(It was a great privilege to preach this afternoon at the Installation of a RevGalBlogPal, Pastor Peters. The text was John 21:1-6, and we also heard the poem Fish R Us by Mark Doty, quoted briefly below.)
My father’s Uncle Jew lived in Chincoteague, Virginia, that shrine to wild ponies, a place I loved to visit when I was a little girl. Jew, whose real name was Eugene, started out in life as a noteworthy scamp about town. This Methodist bad boy earned his politically incorrect nickname when he told the headmaster of his school that he couldn’t work off his demerits on Saturday, because he had to go to synagogue. He went on to be a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, who spent most of the 1920’s and ‘30’s living at his mother’s house in an alcoholic haze. But somewhere around the beginning of World War II, when he saw my father grow up and join the military himself, Uncle Jew began a new life. He moved from our hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, to Chincoteague, married a widow well-established in his new community, and, most importantly, he stopped drinking. By the time I came along, he was a community leader in his new town, a happy, retired gent who knew everybody and understood how to make a visit the most fun possible for a little girl.
One summer we went to a carnival, and Uncle Jew saw me eying a pair of goldfish for sale. I remember moonlight, and an exciting sense of something unpredictable and wonderful about to occur. He insisted on buying them for me, although my parents really had no interest in bringing them home. But you didn’t say “no” to Uncle Jew anymore than you said “no” to Aunt Laurie when she insisted on taking the children to see Santa Claus, a great offense against my mother’s sensibilities.
And so we rode home in our great big 1960’s station wagon, the bag with the goldfish in it held carefully for fear of spilling. The fish came to live in a bowl on our mantelpiece. One was black, and one was gold, and I named them Blackie and Goldie.
Now, this isn’t really a story about me or even a story about Blackie and Goldie, who went on to meet the usual belly-up fate of the average household goldfish. It is a story about Uncle Jew, and the hope we all have of being resurrected, of having our broken hopes restored, of suddenly realizing our net is amazingly full of fish.
This Resurrection appearance story, full of elements of stories found in other places and no doubt cobbled together to get one more redactor’s word into John’s gospel, is enormously attractive. Its beginning is so human. It sits in the gospel after the Thomas story, with the Christ who walks through walls, and yet it speaks of the discouragement we all feel when the spiritual high passes and we have to go back to living. Peter decides to go fishing, and his mates follow along with him, perhaps because they don’t quite know what else to do.
On the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, when I visited after Hurricane Katrina, I saw a sepia-toned picture of a man who worked for my host’s family, many years before, as a fisherman. The 1947 hurricane, back in the day before they had names, devastated the fishing community in Gulfport and Biloxi. The day after the storm my host’s father went to see what was left of his boats, and he found Mr. Papadopoulis already there, mending the nets, ready to go back to his work.
So, too, do Peter and his friends return to familiar waters, literally, and to well-worn modes of being. They strip for work and wait for the fish.
And they wait. And they wait. And they wait. And morning comes, and they are still waiting.
Anyone who has ever looked for something they really wanted understands how they must have felt. They don’t know what we know: in just a few verses they will be having one of the best ever “Come to Jesus” moments, eating a breakfast prepared by his own hands.
Meanwhile, down in the water, something else is happening. A perfectly happy population of fish has been going about its nightly fish business, all its members congratulating themselves on avoiding the net.
We may identify with the disciples, but we have also been the fish, caught by surprise, glassy-eyed at the shock of becoming part of some new and overwhelming phase of our lives.
We have been the fish,
shoulder to shoulder
a million of them,
a billion incipient citizens
of a goldfish Beijing,
a Sao Paulo,
a Mexico City.
When I was very little, I did errands with my daddy every Saturday morning. I loved to stop at the bakery, but each time we finished that visit, I felt the dread of going across the street to the fish market, where I was always shocked at the sight of the fish laid out on the ice, one terrible eye staring at me. I thought of Blackie and Goldie at home in their bowl, swimming peacefully and going nowhere.
But these fish had come from the wild water, caught in the net.
On that day long ago, no one stopped to check with the fish. No one screened them to see if they were spot or trout or flounder or salmon or striped bass or red snapper. No one sought to discover their backgrounds or their orientations, their income levels or their marital status. As shocking as it must be to find oneself in the net, it would be that much more shocking as the church to really and truly form our community so randomly, so grace-fully.
And if we think of it that way, perhaps the wild water of a spiritual journey may seem preferable to the calm of the fish bowl.
If *we* are the fish, the metaphor does not end in the net with death. In the net begins our resurrection, our re-creation, our birth into something entirely new, the startling shock at baptism. Those of us who have been ordained likely felt it in the laying on of hands, the weight of all the others pressed against us in a holy moment outside normal reality. All who participate, placing our hands in a gesture of faith and humility and strange exhilaration, are among the fish in the net.
Today we welcome Pastor Peters into our particular net, the bonds of covenant that characterize the relationships of churches and clergy forming the ____ Association. In that mystical and mysterious process by which churches and pastors find one another, Pastor Peters found herself scooped out of the water of her past, pulled into this net, a Fish From Away who is already one of us. From our first meeting her maturity, insight and sense of humor have been a gift to me, and I am grateful to this church for casting the net and bringing her into our midst.
Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No."
He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
(John 21:5-6, NRSV
There is grace in listening to the voice of God and making a change that gives hope, but there is also grace in being swept along, being caught up in an experience bigger than we will ever be. In the net, we find overwhelming abundance, in Christ and in one another. We are God’s fish, and it is good to be in the net together. Amen.