Sermon from May 17: The Battle

The Battle
Easter VI; May 17, 2020
II Chronicles 20:13-17

Sales of shirts have remained steady, sales of pajamas have gone up, sales of pants have gone down: one of the unforeseen consequences of doing most of our connecting with each other over video conferencing. One of the questions we followers of Jesus have to consider is what the unforeseen consequences are of worshiping via Facebook Live and YouTube.

Today’s message and next week’s I am thinking of as a two-part message on thinking our way through this pandemic. These two months we have done some laughing, some weeping, some physically-distanced fellowship and more physically-distanced committee meetings (we can be so Presbyterian!). What does it all mean? What is the big picture? Before I tell you a little more about the Scripture, I want to give you the summary of everything I have to say today: Only the Cross makes sense to me.

I told you a few weeks ago that I’m using Scriptures that have been helpful to me or to someone during the pandemic. I was inspired by some preachers who were interviewed on NPR; one of them said that he was inspired by II Chronicles’ phrase, “The battle is not yours but God’s.” You heard me read that in today’s Scripture; the King of Judah was afraid of an impending invasion, because he knew the country wasn’t strong enough to stand against the allies arrayed against it. But a prophet urged him not to worry; “The battle is not yours but God’s.” So the King arranged his forces appropriately, but did not charge out into battle. And the way it turned out, God confused the enemies so they ended up destroying each other.

The preacher said that he was able to work through the pandemic with the confidence that the battle is not his, but God’s. He doesn’t have to solve all the problems medical, social, and economic that are before us. The battle is not his, but God’s. That is certainly true for the preacher, and I have always been helped by the reminder that it is my duty to proclaim the Gospel, but it is not my duty to make you believe it or live by it. The battle is not mine, but God’s.

And yet: the guidelines that have enabled us to live securely, inhibiting the spread of COVID-19, were not handed down on Mt. Sinai but came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What we are looking for in order to deal with this disease long-term is not going to miraculously appear at a wedding in Cana, but will be the product of intensive research for a vaccine and for treatments. Restoring livelihoods and financial security will be the product of hard work and entrepreneurial innovation, not trumpets blowing down the walls of Jericho. You may be shocked to hear me say this – I may sound like a hardened secularist – but I believe I am telling the truth. The truth, as I see it, is defined both by Biblical theology and scientific discovery.

So I want to say a few things that will take us to my conclusion that only the Cross makes sense. I don’t know all the nonsense being said in the name of God about this coronavirus, but I want to say this clearly: this particular thing is the normal result of living in the world as God is making it. God didn’t send it as punishment for anything, but it also is not something that comes from Hell against the will of God. Keep two things in mind: God is creating a world that has the freedom to evolve; and Creation isn’t about us. I once heard a children’s teacher say that if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit, then mosquitoes would not harm us. That is nonsense. Don’t teach our children nonsense. Mosquitoes have evolved to nourish themselves the way they do; some of them carry diseases harmful to humans. God could have, no doubt, built everything so that nothing ever changes and nothing ever causes harm, but God did not do that. God is creating a world that has the freedom to evolve, and so harmful things such as this particular coronavirus will naturally emerge. And that is particularly true when, as Biblical theology makes clear, we human beings are not the purpose of creation. It isn’t all about us. Things that have their own lives and processes will emerge, irrespective of what we think is good. It isn’t all about us.

That’s the first and the hardest thing I have to say to you. The rest comes more easily. This coronavirus is causing more suffering than anything the world has dealt with in a very long time. Many are suffering directly from the disease COVID-19. And then many are suffering from being on the front line of care; one man I communicate with on social media reported recently his sadness when two more of his patients died of it. He suffers emotionally. Many suffer from anxiety, either because they go to work and are constantly exposed to the possibility of catching the coronavirus, or because they are staying in and are feeling closed in. And a huge number of people are suffering financially and from reduced self-image, because they are not working and have less income and do not know when they will be able to work again.

That was what hit me several days ago: when the morning news reported the unemployment figures. I haven’t wept over the numbers of new cases of COVID-19 or the stories about who has died of it, I admit, but hearing how many people have lost their jobs did it. And that’s when I realized: only the Cross makes sense. We want God to solve this for us, to send a vaccine or make the virus magically go away; and some religious charlatans say that is what would happen if we had enough faith. I don’t believe it. I believe that we need to keep fighting our instinct to herd together, to continue vigilant despite the yahoos storming State capitols demanding what they consider freedom, and to do what we can to encourage good medical research into vaccines and treatment. That battle is ours.

To go back to the story: even though God caused the invaders to fall on each other, King Jehoshaphat’s troops were ready to do what was needed. It turned out that all that was needed was to sing praise and gather the plunder from the fallen. But they were ready. The battle is God’s, but we have our part to play.

The Cross is what makes sense of it for me. God has made clear that the way God deals with suffering is to become part of it. God suffers with us. When you weep over your loved one who is hospitalized with COVID-19 and you cannot be with them, God weeps. When I weep over the millions who are out of work, God weeps. Maybe you want the magical power that makes everything better; God has chosen the Cross. God deals with suffering by suffering; deals with death by dying. It is the only way to resurrection.

The way God joins the battle with suffering is not to make suffering go away; God becomes part of the suffering as Jesus dies on the Cross, and God redeems suffering by raising Jesus from the dead. What good will come from this terrible period we are experiencing? Too many of you are already breathing a sigh of relief; we’re not through this yet. We have a long way to go. But I live with the confidence that God will bring something good from this. That is how redemption works: not by making suffering go away, but by suffering through it to the new day of resurrection beyond it. That battle is not yours or mine, but God’s. Even so, we have our part to play.

By the grace of God and human sweat and tears and careful thought, something good will come of all this; some of us will even live to see the good things that come of it. You and I can be part of that, and that is where I will try to pick up this thread in next week’s message. In the meantime, remember that the battle is God’s, and that God has engaged in the battle by the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is on the Cross that God becomes one with us in suffering and dying, so that we may become one with God in living. Only the Cross makes sense to me.

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

Sermon from May 10 – The Goodness of the Lord

The Goodness of the Lord
Easter V; May 10, 2020
Psalm 27

I’m going to say a strange thing: every year I look forward to Lent. There are a few reasons for that, but this one in particular: during Lent, Psalm 27 is the psalm for the morning every Thursday. I love Psalm 27: its expression of faith, its confidence that the Lord will take us in if our families reject us, and especially one line: “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

A lot of the time we people of faith can have our vision set on “what’s on the other side.” Some of our most fun songs go there, singing about “flying away” to “Canaan land” when “the roll is called up yonder” and so forth. But I don’t want us to get so heavenly-minded that we’re of no earthly use to anyone. And besides, when the Bible talks about faith and hope, it says that we have faith that God is involved in our lives now, and we have hope that God is using us for good now. And so I say with the poet, “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

My Mother was a woman of that sort of faith. From my Dad I learned about duty: I learned about disciplined giving to the Church, about following through on your promises, about showing up whether you feel like it or not. But from my Mom I learned about faith. When she agreed with her oncologist’s recommendation to stop chemo and begin hospice care, she said, “I’m on God’s time now.” When the Pastor came to her home to give her communion, she wanted to sing, “It is Well with My Soul.” Now that is from the last six months of her life, but she lived that sort of faith all the 58 years I knew her. “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

We’ve asked a few folks to respond to the question, “How did your Mother influence your faith?” Let’s hear from them.

Readers: You really should look at the video. The stories and comments from church members (and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly) will encourage you.

You may remind me that today we are worshiping God, not Mother, but it’s also wise to remember those who have had a positive influence on our faith in God. For some of you, that is not your Mother. It may be your Father, or another relative, or a neighbor, or a college chaplain. Not everyone has had a mother who helped us learn to trust in God.

So whoever that is in your life, I ask you today to give thanks for whoever had a positive impact on you, so that you can live in this confidence: “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” And if you haven’t had such a person, and you want to know more about the God who inspires such confidence, be in touch. I will be glad to hear from you. It isn’t always an easy road to walk, but the road of faith is marked with signs that help me: “This I believe – that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

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

Sermon from May 3

My Redeemer Lives
Easter IV; May 3, 2020
Job 19:23-27

Sometimes we need someone to stand up for us. If you get hauled into court – you’ve been sued, or you’ve been accused of a crime – you really ought to have a lawyer. They say that those who represent themselves have a fool for a lawyer, and I’m inclined to agree. When I was the accused in a church case, I had a lawyer, even though I knew more about Presbyterian law than he did. He was a great help.

Sometimes at work you need someone to stand up for you. The Labor movement arose because working people needed someone to stand up for them before the power of great corporations. Sometimes in relationships you need someone who can speak up for you, someone who understands you and can put your case.

Job was looking for someone to stand up for him before Almighty God. That’s a tall order! But remember the story: God let the Accuser attack Job, essentially on a bet, and Job went through a host of sufferings. After complaining about it, and dealing with well-meaning but misguided friends, Job erupts with these words: If only I could write down my complaint so that people for ages to come would know how unfairly I’m being treated! But I know that somewhere somebody will stand up for me before God, and I’ll see God for myself.

If you’ve heard this Scripture before, that’s probably not what you heard. You may have heard the music of Handel, and a soprano singing, “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” It’s the first air in Part III of Messiah. Or you’ve heard a preacher read it at a funeral; I know it’s one of my go-to readings at a funeral. So, if you’ve heard this Scripture before, you’ve heard it as Job’s affirmation of faith, that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and so he would be raised too.

Well, no. That’s nice, and it’s true that Christ is raised from the dead and that is the source of our hope for Resurrection, and that’s what I’m trying to say when I read it at a funeral, but that’s not what Job is saying. If you read it in context of Job’s story, rather than as part of Handel’s Messiah, then clearly what Job is saying is: My accuser has had his say, now my defender will speak up on my behalf. And I’ll see God for myself.

That’s the truth, whether you or I like it or not. And I’m going to use that as an excuse to riff a bit about truth, before returning to Job. Maybe in the course of conversation about the current pandemic you have heard comparisons to the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19. There’s a lot we can learn from studying the history of that experience. Maybe you have heard that disease referred to as the “Spanish flu.” Do you know why it was called the Spanish flu? No, it didn’t start in Spain. We don’t know exactly where it started, but the place most often suggested is Kansas. So why is it called Spanish flu? Because most of the world was at war, and the countries involved in the war had a pact that they would not report any bad news. They didn’t want anything to demoralize their populations, and so as the flu raged through their cities, it was kept quiet. Except in Spain. Spain was neutral in the war, so in Spain they were reporting on the flu. The reason the 1918-19 influenza pandemic is called the Spanish flu is because the Spanish were the only people who were telling the truth about it.

We are, in the United States, always at risk of abandoning truth in favor of whatever makes us feel good. That may be true everywhere in the world, but I happen to live here. People will believe what they want in our political life because it makes them feel good. Sometimes they feel good feeling angry! Truth based on evidence seems to be irrelevant.

In religion, truth is hardly a factor anymore. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but if you poll pastors, you’ll probably find that we’re generally agreed that most modern American Christians are less interested in trying to conform their thinking to spiritual truth than they are in believing whatever makes them feel good. Stephen Colbert put this best when he invented the word, “Truthiness.” “Truthiness” represents something that feels true in my gut, whether there is any evidence for it or not. Those who live by truthiness, rather than truth, will ignore what public health leaders are saying and will do what they feel like doing. Those who live by truthiness, rather than truth, will ignore what pastors say about the worship and service of God, and will complain that they shouldn’t have to do anything they don’t like. And those who live by truthiness, rather than truth, will think something is so just because their favorite cable news channel or public official or other leader has said it over and over and it feels right in their good, whether there is evidence or not.

Okay, end of rant. But it takes me back to Job’s assertion that a Redeemer would stand up for him. The Scriptures make it clear that there is a Redeemer who stands up for us, and that is why, even though I get irritated at people’s reliance on truthiness, rather than truth, I can get through my day and continue to serve God. Because, ultimately, the truth will out. In public life, the truth will prevail. And in our life of faith, the truth will prevail. There is no staying power and there is no divine power in truthiness, but only in truth.

Job didn’t know it, but Jesus Christ is the Redeemer he was looking for. The Bible shows Jesus as the one who pleads with God on our behalf, the one who stands before the throne of God and makes our case for us. If you are afraid to come before God honestly, to admit the truth about yourself before God, then be sure that you have Jesus by your side when you go to God. Jesus is the Redeemer who speaks up for you. If the Committee that meets in your head has voices that accuse you, then be sure that Jesus is present in your head, so that his Redeeming voice will meet the voices of your accusers. Jesus knows the truth about us, and he speaks up for us. None of us is as good as our greatest fans believe, and none of us is as bad as our most vehement accusers claim. Sometimes it is hard for us to face truth, but Jesus Christ knows the truth about us, our warts and our beauty marks, our sins and our virtues, our good deeds and our failings. And the one who demonstrated love for us by dying now speaks up for us as the living Lord. I know that my Redeemer lives.

Even Job saw the truth about himself in his story. If you don’t know the story, we should study it together. At the end, Job did indeed see God for himself, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. He didn’t get the vindication he wanted, but he did get the vindication he needed. He wanted to convince God that he wasn’t so bad, and that he didn’t deserve all the bad stuff that was happening to him. That isn’t how it turned out. The way it turned out was that God showed Job that he wasn’t so all-fired important as he thought he was, that bad things happen to people whether they deserve it or not, and isn’t the whale a marvelous creature? In other words, Job learned that the world wasn’t all about him, and complaining that God should have treated him better was an empty exercise. But at the same time, God vindicated Job in a very surprising way, by saying that Job told the truth about God, and that all those who were trying to explain things to Job, trying to make God look good, were lying. God rewarded Job for telling the truth. It wasn’t what Job was looking for, but it was what Job got.

So even though Job didn’t know he was telling a great truth about Jesus Christ, in the end it turns out that he was. He wanted someone who would be his defense attorney before the court of God Almighty. He got that, and you and I got that, and we all got so much more besides. We got the One who knows the truth about us, and loves us, and takes our case again and again. His voice of love overcomes every voice of deceit or truthiness or accusation. I know that my Redeemer lives.

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

Stephen Colbert introduces “truthiness”: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word—truthiness

 

 

Sermon for Holy Humor Sunday: April 19, 2020

Dem Bones
Easter II (Holy Humor Sunday); April 19, 2020
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I always find Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones to be encouraging at Easter, and compelling whenever people are feeling discouraged. But let’s be honest: it’s also darned funny. I mean, really: the Lord God says to the Prophet, “Prophesy! Prophesy to the wind!” If I had been Ezekiel, I might have said, “Are you listening to yourself, Lord? ‘Prophesy to the wind’?” Well, he was a Jewish prophet, and nobody uses humor quite as well as the Jews. As the rabbi said, “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.” In the spirit of Ezekiel the Prophet, and in honor of Holy Humor Sunday, let’s have a laugh or two.

Now, I know these days are difficult, and I’m glad you’re with us on YouTube. But let’s face it, some things never change:

They must be Presbyterians.

While we’ve all been spending more time at home and less time out and about, I’ve been spending a lot more time on social media than usual. It reminds me of a time that I tried to make friends in the real world using Facebook principles. I would walk down the street, stopping strangers and telling them what I’ve eaten, how I feel, and what I did the night before and what I’ll do tomorrow. I would show them pictures of my dogs, of my family, and pictures of me in the garden or at church. I would listen to their feedback and tell them I love them and add that unless they’re total doofuses they will share what I said with everyone they know.

It must have worked; I gained three followers: two police officers and a psychotherapist.

Dan and Judy Graham, like many of you, are living in a place that tells them not to go out for any reason. He told me that it’s made him realize why the dog gets so excited when something moves outside, or when going for walks or car rides. Dan added, “I think I just barked at a squirrel.”

Well, although the parks in Omaha are closed, the golf courses are open. I heard that on a recent afternoon Jesus and Moses were golfing. They came to a hole with a water hazard; Jesus selected an iron. Moses said, “Jesus, you know you won’t clear that hazard with an iron. Use a wood.” Jesus replied, “If Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball that far with an iron, I can too.” Jesus teed off; the ball went in the water. So Moses walked to the edge of the water, parted the water, walked in and got the ball and returned it to Jesus, saying, “Use a wood!” Jesus repeated himself, “If Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball that far with an iron, I can too.” He teed off again, and the ball went into the water. Moses retrieved it for him again, gave it back, and said, “Use a wood! I’m not getting your ball again.” Jesus said it again, “If Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball that far with an iron, I can too.” So Jesus teed off for a third time, and the ball went into the water. Moses said, “You’re on your own, smart guy!” So Jesus went to the water hazard, walked out onto it, and reached down, feeling for the ball. Another golfer came along and saw him out there and said to Moses, “Who does that guy think he is? Jesus Christ?” And Moses sighed and said, “No, he is Jesus Christ. He thinks he’s Tiger Woods!”

So while we’re on the subject of Jesus – aren’t we always? – let’s take a new look at his Sermon on the Mount. In our current emergency, this just might make sense:

Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven a lot, and so we pastors tend to, also. One Pastor reported that she loved to preach about heaven, but one of her members said one Sunday after church, “Why don’t you ever tell us about hell?” The Pastor replied, “There’s no point; you’ll see hell for yourself.”

Which reminds me of one of my favorite church signs. It said that the Pastor’s sermon on Sunday would be, “What is hell?” And added, “Come early and hear our choir practice.” Bad Church signs really are the funniest; this one was on a parish church in York, England:

CHRIS IS RISEN!

That might have been the same church that put on their sign, after the Pastor recovered from a long illness: God is good! Pastor Windrup is better!

You may have seen the church bulletin that read, “This afternoon there will be meetings at the north and south ends of the Church. Children will be baptized at both ends.” Do you ever wonder what the baptism looks like from the kid’s point of view? Maybe like this:

I know there are many Christians who don’t believe in the baptism of babies. I not only believe in it, I’ve seen it!

But all my career I’ve wanted to do a baptism by immersion. I might need to practice, or I could be like this preacher. He took the new convert to the river for his baptism, and told him that he was about to find Jesus. So he pushed the guy under water; when he came up, he said, “Did you find Jesus?” and the new Christian said, “Well, no…” and so the Pastor pushed him under again. “Did you find Jesus?” “Not yet.” And so he pushed him under again, and held him down there a little longer. A third time: “Did you find Jesus?” And the man sputtered and said, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

Well, you can’t get much closer to someone, whether child or adult, than a baptism. Whether you go down into the river with a grownup, or hold a baby in your arms, social distance is impossible. Unless you do like this pastor:

You know, of course, that Catholics always use holy water for baptism. The Rev. Greg Reid, father of Maggie Hernandez and grandfather of Sarah Greer, liked to say that Catholics get holy water by boiling the hell out of it.

Why is it that all the best jokes about Christians tend to be about Catholics? Most jokes about Presbyterians are a play on “the frozen chosen” or our tendency to do everything “decently and in order.” Maybe we think that we need to keep the fact that we really can be a lot of fun a secret from everyone else. In my experience, Catholics throw the best parties, so maybe that’s why they have the best stories. Like this one about the nun out on a rainy night, stopping at a monastery asking for shelter. She’s just in time for dinner and has the best fish-and-chips she’s ever tasted. So she goes into the kitchen to thank the cooks; there are two members of the order there. One says, “Hello, I’m Brother Michael, and this is Brother Charles.” “Pleased to meet you,” says the nun. “Thank you for a wonderful dinner; that was the best fish-and-chips I’ve ever had. Just out of curiosity, who cooked what?” Brother Charles replied, “Well, I’m the fish friar.” To the other she said, “Then you must be…” “Yes, I’m the chip monk.”

If you’re ever in my office and notice that along with my Bobblehead Jesus and Buddy Christ I have a plastic BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary), you might ask me where I got her. But for now, let me tell you a story about a devout Catholic woman who would go twice a week to the church, kneel before the statue of Mary, and pray. One day she was praying, and Jesus decided to reward her devotion by visiting her. He stood before her and said, “Theresa, it’s Jesus.” She didn’t answer. Maybe she couldn’t hear him, so he spoke louder, “Theresa, it’s Jesus; I’ve come to see you.” Still no answer, so he tried again, “Theresa, your prayers are rewarded; it’s Jesus!” Finally she responded, “Please be still; I’m talking to your Mother!”

Different sorts of Christians will handle the same problem in different ways. For example, in one small town every church was being overrun with squirrels. How did they handle it?
• The Presbyterians called a meeting; after much prayer and deliberation, they concluded that God had preordained the squirrels to be there and they should not interfere with the divine will.
• The Baptists noticed the squirrels were interested in the baptistery, so they put a water-slide on it in hopes the squirrels would drown themselves. The squirrels enjoyed the slide, and knew how to swim, so twice as many showed up the next week.
• The Lutherans thought they should not harm any of God’s creatures, so they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free near the Baptist Church. Two weeks later they were back when the Baptists took down the water-slide.
• The Episcopalians tried an interesting experiment. They set out pans of whiskey around the church in an effort to kill the squirrels with alcohol poisoning, only to find out how much damage a band of drunk squirrels can do.
• The Catholics tried something everyone else should have: they baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the Church. Now they see them only at Christmas and Easter.
It was actually the Jews who knew exactly what to do. They took one squirrel and circumcised him. They haven’t seen a squirrel since.

Well, thanks to everyone who provided material for today’s sermon. Let me finish with a story that puts it all in perspective for me; I’ve heard a number of versions of this story, but I’ll tell this one. It keeps me hoping for the day when we can be together again.

Charles’ mother came to his room on Sunday morning, knocked on the door and told him it was time to get ready for church. He said, “I’m not going.” She went in, sat on the side of the bed, and gently asked him why. He said, “Three reasons. First off, I just don’t want to. Second, and more to the point, nobody there likes me. And third, the messages never say anything worthwhile.” She looked at him a moment, then stood and said to him, “And I’ll give you three good reasons why you should go. First, there are a lot of people there who like you; I know because they’ve told me. Second, many people find the messages to be encouraging and they help them grow in their relationship with God. And finally: you have to go; you’re the Pastor. Now get up and get dressed!”

In the words of Swami Beyondananda: The best way to overcome gravity is with levity.

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

Material provided by:
• Dale Duckert
• Dan Graham
• Sarah Greer
• Cynthia Harvey
• Maggie Hernandez
• Dale Irvin
• Bill Norton

And The Funny Times

Sermon from Easter 2020: God Restores Hope

God Restores Hope
Resurrection; April 12, 2020
Matthew 28:1-10

There’s a moment in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s novels that sticks in my head. The grandfather has had a stroke and been hospitalized; when it is realized that he is dying, he chooses to go home and be surrounded by his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. At one point, he says to his son-in-law, “Perhaps I’d be better off in the hospital. Perhaps you shouldn’t have brought me home… I thought I could die with you around me, and I did not realize how much it would hurt you and that I cannot stand that hurt.” The son-in-law replies, “Perhaps you ought not to deprive us of that hurt?”

Sometimes when people go through bad times, they pretend everything is all right. Or sometimes the people around them pretend everything is all right. When someone mentions their sadness, or pain, or struggle, sometimes the rest of us will quickly change the subject; we think we’re cheering them up or sparing their feelings or some such. In reality, we’re denying them the right to hurt; and consequently we’re denying them the hope that they’ll get through this and things will get better.

Jesus’ friends and followers and family needed to be allowed to go through those three days, when hope seemed to be lost and they knew nothing but the grief of having lost him and the fear that the authorities would come after them next. When you and I permit ourselves to experience Good Friday and the time of desolation, we get a taste of their hurt. Perhaps you have done the spiritually mature thing and have felt how our current time of uncertainty and fear reflects what they experienced after Jesus was executed. Only when we know desolation can we truly know hope.

God restores hope. It’s no good to pretend everything was okay all along, to pretend Jesus was not really dead, to act as though his death is anything other than a terrible wrong. Because God does not do the simple thing, which would be to make sure everything is always all right. God does the more difficult thing: in the midst of our desolation, God restores hope.

It has been pointed out that the current emergency, the world in fear of a pandemic, is nothing new for Christians. We’ve been through it before. In the middle of the third century, a plague swept through the Roman Empire, and between a quarter and a third of the population of the Empire died. One thing that people noticed was that Christians reacted differently from others. Whereas the reaction of everyone else was to isolate the sick and allow them to die alone, Christians cared for the sick. They risked themselves in order to provide basic nursing care and so that no one would have to die alone. Christians got sick just as much as everyone else – God did not protect them from getting sick – but basic nursing care did help the survival rate. Christians reacted to the plague very differently from their neighbors.

Why did they? Fundamentally, it was because Christ was risen from the dead. Jesus had taught the importance of caring for one another, and had demonstrated the effects of such care. He touched lepers – people who were not supposed to be touched – and was consistently compassionate to those who were pushed to the margin by everyone else. But the reason people followed through and actually did as Jesus did and taught was because they believed that he was alive and therefore a living Lord who should be followed. If Jesus is dead, then he serves as a good example that you can follow, if you choose, or ignore, if you choose. If Jesus is alive, then he is the Lord and he is to be followed.

And, frankly, since they knew a living Lord, they were not afraid. You have heard stories of Christians going to their deaths because of their faith; now I remind you that Christians were compassionate to the sick because of their faith. They weren’t afraid of dying; since Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, they believed that they too would be raised with him. They didn’t believe that God would protect them from being sick; they believed that being sick and even dying was not worse than the alternative, which was to fail Jesus Christ.

Now, don’t take what I am saying the wrong way. I do not advise that you go rushing out to look after people with COVID-19; leave that to the health professionals. Please wear your face mask if you go out and do not mingle with a group; please continue to practice what we are told for the sake of everyone’s health. Here is what I ask you to do: have hope. When you feel you cannot stand another day in isolation, take hope from Jesus’ Resurrection that a new day will come. When you are struggling because of the toll this is taking on you emotionally and financially and mentally, take hope from Jesus’ Resurrection that the morning will dawn and we will see that we live in the kingdom of the Risen Lord. Remember what Julian of Norwich heard in her visions, words that I have said to you many times before: “Jesus told me that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

I was greatly encouraged by the vision of the Prophet in today’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31:1-6). Jeremiah spoke to his people in exile, people who had lost their homes, lost their land, lost their way of life, lost their country. Jeremiah spoke to them of the hope of restoration:

Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
The planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 31:4-6)

It may seem a small thing to many, but I take hope in the promise that there shall be a day when the sentinel via Facebook and our website and word-of-mouth will call, “Come, let us go up to the Church on the Hill, to the Lord our God.” Just knowing that our separation is temporary restores hope. It is long, and maybe we wish it hadn’t happened at all, but maybe we should be permitted to live through it and have hope. For we know the day of restoration will come.

If we know that, then we know we can live through any desolation and have hope: hope for restoration, hope for life, hope that by remaining faithful to the living Lord Jesus even death is not the last word. For by the Resurrection of Jesus, God restores hope.

Although Jesus had told them, the friends and followers and family of Jesus didn’t really get it – how could they? – didn’t know that their separation would be temporary, that on the third day he would be restored to them. You and I know, and so we know that every hard and terrible experience of life always has in it that kernel of hope. We do not follow a dead martyr, but a living Lord, who has promised us life as well.

As Jesus was dying, he cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” As he learned and his friends and followers and family learned, God did not abandon him. He went through what he went through, and they went through it too, and they all came out the other side with new life and new hope. Remember that God raised Jesus. God kept the promise to restore his life and kept the promise therefore to restore our hope.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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

Sermon from Palm/Passion Sunday

(I Don’t Know) How to Love Him
Palm/Passion Sunday; April 5, 2020
Matthew 26:69-75; 27:55-61

Our Church’s original plan for today was for the choir to take us through the story of Jesus’ passion and death by using selections from Jesus Christ, Superstar. You will get to hear one of the songs after the sermon, Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I was thinking also of the dialogue between Mary and Peter after Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:69-75):
Mary: Peter, don’t you know what you have said? You’ve gone and cut him dead.
Peter: I had to do it, don’t you see? Or else they’d go for me.
Mary: It’s what he told us you would do – I wonder how he knew…

That’s harsh, what Mary said to Peter: “You’ve gone and cut him dead.” But most of us have had harsh thoughts about Peter, because of his denial of Jesus. We wish he had done better; maybe you, as I do, wonder if you would have done any better. There’s a line in Ecclesiastes that seems relevant: better a living dog than a dead lion (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Peter, the living dog, saved his skin, and so he was there to do some remarkable things later on.

Still, at this moment, he’s quite a contrast to Mary and the other women, who were on hand when Jesus died and who were nearby when he was buried. They were present. They were there. When the servant-girl said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean,” Peter denied it. He said he wasn’t with him. He doesn’t come off so well.

But one of the people I like to read changed my thinking; William Barclay pointed out that Peter was, in fact, there. After Jesus was arrested, everybody ran away, but Peter followed him and was nearby. Even after he was recognized, he stayed. Barclay said: Peter loved Jesus. He loved Jesus enough to follow him to a dangerous place. Even after he was recognized, he loved Jesus enough to stay. Then out of his love for Jesus, he remembered what Jesus had said. And even though Superstar tells us that he made excuses to Mary Magdalene, the Gospels tell us that Peter went out and wept. If he had not loved Jesus, he would not have wept.

As much as I love the song, it seems that both Peter and Mary Magdalene did know how to love Jesus. They both knew this: the main thing about loving Jesus is to stick with him when everyone else runs away. Peter followed him to the high priest’s house; Mary Magdalene and her friends followed him to the Cross and tomb. They were there. And so too was Joseph of Arimathea, who treated Jesus as a member of his own family, taking his body and placing it in his own new tomb. He was there.

Sometimes, in my head, I get critical of the prayer I often hear, “Lord, be with us” or “Lord, be with Henry…” and so forth. I think, “Ask for something specific; the Lord is always with us.” I think my criticism may be wrong. If the first thing about love is being there; if we know that Peter, Mary Magdalene, the other women, and Joseph of Arimathea loved Jesus because they were with him, maybe we are really asking for God to show us that God loves us. “Be with us” means “Show us you love us enough to stick around.”

What signs have you seen recently that God is loving you, is hanging around? I’ve seen God’s people write encouraging thoughts; I’ve seen wonderful expressions of a great sense of humor about all this; I’ve seen signs of Spring. And, of course, this week we follow Jesus to his Cross, where he spreads his arms wide to embrace the world in the self-giving love of God.

I’d like you to think about my question: what signs have you seen that God is loving you, is hanging around? When you pray, “Be with us, Lord,” how do you know that your prayer is answered, that God is with you? Think about an answer or two, maybe even write them down, so that while we live with necessary restrictions and there may even be fear around us, you can remember that God loves you and is with you.

And so back to the original concern: I don’t know how to love him. Maybe Peter, and Mary and the other women, and Joseph can tell you and me how to love Jesus: be there. Be with him. Follow him to the High Priest’s house; follow him to the Cross; take him to the tomb. Be with him. But how to do that right now? How can I be with Jesus when I cannot leave my house? How can I be with Jesus when I cannot go to Church? How can I be with Jesus when I have to stay six feet away from anyone who does not live with me? I don’t know how to love him.

There is the challenge for your imagination. Here are some things I’ve heard; you can think of others. Some are making a practice of using the telephone to be with people. They can’t go visit, but they can call. And many people are rather isolated right now. They are with Jesus by being with his siblings. Our Prayer Shawl ministry has a good supply of prayer shawls, and don’t think they need to make more right now, so they are making caps, scarves, and mittens for folks at Edison School and at Siena Francis House for next winter. That’s a good reminder, isn’t it? There will be a next winter. I know that some folks with skill in sewing are making masks and other needed supplies for others.

I think these are signs that people are finding ways to be with Jesus, even though pretty much stuck at home. What other ways can you be with Jesus?

When, in the opera, Mary Magdalene sings that she doesn’t know how to love Jesus, what she is really telling us is her fears about him and her fear of him, as well as her desire to be with him. She sings that she doesn’t know how to love him, but in the opera, she is the one who shows him tenderness, the one who demonstrates simple care and deep affection; she is there. She may not realize it, but she does know how to love him.

And so do I. And so do you.

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

Sermon from Lent V: Commandments 9 & 10

Integrity
Lent V; March 29, 2020
Exodus 20:16-17

Here’s a situation you may have found yourself in. You’re with a group of people, telling jokes. Then someone starts to tell a blatantly racist joke. You’re uncomfortable; you don’t want to hear this, and you don’t like that this person is telling it. What do you do? It’s easy to say, “I would speak up! ‘Hey, you shouldn’t say that!’” But when we’re actually in such a situation, more often than not we just stand there uncomfortably and make a point of not laughing. It’s easy to say that I would speak up; it’s harder to speak up.

But our Catechism says that to speak up in such a situation is one of the duties of those who wish to keep the Ninth Commandment (Book of Confessions 7.254). It would be easy to keep the Commandment if we limit it to the courtroom – which is probably the original intent – because if you’re a witness in a trial, you’re likely to tell the truth. But it’s harder if we think of everything implied by not bearing false witness, as our Catechism does. It means that people of God not only refrain from telling lies about other people, but we also do not tolerate defaming and slandering others and we do whatever we can to show appreciation for the gifts of others.

You know, folks, I’m a little tired of this recitation of Commandments, so I’m going to just say a little bit about the Tenth Commandment and then go to a “big picture” conversation. I think God is trying to tell us something important about ourselves if we look at the big picture, and maybe we should go there.

But first, to do my duty: the Tenth Commandment is one that goes to the heart. “Do not covet.” That means not only don’t take things that belong to other people, but don’t want them either. Be content with who you are and what you have; don’t wish you were somebody else or wish you had somebody else’s stuff or lifestyle. This is real hard: envy is that green seven-headed monster that rises up out of the water of your subconscious and makes you unhappy. It makes you wish for a tree to fall on your neighbor’s beautiful house, for the COVID-19 restrictions to force your classmate’s successful company to go out of business.

Okay, maybe none of you has ever wished something bad would happen to somebody else. Actually, I’ll bet you have. I know that I have, and I suspect you have as well. And maybe that will take us to the big picture that I mentioned. What are we to say at the end of this look at the Ten Commandments? What do they do for us? They tell us that God wants better from us. How nice. But here’s the kicker: God wants better from us because God thinks so highly of us as to think we have it in us to do better.

We have it in us to do better. Governor Ricketts said this week that he thought we probably would not have to have a “shelter-in-place” order in Nebraska because people have been complying with the restrictions currently in place. The State was expecting about a 30% compliance rate, but it’s been more like 90%. They should have expected better of us. Now, whether we can keep this up for another month is a good question, but we’ve done well so far.
There are people organizing events to “Pray Against COVID-19.” Well, that’s nice, and I’m all for prayer. But I don’t think God is likely to zap the virus away, just like that. I think God has more respect for us than that, and is giving us space to control its spread, to look for treatment and possibly prevention, and to do the research necessary to limit this sort of thing happening again. It isn’t simply up to our political leaders and our scientists; this time all of us have a part to play and we are doing it, just as we’ve been asked.

Let me pull in something from the reading from Matthew (5:38-48). There’s a lot here for a whole Bible lesson, but I’ll zero in on one thing: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How can you be perfect? Nobody’s perfect! But there is one thing that you can do better than anyone else can do: be who God made you to be. I could go into the relevant Greek words and provide more theology for you, and I will if you ask me to, but let’s boil it down to this: nobody can be God except God; nobody can be you except you.

You have it in you to be generous as Jesus instructs. You have it in you to love your enemies. You have it in you to stand up for people who are being ridiculed. Our sin gets in the way; laziness, anger, greed and all the evil heads on the monster would destroy all the good God gives us to do. And perhaps most insidious is envy, which makes us discontented with our own life, unhappy to be who we are, willing to say to God, “You goofed when you made me.”

Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Pay attention to the voice in your head that encourages you to do better, the voice that enjoys the way you sing, your ease when you dance, that reminds you of the reasons people do in fact like you. You shall not covet your neighbor’s singing voice, your neighbor’s business success, your neighbor’s perfect children. Because Jesus’ call to be perfect is the call for you to be perfectly you.

Let’s summarize the Commandments as a call to integrity. Let your relationship with God be one of integrity, your relationship with other people demonstrate integrity, your relationship with yourself have integrity. Now, if I could give you a magic formula to get there instantly, I would give it to you. I’ll tell you that I’m working at it, and these things help: I study the Scriptures, I pray, I listen for the guidance of Jesus, and when the voices in my head get into a debate I pay more attention to the voices that say, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” than to the ones that say, “You’re no good and you’ve never been any good.”

Today’s message has wandered a bit, I know. I always have more to say to you than I know how to say in a few minutes. Perhaps this story will finish all this suitably. Last Sunday I kept “drop-in hours” at the Church, as I’ll continue to do until we’re all able to be together again. When they were done, I locked the doors, and then I walked into the Sanctuary and stood, looking at our beautiful window and thinking. Then I said to the Lord, “We’re all doing the best we can.” And I heard the voice of God say to me, “So am I.”

“So am I.” God respects us so much as to leave a lot up to us. Worship the one God. Don’t make idols. Treat God’s name with respect. Remember the Sabbath. Honor your father and your mother. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t lie and don’t tolerate lies. Don’t wish to have something or be something other than what you have and who you are. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Thanks to the love and grace of Jesus, you have it in you.

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

Sermon from Lent IV: Commandments 7 & 8

Respect
Lent IV; March 22, 2020
Exodus 20:14-15

In 1631 an edition of the King James Version of the Bible was printed in England by the royal printers. Soon thereafter, every copy that could be found was gathered and burned, and the printers were fined the equivalent of what is now about $58,000. The book was later called the Wicked Bible, and since most copies were destroyed, the ones that survived are highly valuable. There are two in the United States: one in New York and one in Houston. What makes this Bible so evil? A misprint. A word was left out of Exodus 20, so the people are commanded: Thou shalt commit adultery.

As if anyone inclined to it needed to be commanded!

I’ve grouped these two commandments together because they both say to me, “Respect other people. Respect their relationships; respect their property rights.” There’s a really strong subtext to both of them, that I think you’ll realize if you think about them a bit: respect yourself.

The commandment against adultery receives a lot of elaboration in the rest of the Law, as Moses helps the people understand what is adultery and what the various punishments for it are. At root is the realization that married people have made a covenant, and it’s good to have enough respect for ourselves and for each other to be faithful to the covenants we have made.

Whenever I work with a couple before marriage, I talk with them about covenants. That’s how we Jesus-types describe a number of our relationships, and primarily our relationship with God. Most of us, once we grow up, find ourselves signing various sorts of contracts. I remember when I bought my first car, when I was 25 years old. There was a lot of paperwork, and I didn’t read all of it before signing it. So afterward, the dealer said to me, “We’ll be over for your furniture on Monday.” When I looked dismayed, he laughed. It was his way of joking that you shouldn’t sign something without reading it first.

Anyway, I was signing a contract, and no, it didn’t include the provision that they could come take my furniture. But it did stipulate that I would pay a certain amount of money every month; if I broke the terms of the contract, they could take my car back. If you break the terms of a contract, the contract is broken. A covenant doesn’t work that way. If you break the terms of a covenant, the covenant is not broken. But it takes repentance and forgiveness and work to maintain a covenant. Married people do fail one another, even if they don’t commit adultery. We do not live up to the vows we made when we were married, but we can continue to honor the covenant with repentance, forgiveness, and dedication.

The commandment encourages us to try to keep our vows, out of respect for the covenant, out of respect for others, and out of respect for our own integrity. Don’t you want to think of yourself as the sort of person who keeps your promises? Without going into it, let me put this bug in your ear: all our covenants, all our vows, all our promises have their origin in one basic covenant: the covenant that God made with us in our baptism. This commandment to remind us to stay true to our promises in marriage and other relationships also reminds us to stay true to our promises to God. Stay faithful to one another; stay faithful to Christ.

But let’s talk about the commandment not to steal, because it also encourages us to respect other people, and particularly their income and their property. A pastor friend was talking about this commandment, and he wondered just how far the commandment goes. Is he stealing if he fails to report all his income from weddings and funerals to the IRS? He thought it probably was. But my friend went even further. He thought that it is stealing if he fails to give others all the praise and credit they deserve. That makes sense to me. God has always been interested in money and property, but has never been interested only in money and property. God is interested in justice, in fair dealing between people. So if you do something good, and I take credit for it, then I am stealing from you.

Our Catechism goes even farther. It tells us to go to work and provide for our well-being, but also to promote the work and well-being of others, and to be generous. This aspect of the commandment is going to be particularly important in our present circumstances. Although all of us are having to deal with some shortages and with the emotional toll of social distancing, some of us are not likely to suffer much economically. Those who have reliable income from a salary, from a pension or from Social Security are relatively secure. But those who rely on income from investments, or those who do hourly work that is threatened, may be hurting real bad, real soon.

My friend who was wondering about the extent of “stealing” had another example. He wondered if he went out and bought himself something he didn’t really need – noise-canceling headphones was the example he used – instead of giving that money to a worthy charity, was that stealing? He thought it probably was. So the commandment not to steal implies that the faithful person of God does not use money for luxuries that could help with a necessity.

One of our elders this week pointed out that it is possible that we will be receiving money from the federal government as a partial stimulus during this crisis. And he asked, “What are you going to do with your $1,000?” A lot of us don’t actually need that money, although we could find it useful. But there are a lot of people in this city who will actually need that money. Servers in restaurants, bartenders, people who work in cinemas, day care providers, and many others suddenly find themselves without income. They need that $1,000; and if the government provides me with $1,000, they will need it more than I will. So those of you who have some knowledge in this area can advise the rest of us what to do with our government check so that it will get to those who really need it. Sure, our net worth has plummeted, as I’m sure has happened to a lot of you, too. But most of you hearing this message, like us, will be able to go on eating, go on staying in out of the rain. God wills that we not use this money for a luxury when someone else may need it for food or shelter.

Another story one of our elders told that helps us see our duty. He was at Foodies, buying takeout, and the man ahead of him bought a $300 gift card. The man said, “I was going to buy this later anyhow, as a Christmas gift for a friend who likes to eat here. But I decided that you probably need the money now.” God not only wills that we give generously, but in times such as these it’s a good idea to do business wherever we can in such a way as to help our neighbors. I always make it a matter of policy to buy whatever I can from a local bricks-and-mortar store rather than from, say, Amazon, because I know that my money is going to wages for people who live in my community, pay taxes to my community.

One more thing and then I’ll stop. “You shall not steal” implies a respect for our relationship with the earth and all its creatures. There was a time in our history when we thought of the Earth as our Mother, and we treated it with respect. Somewhere along the line we began to think of the Earth as a resource to be exploited, and its creatures as sources of income. I do not deny the need for minerals from the earth, or the goods that come from its creatures. Goodness, I love a good steak as much as the next Omahan or a good Iowa chop too. But I affirm that we need a change of thinking toward the earth and its creatures, so that we not only refrain from stealing from Mother Earth but we refrain from stealing from future generations. Whenever we hear about the reluctance of our various levels of government to take seriously the need to address climate change, I want to go to Lincoln or Des Moines or, above all, Washington and wear a tee-shirt that reads, “Senator, I care about your grandchildren, even if you don’t.”

That sounds harsh, but sometimes it takes harshness to realize what is important. It is a violation of God’s commandments if we think that everything is here for us, and we can take what we want without regard to others. The commandments of God are to respect others: respect our covenants with them, respect their relationships, respect their property, whether those others are our neighbors, our families, local businesses, or generations yet to come. When you and I live with respect for others, it shows we have the integrity that allows us to respect ourselves.

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

 

Sermon from Lent III on the Sixth Commandment

Reconciled
Lent III; March 15, 2020
Exodus 20:13 (with Matthew 5:21-26)

The more I have thought about this Commandment (“You shall not murder”) the harder it has become to know what God wants me to say to you about it. My range of thinking about it keeps growing and growing, and I want the sermon to be brief and to the point. And Jesus – as is typical – messes it all up by getting to the heart of the matter. Well, I’ve decided to just reflect on some things around the Commandment and hope that one of them sticks with you.

You may have learned the Commandment as “Thou shalt not kill.” This is another one of those Hebrew verbs that doesn’t translate easily, especially since its meaning seems to have evolved over the 2,000-year story of the Old Testament. Generally, it seems to mean, “Don’t take matters into your own hands and kill someone just because you think they have it coming to them.” Now, that would ruin the plots of many movies, wouldn’t it?

One of the gifts we have as Presbyterians is the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms. The Westminster Catechisms explore the Commandments and do something wonderful with them: they consider the implications, both positive and negative, of each Commandment. And the so-called Larger Catechism (Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA 7.245) notes several positive duties that are implied by this Commandment; I can summarize them in two things: Take care of yourself; advocate for the well-being of others.

“Take care of yourself.” The Catechism is thorough: it tells us to be responsible in the way we eat and drink, that we should get enough rest, not work too hard, take time for recreation, and do whatever we can to have a positive mindset. Of course, not only now when people are concerned about COVID-19, but every year during flu season and when colds are around you, protect your health as best you can, but don’t give in to fear. And be sure to take care of your emotional well-being. For example, if you find yourself obsessing over the current crisis, constantly trying to be on top of the latest news, then please: unplug. Hide your phone, turn off your TV or computer, and do something else with your mind. Take care of yourself.

The Catechism also says that the disciple of Jesus should always be ready to be reconciled; that’s part of what Jesus advocated in response to this Commandment. When someone has something against you, do whatever is necessary to set things right. I wonder which is harder: to be the one who needs to set things right, or to be the one who was harmed and is asked to be reconciled. Both are hard. It’s hard to realize I’ve hurt someone, and that I need to go to them and ask to be reconciled. And it’s hard to offer reconciliation when someone who has harmed me asks it.

No, wait; I’ve found that it isn’t so hard. I’m thinking of two different situations. In one, a person hurt me repeatedly and in many ways, and continues to insist, “I never did anything wrong.” I don’t know how to be reconciled to that person, and I wish I could get them to stop taking up room in my head without paying rent. In another situation, a man said some very unkind and hurtful things about me, and after he thought about it, he came to me and apologized. I think quite highly of him; he was always a faithful disciple of Jesus and talented in many ways, but now I also like him. So when someone who has hurt me takes Jesus’ advice and comes to me to talk about it, reconciliation is possible. I hope that I can be big enough to go to any I have hurt, as well. As the Catechism suggests, it is good for our well-being.

The Catechism also says we need to advocate for the well-being of others, including caring for the distressed and “protecting and defending the innocent.” Last Sunday was International Women’s Day, and we celebrated it this week by sentencing Harvey Weinstein to twenty-three years in prison. Okay, that was a cheap shot. But much of the attention this year was on the ways women have been victimized. In Mexico, “a day without women” called attention to the high level of violence against women in that country. A prayer published in our Presbytery’s newsletter called attention to women who have been physically and emotionally abused and whose voices have been silenced. I think it is a positive step that men can no longer assume that we can demand whatever we want of women, and even go so far as to blame the women for it.

So, take care of yourself and advocate for the well-being of others. Let me conclude by riffing a bit on what Jesus does with this Commandment. As usual, Jesus goes way beyond the simple question of behavior to a matter of the heart. Jesus just can’t leave well enough alone; he is so wise that he realizes that our salvation is not just a matter of getting us to behave right but is also a matter of straightening out our heads. So it isn’t enough merely to refrain from killing someone when you’re angry with them. You need to do something about the anger.

If only Jesus would stay out of my head; right? Yours too? Sometimes it is so delicious to nurture that anger against the one who has hurt you; and it’s even more delicious to try to find ways to hurt them that fall short of outright murder. Remember the Klingon proverb? “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Jesus demands that I not only refrain from murder but that I refrain from insulting the person who has hurt me. I suspect he was exaggerating a little bit when he said that calling someone a fool makes you liable to hell; after all, he called the scribes and Pharisees “fools” (Matthew 23:17). If Jesus means this as an absolute rule, then he breaks his own rule.

So please don’t get all legalistic and think you’re going to hell for what you said about your idiot brother-in-law, but do remember the will of God: work at overcoming your hostility toward others. I find a great tool for that is to try, honestly, to understand things from the other’s point of view. An illustration: One of the questions dividing our nation politically is pro-life vs. pro-choice. For various reasons, I align myself with the pro-choice group. And I work at understanding the point of view of those who call themselves “pro-life,” even if I think they’re wrong. I understand they believe they are advocating for the well-being of those who are most vulnerable among us. I understand they believe that a fetus that is on the path of becoming a human being has all the rights of a human being. And I appreciate this much: we are in danger of turning human life into a commodity, and the pro-life movement resists that trend. So even though I disagree with them, I’m not going to call them names or malign their motives; I’ll simply disagree. Please take that as an example and think of your own issues. Where are you inclined to speak and think badly of others; what can you do to understand their point of view?

Well, those are things that I feel compelled to throw at the wall; we’ll what sticks. “You shall not murder:” a few words that carry a big impact. Take care of yourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Be ready to be reconciled. May God bless you and all the people of God.

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

 

Sermon from Lent II: Flourishing

Flourishing
Lent II; March 8, 2020
Exodus 20:8-12

Dan Price is CEO of a credit card processing company named Gravity Payments. In 2015 he decided to try something with his company, something for which he has been both lambasted and praised. He decided to raise the minimum salary of everyone in the company to $70,000 a year. Of the 120 employees, seventy got a raise and thirty of them had their compensation doubled just like that. How did he pay for it? He reduced his own salary from $1.1 million to $70,000. Colleagues scolded him. Rush Limbaugh called him a communist. Two senior staffers quit because they said it was unfair and that junior staffers would slack off.

As it happened, junior staffers did not slack off. They actually get more work done, because they have been able to focus on their jobs, rather than worry about other things. They have had the money to buy homes; they have felt more confident about starting families; two-thirds of them have reported they’ve cut back on their debt significantly and many are debt-free. What has been the impact on Price himself? He takes more modest vacations now than he used to. Oh, and the company has increased its business.

Price is happy about the impact on the people in his organization, but he says he doesn’t feel the experiment was a success, because other companies are not rushing to follow suit. The income disparity between CEOs and workers has continued to grow. When he’s been told he should have kept the huge salary and done good things with it, he said that our society has been relying on billionaire philanthropists for too long and what we really need is more “justice and integrity engineered and designed into our system.”[1]

The two commandments we are concerned with today – “Remember the Sabbath” and “Honor your father and your mother” – are both directed toward a life of flourishing and toward justice. Let’s talk about justice first. When I read to you the entire Commandment about the Sabbath, I hope you noticed something important: I hope you noticed that God commands not only the covenant-keeper to take one day in seven off of work, but everybody in the household gets the day off. You don’t get to take a day off by making your servant do the work for you; everybody is equal. The Commandment to keep Sabbath is a great equalizer: it applies to the one who is trying to have a good relationship with God, and to the children, workers, livestock, and immigrant laborers. You don’t work and you don’t make anybody else work: everyone is equal.

Speculation around the meaning of “Honor your father and your mother,” has centered around the idea that you treat them with respect, simply because they are the ones who gave you life. Whether they were good parents or terrible parents is immaterial; you must treat them seriously. At least, you make sure they are cared for in their old age. And the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church extends that attitude to everyone in a position of authority: presidents and pastors, executives and teachers. Whatever you think of them personally and whether you like their decisions or not, the Covenant-keeper treats them with respect. And I noticed something about the Commandment which I (at least) think is worth mentioning: in a culture that was heavily patriarchal, in which people are known by their father’s names and frequently a mother’s name isn’t even remembered, the Commandment says to honor your father and your mother. Both are treated with respect; the Commandment is an equalizer.

Both Commandments are equalizers: fathers and mothers are treated alike; parents and children are treated alike; employers and employees are treated alike; citizens and immigrants are treated alike. No, it isn’t communism; it’s Biblical justice. And both are intended so that the Covenant-keeper will have a life of flourishing. It’s an old cliché, but bears repeating: No one ever sighed on their deathbed, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” It may happen, but I suspect that it’s rare that someone would look back on their life and regret not having put in more hours at work and given less attention to their family, their friends, and their spiritual life. Yet we always feel the pressure to give more time to the company, to pursue more dollars, to ignore family and friends and God.

The commandments help us resist that pressure and listen to the calling of our hearts to pay attention to what is of lasting importance: that friend who always makes you smile, a nourishing prayer life, the well-being of the ones who gave you life.

I admit I may be stretching it a bit, but I see in this an implication worth mentioning. The pursuit of enough money to live on is essential, and having work that is in itself meaningful is a great blessing. But, basically, the provision of food, shelter, and pleasure is something we share with all animals. It marks no real difference between us and wolves or wildebeests. All animals pursue food, shelter, and pleasure; right? So how do we nurture our humanity?

Go to the Joslyn and sign up for a class in painting, or listen to a docent talk about what makes a work of art particularly good. Don’t worry about how much money it fetches at auction; ask why it’s worth paying attention to. Listen to music and think about why you like it. Read Kooser’s weekly column on poetry. Come to worship when you don’t feel like it and try to open your heart to the presence of God. We are living in a time and place where we are inclined to judge everything by its monetary value: we don’t evaluate a college major by how it will help a person become a more well-rounded human being, but by how much money it is likely to generate.

Resist. Resist our society’s pressure to judge everything by its dollar value, by its contribution to the economic engine, with no regard to its contribution to our basic humanity. I think a major part of what God was trying to do in laying down the fourth and fifth commandments was to help God’s people break out of the cycle of judging people by their productivity – work seven days a week, and when people can’t work any longer (such as father and mother), throw them away – and help them create a society where people could flourish as human beings. The modern pressure to go back to a seven-day work week, where people are judged by their productivity and are otherwise subject to being thrown away, is of the devil.

Resist. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). When we serve God, we open ourselves to celebrating our basic humanity; we open ourselves to true flourishing.

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

[1] cbc.ca/radio/asithappens Seattle CEO who pays workers at least $70K US says it’s paying off in spades. March 2, 2020.