Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Broadway musical “The Secret Garden,” adapted by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon from the classic novel of English children’s literature by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911, there is a scene where the 10-year-old protagonist Mary Lennox meets the chambermaid Martha. Mary had recently moved from India where she grew up, after the cholera epidemic took her parents. She was sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven, the grief-stricken widower of her mother’s sister Lily, at his isolated mansion on the Yorkshire Moors. Needless to say she is lost and lonely and close to coming unhinged after all she had been through and with no clear direction in sight for the foreseeable future. Sound familiar? It’s as if she knew all along how devastating 2020 would be for the rest of us. Anyway, Martha the chambermaid is trying to engage the young girl, persuading her to see past her pain, explore the grounds, and find renewed purpose to put a smile on her face again. It’s a delightful story really despite all the dysfunctions that abound in characters of any classic English story. And as Martha contemplates the brewing storm common to the moors of North Yorkshire, she hints at the emotional and psychological storms that have ravaged Mary’s young life, and reminds her ever so sweetly, “It’s the storm, not you, that’s bound to blow away. So hold on.”

None of us could have ever imagined what these last few months would have been like. We had expectations of adventures and challenges, fairly reasonable by any standard, our seniors rounding out their years of retirement in leisurely independence and exceptionally good health surrounded by their loved ones; parents happily ushering their young adults into their new chapters with the assurance of a job well-done; our young people entering the work force or returning to school with big dreams and the hopes and promise of opportunity and learning and success in their endeavors. And then suddenly the devastating storms descend upon us of global pandemic and civil unrest and natural disaster. Crisis brings out the worst in some people. But some have risen to the challenge and are helping lead others to safety. “Hold on,” Martha tells Mary Lennox and us. “It’s the storm, not you, that’s bound to blow away.”

In each of today’s readings someone is dealing with crippling and overwhelming grief, anger, frustration, fear, doubt, uncertainty, and exhaustion. The prophet Elijah is on the run, the last prophet left in Israel, fleeing Queen Jezebel after the humiliating failure of her temple priests to bring down fire from heaven upon their holocaust on Mount Carmel. He is fearful, uncertain, exhausted. And God calls him up a mountain to a most powerful encounter in silence and solitude. When we are laden with fear, uncertainty, and exhaustion, we long for silence and solitude, both inside and outside us. And it is most likely in that quiet that we experience God’s abiding presence and reassurance.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul expresses his grief, anger, and frustration at his own people’s rejection of God’s gift of reconciliation and redemption in Jesus Christ. He realizes his best efforts have not amounted to much success. And it fills him with much sadness and anguish. Our own efforts on behalf of people we love dearly can at times be unwelcome and unappreciated. And despite tremendous compassion, patience, and kindness we are met with rejection, annoyance, and mistreatment. What are we to do? Where do we go? Who do we turn to?

In the gospel, Jesus sent his disciples across the sea of Galilee while he spent some time in quiet prayer on the mountain. And out at sea in the dark of night their little boat came upon a storm sending this group of seasoned fishermen and otherwise mature, capable, and level-headed men into a tizzy. All of a sudden they were utterly helpless, confused, and hysterical. It makes little sense to think that Jesus knew this would happen. It is not in his nature to send anyone into the path of danger. But what was he hoping to accomplish by coming to meet them walking on the water? I can’t imagine any of them had ever seen this done before. So the sight of him compounds their distress. “It is a ghost!” they cried out in fear. What would you have done? “Take courage, it is I;” he tells them, “do not be afraid.”

Now what possessed Peter to make Jesus prove it was him by commanding him to approach him on the water himself? My best guess is Peter did believe it was Jesus, but he had to reassure his companions who were still very much confused and fearful. If God gave him the faith to trust it was Jesus, Peter was willing to be an instrument in God’s hands to strengthen others whose faith was weaker. And God took him up on it. “Come,” he said. Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on water toward Jesus. Now we know he faltered eventually, and Jesus reached out to him, and they both got back in the boat. But for one awesome glorious moment the no-nonsense Galilean fisherman did step out of a boat in the blinding storm, stood confidently against the raging wind, and walked on the crashing waves. I would like to think he came back later and tried it again privately. What it proves is even in our crippling and overwhelming fear, anger, grief, frustration, doubt, uncertainty, and exhaustion God is willing to give us the strength that we need to step out, stand confident, and walk through any storm. We just need to be willing to ask God to “command me to come to you on the water.” And as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus no matter how bad it gets, we should be safe and well from the violent fury of wind and storm.

The challenge is we’re pretty much in a raging storm at sea in darkest night right now. We can sit around the boat like it’s not that bad. We know some among our number have lost their minds and their nerve months ago, fearful and frustrated, anguished and exhausted with no relief in sight. Occasionally we hear reports of murder hornets and other horrors, much like a ghost walking toward us on the water. We need Peter to step out of the boat and show us Jesus is with us. It’s easy to tell people who are frightened to buck up and get a grip. But until someone steps out of the boat, until you or I step out of the boat, until we see someone, anyone, walking on the water, we will need some other assurance that we are not lost. If God has given you strength, ask him to command you to walk on the water. Maybe you can share that strength with the rest of us because we know it’s not we but the storm that’s bound to blow away.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020