Tag Archives: Dr Seuss

Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 4: The Zax

Zax_in_prax

The north-going Zax and the south-going Zax cross paths in the prairie of Prax.

The Zax are lesser-known Seuss creations.  Found in one of the smaller stories within the Sneetches book, they are two creatures full of certainty.  Their paths intersect one day in an open field.  One is going north.  The other south.  They run into each other, and refuse to yield.  Each Zax is certain of his path.  He is certain that there is no other way to go.  There is no room for east or west.  Both dig in, ready for a wait, ready to hold fast to their certainty for as long as it takes.  As they stand there at a face off, a funny things happens.  The world around them goes on.   The story ends with the north-going Zax and the south-going Zax standing face to face, with the world all around them changed.  There are buildings and roads, even a bridge that goes over them.  All around them is progress, leaving behind the Zax and their certainty.

zax standoffAssurance is a virtue.  I’m not sure certainty is.  Certainty is built on the promise that I am right.  It inspires us to dig deeper trenches, and defend certainty at all costs.  Certainty regards new facts with suspicion.  It does not adapt well to change.  Assurance is built on the promise that I am loved. It is a source of hope and inspires confidence.  Assurance allows freedom for challenge and growth.  I think the world could use more blessed assurance and less religious certainty.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a warning.  “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven,” he says (Matthew 7:21).  Faith is not about checking a box.  Faith is not about making your claim, saying a formulaic prayer, and thinking that your ticket has been punched.  “Only those who do the will of my Father will enter,” he continues.  He closes this long sermon, one in which he told them some pretty radical stuff, with a reminder that nodding their heads in agreement, even shouting a few ‘amens’ wouldn’t be enough.  I can imagine after this sermon, the people filing by Jesus, shaking his hand warmly and saying, “Good sermon, teacher.”  The Kingdom of Heaven is about more than knowing what is right.  It is about living each day as if the things Jesus taught actually matter.

The Christian life is not easily defined, and it is not easily lived.  It starts not with having all the answers, but with having the courage to ask the questions.  Religious certainty is built on having all the answers.  It is about picking the right Bible verses to memorize, and standing firm on the right side.  It is built, above all, on being right.  Yet Jesus himself called out those who wanted to draw such clear lines.  To those who memorized all the right Bible verses, he declared “You have heard it said… But I say to you.”  He threw doubt upon all that their institutions and religious righteousness had been built on.

Instead he called people to struggle with real problems.  He called people to fix upon the spirit of love that transcended the letter of the Law.  Instead of offering certainty, he offered assurance.  Assurance that the entirety of the Bible could be summed up with a commandment to love.  Assurance that the sinner is welcome at the table.  Assurance that treating one another with love was more important than being right.

Blessed assurance gives me the strength to love.  It gives me the confidence to be vulnerable.  It gives me the safety to adventure into uncharted territory.  Assurance inspires me to go to new places, meet new people, and try to find new ways to encounter what transcends all things: God’s love.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a simple metaphor.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise builder who built a house on bedrock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house.  It didn’t fall…  But everybody who hears these words and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew against that house.  It fell and was completely destroyed” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Certainty is built upon the promise that I am right.  It does not respond well to shifting winds or changing times.  Assurance is built upon the promise that I am loved.  With that foundation, I can stand against any storm.

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 3: The Sneetches

sneetchesThe Sneetches are such silly creatures, aren’t they?  Two groups of yellow bird-like creatures lived on a beautiful beach.  Some have little green stars on their bellies.  Some don’t.  That’s when the trouble begins.  The star-bellied Sneetches believe that the star upon their belly makes them “the best Sneetches on the beaches.”  They enjoy much fun and frivolity, but don’t let their plain-bellied-brethren join in their reindeer games.  Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean.  He has just the contraption that will solve all the problems of the plain-bellied Sneetches.  The plain-bellied Sneetches pay just three dollars to enter the machine, and come out the other end with stars upon thars.

This is only a momentary victory, as natural-starred-Sneetches maintain that they are still the better Sneetches.  Sylvester comes in again and offers some help.  For only ten dollars per Sneetch, they can enter the machine and have that pesky star removed.  Chaos ensues.  The Sneetches get so caught up in adding or removing their stars to keep up with the trends that eventually even they cannot keep up.  Eventually, Sylvester leaves, his pockets properly lined.  In the end, “all the Sneetches forgot about stars, and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.”

It would be easier to dismiss the Sneetches as silly, superficial creatures if we didn’t see ourselves so clearly in them.  Once again, Dr. Seuss presents us with a fun-house mirror.  Bent to stretch out the image to absurd proportions, but mirror-enough to recognize ourselves.  The Sneetches remind us of the absurdity of our divisions.  They remind us of the stars for which we long.  They remind us of the anxieties with which we wake every day.  The anxieties that sit in the pit of our stomachs.  The anxieties that keep us awake, that diminish our appetites, that affect our relationships, and cripple us with fear for of what we don’t have.

The Sneetches worried about whether or not they had stars upon thars.  And we can look out those silly Sneetches and laugh, until we start noticing the stars upon others that we wish we had.  I see the Corvette parked in our neighbor’s garage.  I see the parents whose children are always so well-behaved.  I see the blogger who is selling advertising and the podcasts in the top 100.  I see the churches with the talented praise bands and the powerful music, and the preachers biggering their churches.  I look down at my own belly, and there is no star.  And to boot, it’s a little too big.  Look at those guys at the gym who have six-packs, not stars, upon thars.

And then I hear Jesus.

“Therefore I say to you, don’t worry about your life,” and the needle on the record player amplifying my anxieties gets lifted off with a terrible screech.

Before he can finish the sentence, I want to scream.  Don’t worry about your life? What is that supposed to mean?  My worries are valid.  My worries are righteous.  Shouldn’t I be in better shape?  Shouldn’t I want a bigger church?  Shouldn’t I want more readers, more listeners?  Don’t I deserve to do some biggering of my own?  And then I hear myself.  And I pause long enough to let Jesus finish.

“Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear.  Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” (Isn’t there more to you than the whether or not you have a star upon yars?)  “Look at the birds in the sky.  They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns.  Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Aren’t you worth much more than they are?” (Matthew 6:25-27)

“I guess”, I think.  But still, that seems absurd.  God is the one who gave us the ability to think about the future.  And with the ability to think about the future comes the ability to worry about it.  So am I supposed to stop saving money?  Should I spend my pension?  Should I get rid of my refrigerator?  How far am I supposed to take this?

“Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:28) Maybe there is a difference between preparing for the future and worrying about the future.  Being a good steward of what has been entrusted to me is different than wrangling out every last penny so as to hoard my blessings.  It seems possible to have a pension without being a slave to it.  There is still room for generosity, kindness, and contentment even in the midst of preparing for a rainy day.  If I can let Jesus’ words seep into my crippling anxiety, I can realize that biggering is not what life is all about.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ long explanation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This Kingdom that Jesus describes defies simple explanation.  Yet at the same time it seems to come back to one thing: love.  “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one have have contempt for the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)  What do you love?  Do you love God, and seek first God’s kingdom?  Or do you love status, or money, or power?  When we operate out of anxiety, we let our fears rule, so we serve whatever quick fix might offer us an illusion of security.  But when we operate out of love, and truly let Jesus be our Lord, we learn that security lies not in the fragile, decaying, dying things of this world.  When we operate out of love, we can stop worrying about the stars we don’t have.  Perhaps more importantly, we can stop guarding the places where we have stars. We can loosen our grip on the stars upon ours.  When security rests only in the eternal, life-giving, resurrected Christ, generosity, justice, and peace start to seep in.

The Sneetches were convinced that having a star upon thars was all that mattered.  They knew that if they could only have what the others didn’t then they’d be okay.  So they gave everything they had to the one who offered them security.  He offered them a quick fix, a walk through a machine, and a star upon thars.  Eventually though, they learned.  They learned that the security they sought in the mark on their belly was empty.

The question remains, will we?  Can we learn to stop searching for easy answers?  Can we learn to let go of our anxiety over what is or isn’t on our bellies, in our garages, in our pews, or in our bank accounts?  Can we learn to stop putting our trust in a false sense of security?

Can I?

Can I learn to love God first, and let all else come later?  Can I learn to seek first the Kingdom of God, and then my pension?  Can I learn to let go, loosen my grip, and let God’s grace fill in the gaps?

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 2: The Lorax

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.

truffula treesThe Lorax is a cautionary tale.  It opens in a land that is gray and foresaken.  There are stumps littering the countryside and smog fills the sky.  There is a city off in the distance, but the only remnant of life in the desolate land is a tower.  A boy ventures out into this wilderness in hopes of hearing the story of how it all came to be.  Once he gets to the tower, a man named Once-ler tells the story.

One day long ago, Once-ler happened upon a beautiful land full of trees, animals, birds, and fish.  The trees, he finds, can be harvested to produce something he calls a “thneed,” and a “thneed is a something that everyone needs.”  Immediately upon chopping down one of the truffula trees, a little orange mustachioed creature appears, “I am the Lorax,” he declares. “I speak for the trees.”  The tale that is spun is a familiar one.  While the Once-ler “biggers and biggers” his operations, and “biggers and biggers” his profits, there are unintended side effects.  The animals have no place to play.  The fish have no place to swim, and the birds have no place to fly as the waste from the Thneed factory lays waste to the land.  Despite the Lorax’s loud protestations, the Onceler keeps going, with employees to feed, he needs to make thneeds, and cares for little else.  Finally, the last truffula tree is chopped down.  The Lorax lifts himself out of the place, and the Once-ler’s tale seems to come to an end.

UnlessBack at the “present day,” the business-tycoon-turned-hermit puzzles over the little monument that the Lorax left behind.  It is a small pile of rocks with one word, “Unless.”  Finally, Once-ler seems to understand the Lorax’s cryptic message.  “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better.  It’s not,” the Once-ler tells the boy.  With that, he throws down to the boy a seed.  The very last truffula seed.

Dr. Suess is famous for open-endings.  So often he allows the reader to finish the story.  Here, the reader is thrust into the role of the boy hearing from the Once-ler.  After finishing the book, I feel like if I shake loose the pages a seed might fall out.  Surrounded by desolation and despair, a small monument stands as a shrine to hope.  This book is a clear warning about economic growth at the expense of ecologic disaster.  Whole sermons can be preached on the stewardship of the earth, and the importance of protecting the brown barbaloots and the humming fish.  Instead, I focus the two worlds that Seuss once again presents.

Last time we looked at Yertle the Turtle, and were reminded that in the Kindgom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle name Mack matters.  Seuss showed clearly two ways of understanding the world.  One was to climb to the top by any means necessary.  The other was to care about those on the bottom of the pile.

In The Lorax, Seuss presents us with two ways of understanding the world.  There is the way of the Once-ler, whose primary goal is to bigger his profits.  He cares nothing about the future implications of his actions.  Even his name reveals what he values – using something once.  In the end, he winds up separated from the community, with nothing but disaster surrounding him.  Then there is the way of the Lorax.  The Lorax understands community.  He values the interconnection of all things, and speaks up for those who have no voice.  Once there is no community, the Lorax can no longer exist in that place.  Two value systems.  You might say, two kingdoms.  One where once rules.  Another  where community matters.

When Jesus came to preach about the Sermon on the Mount, he did so in community.  He gathered with the crowds, and told them something they may not have been expecting.  Surrounded by crowds who were desperate for healing, he spoke these words, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13-16).

The Kingdom of God is one where the community matters.  It is where the voiceless are given a say.  It is where the sick are healed, the blind are made to see, and the lame are made to walk.  It is where those at dis-ease are made whole again.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand, and you are light of the world.”  Those that were gathered were not valued because of what they could perform, or what they could provide.  They had no standing or status.  They were not a part of the Roman system of tribute, hierarchy, and patronage. They were valued for more than what they could make once.

Jesus came to teach us and show us what the Kindgom of God was all about.  So he gathered with the crowds and told them that it was up them.  “Let your light shine before the people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heave,” Jesus declared.  He reminded the people that the Kingdom of God is at hand because of their very presence, not in spite of it.  “Unless,” he might as well have said, “Unless people like you, you who are the salt and light of the world, care a whole awful lot…”

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1: Yertle the Turtle

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.  

yertleYertle the Turtle was a king.  He was the king over all he saw, but he was dissatisfied.  He wanted a bigger kingdom, so he decided he needed a higher throne.  From the higher throne, he would be able to see farther, and rule over more territory.  To satisfy his need for a higher throne, he order a few turtles to be stacked upon each other.  From atop this throne of turtles, he could expand his kingdom.  Over the course of increasing his reign an insignificant turtle on the bottom of the throne named Mack asked for some relief.  He was granted none.  Higher and higher the turtles were stacked, and yet Yertle was never satisfied.  Eyeing his vast empire, he noted he wasn’t the highest creature in the sky.  Perturbed by the presence of the moon, her ordered a thousand more turtles for his thone.  All the while poor Mack on the bottom of the stack was aching with a sore back.  Finally, Mack cracked.  Actually, he burped.  And the tower of turtles came toppling down.  Yertle fell into a puddle of mud, where he reigned all that he could see, which wasn’t very far.

Yertle understood the power of a kingdom.  He understood only one thing that matters: more.  More turtles, more land, more power.  He didn’t care how he achieved more, and he paid no heed to some poor turtle named Mack.

Jesus lived in a time when the power of kingship was clear.  The stack of turtles under the King was high indeed.  So high that the King named Caesar called himself the son of God.  All the people that gathered on that mountain understood that kind of kingdom.  They understood what it felt like to be on the bottom of the stack.  It was a crowd of Macks that gathered that day.

Then Jesus stood in front of the crowd and told them about another sort of Kingdom.  He told them about who was blessed and who wasn’t, and it was different from anything they had known.  In the Kingdom they were used to, it was easy to tell who was blessed and who wasn’t.  Yertle was blesssed.  Mack wasn’t.  Then Jesus stood up and said “You who are poor…  You who mourn… You who hunger and thirst… are blessed.”

“You, Mack.  You are blessed.  You who have been piled on.  You with sore backs.  You who are neglected, mistreated, and set aside.  You are blessed.  You who see that the world is broken and want to speak up.  You who are left heartbroken by the pain of others.  You who long to be in community.  You who want to know the heart of God, and strive for something greater than the letter of the law.  You are blessed.”

Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and in the Kingdom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle on the bottom of the pile matters.

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