9th Sunday after Trinity Year A 2020
All three readings today speak of the open invitation for each one of us to encounter God. Elijah, fleeing the murderous fury of Queen Jezebel after the slaughter of the priests of Baal scurries away and hides himself in a cave where God comes to meet him, and speaks not in fire and fury, but mercifully, in a still small voice. We are invited to see a very close encounter of God with his servant. God is with Elijah just as much in the place of fear and uncertainty as he was on Mount Carmel in the flames from heaven consuming the prophet’s sacrifice. Then Paul repeats this invitation to think about our relationship with God as intimate and deeply personal. In this passage he deliberately re-applies 2 descriptive images of God, ( The name of the Lord, and the Word of the Lord) which in the Old Testament attempt to avoid any blasphemous familiarity with the majesty and overwhelming power of God by maintaining a fearful distance. He applies these divine titles to Jesus- who is God here amongst us.
In traditional Orthodox Judaism ‘social distancing’ was very much the name of the game when it came to any relationship with God. Any attempt to say out loud the name Yahweh, that 4 letter Hebrew word which represented the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush was forbidden. Moses asks who it is who is sending him to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt. We can only hesitantly translate Yahweh, the name by which God replies. It has been interpreted as simply “I Am”, or “I will be with you”, or even “I am without equal.” If we look at the hesitant Moses, fearful of returning to Egypt with an immense task to fulfil it is that last meaning which seems to fit best. “I will be with you.”
And it is this re-assurance that Paul gives to the congregation in Rome. God in Christ is with them, with us, whatever our circumstance. For Paul Jesus does not have to be searched for with difficulty. He is not at a distance, in heaven or the underworld. The Word of God has spoken openly, once and for all, in Jesus’ life death and resurrection. Once again the respectful, keeping God at a distance, image -the Name of God, the “Lord”, which the prophet Joel has said would save us if we called on it, now becomes for Paul the title to be used for Jesus. It is Jesus who is Kyrios, Lord. But that has done away with any sort of distancing in our relationship with God. “ The Word is near you, on your lips, in your heart.” Paul tells us. Jesus is the one who now says “I will be with you.” Paul underlines the conviction of the early church that there is no other way to describe Jesus, or our relationship with him, but as something immediate and intimate. God will be with us.
All this prepares us for the message of today’s Gospel. Matthew elaborates on Mark’s earlier account of this incident, and reworks it, to answer the needs of his own community, who were facing growing opposition not only just from the surrounding pagan society, but also from an increasingly hostile Jewish community. Matthew paints a more detailed picture than Mark. Jesus sends the disciples off ahead of him, to sail to the other side of the lake. Then Jesus dismisses the crowds who have been fed, and satisfied, and goes into the hills to pray alone. We see his constant return to personal prayer, the wellspring of his relationship with his Father, and the impetus for what he does.
Meanwhile the lake is stirred up by a sudden storm, and the disciples, who have been without their Master for most of the night are terrified. This fear only increases when they see this apparition of Jesus, walking towards them across the waters. But Jesus reassures them. “Take heart, It is I, have no fear.” Matthew once again deliberately places the name of God on Jesus lips. Jesus identifies himself as God with them, in the place of terror and chaos. “It is I.”“
Jesus is God with us in the storm. “I will be with you” he announces.
Matthew continues to encourage us in the journey of faith. Using more fresh material Matthew describes Peter’s clumsy attempts to join Jesus on the waves. Peter is about to sink before Jesus catches him up to safety. Jesus reproves him for his lack of faith, the man who promises much but then falls away through doubt. (Hints here of that later time of collapse, when Peter will deny Jesus three times.) And yet in other sections of his Gospel we learn that Matthew, and Matthew’s Church community nonetheless have a high regard for Peter, who is described in this Gospel at one and the same time as not only the doubter, but the first among the Apostles, the rock on which the church will be built. God restores Peter, and God can restore us.
The headlong fall into darkness averted- the disciples come to the realisation of who their Master is, the Son of God, God with us .
Some years ago I wrote a review of a small book with the title “Dancing with God through the storm.” for our Mental Health Trust’s Bishop John Robinson Fellowship Newsletter. In it Jennifer Elam, a Quaker, who herself had suffered spiritual and mental anguish, went about researching what other people of faith had endured and survived. She reaches the conclusion that the tension that lies between our faith and our doubt, our fear and our love, can best be summed up in the image of the Dance, as we struggle to achieve wholeness, purpose of life, and ways forward in our ministry to others. Like many other spiritual guides she discovers that what some might dismiss as mental illness is often better perceived as spiritual crisis. And like the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins she comes to the conclusion that our spiritual journey is one of ambiguity. Hopkins eloquently sums it up. “I found it a winter, and warm.” God for him can descend into our darkness, and yet be “most merciful then.”
Elam underlines the importance of what she calls ‘containers’, those who accompany us on our spiritual journey, citing here her own Quaker tradition of communal support. All of us need enduring support from our fellow believers, if we are to survive – and thrive. Finally she shares with us a ‘vision’ or dream that one of her correspondents in her research had experienced. Margaret McKenna, a fellow Quaker, in a heightened state of awareness, senses that she is in a dance hall. God comes across to ask her for a dance, but she is preoccupied with a pile of luggage she finds herself guarding. “All those things that make up the person that is me.”
Finally God’s persistence pays off, and she joins him on the dance floor for one short dance. Here she learns that , “My Dancing Partner is lovingly and joyously leading me in the dance to the place where I can see myself in a new light, places where I am presented with new callings, and am again presented with new ways of letting go of that which holds me back.” Elam reminds us that in the storm, in the times of crisis, or better still in times of stillness before any storm assails us, we need to work out support systems- what she calls “Spiritually open and therapeutically knowledgeable friends,”
Today’s scriptures, and especially the fall and restoration of Peter, remind us that any experience can be a place of alienation or spiritual transformation, and in Elam words, “the outcome often depends on the choices that are made, and the support that is offered.”
One surprising reflection on this stilling of the storm comes from Oscar Wilde, writing in the midst of his tumultuous life.
COME down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land,
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
He goes on to remember how after the empty silence that greeted those priests of Baal who cried out to their non-existent god, the God of Elijah hears and answers his servant’s call at the close of the day. He becomes confident that his God will answer and give him peace- And what gives him that hope? It is the remembrance that his God comes to his rescue with “wounded hands and a weary, human face. “ A God who shares and redeems his suffering, a God who promises- “I will be with you.’