Sermon from June 28: Come and Have Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon from June 14: The Justice of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from Pentecost: Ruach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from May 24: The Return

The Return
Easter VII; May 24, 2020
I Peter 1:13-21

In last Sunday’s sermon I said that today I would pick up the idea of where we go from here: how do we make something good come from all this? Although the battle is not ours, but God’s, nonetheless we do have our part to play in rebuilding after the pandemic. I’m going to talk about the Church, and particularly our Church, society, and ourselves as individuals.

The Scripture I’ve chosen is from I Peter, a little book that we did in my Saturday morning Bible study not too long ago. By the way, this is the last sermon in the series about encouragement during the emergency; after Trinity Sunday I’m going to start something new. I need your help with that, so please listen to my notices at the end of the service this morning for more about that. Anyway, the key line in today’s Scripture is, “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” (1:17). That is, if you think of yourself as a child of God, then while you are in exile live reverently.

This period of pandemic has felt like an exile to me. With the Church, I had started preaching on the story of the Exodus, the formation of the people of God. I’m not going back to that, at least not soon. This time has not felt like the slavery in Egypt, from which we are awaiting liberation. It has felt like the exile in Babylon, from which we yearn to return. Maybe someday I’ll preach from the stories of the return from exile, but not yet. There is much we can learn from the people’s experience of return; one lesson is that although they had gone back to the same land, things were not the same. Everything was different politically, economically, and religiously. A major factor shaping the life they had when they returned was how they had lived during the exile. So Peter tells us to live reverently during our exile; how we live now will shape our reality when we return.

For the Church, for society, for ourselves things will be different when we return from exile. Or so I hope. One of you said to me, when we talked on the phone, “Maybe this pandemic will change the world.” Many have expressed that hope, from the Dalai Lama to a recent editorial in the journal Science. I hope we will be different, although the pull is strong to simply restart, go back to where we were. That is a strong pull and I hope we are strong enough to resist it. We will have resist not only the pressure outside us to just restart everything the way it was but also the pressure inside us that wants everything to be just the way it was.

Well, let’s look forward. I’m going to talk mostly about the Church, mostly about our Church, but I’ll reflect with you a bit on society and ourselves as individuals too. First, where we are at Presbyterian Church of the Master. We have been trying to continue worship and education, both online; committees have met and other work has continued. Supplies for Siena Francis House and Rainbow House went out of here the other day; we’re looking to a possible distribution of help to refugees in August.

With respect to worship, what we are doing now will continue for at least a few more weeks. We are monitoring the situation and are aware of the dangers of gathering as a worshiping community. We’re not so much afraid for ourselves as we know our responsibility for public health; it puts many people at risk for themselves and everyone they meet when we gather for worship, far more than grocery shopping and other similar chores. We hope that by late June we can gather for worship, but if we do, there will be conditions. Those with underlying health issues will be told to stay home. We will have to stay separated; there will be no gathering in the Commons, no doughnuts in the courtyard, no forums after worship. And worship itself will be restricted: wear a face covering, don’t sing, don’t touch each other or touch books or papers and so forth. When we gather, it will be different, and will stay different as long as necessary for the sake of public health.

But since we are children of God and are living in reverent fear during the time of our exile, your Worship Committee has started meeting to discuss a bigger question: What is essential for Reformed worship? Since everything is different now, and everything will be different for awhile, why should we go back to what is familiar later? When the people of God returned from exile in Babylon, they did not go back to doing what they did before. Their religious life was different. We are going to be intentional about our religious life when we return, and not simply fall into the pattern of “This is what we’ve always done.” We can do what is familiar, or we can do what God leads us to do. Those are not the same thing.

One thing that will be different is we will continue to provide an online worship experience. That will not have the same production quality as what we’ve been doing since March. Bill Norton, don’t you dare edit this out: friends, the reason we are able to do what we’ve done is we have a church member who has experience in television production and has given his experience, his time, and energy to filming, editing, and producing our weekly services. Bill has done this because of his commitment to Jesus Christ and to Christ’s Church; I hope that leads all of you to ask yourselves what you have done out of your commitment to Jesus Christ and to Christ’s Church. Live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.

Anyway, the Session this week authorized the purchase and installation of equipment in our Sanctuary that will allow us to webcast our service every week. Rather than this nicely produced webcast that you’ve grown accustomed to, instead you will see the service actually happening in the church-house. It will be available live, and will be recorded so you can watch it whenever, as you are doing now. That will be ready to go by the time we start worshiping here again.

What else will be different? One Presbyterian pastor told me that small groups in her church have blossomed during this exile. People are making use of Zoom and Google Hangout and other video conferencing to create and develop new book clubs and other groups in the church. They have a men’s group for the first time ever. I’d like to know if you’ve been doing that. They didn’t wait for the Pastor to tell them to do it; they took the initiative and did it. Will we continue to make use of tools we have learned during our exile to expand our witness in the future? One Catholic layperson commented, “Our job is to take Jesus to people.” That’s excellent. Too often we Protestants get the notion that we’re to bring people to Jesus, or we’re to bring them to Church. “Our job is to take Jesus to people” says it much better, and I pray that we will continue to find new ways to do that.

A few thoughts on other matters and then I’ll stop. I hope that our world will be different, too. The skies are clearer, the wildlife is healthier, carbon emissions are down. If we are in a hurry to go back to the way things were, with no thought given to how things can be, then our march to damage human life because of climate change will resume. As we rebuild, we can build something better than the way we had been living, if we are thoughtful. I know: most people don’t think, they simply follow their feelings to do what makes them feel good. You see that already in those who march on State capitols demanding their brand of freedom, in those who don’t think about the well-being of others and wear a face covering when they go to the store, in the group of young men who were walking together at Standing Bear Lake, making it difficult for others to pass them with a responsible six feet of separation while they kept no separation between themselves. Most people don’t think, but if those who lead us are thinking, are doing responsible planning, and if enough of us are thinking and urging them, we can build something better. All it takes is for those of us who consider ourselves children of God to live in reverent fear during our exile, rather than yearning for everything to go back to “normal.”

Of course, as with everything important, we begin with ourselves as individuals. I have often asked colleagues and others, “What have you been doing during this time that you hope to continue?” One colleague said that he was being much more attentive to what he eats, trying to be healthier in his living, and he wants to continue that. I have been giving more time to prayer; not as much as I would like, but more than I used to do; and I want to continue that. What about you? What gems have you discovered during the time of your exile, gems that you want to take with you as we begin the return to Zion?

Except for this one, my sermons have tended to be shorter during this exile, and maybe that’s something else I should strive to retain! No promises, I’m afraid. But I do promise that your Church will be intentional about what we do as we return to Zion. I pray that our world will be intentional too, and that you will be. It won’t be soon; don’t listen to the voices that are ignoring reality and demanding too much too soon, because we still have a deadly pandemic out there and we need to be patient during our exile, knowing that a new day will come, a day of return. Even so, the return should not look the same as the way things were before. And in the meantime, if you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.

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

Sermon from May 17: The Battle

The Battle
Easter VI; May 17, 2020
II Chronicles 20:13-17

Sales of shirts have remained steady, sales of pajamas have gone up, sales of pants have gone down: one of the unforeseen consequences of doing most of our connecting with each other over video conferencing. One of the questions we followers of Jesus have to consider is what the unforeseen consequences are of worshiping via Facebook Live and YouTube.

Today’s message and next week’s I am thinking of as a two-part message on thinking our way through this pandemic. These two months we have done some laughing, some weeping, some physically-distanced fellowship and more physically-distanced committee meetings (we can be so Presbyterian!). What does it all mean? What is the big picture? Before I tell you a little more about the Scripture, I want to give you the summary of everything I have to say today: Only the Cross makes sense to me.

I told you a few weeks ago that I’m using Scriptures that have been helpful to me or to someone during the pandemic. I was inspired by some preachers who were interviewed on NPR; one of them said that he was inspired by II Chronicles’ phrase, “The battle is not yours but God’s.” You heard me read that in today’s Scripture; the King of Judah was afraid of an impending invasion, because he knew the country wasn’t strong enough to stand against the allies arrayed against it. But a prophet urged him not to worry; “The battle is not yours but God’s.” So the King arranged his forces appropriately, but did not charge out into battle. And the way it turned out, God confused the enemies so they ended up destroying each other.

The preacher said that he was able to work through the pandemic with the confidence that the battle is not his, but God’s. He doesn’t have to solve all the problems medical, social, and economic that are before us. The battle is not his, but God’s. That is certainly true for the preacher, and I have always been helped by the reminder that it is my duty to proclaim the Gospel, but it is not my duty to make you believe it or live by it. The battle is not mine, but God’s.

And yet: the guidelines that have enabled us to live securely, inhibiting the spread of COVID-19, were not handed down on Mt. Sinai but came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What we are looking for in order to deal with this disease long-term is not going to miraculously appear at a wedding in Cana, but will be the product of intensive research for a vaccine and for treatments. Restoring livelihoods and financial security will be the product of hard work and entrepreneurial innovation, not trumpets blowing down the walls of Jericho. You may be shocked to hear me say this – I may sound like a hardened secularist – but I believe I am telling the truth. The truth, as I see it, is defined both by Biblical theology and scientific discovery.

So I want to say a few things that will take us to my conclusion that only the Cross makes sense. I don’t know all the nonsense being said in the name of God about this coronavirus, but I want to say this clearly: this particular thing is the normal result of living in the world as God is making it. God didn’t send it as punishment for anything, but it also is not something that comes from Hell against the will of God. Keep two things in mind: God is creating a world that has the freedom to evolve; and Creation isn’t about us. I once heard a children’s teacher say that if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit, then mosquitoes would not harm us. That is nonsense. Don’t teach our children nonsense. Mosquitoes have evolved to nourish themselves the way they do; some of them carry diseases harmful to humans. God could have, no doubt, built everything so that nothing ever changes and nothing ever causes harm, but God did not do that. God is creating a world that has the freedom to evolve, and so harmful things such as this particular coronavirus will naturally emerge. And that is particularly true when, as Biblical theology makes clear, we human beings are not the purpose of creation. It isn’t all about us. Things that have their own lives and processes will emerge, irrespective of what we think is good. It isn’t all about us.

That’s the first and the hardest thing I have to say to you. The rest comes more easily. This coronavirus is causing more suffering than anything the world has dealt with in a very long time. Many are suffering directly from the disease COVID-19. And then many are suffering from being on the front line of care; one man I communicate with on social media reported recently his sadness when two more of his patients died of it. He suffers emotionally. Many suffer from anxiety, either because they go to work and are constantly exposed to the possibility of catching the coronavirus, or because they are staying in and are feeling closed in. And a huge number of people are suffering financially and from reduced self-image, because they are not working and have less income and do not know when they will be able to work again.

That was what hit me several days ago: when the morning news reported the unemployment figures. I haven’t wept over the numbers of new cases of COVID-19 or the stories about who has died of it, I admit, but hearing how many people have lost their jobs did it. And that’s when I realized: only the Cross makes sense. We want God to solve this for us, to send a vaccine or make the virus magically go away; and some religious charlatans say that is what would happen if we had enough faith. I don’t believe it. I believe that we need to keep fighting our instinct to herd together, to continue vigilant despite the yahoos storming State capitols demanding what they consider freedom, and to do what we can to encourage good medical research into vaccines and treatment. That battle is ours.

To go back to the story: even though God caused the invaders to fall on each other, King Jehoshaphat’s troops were ready to do what was needed. It turned out that all that was needed was to sing praise and gather the plunder from the fallen. But they were ready. The battle is God’s, but we have our part to play.

The Cross is what makes sense of it for me. God has made clear that the way God deals with suffering is to become part of it. God suffers with us. When you weep over your loved one who is hospitalized with COVID-19 and you cannot be with them, God weeps. When I weep over the millions who are out of work, God weeps. Maybe you want the magical power that makes everything better; God has chosen the Cross. God deals with suffering by suffering; deals with death by dying. It is the only way to resurrection.

The way God joins the battle with suffering is not to make suffering go away; God becomes part of the suffering as Jesus dies on the Cross, and God redeems suffering by raising Jesus from the dead. What good will come from this terrible period we are experiencing? Too many of you are already breathing a sigh of relief; we’re not through this yet. We have a long way to go. But I live with the confidence that God will bring something good from this. That is how redemption works: not by making suffering go away, but by suffering through it to the new day of resurrection beyond it. That battle is not yours or mine, but God’s. Even so, we have our part to play.

By the grace of God and human sweat and tears and careful thought, something good will come of all this; some of us will even live to see the good things that come of it. You and I can be part of that, and that is where I will try to pick up this thread in next week’s message. In the meantime, remember that the battle is God’s, and that God has engaged in the battle by the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is on the Cross that God becomes one with us in suffering and dying, so that we may become one with God in living. Only the Cross makes sense to me.

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

Sermon from May 10 – The Goodness of the Lord

The Goodness of the Lord
Easter V; May 10, 2020
Psalm 27

I’m going to say a strange thing: every year I look forward to Lent. There are a few reasons for that, but this one in particular: during Lent, Psalm 27 is the psalm for the morning every Thursday. I love Psalm 27: its expression of faith, its confidence that the Lord will take us in if our families reject us, and especially one line: “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

A lot of the time we people of faith can have our vision set on “what’s on the other side.” Some of our most fun songs go there, singing about “flying away” to “Canaan land” when “the roll is called up yonder” and so forth. But I don’t want us to get so heavenly-minded that we’re of no earthly use to anyone. And besides, when the Bible talks about faith and hope, it says that we have faith that God is involved in our lives now, and we have hope that God is using us for good now. And so I say with the poet, “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

My Mother was a woman of that sort of faith. From my Dad I learned about duty: I learned about disciplined giving to the Church, about following through on your promises, about showing up whether you feel like it or not. But from my Mom I learned about faith. When she agreed with her oncologist’s recommendation to stop chemo and begin hospice care, she said, “I’m on God’s time now.” When the Pastor came to her home to give her communion, she wanted to sing, “It is Well with My Soul.” Now that is from the last six months of her life, but she lived that sort of faith all the 58 years I knew her. “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

We’ve asked a few folks to respond to the question, “How did your Mother influence your faith?” Let’s hear from them.

Readers: You really should look at the video. The stories and comments from church members (and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly) will encourage you.

You may remind me that today we are worshiping God, not Mother, but it’s also wise to remember those who have had a positive influence on our faith in God. For some of you, that is not your Mother. It may be your Father, or another relative, or a neighbor, or a college chaplain. Not everyone has had a mother who helped us learn to trust in God.

So whoever that is in your life, I ask you today to give thanks for whoever had a positive impact on you, so that you can live in this confidence: “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” And if you haven’t had such a person, and you want to know more about the God who inspires such confidence, be in touch. I will be glad to hear from you. It isn’t always an easy road to walk, but the road of faith is marked with signs that help me: “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

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

Sermon from May 3

My Redeemer Lives
Easter IV; May 3, 2020
Job 19:23-27

Sometimes we need someone to stand up for us. If you get hauled into court – you’ve been sued, or you’ve been accused of a crime – you really ought to have a lawyer. They say that those who represent themselves have a fool for a lawyer, and I’m inclined to agree. When I was the accused in a church case, I had a lawyer, even though I knew more about Presbyterian law than he did. He was a great help.

Sometimes at work you need someone to stand up for you. The Labor movement arose because working people needed someone to stand up for them before the power of great corporations. Sometimes in relationships you need someone who can speak up for you, someone who understands you and can put your case.

Job was looking for someone to stand up for him before Almighty God. That’s a tall order! But remember the story: God let the Accuser attack Job, essentially on a bet, and Job went through a host of sufferings. After complaining about it, and dealing with well-meaning but misguided friends, Job erupts with these words: If only I could write down my complaint so that people for ages to come would know how unfairly I’m being treated! But I know that somewhere somebody will stand up for me before God, and I’ll see God for myself.

If you’ve heard this Scripture before, that’s probably not what you heard. You may have heard the music of Handel, and a soprano singing, “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” It’s the first air in Part III of Messiah. Or you’ve heard a preacher read it at a funeral; I know it’s one of my go-to readings at a funeral. So, if you’ve heard this Scripture before, you’ve heard it as Job’s affirmation of faith, that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and so he would be raised too.

Well, no. That’s nice, and it’s true that Christ is raised from the dead and that is the source of our hope for Resurrection, and that’s what I’m trying to say when I read it at a funeral, but that’s not what Job is saying. If you read it in context of Job’s story, rather than as part of Handel’s Messiah, then clearly what Job is saying is: My accuser has had his say, now my defender will speak up on my behalf. And I’ll see God for myself.

That’s the truth, whether you or I like it or not. And I’m going to use that as an excuse to riff a bit about truth, before returning to Job. Maybe in the course of conversation about the current pandemic you have heard comparisons to the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19. There’s a lot we can learn from studying the history of that experience. Maybe you have heard that disease referred to as the “Spanish flu.” Do you know why it was called the Spanish flu? No, it didn’t start in Spain. We don’t know exactly where it started, but the place most often suggested is Kansas. So why is it called Spanish flu? Because most of the world was at war, and the countries involved in the war had a pact that they would not report any bad news. They didn’t want anything to demoralize their populations, and so as the flu raged through their cities, it was kept quiet. Except in Spain. Spain was neutral in the war, so in Spain they were reporting on the flu. The reason the 1918-19 influenza pandemic is called the Spanish flu is because the Spanish were the only people who were telling the truth about it.

We are, in the United States, always at risk of abandoning truth in favor of whatever makes us feel good. That may be true everywhere in the world, but I happen to live here. People will believe what they want in our political life because it makes them feel good. Sometimes they feel good feeling angry! Truth based on evidence seems to be irrelevant.

In religion, truth is hardly a factor anymore. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but if you poll pastors, you’ll probably find that we’re generally agreed that most modern American Christians are less interested in trying to conform their thinking to spiritual truth than they are in believing whatever makes them feel good. Stephen Colbert put this best when he invented the word, “Truthiness.” “Truthiness” represents something that feels true in my gut, whether there is any evidence for it or not. Those who live by truthiness, rather than truth, will ignore what public health leaders are saying and will do what they feel like doing. Those who live by truthiness, rather than truth, will ignore what pastors say about the worship and service of God, and will complain that they shouldn’t have to do anything they don’t like. And those who live by truthiness, rather than truth, will think something is so just because their favorite cable news channel or public official or other leader has said it over and over and it feels right in their good, whether there is evidence or not.

Okay, end of rant. But it takes me back to Job’s assertion that a Redeemer would stand up for him. The Scriptures make it clear that there is a Redeemer who stands up for us, and that is why, even though I get irritated at people’s reliance on truthiness, rather than truth, I can get through my day and continue to serve God. Because, ultimately, the truth will out. In public life, the truth will prevail. And in our life of faith, the truth will prevail. There is no staying power and there is no divine power in truthiness, but only in truth.

Job didn’t know it, but Jesus Christ is the Redeemer he was looking for. The Bible shows Jesus as the one who pleads with God on our behalf, the one who stands before the throne of God and makes our case for us. If you are afraid to come before God honestly, to admit the truth about yourself before God, then be sure that you have Jesus by your side when you go to God. Jesus is the Redeemer who speaks up for you. If the Committee that meets in your head has voices that accuse you, then be sure that Jesus is present in your head, so that his Redeeming voice will meet the voices of your accusers. Jesus knows the truth about us, and he speaks up for us. None of us is as good as our greatest fans believe, and none of us is as bad as our most vehement accusers claim. Sometimes it is hard for us to face truth, but Jesus Christ knows the truth about us, our warts and our beauty marks, our sins and our virtues, our good deeds and our failings. And the one who demonstrated love for us by dying now speaks up for us as the living Lord. I know that my Redeemer lives.

Even Job saw the truth about himself in his story. If you don’t know the story, we should study it together. At the end, Job did indeed see God for himself, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. He didn’t get the vindication he wanted, but he did get the vindication he needed. He wanted to convince God that he wasn’t so bad, and that he didn’t deserve all the bad stuff that was happening to him. That isn’t how it turned out. The way it turned out was that God showed Job that he wasn’t so all-fired important as he thought he was, that bad things happen to people whether they deserve it or not, and isn’t the whale a marvelous creature? In other words, Job learned that the world wasn’t all about him, and complaining that God should have treated him better was an empty exercise. But at the same time, God vindicated Job in a very surprising way, by saying that Job told the truth about God, and that all those who were trying to explain things to Job, trying to make God look good, were lying. God rewarded Job for telling the truth. It wasn’t what Job was looking for, but it was what Job got.

So even though Job didn’t know he was telling a great truth about Jesus Christ, in the end it turns out that he was. He wanted someone who would be his defense attorney before the court of God Almighty. He got that, and you and I got that, and we all got so much more besides. We got the One who knows the truth about us, and loves us, and takes our case again and again. His voice of love overcomes every voice of deceit or truthiness or accusation. I know that my Redeemer lives.

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

Stephen Colbert introduces “truthiness”: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word—truthiness

 

 

Sermon for Holy Humor Sunday: April 19, 2020

Dem Bones
Easter II (Holy Humor Sunday); April 19, 2020
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I always find Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones to be encouraging at Easter, and compelling whenever people are feeling discouraged. But let’s be honest: it’s also darned funny. I mean, really: the Lord God says to the Prophet, “Prophesy! Prophesy to the wind!” If I had been Ezekiel, I might have said, “Are you listening to yourself, Lord? ‘Prophesy to the wind’?” Well, he was a Jewish prophet, and nobody uses humor quite as well as the Jews. As the rabbi said, “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.” In the spirit of Ezekiel the Prophet, and in honor of Holy Humor Sunday, let’s have a laugh or two.

Now, I know these days are difficult, and I’m glad you’re with us on YouTube. But let’s face it, some things never change:

They must be Presbyterians.

While we’ve all been spending more time at home and less time out and about, I’ve been spending a lot more time on social media than usual. It reminds me of a time that I tried to make friends in the real world using Facebook principles. I would walk down the street, stopping strangers and telling them what I’ve eaten, how I feel, and what I did the night before and what I’ll do tomorrow. I would show them pictures of my dogs, of my family, and pictures of me in the garden or at church. I would listen to their feedback and tell them I love them and add that unless they’re total doofuses they will share what I said with everyone they know.

It must have worked; I gained three followers: two police officers and a psychotherapist.

Dan and Judy Graham, like many of you, are living in a place that tells them not to go out for any reason. He told me that it’s made him realize why the dog gets so excited when something moves outside, or when going for walks or car rides. Dan added, “I think I just barked at a squirrel.”

Well, although the parks in Omaha are closed, the golf courses are open. I heard that on a recent afternoon Jesus and Moses were golfing. They came to a hole with a water hazard; Jesus selected an iron. Moses said, “Jesus, you know you won’t clear that hazard with an iron. Use a wood.” Jesus replied, “If Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball that far with an iron, I can too.” Jesus teed off; the ball went in the water. So Moses walked to the edge of the water, parted the water, walked in and got the ball and returned it to Jesus, saying, “Use a wood!” Jesus repeated himself, “If Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball that far with an iron, I can too.” He teed off again, and the ball went into the water. Moses retrieved it for him again, gave it back, and said, “Use a wood! I’m not getting your ball again.” Jesus said it again, “If Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball that far with an iron, I can too.” So Jesus teed off for a third time, and the ball went into the water. Moses said, “You’re on your own, smart guy!” So Jesus went to the water hazard, walked out onto it, and reached down, feeling for the ball. Another golfer came along and saw him out there and said to Moses, “Who does that guy think he is? Jesus Christ?” And Moses sighed and said, “No, he is Jesus Christ. He thinks he’s Tiger Woods!”

So while we’re on the subject of Jesus – aren’t we always? – let’s take a new look at his Sermon on the Mount. In our current emergency, this just might make sense:

Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven a lot, and so we pastors tend to, also. One Pastor reported that she loved to preach about heaven, but one of her members said one Sunday after church, “Why don’t you ever tell us about hell?” The Pastor replied, “There’s no point; you’ll see hell for yourself.”

Which reminds me of one of my favorite church signs. It said that the Pastor’s sermon on Sunday would be, “What is hell?” And added, “Come early and hear our choir practice.” Bad Church signs really are the funniest; this one was on a parish church in York, England:

CHRIS IS RISEN!

That might have been the same church that put on their sign, after the Pastor recovered from a long illness: God is good! Pastor Windrup is better!

You may have seen the church bulletin that read, “This afternoon there will be meetings at the north and south ends of the Church. Children will be baptized at both ends.” Do you ever wonder what the baptism looks like from the kid’s point of view? Maybe like this:

I know there are many Christians who don’t believe in the baptism of babies. I not only believe in it, I’ve seen it!

But all my career I’ve wanted to do a baptism by immersion. I might need to practice, or I could be like this preacher. He took the new convert to the river for his baptism, and told him that he was about to find Jesus. So he pushed the guy under water; when he came up, he said, “Did you find Jesus?” and the new Christian said, “Well, no…” and so the Pastor pushed him under again. “Did you find Jesus?” “Not yet.” And so he pushed him under again, and held him down there a little longer. A third time: “Did you find Jesus?” And the man sputtered and said, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

Well, you can’t get much closer to someone, whether child or adult, than a baptism. Whether you go down into the river with a grownup, or hold a baby in your arms, social distance is impossible. Unless you do like this pastor:

You know, of course, that Catholics always use holy water for baptism. The Rev. Greg Reid, father of Maggie Hernandez and grandfather of Sarah Greer, liked to say that Catholics get holy water by boiling the hell out of it.

Why is it that all the best jokes about Christians tend to be about Catholics? Most jokes about Presbyterians are a play on “the frozen chosen” or our tendency to do everything “decently and in order.” Maybe we think that we need to keep the fact that we really can be a lot of fun a secret from everyone else. In my experience, Catholics throw the best parties, so maybe that’s why they have the best stories. Like this one about the nun out on a rainy night, stopping at a monastery asking for shelter. She’s just in time for dinner and has the best fish-and-chips she’s ever tasted. So she goes into the kitchen to thank the cooks; there are two members of the order there. One says, “Hello, I’m Brother Michael, and this is Brother Charles.” “Pleased to meet you,” says the nun. “Thank you for a wonderful dinner; that was the best fish-and-chips I’ve ever had. Just out of curiosity, who cooked what?” Brother Charles replied, “Well, I’m the fish friar.” To the other she said, “Then you must be…” “Yes, I’m the chip monk.”

If you’re ever in my office and notice that along with my Bobblehead Jesus and Buddy Christ I have a plastic BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary), you might ask me where I got her. But for now, let me tell you a story about a devout Catholic woman who would go twice a week to the church, kneel before the statue of Mary, and pray. One day she was praying, and Jesus decided to reward her devotion by visiting her. He stood before her and said, “Theresa, it’s Jesus.” She didn’t answer. Maybe she couldn’t hear him, so he spoke louder, “Theresa, it’s Jesus; I’ve come to see you.” Still no answer, so he tried again, “Theresa, your prayers are rewarded; it’s Jesus!” Finally she responded, “Please be still; I’m talking to your Mother!”

Different sorts of Christians will handle the same problem in different ways. For example, in one small town every church was being overrun with squirrels. How did they handle it?
• The Presbyterians called a meeting; after much prayer and deliberation, they concluded that God had preordained the squirrels to be there and they should not interfere with the divine will.
• The Baptists noticed the squirrels were interested in the baptistery, so they put a water-slide on it in hopes the squirrels would drown themselves. The squirrels enjoyed the slide, and knew how to swim, so twice as many showed up the next week.
• The Lutherans thought they should not harm any of God’s creatures, so they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free near the Baptist Church. Two weeks later they were back when the Baptists took down the water-slide.
• The Episcopalians tried an interesting experiment. They set out pans of whiskey around the church in an effort to kill the squirrels with alcohol poisoning, only to find out how much damage a band of drunk squirrels can do.
• The Catholics tried something everyone else should have: they baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the Church. Now they see them only at Christmas and Easter.
It was actually the Jews who knew exactly what to do. They took one squirrel and circumcised him. They haven’t seen a squirrel since.

Well, thanks to everyone who provided material for today’s sermon. Let me finish with a story that puts it all in perspective for me; I’ve heard a number of versions of this story, but I’ll tell this one. It keeps me hoping for the day when we can be together again.

Charles’ mother came to his room on Sunday morning, knocked on the door and told him it was time to get ready for church. He said, “I’m not going.” She went in, sat on the side of the bed, and gently asked him why. He said, “Three reasons. First off, I just don’t want to. Second, and more to the point, nobody there likes me. And third, the messages never say anything worthwhile.” She looked at him a moment, then stood and said to him, “And I’ll give you three good reasons why you should go. First, there are a lot of people there who like you; I know because they’ve told me. Second, many people find the messages to be encouraging and they help them grow in their relationship with God. And finally: you have to go; you’re the Pastor. Now get up and get dressed!”

In the words of Swami Beyondananda: The best way to overcome gravity is with levity.

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

Material provided by:
• Dale Duckert
• Dan Graham
• Sarah Greer
• Cynthia Harvey
• Maggie Hernandez
• Dale Irvin
• Bill Norton

And The Funny Times

Sermon from Easter 2020: God Restores Hope

God Restores Hope
Resurrection; April 12, 2020
Matthew 28:1-10

There’s a moment in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s novels that sticks in my head. The grandfather has had a stroke and been hospitalized; when it is realized that he is dying, he chooses to go home and be surrounded by his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. At one point, he says to his son-in-law, “Perhaps I’d be better off in the hospital. Perhaps you shouldn’t have brought me home… I thought I could die with you around me, and I did not realize how much it would hurt you and that I cannot stand that hurt.” The son-in-law replies, “Perhaps you ought not to deprive us of that hurt?”

Sometimes when people go through bad times, they pretend everything is all right. Or sometimes the people around them pretend everything is all right. When someone mentions their sadness, or pain, or struggle, sometimes the rest of us will quickly change the subject; we think we’re cheering them up or sparing their feelings or some such. In reality, we’re denying them the right to hurt; and consequently we’re denying them the hope that they’ll get through this and things will get better.

Jesus’ friends and followers and family needed to be allowed to go through those three days, when hope seemed to be lost and they knew nothing but the grief of having lost him and the fear that the authorities would come after them next. When you and I permit ourselves to experience Good Friday and the time of desolation, we get a taste of their hurt. Perhaps you have done the spiritually mature thing and have felt how our current time of uncertainty and fear reflects what they experienced after Jesus was executed. Only when we know desolation can we truly know hope.

God restores hope. It’s no good to pretend everything was okay all along, to pretend Jesus was not really dead, to act as though his death is anything other than a terrible wrong. Because God does not do the simple thing, which would be to make sure everything is always all right. God does the more difficult thing: in the midst of our desolation, God restores hope.

It has been pointed out that the current emergency, the world in fear of a pandemic, is nothing new for Christians. We’ve been through it before. In the middle of the third century, a plague swept through the Roman Empire, and between a quarter and a third of the population of the Empire died. One thing that people noticed was that Christians reacted differently from others. Whereas the reaction of everyone else was to isolate the sick and allow them to die alone, Christians cared for the sick. They risked themselves in order to provide basic nursing care and so that no one would have to die alone. Christians got sick just as much as everyone else – God did not protect them from getting sick – but basic nursing care did help the survival rate. Christians reacted to the plague very differently from their neighbors.

Why did they? Fundamentally, it was because Christ was risen from the dead. Jesus had taught the importance of caring for one another, and had demonstrated the effects of such care. He touched lepers – people who were not supposed to be touched – and was consistently compassionate to those who were pushed to the margin by everyone else. But the reason people followed through and actually did as Jesus did and taught was because they believed that he was alive and therefore a living Lord who should be followed. If Jesus is dead, then he serves as a good example that you can follow, if you choose, or ignore, if you choose. If Jesus is alive, then he is the Lord and he is to be followed.

And, frankly, since they knew a living Lord, they were not afraid. You have heard stories of Christians going to their deaths because of their faith; now I remind you that Christians were compassionate to the sick because of their faith. They weren’t afraid of dying; since Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, they believed that they too would be raised with him. They didn’t believe that God would protect them from being sick; they believed that being sick and even dying was not worse than the alternative, which was to fail Jesus Christ.

Now, don’t take what I am saying the wrong way. I do not advise that you go rushing out to look after people with COVID-19; leave that to the health professionals. Please wear your face mask if you go out and do not mingle with a group; please continue to practice what we are told for the sake of everyone’s health. Here is what I ask you to do: have hope. When you feel you cannot stand another day in isolation, take hope from Jesus’ Resurrection that a new day will come. When you are struggling because of the toll this is taking on you emotionally and financially and mentally, take hope from Jesus’ Resurrection that the morning will dawn and we will see that we live in the kingdom of the Risen Lord. Remember what Julian of Norwich heard in her visions, words that I have said to you many times before: “Jesus told me that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

I was greatly encouraged by the vision of the Prophet in today’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31:1-6). Jeremiah spoke to his people in exile, people who had lost their homes, lost their land, lost their way of life, lost their country. Jeremiah spoke to them of the hope of restoration:

Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
The planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 31:4-6)

It may seem a small thing to many, but I take hope in the promise that there shall be a day when the sentinel via Facebook and our website and word-of-mouth will call, “Come, let us go up to the Church on the Hill, to the Lord our God.” Just knowing that our separation is temporary restores hope. It is long, and maybe we wish it hadn’t happened at all, but maybe we should be permitted to live through it and have hope. For we know the day of restoration will come.

If we know that, then we know we can live through any desolation and have hope: hope for restoration, hope for life, hope that by remaining faithful to the living Lord Jesus even death is not the last word. For by the Resurrection of Jesus, God restores hope.

Although Jesus had told them, the friends and followers and family of Jesus didn’t really get it – how could they? – didn’t know that their separation would be temporary, that on the third day he would be restored to them. You and I know, and so we know that every hard and terrible experience of life always has in it that kernel of hope. We do not follow a dead martyr, but a living Lord, who has promised us life as well.

As Jesus was dying, he cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” As he learned and his friends and followers and family learned, God did not abandon him. He went through what he went through, and they went through it too, and they all came out the other side with new life and new hope. Remember that God raised Jesus. God kept the promise to restore his life and kept the promise therefore to restore our hope.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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

Sermon from Palm/Passion Sunday

(I Don’t Know) How to Love Him
Palm/Passion Sunday; April 5, 2020
Matthew 26:69-75; 27:55-61

Our Church’s original plan for today was for the choir to take us through the story of Jesus’ passion and death by using selections from Jesus Christ, Superstar. You will get to hear one of the songs after the sermon, Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I was thinking also of the dialogue between Mary and Peter after Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:69-75):
Mary: Peter, don’t you know what you have said? You’ve gone and cut him dead.
Peter: I had to do it, don’t you see? Or else they’d go for me.
Mary: It’s what he told us you would do – I wonder how he knew…

That’s harsh, what Mary said to Peter: “You’ve gone and cut him dead.” But most of us have had harsh thoughts about Peter, because of his denial of Jesus. We wish he had done better; maybe you, as I do, wonder if you would have done any better. There’s a line in Ecclesiastes that seems relevant: better a living dog than a dead lion (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Peter, the living dog, saved his skin, and so he was there to do some remarkable things later on.

Still, at this moment, he’s quite a contrast to Mary and the other women, who were on hand when Jesus died and who were nearby when he was buried. They were present. They were there. When the servant-girl said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean,” Peter denied it. He said he wasn’t with him. He doesn’t come off so well.

But one of the people I like to read changed my thinking; William Barclay pointed out that Peter was, in fact, there. After Jesus was arrested, everybody ran away, but Peter followed him and was nearby. Even after he was recognized, he stayed. Barclay said: Peter loved Jesus. He loved Jesus enough to follow him to a dangerous place. Even after he was recognized, he loved Jesus enough to stay. Then out of his love for Jesus, he remembered what Jesus had said. And even though Superstar tells us that he made excuses to Mary Magdalene, the Gospels tell us that Peter went out and wept. If he had not loved Jesus, he would not have wept.

As much as I love the song, it seems that both Peter and Mary Magdalene did know how to love Jesus. They both knew this: the main thing about loving Jesus is to stick with him when everyone else runs away. Peter followed him to the high priest’s house; Mary Magdalene and her friends followed him to the Cross and tomb. They were there. And so too was Joseph of Arimathea, who treated Jesus as a member of his own family, taking his body and placing it in his own new tomb. He was there.

Sometimes, in my head, I get critical of the prayer I often hear, “Lord, be with us” or “Lord, be with Henry…” and so forth. I think, “Ask for something specific; the Lord is always with us.” I think my criticism may be wrong. If the first thing about love is being there; if we know that Peter, Mary Magdalene, the other women, and Joseph of Arimathea loved Jesus because they were with him, maybe we are really asking for God to show us that God loves us. “Be with us” means “Show us you love us enough to stick around.”

What signs have you seen recently that God is loving you, is hanging around? I’ve seen God’s people write encouraging thoughts; I’ve seen wonderful expressions of a great sense of humor about all this; I’ve seen signs of Spring. And, of course, this week we follow Jesus to his Cross, where he spreads his arms wide to embrace the world in the self-giving love of God.

I’d like you to think about my question: what signs have you seen that God is loving you, is hanging around? When you pray, “Be with us, Lord,” how do you know that your prayer is answered, that God is with you? Think about an answer or two, maybe even write them down, so that while we live with necessary restrictions and there may even be fear around us, you can remember that God loves you and is with you.

And so back to the original concern: I don’t know how to love him. Maybe Peter, and Mary and the other women, and Joseph can tell you and me how to love Jesus: be there. Be with him. Follow him to the High Priest’s house; follow him to the Cross; take him to the tomb. Be with him. But how to do that right now? How can I be with Jesus when I cannot leave my house? How can I be with Jesus when I cannot go to Church? How can I be with Jesus when I have to stay six feet away from anyone who does not live with me? I don’t know how to love him.

There is the challenge for your imagination. Here are some things I’ve heard; you can think of others. Some are making a practice of using the telephone to be with people. They can’t go visit, but they can call. And many people are rather isolated right now. They are with Jesus by being with his siblings. Our Prayer Shawl ministry has a good supply of prayer shawls, and don’t think they need to make more right now, so they are making caps, scarves, and mittens for folks at Edison School and at Siena Francis House for next winter. That’s a good reminder, isn’t it? There will be a next winter. I know that some folks with skill in sewing are making masks and other needed supplies for others.

I think these are signs that people are finding ways to be with Jesus, even though pretty much stuck at home. What other ways can you be with Jesus?

When, in the opera, Mary Magdalene sings that she doesn’t know how to love Jesus, what she is really telling us is her fears about him and her fear of him, as well as her desire to be with him. She sings that she doesn’t know how to love him, but in the opera, she is the one who shows him tenderness, the one who demonstrates simple care and deep affection; she is there. She may not realize it, but she does know how to love him.

And so do I. And so do you.

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