Homily: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cycle A
In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is a spoof on the medieval “King Arthur” fables, there is a scene where the “knights of the round table” have to cross a bridge spanning a deep chasm: a bridge that is guarded by a bridge keeper. The keeper is made out to be a fearsome, intimidating creature and to get by him each person must answer three questions correctly or be cast by an invisible force into the deep chasm. Sir Lancelot, the brave, is the first to approach. Encountering the keeper and with much bravado, he awaits the questions: “What is your name?”, the keeper asks. “Sir Lancelot of Camelot”, the knight responds. “What is your quest?”, the keeper continues. “To find the Holy Grail”, Sir Lancelot replies. “What is your favorite color?”, the keeper asks. “Blue”, the brave knight replies, not missing a beat. His questions answered satisfactorily, the keeper steps aside and says, “Okay, on with you then.” Stunned at the ease of the questions, Lancelot nonetheless proudly passes onto the bridge. Sir Robin, having seen this, pushes to the front, expecting to pass with similar ease. As he arrogantly approaches the keeper he too is questioned: “What is your name?” “Sir Robin of Camelot.” “What is your quest.” “To seek the Holy Grail.” “What is the capital of Assyria?” “What? I don’t kno… ahhhhh!” Having answered wrong, Sir Robin is thrown by an invisible force into the chasm. Now, while the rest of the scene is worth recounting, you’ll have to go to YouTube or Netflix to see it. The point of my sharing this much with you is that Sir Robin mistakenly assumed that the questions would be the same for each traveler. Instead of listening for the particular way that the keeper would question him, he answered without discernment and so was lost.
In today’s first reading, we hear of an analogous encounter. In this case, it is the prophet Elijah who is on a journey and God whom he is encountering. For forty days Elijah journeyed through the desert to Mount Horeb, where he then took shelter in a cave. Perhaps to us, these facts seem simply to be background to the story of God’s encounter with Elijah. Yet for the Hebrew people, each of these details would have had a powerful impact on their interpretation of the story. The forty-day journey in the desert would have reminded them of the forty-year journey of the Israelites through the desert and into the Promised Land. And, while most of us might not make the connection, the ancient Israelites would know that Mount Horeb, where Elijah ended his journey, is also known as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where God formed his covenant with the Israelite people. There, God called Moses up to him on the mountain and spoke to him. When he did, the people heard loud peals of thunder and the earth shook beneath them. Thus, you can imagine that it was quite a shock to the Israelites when they heard that when God called Elijah to come out to meet him that God was not to be found in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Elijah, even though he was intimately aware of the way God had spoken to his people on that very mountain, did not presume that God would speak to him in the same way. Rather he waited with a discerning heart to hear the particular way that God would speak to him and instead found the Lord in a small whispering sound.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear the continuation of the story we began last week. After feeding the five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him, dismisses the crowd to their homes and finally gets the retreat he was looking for to mourn the death of his relative and friend, John the Baptist. As Jesus spends the night in prayer, Peter and the disciples find themselves fighting against a rough sea. Thus, as Jesus approaches them, the disciples, already stressed out by the storm and exhausted from complete lack of sleep, react as if they are seeing a ghost. To calm their spirits Jesus calls out to them in what must have seemed to be a “tiny whispering sound” amidst the crashing of the waves in the tumultuous waters. Even amidst this chaos, however, Peter, like Elijah, immediately discerned the Lord’s voice and asked that the Lord would call him to him. Peter could do this because, in times of calm, he spent time with Jesus, building a relationship with him and getting to know his voice. Thus, in times of distress, he could weather the storm and hear the particular way in which God was speaking to him and calling him close.
Friends, it should surprise no one when I say that the challenge of discerning God’s voice in the midst of our noisy world is greater than ever and won’t get any easier anytime soon. That is why it is ever more important to build a relationship with God in moments of calm, so that in times of storm and distress we will know the voice to which we should listen. A child lost in a shopping mall is made deaf by his anxiety until the voice of his mother breaks through, calling him to her. This is because he heard the assuring voice of his mother repeatedly when everything was calm, thus training his heart that, if he hears her voice, no matter the situation, all will be well. Friends, God calls us to this kind of relationship, a relationship in which we come to know and trust his voice, so that when we are tossed about by the waves of the world, we will hear him calling to us in order to calm our spirits.
So why is this important? Well, quite frankly, because our response to God in times of distress is the measure of how authentically we are living out our faith, and we are certainly in a time of distress! When the world seems to be crashing down around us, can we, like Elijah, wait to hear the Lord’s voice? And when we do, can we, like Peter, trust in that voice calling us out into what by all human standards seems to be certain destruction? Finally, can we rely on the Lord so completely, that we cry out only to him when all seems to be lost? These are important questions and they may make us uncomfortable. Nonetheless, we have to answer them.
You know, I have great sympathy for all those in our schools who are anxious about returning to school. Most of us are convinced that in-person teaching is the best option for our young people, but the threat of the coronavirus triggers fear and anxiety for those who will be working in our schools and for parents who are sending their children into our schools. The challenge for them and for all of us is to ask ourselves, “Whose voice am I listening to?” Am I listening to God’s voice in the midst of this storm, which says to me, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid”? Or am I listening to the waves crashing around me: the temporary tumult that may threaten my earthly life, but cannot separate me from God, my Rock?
As I said, these are questions that may make us uncomfortable, but they are questions that we must answer. If your answer is “yes”: that is, that you wait to hear the Lord’s voice in time of tumult, that you trust in that voice who calls you out to him in a tumultuous world, and that you turn only to him when that world seems to be overwhelming you... If your answer to all of those questions is “yes”, then great! You are in a great place and a witness of faith to others, I am sure.
I suspect, however, that many of us have to answer one or more of those questions with either “no” or at least “I’m not sure.” If so, that’s ok; I assure you that you will not be thrown by an invisible force into a deep chasm! What is most important today is that you leave here realizing that your relationship with God may not be where it ought to be—that maybe you’ve lost touch with God’s voice—and that you have a commitment to deepen that relationship once again. Perhaps the shutdown disrupted your prayer routine, or perhaps you’ve fallen into a sinful habit, or perhaps you’ve just let the voices of fear and anxiety in the world around you become the dominant voices in your head and in your heart. Whatever it is, if this encounter with the Word of God—the Living Word contained in these Scriptures—calls you to turn back to pursue a deeper relationship with God, then it has fulfilled the purpose for which it was sent. If it hasn’t, I invite you to look again at this Word and to pray for the wisdom to understand the particular way that God is speaking to you through it.
Either way, let us recognize that in this Church, which is our boat amidst the rough, rude sea of the world, Jesus comes to us in the form of the sacrament offered here on this altar and calls us to him. Trusting in the faith handed down to us from the disciples who were with him on the sea that night, let us come now—unreservedly—to do him homage and to receive him, who is our stable Rock in the midst of a tumultuous world.
Given at Saint Mary Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 8th & 9th, 2020