Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

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Today we meet three people, each of them deeply troubled. In the 1st reading, the prophet Elijah, in the 2nd reading St Paul, in the Gospel Peter. It’s to their credit they are troubled. They are troubled because they care. They hunger and thirst for righteousness. They’re troubled because they are passionate about the Lord and, markedly in the cases of Elijah and Paul, about his people.

And in each instance, the Lord stills their hearts. He is a voice that speaks of peace.

In Genesis, it’s famously said, “A man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife” (Gen 2:24). Any worthwhile life means leaving a shelter, leaving firm ground, taking to the sea and sometimes anyway finding ourselves out of the boat, a prey to wild waves and wind. Any life, any vocation – to family life, to a work, to God’s direct service – any life means being at sea and – sometimes anyway – troubled. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”, says the book of Job (5:7).

So, how does the Lord still hearts?

Elijah is on Mt Horeb, that is Mt Sinai, where centuries before the Lord had spoken to Moses and brought Israel into a covenant-relationship with himself. The Egyptian name for the mountain is Jabal Musa, the mountain of Moses. Elijah’s not there as a tourist on a package holiday. He has fled there from Queen Jezebel, he’s over 300 miles from his usual stamping-grounds and in fear of his life. He feels defeated. Despite his mighty efforts, his own people, God’s chosen people, have lost the plot and are on a downward spiral to destruction. His mission has failed. An instinct takes him back to where it all began. And there his heart is stilled and his courage revived. Stilled not by a wind or an earthquake or fire – but by a gentle breeze, by a sound of pure silence, by a still, small voice. So, how does the Lord still hearts? Isn’t that one way? Truth, conscience, divine comfort often steal in very quietly, beyond our noise, as gently as a drop of water entering a sponge, says St Ignatius.

In the 2nd reading, from the epic Letter to the Romans, it is Paul who is troubled, in “mental anguish”. Why? Because he, the great herald, he who has brought so many non-Jewish people to faith, has seen his own flesh and blood, his fellow-Jews, turn away. It is incomprehensible; this is his own bitter version, experience of what bites every life: the mystery of evil. Paul was a rabbi, a thinker, a theologian. And he spends three long chapters of his Letter exploring the Jewish scriptures in search of an answer. And Scripture speaks to him. To simplify, he finds peace in the mysterious will of God. Somehow Israel’s failure of faith is part of a plan; somehow it enables others to believe, and at sometime, in God’s mysterious providence, Israel too will turn to faith. The word of God stills him and helps Paul finds his peace, beyond mere optimism, in God’s ultimate mercy. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” How does the Lord still troubled hearts? Sometimes, by giving this kind of glimpse of a merciful purpose beyond our limited ken. By not allowing us to confuse one chapter of life with the whole book. By showing a further horizon.

In the Gospel, the disciples have had perhaps nine hours in the teeth of a storm, abandoned by their praying Lord. He only appears at the fourth watch of the night, sometime between 3 and 6am – the hour of the Resurrection incidentally. And then appears like a ghost, further raising their panic levels – until he speaks. “It is I” – the voice from the burning bush. “I AM”, the voice that speaks of peace. Peter – impetuous, passionate Peter – is so thrilled that he crazily jumps out of the boat. He almost reaches Jesus, but then shifts his gaze. He feels the force of the wind, he’s suddenly in two minds and begins to go down, to drown. He cries out, “Lord, save!” And Jesus puts out his hand and holds him. And as together they get into the boat, the wind gives up. Once again, how does the Lord still our hearts? By a still small voice to Elijah, by disclosure of the divine mystery to Paul, by conscience and Scripture, and in answer to the desperate cry of Peter, by an outstretched hand. The power that took Israel out of Egypt, the power that raised the Lord himself from the dead. And so Peter – and the boat, which is the Church – find peace.  “Truly, you are the Son of God.” The Lord has many arrows in his quiver, many medicines in his pharmacy.

Today is the feast of Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, gassed in Auschwitz 78 years ago today. She was taken by train from a transit camp in the Netherlands to Auschwitz. Several people spotted her on that last, dreadful journey, and they commented how peaceful she appeared, and how much, in the chaos, she spread peace. When the Lord does still our hearts, it’s not with a peace of indifference, of why bother? “God hates the peace of those who should be at war”, says St Francis de Sales. Elijah went back to prophesy, Paul kept preaching, Peter became the rock of the Church, Edith carried her fellow-Jews in her heart. In this life, there are always waves, always troubles, but we have our mission. May we live it passionately, but stilled again and again by God’s peace. Amen.

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 9 August 2020)