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


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


Sermon from March 27: The Older Brother’s Party

The Older Brother’s Party
Lent IV; March 27, 2022
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I am an older brother, both literally and symbolically. You will get to meet my younger brothers – both of whom are wonderful men, married to marvelous women – when they are here for my last Sunday with you on May 15. You will like them a lot.

Although we fought fiercely when we were children, I don’t recall that we had to deal with the sort of dynamic the two brothers deal with in Jesus’ story. Although we gave our parents as much trouble as three children give, they did not have to deal with the heartbreak the father in this story deals with. His younger son demanding inheritance – effectively saying, “Dad, drop dead now; I’m tired of waiting” – and then leaving home. The older son’s growing bitterness and resentment, suddenly unleashed at his father in a burst of fury.

Although this story is classically called the story of the Prodigal Son, because the young man was prodigal – free and loose – with his money, I prefer to call it the story of the Prodigal Father, because Daddy is prodigal with his love. He welcomes the younger son home. He allows the older son to rage at him.

We could focus on any of the characters in this story – either son, or the father – and have a wonderful time in the Word of God. But I want to focus on the relationship between them, the tension in this family. What does the tension tell us about the household of God? And I’m drawn to that because of a question one of you posed to me. You called attention to a line from Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NRSV). And you also called attention to a line from James: “What good is it, my dear ones, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?… So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14, 17 NRSV).

There is a tension between those two pieces of Scripture, and it is a tension you find throughout the Bible and it is represented by the tension between the two brothers in Jesus’ story. Let me try to fill in the picture for you, and then explore the tension. I promise: doing this will be good for our spiritual lives. Here’s the picture. Presumably you are here – either in the church or listening to this service on YouTube – because you want to know God and be part of the life of God in the world. You want to be saved, is another way of putting it. And we would all presumably agree that our salvation is won by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but how does it become real in our lives? What do we need to do?

The line from Ephesians – “By grace you have been saved through faith” – seems to answer the question, “What do we need to do?” by saying, “Nothing. You do nothing. You contribute nothing to your salvation. Have faith in Jesus; Jesus saves you.” The line from James – “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” – seems to say, “Well, that’s nonsense. How is it that you have faith if you don’t do anything about it? You can claim to have faith in Jesus, but if you’re not doing the works of Jesus, then you really don’t. So what matters is what you do.”

The younger brother seems to me to represent the point of view of Ephesians. I’ve screwed up royally; I’m a sinner. I’m going to go home and confess everything to my father and throw myself upon his mercy. The older brother seems to me to represent the point of view of James. I’ve always behaved myself. I’ve worked hard, I’ve obeyed my father. And the father, of course, represents the point of view of God, who is happy to have them both at home.

If this were a class in which I had forty-five minutes I would stop and ask, “Do you understand the problem? Or do I need to explain it a different way?” Since it’s a sermon and I have only fifteen minutes I will instead say that I hope that you understand and push on. Let’s look at the tension in these relationships.

The older son clearly resents the attention his brother is getting. If you think that his resentment may have been building over the years – “My kid brother is off having the time of his life in the big city while I’m plugging away, down on the farm” – I would agree with you. Son #1 feels resentment, hostility, and anger towards his brother and, it appears, toward his father as well. In a culture where the Paterfamilias or the Head of the Household is treated with deference, he is rude and disrespectful to his father; it would be bad enough for one of us to speak this way to a parent, but in that culture it is truly terrible. The seething in his spirit erupts in what he says to his father. If he had been an only child, he may not have minded his way of life, but because of his brother, his relationships are filled with resentment.

The younger son, for his part, feels shame toward his father. What does he feel toward his brother? Jesus doesn’t indicate. Does he feel triumphant – look what I got away with? Snarky – you goody-goody? Humble – I can barely face you? Or does he resent the fact that for the rest of his life he will be reliant on the generosity of his father and his brother? After all, Daddy is telling the truth when he says, “All that is mine is yours.” The Kid already got his share of the inheritance and when Daddy goes the way of all flesh, everything goes to Son #1. So the resentment may go both ways.

Of course, Jesus paints a beautiful picture of the relationship between the father and the younger son: filled with joy and thanksgiving, welcome and gratitude. When the son tries to project his shame it is overwhelmed with the father’s love and happiness. The only tension I can imagine there is the question of how long it will last. The Kid came home; will he stay?

If you want, you can project these characters and these tensions on the relationships you are in and the ones all around you. We celebrate when a church member who has wandered off returns to us: “Kill the fatted calf!” But underneath is the tension; will they stay? Those who have doggedly worked hard for the realm of God and never wandered off: when will someone rejoice over me? And all the time our God is throwing a party for the younger one and pleading with the older one to come in.

That tension remains. You may have it in your family. You almost certainly have it in some relationships. You may be one who works hard, tries to do the right thing, and then you begin to resent those who seem to have more fun, don’t follow through, and then everybody is glad to see them. Or you may be one of those who keep messing up and live with the wonder that you are still welcomed home. You may be an Ephesians Christian – “By grace you have been saved by faith” – or a James Christian – “What good is faith without works?” – and you wonder how to resolve this tension. We don’t like tension; we like matters to be settled. Which is it: Ephesians or James? Who’s right: the older brother or the younger?

I think the answer to that question is, “No.” It isn’t one or the other. Oh, individuals and churches and preachers will fall more on one side than the other, because we don’t like tension. We also tend to side with whichever brother suits our purpose. But Jesus’ story makes it clear that there is room in the household of God for both brothers. The older son doesn’t have to approve of his brother, doesn’t have to give him a welcome-home kiss; he needs only to set aside his resentment and come into the house. Have a drink, get some veal and bearnaise sauce, and talk about land prices with the neighbors. Just come in.

And the younger son has to accept always living off the grace of his father and brother. There is room in the house for him too; today he gets a party but tomorrow everything starts to find a new normal. Somehow he and his brother will have to figure this out.

Meanwhile Daddy goes on loving both of them. And as I worked on this sermon a thought struck me I had never had before. Son #1 complains that his dad had never thrown him a party, even after dutifully working on the farm his entire life. But Dad’s reply is spot on: “Everything I have is yours.” Yes, it is. Why didn’t you ever have your own party? Have you been so consumed with resentment, spending your hours plodding away in the fields and the vineyard while your anger eats away at you, that you’ve never taken a break to invite your friends over for a party? Everything is yours: you could have had a party any time you wished.

Jesus doesn’t explicitly answer the question one of you asked. Which is it: faith? Or the works that prove that I have faith? He tells a story that makes clear: there’s room in the household of God for both of you. And to the older brother I hear him saying: Do you want a party? Then have one. No one is stopping you but you. Just be sure to invite your brother.

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


Sermon from March 20: What Would Mr. Rogers Say?

What Would Mr. Rogers Say?
Lent III; March 20, 2022
Luke 13:1-9

The Presbyterian Planning Calendar lists a lot of special Sunday observances throughout the year. I’m not speaking of days related to the liturgical calendar – days such as the First Sunday of Advent or Pentecost – but days related to mission concerns and the life of the Church, such as Higher Education Sunday and Christian Family Day. Anyway, I tend to ignore those days in favor of whatever day it is on the liturgical calendar.

But today includes an observance I don’t remember seeing before and that I really want to pay attention to: it’s “Mr. Rogers Day.” He was born on this date in 1928; I don’t know if the Sunday closest to March 20 will always be Mr. Rogers Day, or if it’s just this year, but let’s go with it anyway.

Some of you grew up with Mr. Rogers, others of you have watched your children or grandchildren benefit from his work. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, educated at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who served his ministry in children’s television. He may well be the most influential Presbyterian minister in history, after John Knox. Most of what I knew of him was from parodies, people making fun of his sweater and slippers, his gentle demeanor and generous attention to children’s sense of themselves. I’m too old to have benefited from his ministry directly, and have no children to have brought me to him.

But something my dear friend Thom experienced gave me a picture of the kind of man he was. Thom, a fellow Presbyterian pastor, was planning to impersonate Mr. Rogers for a children’s message one Sunday. So he wrote Fred a letter, telling him of his plan and saying he hoped it was okay with him. Thom was in his office and the phone rang; the gentle voice on the other end said, “This is Fred Rogers.” It was. He was calling to tell Thom that indeed it was alright and to express his appreciation that Thom asked. He was used to people impersonating him but not used to people asking him if it was alright; he was very grateful and took the trouble to call to say so.

A famous person who made a phone call to express his gratitude to a small-town pastor: that gave me a picture of Fred Rogers. Two recent movies, a documentary and a feature film, expanded the picture. So I have become interested in him and in what he thought about things. Because of the day, one of the first questions I asked of this story from Luke is, “What would Mr. Rogers say?” “Repent or you shall likewise perish!” says Jesus. What would Mr. Rogers say about that?

I did an online search using the terms “Fred Rogers” and “repentance.” I couldn’t find that he said anything directly about repentance. He talked a lot about forgiveness, which is the other side of repentance. His stuff about forgiveness is good, but I didn’t find anything about repentance.

Then again, the most important aspect of repentance is something he talked about a lot, even though he never used the word. The center of repentance is this: to acknowledge in your heart that God is God and you aren’t. And there is a follow-up: you don’t need to be, because you are loved just as you are. Another way of saying this is: don’t try to become good enough for God to love you; accept that God loves you and let God’s love make you a better person.

One line from Mr. Rogers that is helpful is this: “Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we are not perfect.”[1] We are not perfect and it is a good project for your life and mine to work at getting closer to perfect. Some of you may remember the Sunday that I asked, “Is anyone here perfect?” and Mel Stanislaus raised his hand. I will acknowledge that he was closer than I am. And for his remaining years I called him Mr. Perfect.

We are not perfect, not in our own eyes, not in the eyes of other people, not in God’s eyes. But the rest of the story is that we do not need to be perfect. Mr. Rogers also said, “The kingdom of God is for the broken hearted.” The keys to the kingdom are not presented to those who march up to the gate and demand admission. They are for those who will humbly bow our heads, admit our imperfection and brokenness, and ask for bread.

Our reading today from Isaiah (55:1-9) makes the point clearly: Don’t waste your life on things that don’t matter. Repent; turn to what is important and lasting. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (v. 2) “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (v. 6). Come to the gate of the Lord, bow your head, admit your imperfection and brokenness, and ask for bread.

There’s a moment from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood that still makes me weep. Daniel Tiger asks Lady Aberlin, “Am I a mistake?” and they sing about it. I think I showed you the YouTube video of that. “Am I a mistake?” After all, Daniel’s a tame tiger who likes people and lives in a clock. Lady Aberlin listens to him and doesn’t try to talk him out of his feelings; she simply tells him that he is her friend and she likes him and she likes the person he is becoming.

Well, what more can I say? The tower of Siloam isn’t going to fall on you and Pilate isn’t going to mix your blood with your sacrifice, but someday your time in this world will be done. Take that reminder simply as an invitation to repent: to acknowledge that God is God and you are not, and you are not even the person you could be, and accept the grace of God to help you get there. The wisdom of Fred Rogers was to hold in sacred tension the reality that we are sometimes unlovable but are nonetheless loved; that we are not perfect but are children of God; that our hearts are broken but, as it says elsewhere, “God is greater than our hearts” (I John 3:20). Repent: come to the gate of the Lord, bow your head, admit your imperfection and brokenness, and ask for bread.

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

[1] Quotations from Fred Rogers taken from Geoffrey James, “45 Quotes from Mr. Rogers that We All Need Today” on

Sermon from March 13: Mother Jesus

Mother Jesus
Lent II; March 13, 2022
Luke 13:31-35

I said last week that I would be watching out for other times Jesus is tested; here is one. The instinct for self-preservation could easily kick in, but he resists and sticks to his appointed path. It isn’t clear why the Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is after him; after all, they have been Jesus’ fiercest critics and he likewise is critical of them. Maybe they are genuinely concerned for his well-being; maybe they wonder if he will cut and run like a frightened rabbit. Well, if he is a rabbit, he’s a rabbit unafraid of the fox. “You go and tell that fox for me…”

This vignette tells us a few things about Jesus; it may also reveal something about ourselves. We see a Jesus who knows his path and isn’t going to be dissuaded from it. That characteristic isn’t always a good thing. After all, Vladimir Putin knew his path too. We tend to admire certainty in leadership – and certainly some major figures in American life have expressed their admiration for Putin – but in reality wisdom includes the willingness to stop and question oneself. It is wise to be willing to listen to good advice.

But then again, we’re not Jesus. He has a pretty good sense of his calling and his eventual destiny. It’s not clear when he became aware that his road to glory was to go through a cross, but he did not shy away from it. And he was clear on the timing and the location; it’s not going to happen now, while I am in Galilee. I’m on my way to Jerusalem, knowing what awaits me there.

Jesus knows his destiny and pursues it without straying. He also isn’t afraid of anyone. He certainly isn’t afraid of Herod Antipas who, you may remember, beheaded his cousin John. “Go and tell that fox…” I can imagine the Tetrarch’s rage when a couple of Pharisees show up in his court and say to him, “Do you know what Jesus called you?” But the fox doesn’t go hunting that rabbit; Pilate will take care of that. Still, I wonder if the Pharisees are right about Herod’s intention. After all, when he finally has a chance to meet Jesus, he doesn’t seem to want to kill him, but wants him to do a miracle for him (Luke 23:8):

So you are the Christ, you’re the great Jesus Christ.
Prove to me that you’re divine: change my water into wine…[1]

Both now and when he is face-to-face with Herod Antipas Jesus isn’t afraid of the ruler. So here are two pieces of a picture of Jesus: fearless in the face of power, committed to pursuing his path.

And then he laments over Jerusalem, possibly even weeping. So at the same time we see him fearless and determined, we also see him tender and compassionate. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Mother Jesus: the mother hen who would protect her brood, fearless before the fox. In last week’s reading the Devil quoted Psalm 91; it is Psalm 91 that says that the Lord will cover you with the divine pinions, and under God’s wings you will find refuge (Psalm 91:4).

Imagine this picture of Jesus: the mother hen, gathering her brood; the martyr, pursuing his path; the leader, unafraid of the politically powerful. And he is the Church’s Lord, the one we put our confidence in… or do we?

That’s one question this raises for me. When Jesus says that he would gather Jerusalem under his wings, but Jerusalem was unwilling, you and I are tempted to be scornful of Jerusalem. “If I had been there…!” Do you ever catch yourself saying that? “If I had been one of Jesus’ disciples, I would not have doubted him.” “If I had been present on Easter, I would have believed the women.” It’s all too easy to sit back and look at the position someone else is in and say what you or I would have done. Perhaps you think you know exactly what President Biden should be doing for Ukraine. I know that I keep catching myself saying, “The United States should…” and then I remind myself that I don’t have the whole picture. What should Jerusalem have done differently all those centuries ago? The choices Jerusalem made led to its destruction (“See, your house is left to you” – v. 35) about forty years after it sent Jesus to his Cross. Could any of them have seen that? What should they have done differently?

So before we’re quick to judge Jerusalem for its choices 2,000 years ago, let’s ask ourselves whether we truly accept Jesus’ offer to take shelter under his motherly wings. In our Lent study this week we read the story of a woman who belongs to a church that made the decision to become truly intercultural. She is a White woman in her eighties who has been part of her congregation for twenty-seven years. The change in the church was difficult; it was hard for her, since many of her White friends left because they were uncomfortable with the changes in worship that come with becoming truly intercultural. She wondered if she should go with her friends. But she said, “I asked myself a simple question: was anything that was happening displeasing to the Lord?”[2]

“Was anything that was happening displeasing to the Lord?” Do you and I ever ask that question? When facing a possible decision in the Church, in our society, in our own lives, do we stop and ask what the Lord thinks about it? Or do we simply go our own way? The Lord Jesus is a mother hen who protects her brood, while fearlessly facing the fox and pursuing her destiny. Do you and I take refuge in those wings or seek to go our own way? Or, put a different way, do we, like the White woman in her changing church, stop and ask ourselves what is pleasing to the Lord? Or do we ask only what pleases us?

Jerusalem is almost as much a myth and metaphor as it is a real place. It stands for the hopes of people of faith, hopes for unity, hopes for peace. It is the place where the Lord placed the divine name and Solomon built a temple; it is the place where Jesus was crucified for our salvation; it is the place where Mohammed had his Night Journey to heaven. It is also the focal point for Israeli hopes for a united land and Palestinian hopes for a free land. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all see ourselves as children of Abraham and heirs of the promise to Abraham (Genesis 15) and we all look to Jerusalem as a sign of God’s promise.

While we squabble with each other and claim our own way, the Lord God, Mother God, through Jesus sighs, “How often would I have gathered you under my wings.” The Lord will cover you with the divine pinions, and under God’s wings you will find refuge. The picture of Jerusalem (below) at dawn that my friend Andrew took reminds me that the new day comes to the city and with it brings hope. The new day comes to God’s people and with it brings hope. The woman’s question about what pleased and displeased the Lord helps focus it for us: when we let go of our own plans and priorities, then the mother hen can lead the way. The mother hen leads to hope, even when things are frightening and uncertain. The woman who asked that question did not know if her church would die or if it would have a new birth of vitality. As it happened, it had a new birth of vitality because it let go of itself and took shelter under the wings of the mother hen.

I don’t know what this may mean for our nation or, even more critically, for the people of Ukraine. Praying that those who do need to make decisions are making good ones, ones that follow the lead of God the Mother Hen, is certainly at the top of our list. For us, the metaphorical Jerusalem, as well as for the literal city itself, taking shelter under the wings of God may mean a very different direction from any we have had before.

Take shelter under the wings of Mother Jesus, people of God, and wait for the dawn of hope.

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

Jerusalem at sunrise, photograph by Andrew Wiley, 2022

[1] Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, “King Herod’s Song” from Jesus Christ, Superstar

[2] Seeking the Intercultural Church: An Adult Lenten Study Ó2021 The Thoughtful Christian, Session 1 Participant Handout, p. 5