Thank you

Thank you. I’m writing this on my last full day in the office, staring at things still needing to be packed and basking in the glow of the celebration we had Sunday. There are some things for which I want to thank you, beyond what I said on Sunday.

Thank you to everyone who cooperated to make the best party any church could possibly have had. I wonder if anyone knows who all was involved! Decorations… food… beverage… set up… clean up… the program… the speeches… the invitations… keeping track of RSVPs… what am I missing? Right after we completed our first capital campaign together I said, “This Church has shown it can do anything it wants to do.” Mounting this huge event and pulling it off continues to prove what you are capable of doing. I hope you remember that about yourselves.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to making Sunday’s time of worship special. Many of my friends have watched it on YouTube and have remarked on it, as have those who traveled to be here with us in person. It was a blessing to have my family here with me so they could meet my church family.

Finally, after the guests had left and I was alone in the apartment on Monday evening, I poured a glass of wine and opened the cards you left me. And I want to thank you for showing I was wrong about something I said in my sermon on Sunday. I said you would probably remember our time together for the building remodeling. I was wrong. You did remark on that, but overwhelmingly your words of appreciation pointed to things that matter more: preaching, prayer, the Year of the Bible, and how well we came through these last two years of pandemic church. These matter more to me; I’m grateful that they also matter more to you.

Well, it is impossible to say enough how much I admire and appreciate you. So I will simply stop with these words of thanks and get to my packing. It is time for me to get out of the way so the future may begin.

Bob Keefer


Sermon from May 15: Gracias. Amen.

Gracias. Amen.
Easter V; May 15, 2022
John 13:31-35

I have served as a pastor in quite a variety of settings over the last forty years, but there are some things in common everywhere. Two particular women represent this well. They were both members of the church I was serving and they were both in the same nursing home, so I would always visit both of them on the same trip. Both were widowed. One of them was always complaining: the place cost too much (and she had a lot of money, by the way; the other one had none), the food was bad, and the Church didn’t pay enough attention to her. The other one was always grateful: she appreciated that she had a place that looked after her, that she had food to eat, that the Pastor and other people came to see her.

I knew what kind of person I wanted to be: grateful for what is, rather than griping about what isn’t. And so I come to my last Sunday as an installed pastor with that hope: that I will share with you my gratitude. I have had my share of woes in the ministry; who hasn’t? But I don’t want to gripe about those; I want to be grateful for those who have painted the rainbow of my experience.

I am grateful for people who say, “Yes;” for people who offer their gifts and skills for the Church; for people who pray for their Pastor; for people who email me jokes; for people who say, “I have something I need to tell someone, and I trust you;” for people who say, “I need prayer” and invite me to stand at the abyss with them; for people who want to get together and do something fun; for people who ask a question that leads to a sermon or a study or a great conversation; for people who generate novel ideas; for people who sweep the floor, who make the coffee, who take Prayer Care Ministry bags to the homebound, who write notes….

When Jesus told us to love one another as he has loved us, it occurred to me that key to loving one another is the attitude we take toward one another. I choose to be grateful for you and for all those with whom I worked at Princeton Theological Seminary, and especially the people of Divine Grace Presbyterian Church in Miami, Arizona; of the Presbyterian Church of Superior, Arizona; of the Presbyterian Church of Wyoming, Ohio; of Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati; of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Clarinda, Iowa; and of Presbyterian Church of the Master here in Omaha. Jesus occasionally gave vent to his frustrations with the disciples, and he knows that pastors have our frustrations with his Holy Church, but he was grateful for them and I am grateful for all of you. I encourage you to be grateful for one another.

You can always find something to gripe about. This occurred to me as I thought about the context of our celebration today. The world is a mess; have you noticed? It would be easy to awaken every morning and start whining about COVID-19, about Russian aggression, about rampant lies and disinformation, about growing White nationalism in our politics. That would be easy. It is also easy to awaken every morning and give thanks for having awakened in the morning. Give thanks for health care professionals who continue to work at public well-being, for those making a positive difference in conflicts, for those who tirelessly tell the truth despite rampant public lies, and for those who do not give up in the face of backlash.

This leads to a couple more thoughts about loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Honesty in the face of disinformation and lies is a sign of true love. When it came to his disciples, Jesus didn’t pull his punches but was honest with them. He called them out on their prejudices – against children, against women, against foreigners – and their failure to understand. He called Peter out on his bravado. He pointed out where they needed to grow. He taught them hard truths and encouraging truths.

White middle-class North Americans have a tendency to pretend everything is alright when it isn’t. Here in the Midwest it may be particularly bad. One community where Kathleen and I lived and worked we often said that people would do all sorts of things in their homes and everyone seemed to think it was alright as long as they kept their lawns perfect. If we attend to appearances more than to reality then we are not loving one another as Jesus has loved us.

When I say “telling the truth” I mean exactly that; some people use that phrase as an excuse to be abusive. In the guise of telling someone else the truth, a person may harangue or scream at another. That is not telling the truth; that is emotional abuse. One Church I know is a good example of healthy functioning around such behavior. They had a new, young pastor who was struggling to figure out how to do things, including how to lead a Session meeting. One of the elders lit into the Pastor at one meeting and gave him a very harsh what’s-for. Another elder said to him, “You’re not allowed to speak to our Pastor like that.” The Pastor didn’t have to say it; one of the elders did. No, I’m not the Pastor in that story, but I am grateful to have served the Church where that happened.

Usually when I have preached on this passage, I have called attention to the great sign of Jesus’ love for his disciples: the Cross. That Jesus was willing to go to the Cross as God’s peace offering to humanity is a remarkable sign of love. And it gives me the chance to tell you a story from more than forty years ago, one that some of you have heard. I was in Puerto Rico for the summer; I spent two weeks in the beautiful city of Mayagüez. A favorite place was the harbor, where I would watch the sunset and would pray. One evening I was there until well after dark, and was praying, “Lord, what shall I preach? I expect that I will be preaching for about forty years, but what do I say for forty years? What shall I preach?” Then I looked up into the sky and saw a Cross in the sky: five stars making the sign of the Cross. It was the Northern Cross, I believe, the central part of the constellation Cygnus, but it was also the answer to my question.

Frankly, I do not know if it is possible for us to love one another to that extent, at least not in the ordinary run of days. So it is of comfort to me that Jesus said to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you” before he went to the Cross. He had not yet loved them all the way to the Cross, so perhaps what he asks of us is more manageable, after all. Since Jesus commands us to love one another as he had loved us up to that point, that is why I focus on these three things: love one another by being grateful for one another; love one another by being honest with one another; and love one another by hanging in there with each other.

As many times as Jesus got frustrated with his disciples, he never gave up on them. He continued to teach them, to tell stories to help them grasp what it meant to be loved by God, to help them find good priorities for their lives. It is so easy to give up on the Church. All my life people have told me stories about how the Church has hurt them; I understand. Most pastors do, since most of us have been severely hurt by the Church as well. Jesus understands. His disciples all abandoned him: one betrayed him, one denied knowing him, and the others ran away. Yet Jesus returned to them and said, “Peace be with you.” Time and time again they quarreled, they misunderstood, they led with their own desires rather than with the will of God. And he hung in there with them.

He hangs in there with you and me, as well. So how dare we give up on his Church? If one community of faith hurts you or tries to lead you astray, there will be another one not far away who will take you in and love you. After I was forced out of a pastorate, like my two immediate predecessors, I was tempted to think that church members were the worst people anywhere. But my friend told me, “Go to church every Sunday.” I did (I usually do what I’m told), and I found communities of faith that were struggling to follow Jesus, I heard preachers who faithfully proclaimed the Gospel. Jesus has always hung in there with his Church; if we are to obey his command to love as he has loved us, so will we.

I guess my summary thought is: Remember who you are. You are the people of Jesus, so love one another as Jesus has loved you. I don’t know if this really fits the theme but I’m going to say it anyway. Probably most of you here at Church of the Master will associate me with the massive renovations we made to the building. More important than the building itself is to use it for its intended purpose: to be a place to worship God, to learn God’s ways, and to practice loving one another as Jesus has loved you. Remember: Presbyterian Church of the Master is not this building, but the community of people who gather in this building and who are striving to love your neighbors and to love one another as Jesus has loved you.

Well, time to stop; perhaps it’s past time to stop. Love one another as Jesus has loved you. Do that, please, by being grateful for one another, by being honest with one another, and by hanging in there with each other. To all of you who have loved me I say, “Gracias.” And to all of you to whom Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you,” I say, “Amen.”

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


Sermon from May 8: Believe and Belong

Believe and Belong
Easter IV; May 8, 2022
John 10:22-30

“You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you do not belong to my sheep.” You do not believe because you do not belong. Isn’t that backward? Don’t we become part of the family of Jesus because we put our faith in him? We belong because we believe; right?

Not really. Jesus has it spot on, not only for his Church but for pretty much everything else. Do you believe in your country? (Yes.) Is that because you have studied its political system and history and have come to conclude that it is worthy of your belief… or because you feel you belong to it, either by birth or naturalization? Are you committed to your family? Would you be if it were not a part of who you are?

I remember a proverb from my study of Spanish literature: Begin by taking holy water and you’ll end up a believer. For most of us, we do not become followers of Jesus because we believe in him; we come to believe in him because we start out following him, following him as part of the pack of people who do. Do religious things, the proverb suggests, and your actions will work their way into your heart.

Most of us – not all of us, but most of us – who put our faith in Jesus grew up as part of his flock. My parents never talked to my brothers and me about their faith, said very little about Jesus, but we went to Sunday School and worship every week and participated in youth group and sang in the choir. We were raised with the knowledge that we belonged. I have probably told some of you that when I was a young person the Church was the one place where I felt accepted. I had few real connections at school or in my neighborhood, but at Church I was a person and people accepted me just as I was. I belonged.

As you start to consider your future as a Church, I beg you to keep that in mind. Don’t worry about persuading people to have the right ideas or the correct opinions; welcome them. Care less about litmus tests of faith and political commitment than you do with helping people to feel they belong. For most people, that will mean engaging them in doing something they care about.

If you invite them to a program, they may attend and enjoy themselves, but that will probably not foster a sense of belonging. If you ask them to go with a church group to serve supper at Siena Francis House or say, “Can you swing a hammer? We’re working on a Habitat house next Saturday” that will help them feel they belong.

From what I’ve seen, one notion we hold is very wrong. We often think that if we get people to the building for an event, that will introduce them to the Church and put it in their minds. Well, sort of; if they come to a show or a dinner or a meeting then they will know there is a building here where events of that sort happen. That has nothing to do with feeling as though you belong. But if you invite them to do something with you, they will begin to feel as though they belong. Obviously there are exceptions; I am speaking generally. If you want people to come to believe in Jesus, begin by helping them feel as though they belong to the people of Jesus.

Years ago, in Tucson I ran across a man my family had known when he was a boy. His family were not church-going people, but when I saw him he was volunteering for a year with a Presbyterian mission. He had become a Christian and joined a Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. How did that happen? He had gotten involved with supporting refugees from El Salvador – if you remember, that was a time when our federal government was going after people who helped refugees from El Salvador – and he started to get to know the people he was working with. He discovered that the people who cared about Salvadoran refugees were Christians and specifically the ones he was working with were all from this Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He was part of their mission and, in time, he was baptized and became part of their flock.

These five wonderful people who are becoming part of our Body today have all described for me things they care about in the life of the Church, things they would like to do. That they are making this commitment today tells us two important things. We know that because they are joining one week before the Pastor’s last Sunday they are not joining Bob Keefer’s Church, but they are joining Presbyterian Church of the Master. It says that they are committed to Jesus Christ and his Church, they are here because they want to be part of your community of faith, and I hope that you will get to know them and will find out how you can encourage them and how they can help serve Jesus Christ as part of this community.

And it says something about you as a people of God. Most of them found us by information on the Internet. Some of them knew us already, as many of you know. But there are those who started searching for a Church with particular characteristics and watched our webcast. After doing the safe thing for a while – listening to our service in their home – they got up the nerve to show up in person. And they discovered that you are the kind of people you seem to be: there is nothing false about our webcast. And when they came they found that this is a safe place: a place where you can be who you are and not be scolded for it. Among these five persons are a range of experience, of political and theological opinions, of hopes; this is a safe place for such diversity. And that we are a More Light Church is another reason some of these folks are here: you have made an explicit commitment to welcome persons of a variety of sexual and gender identities, concerned only that we’re all trying to follow Jesus Christ.

When my ability to believe seems to be a little shaky, it really helps that I belong to the Body of Christ. We encourage each other, we pray for each other, we challenge each other. When a new guy joins the men’s group I belong to, I typically say, “Welcome; in this group you will find encouragement, challenge, and the occasional whack upside the head when you need it.” Those words can also describe the Body of Christ. Those words certainly describe you.

Robert A Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska


Pastor Bob’s May Message

Dear people of God:

Years ago an elder at a church I was leaving gave me a children’s book, A Snowman Named Just Bob. It is a delightful story about friendship; the last page shows only the puddle where the snowman had been and a sign, “Bob Was Here.” She wanted me to know that even though that church relationship had ended unhappily, nonetheless people had benefited from my presence.

Both Benson Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Church of the Master have had difficult endings to pastoral relationships, yet you also hold many joyful thoughts of how you have benefited from the presence of your pastors. I am grateful that we are concluding happily, having worshiped and served together for nine years. I hope that, on balance, my presence with you has benefited you: that you are more confident, or more faithful, or more hopeful, or more committed to Jesus Christ and his Church. Or perhaps all of these.

You have had a positive impact on me personally and spiritually. I will carry a boxcar full of joyful moments, times of laughter and fun, and the sharing of important and meaningful tears. I hope to find good opportunities to express my appreciation to you for your love, your faithfulness, and your encouragement.

What more shall I say to you? I pray that you will have as much hope in yourselves as I have in you. You are dedicated, winsome, curious, and hard-working. These are qualities that make you potentially a powerful tool in the hand of Christ. Have faith in God, in each other, and in yourselves and you will do many beautiful things for God.

To quote the Apostle Paul (Romans 15:13): “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Pastor Bob

Sermon from May 1: On Feeding the Flock

On Feeding the Flock
Easter III; May 1, 2022
John 21:1-19

Since Jesus told Peter that the way to show his love for Jesus was to feed Jesus’ sheep, I’m going to use that idea as a place to talk with you about the relationship between pastor and people. I think there are mission implications too: Jesus says he has sheep we may not be aware of (John 10:16) and so we can think of Jesus’ command as a motivation for the Church to feed people both in bread and in the Word of God. Support hunger ministry and tell the lost and wandering about Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”

But let’s focus on the reality that you are facing soon, which is to welcome someone who will be a bridge pastor or an interim pastor and to begin your search for a new installed pastor, as well as talking about the implications of our separation. Let’s consider first what the pastor’s responsibility is when Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” and then talk about what that means for you and me. And, of course, I will remind you of what our Good Shepherd does for all his sheep.

The Pastor’s primary concern is to feed the sheep the truth of the Word of God. That is harder than it sounds. We pastors are human beings with the frailties, prejudices, and sins of all human beings, and so it is easy to get distracted from Jesus’ command to feed his sheep with the Word of God and to give you junk food instead. What do I mean by “junk food”? Such things as expressing our own political opinions rather than opinions based solidly on the Gospel, or using preaching to further our own purposes, or simply telling you what makes you feel good rather than what would promote spiritual growth. People may like junk food: after all, most of us would rather eat a chocolate Easter bunny than a plate of broccoli. But we also know which is better for us. A few bites of a chocolate bunny after the plate of broccoli is a welcome treat, but it is not a substitute.

While I’m playing with metaphors, let me be crass and say that it is also the Pastor’s responsibility to feed the sheep, not fleece them. Pastors can fleece the sheep in a variety of ways. Obviously it is possible to take financial advantage of people’s willingness to support the work of God. We all know of TV preachers who have gotten wealthy off their work, but I was also told the story of a pastor who gave a lot of attention to the widows in his congregation, with the result that they left him money in their wills. Please don’t; please remember your church in your wills, not the pastor.

You may prefer I not mention this, but I will anyway: there are pastors who have been abusive of their people. April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month; perhaps you saw yards covered in pinwheels as a reminder. One of my social media friends posted stories of men who had been sexually abused as children; he had shared his own story of being abused by a Scout leader when he was a boy. He pointed out how difficult it is for anyone to talk about having been abused, but it is particularly difficult for men. Our group continues to celebrate the courage of our brother who told us his story. I wanted to take this opportunity to remind you that abuse happens and in order to break the cycle of abuse it is necessary to talk about it. If you have a story, tell it to someone you trust.

Another, more subtle way that pastors fleece their sheep is to do their work faithfully but with the intention of satisfying their own emotional needs. So here I will talk about our relationship after May 31. As of June 1 I will no longer be your Pastor. I will still love you and I know you will still love me. I will pray for you. I will want the best for you. I will be glad any time I see any of you. I will be your friend, but I will not be your Pastor. So if you ask me to do a wedding or baptism or funeral, I will refuse. You haven’t done anything wrong if you ask, but if I do it, I will have done something very wrong. There are two reasons for that.

The first is that it is against the rules. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) explicitly prohibits it. Now, I have done two funerals for my former congregation in Clarinda. It was not against the rules. Why? Because the Pastor was going to be away and asked me to cover those for him. If I had just done it on my own, it would have been a violation of my ordination vows. And so, in another case, when a dear friend in my former church asked me to do her brother’s funeral, I refused. I said, “Jay is your Pastor and he cares about you.” He did the funeral and did an excellent job. If you ask a former minister of this church to do a wedding or baptism or funeral and the minister does it without the request coming from the pastor of the Church, that minister has violated their ordination vows.

The second, more important reason is that it isn’t good for you or for the church as a whole. You may think you want the minister who knows you and has loved you for a long time to do this, and I understand. It feels good. But it isn’t right. First off, we ministers need to remember that our job is not to cultivate your loyalty to us, but your loyalty to Jesus Christ and his Church. We are to care more about your relationship with your Church than about your relationship with us. And second, it is important to give the new Pastor a chance to connect with you and care for you. They can’t do that if some former pastor or associate pastor keeps getting in the way. If I were to do that, I would be serving my own desire to feel needed rather than doing what is good for you.

But to finish on this note. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” This was right after Jesus had fed Peter a nice grilled breakfast. Remember that the One who ultimately feeds us the Word of God isn’t the Pastor but is Jesus Himself. He feeds us by his teaching throughout the Gospels. He feeds us by inspiring teachers and preachers over centuries of Christian growth and learning. And he feeds us with his Body and Blood in the Holy Supper. The Church can feed Jesus’ sheep in the world and Pastors can feed Jesus’ sheep in the Church because Jesus feeds us repeatedly with grace and in the Holy Spirit. As the Psalm says, taste and see that the Lord is good.

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

Sermon from April 24: That You May Have Life in His Name

That You May Have Life in His Name
Easter II; April 24, 2022
John 20:19-31

We usually read this story about Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter, because the main part of the story happens on that Sunday. On the day Mary and the others discovered Jesus’ tomb empty, the disciples gather behind a door that is locked out of fear. Jesus comes to them. Then a week later they are gathered again, the door shut but not locked; clearly they are no longer afraid. This time Thomas is with them, and you heard about all that when I read you the story. It leaves Thomas – an apostle with a lot of positive things to be said about him – with the unfortunate moniker of “Doubting Thomas.” How would you like to be remembered for the one time you didn’t quite measure up?

Anyway, Thomas believes and that, it seems, is that. But this story concludes with a short purpose statement from the writer. He points out that he didn’t tell us everything he could have. Thank God. One sort of person who I find tedious is the person who thinks they need to tell you everything they know about a subject. When I was doing my PhD dissertation, I read everything I could find on the doctrine of original sin. Someone asked me a question about something, and I said, “I don’t know; I can’t think about that right now. I’m up to my eyeballs in original sin.” They said, “Do you want to rephrase that?” Anyway, when I wrote my dissertation, my Committee pointed out forty pages of material that was interesting enough, but didn’t advance my argument. It had to go. It went.

Ever since then, part of my method as a preacher has been to draft my sermon several days in advance and then go back to it to see what I should cut out of it. You don’t need to hear everything that I know about a particular subject, only enough to inform you or persuade you. And so John made the same decision when he wrote his gospel. People sometimes complain that he has a lot of stories that aren’t in the other three gospels and that they have stories that he doesn’t. I imagine he read their gospels and, with a few exceptions, decided, “I don’t need to tell that story; Matthew got it just fine.”

So he tells us that he wrote what he thought we needed so that we would believe, and believing, have life in the name of Jesus. Not just believe because this is information that it is good for us to know, but believe so that we may have life in the name of Jesus. And so John tells us that everyone who believes in Jesus has eternal life (3:15), that Jesus gives us living water (4:10). He reminds us that Jesus is the bread of life (6:35), has the words of eternal life (6:68), came to give us life abundantly (10:10), and that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (11:25).

And if you, like Thomas, sometimes doubt: that’s alright, but use your doubt to fuel your curiosity to find out what it will take to believe, so that you too may have life in the name of Jesus. My intellectual and spiritual guru, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote some very complicated and difficult thoughts, but a central thought that has meant a lot to me for decades is this: to believe is to want to believe (“Creer es querer creer.”)[1] To have life in the name of Jesus does not require that you are fully confident of everything that Thomas got to see on that second Sunday, only that you desire to believe, that you turn to Jesus with the yearning to have life in his name.

John hopes that if you read his gospel, you will draw close enough to Jesus to want to believe in him, to have life in his name. So he didn’t tell us everything he knew, only that much. Well, it’s possible he did as I did: he wrote a lot more than was needed, and then went back and took a lot of it out.

Another thing about the Second Sunday of Easter is that we sometimes call it Holy Humor Sunday. We celebrate the great practical joke that God played on the Devil by letting Jesus be killed and then raising him from the dead. You may remember that two years ago we filmed me doing a silly stand-up routine in honor of Holy Humor Sunday. We thought about doing that again. But I decided it would be better for your spiritual life to hear Camille Metoyer Moten sing than to endure me doing a stand-up routine.

So I’ll stop now. I know that Camille’s songs will help us know more about having life in the name of Jesus. With those and with what John has written, that will be enough.

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

Recording of the service of the day:

[1] Miguel de Unamuno, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (Losada, 1977), p. 104.

Sermon from April 17: Look for the Living

Look for the Living
Resurrection; April 17, 2022
Luke 24:1-12

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the men in the tomb asked the women. Where else would they look? This is where they expected to find him – well, his body – because anything else would be too unexpected. Yes, as the men reminded them, Jesus had told them he would be raised from the dead, but the women expected all faithful people of God to be raised from the dead… at the end of the age. But not yet. Not yet.

God’s surprising action in raising Jesus from the dead already suggests to me a partial answer to a question one of you posed to me: Why does God let bad things happen? You asked it early in the Russian offensive against Ukraine and that was probably what you had in mind. Why does God let that happen? Why did God let the Romans kill Jesus?

People have given a lot of answers to that question and I’ll be honest: none of them satisfy me. But that God did let the Romans execute Jesus and then did raise him from the dead tells me two important things.

It tells me that evil is real. All the positive thinking that you and I want to do, all the unicorns with rainbows streaming out of their backsides cannot cover up the reality of evil. Right now we’re happy to focus on the President of Russia as evil, but I have known evil much closer to home and you probably have too. Someone abused you or deliberately harmed you or deceived you. You have dealt with systemic racism or sexism or homophobia. Perhaps you have participated in it and been part of the problem. However it may be, you have known evil.

Mary, Joanna, and the other women had seen evil at work: the system grinding under its wheels the life of someone they loved. Jesus’ brand of goodness doesn’t stand up well in this world: telling the truth to people and about people; emphasizing the importance of relationships rather than power, generosity rather than acquisitiveness, forgiveness rather than revenge. That doesn’t go over well, and so the system killed him to get him out of the way. These women had seen evil at work and so they went to the tomb on Sunday morning to grieve in the proper way.

They discovered the surprise. Although it is a surprise, I have always enjoyed the matter-of-fact way the men say, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It is difficult to accept that God allows such evil as the assault on Ukraine, White nationalism, the crucifixion of Jesus, but this morning’s celebration reminds us of what God does about it: we call it redemption. That’s the second important thing. Rather than preventing evil, God redeems evil, pulls its teeth, and from its worst acts makes something new.

Mary, Joanna, and the others could not see that on that long Saturday, that time before they came to the tomb and made their wonderful discovery. We cannot see it now in Ukraine. Much of our life is spent in the Holy Saturday of waiting and wondering and suffering: what will God do with this? We have had a very long Holy Saturday of a pandemic, as the world shut down and projects shriveled and relationships withered. The usual work of God is not to stop bad things from happening but to work quietly through the long Holy Saturday to bring new life out of them. I believe God will work through millions of us to redeem, somehow, the evil of the war in Ukraine. I believe God will work in our society, despite the opposition of many powers nearby and far away, to redeem, somehow, the evil of systemic racism, of sexism, of homophobia. That is because I believe that God worked through the brutal execution of Jesus to bring new life and new possibilities to the world. Look for the living, but look for the living among the dead, for that is where he is needed.

Speaking as your pastor, I find myself wondering if we should not have tried so hard to keep things going during the Holy Saturday of the pandemic. Perhaps we should have let more things die. I fear that your temptation will be to simply try to reestablish former things, to do again what you’ve done before, to continue to think in the same way you did before the pandemic. It’s probably a good thing that I am retiring in a few weeks; I am part of the way we did things before COVID. I know myself well enough to know that I could help nurture you along to the new life God offers now, but I suspect it will be more easily accomplished with a pastor who is not part of the way things used to be.

For God did not simply reanimate a corpse. When Christ was raised from the dead, he did not pick up where he left off, simply restart what he had been doing before. His life was a new life, a resurrected life, the first of many yet to come.

Look for the living. Look around and see where redemption is happening. Look at churches that have been radically remade as a result of the pandemic. Look at people whose lives have taken new meaning because of how they emerged from the evil they lived through. Look at societies that have suffered terribly and emerged with new and vibrant life. Examples abound: God redeems evil. As we live through a long Holy Saturday the earth continues to turn and the sun rises on Resurrection morning.

So take heart. Look for the living among the dead and put your focus on the Living One. What is the new thing God is doing? Look for the Living One in your life, in the life of our world, in the life of the Church. You and I can be part of God’s work of redemption, for our Lord is risen indeed.

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

Sermon from April 10: “And so it begins.”

“And so it begins.”
Palm Sunday; April 10, 2022
Luke 19:29-40

“And so it begins” is a line from a 1990s TV show I love;[1] some of you may know it but I’m sure most of you don’t, so I won’t go into it. The character who speaks that line in the TV show foresees the cascading events to follow. That is how I react to reading the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem that Sunday: “And so it begins.” The die is cast; the inevitable is about to unfold.

The Prophet Zechariah had announced to the people some 500 years earlier that their king would come riding into Jerusalem on a donkey; Jesus deliberately chose this method to come into the City in order to provoke the response that he would get. He was making an announcement here: I am the Promised One. What followed, however, no one expected except Jesus himself. And the God Who is behind it all.

Jesus began the day with this bold move, and then followed it by upping the ante. He went to the Temple and caused a scene: he drove out those who were selling animals for sacrifice and all the other vendors in the Temple precincts. He claimed that the Temple authorities had taken God’s house of prayer and turned it into a den of robbers. He provoked the political authorities by his ride into Jerusalem and he provoked the religious authorities by his attack on their administration of the Temple.

Even if you know the story, let’s take some time to remind ourselves of what unfolded after these two provocative actions. Jesus spent much of the week in the Temple precincts, teaching and telling stories. His teachings poked at people’s typical scale of values; his stories poked at the authorities. People who were poor or pushed to the margins of society found much of what he said encouraging, but they were disappointed that he wasn’t mobilizing them to overthrow the power structures. And the authorities plotted to do him in.

Thursday of that week he and his disciples had the Passover supper together, during which he used some of the bread and one of the cups of wine to inaugurate what you and I call the Lord’s Supper, or communion. Then while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was arrested and taken to the religious Council who questioned him all night, agreeing that he was to die; they sent him to the Imperial Governor, Pontius Pilate, for trial. Pilate hoped to assuage them by torturing Jesus, but they were not content with anything less than death. With some effort, they persuaded Pilate to condemn him to be executed, and mid-day on Friday Jesus was taken to a hill outside the City to be executed by crucifixion. Come back next Sunday for the rest of the story.

There are so many moments in this story when what I called “inevitable” could have been prevented. Jesus didn’t have to be in the Garden that Thursday night, waiting for the police, but he was. Jesus could have pleaded his innocence before Pilate, but he didn’t. And Jesus didn’t have to choose to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, but he did. When he sent those two disciples to untie the colt with the message, “The Lord needs it,” he set in motion the events that followed, the events we commemorate this week.

And so it begins. And today something else begins, too. The children being presented for baptism are set on their own journey with Jesus today. During the baptism ritual you will hear me say that in baptism God unites us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. It’s a weird thing to say and even weirder to think about: when someone is baptized, the life they might have lived without Jesus is killed and they are raised to a new life in him. I was about Bennett’s age[2] when I was baptized, so I don’t remember the event, I don’t remember a life “B. C.” (before Christ), a life without Jesus. That’s a good thing: it’s a blessing to be part of the family of Jesus from the very beginning.

But it’s a big choice, too. These parents are making a big choice for their children. Here’s how I’m picturing it today. In the comic strip Peanuts Lucy and Linus have a baby brother; they call him Rerun. Rerun goes all over town on the back of his mother’s bicycle. She puts him on the back of her bicycle and she sets off; he goes through all the same hazards she does, sees all the same sights, but she is clearly in control.

When parents bring their children to be baptized, they strap them to the back of Jesus’ donkey. Like Rerun riding behind his mother, these children ride behind Jesus on his donkey. They can get off; they may slide off. They can close their eyes. Or they can take in those sights and ride with Jesus into Jerusalem, staying with him as he makes a scene in the Temple, as he teaches, and then when he breaks the bread on Thursday evening and goes to the Cross on Friday. The parents who bring their children to be baptized place them on the donkey with Jesus.

And you and I: what’s our role? The people of God walk alongside, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and helping those children stay on. It can be a precarious ride, and you never know where Jesus may take you. But this I know: if you hold onto him tight, and you let the people of God walk alongside you, you will not fall off.

Robert A Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Babylon 5
[2] He was 11 months old at this time.

Sermon from April 3: The Fragrance of God

The Fragrance of God
Lent V; April 3, 2022
John 12:1-8

What would that fragrance have been, filling the house? I’ve never smelled nard; I read that the smell is musty and woody, which sounds like something I would like. Don’t you love the scent of a real pine or juniper or spruce tree at Christmas? My friend Peter told me that his grandmother said to him, “There are only two smells in the afterlife: incense and brimstone. You had better learn to like one of them.”

Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume made of pure nard, and the fragrance filled the house. First, I ask you to imagine how you react. Imagine you are at that dinner party. You are either a disciple of Jesus or you are a friend of the family, or both. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead; the two sisters are overjoyed to have their brother restored to them. They invite Jesus to dinner; also at the dinner are their closest friends, the disciples of Jesus, and you. Mary goes to her room, gets her most expensive perfume, and anoints Jesus’ feet with it. How do you react?

Are you filled with wonder? Certainly Mary is grateful, but isn’t the dinner party enough to show her gratitude? (It occurs to me that Martha probably did most of the work for the party.) Mary does this expensive, reckless gesture of love and thanksgiving. You smell the perfume and you are filled with wonder at her love and joy.

Or perhaps you, like Judas, are scornful of the extravagance. I think it was a little cheap of John to throw in the comment about Judas being a thief; isn’t it enough that Judas is a sourpuss? You probably know someone like that: every time someone tries to do something wonderful and extravagant this other person responds with scorn. Jesus’ response to Judas is right on the mark: Leave her alone. If someone wants to do something extravagant, let them do it.

I had better add that Jesus’ comment about the poor is not an excuse to avoid attending to the needs of the poor. It is simply the reminder that Mary has one chance only to do this for Jesus: do it now or do it never. But tomorrow there will be another opportunity to do your duty for the poor. Don’t be scornful of Mary; leave her alone. Inhale the wonderful fragrance, the fragrance of gratitude, the fragrance of sacrifice, the fragrance of God.

Mary’s gift is her own sacrifice, of course, and Jesus takes the opportunity to call attention to his sacrifice soon to come. It’s six days before the Passover; the next day after this dinner will be the day you and I call Palm Sunday. This Mary, like Mary Magdalene, may be one of the women who go to the tomb on Easter morning intending to care properly for Jesus’ body. This perfume of nard may be her contribution on that day. Even if not, Jesus draws our attention there. The perfume fills the house with the fragrance of her sacrifice and the fragrance of the sacrifice of Jesus.

The first thing I wanted you to think about was how you react when you smell the fragrance of Mary’s perfume. And the second thing I ask you to think about is the fragrance of our sacrifice. When our young people are confirmed in several minutes, I will anoint each of them with olive oil that has been infused with frankincense and myrrh. This is the fragrance of their commitment to Jesus Christ and his Church, the fragrance of the promises they are about to make.

Let’s get metaphorical: what is the fragrance of our life? What fragrance fills the house because of the way we live, the way we pray, the way we serve God? Sometimes it is the fragrance of whatever the Deacons are making for dinner at Rainbow House. This month that is breakfast casserole and Caesar salad: for those families of patients at Children’s Hospital, far from their homes, for one evening at least the fragrance of God will be not perfume of nard but eggs and sausage and sharp cheddar cheese.

I have told you before that the Deacons at the Presbyterian Church of Wyoming, Ohio once every month would make dinner for the people at a soup kitchen in downtown Cincinnati. They made the soup on Sunday morning to be warmed up later in the week, so one Sunday every month for us the fragrance of God was not perfume of nard but chicken soup.

I have been part of the team from our Church that helps build Habitat houses and so sometimes the fragrance of God is the smell of human sweat. Working people who would otherwise not be able to afford to buy a home can become homeowners because of Habitat for Humanity, the time they themselves put into construction and the many volunteers who work on the homes. So human sweat is, at times, the fragrance of God.

We can get even more metaphorical. Do you and I fill the house with the fragrance of joy and gratitude? Or are we sourpusses like Judas? What fragrance fills the house as a result of our love for Jesus, as a result of our gratitude to him?

I do like the smell of incense, so I should be okay if Peter’s grandmother was right and I have to choose between it and brimstone. I have never smelled perfume made of nard, but I think I would like it. I have, I know, smelled the fragrance of God. Sometimes it smells like chicken soup, sometimes like human sweat, and sometimes like breakfast casserole and Caesar salad. The fragrance of God fills the house wherever you find the people who love Jesus and are grateful to him and who offer themselves freely in his service.

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


Pastor Bob’s April Message

Dear people of God:

I’m going to depart from my usual plan in order to highlight some events coming up. I hope you will participate as you are able.

Sunday, April 3: Confirmation. We have a confirmation class of nine young people; they have studied hard this year and worked with their mentors. We will welcome them into church membership today at 10:30.

Sunday, April 10: Palm Sunday. This begins our Holy Week pilgrimage; we also expect to baptize some of our children that day.

Thursday, April 14: Maundy Thursday. We’ll have a salad supper at 5:30 pm in the Fellowship Hall, including the Lord’s Supper.

Friday, April 15: Good Friday. Two different services will mark the crucifixion of our Lord for our salvation: a service of the Passion at noon, and a service of Shadows at 7:00 pm. The evening service will also be webcast.

Sunday, April 17: Resurrection Day! Sunrise service at 6:30, followed by continental breakfast. Worship at 8:00 and 10:30, with brunch at 9:00. You can sign up for brunch on OneChurch or on the clipboards in the Sanctuary.

Sunday, April 24: The talented singer Camille Metoyer Moten will sing for us during worship (10:30 only). Please don’t miss this!

Sunday, May 1: May Day celebration following the 10:30 service!

Sunday, May 15: One service only at 10:30; my last Sunday with you. I hope to see your wonderful faces!

Sunday, May 22: Summer schedule begins; one service only at 9:30.

God bless you and all God’s Church!

Pastor Bob