Sunday, August 7, 2011

Little Faith

For many people (especially back where I came from) summer means time to head for the water – to swim, to sail, to ski, whatever. Back when I was in Israel 18 summers ago, a group of us went to great length to find a beach on the Sea of Galilee just so we could all come home and say we’d actually been in the water of the Sea of Galilee. Of course, I'm sure Jesus and his disciples all took that great lake we call the Sea of Galilee much more seriously. It was, after all, where the disciples had, until very recently, been making their living as fishermen; and it was still, so the Gospels seem to suggest, serving as a base of operations for Jesus and his disciples. And, like anyone who has ever been caught in a boat in a storm, they knew how very suddenly things can change and suddenly go very wrong on the water; and they likely also knew how limited was the security that their seafaring skills could guarantee.
Today’s suggestive image of the disciples in the boat, being tossed about by the waves, with Jesus miles away praying on the mountain [Matthew 14:22-33], has often been seen as an apt image for the Church. In the 3rd century, the Roman martyr Hippolytus (whose commemoration comes up later this week) described the Church as a boat in a storm being tossed about by the waves of the world. Not much has changed in almost 2000 years! It still seems a very apt image for a Church forever struggling to hold its own in as perennially hostile world.
In the Gospel, the solution to the disciples’ dilemma is, of course, Jesus himself, who, during the fourth watch of the night, came toward them walking on the sea. In the midst of so much turbulence, Jesus stands among us, calmly overcoming the chaos that threatens us, saying again and again: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
One of those in the boat – appropriately enough Peter, the one appointed by Jesus to be the leader his Church - was willing initially to take Jesus at his word. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” In highlighting Peter’s special status and unique relationship with Jesus, this story also shows Peter at his most endearing. Peter always blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, without first prudently evaluating all the costs and benefits, because his heart already belongs to Jesus. It’s only when he loses his focus, forgetting for the moment who has just called him to come, and instead starts the considering the costs, starts thinking like the world, that then the world starts to win, and he becomes frightened and so starts to sink. Peter’s faith is real, but it is what Jesus calls “little faith,” a fearful faith, a faith that still lets itself get distracted by the world.
Like Peter, we are all susceptible to the competing concerns of the world. We remain tempted to count the costs of our commitment – and wonder about its benefits. We remain caught somewhere between walking in faith and forever sinking in fear. With our "little faith," we are perpetually in need of that outstretched hand, which catches us in spite of all our fears, the hand of the Risen Christ, who has promised to remain in the boat with his Church forever.
If the boat, tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it, is an image of the Church sent into the stormy world to witness to Christ despite the dangers which dominates the world, this story also challenges us to trust – to trust in Jesus, who seems to be absent, but is actually always interceding with the Father on the Church’s behalf, and who is forever stretching out his hand in order that, through the Church, the despairing darkness of doubt may give way, for all people, to the hopeful light of faith.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 7, 2011

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