19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 13, 2017)
All three readings have to do with faith - faith in hard, difficult times.
The story of the prophet Elijah, who lived in 850 B.C. He was looking for help and reassurance from god. He had accomplished his mission from Yahweh of leading the children of Israel away from worship of Baal. He went so far as to have the prophets of Baal put to death. He won king Ahab’s favor by praying to god and ending the country’s three-year drought. But his wife, Jezebel, doubted the drought had ended - and wanted Elijah dead. So, he was being hunted down and he expected God to back him as he had before against the false prophets of Baal.
He fled for forty days and forty nights and was now hiding in a cave in Mt. Horeb, Mt. Sinai, sulking because God had let him down. He is told to go outside and stand on the mountain. There were powerful winds, so strong that rocks were moved. He looks for God in the phenomenon, but there is nothing of God. An earthquake and a fire follow; God is not in the earthquake or in the fire. Only after the fire does Elijah hear a soft, whispering sound and Elijah recognizes the voice of the Lord.
The story is testimony to the ways in which God is faithful to his word in unexpected ways and shows his presence in unexpected ways. We look to hear God’s word in the extraordinary; we do not expect to hear his voice in a tiny whisper.
Expectations we put on God condition our faith and help or hamper our ability to recognize god and the activity of God.
In the second reading we hear Paul grieving for his Jewish brothers who have not recognized the fulfillment of god’s promise. Jesus did not match up to their expectation of a conquering hero. We are touched by the depth of Paul’s grief that is like the parent of an ailing child. Paul would like to exchange his life to relieve the ailing child. Paul would be willing to separate himself from Christ for their sake. That is, of course, impossible; one cannot have faith for another person. Paul carries a heavy heart, even as he turns to the gentiles to help them receive what was first promised to the Jews. How many times did we not receive god’s word to us because we expected a different message? We can only wonder.
In the Gospel, we have a third variation of the theme. The disciples are terrified by the storm. Jesus reassures them and their faith strengthens.
There is a contrast with mark’s account that stresses the crippling fear. Matthew stresses that the power to overcome their fear comes from Jesus himself; only in Matthew do we read of Jesus walking on water. Peter recovers enough to want to share in Jesus’ power over the water; Jesus is willing to share his power, but Peter’s trust [faith] fails - he begins to sink. Jesus once again rescues him.
In these readings we learn that faith is a partnership, a dance. Both the lord and we have essential roles. Faith is god’s gift; but it requires our freely given response. What is highlighted in the readings is that even though we depend on god for the gift of faith, we have to be ready to play our part. That requires our trust, our openness and our being prepared to meet our god without preconditions set by us.
In the first reading, Elijah expects to find god appearing in the dramatic: in wind or earthquake or fire, but he appears in the tiny whispering sound. How often have we thought that God is non-responsive? God is being an uncooperative partner, when we have not really listened for God, especially in the quiet whispers.
In the second reading, the Jews expect a different kind of God; we need to learn to let God be God. We are made to his image and likeness; he is not made in our image and according to what we like.
In the third reading, we need to learn that we have to keep our eyes on Jesus, to receive his power in the difficult times.
The readings are like a yellow caution light, directing us to slow down and look in all directions. We may be missing opportunities to hear God speak to us in new and unexpected ways.
In time of peace, we prepare for war. At those impossibly difficult times in our lives when we want god to come into our lives like the cavalry to save the day, perhaps we can remember Elijah and Paul; we can remember Peter - and call out “Lord, save me!” And listen for that small, still voice.