Sermon from Trinity Sunday: Apotheosis

Apotheosis
Trinity Sunday; May 30, 2021
II Corinthians 4

It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

Anyone else experiencing Zoom fatigue? On the one hand, it has been nice to be able to get together with friends and family, even under quasi-lockdown. And we have had church meetings and Sunday School via Zoom; I’ve attended Rotary every Wednesday at noon and Wednesday evenings we have had Zoom Bible study. That’s been great. But it is tiring for that to be pretty much the only contact you have with people and you want to be able to be with people for real, to see their faces in three dimensions and not on a screen.

For those of you who have been doing Zoom or Google Meet or any other platform for online conversation: have you found yourself looking often at your own face? That’s one way this experience differs from getting together in person: when we meet around that table in the church library you see some folks straight on, other people in profile, and yourself not at all. On Zoom you’re looking at everyone straight on, including yourself. “Oh, that’s what other people see when they look at me.”

What do we see when we look at the face of Jesus? And where do we see the face of Jesus?

This chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a treasure-trove of ideas; you may remember that at the service when I was installed as your Pastor Leslie Traylor preached from this chapter on the reality that the Pastor is a crackpot (v. 7). Well, that isn’t exactly how she put it, but I’ve thought about being a cracked pot ever since. I think I recall that one of her points was that you folks are crackpots too. Anyway, today I’m going with a different treasure in this chapter: what Paul says about the face of Jesus Christ and what he says about human nature. Although they are two different ideas, they give a wonderful gift if we hold them together.

It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Once, Philip the Apostle said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). That is either a simple, profound truth or it is possibly the most outrageous thing anyone has ever said. We look at each other’s faces, whether on Zoom or in person, and we feel that we know something about each other. “He has a kind face,” you say. “When I look at her, I see the face of an angel.” And when you see the face of Almira Gulch in The Wizard of Oz you get a sense of what sort of person she was. By the way, Margaret Hamilton must have had to work at that face, because her face had none of the pinched cruelty of Miss Gulch and her alter-ego, the Wicked Witch of the West. I read that Ms. Hamilton appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to explain to children that she wasn’t really mean; she was playing a role.

Paul says that what you and I see when we look at the face of Jesus Christ is glory of Almighty God. It’s a beautiful, convoluted sentence, and I’m afraid I would ruin it if I tried to tease it out too carefully. It isn’t just anyone we see in the face of Jesus; we see the creating God. It isn’t just any light that shines from that face into our hearts, it is the light of the very One who said, “Let there be light.” Let that rest there.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

I find myself fairly often reading that verse at funerals and that unfortunately gives the impression that Paul is telling us that even though our bodies are breaking down, our spirits are being renewed. But I don’t think that’s what he means. And it isn’t always the case. Paul isn’t just writing to old fogies; “outer nature wasting away” doesn’t simply refer to muscles and bone breaking down, because he’s writing also to younger folks whose muscles and bones are growing stronger. And “inner nature” doesn’t simply mean “spirit,” as though simply by having enough birthdays you get spiritually better and better. “Nature” isn’t actually the word Paul wrote, but it’s an attempt by the translators not to say “man,” as in “outer man” and “inner man.”

I am persuaded that Paul is getting across that God is working in us to make someone new of each of us, and the way that feels is the person we have been is decaying and the person we are becoming is being renewed. You could say that “outer person” or “outer nature” is what I am by birth: male, White, Baby Boomer, and so forth. “Inner nature” is what God is making of me, and that is a process that is renewed day by day. As one of my friends says repeatedly: One Day at a Time.

It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

I hope holding those two together suggests to you what it suggests to me: as we look at the face of Jesus Christ, God is renewing us in the likeness of Jesus Christ. As has been said in many ways and by many people: Christ became what we are so we may become what he is. It is God’s purpose to make our human nature more God-like, to take our earthly selves and make us more heavenly. We dare not go as far as the Latter-Day Saints go in saying that we shall be gods; no, Scripture does not teach that. But God wishes for us to reflect the glory of God, to share in the nature of God, to look at the face of God.

The wonderful old word for that is apotheosis, which literally means “making someone a god” but among us Christians means being drawn closer and closer to the being of the One who said, “Let light shine out of darkness.” If you want to use up-and-down metaphors, you can say that Christ has come down in order to raise us up.

That is what God does for us when we look at the face of Jesus Christ. God renews our inner nature, giving us the Spirit of Christ to draw us closer to God. So keep reading the Bible, watching out for the face of Jesus Christ in what you read. Keep coming to worship – in person or online – to catch a glimpse of the face of Christ in Scripture and Sacrament, in preaching and prayer and song. As you go about your day, keep “seeking Christ every day, everywhere, in everyone” (our Church’s Mission Statement).

And you may even see the face of Christ on your next Zoom call, in the faces of the other people on the screen, and maybe even in your own face.

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

 

Sermon from Pentecost: Nothing is a Waste

Nothing Is a Waste
Pentecost; May 23, 2021
I Corinthians 15:42-58

Paul didn’t know anything about DNA, of course, yet in his thoughts about resurrection he shows he would understand how it works. Using his thoughts as expressed in The Message, and the fact that today is Pentecost, here’s my plan: to follow his thought about resurrection, coming to the very encouraging conclusion that nothing that you or I do in the work of the Master is a waste of time or effort.

Those of you who read the whole chapter – I Corinthians 15 – have figured out that somebody in the church in Corinth was either questioning the reality of resurrection or flat out teaching that there is no such thing as resurrection. It is, frankly, easier to believe in a disembodied immortal soul than it is to believe in resurrection. Paul answers by saying, first, that Christ is resurrected; if there is no resurrection, then Christ is not resurrected. We didn’t read that part to you; we went right to the second part: Paul tries to help us understand about resurrection.

It’s gardening season; most of us who work in our community garden have at least the first round of plants in. The tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, and so forth are in; I’m waiting a little while yet before planting pumpkins. If you start with seed, then you know how remarkable the life cycle of a plant is. There is this small seed, barely visible, but in the ground something happens that it grows into a great plant that needs to be pruned to keep it from getting out of control. And then on the plant grow the tomatoes, or peppers, or pumpkins. How does that happen?

DNA. Water, nutrients in the soil, and the energy of sunshine cause interactions that form the proteins that grow into roots, stems, branches, leaves, and the parts we like to eat. Paul says that the seed goes into the ground and dies (v. 36), which isn’t strictly true, but it looks that way. The seed, which is of little interest to us as it is, goes into the ground, and from it grows the plant that is of interest to us for making delicious BLTs. The analogy is that our physical life, as we are now, cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven: the physical body must first die, so that the useful spiritual body may grow from it in resurrection. Just as there can be no tomato plant without the seed, there can be no resurrection without the body; but a change must happen. Just as the DNA is the same from the seed to the plant, so the reality of myself is the same from the physical to the spiritual. Continuity, but change.

Even better, I think, is the analogy of the butterfly. From the egg emerges a caterpillar, which has just the same DNA as the egg, but the activity of the cells has differentiated into the caterpillar – or larva. The caterpillar eats, ravenously, gathering the energy needed for the next stage: the pupa. Now you know that the caterpillar wraps itself inside a chrysalis, and the change from caterpillar to butterfly happens inside. What fascinates me is how it happens. I used to think that the worm-like caterpillar would sprout wings, and its body would gradually change shape until the butterfly would emerge. But that isn’t what happens. What happens is the caterpillar body is dissolved, it becomes an undifferentiated mass. And the cells in that mass begin to form all the parts of the butterfly, and when it is finished it emerges from the chrysalis.

Christians have for centuries used the butterfly as an image for resurrection: we see a caterpillar go into a chrysalis and a butterfly emerge; we see a physical body go into a tomb and a spiritual body emerge. Now I see how perfectly appropriate the image is, because the caterpillar doesn’t simply change into a butterfly; the caterpillar ceases to be as a caterpillar and something new and beautiful emerges. Yet it is still the same creature, with the same DNA, the same identity.

The Christian understanding of resurrection is different from the traditional understanding of immortality. In the traditional understanding of immortality, the spiritual is completely different from the physical. The physical dies but the spiritual continues unchanged. As Paul explains it, the spiritual comes from the physical, just as the butterfly comes from the caterpillar or the tomato plant comes from the seed. Continuity, but change.

Well, so what? We’ve had a nice high school theology lesson on resurrection, but why is that important? I see two things of importance. One, it helps me understand our need for both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Our life, to be whole, is both physical and spiritual; it is both earthy and heavenly. Jesus is earthy: a human being who carries the presence of God in his flesh. The Holy Spirit brings the heavenly, the witness to everything that is beyond what we sense and experience right now.

But something that I find even more encouraging. When I was a college student, I took a basic earth sciences class; I forget its real title, but we called it “Rocks for Jocks.” At the end of the class, the professor commented on what was often believed to be the life cycle of the universe, that the expanding universe would eventually turn back and everything that started with a Big Bang would end in a Big Crunch. His conclusion, after a term of studying the history of the earth and life on earth, was, “Nothing matters.” Yikes. Nothing matters.

My professor was wrong. Paul assures us that because Christ is risen from the dead and we believe that we shall be raised from the dead, what we do does matter. As it says here, “Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.” I will break that down into two things for you, because I of course asked myself, “Why? Why does resurrection mean that nothing I do for Jesus is a waste of time or effort?”

What you and I do has an effect on the Kingdom of God. There is a character in the New Testament called Barnabas; he is nicknamed “Son of Encouragement.” That’s because he’s constantly doing or saying something that encourages other people. He helps them grow in faith; he helps people forgive; he helps people welcome someone a little scary. Because of him, faith in Jesus is nurtured in other people. You may have that effect on the people around you and you may not even realize it; because of something you say or do, someone may trust God a little more, may be a little more encouraged. You have watered a seed for resurrection.

Simply helping the Church in any way can add water and nourishment and sunshine to seeds for resurrection. The Church is more than an institution or a building; it is people who are doing work for the Master, for the Lord Jesus. So when you spend some time caring for flowers at the place, so that those who come are greeted by beauty; when you listen to a young person’s fears or hopes and take them seriously; when you give a few hours to help refugees make their way in this strange land; when you give a thankoffering… nothing you do for the Master is a waste of time or effort. You may not see the butterfly that emerges from the chrysalis, but you have contributed to the nourishment of the larva that will become that butterfly.

And there is this. The work you do for the Master has an effect on you. You cannot change your DNA – I know, there is research ongoing and there has been some success in germ-line editing, but you can’t do it yourself so I’m going to stick to what I said – you cannot change your DNA, but you can change your personality, your priorities, the things you hold dear, the things you let go of, and the things you value. When you study Scripture, when you pray, when you worship, when you take communion, when you encourage someone, when you sit down with your journal and try to reshape how you react, when you engage in hands-on mission with people, when you pause and count to ten and ask, “What would Jesus do?” and on and on and on you are helping that pupa that is you to become a stronger and more beautiful butterfly.

I am convinced, although it would take me some time to work it out, that eating right, walking at the OPPD Arboretum, doing weight training and practicing yoga: that these all somehow also have a benefit for the resurrected, spiritual body. I guess what I am trying to say is that caring for your own being helps prepare you for eternity. Since we believe in resurrection, we believe that what we do in our lives right now has an eternal effect: it helps to shape the butterfly that will emerge from the chrysalis.

So, dear friends, “don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.”

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

 

Sermon from Easter VII: Simple Consideration

Simple Consideration
Easter VII; May 16, 2021
I Corinthians 10:14-33

Imagine you want to host a dinner party for a few of your relatives. Now that it’s possible for vaccinated people to get together, that’s one of those things we look forward to doing. But you have to think: what can I serve? Cousin Harold is a vegan; at Thanksgiving dinner even though a lovely tofu dish was available for him he went ballistic because there was milk in the sauce. Aunt Ermintrude is allergic to shellfish, but Aunt Genevieve is a pescatarian. When your niece made a frittata for dinner her brother lectured her because the eggs weren’t from free-range, pasture-fed hens. Maybe you should just invite your bridge group instead.

A good host tries to be sensitive to the needs of their guests. If you have to explain that the blueberries in the pie were locally grown – no, they weren’t shipped from Mexico – it’s tempting to give up. One Wednesday I was eating lunch at my Rotary Club and we had a visitor at our table. One of my companions commented on my dessert; rather than a cookie, I had taken a bunch of grapes. My companion said that he admired that I had made a healthy choice. The guest then started lecturing us on how grapes are not really all that healthy. I tuned out, but really wanted to say to him, “Did I ask you?”

Paul’s concern in I Corinthians 10 goes beyond simple table manners, but table manners certainly figure into it. The issue at hand is something you and I may not be able to identify with, but I believe we can find help for our spiritual lives just the same. Here’s the issue: part of the worship of the time was offering sacrifices. You would take an animal to the temple of the god you wanted to worship – if the Lord God of Israel, then you would take it to the Temple in Jerusalem; if the goddess Artemis, then to the Temple of Artemis (yes, there was one in Corinth) – and you would offer the animal in sacrifice. The priest would ritually slaughter the animal, it would be roasted, and you and the priest would share meat together. In pagan communities, any meat left over could be sent to the market to be sold. Presumably eating some of that meat is participating in the worship of that god.

So what if I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and a pagan friend of mine invites me to dinner? What do I do if the meat came from a pagan temple; such as the temple of Artemis? If I eat the meat, then am I not worshiping Artemis? Paul suggests that Artemis is no goddess, but a statue in a building. Well, he imagines she might in reality be something, that is, a demon, so you probably shouldn’t eat the meat, but you’re a free person in Jesus Christ and so it won’t really hurt you. Well, better not to ask.

So his summary advice in this situation is: eat what’s set in front of you and don’t ask if it came from the temple of Artemis or not. Don’t ask; just eat it. It’s good manners, isn’t it? I think I’ve told you that Kathleen and I keep to meatless Fridays during Lent. Governor Ricketts, this isn’t a “war on meat,” it’s just a practice some Christians keep. Anyway, we were visiting relatives on a Friday in Lent and they gave us pork for dinner. We ate it. It’s bad manners not to.

Paul’s advice seems to be, in part, consider the feelings of others. What a concept: simple consideration! The pleasure my host has in giving me food and sharing company with me is more important than my insistence on locally-sourced vegetables. I’m making that up: I don’t really care where the spinach comes from. The point is to consider the feelings of your host. If the host sets meat in front of you, don’t ask if it came from the temple of Artemis, in order to ensure your own purity: just eat it.

But what if the host tells you that it came from the temple of Artemis? What if your host is, in their mind, inviting you to worship Artemis? Then Paul is quite firm: don’t do it. If you know that it came from the temple of Artemis, and the host is a worshiper of Artemis and is inviting you to practice idolatry, don’t do it. Not because you’re trying to stay pure, but because of your need to be a faithful witness for Jesus. In addition to simple consideration for the feelings of others, Paul urges us to have simple consideration for the spiritual well-being of others. If I am a follower of Jesus, then I need to stay true to Jesus. And that includes not willingly participating in the worship of Artemis.

But how fine do we cut it? Does that mean we need to walk on eggshells – taken from free-range, pasture-fed hens, of course – and be careful about everything we do? For example: since the background of the Christmas tree is pagan, does that mean never having a Christmas tree? Oh! All Saints Day was originally the pagan holiday of Samhain, still practiced by Wiccans. Should we abandon All Saints Day? And the date of Christmas itself was chosen because it was the celebration of the birth of Mithra, the Invincible Sun; perhaps we should stop celebrating Christmas. Bunnies have often been associated with the goddess Eostre, and have nothing to do with Resurrection, so no more chocolate rabbits at Easter. Okay, parson, you’ve left off preaching and started meddling. I’m not giving up my chocolate rabbit.

Yes, I was pushing hard at being absurd. And these days it’s not difficult to push to the absurd. It can be a struggle, I think, to stay true to our commitment to Jesus while not tying ourselves in knots trying to stay pure. Here’s an example that really happened. A pastor in the small town where I lived has a weekly column in the local paper and one week he wrote that Christians should not practice yoga because it comes from India and is implicit worship of Hindu deities. His argument was along the lines of: the meat in the market came from the temple of Artemis, so when you eat it you are worshiping Artemis. Well, there was at the time exactly one yoga instructor in town and she was a member of my congregation, so it was incumbent on me to rise to her defense. I did; the paper printed my column responding to his article and, in my humble opinion, completely demolishing his rationale. Yes, I’m a little proud of that; one of the elder members of the church said to me, “Remind me never to get into an argument with you.”

But Paul put it pretty simply: if in my mind and the mind of the instructor I’m worshiping the Hindu deities, then I’d best run the other way, fast. But if the instructor is a faithful Presbyterian and I’m a strong Methodist then don’t worry about where the exercise program came from. In the New Revised Standard Version, Paul’s words are translated, “Why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” (10:29b-30) And in The Message that is translated, “I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it and he blessed it!”

The “Yes, but” in all this is, of course, simple consideration for the feelings and the spiritual well-being of others. You and I always want to do the best we can to make a faithful witness for Jesus Christ. We will goof, sometimes we will go too far in trying to be pure and other times we will cause unnecessary offense by not being careful. If the thing we’re doing – eating meat, serving a frittata, doing yoga – isn’t obviously taking us away from Jesus to the worship of something or someone else, then don’t tie yourself in knots over it.

Perhaps none of this has been an issue for you. Good enough; consider this message some light entertainment. Give thanks. And that’s what it comes down to at the end, anyway: give thanks. As Paul puts it, whatever you do, give thanks and do it for the glory of God. Whether you approve of where the eggs came from or not, give thanks when you eat the frittata. Give thanks for the meat and don’t ask if it came from the temple of Artemis. Give thanks that you can bend well enough to do yoga. And you know what? I am always thankful for my annual chocolate bunny.

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

 

Sermon from Easter VI: The Family Table

The Family Table
Easter VI; May 9, 2021
I Corinthians 5

Well. For those of you who have been critical of my decision to preach from our guidebook for the Year of the Bible instead of the Revised Common Lectionary, have at me. If I were using the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the day, I would probably be preaching from John 15, where Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us – that is, to the point of dying for each other – with the implied threat that if we don’t we’ll be cut off the vine and burned (John 15:5-6).

We preachers like to avoid the tough parts of the Bible every bit as much as you do. Maybe more, because when you don’t like a passage of Scripture you don’t yell at the Author, you yell at us. Or gripe to someone else. When I was an associate pastor and the pastor chose to preach on Mother’s Day from Ephesians 5 – “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” – folks came to me afterward: “Why in the world did he do that?” I have no idea.

But the hard parts are every bit as much a part of the Bible as are the parts that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Sometimes we like the hard parts, if they give us a chance to feel holier than someone else. Remember this old story? The preacher started in attacking smoking, how the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and those who smoke are polluting God’s temple and all the people said, “Amen!” Then he got more intense, and he attacked gambling, and said that God gave us all good things for godly uses but gambling is throwing money at illusions, and the people cried, “Amen!” Then he got louder, and attacked drinking, and said that booze is the Devil’s brew and drinking destroys families and the people shouted, “Amen!” Then he was really fired up, and he attacked sex outside of marriage, and said that adultery ruined families and fornication destroyed souls and there wasn’t a peep out of the people. When he stopped and looked around, puzzled, one of them said to him, “Parson, you done left off preaching and started meddling.”

So I will make some observations about I Corinthians 5, trusting the Holy Spirit to nudge you somehow in the direction God sets before us. The image I ask you to have in your head is a family dinner table. One of the things that has happened during the pandemic is many families are eating together more than they used to do; I hope that will continue. There is something bonding about a family – whether a family by blood or a family of choice – sitting around the table, eating together, and talking with each other. For most families, that happens at dinner, but some do that at breakfast. Anyway, I choose that image because in I Corinthians 5 Paul talks about eating together and about bread and specifically about the celebration of the festival of the Passover of Christ; that is, communion.

The family table builds community. Whether you like it or not, however you feel about it, however close or distant you may be, your family is your family. My family was particularly defined by the presence and character of my Mother; perhaps that is true of yours, as well. No, my Father was not absent, but my memories of our home and family life evoke more of Mom than of Dad; so I don’t mind considering this image of the family dinner table on Mother’s Day.

Paul wrote as vehemently as he did because the Church in Corinth was a family, the family of Christ, formed around Christ’s family dinner table. When one member of a family does a great evil, it affects the family. You and I may pretend that it does not, but it does, and denying it and pretending otherwise can produce all sorts of harm. Paul uses the image of yeast to describe the effect of one person’s wrongdoing on the entire congregation. I have a couple of different recipes I use for pizza dough; one of them uses 2¼ teaspoons of yeast with 1½ cups of flour and the other uses only ½ teaspoon of yeast with 2 cups of flour. Both produce excellent dough. It doesn’t take much yeast to cause the whole lump of dough to rise. And Paul says that it doesn’t take much sin to corrupt the whole church.

But before we get too vehement and start driving out evil-doers, keep a few things in mind. Although the sin Paul is concerned with here is specifically sexual, he makes clear (v. 11) that sexual sin is not the only thing that he finds corrupting. Sexual immorality, yes, but also greed, idolatry, drunkenness, insulting people, and robbery: all these, Paul says, corrupt the church. So before you get on your high horse and start demanding that we shun adulterers or capitalists (you know, those devoted to the creed “Greed is good”), consider whether you might find yourself shown the door as well.

And let’s acknowledge that sexual mores change. We have seen them change dramatically over the last seventy years. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the standards of Paul’s day were God’s intention for all of human history. Our social standards continue to disapprove of incest, which was what Paul was writing about: cohabiting with your mother-in-law was incest, by their definition. That does not mean that everything that Paul would disapprove of continues to be grounds for church discipline.

Let’s go back to the image of the family dinner table. You are familiar with the concept of “tough love.” One example of tough love that comes to mind is the parent who refuses to provide any more money to the adult child until the child willingly enters a treatment program for substance addiction. Another example is the abused spouse who leaves the home, finds a safe place, and determines to stay there until the abuser changes their ways. We know that “love” is not “indulgence.” Families that tolerate abusive behavior are not loving; they are destructive. Likewise, the family of Christ is called upon sometimes to exercise tough love: to say to someone, “We will not tolerate that behavior.”

Two more observations about this before I move to the conclusion. First, Paul makes clear that we are a family that sets standards of behavior for ourselves; we do not dictate to the world how it must behave. We can decide what is appropriate behavior within our life as a family in Christ, and exercise appropriate care and discipline of our own people. That does not mean that we are to dictate the morals of our society, that we appeal to the State Legislature to enforce our morals on everyone in Nebraska.

And the second comment is that the purpose of Church discipline has always been to bring people to repentance. It’s not to run out people we disapprove of; it’s not to ensure purity. It is to convince those who do wrong or whose priorities are misplaced to come to greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Among the faithful, when we read something in Scripture that upsets us, when the preacher says something that angers us, our first reaction should not be to yell at someone. Our first reaction should be to ask ourselves, “Do I need to repent?” Likewise, if someone is doing something that violates the moral integrity of the family of God, the purpose of our tough love is not to hurt that person, but to bring them to repentance.

Now a concluding thought. I Corinthians 5 is hard to talk about, I know, and I doubt I have done an adequate job. But the concluding thought is most important. Remember what Paul wrote: “Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the feast.” Our family table is for the family of Christ, the one who calls us, leads us, gathers us, and is the Lamb who is sacrificed for our forgiveness. Remember how Jesus behaved at dinner parties: he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-17). He didn’t run them off; he invited them to repent.

Despite what Paul wrote – that you and I should not even eat with sinners – I don’t see Jesus telling the sinner, “I won’t eat with you.” He does say, “Go and sin no more.” But first I see him saying, “Please pass the bread.”

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

 

Sermon from Easter V: In Sum

In Sum
Easter V; May 2, 2021
Mark 16

Sometimes it’s hard for people to leave well enough alone. All of the oldest manuscripts we have of the Gospel of Mark end at verse 8: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” I feel the urge to talk to you about that a little bit, and then we’ll see if I can add something that may help your life in God.

People who study the Bible have puzzled over this: Why did Mark end his Gospel with the women running from the tomb in fear, not saying anything to anyone? Well, one possible answer to that is, “He didn’t.” Now, given its absence from anything older than the fifth century, we can be quite confident that he didn’t write the portion in our Bibles labeled as verses 9 to 20. Mark didn’t write that. But some folks suggest that he did write more after the part about the women running from the tomb, but it got lost somehow. Somehow every copy of Mark lost the last page and we don’t know what he wrote but he probably wrote something. Have you ever read a good novel and got to the end and discovered the last page was missing? Imagine you’re reading the most important thing ever written – the Gospel of Jesus – and the last page is missing!

But there is another possibility: that Mark really did end his Gospel with the women running from the tomb, frightened and not speaking to anyone. Now, it’s obvious that they did tell the disciples, because we know what all came after. But perhaps Mark intentionally ended the story there. Sometimes you read a real good story, and the last page isn’t missing, but just the same there are threads left dangling, loose ends not tied up. For all the completeness and massiveness of the “Lord of the Rings,” at least one question is left unresolved: Did the ents ever find the entwives? So maybe Mark, who is without a doubt a skilled story-teller, left us hanging at the end quite intentionally.

Well, whichever may be the case, somebody was unhappy about it and wrote an ending. Actually, there are three different endings, but I do not want to bog down in detail today. Let me say only that, in contrast to the rest of the book, this ending (verses 9-20) is clumsy and grabs material from the works of Luke, and also has some very strange teaching. This is the only place where Jesus says that his followers can drink poison and handle snakes and not be harmed. You may have heard of the practice of snake-handling among some Pentecostal Christians in Appalachia; a former colleague of mine did her PhD dissertation on Appalachian Holiness churches and she showed me video she had taken of worship services in rivers, where the minister handled poisonous snakes, and of people bringing cages of rattlesnakes to church and letting them out, dancing among them and even lying down, using the snakes as a pillow.

For them, it is a testimony of their faith. Yes, many are bitten. Yes, some die. But because of this verse in Mark 16, they believe it is something they should do. I do not wish to say anything unkind about another’s practice of faith, but quite apart from whether this verse really belongs in the Bible or not, this is what troubles me: it feels as though Jesus isn’t enough, but something more exciting needs to be added. It hits me the same way as the practice in many churches of making sure they have perfect sound systems and a great band: we have to get people’s pulse throbbing. We have our issues too, I know; there are always some who can’t leave well enough alone but have to make it more exciting.

But back to Mark. What if he really did leave a cliff-hanger at the end of his Gospel? What if he did tell us the women ran from the tomb and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid?  And then stopped? What would that do?

I think it would force you and me to decide if we’re going to do something. Are we also going to avoid saying anything to anyone about Jesus because we are afraid?

From time to time we have to make decisions. This is true not only in the rest of life but also in our spiritual lives. What is real? What isn’t? What do I believe? And then, crucially, what am I going to do about it? Do I believe what the young man dressed in a white robe said, that Jesus is raised from the dead? And if I believe that, what then? Will I simply run in fear from the tomb and not say anything to anyone?

I know that belief and action come easily to some people. God bless them. Belief has always been a struggle for me: what to believe, why I should believe it, and what I should do about it. From the time I started thinking for myself, probably about twelve years old, I have wondered about the things we say as people of Jesus. It forces me to ask whether to believe what the young man in the white robe said, and what then to do about it. Those of you who have been participating in our journey through the Bible this year have run into a lot of things that you have thought about and talked about and you have raised some wonderful questions about them.

A lot of this came to a head for me when I was in college, and it was then that I heard some of the best advice I recall from a pastor. I was talking to my pastor about my struggle, about what to believe, and she suggested that I decide what is fundamental for me. That is, even if everything is taken away from my faith, what will I hold onto? At that time, at the age of about twenty, I decided that the key for me was “God so loved the world as to give the only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” I didn’t need to understand God; I didn’t need to understand the nature of Jesus as the Son of God; I didn’t need to understand what the phrase “eternal life” meant. I just needed to hold onto the love of God for whole world – me included, but not just me – a love that gives us God’s own Son for the sake of our lives.

Most or all of you recognize that line; you sometimes see it cited on posters at football games: John 3:16. To an extent it is still the sum of the Gospel for me, what I stand on and what I am willing to tell people, even if I’m running in fear from Jesus’ tomb. But there’s another line, too, that is important to me. It isn’t so much a rock I stand on as it is the attitude I have while I’m standing there. It comes from a story we read last week (Mark 9:14-29; April 23 in the Year of the Bible).

A man has brought his son to Jesus to be healed; the boy has a demon that causes convulsions. The man says to Jesus, “Please heal him, if you can.” “If you can!” quotes Jesus. Then Jesus says, “All things can be done for one who believes.” And the man cries out, probably weeping, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24).

I believe; help my unbelief. The power of faith to move mountains, as we read in Mark last Sunday; the power of faith to tell people that Christ is alive and rules over us, even if we are running from the tomb in fear: the power of faith does not depend on your and my ability to summon up more of it. The power of faith is in our willingness to say to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I can go this far; please, Lord Jesus, take me the rest of the way.

I’m calling this sermon “In sum” to evoke these three thoughts (Maybe some of you thought it was about Chinese food, that I meant to say “dim sum”). Three thoughts:

  1. Take Pastor Janet’s advice; what is foundational for you about our faith?
  2. For everything else, ask Jesus for help. “I believe; help my unbelief!”
  3. The sum of the Gospel, at least for today, is in the words of the young man in white: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”

Despite my earlier reliance on John 3:16, it doesn’t stand alone for me anymore; it is accompanied by another rock to stand on: the words of the young man in the white robe. Yes, God loves the world; yes, God gave us the Son; yes, those who believe in the Son have eternal life. But what is it to believe in the Son? I say to you that it is to believe that he is alive. Whatever else you believe about him – even if you believe he wants you to play with rattlesnakes – the fundamental thing to believe is that he is alive. From time to time over the years I have preached and taught reasons for believing in the Resurrection of Jesus and I think once I even made it something of a snoozer of an Easter sermon. That’s not my point today. My point today is not to sweat the rest overmuch. In sum: Christ is alive.

I believe that. I’ve staked my life on that. I’ll say that, even running from the tomb. You don’t need to add another twelve verses of follow-up to try to round out the story. As long as you believe and I  believe and everyone who comes after us continues to believe, the story isn’t finished.

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

 

Sermon from Easter IV: Invitation to Prayer and Action

Invitation to Prayer and Action
Easter IV; April 25, 2021
Mark 11:12-33

I have a partial explanation for the outrageous story of the withering of the fig tree. It’s only partial, and doesn’t really satisfy me (it may or may not satisfy you), but it’s what I’ve got. You know that Jesus’ favorite form of teaching is the parable: a story that makes a point. Some of his parables are very well-known: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and so forth. Well, some writers say that this story of the fig tree is an enacted parable. Jesus saw an opportunity to make a point, and so did something instead of telling a story about it.

Maybe. I don’t get blaming the fig tree for not producing figs when figs are out of season. But, being who he is, Jesus is allowed to be outrageous. Ruining the commerce in the Temple by violently attacking the merchants and money-changers was pretty outrageous. The fact that withering the fig tree is outrageous certainly makes it more memorable, and I think the enacted parable makes two points:

  1. Have faith
  2. Be useful

The fig tree is useless, so Jesus curses it. And he tells his followers that if they have faith, then their prayers can make wonderful things happen, such as moving a mountain.

Since the story of the fig tree surrounds the story of Jesus rampaging through the Temple, it’s obvious that Mark wants us to think about them together. Have faith; be useful. Together the stories are an invitation to prayer and action. Have faith to pray that wonderful things will happen; do something to act on your prayers. Rather than stand aside and whine, “Isn’t it awful what people have done to the Temple precincts,” Jesus does something about it. And Jesus judges the fig tree for being useless. Have faith; be useful.

To be blunt about it. Every time something awful happens in our society – another mass shooting, for example – our leaders in Washington wring their hands and say that their “thoughts and prayers are with” the victims. And then they proceed to do precisely nothing about it. An August 2019 Fox News poll of registered voters found 90% of respondents favored universal background checks, 81% supported taking guns from at-risk individuals, and 67% favored banning assault weapons.[1] Yet Congress does nothing, perhaps because we the people and especially we the people of Jesus do too little to demand it of them.

In his short epistle later in the Bible, James writes that if you and I say to the poor, “Oh, we’ll pray for you; may God see that you have food and clothing” and then we proceed to hoard our own food and clothing and money and do precisely nothing to help, then we are not really people of faith. We’re just spouting pious words (James 2:14-17). Yes, I know, none of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Whether we help Jesus clear the shysters out of the Temple or we do our best to bear figs, we can do something.

It is good, it is always good, to pray for those who need prayer. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is a form of action. But to say “I’ll pray for you” when I have the capacity to do more is a cop-out. So, please, no more “My thoughts and prayers are with you” accompanied by inaction. Not from government and society. And especially not from us who follow the man who drove the money-changers out of the Temple and judged the useless fig tree.

Our Session this week started a conversation that I want to invite you to be part of. We’re praying and talking about how to engage our church in some action. Important note: When I say, “engage our church in some action,” that does not mean throwing some money at something, or telling the ministers to put more time into something in particular. It means getting you, the people of God, engaged in doing something that bears fruit. What they are struggling over is what that something ought to be. As of right now, there are two primary candidates.

But before I say more about that, I need to share something with you from the heart. I read something this week that encouraged me. I don’t have the answer to the questions, “What should the Church do? Where is the Church going?” Some of you believe I should know those answers. In the Spring issue of the newsletter of the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation, the President (Gary Eller) wrote about a work by Susan Beaumont called “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going.” Gary wrote that “she takes the position that it is not helpful for pastors to act as if they know where the church is going when they really do not. Instead, the best leadership acknowledges that we are going through a ‘transitional,’ ‘liminal’ period when the old ways no longer work and new ways are being discovered.”[2]

So I share with you that I do not know where we are going. I have never known where we are going. I have always sought to create a space where together we can discern where God is leading us. And, frankly, I do not think God grants to any of us to see years down the road, but only to position ourselves to take the next step. “Have faith and be useful,” or in other words, “Pray and then act on what God shows you in your prayers.”

So your Session had a beautiful, faithful conversation this week – I cannot emphasize enough how wise and God-oriented our elders are – about some possibilities. I’ll tell you about two of them and invite you to pray and be prepared to act, and to talk about these things with each other and with your elders. Perhaps God will show you other mountains to move, too, but here are two.

Last year, after two years of discernment, we declared ourselves a More Light Church, a church that welcomes into faith and ministry a rainbow diversity of people. We have done very little with that decision. Now, that’s partly the pandemic, of course, but Jesus didn’t excuse the fig tree just because it wasn’t the season for figs. Some on the Session suggest we should engage the congregation in following through more on our commitment to openness and inclusion. So far it has largely been some members of the More Light Taskforce and our technical crew who produce our webcast: these have done the heavy lifting. The folks who raised this idea believe it is time to get more disciples more deeply engaged in our ministry of openness.

Another thing we talked about is getting involved in undoing systemic racism. I know that I have talked about it a bit in my preaching since the murder of George Floyd, and our Men’s Book Club has done quite a bit of reading about systemic racism. Moment of recap: systemic racism describes the sense that the systems of our society – government, religion, business – have racist practice and tradition built into them. The conviction of Derek Chauvin this week deals with a particular act by a particular person, but a question remains: is there something about policing in the United States that has racism built into it? One of the books the men have read emphasizes that the segregation of neighborhoods in and around our cities did not happen naturally nor is it only the fault of racist actions by banks, developers, and realtors: it was government policy.[3] Anyway, I hope I’ve said enough to explain what we’re concerned with. Is there something we can do as a congregation that will help address systemic racism? If we feel God is calling us to do this, then I believe that as we work together, God will show us how to do it.

Which is where Jesus’ statement “Have faith” comes in. If God wants us to move a mountain, have faith that God will show us how. But we have to be willing to work on it. Whether we get more of us involved in our activities as an inclusive church or we work at undoing systemic racism or both – or something else – have faith that God will show us how. We don’t want to be a withered fig tree and just keep telling folks that our thoughts and prayers are with them. Jesus invites us to pray and to act. Have faith. Be useful. And remember Jesus’ promise: whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. God will show us the way.

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

[1] Blanton, Dana (August 14, 2019). “Fox News Poll: Most back gun restrictions after shootings, Trump ratings down”Fox News.
[2] https://omahapresbyterianseminaryfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Spring-2021-News.pdf
[3] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liverlight, 2017)

Sermon from Easter III: Where to Find Bread

Where to Find Bread
Easter III; April 18, 2021
Mark 6:7-13, 30-44

Mark doesn’t tell us where the Apostles found the five loaves and two fish; when John tells the same story, he says that a small boy has them. The suggestion many have made was that quite a number of people in the crowd had food with them, but only that small boy was willing to share his. Wherever the five loaves and two fish came from, the Apostles found them, and it was enough for Jesus to work with.

Where do you find bread? Or, if you have given up eating bread except maybe for communion, whatever else you eat. Classically, “bread” stands for any sort of staple food, which is why we call a family wage-earner a “breadwinner.” So let me talk about bread, and if you don’t eat bread, then please substitute something else that you do eat. I aim to be symbolic here. Anyway, back to my question: where do you find bread? The grocery store? A specialty baker? Although this year’s webcast production of the Omaha Playhouse’s Christmas Carol was very well done, I missed getting the loaf of Rotella’s bread they always hand out afterward. Maybe you bake your own. Kathleen and I both enjoy baking bread, and have for years, and were dismayed that yeast was so hard to find early in the pandemic. Apparently a lot of people were baking their own bread.

If you’re looking for bread, you may rely on someone’s advice on where to get good bread. Web searches and online reviews are great, but nothing beats the word of someone you trust. Several months ago Chris Krampe, our Music Director, compiled a list of places where he gets locally-sourced food and we posted it on our Facebook Family & Friends page. If any of you have followed up and searched for food at the places he suggests, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, the Apostles found bread, and some fish too, and Jesus made it serve the need – and to spare. It is one of the few stories that are in all four Gospels, so it must be important. And there are so many different directions a preacher can go with it. Today I’m inspired to use it as a launching point to talk about the E-word: “evangelism.” Please don’t tune out; just because we have the 21st-century equivalent of a television show, I’m not going all Joel Osteen on you. I don’t have the hair for it. Let’s have a heart-to-heart about evangelism, using our two Gospel stories for some insight.

Jesus sent out the Twelve with authority to cast out demons and with instructions about what to take with them, what not to take with them, where to stay, and so forth. Going out two-by-two is a model for so many things: earnest young Mormons going out with their message, Jehovah’s Witnesses too, and when we send out two deacons or elders to extend the Lord’s Table to those who cannot come to the church-house. They are to take the message where it is welcomed, and to go on their way when it is not welcomed. That certainly is a model for evangelism.

Yes, we Presbyterians have used that model. When a new church, especially, is going to be established in a community people will go out to the neighborhood with the message that a new Presbyterian Church is going to be started. That sort of “cold calling” is a little scary, but some people really take to it. People don’t, for the most part, cast out demons when they’re cold-calling in a neighborhood. But notice that Jesus explicitly gave them authority to do that and they knew from him that they had that authority. I doubt you or I actually encounter a real demon very often; if we did and if Jesus wanted us to cast it out, Jesus would give us the authority to do so. So I’m not going to sweat that aspect of the story.

I picked up the reading where I did (v. 30) because the Twelve came back and reported to Jesus what they experienced. When our Church sends some of you out to take communion to homebound persons, I’m here at the Church that afternoon so you can come back and tell me what you experienced. It is wonderful to hear the stories of elders and deacons who feel they have done something worthwhile for the realm of Jesus, taking Word and Sacrament to people and hearing their stories and sharing prayer together.

There are variations on cold calling: telephone soliciting, postcard blasts, newsletters mailed to the entire neighborhood. Rarely is the message so pointed as what the Twelve said in all the towns where they went – Repent! – but the message is there. Maybe, though, you will find more appealing the model of evangelism that is suggested by the story of the feeding of the five thousand, and which is inspired by a quotation I remember from somewhere.

The words are from the Methodist pastor D. T. Niles, a native of Sri Lanka (it was called Ceylon at the time) who served the universal church as a leader of the World Council of Churches. He said, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” Think about it. “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” What does that suggest?

It suggests first that those of us who found bread are, nonetheless, beggars. Where did the Apostles find the five loaves and two fish? Mark doesn’t say, but John says it was a small boy. Jesus told them, “You give them something to eat” and they didn’t think they had anything to give. They were beggars. But there was someone who had what they needed. When Jesus sent them out to the towns and villages, they were to rely on the hospitality of the people they met. And once they settled in a home, they were to stay there, not go shopping for a nicer place. And surely they didn’t stay long. They were beggars, and had found where to find bread.

And the people they led to bread were also beggars: folks needing a demon exorcised, or needing to hear a word of repentance. That is, needing to hear a different way of thinking than they had before (which is the literal meaning of “repent”). A lot of us need that from time to time. I don’t think of evangelism as people “in the know” lording it over people who need to join a church. I think D. T. Niles had it right: one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

The key is bread. What have we found? I think it is telling that when the Twelve went out preaching and casting out demons, Jesus told them not to carry a money-pouch. That is, they were not fund-raising; they were teaching and healing. If your idea of evangelism is recruiting more people to help pay the bills, please don’t help. That’s not the point. The point is bread.

And for us, the bread we live on and the bread we share is the Lord Jesus: his witness, his message, his saving death, and his possibility-opening life. In a conversation the other day, I told the others that I find two values in organized religion: one is that a relationship with someone else always involves something outside of me: my relationships with my wife, my brothers, my friends have an external component. They are not entirely just about my heart and mind, but also the reality of who they are. If I’m going to have a relationship with God I need a sense of God that comes from beyond my own heart and mind, what goes on inside me. The real God of the universe will communicate from beyond just me. A church with a deep theology provides that “outside of me” reality. And the other value is connection with other people: people who will sing with me, pray with me and pray for me, laugh with me, and weep with me. Religion is about both: connection with God and connection with people.

Jesus is the bread that gives us both those gifts: communion with God and communion with one another. I think it will help us all if we all remember that we are beggars who have found bread in Jesus, and the most important work of evangelism is whenever another beggar wants bread, we can say where we’ve found it. If they don’t want the bread we share, God bless them as they seek it somewhere else. Yet never discount the bread God gives us here.

If a beggar you know asks you, another beggar: How can I connect with God in a way that doesn’t require me to vote for a particular political party? Does God really bless only those who support one political agenda? You can tell them where you’ve found bread.

Or perhaps someone will say: I’m a gay man. I’m a trans woman. I think of myself as non-gendered. Does God love me? Will God relate to me? All the big, loud churches say that God created male and female, nothing else; that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and I have to conform to their image. Is that so? Is there a place where I can know God loves me and challenges me to grow as the person I am? You can tell them where you’ve found bread.

Or perhaps someone will say: I’m scientifically-minded. I don’t think God wants me to park my brain at the door when I go to worship. Am I allowed to believe that God created life, and evolution by natural selection is how God does it? Am I allowed to think deeply about science and politics and history and philosophy and still relate to God? You can tell them where you’ve found bread.

The truth is there is far more bread available than we usually think. Somehow Jesus made five loaves and two fish serve five thousand men, and leave leftovers for twelve hungry Apostles. Jesus himself is, of course, the bread we live on. Even better than Rotella’s. Even better than what any of us can bake at home.

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

 

Sermon from Easter II: “I know who you are”

“I know who you are.”
Easter II; April 11, 2021
Mark 1:21-28

Later in the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about Jesus and the Twelve in a boat on the lake. A storm comes up, and Jesus calms the storm with the command, “Peace! Be still!” We sang about that every Sunday in Lent this year; remember? “Calm me, Lord, as you calmed the storm.” Anyway, after everything calms down, the Twelve look at each other and say about Jesus, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

“Who is this?” Since the Second Sunday of Easter is sometimes Holy Humor Sunday (I hope you remember what we did last year; if not, get on YouTube and look for it: April 19, 2020) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEgIhPfBaA8), let me start with a couple of “Who is this?” type stories.

When my old colleague Dick retired several years ago, I was at his retirement party. One story he told was about his associate pastor. The young associate pastor had been given a large plastic figure of Jesus that he wasn’t sure what to do with. He put it in the trunk of his car and drove around with it, trying to figure out what to do with it. Meanwhile, he and Dick drove together to a food bank to get some supplies for a neighborhood family. When the associate opened the trunk for them to put the bags in, Dick saw the figure and exclaimed, “He has Jesus in his trunk!”

Since you know something about a guy from his family, here’s another story. You remember that the crowd brought to Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery? Anyway, there she was before Jesus, the crowd around, and they were challenging him about whether to stone her to death, as the law required. Jesus said to them, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” This older woman came out of the crowd, heaved a huge stone at the woman and knocked her flat. Jesus said, “Mother!”

Although early Church councils struggled with the question “Who is Jesus?” by working on the question, “What should we say about his mother?” I’ll come back to those twelve guys, spellbound in the boat. “Who is this?” That’s a really important question for anyone who thinks of themselves as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus. Who are you following? Who is this? It’s particularly important for members of this congregation, since we say our Mission Statement is to “seek Christ everywhere, every day, in everyone.” Who are we looking for?

The demon knew. Does that surprise you? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That’s an amazing claim: that this carpenter-turned-preacher is the Holy One of God. The demon saw something in Jesus that wasn’t obvious to the people around him, that there was a spark, a spirit, a presence in Jesus that even his robe couldn’t entirely hide: the presence of holiness. Of course, the demon was afraid of that: “Have you come to destroy us?” Evil cannot abide the presence of holiness, and the demon knew that. “Be silent, and come out of him!” said Jesus.

In the 1980s Brian Wren wrote an Easter hymn that maybe we’ll sing one of these Sundays during the season of Easter. It has a line in it that I think is funny, but it makes the point very well. It’s part of the fourth verse:

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus: “Christ is risen! Get you gone!”
God the First and Last is with us. Sing Hosanna everyone![1]

“Tell its grim, demonic chorus: ‘Christ is risen! Get you gone!’” The demon knew who Jesus was, and so when Jesus said, “Get you gone!” it got.

Consider the many ways the people around Jesus answered the question. Let’s start with Simon Peter; when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” he answered, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). You are the one we have been waiting for, the one sent by God to be our Savior. I don’t know how I know that, but I know that. Then again, it was this same Peter who, when asked about Jesus, said, “I don’t know him” (Mark 14:71). Perhaps he was telling the truth, not aware of that himself. Perhaps he didn’t really know Jesus.

And that is something for you and me to stop and ask ourselves, before I finish this. Do we know him? Do we know him the way the demon knew him, to know that in his presence evil cannot last? Do we know what it means to call him Messiah? I think one reason I continue to reread the Gospels is that I’m trying to figure him out, to understand just Who this is that I am following. Mark started his book with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), but who is this Jesus, this Messiah, this Son of God?

Perhaps some of you want me to answer the question definitively, give you a list of theological points that you can write down and memorize. Perhaps some of you think that it’s pretty ridiculous of me to keep asking the question. “We know everything we need to know about Jesus, so please talk about something else.” I hope, however, that by poking at you a little bit this morning I’ll provoke something in your prayer life this week: “Who are you, Lord?” If that question sounds familiar, it is what Saul the Pharisee asked Jesus when he had his experience on the road to Damascus. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:4-5). Saul, remembered as St. Paul, spent the rest of his life working through that question.

Peter called him Messiah, Mark called him Son of God, John called him the Word of God. A story we often read on the Second Sunday of Easter is when Thomas is confronted by a risen Jesus, whom he had doubted. Jesus appears to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, see my hands; put your hand here, feel my side. Do not doubt but believe” and Thomas says to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-29) And you know that Jesus takes that opportunity to bless us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

But first we have the witness of the demon, who says, “You are the Holy One of God.” I hope that you and I have faith enough to make a witness at least as strong as the demon makes. When we go about our way this week, seeking Christ everywhere, every day, in everyone, have faith enough to be looking for the Holy One of God. Where will you see the Holy One of God?

Perhaps in the grocery store
Or in the waiting room at the doctor’s office
At your children’s school
On the freeway

When will you see the Holy One of God?

Monday afternoon
Sunday morning
Thursday over lunch
Friday evening

In whom will you see the Holy One of God?

In your next-door neighbor
Or maybe in that harried woman trying to get her job done
Perhaps in the man who’s a little bit scary
In the one everyone loves to hate

Listen to what all the different voices in the Bible say about him, especially those you haven’t thought about before. “Who is this this?” Do you and I know? The demon knew: “You are the Holy One of God.”

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

 

[1] Brian Wren, “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!” (1984), #248 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)

Sermon for Easter: The Way of Renewal

The Way of Renewal
Resurrection; April 4, 2021
Romans 12

Since the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of everything that Christian people believe, I can’t talk about Romans 12 without thinking about the holiday we celebrate today, which we began celebrating on Thursday evening. On Thursday evening I talked about the Jewish roots of our communion; on Friday at noon we read the story of the Crucifixion. On Friday evening we reflected on the Way of the Cross in light of the coronavirus pandemic we have been experiencing, a Way of Sickness, Loneliness, Anger, Fear, and Death. And today we finish that Way reflecting on one other aspect of the pandemic: the Way of Renewal.

How many times in the last thirteen months have you said or heard someone say, “I can’t wait to get back to normal!” or perhaps, “When is everything going to be the way it was?” For people who take seriously the message of our celebration today, the answer is, “Never.” Things will never be the way they were; things will not get back to normal. Not if we believe that Christ is raised from the dead and live our lives in that belief.

Although most of Romans 12 is a list of things to do in order to live as a follower of Jesus – and wouldn’t it be a challenging project to make an Excel spreadsheet of that list and keep notes on how you’re doing? – the real meat of Romans 12 is in the first two verses: I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. The “therefore” at the beginning refers to everything Paul has written in chapters 1 to 11: that because of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, salvation is for everyone. Okay, that’s the foundation. And trying to avoid saying more than you can absorb in one sermon, I will call out the three important points for today.

The third point is the challenge to be changed by the renewal of your minds. A lot of us started the pandemic with a list of projects; one possible project has been to rethink what is important. One man told me the other day that one of the blessings to come out of the pandemic has been his family having dinner together every day, instead of only once or twice a week. He hopes that as we emerge from the pandemic that his family’s life will not go back to “normal.” I hope that Church life will not go back to normal, fighting over the color of carpets rather than struggling with the question, “Who does Jesus want us to be?”  Although many of us probably have spent the pandemic numbing ourselves with binge-watching Netflix and eating too many sweets or drinking too much wine, I suspect that most of you have taken some time to ask yourselves what is really important to you. You too don’t want things to go back to normal. Part of our society’s normal for centuries has been that the poor exist to serve the rich, women exist to serve men, and people of color exist to serve white people. We don’t want things to go back to normal.

So let’s not go back to normal. With the confidence that Christ is alive, that Christ gives us strength and courage and hope, let’s go instead a way of renewal. “Renewal” literally means being made new. Again. And again. We can be made new again in the way we think about ourselves. We can be made new again in the way we think about others. That’s what that  spreadsheet for the rest of chapter twelve is about: the constant renewal of our minds.

The second point is not to be conformed to this world. People who listen to me week after week are probably tired of hearing me say it: You and I don’t have to accept the priorities of this world, this “present age” to give it a more literal translation. Some of you may know the J. B. Phillips translation of the New Testament; he translates this line as “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” Our present age says that you are a “consumer;” I say to you that you are a “child of God.” Our present age tags you with the label “liberal” or “conservative;” I say to you that you are “redeemed by Jesus Christ.” Our present age calls you “worker” or “job creator,” “retiree” or “student;” I say that you are a guest at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb of God.

And so to the first point, which depends on what follows it: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. It isn’t enough simply to toss some money in the offering plate or send a check to the church office or enter your credit card number in our online giving platform; those are the modern-day equivalent to taking your lamb or pigeon to the Temple for a sacrifice on the altar. That is an essential component to being part of the family of God, but it is only a component.

The real sacrifice is what you yourself do, you, that body right there, what you do hour by hour as a child of God. In addition to giving money to the Church, what do you do with the rest of your money? Do you pay attention to the products you buy, the services you use? Do you choose them based on how they benefit people? What do you do with your free time? Do you take care of your body by getting some exercise and making time to play? And do you spend some time helping out somebody else? Is your body kind and forgiving and playful? Okay, I’ll not go on; you’re at least as clever as I am and can make your own list, if you want a list.

When Jesus was raised from the dead, he himself, body, mind, and spirit was raised from the dead. Not merely a disembodied spirit, he ate and drank with his friends. He touched them; they touched him. One thing this pandemic has taken from us is human touch; for the last thirteen months the only people who have regularly touched me have been my wife and my chiropractor. I remember saying to some friends, when they talked about being able to shake hands once again, that I’m not shaking hands: I’m hugging everybody. Okay, I exaggerate; I’m not hugging anybody who doesn’t want to be hugged.

Christ is raised from the dead, truly raised, and so we have his power, his presence, his body to help us renew our minds and not be conformed to this world. And to remind us that the worship we offer to God is not only the hymns we sing, the prayers we say, the Sacraments we celebrate, and the sermons we listen to. Our worship is also what we do with our bodies, our precious, complex, and beautiful physical selves.

So once again, I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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

 

Sermon from Maundy Thursday: Supper with the Lord and the Lord’s Supper

Supper with the Lord and the Lord’s Supper
Maundy Thursday; April 1, 2021
Psalm 37:5-18

The Worship Committee asked me to talk to you this evening about the Lord’s Supper and the Passover. There is nothing quite like this evening to emphasize that the Christian Faith started out as a sect of Jewish faith and continues to rely on our Jewish roots. We read just now a part of a psalm – the assigned reading for today from the Year of the Bible – knowing that the psalms are the traditional Jewish song book. When Jesus quotes Scripture, he quotes Jewish Scripture. The Lord’s Supper began as part of a Jewish celebration. So I’m happy to respond to the Committee’s request.

Last year I preached about the Exodus from Egypt and we read about it earlier this year; I hope you know the story. The Lord rescued the people from slavery with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm, as the saying goes, and Jewish people continue to celebrate that year after year at Passover. In English it is called “Passover” because the angel of death “passed over” the homes of Hebrew people when the final plague struck Egypt; the Hebrew word Pesach comes from the verb “to skip” or “to pass over.”

We don’t know exactly what Jewish people did to celebrate Passover in the first century, but since the celebration has changed very little in the centuries for which we do have history, it is likely it was similar to what families do today. And that is the first thing to say about Pesach: it is traditionally a family celebration. These days many Jewish congregations celebrate together at their places of worship, because it is rather a lot of work to prepare for, but traditionally a family gathers at home and has the ritual foods and says the ritual words. I was privileged once to be a guest in a Jewish home for a Passover meal, which is called a Seder.

So when Jesus had the Passover supper with his disciples, they were acting as a family. That was not unusual in ancient times; often a teacher and students would be thought of as a family. When Socrates took the hemlock, he received a visit from his wife and children before he died. Then he sent them away. As he was dying, he was surrounded by his students. They were his true family. Jesus has said elsewhere that his real family consists of those who serve God (Mark 3:35); and so he had Passover with his disciples.

During the Seder, the story of the Exodus is told. They remember what the Lord did to rescue them from slavery. But there are two other elements that you will usually find, as well. One of those is an expression of sorrow for what was done to the Egyptians in order to secure their freedom. And another is an expression of hope for the freedom of all peoples. You have heard Jewish people referred to as a “chosen people.” Their philosophy makes clear that being chosen means that they have a calling: to bring blessing to the world. “Chosen” does not mean “better than everyone else.” “Chosen” means “selected for the sake of everyone.” I hope that we people of Jesus have inherited that way of thinking.

Also during the Seder, there are ritual foods. Usually dinner is part of it, frequently a lamb dinner, symbolically representing the Paschal Lamb. Oh, “Paschal” is the adjective form of “Pesach,” and that is why most Christians in the world call this coming Sunday “Pascha.” In English we have named it after Easter, a pagan fertility goddess, but most Christians call it Pascha. Anyway, the family I had Pesach with had a turkey dinner, because they didn’t like lamb. They’re not strict about these things.

But there are some foods that are necessary. One of them is unleavened bread, matzah. The bread is made without yeast to remember that they fled Egypt in haste; they didn’t have time to let the bread rise. Also, in Jewish tradition, yeast often symbolizes sin. So all during the seven days of Passover the bread they eat must be unleavened. Another is charoseth, a sweet made with apples and wine. A third is a spring herb, such as parsley, dipped in salt water to represent the tears of enslavement and also dipped in charoseth to remember the sweetness of God’s redemption. Also a bitter herb, such as horseradish, to remember the bitterness of slavery. And wine: four glasses of wine, each drunk at the prescribed place in the celebration, and accompanied by a blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynoo melech ha’olom, Boray p’ree hagofen.
(Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.)

So Jesus and his family in faith came together for this ritual, and in light of its celebration of freedom and redemption, he created within it a new ritual, which we will share this evening. We do not know for certain when in the Passover ritual Jesus instituted our Holy Supper, just as we cannot be certain that the Passover supper of the time followed the structure we know now. But there is a general belief that the bread Jesus passed to the disciples with the words “This is my body” was the piece of matzah called the afikomen, which is hidden under a napkin. As the afikomen is revealed late in the meal, so salvation is revealed in the body of Christ. And the wine Jesus shared with the words “This is my blood” may have been the fourth cup of wine. When the fourth cup is poured, an extra one is poured for Elijah, who announces the coming of Messiah.

The main takeaway, I suggest to you, is that the Eucharist is our Passover supper. We celebrate our redemption from slavery to sin. We rejoice that God has rescued us from the power of death. We give thanks for God’s torah, God’s teaching, and in particular the new commandment for which this evening is named: Love one another as I have loved you. When we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper then we have supper with the Lord.

And it helps us to remember our Jewish roots. Many years ago, I participated in a symposium with the Jewish Philosophical Association. On Friday evening, we had the weekly Sabbath observance. As it concluded, we passed around a loaf of bread, sharing it with one another with the wish for a good Sabbath – Shabbat shalom. It wasn’t Passover and it wasn’t Eucharist, but it reminded me of both. Blessed is our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynoo melech ha’olom, Boray p’ree hagofen.

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