Some of us retreated to Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg last weekend. It was a wonderful time. For me, it was wonderful because I got to know some people a little better. Plus we were well taken care of—good food, comfortable places to sleep, and lots of leisure time. The lack of some things, like cell phones, computers, televisions and the like, also added to the wonderfulness. We were serenaded by the voices of the Grace Cathedral Boys Choir.
Better still, we got to talk about the theme “Who is welcome at this table?” We answered the question using skits that we acted out with puppets, music videos, prayers, songs, and stories. And together, both those who were here last Sunday and those who were at the retreat, we made the banner on the back wall of the church this morning.
When he presented the theme, Matthew gave a spoiler alert… Because, as a community, we answer that question every week, and the answer is always “Everyone.” Everyone is welcome at the table.
Coming back into the Bay Area was a bit of a culture shock. The news had updates on the van in Barcelona that plowed into and killed 13 bystanders, including a seven year old boy named Julian. The comedian Jerry Lewis died at the age of 91. The tensions with North Korea continue. Mudslides in Sierra Leone killed more than 450 people. Gun violence wounded 33 people in just 13 hours in Chicago. And lots of people were traveling and making other preparations to see the upcoming solar eclipse.
The rest of this past week, we’ve heard a lot about Hurricane Harvey and damage, flooding, and loss in Texas. We’ve heard about white supremacists and fascists staging rallies in our cities—and those rallies being cancelled in the face of a flood of counter-protesters.
This past week has reminded me in stark ways of the huge gap that yawns between the time we had at Bishop’s Ranch and what happens in the “real world.” It brought home to me that, as much as we long for the Kingdom of God, as much as we want to believe that the table has room for everyone, that’s not the world that we live in quite yet.
It breaks my heart to say it, because my greatest joy is pointing to those times God is present in the world, and when the Holy Spirit is moving. At the same time, I hang on to hope…because as Christian’s we are not defined by the world, by the challenging headlines or the seemingly insurmountable problems. Instead, we align ourselves with something bigger and more profound.
To do that, we build and nurture a community that is set as a counterpoint to the world—that forms us and makes us who we are. Paul said in his letter to the Roman’s this morning: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
As Christians, that is the work in which we engage—to know God in ways that allow us to discern the will of God in our lives. When Jesus asked his disciples this morning “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he is not really interested in what those other people are saying. As when Matthew asked us “Who do we invite to the table?” the answer is implicit. Jesus is the Son of Man. The next question is the important one: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answers for all of the gathered disciples: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter is speaking for the whole group, and he is speaking for us. He affirms the identity of Jesus, puts it into words for us.
Jesus, in turn, affirms who Peter is. Peter is my favorite disciple, because he is so very human, so very like us.He is both strong and weak. He is simultaneously the one who gives the right answer and the one who gives the wrong answer. He is sure and he is confused. He is a caricature of what each of us is on our Christian journey…
By virtue of Peter knowing Christ, Jesus gives him three jobs or roles:
- He is the rock, the foundation of the community that Jesus is building. Like Peter, it is our identity as both individuals and a community to be the foundation of the Kingdom of God.
- He is the holder of the keys to the Kingdom of God. We have often pictured Peter at the gates of heaven deciding who will get in and who will not. However, it is more likely that this means that he has the knowledge or teaching, the authority to teach, those lessons that will bring us to the Kingdom of Heaven. Like Peter, we are called to interpret and put into action the Word of God.
- He is the one who binds and the one who looses. This is the activity of bringing to the world those activities and aspects that make it more like the Kingdom of God and to work against those things that are counter to the Kingdom. Like Peter, we have the job of being the heart and hands of Christ in the world, to nurture and support what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Like Peter, when we know Christ, we become the rock, the holder of the keys, and the ones who bind and loose things in heaven and on earth.
When I was in the sixth grade, a teacher, who just happened to be an Episcopal priest, asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up… and I told him that I wanted to be a writer. Father Smith gazed intently at me and leaned forward—he shook his finger at me and said “Whatever you write, you must write it for Jesus…whatever you decide you want to be, you must be it for Jesus.”
I would like to say that in that moment I recognized the wisdom of what he was saying. Truthfully, I said out loud “Yes, Father.” And mentally I shrugged my shoulders and started dreaming about writing a great novel that would sell a million copies. You see—I wanted to be a writer, but Fr. Smith was encouraging me to be a Christian.
As Christian’s, as a community and as individuals, we stand in that gap between what the world is and what the Kingdom of God is, between our deepest held beliefs and the things that we see that fall short of those values. At our best, we reach out our arms to try to bring those two edges together. We stand between the way things are and the way that God would have them be. We stand between what has happened in our world and what will happen in the future. Knowing that, whatever we do, we must do it for Christ.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us that we together and corporately we must bring ourselves and our gifts to the world. “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness,” he said.
This is the path forward in the face of the great chaos and confusion in the world. If you are a prophet, speak the heart of God in the world faithfully. If you a minister, then serve those in need with care. If you are a teacher, then help those you meet learn to see God in new ways. If your gift is to exhort, then urge people to engage with the hurts and brokenness they encounter with good courage. If you are a giver, then let generosity lead you to meet everyone with open hands. If you are compassionate, then cheerfully walk beside those whom you meet so they are not alone in their trouble.
Listen to Fr. Smith: Be who you are and be it for God.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas on August 27, 2017 at Transfiguration Episcopal Church,San Mateo, CA.