Sermon from January 17: “Have you understood all this?”

“Have you understood all this?”
Epiphany II; January 17, 2021
Matthew 13:44-58

I have always been somewhat suspicious of the disciples’ confident reply, “Yes, we understand.” I find that the older I get, the less I understand. Actually, that’s probably not true; what is probably true is that I am more aware of how little I understand. I am glad to say, however, that I am confident that I understand very well the points Jesus makes in these parables.

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast illustrate how effective the presence of the kingdom of heaven is: its emphasis spreads and grows. The parables of the treasure and the merchant illustrate how valuable the kingdom of heaven is: it is worth giving up everything else. And the parables of the weeds and the net illustrate that the kingdom of heaven on earth is not pure, but includes the good and the bad. I suspect you understand that too and you understood it as they were being read to you. If not, get in touch with me; I love to try to help people understand.

There are other things that I fail to understand, some of them having to do specifically with Christian theology and others having to do with human behavior. I cannot yet let go of the public events surrounding us, and today’s Scripture convicts me that I dare not let go of them. Here, let me explain. I love the picture Jesus paints after the disciples confidently assert that they understand. He describes the education of a Christian teacher as being like a homeowner going through the boxes in the attic and the new deliveries from Amazon. The homeowner looks through the treasures in the attic: these old clothes will probably never get worn again; oh, this doll needs to be loved by another little girl; look! my old train set; someone can play with that. And the new deliveries from Amazon: this will be useful; this will look good on you; what in the world was I drinking when I ordered that?

John Calvin helped me understand the parable of the householder. He said that “what is old” and “what is new” should not be tied to anything so specific as the Old Testament and the New Testament, but that it simply meant that a Christian teacher needs to study hard and be ready to produce from long tradition or from new insight whatever instruction from the word of God will respond to the needs of the time. Or put otherwise: just because it’s new doesn’t make it better; just because it’s old doesn’t make it more worthy. Understand the word of God well enough to be able to apply it appropriately to the time.

So, to reflect a bit on the needs of our time, what insights new and old may help us? My pastor friend asked me recently how any follower of Jesus could participate in or support violent insurrection against our government. You may have noticed that among the banners being waved by the insurgents on January 6 was one that read, “Jesus is my Savior; Trump is my President.” Since Jesus is the Prince of Peace, how could a follower of Jesus invade the Capitol with the intention of harming members of Congress? Or let’s step away from the insurrection for a moment: some White nationalist groups call themselves “Christian,” such as the “Christian identity” churches that claim that only White people can truly be Christians. There are other right-wing groups that identify themselves as Christian – such as dominionists – and my friend said he couldn’t understand how any follower of Jesus could participate in a violent action against the government, or speak in favor of such an action, as many have.

Well, emotionally I’m sympathetic to his plight; in my heart I don’t understand either. But in my head I do. Let’s look in what is old – Scripture – and what is new: theology and history. As I look to the written word of God to bring out what is old and what is new, I see the command of Paul to submit to the established authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and the assertion of Peter that the authorities must be disobeyed when they act contrary to the will of God (Acts 5:27-32) and even Jesus’ suggestion that the time can come to take up arms (Luke 22:35-38).

As for what is new: Calvinist theology traditionally taught that the established authorities are to be respected – when they are good, they are beneficial to faith; when they are bad, they challenge us to grow in faith – in the British colonies in America in the eighteenth century Calvinists were at the forefront of those calling for violent rebellion against the British crown. The only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian, John Witherspoon. Horace Walpole, the writer and member of the House of Commons, spoke to the House when news of the rebellion in America reached London. He said, “There is no good crying about the matter; Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

Without going into it any more deeply, I simply want to point out that now, 245 years later, we celebrate that a particular group of followers of Jesus, Presbyterians, were at the forefront of armed rebellion against their government. Here is the crucial difference, however, between 1776 and 2021: John Witherspoon in 1776 carefully laid out in a sermon (The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men), the justification for rebellion against Britain. The Declaration of Independence includes a long list of grievances against the British crown that provides a rationale for the war. In other words, the Americans who rebelled against their government in 1776 had facts on their side, had evidence that the government was tyrannical and that the only redress available to them was rebellion.

What well-considered rationale moved the insurgents who attacked the People’s House and the People’s Congress on January 6? What evidence has been produced in a well-considered document, such as the Declaration of Independence, that our government is tyrannical and the people have no say in how we are governed? What is relevant to our situation? The example of John Witherspoon: a violent assault on government by followers of Jesus can be justified only when there is ample evidence that the government is tyrannical and there are no other means of redress.

Well, that’s pretty much what I told my friend, and an example of what Jesus is suggesting in the parable of the householder. So I understand the history and the theology, I think; what I don’t understand is the willingness of people to believe lies and conspiracy nonsense. When my friend, years ago, asserted that Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans because President Bush had ordered the bombing of the levees, I could not understand how she could believe such nonsense. I don’t understand the people who believe the ridiculous QAnon conspiracy. I have not understood those who have believed the lies that the President has been spouting for more than four years, and I do not understand those who continue to believe the lie that the election was stolen from him. I do not understand government officials, including leaders of our own State government, who have given aid and comfort to that lie. But I don’t suppose I need to understand. Jesus commands us to understand the word of God; he doesn’t command us to understand each other. He commands us to love one another.

Ay, there’s the rub. I don’t need to understand them, but if I am to follow Jesus then I need to learn to love them. What that means needs to be another sermon, of course, since that isn’t a feature of Matthew 13, except for this: the parable of the weeds and the wheat (vv. 24-30) and the parable of the net thrown into the sea make it clear that the Kingdom of Heaven includes all sorts, including lots of people I don’t understand and lots of people who don’t understand me. And it isn’t our job to sort out who belongs and who doesn’t: the angels of heaven will take care of that at the end of the age.

I heard an interview this week that is relevant and that is relevant to what I am saying. If you have a relative or a close friend who believes the QAnon nonsense or the President’s lies, don’t try to change their mind; don’t yell at them; don’t shun them. Love them. Remember what binds you together: your family relationship, your friendship. Focus on that and do your best to love them. It is not your job to convince them of their error, but it is your job to love them. That is more than enough to do.

When Jesus says to me, “Have you understood all this?” I admit that no, I have not. But today’s parables, at least, I have understood. The kingdom of heaven grows like yeast in bread. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind: fish like you; fish like me.

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