Epiphany 3 January 22, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Sunday, January 22 | Epiphany 3 Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
I was born on an island, an island in the middle of the Columbia River, an island populated by Norwegian fishermen and Norwegian farming women. Four months into her pregnancy, my mother was informed by her physician that her unborn child – that would be me – was resting too far back in the womb and pinching nerves which would complicate the pregnancy. For five months, then, she rested in bed – able to get up and make coffee, go to the bathroom, sort through the mail, eat lunch and dinner with my father – but not much more. Every morning she would find, to her amazement, a freshly caught salmon, trout, or halibut carefully wrapped in paper, placed in a box on the back porch. But, the box changed in size and color from day to day and so it became clear that this was not the work of one person but of many people: the fish a sign of unexpected generosity, of care for a young and anxious mother who did not know what to expect in her first pregnancy. Here, the fish seemed to say, eat and live.
One of the earliest Christian paintings, found in the Catacomb of Priscilla, depicts a group of women and men at a table similar in shape to the altar of this church. On the table there is a loaf of bread, a large wine cup, and two fish. Two fish, you ask, with bread and wine cup? I’ve never seen those appear on our altar. But, then, the memory of Jesus feeding 5000 landless peasants struggling with poverty was clearly remembered in this community and that memory held forth the food economy that Jesus inaugurates in the midst of hunger and scarcity. The disciples, some of them former fishermen, wanted Jesus to solve the problem through the market economy: Send the people away to the villages, they say, and let them buy something there. But purchase something with what? They have nothing. And thus, in the economy of Jesus, bread and fish are shared by members of the community with each other. Rather than relying on the market 2 where one always finds discrimination – the well-off can participate but the poor never have enough – Jesus offers an alternative economy in which the community of his disciples learn to share not only bread and wine but also fish.
Here, in the catacomb painting, the fish on the Christian eucharistic table appears as a question: Who in your biased market economy does not have sufficient food and drink? And, then this: How might the pooling of your food and drink, that is, how might the pooling of your treasure – your fish, as it were – become an act of redemption for anyone who is hungry? If you and I were to travel together to the eternal city of Rome and enter the National Museum, we would find a rectangle of stone that contains a number of fish set next to an anchor in the shape of a cross. Above their moving bodies, we would find, in Greek, this inscription: “the fish of the living.” If it simply read “fish,” we might think it was a child’s primer in elementary Greek: picture + word. But someone added the words, “the living,” – the fish of the living, suggesting that those who are united to each other and swim with each other will live. Thus, the early Christian lawyer, Tertullian, wrote of Christians: “We little fish, with our Great Fish Jesus Christ, are bon in the water, nor are we saved in any other manner than by remaining with our Great Fish.”
Some scholars suggest that the fish speaks of the baptized swimming in the water of a culture filled with larger and predatory fish: a culture marked by ethnic division and rivalry; a swirling sea of violence directed at women, directed at racial minorities, directed at those perceived to be weak and thus easily used and abused. Here is the Great Fish, says the stone, who himself was pierced by violence and yet brought to life by the Creator of Life: swim with him, says the stone, but swim together – together – and live. 3 I wonder, though: do we really swim together? After all, you and I inhabit a culture in which the individual rather than the group holds ultimate value. Indeed, I was surprised but then not surprised when a life-long Episcopalian told me how upset she was when the organist began to play the prelude; how annoyed she was when we all stood to sing a song together – for all this interfered with her personal prayer; how crass it was, she said, to be asked to drink with others from the same cup. I wonder: are we simply a group of individuals who just happen to show up at the same time on the same day but really don’t know each other, don’t know each other’s stories, and thus don’t know each other’s needs and dreams?
Or this: are we happy to welcome newcomers into our school of Christian fish – that is, so long as they endeavor to change nothing about our common life? The gospel of this day indicates Jesus’ love for a community of disciples. But it also demonstrates his need for others to share his work in the world. And what a motley group this community was: a member of the armed insurgency against Rome (Simon the Cananaean), a tax collector who collaborated with Rome, a wealthy woman freed by Jesus from demonic spirits (Mary Magdalene), a fisherman who, in the end, would deny ever knowing him (Peter), a woman of remarkable intellectual capacity who would sit at his feet and absorb his teaching (Mary), a beloved disciple (could Jesus have favorites?), and – among many others - one whose name is synonymous with betrayal (Judas Iscariot).
If you think about it, any director of human resources or personnel worth his or her salt would look at this collection of new recruits and think it a recipe for disaster. And yet – and yet this remarkably diverse, perhaps dysfunctional group of ordinary people were drawn into the waters of his grace, into his commitment to God’s rule of love and forgiveness, of justice and peace, drawn into his unexpected generosity, into his economy of sharing in the midst of much protective hoarding, drawn into that school of metaphorical fish who strive to swim, to live, together rather than each alone. Dear brothers and sisters, I wonder if their world is really all that much different from ours: for you must know that the water of our culture holds large and predatory fish, ethnic division and rivalry, violence directed at women, at minorities, at those perceived to be weak and thus easily abused. And yet, here we are, together, holding to our Great Fish, who will gladly expand in you and me 4 an unexpected generosity, an economy of sharing rather than hoarding, and a welcome to those who will certainly change us, who will enliven us. All praise, I say, to the Great Fish.
Amen. Fr. Samuel Torvend