Sermon from January 10: Follow Me

“Follow me.”
Baptism of the Lord; January 10, 2021
Matthew 8

Several years ago, I was in Washington, DC, changing trains at Union Station, and I walked to the Capitol building. It’s only a few blocks, and something I frequently do when changing trains in Washington. I stood in front of the Capitol, the People’s House, and read article I of the United States Constitution. When I used to wear a blazer most of the time, I generally had in the breast pocket a New Testament and a copy of the Constitution. A Capitol police officer walked over to me, greeted me, and invited me to visit my member of Congress.

That is the People’s House, the seat of our Republic, the emblem of our democratic institutions. Our House was invaded this week. As a Pastor, I need to address it, to encourage you in your attempt to make sense of it, and to consider what may be faithful responses by the people of Jesus Christ. May the Holy Spirit speak to you, through me or despite me. Some of you will protest that I am talking politics; in my almost forty years of experience at this I have discovered that people complain the Pastor is talking politics if he says something they disagree with; if they agree with it, they don’t call it politics. Whatever you may or may not agree with, please stay with us to where I hear Matthew 8 taking us at the end.

I spent more time on Facebook this week than I usually do; one person wrote, “For those of you too young to remember, this is what September 11, 2001 felt like.” At first I disagreed; the attack in 2001 killed some 3,000 people and we wept for them. But then I thought about it from another point of view: the attack in 2001 came from outside our own people, from Al-Qaida, and it was an attack on symbols, from their point of view, of American imperialism. We wept not so much for the symbolism of the attack on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon so much as we wept for the thousands who died. This week’s attack felt like a similar gut-punch because it was an attack on our House. Although as a nation we are young, when compared to, for example, China, England and India, we are the world’s oldest functioning constitutional republic, and the mob attacked our heart, the symbol of our republican government.

This is not the first attack on symbols of our republican government and I think it will not be the last. On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh parked his rented truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He got out and at 9:02 am the homemade bomb inside exploded, destroying the building and murdering 168 people, including 19 children in the day-care. It was his way of showing his contempt for our federal government. At first, people assumed that Middle Eastern terrorists had committed the crime; I was listening to Rush Limbaugh at the time and he confidently asserted that. McVeigh was white, as white as those who overran the Capitol building this week. Not too many days later I was out for a walk in the town where I lived – Wyoming, Ohio – and I startled a young Black woman who was out walking with her baby. She apologized for jumping, and said that she was scared, in the light of what had happened in Oklahoma City, scared for her baby. I was used to people being afraid whenever they saw a Black man walking down the street; this was the first time someone was afraid of me because I was White.

This week, we the people of the United States are faced with the question, “Who are we?” We expect to see mobs overrun capitol buildings and executive mansions in many countries around the world. We have seen mobs attack other seats of political power in our country, such as when the mob overran the Douglas County Court House on September 28-29, 1919 in order to lynch Will Brown. We have never before seen a mob overrun the People’s House and seek to prevent the peaceful transition of power. But enormous numbers of people have been calling for weeks for that transition to be prevented. I was encouraged by the strength of our political institutions when Congress reconvened Wednesday night and finished its business, certifying the count of the electoral votes. Yet even after the mob’s attack, Senator Hawley persisted in seeking to undermine the election results from Pennsylvania. That was the last instance, I expect, of this round of attempts to subvert our democratic-republican processes, but these attempts began weeks ago and fed into the violence we saw on Wednesday. So the question is not merely, “Who were they?” of the people who stormed the Capitol, but “Who are we?” as a society. We can no longer pretend that we are special, that political transitions are marked by violence in other countries, but not in the United States of America.

To reiterate: Before we point fingers at anybody, we all should stop and ask ourselves, “Who are we?” The rioters this week are of us. Although the mob was led by known right-wing extremists, it included city council members and grandmothers and thousands of others who honestly believe that Donald Trump won the election in November and that the leaders of the Democratic Party are cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan and that President Trump’s God-given destiny is to save the nation from them. They are of us. Timothy McVeigh was one of us. Those in State government and those in Washington who joined lawsuits and spoke out to feed the attempts to undermine the election are of us. We have a lot of soul-searching to do as a nation: Who are we?

For you and me, however, there is an even more important question. Who are we, as people of Jesus? The answer to that question, of course, depends on who Jesus is, and I’ll come back to that before I’m done, but in your prayers and pondering this week don’t ask yourselves only “Who are we?” as Americans but especially ask yourselves “Who are we?” as Christians. Those of us studying the Book of Revelation are reminded regularly that our Christian forebears were forced to choose between saying, “Jesus is Lord” and “The Emperor is Lord.” We still face similar choices: whom do we really follow? Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said of President Trump, “He’s become the voice of God for tens of millions of people, and they will follow him to the ends of the earth and off the cliff.”[1]

You and I, in our actions and attitudes, are forced to choose whom we follow. Shall we unthinkingly follow any merely human leader? Shall we follow our worst instincts? Allow me to confess to you. I noticed, as is often true in such rallies, that most of the mob were not wearing masks, and so I said the other day that I hoped that many in that mob would catch COVID-19 and die, and Becky, our Administrator, said to me, “Bob! Can you say that?”[2] I suppose I can, but should I? No, I should not. Yes, there are many places in the Bible where people say that sort of thing, especially in the Psalms, but I can’t imagine that Jesus would say it. And so you and I should not say it either.

In Matthew 8, when some people seemed to want to follow Jesus, he made sure they knew what was involved. It could mean giving up a settled household; it could mean giving up one’s family commitments. We may find ourselves needing to make some hard decisions in the coming years about what it means to follow Jesus in a turbulent society, a society riddled with partisan violence. Thank God for faithful leaders in our Session and Board of Deacons to discern what it will mean to respond to Jesus’ words, “Follow me.” Who we are is the people who follow Jesus.

And who is this Jesus that we follow? My original plan for today had been to preach about the authority of Jesus. I will say this much, to try to pull all this together. Matthew Chapter 8 shows that Jesus has authority over disease, over nature, over demons. I found myself wishing this week that Jesus would exercise his authority to force a change of heart on all of us who demonize each other, all of us who feel violence in our hearts, especially but not only those who think it is a good thing to commit insurrection against our institutions as a republic. We realize that Wednesday was not the end to the violence; white nationalist leaders have stated that it was only the beginning. So I yearn for Jesus to use his authority to change hearts.

But the reality is that Jesus does not exert authority over hearts that are unwilling to accept his authority. Many invoke his name, including many of those who attacked the People’s House this week and many of those who are defending them. They claim they are following Jesus. My self-disclosure was meant to show you, however, that those who are appalled by this attack dare not descend to the same sort of hatred. Jesus indeed is the One who has authority over human hearts, but his love and peace and salvation take root in our hearts only when we surrender our hearts to him.

People of Jesus, pause, reflect, pray, and when the call to act comes, act as Jesus acts. As one of my friends said this week, “When I am face-to-face with God, I want to be able to say that at the critical moment, I did the right thing.” For that we rely on each other for encouragement. Just as a mob can be egged on to do the wrong thing, so can a community of faith encourage each other to do the right thing. Stay connected with each other. Sure, we are not meeting together; use the telephone or email. Write notes to each other. Express your fears, hopes, weaknesses, victories and your thoughts in our Facebook Family & Friends Group. You as an individual may have to decide when to stand up to bullying, when to speak up to the voice of lies, and when to hold true to the peaceful processes of our nation when violent people want to undermine them. But you are never alone. We have the presence of the Risen Jesus. And we have each other. For when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he says it to each of us as individuals, but when we follow Jesus, we follow him together.

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

[1] Omaha World-Herald, January 9, 2021

[2] She gave me permission to quote her.