This sermon was delivered by the Rev. Bob Sweet on July 18, 2004, our first aniversary as a United Methodist Church. It helps provide a little insight as to why we call ourselves "The Catfish Church".
The Wonderful Catfish
On this day when we are celebrating our one year anniversary as a United Methodist Church, I find myself in somewhat of a dilemma. For sometime I have felt compelled to say a word about catfish and catfishians. The catfish has become the symbol of our church but when I turn to scripture I can find
absolutely nothing in the Bible about catfish.
As much as I wish he had Jesus did not say in the gospel of Mark "Follow me and I will make you catfishers of men."
Jesus did not say in Matthew "Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a catfish." And neither did the disciples say "We have here only five loaves and two catfish."
Nowhere does it say that the disciple's nets were breaking because they caught a great number of catfish.
And in the Old Testament as much as Dr. John and David's Catfish House wish he had, Isaiah did not say "Those who eat catfish will renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings of eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Wouldn't that sell some catfish plates!
What I am saying is that I don't have a particular scripture this morning. But it is my prayer, that maybe somewhere within what I say today, we might find a word from God.
You cannot be a member or even a guest of Providence United Methodist Church and not notice the catfish. The catfish takes a prominent place on the cover of our bulletin. The name of our wonderful weekly newsletter is called the Catfishian. The catfish is on the coffee cups that you received today and that guests to our church will receive. The catfish is on the shirts we will be wearing. We will probably forever be known as the catfish church. The catfish is the symbol of our church.
What does this symbol mean? It has to mean more than the fact that we have roots in a catfish restaurant that Dr. John so graciously made available to us. Symbols are powerful things. Symbols have a way of giving meaning to so much of our life. The Christian life is full of symbols. Symbols convey a meaning in ways that words cannot. When you hug someone, or shake their hand. That symbolic gesture says things that words cannot adequately. If I were to suddenly spit on this simple design made of colored yarn, you would throw me out of here. Symbols represent or re-present a greater reality. You see this symbol, you see America. Sooo, I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about catfish.
Of course we know that the fish has long been a symbol of the Christian faith. The story goes that the symbol was used among ancient Christians as a type of password during times of persecution by the Roman government. If two strangers met and were unsure whether each other was a Christian, one would draw an arc in the earth like. . If the other were a Christian, they would complete the symbol with a reverse arc forming the outline of a fish.
Another link between the fish and the Christian faith is in the Greek word for fish, ichthus, which is spelled in Greek like this . These letters form an acrostic for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior" So we know the fish is already a Christian symbol.
But there is something different about our Christian fish symbol. It has a very distinguishing feature. What is it? Of course, it is the whiskers. As Bruce Ratcliffe reminded me this week¯whiskers are what make catfish, catfish.
Those whiskers perform some very important functions for the catfish, not the least of which is that the whiskers enable the catfish to find its way in the darkness, to find its way when things get muddy. Don't we find ourselves walking in darkness from time to time? Doesn't life get muddy at times? Maybe when we look at the catfish with those whiskers we will remember that we are never alone¯that we serve a God who helps us find our way in darkness and troubled times.
When I look at a catfish, I think of humility. The catfish is not a glamour fish. No one I have ever known has ever mounted a catfish. In all the bait and tackle shops I have ever been in, I cannot recall ever seeing a catfish mounted on the wall. David's Catfish restaurant does not even have a catfish mounted on the wall.
Reminds me of a little children’s book, The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. It is about the most beautiful fish in the water. His scales were every shade of blue, green, and purple with sparkling silver scales mixed in. He was very beautiful, but he was also very selfish and self-centered. He was so beautiful that he thought he was too good to play with the other fish in the ocean.
One day a little blue fish asked Rainbow Fish for one of his beautiful, shimmering scales -- but he refused. Because of his selfishness, he was very unpopular with the other fish. He was not only the most beautiful fish in the ocean, he was also the loneliest fish in the ocean.
He told Starfish about his problem and Starfish sent him to talk to a wise old octopus. The octopus told Rainbow Fish that if he wanted to be happy, he should give one of his beautiful scales to each of the other fish. Rainbow Fish just could not imagine giving away his beautiful scales.
Once again, the little blue fish asked for one of Rainbow Fish's scales. He hesitated for a moment, but finally pulled off one of his scales and gave it to the little blue fish. When the other fish saw the little blue fish with a shiny scale, Rainbow Fish was surrounded by fish asking for one of his shiny scales. Before he knew it, he had given away all of his shiny scales. Suddenly he realized that although he was no longer the most beautiful fish in the ocean, he was filled with joy and was happier than ever before¯all because he gave away all of his scales.
Interesting. You know what? Catfish have no scales. Maybe when we look at the catfish, we can be reminded that the most important thing is not to be the first, the most beautiful, the smartest, or to be the GREATEST. Maybe when we look upon the plain ole catfish we will be reminded of the words of Jesus when he said, "If you want to be first, you must be last and you must be the servant of all." Which leads to something else about catfish.
When some of you think of a catfish, I know what you are thinking. That they are bottom feeders, scavengers. Now while that is not true of all species of catfish, it is true that some catfish are bottom feeders. When I have had aquariums, I have always had a catfish in the aquarium. Those catfish eat all the gluuck in the aquarium. Don't ask me to spell that.
But what that means to me is that catfish makes the world a better place for others to live. They do things that the rest of the fish are unwilling to do. Maybe when we look at a catfish we will remember that we are called to make the world a better place to live by getting our hands dirty, by doing the things others are not willing to do. We certainly make the world a better place by sharing about the transforming love of Jesus Christ.
Another thing about catfish. Catfish have always been a sign of God's provisions. While you would never know it today with the cost of catfish, Catfish was long known as poor mans food. The Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, who was a contemporary with Martin Luther King, Jr and the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1977 to 1997, came and spoke at the seminary I attended. And I can remember him talking about how in the time of slavery that the slaves were often fed the leftovers from the masters house. It is where the term eating high and low on the hog came from. The slaves ate low on the hog. But he said, Come Sunday, the day of no work, they would go fishing in the river and that night they got to eat, as he said, fillet of the cat. Catfish was and is a staple in a cuisine known as Soul Food. Now that has a spiritual ring to it. Maybe when we look at a catfish we will remember that we as catfishians in particular have been called to be providers to those less fortunate than we. Maybe it will remind of us our purpose of being providers of God's grace in this community. Maybe it will remind us that God provides true nourishment not only for our physical bodies¯but also for our souls.
When I look at a catfish, I think of Mrs. Mildred. Mrs. Mildred is a wonderful lady that I came to know and love when I served the Bethel United Methodist Church. Mrs. Mildred loves to fish, she loves to catfish. She is 76 years old, and walks with a cane, but she can catch catfish with the best of them.
She knew that I loved to fish as well and wanted me to go with her some time. Well it just seemed that something always got in the way. But on my last week there, she made sure we were going to go catfishing together. And so we did, along with her daughter and her great grandson. We went to a catfish farm and fished in one of the ponds, and we caught a huge mess of fish. It was a wonderful morning. Well she went home and cleaned that whole mess because she had invited Rhoda and I over for a catfish dinner with all the trimming. It was an agape feast, a love feast. She wanted to do all of that for us before we left. So when I see a catfish, I think of Mrs. Mildred, and I think about love.
I think about the love of Dr John Deloney who opened up his catfish restaurant to us in the first place, and still does so that we can share an agape feast with each other from time to time. I think about the outpouring of love you have shown me and my family, especially when we have gone through some difficult times. I think about all the ways love has been shown among catfishians. Maybe when we look at a catfish we will remember the words of Jesus when he said to love God with our whole heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
So now when I look at a catfish, I cannot help but think of this wonderful community of faith the Providence United Methodist Church. The catfish church that embodies all that the catfish represents. Relying and trusting in God to guide us especially when times are tough, humility, making the world a better place to live, being providers of God's grace, loving God and our neighbor.
We have gathered to celebrate today, and I hope that we will never again look at a catfish the same. We have gathered to celebrate all that God is and will do in us and through us. And he has already done a lot, catfishians are making a difference in the lives of God’s people.. But the celebration cannot be complete until we remember and celebrate what God has done for us. Our celebration cannot be complete until we honor and remember our very special guest of honor, the head of this church, re-presented to us in the symbols bread and wine.
To show our appreciation for you Rhoda and I would like to serve you this most holy agape meal. A meal where we remember what God has done for us, a meal in which God literally feeds us the grace we need to grow into the catfishians he is calling us to be.
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