Sunday, August 24, 2014

Flopping Fish, the Filterless Filter, and Room to Spin - a meditation on Peter and the church

MATTHEW 16:13-20
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

You guys. If I have to step on one more lego or bang my knee on one more corner or stare at my pile of clutter and books and clothes and stuff that has no place to go, I think I’m going to go mad. My house is so small. Not Nigeria-hut-in-a-slum small. So I really have no right to complain. But still, I do. 851 square feet. We’re on top of each other. And I feel bad, too, because my boys have to share a room so small that they wake each other up at night with each cough, roll over, and dream-induced laughter. Every square inch of my house is occupied by something, has some specific function. If Jonah pulls out his trains and begins building a track, the house is a wreck. If Levi wants to practice his newfound skill of running, it will end in a collision with the furniture, a black eye, and a goose egg.

So, this week, as I tend to do about once every six weeks or so, I had a freak-out moment where I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I started to concoct strange, hair-brained ideas for how to get us out of this house and into a bigger one. If we shuffle that loan, or beg that mortgage guy, or bother that realtor to show us a “fixer upper” in a sketchy neighborhood that has 150 more square feet than our current house, maybe we could make it work. If we ask the in-laws for yet another loan, or take on a little more debt or sell a car, if we post one more link on Facebook, maybe we could move, and I won’t feel so crammed, these walls won’t feel like they’re closing in around me, I could hear myself think, and we could fix this.

And then I worry and wrestle and think and stay up all night wondering what our next step should be. 

And then the house gets sold, or the application falls through, or Dan doesn’t like the house, or we don’t get the mortgage, or really, we should just wait until we get “real” jobs. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I just need a little room. A place to stretch out.  Some space to breathe and hear myself think. A place where my boys can pretend to be helicopters and spin and spin and spin until they can’t hold themselves up any more, and I won’t have to worry about rabid coffee tables and attack storage shelves. A place where Dan and I could be a little cluttery, a little messy, without the whole house becoming a wreck. A place where my kids can take empty boxes and duct tape and yards and yards of rope and toilet paper tubes and turn them into trucks and airplanes and trailers, and I won’t want to stop them because of the mess they’re going to make. I might actually want to join in on the fun.

My friend was telling me about this place, Pymatuning Spillway - their motto is “where the ducks walk on the fish.” It’s this place where they’ve been throwing hotdog buns, ho-ho’s, and slices of Wonder bread at the carp since the 1930s. And if you look it up online, you see pictures of fish on top of fish, a foundation of fish so thick the ducks walk on their heads, and their tails are flopping and writhing and their mouths are gaping open for another bite of government subsidized wheat and high fructose corn syrup. Who knows how many black eyes they’ve caused each other.

Sometimes I feel like my house is the Pymatuning Spillway. 

And I bet that sometimes, you’re wishing this place, this church, were more like the Pymatuning Spillway, and less like a struggling church on a Sunday morning. More people in the pews, more folks to help clean and plan and keep this place open.

I often dream of the giant church, teeming with misfits and kids and coffeehouses and hip outreach programs to the seedier parts of the city. I’m tempted by attracting throngs of people from across the bridges and through the tunnels who come to hear me speak, who come to throw a check into the offering plate and volunteer for the homeless ministry and the community meal and the free daycare and support a full-time pastor. All of us flopping around in the lake, undulating our bodies for the sake of a slice of stale bread.

But when I’m honest with myself, and I think about what the church really needs, what we’re really called to, it’s not to one more program, one more thing to do, not even necessarily one more way to serve or social injustice to right. We’re called to breathe. 

This is what Jesus is doing when he asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am,” is fundamentally tied to what the Church should be. The question of who Jesus is is in direct relationship with what the church is. How we answer the question, “Who do you say that I am” determines how we do church.

If Jesus is a prize to be won, then our church becomes a carnival where those with the best shot and the strongest arm gets to take him home.

If Jesus is a commodity to be bought, then our church becomes the stock exchange, full of people shouting and meaningless trades are made, and Jesus’ stock wavers with the price of oil and consumer confidence.

If Jesus is a warm fuzzy, then the church becomes “Build A Bear” - that place where you fill a lifeless Jesus with polyester stuffing and dress him up in a tutu or a fireman rain jacket.

If Jesus is an academic exercise, then the church becomes the university where Jesus wanders around in texts and in elevated conversations, and the ones with the degrees get the best and the clearest access to the Kingdom.

If Jesus is a secret code, then the church is a computer, a series of zeroes and ones, that, if put in the right order, will reveal an operating system, a way to plug in the right algorithm and get the answer for every possible scenario.

If Jesus is Santa Claus, then the church is a shopping mall, and we wander from store to store, making lists, sitting on laps, asking for more stuff.

If Jesus is about having your house in order, then I’m in big, big trouble.

Jesus asks his friends, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter blunders forward, without thinking, without questioning, without processing or weighing the costs. He comes to the feet of Jesus and shouts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” 
And Jesus says, essentially, “because of the way that you’ve answered, because of your floundering, and stumbling, and your commitment and your willingness to make such a pronouncement and your faith in me and in the Living God, I’m giving you the keys to the kingdom.”

“You, Peter, who speaks before thinking and does before counting the costs, who jumps in and forgets that you can’t walk on water, you, who have no filter, who blurts out whatever is on your mind, to you I give the keys, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The one who has no filter is the one who is put in charge of the Kingdom of God.

Peter, the blundering idiot who is an organizational and categorical mess, whose heart is in the right place, unless he’s scared to death of course, is the one who is the Rock, the foundation of the Church.

I don’t think too much emphasis can be put on this point. The Church’s foundation is fundamentally faulty. It’s crumbling. It’s enthused and ready and all in one moment, and then running off and denying Jesus the next. And this guy is given the keys - the filter - that will determine who is in and who is out. The one who has no filter becomes the filter.

Because it’s not the answer to the question that is important. It’s the how of how we answer the question.

Because I don’t really care who you think you are, whether a cradle Catholic or a rational atheist or a born again Christian, your attempt to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am,” will be wrong. You’re going to get it wrong. We’ve all got God a little bit wrong. None of us truly, fully, get it. Or if you do get it right, like Peter, you’re not really going to understand what you’ve just said.

It has never been about answers — if it was, then Jesus would have reneged his offer to Peter to be the foundation of his church. After all, just a few verses later, Peter is going to be called Satan by Jesus, and then later, he’s going to deny Jesus three times, and he’s going to get into big theological fights with Paul at the church’s earliest inception.

It’s not about the answer, really. But about HOW we answer the question.

I think the church has worried about getting enough people into a building all nodding in unison to the “right” answer to the question. So of course, when put this way, the Church is dying. We no longer have churches thronging with folks flopping around with mouths gaping open to catch a piece of empty carbs thrown from the pulpit. People aren’t interested in swallowing it all whole while the ducks walk all over them.

But I think that Jesus is telling us that it’s not about getting it right or wrong; faith is not a scantron sheet or a true/false quiz, or an easy sell. Faith isn’t going where the crowds are and battling each other for the biggest bite of Jesus. 

And Jesus knew this. That’s why he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, precisely because he goes all in, he flails around, because he believes and then he doesn’t. He gets the keys precisely because he has no filter, because he speaks before he thinks, he jumps in before he remembers that he doesn’t have a change of clothes. He just goes for it. And he’s the one with the keys. He’s the gatekeeper.

Everybody come on in. Peter jumps in, blurts out, flails around and tries and tests and falls on his ass. Everybody come on. Peter has the keys, and he’s got no filter. 

Because Jesus bids us to enter. Enter the kingdom of God where you don’t have to have the answers, where you don’t have to battle the giant goldfish next to you for a bite to eat, where you don’t have to be consistent or sane or sober or a straight-A student. Where you don’t have to have it all neat and tidy and where everything must have its place. Enter the kingdom of God where there’s room to breathe and room to build castles out of cardboard and to tie ropes from the ceiling and to jump on the beds and play hide and seek in the closets and spin and spin and spin until you’re dizzy and you can’t hold yourself up any longer. 

Thanks be to God.

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