I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a; Romans 9: 1-5; Matthew 14: 22-33
If there is one thing we know about Matthew’s community and the community in which he writes it’s that they faced grave persecution. It may have been worst for them more than anyone and so with persecution comes great fear as these outside influences put pressure on this community and on the followers of the Christ. We’ve unfortunately even made persecution into something pithy as abiding by rules and teaching but for them it was a fear of their own lives and this constant chaos and turbulence. You know, long before there was anything that we call ISIS or even hate groups we are familiar with in our own society, as well as gangs here in the city, there was the Roman authority and the religious zealots of the time of Jesus. There was nothing merciful about them and they took out anyone that they perceived as a threat to their power. Just before this gospel today of Peter walking on the water and the feeding of the crowd, John the Baptist is beheaded. It’s one of the most heart-breaking stories in the gospels and all done out of fear and insecurity of those in power towards the ones who had the true power, the followers who had found freedom in Christ.
This is the context and the reality of Matthew’s community and so all that we hear, including this little snippet today, is somehow a message of hope to that community not to give up and to persevere in the storm. So he gives us this image of the disciples being sent out onto the Sea of Galilee in the darkest part of the night, by themselves, and now in the midst of a storm. Remember, this is not some boat that we’d see down in Harbor. This is a piecemeal that they’d be familiar with and for Matthew, that boat was symbolic of his own community and what they are facing, the constant onslaught of storminess and turbulence from these institutions to somehow conform to them, to give into the fear and to give up the freedom as followers of the Christ. It’s not just happening on the sea but is happening within them. Of course, the message of Matthew is not to give up but to keep growing into that freedom and test the waters as Peter does. But too much can lead to drowning. Peter gains a little confidence walking on the water and in doing so quickly falls. Matthew reminds them that they must not only fall on each other for support in these times but first and foremost to trust in the Lord. Matthew is aware that all this noise from the outside and all the pressure that the community finds itself facing leads to blocking out that voice of the Lord, the quiet whisper deep within. In that moment of chaos, Peter cries out and the Lord reaches out. There’s hope in the midst of the violence of their lives and ours in this city as well.
As much as Peter began to drown, Paul finds himself in anguish for similar reasons or at least for what he is witnessing in the Roman community. He describes himself in today’s reading as someone in anguish. He has a deep love for this community and now sees the lack of belief and trust in the Lord. They are giving into the ways of the world as a community and are giving into that fear and that pressure to conform to the ways of the status quo. Paul often anguishes over being misunderstood by these communities. He models for them what it means to live into that freedom of living in Christ. It is what he is bearing witness and it so often seems to go on deaf ears. Of course, the more he grows into will also lead to his own impending death as a prophetic voice and follower of the Christ. Paul reminds the community not to give into the fear. The fear seems to lull us to sleep, leading us to believe that we’re helpless and that there is nothing we can do. That’s what the Roman authority and the religious zealots thrive on. We may never change them nor the systems, but that can’t stop us from weathering the storm and not giving into the fear. Sure, we may be different, but like Paul, we then stand as a witness to true freedom in Christ.
But we still have one more story today and that’s in today’s first reading from First Kings and the prophet Elijah. We found Peter sinking, Paul in anguish, and now Elijah hiding in fear. Elijah finds himself on the run. His life is being threatened by Queen Jezebel after the slaying of the false prophets and now he’s beside himself. Not only does he think he can hide from her he also tries to run from God and this prophetic call that has been given to him. Much will also be demanded of him to remain true to himself and the eternal in the midst of much turbulence and violence, including violence against his own life. But in the process of hiding, the great mount Horeb provides the space for perspective and context of it all. Like Peter, when he finally begins to surrender his own fear and control, space opens within where he can once again hear the whispering voice of God speaking, assuring him of that presence in the midst of all this exterior noise. He finds within himself, the eternal, to now go and confront and no longer fear the loss of his own life.
We aren’t much different than any of them in today’s stories. We are often confronted with a barrage of noise that leads to continuous upheaval in our live, deeper fear of the unknown, and even in our own neighborhood, more violence. I’ve had out on our front sign for more than a month now that in violence we forget who we are. We not only forget who we are but we forget whose we are. As I said, fear has a way of lulling us to sleep and into this deep amnesia. We begin to believe that we do it on our own and before you know it the absence of mystery and this God becomes more evident. We too easily give into this fear but as Matthew reminded his community, they are something more than that fear. They have found that interior freedom needed to no longer be bound by the threat of the Roman authority and religious zealots. In that sense, they will always be a threat and violence will continue to ensue. As disciples and followers of the Christ, we are called to be that more and to not forget not only who we truly are but whose we are in Christ. The call to conversion is for all of us, not to give into the helplessness and powerlessness in the midst of fear and violence, but to step up and be the voice not of fear but rather of love.