The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2017 – Cycle A
1 Kings 19:9, 9:11-13 Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33
Have there been times and seasons of your life that you felt exhausted and discouraged – alone; wondering if what you are doing in life makes any difference in the grand scheme of things or if anyone cares?
How many loads of laundry have you washed? How much paper have you pushed? How many homilies have you preached? How often have you moved the lawn? How many reports have you had to fill out?
How many classes have you taught? How many directions have you had to give? How many funerals have you attended? How many times have you had to repeat yourself to a deaf spouse or parent? How many meals have you prepared? How many meetings have you attended? How many IVs have you checked? How many emergency calls have you answered? How many times have you answered a phone?
Do you ever question if it is worth continuing? I expect we all do, and yet we continue, don’t we.
Both prophets of God, Jesus and Elijah knew these feelings of discouragement, of self-questioning and being alone with themselves.
All those Jesus stories of God’s kingdom that we have heard the past Sundays, the sower and the seed, the weeds and the wheat, the mustard seed, the yeast; did anyone in the crowds understand them? The section ends with “When Jesus finished, he went away from there.” [Matthew 13:53] Do we get what Jesus has been trying to say through these stories? Jesus goes back home to Nazareth where they reject him. “And Jesus did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.” [Matthew 13:58] And then Jesus hears of the execution of John the Baptist. How can he not wonder if Herod Antipas is not coming for him next? Remember another Herod, Herod the Great, tried to kill him as a child.
Can we understand why today Jesus sends the people and disciples away and goes up the mountain to pray? Matthew observes, “He was there alone.” There is a sense of isolation but not just a physical aloneness but an interior discouragement. Jesus is tired.
Then there is the fiery prophet Elijah. By tomorrow, Queen Jezebel has threatened to take his life for having killed all her prophets of the god, Baal. King Ahab, the people of Israel have not listened to his preaching and so he flees into the desert and prays for death, “This is enough, O God!” His feelings of discouragement and sense of failure and worthlessness are so great. Elijah is tired.
Discouraged, alone, self-questioning, disheartened Elijah and Jesus go to prayer. Because we are not privy to Jesus’ prayer, his isolation is emphasized. “He was there alone.” Elijah is alone in the cave as well but it is not his prayer that we hear but God voice as – “a sound of sheer silence”.
Silence is not just the absence of words or sounds. Silence can be painful because it can cause a person to second guess the situation; feel even more isolated. We’ve all given and experienced “the silent treatment”. It is silence used as a weapon. The spiritual experience of Jesus and Elijah was different. Here silence is filled with presence because it is an encounter. The encounter of a finite human being and the infinite God – “a sound of sheer silence”. Like spouses lying together on a couch; what words can speak more eloquently than being in each other’s arms, looking into each other’s eyes? We know we are not alone. So it is with our relationship with God.
When we are feeling tired and discouraged, worthless and aimless, enter deep silence. That is difficult to do in our culture when we are continually immersed in sound. Remember God is not present nor does God speak in mighty winds, through earthquakes or a crackling fire. God is not in the loud and brash nor the flashy and attractive but in “a sound of sheer silence” where we can hear a whispering voice deep within us.
I am reminded of the shock and disappointment when people learned through the letters of Saint Teresa of Kolkata that she did not feel Christ’s presence for the last half of her life. Yet like Elijah and Jesus she prayed daily and continued on in her ministry. Such feelings were experienced by the spiritual author Henri Nouwen, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Anthony of the Desert, and Saint John of the Cross. They all entered the “sound of sheer silence” and they invite us to do the same.
Out of this silence, Elijah is directed by God to anoint kings and prophets and be a thorn in the side to Ahab and Jezebel until he is taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot. Jesus appears in the middle of the night to his disciples walking on water to continue healing and preaching until he is lifted up into heaven on his cross. In your times and days of discouragement and being tired, what is God calling and strengthening you to continue doing?