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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And boy, am I glad they did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from August 1: Eyes on the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from July 25: Vignettes: Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from July 18: Reframing, Rethinking, Repenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from July 11: Seal of Our Faith

Seal of Our Faith                                                                                         
Pentecost VII; July 11, 2021
Luke 8:16-18

To be honest, I’m not really preaching on this text; I’m using it as a pretext. That is, Jesus’ comment that lights are meant for shining, not hiding, is giving me permission to talk about something that proclaims who we are and what we are about.

We have a new addition to our Commons: a beautiful wood rendition of the Seal of the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was commissioned by our Aesthetics Committee and crafted by Steve Melotz from walnut and bloodwood. The Seal of the Church tells the world who we are and what is important to us, and so for today’s sermon I want to talk about the elements of the seal of our faith.

After the Presbyterian Church reunited in 1983 – after more than 120 years of separation between North and South – it was important to create a seal for the Church that would represent our faith. The seal was designed by Malcolm Grear, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and who died in 2016. The design is intentionally steeped in the symbolism of our faith, while not being busy. It was enthusiastically adopted by the General Assembly of our Church in 1985.

There are eight elements to the seal that I want to highlight for you briefly.[1] The center is, of course, the Cross. The Cross means so much to us, which is a rather strange assertion. In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was a form of execution that was reserved for slaves and for enemies of the State. It combined torture, humiliation, and death. When we use the Cross as a symbol of our faith, we remember that our Lord was executed as a political prisoner, an enemy of the State. So, the Cross demonstrates the depth and breadth of what God is willing to do to reach out to a rebellious humanity. I heard a minister say that he would not have a Cross in the front of his church because that would be like hanging an electric chair in the front of the church. He’s right; it would be. It is a constant reminder that our Lord was willing to be crucified and therefore a reminder of the sort of attitude we too should have.

When I was a teenager, my home church was debating whether to hang a Cross in the front of the Sanctuary. You may be surprised, but it was rather controversial. I remember one man loudly protesting, “We’re becoming as bad as those Catholics, with all these symbols.” I was only a teen, but I wondered why it was alright to have a United States flag in the Sanctuary but not alright to have a Cross. Anyway, one lady said to me that the Church she grew up in had a Cross in the front, and she appreciated it. She said that whenever the minister didn’t do a very good job preaching, she could look at the Cross and still get a good sermon.

The second element is the descending dove at the top of the seal. The dove is a universal symbol of peace, deriving from the story of Noah. After the flood, Noah sent out a dove, which returned with an olive branch in its beak. Thus the dove and the olive branch both make us think of peace between God and the creation, as well as peace among us. But even more to the point is what happened when Jesus was baptized: the Holy Spirit descended on him, taking on the appearance of a dove. And so the dove reminds us of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God which creates the Church, gives life to the Church, and leads us in our mission in the world.

Now, if you remove the wings of the dove and leave in your mind only the body in the center, you have our third element: the fish. You have probably seen people with fish symbols on their cars; it is an ancient sign that Christians used to recognize each other. It is appropriate that the fish is hidden in our seal, because Christians used it as a secret sign. When it was dangerous to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, followers of Jesus would use the sign of the fish to recognize each other. The fish reminds us that Peter and Andrew, James and John were fishermen, and Jesus called them, saying, “From now on you’ll fish for people.” Also, the Greek word for fish, ichthus ICQUS, can be an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior: I is the first letter of Jesus; C for Christ; QU for “God’s Son;” and S for Savior. That’s why you see it on people’s cars, I think. It isn’t so secret anymore, but it also isn’t as well-known as the Cross.

The next element to point out is the book. The main body of the Cross is made of three lines; the line at the top of the cross-piece is shaped to look like a book. We Presbyterians are sometimes called “people of the Book” because of our dedication to reading and understanding the Bible. It is no accident that the program we are using – the Year of the Bible – was created in a Presbyterian Church and is published by our publishing house. Now, we are not fundamentalists, in that we do not impose on the Bible a set of criteria – called “fundamentals” – that the Bible must conform to. We allow the Bible to speak in all its many voices, even though that sometimes causes difficulty, because the Bible itself is more important than anything we say about it.

I will add this, too, even if it was not part of the designer’s intention: as a people of the Book we are devoted to learning. Everywhere Presbyterians have done mission work, we have made education a priority. We are among the foundation of numerous institutions of higher education, including our own University of Nebraska Omaha. We require our ministers to learn to read Hebrew and Greek, in order to help our congregations understand the Bible better. One reason we have always been and always will be smaller than many other churches is that we care about the life of the mind, which isn’t popular in society. We want people to study, to learn, and to think about God and the world in which we live. In that sense, too, we are people of the book.

The fifth element of the seal: the pulpit with an open Bible on it. It comprises the base and crosspiece of the main body. Although we Calvinists celebrate only two sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – John Calvin did say that the preaching of the Gospel is sacramental: it actually conveys the grace of God to God’s people. Ordinarily, the sermon is not merely an encouraging talk by a motivational speaker, but a proclamation of the Word of God, built from the Bible, that points people to Jesus Christ. One of our confessions goes so far as to say, “The preaching of the of the Word of God is the Word of God” (Second Helvetic Confession 5.004). When we think about that, though, it is important to notice that the pulpit is below the descending dove. The preaching of the Word of God becomes the Word of God only by the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes one of you will say, “When you said (whatever) in your sermon, it really spoke to me.” If I say, “I never said that,” you reply, “But I heard that.” Yes, you did; the Holy Spirit did her work. Preaching becomes the Word of God to you not because of my words but because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

If you look at the center line of the base of the pulpit, you see the shape of a cup, our sixth element. This cup is intended to encourage us to think of the Lord’s Supper, both the bread and the cup. As the Word of God is spoken in preaching, the Word of God is given flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Since yesterday was John Calvin’s 512th birthday, let me say something about what our Father in Christ taught about the Lord’s Supper. He protested against the Catholic practice of reserving the Lord’s Supper only for the priests; he said the Supper should be offered to all God’s people every day, or at minimum every Sunday. And he said that the Catholics were wrong in claiming something literal about the words “This is my body; this is my blood;” he argued against the doctrine of transubstantiation. I was going to say more, but decided not to get lost in the weeds. But he also argued against Zwingli’s teaching that the bread and wine were mere empty symbols, intended to make us think about Jesus but with no real power of their own. Calvin taught the doctrine of Real Presence; somewhere he wrote, “As bread and wine are truly present to the senses of the believer, so the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present to the faith of the believer.”

Jesus referred to his suffering as both “his cup” and “his baptism,” so the cup can also make us think of Holy Baptism. It even looks a little like a baptismal font. At any rate, this part of the seal reminds us that we do not live by our own efforts, but by the grace of God. I frequently need that reminder, because I somehow naturally feel that unless I am producing something useful, I have no business taking up space on this planet. Our society reinforces that view, that your value is in what you produce. But God says to us that the value of our life is not in what we produce; the value of our life is that we have been baptized into the life and death of Jesus and are nourished at the Table of Jesus. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you.”

Now the last element that is obvious are the flames at the base of the Seal. I could easily do a whole sermon on fire – and I have – so I’ll instead be brief. The flames remind us especially of the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples as tongues of fire. It is helpful when we look at the dove at the top of the Seal and think of the comfort and peace of the Holy Spirit that we also look at the flames at the base of the Seal and think of the Spirit’s fire. Fire is for burning; fire is energy; fire is for movement. The Holy Spirit is not only to comfort and encourage us, but also to kick us in the butt and get us moving on the mission of God.

The eighth element also is hidden unless you back up and look at the Seal as a whole. The base of the Cross and the sides of the flames make a triangle. The triangle is our ancient symbol for the Holy Trinity, God Who is Three-in-One. Traditionally we speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but there are other ways of speaking of the Trinity. The important thing to keep in mind is that God is both singular and plural: God is One, yet it is the nature of God to be diverse and multiple. This is a mystery beyond this brief mention in a sermon, but it is worth mentioning that when the design for the Seal was commissioned, it was made clear that it was to include a triangle, because God as Trinity is foundational to what we believe and who we are. We are diverse, but we are one. As many grains of wheat become one loaf of bread, and three persons express the reality of one God, so the Church of God is a rainbow of people: both diverse and one.

It is the nature of art that you diminish it by talking about it. If you see other elements than the eight I have mentioned, then I affirm that you are seeing well; they are there. The designer himself may not have known they are there, but a good work of art is always more than even the artist knows. The Seal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is simple, elegant, and beautiful. A former Moderator of our Church has a tattoo of the Seal on one arm; that’s farther than I would go. But I rejoice that the Seal of our Faith hangs in the Commons of our Church, reminding us every time we come here who we are, what we believe, and to Whom we belong.

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

 

 

[1] Much of the information in this sermon is from John M. Mulder, Sealed in Christ: The Symbolism of the Seal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Presbyterian Publishing House, 1991.

Sermon from July 4: Buildup and Letdown

Buildup and Letdown
Pentecost VI; July 4, 2021
Luke 3:7-18

Let’s start with the last line of what I read: “With many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Does that make you scratch your head? “Good news”? Given what John said: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and so forth. In what way is it good news to have a preacher call you a brood of snakes slithering to the river? How is it good news to have someone shouting at you that the wrath of God is about to descend on you? “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Implication: start bearing good fruit, or expect crackle, crackle, crackle.

Perhaps it’s good news that when the people responded, “What shall we do?” John had answers for them. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have food, give some to someone who has none. Don’t take more money than you’re entitled to. Don’t use your power to take things from others. He had answers: do this; don’t do that. Maybe that’s what Luke meant by “good news.”

Now, whether people actually followed through and did them, Luke doesn’t tell us. Someone will say to me, “I want to lose weight” and I’ll tell them what they should do. A few people actually do it, but most don’t. Someone will say, “I want to know the Bible better” and I’ll give them several ideas of what they can do, but knowing what to do does not guarantee actually doing it. So I wonder how many of these tax collectors actually changed their ways and stopped collecting a little extra from the taxpayers and how many of these soldiers stopped extorting money from people. We’ll never know. But at least John answered their question: Teacher, what should we do?

No wonder some folks thought John might be the Messiah, the person they were looking for to rescue them. By this time there had been at least one charismatic figure claiming to be the Messiah; his movement fizzled. There would be others. Centuries of foreign domination, often including suppression of their religious customs, had led Jewish people to expect a king-figure to arise who would lead them to victory over their oppressors. Was John the One?

“No, I’m not,” he said. “But someone is coming after me so superior to me that I dare not even act as the servant who helps him take off his sandals. I baptize you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will gather the good grain into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Crackle, crackle, crackle.

That is what John was expecting: someone who would storm in with fire to burn up the enemies of God. Although you and I good folks think of ourselves as too positive for such attitudes, perhaps you have also held such a hope. I know I have. I don’t think I want to start detailing for you all the times I have thought that the human race would be improved by a few well-targeted funerals, but I confess having thought that. And you have noticed that many of the Psalms in our Bible offer the hope of the nasty deaths of the disobedient. So the people listening to John may have received this as good news, as well: someone is coming who will bring the judgment of God upon all God’s enemies. And since we are the people of God, “God’s enemies” are by definition the people who bother us.

Usher in Jesus, who followed through on practically nothing that John promised. Well, he denounced scribes and Pharisees and priests and other presumably holy people for being self-righteous prigs. But mostly Jesus told stories about the love of God, the welcome of God, the joy of life in God. Instead of scolding tax collectors, he went to their dinner parties. Instead of denouncing prostitutes, he welcomed their company. All of John’s predictions about fire and vengeance and destruction were left untouched.

So you will not be surprised when you get to Luke chapter seven and John sends messengers to Jesus – John can’t go himself; he’s in prison – to ask him, on John’s behalf, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19) You can see Jesus’ reply for yourself when you get to Luke 7 in your reading (this Saturday), but I want to sit with John for a minute. He is let down. John gave Jesus this great buildup, led the people to believe Jesus would come in strong with fiery judgment on the enemies of God’s good people, and instead Jesus tells stories about love and welcome. He goes to dinner parties with sinners. He takes time to hold, hug, and bless children. Why is he wasting time blessing children when there’s a revolution to organize? Is this really the one I’ve been expecting since before I was born (remember Luke 1:44)?

John built Jesus up; Jesus let John down. At least, that’s the way John sees it. I get it. You and I have lived that often enough: we’ve built someone up and that one has let us down; I think of pastors, politicians, football coaches, corporate CEOs… who else can you think of? “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!” “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

In the case of most ordinary mortals, people simply cannot live up to what we expect of them. In the case of Jesus, at least, the expectations were all wrong. Maybe that’s also true of ordinary mortals. It isn’t only that they can’t live up to our expectation; perhaps our expectations are wrong. We want the wrong things from pastors and politicians, from football coaches and corporate CEOs.

This Independence Day, I’m also wondering about our expectations of our nation. The ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution seem so high, so exalted, that we must inevitably be let down by what our nation has actually been. So it would seem. But I was intrigued this week to hear an interview with a local activist who said that the more he has learned about our nation’s history, the more hopeful he has become. As he learned about slavery and the systemic racism it produced, the exploitation and even genocide of natives, the marginalization of women, and the violent oppression of LGBTQIA persons, he also learned about the rights engraved in the Constitution and the movements over the centuries to expand the guarantee of those rights to our entire society. When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, its rights were assured only to white men who owned property. Over the centuries activists have worked to see those rights expanded to all of our people. It reminded me of a dinner meeting at which I expressed to a table-mate some of my unhappiness with our society and he asked me why I hate America. I replied, “I don’t hate America; I love America and I want us to live up to our ideals.” We cannot, as ordinary mortals, live up to our ideals. But we can keep them in view and instead of being let down by our failures, look at the reality of our history and what has been accomplished over the years. We can easily be let down if we look only at what we expect; the reality may encourage us to look up again and be hopeful.

When it comes to a nation-state such as ours, the well-being of our descendants may well depend on whether we live up to our ideals. But when it comes to Jesus, the question of whether he is the one who is to come or whether to wait for another is one of eternal dimensions and consequences. Neither Luke nor any of the other evangelists tell us if John eventually reconciled himself to Jesus being someone other than what he built him up to be. But you can consider what the world really needs in a Messiah. Does the world need a Messiah who brings fire with which to burn up the enemies of God? That assumes, of course, that the Messiah gets to decide who are the enemies of God, not you and I. Or does the world need a Messiah who talks of God as the host of a dinner party, as a parent looking expectantly for the errant child to come home, as the one eager to hear the prayer of a sinner? Does the world need a Messiah who feeds on the blood of his enemies or a Messiah who feeds our spirits with his own flesh and blood? Does the world need a Messiah who deals with death not by killing his enemies but by allowing them to kill him and then overcoming death on the third day?

Well, you know what I think. I think Jesus as he truly is has never let me down. Before Herod Antipas killed him, I hope John got there too.

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

 

Sermon from June 27: Come, Live in the Light

Come, Live in the Light
Pentecost V; June 27, 2021
Ephesians 5:8-20

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.

It’s the middle of the year. Those of us who are doing the Year of the Bible are now halfway through. Congratulations to those who are still with us. And for the others: you can start now. You can finish in the new year, if you’d like.

Those who have been reading the Bible have described quite a range of reactions. Some of you are frustrated at how often the same thing gets repeated; do I have to read the same story again? Some of you are dismayed by some of what you read there: you see racism even to the extent of genocide; you see sexism; you see violence and cruelty and sexual misconduct; you see an unreflective acceptance of slavery. Some of you are troubled by some of what it says about God. Some of you are angry about people who seem to be favored by God. And some of you are disappointed at promises apparently unfulfilled.

I have heard some say that there are things you have read in the Bible that you wish you didn’t know. Frankly, one reason Christian leaders have often discouraged people from reading the Bible for yourselves is they also wish you didn’t know them. If you know only what we want you to know, then it is easier for us to control you and to influence what and how you believe.

Let me reflect a bit on some of these problems. I believe that it is better to know the truth, to know what is really in the Bible. Now, both the Bible and the Confessions of our Church say that understanding Scripture is never a matter for private interpretation (II Peter 1:20, Second Helvetic Confession 5.010), so when something is a problem you should never just decide for yourself what it means. You either decide not to worry about it, or you ask for help. And I have been trying to help with my weekly videos on Facebook and Wednesday evening Bible studies on Zoom. And I am always available for conversation about Scripture.

Anyway, I believe that mature adults are capable of dealing with the troubling parts of Scripture. Of course, what troubles one person doesn’t trouble another; we have differing issues with the Bible, which is part of what makes studying it so much fun. I cannot resolve in this one sermon all the problems you are having, but I hope some reflections will help.

The Bible tells a story, and tells it in many ways. The overarching story is this: God made a promise to Abraham, three promises really: I will give you many descendants; I will give you this land; through you all the families of the Earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:17-18). The descendants came through Isaac and Ishmael; the promise of the land came to fruition with the establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah; and all the families of the Earth have been blessed through Abraham’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth. But this story is not a simple novel, told from beginning to end with a simple cast of characters. For one thing, and this is very important to remember, this is a very long story. Abraham lived approximately 3,800 years ago; although human nature hasn’t changed in that time, human society has changed a great deal. We must not expect that social values and social attitudes that we take for granted in 2021 would be the reality of Abraham in 1800 BC, or King Solomon in 950 BC, or the Apostles in the first century AD. Values, assumptions, and attitudes change; do not impose ours on the people of another time. At the same time, don’t assume that our society should still look like what Paul describes in his letters.

Please understand too that there are many voices in the Bible. The Bible is not one book; it is a collection of books: 66 of them for us Protestants (Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians have some books that we do not). So you will find diversity among those books. Some of them are history; some are poetry. Some books look at events as fulfillment of promises, and others look at those same events as opportunities for teaching. When your eyes are glazing over because you think, “I already read this story in another book; why is it written again?” you can skim through it quickly and not worry about it because you’re right: you did read it before. Or you may think about possible answers to that question: Why is it written again? Perhaps the first time it was told as the history of something. The second time the writer wants to make the point that you should learn this lesson from it. Or perhaps the first time it is a promise and the second time it is the fulfillment of the promise. Or perhaps you read the story of the event, and then later you read a poem that reflects on the meaning of the event. There could be other reasons, but be assured: there is a reason, and you can decide to try to find it or simply not worry about it.

Anyway, that’s a simple example. Many things have bothered you as you’ve read, and this is part of what makes the Bible deep and interesting, or perhaps frustrating: it isn’t one book. Poetry and history are different from each other; prophecy and instruction are different from each other. Sometimes the voice is the voice of a story-teller, sometimes the voice of a singer, sometimes the voice of a teacher, sometimes the voice of a prophet. There are many voices.

There are many voices in the Bible in another way, too, and here I’m going to be a little controversial for some of you. People in the Bible have different theological opinions too. I know that some of you want the Bible to be one, singular point of view, but I am persuaded that it isn’t. There are many points of view in the Bible. I’ve heard some say there are two points of view: the point of view that God demands obedience to rules and commands killing those who do not obey, and the point of view that God is merciful and invites all to become part of the family. These points of view are constantly at odds with each other. Well, that helps. My thought, however, is that there are more than two points of view in the Bible; there are quite a few and I’ve never tried to tally them up. To mature in faith I need to listen to all those points of view and consider them.

Here are some examples. Our Old Testament readings recently have been from Chronicles. Many of the stories in Chronicles are repeats from I and II Samuel and I and II Kings. But Chronicles was written hundreds of years later with a completely different purpose in mind. A simple example: David did not build the Temple of the Lord. In II Samuel, the story is told that David wanted to build a house for the Lord, but the Lord said, “No; you shall not build me a house, but I will make a house of you” (II Samuel 7:4-17). In I Chronicles, David says that the Lord told him that he could not build the house because he had shed so much blood (22:8). The point of view in the history emphasizes the work of God for David; the theologian’s point of view focuses on peace. Or another example, easier to understand but harder to resolve. Late in his life, David took a census of the people, which was a wrong thing to do. Why it was wrong is not relevant to the example. Anyway, in the history book, it says that the Lord incited David to take the census (II Samuel 24:1), but in Chronicles it says that Satan incited David to take the census (I Chronicles 21:1). How do you reconcile that? I don’t reconcile it. I leave it that the historian had one point of view and the theologian had another point of view. Or one from the New Testament. This week we read Ephesians, in which Paul writes, “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15), but Christ himself said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17). Clearly they either meant something different or they had different points of view. Or both. There are multiple voices in the Bible.

My advice is to do with all of these different voices what you do with the different voices in your family and in our public life: listen to them, give all of them the attention they deserve, and pay particular attention to what makes sense to you. Well, I have a rule to suggest to you; let me build up to it. These voices in the Bible are all part of the conversation that brought us to where we are, they are part of our story, our history. They all matter, but some questions are more important than others – does it really matter who incited David to take the census? – and some voices are more significant than others. So let the voices rattle around inside your head as you think and pray about what to do with them.

And remember the words of John Robinson to the Pilgrims before they sailed on the Mayflower: “For I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word.” Today, for those of us who identify as More Light Churches, is More Light Sunday, since tomorrow is Stonewall Day. Our movement identifies with Robinson’s understanding that revelation from the Bible did not stop when the last book was written. God continues to reveal truth from the Holy Word, as people read it and understand it in the light of their own time, place, and experience. And so as you read, whatever type of voice you are reading and whatever point of view the voice may have, expect God to give insights of some sort or another. Expect you may think something you have not thought before. It may be exciting; it may be troubling; it may be wonderful; it may be annoying. But expect God to shine more light from the Bible.

And remember this rule: the rule of faith and love. Our tradition teaches us that those interpretations of the Bible are best that encourage us to have faith in God and that reveal to us the love of God (II Helvetic Confession 5.010). When you hear the different voices in the Bible and you wonder what to pay attention to, ask yourself, “What helps my faith? What shows the love of God?” To my mind, following the rule of faith and love pays attention to the source of the more light that shines from the Bible: to Jesus Christ. Christ is the source of our faith and Christ is the revelation of the love of God. The light that shines from Scripture is the light of Christ; that light shines more brightly than any other.

So I could say more about the words we read from Ephesians, but that’s enough to burden you with today. Take the words in verse 14 as a guide and encouragement as you continue your pilgrimage through the Bible: Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

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

Sermon from June 20: Focus Here

Focus Here
Pentecost IV; June 20, 2021
Galatians 6

I learned something interesting this week. Most of those who have been arrested for the insurrection on January 6 did not come from places that you and I may expect. Most are not part of white nationalist organizations. One thing that seems to be common among a majority of those who stormed the Capital: they come from places that are changing demographically. Formerly overwhelmingly white, their communities are now more mixed.

Why would people come from Jerusalem to tell the Christians of Galatia that they had to be circumcised? Last week I reminded you of the scriptural argument, but Paul here says that’s not the reason: “They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side” (v. 13; The Message). Boasting, certainly, may be a factor, but I wonder if they may not have felt threatened: they were afraid of losing control.

Power can be a wonderful thing, when used for good. But when those in power fear losing their power, their actions can be terrifying. They may try to compel Gentile Christians to be circumcised. They may attempt a coup against constitutional government. They may redline neighborhoods, put signs in windows that say, “Help wanted: Irish need not apply.” They may make a show of interviewing women and then hiring only men. They may deny a petition to adopt because the couple is two women. They may pass a law that forbids teaching the truth about the systemic racism in American history.

One way to demonstrate your power is to control others. Control where they are allowed to live and work; control how they live their faith; control what they’re allowed to teach; control the minutiae of their personal behavior. I’m resisting chasing a rabbit down a hole on this one, since the desire and means to control others are pervasive in our society. And as power in government, business, and religion becomes spread among more people, not just among white, heterosexual, middle-class men, some of us rejoice in the growth of freedom and others fear the loss of their control. I told you before of the aging white businessman who sighed into his drink and said to me, “This used to be our country.” Those who stormed the capital on January 6 could have used that as their mantra: “This used to be our country.” And those who went to Galatia and told those Gentiles they had to become Jews in effect were saying, “This used to be our God.”

Paul was one of those Jews: raised as a strict, observant Jew, a Pharisee, and for some time a persecutor of Christians. Then Jesus got to him. Jesus changed his heart and Paul discovered that his God could be everybody’s God, and not on Paul’s terms. Different terms for different people; he could rejoice in his freedom to be a Jew and rejoice in the freedom of others not to be a Jew. That is what I find so appealing about Paul’s attitude in the Book of Galatians. Here in our country, we used to speak of tolerance: we in the majority culture would tolerate that other people were different. Eventually we learned that tolerance isn’t good enough: we started to learn acceptance, to accept difference among people as appropriate and good. But Paul raises it to a higher standard: rejoicing. I am free and you are free and that is wonderful!

That is what I read from his comment in verses 16 and 17: “Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do – submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God – his chosen people. Peace and mercy on them!”

All this because Jesus got to him. Jesus showed him that the crucial element in having a life in God is to trust in Jesus Christ to get us through. In a novel I’m reading[1] two old friends are talking about the changes one is making in her life. She expresses surprise about something; and you may be troubled by this, but here goes anyway. She says that she thought her Christian faith would require her to stay married to her abusive, alcoholic husband, but that she found it was her Christian faith that gave her the strength to leave him. Her friend said that she thought many people misplace their focus in Christianity: they focus on the rules everyone is expected to follow, when the more important thing is to trust in Jesus Christ.

Was that friend reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians? God is creating a new thing, always creating a new thing. Will we resist and lament the power we are losing? Or will we rejoice, along with Paul? Yesterday, as you know, was Juneteenth; it has been in the news enough that I don’t think you need me to tell you what Juneteenth is about. Congress has made it a national holiday. How do we react? Do we gripe about it? Or do we rejoice in a holiday that will call our attention not only to the reality of freedom but also the importance of informing people of their freedom? Isn’t that what preaching the Gospel is about? You and I are already free in Christ; the preacher’s job is to tell you about it.

And it hasn’t escaped my notice that today is Father’s Day. Paul never had children, but I think he considered himself something of a father figure to the Christians of Galatia. And that is partly why he was so angry at those who were trying to box them in, control them, make them conform to something they were not. I have often seen fathers and mothers rejoicing at the people their children were becoming, even though very different from them. Paul rejoiced in the freedom of the Galatians and wanted them to live in that freedom.

If there is a moral imperative in this, and I believe there is, the moral imperative is to respect the freedom of others. I told you last Sunday that Paul did work out the balance between claiming one’s own freedom and not becoming a libertine: doing whatever you feel like. The balance is twofold: your freedom to be what God calls you to be, not what others expect; and your deep, abiding respect for the freedom of others. Whether we speak of legislation or business or our religious life: we claim our freedom. And we respect and rejoice in the freedom of others.

Focus here: not on whom you can control or how you can compel them to follow your rules, but on the new creation of God: a free life. Your free life and free lives all around you. The party is much more fun when we’re rejoicing in freedom together.

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

[1] Patti Callahan, Becoming Mrs. Lewis

Sermon from June 13: Claim Your Freedom

Claim Your Freedom
Pentecost III; June 13, 2021
Galatians 1:1-10

Maybe you already got a sense, from what we read, of how passionate Paul was when he dictated this letter. I imagine his secretary struggling to keep up as the words flowed out of his mouth, piling up one emotion over another. And with good reason: someone was giving these folks “a different gospel” and Paul is worried about what it will do to them.

Here’s the story. The Apostle Paul traveled extensively in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, preaching the Gospel of Jesus. He would always go to Jewish communities and invite them to know Jesus as their Messiah, but he also would speak to non-Jews, to Gentiles. I told you the story before about the Church in Jerusalem deciding that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be saved by Jesus; keep that always in mind. That was a monumental decision: for centuries Jewish people had believed that to be part of the people of God meant you either had to be born a Jew or you had to become a Jew. Those of you who have been reading the Bible with us have seen that stated repeatedly in many ways. And it is not irrelevant that the mark you wore, if you were a man, that you belonged to the people of God is that you were circumcised.

But as I told you before (20210228: Those Who are Turning to God), the Church in Jerusalem decided that Jesus had overturned all of that. People were showing signs of the work of the Holy Spirit without being circumcised. People were faithfully following Jesus without keeping Jewish dietary laws. That doesn’t strike you as at all strange, but for the Jewish people of the first century this change was monumental. And it was with that idea in mind that Paul would invite Gentiles to become followers of Jesus. And many did.

During his first missionary journey Paul visited a region called Galatia; it is in modern-day Turkey. In many towns in Galatia he would persuade people to follow Jesus; he would baptize them and help them organize themselves into churches. That way they could continue to worship and pray together and encourage one another after he moved on. The churches of Galatia were thriving and were showing signs of the Holy Spirit as they followed Jesus and served one another and the people of their communities.

But some preachers came from Jerusalem and told them they were doing great but needed to do one more thing: the men had to be circumcised. It says in Genesis (17:9-14) and Exodus (12:48-49) that circumcision is forever the sign of God’s people, so clearly you have to be circumcised in order to be saved. No circumcision; no salvation.

Why am I telling you this? Not only because it will help you understand the message in Galatians, but also because there is so much diversity in American Christianity that similar talk is everywhere. You have to do THIS to be saved. You have to become THAT or you’ll burn in hell. Do THIS: speak in tongues. Be baptized when you are old enough to profess your own faith. Become THAT: heterosexual. Evangelical Protestant. Look, we’re telling you this for your own good, because we care about you: become who and what we tell you so you can be saved.

You steadfast, longtime Presbyterians may be highly resistant to such talk. But fairly recent converts, such as the people of Galatia, are not. And our own young people are not. Teens and young adults are also highly susceptible to such talk: you cannot be saved as the person you are, but you must do THIS or you must become THAT. Sometimes the attraction is the scriptural argument. Sometimes the attraction is killer music. Most often the attraction is a sense of belonging, of being part of a group that is more interesting, more committed, more exciting in its devotion than the one we grew up in. Do THIS: be circumcised, speak in tongues, be rebaptized as an adult; become THAT: Evangelical, heterosexual, Catholic. To really belong to God, you are not free to do otherwise; you are not free to be otherwise.

So when Paul heard that people were saying that sort of thing to the people of Galatia – look, Paul’s a good guy and all, but his message isn’t enough for you to be saved; to be saved, you have to become like us: circumcised – he was furious. “That’s not the Gospel you heard! Look at everything the Holy Spirit has done among you! You didn’t need to be circumcised for God to do good things among you (Galatians 3:2-5) so why should you need to be circumcised now!” And he curses the people who are preaching this “other Gospel,” the Gospel of “You have to become like us.” His language was pretty strong in what we read to you, wasn’t it? He gets even sharper; I’m not going to quote it but you can look it up: Galatians 5:12.

But he reaches his high point at 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” So many people say that the United States flag makes them think of freedom. Not me: I think of freedom when I see the Cross of Jesus Christ. I think of the freedom to be a follower of Jesus, despite public pressure around me to conform. I think of the freedom to be who am I am, as God created me, despite all the words that tell me that I have to be someone different.

Have you struggled with this? I know that I have. Just about everybody has an option about who the pastor should be, what the pastor should want, and how the pastor should think. Sometimes I wonder who I really am, what I really think, what I really want, because of the pressure all around from other people to be who they say I should be, to think what they tell me to think, to want what I’m supposed to want. If that makes any sense to you, then listen to Paul: Claim your freedom. Don’t give in to the pressure from those who say that you have to do THIS or you have to become THAT. Claim your freedom.

There is one implication for us stalwart Presbyterians that I should mention. We American Presbyterians have often said of more recent immigrants that if they want to become part of the Church, they should become more like us. To be a Christian with us people should like the music we like, speak our language, submit to our way of doing things. That is, people should be more white, more middle-class, more suburban.

Now, Paul is clear that liberty isn’t what they used to call “libertinism.” The freedom Christ has won for us is the freedom to be who God made us, to do what Christ calls us to do. It isn’t the freedom to do whatever we happen to feel like doing. It can be a hard thing to navigate, this freedom; it is certainly a lot easier simply to have a list of things that we must and must not do. Because my freedom to be myself does not include the freedom to trample all over your rights or your feelings. Paul works that out in this book, too, and I’ll talk about that a little more next Sunday. Still, mostly I would like to leave the “Yes, but” aside for now, leave it for next week, and reiterate Paul’s basic message: Christ has set you free; claim your freedom.

His argument is beautiful and passionate and a little over-the-top sometimes, and I’ll leave it for you to read it and we can talk about it some more at Bible Study on Wednesday evening. Remember the core message: Christ has set you free; claim your freedom.

Consider what our ancestors have endured in following Paul’s exhortation, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Christian people have stood firm in the face of oppressive governments and refused to submit to a yoke of slavery. We have stood firm despite the hostility of neighbors, who didn’t want people of our sort around. And many of us have stood firm even when the Church itself tried to make us think that we were wrong, that God made a mistake in creating us, that we had to become something else for God to love us.

“If anyone proclaims a contrary gospel, let that one be accursed!” I won’t go so far as Paul did, but I have neither his personality nor his authority. I am sad that there are so many forces in our society and in our churches that proclaim a contrary gospel, a gospel that says that faith in Christ is not enough: you have to do THIS; you have to become THAT. I will pray for them. Paul can do the cursing.

Is it any wonder that slave-owners in the United States were reluctant for their enslaved persons to hear the Gospel? “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Sure, some of them thought that becoming Christians would make enslaved Africans passive and obedient. To a great extent, they were wrong. I am certain it is no accident that the abolitionist movement found such support from northern churches. It is certainly no accident that in more recent history the rallying places for civil rights movements have been churches, African American churches where they sang, “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh, Freedom!” and “Exodus.” “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Well, Paul said it: If anyone proclaims a contrary gospel, let that one be accursed. Me? I think I’ll pray for them.

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

Sermon from June 6: The Lavish Planter

The Lavish Planter
Pentecost II; June 6, 2021
II Corinthians 9:6-15

Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop.
(II Corinthians 9:6, The Message)

Jesus told a couple of stories that are relevant to what I have to say about II Corinthians 9. I’ll also fill you in on what specifically Paul is writing about. Between them, we should see pretty clearly God’s message for us today.

Jesus told about a planter who went out to sow his seed. You remember the image of the sower on the Nebraska capital building and the state license plate (See below): he’s carrying his seed in a satchel and scattering it as he walks. Modern agriculture tends to be more precise: putting exactly one seed right into the ground where you want it, then the machine moves on and plants the next seed. More ancient agricultural practices were less efficient and those sowing seed walked along, scattering it as they went.

So in Jesus’ story (Matthew 13:1-9 and parallels), the sower scatters his seed. Now, some of the seed fell on the footpath, and the birds came and ate it. Even in our community garden, we lose some of our seed to birds. Some other seed fell on ground where the rocks had not been cleared, and the plants sprang up quickly, but since they had insufficient roots, the sun withered the plants. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorn-bushes choked the plants. But much of the seed fell on the good soil, and the plants produced abundantly.

The explanation that Jesus gives the disciples for what the parable means isn’t relevant to today’s message, but this is. Someone I was reading recently commented that Jesus was warning to be careful where you scatter seed. Make sure all of your seed falls on good soil. No, that isn’t right. The sower in Jesus’ story is generous, scattering seed everywhere, and Jesus doesn’t scold him for that. He uses it as an object lesson on why we sometimes respond to the Word of God and sometimes we don’t. What is most relevant to today’s message is the liberality of the sower: he has seed to scatter and he scatters it broadly.

Here’s another story (Matthew 20:1-16). The owner of a vineyard heads to the market in the morning to hire day-laborers to work for the day. You will still find, even in the United States, places where people hang out in order to be hired for a day. Not everybody gets a contract. Anyway, he goes first thing in the morning and hires workers for the day, promising to pay them the usual wage: a coin called a denarius. Well, a few hours later he realizes he hasn’t hired enough workers, so he goes back to the market, hires some more, and promises only to pay them “whatever is right.” Well, right away we see an important theme to the story: they don’t know how much they’re going to be paid; they have faith that whatever it is will be “right.” Anyway, this happens a few more times: he goes out again at noon, then mid-afternoon, and then finally about an hour before sundown he hires some more. When the foreman gives the workers their pay, he starts with the last group, and gives each of them a denarius. A whole day’s pay for an hour’s work! That makes the first guys, who worked all day, think, “Well; if they get a denarius for an hour’s work, just imagine how much we’ll be paid for a whole day’s work!” But when it comes their turn to be paid, they are each given… a denarius. Of course, they complain about the injustice. But the boss reminds them that he paid them exactly what they had been promised; is it any of their business if he chooses to be generous with those who were promised only “what is right”?

Over the years I’ve had a lot of fun going after that story from several angles, but here’s the issue for today: the vineyard owner is generous. Even though some of the workers see it as injustice, Jesus portrays it rather as generosity. Those who get a contract, as it were, are paid what was in the contract; everyone who relies on faith receives the bounty of the Master.

One theme that runs through the teaching of Jesus is generosity. His stories and his example encourage his people to be generous: generous with our money, generous with our time, generous with the Gospel, generous with our love. With that firmly lodged in your heads, I’ll fill you in on what Paul is working on with the people of Corinth.

Among the Christians of Jerusalem there were many who were poor and even destitute. There may have been a number of reasons for this, including a recent famine. So Paul took up a collection among the Christians in Achaia (where Corinth was), Macedonia and Galatia. In the beginning of this chapter, he tells how he had been bragging on the Christians in Corinth in other places, such as Macedonia, telling them how eager the people of Corinth were to help. So in this letter he tells those Christians in Corinth that they had better not embarrass him by failing to follow through!

Why should the people of Corinth send money to Jerusalem? Charity begins at home, right? Well, it begins there, but it doesn’t end there. Actually, Paul gives several reasons. One of them isn’t right here, but elsewhere: it’s because of the Christians in Jerusalem that you even know Jesus at all. Their faith and witness has benefited you spiritually; you can repay your debt to them by giving them something material. If someone does you spiritual good, then you owe it to them to do them material good (Romans 15:27).

Paul is not beyond laying it on thick, however. So he adds a couple more reasons right here in what we read to you. God is generous. God has poured out blessings of all sorts on you. Indeed, you have plenty. If you aim to be obedient to God, to be more God-like in your daily living, you too should grab at the opportunity to be generous. A couple of my own thoughts in this light. One is that God never demands more than we can actually do, but most of us can probably do more than we think we can. Our practice has been to tithe – give ten percent of our income to the church – and in order to make it painless it is automatically withdrawn every month. The money goes from our checking account to the Church’s checking account and so we’re not tempted to spend it. And there is always enough. Even years that my salary wasn’t increased, we increased our pledge, and God has always provided enough.

My other thought is the generosity that is God-like is not only about money. It is certainly about money, but not only money. God is generous with blessing. God is generous with grace. God is generous with forgiveness. God is generous with love. God is generous with life. Disciplining ourselves to be generous with money is a good training practice to help develop generous hearts, hearts that are willing to be generous with our blessing and grace and forgiveness and love and life as well. As Paul puts it, in The Message translation, “God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.” You’ve probably heard it before as, “God loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7). Either way: when you are happy that you get to leave your server a big tip; when you enjoy giving presents just because you enjoy giving; when you give a large donation to that mission enterprise you care about; when you feel happy after giving your time at a shelter or school or museum; when at the end of the day you can recall all the ways you have been generous that day and it makes you glad, then you are mirroring the generosity of God, who scatters the seed lavishly.

One more reason Paul adds right here for us to be generous: it’s a good way to say, “Thank you” to God. I suppose you could write God a thank-you note; you can certainly say, “Thank you” in your prayers. But Paul urges us to be more concrete in our thanksgiving: show we are thankful to God by being generous with others. It’s sort of like the concept of paying it forward; remember that idea? If someone stops and helps you fix your flat tire, you pay it forward by doing that sort of favor for someone else. Likewise, if you feel grateful to God for all God has done for you, then do something good for someone else.

I find this interesting: this book of the Bible, II Corinthians, has thirteen chapters. Two of those chapters (eight and nine), more than fifteen percent of the whole book, are about the collection for the church in Jerusalem. As I’ve said to you before, if you want to know what’s really important to you, look at your checkbook or your credit card statement. But really, here’s the point: God is the lavish planter, having planted the word of grace in our hearts. If we are generous in every way that we can be, then it is clear that the word of grace has taken root in good soil, and has grown into a lavish crop.

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