Homily for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33

Theme:    Faith in Stormy Times

It’s never easy, at any time, to keep faith but to hold on to it in stormy times, as many people are going through at present is particularly difficult. Today’s Scripture readings encourage us not to lose heart, or give in to despondency, but to trust in the Lord who is with us even when we are unaware of his presence.

In the first reading today, we find the great prophet, Elijah, in deep trouble.  He had drawn on himself the ire of the evil queen, Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, who ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the ninth century BC. Under her malign influence, the weak King had introduced pagan customs and rituals into Israel, building pagan shrines and opening his palaces to a horde of false prophets and cronies of his wife.     Elijah confronted these charlatans, shamed them publicly, and had them slaughtered. Now, Jezebel wants him dead. Frustrated, despondent, and on the verge of despair, Elijah retreats to the wilderness, taking refuge in a cave. His spirits are so low, he wants to die. He prays: ‘O Lord, I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’ (1 Kgs 19:4). However, in the cave near Mount Horeb, he experiences the presence of the Lord in ‘a gentle breeze’ (1 Kgs 19:12) and, comforted by this experience, he finds the strength and self-confidence to continue his prophetic mission.

In our gospel reading from Matthew, we see the disciples of Jesus caught up in one of those violent storms to which the Sea of Galilee is prone. They are battling heavy waves and a strong headwind, and losing the battle! This dramatic story reflects the experience of the early Church at the time Matthew wrote his gospel, fifty years after the death of Jesus. The boat represents the Church, while the night storm represents the opposition the young Church is facing. Sailing on stormy seas has been a constant experience of the Christian community from earliest times up to the present day. In the words of Pope Francis, ‘The boat at the mercy of the storm is an image of the Church, which in every age encounters headwinds, sometimes very hard trials.’ 

To return to the gospel story, Jesus approaches his disciples walking on the water. Far from being reassured, the disciples become even more terrified. Imagining him to be a ghost, they cry out in fear. However, the ghost turns out to be Jesus, who reveals himself to them, saying: ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid’.  Encouraged by the words of Jesus, Peter is the first to respond. At  his invitation, he walks towards Jesus across the water, but when he ‘feels the force of the wind’, his courage fails him and he begins to sink. In panic, he cries out to Jesus, ‘Lord, save me’ (Mt 14:30), and Jesus reaches out his hand to him and saves him. The story ends with Jesus calming the storm and being acknowledged as ‘Son of God’ by the disciples.

‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid’. These are the same words Jesus speaks to us today as we sail on the uncertain sea of life in the 21st century. He does not promise us a storm free voyage, but he does promise to be always there for us. The example of Peter teaches us that, to stay afloat on the sea of life, we need to fix our gaze on Jesus, not on the surging waves around us, or on the fears and doubts that well up in our hearts. Today’s gospel invites us to deepen our faith and to maintain our focus on Jesus. To quote again words spoken by Pope Francis during an Angelus address he gave in August 2020:  ‘Having faith means, in the midst of the storm, keeping your heart turned to God, to his love, to his tenderness as a Father. Jesus wanted to teach this to Peter and his disciples, and also to us today, in moments of darkness, moments of storms’.

In stormy times, there is always a tendency for us to retreat to a cave like Elijah, or to seek out some safe harbour, far from the stormy seas. But clearly that is not what Jesus wants. In today’s gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus ‘made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side’  (Mt 14:22).  On another occasion, he tells Peter not to hesitate but to  ‘launch out into the deep’ (Lk 5:4). Jesus was calling his disciples, as he is calling us today, to join him in the greatest adventure known to human history: the realisation of God’s dream of a world transformed by the power of love. And, irrespective of what storms we encounter, we shall not fail, because Jesus is always with us. I will end with a sonnet by the poet, Malcolm Guite, which expresses beautifully this awesome call.

He calls us all to step aboard his ship,
Take the adventure on this morning’s wing,
Raise sail with him, launch out into the deep,
Whatever storms or floods are threatening.
If faith gives way to doubt, or love to fear,
Then, as on Galilee, we’ll rouse the Lord,
For he is always with us and will hear
And make our peace with his creative Word,
Who made us, loved us, formed us and has set
All his beloved lovers in an ark;
Borne upwards by his Spirit, we will float
Above the rising waves, the falling dark,
As fellow pilgrims, driven towards that haven,
Where all will be redeemed, fulfilled, forgiven.

Michael McCabe SMA

To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.

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