If there were no pandemic, this would be vacation season for many. This year, sensible people stay home and don’t try to go anywhere. But, in other years, this would have been the season to head for the water, which, where I come from, mainly means the ocean. Yet, while frolicking on or 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 I am sure they took their local waterway very seriously indeed. The great lake we call the Sea of Galilee was, after all, where the disciples had, until very recently, been making their living as fishermen; and it was still, the Gospels seem to suggest, serving as their main base of operations. 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 certainly 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, 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! That still seems a very apt image for a Church forever struggling to hold its own amid the many stresses and dangers the world throws up at it, a world where even ordinary storms can pose serious challenges. And this, to repeat Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, “is no ordinary time,” and the pandemic is no ordinary storm!
If we remember back about 4½ months ago, at the end of March Pope Francis celebrated what was called an “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer” in Saint Peter’s Square, flanked by the famous Crucifix from the Church of San Marcello that had been carried in procession during the plague of 1522 and the familiar image of Mary, Safety of the Roman people. In the pouring rain, the Pope read Mark’s account of of the disciples getting caught in the storm.
Like them, he said, we have been “caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. … Just like those disciples … so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
The ultimate solution to the storm-threatened disciples’ dilemma is Jesus himself, who, as the Pope put it, “saves his disciples from their discouragement.” During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus, in the Gospel which we just heard, came toward them walking on the sea. In the midst of so much turbulence, Jesus stands with us, calmly overcoming the chaos that threatens us, saying again and again: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Matthew’s account, as it often does, focuses on one of those in the boat in particular – Peter, the one Jesus appointed to be the leader of his Church. “Lord, if it is you, Peter says, command me to come to you on the water.” In highlighting Peter’s special status and unique relationship with Jesus, Matthew also shows Peter at his most endearing. Peter always blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, without first prudently considering the costs and benefits. But then, all of a sudden, he loses his focus, forgetting for the moment who has just called him to come, and instead imagines he is relying on himself, thinking the way the world thinks. And, when that happens, then the world starts to win. In his illusion of self-sufficiency, Peter 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 false ways of being and thinking.
Like Peter, like Elijah in today’s 1st Reading, we are all susceptible to the illusion of self-sufficiency. And so we are constantly caught somewhere between walking in faith and forever 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 in the same boat with us forever.Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 9, 2020.