Sermon from March 1 on Commandments 1-3

 

One God Is Enough
Lent I; March 1, 2020
Exodus 20:1-7

We were in a church on top of a hill in rural Nicaragua, a place called “Windy Hill” (Loma de Viento), doing a seminar with pastors and church leaders and inaugurating their course of study in the Seminary program that sponsored my visit. I was enjoying the exchange with these folks so much I strayed mightily from my notes on the Book of Hebrews. These pastors and scholars were young – 20s and 30s – and intensely interested in what we were doing. Well, most of them were. I’m not going to pretend they are any more virtuous than anyone else: at least one of them was leafing through the book he had been given instead of paying attention to what I was saying.

Anyway. We were talking about our service to God being more a matter of the heart than a matter of following particular rules, and that led us in a novel direction. I asked them what practices help them deepen their relationship with God: what do they do to have time in the presence of God? One man told us that when he drives he doesn’t listen to the radio, but he imagines God is seated next to him and he has a conversation. Another man talked about a particularly meaningful communion service they had recently had in his church.

And then the man who would a bit later be elected President of the group spoke up. He said that he had gone through stages in his life. For a long time his prayer life was asking, asking, asking; talking, talking, talking (“pidiendo, pidiendo, pidiendo; hablando, hablando, hablando”). Then he went through a change, and now most of his time with God is spent listening, listening, listening (“escuchando, escuchando, escuchando”). He is mostly silent, waiting for God to speak to him in some way, listening for God’s words to him. He said, “What God has to say to me is more important than anything that I have to say to God.”

My response was, “So young, yet so wise.” He is young – much younger than I – and he has learned something important that I have yet to learn, since my prayer time is still more devoted to what I have to say to God than to listening for what God has to say to me. For those of us who are working on our relationship with God, in these first three commandments God tells us some things about God: that God is the one who rescues from slavery, that God is jealous, that God’s name is precious. My general theme for thinking about these things is integrity of relationship with God. That is, you and I are here in the church-house because we want to have a relationship with God. Just as in any other relationship, some things are necessary in order to make it a good relationship.

A side comment: if you grew up Roman Catholic or Lutheran, you learned a list of the Ten Commandments that’s a little different from the way most other Christians list them; that difference really isn’t significant for this series so I’m not going into it, but I’m happy to talk with any of you who are interested. I just wanted to mention that in case you feel something about the list isn’t quite right and you’re not sure why.

So, these first three commandments tell us some things about God we should remember if we want to have a good relationship with God. The first thing is that the Lord God is the one who rescued God’s people from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery; therefore, we should have no other gods in our lives. That got me thinking: you and I are certainly heirs in the Faith of those who were rescued from slavery in Egypt, and we tell their story as our story, but since you and I have never been conscripted to help build a city for the Pharaoh, I started wondering what sort of slavery we may have to deal with. Where is our Egypt?

It’s different for different folks, I know, but the common thread is your Egypt is wherever something has power over you and you are not completely free. Where is your Egypt? Is it social media? Does that suck you in, draining the hours away as you chase one rabbit after another, causing you to doubt your own worth if you don’t get a certain number of “likes” on your recent post? Or maybe it’s the cell phone itself, so that you can’t sleep unless you know it’s nearby, you panic if you realize you’ve left the house and it isn’t with you. Is it screens, work, food, alcohol, drugs, or some other addiction? Where is your Egypt?

The Lord God is God enough to free you from that slavery, if you will cooperate with God. Leaving Egypt was not easy for the Hebrews, and they constantly yearned to go back; your Egypt and mine will always call to us to come back, to turn our backs on the God who is working to set us free and to return to slavery or addiction or whatever you want to call it. God’s desire is for our freedom, and if we single-mindedly put our hope on the Lord God and do not let other gods get in the way, then we will cooperate with the Lord God in the project of setting us free. Have no other gods but the Lord God and claim your freedom.

The second thing we learn is that the Lord God is a jealous God. Yep, jealous. Or “zealous;” the problem we have is they’re the same word in Hebrew. They’re also the same word in Greek and in Spanish. For some reason, this intense emotion is considered one thing in these other languages but we English-speakers divide it between the good kind – zeal – and the bad kind, jealousy. Whichever way you translate it, you get the sense that the Lord God is intensely devoted to… God’s people.

Maybe that’s why we traditionally translate it as “jealous,” because God’s people keep wandering after any god who comes along in skinny jeans, promising happiness. So the commandment warns against making idols. The Lord’s yearning for a relationship with people is constantly frustrated by people’s interest in other gods. Since that’s the way the story keeps going, I suppose “jealous” is a good translation. But however you translate it, please think of it this way: the Lord has an intense passion for people, and wants to be in relationship with people. This interest in us is so strong that when we reject it God’s anger lasts for three or four generations. But I hope you noticed that God’s love and mercy are much stronger: the anger lasts for three or four generations, but the committed love lasts for a thousand generations. God rescues from slavery, and God is intensely interested in us.

And the third Commandment tells us that God holds accountable anyone who misuses the divine name; God’s name is precious. And though it’s a good idea to refrain from the casual epithet such as “Oh my God!” (OMG) and the like, I think God is even more concerned with slapping the Lord’s name onto projects and programs that the Lord would not endorse. Let’s leave it at this: be humble about using the Lord’s name. Don’t claim that you have the Lord’s endorsement for your position, your party, your candidate, your idea, your project unless you have pretty good Biblical and theological evidence that you’re right about that. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus advises us not to use the name of God in making an oath, because we really don’t have any place invoking God’s name in that way; just let your word be good.

Okay, that was a lot of stuff, but here’s another, practical thought. One of the primary missions of the Church is to help people have a real relationship with God. Do you know anyone who may be looking for that in their lives? Have you invited them to come here with you? I was listening to a man talk about his upcoming retirement from a high-profile job, and he mentioned that one of his intentions was to spend more time and attention going deeper into his Catholic faith. Then he referred to something I knew about from my years of studying and teaching Hinduism: that in India they have a notion of “stages of life.” You spend the first part of your life as a student, then you devote yourself to having and raising a family. When you’ve accomplished that, then your next task is to work on your spirituality.

Many of us have been working on our spirituality our entire lives; wonderful! But perhaps you know someone middle-aged or older who is ready for that now: invite them to church. Let me put it this way: sometimes I hear people say, “What the church needs is more young people.” I’m going to be critical of that statement in two ways. First, it isn’t necessarily true that the Church needs young people. The story is that once Stalin was talking to the Metropolitan of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin crowed, “Look at your churches! They’re full of grandmothers. Where will you be when they’re all dead?” And the Patriarch replied, “We’ll have a new generation of grandmothers.” He was right; the Russian Orthodox Church survived the Soviet Union and is doing fine. So if you’re concerned about church membership, don’t focus just on a particular demographic: focus on anyone who is open to a relationship with God.

But my central criticism of that statement – “The Church needs more young people” – is that it’s completely turned around. We aren’t interested in what the Church needs. We’re interested in who needs the Church. Don’t look around for members to recruit for the institution. Listen for those you know who may be ready to look into having a spiritual life. They may be young, or they may be at a stage of life that they’re interested in spiritual things. Don’t invite them because the Church needs them. Invite them because they need God.

The young pastor in Loma de Viento has a head start on that stage of life. Open your ears and listen for God to speak to you about your own spiritual life, and open your ears and listen for friends and family who may be looking for a spiritual life themselves. The Lord God, who rescues from slavery and is passionate about people, is here for us.

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

 

Sermon from February 26: Love Carved in Stone

Love Carved in Stone
Transfiguration; February 23, 2020
Exodus 20:1-17
(with Matthew 5:17-20)

This happened many years ago. My friend was having an affair with a soprano in his choir. I knew about it – I think she told me about it – and I kept quiet for a long time, wondering what I should do. Finally I decided that since I was his friend, I should talk to him about it. So I took him out to dinner, and I said to him, “I’m concerned about your relationship with **.” That was the beginning of a long spiritual and emotional journey for him, as he dealt not only with his adultery but also with the deep personal issues that led to it.

One of the things he told me later was that he had learned something about the Ten Commandments. He said they were there not to ruin our fun, not to put restrictions on us so that we could not do what we wanted, but to protect us. The commandment against adultery, for example, is not because sex is bad. The commandment protects us from the terrible mess we make of our lives and the lives of those we love when we don’t observe healthy boundaries.

Maybe you knew that already. I didn’t, but I may have suspected it; my friend learned it in his own personal experience. His learning demonstrates one of my beliefs about God’s commandments: God wants the best for us. The study of the Commandments that Kathleen is leading this year on Friday evenings in our Omaha home puts it well, and I’ve stolen the title as the topic of my sermon: the Ten Commandments are “Love Carved in Stone.”

This Lent, the Worship Design Group has devised a series that works through the Commandments as a way of discovering how God wills the best for us. Today’s message is a sort of introduction to the series, some reflections on the Commandments in general. They are an expression of God’s love for us, as well as a guide for how we can express our love for God. As a guide for healthy relationship, the Commandments are “Love carved in stone.”

My friend Lindsey asked our Exodus study group once, “Can you think of a system of law anywhere or in any age that doesn’t somehow reflect the Ten Commandments?” These ideas are somehow fundamental to a healthy relationship with God, with God’s creation, with ourselves, and with each other. There was a terrific movie back in 1977 called “Oh, God!” John Denver played Jerry, the grocery store manager selected by God to be God’s messenger, and God was played by George Burns. I was looking for just the clip I wanted, and couldn’t find it, but as I remember it, the message that God wanted Jerry to give to the world was, “It can work.” Just do the things I’ve been teaching you to do, and the world can work. It’s that simple, and that difficult. If you’ve ever tried to keep all ten Commandments, then you know it’s difficult.

Imagine, though, what the world would be like if we did in fact put no other gods before us, so that we hungered and thirsted for God, not for money, power, and the most “likes” on social media. Imagine what it would be like if we did all refrain from theft, and adultery, and murder, and so forth. Imagine what it would be like if we did all step off the treadmill one day in seven to devote time and energy to God, ourselves, and our families and friends. It can work. God wants it to work. God has expressed not only in the Ten Commandments but in many other religious traditions and systems of laws a natural order that would work, if we would follow it. It would create peace among peoples. It would prevent abuse, human trafficking, and professional misconduct. It would bring honesty and fair fighting to our political systems. It would save the planet’s living things from the ravages of climate change. It would work, if we human beings would simply do it. God gives it to us because God loves us and wants our social systems to work, wants our lives to flourish. The Ten Commandments are love carved in stone: God’s love for us.

And the Commandments can be an expression of our love for God. Sometimes your husband or wife or friend or partner asks you to do something, and you don’t really understand why, but you do it because you love them and they asked you to do it. Frankly, we can make a good case for the “why” of all these Commandments – and I’m going to try to do so during this Lent series – but that’s beside the point. It is simply enough that we love God and God asked us to do this.

Behaving this way shows who we are and to whom we belong. On Sundays that I see a sea of red, and it isn’t Pentecost, I know that you are expressing a sense of belonging. You wear your red shirts with a big “N” because you together belong to something. Sometimes when you’re out you wear a “PCM” shirt to show to what church you belong. Some schools use uniforms, and the uniform is a way of showing belonging, such as here at the Korean Christian Academy in Tipitapa, Nicaragua.

Keeping the Ten Commandments is a way of showing that we belong to the Lord God. I remember talking with an Orthodox Jewish woman; she told me she had three teenage boys. One comment she made during our conversation was that they had never been to a high school football game. Why? Because the games are on Friday evenings, during the Sabbath. They keep Sabbath, and they don’t need to ask why: they keep Sabbath because it is what they do, it is part of their identity, it shows who they are and to whom they belong. You may remember that Senator Lieberman walked to Senator McCain’s funeral, because it was held on the Sabbath, and observant Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. It is who they are; it shows to whom they belong. Whether or not they ask, “Why?” they do it because they love the Lord God. The Ten Commandments are love carved in stone: God’s love for us and our love for God.

That helps me understand what Jesus means when he says that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. We talk a lot, especially around Christmas, about how the life and works of Jesus fulfill the prophets, but now I get what he means when he says that he fulfills the Law of God. God’s Law shows us God’s love for us and shows us how to love God. God’s Law shows us how valuable we are to God and how to respect ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. Is that not true of Jesus? Do not the teachings of Jesus show us our great worth in the sight of God, and the best ways to love God, ourselves, one another and the world in which we live? And does not Jesus’ gift of himself on the Cross make clear the breadth and wonder of God’s love for us?

Yes, of course. The Ten Commandments are God’s love carved in stone. Jesus Christ is God’s love shaped in flesh.

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

Sermon from February 2: Requiem for Amalek

Requiem for Amalek
Epiphany IV (O. T. 4); February 2, 2020
Exodus 17:8-16

Do you have a bogeyman, an enemy that you love to hate? I hope not, but it is not uncommon to identify some group of people as a perpetual enemy, as inherently wicked, and therefore to be feared, hated, and – if possible – exterminated. A few weeks ago I spoke of the impeachment of the Governor of Arizona when I was living there. I recall that any time Governor Mecham would get in any sort of trouble he would blame it on “homosexuals and dissident Democrats.” You got to believe there were homosexuals and dissident Democrats hiding behind every saguaro cactus, waiting to pounce.

How many perpetual enemies have we had over the centuries, and how hard has it been to overcome deep-seated hostility to people simply because of who they were or where they came from? Frequently our own government over the years has tried to identify someone as the enemy, as the people who are to be hated and feared. Whoever they happen to be at any given time, I hear an echo of Moses’ declaration at the end of today’s Scripture.

That is the sad side of the story I just read you. I remember this story from my childhood, and how inspired I was by the image of Moses holding his staff high. And even more inspiring was the image of Aaron and Hur standing to either side of him, holding up his arms. What a great sermon that would make: you may be the person standing to someone’s side, holding up their arms, inspiring others to victory. Indeed, that was the sermon I originally intended to preach.

But another line has stuck in my consciousness and I must address it: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). Moses said that in response to the Lord’s having indicated the intention of blotting out Amalek and the memory of Amalek. No one really knows why the Lord took such a dislike to Amalek, although some ideas have been ventured. What is the case is that Amalek, the Amalekites, became the bogeyman, the perpetual enemy, the foe lurking behind every bush. The only good Amalekite is a dead Amalekite.

Israel has other, hostile encounters with Amalek in the Exodus and during the settlement and conquest of Canaan. King Saul loses his right to dynasty because of problems with Amalek; the wicked Haman who plots to destroy all the Jews of the Persian Empire is said to be of the remnant of the Amalekites. And after generations of hostility, there is this line in the First Book of Chronicles: “[The Simeonites] destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites that had escaped” (I Chronicles 4:43). Israel found its final solution and, in the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, the last known Amalekites were wiped out.

Most of us in this room will wonder why a people will carry deep-seated hostility toward a particular group through multitudes of generations, while knowing that our own ancestors have done so. Sometimes we look at the hostilities of other groups and alternate between appalled and amused; we think of ourselves as more enlightened, above such hostilities. We would never give in to the idea that the Lord has perpetual war on any group from generation to generation. Or would we?

Whom does God love to hate? Now before you reflexively say, “No one,” please look deep in your heart and examine yourself. Is there anyone whom you assume to be the enemy of God? Homosexuals and dissident Democrats? Muslims? The One Percent? I’m not going any further. Because rather than focus on our own enlightened attitude, we need to focus on Jesus.

By Jesus’ day the Amalekites were long gone, but for his people the Samaritans were the group everyone loved to hate. When Jesus’ family would travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, they didn’t go the shortest route, because that would take them through Samaritan territory. Instead, they would detour, in order not to come into contact with Samaritans. It makes me think of white folks refusing to go into certain neighborhoods, or the way African American folks are subject to suspicion or even assault if they do go into certain neighborhoods. Anyway, Jesus gently dealt with the hostility of his people to the Samaritans by making a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories. He could have made the hero an Amalekite, but there were none anymore.

In July 1620, a group of Puritans who were living in the Netherlands left for England, there to board a ship for the New World, the Mayflower. Before they left the Netherlands, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them on their way with a sermon in which he said that people of the Reformation were always in danger of getting stuck where they were. Lutherans would not go beyond the teachings of Luther and embrace the insights of John Calvin, he said. And he added that Puritans and others who learned from John Calvin must not suppose that the understanding of the Christian Faith should stop there. He said, “For I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word.”[1] The image of more light breaking forth from the Word of God has stuck with the heirs of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

Our challenge, as disciples of Jesus, is not to get stuck in a way of thinking that supposes that the Lord has perpetual war against anyone, even Amalekites; instead, we look for more light to break forth from the Word of God as we study the Bible, live the Bible, and seek to follow Jesus. Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of a story; he welcomed great crowds from all over (Matthew 4:25, from the day’s Gospel reading), including people he was not supposed to associate with. We look to the words and way of Jesus for the more light that breaks forth from the Word of God.

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
to notions of our day and sect, crude, partial and confined:
no, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred:
the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.[2]

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

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Robinson-English-minister

[2] George Rawson, “We Limit Not the Truth of God” (1853) (in the public domain)

Sermon from January 26: The Rock Was Christ

The Rock Was Christ
Epiphany III (O. T. 3); January 26, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7

Once again, the people of God have a legitimate concern, and they express it by whining. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” The story has a strong tradition in the Bible, mostly as a warning not to test God, but I’m going to follow another tradition, one that is less literal and more metaphorical. I’ll try to explain it clearly; if I fail, please ask me questions later.

I feel the Holy Spirit compelling me to pursue two lines of thought, actually: a question of justice and a question of faith. The question of justice is the simple question of the availability of water for God’s people. Without going into detail, I suggest that the availability of fresh water is going to be one of the major resource issues of the near future. It will doubtless always be plentiful for those who live in favorable climates and who have plenty of money, but faithful people do not make decisions about availability of resources by who lives where or has plenty of money.

In the United States we have plentiful fresh water and we use it for everything: drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets, irrigation, watering golf courses… but you recall the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, when the State decided to save money and did not look at the consequences that held for real people. Anyway, we in the US typically use fresh water for everything, but in much of the world fresh water is much less available. They have designed ways to use “grey water” – water that has been used for washing – for appropriate purposes, such as irrigation and flushing toilets. Some US golf courses use grey water. And our homes can be re-engineered to use grey water as appropriate.

The availability of fresh water is an issue of justice for disciples of Jesus, because Jesus said explicitly that when people are thirsty, those who are faithful see that they have something to drink (Matthew 25:35). When I was in Haiti I saw the work of Presbyterian missionaries who were helping homeowners develop fresh-water retention systems so they would not have to walk miles to get water. Some of you know of the work of those working to provide fresh water in South Sudan and elsewhere. Yet the issue is more than simply one of charity, but also a question of justice. There are places where the powerful control the supply of water and use it to keep others carefully controlled, such as the State of Israel does to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Those who are disciples of Jesus and see that some are thirsty consider all appropriate remedies: engineering, mission work, and political action.

That was quick-and-dirty, but I think that question is relatively straight-forward. The other question I want to explore is more subtle. Let’s leave aside the matter of the people quarreling with Moses and doubting the love of God and instead focus on the reality that God did provide what they needed, and in a rather dramatic way. Moses struck the rock, and water came from it. They were somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula, approaching the Mountain of God. It was called Rephidim, but Moses called it Massah (“test”) and the rock was called Meribah (“quarrel”). The people had plenty to drink.

Now here’s the curious thing. In the Book of Numbers (20:2-13) a very similar story is told. The people are at Kadesh, and they have no water, so they quarrel with Moses about it. God gives slightly different instructions to Moses, but Moses doesn’t obey God fully; even so, water comes from the rock, and Moses names the rock Meribah, the same name as the rock at Rephidim.

The rabbis and the story-tellers and the interpreters have noticed these similarities, and they have wondered. Did the same thing happen twice? Or did it happen once and there are two different versions of the story? A poet, writing in the psalms, suggested that it happened at least twice and maybe more often (Psalm 78:15). One ancient writer, noticing that the rocks in two different places have the same name, suggested that in some way the rock was following them (Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 10:7).

Time out. I know that metaphorical and figurative readings of stories are difficult for some folks. I don’t mean that as a judgment; it is simply that different people think in different ways. But this is an example of why metaphorical and figurative readings are so important to me. After sixty-three years of experience, I am deeply convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is the means by which God reveals to us eternal truth, and that none of it is simply to be passed over. But I also cannot swallow the notion of a rock picking itself up and following the people through the desert. Figuratively speaking, it works for me. When the people needed water, Moses drew it from a rock, and the source was there whenever the people needed it. In a figurative sense, the rock was following them, because it was always there.

The Apostle Paul was writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, and he was trying to convince them that they should pay attention to the stories of the Bible. He picked up on this particular story, and he wrote to them:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud
and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the
spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:1-4)

I don’t think that Paul believed that a rock was following them around, or even necessarily that Christ was following them around. He’s speaking figuratively. Everywhere the people went they found the water they needed. And they are our ancestors in faith; not literal ancestors, and they were not the literal ancestors of the people of Corinth either. But in faith in God they are our ancestors, and as they were baptized by passing through the Red Sea, we were baptized in the baptistery or font; as they ate the manna, we eat the Lord’s Supper. And they drank from the rock that followed them; the rock from which we drink is Christ.

The Rock was Christ. How do I share with you what I have found in Christ? I’ll start with Scripture. A Psalm that has meant a great deal to me is Psalm 63, which begins:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
My soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you,
As in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)

I thirst for God. I have plenty of fresh water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, thanks to having been born and raised in comfort. But the part of me that is more than a consuming animal, my humanity, yearns for the life of the Spirit. Much of that thirst is quenched by the human arts, by music and theater, by poetry and visual art and by sports, but I thirst for the eternal. As the psalmist wrote, I thirst for God, for the living God, as in Psalm 42:

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Ps. 42:2)

Jesus once was having a conversation with a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s Well, and they were talking about water. He said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). The conversation continues, but the point Jesus gets across to her and which she comes to believe is that Jesus himself is the source of living water.

I was raised in the Christian Church; my parents took me to the Presbyterian Church of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to be baptized and we went to Sunday School every Sunday all our lives. I went to Confirmation Class every Wednesday afternoon for a year, to a teens Bible Study one evening a week, and to youth choir and youth group every Sunday evening. So when people ask when I knew that Jesus was my Savior, I answer that there was never a time that I didn’t know that Jesus was my Savior.

But… I have had many occasions to turn away from it all. I’ve described them to you over the years. My intellectual doubts as a thinking person; my emotional reactions to having been mistreated by Christian people; and other things too, including the appeal of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it all comes down to this: can I turn away from Jesus Christ? Because to turn away from Christian faith and practice, to turn away from the Church, is to turn away from Jesus Christ, which to me is like walking in the desert, finding water – fresh water, cold and sweet – and turning away from the water. I was thirsty, I have drunk deeply of the source of living water, and I don’t want it any more. Does that make sense?

One day I was having lunch with my colleagues; you know them, the ministers who are part of our family, who worship with us and help me at the Lord’s Table and who joined me in offering the oil of reaffirmation of faith a couple of weeks ago. We were having lunch, and I was expressing my sadness at the apparent decline of the Church. Look at all the empty chairs; a lot more of them are empty than a few years ago. I worry about that, as do some of you, and I asked my friends, “What does the Church need? Does it need a new program? A new pastor? A different way of doing things? Different music? What does the Church need?” and one of my colleagues said, “Jesus.”

My friend is right. Wherever you and I wander in this desert, the rock follows us. Many of our human thirsts are satisfied by what we experience in Church: the music, the arts, the stories, the laughter. But the deepest human thirst is the thirst for God, the thirst for that which is eternal, and the source of living water to satisfy that thirst is Jesus Christ. We can find music, art, stories, and laughter in many places, but only in His Church can we find Jesus Christ. Our ancestors drank from the rock, and the rock was Christ.

A final thought: the living water is meant for anyone who is thirsty. When Jesus said to offer something to drink to someone who is thirsty, he meant that literally. Do the work of mission and of justice so that the thirsty have water. But I’m sure he also meant it figuratively. When you know someone is thirsty for God, for the living God, offer them the living water that you have found in Jesus Christ. As it is written at the end of the Bible:

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Revelation 22:17)

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

 

Sermon from January 19: Bread of Heaven

Bread of Heaven
Epiphany II (O. T. 2); January 19, 2020
Exodus 16:1-21

I was looking through some things the other day and I happened across a note from February 1988; a member of the church I was serving (in Arizona) had written to my mother to express her appreciation for my sermon the previous Sunday. I remember that day: the House of Representatives of Arizona had just impeached the Governor, and the prospect of his trial and removal from office was tearing us apart. I don’t remember what I preached about, except that I remember calling upon the faithful to pray for the Senate, to pray for the Governor, and to pray for the people of Arizona.

I don’t know why my Mother kept that note, except that she kept nearly everything, but I know why I’m keeping it now that it has come to me: it is manna. It is bread from heaven. What I’m about to say is not meant to elicit anything from you – please don’t take it that way – but to tell you something of what God does for me. Much of the time I feel as though I’m wasting my life, as though I am not doing anything worthwhile, and there are often those who volunteer to point that out to me, sometimes forcefully. But once I preached a sermon that helped someone so much that she sent my mother a note to express her appreciation. God feeds me bread of heaven when I am choking on the ashes the world offers.

Last Sunday we read how God saved the Hebrew people from the Egyptians’ pursuit; they crossed the Red Sea and were free to start making their way to the Promised Land. After about six weeks they began to complain that they didn’t have enough to eat. Their memories are faulty: they remember “sitting by the fleshpots” when in fact they were working as slaves on the Pharaoh’s construction projects, but it is true that they ate. So they complain against Moses and Aaron; God responds by giving them “bread from heaven.”

When they saw it, they didn’t know what it was; they said (in Hebrew), “Man hu?” which means, “What is it?” From that question, “Man hu?” comes the word manna. One thing you can think whenever someone says the word “manna” is the question, “What is this stuff?” You and I may not recognize the bread of heaven when it comes. If you take time to think about it this afternoon – and this sounds like a good topic for your Sunday dinner conversation – you may realize that God has answered a need of yours in a way that you did not immediately recognize. “Man hu?” you said. What is this stuff?

I hope you and I can learn to express our need for bread from heaven in some way other than complaining about it. I wonder what God would have done if the people had begun to pray, “Lord, we’re hungry; please help us.” The Lord sometimes has strange ways of answering and the answers aren’t always immediate, but the Lord does respond to prayer. Sadly, every time the people of the Exodus have a need, they seem to express it by complaining, by accusing Moses of taking them into the wilderness to kill them, or by whining that they should have stayed in Egypt. I hope you and I find better, more positive ways to express our need than by whining. But whether whining or praying, God gives the bread of heaven.

Some connected thoughts. When the Devil tempted Jesus to turn the stones into bread, the Lord replied that a human being does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). Sometimes what we need is something to eat, and that is what comes to us; but very often the manna that God gives is something you can’t put your hands on but what you really need. You think you need a particular job but what God gives you is a change of perspective. You think you need to win the lottery but what you receive is the encouragement to keep going. You get my drift.

I frankly don’t want to get into the question of what “really” happened in response to the people’s hunger. That God should provide enough honey-wafers to feed 600,000 people every day for forty years seems a bit far-fetched, but I’m willing to accept it. And I’m also willing to accept your skepticism, because I can’t see a literal-historical reading of this story as an article of faith. The story is what it is, and it shows God responding to human need. And I know that God does respond to human need, sometimes in surprising ways. Man hu? What is this stuff?

But there are also ordinary things that God provides, day after day, that feed us with the bread of life. God has given us the Bible, a compendium of sacred stories and thoughtful reflections, and holy poetry, all intended to feed our spirits with the presence of God. God has given us the ministry of preaching, wherein a flawed, human interpreter enters into the holy place and struggles to come out of it with a word from the Lord. God has given us the Sacraments, reminding us that everything spiritual is also material, that God saves through water, that God feeds our spirits with Christ just as bread and wine feed our bodies. God gives us prayer; God gives us wise writers and teachers and mentors who help us keep our focus. These things are so unsurprising that sometimes you may even find them boring. You may also find oatmeal boring, but I can hardly start a winter day without it.

The other side of God’s giving us all this is our duty to receive it obediently. Moses carefully gave the people instructions about the manna: collect just as much as you need for the day (except Fridays; there won’t be any on Saturday, so collect twice as much on Friday – verses 22 to 30). Some people didn’t listen; they thought they needed to have extra – whether they wanted a snack at midnight or they didn’t believe there really would be manna the next day, I don’t know. At any rate, they didn’t listen, it went foul, and Moses was angry. I didn’t keep reading, but if you read on in the story you’ll see that Moses was quite clear that there would be no manna on Saturday – the Sabbath – so don’t bother looking for it. Some folks went out looking anyway, so Moses got angry again.

Our duty is to receive obediently the bread of heaven that God gives us. God gives us the Bible; it does you no good if you don’t read it. God gives you preaching; it does you no good if you don’t pay attention. God gives you the Sacraments; they do you no good if you ignore your Baptism and you stay away from the Lord’s Supper. I would like to go into a rant right now about the Church’s failure to be obedient about the Lord’s Supper by making it so rare, but I’ll let that go for now. People give all sorts of excuses, including “It wouldn’t be special,” but the root of the problem still is disobedience. God provides the bread of heaven, but doesn’t force-feed it.

Here’s one more connected thought to finish with. Once Jesus was having a heated conversation with a crowd, and they said to them, “God gave our ancestors bread from heaven to eat. What work are you doing?” Jesus responded that the manna that Moses arranged for was not the true bread from heaven. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then he added, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:30-35)

The reason the Bible feeds us is the Bible is the testimony to Jesus Christ. The word of the preacher is to point us to Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of God make us part of the life of Jesus Christ. These are all good in various ways, but they feed our need because they bring Jesus Christ to us. I don’t really need that note sent to my Mother to be my manna, because the Lord Jesus witnesses to me that my value is in the reality that I am part of his life. But the note helps.

Feed on Jesus Christ. Start reading the Gospels, if you haven’t, and get to know your Savior. Listen for testimony about Jesus in preaching. As you go about your day, look for and listen for signs of the presence and work of Jesus Christ in and around you. Take advantage of the Sacraments. A note: the Presbyterian Church publishes a wonderful guide for daily prayer, and every morning there is a prayer of thanksgiving for baptism. It helps me to remember that I am not my own Savior and that I depend on God by giving thanks, every morning, for my baptism.

That may be the take-away you and I need as confident, middle-class North Americans: as self-reliant as we think we are, if we are honest we realize that we depend on God for our lives. Day after day, as the people saw the manna, they knew they depended on God. So do you and I: we depend on God for the bread of heaven.

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

Sermon for January 12: The Lord Is Fighting for Us

The Lord is Fighting for Us
Baptism of the Lord (January 12, 2020)
Exodus 14:5-31, 15:20-21 (with Matthew 3:13-17)

The actions we are doing in the next part of this service (Reaffirmation of Baptism, Ordination and Installation of Deacons and Ruling Elders) carry the message so well that I don’t need to talk much. I implore you to pay close attention to the words and actions of what is to come.

But I wish briefly to emphasize two things in response to the readings. The first thing: how did the Egyptians react to what was happening to them in the Sea? They cried out, “The Lord is fighting for the Israelites!” To be people of God in the world is a constant struggle: you struggle against messages and influences from movies and television and social media and politics. Right now we are struggling to be peaceful and responsible and Christ-like in a polarized and militaristic environment. The Lord is fighting for us. The Israelites were afraid that they would be killed there at the sea, and all Moses’ attempts to reassure them failed. But God told Moses what to do, and he did it, and then the people had to take the risk to step out into the sea. They did it, Egypt close in pursuit. And the Lord saved them.

I am persuaded that if you and I remain true to our confession, if we stay committed to the way of Jesus Christ despite the increasing social pressure to give in to hate and fear, that the Lord fights for us. The Israelites had a concrete, human enemy: the Egyptians were coming to return them to slavery. That is not our issue: Iran is not our enemy; President Trump is not our enemy. Our enemy is rising blood-lust, militarism, and polarization. And our enemies are the voices in our heads: the voice that says that you’re no good, God can’t love you; or that says that you’re so good that you don’t need for God to love you.  Whatever our enemy may be, the Lord is fighting for us. Step out in faith and God will take care of the enemies of God’s people.

And the second thing is to remember that all Israel passed through the sea together. Moses encouraged them, Moses lifted his staff, but Moses did not cross over alone. Our Church’s Book of Common Worship often reminds us that our baptism is an echo of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea; they were saved through the water and so were we. And we all crossed together.

We are all the Church together. Consider the ministries we do that are effective and that have lasted. They were not started by a pastor; were they? The ministries we have that persist and serve well have been started by the Board of Deacons, or a group of women who got together, or a committee of the Session. Research has shown that for something in the Church to succeed and endure, it must come from the people and not from the Minister, but the Minister must be visibly supportive of it. We were all baptized into Christ, we together are the Church of Christ. I’ll continue to raise the staff and lead our prayer and worship, but we are all called to step into the Sea together. So now let us reaffirm our life together in Christ.

Then followed the Service of Reaffirmation of Baptism.

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

Sermon for Epiphany: Fire and Cloud

Fire and Cloud
Epiphany; January 5, 2020
Exodus 13:17-14:4

At the beginning of the year, first I should talk to you about what we’re doing for worship and preaching, and why. I started preaching the story of the Exodus last fall, then took a break for Advent and Christmas, and now we’re returning to it. The reason is simple: the Exodus is Israel’s story about how they became a people; it’s the story of the formation of the people of God. Isn’t that what we aspire to be? I can’t speak for everyone here, as individuals. There can be all sorts of reasons why people come to the church house. But I dare to presume that, as a group, our deepest wish is to be the people of God. That is particularly important this week, with so much uncertainty about the international situation before us. So the preaching and worship series this year is about the formation of the people of God.

Why this particular story on Epiphany? Why the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud? Isn’t today supposed to be about the visit of the Magi to Jesus? Well, no. The holiday is called “Epiphany,” which means “manifestation,” or “showing forth.” It’s an ancient holiday among Christians, more ancient than Christmas, and celebrates that God is manifest to us – God is shown to us – in Jesus Christ. Sometimes we read the story of the Magi on Epiphany: God is shown to the nations of the world in the child Jesus. But other stories associated with Epiphany are the Baptism of Jesus, and Jesus changing the water into wine, and the Transfiguration. All of these are stories about the glory of God being shown to the world in Jesus Christ.

In short, what we celebrate today is that whenever we want to see God, to know God, to know more about God, we look to Jesus Christ. As the child told Madeleine L’Engle, “Jesus is God’s show-and-tell.”

So on Epiphany, we celebrate that God is not completely hidden from us, but is available to us. God has revealed Godself to us.

As the Hebrew people were fleeing their slavery in Egypt, God led them. The story says that God led them by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. So, let’s use our imaginations and think through this. What would that look like for us in 2020? What would it look like for God to lead us in a pillar of fire? What would it look like for God to lead us in a pillar of cloud?

Think of the associations we have when we hear the word “fire,” both positive and negative. Right here, probably the first thing many people think of is the fire we had in the 1970s. Apparently it was arson, so there is the feeling of being attacked and harmed, of being left spiritually homeless. The Worship Committee had to find another place to worship, the people had to be a sort of pilgrim people, not settled in. And the fire has left its mark, in your memories, in our stories, and when we were doing the building renovation we found the old ceiling is still above Fellowship Hall, scorched and burned.

Fire allows us to cook our food, so we can more easily digest it and it is safer to eat. Fire allows us to be warm inside during the winter, and used to be the way we could light our way at night. Orthodox Jews will not turn on a light switch on the Sabbath, because they feel it is equivalent to lighting a fire. So fire means food and warmth and light. It also means danger and homelessness; just ask the people of New South Wales, Australia. When God comes to us in a pillar of fire, expect that it will mean warmth and clarity, but also mean fear and danger.

The pillar of cloud brings three associations to my mind; you probably can think of others. The first is the shekinah, the cloud of the glory of God. Wherever the Lord chooses to be, God is surrounded by a cloud of glory, the cloud of God’s presence. So first I think that when God comes to us in a pillar of cloud, then you and I experience the awe of God’s presence. We try to evoke that awe in our music and worship, to remember that God is not so much “buddy” as high and exalted and wonderful and glorious. When we are faithful in our prayer and worship, then the center of attention is the glory of God.

The second association I have is with a classic of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing, which teaches communion with God not by studying God’s qualities, by trying to know more about God, but just the opposite: enter the cloud, the cloud where you know nothing, and experience God by not knowing. I can’t explain it to you; I didn’t really understand it when I read it. But I do think of that. And what it makes me think is that some of you, at least, will be led by God by encountering God in the cloud of unknowing, through your quiet contemplation of God.

And, third, I think of dreams, for some reason – maybe because in our other Scripture for today (Matthew 2:19-23) dreams figure prominently. Joseph has been guided by the Lord in his dreams: first to stick with his plan to be married to Mary, then to flee to Egypt, then to return from Egypt, and finally not to return to Bethlehem but to settle in Nazareth. Even the Magi were told in a dream not to go back to King Herod (Matthew 2:12). Some of you may have dreams that help to shape your experience of God and God’s guidance of you.

We’re not all going to have the same experience of God: some will know God through the fire, some through the cloud, and some by a mixture of both. We celebrate, though, that this fascinating, wonderful God does lead us and does give us glimpses of God. We all are invited to have an experience of God by eating bread and drinking wine, even though that experience will be a little bit different for each of us. The point isn’t what you and I experience: the point is that God is the one who is giving us the experience. The light of God, the danger of God, the glory of God, the presence of God: that is what we look for when we follow the fire and the cloud.

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

Sermon for Christmas Eve (11:00) – With the Shepherds

With the Shepherds
Christmas Eve; December 24, 2019 (11:00 service)
Luke 2:1-20

Why shepherds? Okay, it surprises me that after so many years of hearing this story, there are still aspects of it that get my attention for the first time. This year it’s that question: why shepherds? And a major part of the answer may be that they’re the only folks out in the countryside in the middle of the night.

But I want to see more to it than that, especially when we think of the angels singing for shepherds in contrast with Isaiah’s audience (Isaiah 9:2-7). Isaiah’s poem about a child is probably about the Crown Prince of Judah and his audience is probably the royal family, first, and then the entire Kingdom of Judah. Lo, the angel of the Lord (or is his name Harold?) talks not to a royal family and an entire kingdom but to a bunch of shepherds in the hill country of Judea.

Shepherds have a noble lineage, so you would think they were well thought of; you would be wrong. After all, all the Patriarchs were shepherds; King David was a shepherd; and the prophets (especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel) refer to the government as the shepherds of God’s people. But about the time Jesus was born, shepherds were not highly regarded. Given the nature of their work, they could not keep the niceties of the ceremonial law. They were rough and uneducated. In other words, they were working class.

Yet the angel of the Lord – Lo, or Harold, or whatever his name was – appeared to them and said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” This is good news of great joy for all people, but first of all for a bunch of working-class men. These men, after they got over their terror at having seen an angel, decided to go check it out, so they ran to Bethlehem to find this baby. And when they got there, they told Mary and Joseph and anyone else they encountered, including – I imagine – random strangers on the street. And which random strangers are likely to be out in the middle of the night?

I find myself wondering if the good news of great joy that we have to tell is still for all people, beginning with working people, folks who are likely to miss the niceties of social behavior because they are out tending to their work in the middle of the night. Consider all the people who are working right now, while we’re here. There are physicians, nurses, and other staff in emergency rooms; police and firefighters; convenience store clerks. If it were storming, there would be city road crews out. The story of Jesus is good news of great joy not only for us here in the church house but also – maybe especially – for working people, doing the 2019 equivalent of keeping watch over their flock by night.

With the shepherds, let’s make known what has been told us about this child.

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

 

Sermon for Christmas Eve (5:30) – A Hope-Filled Birth

A Hope-Filled Birth
Christmas Eve; December 24, 2019 (5:30 service)
Isaiah 9:2-7

The Holiday display at Krohn Conservatory, Eden Park, Cincinnati

Who doesn’t love the story? Ever since Francis of Assisi created the Christmas Crèche so people who didn’t know how to read could learn about the birth of Jesus, manger scenes and stories about the stable have multiplied. I loved going to Krohn Conservatory at Eden Park in Cincinnati, where a stable was erected every year and there were figures of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and there were real sheep and goats and such. Even those who tend to dislike classical music tend to like traditional Christmas carols, and the most secular TV specials still struggle to ignore the story that’s at the root of it all.

It’s a story of hope. Would we die without hope? Perhaps not, but it would get harder to get out of bed every morning. It’s a struggle anyway, since Isaiah’s vision of the light of God is so at odds with our values as a culture. Isaiah sees the authority and influence of the light growing, and I often don’t see that. Our public values do not look like those of a Wonderful Counselor; commitment to the Prince of Peace is clearly less evident than commitment to the power of me, myself, and I.

Yet of this I am persuaded: Isaiah’s vision of what that child was to be was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. “Wonderful Counselor:” Jesus teaches a way of being that is good for us and is good for our communities. “Mighty God:” The power of God worked through Jesus as he helped the sick, the blind, the lame, and the mute. “Everlasting Father:” Jesus gathers a diverse people, people of every land and language, every race and economic class, to create a new human family. “Prince of Peace:” When Jesus was found to be a threat to his society, he didn’t mobilize his followers to attack; he accepted crucifixion.
You may not know that whole story, and I don’t really expect you to. This is what I want to suggest to you: if it intrigues you, look into it. If the whole baby-in-a-manger and angels-singing-to-shepherds thing makes you wonder about the rest, then learn about Jesus. He’s worth the trouble. His birth is a hope-filled birth, because his life is life-changing for those who follow him. If you find yourself wanting some spirituality in your life, look for it in Jesus; you’ll find it all in him. And if you need help with that, ask us; we can help.

Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” From the manger in Bethlehem shone the light of God in a hope-filled birth. What will we do with the light?

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

Sermon from Advent III: Pilgrims

Pilgrims
Advent III; December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10

Have you ever been on one of those trips where you said, “I don’t know where we are or where we’re going, but we’re making good time”? Doesn’t life feel like that sometimes? We’re making good time – speeding right along – but we don’t know where we’re going and not always sure where we are. I know: for you younger folks sometimes the days just seem to crawl; I remember that well. It feels different to us older folks.

I should say this about the Holy Way that Isaiah sings about here: he did know where it was going. It was going to Zion, taking exiled people back to Jerusalem. And, to be fair, we have an idea where our road of pilgrimage is taking us: it’s taking us to the heavenly Zion, to the Kingdom of God.

But how many detours do we have on the way? And how long a trip is it? There are still many unknowns.

We are pilgrims on a holy way. People often refer to life as a journey, and I like that metaphor. I don’t want to think I’m standing still, never growing or changing. For example, I hope I learn something new every day, whether it’s someone’s name or a scientific fact or a Catalan verb. I don’t retain everything I learn, but the journey of learning is interesting. But I prefer to think of life as not just any journey, but a pilgrimage. Pilgrims are visiting holy places, places of sacred meaning.

If you’ve been to the Holy Land and visited places where Jesus walked, you probably thought of yourself more as a pilgrim than as a tourist. For some, a visit to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln might feel like a pilgrimage. When I visited the memorial at South Pass City, Wyoming, the place where Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding – Presbyterian missionaries – were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains, I went as a pilgrim. Likewise when Kathleen and I visited the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther initiated the Reformation. These are holy places.

Sometimes we find ourselves in holy places quite by surprise. You go to a meeting, and something wonderful happens (well, that’s a surprise in itself, isn’t it?). Anyway, someone says something that opens their soul or a beautiful contact occurs or somehow that place, even for a moment, becomes a holy place. That was a moment when, as Isaiah said, the desert rejoiced and blossomed. The desert of an ordinary, dull day suddenly had cactus flowers, and the place where it happened was holy.

Sometimes this is a holy place. We come here every Sunday hoping for a touch of God’s presence, and when we feel it then we know we’re in a holy place.

I experience holy moments from time to time, and they usually have to do with you. When one of you tells of a moment when you felt the touch of God, or you ask your hard question, or you let me see the markings on your heart: those are holy moments. So I hope you also have those moments with each other, and with family members and with friends. If you keep alert and recognize those holy moments when they happen, then you are not merely a tourist on this road of life, but a pilgrim on the Holy Way.

I wish the Holy Way were always as Isaiah saw it: flowers along the way, the pilgrims all singing together, disabilities healed and refreshing waters always nearby. And even more I wish his vision of a way without lions or other “ravenous beasts” were the reality. Frankly, it wasn’t that easy even for the exiles returning to Jerusalem, although I’m sure they were glad they got to make that trip. They had to deal with a lot, as you and I have to deal with a lot. If you’ve been in the Church for awhile, you’ve had to deal with lions and other ravenous beasts, metaphorically speaking.

Those who returned to Zion had to travel difficult terrain sometimes, needed guides, had to deal with dangers on the road. And when they returned they had a lot of work ahead of them to rebuild their lives. Although Isaiah’s vision is beautiful, the reality was a struggle. But that struggle was made bearable by knowing they were pilgrims, pilgrims on the road to Zion, in company with the people of God. And at the heart of the vision are these words:

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God. He will come with vengeance,
With terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” (3-4)

Imagine the pilgrims on the road. Those who were literally returning – who had been taken from Judah, lived in exile, and were now returning – would have been in their 50s to 70s. It’s a hard journey. Their children and grandchildren did not know the land where they were going. Some of the pilgrims would be frightened, some would be physically weak, some disabled by the journey. Yet on they went, not content to stop until they saw Zion, encouraged by the words “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

To the reader: the next two paragraphs (“A thought… other ravenous beasts.”) were included when I preached the sermon at the 8:00 service but I missed them at the 10:30 service. I don’t know if it was faulty memory or the Holy Spirit leading me; either way, I decided to include them here.

A thought to bring it home for us. This pilgrimage we are on is sometimes frightening, sometimes maddening. If you pay attention to the reality of our place and time – and I hope you do – then you may alternate between anger and fear, perhaps with long periods of apathy in between. My preaching teacher said that we should always preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – so I would be holding my iPad, since that’s how I read the newspaper – but, goodness, most of the time I would rather ignore what’s in the newspaper.

This week… what to say about this week? Perhaps the less said the better. I was listening to an interview program about the war in Afghanistan and the subject said to the interviewer, “Congratulations on being the only journalist in America interested in something other than impeachment.” Volcano in New Zealand, shooting in New Jersey, an ISIS raid in Niger, possible client abuse at the center in Glenwood, Iowa… my word, there’s a lot of cactus on this road and plenty of lions and other ravenous beasts.

Our road is the Holy Way, the Way that leads to Zion. There will be hazards and dangers and annoyances and lots of weariness; there will also be holy places and holy moments and the encouragement of those who say, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” I chose our final hymn, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” because it evokes that sense of our pilgrimage on the Holy Way. In particular, the fourth verse:

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:
O, rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.[1]

We follow the star, the star that led magi to Bethlehem and leads us to Zion, but we don’t travel 24/7. Sometimes we rest beside the weary road to hear the angels sing.

Wherever you are on your pilgrimage, remember these things. Remember that you have companions on the way, some older and more experienced, some younger and full of energy. Though some struggle and some fear, we all take heart from the encouragement, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” And remember that it is the Holy Way, the Way to Zion, the Way of God. There are dangers, difficulties, disappointments, and long stretches of boredom, like a highway through Kansas. But there are holy places, and holy moments, where the curtain between heaven and earth is thin and we catch a glimpse of our home, of Zion.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.

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

[1] Edmund Hamilton Sears, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” (1849); #123 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).