13 August 2017

Homily - 13 August 2017 - The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

We very often live with some level of discomfort, with some level of anxiety or fear, perhaps not all of the time, but often enough. When the Lord seems not to be present, we grow frightened. When we lose our way we grow afraid. When we lose a child or a parent or when we cannot find a way to pay the bills, our fear intensifies. The beginning of school draws near and we worry whether our classmates will be our friends or whether we will do well in our studies. We do not know the direction in which our lives are going and we agonize. Sickness, pain, and death come upon us and we find ourselves living with much uncertainty. In all of these situations, Jesus lovingly and serenely commands us, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).

When we find ourselves in any one of these situations – and perhaps even all of them – our tendency is to cry out to the Lord and beg him to give us a sign. We plead with him and bargain, if only he will show himself to us. We cry out with St. Peter, “Lord, save me!” and wonder if he will come to our rescue (Matthew 14:30).

The Lord promised to come to the prophet Elijah, the man of God, saying, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by” (I Kings 19:11). Elijah placed himself at the entrance to the cave in Mount Horeb, the very mountain where God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and where the covenant was ratified and sealed in blood. Here, surely, the Lord would be found and Elijah might find comfort as his enemies openly plotted his death. He cried out, saying, “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life” (IKings 19:10). Indeed, Elijah wished to be dead and cried, “This is enough, O LORD. Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (I Kings 19:4). In his agony and anguish, he sought the Lord in the places he had previously manifested himself.

And then, quite unexpectedly, Elijah realized the presence of God not where he had previously shown himself, but in “a tiny whispering sound” (I Kings 19:12). Being now in the presence of the Lord, he “hid his face in his cloak and stood at the entrance of the cave” (I Kings 19:13). The original Hebrew of this text reads somewhat differently than our translation today. Where we hear “a tiny whispering sound,” but the original Hebrew says, “a sound that was no sound.” He did not seek the Lord here, in the silence. He wanted the Lord to speak in a powerful way, a commanding way, in the same manner he had always done. He heard the Word of God say to him, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Elijah did not hear the Lord amid the noise of this world and neither will we.

We might well ask why the Lord speaks in the silence of our hearts and not often in more impressive ways. To this question, Pope Francis reminds us that “silence is always more eloquent than words.”[1] We have largely forgotten this. The average American today spends some 1,642 hours per year watching television alone.[2] That comes down to four and a half hours per day. I say this not to completely condemn the television, but to raise a question. If we spend eight hours per day at work, eight hours per day asleep, and four and a half hours per day watching television, that leaves only three and a half hours for eating, for spending time with family and friends, for running errands, and for prayer. When do we allow ourselves to be still so we can hear the voice of God? When do we allow the sound that is no sound to be heard?

We must remember again that, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, “creatures must be silent, leaving space for the silence in which God can speak.”

This is still true in our day too. At times there is a sort of fear of silence, of recollection, of thinking of one's own actions, of the profound meaning of one's life. All too often people prefer to live only the fleeting moment, deceiving themselves that it will bring lasting happiness; they prefer to live superficially, without thinking, because it seems easier; they are afraid to seek the Truth or perhaps afraid that the Truth will find us, will take hold of us and change our life, as happened to St Augustine.[3]

Saint Augustine came to realize that, as he said, “although this ship is tossed by the storms of temptation, it sees the glorified Lord walking upon all the billows of the sea – that is, upon all the powers of this world.”[4] Do not be afraid of silence, but learn to rest in it. In the silence of our hearts, the Lord reveals our sins to us and calls us to conversion; this is why we do not like silence. But if we listen to his voice will hear him calling us to return to the confessional where we will hear him say to us, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid;” it is within the forgiveness of sins that “he proclaims peace” (Psalm 85:9).

We want God to come down and fix all of our problems. We want him to make us popular, to take our tests for us, and write our papers; we want him to make us wealthy and important; we want him to take away our sadness and pain and sickness. But Jesus did not come for any of these reasons, contrary to what is often heard today; he came to destroy sin and death. He came to show us the way through pain, through suffering, through heartache, and struggle, and strife. He came to show us the way out of lives of sin into lives of holiness, from death to new and eternal life. It was on the cross that he showed us the way to everlasting joy and peace.

If we return for a moment to the Gospel, it is curious that the boat “was being tossed about by the waves” already “when it was evening,” but that Jesus did not come to the Apostles on the water until “the fourth watch of the night” (Matthew 19:24, 23, and 25). Jesus made his appearance toward the end of night, towards the coming of the dawn. This is a significant and often overlooked aspect of this passage after the storm raged for several hours. “He did not come quickly to their rescue. He was training them … by the continuance of these fears and instructing them to be ready to endure.” This, says Saint John Chrysostom, “is the way he constantly deals with our fears.”[5]

When we cry out, “Lord, save me!”, Jesus says, “Come,” and only after we begin to go to him does he snatch us out of the waters (Matthew 14:29). Even as he assures us with this  comforting and powerful word, he stretches out his hand toward us to catch us as we sink into the waters of fear, into the waters of the unknown, into the waters of doubt. He calls us to place our trust and faith in him, to follow him without reservation or fear, even as he asks, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew14:31). “Did you not know that I am with you? Did you not know that I have walked this road before you? Did you not know that I have destroyed sin and death? You have nothing to fear.”

When Jesus said these words to Peter the “wind died down” and the storm disappeared (Matthew 14:32). Peter’s own fear subsided as he trusted in Jesus and climbed into the boat, into the heart of the Church, to continue his voyage after his Master and his Teacher. Let us, then, with Peter, place our faith and trust, and, indeed, our very lives, into the gentle yet mighty hand of Christ, who saves us from the waters of darkness and lifts us into his kingdom of light. Let us acknowledge our weakness and cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!” When we do so, “kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven” and we shall come to see and know the Lord as he is (Psalm 85:11-12).

“Take courage, it is I,” he says to us; “do not be afraid.” When we hear his voice calling to us, “Come,” in the tiny whispering sound within the silence of our hearts, let us go, without delay, and without fear, “for he proclaims peace” (Psalm 85:9). Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Amoris laetitia, 12.
[2] Cf. Philip Yancey, “The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul,” The Washington Post, 21 July 2017.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience Address, 25 August 2010.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 75.7. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. Ib: Matthew 14-28. Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2002), 13.
[5] Saint John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50.1. In ibid.

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