The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley discusses the idea of strangers - from Paddington Bear to Jesus - and concludes that the stranger is not the enemy.
You probably know that a policeman in a big city once stopped a man in a car with a baby bear in the front seat."What are you doing with that
bear?" He asked, "You should take it to the zoo." The following week, the same policeman saw the same man with the bear again in the front seat
of his sports car, with both of them wearing sunglasses. The policeman pulls him over."I thought you were going to take that bear to the zoo!"
The man replied, "I did. We had such a good time we’re going to the beach this weekend!"
Well, a bear made my Christmas this year. Once I had got my black belt in shopping on Oxford Street, sung Hark the Herald 480 times and eaten the
same number of mince pies, I smuggled myself into the cinema to watch the new film starring Paddington Bear. Surrounded by children who looked at
me a bit strangely I made out I was there for sermon purposes. The film is as warm and welcome as a pair of Christmas 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 Kindertransport of the late 30s. 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 London
because, she says. ‘they won’t have forgotten how to give strangers a warm welcome there’. I wonder how many of you visiting this city 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’.
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.
And we heard today that right from the very beginning of his life until he was publically executed, he was a stranger. He was a stranger first in
the sense that he didn’t fit any expectations of what God’s servant or messiah would look like – born in an outhouse, visited by weirdos from funny
places and rough illiterates from the fields, 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. He was a stranger too in that he seemed to question people’s answers more than answer their questions
and 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. The place he keeps calling the kingdom is somehow reassuring but distant,
confusing, allusive. This stranger was putting the odd back into God. And this was not welcome. ‘He was in the world yet the world did not know
him. He came to what was his own and he was not accepted’.
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, are loved, treasured
by God equally and forever. And because of this, whenever we use language that demeans, make policies that exclude, make rules that oppress,
whenever we force or bully people to live down to our low expectations of them rather than live up to the dignity that is theirs through being a
child of God – then we have strayed from his way of love and are on a different path from that called Christian. 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 bruise, 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.
So, yes, followers of Christ the stranger will work hard in their hearts, will work hard on their politicians and in their localities, to be
courageous enough and big enough to welcome the stranger. And the more you give the more you receive because that stranger will always show things
to yourself that you never knew.
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 worrying marmalade habit’. He saw that the Browns needed Paddington every bit as much
as he needed them and that’s the way it was going to be. Please look after this bear: for what you do to the least you do also to me.