Proper 14 Trinity IX Year A Sunday 9 August 2020
Mood swings and faith
This time of Covid is a time of mood swings, a time when even people whose emotional weather is generally mild and sunny find themselves disturbed by items in the news and by the high degree of uncertainty about the future and by the fears about the safety of those closest to them that we are all experiencing; a time when it is very important to know what can lift your spirits and to resort to that, whether it’s exercise, music, time out in nature, baking, or the prayer that can accompany any of those activities. It is also a time when faith may be challenged and when we may be tempted, in those down moments, to fall into the trap of judging our faith in the light of our current mood.
Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures has the prophet Elijah experiencing a massive downward mood swing. He’s recently experienced a very big high – his triumph over the prophets of Baal on the summit of Mount Carmel when God vindicated him by sending fire from heaven – but now Queen Jezebel has ordered his death and he has fled into the wilderness, fearful and depressed. He has journeyed to Mount Horeb, the place of Moses’ encounter with God, the place where he received the Ten Commandments, and has bedded down in a cave. He is so depressed that he is exaggerating how bad the situation is. When he says that the prophets have been killed and that he alone is left, he is forgetting that King Ahab’s steward Obadiah has hidden one hundred of the prophets in a cave, fed them and saved their lives.
Elijah is told that he too will have an encounter with God, but the encounter is not what he expects. God is not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire, not in the transformative and destructive forces which can reshape nature and destroy people. Rather, to hear what God is calling him to do, he first has to listen to what the King James Bible calls a “still small voice”, the “still small voice of calm” of which the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote. It’s interesting to note that “still small voice” is a mistranslation, and the New Revised Standard version – “a sound of sheer silence” – is apparently more faithful to the original Hebrew. And out of the “sound of sheer silence” comes not some dramatic intervention by God. Instead God tells Elijah to pass on the burdens of political leadership and prophetic ministry – a gentle reminder that it doesn’t all depend on him and that a part of his vocation is to prepare those who will come after him. He is also reminded that God works through human beings, knowing their mental and physical frailties and remaining faithful to them, whatever their mood.
We who know that all human relationships have their ups and downs should also remember that they need not, unless a relationship is abusive, be judged or defined by the downs. God does not judge us by our downs or reward us for our ups. God sees us whole and is lovingly faithful to us.
There will, of course, be times when faith is difficult to sustain; times when it seems impossible to sustain. Peter seems to experience one of those moments in today’s Gospel, but the story of his attempt to walk on water is often misunderstood. When Jesus identifies himself with the words “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”, Peter only half believes him. His request to Jesus is conditional – “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” That conditionality shows that his faith at this point was not secure. He is putting Jesus to the test. For a little while he is able to walk on the water, but then he notices the strength of the wind. His mood changes from one of hope and growing faith to one of panic and fear and he begins to sink.
Misreadings of this story are often based on Jesus’ words, rather than on what Jesus does. Jesus says: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Too many sermons have been preached suggesting that if Peter had had more faith, he wouldn’t have panicked and his walk on the water would have continued. The point at which Peter doubted was not, however, the moment when he became fearful and began to sink, but somewhat earlier in the story, when he responded to Jesus’ words of reassurance by saying “Lord, if it is you...” What Jesus does for Peter in this Gospel story is more important than what he says to him and comes before it.
“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him...”
Faith is not about a constant and unswerving belief in God. Even Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, was not capable of that. Nor is it about believing that if we have enough faith the laws of Physics and Biology will be altered in our favour so that we will be able to walk on
water or be immune from illness. Rather, to quote the New Testament scholar Eugene Boring, a man whose commentary on Matthew is much more stimulating than his surname might suggest: “Faith is...daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.”
With us, too, in the ups and downs of our moods; faithfully with us in the time of despair that Elijah experienced and the moments of fearful doubt that the Apostle Peter knew.