A Fish of a Different Color

When I was in first grade, I was invited to go fishing with my friend Michelle and her parents. As a city kid growing up in a neighborhood of mostly asphalt and concrete, I was thrilled when my mom said yes and we made our way an hour and a half south to their favorite fishing spot. It was a beautiful fall day, much like today, and I remember the sun’s warmth and the coolness of the breeze. There was also that depth-of-shadow thing that happens in the fall—maybe because the sunlight is so intense, the shadows are so dark they look like pools of water you could just jump into.

Michelle’s dad parked the car by the side of the road and we grabbed coolers, chairs, and fishing poles and followed a path across an open field into a thicket of trees. Turns out that the trees grew along the edge of a beautiful and wide river, stretching 20 or 30 feet from the bank where I stood. The sunlight filtered through the leaves and lit up ripples on the water; the water was so clear you could see the multicolored pebbles on the bottom. And, occasionally, a fish.

I don’t know if you can remember back to a time when you didn’t know how to fish, but I can tell you that at the age of 7, I knew literally next to nothing. The only time I’d had a fishing pole in my hands prior to that was the year before when my mom had courageously taken us to Raccoon Lake. In my first fishing attempt, I’d stood up in the boat—scaring everyone half to death—and then proceeded to catch the seat of my pants with my fishing hook. So it would be fair to say nobody expected much to come of my fishing abilities.

Michelle’s parents were very kind and quiet, and I’m sorry to realize now that I no longer remember their names. Several of the sweetest memories of my childhood were made during times I spent at their house. But here, by the river, Michelle’s mom showed me how to put a worm on a hook: “I’ll just watch you,” I said. With the poor pierced worm still wiggling, she dropped the hook into the water and handed the pole to Michelle. We sat together in peaceful silence, Michelle gently waving her line in the water, until something tugged—twice, three times—on the unseen hook. Her dad helped her reel in her catch, and with expert handling, a round little fish was soon plopped into the water waiting in the cooler.

I was fascinated. Where the cooler was sitting, a few sunbeams shined directly into the water, illumining that little fish in a burst of color that looked like a rainbow. I studied and studied him, watching him swim back and forth, captivated by the rainbow colors and the intricacies of his scales and fins. I felt awe: He was most wonderfully made. I said something along the lines of, “This is the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen!” and Michelle’s dad told me it was a sunfish. Whatever he was—and I must say, the sunfish has been my favorite fish ever since, although (you may not be surprised to learn) I have never caught another one. I thought he was gorgeous and sweet and I began to worry that he was confused and missing his family. I was very relieved when, at day’s end, Michelle’s parents poured all the fish they’d caught back into the beautiful river, freeing those they’d captured to carry their tales of brave adventure back to all their fishy families.

What a beautiful thing it was to be included in a day so wonderful even though I was a fish out of water myself. As you can probably hear, I wasn’t much good to anyone in a fishing sense. The little sensitive being that I was—and am–I was unable to do anything I thought might cause pain to another creature. I couldn’t put a worm on a hook—I could too vividly imagine how it would feel to have a giant hook put into me! I also felt bad for the fish who had simply lunged for a tasty morsel, thinking “life is good!” and then discovered the painful betrayal of a metal hook instead.

Some of our simplest and most profound joys can come from our deep interactions with nature. If you can remember feeling that sense of wonder and delight—a sense of magic, really–that arrives with the first lightning bugs in the spring, or you marvel at the speed and agility of hummingbirds or love the grace with which deer cross your path, you are in touch with that sense of reverence, that deep felt sense appreciating the kinship of all life at the center of our souls. At that deepest point of peace, we aren’t a bunch of separate species and factions, struggling for dominance: we are simply life living, happy, peaceful, in touch with that good sense of what it means to be alive.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, we hear Job answering the unhelpful criticisms of his unhelpful friends as he sits in despair after everything good in life has been taken away. You may remember this part of the story: Job’s friends each think they are offering wisdom and counsel on how to respond to the terrible calamities that have come into Job’s life, and we know they have really missed the point. Their suggestions show they envision a stern, vengeful God, a God fixated on his own glory and righteousness. But Job knows a different God, a God of mercy and power, a God who is truth and light and cares for those who seek to do good and keeps all the systems of life in harmony. It is in defense of this God Job knows so well, this God that has placed wisdom in all of creation, that he says,

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”

What I hear so clearly in these verses—and I think this is one of the seeds of Job’s frustration with his proud and righteous friends—is that we need humility if we would be open to receiving wisdom from the world around us. Doesn’t it change the way we look at things, if we let a squirrel to teach us something, or let growing corn show us a new thing about God’s love? What if a fish can introduce us to the spiritual quality of beauty or a rock can demonstrate how to be calm and steady in a trying time?

This rich and tender connection will be possible only if we realize that God has given everything living an innate intelligence, a way to navigate and see and feel the world. More and more we are learning about the genius of living systems that we previously overlooked; the way trees form a community and nurture and share their food, even caring for their sick. The way elephants can recognize each other’s voices and footsteps up to six miles away. A recent research project showed that fish recognize peoples’ faces and can even pick their favorite humans out of a crowd. And—just this week (remember how stories always show up to help with the messages I’m preparing?)—in my news feed was a story of a Japanese man who cares for an underwater Shinto shrine, and he and a large fish that lives nearby have been friends for 25 years. Each time he goes to care for the shrine he and the fish greet each other with a big kiss. For 25 years! That’s not a fluke of nature. That’s intelligence. That’s heart. That’s wisdom. That’s God.

The kind of humility that opens our hearts to the sacred presence and gifts of other living beings takes humankind off the pedestal at the apex of creation and puts us in a shared and reciprocal relationship with all life. This is a hard idea for many to accept—most people have not been raised that way–and it is one of the sticking points at the center of our planet’s climate crisis. If we are open to hearing God’s wisdom in the trees and animals, fields and seas, we will feel called to love, respect, and care for the living systems around us. It’s that simple. If we believe ourselves to be more important than other forms of life, we are more likely to think the outer world is there for our use. As a result, we may see everything around us as an object—fish, animals, plants, and minerals alike—and in the worst and most extreme cases, even people. Everything that is “not us” is there simply for our entertainment or enrichment.

The story we heard from the New Testament is a fascinating and funny account that is frankly a bit hard to believe. It gets counted among the miracles Jesus did that demonstrated he had power over nature—it ranks right up there with turning water into wine and feeding the 5,000 and cursing that poor fig tree. In this story, one of the tax collectors asked Peter whether Jesus paid the temple tax. When Peter gets back to the house, Jesus brings it up, even though there was no mention that he was with Peter when the question was asked. How did Jesus know? That could be a miracle in itself: omniscience.

Jesus then uses a bit of a parable to ask Peter whether he thought they owed the tax. In short, the story says that a king doesn’t require his children to pay taxes; the children are free. As children of the living God, Jesus seems to imply, there is no tax on us. However, so as not to disturb or disrespect the established order, he sent Peter on a fanciful journey that was to end with another miracle. He was instructed to throw out a line and in the mouth of the first fish he caught, he would find a coin with enough value to pay the temple tax for them both.

Is it possible Jesus is telling a fish tale here? How amazing would that be to simply forecast such a thing and make it happen? Truly a miracle beyond our expectations or experience. Unfortunately the end of the story is left open–Matthew doesn’t tell us whether Peter did in fact find the fish just as Jesus said. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been there on the beach that day, close enough to see Peter’s skeptical expression as he cast his line into the water and pulled up the first fish he caught? Was Jesus standing behind him, hands on hips, laughing loudly as Peter, astonished, opened the fish’s mouth and pulled out a coin?

It is possible that Jesus sent Peter back to the sea for a reason, back to the place where they first met, where Jesus initially called him to be a fisher of men. Perhaps the coin in the fish’s mouth provides a both/and kind of answer for the question of how we are to live in this real world while still deeply living a spiritual life. Use the skills your life has given you could be one message we and Peter could take from this, valuing our knowledge and experience and letting them connect to the world in a way that shares God’s light. But perhaps another—and maybe even more important—message is, remember to stay open to the mystery and miracle all around you. It is everywhere, if we have the eyes and heart—and humility—to see it.

I must tell you that the inspiration for this week’s message came last Sunday when Karla and I were talking during fellowship time after meeting for worship. She asked me what I’d done that was fun last week, and I told her about the great and fancy new light I got for my 29-gallon aquarium. I’ve had the same fish for years and years; my Plecostomus is probably 11 or 12 years old by now and at least 8-inches long. I went on excitedly—in my nerdy way—about the little remote control that came with the aquarium light and how I can increase or decrease not only the light intensity itself (to 25, 50, 75, or 100 percent), but I can also change the amount of white light or blue light being cast into the water.

Karla made the comment that the fish most likely don’t care about this new feature as much as I do. And I realized in that moment how happy it makes me to see them vibrant, alive, well-cared for in their well-aerated, well-lit, beautiful aquarium home. When I look at the tank, I feel the love and respect and appreciation I have for them, and there is a sense of warm peace and joy that comes from doing my best to care for my housemates. I’m seven years old again, looking into that cooler, and marveling at the beautiful sunfish.

And every bit—every bit of it—celebrates the love, the blessing, the allness and goodness of God.

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