Sunday, August 13, 2017

At Sea

For many people summer means time to head for the water – to swim, to sail, to ski, whatever. Twenty-four summers ago, when I was in Israel, a group of us went to great length to find a beach on the Sea of Galilee just so that we could all say that we had actually physically been in the water of the Sea of Galilee. Yet, while frolicking in the water has always had a broad appeal, there has also always been a certain dimension of danger associated with water. Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly understood that and treated their local waterway more seriously than we did. It was, after all, where the disciples had, until just 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 fishing and 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, has often been seen as an apt image for the Church. In the 3rd century, the Roman martyr Hippolytus (whose commemoration in the Church’s calendar actually occurs today) 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 amid the many stresses and dangers a perennially hostile world keeps throwing up at it. Anyone who keeps up with the news knows about the dangers and difficulties faced by Christian communities in the many parts of the word – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Compared to that, whatever difficulties we may experience seem like modest storms. But even ordinary storms can pose serious challenges.

In the Gospel story, 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.” As I said last week, Peter being Peter, typically says the right thing but then shows how completely clueless he is about what it means. And so Jesus generally both praises him for initially responding the right way and then reproves him for missing the point. As he typically does, Peter here blurts out the first thing that comes into his head - because his heart already belongs to Jesus. But then he loses his focus, forgetting, so it seems, exactly who has just called him to come, and instead starts seeing the danger, starts considering the costs, starts thinking the way the world thinks. And when we start thinking the way the world thinks, then the world starts to win. 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, by other ways of thinking and being. And so he starts to sink.

(Those of a certain age who shared my generation's experience of Saturday morning cartoons will remember characters who would run off a cliff and then just keep going until they suddenly realize where they are and only then start to fall!)

Like Peter, we are all susceptible to the competing concerns of other ways of thinking and being. We are tempted continually to count the costs of our commitment – and to try to measure its benefits. We seem forever caught somewhere between walking in faith and sinking in fear. So 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 with us in this boat, which is his Church, forever.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 13, 2017.

No comments:

Post a Comment