Text of sermon preached by the Revd Phill Ball
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40
I settled down to watch the new film starring Paddington Bear. The film is as warm and welcome as a pair of slippers and you realize as you watch that Paddington Bear is a very important bear.
Michael Bond created Paddington in 1958. He says the inspiration for him came from seeing Jewish evacuee children pass through Reading station from London during the Kinder transport of the late 1930s. These were Jewish Children who had been whisked out of Europe before the Nazis had other plans for them. They were fleeing War and persecution, and as we now know extermination.
They all had a label round their neck, he says, with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. And so Paddington, in his blue duffle coat and red hat, has a sign round his neck from his relatives back in darkest Peru with a simple request: ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you’.
In the film Paddington’s aunty sends him to England because, she says. ‘they won’t have forgotten how to give strangers a warm welcome there’. I wonder how many of you visiting this country still agree? What happens is that Paddington gets into the train station and is pushed and shoved around, ignored and left by himself until, of course, the Browns take him in and he becomes part of that rather chaotic family. Paddington never looks happier, the marmalade sandwich never tastier, than when he realizes that he is at last ‘home’.I have the same initials as Paddington Bear, and my own experiences of marmalade sandwiches is of giving them to the prisoners under my care in various cell blocks, they weren’t all as happy as Paddington to receive them.
Now, for all the gathered extras over the centuries, the heartland of the Christian faith is the story of Jesus Christ. He is the gospel in person. Right from the very beginning of his life until he was publically executed, he was a stranger. He was a– born in an outhouse, visited by weirdos from funny places and rough Shepherds social outcasts, a child refugee in Egypt, and then later a preacher whose first sermon didn’t go down well and who then over three years disturbed the establishment by saying that God is more evident in the untouchables, overlooked and imperfect than in the religiously observant, or rich or powerful: even his closest family and friends constantly misunderstand him. When Peter says that he does not know the man as the cock crows, he is lying but he is also telling the truth. He doesn’t really know this man yet. This stranger was putting the odd back into God.This was not welcome. ‘He was in the world yet the world did not know him. He came to what his own and he was not accepted’.
This was strange as his Jewish People, had gone to Egypt as refugees from hunger in the time of Joseph, eventually been enslaved there and escaped as stateless and landless war refugees under Moses. Then been sent into exile under severe oppression under the Assyrians and Babylonians, and been second class citizens in their own lands under the Greeks and Romans.
It should not surprise us then that for the early followers of this man Christ the Stranger it became very important to welcome the stranger. Jesus had told stories and had encounters where he opened eyes on how we project our fears onto people, often people who can’t speak out or strike back, the vulnerable in some way, and how we become tribal, liking our own types and pointing the fingers at others, and, oh how convenient, God is always on the side of our tribe. And yet, Jesus constantly exposed this religious fantasy for what it is – a blasphemy – and taught and lived to show that all, all, all, misfits, the unsure, the wounded, the unbeliever, the unclean, the totally different from you, all, ,and all of us here today, strange as we all are, are loved and treasured by God equally and forever. If you are Christ-like you will see, like Paddington, that each and everyone of us here, each and everyone of us in this world, has a sign round our necks asking that you please look after me because I’m fragile, I'm bruised, I’m a bit scared, lonely sometimes, and I need a friend to help me through this life which frankly is not for beginners. Please look after this bear. I’m a bit of a stranger here.
I don’t need to tell you that we live in times when the stranger is fast becoming the enemy. The stranger in strange clothes, with different skin, with other sexuality, with opposite gender, with beliefs and thoughts not ours is being isolated so that the majority can look out at someone else and not in at themselves, so that we can have an easy answer to our complex problems. It happens in workplaces, schools, homes, churches and nations.
It happens in you and in me. But if you are here to follow Christ the stranger, if you believe like our earliest Christian sisters and brothers that you will meet Christ in the stranger because that meeting will make your world new and stretch you more open to God’s grace, then renew that commitment, renew it now, today, because the world badly needs a human heart that sees dignity before money, and a person’s need before appearance or place of birth. Because what will injure the stranger amongst us more that the words of their enemies will be the silence of their friends, the silence of those who taught that you will never recognise his followers by their vestments, doctrine or certainty but by their love.
At the end of the film Mr Brown is putting someone right about Paddington: ‘It doesn’t matter that he comes from the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter that he’s a different species or that he has a very worrying marmalade habit’. He saw that the Browns needed Paddington every bit as much as he needed them so Please look after this bear: for what you do to the least you do also to me says the Lord. Amen