Sunday Sermon – 19 August 2018

Three Little Pigs

“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” boasted the Big Bad Wolf. This was no idle threat, for though not completely successful, he succeeded in two attempts out of three. As with most reports of accidents or disasters, eyewitness accounts vary; one reporter says the two imprudent pigs perished in the jaws of the marauder. Others report, I hope accurately, that the two pigs escaped and were given shelter by their brother, who had with foresight built his house of more resistant materials, bricks and mortar rather than straw and brushwood, on a foundation of rock, not shifting sand. The strongest blast the wolf could deliver was unable the breach his walls.

Generations of children have listened to the story, as they lay warm in bed before drifting off to sleep. Doubtless more will listen to the tale tonight and other nights for many years to come. Where the story originated I do not know. But it has stood the test of time, because, like all good fables, it is based on a truth. I will return to that thought in a moment.

Wolves have got themselves a bad name for wickedness. One brought Red Riding’s grandmother to an untimely end, and might have done for the little girl herself had she not been observant and wary, perhaps beyond her years. The observant grandchild became suspicious of a trap before making her escape and seeking assistance. Wolves not only disguise themselves as grandmothers, but also, on occasion, wear the clothes of a sheep to waylay the innocent. All of us need to be cautious when honeyed words are spoken. Some wolves have perfected the art of using enticing language to snare the innocent.

Then, just because some wolves do evil things we shouldn’t, as the old cliché puts it, tar them all with the same brush. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome it is said, owed their lives to the tender care of a wolf. The domestic dog, man’s best friend some say, though I’m not keen on canines myself and view most of them as potential enemies, counts the wolf among its ancestors.

Conversely, not every pig is a plump innocent babe. The pigs, led by Napoleon, in Orwell’s Animal Farm, shifted from declaring equality for all to establishing a dictatorship, proclaiming that some were more equal than others. It was the pigs that exploited the loyal, hard-working Boxer the Horse before sending him to the knacker’s yard.

Nor, I should point out, are little girls invariably made up of sugar and spice. OK when they are good, but if bad, as the nursery rhyme reminds us, they are horrid. I’ve never been too enamoured with Goldilocks, who broke into the bears’ home like a thief and a vandal. Beware of blondes with curly tresses, I say.

We use the term “fairy tale” as a euphemism for an untruth, a lie, for an account that is made-up and deceitful. But many of these old stories told to children are far from simple fabrications. They are akin to parables. They are stories told in simple language to explain the world, to point to ethical principles, to show that the universe contains both goodness and evil.

Though I personally don’t subscribe wholly to it, there is a widespread and long-standing religious belief that the world is a battlefield between two opposing forces. The forces of evil, goes the theory, are led by Satan, alias the Devil, who with sophisticated cunning uses a mixture of bribery, tempting offers and attractive packaging to deceive the unwary. God’s armies go under the banner of the Lord, a deity also known by a number of different names. God’s goods may seem to the superficial eye less attractive than those of the opposition, being sturdy rather than flamboyant, but they are built to last and give a lifetime satisfaction. Quality will tell in the end, say the soldiers of the Lord; the fashionable ephemera will be shown up in time for what they are, froth without substance, dwellings made of straw or brushwood.

One does not have to accept the imagery of God versus the Devil to know that there is a fundamental truth hidden within the metaphor; the world can be a treacherous place for the naïve. Temptations abound to bewitch the gullible, quick pleasures can lead to great unhappiness and distress. The oldest pig, to return to my opening words, was wise enough to accept that one needs to dwell in a solidly constructed abode if the inevitable storms are not to destroy it.

That is one of the two thoughts in my mind this morning. The tale of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, Jesus’ reference to a house built upon a rock rather than with foundations laid upon shifting sand, the parable of the Prodigal Son, Goethe’s opera Faust, Hogarth’s painting, The Rake’s Progress, and much else in art and literature, are linked as by the one theme. Prisons and addiction treatment centres are full of folk who can attest to the power in the lungs of the big bad wolf. The gale wreaks havoc amongst poorly constructed edifices built of flimsy materials. The rock of integrity is a foundation upon which to build. Ethical standards will judge the quality of materials selected. A valid religious faith trains us in the arts of bricklaying and roof construction.

The second thought is one hinted at earlier whilst musing upon the fact that not all wolves are evil demons, any more than all pigs, or little girls for that matter, are angels in disguise. To categorise folk is an exercise prone to inaccuracies. Not only can good and bad be found in nations anywhere, regardless of sect, race, gender, colour, creed or nationality, but both saint and sinner hide within the single individual.

It has been remarked that within the newborn babe may dwell a nascent pot-bellied, cantankerous old man, or an over-weight, complaining old woman. Who foretold the future for the tiny babe that grew to be the convicted Moors murderess Myra Hindley, or of Florence Nightingale who brought comfort to the wounded. The sadistic prison guard in Belson and the humanitarian worker risking her life in the earthquake disaster zone both once lay in the cradle. What force chose the path the young child will follow? Which of us is without sin and therefore entitled to throw stones at another? Which of us can say with complete honesty that we would never, as two young pigs did, make a false choice of building materials? Which of us has never had the need to shelter from the storm within the walls erected by one more prudent than us?

The bedtime story we learnt as a child, to be passed on in turn to the next generation, presents the facts of life in simple language, illustrated on a canvas on which only black or white may be daubed. As we grow older the palette contains shades of grey also, as the colours mix. As the painting fills out, the underlying starkness is softened by greys, blues and reds, but the black and white foundation gives the picture structure.

The simple bedtime story introduces us to life in simple, rather stark, terms. It also illustrates that life is about choices. It emphasises that we need to exercise choice from a firm base, for there are those who will harm us if we are casual, seeking always the easy option. As we grow in years we discover that choosing the right option can be difficult. It can also involve making a judgement about which alternative is less wrong, when neither course is stainless and pure.

A re-occurring theme of mine is the complexity of deciding what is the right thing to do when the choices are not between yes or no, black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, but in the no-man’s land between two extremes. We can start from a firm platform of conviction, as did the wisest pig in the tale, and try not to stray too far away from there. There is an old revivalist hymn, not sung in our denomination, but many will know the rousing tune. The first verse poses this question.

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift and the cables strain,
Will your anchor drift, or firm remain?

Though the dwelling in the hymn tosses on the sea rather than be rooted on the land, the message is the universal one, presented in fairy tale, bedtime story, parable or novel; there will be huffing and puffing, blizzards and storms, around us on many days in our lives, so make ready beforehand. The big bad wolf is on the rampage.

C.J. Rosling 1 June 2006

Stannington 4 June 2006
Hucklow 18 June 2006

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