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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 27, 2017

Matthew 16:13-20


Do you remember the first time someone handed you the keys to the car?

Maybe it was your parent, maybe your older sibling, maybe a friend, a relative, a driver’s ed teacher…  Do you remember the feeling when they handed you the keys, and you climbed into the driver’s seat, and closed the door, and (hopefully) bucked your seat belt, and put the key in the ignition, and started the car?

I don’t know what that iconic teenage rite of passage felt like for you, but for me, it was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.  I finally had the beginnings of a freedom for which I had longed.  No more would I be stuck walking, or riding my bike, or asking for rides from my parents or my friends’ parents.  I would be able to go where I pleased, when I pleased (as long as my parents would let me borrow the car).  I felt important, old enough to be trusted with something significant.

But even as I grinned in excitement behind the wheel, my hands were trembling.  I was nervous.  More than nervous, I was scared.  I could feel the power that was unleashed by a simple press of the gas pedal, feel it threatening to run away from me.  I was a little bit overwhelmed by managing so many different things at once—the gas and the brakes and the clutch, the gear shift and the turn signal and the wipers, the headlights and the speedometer and the steering wheel.  And when my driver’s ed teacher—in our very first lesson—directed me to turn onto the highway, my knuckles were whiter than they ever were in later years when I lived in Boston and braved the roadways there.

Now, my son Samuel is only one, so I have a little while before I will get to experience that thrill and terror from the other side.  But those of you are raising or have raised teenagers have navigated another rite of passage, that of being the one who hands over the keys.  Talk about white knuckles.

It seems like a terrible idea when you stop and think about it.  We know that teenage brains are not even close to fully developed.  We know that the frontal lobe—the part that gives you common sense, and good judgment, and impulse control, and rational decision-making—is not mature until the age of 25.  And yet we hand over control of tons of metal, hurtling along at a mile a minute, with fire inside?!

It seems like a terrible idea.  But we are in good company.  Just look at Jesus and Peter.


Simon Peter is remembered as a member of Jesus’ inner circle.  He was often among a smaller subset of the disciples who would accompany Jesus on special missions.  He was clearly a leader, both during Jesus’ lifetime and after his death and resurrection, as the early church took shape.

But Peter was also a bit of a loose cannon.  He was bumbling and impulsive.  He was quick to speak but slow to understand.  He got it wrong at least as often as he got it right.  Just a couple of chapters before today’s story, Peter was the one who set off impetuously, walking on the water, but lost faith and found himself sinking.  Just a few verses before today’s story, Peter was the one who tried to tell Jesus he was wrong about how the end of his life would unfold, and Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”

A few chapters after this story, as the events Jesus foretold were playing out, Peter would be the one who fell asleep during Jesus’ agonizing vigil in Gethsemane, the one who denied any knowledge of Jesus three times by a charcoal fire outside the palace in Jerusalem.  He had a good heart, for sure, but it was almost as though his frontal lobe wasn’t yet fully developed…

And yet, in today’s reading, it was to Peter that Jesus gave “the keys to the kingdom,” after Peter confessed his faith and proclaimed Jesus’ true nature.  It was to Peter that Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose both on earth and in heaven.  The church is built on Peter, the rock.  Jesus trusted Peter to lead his disciples and all who would join the movement in the years to come.  And come they did—broken, unready, immature, passionate, imperfect disciples like Peter, like you and me.

With such drivers at the wheel, the church has had its share of accidents, collisions, wrong turns, and other mishaps over the centuries, often with life or death consequences.  The Europeans who sailed forth to colonize the Americas, Africa, and Asia claimed that God had sent them to master these new lands, never mind that there were whole civilizations that had been there for millennia.  The institution of slavery was often defended with quotations from scripture that urge slaves to obey their masters.  Women have been denied a voice in some churches, and indeed still are, and have been told to submit to their husbands even in situations of abuse.  LGBT folks have been bludgeoned with misguided readings of a few cherry-picked verses from Leviticus.  We have had our share of accidents.

The church has also gotten it right, has also been a vehicle of safety and sanctuary and blessing.  Christians have founded an enormous number of schools, hospitals, libraries, NGOs, and other institutions of social uplift.  Christians joined in the Civil Rights Movement because their faith called them to be witnesses for justice.  Christians have always been at the forefront of efforts to feed, clothe, house, and support people who are hungry, poor, homeless, or struggling.

It’s no surprise, since the church is built on a foundation like Peter and stacked high with living stones like you and me.  It’s no surprise that our legacy is a complicated one, since we are made of complicated human beings who can be both brilliant and obstinate, both generous and judgmental, both gracious and stingy, both right-on-the-money and totally-off-base.


These days, when I think about what it means to be a Christian, to be a disciple of Jesus, I feel a little bit like my teenage self when I was first behind the wheel of a car—startled by the power at my command, overwhelmed at all the different things that required my attention, trembling at the thought of all that could go wrong, not quite sure I was worthy of the keys that had been handed to me.

We live in dangerous times, times that may require more of us than has been asked in recent memory.  We live in times when the faith we follow is often twisted to mean the opposite of what we believe it means.  People who read the same scriptures we do believe that they are right to close borders, shut out refugees, mistreat immigrants who enter this country.  People who sit in pews just like ours choose to use violent speech and actions to intimidate and hurt people who are different in race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The stakes are high.  Lives are literally at stake—Black lives, brown lives, indigenous lives, immigrant lives, women’s lives, trans* lives, lesbian and gay lives, poor lives, sick lives, elders’ lives, children’s lives.  It seems there are a hundred new crises every day, even before I wake up in the morning.  There is so much to keep track of, so many challenges to be addressed.

I don’t know about you, but my knuckles are white on the wheel right about now.


But here’s the thing.  This is not the first time when lives have been at stake.  This is not the first time when religion has been used to justify things that break God’s heart.  This is not the first time when the problems of the world have been overwhelming.  This is not the first time when a brand-new driver has been sent onto the highway feeling ill-prepared to manage what she finds there.

When Jesus entrusted the keys to the kingdom into Peter’s trembling, white-knuckled hands, Jesus knew the stakes and the circumstances—and he trusted Peter anyway.  And if he trusted a bumbling, impulsive, good-hearted screw-up like Peter, then I suspect he trusts us, too, to steer the church safely through uncharted territory.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter answered.

If we, like Peter, place our utmost faith in the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus…  If we follow a living God who desires abundant life for all creation…  If we believe that every human being is made in God’s image and deserves to be treated accordingly…  If we believe that swords must be beaten into plough shares and spears into pruning hooks…  If we seek to walk in the ways of justice…

Then let us not be afraid to say so, to profess our faith, and to align our actions with our words, so that our very lives bear witness to the gospel, so that our very beings proclaim the love that is stronger than fear, stronger than violence, stronger than hate, stronger than bigotry, stronger even than death itself.  In other words, let’s hit the road, following Jesus into the work of making God’s love and justice real, on earth as it already is in heaven.

The keys are in your hands.


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