Last Sunday the Gospel was the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Jeff Ross, the Rector of all Lewes,the little city by the bay and the big water, preached a fine sermon. We were joined at 8 o'clock by the esteemed bishops Gene Robinson and Jack McKelvey, Bishop Robinson was celebrant and Bishop McKelvey sat, as I did, in the congregation. We were well fed.
Yesterday, being goof-off Monday, I went fishing. In forty-five minutes I caught a nice mess of croaker and spot. Not enough for five thousand, not a real miracle, but a fine catch none the less.
In all the romance of fishing, miracles and the like, no one talks much about cleaning fish. Particularly in hot weather when the hope is that the fish are brought to the cleaning table still alive. So right off, at the cleaning table, we must deal with the reality that the miracle of the fish, as something eaten, requires the death of the fish, and the reality that someone had to do the killing.
Now it turns out that croaker don't go easily, not if they are lively when brought to the cleaning table. They flop around, they look you beady in the eye, they seem to know the knife is not their friend and and the cleaner is not either. The skill in a quick death is learned, and the difference between doing a good job and a botched one is apparent. The whole fish cleaning thing requires right thought and right action.
I've cleaned fish from the time I first learned to catch them. My grandfather, Cap Eldredge, made sure that I understood - if I caught them, I cleaned them. And while he was a woodsman and no romantic about it, he required that we have sharp knives and a quick hand so that suffering was minimal. No intentional cruelty was permitted.
So I understood, if I want the miracle of fish to eat, it comes with a price. To eat the fish I had to kill the fish and clean it.
No big deal, not really.
And yet yesterday when my knife was not sharp enough and I botched the first decapitation, I knew. The price of those two fish for the crowd, or my seven fish, is death, and spiritually the price is also about the kind of death I caused. So I said, "I'm sorry" to the fish when I botched the job and quickly cut through with greater care. And then sharpened my cutting knife, and the rest went well.
Except of course for the heads. They fall into the sink, and for the next few moments the mouths continue to move and the gills keep gasping. It is clear, cleaning fish is a small way into knowing that the miracle of the food on our plate involves death in all its strange and ugly possibilities.
Provided it doesn't make one a vegetarian (not a bad choice) it also opens out into a kind of delight and joy, a sort of resurrection, for the food is incorporated into our own energy and body. And, the fish tastes sooooo good.
Grilled with just a bit of butter,the flesh sweet, tender yet firm, the dead fish becomes an amazing simple meal shared with friends. Death serving life.
My sense is that we need to thank the fish before we clean it, say "I'm sorry" when we botch a kill or cleaning, not waste the fish, and eat with joy and satisfaction, thanking the fish, the cleaners, the cooks, and our mouths, and God who is in death and life alike, in every death that comes so that others might have life and that abundantly.
The miracle is when death serves life. That is a miracle. Works for fish, works for Jesus, works for me.
The sadness is when life serves death, and that is obscene.