Saturday, September 6, 2008

Binding and Loosing, part 1

Proper 16-A August 24, 2008 St. Paul’s

Exodus 1:8-2:10;Psalm 124;Romans 12:1-8;Matthew 16:13-20

When my daughter was seven, she went to church with some Roman Catholic friends. The mother explained to Laura that since her friend hadn’t made her first communion, the girls wouldn’t take the sacrament today. Laura, who had been receiving communion since she had been baptized as a baby, Harumphed, and said, “Who’s in charge here?” Her friend’s mother was taken aback, and after the service went to the priest and introduced Laura as her daughter’s friend, who was used to receiving communion in her own church. Then Laura spoke up, “I just wanted Jesus in my heart.”

It seems to me that that kind of authority trumps something that is merely imposed by a set of church rules. Who, indeed, is “in charge” over someone who knows the reality of Jesus in her heart?

Jesus does give Peter such authority over binding and loosing – so much authority that whatever Peter says, goes. I can’t quite imagine what it means that something bound on earth is bound in heaven, but indeed, Jesus gives Peter the keys to this kingdom. And over two millennia this authority has been given to Peter’s successors. To the question, “Who’s in charge here,” some people give a very definite answer.

Rules. We all live by rules. Nations rise and fall by rules, by definitions of who is in charge, and during the centuries when the Egyptians were building the pyramids, Pharaoh was in charge. What he said, went. And when he said, there are too many of those Hebrew children around here; kill the boys – that rule was supposed to be followed.

This is the beginning of the Exodus story, the story of God pulling the Hebrew children out of Egypt and into their own nationhood as Israel. This is the beginning of the most important story in the Hebrew bible – and look at what a fragile and precarious beginning it has. A baby ordered killed is hidden in a basket, floating in the very river in which he should have drowned. And this child is saved because of a conspiracy of women who broke the rules. Who’s in charge here? Pharaoh. But who is in the hearts of the Hebrew midwives, and the baby’s mother and the baby’s sister? God is in their hearts. The God of love, whose love causes them to find a way around the rules to save the baby’s life. And then Pharaoh’s daughter, who sees the baby and wants him for her own. She breaks the rules, too. She must know this is a Hebrew baby, a boy hidden in a basket among the reeds. Who’s in charge here? Compassion rules her heart, and through a marvelous twist, she takes the boy home, along with a woman to nurse him who just happens to be the boy’s mother, and the child of slaves is raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s household. This boy of illegitimate beginnings grows up to be just the leader to bring the Hebrew nation out of bondage into freedom.

Who’s in charge here? It’s not always who we think it is – and if God is ultimately in charge, if we take our authority from these rules of love and compassion and empathy and mercy which God puts in our hearts, then hey: there are often some surprising changes about who is in charge here in earth.

Listen to this story told to me by a friend, a retired priest who once served a parish on the West Side of Chicago.

One morning many years ago I went out of the apartment house where I lived … and found a little ten year old neighbor, whose nickname was "Boo", sitting in his grandpa's old Cadillac car, with a set of keys in his hands, busily working to get the padlock off the steering wheel. Little Boo looked guilty to me, and he did have a criminal record, for he had swiped an apple from my refrigerator the week before. So I said to him, "Michael, did your Grandpa give you those keys? Does he know that you are out here in the car?" Boo slowly shook his head, No. I at once had a vision of Boo careening around Union Park in this huge vintage Cadillac, his little head bobbing over the dash board. I triumphantly retrieved the keys and took them upstairs to Grandpa's apartment, next to my own. I knocked on the door, and soon learned that indeed Grandpa had not given him the keys, but Grandma had! She had told Michael to go down and get the padlock off the steering wheel and to wait in the Cadillac for her to come down in a few minutes. When I went back downstairs, Michael had recovered his dignity along with his Grandma and the keys. And I had a bit of a red face, for not having recognized his received authority to have the keys in the first place, from another with the power to give them.

“The keys to the kingdom are something like that,” my friend went on to say, “for Jesus has been an indulgent Grandma, who has handed over the keys to the likes of us, and to a variety of others, some of us juveniles too young to drive, but with the benevolent counsel to go ahead and open the vehicle, and wait for the wise ones to come down and accompany us."[1]

Frankly, I’m not too good with change. When the rules are set, I like them to stay that way. But the world I live in now is not the world as I thought it would be when I was ten years old. Pharaohs and Josephs come and go, and what we thought secure is now precarious. How difficult to imagine that our salvation will depend on a baby in a basket, or the wily, subversive women who hid him there. But imagination is just what we need. With every new age, every change in time or circumstance, with every new Pharaoh, God entrusts us with a new set of keys. But the kingdom those new keys unlock remains the same: love, justice, and the reign of God.

[1] Grant Gallup, Homily Grits, 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 16;