Tag Archives: Dr. Seuss

Star or No Star? Belong or Not Belong?

given on the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 30, 2014

references the book The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss by Rev. James Kemp

Star or No Star?

Belong or Not Belong?

 

            How many groups do you connect with? Do you go to school reunions? Have you paid any dues for various organizations that share interests with you? Do you get publications you subscribe to because it applies to your profession?

If you can identify even one group to which you belong, then you know the comfort you feel because of that relationship. The importance you place on the relationship typically determines how much time and money you invest in belonging to that group.

Consider this question: Was what you believed more important than belonging or was belonging more important in learning about the group/interest?

Another thought to consider: Would you have joined that organization or even subscribe to that publication if you had no knowledge or even little knowledge of the subject?

Rev. James Kemp read The Sneetches, a Dr. Seuss book written during the civil rights movement, and he connected the overriding theme to Paul telling the earliest Christians that there was no difference between the Jews and the Gentiles: “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus. As a Christian, all were completely equal.

These are the words from The Sneetches that capture the message:

Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

The story continues showing how the stars excluded the non-stars from playing together. Simply put, the stars discriminated the non-stars. For those born prior to the 1970s, the story is a political satire concerning the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and the 1960’s. We might even tune out the story since we lived through it ourselves.

Would Paul have asked us to ignore the issue of discrimination or not? Hardly. In his own life experience, he first would have been a Sneetch with a star on his belly, but along the road to Emmaus, God removed his Jewish star. God wanted Paul to get the message of Jesus Christ; and since Paul was persecuting the first Christian believers, God needed him to get the message in a very direct and concrete manner.

The no-star Sneetches knew they were being excluded even though they were exactly the same as the starred Sneetches. The problem of belonging to a group or not is found throughout history. Due to Paul’s personal conversion, he learned there were no differences between Jews and Gentiles as he writes to the Galatians:

28 There is no Jew or Greek. There is no slave or free person. There is no male or female. Because you belong to Christ Jesus, you are all one.

 

In today’s society, belonging is everything. Everybody seems to find some way to connect with people through genealogy, social media, alumni organizations, sports teams, common experiences. The list continues to grow and sometimes it seems a game to see just how many ways you can “belong” to as many groups as you can. (Sorry to John Wesley for the parallel phrasing.)

Fortunately, characters like Sylvester McMonkey McBean are not always around trying to find a quick fix to connect one to some particular group through false methods. The Sneetches paid the $10.00 charge to add a star to a belly. The fix worked until the Sneetches with the stars naturally discovered they were no longer special and Sylvester McMonkey McBean devised the machine to take the star off, too.

The New Covenant delivered by Jesus eliminates such risky investments. Rev. Kemp places the emphasis on the inclusiveness of God’s love. No longer is there any reason to look for ways to belong, believe in Jesus Christ and you do belong.

Rev. Kemp focuses on the similarities rather than the differences:

  • Creation. We all are created by God. We are both alike and different from one another, but God called the whole of creation good.
  • Calling. There is purpose in life for each and everyone of us. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament were called, we too are called for a purpose.
  • Sin. All of us have fallen short of what God requires. We deceive ourselves if we think we have not sinned. But to acknowledge this does not mean accepting it as the last word.
  • Christ.We share in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves us despite our failings. This is by far the most important basis for our unity. [p.70-71]

 

People want to belong. There is a very basic human need to feel connected with others and belonging to special groups helps fulfill that need. It is the very reason that gangs continue to grow in today’s culture.

A mobile, global society has significantly altered the sense of belonging to a community. In small towns, the economic need for a community has shifted. Transportation has eliminated the 10-mile radius that once determined where business was transacted. Communication is instant and no longer needs a central location to connect people to people.

Belonging to a family, a community, or a church is no longer dependent on genetics or even beliefs. Belonging comes first. Once individuals develop that sense of belonging, the practices in that setting lead to belief. After one becomes accustomed to the practices, the belief becomes part of the foundation.

This faith process is just opposite of what it has been for thousands of years. What you believed determined where you belonged. Beliefs led to practices that identified to what group you belonged. Belonging was the result of the belief system.

Paul’s message to the Galatians came at a time the belief system was changing. The belief in Christ eliminated the difference between the Jews and the Gentiles. As the centuries passed, the Christian faith grew. People belonged and it created the Judeo-Christian foundation for governments, human relations, and more. The Western Cultures were defined by the Christian beliefs.

Today, the Sylvester McMonkey McBeans character might be considered an excellent marketing executive, but marketing today—even in our churches—is to show others how they belong, and in our churches the unchurched first need to know they already belong in God’s world. There can be no discriminating factors in our churches because Jesus erased them. The doors are open, but our arms must be open, too.

Rev. Kemp wraps up his sermon focusing on how we all belong to God. We can do it, he says,

“Proclaiming and celebrating unity in the church . . 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.” [p. 71]

Any church that can demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance creates a sense of belonging. In this 21st century, those outside of the church are watching closely to see who belongs or who does not belong. They are watching to see if the arms are as open as the doors.

Rev. Kemp closes with these thoughts:

No kind of Christian is the best Christian in the church. There are no Star-Belly Christians. We are family. We are one in Jesus Christ. [Ibid.]

 

Churches who can demonstrate this depth of Christian love for one and for all, then others will come. Others will discover they do belong to this family, a Christian family. They will be able to work together in acts of mercy and to develop their acts of worship. John Wesley lived when the belief, supported by the practices, created a strong bond of belonging within the church.

What works is what James wrote in his letter, too:

. . . treat everyone the same.

     2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes. And suppose a poor man in worn-out clothes also comes in. Would you show special attention to the one who is wearing fine clothes? Would you say, “Here’s a good seat for you”? Would you say to the poor person, “You stand there”? Or “Sit on the floor by my feet”? If you would, aren’t you treating some people better than others? Aren’t you like judges who have evil thoughts?

 

Today’s churches are working to make sure all feel as they belong. First they invite, they host, they teach, and they love one another. As one feels a sense of belonging, they join in the practices, and they live what they now believe. Sounds backward and upside down, but the churches who grow know loving one another breaks down all the differences. We are truly “one in Christ Jesus,” as Paul wrote the Galatians.

Closing Prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

Thank you for granting complete equality for all who believe.

Thank you for loving us before we know we are worth loving.

Thank you for sending your Son to teach how to live your love.

What barriers you have removed between people,

help us to keep them torn down,

help us to reach out to include them,

and help us to share the joy of Christian family.

Guide us in our decisions, in our efforts, and in our plans.

May we welcome others into the glory of God’s grace. –Amen

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Everything’s a Mess! Spring Cleaning now.

given on Sunday, March 23, 2014–the third Sunday of Lent and the third in a series of sermons based on Rev. James Kemp’s The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss.

 

            Spring officially arrived this week.  Did you notice it?  Just in case you missed it, spring arrived about noon on Thursday.   It was delightful!  The sun was out, the temperatures soared and everybody poured out of their houses to soak it up.

No one was complaining, the displays began focusing on gardening, flowers, summer clothing styles, and the weather forecasting teams were smiling and proudly sharing all the delightful temperatures and sunny skies.

Yet, with spring comes spring cleaning.  As winter winds down and the March winds blow away the fall leaves (or swirls them around the porches and decks again), the urge is to purge the house, the yards, and just about anything of the mess that winter seems to have deposited all around our homes.  Everything seems to be in a mess.

Everything is a mess!  This phrase pops up in casual conversation, overheard in restaurants, standing in line at the store, or just about anywhere you find a group of people gathered.  The phrase can refer to the state of our homes as well as the world, the global environment, much less the nation’s economic and political state.  There always seems to be a mess swirling around each one of us.

Dr. Kemp, author of The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss, identified how much of a mess The Cat in the Hat could create.  In fact, the mess just seemed to grow and grow even as he tries to clean up the mess:

. . . the Cat invites himself into the house of a couple of small children whose parents are not home.  He decides to take a bath, and ends up leaving behind a horrendous-looking pink bathtub ring.  The ring comes off the tub okay—right onto the mother’s new white dress, and then onto the wall, the rug, and so on.  [One thing leads to another] . . . The cat needs help.  And he gets it from twenty-six other, smaller cats. . .

Dr. Kemp compares the mess the Cat creates to the messes we make in our own lives.  We are so good at making messes not only in our homes, but in our jobs, in our relationships, or anywhere we try to control.  And when it comes times to clean things up, we run into more problems.  A small mess develops into a mess of nightmare proportion.

Sounds familiar does it not?  We get into a mess and when we try to clean it up, it just gets worse.  Even when we do things with the best intentions, something inevitably creates a mess.  Dr. Kemp feels this is the story of The Fall of Man/Humanity.  The Old Testament shares story after story of humanity’s fall.  Each fall has only one solution—God,

Where does that bring us today?  Well, now is the time for spring cleaning!  Lent is a time to reflect upon our relationship with God, to clean up the messes created over the past year.  Spring-cleaning is a tradition of cleaning a home from the top to the bottom, from the inside to the outside.  The clutter is thrown out, the dusting is done, the carpets are shampooed, the windows washed, and the spring air blows the winter trapped air.  When all is done, everything sparkles and shines.  The outdoor air fills the inside spaces and all is good for another year.

Spring cleaning takes work.  Dr. Kemp notes this as he reads the story of the Cat in the Hat.  He shares that the first problem of the pink ring in the tub gets more and more complicated as he tries to clean up the mess.  He keeps bringing in other cats—stored under his hat—to help with the cleaning.  The job just gets bigger and bigger, and once it looks like the pink mess is finally cleaned out of the house, they discover that all the snow piled up outside is now pink.  The mess is clearly seen by any and everybody who goes past the house.  Cat after cat keeps coming out from under the hats until Cat Z appears with a special feature, VOOM:

. . . This Voom, though small, has the power to put the whole house in order—to clean up the snow and restore everything to the way it is meant to be.

For Christians, this Voom is the restoring power that came in Jesus Christ.  Jesus brings glad tiding of great joy.  He is our Savior, our God, who came into the world we trashed to collect all the garbage, all the sin that clutters our world and makes our lives so full of messes.  Christ soaked up the tears, the blood we have spilled.  And carrying these, he climbed to a dumping ground for humans who were considered to have no worth.  On a cross, on a hill called Calvary, he disposed of the trash, all the sins of the world.  (pp. 25-26)

Jesus was the cleaning agent that God used to do spring cleaning.  This is the good news.  This is what Lent is—a time to clean up our lives.  We have Voom, we just need to use it.

Regardless of what type of mess we make in our lives, God is beside us.  He knows our weaknesses just as much as our strengths.  He allows us free will; but when we make mistakes and create a mess, he is there to clean things up.  Our responsibility is to make sure that we have stocked Voom in our homes.  If we step away from God, it is all too easy to try cleaning up our messes by all types of inadequate methods.  If we rely on God, messes have a way of cleaning up themselves.

Lent is almost half over and even though spring showed up this week, we are reminded almost overnight how easy it is to fall back into winter.  The same thing is true of our relationship with God.  Just when we feel we have it all cleaned up, we get a little too cocky, self-righteous and the mess flares up around us again.

Call on God.  Let him take control and you will enter spring in full bloom.  The words of John, in Revelations 21, provided Dr. Kemp the proof of how Voom works:

And the one who was seated on the throne said,

“See, I am making all things new.”  Also he said,

“Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

The Apostle Paul also knew how God chose to send Jesus to serve as the strongest cleaning agent possible.  He shared this in the second letter to Corinthians in chapter 5:  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation;  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  That is good news!

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

Thank you for the delights of spring once again.

Thank you for the grace you provide us year after year

even when we repeatedly make messes of our world.

Thank you for selecting only the very best, your own Son,

to send as the cleaning agent for our sins.

Thank you for the patience you extend to us

all summer, fall and winter as you wait for us to learn.

As we continue the spring cleaning of our lives this Lent,

guide us in learning how to trust that you will take care of us.

As we open the windows for spring cleaning,

open the windows of our hearts, too.

Let the spring days reveal to us the glory

of the good news that we are made new, too.  –Amen

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What was I scared of? Faith is the answer.

given on Sunday, March 16, 2014–the second in a series based on Rev. Kemp’s book, The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss.

            List all the things that scare you.  (pause)

            Now remember of all your childhood fears.  (pause)

            How did you learn not to be afraid?  (pause)

            What is different about fears today versus fears as a child?  (pause)

            Today’s scripture, Matthew 26:36-39, creates a familiar picture to those of us who are familiar with the story of Jesus.  Years of reading the Passion Story and sitting through Lenten sermons is tradition to those regularly attending worship service. 

            Stop, clear your mind, and walk the walk of the unchurched.  (pause)

            An open door for the unchurched is a fearful thing.  Not knowing the people on the other side is one thing; but what if you do not know what fills the space on the other side:

                        Well . . .

                        I was walking in the night

                        And I saw nothing scary.

                        For I have never been afraid

                        Of anything.  Not very.

 

Even the list of things that scare us today may be rather short, but the very root of the fear is the unknown

            Over and over the list of fears changes as the unknown becomes known.  The image of Jesus in the garden, praying to God, is familiar to those of us who are churched.  But reading the scripture after reading about fear in a different context can shift the image.

            Jesus goes to the garden to pray.  He knows what is about to happen; yet the human element within him is afraid.  The disciples who accompanied him to the garden had no idea what was going to happen over the next few days.  They were like children simply following their friend and modeling his behavior.  At least they prayed until they tired and started falling asleep.

            Jesus knew.  The disciples did not.  Nor did the Sneetch know there was anything unknown or scary:

            Then I was deep within the woods

            When, suddenly, I spied them.

            I saw a pair of pale green pants

            With nobody inside!

           

            I wasn’t scared.  But, yet, I stopped.

            What could those pants be there for?

            What could a pair of pants at night

            Be standing in the air?

 

            The unknown caused fear for the Sneetch.  Jesus knew what was ahead; and he still was afraid.  Even though he was not physically alone, he was scared.  Even though he was the Son of God, fear gripped him as he cried out to God.  He even stepped away from the disciples, moved deeper into the garden, and continued to pray:

“My Father, if it is possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. But let what you want be done, not what I want.”

 

            Dr. Kemp, in his book The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss, makes the argument that faith is the answer to fear:

Theologically speaking, the opposite of fear is faith.  The presence of faith does not automatically remove fears.  Rather, faith provides us with the discipline, confidence, and courage to move forward in spite of our fears.  (p.17)

 

Simply reading Dr. Seuss’s story about the Sneetch who was scared of a pair of empty green pants, triggered a theological thought for Rev. Kemp.  He connected the concept of fear with faith.  If one can turn over a fear to God, then there is no longer anything to be scared of.

            Fear comes in all forms.  Ask a group of people gathered in a huddle and you will find a long list of thing people are scared of.  Maybe it is snakes, mice, rats, or birds.  Sometimes the list includes the word phobia such as hydrophobia, arachnophobia, claustrophobia, and the list grows.  Women talk about being afraid of giving birth.  The fear ranges from the mere pain of delivery to fear of being a parent. 

            Fear freezes one from actions.  Fear can keep us from experiencing life to the fullest.  As Rev. Kemp states, “Our fears are preventing us from accomplishing our full potential.” 

            Think about your own fears for a moment.  (pause) 

            How many times did fear keep you from making a change?  (pause)

            Do you regret fear prevented you from reaching a goal?  (pause) 

Certainly there were the times when we wanted to try riding a bike or driving a car or going on a date or take a class whether in high school, in college, or just for your personal satisfaction.  We all are scared at times, but there is that one key to overcoming fear—faith.

            Even Jesus was afraid and asked God for protection; and if he can do that, so can we.  Consider what a difference letting go of a fear would make in your life.  No fear to keep you frozen into inaction.  No fear that keeps you from enriching your life through a challenge.  No fear to prevent you from doing whatever God asks you to do.

            The Sneetch ran away from the empty green pants.  He did not turn and face them to learn more, he ran:

            So I got out.  I got out fast

            As fast as I could go, sir.

            I wasn’t scared. But pants like that

            I did not care for.  No, sir.

That demonstration of fear is not the same picture as in today’s scripture.    Jesus prayed to God to “let this cup pass from me.”  Rev. Kemp continues to explain how Jesus dealt with his fear:

. . . He did not allow this unspeakable fear to keep him from pressing on to accomplish his earthly mission.  He did not run away from his fears.

            Dr. Seuss also helps us to understand the secret to overcoming our fears.  The secret is not to run faster or farther in the opposite direction.  . . .  The only way to overcome our fears is to face them. . . to make them our friends.”  (pp. 17-18)

            Jesus had to confront Herod’s interrogation, Pharisees accusations and the crowds torment and ridicule, the cruelty of beatings, carrying his cross, and dying by crucifixion.  God did not protect Jesus, his own son; but Jesus had to complete his ministry.  He had to die for the salvation of those who believed in him and accepted the New Covenant.  Even Jesus had to name his fear and then turn it over to God and have faith that God would take care of even him.

            Rev. Kemp read the Sneetch’s story of meeting the empty green pants and could see how important faith is in managing fear. 

He asks, “What might happen in our Christians lives if we, too, faced our fears instead of running from them?  Might it free us to do things that we’ve always wanted to do, but were afraid to try?  Or perhaps something that we once enjoyed doing but are afraid to try again?  (p. 18)

Fear has a way of keeping us from action.  Fear limits our potential.  Whatever our fears, whether personal or as part of a group—even of a church, follow the pattern of Jesus.  Step out in faith.  Come face to face with the fear.  Name the fear.  Then use the disciplines John Wesley taught such as prayer, worship, Bible study and service.  Listen carefully for God’s direction.  And give that fear up to God and have the faith that he will take the lead.

            Rev. Kemp ends his sermon with this final statement:  Faith will win out over fear every time.  If Jesus can demonstrate it at the end of his ministry, then we can too.  Go to God, cry out, share your fear, and then turn it over to him.  Faith defeats fear.

Closing prayer: 

            Dear Faithful Father,

            Fear fills our hearts and minds,

                        both small and large.

            We look at scary experiences or things

                        and freeze from uncertainty.

            At times we hear you share an idea

                        or ask us to do something,

            But we let fear keep us from doing

                        so help us to practice faith.

            Help us build confidence in life

                        as we practice the disciplines of faith.

            Let us continue on through Lent

                        with the faith shown by Jesus.  –Amen

           

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Would you, could you if God asks you?

given on Sunday, March 9, 2014 as the first of a series based on Rev. James Kemp’s book The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss.

            Certainly the words we just heard from Dr. Seuss are familiar and they may be running around in your head just like Sam-I-Am is chasing his friend all over the place with these insistent questions:

Do you like green eggs and ham?

            I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.

            I do not like green eggs and ham.  . . .

            Would you like them in a house?

            Would you like them with a mouse? . . .

            Would you eat them in a box?

            Would you eat them with a fox?  . . .

            Would you?  Could you?  In a car?

            Eat them!  Eat them!  Here they are!  . . .

 

Oh my!  Those rhyming words just echo over and over again in our heads, but that pattern, that sound keeps the message right at the front of our thoughts.  Now try it with this phrase:  Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Certainly it is Lent and the tone of the Christian season typically becomes somber, dark, and reflective.  Nowhere in any of the seminary materials does it say that Lent must be dark and gloomy; instead, materials use the term reflective or pensive to describe Lent.

On Monday, March 3, schools and children celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday and the emphasis is placed on reading skills.  Certainly this is a rather contemporary development and is not linked to our churches, by the messages in many kid books still echo and support the very same moral and ethical rules as the Bible.  Therefore, children’s books often take a major theological concept and break it down to the “bare bones” of the rule.

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

            The line fits right in with Green Eggs and Ham, doesn’t it.  So why not use it            as a trigger for the reflection and the pensive thinking we Christians are asked to do?  We can ask this question on two levels:  personally and congregationally.

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Personally:  Do you practice your faith openly?

Congregation:  Does the community know you are believers?

These are tough questions, but once a year each one of God’s children should be able to stop the daily routine and begin listing what practices they do daily, weekly, even monthly and annually to continue growing in faith.

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Personally:  Do you read your Bible casually or intentionally?

Congregation:  Does the church provide Sunday School or study groups regularly or even annually?

These are pretty difficult questions to answer with 100% honesty.   When we look back over the past year, these are two questions that make us feel uncomfortable.

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Ezekiel must have felt that way!  Here he is a prophet and he talks with God personally.  His congregation must have thought he had gone off his rocker—or whatever the saying was at the time.  We know from the Bible’s story that God had to demonstrate his awesome power to support Ezekiel’s prophet by raising up the bones found in an entire valley.

Sam-I-Am found a way.  He just kept repeating his question over and over in all types of contexts.  He was persistent.  Persistent, a key word, in the story and finally he did get his friend to take a bite of the green eggs and ham.

What was the result?  Remember it?  The green eggs and ham were tasty after all.  All that running around, question after question, and was it worth it?  Well, tasting the green eggs and ham might be risky, the risk is often worth the outcome.

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Personally:  Have you tried studying the Bible daily?

Congregationally:  Has a Bible study offered through the church’s curriculum ever been conducted either at church or in a member’s home?

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Personally:  Are you attending church at least 48 out of 52 Sundays of the year?

Congregationally:  Does the community know when the church is open and what times the service begins?

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

            Personally:  Do you invite friends, co-workers, family members, or even strangers to come to church?

Congregationally:  Does the community turn to the church as a fixture in the community knowing they are welcome anytime for any purpose?

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Personally:  Provide a testimony to others inside the church or outside the church how God is the foundation for your life’s journey—from baptism to death?

Congregationally:  Does the community see the church and/or its members as practicing Christians within the local as well as global neighborhood?

Sam-I-Am knew that persistence would pay off.  He did not give up trying to make a difference in his pursuit of his friend.  He knew he had something so valuable that it was worth the effort to share it with his friend.  Does this congregation also know the value of persistence?

Ezekiel knew he had to be persistent, too, but his doubts just about destroyed everything.  God knew, too, that a demonstration of his power was necessary in order for Ezekiel to have the authority to lead the faith community forward.

Would you, could you, if God asks you?

Personally, would you, could you, if God asks you to change?

Congregationally, would you, could you, if God asks you to change?

Right now, during Lent 2014, consider the persistence of Sam-I-Am.  Do you have the same persistence to be a Christian?  Do you have a vision for this church?  Do you know how to change in order to tell others how good God is all the time?

NORRIS:  Would you, could you, if God asks you?

–identify the community you serve?

–know why the church is shrinking?

–know what you can do personally to make a difference?

–identify a necessary change to be the best steward of God’s word?

CHILHOWEE:  Would you, could you, if God asks you?

            –continue serving the community as you have and even in new ways?

–identify the unchurched and ‘burned’ individuals in the community?

–develop a plan to share the good news in order to make new disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

Would you, could you, if God asks you to make a change, either personally or congregationally?  Using Lent, take some time to consider this question.  Identify your own behaviors, your own understanding of today’s world and the needs of belonging that seems to be critical for the unchurched and the burned in our communities.  What can you do?  What can this congregation do?  What is the best way to make a change because God asks us?  Remember the verse:  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me?  Remember the response:  God is with you, all the time.  All the time, God is with you.  –Amen.

 

 

 

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