Sermon preached at Evensong on Palm Sunday (25 March 2018) by Revd Rosemary Morton, Succentor
In the final sermon in our Reel Spirituality preaching series, Revd Rosemary Morton explores the 2014 of Paddington and what it can teach us about the importance of hospitality.
Paul King’s 2014 film ‘Paddington’ brought to life, and to the big screen, the writings of Michael Bond about a lovable bear from Darkest Peru. Paddington Bear lives with Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo in the forests of Darkest Peru.
Many years before, Lucy and Pastuzo were discovered by a British Explorer who taught them to speak English and who gave them an enduring love of marmalade, a love of which they have passed on to Paddington.
After an earthquake hits the forest, which Uncle Pastuzo doesn’t survive, destroys their home, and most of their marmalade, Paddington and Aunt Lucy collect what belongings are left and leave the forest.
As Aunt Lucy places a luggage label around Paddington’s neck which reads, “Please look after this bear”, and helps him to stow away on a boat, the enormity of what is happening begins to dawn on Paddington.
“But... aren’t you coming?” asked Paddington?
“I am too old and too tired to go any further,” said Aunt Lucy.
“Oh. Then, what will you do?”
“Oh, don't you worry about me. I will be safe in the home for retired bears. But it is not yet time for you to retire. You must find a new home. In London.”
“But... But I don't know anyone there. What if they don't even like bears?”
“You know, there was once a war in the explorer’s country. Thousands of children were sent away for safety, left at railway stations with labels around their necks, and unknown families took them in and loved them like their own. They will not have forgotten how to treat a stranger. Now take care, my darling. Remember your manners. And keep safe.”
The image of Paddington bear with a luggage label around his neck is just one of several allusions in the film to the topic of immigrants, migrants, and refugees.
Born in 1926, the author Michael Bond was still a child when the Second World War began and it had a lasting impact on him. He said once in an interview:
“Living in Reading during the war, I can remember train-loads of refugees coming down from London. A lot of the children had luggage labels round their necks with their names and addresses on them. It made a great impression on me; seeing these lost, frightened people. I felt it would say a lot about the Brown family that they were prepared to take in a refugee like Paddington.”
Post-war migration from the Caribbean is also referenced by the appearance throughout the film of a Calypso band playing hits such as “London is the place for me”, and “Blow wind blow”, along with Paddington arriving by boat echoing the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship which counted amongst its passengers the calypso artists Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner.
And we are reminded too of unaccompanied child refugees of the Second World War by Mr Gruber, friend of the Brown family and owner of the antique shop, who tells Paddington how his parents sent him when he was just a child, like Paddington, all the way across Europe to escape the trouble in his country and he arrived in England and was taken in by his great Aunt.
Mr Gruber understands what it is to be dislocated from home and therefore from the sense of self.
As a character, Mr Gruber is tolerant and hospitable, and as an antique dealer, he is a guardian of all that is precious and beautiful from the past.
As an older and more experienced refugee, he can speak to Paddington of some of the trauma of uprooting – he says;
“I soon learnt a home is more than a roof over your head. My body had travelled very fast indeed but my heart…she took a little longer to arrive.”
Mr Gruber’s words of reassurance speak to a bear who is bewildered that London is not like he thought it would be. In his letter to Aunt Lucy, Paddington writes:
“London is not how we imagined it. Hardly anyone says hello or wears hats. And you can no longer simply turn up at the station and get a home. It's hard to see where a bear could ever belong in such a strange, cold city.”
Despite its themes of refugees and migrants, the film Paddington is not intended to be an allegory for the Christian imperative of hospitality, but it does have much to say about where we are in relation to this.
Hospitality is a radical practice of graciously welcoming one another, and especially the stranger, as God has welcomed us and is a vital and effective means of demonstrating the love of Christ in the world.
The function of hospitality is to transform an unknown person, who may or may not pose a threat, into a guest, and thus removing the possibility of a threat.
The Christian practice of hospitality finds its roots in the Old Testament, which speaks again and again of the way in which God’s people Israel should treat strangers.
We hear this in the passage from Deuteronomy that we had as our first reading:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.”
The ‘stranger’ to which the Old Testament refers is more specifically a resident alien – a person who has entered the community from the outside and who has taken up residence more or less permanently.
The resident alien is neither required to worship the God of Israel, nor obliged to perform the ritual commands, but must comply with other laws. In turn, the Israelites must not oppress or exploit the resident alien.
This ancient practice of hospitality has been broadened and deepened to become the Christian model. This model presupposes the giving of oneself for the other in ways that are unqualified and unconditional, based entirely on the rule of loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
The Old Testament challenges Israel to be a separate and unique people but this isn’t a challenge to which we are called. The modern-day desire to be separate and unique can lead to fundamentalism, which fails to engage the “Other’ but rather demonises, opposes and alienates it. What Christian hospitality is striving to do is to engage with difference whilst holding fast to our identity in Christ.
The problem is these days that despite what Aunt Lucy says we have forgotten how to welcome strangers. Fear of difference hinders the fostering of hospitable relationships.
Differences of language, heritage, custom, and religion create barriers to understanding, and in turn inhibit creation of relationships.
If we focus first on our similarities and second on our diversity then what we hold in common can bring us together to a place of mutual sharing, and our differences can make our relationships interesting, and even stimulating and inspiring!
Within the Biblical tradition, Abraham is often held up as the exemplar of hospitality – he entertains three unidentified men and welcomes them to his home.
There is risk to Abraham and Sarah in offering hospitality to the strangers – they don’t know who they are or where they have come from. But unexpectedly the strangers become signs of the divine abundance that is heading their way.
This idea that we don’t know who we might entertain if we offer hospitality is taken up in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
Both the sheep and the goats have something in common: neither has noticed the presence of Christ amongst the poor and needy. The sheep have done the ‘right thing’ in spite of not noticing the presence of Christ amongst those they have served. They are surprised to hear that they have cared for God in all that they have done.
The goats haven’t done the right thing; possibly because they didn’t see the presence of Christ amongst those they could have served. Would they have acted differently if they had seen? The goats are shocked to hear that they have missed the presence of Christ, or maybe they are more surprised to hear that this is where Christ is to be found.
Paddington is a cute and cuddly bear - we’re supposed to love him. But he is also a fierce and dangerous wild animal. There are risks. But there is always a risk, and if we see only the risks (as Mr Brown does when he calls his insurance company to try and get cover for all of the things that might possibly happen when you have a wild animal in your home) then we see only part of the whole. People are not purely dangerous or purely good. We all have the capacity to be both.
Bond’s greatest gift to us perhaps was encouragement not to see refugees as scary “others” but as people who may just appreciate a warm hug and a marmalade sandwich.
As Paddington says at the end of the film:
“Mrs Brown says that in London, everyone is different, but that means anyone can fit in. I think she must be right, because although I don't look like anyone else, I really do feel at home. I will never be like other people, but that's alright. Because I am a bear. A bear called Paddington.”