A Person’s a Person No Matter How Small and the Smallest Among You’s the Greatest of All

The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss: A Sermon on Horton Hears a Who and Luke 9:46–50

An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” Luke 9:46–50 NRSV

While I love Dr. Seuss books in general, I have to say that my absolute favorite of his stories is Horton Hears a Who. Horton is an elephant. One day while he is splashing in the cool of a pool in the Jungle of Nool, he hears a voice. He looks toward the sound, but there’s no one around. Horton realizes the faint cry for help is coming from a tiny speck of dust floating in the air.

Even though he can’t see anything on the small dust speck, Horton asserts that there must be a person, maybe even a family, living on it because he knows that he hears a voice. Horton vows to take care of the fragile speck and the living creatures that must be on it because after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.

Other animals in the Jungle of Nool can’t see or hear anyone on the dust speck, so they think Horton’s a fool. They mock Horton and tease him and snatch the dust that the elephant had set on a clover. Then a bird named Vlad Vlad-i-koff drops it in a clover field that’s a 100 miles over. Horton, exhausted, searches the field ’til he hears the voice call because a person’s a person no matter how small.

It turns out that the dust houses a city, but that drop in the field was a big one and the site is not pretty. The town mayor begs Horton to shield them and offer them care while the tiny creatures make the much needed repairs.

The jungle animals come. They’re completely enraged, so they they throw poor Horton right into a cage. To shut Horton up, they threaten to boil the tiny dust speck in Beezle-Nut oil. Horton pleads for the unseen creatures to yell with all of their might so that they may be heard and save their lives.

The tiny creatures do yell and scream. They bang their pots and their pans, but the animals hear nothing. They still think Horton’s a sham. Horton yells to the mayor, “Is everyone working? Could there be anybody instead of yelling who’s shirking? The mayor looks and looks and finds one small child who’s playing yo-yo instead of yelling wild. The mayor tells the kid, “We need you. Yell. Don’t stop.” The little one takes a deep breath and screams, “Yopp!” That small voice is exactly what’s needed. The animals, they hear, and their attack is ceded. They promise to join Horton in caring for them all. Because they’ve learned that a person’s a person no matter how small.

Dr. Seuss published Horton Hears a Who in 1954, just shy of decade after the end of World War II. In 1945 the war ended, but not before our country dropped atomic bombs on two cities in Japan- Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, this past week marked the 73rd anniversary of both bombings. In all, those two bombs killed about 214,000 Japanese people. Thousands of others were severely burned. For years afterwards, Japan saw high increases in the number of people dying from different cancers- all believed to be related to the bombs that our country dropped on them.

The dedication that Seuss wrote in Horton Hears a Who reads “For my Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.” The book which calls us to see those we may choose to ignore and to protect each other no matter how small actually references the atomic bomb attacks when the mayor of Whoville says,”When that black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped, We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.”

The story which promotes equality also includes repentance. You may not know that in addition to writing children’s books, Theodor Seuss Geisel drew political cartoons during World War II. Some of them included racist portrayals of the Japanese. It seems that Horton Hears a Who isn’t just a challenge for readers to choose kindness; it’s also a bit autobiographical about Dr. Seuss’ personal change of heart and transformation.

In the children’s book, the animals in the Jungle of Nool can’t comprehend what they can not hear or see. Because of this, they fail to act with compassion toward those unseen by them. In fact, when they are confronted with what they don’t understand, they mock the one trying to see. It doesn’t take long for their actions to become violent.

Not so differently, Jesus’ own disciples do not understand what their rabbi means when, for the umpteenth time, he tells them that he will be betrayed into human hands. They start whispering behind Jesus’ back and bickering over a question that sounds ridiculous to us. Like young siblings, they want to know which one of them is the greatest.

Jesus not only hears their hushed arguments, but he also knows the heart their question: If their teacher might be taken away from them, who’s going to be left in charge? In typical Jesus fashion, their rabbi uses this moment to help the disciples understand a truth that they can not yet see.

This conversation comes after Jesus has performed a healing, so the crowd that had gathered is still mingling about. As always, young children are among the crowd. While their presence is rarely mentioned in biblical stories, young children certainly accompanied the mamas and aunties who came to see Jesus.

Jesus calls one of the young children over to him. When the disciples see a runny-nosed kid talking to Jesus, they attempt to shoo the little one away. Jesus has just cast out a demon, for crying out loud. He certainly has more important things to do than play “Pat-a-Cake” with toddler! After they scold the child for “bothering” Jesus, they turn back to their oh-so important debate about which of them is the best.

Jesus continues to use the moment to teach his closest followers who have seen, but still miss, so much. As Jesus hugs the little one close to his side, he says to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me. The smallest among you is the greatest.”

Like the animals in the Jungle of Nool, the disciples don’t bother to see, or notice, the children playing until they think one has interrupted Jesus. When a child is brought to their attention, their first instinct is to send the little one away. They believe the child to be too insignificant to be worth grown-ups’ time, especially Jesus’ precious time.

Since we live a day when many parents exhaust themselves and go even into debt to give their children the opportunity to try every sport, instrument, and hobby their hearts desire, it may be difficult for us to understand the disciples’ response to this child.

Jesus’ world was different from ours. In Jesus’ day, of course parents loved their children, but kids weren’t seen as being very important to society. Young children didn’t contribute to the overall success of communities, so they had no social standing or status.

Of course, my grandmother did not grow up anywhere near Jesus’ day, so I hope that my children will not tell her that I told you all she is 2, 000 years old! That being said, when my family gets together for meals, we always fix the children’s plates first, and once the kids are settled and eating, then the grown-ups prepare their own plates. My Mama B will sometimes remind us that when she was growing up, the children fixed their plates last. Children got whatever food was left after the adults had filled their own plates, and, if there weren’t enough chairs at the table, the children ate outside on the back steps. Even in the summer. In South Carolina. In this respect, Jesus’ world was more like my grandmother’s than most of ours.

Jesus’ disciples still don’t grasp what he is trying to teach them. This notion that the one who is smallest is actually the greatest goes right over their heads. In an effort to get back to the important discussions, John, who the Bible calls a “son of thunder” blurts out something he is certain will make Jesus proud. He says, “Master, we found this guy casting out demons. He said he was doing it in your name, but he’s not one of us, so we told him to stop.” Instead of responding, Good job. The important work is reserved for you,” Jesus replies, “What?! No! Don’t think like that. Whoever is not working against you is working with you.”

Like the animals in the Jungle of Nool, Jesus’ disciples can’t see those whose lives do not have much significance to them, and they can’t comprehend including those outside of their little bubble, especially when welcoming outsiders may threaten their comfort or their own perceived elevated status.

This way of thinking causes us to ignore the vulnerable and close ourselves off as the “chosen ones”. It leads us to harm others without thinking about the consequences of our actions and to justify those actions by deeming ourselves more important than others.

We see the effects of this way of thinking when we ban people from predominantly Muslim countries from entering our own nation while claiming we Christians are persecuted if a cashier at the Gap wishes us a Happy Holidays instead of a Merry Christmas. We see it when we automatically decide that those who live in poverty do so because they must be lazy. We see it today marching in our nation’s capital because some are afraid since America’s not as white as it used to be.

Jesus is telling his disciples,”Don’t be like this.” He’s saying that those who are truly great are like Horton the elephant. Those who are greatest listen for the quietest of voices. They do what they can to care for, protect, and lift up those voices- even if it means hardship for themselves. They are willing to sacrifice for others, but they don’t do everything for the vulnerable. Instead they preserve conditions that allow people to rebuild their own communities, and they amplify the small voices when they yell as loud as they can so that people have opportunities to make themselves heard. The greatest will do this for those who are different from themselves and not just for those exactly like them. Great leaders are always inviting in, welcoming more, expanding the notions of who can lead, serve, and participate. The greatest leaders are servants who lift up, not those who lord over.

It seems that what makes one great is knowing and living this simple truth: “After all, a person’s a person no matter how small.”

I'm a progressive Baptist pastor, and, no, that's not an oxymoron.

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