Aug. 8, 2020

NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

TAKE COURAGE, IT IS I, DO NOT BE AFRAID

Readings: 1st- 1 Kgs. 19:9a, 11-13a; 2nd- Rom. 9:1-5; Gospel- Matt. 14:22-33

Elijah experiences a theophany in the first reading. The prophet expects to encounter God but can’t find him in the places his mind’s imaginations go. God is not found in the heavy wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. Elijah only finds God in the whispering sound, a tiny wind that designates peace and calm. He finds God only in the little things, just at the moment that his mind is at rest. A similar thing happens in the gospel, those in the boat find Jesus, not in the storms but only after. After He calms the storms and catches Peter, they “did him homage” and exclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). God is not found in the noises, violence, and distractions of this world. For instance, those who destroy statues and religious images can never find God in those violent demonstrations because God does not reside in troubled and restless hearts. God is found in peaceful souls, in soft, gentle places.  

What about Peter in the gospel? Why could he not complete his walk to Jesus? Peter’s heart became troubled. Peter lost his calm. Peter gave in to fear. Scripture describes a combination of both progression and regression in Peter’s action. I will present these five stages of Peter’s walk and a little analysis of their concomitant lessons:

1. Peter establishes a conditional faith: The imaginations of the disciples on seeing Jesus walk on the sea affected all of them and made them think he was a ghost. This conceptualization didn’t completely disappear, rather impacted Peter in his seeming courage to walk to Christ. Peter’s attempt to walk on the water is not necessarily as a proof of faith but to confirm his doubts that it was “the Lord.” Peter’s faith here can best be described as uncertain, the reason why he said to Jesus, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you,” is a conditional statement which already nullifies his intention. Peter begins on a condition of uncertainty, not sure, perhaps half-certain, the reason why the storms stayed in his way. Peter maintains a stumbling faith. 

Lesson: There is no “if” with God; faith is affirmative and declarative action. That was Peter’s first problem, the reason why he couldn’t reach Jesus. Most times, we entertain these “ifs” in our hearts when we pray, “Lord if you are here, give me this or that.” An “if” prayer holds uncertainty. In God, the “ifs” must disappear.

2. Peter moves by attraction, not by conviction. The beauty of Jesus’ walking on the water was theatrical for Peter. He sees Jesus as a performer in the “walking-on-water-show.” The performance enticed him that he “got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.” Peter merely joined the performance. He admired the beauty of walking on water. Peter intended to achieve a similar feat. 

Lesson: Faith goes beyond attraction. Our encounter with God is not a show. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once gave a talk where he said that Jesus is not a “superstar” rather a “super-scar.” Jesus is not like any Hollywood actor or celebrity, which makes faith more demanding. When we attend Mass, we must be convinced that it is an encounter with Christ in the Blessed Eucharist. When we pray, we must be convinced that God hears us. We must be convinced that Christ is present for us in order to be with him. The presence of God doesn’t take away the challenges and sufferings of life. We must understand that our ability to embrace our human conditions and experience God’s presence is what brings joy into our souls. We must be convinced that God is present at all times. That’s the best way to deal with our fears. 

3. Peter is overcome by irrational fear. Peter let the effect of the storm/wind becloud his reasoning at the moment. He set out on his journey but got into the irrational fear mode, “when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened.” Peter experiences what might be described as “walking on water disorder.” He lost the consciousness of the presence of Christ for whom he started out his walk. Peter lost his focus.

Lesson: We must overcome irrational fears in life. Obviously, we experience fearful moments and events that cast some anxiety. Going in for exams or interviews could cause some anxiety. Having a new baby could cause some anxiety. Working with timelines could cause some anxiety. But we must not live in constant fear. Psychologists maintain that people fear for several reasons. Allyson Horn outlines ten common fears/phobias in people’s lives: Maybe we should add, fear of our fears because some people become afraid even of their own fear that they die many times a day. Fear takes you away from Jesus. Our experience of the COVID is one typical example. Some people are constantly afraid these days- they imagine that by merely stepping outside their homes, they would die. They see deaths on the faces of others. They stress out. Such individuals lose sight of the presence of God. They stay frightened and like Peter, are overcome.

4. Peter began to sink. Peter’s conditional faith, doubts, distractions, and fears culminated in a downward slope that Scripture described as “and beginning to sink.” Pressures on him became unbearable that he gave up. Peter surrendered to the forces of his mental and cognitive imaginations and began to sink. 

Lesson: Our physical and neurological systems (resilience) shut down due to negative mental imaginations. You can get sick because your mind tells you that you’re sick. You feel sick, then you break down. We have to stay focused and positive in order to deal with life challenges. Recognizing that the phantasies we create in our minds can hunt our physical and spiritual wellbeing is important. The “ghosts” we see in our heads become threats in reality. We experience trauma, lose sleep, get addicted, then those ghosts become huge and real. Shut the ghosts out and be normal, else you sink. 

5. Peter reengages in a faith-revival, identifies the presence of Jesus. As events culminate in his desire to get to Jesus, Peter becomes aware that he cannot do it on his own. Peter identifies his vulnerability and steps up against his mistakes. He seeks the help of the Master, the one who invited him to “come.” Peter moves from a conditional, “if-faith” approach to a declarative statement and says to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” This is an act of faith, not like his starting point, “Lord, if it is you…” Peter remembers what Jesus had said earlier, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Lesson: It is never too late to ask for God’s help. How long have you struggled in what appears to be hopeless efforts? How long have you stayed locked inside your fears and anxieties? How long have you kept those thoughts of failure in your head, thoughts that tell you that you are not good enough? Peter reminds us to call out to Jesus today. You don’t need to say much, just stretch out to him and say, “Lord, save me.” Repeat those words with conviction as you receive Christ in the Blessed Eucharist at this Mass. Utter the words as you wake up tomorrow morning with false imaginations of “ghosts’ hunting your success. Speak those words for your children who struggle constantly with addictions. Hold hands with your spouse in your marriage struggle and declare, “Lord, save me!” Those could help push out your doubts, your little faith, and your irrational fears. They invite Jesus right back in. 

Nothing in the scriptures is there by accident or just an arbitrary detail. Every detail is meditation. In the gospel, it’s dark and stormy and the apostles are afraid. “During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea.” The fourth watch is between 3 and 6 am, a time when the sky is still dark but getting a little brighter. The sun is beginning to rise. Images can barely be seen, there are glares and reflections. Images may not be what they appear. Jesus entered the storm of the apostles during this timeframe, the fourth watch, which isn’t an arbitrary detail. It’s a time when I can see but I can’t see. I don’t fully understand what’s happening, but I trust you, Lord. That’s faith! He never leaves us in the storms of our lives but maybe we don’t see clearly. However, He always leads, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid … Come.”  

Are you aware of the presence of God in the storms of your own life? In the storms in your marriage and family? Are you allowing anxieties and fears to overtake you? Is the Lord a ghost or your great friend? Is he a building where you go on Sundays or is He a relationship, a Savior? Do you have inner peace because of your relationship with Jesus no matter what is happening in your life? Because if you don’t, He is always going to look like a ghost, a figment of your imagination. You will never walk on the water. You’ll sink in fear. The most important lesson from the experience of Peter and the disciples in their encounter with Jesus is to know how much God cares for us. In real life experiences, we seem taken over by stress and fear that blur our vision of the presence of God, the good news is that God is there. Jesus speaks calmly and slowly, just like God spoke to Elijah. He is still there, sitting behind the ferocious experiences, but He stays calm. The earthquakes eventually give way. The fires burn out. The winds die down, Jesus remains. “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus always stretches out his hand to save us. He says to each of us today, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid … Come ”