A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 19, 2016
This has been a hard week – more difficult for some than others, I’m sure – but still a hard week for anyone with an ounce of compassion. Orlando is not the first murderous tragedy to scar the body of this nation and I don’t imagine it will be the last. It joins a long litany of hate and destruction that wounds our souls, individually and collectively, and threatens to undo all that we have hoped for and striven for in creating a land that promises “liberty and justice for all.”
At a time when it seems hopeless to bear witness against the principalities and powers of darkness, when feel numb and hopeless in the face of overwhelming violence and colossal evil, when the most vulnerable are under vicious attack and we don’t know where to turn or what to do, here comes Horton, the elephant with a heart as big as his body. Has he come to save us from all that threatens us? Has he come to rescue us from ourselves? Is his witness one that might lift us, as the first Christians were inspired by that great cloud of faithful witnesses in long ago times of terror?
An elephant? From the imagination of a children’s writer and cartoonist? We are much too sophisticated for such foolishness, right? Still, might there be a place for even us, in all our advanced knowledge and understanding, to remember the invitation to be fools for Christ, to place flowers in gun barrels, to celebrate those who risk their own lives to save others, to embrace the stranger with a kiss on the cheek?
It is Horton who hears the Whos, that infinitesimal world of strange creatures contained on a speck of dust. It is Horton who risks his freedom, and even his life to save theirs. It is Horton who proclaims, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” It’s Horton who encourages the Whos to find voice so that whole jungle will know they exist. It’s Horton who suspects that it’s that one tiny voice that is missing from the whole that is keeping the Whos from being heard. He who has ears, let him hear, and let him act on what he hears. Salvation of a whole world may depend on it.
And then there’s Horton the improbable daddy. Is there a more profound illustration of faithfulness than Horton, who hatches the egg? An elephant? In a tree? Sitting on an egg? What could be more ridiculous? Even Horton thinks so when that lazy Mayzie tries to con him into taking on her responsibility.
The elephant laughed,
“Why of all silly things!
I haven’t feathers and I haven’t wings.
ME on your egg? Why that doesn’t make sense…
Your egg is so small ma’am, and I’m so immense.”
Eventually he’s persuaded. After reinforcing the tree to accommodate his great weight, he climbs to the top and settles carefully on the nest. What boundaries are being crossed here? What assumptions are being challenged? What can we learn from an elephant who is willing to live into a new and challenging reality?
Well, you heard the story, for 51 weeks he sits on that nest, through heat and cold, through rain, snow and ice, through loneliness and ridicule and capture. Talking about being a fool for what he believes, he’s hauled off to a strange land where he becomes part of a circus side show, an oddity to be laughed at, humiliated, the ultimate curiosity. But through it all, he refuses to leave his perch because
I meant what I said
And I said what I meant…
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred percent!
What do you think? Can you imagine making such a claim for yourself? One hundred percent faithful? Is that even possible? Jesus’ disciples clearly have a hard time with faithfulness. He’s disappointed with them, frustrated, when he scolds, “What a generation! No sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this?” I imagine most of the time we are more like the disciples than Horton. It’s hard to be faithful when were faced with all the challenges of living in these times. Maybe if it was as simple as sitting on an egg…
“Why couldn’t we do it, Jesus? Why couldn’t we cast the demon out? We wanted to. We tried.” “’…you’re not yet taking God seriously,’ said Jesus. ’The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, ‘Move to the sea!’ and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn’t be able to tackle.’” “If it was only that simple – to cure epilepsy with the wave of a hand, to calm the sea with a word, to move mountains to the sea, for an elephant to hatch an egg. But it’s not, Jesus. It’s not. We’re just not there yet. It looks like we still have a lot to learn.”
And, trust me, I have no easy answer for us. In The Message, Eugene Peterson seems to think it has something to do with being centered in God, in taking God seriously, in turning our lives over to God and letting God live through us. Maybe he’s on to something. You see, faith is not the affirmation of a statement or a creed or a belief. Real faith plays out as faithfulness. Laurence DeWolfe writes of faithfulness it “connotes focus, determination, endurance, even risk, and especially love.”
It’s closer to a verb, an action, a way of life. Over and over the Psalm affirmed, “…God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Made in the image and likeness of God, is that also our calling? To live into steadfast love, a faithfulness that transforms creation, that turns the world strangely right side up? Maybe there really is more that we could do.
On Father’s day, let’s look a little closer at most improbable daddies – an elephant who hatches an egg, or a God whose steadfast loves endures forever – in spite of all the exigencies of life. On Mother’s Day, I spoke about the role of mothering in an ideal sense, acknowledging that all mothers do not live up to this high standard. The same can be said of fathering. It’s this business of nurture, of compassion and care, of paying attention and, yes, being faithful that makes all the difference in mothering and in fathering. I know these roles are generally defined differently for males and females – daddies earn the living, mommies make the home, daddies are strong, mommies are tender, daddies take care of things outside and mommies inside, etc.
Last week I saw a clip from a production of August Wilson’s play, Fences, about life in a neighborhood of black folk in the 1950’s. The father, played powerfully by James Earl Jones, is confronted by his son. “Why don’t you like me?” “Like you? Like you?” roars the father. “Who says I got to like you, boy?” The encounter is shocking. At first I thought this might be an angry, abusive father, but as the scene unfolds, the father makes it clear that he believes deeply and passionately that, because he was involved in bringing his boy to life, he is responsible for him. To this father of my father’s generation, that responsibility goes far beyond liking. Though the father never utters the word, I heard in the subtext, “…for His steadfast love endures forever.” The father’s is an intimidating presence. He moves toward his son. You think he might strike him, but, for a brief moment, the father holds his son with both hands at arm’s distance. In that moment, the love seemed palpable to me – never spoken, but lived in the best way a man of his generation knew how.
Now we are coming to see how unhelpful and unnecessary some of these old role definitions are. In a humorous but profound way Horton makes the case for improbable daddies. Others make the same case.
I think of my friends, Dan and Giff, two of the best parents I ever witnessed. They took a young boy that no one else wanted, a child who had been neglected and abused to the point that he was virtually mute and had to be drawn out from under the bed. These two gay men were able to provide, in their words and in their living, an environment that literally gave their son new life. Clear, firm and loving, Anthony blossomed under their care in a way that would never have happened without them – improbable daddies who made all the difference.
Yesterday, I received this post from a friend on Facebook. It’s a different, more realistic, more painful version of the Horton tale. Maybe it will speak to you more clearly than the fantasy. He writes:
…hear my heart right now. This day started off with me thinking I would pick up my former foster son and spend the day with him. My kid was excited about getting out of foster care and going back with his mom, only to find out that his mom doesn’t want him anymore. I went to pick him up to get a haircut and told him the dreadful news that he was not coming back today and he has to stay with his foster mom.
He LOST IT! It took me and his older brother to restrain him. He ran to the kitchen to grab a knife – threatening to take his life. So for hours I’ve been dealing with de-escalating this matter and getting him the treatment needed.
I’m sure most have stopped reading by now but I’ll end with this: WHAT REAL PARENT ABANDONS THEIR CHILD? I may not be his biological father but I have made a commitment to be by this kid’s side and show love even if he doesn’t know how to receive it right now. I BEG of you, fathers that have children, stop trying to buy their love with Jordan’s or feeling that you’ve done your part because money is taken out of your check each month for him/her. No kid deserves to go through any of this.
Please be in prayer, even if you don’t know him. I just couldn’t sit back and say nothing. It’s real y’all. It’s time out for games. Stand up and go beyond yourself and care! Love is action. Happy Father’s Day to the REAL Fathers out there!
Another most improbable daddy or is there such a thing? Are there real fathers out there – and mothers and sisters and brothers, friends and lovers and elephants and other children of God? Perhaps the challenge for each of us is to find and channel our inner Horton, to realize our capacity to love with enduring love, to care for the least and the lost, the neglected and needy, the abandoned and abused, to recognize and live into our legacy as children of the most improbable Daddy of all, the One who is one hundred percent faithful, whose love is unconditional, whose earmark is compassion and care for all that he has created. Maybe we’ll yet turn out to have “…ears and a tail and trunk just like his!” Love has created stranger things. Amen.