“Using the Keys”
The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo
August 27, 2023 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 15:21-28; Matthew 16:13-20

Keys take many forms in our lives. Maybe if Jesus were with us today, he’d have given the keys to the kingdom to Shawn. We could get key envy. Her full to overflowing ring in our big red doors—really rings plural with all kinds of metal pointy pieces, an Allen wrench, the round bike-lock kind, and an electronic swipe. Maybe I love it because I remember my father’s massive collection on a metal yo-yo thing—dozens of them for every locked door in all the schools! And he seemed to have a pretty good guess all the time which one fit which door. Amazing. My favorite key ever, I think, is probably for the church in Scotland. It was massive, old-fashioned shaped with round handle, rod, pyramid on the end … picture any British movie like Harry Potter … bigger than my hand, super heavy iron. No one’s slipping that in their pocket! The Beadle / custodian slotted it in the big outer door and turned with two hands. When Shelly created the picture for the cover, she pined: “Don’t we have a bigger key?” Now our hands wave a card or punch in a key code, even apps work remotely. Not sure exactly how, but when I’ve rented cars through Turo, the owner leaves it, key inside, and unlocks it when I arrive. It’s suspiciously like magic fantasy—wave your wand and say “alohomora” or the Fellowship of the Ring at the portal to the kingdom of Moria—”speak ‘friend’ and enter.”

Keys take many forms in our lives today, as they give access to resources, something we keep safe, or open doorways and pathways to possibilities ahead. Jesus might give the keys to Shawn. He gave them to Peter. But then he didn’t mean something literal to put on a chain or ring. Makes us wonder: what exactly are the keys to unlocking heaven. Yeah, we’re not talking a gleaming piece of molded gold on a lanyard around St. Peter’s neck guarding the ultimate pearly-gated community, as imagined over generations. Jesus urges more “God’s Kingdom come and will done on earth as it’s is in heaven.” You see, friends, that’s what he does all the time—unlocking abundant life God wants for all, wherever people feel locked out of some secret garden of grace or locked into some prison of hurt or prejudice, dungeon of anxiety or despair, captive to some Hotel California expectations for life that society says is perfection when the pursuit of it is really hell. More than casting a magic spell, Jesus gets real about true life—teaching grace, generosity, humility, forgiveness; eating with outcasts and associating with sinners, embodying the Holy Way of love that leads to peace, even when it’s standing up to power people, paying the ultimate price. Friends, I wonder how we, someone we know and love, people for whom God calls us to care might feel locked in, locked out, locked up, longing to be set free to live abundantly.

“I give you the keys to kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to Peter … and by extension Matthew implies to all of us. You see, opposite some highly guarded top-secret code or unique ancient metal artifact, Jesus’ whole goal is to make as many duplicates as possible. Then get us all to use those keys unlocking, liberating life. “Whatever you bind or loose on earth will be bound or unleashed in heaven”—the realm of life as God desires here and now and for eternity. Over the ages some heard that as a bestowal of power. I see it, feel it more as a burden and blessing of responsibility. Appeal to this text underpinned Roman Catholic claim of primacy among all Christians—Vatican St. Peter’s church and apostolic succession. If we really want more of that, let me know. But such power plays miss the point.

Beyond Peter himself it’s how he answers Jesus’ question of heart and commitment. Other faith leaders sought signs of proof, argued about points of doctrine, rules to practice, even speculating about Jesus himself. What really matters is what we claim. “Who you say that I am,” he urges, “who am I for you?” Messiah, Savior, Son of the living God—Holy Love / power among us in human form. Blessed are we who feel that, Jesus affirms, who take hold of that key, because then we’ll unleash such living faith. We’ll say Jesus is Lord and reach out to someone else with compassion. We’ll say Jesus is Lord and act for what is fair and just in society. We’ll say Jesus is Lord and keep trusting that love will bring new life as we find it hard to imagine through all the brokenness and trials and tears we shed. Truth is, before all we try to calculate or explain, beyond all doctrines we may argue or defend, faith of Peter and of the Canaanite woman is really about relationship. Through all that is good and hard continuing to seek Holy Love, to walk with Jesus, to open our hearts to the Spirit’s breeze—the Church’s one foundation mid all toil and tribulation.

Keys of heaven take many forms in our lives. And you see, friends, the true promise isn’t so much what we hold—right ideas or moral perfection we accumulate on our chains or yo-yo rings by the dozens. Doesn’t matter what we grasp to get in a cloudy place of eternal bliss like this sanctuary on steroids. Shawn, Randy, Logan unlock these doors for us each Sunday, greeters sit ready at the door—like offering grace, no special code or card needed. What matters for our faith is more what we give as soon as we walk out of these doors. How we use our master key of faith in Christ—to give access where there isn’t equity, to give hope for a way ahead when life seems a dark and confined chamber, to give love where there is loneliness, to give presence, peace any way we can. Like it or not, for better and sometimes for worse we hold the keys to God’s heaven. More than getting ourselves in, God wants us to go and keep unlocking for others until every gate swings free, every barrier gapes wide, every huge heavy dead-bolted door opens with the slightest touch if not off its hinges completely and we can throw away all keys.

Yes, I know it can seem a pipe dream and there are times to be practical. To be real, friends, unlocking doors on our way in life can be a challenge. A few years ago, on my 50th birthday I went for a long all-day hike—cold November at a remote recreation area. I got back to the car, good tired, and pressed the magic key fob … no click, nothing. On my old used car, for some reason, the actual flippy metal bit doesn’t work in the door, only the trunk. With creative deductive powers, I recalled gadgets inside. I popped the sedan trunk, arched my back to shimmy inside, pulled a lever to release the seat back and pushed it forward, then wriggled on my back further in, legs dangling, until I could stretch for the manual lock and handle on the back door. Then wriggled, shimmied, arched out, reached through the back door to unlock the front.

Yeah, sometimes unlocking doors takes creativity, perseverance, determination … which in truth, Peter fails to hold onto when the way gets hard and dark in the Garden of Gethsemane. In our stories paired today, the Canaanite woman uses the keys better than anyone. She hails from an ancient enemy—people the Israelites conquered to take over the land. Different culture, religion, in a foreign land, with a demon-possessed daughter. It’s hard to get more opposite and unacceptable to the disciples than that. All around her in Matthew’s gospel keepers of tradition erect fences and barriers to keep people in or out. In her heart, she’s keeping a key of trust in Divine Mercy. It’s a troubling text because we’re not sure what to do—not with her, but with Jesus. I mean, he’s callous or unkind at best, mean and super-prejudiced at worst. Maybe it’s not Jesus’ finest hour—tired, cranky, his humanity on display not divinity. Or some scholars wonder if he’s reflecting what the disciples are thinking, sort of calling them out. In any case, the woman’s plea echoes Peter’s just verses before when he’s sinking in the water. Undaunted she dares to breach all boundaries and biases. If she’s using a key, it might seem a bit more like a battering ram. Break through she does. Because she believes, she recalls for the others, calls them back to what defines God’s way in this world more than anything—the mercy of compassion, grace, love. Kyrie eleison. You are the Lord, giver of mercy. You are the Christ, giver of mercy.

Keys of heaven take many forms in each of us—all the ways we try to live such faithful relationships personally. And in the church, we try to serve as if Heaven shall not wait, with Christ’s power and love revealed in our present imperfection. We try to speak “friend” to someone else and enter places dark and scary to bring the kingdom of God. We try to make a pretty good guess about how to fit each locked door. Sure would be nice if there were always simple instructions like “open this side first.” Honestly, after the pandemic locked our doors tight, made many people think again about why open them at all, and how. Why come here together, what’s our purpose? This past Tuesday we noodled articles about the state of the church right now, how we really connect with culture. We move from defending morality to nurturing human dignity, from the hubris of certainty to humbling mystery, from claims of superiority to collaborative mutuality. We were inspired by Christians resisting Victor Orban’s fascism in Hungary, like Bonhoeffer did the Nazis. We yearn with others to relate across divides of evangelical, catholic, or whatever other denominations. We lament and recommit to trying to answer Martin Luther King’s call for witness in his letter from a Birmingham jail.

We want our church to be an outpost of the reign of God—sanctuary in and for the city, where everyone knows: you are loved. Truth is, at times, ways we treat each other may make it seem we Presbyterians do believe in purgatory. Still, we try to offer a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. As Jesus imagined, we try to open our doors and our hearts wider than a needle for all wandering camels to come through. In that Spirit, I share the next story, in part, because Session members found it to be so moving. At each of our monthly meetings this year, we start with a chapter from the book The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion. We’ve skipped the bad and no religion section. Admittedly, I have a vested interest in not going there! So, we’ve been doing the bits on good religion. Last Wednesday, it was “building community.” “You and I can’t be Christian in isolation,” writes Martin Thielen. “We can only be Christians in relationship with other Christians.” That’s our inherent essence—by definition, baptism and communion, core practices and commitments. We pray “Our Father, our daily bread and our debts” … not my, me, mine. We pass the peace shaking hands, hugging, moving around, meeting others we’ve known and loved and sat in the pew with for years or those other audacious intruders – I mean wonderful new friends to meet and get to know. Far more than invading privacy, we embody the reality that for better and worse we’re in this together. Because one of the deepest needs we all have in life is to connect with other people. So we come to worship and build bonds in all the other ways we get involved.[i]

Here’s the story from a church not unlike ours. Jennifer had career success, married, children, but felt restless, life lacking meaning. She began to experiment with cocaine, then got seriously hooked. She lost her husband, her resources, her dignity, almost her job. One day she walked past the front entrance of the church, as she’d done many times before. Just then a young woman came out the big doors, carrying a baby. The woman saw Jennifer and said hello. They both stopped for a moment while Jennifer admired the baby. The woman asked Jennifer, “Do you live around here?” Jennifer pointed toward the high-rise apartment building right next to the church. After some small talk, the woman asked if she went to church anywhere. Jennifer said no. “We’d love to have you visit our church sometime.” The woman wasn’t pushy. She just offered a simple invitation. They ended their conversation, and Jennifer went home. Today we might wonder which one is most like the Canaanite woman. Maybe both.

Over the next few days, Jennifer could not forget the woman from the church—such a nice person that she’d like to know and maybe be like. A work colleague she told about the moment said, “Maybe you should visit the church.” Two weeks later Jennifer showed up at worship, feeling scared and awkward. She’d not been to church in over a decade. The young woman who invited her, saw her, welcomed her warmly, and invited her to sit together. After worship they went to lunch. As their friendship grew over the next few months, Jennifer shared her struggle with drug addiction. The woman said, “Why don’t you come to the Winners’ Club at our church?” (It’s a twelve-step small group program.) Jennifer went and by the grace of God, the love and support of so many in and through the church, she got her life back. One year later, with Jennifer’s permission, the pastor announced, “We have a birthday … Jennifer is drug-free for one year today.” Spontaneously, the congregation stood and sang “Happy Birthday” … using their keys to the kingdom. Another year later, they promised to sing again. Jennifer has gotten the key: “This church invited me, and when I came full of fear, they welcomed me. Despite my drugs, they loved and supported me, connected me with God, became my family. And that’s why I come to this church.”[ii]

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] See Martin Thielen, The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 96-99.

[ii] Ibid, 101-103.