This July, our summer sermon series pairs Scripture texts with well-known and loved books by Dr. Seuss as modern parables to deepen our exploration of faith in the world together. This week our Dr. Seuss classic is Horton Hears a Who!
Have you heard the expression “mom brain”? It’s usually a joking-but-true phrase we use to ascribe the phenomenon of how after having children, a woman sometimes loses the ability to keep things straight and are forgetful, to say the least. This is particularly true in those early, sleep-deprived months, but its effects are surprisingly long-lasting. The parenting load is no joke, and the struggle is real. But, truth-be-told, the idea that having children changes things is a scientifically proven fact.
Research shows that pregnancy changes the architecture of the brain for at least two years in areas that govern the understanding of the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and intentions of others[i].
One of the ways this is seen is in a woman’s response to her crying baby.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health watched the behavior of 684 mothers who had infants approximately 5 months old in North and South America, three countries in Western Europe, two in sub-Saharan Africa, one in the Middle East and two in East Asia. Mothers in all of those places were more likely than not to do the same thing when their infant cried in distress: they picked them up, held them and talked to themi.
And while this might seem like a common response, the neurological responses showed a much different reaction between mothers and other women without children. In mothers,
these responses were deeply wired into the nervous system at a level that is typically associated with instincts. . . the crying of babies triggered the moms’ brains to move and prepare to talk, even before the mothers had necessarily processed what was happening and what they needed to doi.
In summary, those who were parents had an innate instinctual connection with those crying out, and a response of care almost before they could even think about it.
If such a connection is hard-wired into us as humans, how much more must it be hard-wired into God’s relationship with us as Creator? The entire witness of Scripture reveals a God who longs to be in relationship with God’s creation. Over and over again, God seeks out covenant with God’s people, offering grace and love in the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures alike. And here, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded of God’s care and presence for what God has created even in the midst of creation’s cries.
N.T. Wright describes this Spirit-inspired prayer as “the beating heart of [Paul’s] whole sequence of thought[ii].”
No matter what, Paul says, God is listening and preparing to free God’s people from bondage and usher in a new age of redemption, where cries will be no more. Through Christ, God responds to the cries of creation for wholeness.
Just as God led God’s people through the wilderness to freedom, so the Spirit leads all of God’s children to a life of freedom.
. . .
Paul’s claims are expansive: everything will be redeemed – all of creation, our bodies, the substance of this earth[iii].
The knowledge of all of this leads Paul into a description of hope; a hope for what is not yet seen. Blair Alison Pogue notes that we don’t really live in a world of hope, saying:
Most Americans are optimistic, but not hopeful[iv].
In the midst of struggle, we want things to work out for the best, but aren’t necessarily convinced that it’s really possible. Vaclav Havel, 20th century Czech writer, statesmen and former president, talked about hope as prophetic and more as:
an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons[v].
Put this way, then, hope is about anchoring our hearts beyond ourselves. This is what Paul was writing about to the Romans. For Paul,
Christian hope is not pie in the sky; it is hope rooted in what Paul calls “the first fruits of the Spirit” (v. 23). This metaphor of the first fruits means that in Christ we already have come to know the power of life over death. We already know freedom. We already know love. We have tasted the first fruits, and they have whetted our appetite for the final banquet. We do have out-of-hand expectations. Because we know the first fruits, we rejoice at the loving, the living, and the freedom. We hunger for more, and we cry out wherever love is absent, life is shortened, and freedom is taken away. The church of Jesus Christ is the community of sisters and brothers who live in anticipation of a new birth of freedom, a new day of loving, and an inheritance of life abundant[vi].
What does it look like to live in this kind of community? Horton the elephant gives us a clue in the Dr. Seuss classic, Horton Hears a Who!. In the midst of his everyday life, this elephant pauses to listen for a call to help. And rather than ignore it, or pass it on as someone else’s problem, Horton makes it his mission to protect and care for that little voice on the speck of dust, because “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” He goes to great lengths, extraordinary lengths, to attend to what we learn is not just one little voice, but a whole people down in Whoville who are at risk. He embodies what it means to be a caretaker of God’s creation, even at the risk of his reputation and at times his safety. He is mocked and ridiculed by others who cannot, or perhaps choose not, to hear the cries of those small voices. He goes out of his way, quite literally, to seek out the speck in a whole field of clover, determined to not let it get lost now that he is aware of its presence. And he endures harsh treatment and even imprisonment for daring to advocate for the smallest of the small, all while trying to encourage their voices.
Where are the “specks” in our world? The list is likely larger than the three million clovers Horton sorted through in that field to find his friends. I wonder if that scene might remind us that there are countless issues and concerns, the majority quite worthwhile, but that some will quite literally call to us more than others, and be the ones the Spirit is nudging us to be passionate about. Throughout Scripture, we hear such calls, to care for and attend to the lost and the lonely, the widow and the orphan, the stranger living among us. Those, along with others on the margins of society, were the ones Jesus himself spent the most time with, and are the ones that are crying out, waiting and longing to be heard. And creation needs, God needs, Hortons in the world to hear and respond: to the older adult who feels forgotten, to the prisoner whose family can no longer visit because he’s been moved even farther away, to the child at the border who does not know if or when she will see her mother again, to the young adult who is struggling with addiction, to the child terrified to go back to school because of bullies. For these, and all of those instances where creation is crying out, who will listen? Who will respond?
This morning, I have a present for each of you. I have a basket full of “specks” and invite you, following worship, to take one home with you. Carry it around for a while, kind of like Horton did, as a prompt to engage in active listening for who God might be calling you to hear. Living in this kind of anticipation puts us into an active relationship with the world, not just as we know it, but in the fullness of all who is. And we might just be able to hope for things we do not even see as a result.
Vaclav Havel reminds us that:
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpromising the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere.’ It is also this hope, above all, that gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now[vii].
So may we listen, and act, and live into being the good caretakers and stewards of creation that God intended us to be – for all of God’s children and all of God’s world. Even when it seems impossible or futile, even when it means we’re putting ourselves out there. May this be our call: not just being satisfied with the present, but living into the future promised by God. For this, all of creation cries out. Amen.
~Sermon preached by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, July 21, 2019
[i] Belinda Luscombe, “Here’s How Mothers Around the World React When Their Babies Cry,” https://time.com/4992130/motherhood-crying-babies/, accessed 7/20/19
[ii] N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 10:591. As quoted by Karen Chakoian in “Exegetical Perspective: Romans 8:12-25,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[iii] Karen Chakoian,“Exegetical Perspective: Romans 8:12-25,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[iv] Blair Alison Pogue, “Homiletical Perspective: Romans 8:12-25,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[v] Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace, as quoted by the Vaclav Havel Library Association, https://www.vhlf.org/havel-quotes/disturbing-the-peace/, accessed 7/20/19.
[vi] David M. Greenhaw, “Pastoral Perspective: Romans 8:12-25,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[vii] Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace, as quoted by the Vaclav Havel Library Association, https://www.vhlf.org/havel-quotes/disturbing-the-peace/, accessed 7/20/19.