I am very thankful for Fr. Sean, Rev. Sue Ann, and the congregation at St. James for giving me and others a chance to practice our skills as we journey through our processes.
What image appears in your mind when you read or hear the noun “rock?” Do you picture something small, more of a pebble that fits in your hand? Or is it large, something you can stand on, maybe even mountain-sized? Is your rock rough, rugged, sharp-edged? Perhaps you see one that’s smooth, like the river rock often used in aquariums and gardens. Possibly all of these images vary in your mind as you consider the word, and may depend on the circumstances in which you’re in when you encounter it. I think, though, that it’s safe to say that we all share the idea that a rock is solid, stable.
I have a friend who loves rocks. She’s not a professional collector or a geologist, but when she is out walking, she will pick up an interesting one and keep in her pocket, often using it as a worry stone. When I questioned her about her choice of rock, I assumed that she always chose one that was smooth. After all, the worry stones sold in stores are smooth and nicely polished, and pretty to look at. However, she responded that no, the rocks she picked up generally had rough, uneven edges, and had simply caught her eye for one reason or another. I paused and reflected about this, questioning my assumption about her preference, and why I apparently valued a smooth, pretty stone more.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus blesses Simon Peter, son of Jonah, because God revealed to him that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” using the profound, at least in my mind, play on words, since Peter in Greek means “rock” and Cephas is “rock” in Aramaic.
And this is why I asked, at the beginning of this sermon, what you envision when you hear or read this word, because that will affect how you envision both Peter and the church. I have to be honest and say that as I began thinking about this Gospel reading, one of the first things that came to mind were the many jokes about St. Peter and the Pearly Gates. I did stop to consider whether this was an appropriate subject for a Sunday, but in being true to myself as a literature person fascinated with all sorts of texts, I felt challenged to find some significance, some relevance. And I thought that for quite a few people, who don’t read Scripture, this is their only image of Peter—the gatekeeper who decides who does or who does not enter Heaven. After all, he has the keys to the kingdom. These jokes show a very literal interpretation of these keys and the man who holds them—a smooth and solid character, if one-dimensional.
However, as we can see in the Gospels, Peter is very complex and not perfect—he is not a smooth stone and doesn’t appear very solid. In a just a few more verses from today’s reading, Jesus is rebuking him, saying “Get behind me, Satan,” when Peter says that Jesus shouldn’t be subjected to the suffering and death he is foretelling to his disciples. We all know of Peter’s fear in the courtyard, causing him to fulfill Christ’s prophecy, that he will deny his teacher, his Messiah, three times before the crowing of the cock. How can he be “the rock” upon which Christ will build his church?
However, I think that Jesus didn’t necessarily want someone who was smooth and polished to lead his church. Smooth and polished is comfortable, and doesn’t allow for much more in the way of change and possibility. I would venture to say that the Pharisees would have seen themselves in terms of smooth rocks. They were solid and obeyed the laws, and they didn’t feel the need for change; they were comfortable as they were.
But a rough rock can be uncomfortable, whether you’re holding it in your hand or standing on it. If you’re climbing one, however, it’s easier to find a purchase; smooth can be slippery and treacherous. Jesus was willing, as a good teacher, to work with Peter, maybe smoothing some of the edges, but knowing that this man, whose faith enabled him to receive the revelation that his mentor was the Messiah, but whose flaws were a reminder of his humanity—Isaiah bids us to remember the rock from which we are hewn–would make things uncomfortable for the powers that be. Jesus, I would say, knew that Peter would take his lessons to heart precisely because he was not perfect. Christ had faith in his servant, that he would be the foundation of a church that would not become too smooth, too comfortable in itself and forget its purpose—which was to help bring about the kingdom of heaven through God’s love.
So my prayer is that, as we’re presented with a world in which people are being marginalized, having their rights denied, and going without basic human needs such as food and clean water, we be reminded that today’s Gospel is not about Peter being given a literal set of keys in order to decide who gains entry and who doesn’t, but a charge to perhaps not let ourselves or the Church only reach for those smooth stones, when events make us uncomfortable, but to speak up. This Gospel is also a reminder that we are all rough rocks with our uneven edges, but that God loves us in spite of them, or actually, as with Peter, I would say, because of them. This should be a source of great comfort. Amen.