Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church in Martinez CA on October 18, 2015.
This last July, while participating in a conference at St. Louis University, I visited the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, which boasts the largest mosaic collection in the world. As I walked through the basilica admiring the vibrant colors of the mosaic glass, the breath-taking byzantine architecture which “endeavors to bring God down to earth” (as opposed to the Gothic architecture which “appears to lift the people up to God”), and the various artistic portrayals of King Louis IX, Christ and a host of other saints, I came across a symbol in the North Transept that reminded me of Grace Episcopal Church in Martinez CA. It was the symbol of a golden anchor with a large fish swimming around it.
Parishioner Lester Marks shared with me his research on this symbol, which dates all the way back to the first century CE and can be found among the early Christian catacombs in Rome. Scholars suggest that the fish functions as a symbol for those who have been caught by Christ, the one who empowered the fishermen of Galilee to become fishers of men and women (Matt 4:19). Also, remaining true to their Jewish roots, early Christians loved puns and acronyms and often represented Christ himself with the symbol of the fish, which in Greek is icthus, a word that conveniently and cryptically conveys a comprehensive title for Christ. The iota stands for Iesus (Jesus), the chai for Christos (Christ), the theta for Theos (God), the upsilon for Huios (Son), and the sigma for Soter (Savior): “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior.” Christians still use the sign of the fish today to convey their commitment to Christ by displaying the icthus on the bumper of their cars.
The anchor symbol also held a surplus of meaning, representing the cross, martyrdom, hope in the resurrection and security in Christ in the afterlife. Many scholars think the anchor also functioned as a play on words since the Greek word for anchor (ankura) sounds a lot like the Greek phrase en kurio, which means “in the Lord.” The anchor symbol shows up only once in the New Testament and it happens to be in the Epistle that the Episcopal Church is reading during this season in the lectionary: the Epistle to the Hebrews. In the chapter following the chapter assigned for this Sunday, the author of the Epistle writes, “We have a hope, which is a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that urges us to enter into the Holy of Holies, where Jesus our great high priest has paved the way for us as our forerunner” (Hebrews 6:19).
Now the Holy of Holies was the inner sanctum of the Jewish temple where the presence of God dwelled. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies and only once a year, after performing elaborate rituals involving smells and bells and animal sacrifice. Once in the Holy of Holies, the high priest had to follow more elaborate rituals very precisely. The Jewish people believed that one mistake in the presence of the holy and perfect God could result in instant death. According to legend, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies with a rope tied around his ankle so that if he did make a mistake the other priests could drag out his dead body. This is the awful and awe-inspiring presence of God. And according to Hebrews, Jesus has paved the way for us to enter into this presence so that we can pray boldly and confidently because we know we are anchored by grace through Christ.
The readings this morning offer evidence of this grace that anchors those who pray boldly. There is perhaps no one more bold in prayer than Job who enters the presence of God with all of his honest resentment, bitterness, anger and grief. He curses the day he was born and accuses God of being a sadistic monster among other things (10:3, 16; 16:9; 19:6). He prays boldly and yet remains anchored by grace, which comes to him as a storm theophany that both humbles him and validates him.
The reading from chapter 5 of Hebrews (the chapter building up to the verse about the steadfast anchor) describes Jesus as one who offers up “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” Jesus himself modeled bold prayer by praying in a very non-Episcopalian way, by crying out loud and shedding tears. And the text says, “he was heard because of his reverent submission,” because he was anchored by grace.
And in the Gospel, we read about James and John, the sons of Zebedee or “the Sons of Thunder” as they are referred to elsewhere, who approach their Lord with a bold request, a selfish and presumptuous request, but bold nonetheless. First, they say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Now that takes a lot of chutzpah right there. That might helps us imagine why they may have earned the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” Jesus responds to their brash request with grace, asking, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus does not condemn them for their selfish grasping after power and prestige. Instead, he anchors them in grace. He essentially says, “I understand your desire for power and greatness and I will tell you and show you how to become powerful and great by being a servant to others, even if that means laying down one’s life for others. That is real power and greatness. Now do you still want it?”
The readings invite us to pray boldly, even if that means bringing to God our anger like Job, or our selfish desire for power like James and John, or our doubt, our confusion or our questions. Because of God’s love for us made known in Christ, we can pray with our whole selves, warts and all. We don’t have to be afraid of God’s condemnation or abandonment of us. We might not receive exactly what we have asked for. In fact, often we won’t. Job did not receive much of an answer to his questions. And James and John did not have their request granted. But they were all transformed by new experiences, insights, and revelations of divine love.
One of my favorite theologians (if not my favorite) is the first English theologian. She is a woman known today as Julian of Norwich and, as a 14th century mystic, she knew how to pray boldly. She also knew how to be anchored in grace. In fact, she was an anchoress, which means she lived in a room attached to a church called the anchorhold. Like Job, she brought before the presence of God questions like “Why do you allow so much suffering?” and “Why didn’t you prevent sin and evil from entering the world in the first place?” And in her wonderful book called the Showing, she writes eloquently of God’s responses to her questions. God responded not so much by offering pat answers but by giving her revelations of divine love, by anchoring her in grace, assuring her that “all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
The symbol of the anchor and the fish remind me of this community (Grace Episcopal Church) and they also invite me to be bold in my prayer life because I know that I am secure in Christ. The presence of the divine can be dangerous (as the Jewish priests of the first temple knew). The Scriptures themselves say, “No one can see the face of God and live” (Ex 33:20). When un-anchored in grace, prayer and spirituality can also be very dangerous. I ministered to many patients in the psychiatric wards at the San Francisco General Hospital who were very spiritual and who prayed boldly but seemed to be lost at sea. We need an anchor. And thank God we have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that urges us to enter into the Holy of Holies, where Jesus our great high priest has paved the way for us” by his grace.
Lester Marks wrote, “At Grace Episcopal Church in Martinez, we cherish the anchor and fish emblem that has become the symbol of our parish.” I invite you to continue cherishing the symbol of your parish by praying boldly, especially as you enter this time of discernment with your interim priest. Pray your visions, your hopes, your dreams, your sorrows, your disappointments, and your desires, as ambitious as they may be. You can pray boldly because you are anchored by grace. You are en kurio, anchored in the Lord. Now all of the requests and questions might not be granted and answered in the way we expect, but I guarantee you will be transformed by God’s grace as you experience new insights and revelations of divine love.
The anchor does not keep us down or make us drown. The rope that attaches us to the anchor is long and there is much to explore in the sea of prayer. It is because we are anchored in Christ that we can feel free to explore new depths and horizons, without getting swept away and lost. We can be like the fish in the symbol who might swim out to new waters, but who keep returning to gather together around the anchor of grace because we know that by virtue of our baptism, we are fish that have been caught by Christ and he will keep us safe and secure with a hope that is steadfast and sure. Amen.
 Quote from Catholic Archbishop John J. Glennon (http://www.missourilife.com/travel/the-grand-cathedral-basilica-of-st.-louis/, accessed Oct 17, 2015)