SINKING DOWN, STEPPING OUT – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A; Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

August 9, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 or 1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b or Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Lectionary for Mass (RC)

1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
Psalm 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14 (8)
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:22-33

Have you ever had that sinking feeling? Many of us know that downward spiral that sometimes accompanies illness or broken relationships, chaos or violence in the world, failure or unemployment, crushing responsibility or loneliness. In today’s Scripture readings we hear of two well known figures who looked for God’s presence when they were sinking down.

The prophet Elijah is a towering figure of the Hebrew Scriptures, taken up at the end of his life in a flaming chariot and expected to reappear “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5). In his prophetic ministry, Elijah clashed mightily with the Israelite king Ahab and his sinister wife Jezebel over the worship of the foreign god Baal. In the passage we hear today, following Jezebel’s threat to have him killed, Elijah has fled for his life in alarm.

As we meet Elijah today (1 Kings 19:9), he clearly had that “sinking feeling.” He had refused even to eat or drink until an angel finally wakes him from sleep and coaxes him into taking nourishment. He feels unappreciated, defeated, isolated. God invites the dejected prophet to await a revelation of the divine presence.

What might Elijah have been expecting as he stood on Mount Horeb, remembering that it was at this very spot that Moses had encountered God in the cloud? Would God be in the wind? No, not in the wind. In the earthquake? No, not in the earthquake. In the fire? No, not in the fire. Not until he heard “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kgs 19:12, NRSV) or “a tiny whispering sound” (RNAB) did Elijah recognize the presence of God.

In today’s Gospel, Peter also has that “sinking feeling.” Terrified first by the wind and turbulence and then by the sight of Jesus—whom the disciples took for a ghost—walking on the water, Peter speaks up and asks for an invitation to join Jesus on the water. Can’t you relate to Peter’s response—boldly stepping out in faith, yet fearfully losing his nerve? Even in his fright, Peter summons the faith to ask for help: “Lord, save me!” (Mt 14:30). As Peter’s fear meets his meager trust, Jesus reaches out and takes him by the hand.

When we reflect on our own experiences of sinking, Jesus’s response to Peter surely rings in our ears: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31) While these words sting a little and feel like a rebuke, they might also be understood as a reminder that we need faith no bigger than a mustard seed to move mountains. This kind of faith is rooted in the knowledge that when we are sinking, God is there. We need just enough faith to recognize the Holy One in the stillness, on the water, in the people around us, or even in some unexpected or surprising way. All that is required is that we then step out in faith and trust that the rest is in God’s hands.

A Hymn for Today: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”

Thomas A. Dorsey, regarded widely as the father of gospel music, wrote this beloved hymn in response to the deep grief he experienced over the death in 1932 of his wife Nettie and their newborn son. The first stanza draws on today’s Gospel story of the storm, and the final line of each stanza evokes the image of Jesus taking Peter by the hand as he is sinking into the sea. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned frequently to this hymn for strength in times of discouragement. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sang it at his funeral and opera singer Leontyne Price sang it at the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson at National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where The Hymn Society office is now located.

Precious Lord, take my hand;
lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light;
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
precious Lord, linger near;
when my life is almost gone,
hear my cry, hear my call,
hold my hand lest I fall;
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When the darkness appears
and the night draws near,
and the day is past and gone;
at the river I stand,
guide my feet, hold my hand;
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Text: Thomas A. Dorsey, 1899-1993

Image Credit: Jesus Walks on the Water, Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, 1684

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.