Sermon from October 25: Deborah the Judge

Deborah the Judge
Reformation Sunday (O. T. 30); October 25, 2020
Judges 4:4-10

A warning: there is violence in this story. I’ll try to tell the story without emphasizing the violence, but it’s there and the story cannot be told without it. Remember that these oldest stories in the Bible come from a much more violent era. In our day, we consider it wrong for people to act violently against one another, largely because of the influence of Jesus, but in the ancient world it was much more common. Well, here goes.

There is a pattern in the Book of Judges, which tells about the confederacy of the Twelve Tribes from the death of Joshua to the establishment of the monarchy, about 175 to 200 years. The pattern goes like this: Thus-and-so was Judge – which meant both someone who decided disputes between people but also a military leader – over Israel, but when Thus-and-so died, the people did evil and the Lord let the Philistines (or Canaanites, or Moabites, or somebody else) oppress them, so they called out to the Lord for help, and the Lord raised Fulano-de-Tal to be Judge and they had peace once again, usually for forty years.

The story of Deborah followed that pattern. After Ehud the Judge died, the Canaanites ran roughshod over the Lord’s people, especially a certain general named Sisera. The Israelites cried to the Lord for help, and the Lord made Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, Judge over Israel. She judged from under a palm tree in Ephraim, and she planned the people’s campaign against Sisera. She summoned Barak to lead the Lord’s people in battle, and he agreed to do it as long as she accompanied him.

Time out: why did he insist on that? Some commentators have suggested that he was a bit of a coward, and didn’t want to go to battle without her along as assurance that he was doing the Lord’s work. Perhaps, though, he had a more positive motive. Perhaps he wanted to honor her, to make sure that everyone knew that any coming victory would be hers as much as it was his; or perhaps he wanted to show others that they were going into battle in the name of the Lord, because the Lord’s prophet was there at the head with him. For whatever reason, he said he would go only if she would go with him, and she agreed to that but warned him that the credit for Sisera’s downfall would go not to him but to a woman.

Barak and Deborah went to war against Sisera and the Canaanite army with ten thousand warriors at their back; even though the Canaanites had superior military technology, the Israelites were fighting the Lord’s battle and they had also chosen a spot that gave them a strategic advantage – prayer and good strategy are always great companions – and they put the Canaanites to rout. There was a great slaughter of the enemy and Sisera, deprived of his chariot, fled on foot.

Now Sisera came to the encampment of the family of a man named Heber, whose wife was named Jael. Heber and his clan were allies of the king Sisera worked for, so it seemed a good place for him to hide. Sisera went to Jael, who invited him into her tent. He asked for shelter and a drink of water, but she did better than that. She gave him a comfortable place to lie down, covered him with a rug, and gave him warm milk to drink. Worn out from the battle, relaxed from the milk, Sisera fell asleep. While he slept, Jael took a tent peg and a hammer, and drove the tent peg into Sisera’s temple, straight through his head, killing him.

About then, Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael called to him, “Turn aside here, my lord, and I will show you the man you are seeking.” Barak went into her tent, and there he saw Sisera, held fast to the ground with a tent peg through his head. Thus the Lord God delivered Israel from the King of Canaan and his general, Sisera.

Now, the Book of Judges follows that story with a magnificent, triumphant poem attributed to Deborah. Imagine Deborah and Barak leading the victory celebration, standing in front of the people, singing a loud duet. Well, it isn’t all loud. Read it sometime in Judges, chapter 5, and there is a lot of celebration of military might and the power of God, and some snotty rebuke of those Israelites who didn’t join the fight. And they particularly praise the cleverness of Jael.

But there is a discordant note at the end. It is a note meant to be celebratory – actually, it is meant to be scornful of Sisera and his family – but I find it rather sad. Deborah’s voice sings about Sisera’s mother, standing at the window looking out, wondering why her son hasn’t come home yet. Her maids say to her that he must be delayed because he won such a great victory that he and his men are dividing the spoil: dyed cloths and other goodies that he will bring home to you, madam, and a girl or two for every man. What? Well, that was part of the spoils of war in those days. And so these women encourage Sisera’s mother that he is delayed because he and his men are not yet finished pillaging and raping. Meanwhile, she is left there, staring out the window, wondering what has become of her son.

Why did I tell you this story? There are some points in it that I wish to highlight, that I hope will encourage us in our pilgrimage as people of God. But also because I want to remind you that not all the leaders of Israel were men. Although all the other judges were men, you should remember that one of the first judges was the prophet Deborah, who judged Israel and, with Barak, freed the people of God from an oppressor.

Some points that occur to me: One is that nobody in this story seems to care much who gets credit for things, so long as the right thing is done. Deborah tells Barak that a woman will get credit for destroying Sisera, and you and I can be forgiven if we think she’s talking about herself. No, the credit goes to Jael. And when Deborah tells Barak that he won’t get to be Sisera’s downfall, he shrugs his shoulders and does what he’s called to do anyway.

You have heard before that there is so much that we can do as long as we don’t care who gets the credit. I have found that to be true. When people are jockeying to be noticed, they are more concerned with the spotlight than they are with accomplishing the task. But when they are willing to shrug their shoulders and get on with it, then so much can be done. Who really gets the credit for freeing Israel from Sisera and his boss? Deborah, Barak, and Jael – but Deborah gives credit to someone else too. She sings (5:20-21) that the stars fought against Sisera, and the waters of Kishon swept them away. That is, the Lord God too played a part, in some clear way, in their victory against the Canaanites.

This occurs to me too: there is something repugnant about the way Deborah and Barak gloat over Sisera’s mother wondering why her son has not returned. It is certainly a very human reaction, to gloat over the enemy’s misfortune, but I can’t see the Lord Jesus commending it. I hope that from the ways of Jesus we have learned better ways to deal with defeat and victory. Of course, when the people are oppressed, we pray for freedom from oppressors, but Jesus does tell us to pray for our enemies. And he doesn’t mean that we should pray that they end up with a tent peg through their heads.

I find this difficult myself, because when I think of those who have made my own life difficult from time to time, I do rather enjoy hearing when something is going badly for them. As I say, it is a very human reaction, but I also know that it is one that a disciple of Jesus struggles to overcome. So I’ve set myself to praying regularly for those who have harmed me, praying that they are doing well, praying that they are finding joy in the Lord. The spiritually weak side of me wants to pray something about a tent peg, metaphorically, but that isn’t what my Lord Jesus asks of me. The story says that after this conflict the people of Israel had forty years of peace; perhaps in that time Deborah rethought her attitudes as well.

Finally, I think it appropriate to point out that Sisera did get what he had coming to him. Jesus said to a disciple that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). In Sisera’s case, he was a warrior of his time: cruel and oppressive, and given to raping the women among his victims. It was a feature of the conflict of the time that conquering warriors would kill or enslave the defeated men and boys and would rape the women and girls; here those who would ordinarily be victims triumph over the oppressor.

Although the sermon is nominally about Deborah the Judge, the unexpected hero in the story is Jael. What motivated her to turn on her husband’s ally, no one can say. And in 2020 we certainly are discouraged from adopting her methods. Even so, quite to our surprise, with tent peg and hammer in hand, she helped the people of God.

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


Sermon from October 18: The Daughters of Zelophehad

The Daughters of Zelophehad
Pentecost XXI (O. T. 29); October 18, 2020
Numbers 27:1-11

Simply for the sake of inheritance and family identification, human society tends to organize itself either patrilineally or matrilineally. That is, we take our family identity from our father or our mother. Ordinarily, that is; there are always exceptions. And ancient Hebrews understood their lineage from their father and their father’s father. Part of the law that governed the land was that a family’s land was to be kept intact; men would inherit from their fathers and women would inherit nothing, but would become part of their husbands’ families.

But what if a man had no sons? Remember Fiddler on the Roof? Tevye and Golde had daughters, but no sons. Likewise, Zelophehad had daughters, but no sons: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. When he died, what was to become of his property? Until these five women spoke up, the practice was that it would go to his brother; his own name and family would be lost.

So Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah went to Moses and made their case. And I think they were brilliant. Instead of a frontal assault, claiming that women should have the same rights as men, they were more subtle. They put it this way: why should our father be punished? He didn’t join in Korah’s rebellion. He’s done nothing wrong other than the ordinary sinfulness common to all humans. So why should his name be erased in Israel, just because he had no sons?

In staking a claim for their father, they won a right for themselves and for other women in Israel. They won the right to inherit. To be sure, it was secondary: they would inherit only if there were no son. But it was a big step forward.

I’m struck by more than simply the cleverness of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. I’m struck also by the responsiveness of the Lord God. When Moses laid their case before the Lord, the Lord responded clearly: they are right. Some who could be disinherited spoke up; the Lord God said, “They are right.”

Who is speaking up now, in our time and in our society, and demanding something that goes against our tradition or even our sense of right and wrong? If we take their demand to the Lord God, will the Lord God say to us, “They are right”?

It’s been a few months now, so given the way the news cycle goes in this country, perhaps we have forgotten. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Ahmaud Arbery. Don’t forget their names and don’t forget that Black lives matter. Our assumption as a society has been that white people are the norm and everyone else is a variation, and that some of these variations are particularly threatening and need to be handled with violence. Many formerly silenced people are speaking up; is the Lord God saying to us, “They are right”?

I wonder if anyone protested when Moses reported what the Lord had said. I’m sure someone protested women getting “special treatment.” That’s what people in power do: when folks who are out-of-power ask for some measure of rights, the folks in power feel their own rights threatened. Do you think the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Boys and other white nationalists are arming themselves and trying to promote a race war just because they hate Black people? It is that, but it’s also deeper than that: they feel their own rights being threatened, as though rights are a limited commodity, and allowing women or people of color or gay people or anyone else out of power to have some rights necessarily diminishes our rights. As a white man, I’m accustomed to being in the position of power, part of the group that gets to tell everyone else what to do. But I don’t need to tell everyone else what to do. I can’t see why power needs to be concentrated in the hands of white men. In fact, I suspect that if the white nationalists would stop shouting and waving their guns for a while and would talk to the Lord God about people of color and women and Jews and gay people, the Lord God would say to those men, “They are right.”

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah didn’t win equal rights for women by speaking up, but they won a measure of rights. It was a step in the right direction. There would be further steps as the years went by, and some of those steps would be promoted by the Lord Jesus himself.

As difficult as our current time has been, isn’t it exciting to be living in a time when we are listening more carefully and are hearing the words, “They are right”? I know it is frightening for many; and I know others are frustrated that it isn’t happening more quickly. We all know that much that has been gained is always threatened with being lost. Vigilance and patience are called for, as well as the willingness to be both firm and gentle with those who are frightened.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah went to Moses and said, “Why should our father’s name be lost?” and thereby won a milestone right for women. Moses, the leader, did not simply react and say, “These are the rules” or “I’m in charge here,” but went to the Lord God in prayer. The Lord God said, “They are right.”

People of God: keep listening to those who speak up. And keep listening to the Lord God. Who knows? Perhaps they are right.

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

Sermon from October 11: Balaam’s Donkey

Balaam’s Donkey
Pentecost XX (O. T. 28); October 11, 2020
Numbers 22:22-35

When I was learning to read, my favorite stories were the ones about talking animals. Tell a story about a family with a problem child, and that was interesting, but make it a family of hedgehogs and I was hooked. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love this story. There are two talking animals in the Bible: the serpent in the Garden and Balaam’s donkey. Just as the serpent is the villain in its story, the donkey is the hero of this story. I’d like to retell the story and then ponder an implication of it for a few minutes.

As the people of God were slowly making their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, they came to the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan. The King of Moab, Balak son of Zippor, did not want them there. So he sent representatives, with a bunch of money, to a prophet named Balaam, son of Beor. When they got to Balaam, they said, “Our Lord asks you to observe this great and numerous people who have come out of Egypt and to curse them for him. For he knows that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” Balaam said, “Stay the night and tomorrow I will give you my answer.”

That night the Lord God appeared to Balaam and asked, “Who are these men who have come to you?” and Balaam reported all they had said. And God said, “No, you shall not go with them; you shall not curse this people, for they are blessed.” In the morning, the prophet said to the men, “The Lord forbids me to go with you; return to your master” and so they did.

Balak wasn’t taking no for an answer, so he tried again. This time he sent more important officials with the same offer. Balaam said, “You know that I cannot do anything other than what the Lord God commands, even if Balak should give me all the silver and gold he has. But stay the night and we’ll see what God says.” This time the Lord God said, “Alright, go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.” So in the morning Balaam saddled his donkey and went with the men to see King Balak.

Next comes the part of the story we read. As they traveled, the angel of the Lord, a sword in his hand, stood in the road to block their way; the donkey saw him but Balaam did not. So the donkey turned aside into the field and Balaam struck the donkey. When they got to a place with a wall on either side, the angel once again tried to block their way; as the donkey evaded him, it scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall and so the prophet struck the poor beast again. The third time the angel chose to appear in a place where there was nowhere the donkey could go, so it just lay down under its master. Balaam was furious and took his staff and beat the donkey with it.

Then the donkey spoke up. “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times.” Pause for a moment. The strangest thing about this story, I think, is Balaam’s response. He didn’t say, “When did you learn to talk?” or otherwise freak out. Instead he told the donkey that if he had a sword he would have killed it for making a fool of him. Do you know the feeling of embarrassment when your dog chooses just the moment the neighbor is looking to do something disobedient? Balaam wasn’t as worried about his sore foot as he was about his sore ego, having a disobedient donkey before all the important officials of King Balak.

Anyway, the donkey replied, “Haven’t I been your faithful beast your entire life? Have I ever behaved this way before?” And the prophet was forced to concede that it had not. And then he saw the angel.

You heard how the angel scolded Balaam for abusing his donkey and then repeated the message: Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you to speak. And the rest of the story is that was precisely what happened. Balaam went with the men; Balak was irritated that he had taken so long, but built altars and made sacrifices and waited for Balaam to speak his oracle, cursing the Hebrew people. But Balaam said only what the Lord told him to say, and three times, from three different places, Balaam blessed the Hebrew people. Balak was furious and said he would pay Balaam no money at all. Balaam simply replied, “I already said that even if you gave me all the silver and gold in your house I could say nothing other than what the Lord God told me to say.”

Although it doesn’t involve the donkey, I want to add one more thing. After Balak vented his fury on Balaam, the prophet had one more oracle in him. This fourth one is the one that may well have sent a group of magi on the road from Persia to Bethlehem, centuries later, for he said:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near –
A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17).

The donkey could see what Balaam could not: the angel of the Lord, made out for war, holding a sword in his hand. Because the donkey responded to the angel, rather than to Balaam, it saved Balaam’s life. The angel could have killed Balaam, but the donkey put up with the beatings and saved its master’s life.

What do the donkeys and the frogs and the birds and the Javan rhinoceroses and the leatherback sea turtles and the snow leopards and the polar bears see that we do not see? What is Nature trying to say to us, that might save our lives? Now, let me caution you: it is too easy to look at our severe storms and the pandemic and the social unrest and to ask with panic, “Is the Apocalypse upon us?” It is a misuse of the book of Revelation and a repeat of all the mistakes made by people obsessed with end-times stories. So please don’t go there.

But please go here. Is there a voice we should be listening to that Nature can hear but we are ignoring? Would we, like Balaam, rather beat Nature into submission than listen to its complaint? It appears that the only people who consistently deny the scientific consensus on climate change are those who have a financial stake in things as they are, those who would ignore the voice of the one who sees the angel and the drawn sword out of eagerness for Balak’s money. Well, I have to give Balaam credit: he was faithful to the voice of the Lord and gave up all the money. But climate change deniers continue to beat the donkey, refusing to hear its voice.

What should we learn from the voice of the pandemic? I have asked you that and similar questions from time to time over the last seven months; this isn’t going to end anytime soon. Again, there are those who would rather beat the ones who speak up and tell the truth of what they see than pay attention to the angry angel standing in the road. There is a great deal we can learn about public health and prevention and self-discipline and creativity from this pandemic. I fear that it may, instead, be simply business as usual, that we throw blame and slogans and cheap shots at one another rather than trying to learn better ways of doing things. Susan Page asked a fair question the other evening, one that I wish someone would have answered: What could we as a nation have done different? This is a bigger question than simply COVID-19, since we in the United States do spend more money on health care than any other developed country does and we have the worst outcomes when it comes to health and well-being, so in general we should ask ourselves what we can do different. With the pandemic the question is acute: we have the worst infection rate and death rate in the developed world. What could we do different? Neither Vice-President Pence nor Senator Harris answered that question. Will we as a people try to answer it, or will we simply take our staff and beat the one who speaks up and asks it?

Not only our nation but the entire world waits for the donkey who sees the angel to speak up and for the Lord to open our eyes so we can see the angel, too. Nature is speaking to us all the time; I pray the Lord God to open our ears to hear what she is saying.

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


Sermon from September 20: The Prophet Miriam

The Prophet Miriam
Pentecost XVI (O. T. 25); September 20, 2020
Exodus 14:26-31, 15:20-21

If you learned about the story of the Exodus in Sunday School, you probably talked a lot about Moses. And all through the Bible there is a lot about Moses. There is another character in the story who is worth talking about: his sister Miriam. There are three moments in particular when Miriam comes to the foreground of the picture; let’s look at those moments and what they say about God’s work through unexpected heroes.

But first, a Miriam moment that isn’t in the Bible, especially if you’re feeling discouraged these days. In DreamWorks’ wonderful 1998 movie The Prince of Egypt, as the people are leaving Egypt, Miriam and Zipporah lead them in singing “When You Believe.” Find it on YouTube or Hulu or Prime or somewhere and watch it.

Back to the Bible. Our first Miriam moment is from her childhood. You may know that the Hebrew people had prospered in the land of Egypt and were numerous, which troubled the Egyptians. When a new dynasty came to power, the government decided to do something about this potential threat; they couldn’t build a big, beautiful wall – the people were already there – so they decided to enslave them and also do what they could to reduce their numbers. The government decreed that all male Hebrew babies were to be thrown into the River Nile and drowned.

Well, Moses was the exception. When he was three months old his mother put him in a basket and set him floating in the river; Miriam, his sister, watched from nearby. The spot happened to be a favorite bathing place for the Pharaoh’s daughter, and she saw the baby and decided to adopt him. But he would need a woman to nurse him. Just then, Miriam popped out of the bushes and said, “Would you like me to find you a wetnurse?” and the Princess thought that a splendid idea. So Miriam went and got her mother; the Princess hired her to nurse Moses for her with the agreement that when he was weaned she would bring him to the palace to be raised. So, thanks to Miriam’s quick thinking, her mother got to nurse and care for her own baby, and be paid by the government to do it!

The second moment is the one in our Scripture for today, after the people have left Egypt and have escaped across the Red Sea. I’ve preached about all these stories in the last year, so I hope you know them. Anyway, after they crossed and were safe on the other side, Miriam led the celebration. Those who study the Scriptures tell us that the part we skipped (15:1-19) was probably inserted later, that the original story wasn’t Moses singing but Miriam singing and the women dancing with her. These words may be among the most ancient recorded in the Bible:

Sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:21)

And the story-teller calls her a “prophet.” “Then the prophet Miriam… took a tambourine in her hand…” (15:20). When you and I think “prophet,” we tend to think of someone who predicts events that happen later. That’s not the most traditional meaning of the word. When an ancient story says “prophet,” it is more likely to mean someone who has been overcome by the Spirit of God and sings or speaks words inspired by God. There are stories scattered throughout the Bible of people going into a sort of altered state, one in which they feel themselves under God’s control; those are moments of prophecy. Since occasionally such a person will say, “Thus says the Lord: I’m going to blast you because of what you have done,” we think of a prophet as a predictor. But that’s not the whole meaning. A prophet speaks God’s word under the influence of the Spirit of God.

And such was Miriam. As the people settled on the shore of the sea, the Egyptians who had been coming to take them back to slavery dead behind them, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Miriam, she took up a tambourine, and led the women in dancing. And she sang. Oh, she sang. Years of slavery behind them, plague and torture and government oppression behind them. Those who came to enforce slavery dead on the seashore behind them. The Prophet Miriam sang.

The third moment is not so inspiring, but it is instructive, so let’s not ignore it. There came a time as the Hebrews were traveling that Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses over his having married a foreigner. It was part of the law of God that Hebrews were not to marry foreigners, because of their potential corrupting influence, but Moses’ marriage to Zipporah was before that law was given. Or perhaps he had taken another wife, and that’s who they’re complaining about; the story is not clear. In any event, Aaron and Miriam had the law on their side, and they spoke up and said that he should not have married the foreign woman.

But they didn’t stop there; they started griping that Moses was doing all the speaking on the Lord’s behalf. After all, they were prophets too, and the Spirit of the Lord had spoken through them. So shouldn’t the people pay attention to them as well as to Moses? After all, they’re only speaking up for the priesthood of all believers, aren’t they? Who is the Pastor to think that a seminary degree, years of theological experience, and prayer and reflection give them any more information about God than anyone else? Anyway, Miriam and Aaron complained against Moses, and Moses was prepared to let it go, but the Lord wasn’t. The Lord scolded Aaron and Miriam, and punished them by giving Miriam a skin disease.

Wait a minute. Did you catch what was wrong with that sentence? The Lord punished them by giving her a skin disease. Why just Miriam? Why not Aaron too? I don’t know, frankly, and it bugs me. I’m sure the rabbis have a good explanation; it may have to do with Aaron’s role as High Priest. Anyway, Moses prays to the Lord to take it away from her, and God replies by saying, “Nope. She did wrong, and so she’s going to be ritually unclean for seven days, just like anyone else. After seven days she’ll be fine.” And so it was. So while Miriam had to be exiled for the seven days, the people waited for her to recover. Then she was restored to them, and they packed up their tents, and moved on.

From these moments I offer to you three thoughts:

  1. No one, not even Miriam, is above the law. A person with a skin disease was to be quarantined – considered unclean – until recovered. Moses prayed that the Lord would exempt Miriam from that, but God said no, she had to experience what everyone else experienced. It is easy for people in power to think that they can do whatever they want, even go so far as to say, “I am the law,” but that’s not how God sees it. No prophet, no Pastor, no Governor, no CEO, no President is above the law.
  1. Moses himself drew a lesson from Miriam’s disease, according to the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses said that when someone gets a skin disease, everyone must be careful and observe whatever the priests tell you to do, adding “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam” (Deut. 24:9). The example of a skin disease serves as a guide for any sort of infection. When our health experts tell us to wear masks in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and people refuse to do it, they are not only violating good sense but they’re not paying attention to the preaching of Moses. Be careful to observe what you are instructed, he says.
  1. On balance, Miriam is remembered as one of the great figures of God’s story. Yes, she serves as a bad example in one instance, but on balance she is one of the heroes. When the genealogies of the people of God are listed (Numbers 26, I Chronicles 6), they mostly include only men. There are women among them, but since families are traced patrilineally, it’s primarily men’s names that are given. But Miriam is named, right along with Aaron and Moses.

Furthermore, hundreds of years later, the Prophet Micah pleads on God’s behalf, saying, “Look what I have done for you! Why do you turn against me? I redeemed you from slavery in Egypt and sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam!” (Micah 6:4). The Prophet does not neglect Miriam in his preaching. And one, small thing more. Remember Miriam singing of the Lord’s victory at the Red Sea. And remember what the story-teller says of her then. In the entire Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the foundation of the Bible – only four people are called prophets: Abraham, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

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


Sermon from September 13: Reuben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from September 6: “Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from August 23: Mary the Mother of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from August 2: Promised Land, Holy Land

Promised Land, Holy Land
Pentecost IX (O. T. 18); August 2, 2020
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-21

When I asked you for your preaching requests, I suggested that one possible category is “Things I wish weren’t in the Bible.” One of you said, in response:

When God said to Abraham, while standing on what is now in the West Bank, “I give to you and all your descendants this land.”

How much heartache this phrase has caused for centuries.

Yes, but especially for the last seventy-five years. I’m going to approach the question in two ways: one is to talk specifically about this promise from God, as in the Scripture I read to you, and the other is to talk more generally about the promises of God. But first, a story, and this is for all who think that any conversation about Israel and Palestine has to be partisan, and your position has to be determined by your political party.

Some years ago a Presbyterian elder visited Israel and Palestine. I didn’t know him well, but was acquainted with him through our Presbytery. He was a district judge, a conservative Republican. When he returned from his visit he was on fire, passionate in speaking out against the abuses of the State of Israel, forceful in speaking on behalf of Palestinians living in refugee camps. He was a lawyer, and a judge, and so he had an abiding commitment to justice. Political party or ideology were irrelevant; he saw injustice and he had to speak out. So please, don’t assume that talking about Israel and Palestine has to be a partisan political conversation.

Now, to the promise of God to Abraham. This occurred where Abraham had settled with his household, by an oak at Mamre, near the modern city of Hebron. So yes, it was in the modern West Bank, in territory occupied by the State of Israel but the home of Palestinians for centuries. God states the promise more than once, but I selected this instance because here it is clearest in its scope: the Lord claims that Abraham’s descendants are to hold the land from “the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates;” this would be territory comprising Sinai and the Gaza Strip, the State of Israel, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. The only time in history that Israel came close to encompassing that much territory was during the reign of King Solomon.

The promise of God to Abraham had three parts: I will give you descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; I will give them this land; through your descendants all the peoples of the world will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:15-18). In fulfillment of the first promise, Abraham had children who then had descendants of their own. His oldest son was named Ishmael, and Arab peoples trace their heritage to Ishmael. His son with his wife Sarah was Isaac, and Jewish people trace their lineage to Isaac’s son Jacob. After Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah, who bore him six sons. My first question, then, to those who believe that the promise of God means that Jewish people are to control all the land currently known as Sinai, Gaza, Israel, West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon, is this: what of all the other descendants of Abraham? God said that his descendants would occupy the land; does that include the descendants of Ishmael? And the descendants of the sons of Keturah? Of course, Isaac had two sons; Jacob is the ancestor of Israel, but let’s not forget Esau and his descendants as well. But if we speak only of the descendants of Jacob, known as Israel, then let us acknowledge that the promise was fulfilled with the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah, ruled by Saul, then David, then Solomon.

If, however, you wish to press the point that God meant for Israel to rule all that land forever, then consider this. With promise comes responsibility. The other Scripture for the day (Exodus 23:6-9) is a very small piece of Torah, the instruction of God, that is Israel’s part in the promise. The history of Israel in the Bible is the story of the promises of God, but a story that makes clear that the promises have certain contingencies attached. One of the contingencies is this one in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

I resist considering Palestinians to be “aliens” in the land that their families have lived in for millennia, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine so. If Israel is to hold the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, then Israel has the responsibility not to oppress the other peoples who live in that land. Christian people, keep this point in mind, because it applies to us too. The Lord God says clearly: When you have been mistreated, your response is not, “We’re going to do to you what they did to us.” Your response is, “We know what it feels like to be in your position, and so we are going to treat you better than they treated us.”

Remember my acquaintance the district judge. He did not claim that Israel had no right to the land. He was incensed that the State of Israel was being unjust to the Palestinian people who lived in the land. If you are going to contend that Israel should possess the land, then you must also contend that Israel must treat all others who live in the land with justice. And it is worth remembering that they too consider themselves descendants of Abraham.

The third piece of the promise to Abraham was that through him all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This piece of the promise brings me to the second idea, about the promises of God in general, and with this I will conclude the sermon. The first piece of the promise, numerous descendants, was fulfilled in the growth of his family – through Jacob, or through Jacob, Esau, Ishmael and the others. The second piece of the promise, the land, was fulfilled to the House of David. What of this third piece? How has blessing come to all the peoples of the earth through Abraham?

That has been fulfilled in a descendant of Abraham who was born in Bethlehem some 1,800 years after Abraham’s day, during a census being taken at the orders of the Emperor. This child was raised in a carpenter’s family, but as an adult he became a traveling preacher. His intention was to return people’s attention to living in the ways of God, and to offer them a simple connection to God through prayer and a loving heart. You know the rest of his story: his crucifixion, his resurrection, and the work of his apostles in telling the world about him.

Very quickly, the people of Jesus came to two realizations. One of those was that the promises of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. This was not what they expected. The prophets had predicted a day of gloom, of conflict, when all the world would change and then the Kingdom of God would come. So they were expecting the end of the world. Instead, the day of gloom was the shadows over Calvary, and the Kingdom of God came when Christ rose from the dead. Peter said that explicitly in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). They began to rethink the promises of God, not as to how they would see something so literal as a lion playing leapfrog with a lamb, or their particular group ruling a large territory, but rather as to what God was doing in Jesus Christ and how the promises of God are fulfilled in him.

The second thing they realized was that they had to rethink the notion of who is a descendant of Abraham. The Apostle Paul wrote about this clearly and passionately: God gave Abraham these promises because of Abraham’s faith, and so those who have faith are the heirs of Abraham. The promises belong not to the genetic descendants of Abraham, but to those who trust in God as Abraham trusted in God. As I read to you, “He believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) The heirs of the promise are people of faith.

To summarize: I am speaking to Christians, of course, not to Jews nor to Muslims. I am not a Jew nor a Muslim, so I read the Scriptures as a Christian reads them. And so I speak to Christians. Christians who claim that the promise to Abraham means that we should support anything the State of Israel does, no matter to whom they do it: you are not paying attention to the Bible. The Bible tells us, first, that those who govern in the State of Israel are not all of the descendants of Abraham; and the Bible tells us, second, that with promise comes responsibility, including the responsibility to treat everyone within the Promised Land with justice. Third, the Bible tells us that the promises of God are fulfilled not in the ways we might expect, but in Jesus Christ. That is the primary message to Christians: pay attention to the realizations of our ancestors and look to Jesus Christ for the fulfillment of this and for all the promises of God.

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


Sermon from July 26: The Burden of Moral Agency

The Burden of Moral Agency
Pentecost VIII (O. T. 17); July 26, 2020
Luke 1:39-45 and Jeremiah 1:4-10

When I invited you to suggest topics for summer preaching, I was sort of expecting some light-hearted stories and ideas. You know, it’s summer; think “beach reading.” This week and next I have challenging and important things to consider with you, thanks to thoughtful members of our church. The shorthand description of today’s question is “abortion,” but the question posed had more depth than that. The two Scripture readings posed the question; I propose to ponder those readings with you in the light of the question, and ponder a few more portions of Scripture in the light of that question.

I want to start by suggesting to you that the question of abortion is really four types of questions. It is a moral question: What is the right thing to do? It is a biological question: When does human life begin? It is a legal question: What is the role of government in regulating abortion? And it is a theological question: What is my responsibility to the will of God? As I ponder with you all these Scriptures, let’s keep these four questions in mind. This may be a rambling journey, so stay with me.

My questioner called attention to Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God had a mission for Jeremiah, even before Jeremiah was born. The implied question is, “What if Jeremiah’s mother had had an abortion? What would that have done to the purposes of God?” Because people of God always want to be aligned with the will of God, it is an excellent question. Consider all the other ways the purposes of God could have been thwarted. Many pregnancies end spontaneously, sometimes even before the woman knows she is pregnant; some of you may have had that experience. That could have happened. Infant mortality was very high in the ancient world; in some cultures they didn’t even name their children until they were two years old, because of the likelihood they wouldn’t make it that long. So the question is whether the will of God is still accomplished, even if human beings make the wrong choice or something random happens to interfere. Remember what Mordecai said to Esther as I told that story a few weeks ago: if you fail to intervene, the people will still be saved. But perhaps you were supposed to have been the one to do it. We believe – and I hope that we are right! – that God’s ultimate will is accomplished; our joy and well-being are tied into cooperating with God’s will.

My questioner also called attention to the story I read you, when Elizabeth’s son “leapt in the womb” when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came in. Does that not imply that John and Jesus were both already someone, since Elizabeth interpreted that to mean that John recognized Jesus? Yes, frankly, it does imply that. Now, John and Jesus are both special cases in the story of God, so I don’t know that it’s fair to draw a general conclusion from this specific incident. But the story is challenging, isn’t it? At this point, Mary is newly pregnant and Elizabeth is six months along. At the very least, we should affirm that at this point it is clear who these boys are going to be; Elizabeth’s unborn child, six months along, seems to be recognize Mary by her greeting, aware of Whose Mother she is going to be.

Another Scripture, then I’ll make a comment and then share some more Scripture. In Psalm 139, the poet says:

It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
Intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
When none of them as yet existed. (13-16)

Again, the poet looks back to before birth as the time of being shaped by God, and that God already has the poet’s life laid out in advance, what all the days are to bring.

Does God plan our lives and we really have no choice in what we do? That doesn’t feel quite right, does it? When I make a choice, I feel subjectively as though I truly had the freedom to choose. Philosophers who have discussed freedom and determinism and fate and the will of God have suggested that, although how we feel is not absolutely reliable, we should pay attention to how the situation seems to us. So, despite the poet’s suggestion that God had already written the book before the main character is even born, I suspect that we have a lot of freedom to choose our own way. Poetry is important, but it isn’t an absolute source for doctrine or decision-making.

Here’s another thing from Scripture: In Genesis 2, God takes the dust of the earth and shapes it into a human creature. Then it says that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (v. 7). Here the suggestion is that, whatever God may know or decide about what our life will be, you and I don’t actually begin to exist as living beings until we begin to breathe. Remember something from another recent sermon: ruach is breath and wind and spirit. When we begin to breathe, says Genesis, we have and are spirit.

Two more; please indulge me. A phrase that is associated with this conversation is “Choose life,” which comes from Deuteronomy (30:19). I won’t read the whole passage to you, but will summarize it. Moses is speaking to the people, and he tells them they have a choice between following the ways of God and not following them. He says that the ways of God are the way of life; to turn from the ways of God is the way of death. So, “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” So to “choose life” means to choose to follow the Torah, the teachings of God. What does the Torah say? It says, “Keep the Sabbath. Do not oppress the foreigners among you. Do not harvest to the edge of your field.” It does not say, “Do not abort a pregnancy.”

So, before I turn to the last piece of Scripture and conclude this, let me summarize my thinking. When does human life begin? Life is ongoing, a process of becoming. There is no single “moment” when a human life begins. My life, for example, has roots that go back millennia, into the dark recesses of human evolution. When did “I” begin? Maybe, as Genesis suggests, when I started to breathe. Maybe, as Romans suggests, when I was baptized and became a new person in Christ. Maybe when I began to form memories that I retain.  I don’t know. I can say, however, that the popular notion that it began when my Dad’s sperm fertilized my Mom’s egg is derived not from biology nor from the Bible, but from Roman Catholic dogma about something they call “ensoulment.” We’re not Roman Catholic; we don’t have to accept their way of thinking. And for those who talk about the “moment of conception,” they need to attend to their biology: there is no “moment of conception;” conception is a process. I don’t think it’s possible to answer the question when any particular life begins, much less when human life begins. But that said, the Bible is clear that God has purposes in mind for each of us, and part of our responsibility as human beings is to strive to cooperate with God’s purposes.

It is also clear from the Bible that human life is precious, and we should never be quick to dispose of it. Even if the life we are talking about is potential life, a life that has not yet really begun, dispensing of it should not be easy. Whenever life begins and whenever a particular life begins, even in potential it is precious. The Jesus who was not yet gave joy to the John who, though farther along, still was not yet. Even in potential, life is precious.

But now the last piece of Scripture for today, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (5:24-25). The argument of the book of Galatians is that people who belong to God should not be constrained by any particular set of rules, but instead should be guided in doing right by the Holy Spirit. In other words: you are a moral agent, you have the capacity and responsibility to make moral decisions. Do so, guided by the Spirit.

The book the Men’s Book Club recently read[1] included the thoughts of a character who said that people never ask the government to prohibit something because they themselves have trouble with it; it’s always because they want the government to force other people to do something they think is good for them. We don’t ask, “Please outlaw abortion so that I’m not tempted to have one” but, “Please outlaw abortion to stop those people from doing it.” The message of Paul in Galatians is that we should be hesitant to ask the government to make decisions for us that are ours to make. In other words, in response to the moral question I posed at the beginning, the right thing to do depends on a number of factors, and you have the responsibility to decide what is the right thing for you to do in these circumstances. If you are confronted by the need to make a decision – about whether to have an abortion, for example, but also about what to do with respect to your own or someone else’s medical care – you have the burden of deciding. But since you are a child of God, do not carry that burden alone. Include others as part of your guidance: friends you trust, family members, your pastor and other spiritual leaders, the witness of the Holy Spirit within you.

The answers to the questions I posed at the beginning of this sermon are not absolute. Except that yes, you and I have an absolute responsibility to try to live conformed to the will of God. But likewise, we are free most of the time to discern what God’s will is. With freedom comes responsibility, the burden of having to make a choice. But with freedom in Jesus Christ also comes assurance: that whether we choose well or choose poorly, we are people of God, we are children of God, we are loved by God, who started calling out to us in love long before we were anything at all.

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

[1] Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress