And you thought the it was made of cheese...
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Since I last saw you, I took a little vacation—nothing exotic (I’d didn’t go to Cancun or anything like that), just a long weekend with my family, visits to some good friends, and a few quiet days in a borrowed cabin by a small lake. Whenever I go on vacation—long or short, near or far—the moment I know it’s really begun is when I can take my church keys out of my pocket. (There are only 5 keys on this ring…but I have 18 others on another one in the car; if I carried them all around all the time, I’d have developed a definite lean to one side by now.) It’s not that these keys are heavy, but it’s a matter of what they represent: the many buildings for which I’m ultimately responsible and—even more—the care of the faithful people who come together in them.
The symbolism of keys—which we see when Jesus hands the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter and his successors—is fairly easily understood: they represent authority. Frequently, when we consider being entrusted with authority, we focus on the perks and prerogatives that come along with it. Just imagine how easy it is for Pope Francis to get through airport security! But with authority also come many duties and a great deal of responsibility. How does the Pope sleep at night knowing he bears a certain obligation to Jesus for every soul on the planet?
The “power of the keys” entrusted to Peter has a bearing not only on the life of the Pope, but on the pastor of every parish and every person in the pew—although in rather different ways for each of us. To go too much deeper into the role of sacred authority in the Church would take us more time than we’ve got this Sunday.
So I want to shift our attention to the other prominent symbol featured in our gospel reading: that of the rock. Today, we hear how Jesus gives a fisherman named Simon a new name: Peter. It’s important to realize that “Peter” wasn’t a name before this exchange. To put it literally, Jesus is nicknaming one of his Apostles “Rocky.” On this rock-solid foundation Jesus plans to build his Church. Yet we know Peter, and as we’ll see in next Sunday’s gospel, the cornerstone sometime becomes a stumbling block instead.
To help us make sense of all this—and understand how it applies to each one of us—I want us to consider a very familiar rock. We don’t often think of it as a rock, and that’s probably because we don’t find it where we usually see rocks: under our feet. To see this one, we have to look up, because it’s hanging over our heads. Of course, I’m talking about the moon. (Did you know that our Adirondack mountains are actually formed from the same type of stone as the moon? Spread that around and impress all your friends!)
I spent Monday with a good friend who’s a high school science teacher, which means she had two pair of these “eclipse glasses.” (There’s a part of me that wants to leave them on for the rest of the homily—but, if you’ve tried them yourself, you know that I can’t see a blessed thing right now!) With these, every twenty minutes or so, I was able to watch the progress of the solar eclipse that afternoon.
The reason the eclipse got so much attention is that we witnessed the moon doing the exact opposite of what we generally experience. What does the moon normally do? It shines. And not with it’s own light, either, but with the light of the sun: it reflects it to the world. If you ask me, there are some things that look even better in the moonlight than in broad daylight—I think of a mountain lake glittering under a full moon. But on Monday, what did we see? We saw the moon block out the sun. It didn’t shine, but instead cast a shadow. As I listened to some coverage out west, I heard folks talk about watching the streetlights turning on and feeling the temperature drop; this was a shadow with real, noticeable effects.
Isn’t that how it is with Peter? And isn’t that how it is, too, with all of us who follow Jesus and who are the living stones with which he builds his Church? What Jesus rightfully expects of us is that we shine, reflecting his light to the world and, therefore (returning to the image of the keys), opening the door for others to come and know Jesus, too. But sometimes, sad to say, we’re more of a stumbling block than a foundation stone—casting a shadow instead of shining, and so closing the door that leads to Christ.
Whether you realize it or not, when you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re always doing one or the other; there’s no neutral middle ground. And so it’s worth reflecting this Sunday on which one am I doing these days: shining, or casting a shadow? Opening the door, or locking it shut?
How often do you speak about Jesus to other people? (No, saying his name loudly when you stub your toe or get startled doesn’t count!) Do we have the courage to speak about Jesus and our faith in him to others? If we don’t, how can we expect them to recognize his light? And how do we speak about the Church—whether our local parish, of the Church universal? Are we always pointing out flaws? Loudly complaining about our pastor or fellow parishioners? We mustn’t forget how our behavior speaks, too. What does it say to people when we’re in such a big hurry to get out of Church? (Sometimes, I actually fear for my safety during the closing song—true story!) If we want to get away from the house of God and our brothers and sisters so fast, it casts a shadow many people can’t see beyond.
This isn’t a principal in effect only when we’re doing explicitly “religious” things. I think of the old joke about the cop who pulled over a car covered with Christian bumper stickers: “Honk if you love Jesus!”, “Follow me to church!”, “Sunday school teacher on board!” When he got to the driver’s window, the cop was immediately asked, “Why did you pull me over, officer? I know I wasn’t speeding!” “No, you weren’t speeding. But the way you keep laying on the horn, rudely cutting off other cars, and screaming obscenities, I could only assume that this car had been stolen.”
Whether we realize it or not, everything we do or say—in public or in private, here in church or outside of these walls—either shines or casts a shadow, reflecting the light of Jesus or eclipsing it.
Only one man has been entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven—and because of that awesome responsibility, the Pope deserves our regular and fervent prayers. But we all share in the duty of opening the door of faith in Jesus for the other people in our lives. Let us reflect the light of Christ so brightly that people begin to need special glasses whenever they look our way!