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 The Sneetches.
Last week for Heritage Plays, 23 of us met up at Suntrust Park to enjoy a baseball game. Matt, Andrew, and I got to the stadium just before the game began. A few steps past the gate, I began to notice fans carrying the kids giveaway for the night: a Braves backpack. They were no longer giving them away at the gate, and I wasn’t surprised, assuming we’d missed it. But, just in case, I talked Matt into letting me walk towards another gate to see if they still had any. He convinced me that was a fool’s errand, so we began to head toward our section. But I kept seeing people with these backpacks. More and more of them. I even saw one of the employees holding two of them, so I asked him if perhaps I could have one (he told me, “no” – he was holding them for some other fans in a reserved seating area). Every time I saw someone with a backpack, something poked at me inside. I wanted one. I noticed they weren’t even the totally cheap-o ones either. And everyone seemed to have them. More and more. Like they were giving them away nearby even. My internal monologue was getting a little ridiculous as I looked around. I begrudgingly followed Matt back up the stairs, and then, right by the gate where we had entered, I noticed something. Everyone had a backpack. I looked again. There were a few stacks of them, and employees giving them away. I walked over, prepared to persuade with my very cute infant. Before I could get out a sentence, one was in my hand and I was saying “Thank you!”
Now, I don’t need this backpack. In the words of my wise husband, we don’t need this backpack. Another backpack. Even if it does have an “a” on it and a place for water bottles. And he’s right. But my sense of jealousy at what others were carrying around, and my pride at having one of my own in my hands was palpable. Probably in ways beyond what it should be. All for a “free” giveaway at a ball game.
Sometimes, we get caught up in wanting what other people have, don’t we? There was a cartoon devoted to this idea, illustrated by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand, it ran in The New York World and other papers from 1913 until 1940. It featured a couple, the McGinis family, who were social climbers and struggled to “keep up” with their neighbors, unseen characters who never appeared in any comic, named “The Joneses.” This is one theory on where we get that idiomatic expression, “keeping up with the Joneses”[i]. Whether it’s out of a sense of keeping up with the Joneses (or Kardashians, or anyone else), we tend to pay attention to what others around us have. We are jealous of the newest phone or latest model of car; we wish our haircut would look half as good as hers, or that we had half the hair that he does. And we play a comparison game: we wish our haircut would look half as good as hers, or that we had half the hair that he does. And you know, we do this at church too. We notice that their cookies don’t look misshapen and burnt at the potluck; we see that they not only attend worship each week, but also go to Sunday School and volunteer at the food pantry; we stand for a hymn and realize that while we can’t carry a tune in a bucket, they are singing notes we can’t even read in beautiful harmony. It seems, no matter where we fall on some social ladder, we look at those around us and it seems they have it more together than we do, and we are jealous. And while a lot of times this becomes about material possessions, the “stuff” in our lives and our ability to get our hands on it, the root of the issue is not so much the stuff, but our obsession with who is “in” and who is “out,” and our ego’s deep need to be “in.”
The early church also struggled with this question. Following the radical whirlwind that was Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Christ-followers and new believers set out to figure out what it meant to be the church. We see glimpses of it in the gospels, but the real meat of their predicaments (pun intended) is found in the book of Acts and the epistles. One of the central questions? What it meant to reconcile a new faith community that included both Jews and Gentiles. These were not small questions, either. Mark Douglas notes that:
How much like a Jew does a Gentile need to be in order to be a Christian? . . . is the central moral question for the early church because it is a deeply theological question. God made promises to Abraham and Abraham’s heirs. Gentiles are not natural heirs. So how do God’s promises apply? If the promises apply to Gentiles, God seemingly treats Israel in an arbitrary way. If they apply to Jews, then how does the crucified Jesus matter to Jews? . . . On the one hand, the new church could worship a God who is willing to break promises – but that will take them away from their claim that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. On the other hand, they can pursue a vision of the continuing faithfulness of God’s promises to Abraham – which seemingly excludes Gentiles and makes the new gospel of the crucified Lord irrelevant to Jews[ii].
Imagine, if you will, that the early Christians, those Jews who believed that Christ was the Messiah, were like the Sneetches with stars on their bellies. They had their rhythms and routines figured out, and stuck together. They were the chosen ones, set apart. They’re not too keen on anyone else joining what they have. Or maybe they’d be willing to accept newcomers, as long as they began to look and act just like them.
James Kemp offers:
This story is rich with social commentary about how fallen human beings search for ways to make divisions among themselves. It also makes a statement about those who have a vested interest in keeping people divided and at war because they can sell their products to both sides[iii].
If we follow Seuss’s story, it’s pretty clear that the truth of the matter is we like to be set apart and special, and don’t like when things disrupt that status quo.
But, now, how in the world will we know,” they all frowned,
“if which kind is what, or the other way round?”[iv]
We are so quick to provide those answers, aren’t we? And we’re willing to go to some pretty extraordinary, and expensive, lengths to keep things the way they are. Instead of being focused on what unites us, we too-often become “starry-eyed” and obsessed with those things that may or may not set us apart and certainly divide us.
I think that’s because, at the heart of it, we are afraid that we aren’t enough, and so we let our fear drive us to put others down so we won’t feel like we’re on the bottom. One of my favorite devotional sites, d365.org, begins with a thought-provoking “pause” each day. The theme this week was “fear less,” and began with these words, which I think challenge the “starry-eyed” parts of us:
Our world appears to thrive and profit from our fear –
Fear of those different from us,
Fear of insignificance and isolation,
Fear that our secret shames might come to light.
Could there be another way to live?
Is it possible to fear less?[v]
The early church was living in a time of fear, when everything in their world, religiously and secularly, were shifting in dramatic ways. For a community set up against the challenging context of the Roman Empire, the Galatians had to rethink both their theology and their politics as those from the secular world became a part of their faith, or of some new faith that was emerging. All of a sudden, the church was full of people juggling multiple, and often conflicting, identities, with different understandings about things like what to eat, and what do with their bodies (i.e. circumcision). Paul spends a lot of time sorting out what no doubt were long lists of contentious questions about how things were supposed to work, rooted in a sense of the early church wanting to remain special, starred, rather than invite everyone in.
Our text for today is the high point of Paul’s letter. You get the sense that he is at a point of exasperation, following detailed conversation about nuances of the law. It’s as if he throws his pen across the room, and grabs his hair screaming at them for their obsession with the details. “GROW UP!” he might have shouted, noting that their quest for who is “in” and who is “out” was like teenage girl cliques or childhood clubhouses. They can’t see the forest for the trees. Or, quite literally, I wonder if Paul adopted the phrase that I have started using when I get in the weeds of minutia myself in ministry, “Jesus Christ did not die for this.” So Paul comes back to the central point of the gospel: that in Christ, God was doing a new thing. A new family has been formed, one that breaks down every boundary imaginable. Social distinctions are obliterated.
Paul says that Christ alone matters: Christ our unity, Christ our focus, Christ the line of energy along which relationships run, Christ the beginning and the end, Christ the cause for which we live, Christ from which nothing can take us, not even death – especially not death[vi].
Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus
Dr. Seuss says:
Sneetches are Sneetches and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether they had one, or not, upon thars[viii].
This is a vision for the church of the future; to truly be one in Christ Jesus.
Proclaiming and celebrating unity in the church means learning from our differences instead of allowing them to divide us. It means encouraging others and not boasting about our own accomplishments. It means courting a spirit of gratitude instead of pride. It means that we cannot separate love for God from love for one another[ix].
Living this way is not just for Christians or the church exclusively. This is the approach to community that should be our goal; to recognize that people are people, and that every. single. person. in this world is a beloved child of God. That doesn’t mean that we don’t notice our differences. Indeed, that’s also dangerous and detrimental. We don’t need to ignore the things that make us distinct. But we shouldn’t let those things that make us different be what drives us apart. Why? Because the God who created us, the Savior who died for us, and the Spirit who both scatters and gathers us together, is so much bigger than that.
And because we are brought together in the one who is indeed that big, we need not be afraid of anything; not those things that make us different from each other, not those forces in the world that are pushing against us, not the thing that keeps us up at night, or is that we can’t even bring ourselves to say, not even death itself. So maybe, just maybe, we can be as smart as the Sneetches, and recognize that there are McBean’s all around us, seeking to divide us and make money off of our fear, but that, in the end, it doesn’t matter if we have stars on our bellies or not. Realizing that is realizing God’s overwhelming grace. A grace so powerful that it allows us to step out of the relentless lines going in and out, and instead embrace a new reality and identity as children of God. Together. For in Christ Jesus, we are indeed one. May we be smart enough to realize this is the truth, and go and live like it. Amen.
~sermon preached by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, July 28, 2019
[ii] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective: Galatians 3:23-29,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[iii] James W. Kemp, The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2004)
[v] “Pause,” www.d365.org, week of July 22-28, 2019, written by Joshua Hays
[vi] Carol E. Holtz-Martin, “Homiletical Perspective: Galatians 3:23-29,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[vii] Galatians 3:28, The Message
[viii] Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches and Other Stories, (New York: Random House, 1961).