Baptismal Keys

Inspired by Matthew 16:13-20

A few weeks ago I was putting a new key on my wife’s keychain for her and I noticed a key that I wasn’t familiar with. So I asked her. “What’s this key for?” She looked at it and said, “I don’t know.” Now, she doesn’t have that many keys on her key chain! It’s not like she’s a prison guard who has to keep track of fifty different keys! But I thought, remain calm, don’t say anything stupid. So I said, “How can you not know what this key is for on your own key chain!” Well, that didn’t last long. Apparently, “Don’t say something stupid.” Only lasted from the time I thought that to the opening of my mouth! She didn’t respond. Because she’s much wiser and has more self-control than I do. So I stand there and look at this key and realize that it does look vaguely familiar.

And then it dawns on me, that it’s one of the house keys that were given to us when we moved to our current house. Now you might be thinking, “They haven’t lived there that long, and how could he not recognize one of the house keys anyway?” Or, “Wow, he ain’t lying when he says he has a bad memory! Maybe he should see a doctor about that!” Well, that may be true but, that’s not why I didn’t recognize that key. I didn’t recognize that key because we never used it. You see, when we moved there, the property management company gave us two keys. One for the front door, and one for the garage door. But, only one of them worked! The one for the front door worked but the other one didn’t work on any other lock in the house! And we never took it off our keychain so there it sat, unused, and forgotten.

In our Gospel story for today, Jesus has this profound conversation with his disciples where he makes this connection between who Jesus is and the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Peter says, “You are the Christ. The Son of the living God.” Let’s pause there for a moment and consider what that means. For our Gospel writer Matthew, this was more than just a title. This was about more than what Jesus is. This was about who Jesus is.

And what is the one thing that Matthew wants you to take home after reading his gospel about Jesus? That he is Emmanuel, God with us. And how does Matthew communicate what that means to us? With story after story of Jesus preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, comforting, welcoming, forgiving, and loving God’s people. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and this is what that looks like.

This story comes in chapter 16 of Matthew’s gospel, more than half way through, so these disciples have seen and heard a lot already! They have seen first-hand what it means to follow the Christ, the Son of the living God, Emmanuel, God with us. And by follow I don’t mean just physically follow him around, but follow him in practice, in action, in everyday life. And I’m thinking that by this time, in their journey with Jesus, they are beginning to realize that this is more than just a new way of believing, but that this was a new way of living. What Jesus was teaching and demonstrating was more than just a new way of thinking about God or the scriptures or their people. But that following Jesus also meant a change of heart, and that change of heart was going to have life-changing ramifications.

Ok, now with all that in mind, who Jesus is, and what that means for those who claim to followers of him, he moves right into what is known as the office of the keys. I know, that sounds so formal, the office of the keys. I’m going to be honest with you, it’s just a fancy term to make pastors feel important. I know a few seminary professors that are feeling a disturbance in the force right now but don’t know why. But let me explain why I say that. When you study church history, like any other kind of history, you soon realize that many of the decisions that were made revolved around power, and more specifically, decisions to either gain more power or maintain the power a group already has. Much of the Reformation came into being because of the abuse of power by the church.

Ok, why am I talking about power. Well, because Jesus was in this story. After Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus told him, “I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.” What is the rock that Jesus is referring to? Well, the church has answered that in two major ways. Some said it was Peter. And some said that it was his declaration of who Jesus was, the Christ, the Son of the living God. The former saw it as an opportunity to claim some legitimacy to their new religion. Saying that Peter was the rock on which the church would be founded gave them a figure head that they eventually claimed to the first bishop of the church. Like I said, power was the driving force there.

But even those who claimed that it was his declaration that the church was founded on and not him, had power at its roots too. If you didn’t believe this than you were not one of us! You were out! And going to hell too but that’s for another sermon! And so, the office of the keys, the power to fasten and loose, or as I’ll put it in a moment, to lock or unlock, was thought of as being only for pastors and was connected to the forgiveness of sins. So for centuries you had to go to a priest in order for God to forgive you. And remnants of that remain to this day even in our liturgies, as only a pastor is supposed to proclaim forgiveness on a congregation with the words “you are forgiven.” If a layperson says it, as when the youth led worship a few Sundays ago, it’s changed to, “we are forgiven.”

Ok, enough of the history lesson what does this have to do with keys? I believe that the power that Jesus was talking about here, the power to fasten or loosen, the power to lock or unlock, is given to all of us. And that power, and how we use it, has ramifications here and now, in the kingdom of heaven. Remember, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven it was always in the present tense. It was not in the future in some far off place in the clouds. It was now. Think of it this was, the idea that we puny humans could really have an effect on the afterlife by what we do here on earth, is an exercise in gross egotism. It’s quite laughable really. As if God really needs our help in the other world.

It’s in the here and now that Jesus knew he needed our help. It’s in the here and now that we can have a real impact in unlocking the kingdom of God. How? By following Jesus, the ways of Jesus, all those ways I mentioned earlier, and more: feeding, healing, visiting, loving, forgiving, clothing, welcoming, etc. You have the power to lock or unlock certain things on the path that you find yourself on. What will you do with that power. And also recognize that there are things that need to be locked away, for good: racism, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism. Those things need to be locked in safe and thrown into the depths of a fiery hell never to be seen again! Can I get an amen?

When we are baptized we should have been given a keychain, maybe not in place of a cross or Bible, the usual baptismal gifts, but we really should be given a keychain with keys on it. Because as baptized children of God we have the power to lock and unlock the things that are worthy or unworthy for the kingdom of heaven, here and now. I know it’s a heavy responsibility. Many of us don’t want a key to the church cuz we don’t want that responsibility and we certainly don’t want people to be looking at us when something goes awry at church right? Well, I’m sorry to break this to you but when we were baptized, and again when we were confirmed, we didn’t have a choice, we all were given a set of keys, which is why I think we confirm kids too young but I digress.

We were all given the power to fasten or loosen things in this world, to lock or unlock things in this world, the kingdom of heaven. What will we do with that power? How will we use those keys? What in your life, in your work, in your family, in your church, in your county, in your world, needs locked or unlocked? What will you do with the power that Christ, the Son of the living God, has given you? Because when the world goes awry who will the world look to? It is looking at us less and less. Before the world stops looking to us, before we are completely dismissed, maybe it’s time to polish those keys. Amen.



Inspired by Matthew 15:10-28

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is broken into two sections, the first of which I just read to you, the other I will read in a minute. In that first section, we have Jesus teaching the disciples about what contaminates a person, what defiles a person, or more literally, what makes a person dirty. And it’s a teaching the disciples, or at least Peter calls, a riddle. It was such a different teaching for them that they just didn’t get it.

They had been taught something different, all their life, and let me just stop there and allow you to recall some of the things that you grew up believing, that you eventually changed your mind on. Some of us have had some pretty drastic change of hearts on certain topics. I know I have. I grew believing in a literal six 24 hour day creation, and that women shouldn’t be pastors, and that suicide victims were going to hell. None of those things I believe anymore.

Likewise, the disciples grew up believing in what’s known as a holiness code, or purity laws. They were rules to follow, and if you didn’t, it meant that you were no longer right with God. And many of these laws had to do with food. You couldn’t eat pork, shellfish was a no no so lobster and shrimp were out of the question. Most insects were off limits. That’s right, not all, there were certain locusts they were allowed to eat. You couldn’t mix meat and dairy together, so no cheeseburgers. Just to name a few of those holiness codes that involved food. So there was this emphasis on what a person put into their body, very inward focused.

And Jesus comes along with this teaching about what comes out of the mouth being more important. And they seem very caught off guard by this, as if the rug has been pulled from under their feet. It probably caused them to rethink everything they’ve ever believed! And what these dietary laws were really about was segregation, plain and simple—keeping outsiders out and insiders in. It allowed the leaders of a community to look at outsiders and say, this is not for you. Whether “this” meant this land, this community, this resource, this worship, this, is not for you. It’s for us.

And actually, this teaching about what comes out of the mouth wasn’t really a new teaching. There a lot of proverbs for instance about how we wrongly use our mouths and tongues, but humans, as we know well, need constant reminders about how we are to live with each other and with God. And so, Jesus attempts to reteach them this lesson. However, it seems the disciples aren’t the only ones that needed a change of heart. And so Matthew shares a story with us, immediately after this teaching of Jesus.

And make no mistake, it’s no accident that this story is what follows that lesson. Not everything in these books is in chronological order, but rather scenes and teachings and stories are paired together or put into an intentional sequence. Almost as if Matthew thought to himself, if the disciples were stumped by this, then maybe my readers will be also, so I’ll share this story that will help to illustrate what Jesus was trying to teach here. And so he shares this story about a Canaanite woman and her daughter.

At this point I did an interactive exercise with four volunteers. It's an alternate version of scripture tableau. It's very effective! Here are some video clips of portions of it. Sorry for the distorted orientation and out-of-sync audio, but it gives you an idea of what we did during this portion of the sermon...

Thank you for indulging me. It’s a powerful story. And sometimes stories like that are even more powerful when you slow down and really allow each scene to sink in like that. This story really stands out for me, from all the stories of Jesus, because of the way that Matthew paints Jesus for us. He’s not only cold with the Canaanite woman but also seems downright rude. Not to mention the fact that he has a change of heart at the end. It’s almost as if Matthew is painting Jesus as the bad guy in this story. Matthew seems to portray Jesus as the one who needs to learn something here. And from a Gentile woman with a demon possessed daughter no less, I mean, there’s three strikes against her right there! And she’s gonna teach Jesus something? Hmmmmm.

So, let’s back up to that first scene. Jesus is walking and then she pleads with him that first time, and what does he do? He just keeps on walking, doesn’t say a word. He ignores her! Remember that lesson Jesus was trying to teach them right before this story? “It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates a person…what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart.” And sometimes, what comes out of the mouth is silence. And sometimes, that silence is the most destructive thing imaginable.

Here’s an example, imagine being on the playground at school and the guy who everyone knows as the school bully is beating up one of your classmates where no one can see. You are on your way to your class, notice the bullying, but keep on walking, you don’t say a word, you ignore it. You might think, that’s none of my business! That’s between them! I don’t want to be next! And so the cycle of bullying continues, to the next classmate, and the next classmate, and the next classmate.

Now that’s a small scale example. Here’s a few large scale examples. The church was largely silent during slavery in America, and when it wasn’t, it often perpetuated it, landing on the wrong side of history. The church was largely silent during the suffrage movement, and when it wasn’t, it often wasn’t supportive, landing on the wrong side of history. The church was largely silent during the Nazi regime, again, falling on the wrong side of history. The church was silent for far too long about LGBTQ rights, and when it wasn’t, it was destructive rather than supportive, landing on the wrong side of history. Silence, can be just as deadly, if not more, than our words. But let us return to our story.

The Canaanite woman then kneels in front of Jesus, maybe in honor, or respect, or desperation, but maybe, to make him stop and listen! And after pleading with him again, he speaks, and says, “I’ve come only for the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” In other words, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU.  Can you imagine, meeting Jesus, the savior of the world, the ruler of the cosmos, God incarnate, the Word made flesh, and hearing, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU! Whatever “this” she was looking for, this community, this deliverance, this salvation, this help, this healing, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. Can you even imagine that? Well, I hope so, because that’s where empathy begins, that’s where a change of heart begins.

And then these two have spat about bread and dogs and crumbs and then Jesus has a change of heart, and ends up saying, this is for you after all, and the daughter is healed, and everyone’s happy. But we can’t even address that happy ending until we deal with the silence problem that we have. And when I say we, I want to be clear that I am including myself in that equation. I do not preach sermons that I don’t have to hear myself, ever. I want you to notice the progression that Jesus makes in this story. He goes from silent ignoring, to speaking a word of exclusion, to stopping and listening, to debating, to having his heart changed, and then speaking inclusive words from that new heart, and finally acting on them.

Where I think we get stuck is after God has transformed us, changed our hearts and minds, many of us remain silent about it. Or just share it with those immediately around us: family, friends, church. But God does not call us to be silent. Why? Because there are people in our world that need to hear that hearts have been changed. There are people in our world that need to hear THIS IS FOR YOU.

And we need to be specific about who we are talking to. Saying all are welcome is not enough. Everyone says that! Every church in America says all are welcome. And yet, Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week! The LGBTQ community doesn’t know if “all” includes them, because at that church over there it doesn’t, and at that church over there it doesn’t. How do they know that? Because they learned the hard way, the painful way.

I want to give you some homework. I want to give something very specific to do. I want you to reach out to the people of color in your life, the LGBTQ people in your life, the Jewish people in your life, and ask them if they’re ok. Reach out to them and ask, “In the wake of Charlottesville, how are you doing?” Some may not want to talk about it but may appreciate the question. Some may legitimately be ok. But my guess is that most are not ok these days! I’m not! I’m not ok! So now you know at least one person of color in your life is not ok! I have to watch people on TV march with torches because they do not want me here, who do not want my parents here, who would have rather my grandpa stayed in his own country.

And then I have to get up Monday morning and kiss my children goodbye, my children of color, and send them out into the world as if nothing happened, when the reality is that I send them out with fears that I should not have. Are they gonna get bullied today because of the color of their skin or their last name? Are they gonna be called the “N” word again? Are they gonna have to put up with another swastika at school again. You heard that right. Again! In our county! So no, I’m not doing ok!

Reach out to the people of color in your life. Reach out to the LGBTQ people in your life. Reach out to the Jewish people in your life. There are lots of ways being shared in the media of how you can combat the evil messages that we heard from marchers in Charlottesville. All of them are great, but this way in particular is what I’m feeling called to urge you to do—because so many are hurting right now, so many need to hear, out loud, THIS IS FOR YOU. This love, this community, this table, those water, this heart, THIS IS FOR YOU. Thanks be to God. Amen.