Passing It On: Who Can Know The Mind Of God: 21st Sunday in OT 8/24/14
Passing It On: Who Has Known The Mind of God? Twenty-First Sunday in OT August 24, 2014
I am not sure that authority is a “good” word these days. Earlier on in our nation’s history the authority of parents, teachers, clergy, elders, police and a host of others was taken for granted. When I grew up all my Grandmother would have to do was look at us and we were immediately in line. And, any adult on the block could discipline me if I did something questionable, like climb over someone’s fence or play with my friends on the stacks of long pipes in the big “pipeyard” in the middle of our block. Some of this discipline probably saved my life or at least my limbs. But having gone through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s authority was, in most places, turned upside down as a positive attribute. Sometimes those once respected now become objects of ridicule. A few weeks ago here in Florida there was a lot of TV coverage of a new activity among teenagers. They would see an older person in some vulnerable position, leaning on a cane or bending over to pick something up and run up behind them and kick them very hard in the rear knocking them down with great tirades of laughter. They would then post this on social media. It was not until there was public outcry and law enforcement action that this new “joke” lost its meaning and died out. Here in Fort Myers a community rallied around an old man who was kicked down while tending his garden. They came and planted for him. It was a beautiful response. But, that didn’t mean that elders would be respected, just that they would not be ridiculed in that particular way. Many elders know very well about the culture of youth and “beauty” that prevails today and that they are the last to be hired and the first to be fired despite years of relevant experience. And many parents and teachers simply throw up their hands and say: what can I do, they don’t listen to me!
We also know a great deal about abuses of authority: parents who severely abuse and neglect children, teachers who engage with students in sexual activities or otherwise abuse them, priests and other clergy who abuse children and parishioners sexually, church rules that bully people in the most private areas of life, older employers who exploit the labor of young and vulnerable workers and some police who profile and even kill instead of protect the vulnerable. All of these things promote a distrust of “authority”. But is “authority” such a bad word?
In the recent tragic case where a white police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, in Ferguson, Missouri, the initial community response was understandably despair and outrage and then chaos ensued with looting and robbing. This continued until a respected black officer, Captain Ron Johnson from the Highway Patrol was given jurisdiction in dealing with the people instead of the local police department and restored order and a positive climate where each person could be heard. All agreed that working on race relations in Ferguson absolutely needed to happen and could be a legacy of this tragedy. Captain Johnson had the formal authority/power of law enforcement from the Governor and the Highway Department and the informal authority given by people who trusted him. This latter was the more essential authority that brought some peace. Power may come from above but true authority comes from the bottom up. The situation remained peaceful with his assistance until more details of the case surfaced in a way that further upset the community and others concerned, then chaos ensued again and the militaristic response further alienated far beyond the community. In the midst of chaos positive gentle yet firm authority like Ron Johnson’s is truly a welcomed gift. Indeed it is that kind of positive authority that can pave the way for peace and forgiveness in even the most horrible of times.
The readings today ask to whom does God give spiritual authority, and authority for what? In the reading from Isaiah 22:15, 19-23, God is giving authority of the overseer to Eliakim who is loyal to God, to care for the house of Judah, the “key” symbolizes his authority in Judah. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew is concerned with authority. In the Gospel for today (Matthew 16:13-20) Jesus gives spiritual authority to Peter and the disciples/ community of believers. Earlier, as Jesus finishes his “sermon on the Mount” Matthew says that Jesus taught “as one who had authority” not as an ordinary teacher and this amazed the crowds (Matt 7:29). In Matt 9:6 Jesus says that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” To show this “authority”, after forgiving the paralyzed man’s sins, he told him to “get up, take up your mat, and go home” which the man immediately did. In the same place he asks which is harder- to forgive sins or to say “get up and walk”? Clearly, Jesus the Christ had the authority from his loving Abba God to do both. Sin is often ignored in theology and Christology today, another “bad word”. But, for those who know they have deeply wronged others or another, the forgiveness of that sin from the other(s) and indeed from God is so important. One young man came to me recently and said, “I need peace with God after what I have done”. A woman shared with me that she found herself more easily forgiving others because she feels that she has done many awful things that God has already forgiven and she is relieved of the burden of guilt. But it is the forgiveness of sins that is so hard! When Jesus passed on the “keys of the kingdom” or spiritual authority according to the Aramaic idiom, to Peter in today’s Gospel (Matt 16:19) he is also passing on the authority to forgive. But this is said to Peter and to the whole group of disciples as the first question about who people think he is was asked of all the disciples and right after this exchange with Peter and the group he tells the disciples to keep it quiet that he is the Messiah. We as Christ followers, called by God despite all our human faults, have the power, the authority, to forgive one another and to catalyze forgiveness.
In the day’s Gospel Jesus has gone to Caesarea Philippi. This is a city about twenty miles north of the sea of Galilee that is named after the emperor Caesar and Phillip, the son of Herod the Great who ruled in this territory. Caesar claimed to be the Son of God. This location establishes context for the text. Jesus asks the disciples whom people say he is. When Peter answers that Jesus is the Son of the living God, he is also saying that Caesar, the Roman Emperor is NOT the Son of God. Jesus then says that this revelation to Peter is from God. Indeed, this relates to the text from Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:33-36) in which he says “how unsearchable the ways of God!” and asks, quoting Isaiah 40:13, “Who has known the mind of God or been God’s counselor”? In other words, God chooses whomever God wants to serve God and establish the kingdom (kin-dom)-reign-of God. Who would have ever thought that Peter, whose nickname in Aramaic “Kepa’ means “brick-headed”, close to “stupid”, and who has misunderstood so many things about Jesus, would be chosen to know the God-identity of Jesus-the Christ, the Messiah. Similarly, God called Jeremiah when he was a youth and Moses when he was old and tired and Mary of Magdala whom Jesus also healed completely of all that was not right with her, choosing Mary to be the first one to see Jesus after the resurrection. Who can know the mind of God? Who would have thought any of those or the impetuous Peter would have been given any singular recognition? I like the way the TIB Priests for Equality translation renders Peter’s call: “I also tell you this: Your name is now ‘Rock’ and on bedrock like this I will build my community….” Peter and those who are ‘bedrock’ like him are to be foundational in building Christ’s community-the church. The Aramaic idiom for “upon this stone” also means “upon this truth” referring back to Peter’s saying that Jesus is the Christ. The church is built on Christ. Peter, a poor fisherman, illiterate, fast-mouthed, hot-headed, impetuous, and half of the time misunderstanding Jesus is to be a bedrock stone of the church, and likewise God continues in our time to keep on building it with imperfect living stones. Jesus the Christ is the cornerstone and Peter, Mary of Magdala and all of the disciples throughout the centuries are foundation stones of the living church as each of us can be.
God continues to build it here and now, often with choices that surprise us. Grandma Harmon,63, pictured above, was “unchurched” until she came to Good Shepherd as one of the first families in 2008. In passing her faith on,she has brought seventeen family members who worship regularly with us. The elder of our Good Shepherd Church, a 62 year old formerly homeless black man and I have an identification with Peter in common. Sometimes we sit and share our Peter-like ways and marvel that God has chosen us to serve and build the church. The elder, Harry Lee Gary is a devout man who lives the Gospel. He took Peter as his Baptismal name. Harry’s life was hard before he met up with Christ who offered the balm of complete forgiveness after the tragic accidental death of the mother of his children. Even after this life saving encounter with Christ he says that he made many serious mistakes that led to homelessness and isolation. When he encountered the love of Christ again in our Church in the Park Ministry in 2007 he began to forgive others and to turn his life around inspiring all around him to do the same. He has been foundational in our church ever since. He preaches with me at every Mass. What is written here is always incomplete without his testimony and inspiration and that of others that come after the portion of this that I share with the church. Our Peter and I are thankful that God still chooses the imperfect of this world to build the church. And for that grace we say “Amen!”
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Judy Lee and The Teen Class and Pastor Judy Beaumont and Robert Swanson
Pearl Cudjoe and Efe Jane Cudjoe,when she is home from Brown University, are our Junior Class teachers. Efe Jane with class members, Joelle and Keion this summer.