August 9, 2020 • 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11–13a
Psalm: Psalm 85:9, 10, 11–12, 13–14 (8)
Second Reading: Romans 9:1–5
Gospel Acclamation: Psalm 130:5
Gospel: Matthew 14:22–33
We are pilgrims on a journey with God, on a mission in this world. “This world is not our home. We are just a passing through,” as the old Gospel hymn goes. Our mission is to try to encourage others to begin and continue on their own pilgrimage with God, so that we all reach the Father’s House that Jesus talked about in John 14, where he is preparing a eternal place for us with Him. He wants us to love others with the same forgiving passion that He shows towards us. We are to do so in word and deed, by our lives transparently lived before God and others.
If we do so, God can use us mightily in the lives of others, often long after we have arrived at His House. Our journey will have its ups and downs, for we are humans who are being redeemed, who are coming to know God and are learning to trust Him more deeply as time goes by, and we experience more of life with Him. Today’s readings give us a snapshot into our growing relationship of trust in Him and our expanding love towards others.
In 1 Kings 19, we read an account of a meltdown in the great prophet, Elijah, and how God tenderly deals with him. I encourage you to read all of chapters 18 and 19 to get the context for our reading. Elijah’s fall into the depths of anxious despair came on the heels of a great victory over the 450 prophets of Baal, who were seeking to lead the nation of Israel away from the one true God to their false god. They had been winning with the backing of Queen Jezebel until the miraculous showdown between Elijah and these prophets in chapter 18. The victory concluded with the end of the long drought by God, in answer to the prayers of Elijah. If God had not come through, Elijah would have been toast. But He came through so convincingly that the people of Israel turned back toward Him and assisted Elijah in slaughtering those false prophets. This event seems somewhat bloodthirsty to our modern sensibilities. But if you really think about it, leading others into apostasy and eternal separation from God is murder of the worst kind and worthy of death for those who do so. In our time, God, in His mercy, has simply changed His methods, for the most part, allowing a longer opportunity to see the light and repent.
Queen Jezebel, when she hears of the death of her prophets, swore to take revenge on Elijah in Chapter 19. This threat precipitated a desperate forty-one day flight to the mountain of God, Horeb (Sinai), during which Elijah despaired of life and asked God to take him home. Through it all, God tenderly cared for him.
Today’s reading shows us God meeting his discouraged and fearful prophet at Horeb, who is sheltering in a cave there. God’s approach is preceded by a hurricane force wind, an earthquake and a fire, but when God Himself finally makes a sound, it is a whisper which draws Elijah out of hiding to the entrance of the cave so they can reason together.
God did not give up on Elijah, but restored him and sent him out on mission again. The events of chapters 18 and 19 are referred in the Book of James, chapter 5, where Elijah is used as the example of the effective prayers of a righteous man that accomplish much. James says Elijah had a nature like ours. Elijah certainly did, but God used him greatly. His imperfections were not a hindrance to God.
What Elijah needed was to see God’s kindness towards him, to be granted God’s salvation. He needed kindness, truth, justice and peace, and that is what he found at Horeb, the mountain of God. It enabled him to go on and finish the course God had set before him. And that is what the Psalmist in today’s psalm is pleading for.
Saint Paul, in the second reading, from Romans 9:1–5, reveals his passionate love for his people, Israel. He is in great anguish and sorrow over the fact that they have largely rejected their Messiah and his. He loves them so much that he would be willing to trade places with them and be accursed and cut off in their place. He demonstrated this love throughout his missionary journeys by going first the Jews in each city, to give them the opportunity to hear the Gospel and embrace Jesus, their rightful king. His love mirrored the love of God for His people.
He persisted in this practice even though unrepentant Jews were often his fiercest opponents, stirring up the civil authorities against him and following him from city to city, opposing his work. In 2 Corinthians 11, he discloses some of the suffering he experienced at their hands.
24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.… 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters.… (NRSV-CE)
And yet, Paul, like Elijah, was a man with a nature like ours. There was a time he despaired of life. In the same letter, he writes in chapter 1 the following:
8 We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, 11 as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (NRSV-CE)
How did he endure this and keep going? Through prayer with God, trusting in, hoping in and obeying Him.
The Gospel acclamation reveals the secret to persevering with God: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for his word.”
We can see this quality of waiting for the Lord and His word in Saint Peter in this story about Jesus walking across the sea to meet up with His disciples. After Jesus reassures his disciples that he is not a ghost, as they fear, Peter asks for a word from Jesus commanding him to come to Him by walking on the water. Jesus give it to him, and Peter steps out and begins to actually walk on the water towards Jesus!
But Peter also has a human nature like ours. As he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the fierce storm, he becomes afraid and begins to sink. Peter cries out to Jesus, asking Him to grant him His salvation, and Jesus immediately complies. Jesus then asks Peter to think about why he doubted; what was the cause?
As soon as the two of them get into the boat, the storm stops. This is the second time Jesus has calmed the storm and waves for them in Matthew. If we compare to the two events, we can see a growth in the disciples’ knowledge and faith concerning Jesus. The first time, in chapter 8, this statement was their response: “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” (NRSV-CE) The second time, in chapter 14, this statement is their response: “Truly, you are the Son of God.” (NRSV-CE) Both stories are sources of the Church being named the Barque or Boat of Saint Peter, according to Catholic commentaries.
I am a convert who was hauled upon that Barque of Saint Peter amid the storms of life, when I was in danger of drowning in fear and despair. There is a Psalm that speaks of my experience, Psalm 40:1–3 (NRSV-CE):
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the Lord.
How about you?