Brief synopsis of the readings: In the First Book of Kings the prophet Elijah reached Horeb and spent the night in a cave. He was then told to “stand on the mountain before the Lord.” He experienced a mighty wind but “the Lord was not in the wind.” He then experienced an earthquake but the Lord was not there either; nor was the Lord in the fire he saw next. Finally Elijah experienced a gentle breeze and he “covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” Matthew’s Gospel finds Jesus dismissing the crowds and telling his disciples to go out by boat while he went to pray. While he was praying the disciples began to battle heavy winds on the boat. Seeing this Jesus then began to walk on the lake which terrified his disciples. But Peter asked that he be allowed to also walk on the water. Jesus invited him, but as Peter began to walk on the water the increased wind frightened him and he began to sink. When he began to panic Jesus reached out and took his hand and scolded him for his lack of faith. The rest of the disciples proclaimed that he was truly the Son of God.
In our reading of Scripture we find certain powerful images, among them wind. In Genesis 1:1 we read about a “mighty wind” (“ruah” in Hebrew). The movement of air may fascinate us but sometimes we can fall into the trap of believing that the stronger the wind, the more important the message.
But if our first reading tells us anything it tells us that God’s presence is not measured by the strength of the wind. Sometimes God comes to us in the gentle breeze, a wind that we can easily ignore.
And we see that again and again. God chose an infertile couple (Abraham and Sarah) to found the faiths of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. When Moses expressed doubt that Pharaoh would listen to him, God assured him that Moses would triumph. Several prophets insisted that God should have chosen someone else but even today we read their messages.
This continues to today. A few years ago I met a sailor who served on the USS California during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was an ordinary sailor from an ordinary family who was wrapping Christmas presents for his family when he recognized they were under attack. His ship took torpedoes and began to sink. But the quick thinking of a few sailors allowed the ship to stay afloat. The attack happened before anyone raised the American flag, and this ordinary sailor recognized its importance and raised the flag. When he told me this story I suggested that for those on the USS California, and indeed all of Battleship Row, this was the first sign of hope, the first sign that we would survive this attack and overcome the attempt to defeat us. His eyes filled with tears as he listened to my words. A few weeks later he died with this awareness. And raising the flag was the gentle breeze that made all the difference.
On the other hand our Gospel doesn’t begin with a gentle breeze. Sailors from our very beginnings talk about the need for a moderate, sustained wind. Before the invention of steam engines ships required that wind. If there was no wind it was called the “doldrums” and they could only row their way out of it. But a strong wind created fears of death if the ship capsized or sank. As I write this in San Diego we are all praying for seven Marines and one Sailor who are missing when their amphibious craft sank a few days ago.
Given the tempestuousness of bodies of water it’s not surprising that Jesus’ walking on water got everyone’s attention. And even the experience of Jesus walking on water does not find itself without controversy: among others Thomas Jefferson denied that this even happened. He and other Christians of his time claimed that Jesus walked on fog covered land because a God who created both the Universe and Universal Physical Laws would never violate them. They denied the existence of miracles like this one.
And yet we believe. The phrase “walked on water” has become a metaphor for brilliance. If a coworker gives a presentation and you asked how it went, another coworker may state: “Are you kidding? She walked on water!” We all understand that it meant it went exceptionally well. It’s even made its way to the world of humor. American President Lyndon Johnson once quipped: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: President Can’t Swim.”
So why did Jesus do so well walking on water and Peter didn’t? Well it’s easy with Jesus. President Jefferson aside, Jesus is the Son of God and this type of miracle shouldn’t surprise anyone. But Jesus then invited Peter to join him and (God love him) Peter tried. But he grew afraid when the wind picked up.
By why the wind? Why shouldn’t Peter have been more concerned with the water? In any case he began to sink and grew afraid. Only when Jesus reached out was Peter safe.
Homilists all over the world this weekend will claim that these readings should be understood through the lens of “when the wind and sea grow dangerous, reach out to Jesus.” And there is truth in that, but I think there is a deeper truth.
Peter and the other disciples, in a sense, paid too much attention to the strong wind. In a crisis we should reach out to Jesus. But that’s not the only time we need to reach out to Jesus. Like Elijah we need to also listen to the “tiny, whispering sound.” It was that tiny, whispering sound that called that navy sailor to raise the flag on the USS California and it calls to us today.