"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

 19th SUNDAY (A) August 9, 2020

I Kings 19: 9, 11-1; Psalm 85; Romans 9: 1-5; Matthew 14: 22-33

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

The disciples are tossed about by a storm at sea in a fragile boat. They are at their wits end, exhausted by their struggle against the storm. It is the "the fourth watch" – well into the night, between 3 and 6 am. In the darkest hour and when human strength has been exhausted, Jesus comes to the frazzled disciples walking on the water. Who can walk on water? Wasn’t that a sign to them of Jesus’ supernatural identity and power? Certainly such a being should be able to rescue them.

But his appearance only adds to their fear. Now there is more to fear – their teacher can walk on water in the middle of a storm and not drown! As the kids would say today, "Awesome!" Besides the fear of the storm, a new fear arises, fear of one who seems to be a ghost coming towards them.

Let’s stop the story right here. It doesn’t take much imagination these days to identify with those terrified disciples as we face the deadly storm of the pandemic, with its indiscriminate power to kill, sweeping across our world. Do we feel like those disciples, victims in its clutches? Like them, do we look into the midst of the storm and wonder if Jesus is just a ghost, a product of our fear-driven imagination? ‘"It is a ghost,’ they said and they cried out in fear."

It is one thing to have faith and come to worship regularly when life is moving along with its usual ups and downs. But when a storm is so violent, mindless and life-threatening – well, that requires another level of faith. Call it, "Nevertheless Faith." In face of overwhelming and frightening forces we don’t close our eyes, or wish them away. We acknowledge the reality of its threat and its test on our faith. Even though the forces lined up against us seem insurmountable, we profess, "Nevertheless, I believe, the Lord is with me."

The gospel story reaffirms my faith. I do not believe Jesus is above the turmoil I am experiencing, but that he has come to join me and reassure me. Did you notice that the storm didn’t die down even when Peter got out of the boat to walk towards Jesus? Shouldn’t that have been enough to convince Peter that the one they first thought was a ghost was indeed Jesus? No, the storm continued, for a while Peter was spared, but then he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on the storm and he began to sink.

Some biblical stories stir up memories of specific times and places for me. Today’s gospel story is one of those. I was living and preaching in West Virginia, a member of a preaching team of Dominican sisters and friars. We were the evangelization team for the diocese and were sent in pairs to live two months in parishes and do an outreach to the unchurched.

Once, when we were in a parish south of Charleston, we had a Scripture session in a home of one of the families and they had invited 20 of their neighbors. Today’s gospel was our focus, the storm at sea. After we read the passage and had some quiet, I asked, "Has anyone ever experienced a storm at sea?" We were in a tiny town ("up the holler," as they would say) 500 miles from the ocean and 1000 miles from the Great Lakes. I was not expecting a quick response, but I got one immediately from a grandmother in the group. "Ten years ago we lost nine of our men when the mine collapsed on them. That was a terrible storm for us."

You do not have to be a Bible scholar to "get" the story of the disciples in the storm. Some of those West Virginians were barely literate, but when they heard the story it came home to them immediately, because it spoke to the hard reality of their lives – as it can do for us.

We have hope and look forward to when the pandemic storm is over. We pray that our faith in Jesus’ presence in the midst of it with us, stays firm. Even when this storm passes, life has taught us, there have been and will be more "storms at sea" for us. If we are at Eucharist, or confined to watching Mass on TV, or meditating on these readings alone, we ask for strong faith to keep our eyes on Jesus and for him to enable us to walk on the troubled waters. We also ask him to calm the storms of fear, doubt and desperation within us.

Then, when we have experienced a strong "Nevertheless Faith, we can say in one voice with the disciples, "Truly you are the Son of God."

Our first reading from I Kings features another weary and frightened servant of God. Elijah’s prophetic mission was during stormy times in Israel. After King Ahab married the pagan Jezebel, she tore down altars dedicated to God and established worship sites to her pagan god Baal. Elijah had successfully confronted the priests of Baal and executed them, which enraged Jezebel. He had to flee for his life, feeling like a failure and doubting God’s presence and support in his mission. We can see why this first meeting was chosen, because the Elijah narrative has overtones in the gospel reading of endangered and frightened disciples.

Jesus did not leave his disciples in their distress and failure, nor did God abandon Elijah. We find him, after a long desert journey, on Mount Horeb. God had sustained him with bread and water when he was in the desert. On Mount Horeb God had revealed God’s self to Moses and now God also comes to Elijah’s aid.

God comforts Elijah, not with the usual biblical signs manifesting God’s presence – wind, earthquake and fire – but in a "tiny whispering sound." Some commentators say a more precise translation would be "the voice of silence."

Elijah experiences God in silence.

That is a good guide for us, many of whom are confined to our homes for days. Some are lucky enough to be able to go out for walks in nearby parks. We have learned a lesson from Elijah’s encounter. God is with us in a surprising way – not only in storms, but in silence. Despite the clutter and noise in our homes, with so many not going out, is there any way to find some silent moments where we, like Elijah, may experience our God who is always with us?

Then, despite the current turmoil, when we have experienced a strong "Nevertheless Faith," we can say in one voice with the disciples, "Truly you are the Son of God."

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/080920.cfm