Aug 9, 2014

19th Sunday: Faith or Fear?

(James Tissot)
"Take courage., it is I; do not be afraid."

1 Kng 19: 9a , 11 – 13a
Rm 9: 1-5
Mt. 14: 22-33

One would think from the amount of advertising for sleep aids in this country on TV and the internet that no one enjoys a good night’s sleep.  Whether the aid is a combination of natural herbs like valerian root or some more traditional sleeping pills, it seems that nearly everyone needs one now and then.   

Most of us have likely had those occasional restless nights when our mind raced with worries or we just can’t seem to settle down. I don’t think there is any more unnerving time to find yourself sleepless around 3 a.m. Somehow at that time your thoughts become loud or your worries become exaggerated as you stare at the alarm clock with frustration.  “If only I could find some peace!” you might wish aloud. Bring that experience to the Gospel story this Sunday which takes place in a similar dark and restless hour of early morning.  

It begins right after the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish. Matthew seems to imply the crowds and the disciples were reluctant to leave that glory moment.   “Jesus made the disciples get into a boat . . . while he dismissed the crowds.” Jesus “made” the disciples and then “dismissed” the crowds of now satisfied people. “He escapes the temptation for earthly glory and goes, “. . . up on the mountain by himself to pray” while the disciples are now boat bound on the lake in a scene about to change dramatically.

Not unlike the encounter heard in our first reading from the Book of Kings.  The prophet Elijah, an Old Testament foreshadow of the Messiah, hears the Lord say: “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord, the Lord will be passing by.” As Elijah waits he realizes God will come not in the more violent and dramatic powers of nature but in a “tiny whispering sound.”  Our God is one of peace and calm; of faith and not fear; of strength and courage.

So the Apostles filled with fear and tossed about in the waves and wind on the Sea of Galilee, surrounded by the more intense powers of nature, encounter Jesus coming to them walking on the churning waves.  As he responds to Peter’s impulsive loyalty: "Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water” like the tiny whispering and calming voice to Elijah, Jesus speaks one word:  “Come.” What a request Peter made.  To do the impossible is less impressed in Peter's mind than to come to Jesus. What faith he expresses despite his obvious fear.
To Peter: "Come"

I would imagine that Peter walking on the stormy sea towards Jesus must have left the disciples stunned and speechless as the waves and wind continued to threaten their boat.  In the dark night, at 3 am., like our sometimes restless sleep, Jesus approaches on the sea.  He had no intention of frightening his disciples further but to be peace in the calm of the storm reassure them with his power.  Jesus' response as Peter sinks, distracted by the wind and waves, is spoken to all of us who doubt: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And all calms down when Jesus enters the boat.  

What guides our lives: faith or fear? I think for the vast majority of us, it all depends on the situation.  Peter’s faith as for all of us is essentially an expression of his loyalty and trust in Jesus Christ.  Do we really believe his promise? If we think that God abandons us in times of trial and difficulty remember that Jesus came to his disciples to calm their fears. He didn’t stay on the mountain alone where he was wrapped in prayer but went to them to calm the storm around them.  He walked into their experience to support them.  

The boat in which the disciples are riding can be seen as a symbol of the Church.  The waves and wind reflect the not unfamiliar experience of the early Christians who found themselves confronted with hostility, pagan values, and outright persecution.  As we consider the experience of present day Christians in so many parts of the world is it really much different? In Iraq and other countries the storms are raging. And so we must be a source of prayerful support who call out to God to enter our stormy lives and reassure us.

Yet are we only fair weather Christians?  When the sea is calm it's easy to believe.  When the storm blows, when our faith is tested, I may either stay in the boat hoping to ride out the wind lost in confusion and fear or I get out, fix my gaze on a Christ who is our peace in the midst of the storm. 

We are called to be loyal and with trust to embrace all that Jesus is for us. There is never any need for despair, hopelessness or to feel lost or abandoned.  Our lives should aim to be based in faith and not in fear.  In the midst of both good times and in tough times, like couples who live the sacrament of matrimony, they remain loyal to each other and so the same is far truer of our God. 

Our celebration of the Eucharist is there to remind us that this God paid the ultimate price in the death and resurrection of his own Son for us to win over our loyalty.  To show us that he is not a God who remains on the mountain but who walks towards us and is there to save us from fear. 

Lofty hopes indeed but imagine living without that promise!  Imagine living with no faith; nowhere to go in times of stormy seas or nowhere or no one to offer gratitude in times that are good.  Our God is here. 

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

(St. Theresa of Avila: 1515 - 1582)


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