19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Romans 9:1-51; Matthew 14:22-33
When I was reading in search of inspiration for this reflection, I found a lot of writers pointing at Peter’s sinking, and admonishing us not to look away from Jesus as he did, lest we suffer the same fate. It’s an obvious statement about faith, but it seems a bit too tidy for me to relate it to the realities of my life. It would seem hypocritical and sanctimonious to preach an unwavering devotion to Christ, ignoring worldly concerns, when the fact is that I spend most of my time looking at the waves and gauging the wind.
Instead, I want to look a minute or two earlier in the story. Imagine ourselves in the disciples’ place, seeing a shadowy figure walking over the waves in the gray light that precedes the dawn, after working all night to keep the boat from being swamped or run aground. Exhausted as we are, it’s no surprise that we doubt our eyes. And what next? Ignore this probable hallucination? Fear the phantom as a sign of impending death, the boat about to be dashed on a rocky reef? Or greet the unknown, and recognize the truth when Jesus says what he so often says: “Come.”
Peter is the example for us. In a word, he dares. Throughout the Gospels, he fails more often than he succeeds, and still he dares to speak up and to act, to step out of the comfort zone so nicely symbolized by the disciples’ little boat. Fallible as he is, his boldness makes him Jesus’ choice as our first Pope. What stops me or you from being as bold as he was?
Often, I’m paralyzed by the expectations I put on myself that I not fail, that I live up to my potential, and by the knowledge that I’ve failed before; why believe that this time will be any different? I frequently fear that I may do something hurtful, even by accident; somehow, inaction usually seems morally safer. By not acting, I can pretend not to bear responsibility for whatever happens.
The fact is that even when I dare, even when I do my best, I will often fall short, just as Peter did. As Catholics, we are somewhat conditioned even now to feel guilt about almost everything, but it seems to me that we can only be free to act when we accept God’s ever-present offer of forgiveness as readily as we find fault in ourselves. I don’t say that we shouldn’t face up to our mistakes; only by recognizing them can we learn and improve.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” It’s a good rule of thumb: it’s challenging, but to a degree that respects our frailty. To dare, I have to first collect and focus my attention and will on a choice, rather than acting out of habit. Opportunities to do this abound, but we generally become exhausted if we pursue too many. How to choose?
In today’s first reading, God tells Elijah to come out of the cave where he has taken shelter, but he doesn’t come out for the wind, or for the earthquake, or for the fire. He dares to come to the entrance of the cave when God, in the silence, draws near. We pray therefore to have the discernment of a prophet, and listen for God’s voice, even if it comes from surprising sources.
Even Elijah, though, needed help. Just before the passage we heard today, he, like Peter, loses faith. “He … went on into the wilderness … and sitting under a furze bush wished he were dead. ‘Yahweh,’ he said ‘I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’”2 It takes not just one, but two visits by an angel to rouse him and convince him to journey on to the mountain of Horeb where we find him today. The angel doesn’t chastise Elijah for despair or laziness, but simply gives him food and drink. When he has his strength back, having eaten and drunk and rested, he finds the courage to get up on his own.3
We too sometimes need someone to bring us sustenance, of the body and of the heart. We are also sometimes the ones to bring that sustenance to others. Rather than criticize, if we give people what they need, we free them and give them the means to choose and act for themselves. When we are in turn offered sustenance, it’s up to us to respond and follow up with gratitude—and with responsible use of the means we’ve been given.
Returning one last time to the boat in the storm, imagine now that you’re one of the other disciples, watching Peter get out of the boat. By any normal rules, he’s embracing his own death. Do you shout at him to stop, to stay in the boat? It’s hard to trust that God may be calling someone to do something different from what we are doing, perhaps especially if we don’t hear or may even be resisting God’s call ourselves.
I still remember Fr. Chris Rushton concluding a reflection here many years ago by saying, “Never discourage.” I want to reiterate that. Dare, and support others in daring, though you and they will falter and fail. There is an expression in Japanese which translates as “fall seven times, rise eight times”:4 however often we may fail, we can still try again, if we give each other support and focus our will. By these efforts, we can follow Jesus’ call to come to him, and enter ever deeper into God’s eternal, magnanimous love.
1: The reading from Paul's letter to the Romans requires careful handling in this context, lest it come out as anti-Jewish, and I didn't have room in the main reflection to give it the space it would require. Paul is lamenting the Jews' not converting to Christianity, despite the fact that they have all of God's gifts from before that time, and Jesus himself is of Jewish descent.
2: 1 Kings 19:4
3: 1 Kings 19:5-8
4: “七転八起”, “Shichi ten hakki” or “nanakorobi yaoki”; I'm planning on getting this as a tattoo after my shodan exam next year.