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Homily - 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 9 August 2020

If you have been following St Matthew's Gospel over the last months, it is easy enough to see the story developing - Jesus announces his key principles in the Sermon on the Mount and then goes out to announce them all around Israel in word and actions. Then he enlists his apostles to help him and he gives them training. In a series of parables, he explains just how God's kingdom will grow and meet resistance. And now, he reveals more of who he is. That is where this story fits in and why it is so clearly remembered in the Gospel and so well known to most Christians.

Firstly, this storm occurs when Jesus is not with the disciples in the boat. We all know the experience of feeling that things are outside our control - and fearing we might have been abandoned. There is a lot of that in Church at present. I hear people complaining that we are taking the Covid threat too seriously and that God will protect us, that masks and all this sanitising are just a way of breaking the Church - and that a vaccine is a part of a plot to control us. I also hear as many people, complaining that parishes are not doing enough to reassure parishioners and that they are afraid to come back on hygiene grounds. They fear for their health and some are wondering whether they would ever want to come back to church - better stay following Mass in front of the computer screen. There are many who are genuinely frightened, seeing threats in many places - and there are those who are exploiting such fears, not to help people, but to paralyse them. Those who have little to say except to peddle fears and anger need to look at this Gospel passage.

Into the different storms that afflict every generation, Jesus says what he says to the apostles in the boat, Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid. Jesus is in charge; we are not alone and abandoned. We heard last week St Paul's words that nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ. We gather each week, not just to keep God happy or to fulfil a law, but to let Christ speak into the real fears of our hearts and to allow him to speak of courage and hope. That is why, before we receive Holy Communion, we pray the one prayer that Jesus taught us about calling God Father. People of faith have hope, not just that things will work alright but because we believe God is in control and turning everything into a source of grace, no matter how difficult it may seem, no matter how distant God may appear to be.

Secondly, this event is not just a rescue from a storm. At the end, the apostles get a deeper insight into who Jesus is. Christians marvel not merely at what Jesus does but at who he is. And that brings us to a second fear. Jesus always asks us to go beyond what we might think was reasonable. Jesus invites people to step out of the boat into very choppy waters. What fails Peter is not Jesus' grace but his own fears. The biggest threat to the Church does not come from outside. It comes when we want to tame God, to control God by our prayers or actions. Prayer is important - but there is always the danger of thinking that certain prayers or practices are more powerful than others and guarantee divine delivery. But we pray always that God's kingdom will come, know that our will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Every encounter with Christ leads us, like the disciples, to bow down before Jesus and to acknowledge who he is. Faith without adoration misses the core point of this story. We worship God, not what we have achieved. We find the same message in our first reading. Elijah encounters God in the gentle breeze which others would ignore. He covers his face. The divine voice always calls us to step out of our secure zone, our boat, our cave - however storm-tossed it may be - and follow him. We do not just ask God to provide the equipment that we need for our preferred course of action. Jesus is not just a useful friend for special problem occasions. He asks us to put all of our life at his service. The Church will be stronger when it is not powerful in human terms, when it reveals God's glory and not our own.

My comfort is the most important thing when it comes to decision making. But that model stifles our call to greatness and holiness.

Thirdly, this story challenges our modern culture. The consumerist model says that we know best in all circumstances and that we should be entitled to avoid any problems that cause us stress or difficulties. My comfort is the most important thing when it comes to decision making. But that model stifles our call to greatness and holiness. It is in facing storms and our fears that we grow, not by avoiding them. If we begin with the assumption that life should be easy, then we spend our lives complaining when things go wrong or taking shortcuts that pamper us and keep us childish. If we begin with the assumption that relationships are probably temporary, then we get stranded in shallow waters and run when problems arise. If we are afraid of putting out into deep, we will catch nothing and keep fishing in the wrong places. If we do not have heroes who are prepared to spend their sweat for the good of others, we will never see human greatness. If scoring goals and being famous for being famous is all we can expect, no wonder many young people wonder what life is all about and whether it is worth living. The really wonderful people that we know are those who have come through great storms. When the going gets tough, the tough get going - and tinsel-town role models get offside because they have nothing to offer except self-serving make-believe. A version of the faith that guarantees success on our terms has little to do with Jesus. Faith is a call to model ourselves on divine heroes, not human ones.

This Gospel story is not just a tale from the past. It is a story for every generation because it deals with the human experience of life and of God. Jesus encounters us where we are in the midst of our fears. The phrase Do not be afraid occurs hundreds of times in the bible, where people encounter God. We grow when we acknowledge those fears that threaten to paralyse us. We grow when we can stop being afraid of being afraid. We grow when we believe that God has a dream for us, not despite the storms but precisely because of them. We grow when we can contemplate the mystery of God in our midst. It was that sort of encounter which inspired St Paul in our second reading to give everything for his fellow Jews that they might come to know Jesus as he had. Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.

+ Donal McKeown

Sunday's readings can be found at Universalis Publishing. Click here to view. 

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