Sermon from August 23: Mary the Mother of Jesus

Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Pentecost XII (O. T. 21); August 23, 2020
Mark 3:31-35 (with Luke 1:46-55)

Mary. I once was scolded by a Presbyterian church member for preaching a sermon about Mary. Well, one of you asked me to, and so I’m going to do it again. I wonder what approach you would take if you were asked to talk about Mary. Some of you might talk about motherhood, and the joy and pain it was to be the Mother of Jesus. You have good scriptural basis for that, as Simeon in the Temple said to Mary both that her child would be great – that he was destined for the rising and falling of many – and that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:34-35). Our images at Christmas portray Mary as the contented Mother, happy to have given birth to a baby boy, and our images at Good Friday show her at the foot of his Cross, leaning on the Apostle John for support. You know that Mary.

Perhaps you would like to be theological, and talk about Mary as the one who is the locus for the coming together of Heaven and earth. Mary becomes almost a symbol, more than a person, when she is identified as the Mother of God. A very early conversation in the Church was over the human and divine nature of Jesus, and it was expressed in the question of whether it was proper to refer to Mary in that way, as Mother of God (for those of you who like technical terms, the word is “theotokos”). If you said Yes, then you believed Jesus was truly divine; if you said No, then you didn’t.

I personally am interested in both those approaches, and so I mentioned them. There are probably others we could take. What I propose to do today, though, is look at some snapshots of Mary, some moments in her life that connect with your life and mine.

Mary was a young woman when the archangel Gabriel appeared to her and gave her God’s proposal: that she bear the unique Son of God, who was to be named Jesus. Mary was puzzled; she asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) And the angel gave her an answer, of sorts. It was probably the best he could do; after all, matters related to the work of God can be fiendishly difficult to explain.

But that doesn’t mean we should not ask. I had to look, of course, in John Calvin’s work for something that he had to say about Mary, and he set me on this track. When he was writing about the struggle to understand the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, he wrote this, “But, following the holy virgin’s example, we do not regard it as unlawful for ourselves in a difficult matter to inquire how it can take place.”[1] Perhaps when you have asked a question to try understand something difficult, you were rebuffed. One of you told me the story of a classmate being violently removed from a class by the pastor for asking a question that the pastor thought should not have been asked. This event deeply disturbs me; I love it when people ask me questions about God and I fear that when they don’t, it’s because they are no longer interested in trying to understand.

When I lived in Cincinnati, one of my volunteer activities was for the Friends of the Cincinnati Orchestra. I would go into second-grade classrooms in area public schools and use a curriculum to help the kids know something about and appreciate classical music. And once a year we would go to a concert. I remember once riding on the school bus with second-graders to a concert in Music Hall, and the children found out I was a pastor. They asked me questions about God and the Bible the whole way downtown. I was a little uncomfortable – after all, I was there to help them appreciate music and it was a public school outing – but I simply responded to their questions. I remember that fondly because they had questions and they asked them. As John Calvin said, when we have questions about things that are difficult to understand, we should never be afraid to ask them. Mary wasn’t. She was talking with an Archangel, and she wasn’t afraid to ask!

A second image is from the first chapter of the book of Acts. The Apostles were all gathered in the place where they were meeting after Jesus was taken from them into Heaven, and Luke mentions that also present with them were “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). This is an answer to the story I read you from the Gospel of Mark. While Jesus was going about preaching, teaching, and healing, his family was not particularly happy about it. When Mary and his brothers came to see him, Jesus was downright rude. He seemed to reject them, asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And he added, “Those who do the will of God are my brother and sister and mother.”

I wonder what it took to bring Mary and his brothers around. The next time Mary appears in the story is at the Crucifixion, when Jesus tells the disciple whom he loved – presumably the Apostle John – to take care of her. What about his brothers? Why aren’t they taking care of her? But John does it, takes her into his household, and tradition tells us that when he went to Ephesus to spread the Gospel she accompanied him. Something brought her around, so that she became not only Jesus’ Mother but also his disciple, one of those who did, as he said, the will of God. And Luke says that his brothers did too; in fact, one of his brothers – James – became so devoted to Jesus that he became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13, Galatians 1:19). Mary became Jesus’ Mother by his own definition, the one he thought mattered: she was devoted to doing the will of God. It’s a good reminder that you and I are part of the family of God not because we are born into it; “I’ve been a member of this Church since I was born” is of no importance. What is important is that we are devoted to doing the will of God.

A third picture is represented by the poem that Jean read to you, commonly called by its first word in Latin, “Magnificat.” Sometimes you see in fiction a moment that is of far greater significance than the character realizes. When Bilbo Baggins finds a ring and picks it up; “What’s this?” When Tess of the D’Urbervilles slips the note under the door and it accidentally is hidden under the carpet. You may point to a moment in your life that turned out to have meant more than you knew at the time.

Mary looked at what was happening to her, what appeared simply to be a pregnancy, albeit an unusual one, and she saw enormous social significance. She saw it as a turning point in history, when the lowly would be of greater importance than the powerful, when so-called “losers” are favored over those called “winners.” She saw that what God was doing with her was an example of what God was doing for the world. Somehow, in her mind, it wasn’t about her, but about the amazing work of God.

So, we have Mary the questioner, Mary the follower, and Mary the theologian. She wanted to understand; she wanted to do the will of God; she wanted to see the work of God in her life and beyond her life. One more and I’ll stop: Mary the ponderer. Is that a word? When shepherds told Mary and Joseph and anyone else who would listen what the angel had said to them, Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). She kept that pattern going when she and Joseph encountered Simeon and Anna in the Temple a few weeks later, and then again twelve years later when they took Jesus with them for the Passover and he went missing for a few days. Mary thought about things, she remembered things and pondered them.

Where did Luke get his information for his Gospel? Did he go to Ephesus and talk to Mary in her later years? She probably didn’t keep a diary; she thought back over all that had happened and remembered not only the events but what they meant, the conclusions she came to all those years later. I’m speculating, of course, but I’m in good company.

I think of the many times I have come home from visiting someone: when I meet them for the first time as their new pastor, or when they invite me to call on them, or when I see them in a retirement or nursing home. And I feel such joy at having a soul touch mine, someone who has lived a lot and has shared something of it with me in that brief time. When they tell me what they have treasured, what they have pondered in their heart, and I feel the honor of being invited into the sacred chamber of another’s life. That must have been how Luke felt after talking with Mary, this remarkable woman: questioner, follower, theologian, and one who pondered.

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

[1] Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, xvii, 25

Sermon from August 2: Promised Land, Holy Land

Promised Land, Holy Land
Pentecost IX (O. T. 18); August 2, 2020
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-21

When I asked you for your preaching requests, I suggested that one possible category is “Things I wish weren’t in the Bible.” One of you said, in response:

When God said to Abraham, while standing on what is now in the West Bank, “I give to you and all your descendants this land.”

How much heartache this phrase has caused for centuries.

Yes, but especially for the last seventy-five years. I’m going to approach the question in two ways: one is to talk specifically about this promise from God, as in the Scripture I read to you, and the other is to talk more generally about the promises of God. But first, a story, and this is for all who think that any conversation about Israel and Palestine has to be partisan, and your position has to be determined by your political party.

Some years ago a Presbyterian elder visited Israel and Palestine. I didn’t know him well, but was acquainted with him through our Presbytery. He was a district judge, a conservative Republican. When he returned from his visit he was on fire, passionate in speaking out against the abuses of the State of Israel, forceful in speaking on behalf of Palestinians living in refugee camps. He was a lawyer, and a judge, and so he had an abiding commitment to justice. Political party or ideology were irrelevant; he saw injustice and he had to speak out. So please, don’t assume that talking about Israel and Palestine has to be a partisan political conversation.

Now, to the promise of God to Abraham. This occurred where Abraham had settled with his household, by an oak at Mamre, near the modern city of Hebron. So yes, it was in the modern West Bank, in territory occupied by the State of Israel but the home of Palestinians for centuries. God states the promise more than once, but I selected this instance because here it is clearest in its scope: the Lord claims that Abraham’s descendants are to hold the land from “the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates;” this would be territory comprising Sinai and the Gaza Strip, the State of Israel, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. The only time in history that Israel came close to encompassing that much territory was during the reign of King Solomon.

The promise of God to Abraham had three parts: I will give you descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; I will give them this land; through your descendants all the peoples of the world will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:15-18). In fulfillment of the first promise, Abraham had children who then had descendants of their own. His oldest son was named Ishmael, and Arab peoples trace their heritage to Ishmael. His son with his wife Sarah was Isaac, and Jewish people trace their lineage to Isaac’s son Jacob. After Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah, who bore him six sons. My first question, then, to those who believe that the promise of God means that Jewish people are to control all the land currently known as Sinai, Gaza, Israel, West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon, is this: what of all the other descendants of Abraham? God said that his descendants would occupy the land; does that include the descendants of Ishmael? And the descendants of the sons of Keturah? Of course, Isaac had two sons; Jacob is the ancestor of Israel, but let’s not forget Esau and his descendants as well. But if we speak only of the descendants of Jacob, known as Israel, then let us acknowledge that the promise was fulfilled with the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah, ruled by Saul, then David, then Solomon.

If, however, you wish to press the point that God meant for Israel to rule all that land forever, then consider this. With promise comes responsibility. The other Scripture for the day (Exodus 23:6-9) is a very small piece of Torah, the instruction of God, that is Israel’s part in the promise. The history of Israel in the Bible is the story of the promises of God, but a story that makes clear that the promises have certain contingencies attached. One of the contingencies is this one in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

I resist considering Palestinians to be “aliens” in the land that their families have lived in for millennia, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine so. If Israel is to hold the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, then Israel has the responsibility not to oppress the other peoples who live in that land. Christian people, keep this point in mind, because it applies to us too. The Lord God says clearly: When you have been mistreated, your response is not, “We’re going to do to you what they did to us.” Your response is, “We know what it feels like to be in your position, and so we are going to treat you better than they treated us.”

Remember my acquaintance the district judge. He did not claim that Israel had no right to the land. He was incensed that the State of Israel was being unjust to the Palestinian people who lived in the land. If you are going to contend that Israel should possess the land, then you must also contend that Israel must treat all others who live in the land with justice. And it is worth remembering that they too consider themselves descendants of Abraham.

The third piece of the promise to Abraham was that through him all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This piece of the promise brings me to the second idea, about the promises of God in general, and with this I will conclude the sermon. The first piece of the promise, numerous descendants, was fulfilled in the growth of his family – through Jacob, or through Jacob, Esau, Ishmael and the others. The second piece of the promise, the land, was fulfilled to the House of David. What of this third piece? How has blessing come to all the peoples of the earth through Abraham?

That has been fulfilled in a descendant of Abraham who was born in Bethlehem some 1,800 years after Abraham’s day, during a census being taken at the orders of the Emperor. This child was raised in a carpenter’s family, but as an adult he became a traveling preacher. His intention was to return people’s attention to living in the ways of God, and to offer them a simple connection to God through prayer and a loving heart. You know the rest of his story: his crucifixion, his resurrection, and the work of his apostles in telling the world about him.

Very quickly, the people of Jesus came to two realizations. One of those was that the promises of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. This was not what they expected. The prophets had predicted a day of gloom, of conflict, when all the world would change and then the Kingdom of God would come. So they were expecting the end of the world. Instead, the day of gloom was the shadows over Calvary, and the Kingdom of God came when Christ rose from the dead. Peter said that explicitly in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). They began to rethink the promises of God, not as to how they would see something so literal as a lion playing leapfrog with a lamb, or their particular group ruling a large territory, but rather as to what God was doing in Jesus Christ and how the promises of God are fulfilled in him.

The second thing they realized was that they had to rethink the notion of who is a descendant of Abraham. The Apostle Paul wrote about this clearly and passionately: God gave Abraham these promises because of Abraham’s faith, and so those who have faith are the heirs of Abraham. The promises belong not to the genetic descendants of Abraham, but to those who trust in God as Abraham trusted in God. As I read to you, “He believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) The heirs of the promise are people of faith.

To summarize: I am speaking to Christians, of course, not to Jews nor to Muslims. I am not a Jew nor a Muslim, so I read the Scriptures as a Christian reads them. And so I speak to Christians. Christians who claim that the promise to Abraham means that we should support anything the State of Israel does, no matter to whom they do it: you are not paying attention to the Bible. The Bible tells us, first, that those who govern in the State of Israel are not all of the descendants of Abraham; and the Bible tells us, second, that with promise comes responsibility, including the responsibility to treat everyone within the Promised Land with justice. Third, the Bible tells us that the promises of God are fulfilled not in the ways we might expect, but in Jesus Christ. That is the primary message to Christians: pay attention to the realizations of our ancestors and look to Jesus Christ for the fulfillment of this and for all the promises of God.

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

 

Sermon from July 26: The Burden of Moral Agency

The Burden of Moral Agency
Pentecost VIII (O. T. 17); July 26, 2020
Luke 1:39-45 and Jeremiah 1:4-10

When I invited you to suggest topics for summer preaching, I was sort of expecting some light-hearted stories and ideas. You know, it’s summer; think “beach reading.” This week and next I have challenging and important things to consider with you, thanks to thoughtful members of our church. The shorthand description of today’s question is “abortion,” but the question posed had more depth than that. The two Scripture readings posed the question; I propose to ponder those readings with you in the light of the question, and ponder a few more portions of Scripture in the light of that question.

I want to start by suggesting to you that the question of abortion is really four types of questions. It is a moral question: What is the right thing to do? It is a biological question: When does human life begin? It is a legal question: What is the role of government in regulating abortion? And it is a theological question: What is my responsibility to the will of God? As I ponder with you all these Scriptures, let’s keep these four questions in mind. This may be a rambling journey, so stay with me.

My questioner called attention to Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God had a mission for Jeremiah, even before Jeremiah was born. The implied question is, “What if Jeremiah’s mother had had an abortion? What would that have done to the purposes of God?” Because people of God always want to be aligned with the will of God, it is an excellent question. Consider all the other ways the purposes of God could have been thwarted. Many pregnancies end spontaneously, sometimes even before the woman knows she is pregnant; some of you may have had that experience. That could have happened. Infant mortality was very high in the ancient world; in some cultures they didn’t even name their children until they were two years old, because of the likelihood they wouldn’t make it that long. So the question is whether the will of God is still accomplished, even if human beings make the wrong choice or something random happens to interfere. Remember what Mordecai said to Esther as I told that story a few weeks ago: if you fail to intervene, the people will still be saved. But perhaps you were supposed to have been the one to do it. We believe – and I hope that we are right! – that God’s ultimate will is accomplished; our joy and well-being are tied into cooperating with God’s will.

My questioner also called attention to the story I read you, when Elizabeth’s son “leapt in the womb” when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came in. Does that not imply that John and Jesus were both already someone, since Elizabeth interpreted that to mean that John recognized Jesus? Yes, frankly, it does imply that. Now, John and Jesus are both special cases in the story of God, so I don’t know that it’s fair to draw a general conclusion from this specific incident. But the story is challenging, isn’t it? At this point, Mary is newly pregnant and Elizabeth is six months along. At the very least, we should affirm that at this point it is clear who these boys are going to be; Elizabeth’s unborn child, six months along, seems to be recognize Mary by her greeting, aware of Whose Mother she is going to be.

Another Scripture, then I’ll make a comment and then share some more Scripture. In Psalm 139, the poet says:

It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
Intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
When none of them as yet existed. (13-16)

Again, the poet looks back to before birth as the time of being shaped by God, and that God already has the poet’s life laid out in advance, what all the days are to bring.

Does God plan our lives and we really have no choice in what we do? That doesn’t feel quite right, does it? When I make a choice, I feel subjectively as though I truly had the freedom to choose. Philosophers who have discussed freedom and determinism and fate and the will of God have suggested that, although how we feel is not absolutely reliable, we should pay attention to how the situation seems to us. So, despite the poet’s suggestion that God had already written the book before the main character is even born, I suspect that we have a lot of freedom to choose our own way. Poetry is important, but it isn’t an absolute source for doctrine or decision-making.

Here’s another thing from Scripture: In Genesis 2, God takes the dust of the earth and shapes it into a human creature. Then it says that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (v. 7). Here the suggestion is that, whatever God may know or decide about what our life will be, you and I don’t actually begin to exist as living beings until we begin to breathe. Remember something from another recent sermon: ruach is breath and wind and spirit. When we begin to breathe, says Genesis, we have and are spirit.

Two more; please indulge me. A phrase that is associated with this conversation is “Choose life,” which comes from Deuteronomy (30:19). I won’t read the whole passage to you, but will summarize it. Moses is speaking to the people, and he tells them they have a choice between following the ways of God and not following them. He says that the ways of God are the way of life; to turn from the ways of God is the way of death. So, “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” So to “choose life” means to choose to follow the Torah, the teachings of God. What does the Torah say? It says, “Keep the Sabbath. Do not oppress the foreigners among you. Do not harvest to the edge of your field.” It does not say, “Do not abort a pregnancy.”

So, before I turn to the last piece of Scripture and conclude this, let me summarize my thinking. When does human life begin? Life is ongoing, a process of becoming. There is no single “moment” when a human life begins. My life, for example, has roots that go back millennia, into the dark recesses of human evolution. When did “I” begin? Maybe, as Genesis suggests, when I started to breathe. Maybe, as Romans suggests, when I was baptized and became a new person in Christ. Maybe when I began to form memories that I retain.  I don’t know. I can say, however, that the popular notion that it began when my Dad’s sperm fertilized my Mom’s egg is derived not from biology nor from the Bible, but from Roman Catholic dogma about something they call “ensoulment.” We’re not Roman Catholic; we don’t have to accept their way of thinking. And for those who talk about the “moment of conception,” they need to attend to their biology: there is no “moment of conception;” conception is a process. I don’t think it’s possible to answer the question when any particular life begins, much less when human life begins. But that said, the Bible is clear that God has purposes in mind for each of us, and part of our responsibility as human beings is to strive to cooperate with God’s purposes.

It is also clear from the Bible that human life is precious, and we should never be quick to dispose of it. Even if the life we are talking about is potential life, a life that has not yet really begun, dispensing of it should not be easy. Whenever life begins and whenever a particular life begins, even in potential it is precious. The Jesus who was not yet gave joy to the John who, though farther along, still was not yet. Even in potential, life is precious.

But now the last piece of Scripture for today, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (5:24-25). The argument of the book of Galatians is that people who belong to God should not be constrained by any particular set of rules, but instead should be guided in doing right by the Holy Spirit. In other words: you are a moral agent, you have the capacity and responsibility to make moral decisions. Do so, guided by the Spirit.

The book the Men’s Book Club recently read[1] included the thoughts of a character who said that people never ask the government to prohibit something because they themselves have trouble with it; it’s always because they want the government to force other people to do something they think is good for them. We don’t ask, “Please outlaw abortion so that I’m not tempted to have one” but, “Please outlaw abortion to stop those people from doing it.” The message of Paul in Galatians is that we should be hesitant to ask the government to make decisions for us that are ours to make. In other words, in response to the moral question I posed at the beginning, the right thing to do depends on a number of factors, and you have the responsibility to decide what is the right thing for you to do in these circumstances. If you are confronted by the need to make a decision – about whether to have an abortion, for example, but also about what to do with respect to your own or someone else’s medical care – you have the burden of deciding. But since you are a child of God, do not carry that burden alone. Include others as part of your guidance: friends you trust, family members, your pastor and other spiritual leaders, the witness of the Holy Spirit within you.

The answers to the questions I posed at the beginning of this sermon are not absolute. Except that yes, you and I have an absolute responsibility to try to live conformed to the will of God. But likewise, we are free most of the time to discern what God’s will is. With freedom comes responsibility, the burden of having to make a choice. But with freedom in Jesus Christ also comes assurance: that whether we choose well or choose poorly, we are people of God, we are children of God, we are loved by God, who started calling out to us in love long before we were anything at all.

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

[1] Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Sermon from July 19: What Did Ezekiel See?

What Did Ezekiel See?
Pentecost VII (O. T. 16); July 19, 2020
Ezekiel 1:4-14

I remember learning the song in elementary school music class:

Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air,
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.
Now, the little wheel runs by faith and the big wheel runs by the grace of God.
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.

It’s an American folk song, with its roots in African-American tradition. It’s one of the many examples of African-American spirituals capturing the rich tradition of the prophets.

Ezekiel had a remarkable vision; I read you part of it. And from the midst of the amazing thing he saw, he heard the voice of God. He fell on his face, and the voice of God said to him, “Mortal, stand up! I have something to say to you.” And that was the beginning of his troubles.

What did he see? Did you have a picture in your mind as I read it to you? Did it look something like this? Goodness I had fun looking for images for Ezekiel’s wheel; one of the more interesting ones was a flying saucer, which responds to the question I was asked to consider for today’s sermon: ancient aliens. The fire in the midst of the wheel and the sparks flying among the living creatures have made some people think of a propulsion system for a spacecraft. Ezekiel, they claim, was visited by ancient aliens.

The History Channel, in particular, has given lots of coverage to the ideas of those who claim that humanity in ancient times was visited by aliens from another planet. Plus some of us remember Erich von Däniken’s work in the 1960s; he and the folks on the History Channel gather an impressive array of evidence to support their contention that aliens visited our ancestors. Now, you may be tempted to scoff, but I prefer to listen to people on their own terms, so let me summarize the evidence briefly and then respond as a preacher.

There seem to be two primary lines of evidence. One is the amazing accomplishments of our ancestors, feats of engineering that we imagine to be beyond the technology of their day. Consider the massive rocks of Stonehenge; how could such pieces be moved and erected into place? Consider the pyramids of Egypt and the Moai of Easter Island. Did human beings without modern construction equipment really build those? Or were they assisted by aliens with superior technology? Likewise, think about things that can be recognized only from the air, created by people who had no means of flying. When I lived in Ohio, I visited the Serpent Mound. It’s a massive earthwork; viewed from the air it looks like a serpent. But it was made in the eleventh century; the makers could never have seen it. So why did they make it? Or what of the Nazca lines in Peru? Now, they can be seen from nearby hills, but they are best seen from the air. And they are older than the Serpent Mound. Was their construction supervised by beings who were looking down on them from the air?

The second line of evidence are stories from the ancient world that are easily interpreted from a technological point of view. For example, Ezekiel’s wheels: a rocket described in the sixth century BC might seem to be what he wrote. The fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah: might that not have been an atomic bomb? Van Däniken and the History Channel cite examples from other cultures, too, but these two from the Bible are enough to think about for today.

Personally, I hope that we are not the only people in the Universe. As the line goes from my favorite movie, Contact, “If it is only us, it would be an tremendous waste of space.” And one of my prayers is that First Contact will happen during my lifetime, even though there is a sizeable list of reasons for contact being unlikely. When one of you asked me to address this matter, I picked today to consider it, since tomorrow is the fifty-first anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.” And I acknowledge the likelihood that if our ancestors met visiting aliens with advanced technology, they may be viewed as gods. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I do not dispute the possibility our ancestors were visited by aliens, but as a preacher I want to respond to the two lines of evidence I described.

First, I believe in letting the Bible’s stories stand as they are, without trying to explain them. The Bible’s sacred story teaches us about the encounter of human beings with the Living God; they no doubt have kernels of history within them and some are more factual than others. But in every case, leave the story alone. Whether we’re talking about Ezekiel’s vision or the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness or anything else, “what really happened” simply isn’t a concern. The stories are as they are and tell us what they do about God in the form in which they are. If Ezekiel saw a vision of living creatures and wheels and fire and this was how his senses interpreted the presence of the Living God, then leave it be. What is God like? What the Prophet saw is, well, frightening, and probably more accurate than the domesticated God modern American Christians seem to prefer.

Maybe you’ll like this response better; Pastor Cindy reminded me of it this week. Remember Occam’s Razor: when you have two explanations for the same phenomenon, the simpler explanation is more likely to be correct. Which is more likely: that the Prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the Living God, or that an alien spacecraft landed, the inhabitants spoke fluent Hebrew, and they pronounced judgment against the people for violating the ways of God? The Living God is quite bizarre enough for me; ancient aliens need not apply.

But what of Stonehenge and the pyramids and the Nazca lines and Serpent Mound? Don’t sell our ancestors short. Although why some of them were built is still a mystery, we have a pretty good idea of how they were built. Sure, it could have been done faster and with less effort with the help of Kiewit – or the Minbari equivalent – but our ancestors were capable of doing it. In my experience, human beings are capable of much more than we are willing to give ourselves credit for.

I have seen a mother who claimed to be weak at the sight of blood deal very well with transfusions, when they were sustaining the life of her son. People who have claimed to be powerless have lost weight, dealt with addiction, or made other positive changes when they found they needed to for some larger reason. Human beings can be quite remarkable and capable; we don’t need alien assistance.

And there is a social justice implication to my assertion. In the face of systemic injustice, we have no excuse; we dare not say, “That’s the way things are and there’s nothing we can do.” Remember the very first Star Wars movie? Obi-wan Kenobi told Luke to get ready to go with him to Alderaan to fight the Empire; Luke replied, “It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” And, of course, the point of the whole series is that uniquely he, Luke Skywalker, could do quite a bit about it, far more than he knew.

We are living in a time of profound challenges to the public health and to human well-being in general. Somehow all that has made this just the right time to confront as well the racism that has plagued our society for four centuries. As much as I hope to meet aliens, we don’t need aliens to come show us what to do; among us we are discerning what to do. Our reading from Isaiah (64:1-4) gave me the hint of what we do need: faith and the grace of God. Remember the song:

Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air,
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.
Now the little wheel runs by faith and the big wheel runs by the grace of God.
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.

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

 

 

Sermon from July 12: Discern the Spirits

Discern the Spirits
Pentecost VI (O. T. 15); July 12, 2020
I Kings 3:5-9

In November 2008 a letter was being circulated, asking Christians to sign it and send it to Washington. It was attached to a message; the message claimed that Barack Obama was circulating a petition to get religious programming banned from television and radio. You may have heard about it; it was a reworking of a similar letter that James Dobson and others had promoted a few years earlier. Dobson’s email claimed that Madalyn Murry O’Hare, the famous atheist, was trying to get Christian programming banned from the airwaves and Christmas carols banned from public schools.

I remember that one of my church members was alarmed and shared the email with me. And at the time I remembered having seen exactly the same thing when I was a high school student and a coworker at the hardware store shared it with me. That was in 1975; it was fake then and it continued to be fake when it evolved from a letter circulated by mimeograph to one circulated by email thirty years later. But people believed it. People wanted to believe that there was a conspiracy to use the federal government to destroy Christianity and this letter fed their belief. This year there are those who claim that the restrictions on public worship are not a directed health measure but are part of “their” (whoever “they” are) plan to destroy Christianity. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This week’s sermon responds to a request from one of you to preach about “discerning the spirits,” or the struggle to attend to the truth in a time when it is so easy to spread lies. If you have paid any attention, you know how rampant the falsehoods are. The simpler ones are the sort of thing I just described, when someone makes something up and other people believe it. Perhaps you know the wonderful satiric paper (now website) The Onion; sometimes one of their stories will get repeated as if it were real. For example, in 1998 they ran a story that the year’s homosexual recruitment drive was nearing its goal; Westboro Baptist Church used it as evidence that gay people were actively trying to make others gay. In 2010 The Onion said that a frustrated President Obama had sent the nation a rambling 75,000 word email and the website Fox Nation repeated it as a real news story.[1]

Well, it would be fun to go on, but I should probably make some sort of point. More sinister examples abound in the dark recesses of conspiracy theories, such as those that come from QAnon and Infowars. Do you remember when Alex Jones claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre had been staged by those who wanted to curtail Second Amendment rights? What sort of evil gets in the face of a man whose child has been shot to death and claims that the child never actually existed, and the grieving dad is playing us for fools? The sort of evil that is described in Psalm 12; we’ll get to that.

But the churchgoer who asked me to call this to your attention was particularly concerned with the vast amount of misinformation circulating around the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Just this week, another person talked to me about a list of “I heard thats;” and no, it was not one of our church members. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or other reputable health officials, try to tell us what we should know for the sake of everyone’s health and well-being, something in many of us wants to believe the shadowy figure who says, “Well, I heard that…;” words that contradict the official line.

The anti-vaccine activist Judy Mikovits has created quite a following by claiming that the coronavirus was created in a lab, that it’s injected into people via flu vaccinations, and that wearing a mask could trigger an infection. Now, Facebook, Vimeo, Twitter, and YouTube try to suppress the misinformation she spreads, but her fans repost it and spread it, claiming they want to share the truth that our masters don’t want us to know. Because what she says suits their political agenda, they don’t consider the possibility that she is lying and that spreading these lies actually harms people.[2]

Which brings us to today’s readings from Scripture. I had Brenda read Psalm 12 to you, a rather pessimistic psalm – or maybe realistic, especially in our age – that claims that there are liars all around us, using their power to exploit the needy and the oppressed (v. 5). The poet calls upon God to destroy the power of flatterers and liars, those who build their personal power through deception.

Pray for God to promote truth and fair dealing among us. And, like Solomon, pray for wisdom. A huge chunk of the Old Testament is wisdom literature, and we tend not to give it a fair hearing. Wisdom is extolled throughout the Old Testament as a treasure highly to be valued and the greatest of God’s creations. To be wise is to be able to discern the spirits, to be able to sift out truth from falsehood, to be able to apply knowledge through experience.

And so we have in I Kings the picture of the great King Solomon, heir to his father’s empire, praying to God for wisdom. This is a story I learned as a boy. When Solomon ascended to the throne, God said to Solomon, “Ask of me what you will.” Solomon clearly was already wise, because he made a wise request. He could have asked for riches or long life or the defeat of his enemies, but instead he asked God for wisdom to govern well. A sense of what really matters leads to the desire for wisdom. His reputation for wise leadership spread abroad and he continues to be the standard against which we measure the wisdom of our own leaders. In one of the books attributed to him are these words:

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
Than the shouting of a ruler among fools. (Ecclesiastes 9:17)

So my first encouragement to you is to pray for wisdom. Ask God to give you a discerning mind, one that is able to tell the difference between good advice and the nonsense shared on social media. Remember that social media is not the problem: the fake petition about religious programming goes back to 1975, before the Internet was invented. Social media only makes it easier for conspiracy theorists and Russian trolls and white nationalists (and so forth) to spread their lies and makes it all the more important for you and me to learn how to discern the spirits. Pray for wisdom.

And speak truth calmly and clearly when called for. This is hard. Usually when I hear racist trash talk or the ignorance of anti-vaxxers and others I remain silent and don’t challenge it. Goodness, if I were to try to respond to every instance of ignorance and misinformation in the newspaper’s “Public Pulse” I would be writing every day. But I’ll tell you of one recent instance, not to boast, but because I think it serves as an example of how to respond in such a situation.

I was riding in the funeral coach on the way to the cemetery and the funeral director was talking about the removal of statues of Confederate war heroes. He was saying how wrong it is to be destroying our history, that the statues are simple reminders of history and it does us no good to wipe out history. When he gave me a chance to respond, I calmly said that a statue is not merely a reminder of history: a statue is intended to honor someone for their actions. A paragraph or chapter in a history book is a reminder of history; a statue is an honor for deeds done. And the deeds of a Confederate war hero are treason against the United States in order to keep black persons in slavery. That is the deed for which they are honored; do we truly wish to continue to honor them for treason that was intended to keep black people enslaved?

He changed the subject.

Now, you may disagree with my conclusion, of course, but I affirm that I told the truth about the purpose of statues and the actions of those honored in those statues. Likewise, you may disagree with the need to wear a mask to the grocery store or to worship, but claiming that masks trigger infections is a lie and claiming that masks protect others from our exhalations is the truth. You do not need to shout at people, call them names, or question their motivations, but do speak the truth.

Follow Solomon’s example: pray for wisdom, discern the spirits, and calmly speak the truth.

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

[1] Material in the first three paragraphs from personal memory, Wikipedia (article on The Onion), and Snopes.com

[2] Information in this paragraph from Omaha World-Herald, Coronavirus conspiracy theory video shows challenges for big tech, June 14, 2020.

Sermon from July 5: Esther

Esther: For Such a Time as This
Pentecost V (O. T. 14); July 5, 2020
Esther 4:9-17

One of you said you would like to hear sermons about some of the strong women in the Bible. You mentioned two: Mary the Mother of Jesus, and Queen Esther. We will definitely talk about Mary sometime this summer and today we’ll talk about Esther. Mostly I want to tell you her story, so you can see her strength of character for yourself. Being a preacher, I won’t be able to avoid adding a thought or two!

The story begins when the people of God were in exile in Babylon. A new empire was rising in the East to challenge the Babylonians, the Persian Empire, and they swept west and conquered Babylon. Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia, decreed that the Jewish people could return to their homeland. Most of them did, but some remained in Babylon and quite a number settled in other places in the Persian Empire, including Susa, the winter capital. That is where Esther’s story takes place.

Esther, a young Jewish woman, became Empress of Persia after a beauty contest of sorts. Here’s how that happened. The Book of Esther refers to the Emperor as Ahasuerus, which probably represents the King we know as Xerxes. Ahasuerus was throwing a big party for his noblemen; he was showing off his wealth and power, but also being a good and generous host. The royal officials’ wives, in the meantime, were enjoying the hospitality of the Empress, Vashti. After six days of excess, Ahasuerus decided to show off his greatest treasure: Vashti. He sent servants to order the Queen to doll herself up and come parade in front of the men. She refused. She was the Empress of Persia, she was throwing a party for some important women, and she was not going to be paraded around like a prize horse.

Well, the King was first angry, then bemused and befuddled. What was he to do? His advisors told him to give the Queen the heave-ho, lest she set a bad example and women throughout the Empire begin disobeying their husbands. So he divorced her and advertised for a new Queen. I started out mentioning Esther’s strength of character; let’s not overlook Vashti, who (as Frederick Buechner put it) may have lost her crown, but kept her self-respect. So the King’s servants did a search of the Empire to gather the best-looking women; they were brought to the palace for several months of preparations, and then the King could have his choice.

Among these women was a young Jewish orphan named Esther, whose older cousin Mordecai had raised her. It happened that Ahasuerus admired Esther most, both her looks and her personality, so they were married and she was proclaimed Queen. At about the same time, Mordecai, who often hung around the gate of the palace, overheard two of the King’s servants plotting to assassinate him. Mordecai sent word to Esther, who told Ahasuerus, and the plot was foiled.

Now enter the villain of the story, a certain royal official named Haman. The King promoted him to high office, and Haman loved the way everyone (except, of course, the royals themselves) bowed and scraped before him. Mordecai didn’t bow, though, because Jews bow to no one except the Lord God Almighty. This really chafed Haman, and he decided that all Jews needed to pay for Mordecai’s insolence. He decided to get the King to decree a day on which people throughout the Empire could slaughter Jews, because they weren’t good citizens.

Now, Ahasuerus was basically a good guy, but he was easily led. Haman convinced him that the massacre was a good idea, and to sweeten the deal offered the King a hefty bribe, and the King signed the decree, setting the date for about eleven months later – to give time for the decree to be circulated throughout the Empire. Mordecai, of course, heard about it and began to roam the city, wearing sackcloth and ashes and wailing. When Esther learned that Mordecai was wearing sackcloth, she sent him better clothes, which he refused to wear. So she sent a servant to ask what was going on. Mordecai told her about Haman’s plot and said that she should go to the King to stop it.

Well, you heard what happened next, but I’ll recap. Esther reminded her cousin that it was against the law to go to Ahasuerus without being summoned, and he pointed out that the massacre of all Jews meant all Jews, including her. And he said, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” He felt sure that if Esther did nothing, then God would find another way to save the Jews, but perhaps God had worked the divine will for Esther to be the means of their salvation. She asked Mordecai and all the other Jews in Susa to fast and pray, and then she would go to the King, come what may.

Well, the King was delighted to see her. “What is your wish, dear Esther?” he asked. She said that she would like for the King and Haman to have dinner with her that evening. They did that, and during the dinner the King again asked, “What do you want of me?” She said, “Come to dinner again tomorrow, and then I will tell you all that is on my mind.”

The King was delighted, and Haman even more so. He went home and boasted to his family that he was so important that the Queen had invited him to a private dinner with just her and the King! But he was so upset that Mordecai would not bow to him that he decided then and there to hang Mordecai to death on a gallows right there in Haman’s front yard.

Well, King Ahasuerus could not sleep that night. He felt he had left something undone, but what was it? After studying the recent records, he realized what it was: Mordecai had saved his life, and he had done nothing to reward him! He decided to ask his most trusted advisor, Haman, how to reward his rescuer. When Haman came in, the King asked, “What do you think I should do for the man I wish to honor?” Haman thought, “Well, that has to be me; who else would he honor but me?” So he told the King: Dress the man in one of the King’s robes, set the man on one of the King’s own horses, and have one of the King’s top officials lead him around the city square, announcing, “This is what the King does for the one he wishes to honor!” Ahasuerus loved the idea, and told Haman himself to escort Mordecai around the city, just as he had suggested. Haman did it, and was humiliated.

But then came the banquet; he and the King were eating with Queen Esther, and Ahasuerus said, “Now, my Queen, what is your request?” And Esther replied, “That you save my life, and the lives of my people. We have been sold to be massacred.” The King said, “Who has done this?” And the Queen said, “Our enemy: this wicked Haman!” The King was furious and went out into the garden to think about this, but Haman threw himself at Esther’s feet to plead for his life. When the King came in, he saw Haman on Esther’s dining couch, and cried, “Will he even assault the Queen here in my own house?” The servants took Haman out of the palace, and he was hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai.

Well, that was the climax. The rest of the story is that the King promoted Mordecai, and the three of them cooked up another decree that stopped the massacre. And Jewish people remember this story every year when they celebrate the holiday called Purim.

It is an interesting feature of the Book of Esther that God is not mentioned in it even once. Now, I wrote God into the story, because it’s clear that Mordecai did not believe Esther had become Queen when she did by chance or by fate, but by the will of God, even though he didn’t put it that way. It’s a wonderful story of faithfulness, courage, and intrigue, and the downfall of a villain. And the phrase that sticks with me is what Mordecai said to the Queen, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

You might ask yourself sometime: when were you in just the right place at just the right time? You became the instrument of God’s good will. Perhaps you came to that position for just such a time as that. I’m glad one of you asked me to tell the story of Esther, because I have thought about it quite a bit during these extraordinary times. Perhaps you and I have come to where we are for just such a time as this. And even if God remains anonymous in the story, thanks be to God for giving us that opportunity.

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

Sermon from June 28: Come and Have Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon from June 14: The Justice of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from Pentecost: Ruach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon from May 24: The Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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