Salmon and penguins sermon
Sermon delivered by the Reverend Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
at St. James Church in Florence, Italy
There is a fish in America which I think everybody also likes to eat here: it is the salmone, the salmon. Like a lot of other fish and animals, it has an interesting lifespan. It’s born in a certain place: in the water, like all fish. Fish are laid from eggs, and the eggs hatch, and then the little fish grow up and go away. The mother fish are not very maternal. Fish don’t really see their mothers ever again; they just go off and live their fish lives for a couple of years. And then, when the time comes for them to lay eggs themselves, they have to go back to the place where they were born. In order to do this, they have to swim upstream, against the current of the river, which has got to be hard, even though fish are good swimmers, because the current is strong When people want to catch salmon, that’s what they do: they go to the river and they catch the fish swimming upstream. You can see them leaping out of the water, they swim so hard, and the fishermen catch them that way. And then when they get to the place where they were born, they lay their eggs and then they die. That’s the end of them. But they have to go back to that place where they were born.
Recently, two or three years ago, there was a film that you may have seen, called March of the Penguins. A wonderful film, just so wonderful in many ways: fascinating, but also tragic, and very exciting. These penguins, who are birds although they can’t fly, can walk pretty well and swim very well. They are born in a place and then they grow up and walk away. They walk for miles and miles. Then they swim the rest of the way, miles and miles. But then when it is time for them to lay their eggs, they go back to the place where they were born. And it’s miles, again, hundreds of miles. And it’s frozen. But they all go at the same time. How they know to go, who knows? This herd of birds huddles together against the terrible cold. Many of them die because it’s so long, and so hard, and so cold. And then, when they get there, they lay their eggs and hold them in a fold of skin underneath their stomachs to keep them warm. And they stay there. And, since there’s no food there, the males go off and get food, leaving the ladies with the eggs. Then, when the males have eaten a lot, and come back all that way, the ladies go and eat and the males take the eggs and keep them warm for the rest of the time. It’s quite a production! But they have to go back to this place. They can’t seem to lay an egg in the new home. They can’t seem to do the thing that makes them themselves in their new home.
I think all of us know a little about that, actually. Here we are, so many of us in a place that is new to us. Maybe a place we didn’t grow up in. We meet the people who were born here in Florence, we meet them, some of us marry them, have Florentine children with them. But this isn’t our birthplace. It isn’t the place that gave the memories that we have. It’s not the place where we were born. That place was Africa. It was Nigeria. It was Australia. It was India, it was America, it was England, it was Ireland, it was Scotland. It was some other place. It was Ecuador, it was Spain. Our memories are of another place.
Lots of times at this time of year, we — like the fish and like the penguins — try very hard to go home. To go back to that place where we were born. People tried to go there yesterday and the day before, but the airport was fogged in and they couldn’t get there. And so they stayed here in this new place. They could not go back to the place that brought them their memories, the ones they carried into adulthood.
We brought our memories to this new place. Made new traditions. Made new customs. Made new wonderful things. Made new families, in a way. Not the old family of origin that gave us birth, but the new family of friendship and community. We made a new one, so now we have two families: the one where we’re from and the one where we are.
Maybe the human being is more adaptable than the penguin or the fish. Maybe the human being can do a new thing. Maybe the human being doesn’t need to keep doing the old thing. In fact, lots of times when we try to do the old thing in the old way with our new selves in our new place, when we try to buy some American food and we see that in Florence a can of pumpkin costs five euro, when it costs less than a dollar at home, we say, You know, maybe I don’t need to eat pumpkin here. I guess I should eat something else here. Maybe I don’t need to be old here. Maybe I need to be new here.
It’s hard to be new all the time. I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought of that. They weren’t from Bethlehem. His people had been from Bethlehem a long time ago, and that seemed to the Romans to be a good enough reason to send a pregnant lady and her husband all through God’s green earth to get back to a place where people he had never met had lived. And off they went. I cannot think that Mary thought that was the best of all possible ideas, in her condition. It had been a while since she had seen her own feet. She was not feeling well, I am sure. The last thing they wanted to do was go to a strange place. Probably they wanted to stay in their own little town, the town of Nazareth. But no, it was time to go to the new place, and off they went. And later on, to a place newer still in the story that we have. They go off to Egypt, where neither one of them had ever been nor had anyone in their families ever been. Off we go, to new places where we’ve never been.
By definition, the new place is uncomfortable. You may like it, you may think it’s beautiful, you may want to stay here. You may want to become part of it. But at the beginning, it’s not comfortable to be here. It takes some time to grow that new family. To grow that new circle of friends and loved ones. It takes time for that new place to become part of you.
Christmas, of course, is the time that we think about both our families. The old one, the one we miss, the one that’s gone forever. Maybe those dear old people have been dead for years. Maybe if you could go back home, there’d be somebody else living in your house now. Your town’s completely different now. And you realize, I can’t go home again. And maybe the new place has become more comfortable than the old. And when you go home and try to live in the old way and can’t, and you come back here, you think, OK, this is a relief, actually. I guess I do belong here. And in a secret place of you, you realize that there are ways in which you don’t belong anywhere. And there are ways in which you belong everywhere.
Jesus comes to redeem the whole earth. Every bit of it. Every bit is redeemed. There’s not one piece of the whole universe that is not part of what Jesus is doing. Jesus redeems every last inch of it. Some of us are slower to get that message than others. Some of us act for a long time — maybe our whole lives — like we haven’t been redeemed at all. But all of us have. All of us can be at home wherever we are.
And so, if you didn’t make your plane, or you missed your train, or if you can’t get through on the phone, or the e-mail doesn’t seem to be working; if you don’t have a place to go, or you do, if you know where you’re meant to be or you’re not yet sure exactly where your place is, know that wherever you go, you bring Jesus with you. This little baby. He can go anywhere with you, and he does. And he makes you a home. If he has to do it in a stable, he will,. And wherever else he has to do it, he is more than equal to the task.
And now unto God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, dominion, glory and power, from this day forward and forevermore.