Today we hear the story from the Gospel of Matthew of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God, and how Jesus responds to this confession by giving Peter the “keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” This story might conjure up images of Jesus, tossing the keys to his beloved kingdom to Peter, like a father tossing the keys to his prized vehicle to his son on his sixteenth birthday. As if Jesus is the owner of the kingdom of heaven, giving over possession to Peter. But the kingdom that Jesus speaks about is not a possession at all. It is not something that you can possess, it is something that possesses you. As today’s readings show, this kingdom is subversive. As we have heard Jesus describe it over the last few weeks, the kingdom of Heaven is tiny, moving and growing slowly, below the surface, changing the world from the inside out, changing us from the inside out, like a mustard seed, small in size and growing slowly beneath the surface of the earth, or like yeast, spreading through a large amount of dough and changing it from the inside.
Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” This is a bit of important wordplay from the author of Matthews Gospel and from Jesus. The name Peter, or Petros, means rock. But it is slightly different from the word that one would use for a giant boulder, or a huge cornerstone or foundation. Rather, this word Petros, refers to something smaller. A stone that you would be able to throw. A small pebble even, that you might use to line a road. Something that you would walk by, or on, and never even notice. Jesus says to Peter, You are but a tiny pebble, and on this rock I will build my church. You are the smallest of the small, the subversive one, and on the foundation of the smallest, the most subversive, I will build my church. The foundation of the church is not some large monolithic rock, it is the tiniest pebble. The most meaningless bit of gravel that you would trample on and never notice.
In the reading from Exodus, we hear the story of what at first glance seem to be three similarly unimportant women, and how God worked with them to bring about the salvation of the Hebrew people. First we hear about the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who lie to Pharaoh in order to save the Hebrew children being born into their care. Then there is Moses’ mother, who, in the midst of clear persecution from Pharaoh, strategically places her three month old child, her secret treasure, amongst the reeds of the Nile in order for Pharaoh’s daughter to find him, and then gets paid to raise him. These women, who had little to no rights and were constantly being trampled on by Egyptian authority, moved under the radar, they worked in the shadows, surviving on half-truths and deceptions. Doing everything they could to survive. Using what small but mighty power they did have to move the wheels of justice and freedom.
And if we stop and think about it, the implications of these stories might make us a little uncomfortable. The midwives’ behavior in the Exodus story points to a truth that is calling us to stretch our understanding of where and how God moves in our lives. These women are breaking the rules, they are going against the clear boundaries and guidelines of the culture and society they are living in. No matter what the circumstances, their actions break with the accepted morality that we often still hold today. So what does it mean for us if God works even through what we might perceive as immoral actions?
This story shows us a God who works in the shadows, in the places we would rather not look. In the small dark room where a Hebrew woman is giving birth, or hidden amongst the reeds on the river Nile, or tucked away in a small hut where a once fearful mother now gets to raise her son in safety. The midwives lied to pharaoh and Moses’ mother deceived the Pharaoh’s daughter, and God worked through all of it. God worked in all this subversion. Even against the very commandments that would later be handed down to these very same Hebrew people on mount Sinai. Clearly, God is a rule breaker. And thankfully, we, like Peter, do not profess a God of rules or a God of ruthless morality. We profess a God of life, of salvation, of freedom. A God who will use any means necessary to free us from the bonds that we have put ourselves in, even and especially when it is messy. A God who moves in the dark, underneath the surface, behind the scenes, shaping and molding history, so that it’s arc does bend toward justice.
We might be ok with God working with the midwives in their deception, but we must also recognize this truth in our lives, that God can work similarly through our painful behaviors. That God can embrace and work with us through a broken marriage, or a messy affair, or a complicated crime. Can we believe that God can use all the most painful parts of our lives, all the worst things we have ever done, all the most subversive parts of our personal history to bend our path toward healing, and spiritual depth and compassion? It would seem, based on the reading today, that we have no choice. God reveals God’s nature to us today through three scrappy, subversive women, and the plans of Jesus to build his church on the smallest and most insignificant of pebbles. But this is the story of the kingdom of Heaven. It is our story.
And it is the story the midwives. They seem to be the smallest, tiniest, most insignificant figures in this grand history of salvation, and yet they are the linchpin to the entire thing. There is no Jesus, no Peter, no Moses, no Torah, without these subversive women. Without these smallest ones. Without these unnoticed people. And on them the church is built.
And this is still true for us as we sit here today. God has not changed God’s way of working with us in the pain and suffering of our lives. God has always been working through our most desolate of times, our most scandalous of behaviors, our most hidden secrets to draw us toward one another and towards God. But it is always still up to us whether we will play our part in these plans. It is up to us whether or not we are willing to acknowledge and shed light on these most outcast parts of ourselves and our pasts, the parts we want no one to see, the parts we don’t pay attention to.
But these are the tiny pebbles that the church is built on, that are the keys of the kingdom and keys to our salvation. The church is built on the parts of ourselves we consider the worst, the most painful, the most sinful, and if we remain disconnected from them, if we continue to call the midwives and tell them to rid us of these unwanted parts, we will never get there. Because that’s not how it works.
Like Moses’ mother, we are called to take the risk of letting those things which we would rather not have found out about us out into the open. We are called to lay them out and send them down the Nile river, not knowing what the world will make of them, but knowing that by setting them free, we are being set free ourselves. And when we trust God enough to allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, we often have the experience that Moses’ mother had with the daughter of Pharaoh. Someone receives our hidden secret, our deepest truth, and has compassion on it, holds it gently, and reflects it back to us in safety and peace.
What has culture told you are the unworthy, unwanted parts of who you are? What has the world told you are the unforgiveable, unredeemable parts of yourself or actions you take in your life. What would happen if you drew them out into the open? Just as Moses was drawn out of his hiding place in the river, we can draw out the subversive, unwanted, persecuted parts of ourselves from their hiding places. And then, when we have shared these hidden treasures with one another in vulnerability and love we are drawn by God out of the bondage of fear and suffering and hate just as Moses, the secret once hidden, drew his people out of bondage in Egypt. We will be drawn out of fear, out of the prison we have put ourselves in, and into the promised land, into salvation, into the kingdom of heaven where all is loosed and nothing is bound. The kingdom of heaven is built on these parts of ourselves that we do not like, but lead us, like Moses did, to the desert, through the arid landscape of pain and suffering and then to freedom, to salvation, to the kingdom of heaven.
These are the keys of the kingdom. They are not shiny metal objects that open and close gates and doors. These keys are embedded into our very lives, into our experiences of the world. They are made up of our fears, our painful experiences, our immoral actions, our sadness and our frustration with ourselves. Because keys can serve two purposes.
The same key can both lock and unlock. It can both bind and loose. So the experiences that lead us into what feels like bondage are the very ones that can lead us out. The keys that bind us are the ones that will be used to loose us. We all have the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. We always have. They have been with us our whole lives. They are the keys to connection to God and to one another, to relationship, to compassion, and they are turned in the direction of freedom when we allow ourselves to be seen in all of our brokenness and pain and fear, sharing with one another what is hurting the most, and in sharing and listening in real vulnerability we are slowly set free. It is when we can do this that we see how the smallest of pebbles can hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and how the unwanted can turn the tide of history, and this is salvation. Amen.