One reality of serving an urban church is hauling around keys and lots of them. Keys for the iron gate intended to protect the property from vandalism and from becoming a public bathroom for the homeless. Keys for the front door that stays locked to keep those on crack from cracking their way inside. Keys for the sacristry where the church stores its family silver. Keys for interior doors to guard us from unwelcome visits from straying guests to our outreach center. Keys to the elevator that is the sole passageway to our Central Night Shelter. Keys hidden in strategic places throughout the church for those times when Caroline, my colleague, comes running up, asking frantically, "Have you seen my keys?"
A few years back, I hired a facilities manager for the church I was serving. Up until that time, we had limped along with one longtime custodian and multiple part-time custodians. Over the years, though, the congregation and the plant had grown too large and we needed someone to manage the property. It took no great acumen on my part to figure out that this needed to be done; this new hire was much needed and long overdue.
My decision, though, did not sit well with our longtime custodian. He was used to being the sole keeper of the keys, and he had no intention of sharing them or handing them over to anyone else. I did my best to work out a happy medium, but as is often the case, most happy mediums don't leave folks happy. So, one day he stormed into my study and tossed a huge gaggle of keys on my desk. If they weren't going to be his keys alone, he told me, I could take those keys and, well, you get the point.
I'm now serving another church in a more urban setting where everyone carries around a gaggle of keys. My pants pockets bulge with keys. My posture is off kilter with keys. Another year carrying around this many keys and I'm bound for a visit to a chiropractor to correct permanent back damage caused by excess key-itis.
Now, you may ask, why then would I carry around so many keys? Well, that's simple enough. I do so because, well, everything around here is locked up! That's not the only reason. To tell the truth, sometimes the keys even make me feel safer and more in control. As if with these keys I could lock trouble out and cocoon myself in from the proverbial cold. Mostly, though, I feel fat with keys. And sad. And often defeated. You know what I'd really like to do with these keys? I'd like to use them one last time to open permanently every gate, every door, every window, every elevator in the entire church complex and then send my entire set of keys sailing somewhere never to be seen again. Well, maybe not today.
But I've got a bigger problem on my hands when it comes to keys. In our I.D.-electronic-cryptic-cyber-coded age, keys are not only physical things that plague our pockets and puncture our purses. Many keys are mental, hauled about in the mainframe of our minds. "Hey, what's the key code to open the garage or raise the gate or log onto the computer or access the ATM or retrieve the messages or unlock our memories?" I wonder if Peter ever thought about returning the keys to Jesus, tossing them back to the Fisher King and saying, "Thanks, but no thanks." On the one hand, the vote of confidence must have been nice. Everybody loves to get a promotion, to feel that affirming slap on the back, to pocket the key to the executive washroom, to get the strong handshake and have a superior say, "OK, you're in charge now."
Everybody loves it until they are in charge and they can't figure out which key goes to what door and everybody needs them to open every door right now or to lock every door right away. No one cares that the keys aren't labeled and there are a thousand of them to sort through. You've got the keys. You're in charge. Act like it!
I can't tell you how Peter felt that day when Jesus promised him the keys or how he felt a few days or weeks later, because I'm not Peter. Not only am I not Peter, I'm a Presbyterian. So, I'm not standing in line hoping to be handed the pontifical keys to the entire church of Rome one day. In fact, as a Protestant Christian I happen to believe that I've already been given the keys and that's a major part of my problem. To the extent that you and I are key holders to the church of the risen Christ and provide some sort of access to the glorious realm of God, we've got a key problem and a much more serious one than how to haul all of them around. As keepers of the keys, we've got to figure out what do with them, what doors to open, what windows to unlock. That's the whole point, isn't it?
When I was ordained 25 years ago, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was half its current size. Are we now a better church, a more orderly church, a more theologically sound church than we were back then? Maybe we are in some ways, but mostly we just have more organizational keys to lug around. And, we have them on a chain that often ends up choking the life out of us. The church spends years pretending that it's more important to keep keys safely under guard than to risk that they might open doors to people whom the church judges unworthy to be let in. So many keys slow the church to the pace of a turtle, making us careful lest we open the door to someone who doesn't look like everyone else around here, lest we open the ordination door, for example, and actually celebrate the gifts for ministry of those who are gay and lesbian and invite them to "forgive our hard hearts and to come back home."
Forget whether Peter ever considered returning the keys. I wonder if Jesus ever regretted tossing the keys to Peter in the first place, if he didn't spend some sleepless nights afterwards like the parent of the teen who hands over the car keys for the first time. Why would Jesus give keys, not just to the church, but to the future realm of God to Peter anyway? According to Matthew, Peter didn't get the answer right because he was the star pupil. It was an inspired guess, a little divine whisper in an ear that was regularly stopped up. For Jesus to fish out Peter from the crowd was risky enough; turning over the holy keys to him was simply irresponsible. What was Jesus thinking?
Maybe Jesus never made good on his promise, never did give Peter the keys. After all, Jesus here is speaking in the future tense. Maybe he's like that parent who holds out a carrot, all the while knowing that the young person will never be able to grasp it. Maybe Jesus is just making Peter think that he'll one day be the keeper of the keys. Maybe so, but then that raises a whole other set of problems.
You know, the Greek in this story is really pretty basic stuff--not too many big words to stumble over for newcomers to the language and not too many difficult phrases for translators to debate. And yet, if you chew on this Matthean text for a little while, it can give you a bad case of exegetical indigestion. Even worse, this text can turn dark on you in the blink of an eye. Some have read this text and ended up exploding car bombs in Belfast to show who was the rightful owner of the keys. No wonder Mark, Luke, and John keep the keys out of this story. Keys cause trouble, wherever you turn.
Keys can and keys have caused a whole lot of trouble in the church, but that is certainly not why Jesus promises them to Peter. They are promised not as a cause for concern but as a reason for celebration and liberation. Read Matthew again, read all the Gospel, and you'll come clamoring back for those keys that you returned, come back begging for them. You see, the keys Jesus promises are more mystical than mundane, cut to holy precision to open up the grace-filled, doors-wide-open reality of God. Huge keys to open the most intimidating doors and razor-sharp keys to break loose windows that have not been open for years.
Read Matthew one more time and see what you and I can open with these keys. Some of the keys open the mysterious door to God's command center for peace. Once you turn those keys and walk through that door you'll never again fall in love with the sirens of war or be lured into judging violence a virtue. Some of the keys open the window into God's anteroom of mercy. Look inside and you'll never again act as if God's mercy is in short supply, as if it's the church's job to dish out compassion meagerly and only to the deserving few and to keep the limited supply of God's mercy under ecclesial lock-down.
The promised keys even open the door into God's own heart. Once you turn those keys and open that door you'll never again mistake purity for living nice and proper and polite lives. But you'll see purity as living passionate and faithful lives that are undeniable signs of the reconciling love of the risen Son of God.
The keys Jesus promises Peter are meant to unlock the world's longing for celebration and liberation. The keys Jesus promises Peter were never intended to lock out undesirables from the church, to rid God's realm of the unworthy. If that were the case, he'd never have promised them to someone like Peter, and they'd never have landed in pockets like ours.
Actually, the more I've thought about it, maybe Jesus is much like that loving parent who hands over the keys to someone she loves dearly and whom she knows has not always fared well in training and has yet to be tested by the hurdles of real life. Knowing all this, Jesus still promises Peter the keys and says, "Use them wisely."
What a liberating gift! What a reason to celebrate! It's time to stop my complaining and with a heart of thanksgiving to pull out the keys. AMEN.