The Scripture stories we have today are about the importance of discerning the voice of God and about the importance of community.
A little context to help us enter the first reading. The prophet Elijah lived some 900 years before the birth of Jesus. At that time the Jewish people were divided into two sister countries, Israel in the North and Judah in the South. In the North, where God had called Elijah to preach, the Jewish king, Ahab, had married a woman named Jezebel. (That was Ahab’s first of many mistakes—never marry someone named Jezebel!). Jezebel was not Jewish. She brought into the marriage, then into the house, and then into the country her belief in numerous pagan gods. She even convinced her husband, the king, to put to death many of God’s prophets. But, try as she may, Jezebel could not put to death the greatest of the prophets at that time, Elijah. Jezebel put a bounty on Elijah’s head and threatened to kill him in the same way she had killed so many others. Elijah flees her wrath and sits under a broom tree totally discouraged. All his life’s work, about telling people of the one, true God who was merciful and loving, seems to be for nothing. In his discouragement and self-pity Elijah even asks God to take his life. Elijah is mentally exhausted, depressed and suicidal. Enough is enough.
If you have ever been sick and tired of being sick and tired, you were living an Elijah moment. If you have ever been discouraged with news story after news story of corruption in the corporate, sports, political, and professional worlds you were experiencing the same thing Elijah was experiencing. While Elijah felt he was finished with life, God was not finished with him. Neither fatigue nor discouragement was going to have the final word about Elijah, but God would. After Elijah falls asleep underneath this broom tree, he is awakened by an angel who nudges him and says, while pointing to bread and water, “take and eat, for the journey will be long.”
We do not know if this bread and water miraculously appeared out of nowhere or if it was always there and Elijah never noticed it. Sometimes the very thing or person we always needed was close by, but we never noticed. One way of another, the bread and water were little signs of God’s love that was still providing for Elijah at the time the prophet most wanted to give up. With the little bread and water, Elijah journeys 40 days and 40 nights until he reached Mount Horeb. This is the mount, where 300 years prior, Moses, totally discouraged in trying to lead God’s People through the desert, receives the 10 Commandments. Elijah sits at the mouth of the cave. The sound and light show begins—wind, earthquakes, and fires, but God was in none of these. When it was over, Elijah discerned the voice of God in sheer silence. In our busy multi-tasking lives, our generation, more than any other generation, needs to learn how to sit in silence and hear the voice of God amidst the clamour of the world.
So, it was for this woman. It was one of the worst days of her life. Newly separated, she was tired, sick, lonely, hot, and discouraged. It was all she could do to lift her little boy into his highchair for dinner. She put his food on the tray and began to read the mail. Another bill she could not pay; it was the last straw. She leaned her head against the tray and began to cry. The little boy looked at his sobbing mother, then took the pacifier out of his mouth and offered it to his distraught mother. She began to laugh through her tears and hugged the source of such unconditional love. She, like Elijah, at the end of her rope was alert to the small signs God was providing her with.
Peter, in today’s gospel, is also at the end of his rope, literally up to his neck in water. He, too, needs a sign that the Lord is with him and ultimately will rescue him. Peter’s story is not just Peter’s story; it is the story of the Church. It happens on a boat during the chaos of a storm. The boat was one of the earliest symbols of the Church. The sea was the symbol of the chaos of the world. And if we Christians were to navigate our way through turbulent times, we were to do as Peter was supposed to do—keep our eyes on Jesus always.
If you go to Old Montreal, you will find one of the oldest and best- preserved church buildings in all of North America. It is called Notre Dame de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Good Help) and it was built in 1771. The ceiling is an inverted hull of a boat. You will see a similar ceiling at St. Bernard’s Church in Moncton. On another aside, the nave of the church, where you people sit as opposed to the sanctuary, comes from the same word as navy or naval.
I said at the beginning, as Christians we need to be a discerning people so that we will know what God’s life-giving will is for us. But we also need a community of believers. As a faith community our job is to encourage one another especially when it is hard to keep the faith. Symbolically, the boat is the Church, the community of believers. Jesus in this story is both outside the boat and then inside the boat. He is the Lord, the Savior of all peoples of the world, even those outside the boat. When Peter steps outside the boat he manages O.K. until he takes his focus off Jesus and becomes frightened. Then he sinks. Not “doubt” per se but “fear” is the opposite of faith. Maybe that is why Jesus’ most repeated phrase in all four gospels is, “Do not be afraid.”
Interestingly, it is only when Jesus got into the boat, the Church, did the wind cease. The good news is that whether we are in the boat, in the Church, supported by a community of believers, or we are floundering in the chaos and uncertainty of life, we are always in the presence of the Lord and need only to call out. In the calling out to the Lord, we all have to finally admit that our personal resources were never enough. We always needed God, and we always needed a community of faith. When we know our need for God and our need for each other, bread and water, nourishment for the journey miraculously appears. Then, and only then, are we no longer afraid to face another day.