Sermon from Palm Sunday: The Rescue

The Rescue
Palm Sunday; March 28, 2021
Romans 7:14-25a

I remember how startled I was when I discovered I’m not the only person in the world with a conversation going on in the head all the time. I assume that I’m weird – alright, you don’t have to say it; I’m frequently reminded that I am indeed weird – and so that anything I experience is different from everybody else. But when I shared once about the conversation in my head, the others in the room all knew what I was talking about.

That’s not enough evidence to say that everyone has such a conversation; perhaps you don’t. But I suspect that it is normal. And if I had paid closer attention the first time I read Romans 7, decades ago, I would have realized that Paul lived it too.

It is frankly too simplistic to reduce Paul’s words to a dualistic “mind good; body bad.” That isn’t what he is saying. I used to think that way; I used to think the goal of life was to die and be set free from the body, to be a disembodied spirit, floating free in the universe. Or the whole purpose of life is to die and go to heaven. That’s not what the Bible says in general, and it’s certainly not what Paul says in particular right here. I misunderstood.

The beautiful thing about this short passage is that in the middle of Paul’s carefully worked out essay on the relationship between the Law and the promise, between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, between Jew and Gentile, is an emotional outburst. My friend the lawyer read through Romans, not piecemeal but all at once, and he said to me that it was so carefully constructed, so well-designed that it read like a legal brief. That is so, but it is a legal brief with occasional outbursts of deep feeling. There are a couple of them here.

Those who have been reading Romans know that Paul is carefully building a case for the inclusion of both Jew and Gentile in the work of God, that there is a purpose for the Law of Moses and there is a relationship between the Law and the power of sin in us. As he carefully thinks through all this, he suddenly bursts out, “I don’t understand why I do what I do!” There are all these competing forces in me, urges pulling me one way and hopes pulling me another. I want to serve God and do the right thing, but the forces of temptation or laziness or habit drag me to doing something else. Why is that?

Paul attributes it to something called “sin,” but that is not really an explanation. More powerful is his thought that there is a war within him, a war between his intentions and his human nature. Biology has helped us understand a lot about our human nature and why we have the urges we do. I struggle with emotional eating and the tendency to binge-eat. When I’m feeling happy or sad I may dive into a plate of cookies or a jar of nuts and overdo it; the next morning I will say, “Why did I do that? I don’t understand my own actions.” Well, biologically, I do that for a variety of reasons. Ingesting sugar leads to the release of dopamine in the brain, and leads to the same sort of feelings of pleasure as opioids. It really does make us feel better. And even though our society has changed enormously, we still have essentially the same bodies we had when we were hunter-gatherers. Sugar is one way of taking in loads of calories when calories may be in short supply.

But that doesn’t really answer the question, “Why did I do that?” which is the question Paul is asking. Because I know that it isn’t good for me; I know that I will regret it. And the sorts of actions Paul has in mind – which he doesn’t, by the way, tell us about – he would also say are against the will of God. “Why did I do that?” I know God disapproves, I will disapprove, and I do it anyway. Why?

He tries to work it out by blaming it on the power of sin at work in me, a power that is activated by the presence of the Law. But that simply pushes the question back one step to “What is sin?” a question that he does not answer. I worked on it in my doctoral thesis, but I’m not fully satisfied with any answer. Suffice it to say that Paul acknowledges that we have this conflict going on inside us, a conflict of desires and a conflict of voices. Ultimately he doesn’t answer the question, “Why?” but instead describes what he does about it. I’ll come back to that before I finish.

A couple of thoughts along the margin before I go back to Paul’s resolution. Research has concluded that will-power is fairly weak. Whether we’re talking about food or booze or violence or social media or sex, simply exerting will-power to control ourselves is usually insufficient. Will-power is not a muscle; it does not get stronger the more you use it. In fact, it gets weaker the more you use it. Thus it gets worse as the day goes on. The best way to prevent giving in to impulses you don’t want to give into is to take away the availability. I’ve learned a lot about that with respect to food, of course, but this week I wish we could calm down and have a reasonable discussion about guns in this country, since it’s a perfect example of several dimensions of this problem. When someone says the phrase, “gun control,” it usually sets off a firestorm of uncontrolled emotions. Rather than discussing the issue, we shout at each other out of our preconceptions about each other.

But I listened to a reasonable man reflect on his own situation. He is a gun owner, he knows how to use them and enjoys knowing about the history and variety of various firearms. And he also understands himself emotionally, and so he doesn’t carry a gun. He knows that if he has a gun on him then when he gets angry he is likely to shoot someone. He thinks people should be able to own guns, as he does, but that they should not ordinarily carry them, as he doesn’t. In the wake of another mass shooting – by the way, I was dismayed that mass shootings have become so commonplace in this country that the Omaha World-Herald carried the news on page six, rather than page one – can we ask the question, “Is it too easy to get certain types of guns in the United States?” There are so many people who should be able to get the guns they need for the things they do, including but not limited to hunting and recreational shooting, but what about the rest of us? Will-power is weak; people who study such things know that; we need to work on availability.

My other marginal thought has to do with the competing voices in my head. Cartoons usually represent them as two voices, a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. I have found that too simplistic, because I have more than two voices competing with each other. Each one has a particular role in the Committee that meets in my head and I’ve given each one a name. If you are interested, I’ll tell you more, but it would get tedious for you if I went into detail here. Suffice it to say that the voices that wish to hurt me or wish for me to hurt others are defanged by having names and roles and by having voices that answer them. It’s actually rather comical.

Paul resolves his inner conflict with another emotional outburst. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” I dug into the word “rescue” and learned that it doesn’t mean rescue in the sense, “Who will take my soul out of this body?” It means, “Who will protect me from this constant war within me?” Or, in my case, the unending committee meeting in my head. I can’t resolve the problem. I can’t make those voices shut up. Even if I limit availability, there will still be temptations and situations that are beyond my will-power to deal with. And Paul asks the right question: not “what?” will solve it for me, but “who?”

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. You don’t always need to understand the causes of things; you need someone to help you deal with them. More than an explanation, we need a Savior. The more I have studied theology, the more I realize that there is a lot that defies explanation but that is resolved by turning to the Savior. If you don’t ever get a satisfying answer to the question, “Why did I do that?” you may find it enough to have someone who cares about you and loves you regardless. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Today is the beginning of Holy Week, when we go with Jesus Christ to the Upper Room, to the Cross, and to the Garden of Resurrection. I don’t understand fully the meaning of all that he did this week; what I do know is that it helps my life in God to go through it with him. That is, to know Jesus Christ, it is more important to experience this with him than it is to understand it.

One evening when I was feeling down and was thinking of turning to sugary food for comfort, I wrote something I come back to again and again. “Food is not comfort; food is fuel. My faith is comfort. My wife is comfort. My friends are comfort.” The committee that meets in my head has a chairperson, of course. He also has a name and a role. The name is unimportant, except to me, but his role is to repeat in the midst of every debate and conflict: God is in charge.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

 

Sermon from Lent V: Judgment? Really?

Judgment? Really?
Lent V; March 21, 2021
Romans 2:1-16

Judgment? Really? Yes, really. Now, it would be interesting to use this as an opportunity to give you some hellfire and brimstone, to put on a parody of a revival preacher’s voice and warn you all to shape up because otherwise Hell is waiting for you. Some of you would find that entertaining, others would simply tune out, and a couple might say that it was about time. I could not do that very well as myself, but I could play a character; after all, I haven’t done any acting in some time and I miss it.

But that would not be true to the Scripture. To be true to Scripture, we should certainly take seriously the words I finished with, that “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” But likewise, to take it seriously, we need context.

Here’s a story to set the stage. Buck, who lived in a small town in the Midwest, was feeling the need for a connection with God and decided to join a church. After spending some time visiting, he joined the Presbyterian Church in his town. It was a small, sturdy church with good leadership by the elders and a pastor who was personable and enthusiastic. But there was also June, something of a busybody, who always seemed to know what everyone was doing and what they ought to be doing.

One Sunday after worship June sidled up to Buck and said to him, “I’m so glad you’ve joined our church. But I feel I need to warn you: it’s important to give the right appearances. You know how people talk and we don’t want people to think that we’re sinners and hypocrites. I saw your truck parked outside the bar on Friday evening and, well, I wouldn’t want people to think the wrong things by where they see your truck parked.” Buck looked at her for a moment, said he appreciated her concern, and went on his way.

On Tuesday evening, Buck drove his truck to June’s house and parked it in front of her house. He walked home, leaving his truck parked in front of her house all night.

Those of you who are doing the Year of the Bible with us read Romans chapter one yesterday. It describes all sorts of horrors that the unnamed “they” do, all because they reject the one true God. Paul builds up almost to a frenzy with the terrible things “they” do. But then he lowers the boom with the beginning of what we read to you: therefore you have no business judging anyone else, because you’re guilty of something in that list!

It is generally the case that those who think of ourselves as righteous easily condemn those who are not righteous. If we don’t suffer from sexual temptations, we judge those who do, ignoring that we steal office supplies or cheat on our income taxes or violate speed limits. If we don’t struggle with drugs, we feel superior to those who do, ignoring our own struggle with alcohol or compulsive overeating. And frankly whether you think of any of these things as sinful or not is irrelevant; what matters is that you and I quickly judge the baggage of others while ignoring our own. And Paul warns that whatever your problem is, God knows it and the day of accounting for it will come.

This is not the only place where Paul writes about the judgment of God, and his purpose is twofold. One purpose is the one I’m focusing on here: God is your judge, God is the judge of that person over there: and so you are not. Judgment Day is coming for us, sooner or later, and God is not going to accept a plea of “Yeah, but what about?” We heard it after January 6. People tried to excuse the violent attack on the Capitol and the death threats against members of Congress by saying, “But what about the violence last summer?” Really? It’s okay to excuse the evil I approve of by pointing at the evil I disapprove of? No, it is not okay. You don’t get to overlook your own wrongdoing by focusing on someone else’s, even if your only wrongdoing is to know that you’re better than they are.

I can hardly escape being judged for my own inclination to judge. Now, let’s be clear: human society cannot function if we fail to judge one another’s behavior. When someone breaks the law, we have a court system to deal with it appropriately. When someone in the Church violates the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Church, we have our disciplinary process to deal with it appropriately. Together, we do judge behaviors for the sake of protecting everyone. We need such judgment and cannot do without it. But God has not appointed you or me the judge of other people for their sins.

If you keep reading chapter two, you find Paul particularly pokes at those who preach against something while doing that very thing. One of my own sins of judgmental thinking has been the delight I take in the downfall of certain judgmental preachers. Many in our society still haven’t figured out that sexual difference isn’t sinful, it’s just different. Many still think that homosexual behavior is sinful. Anyway, every time one of these preachers who loudly denounces homosexual behavior then gets caught with his boyfriend I feel righteous. And Paul says to me, “Stop that! You have your hypocrisies too. God is his judge; you aren’t.”

The other purpose Paul has in writing about the judgment of God, I believe, is what you will experience as you keep reading the Book of Romans. Since God judges all, those who live under the Law of Moses and those who don’t, then all of us are dependent on the grace and mercy of God. If you think that you can march up to the throne of God and say, “You owe me,” then perhaps you need to pay a little more attention to the Law of God. Okay, perhaps you’ve never committed murder, theft, or adultery. Have you borne false witness against a neighbor? Have you ever violated the Sabbath? Have you ever coveted something that belongs to your neighbor? I don’t need to stress this point; Paul will do a very good job of stressing it. Just keep reading Romans.

God will judge each of us; indeed, I think God is already judging us. When my friend read this and said to me, “I feel convicted,” then she was already experiencing the judgment of God. In the next paragraph after what we read, Paul seems to be writing especially to preachers and teachers; he says that if you think you understand the Scriptures and what God requires, maybe you ought to be teaching yourself so you would start living the way you say people ought to live. Ouch. But as we keep reading, we see he has a deeper purpose in mind: learn to trust in the grace and mercy of God, and commend everyone else also to the grace and mercy of God.

The notion of judgment can also be thought of as evaluation, and in the light of the grace and mercy of God I feel it is an encouragement to self-evaluation. Do you remember Ed Koch, Mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989? He used to go around asking, “How’m I doin’?” I like to think that even if we flee from judgment, that evaluation is good from time to time. When the church staff and I have our performance evaluated annually, that is not judgmentalism; that is appropriate evaluation. Likewise, I should probably go around to you all asking, “How are you doing in your walk with God?” It’s no one else’s business to judge you, but a little self-evaluation can be useful.

That’s what Lent traditionally is about: time for self-evaluation. How’re you doin’? How’s it going in your walk with God? Remember what Paul is going to teach us in Romans: the foundation of your walk with God is not your righteousness; that would be a pretty shaky foundation. The foundation is the grace and mercy of God.

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

 

Sermon from Lent IV: Lessons from Festus

Lessons from Festus
Lent IV; March 14, 2021
Acts 25

I like Porcius Festus. He’s the new Roman Procurator for Judea in today’s reading, and I had some fun reading about him and the other political figures around him. Roman imperial politics are almost as interesting as American federal politics, but I’d best stay focused on Scripture. For the sake of those who aren’t doing the Year of the Bible with us, or who are behind, or didn’t quite catch everything in the preceding chapters, I’d like to fill in the story for you.

Last week we read about Paul’s farewell journey as he returned to Jerusalem, anticipating trouble there. In Jerusalem he was falsely accused of crimes against the Temple and was arrested, largely to prevent a riot. As I said last week, he did have a way with people. He stood before the Council, the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities in Judea. He looked over his audience, realized who he was dealing with, and managed to get them fighting with each other. One interesting moment was when his nephew learned of a plot to kill him and went to the Roman military authority to warn them.

Now, Jerusalem was the spiritual heart of Judea, but was not the center of political administration. The Roman governor – called the Procurator – worked from a coastal city named Caesarea Maritima. It was a little south of the present-day city of Haifa in the State of Israel. Anyway, the Tribune, Claudius Lysias, felt the situation would be better controlled in Caesarea than in Jerusalem, so he decided to send Paul to the Procurator Felix in Caesarea with about 470 soldiers to protect him from assassins. After all, Paul was a Roman citizen and was entitled to a fair trial.

They got Paul to Caesarea and Felix heard his case, but came to no decision. According to Luke, he dithered over it for about two years, because he was hoping for a bribe. It should also be noted that Felix was dealing with almost constant insurrection from, well, domestic terrorists. One source I read said that an observer of the day said that life in Judea during Felix’s administration felt like being in a place where no one was in charge. Finally, the Emperor replaced Felix with a new Procurator, Porcius Festus, about whom you heard us read.

At the same time the Romans were actually running things in Judea, there was a man who had the title of King and who kept a palace in Jerusalem, Agrippa II. He was the last Herod, the great-grandson of Herod the Great, the King Herod who ruled when Jesus was born, and he was the great-nephew of Herod Antipas, the King Herod when Jesus was crucified. Got that? Anyway, Agrippa II was King, but not of Judea. He ruled other bits of territory at the pleasure of the Emperor Nero.

After his appointment, Festus made a courtesy visit to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem; they asked him to transfer Paul to Jerusalem so he could be tried there. According to Luke, they had an ambush planned to try again to kill him. But Festus held firm and told them that if any of them wanted to go with him to Caesarea, they were welcome. When he offered Paul the chance to be transferred to Jerusalem, if he wished, he said that no, he considered himself on trial before the imperial authorities, and that was how he wanted it.

This is a timely thing to notice, since we have had lots of litigation in our country regarding religious matters. When congregations or pastors get unhappy at the direction of a national church, they will leave and sue to hold onto property. When school science departments try to teach good biological science, some conservative Christian organization will try to get the State to require teaching so-called “creationism” or “intelligent design.” When courts find that LGBTQIA+ people have the same rights as everyone else, people will try to get that overturned from religious conviction. In Iowa, after the State Supreme Court found that the Iowa constitution did not allow the State to discriminate against gay people, conservative Christians managed to get three Supreme Court justices removed.

Generally speaking, the courts are reluctant to get involved in religious disputes. They pay attention to the Constitution, the law, and judicial precedent and avoid dealing with matters of doctrine and religious opinion. That worked in Paul’s favor when he was taken to court in Corinth; Gallio the Proconsul said that it was a religious matter and the government wasn’t going to get involved. After the riot in Ephesus the town clerk said that if Paul had committed a crime, then he should be taken to court, and so the citizens dispersed and Paul went free. And in the story we’re talking about today, Festus is going to find that Paul is not guilty of a crime against the State, even if his religious opponents hate him. He’s still going to send him to Rome to appear before the Emperor, which is a good thing, in my opinion. It meant that Paul was safe from the mobs in Jerusalem who wanted him dead, and that Paul was free to proclaim the Gospel in the heart of the Empire. Even when the government decides not to get involved in matters of religion, God uses that decision for good.

The last scene of today’s pageant is the appearance of King Herod Agrippa II, with his sister Bernice. Remember that this Agrippa has no real power in Judea, unlike his father Agrippa I, but he still puts in a showy appearance and Festus treats him with respect. What I’ve read suggested that Agrippa II was basically a good guy and a decent administrator, but people said unkind things about him because he never married and his sister and her children lived with him after she was widowed. You know how people gossip. In the next chapter, which Year of the Bible participants will read on Tuesday, Paul makes his case to Agrippa and Bernice.

So, what lessons shall I offer you from Festus? I have three, three things I see in him that I believe are praiseworthy and that I hope you and I will work at emulating.

  1. Festus is more humble than he needs to be. There in Caesarea Maritima and in Jerusalem he holds the power of the Emperor. Agrippa has moral authority as a Jewish king, but he has no political power in Judea. Nonetheless, Festus treats him with respect and confers with him about what to do with Paul. Let me share an analogy from something I have noticed. During my years as a pastor, I have been privileged to know some truly wealthy people. None of them has been ostentatious, in-your-face about it. With one exception, they did not use the “I give a lot of money to this church and so you had better do what I tell you” line. The people who seem to be flashy about money are people who are not wealthy but want other people to think they are. And so, I believe, it can be with political power. Those who have it, like Festus, don’t need to show it off or remind others of how unimportant those others are. Festus is secure enough in his position and power that he can treat Agrippa with respect. Can you and I be secure enough in ourselves to treat others with respect?
  1. Festus listens to reason, not to emotional appeals. Here’s an experience of my own. We were planning an event and I had decided that it should go ABC. Another person involved insisted it should go BCA. She harangued me, yelled at me, insisted it should be BCA, but I didn’t budge. Another person, a member of the Church, calmly sat down with me and said she thought it should go BCA, and gave me three good reasons for the change. I thought about it and said she was right, and I changed it. Well, person #1 was furious: “You won’t change it when I ask but you change it when she asks!” I replied that #1 never gave me any reason to change it except that she told me to, but person #2 had factually-based reasons for making the change. So, perhaps I’m biased, but I admire Festus for being reasonable: the shouting and accusations from Paul’s enemies do not sway him; just because people hate you doesn’t mean you are guilty of anything. He considers the facts and makes his judgment on the facts.
  1. And Festus is fair. He listens to all the voices involved – Paul, Paul’s enemies, King Agrippa – and he pays attention to the requirements of the law. He is not hasty and, if he’s biased, he pays more attention to the realities before him than he does to his bias. I admire fair-minded people, Festus and others like him. I admire Supreme Court justices who are expected to decide a particular way because of what is assumed about their political and religious beliefs, but whose decisions are based on the Constitution, the law, and judicial precedent. Our former President may feel himself betrayed by justices he appointed, because they do not do his bidding. But they are in a seat like that of Festus: they are to decide based on the Constitution, the law, and judicial precedent, not the preferences of their own beliefs or the wishes of the President who appointed them. And when they behave that way, I hope that you will respect them for it.

I have no great spiritual insights for you today, nothing profound about the presence of God. Sometimes the Bible simply tells an interesting story. I find today’s story very interesting, especially because of the portrait it paints of a politician who is humble, rational, and fair. I like Porcius Festus.

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

 

Sermon from Lent III: God Be with You

God be with You
Lent III; March 7, 2021
Acts 20:7-38

A lot has happened in the life and work of the Apostle Paul between last Sunday’s reading and today’s. He has traveled around the eastern part of the Roman Empire, preaching the Gospel. He has been beaten, imprisoned, run out of town, and loved and welcomed. Now he is on his way back to Jerusalem, and as you heard, he expects to get into major trouble there. He will.

The first scene is sort of tragicomic. I always want to laugh at the story of Eutychus and the window, but that feels in poor taste. Those of you who often fall asleep during sermons: I don’t know whether you should take comfort in it or take a warning from it. Perhaps you should just give thanks that we aren’t on the third floor, and that I don’t preach all night. By the way, the name Eutychus means “lucky.” Given the story, I don’t know if that’s irony or not. Anyway, it wasn’t only that Paul was droning on and on that put Eutychus to sleep; it was also the fumes from the oil lamps. So you can also give thanks that we have electricity. This is all sort of Paul’s farewell tour: he’s visiting places he’s been before, meeting with Christians who have come to Jesus largely because of his work, and saying “Good-bye.”

And I mean, literally, “Good-bye.” Side comment: Have you noticed that most of the time these days when someone says “literally” they don’t mean “literally” but “figuratively”? Someone will say, “I was literally knocked out by that song!” which means, literally, that the song took a stick and beat them unconscious. They don’t mean “literally,” but “figuratively.” There, my grammar rant for the day. I mean “literally” literally. The word “Good-bye” is a contraction of “God be by ye.” So when you say, “Good-bye” to someone in English, you are saying, “God be with you.” Literally.

Luke doesn’t tell us what Paul said in Troas – perhaps no one remembered; all they remembered was Eutychus falling out the window and Paul reviving him – but does recount his words to the elders of Ephesus, whom he met with in Miletus, another seaport nearby. Perhaps Paul’s ship didn’t call at Ephesus; or perhaps he decided to stay away from Ephesus, since the last time he was in Ephesus there was a riot. Paul did have a way with people.

I am moved by Paul’s words to the elders at Ephesus. He is frank about his own situation, what he expects to happen to him in Jerusalem. Now, why he expects trouble is something of a puzzle. When you read chapter 21 on Tuesday you will read about the prophet Agabus, who foretold Paul’s imprisonment. But that hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps Paul expects trouble because he has been the focus of trouble nearly everywhere he has gone. Why should Jerusalem be different from Ephesus or Philippi or Iconium? But somehow he feels in his gut that this is the last time he would ever see these elders of Ephesus, and so he pours out his heart to them.

Well, I can’t read your mind about how you approach the Bible or what you want from it, but I can share how it affects me. I read this and I think, “This is a real person. Paul is not a character in a morality play, not a figure in a stained-glass window. Paul is a man with a story, with feelings, with hopes, with anxieties.” I’m sure listening to him can be tough. He’s probably one of those people who starts talking and you wish he would take a breath so you can get a word in. But you also get in his words his passion for the Lord Jesus and his love of people. He loved those elders from Ephesus; they wept when he said “Good-bye” to them. You don’t weep when a figure in a stained-glass window says Good-bye. You don’t care when a character in a morality play heads off. But when a person who loves you says, “I don’t think I’m ever going to see you again” and kneels on the floor to pray with you, then you weep.

Relationships are complicated, aren’t they? Whether we’re talking marriage or friendship, the people you work with, the neighbor in your retirement community, your playmates at school, or relationships such as Paul’s: the evangelist who founded a church, things are never simple. Paul could be arrogant, opinionated, and verbose. Some of you have expressed your distaste for some of what he wrote, especially about women. Before you judge him too hard, look at the whole picture. He honored Lydia as the host of the church in Philippi, one of his favorite places. He respected the teaching of Priscilla. And he referred to Junia as an Apostle (Romans 16:7, for those who don’t believe me). Anyway, he sometimes wrote things that seem out of keeping from what he actually did and believed, so we’re probably misunderstanding them. Or he had the occasional bad day or moment of thoughtlessness. That happens to me; maybe it never happens to you.

The sum of Paul’s farewell words to the elders of Ephesus is “Good-bye,” God be by ye. I won’t be around to help you, but trust in God. God will guide you.

As Luke tells the story, he uses the first person plural, so Luke was probably there when Paul had this conversation. He heard what Paul said. Now, what he wrote down is probably not word-for-word. When I did my Clinical Pastoral Education, I had to write what was called “verbatims,” transcripts of conversations with patients. Of course I didn’t get it word-for-word, but what I wrote was close to what we actually said to each other. Luke heard Paul speak and probably wrote it down when they took ship for Cos the next day, getting it pretty close to what he said. And Paul’s concerns are similar to the concerns of his letters, letters that are now part of our Bible.

Notice that he is concerned about faithfulness, a frequent theme of his letters. I don’t know why people easily get caught up in heresy, strange notions, and conspiracy-thinking, but staying focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ is plenty for anybody to deal with. In his speech to the Ephesian elders he summarizes the Gospel as “the message of God’s grace” (v. 32). Last Sunday I told you about one of the heresies that was going around that was contrary to the message of God’s grace: folks saying that men had to be circumcised in order to be part of God’s people. The clear Gospel message, the message of God’s grace, is that baptism is sufficient. But there was a group trying to put up a wall, walling off some of God’s grace. Stay focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ and you won’t get distracted from the message of God’s grace.

Paul is concerned that the elders of Ephesus exercise appropriate leadership; that is, keep an eye on what is taught in the Church to keep out what he calls the “savage wolves” (v. 29). Now, Paul may be faithful and loving and intelligent, but that doesn’t mean he’s particularly nice. In his mind, anyone who disagrees with him is a savage wolf. Or maybe the image is appropriate, because when people come in with their list of “you haftas” the effect is usually harmful to the sheep. The job of elders is to oversee the faithfulness of the Church: to pay attention to what is taught, to be careful about what the Church stands for, so that we are faithful to the message of God’s grace.

And Paul is concerned about care for the weak. Not everybody is gifted enough intellectually to know what is faithful teaching and what isn’t; not everybody is gifted enough financially to be able to care for all their needs and responsibilities. Now, another moment of disclosure: I despise the term “social Darwinism,” because it doesn’t represent Charles Darwin very well. But that said, we have a tendency toward social Darwinism in our country. If you aren’t smart or strong or successful enough to pay for your own health care, then you should just, well, drop dead. If we choose that as an ideology, it makes me wonder what kind of society we are. Now, Paul isn’t as concerned with civil society as he is with the attitude of Christians. Even if so-called Social Darwinism dominates in our society, we Christians know that it certainly isn’t faithful to the message of God’s grace, in which we all bear a certain responsibility for each other. And Paul writes in his letters about the grace of generosity and he speaks of it here in his farewell to the elders of Ephesus: “We must support the weak,” he says, “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”[1]

In one speech Paul seems to have summarized most of the concerns you find expressed in his letters, and he did it without talking all night! None of the Ephesian elders fell out of the window, thank God. And when they were done, he knelt and prayed and they knelt with him and they wept and said good-bye. “God be by ye.”

It has been a year since we had a service of worship in which we could sing together and hug one another and, well, simply be with each other. March 8, 2020 was our last “Y’all come” service of worship, although we have had some limited-attendance and limited-participation services since then. Although you may enjoy sitting in your easy chair in your slippers to listen to the sermon, I bet most of you miss simply being together. That’s what Paul was feeling as he said good-bye to the Ephesian elders: I won’t see you again (v. 25). God willing, we will see each other again, and not just over Zoom or a webcast but here in this room, singing our hearts out, and in Fellowship Hall, eating chicken and mashed potatoes, with homemade sugar cookies to follow.

Until then, dear people of God, God be by ye.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska
[1] When I preached this, I said that I thought this was the only time in the New Testament Paul quoted Jesus. I was wrong; see I Corinthians 11:23-26. It shows the danger of off-the-cuff remarks.

Sermon for Lent II: Those Who are Turning to God

Those Who Are Turning to God
Lent II; February 28, 2021
Acts 15:1-35

Some folks no doubt could come up with a more clever approach, but here’s my plan: to retell the story, filling in background information that may help you with it, add a bit more from the chapter that we didn’t read, and suggest a conclusion applicable to us, nearly two thousand years later.

Last week we talked about Acts chapter ten, when Peter had a vision in which God taught him that just because the old rules said that certain people were excluded, God could override those rules. After all, they came from God, so God could change them. Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and friends, even though they were Gentiles. The next big step was taken at the city of Syrian Antioch, where preachers from Cyprus and Cyrene brought a number of Gentiles to faith in Jesus. The Christians at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on a preaching mission to Galatia, where they also brought many Gentiles to faith in Jesus. The Gospel was spreading in the Empire and many were worshiping the God of the Jews without becoming Jews.

Maybe I need to explain the word “Gentile.” It simply means someone who is not a Jew. It is not uncommon for a group to have a word that means, simply, “everybody else.” In ancient Greece, they figured there were two groups of people: Greeks and barbarians. “Barbarian” comes from the sound Greek-speaking people said everyone else made: “bar-bar-bar…” You were Greek or you were barbarian. And so with Jew: you are a Jew or you are a Gentile. At least the word doesn’t feel like an insult.

In the Book of Genesis (chapter 17), the Lord God told Abraham that he was to wear in his own body the sign that he belonged to God: he was to be circumcised. And God added that every male born into his family and every male among his servants was to be circumcised. On a boy’s eighth day, he is to be circumcised to show that he belongs to the people of God. Since Jewish people have perhaps the greatest store of humor of any group in the world, this has led to some wonderful jokes. A rabbi who performs ritual circumcisions is called a mohel; a tourist visiting in Jerusalem needed her watch repaired, and she stopped at a shop with clocks and watches in the window. She went in and asked the man inside if he could fix her watch; he said, “No; I’m a mohel.” She asked, “Then why do you have all these clocks and watches in the window?” He replied, “Nu; so what should I have in the window?”

Anyway, God told Abraham that this sign of the covenant, circumcision, was the sign forever and that any male not circumcised was to be cut off from the people. God didn’t say, “This is the sign until I change my mind;” God said, “This is the sign forever.” So some helpful folks from Jerusalem went to Antioch and told the believers there, “Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.” Paul got up on his hind legs and contested with them, and so the Christians sent Paul and Barnabas, and a few others, to Jerusalem for guidance from the Apostles and the Elders of the Mother Church.

Luke summarized what must have been quite a debate. You have the conservatives – called here “the party of the Pharisees” – arguing that “forever” means “forever” and that the criteria for salvation are quite clear and explicit. The men must be circumcised; it says so here in the Book. Then the Apostle Peter got up and reminded them of what we read here in church last Sunday, what God had shown him. He pointed out that God had given the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his household and none of them had been circumcised; did God make a mistake? Besides, the Law of Moses has become such a burden for us, why should we force the Gentiles to keep it too?

To be sure, Jews I have known who are careful about keeping the Law of Moses do not seem to find it a burden; they accept it as a mark of identity. It shows who they are and to whom they belong. But let’s forgive Peter for going a bit further than necessary to make his point. After him, Paul and Barnabas told about the spread of the Gospel in Galatia and of the amazing things Christians were doing there and in Antioch because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

After carefully listening to everyone, the Bishop James, brother of Jesus, got up and gave his decision. He quoted the Books of Amos (9:11-12) and Isaiah (45:21) as support for the actions of Peter and said, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” We will not demand that they be circumcised. We will not insist that they keep the Law of Moses. He added, though, that they would ask a few things of them with respect to eating habits, with a clear purpose in mind. If the Gentiles would refrain from those few things, then there is nothing to prevent strictly observant Jews from having table fellowship with them. The point of those few rules is for the sake of the others. And Christians are always willing to sacrifice a few pleasures for the sake of table fellowship with each other.

The rest of the story is follow-up. They did write the letter James proposed, and it was beautifully written: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Do you see what they’re doing there? They are saying that the decision that Gentile Christians, baptized in Jesus, do not have to be circumcised and do not have to keep the Law of Moses is a decision direct from the Holy Spirit, not from them, but they agree with it. The Apostles and Elders of Jerusalem are happy that the Holy Spirit has led this way; they do not begrudge the Gentiles their welcome.

The followers of Jesus who have kept all these rules faithfully, and who will continue to keep them, said straight out that they are happy that the Holy Spirit is not requiring Gentiles to keep them too. Have you ever said, “I had to do it, so you have to do it too”? That was not their attitude in Jerusalem; their attitude was to rejoice in the ongoing work of God. They also said that the folks who had gone there earlier and upset them had done so without authorization, and they added the part about some essential rules for the sake of table fellowship.

Paul and Barnabas, who were trusted by the people of Antioch, were sent, along with two representatives of the Elders of Jerusalem: Silas and Judas Barsabbas. And the people of Antioch rejoiced at the decision and at the message. And you and I may rejoice too, because it meant two great things. One simple thing it meant is that there was no hindrance to the spread of the Gospel: Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without having to become Jews first, so the Gospel spread quietly and steadily throughout the Empire. And the other great thing it meant is there is no distinction between men and women in the fellowship of Christ. Our sign is not circumcision; our sign is Baptism, which is the same sign for everyone.

Now, one more note about follow-up before I suggest something to us. Although the Apostles and Elders came to this conclusion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not everyone accepted it. Later on some preachers went out from Jerusalem and started bothering Gentile Christians, quoting Scripture and telling them that unless they were circumcised they could not be saved. It isn’t a new phenomenon: the Church decides something, but people think they’re smarter than the Church and try to undermine it. And it isn’t only conservatives who do that. Yes, I’ve been told by conservatives that unless I’m baptized by immersion I cannot be saved, and that unless I speak in tongues I cannot be saved. But I’ve also been told by more liberal folks that the Apostles’ Creed is optional; one minister said she found it boring and so refused to use it at baptism, even though our Constitution explicitly requires it. Someone is always smarter than the collective wisdom of the Church.

Anyway, this chapter gives us good guidance on deciding whom and what to believe. Please don’t ever give in to the “anything goes” way of thinking, that what we believe doesn’t matter. One of the reasons our planet may not be able to sustain human life in the foreseeable future is because so many people don’t believe reality. What we believe matters deeply. And Acts Chapter 15 suggests some guidelines:

+ Let those who are in the position of moral and spiritual leadership decide and trust their judgment, even if you don’t want to.

+ And those who are making the decision should be sure to: listen carefully to all the voices involved, not just the echo-chamber of those who agree with them; pay attention to the real experience of people (such as Peter, Paul, and Barnabas) as a sign of what God is doing in the world; and pay attention to the witness of Scripture, even if it may point in a different direction from where it had pointed before.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit can be explicit, as the Spirit was with Peter on the rooftop and in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10), but more often the Holy Spirit will lead when the Apostles and Elders get together prayerfully, listen to Scripture and listen to each other. And now you have had your first lesson in the way Presbyterians make decisions.

I hope, finally, that we do not lose sight of who benefited from this decision: those who were turning to God. Isn’t that our key concern? To welcome those who are turning to God? We’re not concerned with making things easy on ourselves or doing something just because we like it. After all, we may not like it, at least at first. But to welcome those who are turning to God? It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to trouble those who are turning to God.

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

 

Sermon for Lent I: What to Make of This?

What to Make of This?
Lent I; February 21, 2021
Acts 10:1-23a

Peter wondered what to make of the vision (v. 7); we may wonder too. You should hear the rest of the story in order to think about what to make of it. In the part we read to you, Cornelius had a vision which led him to send to Joppa for Peter. And Peter had a vision which would make him ready to go to Cornelius. Although Peter’s vision seemed to be about food – that no longer should he call any food unclean – he quickly realized that it wasn’t about food; it was about people.

Observant Jews of the first century did not go into the homes of Gentiles and certainly did not eat with them. God had given them rules about how to behave and what to eat, rules that identified them as separate, as the people of God. And they were careful not to do anything that might infringe on those rules. You and I may have rules for ourselves about what we eat for health reasons, and perhaps you are keeping a Lent discipline that involves food. Imagine, for example, that you are following the Catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. In order to make sure you don’t accidentally break your rule, you won’t even go into a restaurant that serves meat. I’m not recommending this; I’m trying to help you understand the attitude. You go beyond what the rule requires in order to make it easier to keep the rule. As we used to say in WW: “If you don’t have it, you can’t eat it.” So you don’t go into a place where you might accidentally break your rule. So Jews of the time didn’t go into the homes of Gentiles.

Peter realized that the vision wasn’t about food, but was about people, and so when the men came to take him to Cornelius, he went. And he took some others with him. They went into Cornelius’ home and asked him, “Why did you send for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision, and so Peter began to speak. “Now I get it: God does not prefer some people over others. God will welcome all who fear God and do what is right. Now let me tell you about Jesus. Jesus went about doing good, healing people, freeing those oppressed by the devil. The authorities put him to death on a cross, but God raised him on the third day. Then he ate and drank with many of us and commanded us to tell others that Jesus is the one God has appointed to judge the living and the dead. Everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven.”

Peter may have intended to say more, but just then God interrupted him. The Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and all the friends and family that he had gathered in his home; they all began to speak in tongues and to praise God, just as Peter and the others did on Pentecost. So Peter said to his companions, “Well; God has certainly welcomed them. We may as well baptize them.” And so they did; Cornelius, all his household, and many friends were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And Peter stayed at his house for several days.

Now, you and I can hardly imagine what a shock this was. Jesus was a Jew and he said repeatedly that had not come to change anything about the Jewish law. All the first followers of Jesus were Jews and they carefully observed all the rules. After one vision Peter’s entire attitude is changed. And when God shows Peter clearly that God gives the Holy Spirit even to those considered unqualified, Peter becomes an advocate for welcoming into the family of Jesus people they would not even have eaten with a week earlier. From outcast to sibling in Christ in one week: that’s a shock.

It doesn’t seem so shocking to you and me, because most of us are Gentiles by ancestry. And at least in this Church, we’re not much given to rules anyway. The easiest thing for me to do would be to point the finger at other groups. There are groups of Christians who still think that God has rules about who belongs and who doesn’t; Peter’s vision wasn’t about people, but about food. No food is unclean, but people who aren’t baptized according to the proper formula, or LGBTQIA+ people, or women, or some other group that isn’t “us” are still unclean.

But since we like to think of ourselves as enlightened, we’re not going to exclude anybody, I need to ask us what we are to make of this story.

Have you ever heard yourself say of some person or some group, “Well, they’re not really Christians”? What leads you to say that? I am at least tempted to think that of people who seem to put more trust in their assault weapons than they do in Jesus, people who belong to white nationalist movements, people who aren’t, well, “woke.” Peter’s vision suggests to me that I can say that they are wrong, that they are misguided, that they have misunderstood reality; but I cannot say they do not belong to the people of God. Only God gets to say that; you and I don’t. Anyone who professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is my sibling in Christ, even if I would rather not eat and drink with them.

No, I’m not suggesting anything of that nature about Cornelius; please don’t misunderstand. Cornelius is a good guy, for a Roman; he prays, he seeks God, he is generous to people. His only fault is that he’s a Gentile. And so I think folks who really need to take this to heart are those who exclude people because of race or language or national origin. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think that’s our problem as a congregation, so I’m searching for an application for us. And so the first thing I make of this story is that we too need to ask the question, “Whom would we like to exclude?” and then be honest with our answer and our need to repent.

Another thing I am inclined to make of this story is that accepting one another doesn’t mean that no one has anything to learn. Peter didn’t start his speech by saying, “Well, I see God has accepted you, so you’re fine just as you are. I have nothing to say to you.” No; he taught Cornelius and his family and friends about Jesus. Why did Cornelius ask Peter to stay on for a few days? To play cards? Maybe they did play a few hands, but the main reason he asked him to stay, no doubt, was to tell them more about Jesus. Peter had spent three years with Jesus; he had plenty of stories to tell. And Cornelius had a lot to learn.

I have been so pleased to hear many of you keeping the Year of the Bible talk about the things you are encountering by doing this reading. You are reading stories you had never heard before (the story of Judah and Tamar is not going to show up in a Sunday School book) and you are discovering the sweep of the story as things relate to one another. Even more exciting are the insights that I hear at our Wednesday evening discussions; those who participate in such learning are like Cornelius: eager to know more.

A final comment is that I don’t think it was an accident that God chose Peter to be the vehicle of this revelation about Jews and Gentiles. Peter was the leader of them all; Peter was the one Jesus called “the Rock;” Peter could be something of a blockhead. God turned Peter around, which (as you’ll see when you read chapter 11 on Tuesday) began to turn the Church around. Peter didn’t have to work hard to figure this out; Peter didn’t have to make it happen. Peter simply needed to be ready to respond to the work of God.

That’s the attitude I hope that you and I have about our life in Jesus. When a new possibility is before us, I hope that we don’t say, “Well, that’s not our thing.” I hope that we don’t say, “God doesn’t like those people; I knew that since Sunday School.” I hope that we consider that God may be doing something and inviting us to be part of it, inviting us even to be leaders of it. For the most part, I think we have done well during the last eleven months, responding to the challenges and to the new possibilities before us. But there may be places where we have said, “I’m not going there” and moments we have neglected the possibility to do something new, even something as radical as having fellowship in Jesus with a Gentile.

Figuratively speaking, of course. Until Dr. Fauci tells us that we’ve reached herd immunity, we’re still not going into each other’s homes, still not eating and drinking together. How much I miss it! Even in the present circumstances, though, there are moments when we may hear the voice from Heaven say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” What will we make of it?

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

 

Sermon from February 17: What Stephen Saw

What Stephen Saw
Ash Wednesday; February 17, 2021
Acts 7:51-60

Today’s New Testament reading in the Year of the Bible is the story of our first martyr, Stephen the Deacon. Yesterday we read that Stephen was falsely accused of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of promoting the abandonment of all their Jewish traditions. Chapter seven is mostly a speech by Stephen, after he was arrested and placed before the Sanhedrin. The High Priest asked him if the things people were accusing him of were true. How would you reply if someone accused you falsely and you were asked, “Are these things so?” I would probably deny it and try to get across the truth about myself. Stephen replied by talking about Jewish history.

He reminded them of Abraham, of Joseph and his brothers, and then he got to Moses. When he told the story of Moses, he made the point that the Lord had appointed Moses, but the people rejected him. Moses led the people; the people rebelled against him. Moses said God would raise up another prophet like him, but the people didn’t listen. Moses constructed a tent for the worship of God, but Solomon built a temple. Yet the Lord God made the heavens and the earth, and doesn’t live in a temple. So Stephen carefully built the case that the Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t nearly so important as the priests thought and that God’s people were in the habit of rejecting and opposing whoever God sent to them to lead them.

Which brings us to our reading this evening. Stephen was accused of several things, but he did not respond to those accusations. Instead he accused the Sanhedrin of neglecting their duty to the word of God: the Lord God had sent the Prophet Moses promised – Jesus, whom Stephen calls “the Righteous One” – and they had Jesus put to death.

That isn’t what set them off. Stephen’s words about their unfaithfulness must have stung, but what enraged them to the point of killing him was his vision. He saw Jesus standing by the throne of God. That was more than they could take; they killed him.

Let’s pause for a moment and ask why they killed him. Well, looked at rationally, solely as a legal matter, stoning to death is the prescribed punishment for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:13-23). When Jesus was in front of the Sanhedrin – only several months, probably, before Stephen was before the same group – Jesus said that the day would come when they would see him at the right hand of God, and for saying that he was convicted of blasphemy (Mark 14:62-64). Now Stephen claims to see what Jesus foretold, and so he too is guilty of blasphemy. And so they stoned him to death.

But no, they didn’t start stoning him after a careful, judicial process and a soberly delivered verdict. They shouted, covered their ears to protect them from what Stephen had to say, and dragged him out of the city to stone him to death. This isn’t punishment for a crime; this is pure rage. This is rage that overruns the Capitol building in hopes of hanging the Speaker of the House and the Vice President. This is rage that screams insults and lets fists fly. These wise, sober spiritual leaders were filled with rage at what Stephen saw.

If Stephen truly saw what he claimed to see – the Son of Man at the right hand of God – then these wise, sober religious leaders were wrong. They were dead wrong when they ordered the death of Jesus. They didn’t simply get rid of an upstart troublemaker; they betrayed and murdered the Righteous One. So the solution? Kill the one who says we were wrong.

I have two hopes for you and me this evening as we begin our Lent together. One of them is that we will be wiser than the members of the Sanhedrin. It is all too common and ordinary to shout down or even kill the one who points out that we may have done wrong. We’re seeing it here in Nebraska: Senator Sasse says that President Trump did wrong; therefore Senator Sasse must be punished. You may have done that to a friend or family member. Someone tells you that you were wrong about something, and so you cut them out of your life. When someone points the finger, as Stephen pointed the finger at the Sanhedrin, they may be pointing out something we need to pay attention to. That’s what Christians do during Lent; we try to pay attention to those shadowy corners of our lives. We try to be wise. So my hope is that during this Lent if something comes to your attention or to mine from our reading of Scripture, from the news, from talking with a friend or family member, that we will not cover our ears and shout and stone to death – even figuratively – the one who points it out. Let’s keep our ears open

My other hope is that we will keep our eyes open to the possibility of seeing what Stephen saw: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Perhaps you too will have such a vision. More likely you will see the glory of Jesus as you read the Bible. Or perhaps you will see him in preaching, or in a song, or even get a hint of him in the sunrise as dawn continues to creep earlier in the day. We are beginning our pilgrimage of Lent, which will take us to an upper room for supper and the Cross of our redemption and the empty tomb from which bursts our new life. Stephen saw this, even though his accusers tried to shout him down. I pray you and I will see this too.

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

 

Sermon from February 14: Witnesses to These Things

Witnesses to These Things
Transfiguration; February 14, 2021
Acts 5:12-42

I bet that if I took a poll I would find that more of you are disappointed that I’m not preaching about Valentine’s Day than are disappointed that I’m not preaching about the Transfiguration. Well, be at peace: I will talk about St. Valentine today. The Communion prayer will draw from the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. So there; we have our bases covered.

Those of us following the Year of the Bible are reading Acts 5 today, which has that wonderful, terrible story about Ananias and Sapphira. I’ve always wanted to preach a stewardship sermon about them, and here I am skipping my chance to do so in order to focus instead of the confrontation between the Apostles and the Sanhedrin. You have the established spiritual authority – the Sanhedrin – facing off with this upstart claim to spiritual authority – Peter and the other Apostles – and you can see who comes off looking better. Then again, the book is called the Acts of the Apostles, not the Acts of the Sanhedrin.

No one on the Sanhedrin dares deny that they were the ones who decided that Jesus needed to be crucified; let’s give them that much credit. If they were modern American politicians they would probably simply call it “fake news.” They did condemn Jesus; but they don’t want the Apostles turning the people against them by promulgating the story that they had in fact crucified God’s Messiah. They figured Jesus was a fake, so before the Apostles could cause too much unrest in Jerusalem, they ordered them to stop saying all these things. And to that Peter replied, speaking for all of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. You crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses to these things.”

Peter was in the courtyard outside the building where the Sanhedrin met; he knew they had condemned Jesus. And Peter was one of the first of the men to see the empty tomb, after the women brought them the news. Peter saw the risen Christ by the lakeside, in the upper room; he ate and drank with him, as did all the other apostles. According to the Apostle Paul, about 500 folks all told saw the risen Christ (I Corinthians 15:6) and knew that he was, therefore, truly God’s Messiah. Rabbi Gamaliel, who is esteemed in Jewish tradition as one of their greatest teachers, advised the Sanhedrin not to fight it too hard. If it’s fake, it will die out on its own.

Since you and I are living in an age in which it is hard to know whom to trust – we seem to choose our source of news, for example, based on our political preferences, which strikes me as completely bizarre – I want to pause and ask us why we trust these so-called apostles. Why do we believe this strange story of a crucified carpenter being God’s Messiah? Why do we take the word of a bunch of unemployed fishermen?

I hope you don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say; I’m simply trying to be intellectually honest. I, at least, don’t take their word simply because it’s in the Bible and the Bible is the word of God. That is circular reasoning. Here are some reasons I take their word for it.

One is that they backed up their witness with their lives. If you want to, you can claim that the “signs and wonders” that Luke writes about are exaggerated, but you cannot seriously claim that the persecution they withstood because of their witness was exaggerated. As we continue to read Acts this month and the first part of March we will see more of it: the apostles said they were witnesses to the Crucified and Risen Messiah and they maintained they were telling the truth, even through imprisonment, beating, trial, and in some cases death. You don’t give your life for a fraud. They were convinced they had seen the risen Lord Jesus, not just one of them but many of them claimed it, and not just one time but many times. And “they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (v. 42).

So here’s where I’ll talk about St. Valentine. I will combine stories that may be about two different men and treat them as one, since the historical truth is lost in the shadows. Valentine was a Christian priest in the town of Terni, about sixty miles from Rome, during a time of severe persecution of Christians. Valentine had the reputation of a healer; when he would pray for the sick, they were known to recover. So a wealthy Roman named Cratan asked Father Valentine to come to his home to pray for his son, who was terribly ill. The priest came, prayed for and cared for the boy, who recovered; Cratan and his household were baptized as followers of Jesus.

Word of this came to the Emperor, who had Valentine arrested. Valentine told the monarch about Jesus, and the Emperor was very moved, but nonetheless had the priest convicted of the crime of being a Christian and he was sentenced to death. While in prison, waiting for his execution, he learned that one of the officers had a daughter who had lost her sight; Valentine prayed for her and she regained her sight, so that officer and his family became Christians.

On February 14, 269 Valentine was taken outside the city to a spot beside the road and was executed by beheading. He was buried there. About eighty years later, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Julius I, ordered the building of a church over the spot where Valentine was buried and declared that henceforth February 14 would be St. Valentine’s Day.

What does that have to do with romantic love? Nothing. The reason we observe Valentine’s Day as we do is that in the Middle Ages people said that birds began looking for their mates in the middle of February. Days were marked by what saint is remembered on that day, so St. Valentine’s Day became associated with lovers. I tell you the story so you know about the Christian priest who is behind the day, but also so you have another witness to these things to remember: a man who loved Jesus and was a witness to these things to the day of his death.

The ability to compel someone to accept something by threatening them with a sword or a gun or with torture is not a reason to believe it. But the willingness of someone to hold to a belief even through persecution, imprisonment, and death is a strong reason to take it seriously. That lends credibility to the witness of the apostles. But there is something else: it makes sense of everything else.

Rabbi Gamaliel warned the Sanhedrin not to put too much effort into destroying faith in Jesus; if it isn’t real, it will die out, he said. It didn’t die out. True, lots of people have abandoned Christianity, perhaps because of what we have done to it, especially in this country. But those who have known Jesus do not abandon Jesus. People continue to put our trust in Jesus, continue to rely on him for salvation, for guidance, for hope and he continues to come through for us. You know that I am something of a science geek, and among science-and-faith nerds today is Evolution Sunday. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a good example of science explaining how things happen; it is an elegant, simple explanation of the means of diversity of life. Likewise, general relativity and quantum mechanics are good explanations of physical phenomena; plate tectonics are a good explanation of the source of earthquakes and volcanoes and such. The sciences are a magnificent source for understanding how our world works.

But they do not tell us what it’s about. The sciences do not try to tell us what it’s about. Evolution tells me how life changes and emerges; it does not tell me what life is for. I need to look elsewhere for an answer to that question, and the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah is an elegant, love-filled explanation of what our life is for. Evolution tells me how life happens; Jesus tells me what life is about.

Let me plant that idea in your head and you consider what to do with it. You can listen to the high priest tell you to ignore it, not to speak in that name. You can listen to Rabbi Gamaliel and leave it alone, let it die a quiet death or, perhaps, grow quietly in your head and heart. Or you can listen to Peter and to Mary Magdalene and to Mary the Mother of Jesus and to James the brother of Jesus and to Paul of Tarsus and to Hildegarde of Bingen and to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to St. Valentine, who every day in the temple and at home did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. They are witnesses to these things.

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

 

Sermon from February 7: Our Hope and Calling

Our Hope and Calling
Epiphany V; February 7, 2021
Matthew 28

I frankly am uncertain where to start for you today. What I feel compelled to say to you about Matthew 28 comes from reading the text and deciding that the translation is misleading. Yet I have tended to be critical of preachers who do too much explanation during the sermon; generally I think we should give you the results of our work, without forcing you to endure the process of the work as well. But I think I will start by inviting us all to stand on that hilltop with the Eleven, while pausing from time to time at the dining room table where I did most of my work on this sermon.

We’ve heard the news from the Marys; they say that they’ve seen the Lord, but all we have is their word for it. But on that word we’ve made the trip back to Galilee, to this hill, where we’re standing and waiting for Jesus. If he really is going to appear. We don’t doubt that they saw something, they had a vision of some sort and that the vision is worth making the trip for. But resurrected? People have had visions of the dead. King Saul, desperate for some assurance, got a medium to conjure up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. We saw Lazarus come out of the tomb, still wrapped in his shroud. But neither of those is resurrection. Resurrection is the beginning of new life, the start of a new creation, God’s remaking of the whole universe into something redeemed and new. Is that really what the women saw? A resurrected Jesus?

Here we are, on this hilltop on a brisk Spring morning, shivering a little and huddling for warmth and encouragement. Sometimes we just need to be close to each other for the warmth of each other’s bodies and for the reassurance that we’re not alone on this hilltop. Then we see him; his coming is as sudden as lightning and as gentle as opening a door. We all fall at his feet, but some of us are uncertain of what we are seeing. Is this a vision? A ghost? A reanimated corpse? Or the new creation?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” says the familiar voice. We know what else we will need for reassurance that this is a resurrected Jesus, a new creation: we will need to eat and drink with him, just as we used to, and catch the glint in his eye that tells us that God is here, God is remaking the creation, God is making all things new. And that assurance will come. Dinner with him, walks with him, the chance to feel his touch again and know that it is not only the familiar Jesus but somehow someone radically new: a glimpse of what we will be, what the grass on this hilltop and the birds flying overhead will be. A glimpse of what the entire creation will be, when God is done with it.

Thinking about those birds flying over us as we stand on the hilltop with Jesus has taken me back to the dining room table where I did most of my work this week. I look out the window at the lagoon and watch the birds landing on the water, ducking their heads underneath searching for fish, then surfacing and looking about at their companions. There’s a beautiful heron standing on the opposite edge of the lagoon, looking around and enjoying the morning sun. I’m thinking about what I just read in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (New Revised Standard Version)

I’ve been hearing those words all my life. We Christians have traditionally called them the “Great Commission,” and quoted them as what Jesus commits us to doing in the world. They have motivated evangelism and mission and outreach, as well they should. But I’m dissatisfied; I get out my Greek New Testament and take a look. And decide that I don’t like the translation. Here I am, one preacher against a whole tradition of translation! And as much as I dislike preachers showing off their Greek scholarship, the only way I can think of to put this Great Commission into perspective is to invite you to look over my shoulder at the words Matthew wrote in Greek and tell you what I think they mean.

The main verb in that sentence is not “go,” but “disciple.” I guess we don’t usually think of “disciple” as a verb, so we translate it as “make disciples,” but then we have to get clumsy with what follows. Well, knowing my own limitations, here’s the way I would translate what Jesus says: “So when you go out, disciple all ethnicities, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you.” I think these small changes matter, because they have made me realize three things.

The first thing is that the emphasis is on teaching. A “disciple” is a learner, someone who listens to a teacher and is trying to learn something from that teacher. The teacher may be a living person or someone you know only through books. I have often thought of myself as a disciple of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, poet, and novelist whose picture hangs in my study. His work has influenced the way I think about God, about life, about good and evil. He died more than twenty years before I was born, but I did get to meet his daughter in 1976. I think of myself as his disciple. So the main thing Jesus tells us there on that hilltop is to teach, to disciple people, to bring them into the circle of those who are learning from Jesus. Yes, I chose my words carefully: not learning “about” Jesus, but learning “from” Jesus. He is the source of all that we learn.

Learning can be slow and sometimes clumsy. Birds don’t need to be taught to fly, but it can be amusing to watch how they do it. As I look out the dining room window, I see one of the birds – what is it? Is it a species of duck unfamiliar to me? Or another sort of water bird? – one of the birds decides to take off and it rises slowly from the water, skimming the surface of the entire length of the lagoon, rising into the air only a moment before it would have hit the small bridge for golf carts. It makes me wonder how many bridges I have run into or nearly stumbled over in my attempts to take off with Jesus.

Our calling is to disciple, to teach, to bring people into the circle of those who are learning from Jesus. And the second thing I realize is that we are to teach people to “keep everything that I have commanded you.” I suppose the word “obey” is okay, except that it feels wrong in context. Jesus is raised from the dead, the new creation is beginning to be shaped from the old creation; I don’t hear Jesus telling us to make a list of rules and tell people to obey them. After all, what sort of things has Jesus been commanding us? Simply a new list of rules? Or a new way of living?

In a warlike world Jesus has shown us the new creation is peace. In a vengeful world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is forgiveness. In a diseased and despairing world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is hope. In a greedy, self-seeking world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is service. In a bitter, partisan world, Jesus has shown us the new creation is love.

The rules that you and I decide to keep are in service to the sort of people we choose to be, the kind of life we choose to live. Our calling is not merely to teach commandments; our calling is to disciple people into Jesus’ way of life. No wonder some of us, shivering on that hilltop, are feeling doubtful. When he sent us out to heal the sick and cast out demons, that was easy compared to this. We can devote the rest of our lives to the project of discipling people into Jesus’ way of life and maybe have relative success with a handful. We may, if we’re blessed, succeed with our own children, but even that isn’t guaranteed. It’s easier to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to teach a new set of rules than to disciple people into a way of life.

And for the third thing that I realize I have to take you back to the dining room table so you can look at my Greek New Testament with me. When nearly every translation says “all nations,” as in “make disciples of all nations,” the word is “ethne.” It means “nation” in the sense of “identity group,” such as “the Irish” or “the Xhosa.” It doesn’t mean nation in the sense of “United States of America” or “Argentina.” It means “the Vietnamese,” not the nation-state of Vietnam. “Ethne” is the source of our English word “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” So our Great Commission is to disciple all ethnicities into Jesus’ way of life.

Here is where that is taking me: you and I are living in an era in which the mission field doesn’t begin across the ocean, but begins outside our front door, and sometimes even in our own living rooms. So I think the ethnicity that we are called to disciple, the ethnicity that needs to learn Jesus’ way of life, is White people in the United States. I know that not all of you who hear this are White, but hear what I say to my fellow Whites. We White people have learned the world’s ways very well, the ways of power and prestige and progress, but we have not learned Jesus’ ways, the ways of service and forgiveness and love. The healing of our nation-state will begin as we, the community of Jesus, disciple all ethnicities into Jesus’ way of life, beginning with the White people who have dominated our land since its birth. That will be hard, and it isn’t made easier by simply saying that it would be good for everyone to do so.

Jesus’ way of life is a hard sell, learning it is a struggle and discipling others into it is a challenge. I think that is why we have tended to take the easy way out. We either try to get laws passed that enforce the rules that we think will serve Jesus – whether it is something as simple as prohibiting shopping on Sunday or as complex as abolishing abortion – or we try to scare people into following Jesus by convincing them that they will burn in hell if they don’t. Force and fear: those are the world’s ways; those are not the ways of the new creation.

So what do we have, concretely, to offer people as we disciple them into the ways of Jesus, into the new creation? We have our answer right next to us as we stand huddled, shivering on the hilltop. We have the community of faith. As flawed as we are, as difficult as we can be, we do have each other. And we remember Jesus’ promise that whenever two or three of us are together, he is there with us. We don’t need to scare hell out of people or get the government to make people behave the way we think they should, we need to invite them into a community of people who rely on Jesus and are learning together to live in the new creation. That is why he tells us to baptize them: we are not merely to get them to do certain things, but to initiate them into the community of the new creation. That is who we are, that is what we are: we are the community of the new creation. Whenever two or three of us are together in the name of Jesus, there he is with us, discipling us, teaching us, remaking the creation through us.

So as we go and disciple all ethnicities, as long as we stay together we can live in Jesus’ promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

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

Sermon from January 31: So Our Life Will Count for Plenty

So Our Life Will Count for Plenty
Epiphany IV; January 31, 2021
Matthew 23 (The Message)

If Max, Katie, and I had read this from the New Revised Standard Version, as we usually do, then it would be easy to pretend that Jesus’ words are about somebody else. At verses 6 & 7 the NRSV says, “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” That is a more literal translation of the original. And that isn’t about me, right? Then hear it from The Message: “They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’” Ouch.

But the Bible wouldn’t be worth reading if it were just about “them” and never about “us.” Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor who created the translation/paraphrase The Message, was a “Reverend” and “Doctor” and received honorary degrees. So he knew that this was about him, not just about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

My plan for this message is to reflect a little bit more on that in terms of the relationship between pastor and people, and finish by focusing on the line Max finished with: “But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

You have probably heard the saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Apparently Jesus never heard that one. Or he knew what bad advice it is. One reason tyrants get away with their tyranny is people are afraid to call them out for what they are. Those who get ahead by sexual harassment or emotional abuse get away with it because no one is willing to say to them, “You’re not allowed to do that.” One of the most wonderful church stories I ever heard was at a Men’s Bible Study, when one of the guys remembered serving on the Session when one of the elders yelled at the Pastor; another elder spoke up and said to him, “You’re not allowed to treat our Pastor that way.” Usually we’re too nice to call out the abuser.

Not Jesus. He said to the religious leaders, “You’re hopeless! Frauds!” and then proceeded to detail the nature of their fraud. It was the other side of what that elder said: Pastors, you’re not allowed to treat the people like that. We have a duty to care for the sheep, not fleece them for all we can get. If we’re going to call upon the people to do something, we had best be willing to do it ourselves. And it’s all very well to care about the niceties of what color the hangings should be and whether the Lord’s Table is properly set, so long as those don’t substitute for holding the hand of a dying person, praying for someone suffering heartbreak, and being gentle with those who struggle to believe. Otherwise, we are liable to the label Jesus gives: “frauds.”

I saw a friend use that word a few days ago: he is from one of the social media platforms I attend to regularly and was writing that he sometimes feels like a fraud, because he writes about things that go well while also quietly screwing up more often than he wants to admit. And when he reads posts by those who seem to do it perfectly and they admit their own failings and struggles, he feels as though he can make it too. I replied by writing – and if I’m wrong about this, I trust that you will tell me – that I think that one reason my congregation trusts me is that I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. As a pastor, I listen to Jesus’ words and I don’t hear him saying, “Stop calling upon the people to aim higher. Don’t proclaim biblical reality.” What I hear him saying is, “Don’t tell the people to do what you are unwilling to do. And be honest with your own struggle.”

In other words, Jesus is saying to us pastors and teachers of the Faith: Be real. Wear the robe, by all means, but wear it to remind everyone that you’re doing your job, not as a place to hide. Pursue higher education, but not so that you can impress people with your degrees, but so that you understand better the Faith you are trying to teach. And when someone honors you, accept it gratefully, not because you deserve to be honored, but because that person is being so gracious.

I think the hard thing for you folks who listen to pastors is to discern whom you should listen to. When people belong to a church, you do of course default to your own pastor. And others may listen to a particular pastor because of friendship or appreciation of style or because they say what you want or need to hear. But when Jesus says to you, “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses,” how are you to know which religion scholars to listen to? We have so many different voices saying so many different things about the same subjects, how are you to know which teacher you should learn from?

I’m afraid that anything I suggest would simply boil down to, “You should listen to me and to people like me.” Probably the wisest course for me is to leave the question out there, to acknowledge that it is a real question, one that you may struggle with. Just know that for my part I will continue to try to be a competent teacher in God’s Law, to use Peterson’s phrase, while not pretending to be anything more than I am: another sinner struggling to live in the love and grace of God.

I would like to suggest that you try that on, too. Take the phrase: “another sinner struggling to live in the love and grace of God.” Can you wear that? Or something like it? Yes, we church people sometimes pretend we’re not sinners. How’s that going for you? Is it working out to pretend you’re better than the people around you, that everyone should be just like you? Maybe you do have some things figured out and you can help with that, but something else is probably weighing you down. Are you getting tired of wearing the mask of perfection? Then take it off. If you’re a good elder, but your feelings are easily hurt, then by all means do the work of an elder and see what you can do about the hurt feelings issue, but don’t pretend you’re perfect. Or don’t refuse to serve because you’re not perfect.

In a more literal translation, Jesus’ words read, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (NRSV). In The Message the same line is “If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty” (verse 12). I personally have struggled with this, and I hope it encourages you to know that. I am not everything people want me to be. I could pretend that I am, which Jesus accuses the religious leaders of doing. Or because I’m not I could decide not to try at all. And I fear that is what some of you may do. You may look down on other people or nitpick with other people because you are pretending to be better than you really are. Or you may refuse to try: you won’t accept a call to serve, for example, because you’re not perfect.

I need to use the example of my weight-management community. In WW, we call that “all or nothing thinking.” If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all. Here’s an example. One evening I’m sad, and so I self-medicate with peanut butter. I take the jar and a spoon and eat half a jar of peanut butter. I screwed up. With all-or-nothing thinking, I can very easily say, “Well, I screwed up, so the whole week is screwed up. I’m just going to binge all week.” Does that make sense? We compare to getting a flat tire: one tire is flat, so I might as well slash the other three so they’re all flat. If I’m not going to be perfect, then I’m not going to do it at all. So we counsel people who screw up (I used the example of peanut butter because that is one of my weaknesses): you screwed up this evening, but you didn’t screw up your life. Try again, not next week, but right now.

The two alternatives in all-or-nothing thinking are: I screwed up, therefore I’m a screwup, and so I’m not going to do this at all. Or: I screwed up, and I need to pretend I didn’t screw up, because I’m supposed to be perfect. Jesus warns against one extreme, but not the other, because of the frauds he saw in front of him. I want to warn you against both: pretending to be perfect, or failing to try because you aren’t perfect.

If you’re content to simply be yourself, doing what you can and being honest about your failings, your life will count for plenty, says Jesus. I hope that you and I will continue to try to do better, to strive for perfection, and maybe have a good laugh when we fail to reach it. Or a good cry, whichever is called for. And then our Church will count for plenty. We don’t need to pretend to be more than we are, and we need not let fear of failure become an excuse not to be what we can. If we’re content to be ourselves, our life will count for plenty.

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