bake it?” and she said it was because that’s what her mother does. At Christmas they saw his grandmother, so they asked her, “Gram, why do you cut the end off the ham?” and she said, “Because a whole ham is about an inch too long for my pan.” They continued to do the What, even though the Why was no longer relevant.

In the weight-management community I’m part of, we are frequently reminded, “Remember your Why.” You should read what the guys write on our message board. When one of them will moan about his tendency to binge-eat, or how sadness will drive him to the bag of potato chips, and he wants to know how to change his way of coping, at least one of the other men will say, “Remember your Why.” Why am I so careful about my health? This is what my Why reads: “I want to stay healthy for my family, myself, and the Church.” If you wonder why I avoid recreational sugar and why I make time for exercise, one-third of the reason is my love for you.

Why, What, and How are intimately related. What we do, how we do it, and why we do it: that connection is the supreme practical matter. That is true of any human community, including Jesus’ Church.

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

Sermon from August 22: Dare We Talk About Judgment?

Dare We Talk About Judgment?
Pentecost XIII; August 22, 2021
II Thessalonians 1

There are always so many issues in any piece of Scripture, but it seems that what catches our attention is usually the part that feels wrong to us. So here I am, looking at a chapter of Scripture that overflows with thanksgiving and praise, feeling that I ought to talk about judgment. Well, it will all come together, I pray.

Paul writes some pretty judging words, doesn’t he? “It is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” And the like. Let’s start with an honest check-in. If you have struggled under an oppressive situation – say, an abusive marriage, a tyrannical boss, a toxic coworker – doesn’t it feel good when the other person “gets what’s coming to them”? When the abuser is called out? When the toxic coworker or tyrannical boss is fired? You feel somehow vindicated, don’t you? You and I have likely never lived with real religious oppression, and so we don’t know what it feels like. I pray we never will. Jews and Muslims in our country, on the other hand, have lived with real religious oppression. And folks to whom Paul wrote knew real oppression: at the least they would be shunned by neighbors and coworkers, by relatives and friends, for becoming Christians. At worst they could be arrested and even executed. You and I don’t really know the hope that is implied by the promise that those who afflict you will someday themselves be afflicted.

Well, the women who were harassed by Governor Cuomo or by Harvey Weinstein or by any number of other men who were finally called out for their behavior: they know. But let’s not protest too much what Paul wrote: those who have been afflicted can see the justice of God at work when what goes around comes around, when the afflicter becomes the afflicted.

But I need to say something about judgment in this light. We nice modern liberal Protestants don’t like to talk about judgment, but we avoid it only by avoiding large portions of the Bible. We can ignore judgment only by ignoring a lot of the teaching of Jesus. In sum, it does matter what we believe and what we do. What we believe about God and about ourselves plays a very large role in shaping how we treat ourselves, other people, and the world. And that matters. Judgment comes in large ways and small, and I do believe that a final judgment awaits us. Paul suggests here that those who oppose God and who oppose the people of God will find themselves eternally separated from God as a result of Judgment Day. I have often wondered if that wouldn’t be to get off easy: perhaps a real hell for those who despise God and God’s people would be to be forced to endure the presence of God for eternity. “I can’t stand to be in God’s presence for an hour a week, and now I have to be in the presence of God forever?” Understand this is merely my speculation: Scripture doesn’t say much about either heaven or hell. What it does say is that we all face judgment, and our beliefs and our behavior do matter.

As a follower of Jesus, I’m inclined to think of judgment less in terms of a courtroom and more in terms of an “O. R.” talk. You know “O. R.:” “our relationship.” “Bob, we need to talk about our relationship.” Are there more frightening words in life? I anticipate Judgment Day as sitting down, one-to-one with Jesus, who says, “Let’s talk about our relationship.” Uh-oh. Here it comes. What will I hear?

What did the Christians of Thessalonica hear? “Your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” Isn’t that a great thing to hear!

Now it raises questions for me, including these. “Your faith is growing abundantly.” What is the measure of that? I know how to measure whether the value of my mutual funds is growing abundantly. I know how to measure whether attendance at worship is growing abundantly. How do I measure if my faith is growing abundantly? Or: “the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” How do we know that? How do we know if our love is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same?

I don’t know definitively, because we can’t know exactly what the social circumstances were, because we don’t know exactly when the letter was written. But here’s my suspicion. Things were getting harder for them, and they persevered. They were having more troubles, and they looked after each other. When things get harder, what do you do? You give up, or you get tougher. When people around you are more troubled, what do you do? You hide, or you work harder at loving them.

Things were tough and the people of the Church in Thessalonica were not giving up. They were continuing to get together for worship, even though it could get them arrested or at least spat upon. They were looking after one another, even though folks had more troubles. I don’t know that, but that is what I suspect, and that is how Paul could measure their faith and love and say that they were growing. You put an egg in hot water and what happens? It gets harder. If you leave it in long enough, you’ll have a tasty hard-boiled egg that you can take with you on a picnic. Faith under oppression either gets stronger or it withers. Paul writes here that the endurance of the people of Thessalonica during their time of suffering is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that God judged well in choosing them, and that God is making them worthy of the Kingdom of God.

That’s another troubling word: “worthy.” How can we be worthy of the Kingdom of God? Or, as he writes later in the chapter, how can we be worthy of God’s call (v. 11)? Most of us humbly acknowledge that we are not worthy, that it is the gift of God through Jesus Christ to call us and include us in the Kingdom of God. That said, Paul wrote this, so I’m going to suggest an answer. What does God do to make us worthy of God’s call, so that – to continue with Paul’s thought – the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us?

God prompts us to keep showing up. Here’s a line you may have heard; Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen cowrote the screenplay for the 1977 movie Annie Hall. During an interview with journalist Susan Braudy, Marshall said, “I have learned one thing. As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.” Woody later said that his actual remark was that showing up is 80% of success. Either way, simply being present is most of what is needed for any endeavor, including becoming worthy of the call of God.

For the last eighteen months everything has been topsy-turvy in the life of the Church. You have continued to show up. When we resumed in-person worship, you started coming back to the church-house, and some started coming for the first time. When we were webcast-only, you tuned in. You didn’t gripe, “I don’t know how to do that;” you learned. You didn’t say, “I don’t think it’s real worship,” you did it anyway. You showed up. And whether you are here in person or are continuing to tune in to our webcast, you continue to show up.

The economy was uncertain; for some of you, your income was uncertain. You continued to show up as a disciple financially as well. You continued to give. We finished 2020 strong financially; we’re struggling this year, but because of your faithfulness we have good reason to hope that we’ll end this year well, also. You show up; you give as you are able. You don’t give more than you can and you don’t give less than you can. You show up.

When the Mission Committee puts out a call for people to bring supplies, to give money, to walk, to wield a hammer or paintbrush, you show up. You showed up for the Pride Parade and for the Pride Festival at Baxter Arena. You show up to serve meals at Siena Francis House. You show up to bring food for the families at Rainbow House. When the Board of Deacons makes Care bags to be delivered to folks, you show up at their door with a Care bag.

I know that you’re tired of all this, especially since it has gone on for so much longer than we anticipated. I can’t tell you how tired I am, so I understand. But you who cling to hope in Jesus Christ continue to show up for Jesus. On Judgment Day, I pray that that is what the Lord Jesus will remember: not our sins and failings, not what and whom we neglected, but that when things were tough you showed up. And I join Paul in praying that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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

 

Sermon from August 15: Jesus Our Rescuer

Jesus Our Rescuer
Pentecost XII; August 15, 2021
I Thessalonians 1

As I walked into my Rotary meeting the other day, I greeted a fellow Rotarian and we walked in together. He said to me, “The world is going crazy.” I wondered if the world was indeed any crazier than it’s ever been, or if it simply seems that way because there are so many more of us. A retired physician who thinks scientifically while also a faithful Presbyterian, my friend said that with so many of us we are killing the Earth’s lungs by destroying the tropical rain forests. He said that our forests here in the North stop breathing during the winter, we rely on the rain forests, and we’re killing them.

And then the program that day was about a project to try to restore civility to our common life, a project undertaken by some students from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. That got me thinking about something that happened to another friend. He was distraught because a long-time friend of his, someone with whom he has had a great relationship, was threatening to cut him out of her life because they didn’t share the same political convictions. He didn’t want to talk politics with her; he wanted to share pictures from an art exhibit.

It does feel as though everything’s falling apart, both the ability of the planet to sustain our life and the ability of our social institutions to sustain our community. The latter is not new: human societies have always been fragile and they have all fallen into confusion from time to time. But the possibility that our own planet may try to kill us is indeed new.

It is tempting, then, to trot out a simplistic, “Trust in Jesus, and everything will be alright.” But those of us who are reading the whole Bible this year just finished the Book of Job, and part of the point of Job is that reality is never that simple. Yet I do want to explore briefly Paul’s statement that Jesus is the one who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. The words seem timely, however you think about “the wrath that is coming.” Whether you fear the possibility of civil war, which the White Nationalists have promised, or the increasing extreme weather events, which climate scientists forecast, it does feel as though wrath is coming.

When Paul wrote those words to the Christians in Thessalonica, I believe he was thinking about impending global catastrophe, the end of the world. Jesus had said he would return, and he talked about it in terms that sounded like the end of the world, and many of the followers of Jesus believed it would be soon. Apparently some of the people of Thessalonica, for example, even quit their jobs in order to wait for it! You and I have seen that happen in our society, too; every time the world is supposed to end or “the Storm” is supposed to come, people expect it. Yet we get through the day and the next day dawns and things are as they were. The “wrath that is coming” didn’t come when the people of Thessalonica apparently expected it to.

In a sense, though, it did come eventually, in that their society did collapse, things did fall apart, and they experienced the social wrath that many of us fear. It wasn’t in the lifetime of the people who first got this letter; it was some centuries later. But it came. And the promise that Jesus would rescue them from the wrath that is coming kept them going through the collapse. Christian faith flourished and grew deeper, even though Jesus didn’t swoop down on the clouds and snatch his people away. They weren’t raptured. The Emperor didn’t return to power to make everything alright. Everything fell apart, but they kept faith in Christ, who they believed in as their Rescuer.

Jesus confirmed for them the promise of God that God was for them. Even when things are relatively easy – no pandemic, no fear of climate change, a quiet society – life is difficult. You may struggle with your sense of self, when folks around you demand that you be something you are not. You may deal with difficult relationships. You may deal with ill health. Life is difficult. Jesus rescues us from having to do it on our own; even if the Church isn’t perfect, there will always be siblings in Christ who will love you and encourage you to be you. And when you stop and ponder the reality of Jesus’ gift of himself on the Cross, I hope that rescues you from fear of the wrath that is coming.

Jesus rescues us from that fear by being the one stable thing in our lives. We are living in a time of great uncertainty. To be honest, every day is uncertain; no matter what plans we make, we cannot guarantee that they will unfold as anticipated. Yet right now seems especially so. What will become of Afghanistan? The people there live with enormous uncertainty in the face of the Taliban takeover. Closer to home, right here in our church: we are laying plans for events in September and October, but it is possible that they will not happen. The latest resurgence of COVID-19 may cause us to cancel all we are planning.

In this reading, Paul says that the people of Thessalonica had turned from idols to the living God. If we rely on anything to be certain and stable, it will disappoint us and prove to be an idol. Government, family, work, even the Church: all is uncertain. But I have found that I can count on Jesus, on the love of God made known in Jesus. So he is Rescuer in times of uncertainty.

Paul mentions a couple of times in what we read the influence of the “word of the Lord” among the people of Thessalonica. That was something that kept them going in the face of the coming wrath and in just getting through their days: they relied on the word of the Lord. One prayer we sometimes use before reading Scripture says, “Silence in us any voice but your own.” How many voices do we have battering at us? The news. A disapproving parent. A judgmental preacher. Negative self-talk. A toxic co-worker. Social media. TV and movies. Can you still your mind, quiet your heart, and listen for the word of the Lord through all that noise? The presence of Jesus rescues you and me from the noise, speaking clearly to us the word of the Lord.

The big thing, of course, is the promise of resurrection. Whether Paul was thinking of that or not, that is certainly the cornerstone of our hope. We wake up each day with the confidence that even if it is our last, it is not the end of us. Whatever happens, whatever wrath overtakes us, the One who was raised from the dead is the promise that we too shall be raised; the One who feeds our spirits in the Sacrament of his body and blood is the assurance that we shall be rescued from any wrath that threatens to overwhelm, from extreme weather events to a pandemic to the collapse of the Empire.

As Paul emphasizes not only here but in the rest of this letter and the one that follows it, the effect of this confidence should not be to sit back on our butts and wait for things to happen. The effect is to face each day with hope, faithful to the word of the Lord. He warned those people of Thessalonica who had quit their jobs to get back to work (I Thess. 4:11; II Thess. 3:6-13). As we read to you, Paul celebrated that the confidence the Thessalonians had in the word of the Lord was so strong that people talked about it in Macedonia and Achaia and all over the place.

Would that not be a great reputation for us to have? That we have such confidence in the word of the Lord? It will show by how we live and by what we say. If we face a changing climate with the determination to do what we can to help, confident in the love of God for God’s creation; if we meet times of uncertainty with calm, seeking to do our best even not knowing what the next day may bring; if we respond to incivility by being ourselves persons of grace and kindness, especially to those who differ from us politically; that is, if we live as followers of Jesus the Rescuer, then we will gain such a reputation. Wrath is coming; wrath is always coming, although it does seem closer now. Rather than give in to it, we can be the people who follow the Rescuer.

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

Sermon from August 8: Rejoice (Murphy’s Take)

Rejoice! (Murphy’s Take)
Pentecost XI; August 8, 2021
Philippians 4:2-23
This Sunday’s message was delivered by the puppet, Murphy the Dog.

Pastor Bob said that he has been dealing with some grumpiness lately and he asked me to share my thoughts with you about the Scripture. After all, if anybody in the world can find a reason to rejoice, it is a dog! You know how we are about humans: we adore you! If I am lying in front of a door, and my human accidentally kicks me, I am just grateful that he touched me! So Pastor Bob said that he could not think of anyone better to talk about Philippians chapter four than one of his favorite dogs.

Well actually, I think I am his favorite dog, but do not tell Reggie and Shiloh that I said that.

The thing that sticks with me about these words of Paul is his command to rejoice in the Lord always. There is a whole lot more, but all the rest of it seems to come from that. Be gentle, do not worry, think about good stuff: all that comes from rejoicing in the Lord, I think. You know, when we got out for a walk, there are so many wonderful smells. I get to smell fresh cut grass, and I smell rabbit doots, and I smell the places other dogs have been. When I smell these things and they make me happy, I think that I am smelling the presence of God.

Or when I see a human and I want to say, “Hi!” I pull Pastor Bob by my leash over to the other human, because I just love to visit with humans. They scratch my head and they rub my back and Darla Holycross gives me ear noogies! I am so happy to be with humans; it is like being with the image of God.

You know how hard it was to be cooped up for so long. I know that some of the people watching us on YouTube are doing that because you are still cooped up. And maybe you are tired of doing everything virtually; Pastor Bob complained a lot about how much time he was spending staring at a screen. But I reminded him that at least he had the screen: he could still see people’s faces and hear their voices and get work done. He still got to preach every Sunday, something he truly loves! He told me that whenever he was preaching to the camera, with nobody else in the room except Dr. Krampe and the other leaders, he would imagine your faces behind that camera. He would see you in his imagination. So I told him to stop complaining, to rejoice in the gifts the Lord had given him through technology, and could I please have a cookie?

I know that not all humans love dogs, but those humans who love dogs (and cats too!) have plenty to laugh about. We do that on purpose; we love to hear our humans laugh. Well, we dogs love to hear you laugh about anything; cats do not like it if you laugh at them. Cats are so stuffy! They do not realize how funny they are. Anyway, my human had a dog named Omega, whom he loved. They were pretty much inseparable; he took her everywhere and she would follow him anywhere. When she died, he said it was as if a piece of his soul died. It hurt very, very much. But then he and his female human talked about it and thought about it. Yes, it hurt very much when she died. But they thought about all the happy years they had together. And they realized that the pain of loss did not outweigh the joy of love, so they decided they could do dogs again.

And boy, am I glad they did!

I guess what I am trying to say to you is that life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent what attitude you take about it. Paul, for example, was in prison when he wrote this letter. And instead of griping about being in prison, he found reasons to rejoice. For one thing, it gave him a chance to tell the guards about Jesus. They did not know about Jesus, not until Paul was their prisoner. He told them! For another thing, it gave him time to think. He thought about what the coming of Christ meant, and he wrote some beautiful words about it in chapter two. And since he was in trouble it gave the Philippians a chance to help him, and he knew that it was good for them to have a chance to show him they loved him.

That is another good thing about having a dog: someone depends on you. I depend on my human for food, for walks, for scratches, and for someone to comfort me when I’m scared. Yes, sometimes I get scared, and then he holds me until I stop shaking. It is good for him to know that I need him. And Paul thought it was good for the Philippians to have a chance to help him. And they did help him.

So when Paul wrote that they should think about things that are true and pure and commendable, he knew from experience what he was writing about. Because he did that: he thought about things that are true and pure and commendable. He could tell people to rejoice in the Lord because he rejoiced in the Lord.

I have watched humans for a long time. I have learned that when they are happy, they make better decisions than when they are grumpy. When they rejoice, they are nicer to be around than when they gripe. When they try to think about the good things, they do more good things than when they focus just on the bad things. Sometimes when bad things happen and when things are hard, it really helps to share it. Humans can tell their friends about it. So can a talking dog. Other dogs, though, just come to you needing to be rubbed. Or an ear noogie! We all have times of sadness, and that is okay.

But I think Paul is telling us that when things are hard, it helps us cope if we find a reason to rejoice. And we always have a reason to rejoice in the Lord. The Lord gives us life and breath and great things to smell and reminds our humans to buy us kibble. Our humans help us just as the Philippians helped Paul; we dogs rejoice, just as Paul rejoiced.

My human likes to pray, “Lord, make me the man my dog thinks I am.” He is better than he thinks he is and I hope he learns not to be so grumpy. He has every reason to rejoice. After all, he has me!

Murphy the Dog (via Robert A. Keefer)
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Sermon from August 1: Eyes on the Cross

Eyes on the Cross
Pentecost X; August 1, 2021
Luke 23:32-49

Not long ago I told you of the Lutheran woman who said to me that when the preacher was doing a bad job she could look at the Cross in the front of her church and still get a sermon. What sort of sermon did she get? I wonder. When you look at the Cross, what do you see?

Upon the cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess:
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.[1]

In the Lutheran church where the woman grew up, the Cross probably did have the figure of Jesus on it. Likewise in Episcopal churches. Our Calvinist churches tend to have a plain Cross because of our traditional hostility to images, pictures, and statues.

Whether we see the figure of Jesus on the Cross with our eyes or with the mind’s eye, what do we see? And how about the various characters around Jesus’ Cross in Luke 23; what do they see?

At the base of the Cross, making sure no one comes along to release Jesus before he is dead, are the soldiers. These men, probably young and from somewhere else in the Empire, were part of the detachment in Jerusalem to help keep order during the hectic days of Passover. They have crucified people before; they knew how to pound the nails and tie the ropes; they knew how to inflict pain without it being personal: just doing their job. I imagine that as they looked at Jesus they saw a criminal, perhaps not an ordinary criminal, since the sign describing his crime read, “This is the King of the Jews.” So he styled himself as King, they figured, and that made him an enemy of the State. More Jewish scum, a rebel: they saw him as having organized opposition to Rome and therefore ground under the heel of Rome, all for the sake of public order.

While the soldiers kept an eye on things and played at dice, conversing with one another, there were some people a few steps away at the base of the Cross. Crucifixions were always done by major roads, so as many people as possible could see the wrath of Rome against all who dared oppose her, so a number of folks would come and go during the hours Jesus hung on the Cross. Perhaps some stayed the whole time. They were there to mock him. That was part of the process: crucifixion was intended to be not only painful and fatal, but also humiliating. What did they see? They saw an imposter. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, God’s chosen one!” We heard people say he was the Messiah; we heard he healed lepers and gave vision to the blind and even raised a little girl from the dead! Maybe it’s all a lie. The Messiah is supposed to lead a revolution, to turn the world upside down; he’s not supposed to be executed. He’s an imposter!

There were two criminals executed with Jesus; that’s why our bell tower has three crosses and why you usually see three crosses together. They turned their heads as best they could and looked at Jesus, as all three hung there, dying. One of them saw a Messiah of sorts, but clearly powerless; he raised a large group of followers, could he not free them all from their crosses? But the other one somehow saw a King. “Jesus, remember me,” he said, “When you come into your kingdom.” Even though he sees this “King” hanging on a Cross, his only crown one made of thorns, only the sign over his head announcing his kingship, he somehow believes that somehow, someday Jesus would rule a kingdom. “Remember me,” he pleads. Whatever you may think of me and of my crime, remember me.

With the soldiers is a centurion, a soldier who commanded approximately 100 troops. Part of his job was to ensure the death of the condemned. This centurion somehow was moved by what he saw. What touched him? Was it Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”? Was it the way the sky turned dark for the last few hours? Why did he suddenly cry, “This was a just man!”? Some traditions remember him as Longinus, the world’s first Christian. Unlike the others right at the base of the Cross, he didn’t see Jewish scum, an imposter, or even a king: he saw Jesus, a just, innocent, righteous man.

I mentioned those who came by to mock Jesus, to scorn him, make fun of him. There were others, too, who were simply present. Every time something important is happening, there are those who participate, those who are there to heckle, and those who are there for the show. Executions used to be public; that was intended as a deterrence. And so there were a lot of people around who were there simply to watch, simply to see what was going on. They were there for the show. They were neither participants nor hecklers; they were spectators. But they too were moved; after Jesus died and the Centurion made his cry, they beat their breasts as they returned home. They knew something terrible had just happened. But they didn’t know what it was.

Then there were the others, whom Luke calls “the women who had followed him from Galilee.” They knew what had happened: the death of their Lord. They had traveled with him; you thought it was just Jesus and his twelve male apostles, didn’t you? Luke mentioned these women all the way back in chapter 8 (1-3). They had financial resources and paid most of Jesus’ expenses over the years. They stuck with him, even to this moment, when they saw him die.

And even though they saw him die, they were not finished with him. I didn’t read the rest of the chapter to you, but it’s there. These women saw where Jesus was buried, and after the Sabbath rest they would go there with the intention of caring properly for his body. These were the ones who received the grand surprise: they were not the only ones not finished with Jesus. God wasn’t finished with him either.

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

[1] Elizabeth Cecilia Douglas Clephane,“Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” #216 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 1868.

Sermon from July 25: Vignettes: Justice

Vignettes: Justice
Pentecost IX; July 25, 2021
Luke 18:1-17

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

That seems a strange question, especially in context. What does that have to do with the parable of the unjust judge? Stepping back, though, and looking at it from a distance, I’m convinced that it is very much to the point. In a time when, on the one hand, faith is being replaced by cynicism and, on the other hand, it is being replaced by certainty, you and I may well ask the question: Whenever Jesus wanders among us, does he find faith on earth?

Let’s work our way there, though, by getting inside the parables. Jesus told two parables here, and each of them has two characters. Just to do something different, let’s get inside the stories and imagine ourselves as the characters. I’m going to ask you to share your thoughts, so get your imaginations engaged.

The first story Jesus tells involves a widow and a judge. The widow has a lawsuit pending; Jesus doesn’t suggest what sort of thing it might be, but she hasn’t been able to get the judge to hear her case and give her justice. Here’s a question for you: What might the issue be?

Maybe he threw her out of her house. He’s a tax collector and over-taxed her. He’s the reason she’s a widow, responsible for her husband’s death. He rear-ended her car in traffic.

Well, she went to the judge’s court repeatedly. She got in his face. She wasn’t taking indifference for an answer. “Grant me justice against my opponent!” Think of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. From April 30, 1977, women have marched in front of the Casa Rosa – the President’s house – every Thursday afternoon at 3:30, demanding answers about the fate of the approximately 30,000 persons who have been “disappeared.”  Of course, during the pandemic they have taken their march virtual, but think of it: women have protested every Thursday for the last forty-four years.[1] “Grant me justice against my opponent!”

Or, closer to home, Raleigh, North Carolina, where on April 29, 2013 the Rev. William Barber of the NAACP led the first Moral Monday protest. Mondays when the North Carolina legislature is in session, those advocating for civil rights go to the State Capitol and ensure that some of them are peacefully arrested by entering the building.[2] The idea of Moral Mondays has spread to other states, including Nebraska and Iowa. “Grant me justice against my opponent!”

Now, imagine we’re the judge in this story. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” he says of himself. Is anyone truly that self-aware, that honest? “I don’t give a darn about justice; I don’t believe that I need to answer to God.” Can you imagine why he doesn’t do his job?

He doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction of giving in. He’s a male chauvinist. It’s too much work. It’s too trivial for his notice. He’s holding out for a bribe.

Finally, though, he’s had enough of the widow’s harangue, and gives her what she asks. And the funny thing is that in this parable Jesus compares the unjust judge to God; if this creep will finally give in and give the widow justice, will not God give justice to those who cry out for it?

And that’s when Jesus wonders if he will find faith on earth. I take it to mean that he wonders if you and I will have enough faith that God wants to give justice to the oppressed that we will keep demanding it, even making a nuisance of ourselves like the widow and like the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and like the protestors in Raleigh. It takes faith not to give up. It takes faith to pray for justice, to march for justice, to advocate for justice. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

The next parable is related, in that it is also about justice, but a different sort of justice. In this case, the question isn’t about justice against an opponent, but justice before God. How can you and I be found to be just in the sight of God? If you or I stand before the judgment seat of God, how will we know we won’t be convicted and sent away?

There are two men in this story, both at the Temple, praying. One is a good and righteous man, who has always tried hard to do the right thing, who keeps all the rules, both civil and religious. And he knows it. He prays, “God, I thank you that you have made me better than everyone else.” Maybe I’m giving him too much credit; the way Jesus tells the story, the man says, “God, I thank you that I am better than everyone else;” he doesn’t give God credit for it.

Please don’t reveal names or talk about people here, but does the attitude sound familiar? Let’s get inside this guy’s head for a moment. Do you ever cop that sort of attitude? That is, in what ways are we inclined to think of ourselves as being on the right side of the justice of God?

“I’ve worked hard for all that I have.” “When’s the last time YOU were in church?” On the freeway: all those other, terrible drivers.

Well, the other guy is a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman occupation government and probably someone who cheats his neighbors. And this is his prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We don’t need to explore that, but here’s the issue that comes to my mind. Jesus says that the good guy, the Pharisee, goes home unjustified, but the tax collector is justified before God. You and I get that; he humbled himself before God and trusted in God’s mercy. Better to say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” than to say, “God, thank you that I’m so great.” We get that.

But did he know he was justified before God? And if so, how did he know? What do you think: how do we know that we’re justified before God?

Remember your baptism; that’s how we know we’re forgiven. It’s in the Bible! “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”

Then these stories are followed up by Jesus taking the children and blessing them, and saying that you and I need to be like them in order to inherit the Kingdom of God. What does that mean? Well, children are annoying; they keep asking for what they want. Jesus wants us to be persistent in asking for justice. And they are dependent on the grace of adults for food, shelter, and clothing, just as we are dependent on the grace of God for our life.

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Dare we have faith enough not to give up on justice for all God’s people? Dare we have faith enough to trust in our own justification before God? The two are not really different; when we’re confident in our own justification then we can stick our necks out for justice. When we pray for justice, we can pray for our own justification. “Grant me justice against my opponent!” and “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” are related prayers. As long as we keep saying them, the Son of Man will find faith on earth.

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

[1] https://elordenmundial.com/quienes-son-las-madres-y-abuelas-de-plaza-de-mayo/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Mondays

Sermon from July 18: Reframing, Rethinking, Repenting

Reframing, Rethinking, Repenting
Pentecost VIII; July 18, 2021
Luke 13:1-17

Sometimes a question begins to resolve itself when you change the way you ask it. I have heard that called “Reframing;” I think the person who coined that term was thinking of the way a picture changes appearance when you put it in a different frame. Likewise, the problem looks different if you change the way you think about it, or you change the way you ask the question.

Consider the classic line, “Stuff happens.” No, that isn’t the line, but even I’m not going to say it in church. Okay, let’s go with “It happens.” Now, what do different religious traditions do with that line?

Taoism: It happens.
Hinduism: It happened before.
Buddhism: It is only the illusion of it happening.
Zen: What is the sound of it happening?
Islam: It happens because it is the will of Allah.
Jehovah’s Witnesses: Knock, knock. It happens.
Atheism: It doesn’t exist.
Agnosticism: Maybe it happens, and maybe it doesn’t.
Calvinism: It won’t happen if I work harder.
Catholicism: It happens because I deserve it.
Televangelism: Send money or it will happen to you.
Judaism: Why is it always happening to us?[1]

“It happens” pretty much summarizes Jesus’ reaction to the news about some Galileans receiving horrible treatment from Pontius Pilate, the Roman Military Governor. Pilate was known for his brutal suppression of dissent, so if some Galileans had come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and used the opportunity to also stage a political protest, then Pilate responded by sending troops to attack them while they were sacrificing. Given the common assumption that bad things happen to those who deserve it, Jesus seizes on the opportunity to reframe the question. Do you think they were worse sinners than those who did not protest against the Romans (or who at least did not get caught)? And then he pulls up a different example: when the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people, was that because those eighteen were worse sinners than the ones who were spared?

Well, it’s easy enough to answer, “No, we know better than that,” but I don’t think we do. We easily fall into the group that says that if it happens, it’s because you deserve it. If you don’t resist the police, you won’t get shot. If you don’t break the law, the government will leave you alone. We won’t go so far as to say that those who were killed in the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida were worse sinners than those who were spared, and so we easily accept Jesus’ evaluation of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. Many of us do, however, find it harder to accept that innocent people do go to jail, that people who put their hands up and submit do get killed by the police, that peaceful Galileans would be attacked by Roman troops. It happens.

Jesus isn’t content to leave the question alone, however. He doesn’t give simply a “No” answer, but reframes the question and makes it a warning to repent. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Well, the reality is that we will all perish, whether we repent or not. But I suspect Jesus is speaking of a larger matter: how will you live until you perish? Will your life count for anything? Will you allow yourself to be happy? Will you commit yourself to eternity?

“Repent.” It means more than we usually allow it to mean. It does mean, for a start, that when you do something to someone, you apologize and promise to do better. The eighth and ninth steps of the Twelve-Step program embody this sense of repentance: the acknowledgment of wrongs done, the willingness to make amends, and the attempt to make amends without causing any further injury. That is repentance. But repentance means to change your way of thinking, as well. Some of us need to repent of thinking that we’re the center of the universe and everyone needs to accommodate to us. Others of us need to repent of thinking that someone else is the center of the universe and we cannot live without them. Maybe you need to repent of thinking you can eat or drink or drug or shop your way into happiness. Lord, I don’t know what you need to repent of, and if you don’t know either then it’s time to start taking self-inventory.

Now Jesus follows up his warning to repent with a parable about repentance and an enacted parable about reframing. I don’t think you need an explanation of the parable, but I will recap it for you. A fig tree was not producing fruit as expected, and the owner told his gardener to get rid of it. The gardener urged the owner to give the tree another year. “I’ll put manure around it, and care for it, and perhaps next year it will bear fruit. If not, then we’ll cut it down.” Well, if the Church is the fig tree and God is the owner then I guess the minister is the gardener and preaching is the manure. Sounds right. No, it’s a parable, not an allegory, but yes the lesson is that God is patient and will wait for our repentance, but the day will come that we had better either produce fruit or get chopped down.

I’ve spoken to you before of enacted parables, and the healing of the bent-over woman is one of those. Yes, Jesus really healed her, but he turned the healing into an object lesson by reframing the question. The question as presented was, “Is it legal for a healer to work on the Sabbath day?” But Jesus reframed the question to, “Is not the Sabbath the perfect day to set someone free?” This too, I claim, is repentance: to reframe a question in such a way as to find an answer that reflects the love and grace of God. Jesus is particularly skilled at reframing questions in this way, and I think it is because he didn’t see problems and legal questions, he saw people. While the leader of the synagogue saw an issue of the Law, Jesus saw a woman, a daughter of Abraham, who was enslaved by her disability. And since the Sabbath is a weekly celebration of the freedom to be human in the sight of God, a break from being simply a producing and consuming machine, then the Sabbath is the perfect day to set her free.

The Presbyterian poet Thomas John Carlisle imagined this event from the woman’s point of view. Here is his poem, “Resurrection.”

He called me woman
in the same honorable way
he would address his mother.
The name
took on a radiant meaning
as I rose
from my constricted past,
my years bent over
with crush and crunch
of my unliftable
burdens and desperations.

When he named me daughter –
daughter of Abraham –
I felt the glory
and I knew
that nothing could ever
hold me down again.[2]

One of the men, slightly older than me, in my WW group recently said that he was working to get healthier because he had decided to live, not merely coast to the end. Not everything is in our control; after all, “It” happens. You won’t prevent the tower of Siloam from falling on you by working harder; if the Roman Military Governor sends troops against you that doesn’t mean you deserve it more than others do. It happens. But our gracious God is willing to give us time to reframe, rethink, repent. Perhaps the manure of my preaching will help you. I pray so. At any event, I pray that we, Presbyterian Church of the Master, will see not problems, but people; not legal questions, but children of Abraham. And that we and they will say with the Bent-over Woman that nothing can ever hold us down again.

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

[1] I don’t know where that originated, but I’ve seen it going around on the Internet for some years. I took these off a tee-shirt.

[2] Thomas John Carlisle, Beginning with Mary: Women of the Gospels in Portrait (William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), p. 34.