Harrowing Of Hell
June 30, 2019

The Lorax Tree and the gifts of the Spirit

To listen to the sermon, click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends:

Right now, I think we all are in a place where we are asking a lot of questions – big questions about what we are to do as Christians about climate change, immigration, care for our children and the world. And in the last couple of weeks, I have found yet another big question reverberating around my head. You might know this one….   

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

While I don’t have a succinct answer for this one either, I find I have been thinking of it because  regardless of the sound it may or may not have made, two weeks ago on June 16th 2019, when no one was around, a Monterey Cypress tree  fell in La Jolla, California. And the falling of this tree was not only profoundly felt by many in La Jolla but also by many throughout the world. Because local lore held it to be the inspiration behind the Lorax tree in a book by Dr. Seuss.

The Lorax, Seuss’s own favorite book, is a story that features a cute, if bossy, mustached yellow prophetic fellow who spoke for the Truffala trees and the other creatures who lived within its forest.  And because this huge tree, visible from Dr. Seuss’s home, so closely resembled the brightly-colored Truffalas, when it fell, we heard it— on our radios, on our televisions and newsfeeds because it seemed to symbolize many of issues we are facing today.  And when we heard about it “…when we heard the tree fall. [We felt as if we lost] the very last Trufulla Tree of them All.” And it saddened us – made us mourn this tree and feel deeply the prophecy that Seuss left us in the words of the Once-ler. He wrote:

Unless someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

And Dr. Seuss, who was long troubled by these issues while he lived, would be glad that his book—one that he unashamedly referred to as pure, if good-intentioned, ‘propaganda’—gives us pause and makes us wonder how we might better respond. Published in 1971, the book came out one year after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the celebration of the first Earth Day. Referred to as the Silent Spring or the Inconvenient Truth of story books, it did not originally sell as well as his other books and many have taken issue with it—some even seeking to take it off library shelves. But as his wife Audrey said of him, “He did not play to the audience. They could take it or not take it. He had something he wished to say, and he said it.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus, too, isn’t playing to the audience. With his disciples still intent on their understanding of the Messiah as a politically powerful earthly king, Jesus resolutely continues to model and teach his disciples about his role as the Messiah. We begin this chapter, with Jesus empowering his disciples to drive out demons and to cure diseases, to heal the sick and to proclaim the kingdom of God. And he tells them, amongst other things, “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” Jesus has also clearly told them that Messiah, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and …must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” What Jesus is telling them, even if his disciples cannot yet face it, is that his teaching and ministry would lead to his death.

In today’s gospel Jesus begins his last journey towards Jerusalem. In fact, as we begin this travelogue, we find Jesus and his disciples traveling through Samaritan lands on the most direct route. We meet them just as the disciples hear that a Samaritan village has refused to welcome them. So, they ask Jesus, ” ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ “ Apparently, they didn’t get the memo about simply shaking the dust off their feet. So, Jesus turns to his disciples and rebukes them –he lets them know, in no uncertain terms, that he STRONGLY DISAPPROVES of this suggestion. He hasn’t empowered them to call down fire on folks – he had empowered them to cure diseases, heal the sick and proclaim God’s kingdom. And we are told, “Then they went on to another village.”

Because we often suffer from the 20/20 hindsight problem, I think our recently-returned pilgrims might help us see things more clearly from the disciples’ point of view. If we were to ask Doyt and our other folks who’ve just returned from England how they might have felt when, after walking over twenty miles they find out they have to continue to walk another ten or more to get to a neighboring village, they might give us some insight into the James and John’s desire for a punishing fire.  Discipleship is not easy. That is what Jesus is teaching us as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Sometimes it is very, very difficult indeed. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And it is difficult not just because we get tired and overwhelmed both mentally and physically but also because discipleship involves resolutely continuing to try to do what is right even when no one else can understand what we are doing – even when we, ourselves, don’t exactly know to what we are being called to either. Discipleship is about going forward as pilgrims who can’t always know where the Spirit is leading us. Philip Scharper describes Christians not just as pilgrims, but perhaps even more accurately as nomads. He writes: “A popular church metaphor is that of the people of God on pilgrimage. But a more apt metaphor …[is] that of the people of God as nomads. Pilgrims know where their journey is headed … Nomads are called to go by uncertain paths to a place that shall be made holy at some indefinite time by something God shall say or do. And there is no guide, no guide except a pillar of fire by night and a wind-driven cloud by day — sounds and symbols of the Holy Spirit.” Or as Brian McClaren would put it, we make the road by walking it. Christian faith, he says, “was never meant to be a destination, a status, a holding tank, or a warehouse. Instead, it was to be a road, a way out of the old and destructive patterns into new and creative ones. As a road or way, it is always being extended into the future. If a spiritual community only points back to where it has been or if it only digs into where it is now, it is a dead end or a parking lot, not a way.”

I stand here today in the midst of some of the best folks in know. One of the joys of travelling with this community is to hear and experience the many ways that so many of you have made and are making a huge difference in the lives of others – both here in Seattle and in the world. And yet, I hear from so many of you that you are not sure how to respond to the many, many things that are going on in our country and in our world. I know firsthand that you do care an awful lot. And you have cared for a long time and have been trying to make things better for a long time too. And still, things don’t seem to be getting too much better. So, I hear so many of you asking what we can do? And how can we possibly be heard in world where everyone, even those who say that they follow Christ, refuse to listen to the good news. How can we be heard in a world where even as sales of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax have doubled,  nothing seems to have changed – where the first line in David Wallace Well’s  2019 best-selling book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming sounds very similar to what the Lorax was trying to say all those years ago to the Once-ler who unthinkingly cut down the Truffala trees to make Thneeds. Wallace Well’s writes “It is worse, much worse than you think.”

So, what do we do? Well, Dr. Seuss, himself, knew and showed that the doom-saying tirade of the Lorax did nothing to save the Truffala forest—or the beloved animals that lived within its ecosystem.  As much as the prophetic Lorax pronounced, the trees continued to be felled and the thneeds, a strange garment that resembled fluffy footed pajamas, continued to be produced. The Once-ler recalls answering the last of the Lorax’ warnings,

“Then I got mad. I got terribly mad. I yelled at the Lorax, “Now listen here Dad! All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad! Well I got my rights, sir, and I’m telling you I intend to go on doing just what I do! And for your information, you Lorax, I’m figgering on biggering, and biggering and biggering and biggering , turning more Truffala trees into Thneeds which everyone, everyone everyone needs.”  

And then we read, “Then we heard the tree fall. The very last Truffala tree of them All!”

What then can we as Christians do? St. Paul would suggest that we can do an awful lot if we believe and follow through with what Jesus empowered his disciples, empowered us, to do. Paul reminds us “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And he warns us, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  Using the word flesh here to refer to our human propensity to, as we read about in today’s gospel, concentrate on earthly power rather than on the kingdom of God, Paul reminds us of what flows out of our desire to exert our power over others. He also gives us a way to determine if we are following where the Spirit is leading –even as spiritual nomads who don’t know exactly where we are going.  Just as the old song tells us that they will know we are Christians by our love – St. Paul tells us that we will know we are walking in love when the fruits of the Spirit accompany us. If we hope to change the world, we must remember that as citizens of the Kingdom of God we are identified by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Now I know these things, to our human ears, don’t seem too powerful but I think we safely rule out efficacy of angry epithets, violence and greed at this point. And so why shouldn’t we believe in love and why shouldn’t we try again the fruits of the Spirit? Why shouldn’t we preach the good news and let folks know that God’s love is better, better than they think? And not just as a novelty that we pull out every now and then – but rather as a something we do each and every day.  Loving God is not a cop out and it doesn’t mean that we remain silent about what is wrong  or that we don’t do anything. Rather it is only way we can  powerfully address the real needs—rather than the thneeds—of our neighbors.

Because the Word of God is perfectly clear

Unless we love one another as a neighbor and a whole lot

Nothing is going to get better.

It just is not.