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A handful of us, here at UCJ, received an email last Tuesday morning. The email, which came from one of our beloved church members, was addressed to a group of us who had been part of the Bible study that convened over zoom during the pandemic. The subject line was “A Biblical Question.”
The Biblical question concerned the passage from the 16th chapter of Matthew’s gospel – the very one that Vicki just read for us, in which Jesus says to his disciple Peter:
I 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.”
It is a weird piece of scripture. One that is, indeed, worthy of some thought.
In the email, the person asked:
What needs to be bound and loosed in heaven as it was on earth? Are the keys to the Kingdom of heaven needed for that to happen?
These are good questions…
It got me thinking…
You may be wondering why I am being secretive about the person who sent that email. A valued mentor taught me, early in my ministerial training, that I should be careful never to know how much money any individual or family tithes to the church, because if I did know that information I might unintentionally favor that person or family over others in the community.
This was good advice! We may all have different numbers in our bank accounts, and different abilities to give, but that should have no bearing whatsoever on how the love of God moves through the community.
The same, I suppose, should be true of biblical curiosity – God’s love should not be seen to favor an individual over others based on how interested they are in the bible.
So, even though I don’t think I would be violating any confidentiality by doing so, I have decided not publicly identify the person. Basically, I want to be able to admire what they have done, without being guilty of playing favorites, and this seems like one way to do that. I hope that makes sense.
So… as I said, the email got me thinking
I got to thinking both about the passage itself, and the fact that the person was wondering about it.
I got to thinking about story…
Not “a story” mind you,
but about “story” itself.
As human beings, we tell stories about our lives. These stories have great power.
If, for example, a person has been the victim of awful trauma, the person may never fully escape from the circumstances of that trauma – no matter how they try, and no matter how much time goes by, they continue to tell themselves the story of that trauma. The trauma will not leave them alone. They see it in the mirror when we are wide awake at 4AM. It is woven into their lives.
And yet that same person – the same tortured soul – remembers the magical instant when they learned to ride a bike, when they suddenly understood the equation, or when they were out in the rain, getting wet, and not caring that they were out in the rain, getting wet. Each of us has known impossible joy, deep resonance, perfect rhythm. These moments of grace are also part of the story we tell.
We cannot expect our story to be entirely without pain. Only the willfully naive enjoy a short-lived belief in that illusion. However, it is equally wrong to labor under the suicidal misconception that you will never know beauty or joy.
Both trauma and grace weave their way into the stories that we tell about ourselves.
When we tell these stories to ourselves, – stories that claim both despair and joy – we are in the act of creating meaning in our lives.
Story has this kind of power – the power to lift us up, and the power to bring us to our knees.
As Christians, story influences our lives in yet another way. We do not only tell our own story – we also interact with a specific story – a kind of master narrative. As Christians, we have agreed to let our story interact with the story of Jesus Christ. We have agreed, as people of faith, that this story — the story of this carpenter from Nazareth, who lived several thousand years ago on the other side of the planet – is mysteriously and deeply related to our own story.
We even go so far as to dedicate an hour every week, to the ongoing lifelong project of finding ways to thread that story – Jesus’ story into our story. Each week we take a different vignette from the story of Jesus, and we ask the question: how does this fragment of Jesus’ story relate to my story.
And for most of us, this is enough.
One might easily say that the interaction that my story has with Jesus’ story is something that happens on Sunday morning. The rest of the week is solidly given over to the work of creating my story. After all, it ain’t easy.
Now let me return to our friend who sent that email last Tuesday morning.
It may be that the person was feeling completely at a loss. Perhaps they were telling themselves an “I-don’t-know-story” that goes like this: “I wonder what this passage means? I have no idea! It’s such a strange thing to say! “Bound” is such a strange idea. I wish I was a better Christian – if I was, maybe I’d understand strange passages like this one. I wonder if someone else has a clue?”
If – and I am speculating – that was the story that our mysterious friend was telling themselves, I would like to offer an alternative story. It could go like this: “This is a strange passage. I am curious about it. I wonder what Jesus might mean when he says it? I wonder if this strange passage might somehow help me understand my life just a little bit better — somehow I suspect it could, so let me reach out and ask around a little.”
If the first story was the “I-don’t-know” story, then this story is the “interaction-story” – it is the “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven“ story.
What am I saying?
I am saying that bringing your story into active interaction with Jesus’ story is one way that the Matthew passage can be understood. When we “interact” with Christ’s divine story, we “bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”
Did you know that the word “religion” comes from the Latin word “Religare” which means “to bind”?
The word “religion” itself clues us into this truth – that the stories of our lives are bound to the story of God.
Here are some of the threads that bind that Tuesday morning email into the life of Jesus:
Curiosity. The desire to know.
Humility. The willingness to ask.
Courage. The ability to take personal risk
Openness. Having ears to hear.
But so far we have only told half of the story.
We have ruminated over a fortuitous example of how one person bound earth and heaven by interacting with Jesus’ story.
But what about Jesus?
Does Jesus also bind earth and heaven? Does Jesus do his part to move toward us, interacting with our story?
We need look no farther than this morning’s second gospel lesson from the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel – an odd tale if ever there was one.
Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus is dying, and a request is made that he go to him and save his life.
But Jesus does not hurry to his friend’s side. It is clear, from the text that Jesus is operating with a full understanding of how the events of Lazurus’ story are supposed to enfold, and what his role is in that story.
Jesus lingers for a reason. He intentionally takes his time getting to his friend’s bedside, because he knows that if he arrives after Lazarus dies, the effect of his miraculous intervention will be much more dramatic, than if he just shows up and heals a dying man.
“Lazarus is dead.
Jesus says, quite matter of factly…
For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.
This divine plan – if that is what it is, feels bad.
It feels calculated to not only impress people with power – it feels also to be intentionally cruel to the poor people who have to suffer through the death of their loved one, Lazarus, so that Jesus can make a point.
So far, the interaction that we are having with Jesus’ story does not feel like a very good interaction. This story feels like something God is doing to us rather than a loving interaction.
But things change when Jesus arrives.
The story tells us that
When Jesus saw Mary weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
It is only when Jesus sees the tears of Lazarus’ bereft loved ones, that he recognizes the folly of the smug calculation that had, moments before, seemed to be a brilliant way to heighten the effect of his impending miracle.
The tears change everything. Jesus says
He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
and now – the famous moment – the shortest, and most poignant verse in the Bible: John 11:35:
The bible tells stories.
Stories – good stories, anyway – always involve change.
We mortals are not the only ones who change.
God too changes.
And when we change….
When God changes…
Our stories weave together.
What is bound on earth is bound in heaven.