What began as a fairly normal year (in the strange world of Trump, Brexit, etc.) too quickly turned into an annus horribilis that would daunt even the queen. A confluence of unexpected catastrophes, from the Covid crisis and the economic downturn, to repression of peaceful protests, and worsening relations among the world great economies, was deepened this week by the explosion that wiped out much of the center of Beirut. That alone was heart-breaking, as I had been there several years ago and witnessed the promising results of a decades-long effort to restore the historic parts of the city following a decade of ruinous civil war.
We are left wondering, week by week, how did all this happen in such a relatively short time? The stormy waters seem about to overwhelm us.
When we turn to the readings for today’s liturgy, we are reminded of the perils that somehow inevitably befall us. But we are also reminded of the hope that sustains us. [1 Kings 19:9,11-13, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:22-23.]
The reading from the Book of Kings seems jarring at first glance, especially considering its backstory. The prophet Elijah, who is one of God’s truly wild men, has just scored a stunning defeat over the priests of Baal. He celebrated by taking them all 450 down to the river Jordan and cutting their throats. Jezebel the queen, who was as powerful as she was vicious, sends him word that he’s as good as dead himself and in fact will be by that time tomorrow. So Elijah flees and seeks refuge on Mt. Horeb, about 200 miles south. There, seeking some sign, he is about to turn in his prophet badge when God appears to him — not in the tempest or the earthquake but in a still small voice after the storm.
In this reading, we do not hear Elijah’s repeated complaint about the infidelity of the Israelites or God’s answer, including the promise that Elijah will not only find a successor both to himself and to Ahab, but that he will slaughter God’s enemies. Instead the reading focuses our attention on the manner in which God appears. Not in sound and fury, but after it — above it. It is one of the major theophanies of the Old Testament. God comes to us in very unexpected ways.
In the second reading, Paul’s impossible hypothesis reminds us of the unexpectedness of God’s presence in our lives. He would generously, heroically sacrifice his own salvation if it would help the Jews of his time to recognize God’s saving presence in Christ. Somehow, he knows that God has not abandoned the Jews, that God will never abandon them, even if he does not know how God will eventually accomplish their salvation.
But it is the recognition of God presence in unexpected places and unacceptable ways that leaps out at us in the Gospel, which continues where it left off last week with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee. When a gale comes up just before dawn, after a very rough night fighting the wind and the waves, they see the impossible — Jesus walking on the water, an account also found in the gospels of Mark and John. It was a memorable experience, one of the wonderful images that has come down to us in the form of a proverbial phrase.
In the story, it is first of all a terrifying experience, scarier than the storm itself. Peter, of course, throws himself overboard once he recognizes Jesus. But he first raises a doubt, a challenge that will almost sink him. “If it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” I can do it! But is it really you, Lord?
Jesus simply says, “Come.”
So Peter does. But out on the waves, in the full force of the storm, he suddenly remembers something — and his confidence wavers. He founders and Jesus plucks him by the hand. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus chides him.
Matthew says that Peter doubted because when he felt the force of the wind. Jesus tells him, “because your faith was small and weak and you were afraid to admit it.”
Why do we doubt?
In her book, “Walking on Water,” the late Madelaine l’Engle tells us, “… think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”
But it takes faith. Like Elijah, Paul, and Peter, we have to remember how to recognize the presence and power of God in the most unlikely places and forms. Christ is very frequently — perhaps most of the time — not where we prefer, but where he has some business of his own to accomplish. On the other hand, that business is very likely to have something to do with our salvation — our deepest welfare, our ability to assist others, to contribute some measure of hope to the world.
And so we strive to hear the still, calming voice of Jesus over the fury of the storm. We listen for the three great commands of hope he speaks: “Have courage, it is I, do not fear.”
There are plenty of stormy gales in our lives, plenty of times we would like to turn in our badges.
As a new and frightening disease ravages the world, when our homes are destroyed by violence as in Beirut this week, when our families are killed, our country devastated by civil war, or when our friends and relatives are suddenly taken from us in mindless gang wars or random shootings. Or even in less violent forms, when we have to confront a family member or colleague at work about alcoholism. Or to live with the grief of a child’s leukemia or the guilt feelings that attend having to place an aged parent in a nursing home, or accepting the discouragement of a broken marriage, or the fact that you’re not getting promoted at work, or you’ve lost your job, or that you have to repeat the fifth grade, or that someone you love has died. The seas of life turn violent at times.
At such moments, it is difficult to hear the voice of God calling to us over the storm. But the voice is there. At one time or other, God calls each of us to walk on the water — to listen to that still, quiet voice in our heart, and in the world of creation, and in scripture and history — and to have courage. “It is I.” The strange and wonderful thing is that sometimes we find that we haven’t sunk at all, that the waves are growing solid under our feet. And sometimes we have to be plucked out of deep water by the hand of God.