19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.
As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration. Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans. As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News. Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people. Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic. It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation. It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born. While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.
Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people. When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33). He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah. Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown. It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols. Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice. The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect. Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones. Then he ran.
For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him. Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains. God asked him why he was in hiding. Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God. But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead. I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.” That is the voice of anguish. God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain. God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.
Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever. They want God’s love and glory to return. They imagine kindness and truth meeting. When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet. Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven. Being holy people is difficult.
So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either. Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party! It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief. But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food. Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs. Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.
Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake. Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them. They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt. There it is again, “Do not be afraid.” If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be. As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.
What did we learn?
1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.
2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.
3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.
4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.