Once upon a time there was a sweet little girl whom everyone loved. Her mother gave her a little cap and cloak made of bright red fabric and from then on, everyone called her little red riding hood. One day her mother said to her, “Little Red Riding Hood, here is a piece of cake and a bottle of wine for you to take to your grandmother. She is sickly and these will do her well. Behave yourself on the way, and do not leave the path. You do not want to get lost or hurt!” So Little Red Riding Hood promised to obey her mother and off she went.
The grandmother lived out in the woods, a half hour from the village. When Little Red Riding Hood entered the woods a wolf came up to her. She did not know what a wicked animal he was, and was not afraid of him. “Good day to you, Little Red Riding Hood.”
“Thank you, Mr Wolf. Good day to you, too.” “Where are you going so early?” said the wolf. “To grandmother’s.” she replied. “Oh, and what are you carrying in your basket?” the wolf asked. “My Grandmother is sick and I am taking her some cake and wine to cheer her up.” “Oh how nice,” said the wolf, “where does your grandmother live?” “Her house is a good 15 minutes from here in the woods, under the three large oak trees. There’s a hedge of hazel bushes there. I’m sure you know where it is.” said Little Red Riding Hood.
The wolf thought to himself, “Hmm! The both would make a tasty meal!” Then he said, “Look, Little Red Riding Hood! Have you seen the beautiful flowers that are blossoming in the woods? Why don’t you go and take a look? Maybe you should pick some to take to your sick Grandmother. I’m sure she would feel much better if you brought her a gift of flowers!”
Little Red Riding Hood looked around and saw that the ground just a little ways off of the path was covered with beautiful flowers. She thought, “If a take a bouquet to grandmother, she will be very pleased. I have plenty of time to pick some!” And she ran off into the woods.
As soon as Little Red Riding Hood left the path, the wolf ran straight to the grandmother’s house and knocked on the door. “Who’s there?” Grandmother called out. “Little Red Riding Hood. I’m bringing you some cake and wine.” “Come in, my dear!” called out the grandmother. “I’m too weak to get up.” The wolf stepped inside, went straight to the grandmother’s bed, and ate her up. Then he took her clothes, put them on, and put her cap on his head. He got into her bed and waited for Little Red Riding Hood.
After gathering all the flowers she could carry, Little Red Riding Hood continued on her way to her grandmother’s house. When she arrived, she found the door open and she went inside. She rushed to her grandmother’s bed. Little Red Riding Hood found her grandmother lying there looking very strange.
“Oh, grandmother, what big ears you have!” Little Red Riding Hood said. “All the better to hear you with.” Was the reply. “Oh, grandmother, what big eyes you have!” “All the better to see you with.”
and you know what’s coming next!
“Oh, grandmother, what big teeth you have!” “All the better to eat you with!” And with that he jumped out of bed and began chasing Red Riding Hood around the room!
Just then, a woodsman was walking through the woods and decided he would stop by the grandmother’s house to visit with her because he knew she had been sick lately. He was surprised to find the door standing wide open. Then he heard Little Red Riding Hood screaming inside the house and the wolf snarling at her as he chased her round and round. The woodsman took out his big ax and killed the wolf. Little Red Riding Hood was so grateful and told him about the wolf eating her grandmother. She thought for sure she was gone forever, but the woodsman cut open the wolf’s belly and brought out the grandmother alive. And they all lived happily ever after.
The tale of Little Red Riding Hood follows a familiar story pattern that can be found as far back as stories have ever been told and all the way up to the books and movies of today. It is possible that it also bears the framework of a faith story as well. A hero has a mission and sets out on a journey. Somehow, they are drawn from the right path and end up in a mess, most often it is a big mess and one they cannot get out of by themselves. They need to be saved. And then when they least expect it, perhaps when they least deserve it, they are saved, evil is destroyed and they live, to some degree or other, happily ever after. They live in a different and far better way!
In the text we heard from our second lesson, we hear Paul’s writing to the church in Galatia and he is recounting his own little red riding hood story, at least in part. Paul tells the story of his life several times in scripture, offering more details in some areas and less in others and this time he is doing so in order to validate his authority within that church community. In a sense Paul is saying: here’s my story of when I was on a mission, got in to trouble, and was saved by God when I least expected and most needed it.
Paul was, many years before, called Saul and he was a well-known Pharisee. He had studied the law of God extensively and believed strongly that he was doing everything he could to follow the Torah and do the will of God. However, he was a bit off the path; quite a bit actually, since he was persecuting and putting to death the followers of Jesus Christ. He was as surely in need of saving as a girl being chased by a big bad wolf! Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus. That is to say, the resurrected and ascended Jesus appeared to Saul and said, in summary, stop killing my followers because I am the Messiah, the Son of God, and you’re doing the wrong thing. Saul was struck blind during this encounter and then met by a man whom God had sent to take care of him. His sight was restored and he was forever after a different man. So different in fact that even his name was different. Saul was forever after known as Paul and became a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And he lived happily ever after. Sort of. In a way. He certainly experienced a lot of strife and struggle so the “happily” part might not be what we typically think of, but Paul was a follower of Jesus and his life was completely different from then on.
Happily Ever After might not actually mean Perfectly Forever More. I suspect even Little Red Riding Hood had bad hair days from time to time or possibly even a few arguments with her mother. But she lived. And so did Paul.
In our Gospel lesson we see another person in need of saving. Or perhaps we could say two people; both the mother and the son. One of the interesting things about this healing story is that Jesus isn’t asked for help. No one cries out to him, touches the hem of his robe, begs for his help or asks him a question of any kind. Jesus is going along, doing his ministry in the world and sees the suffering of this mother who has lost her child and he stops to help. “Don’t cry,” he tells her. It is so easy to read that line in the sort of matter of fact way we sometimes think of Jesus’ words, but this is a very compassionate phrase. “Don’t cry,” is a phrase we hear or speak ourselves when something has happened and we feel hopeless. These are tender words Jesus speaks to the mother… the widow… who has lost her son.
Jesus tells the dead boy to rise and he does. Jesus then presents him to his mother. Don’t cry, here is your son, alive and well!
Another really interesting thing about this story is that there is no mention of faith. Jesus often says things like “your faith has made you well” or he makes a comment on the greatness of someone’s faith. In last week’s gospel, he commented on the great faith of the centurion and after this, it is discovered that the centurion’s servant is made well. But here, that is not the case. Jesus does not check on the faith of anyone, the mother or the son or any of the friends and neighbors. He simply sees a need, a great pain, and he brings life.
It is easy for us to think that if we are faithful enough God will make things right for us. There are many Christians who believe that you have to have a certain level of faith before God will show you mercy. Yet here, the faith of this woman and, for that matter, everyone else in the entire story, is so irrelevant it isn’t even mentioned. Like the woodsman in the Little Red Riding Hood story, God does not first check to see if we are sorry that we talked with wolves or got of the path to where we were supposed to be going before caring about us. Often times, God grants us grace and love when we are so busy running from the big bad wolves in life that we don’t even have time to ask for help in the first place. When we face difficult financial times, loss or illness for ourselves or for those we love, times of great change or all the many unpredictable things that life throws at us, and even when our difficulties are of our own making, God is there for us and with us.
There is a quote by Carl Jung that I have always been very fond of: Bidden or not bidden, God is present. It is a good reminder that God does not only show up when we call, like a magical genie in a bottle, or when our faith is strong enough like a great reward for all the “winners”, or when we deserve help from God. Bidden or not bidden, God is present.
So how has God shown up in your life and said something like, “Don’t cry”? How has God been like the woodsman who comes, not because you called but because you needed? We all struggle with the times we stray from our path and we all encounter wolves with sharp teeth, often times in really good disguises. How is God a part of your Once Upon A Time?