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A Different Kind of Certainty

A sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8:38-39

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here; photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

I had an encounter with a colleague early in my professional career that has always stuck with me. The colleague was a generation older than me, and a recognized expert in her field. We were working on a project that involved a topic she knew inside out, a practice area that she had been engaged with since I was in grade school.

I probably should have been intimidated. But I wasn’t. I was confident in what I brought to the table. So confident, in fact, that at one point she paused in our work to make an observation:

“You’re very good at convincing people that you know what you are talking about.”

It sounded like a compliment, but it wasn’t. Really, it was a word of caution.

She wasn’t saying that I DID know what I was talking about. She was saying that I was good at communicating certainty. And she knew that could be dangerous. She was telling me that I had a talent for convincing people to my point of view – and I needed to be careful with that talent.

Because most people like certainty. It’s reassuring, and so they will be drawn to certainty whether or not it is based in reality. I needed to be careful to use my “talent for certainty” with caution. To be sure that I wasn’t using it to convince people of things that might not be true.

Her warning has stuck with me for almost 20 years, and it has pushed me to value curiosity over certainty, a willingness to question and learn over a need to already be right. It has challenged me to make sure I don’t claim expertise when what I really have is just confidence. And it has taught me to be a little more skeptical when I encounter certainty in others.

Perhaps that’s why my eyebrows go up when I read the disciples’ answer to Jesus question at the end of today’s rapid-fire string of parables:

Jesus asks “have you understood all this?”

They answered, “Yes.”

Hmmm. I’m not so sure I believe that. For one thing, that’s not how parables work. They are not truth statements that you can hear one time and just “get it.” They are stories that invite you into the narrative, to ponder, and role-play, and see things from different perspectives.

So, in a way, the question is a set-up. Parables invite exploration, not immediate understanding. Jesus knows this.

I imagine, he also expected an affirmative answer to his question. He even goaded them into it by what he said immediately before his query. If he had asked them about understanding after any of the first four parables, maybe they would have had the courage to admit confusion, or at least to ask more questions in response. Afterall, the disciples were willing to ask Jesus for explanations of his parables on other occasions. But the question came after his alarming explanation of the fifth parable:

“So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth… Have you understood all this?”

No pressure. There’s not that much riding on your understanding of the kingdom, only an eternity of torment. But if you aren’t sure that you belong among those counted as righteous, feel free to admit it.

It’s not really a fair question, is it? Of course, the disciples are going to claim understanding after that set-up. Jesus just scared them!

And if there is one universal human pattern it is to clutch onto certainty when we get scared. Curiosity and learning are all well and good when we feel safe and comfortable, but when we feel threatened, all of that goes out the window. We want security. We want to feel sure. We want certainty.

This consistent urge for certainty can be seen in all of the divisive fault lines rending our society right now:

Responses to the virus, and to various public safety measures being taken to protect against it;

Responses to incidents of police violence, and to the public protests (both violent and non-violent) that these incidents have evoked;

Broader responses to the manifestations of destructive, insidious racism in our society;

Specific plans about how or whether to re-open schools in the fall;

Debates about the federal role in local unrest, and the legal limits on the actions of federal troops;

All of these fraught, angry, divisive conflicts in our public sphere have one thing in common: People are scared. Their health, or their jobs, or their safety, or their way of life, or their very sense of identity feels threatened.

And when we feel threatened, we don’t want thoughtful, nuanced dialogue. We don’t want parables that make us lean in, and ponder, and consider things from a new point of view. We want certainty. And so, we grab onto whatever position accords with our pre-existing biases, whatever convinces us that we have been right all along and it’s OTHER people who need to change, and we hold on to that certainty with all we are worth. It might not be true. But at least it’s secure. It’s familiar. It makes us feel safe.

Jesus knows this about humanity. He makes a point to draw out this response, this instinct for base-less certainty through his question. But he also makes a point to challenge that instinct. To say: the way of “certainty” is NOT the way of God’s kingdom. It is not God’s way of breaking into and reorienting the world.

Listen to the parables that he tells in this reading. They are all about surprise, and hiddeness, and violating expectations.

A mustard seed that is barely the size of the head of a pin grows into a massive bush. But more than that, its pattern of growth is secretive: with roots growing at three times the rate of the stalk that can be seen above ground.

You can’t immediately see what is happening, because the change starts below the surface.

The parable of yeast is even more surprising. In every other story about yeast in scripture it is described as a contaminant – something to be removed and avoided. But here it is a metaphor for the kingdom.

And in the metaphor the yeast gets “hidden” in an enormous amount of flour: 40 or 50 pounds! The yeast won’t be noticed right away, but it will produce enough bread to nourish a multitude.

The next parable is about something hidden as well – this time a treasure hidden in a field.

But the unexpected twist here is the deception at the heart of the story. Had the finder revealed the treasure, it would have belonged to the owner of the field. So, apparently, thieves can discover and steal the kingdom of God?

And then there’s the parable of the pearl.

A jewel that comes from a ritually unclean shellfish. A thing of beauty whose point of origin is an irritation.

When we finally get to the parable of the fish, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised about the indiscriminate net that gathers everything in its way: good and bad all jumbled together.

That appears to be Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom. It’s messy. It’s hidden. It’s surprising. It’s deceptive. And it includes the folks we think don’t belong. In other words, it’s anything but predictable and certain.

Jesus didn’t come to make us feel safe and secure. He doesn’t proclaim a reign in which God organizes everything it it’s proper place, and we get to understand the “hows” and the “whys” of everything, and never feel confused, or shaken, or out of our depth. When he asks us if we understand, we aren’t supposed to say “yes.”

Instead, we’re supposed to practice the work of the “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom… who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

New and old together is a metaphor of growth, of learning. We can recognize the value of the old, the familiar, the things we already know. But God will also call us to value the new, the unexpected, the thing that opens us up to what God is doing now.

This is a hard disciples to practice when we feel scared, when the familiar touch points of our life are disrupted and our news feed is full of a bewildering combination of chaos, and of self-assured talking heads telling us to trust their certainty. But that kind of certainty – the certainty of “trust me, I know what will save us” – is just idolatry.

The only certainty that is REAL. The only certainty that can truly make us safe in the midst of a chaotic world is the promise we heard in our second reading:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

The love of God is our security. The love of God is our certainty.

And when that is certain, we don’t need to claim perfect understanding. We don’t need to take sides in ideological battles and fight for our safety. Because not even death, not even rulers, not even the threats of an uncertain future can do us any real harm.

We are loved by God. Of that we can be certain.

And because of that, when our world is disrupted by conflict and danger, we can do something unexpected.

We can see the value of old AND new. We can search for the treasure that starts with an irritation, or the source of nourishment that looks like contamination. We can practice our role in God’s kingdom: the role of bringing our treasure OUT of the treasury, where it can be shared.

Thanks be to God.

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