August 11, 2002 Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a) Reading II (Romans 9:1-5)
Gospel (St. Matthew 14:22-33)
In the first reading today from the First Book of Kings, we hear about the prophet Elijah going to Mount Horeb. Mount Horeb is the same mountain that we know of as Mount Sinai. It is the place where the people of Israel had gone after they had come out of Egypt, where Moses went up the mountain to get the Ten Commandments. But at that time, God had to show Himself to be the All-Powerful God, and one of the ways He showed Himself to be in power was that there was a strong wind and there was an earthquake and there was fire and there were all these phenomena that took place on the mountain. So now Elijah, a couple of thousand years later, goes up that same mountain and God demonstrates that exact same power - but God was not in all of those things. In other words, the way that the people of old had been able to find God was not the way that Elijah was going to find the Lord. This was important because Elijah was living in a time when the people had gone astray from the Lord.
Now to put things in context, what we have to remember is that immediately before going down to Horeb, Elijah had called all of the people of Israel together on Mount Carmel along with the 450 prophets of Baal. The prophets of Baal called upon their false god and no one answered. When Elijah called upon the Lord, the Lord sent fire from Heaven to consume the bull that Elijah had offered on Mount Carmel. Then all the people seized the prophets of Baal and Elijah slew the 450 prophets. Following this, the evil Queen Jezebel proclaimed that she was going to do to Elijah what he had done to her 450 false prophets, and Elijah, suddenly in fear, runs all the way down to Egypt. He prayed along the way that God would take him and that it would better if he would just die than to have to endure all these things.
He was living in a faithless age, even to the point where it got so bad that Elijah at one point said to the Lord, "I alone am left." The Lord very quickly corrected Elijah and let him know that there were 30,000 people in Israel who had not bent their knee to Baal and that he was not the only one who was faithful to the Lord - there were others, but it was a small number. In our generation today, it is somewhat similar. We live in an age which is relatively faithless. We can look around our neighborhoods and so many people think they are the only good Catholic family in the neighborhood. They look around at what is going on in society and they think - or at least feel like - they are the only ones who are trying to be honest and upright and follow the way of the Lord. It is a lonely walk. Think about what would happen at the time of the prophet Elijah: For 30,000 people in the entire country to be faithful to the Lord means that there was merely one here and one there scattered about the countryside. It was not 30,000 of them gathered together, or even 100 of them gathered together, or even 2 or 3 gathered together in the same place; certainly, in some of the places that would have been the case, but not necessarily.
And the importance of being able to see the context is that God, in the midst of His people, had worked great miracles but the people remained faithless. In our day, God has done nothing different, but as far as the majority of people are concerned, God has been silent: "Where is He in the midst of our suffering? Why doesn’t He care? We've called upon Him and He's not answering." It is because we are expecting to see something extraordinary, and at this point, God is looking at each one of us and simply saying, "I want you to be faithful." We have got it backwards: We are looking at the Lord saying, "But I want You to be faithful. I want You to prove to me that You are here. Work some kind of extraordinary sign! Show Your power! Come down and demonstrate Yourself and fix my problems and avenge me against my enemies!" And the Lord is remaining silent.
At the time that Elijah gathered all the people of Israel at Mount Carmel, there had been a drought for three and a half years. Today, there is a drought of faith. Through the prophets, God said that there would be a drought, not a famine for food and water, but for the hearing of the Word of God. And I submit to you that beyond a drought for hearing the Word of God, there is a drought of living the Word of God among Catholics in our society. If you are going to try to live according to the Word of God, you must trust. We must be like that widow of Zarephath to whom Elijah went. She was about to take the last little bit of flour and the last little bit of oil she had, and she was going to make a little hearth cake for her and her son. Then they were going to die because that was all the food that they had. Elijah said simply, "Do what you have proposed. But first, make me a hearth cake and trust that the flour and the oil will not run out." For more than a year, she continued to make hearth cakes for Elijah, for her son, and for herself - neither the flour nor the oil ran out.
God's grace is not going to run out on us either. We sometimes feel like if we do what we are being asked to do that is going to be the end; we do not have any more strength; we cannot handle it any longer. God does not seem to be answering; we are left out there on our own and we cannot do it. And the Lord is simply saying, "You be faithful and you trust. The grace will be there for you to do everything that you need." Like the little widow of Zarephath, she had one little handful of flour left, and every single day when she reached into that jar, all she had was one handful of flour in there. But just as when Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes for the people (as we saw last week, he started with five loaves and two fishes and fed thousands of people), the Lord's grace is always going to be there in abundance. But it does not appear to be in abundance.
We want to see the power of God at work. We want to see Him rending the rocks. We want to see Him doing mighty deeds. But Elijah heard God's voice in the tiniest little whisper. Peter experienced the same thing, after the fear of the disciples in the boat and crying out as the Lord approached them because they thought He was a ghost walking on the water, Peter says, "Lord, if it is You, bid me to come to You walking across the waters." Jesus simply says to him, "Come." He gets out of the boat and he starts to walk across the water, and then he looks at the wind, he looks at the waves, he looks at all of the turmoil around him - the power of God, one could say, in the wind and the waves. But God was not in the wind and the waves; God was on top of it. But Peter was looking at the mighty deeds and he was looking at all the turmoil around him and he began to sink. He took his eyes off of Jesus standing there silently before him. His ears were focused more on the sound of the wind and the roar that it would make than on the silence of Our Lord as He simply reached His hand out to Peter and said, "Come."
It is no different for us. The Lord has done mighty things in our day and most of us have totally missed it. But He does not have to do mighty works; we already know that He is there. He is asking from us merely to have faith and to trust Him completely, to not panic in the midst of the difficulties that befall us, to not pull into ourselves sort of the way that Elijah did when he said, "I alone am left." And even Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, after seeing the fire of God come down from the sky and consume the sacrifice - this is the same Elijah after whom the king had sent his military three times and Elijah called down fire from the sky and it consumed all the men of the military - yet this exact same Elijah runs away when he was threatened. He had seen the mighty works of God and then he pulled into himself. He took his eyes off the Lord and he started looking at and thinking about himself - and he began to sink. He ran all the way down to the Negeb and he went under a broom tree and prayed that the Lord would kill him. He wanted to die because he could not deal with it. All that he was looking at was himself instead of at the Lord.
If all we are going to look at is ourselves, what hope is there? It is no wonder he despaired and we would do nothing different. Look around America today, we have millions of people looking at themselves - and they are despairing. They are sinking because all they are doing is looking at themselves and all of the turmoil around them. They are sinking. Peter, at least, had the presence of mind at that point to pull the eyes off of himself and cry out, "Lord, save me!" He looked to Jesus at that point and Jesus pulled him up out of the water. We need to learn that same lesson. We need to recognize, first of all, that if we focus on ourselves and on all of our little troubles, we are going to sink. If we become proud and arrogant and we look at ourselves, we are going to sink, we are going to despair, we are going to give up. But if we look to the Lord, there and only there are we going to find our hope.
That is what Our Lord is asking of us right now. In the midst of a society gone astray, in the midst of a life that is filled with turmoil in our society, in the midst of all the noise and chaos that surround us everyday, the Lord is asking us to keep our eyes and our ears and our hearts focused on Him. If we are sinking already, we need to cry out with Peter, "Lord, save me!" And He will pull us up out of the water. But we need to be very careful that we do not do what we have done in the past, that is, to call out "Lord, save me!" and then when He pulls us up out of the water, we say, "Thank You very much," and then turn and walk the other way and put ourselves right back into the chaos. We need to keep ourselves focused on Christ. He has saved us over and over and over, and He will continue to do so. And - thanks be to God! - the ultimate salvation is going to be on the day of death when He will save us from the jaws of hell, as long as we keep our eyes on Him, as long as we continue to walk in faith and have trust.
But if we put our eyes upon ourselves, not only will we despair and sink in this life, but we are preparing ourselves for an eternity of looking only at ourselves - and that is exactly what every soul in hell does. They look at themselves and they despair, and they sink deeper and deeper into the pit. We [need to] learn to focus on Jesus, to listen to the voice that is silent, to look to the hand that reaches out to us and simply says, "Come." He stands before us and says, "Don't look at all the other stuff; just look at Me and come. Come forth; walk upon the waters, walk above the waves. Be still in the midst of all the strong wind that is blowing around you." In our day, God is going to work some incredible things - but not right now. God is asking that the real miracle not be an external one but an internal one. God is working a powerful miracle in the soul of each and every one of us, but it is a silent, tiny whisper. And we need to listen. We need to recognize that we are in the presence of the Lord and that He is right there within each one of us.
The question is do we want to hear His voice? Are we willing to listen to His voice? That is what we need to ask ourselves. That is the ultimate question that is of the greatest importance. Nothing else really matters, nothing else. The Lord is right there. We are not going to find Him in great works outside of ourselves. He has worked those for centuries and still people do not believe. It would not matter if the Lord did some extraordinary thing right before our eyes this morning; we would, most of us, continue on just as we were before. We might be in awe over what He did, but it would not really make a whole lot of difference in any of our lives. The miracle the Lord wants to work is the one in our hearts. He wants to change our hearts. He wants to make us more faithful and more holy. He wants to draw us more perfectly to Himself and call us to union with Himself. He wants us to be able to have that steady faith amidst all of the chaos. He wants us to know that He is present and He wants to change our hearts. And when that miracle happens, we are not going to walk away unchanged - we will be changed forever. We will have our sight fixed solely on Him. We will be able to hear His voice. It does not matter how much noise is around us and how much chaos is there; our ears will be fixed on His voice. Our eyes will be fixed on Him and our hearts will be united to His Sacred Heart. We will come to Him across the water with no fear because we will have complete faith and trust in Him.
For today, we need to cry out, "Lord, save me!" But when He pulls us up, then He is going to ask us to make a change in our lives, not to turn our backs on Him and walk away, but to come to Him, to remain with Him, and to maintain that focus so that nothing will ever separate us from Him again.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.