August 13, 2023.
By the Most Rev’d Colin R. Johnson
Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Rom 10:5-15; Mt 14:22-33
+In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Uncle Don was an eminent pathologist and teacher, a brilliant and eccentric man. We loved him, although sometimes he could be quite irritating. He was disparaging of the study of theology because, as a scientific researcher, he was always looking for something new. Quoting a paper that was older than a decade meant you hadn’t kept up to date. So reading and pondering ancient texts, two, two and a half millennia old, and quoting scholars from 100, 200, 700, 1500 years ago was unfathomable. Surely, there is nothing new there!
But he didn’t get it, really. In a sense, what makes Holy Scripture holy, the Word of God, is that it continues to address us in the present tense, revealing and creating new insight, hope, challenge and meaning in the new contexts in which we live and exercise imagination today. It is a living word.
So there is a problem and an opportunity when we are faced with well known, well explored passages of scripture, as we do this morning – the revelation of God to Elijah in the still, small voice or the sound of utter silence; the stirring reminder of Paul that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”; and the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. We can easily see the obvious lessons and skim over the passages half-read. Or we suddenly notice something you have never heard before because you didn’t need to hear it until now. That’s how it works.
What I noticed today, what I probably need to pay attention to right now, and perhaps you do, too, is “Fear”.
Elijah is in the wilderness because he is afraid. He is fleeing the wrath of Queen Jezebel because he has outwitted and then obliterated her prophets and priests as frauds. It was not a pretty scene, and he is right to be afraid for his own life. His fear is well based. Fear does three things: you freeze, fight, or flee. Elijah has fought, he has fled, and now he is frozen, paralysed in a narrative of self-justification, alienation, and hopelessness. “I, I alone, have been righteous – and on Your behalf, let me remind you – and here I am hiding because everyone wants to kill me!” And unspoken, “But You don’t care!”
Fear has stulted his thinking, stifled his imagination, enervated his life.
His focus is narrowed to his own pressing concerns and fears, and he cannot see the bigger picture or remember his own history or his first call. The more scared we feel, the scarier things seem. Fear dictates our actions and limits what we perceive as possible.
And God acts – not by changing the facts or removing the threats. God presents Himself to Elijah in the utter simplicity and power of presence. God reminds Elijah of the larger narrative that he has been oblivious to: he is not the only one who is faithful. He does not carry the torch by himself. He is not the lone hero. There are not one or two or twelve but 7,000! And God gives Elijah something to do – a mission so huge that it will change a nation’s destiny.
You see the same pattern in the Gospel pericope: the disciples battling a storm alone with all the winds against them, fear overwhelming them, Jesus coming toward them, reassuring, “Take heart, it is I. Do not fear.” And impetuous Peter stepping out because he’s a man and he can, but then fear overwhelms him. And he is rescued. And he is given a mission which will move him beyond his fear, a mission that will reshape the world in a way he cannot even imagine.
We live in a fearful moment of time. In the world, in our society, in our city, in this Community, in our own heart, there is much to fear. I know that I do. The more scared we feel, the scarier things seem. The monsters we imagine under our bed come out to terrify us, in the day as well as the night.
We fight to keep them at bay, perhaps trying to resurrect the good old days when everything seemed more predictable. We might feel abandoned by God, like our parents leaving us in the dark room at night, alone. Like Elijah, we can become self righteous and angry, lashing out chaotically, but ineffectively fuming in the desert.
Or we flee to a dreamworld future where everything is safe and happily resolved, cocooning ourselves with what we know now. We wait for God (or somebody who has power) to fix it. Or we run away from what has been significant because it is all too much now. We hide or quiet-quit.
Or we freeze in inaction and indecision because we have lost confidence and agency. We become helpless or hopeless or depressed.
It is then that God comes to us – in prayer, in eucharist, in a person, in a conversation, in a dream, in a startling challenge, in a moment of silence. God reminds us that God is still here. God is with us and has not abandoned us to our own devices. The threats are still there and still real. The problems do not magically disappear. But they have a context. We are part of a much larger picture, a longer, more complex story. We still have work to do that we have yet to finish. And it is perhaps even more important work than we have tackled so far. We have a crucial part to play that will change the world even if we can’t see it. We are not doing it alone.
And the last enemy, the direst threat, our ultimate fear – death – has lost its power in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of God.
You see, our fears, when faced, do not have to control our lives.
So Elijah, stand up, stop whining, and get going! Peter, reach out your hand, stand up, get back in the boat where you belong, and do the work that is yours! Sisters, you still have a mission to fulfill: “Do whatever He tells you”!