Nineteenth Sunday of the Year
Like most people, Elijah, does not experience God’s presence in the expected places such as in power or violence of earthquakes, fires or winds. God is found in the quiet, gentle breeze by responding to everyday issues that involve service and solidarity with others. Today’s readings suggest that it is in precisely these places and situations that we experience and touch God. God cannot be encountered in withdrawal from life’s realities but by ‘walking across the water’ and trusting in the one who says ‘Courage! It is I!’
As the apostles were asked in the Acts of the Apostles ‘why are you looking up to the heavens’ I see a parallel in the first reading where Elijah comes out of the cave he is asked ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ This question was on the tail end of the first readings but omitted from the Lectionary. It is a call to action now. The fearful and self-pitying Elijah hid in a desert cave after discovering that he cannot bring about a just and God-centred world by the destruction of ‘the sinner’ or evil by killing 100’s of ‘false prophets.’ He discovered in the gentle and quiet that God’s were not the ways of those in power who deal with opposition or conflict. He sees that God is not in destruction, violence or killing.
Friday, the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6), was the 75th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki (August 9) today. Both acts of violence have often been justified. As the Transfiguration was a turning point for Jesus’ ministry, Hiroshima was a turning point in human history. Both events involved light: one was the light of love, life and hope and the other a deadly light of mass murder, ongoing threat and death for generations. Here was the worst that people are capable of as creation and people continue to suffer the consequences of these bombings and nuclear testing damaged many Pacific Island nations. In Hiroshima, a Madonna survived the greatest evil known to humanity. Though blackened and her eyes missing, her countenance suggested steadfastness in the face of evil; that love, truth and beauty can prevail in the face of the greatest horrors. This is the message of our readings today: God in Jesus is saying ‘Courage! It is I’.
In the 1980’s whilst working with people living with and dying of AIDS, many described the pandemic as God’s punishment. Yet, I witnessed God present in people who by their touch, care, love, support, nursing, advocacy manifested the presence of the power of love. As we commemorate the evil unleashed 75 years ago, today we see God present and at work in organisations (such as Pax Christi, Pace e Bene) and individuals trying to make peace and promote nonviolence. God is with all who cry out, ‘There has got to be another way’.
Prophets try to take us beyond the ‘narrow places’ of our lives. God calls us out of the narrow places in our lives to respond to people who are crushed by poverty, trauma, abuse, and violence. Those narrow places are visible in the resistance to climate change, in recognising racism in ourselves and society, in accepting asylum seekers, in accepting nonviolence a way of being together, in engaging with people rather than structures and causes. We are called to go beyond the narrow places where God/Jesus are connected with capitalism, empire, wealth, war and nationalism, or where politicians and shock-jocks blame people who are homeless, seeking asylum, unemployed, living with disabilities for their situation.
In today’s familiar gospel, we hear Jesus’ encouraging words: ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s me!’ He is calling us out of the narrow places to also face new challenges and different fears: a possible nuclear exchange, terrorism on a global scale, climate change, unpredictable world leaders especially in the USA and North Korea, increased poverty and homelessness overshadowed by an unprecedented refugee crisis, casualties of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Congo.
James Baldwin’s words come to mind as we listen to Jesus’ invitation to Peter: ‘The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.’ We are invited to keep connected with Jesus and one another. When we focus fully on our call to work for justice we have the resources to remain afloat in shared community. Our credibility is enhanced when we are seen as part of a larger community aspiring to do extraordinary things, e.g., loving and embracing our enemies, absorbing the fear and anger in homophobic persons without responding in kind, and living openly, courageously and faithfully, to provide inspiration and hope for others. We too can ‘walk on the water’ like Peter, if we are a united community. But when selfishness, fear, greed, suspicion exist, we become separated; we cease to hold on to one another and sink. Our world is in desperate need of witnesses to the possibility of living Gospel values. Many people, each of whom has a name and face cherished by God, languish on the margins of a busy world without anyone to gaze on them with the tenderness that alleviates isolation and separation.
Peter’s fear is not unfamiliar to many of us. We know what fear feels like. It is about taking a new path or new way in our following of Jesus. It in those moments when we can beyond the usual or familiar and manage mercy or love compassion or advocacy that we experience a great spiritual moment and lead to unexpected moments of conversion.
The challenge is not to continue to let the walls of our churches or religious houses to shield us from the violence, injustice, atrocities and indifference around us. Those walls should not cause us to disengage. We cannot show ourselves to be followers of Jesus when we remain in the dark or avoid the unknown waters of conflict?
We are always being drawn into uncharted territories, places where the still small voice can only be heard if we quiet and align our hearts to God. Like Jesus, we are all meant to work for the empowerment of the marginalized. As ministers to and with others, will we choose darkness or will we revel in the light that heals, transforms and casts out all fear? The account of Jesus walking on water and invitation to Peter to come across the water is relevant to Pope Francis as well as ourselves as we try to discern how to deal with renewed threats (demons and monsters) to peace via nuclear weapons and the ‘imperial’ political scene in many places. Many people try to stifle criticism of the status quo rather than speak out as Pope Francis who has stepped out of the boat to against pre-emptive war, narrow fundamentalism, racism, rejection of immigrants, and environmental destruction and fearlessly confront the polarising threats to our world and church. He has fearlessly taken a stand against Donald Trump and his supports whether political, religious or corporate. He has fearlessly and lovingly looked upon the faces of the peoples of the Amazon and the injustices they endure. The gospel poetically expresses the belief that Jesus embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the Roman Empire.
We do not have to believe that anyone actually walked on water. It is a powerful metaphor about us, as Jesus’ followers, doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of crises that threaten. All of us have the power to confront ‘monsters’ if we leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions.
Now back to Pope Francis. Since the beginning of his papacy, he has shown unusual courage as he joined Jesus on the world’s dangerous waves. He has continually condemned neo-liberalism, growing income inequality, and capitalism. He has called for radical change (cf. his apostolic exhortation, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ largely unheeded) in the church. Unlike his two predecessors, he has endorsed liberation theology and adopted the ‘preferential option for the poor’ to describe his papacy. Hope was offered to the LGBTQ community when he said ‘Who am I to judge.’ In 2015, addressing the U.S. Congress, he called for an end to capital punishment and urged divestment from the arms industry, whose profits he described as ‘soaked in blood’ and an imitation of Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton who fiercely criticised capitalism and US war-mongering.
Francis has gotten out of the boat to tread underfoot whatever causes the seas – the crises - to roll all around us. This is no time for Jesus’ followers to be silent, to remain safely behind closed doors. We are being called to get out of the boat and confront whatever ‘demons’ keep us silent and compliant. We are invited to do what seems impossible: to build our lives and friendships here and now, in the midst of troubles and tragedies that life serves up. Sometimes walking on water might be easier than forgiving where there is resentment and bitterness; being a peacemaker where there is suffering and conflict; being compassionate where there is hardness of heart; preaching the good news while the world staggers under the weight of hopelessness and fearfulness. There are other moments that can be tumultuous: speaking out and not remaining silent in the face of wrong; taking a stand before family, friends and colleagues opposition; when we try to do what is right in face of racism, the forces of poverty, urban problems, government intransigence or even the church.
We are not being asked to walk on water, but to act believing that God’s love for us and in us is more powerful than chaos, evil and apathy. The Gospel challenges us to take on the storms of our day with a love and hope that will risk going overboard. The headwinds are fierce, but the force of God’s Spirit is greater still. ‘Take courage, it is I.’ His greeting said ‘I’m here for you.’