Sermon from September 22: We Do Not Lose Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon from September 15: Dios mio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sermon from September 8: Joy in the Ordinary Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon from September 1: Table Talk

Table Talk

Pentecost XII (O. T. 22); September 1, 2019
Luke 14:1, 7-14

I know that some of you still do dinner parties: you have people in for dinner, perhaps you play games, or you have good conversation over the table. When I was a student in Spain, I learned a word that has no equivalent in English: “sobremesa.” It literally means “over the table,” but what it describes is that time after you’ve finished eating and you’re sitting at the table, perhaps with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and talking. Imagine the plates and utensils still sitting in front of you, but the conversation about federal trade policy or Martin Scorsese’s latest film is so good that you all sit together and talk.

That’s the point of dinner parties; am I right? Sometimes you have one in order to impress someone, such as your boss, or to welcome someone, such as a new neighbor or new pastor, and of course we have wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners and other scripted occasions. But if you do dinner parties at all, or go out to dinner with other folks, it’s primarily for the sake of friendship: to build relationships.

The reason this occurs to me as relevant to Luke’s story is that Luke calls it a “parable.” I decided not to walk you through all the twists and turns of thinking that led me to where I’m taking you with this story, but simply take you there. Jesus is doing more than simply giving good advice about how not to be embarrassed at a wedding reception – telling you to sit at a less important spot than you think you’re entitled to, so everyone will see you being raised up – but is telling us quite explicitly that in the kingdom of God, those who try hard to be important will be humbled. Those who humbly serve will be exalted (good word, isn’t it? How often do you say “exalted” in a typical day?).

And so the advice to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to your dinner parties is not merely a way to win brownie points with God. Yes, if you scratch the back of someone who cannot scratch yours, then you will be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven. That is true. But I think there is a deeper truth here, and it goes back to what I was saying about dinner parties.

We’re not here in God’s Church just to learn how to go to heaven. We’re here to learn how to help our world be a little more like heaven. And one place to start is the dinner table.

Last week, one of you suggested that we have weekly meals for our neighbors. Well, every week might be a bit ambitious for a start. But here’s the genius in your idea: it’s not only a way to be of service; it’s a way to get to know people. If you wish to follow through and make something come of your idea, please don’t do it just as an avenue of service, and don’t do it in the hope of recruiting church members. Do it as a way of building relationships, of meeting people that you would not usually get to know.

So in Jesus’ advice he suggests getting to know people not because of what they can do for you but simply for their own sake. Right, you have the boss to dinner in order to make a good impression and maybe get a promotion. And you can expect tit-for-tat if you invite people who will return the favor. But those who are not going to return the favor may give you a deeper favor: friendship.

The most interesting thing about my job is I get to hear people’s stories. When people talk about themselves, I get invited into the mystery of who someone is. Where you came from, the people who have been important to you, the work and activities you love, what frightens you. People are endlessly fascinating. Well, I don’t want to overstate this. There was the time I was on the California Zephyr heading east and my seatmate learned I’m a pastor; the whole way from Omaha to Burlington he told me about his life – all the way across Iowa. I really wanted a break to read for some of that time. But, generally speaking, my life is enriched by the invitation into people’s lives.

Imagine the richness of conversation with folks over dinner simply for the sake of having that conversation, without another agenda. Is it not a blessing to have dinner with someone and, in your mind you’re thinking, “The only thing I want from you is you. Your story. Your company for a little while. And maybe your opinion about the City’s transportation initiative.”

Although I’m not going into the whole process of my thinking, I will say I’m inspired by the Prophet Jeremiah’s observation that the people of Judah had abandoned the fountain of living water and instead dug out cisterns that could not even hold water (the Old Testament reading of the day was Jeremiah 2:4-13). We do something similar when we get distracted by scrambling for position, trying to make good impressions, working at marginal and unimportant things, while neglecting those things in life which matter: the love of God, our families, friendships.

I think if we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind simply because we want to do something nice for them and maybe God will notice and reward us, we miss the point. We are trying to drink from cisterns that cannot hold water. But if we have dinner with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind in the hopes of getting to know them, then we are much closer to the fountain of living water. We are eating and drinking with Jesus.

Our Church hosted Crossroads Connection on Easter; our Deacons prepared a lovely meal for the inmates and their families and we all enjoyed it together after worship. And I noticed that the hosts, the people from our Church, did not all sit together, but dispersed among the guests. You were listening to their stories. You were building relationships. You were drinking from the fountain of living water. You were having dinner with Jesus.

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

Sermon from August 25: Wonderful Things

Wonderful Things

Pentecost XI (O. T. 21); August 25, 2019

Luke 13:10-17

Last week I read to you about Jesus calling some folks hypocrites; now he’s doing it again. And the hypocrisy Jesus points to is very like what we talked about two weeks ago: when the actions of religious people don’t match our words.

Let’s be clear what’s going on here. It is deeply embedded in the ways of the people of God that one day in seven should be devoted to worship, prayer, learning, rest, and family time; not to work. So, in one respect, the leader of the synagogue was right: there are six other days of the week in which Jesus could heal her. But there are two ways in which the leader of the synagogue was missing the point.

First, God gave the Sabbath law for the sake of freedom and human dignity. People would work seven days a week; because of the Sabbath, they had one day to devote to something else. Now, whether or not we are careful to keep a day free from work, there is one respect in which I hope you and I are all keeping Sabbath: that we make opportunity to be human beings, not merely producers and consumers. God gave Sabbath so that cogs in the economic machine could be human beings; it is an act of freedom. So Jesus points out the hypocrisy of using the Sabbath law to keep a woman bound to her infirmity, to prevent her from being set free. The Sabbath is for freedom, so he boldly sets her free on the Sabbath.

This occurs to me, too. The people Jesus had the most trouble with were not the folks that you and I might think of as “bad people.” He had trouble with the “good people,” the people who always kept the rules and were downright insistent that everyone else should too. They were called Pharisees – you’ve heard of them – and they were continually crawling up Jesus’ butt for his failure to be strict about the rules, and for associating with people who were not strict about the rules.

The leader of the synagogue was more concerned with keeping the rules than with the well-being of his neighbor. Surely he knew this woman; synagogue communities were not all that large. And those in the synagogue who supported him knew her too. And the lack of compassion for her is stunning.

Jesus considers us hypocrites if our devotion to “the way things are supposed to be” is greater than our compassion for others. It is so easy to become comfortable with “the way things are supposed to be” and so fail to act with compassion. The Christian Church in general has a big problem with this right now and I suspect it’s a problem here too. It’s hard for me to see it, since I’m part of the problem, but I think we need to ask ourselves some questions at this time in our life as a Church. I am excited about what we have been able to do with our building: it looks beautiful, it’s accessible and new and inviting. But I worry: are we so happy about our building that we fail to use it for its intended purpose? It’s intended to help us witness the presence of God in our community; are we using it for that? Sometimes I fear we are more devoted to preserving the building “the way it’s supposed to be” than to using it for the purposes for which God gave it to us.

I’m going to invite some imagination here. The people who saw Jesus heal the bent-over woman rejoiced at all the wonderful things he was doing. They saw him do two things: heal a woman, and poke the eye (figuratively speaking) at the folks who were more devoted to the rules than they were to a woman’s freedom. So start thinking of the sort of wonderful things we can do as a church, as a community of Jesus, that will cause people around us to rejoice. It will make some people unhappy, because it may leave stains on the carpet or leave a smell. Here’s an example of that: I was Parish Associate at a church in Trenton, New Jersey in the early 1980s. A Korean immigrant community used to meet at our church on Saturday; they would have worship and dinner together. Have you ever smelled kimchi? Yes, we could still smell it on Sunday morning. Some folks griped about the smell; other folks rejoiced that an immigrant community had found a home among us. Are any in this story people that Jesus might call hypocrites?

Here’s another story. Years before I went to Miami, Arizona, that town had a thriving prostitution trade. Miami is the only town I’ve heard of where a brothel once advertised in the Yellow Pages. Anyway, one of the women left that life, committed her life to Jesus, and became part of the Presbyterian Church there – the one I served many years later. As part of her new life, she wanted to teach Sunday School. Well, parents were scandalized: such a woman teach their children? So they had a congregational meeting and decided she should not be allowed to teach Sunday School. Then the Pastor spoke up; he stood and said, “You know, sometimes it is possible for a congregation to take the Lord Jesus Christ by the hand, and show him the door.”

Okay, enough from me. Every month, when your Session meets, we say that we want to live out our mission by striving to:

  • Be intentional followers of Jesus Christ
  • Be risk-taking servants
  • Listen to the Spirit in our lives together, and
  • Commit to innovative ministry.[1]

What are some ways that we can do these things right here where we are?

The people present spoke up readily and suggested these things. I urge the people of the Church to think deeply about what God is calling us to be in our community and to follow through.

  •    A block party
  •    Offer a weekly meal for our neighbors
  •    Service on Saturday evening
  •    After-school program
  •    A Spanish-language service
  •    Ask our neighbors how we can help them
  •    Contemporary service
  •    Venue for neighborhood to teach and speak out and audience to listen to them

We too can do wonderful things, as our Lord Jesus has done. Instead of “hypocrites,” he will call us brother and sister, child of God, beloved, redeemed: a free people. Remember the bent-over woman, who was set free from the bondage to her ailment by our Lord. And I’ll finish by reading a poem by a fine Presbyterian poet, Thomas John Carlisle; it’s from the mouth of the bent-over woman and is called “Resurrection.”[2]

He called me woman

in the same honorable way

he would address his mother.

The name

took on a radiant meaning

as I rose

from my constricted past,

my years bent over

with crush and crunch

of my unliftable

burdens and desperations.

When he named me daughter –

daughter of Abraham –

I felt the glory

and I knew

that nothing could ever

hold me down again.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

 

[1] Printed in the Session agenda every month, recited by the Session members at the beginning of our meeting.

[2] Thomas John Carlisle, “Resurrection,” in Beginning with Mary: Women of the Gospels in Portrait(Eerdmans, 1986), p. 34.

Sermon from August 18: The Present Time

The Present Time

Pentecost X (O. T. 20); August 18, 2019

Luke 12:49-56

I think all the stories and songs that portray Jesus as a sweet, mild-mannered, quiet guy ignore this story. Well, they ignore a lot of stories, but this one is particularly tough. And it goes to the heart of a deep pain we have in the Church and in American society. When I was young, people used to talk about the “generation gap;” I don’t hear talk about that anymore. But it is every bit as profound as it was then, and the pain we feel is just as real.

Jesus’ words and the prophecy of Isaiah (5:1-7) both deserve some explanation. The two have this in common: they both announce that judgment is coming. When we go along our merry way, ignoring the large realities around us, then suddenly crisis overtakes us. Remember the Great Recession of 2008? Who could see that coming? Practically everyone who was paying attention. The Prophet Isaiah had a particular gift for paying attention to the realities of his day and warning his contemporaries of what was coming.

As many of you know, I am a fan of science fiction literature, television, and movies. One of the large streams of science fiction is of the “If this goes on” variety. The writer looks at a contemporary reality and asks, “If this continues as it is, what is a likely outcome?” It can be good or bad; in the 1960s, for example, many stories imagined a thriving colony on the Moon by now. If we had continued pushing into space as we were then, that is what would have been. Then I remember one story called “If This Goes On”[1] that imagined the United States if a popular evangelical preacher is elected President and reshapes the country in his ideal, into an evangelical Protestant theocracy. Although it was published in 1940, it has often seemed relevant.

Anyway, the Prophet Isaiah was able to imagine “If this goes on” and warn his fellow citizens what to expect. The beautiful thing is the way he puts it: a love song from the vineyard owner to the vineyard. I love my vineyard, the Lord God sings; I planted it, watered it, put a protective hedge and wall around it. But it didn’t yield grapes that I could use for good wine! It grew wild. I hope you get what the Prophet’s talking about: God planted the people of Judah, protected them from enemies, made them prosperous, and gave them a good code to live by so they could have a just, blessed society. But they ran wild and pursued their own preferences instead. So what will the vineyard owner do? Remove the hedge and tear down the wall, so they are no longer protected. That’s Isaiah’s warning: if this goes on, our society will fall.

Remember: this is called a “love song.” God cares about the behavior of God’s people because God loves us. If God didn’t care about us, then God would be content for us to do whatever we want, to pursue our own preferences rather than God’s guidance.

Jesus also picks up the image of the vineyard and uses it to describe his church; you find that in the Gospel of John. The central question that the vineyard owner asks through the voice of Isaiah is, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” And I wonder sometimes why we have so much trouble sticking to our mission in Jesus’ Church. What more was there to do for us that God has not done? What more do we want from God? And if there is nothing more that God should do for us than God has done, why do we wander so far from the mission God has given us? Why do we end up as wild grapes, doing our own thing instead of God’s thing? What more could God do for us?

Jesus puts some imagination to his situation, too, and sounds a similar warning. But his is more personal: if you pay attention to my word and actually try to follow me, you may well make trouble at home. Indulge me in some autobiography. When I was in middle school, you could say I got religion in a big way. I made an emotional commitment to Jesus, got involved in a Bible study over and above our Sunday School, and even carried a Bible to school. And it wasn’t just me; there were quite a few of us kids in our Church who were involved in this Jesus movement. And we were a lot of trouble. I fought with my parents rather a lot about it, because they thought I should not be quite so demonstrative. And the other kids had trouble with their parents. When we would get a chance to lead worship, we would upset the older generations by what we said and by our music.

I identified with the son in Jesus’ story, because my dad and I were constantly at odds over this. My dad was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and he was loyal to his church and faithful in his worship, but my approach as a teenager was very different from his, so we were divided, just as Jesus has described here.

Now I am the older generation and am trying not to be a fuddy-duddy. I don’t want to be one of those older folks who complains about “kids these days” and is stubborn in the face of their enthusiasm. At the same time, I know the importance of maturity and not giving in to everything that people demand. When we were teens, we didn’t understand our parents’ hostility to our music and we didn’t understand their resistance to the social matters that were important to us: racial justice, an end to the war in Vietnam, and so forth. Now I want to ask my generation: what happened to us? We’re the children of the 1960s and 1970s; can we remember what we were and appreciate what our children and grandchildren are saying?

There are two extremes we older folks have to guard against: one is the assumption that younger people – whether teens or young adults – are simply impractical or “wet behind the ears” and we can just ignore what they say; the other is the assumption that we should automatically do whatever they want. Wisdom demands paying attention to the signs of the present time and making informed decisions for the future.

And so Jesus’ warning and his pointed question. Isaiah asks, “What more could the Lord God have done for you?” Jesus asks, “Why do you know how to interpret the weather but you can’t interpret the signs of the times?” Basically, when we’re happy with the way things are, then we’re inclined to ignore the signs of problems down the road.

And that is why we older types need to listen to the young when they call attention to the problems down the road. We are likely to be happy and content with the way things are – just like the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day – and don’t pay attention to the consequences of “If this goes on.” Are you and I paying attention to what the young are saying about the cost of education, or about our health care system, or about climate change? Obviously wisdom says that we don’t always give people what they want, but do we actually listen or do we just shut down? I hear people say, “Well, it will cost too much.” And then I want to see some numbers: How much will it cost? And what is the cost (financial, social, personal) if we don’t do it?

I remember proposing at a previous church that we study the cost of replacing our HVAC system; my suggestion was shut down immediately: “It will cost too much; we don’t have the money.” So they didn’t even look into how much it would cost. Well, sometime after I was gone, that church was faced with the need to replace the system, and they did it. And it didn’t cost nearly as much as people had feared, although it was more than it would have been if we had done it when I suggested. Pay for it now or pay for it later, whether you’re talking about the Church’s HVAC system, or our priorities for worship and mission, or a nation’s public policy.

I can think of several directions to go to finish this sermon on a positive note (after all, I’m a preacher of the Gospel, of “good news”), but here are two. First, remember that the Prophet Isaiah warned the people “If this goes on” because God loved them and wanted the best for them. God’s warnings to us are statements of love for us. Also, Isaiah wanted to give the people a chance to make some changes. Likewise, Jesus scolds the hypocrites who know whether to take an umbrella to work on a particular day but shut down when young people ask for action on climate change because he thinks we can indeed learn to interpret the present time. Just in the course of my lifetime, we have made changes that made a positive difference. We established Medicare. We abolished Jim Crow laws. We created emissions standards and water quality standards; remember when Lake Erie died? Remember when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire? Both are much better. We stopped the production of chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer. We banned DDT, which was wiping out songbirds.

Here is what I mean: we can repent. The Spirit of God works subtly and slowly, but works constantly for our good. But that requires us to learn to interpret the present time; a sign for us is the voice of the young. May God grant us grace to pay attention and to interpret the present time.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

 

[1] “If This Goes On,” later reprinted in Revolt in 2100, by Robert Heinlein.

Sermon for August 11: Seek Justice

Pentecost IX (O. T. 19); August 11, 2019

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

I’m going to elaborate briefly, and will try to be simple, clear, and measured, but the summary of today’s message is this: anyone who says that politics does not belong in Church is denying the Bible.

I would love to get down-and-dirty with this harsh, beautiful, and stirring prophecy of Isaiah, to go through it with you line-by-line. Instead I’ll apply it more generally, but please note this: the Prophet’s words are judgment against a people and against the people’s government. The people are doing their religious duty, but the Lord God is weary of people making sacrifices, singing hymns, saying their prayers, and failing to serve the needs of the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. God judges us when we use our religion as a cover for injustice.

So, that is the first takeaway from Isaiah’s prophecy. If your religion does not affect your politics, then you’re not doing it right. You and I have a responsibility not just to be members of a church, to get good feelings from worship, and to give some money from time to time, but actually to be disciples of Jesus, people of God. There is a familiar line in what Guy read to you (Luke 12:32-40): “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” People often turn that around, but Jesus has it right: your heart follows your money. Wherever your money is invested, that’s where your heart is going to be. And so most of us make our decisions about voting and public policy based not on what the Bible says, but on how it will affect our family’s income. That makes sense, and Jesus knows it: your heart follows your money. And he forces us to ask ourselves whether we’re putting our treasure (money, vote, energy) where it will be faithful to the Word of God.

Second takeaway: as far as God is concerned, government does have a responsibility to the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. You will hear people in this country say that government has no responsibility for social well-being. People are allowed to think that, but not if they believe the Bible. Remember the beginning of Isaiah’s prophecy of judgment was against the rulers, and then also the people.

Let me try to tease out something appropriate to say about the matter of gun violence in this country. It’s come to the foreground again, after last weekend’s two attacks, but the reality is that mass shootings are a small percentage of the deaths by gun violence. In 2018, there were 39,773 deaths by gunshot in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of those were by suicide; less than one percent were from mass shootings such as what we see on the news; and the remainder were from homicides, home defense, and accidents.[1] So the Prophet Isaiah says three things to this situation. First, government has a responsibility to respond. Government is the agent by which communities supervise ourselves and so government has a responsibility. Second, people of God are not permitted to use our religion as an excuse not to advocate; indeed, the Prophet says: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Our faith in God is not a substitute for action; rather, it is to motivate us to action on behalf of those who do not have social power. And the third thing the Prophet says is that the problem is deep, that our society is sick. The suicide rate in this country, plus the fear many of us now have to go out to public gatherings, come from a deep illness in our social fabric that government cannot solve. We have Good News that can address that sickness, and there is part of our evangelistic challenge.

So far I have said that the Prophet claims that our faith in God demands political involvement and, second, that government has a responsibility to those who are out of power. But I will not claim that the Prophet states what the government is supposed to do. That is where people of faith may disagree: we must agree that people of faith are required to hold the government accountable for the weakest in our society – represented in Isaiah’s day by the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow – but we may disagree with each other on what the government is to do. If the preacher says that governments must take action in light of the epidemic of gun violence in our society, I am on firm Biblical footing. But if I say, “And this is what that action must be,” then I am expressing my own opinion.

Yes, this is a heavy sermon, isn’t it? These are heavy times. But to the third takeaway, and then I’ll be done. This story is a good lead-in. In a previous church, I had a wonderful friend and parishioner, Dr. Campbell. Now his political views and mine were completely at odds, but we loved each other. Anyway, in a sermon one Sunday I wanted to play on our political stereotypes in America, so I said something about “God-fearing Republicans and godless Democrats;” Dr. Campbell loudly replied, “Amen!” One of the few times I’ve gotten an Amen in a sermon.

Anyway, the third takeaway is this: the Prophet Isaiah reminds God’s people that we are to be the Kingdom of God. We have a loyalty that is higher than loyalty to a political party, higher than loyalty to the nation, higher even than loyalty to a college football team: the Kingdom of God. And though some of us think the priorities of the Kingdom of God are reprinted in the platform of the Republican Party, and others think they are the platform of the Democratic Party, they are not. And the United States of America is not the Kingdom of God. Isaiah’s country, Judah, was supposed to be the Kingdom of God in its government and organization, and you can tell from the reading that they didn’t get it right.

Part of the work of Jesus is to create a new Kingdom, one that has no political parties, no national borders, but that consists of that fellowship of all who know that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Our life – the way we treat each other, the way we treat people who are different from us, the causes we advocate and the decisions we make – is the work of the Kingdom of God. We need always and in everything ask the question: What does Jesus want me to do? Not, “What will make me feel safe?” Not, “What will improve my stock portfolio?” But, “What will help the oppressed, the orphans, and the widows?”

The Prophet concludes by reminding us that the Lord will sort it out for us, forgiving us and cleansing us. Isn’t that what Christ does? We won’t get it right all the time, but do not despair. Christ offers forgiveness and new possibilities; your pastor is simply urging you to put your heart in the right place. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

 

[1] https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls and a story from the New York Times, Dec. 18, 2018. 

Sermon For August 4: God to Us Fools

​I made my commentary about the mass shootings over the weekend during our prayer request time, and so that is not included in this sermon.

God to Us Fools

Pentecost VIII (O. T. 18)

August 4, 2019

Hosea 11:1-11

Hebrew prophets were strange. They would not fit comfortably into our nice, suburban, middle class environment. We love to read their poetry and think about their prophecy, but I don’t think you would want to invite one to dinner.

It’s somewhat surprising to me that Jesus was often invited to dinner, since his words and behavior did not always demonstrate good manners, either. In today’s reading from Luke (12:13-21) his words and behavior are not so bad, except for saying that anyone who considers wealth to be more important than relationships is a fool. You and I may well agree with him, and I think it goes nicely with the reading from Hosea, in which God is speaking to us fools about our priorities, and what God feels about it.

Generally, the prophets’ messages reflected what they learned about God from their own lives. So let’s start by talking about Hosea’s family life, and that will help us get a handle on his prophecy. Hosea felt very strongly that God was calling him to get married to a woman named Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. Now Gomer was a prostitute by trade, and Hosea felt he was making a prophetic point by marrying her: Israel was prostituting itself by its failure to be completely loyal to the Lord God.

You probably don’t want me to say it, but here it is: in the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the relationship between God and God’s people is frequently compared to marriage. And the failure of God’s people to be faithful to the Lord God is described as “adultery” and “prostitution.” No matter how much the Lord God loves us, saves us, nurtures us, and guides us, we still go panting after every god who comes along in tight jeans, whether that god is wealth, property, nationalism, guns, military power, or ego… or anything else.

Anyway, Hosea made his first prophetic point by getting married to a prostitute named Gomer. She bore him a son, whom he named Jezreel, to remind the people of something terrible in their recent political history in the place named Jezreel. Then he got real explicit in his prophecy: Hosea and Gomer had a daughter, whom he named Lo-ruhamah, which means “Not pitied.” Because of their unfaithfulness, the Lord will no longer have pity on Israel. And then they had a son, Lo-ammi, which means “Not my people.” You get the point.

But then something happened: the Lord spoke to Hosea and said, “Call your daughter Ruhamah (‘pitied’), because I will have pity on Israel, and call your son Ammi (‘my people’), for Israel shall know that they are my people and that I am their God.” Hosea still spoke judgment and threats against Israel because they chased other gods, but the Lord was saying that their God would not completely reject them, even though they were unfaithful.

In the meantime, Gomer left Hosea and went back to prostitution. Funny thing: he didn’t write her off, but went looking for her. When he found her, he had to buy out her contract (fifteen shekels of silver, a homer of barley and a measure of wine – 3:2), and he took her home again. So all of his prophecy of judgment against Israel for its unfaithfulness was tempered by his love for Gomer and his forgiveness of her for her unfaithfulness to him. Maybe you could hear that in the plaintive cry of the Lord God in what I read to you: “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

There are five movements in the prophecy. The first remembers the Exodus, when the Lord rescued the people from slavery in Egypt, and they rewarded God by making sacrifices to the god Baal and to idols. Read the story for yourself; it’s all there. Now, it should be noted that there’s a certain practicality to what they did. Baal was considered an agricultural god, and so to ensure fertility of crops and of livestock it makes sense to make sacrifices to Baal. And the idols they made, such as the golden calf, were not intended to be substitutes for the Lord God but were intended to be representations of the Lord God. So again, they were simply being practical.

You and I are not inclined to offer sacrifices to Baal or to wander after the gods of other religions, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is when we hedge our bets, when we don’t do what God has explicitly commanded because we just don’t find it practical. Sure, Jesus is our Lord and Savior… but to be practical we have other lords and saviors, too.

The second movement is that God remembers teaching them to walk, remembers nursing them. God is saying, “When they turned away from me, they turned away from their own mother.” “They did not know that I healed them,” the Lord says. Wow, we could do a lot with that one thought: how much has the Lord done for us that we attributed to something else, so that we did not know that it was our divine mother looking after us?

The third movement is judgment: “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king” and so forth. “Return to the land of Egypt” is symbolic; since they have been unfaithful to me ever since I brought them out of Egypt, I’m going to send them back there. But the threat of Assyria was real: Assyria was the growing regional power, and about ten to twenty years after Hosea’s prophecy Israel’s political alliances collapsed and they were overrun by Assyria. They were judged and Assyria became their king, just as Hosea predicted.

But remember: the Lord God told the prophet to call his children “Ruhamah – pitied” and “Ammi – my people.” Though the kingdom came to an end and their existence as a nation was over, it was not because the Lord God was overcome by wrath. It was inevitable, given their political and spiritual choices. But in the fourth movement of the poem the prophet tells us how God feels about it:

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?

How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

(Admah and Zeboiim were two of the cities destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah.)

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

Despite what some religious folks say, God does not take delight in destroying the wicked and the faithless, but the Lord will let our choices have their inevitable consequences. That is why Jesus calls the rich man a “fool:” he is so devoted to his wealth, that he has no one to share it with, no wife, no family, no friends. And I think you and I are little better than fools if we do not see what the Lord has done for us and go chasing after other gods, out of the notion that we need to be practical, so we’d best make an idol here and a sacrifice to Baal there. And the Lord weeps: They did not know that I saved them.

The last movement of the prophecy is a vision of the people coming home, returning to the land and returning to the Lord. And they return trembling, because the Lord is not merely some wimpy, indulgent deity, but a roaring lion. I often think our worship would be more faithful if we would think of the Lord not so much as a kind grandpa who likes to see us enjoying ourselves, but rather as the roaring lion that Hosea sees. A little fear and trembling before the power that creates the galaxies would do us good.

So, in summary: sometimes we’re Gomer in the story, wandering away from God in the pursuit of more pleasure or excitement, and sometimes we’re Lo-ruhamah or Lo-ammi, forgetting the God who has given us life, nursed us, taught us to walk. But the Lord loves us and comes for us. Remember how Hosea bought out Gomer’s contract with some silver, barley, and wine? The Lord buys out our contract through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross so that we can return home, and the Lord does not reject or forget us. Indeed, the Lord calls us home, as a roaring lion summons the cubs. Let us come trembling before the Lord, who says:

I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst,

And I will not come in wrath.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska