Back to Basics: The Gospel and the Lorax

 

I was lucky growing up to have lots of books in the house.  From the time I was tiny, I played with books, even before I understood what they were.

 

By the time I learned to read, I was in love with stories of all kinds, Dr. Seuss’s rhymes, Aesop’s fables, C.S. Lewis’ worlds of talking lions and kingly children, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland…. I loved them because they took me places.

 

But I didn’t just love them because of where I hadn’t been.  They captured my heart because I could also see myself in them.

 

They didn’t just tell me a story.  They told me MY story.

 

Has anyone else had this happen?  Do you have a children’s story you love, that you fall into, that you cherish?   Now that you’re older, do you see something in it you didn’t see before?

 

I think we fall in love with these stories because they have some growing room, something that even as children we know is both exactly the right size and something bigger in it that we’ll understand later.  They have hope for more, secrets we still can break open like a gift.

 

Jesus’ parables are like that.  Over and over again the gospels, Jesus says things like, “The Kingdom of God is like…” “Those with ears to hear, listen!”

 

and the story seems both very small and simple and so big we can barely see all of its corners, the hugeness of its meaning.

 

In fact the whole story of God is like that, isn’t it?  The bible, every story, every character, every test and life and failure, teaches us about that situation and also about the meaning of life even thousands of years later.

 

Just a few moments ago, you heard a familiar story.  Perhaps its one of your favorites.  Maybe its just one you’ve heard a thousand times.

 

He (Jesus) said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like?  And to what should I compare it?

It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden;

it grew and became a tree,

and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

 

So simple.  We could read right past it… except.  The story is so much bigger.

 

Over the next few months, we’ll look at these familiar stories and passages in our bible – the ones we know so well.  But we’re going to go back to our roots.  What I mean is, we’re going to go back to those stories that we loved so much as kids, and read them again as older children, as bigger children.  We’ll try to find out whether they have something more to teach us, if their stories match up with the stories in the bible.

 

But first, we need one to kick us off on this journey.  My favorite book growing up was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.  I loved him partly because he made up words, which I also love to do… the pictures helped, too.  Do any of you know this story?

 

Here’s the recap, and it might sound a mite familiar: Once, the world was better than it is today. It was a beautiful garden, with many incredible creatures living in harmony.

 

Then, the Once-ler- a faceless, greedy wanderer with a dream of making lots of money – came and noted with satisfaction that there was much beauty in it, and some opportunity to be had there.

 

“Way back in the days when the grass was still green,

and the pond was still wet and the clouds were still clean,

and the sound of the Swamee Swans rang out in space…

one morning (he says) I came to this glorious place.

And I first saw the trees! Oh the Truffula tress!

The bright-colored tufts of the Truffula trees.”

 

He came, and knew just what he’d do… in no time at all, he had built a small shop, and he chopped down a Truffula Tree with one chop.

Then another and another to build on his greed, oh he fed his great greed, fed it with mind-numbing speed!

 

Calling on help from his family and friends, he used up the world, used it up to his own despicable ends…  so that it was unrecognizable to those who had lived in it before, he used it right up then he used it some more.

 

The Lorax, who lived in the land and oversaw it, spoke up –

 

He said, “Mister!  Mister,  (he said with a sneeze), I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.  I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues, and I’m asking you sir at the top of my lungs…”

 

(What, oh, what oh what have you done?)

 

But his fist raising and finger shaking, yelling, eye rolling and chest puffing didn’t seem to have an effect on the Once-ler.  Disbelief and warnings of terrible consequences made no dent, either.

 

He just kept on churning out the products of his greed, his entitlement, his sense that he could do whatever he wanted with the world.

 

Until, finally, all of the people, the animals, the beautiful places… were…. Gone.

 

The brown Barbaloots with their barbaloot suits, the Swamee Swan songs and the Humming Fish humming… they left with their hearts sadly beating, they went running.

 

The last Truffula Tree, the crack of its wooden spine heard across the now-empty spaces, signaled the loss of all hope.

 

The Lorax picks himself up by the seat of his pants and takes off with the Once-ler yelling “Bye Bye, then, Gramps!”

The factory’s silent, the ponds are all mucky.

It seems there’s no more, that this story’s unlucky.

There’s just one thing left, other than that there is nil – it’s what the Lorax left, just one word… “UNTIL…”

 

Oh, no.  The story, it seems done.  How can we go on?

 

Let us return to the mustard seed.  Just for a minute.  It’s all right, you’ll see.

Don’t worry – we’ll get back to the Once-ler’s big greed.

 

You see, Jesus tells the mustard seed story, in the middle of Luke’s gospel, but it’s not the only thing we have to listen for.  Just like all great stories, if we keep listening, if we read ahead and re-read what came before, the big picture shows us new things we never would have seen.  Right before the mustard seed, Jesus has done what?

(Who’s got their bible open?)

 

He heals the bent over woman.  Now, this woman has been persecuted by a debilitating condition that had crippled her body for 18 years.  It must have bent her mind, too, crushed some of her hope for herself.  But Jesus, he says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!”

 

And he touches her, and she stands straight, walks away, away from her bondage, from her despair.  She turns toward hope.

 

The mustard seed story follows directly on the heels of this woman’s healing.  It is a comment on it.  It’s not a jump, unrelated – they’re directly related, the seed and this woman’s bent back.

 

Luke’s scripture tells us, by putting these two of Jesus’ teachings one after the other,

that no matter how long you may see

catastrophe,

pain,

awfulness,

hopelessness in the past,

brokenness can be bent into straightness,

roughness can be made smooth,

small, weedy plants can become shelter for the wandering birds,

broken hearts can become generous,

the most destroyed places have within them the seed

… for Eden.

 

Let us return to the land of the Lorax, where there are no more Brown Barbaloots, in their Barbaloot suits, no more Swamee Swan songs, no more beautiful, swaying, soft Truffula Tree fronds, no. No. More. Humming fish with their humming so stunning.

 

 

But remember that word “Until?”  … Until.  A small boy wanders into town and finds the Once-ler, in the midst of his left-over garbage, the destruction he created, waiting.

 

And he says,

 

“Now… now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.  Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.  So, catch!, called the Onceler.

He let something fall.  It’s a Truffula Seed, it’s the last one of all.

You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds, and Truffula Trees are what everyone needs…

Grow a forest, protect it from axes that hack.

Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”

 

Saint Augustine once wrote,

“Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger at the way things are, and courage to see to it they do not remain that way.”

 

What I think he meant was, the good news is that in order to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven,

our minds,

our hearts have to stretch beyond what we see with our eyes,

beyond what we have been told our entire lives is possible…

and see the layers of mysteriously impossible beneath.

We have to see them, to believe that they in fact are the true reality, and then to get all worked up about the fact that other people have been made blind.

We have to get a bit mad, like the Lorax, but unlike the Lorax,

we have to remember the seed,

we have to be  brave enough to trust that there is life in us yet, that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

And, we have to do something.  It takes cultivating.

 

There are ancient Jewish comments on the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Talmud.  They are often quite like poetry.

One of these comments says,

“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.”  Yes!

You, my friends, you’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds, and Truffula Trees are what everyone needs…

The hope of this world, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,

despite looking out your front door in the morning and wondering what is this world coming to?

Despite the bend in your back.

 

You’re called to “grow a forest, protect it from axes that hack.  Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”

 

Your mission is to hold onto the seed of hope, to protect and share it, to give it what it needs to grow – air for it to fly on, light for others to see it, food for it to become strong-  to remember that just because it is small now, it will be a looming tree soon enough.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously preached in his last Sunday sermon in 1968, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

He said this just before his fateful trip to Memphis where he would be assassinated on the balcony of the Loraine Motel.

He said this, knowing that he would not likely live to see full equality for his African-American brothers and sisters, for help for the working poor in the South, for peace in Vietnam.

 

It would be easy to lose faith in the promises of salvation and restoration, to crumble under the world’s high pressure, to lie down and just hold on… except.

We have this word, “Until…”

We have something inside us that won’t allow that to happen.

 

There has been a seed planted in us, a tiny pin prick, germ-sized, something that won’t let us go… something waiting for us to come along and notice it and give it sunlight and food and loving care, to see the long view, to jump on that arc, throw our arms out and ride it past the bend toward justice.

 

What if we heard in this story of the Truffula Trees, of the Lorax, of the seeds of “UNTIL”, what if we heard in it, our own story?

 

The Zone’s story?  Has the Hilltop lost its hope?  We come together in the Shalom Zone because we believe that there is a seed of hope for the Westside.  And, like the Truffula Seed, it comes surprisingly, shockingly, from least expected places.  It comes from within us and that we are called to be its caretakers is a miracle.

 

We are like the boy in the Lorax, who now has an opportunity for greatness.  We have found dozens and hundreds of others who, too, are saying, “UNTIL.”

Small events, seeds, in our local community are popping up everywhere, signs of God’s kingdom appearing and evil powers receding.

 

The loss of hope is the most destructive force on the planet.  Research shows that loss of hope, loss of a belief that things can and will be different, leads to crippling inaction.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is a spiral.

 

And people in our neighborhoods, in this very room, are struggling to hope.

There is a reason that poor people are twice as likely to be depressed as those who have enough to eat, enough to pay their bills, enough to keep their kids in school…

 

We may feel like the bent over woman, 18 years of looking down at the ground, unable to stretch up and see down the arc of the possible future, unable to see Jesus coming down the path with hands full of healing touches.

 

But Dr. King, in the face of 400 years of slavery and racism, held to the hope, because he believed the gospel of Jesus, which says,

 

“The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.

 

And we, we have that same gospel.

 

We’re  the ones who’ve been given the seed,

that tiny, invisible seed that we need,

big hearts that trust faith will bear fruit like a weed,

that the power of God is inside us indeed,

that it’s open to everyone,

everyone, lacking for none,

that it’s wild and wonderful but that it needs sun,

that a sneak of a gardener wants us to share it…

so that we can go out in the world… and repair it.

 

 

Amen.  Amen. Amen.

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