Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent (21 February 2016) by Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent (21 February 2016) by Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

Dolly Parton's authenticity makes Canon Tricia ask - what do we mean by 'saint'?

Who would have thought it?

That a 68 year old country singer would be hailed by the public and critics alike as the undisputed Queen of Glastonbury 2014.

That, when she took to the Festival’s Pyramid stage, other stages would be bereft as the crowd of over 100,000, most born long after they were first recorded, sang along to numbers like Coat of Many Colours, 9 to 5 and I will Always Love You. 

That afterwards, Dolly Parton’s set would be the one everyone was talking about. Or that the YouTube video of Jolene, with the Glastonbury Security crew dancing in unison would have garnered nearly 1.7 million views.   

Continuing our series, Saints for our Day – people who inspire us - I’m aware that the choice, of singer, songwriter, actress Dolly Parton, might seem unlikely, even controversial. Some could think it a flippant choice.

I trust that it is not. I hope it is intriguing. I hope it invites the question of what we mean by “saint”.

I recall an answer, said to have been given by a child who, looking up at stained glass images of saints, said: ‘Saints are people who let the light shine through them’.

Taking that as my working definition, why have I chosen Dolly Parton as someone who inspires me?

Let me give you 3 reasons but end with a fourth.

Why Dolly Inspires me:

It could be because:

  • She, the fourth of 12 siblings who shared a one-room cabin in the Tennessee Mountains, dreamed big dreams despite her family’s scarce resources.  When she graduated the whole School laughed when she said planned to go to Nashville and be a star. Looking back, Parton thinks they were not being cruel, they just were not used to someone dreaming big.

She writes:

When you are poor you have to believe. If you are struggling and not sure where your next meal will come from, the only comfort to your uncertainty is your faith that somehow, some way, the next meal will be provided to you. Circumstances like these nurtured my faith rather than destroyed it. It brought me closer to God, which in turn has given me more confidence, more energy and more faith.

  • Maybe she inspires, because as an artist and businesswoman she’s overcome barriers of gender and class to achieve sales of over 100 million albums and be awarded 7 Grammys over a career spanning 5 decades. Her theme park has created thousands of jobs in her home county and brings in nearly 2.5 million visitors annually. That’s over 3 and a half times the number of people who come to sightsee in this Cathedral each year. With typical humour she notes how easy it is for people to underestimate her:

“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb – and I’m not blonde either”

  • Or because, prompted by the fact her own father never had opportunity to learn to read or write, Dolly’s Dollywood Foundation has worked to reduce drastically the number of young people who leave school early without qualifications. And realising that the difficulties for those young people begin even before they start school, her Imagination Library has reached more than 700,000 children across the US, Canada and here in the UK.

Dolly explains: ‘We send a book once a month to kids from the time they are born until they start school. Many of the kids don’t know I sing or write songs. To them I’m the book lady’. ‘If I’m remembered one hundred years from now, I hope it will not be for looks but for books.

But Most of all her Authenticity

Each of these achievements is significant. But there’s another reason I’ve chosen to speak of Dolly Parton today.

It is her authenticity, a quality brought to life by her own faith.

If you have an image of her in your mind, perhaps you are surprised I’m focusing on authenticity, for its clear that plastic surgeons have been at work, along with wigmakers and stylists.

Dolly herself often quips about her fakery:

“Someone once asked me, ‘How long does it take to do your hair?’

I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m never there.’”

Yet a writer in the Telegraph newspaper said -

‘My favourite thing about Dolly is her frankness, in a world where slender models claim their bodies are maintained by Pilates alone, airbrushed beauty spokespeople try to convince us that drinking lots of water will give us perfect skin and everyone in Hollywood claims to have a big thing for burgers, Dolly isn’t dissembling. By being so open about her fakery she’s never been more real’.

Parton herself has said - "My boobs are fake, my hair's fake, but what is real is my voice and my heart."

By her life, work and faith, she invites us to think about what is real, what is fake and what is authentic.

It seems to be an important question for her - she has written about a particular childhood memory. The family Doctor had been on a professional visit to their home. As he left, Mr Parton declared that the charitable doctor was, ‘a real somebody’. Dolly understood that her father was putting the stress on ‘real’, emphasising the significance of somebody who was compassionate and authentic.

Could this be one reason all those very young people in the Glastonbury crowd took Dolly to their hearts. It’s been said that of all the things the millennial generation want out of life – and church – authenticity may be the most important. Many are tired of wearing masks and hiding the truth about themselves; an effort which exhausts and leaves us empty.

But authenticity is hard to find – sadly, not least in Churches.

Pastor Stephen McAlpin has said ‘authenticity is the quality of our exposure of brokenness and adornment in God’s grace. An authentic person is both privately and publically putting off the old self and by God’s grace, putting on the renewed self and taking up their cross.’

This he suggests involves being willing to be honest with God, others and self about the reality that we are not yet whole in our beliefs, ways and rhythms of life. It involves finding our way to the cross, staying there awhile, and realising that in that place there is no room for the shaming of others. It involves receiving the grace of God with which to be clothed, and the hope of God with which to bless others.

Parton the song-writer often speaks with vulnerability and authenticity; rarely pretending to be other than what she is. This extends to questions of faith and doubt and need of God.

We are about to hear her song ‘Hello God’. You’ll find the words on page 16 of your service book. It was written the day after the attacks of September 11th 2001, when, she says

I realised just how fragile we really are and how everything can change in the blink of an eye. I hope it comes across as I meant it. It’s like everybody believes that God is their God. But God belongs to everybody.

When I hear it, I’m struck by its Psalm-like honesty. It could be the cry of an individual, when their world turns upside down; more significantly it is a communal lament. Recognition of the truth of our situation, when the masks will no longer do.

Dolly Parton has said

“I accept the fact that I often stumble and stray off the path. Yet I know the path I have chosen and I know everybody can choose to walk in God’s light in their own way. All my life I have walked a fine line”.

“I’m too bad to be good and too good to be bad.”

Jesus told a story of two men, one a religious person who prayed loudly, glad that he was, in his own eyes, so obviously more holy than the other, and the other, a publican who knew himself for whom he was – and said Jesus, it was he, the publican who found peace with God.

Like Jesus’s story, Dolly reminds me that we are All Saints and All Sinners – and so maybe there is hope for me.

And that hope is infectious and spacious.

Just before she played Glastonbury, Dolly played a few nights at the Dome in Greenwich. As Evensong here finished, I ran to catch a riverboat to the gig.  Never have I been surrounded by so much pink, glitter and so many Stetsons. Never in the course of gig have I heard someone talk so naturally about God.

Because she speaks with authenticity and without judgement, people way outside the church seem willing to listen. She’s said that had she not become a singer, she might have been a beautician, or a missionary – and just maybe she is.

If Saints are those who let God’s light shine through,  

perhaps we can end with one final quote from Dolly:

“I always ask God to let me shine with his love and light. I am always looking for that light. I am always working toward that light.”

May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ

the love of God

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.