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The 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 13, 2017

     Today’s gospel story of Jesus walking on the storm-tossed waters of the Sea of Galilee appears in all but one of the four gospels, but Matthew’s is the only version that puts Peter right at the center of the story.  We should be grateful for that because Peter gives the story a decidedly human dimension. Peter makes room for us in the story.

     If you know the Cathedral, you are aware that this gospel story was captured in bronze years ago on the west façade of the Cathedral – on one of the door handles, to be exact. It’s also pictured on the cover of today’s bulletin. Jesus is there pulling the sinking, terrified Peter out of the water.  The idea for that door handle came from the sculptor of those bronze doors, Ulrich Henn, who told me that he knew people would be coming to the Cathedral whose faith wasn’t very strong, and he wanted them to know that Peter’s faith wasn’t always very strong either.  He also wanted them to know that even with little or no faith they were welcome in the Cathedral, welcome to take that handle, open that door, and come in.

     You see why I say that Peter makes room for us in the story. Peter stands for each of us. We are believers but we sometimes struggle to believe; we can be strong in faith at one moment, drowning in doubt the next.  The gospel prayer, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!” is our prayer. Faith that knows no struggle or doubt is probably not faith at all.

     So this gospel story, like so many, is a kind of mirror for viewing ourselves, and a source of encouragement – as if to say: if Peter was nearly swamped in those waves, there’s hope for us – hope that the Lord will be there reaching out his hand to us as he did to the drowning Peter, calming our storms, climbing into our boat to sit alongside, gently inviting us to deeper faith as he says, “Take courage.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”

     It’s worth observing that those words, “Do not be afraid,” are a thread that runs all through Matthew’s Gospel from beginning to end.  They were the words the angel spoke to the bewildered Joseph when he found that his beloved Mary was pregnant; they were the calming words Jesus spoke during the storm at sea; the reassuring words he spoke to Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration; the Easter words he spoke to the brave but frightened women at the tomb; and they were his parting words to the disciples on a hilltop in Galilee: “Do not be afraid.”  From beginning to end, Matthew’s gospel is a lifeline for fearful people trying to hold onto faith.

     But in today’s readings Matthew’s gospel doesn’t have to carry this message by itself. It was also in the reading from the Book of Kings.  Elijah was in the midst of the greatest storm of his stormy career.  He was fleeing for his life from the fury of the bloodthirsty Queen Jezebel, wondering all the while where the Lord God was.  His flight took him all the way to the very mountain where Moses had met God long years before.

     But it was different for Elijah.  God didn’t speak to him as he had to Moses -- in a show of awesome power, in thunder, earthquake and fire.  No, God spoke to Elijah in the tiniest wisp of a breeze, in a “still, small voice” that caused him to hide his face in his cloak.  And that’s where the Elijah story connects with today’s gospel story. The voice of Jesus to Peter and the terrified apostles on the storm-tossed Lake of Galilee –- “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid” - was an echo of that “still, small voice” Elijah once heard. And, like Elijah of old, the troubled apostles bowed their heads in silent wonder.

     My friends, do you sometimes wonder where the Lord is during your personal struggles?  I know I do. Do you question your faith because of things that are happening or that have happened to you -- things beyond your control -- a debilitating illness, perhaps, or the death of a loved one; the unraveling of a relationship; the loss of a job; the direction one of your children has chosen to take in life?  Do you sometimes wonder, too, if God has turned his back on our world as you look at what is going on in places like North Korea or Syria or Charlottesville – to say nothing of events here in our own country, on our borders, in migrant camps, in our streets, in the corridors of power?  We all do, I think, and we are in good company.  We are.  We are in the company of Elijah, the company of Peter and the apostles on the stormy sea. Like them, we believe but sometimes we wonder where God is, why God doesn’t do something.

     With the fearful Peter we need to reach out for the hand of Jesus; with the weary and discouraged Elijah, we need to listen patiently and intently for that “still, small voice” of God. 

     Now I know this might sound simplistic.  And it doesn’t mean that we won’t have times of fear, doubt, or deep anxiety; and, with regard to the world situation, it doesn’t absolve us from exerting every possible effort -- every ounce of energy we have -- to work for a better, more just world.  But, in the end, with Peter and the apostles on the Sea of Galilee, we need to scan the night sky for the figure of Jesus who is always with us in our darkness.  And when with Peter we cry out, “Lord, save me!” his hand will be there to lift us up, his voice to reassure us: “O you of little faith,” he will say, “why do you doubt? Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid!”

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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