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The Gospel According to Horton

Speaker: The Rev. Jake Joseph

September 20, 2020

Click here for the service bulletin for worship on Sunday, September 20, 2020. 

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Matthew 28:16-20 NRSV
September 20, 2020 

The Gospel According to Horton

I’ll tell you the tale of a great hero who heard a small voice, defeated the odds, who had a choice, saw past the fear and saved the people he held dear. I’ll tell you a tale many times told—always new and never old. I’ll tell you a tale of hopeful clues—of good news for the who’s. Horton was an Elephant who heard a small voice cry out from a speck of dust… but how can that be? Yet from that moment on he was dedicated to the “Who” people on the speck of dust whom he could not even see. 

This past Advent, I shared another story in one of my sermons about one of my favorite Dr. Seuss friends, The Grinch, and how Guilford reminds me in the best ways of Whoville and the Christmastime joy we share here in our town. Despite his many foibles and mistakes early in his life, Dr. Seuss, worked hard later in his career to make amends and to share stories of transformation and hope. There is hope and redemption in storytelling the right way, in choosing (whenever possible) narratives that are life-giving.

Our lives and stories won’t always be perfect, but we can choose to tell stories of hope. The stories we choose to tell and keep and repeat and share say a lot about the kind of people we choose to become! Today, in response to the Gospel According to Matthew, I want to share a story about another one of my favorite friends—his name is Horton. Horton is a big elephant who lives in a jungle. How many of you have ever seen an elephant? I love elephants, so listen as I’ll tell you the tale of Horton Hears a Who! 

On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, he was splashing…enjoying the jungle’s great joys…when Horton the elephant heard a small noise.

So Horton stopped splashing. He looked toward the sound. ‘That’s funny,’ thought Horton. ‘There’s no one around.’ Then he heard it again! Just a faint yelp as if some tiny person were calling for help. ‘I’ll help you,’ said Horton. ‘But who are you? Where?’ He looked and he looked. He could see nothing there but a small speck of dust blowing past through the air. 

‘I say!’ murmured Horton. ‘I’ve never heard tell of a small speck of dust that is able to yell. So, you know what I think? …Why, I think that there must be someone on top of that small speck of dust! Some sort of creature of very small size, too small to be seen with an elephant’s eyes…some poor little person who’s shaking with fear that he’ll blow in the pool! He has no way to steer! I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.[1] 

And that is exactly what Horton does. He learns that there is actually a whole town of who’s living on the speck of dust! Horton places the speck of dust on a clover, and he keeps it safe. Horton’s friends in the jungle, the birds and the kangaroo don’t believe him. They think he is silly, hearing things, that he must stop this nonsense at once. They all try to steal the clover, to make Horton lose the Who’s. But no matter what they try… Horton protects them, finds them, returns to hope. Horton listens to this quiet voice and to what he knows is the right thing to do.  Finally, at the end of the story, Horton’s friends in the jungle also hear the Who’s and come to believe that kindness, care, and love are a way to live. 

This story, which on the surface appears to be for children, I think is for all of us—especially in these times. A large elephant using all of his resources to protect something so small that it cannot be seen. Dr. Seuss told this story at the height of the Cold War and the Red Scare when trust and kindness were often in short supply. Dr. Seuss chooses to tell a new story—a story of love, a story of courage, and a story of hope coming from the most unexpected of giants declaring, “I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.’  So, gently, and using the greatest of care, the elephant stretched his great trunk through the air, and he lifted the dust speck and carried it over and placed it down, safe, on a very soft clover.”

The last word, the benediction, known as “The Great Commission”—today’s passage from the Gospel According to Matthew is the conclusion of the epic tale of redemption, hope, transformation, and God’s embodied, incarnate, sojourn with humans through Jesus Christ. Let’s hear this conclusion of the Gospel… the good news again observing three important parts:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you [mostly Jesus had commanded them to love each other and their neighbors]. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.   

There are three take-aways from this passage that I want us to remember as Progressive Christians! First, like how Horton is patient and welcomes those who doubted him into the care of the speck of dust, Jesus welcomes and has his doubters present even at the ascension, even for his final words on earth—the doubters and the questioners are welcome. How easy and regrettable it is to overlook this subtle part of verse 17—When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Doubt is a natural part of the process. In these terrifying times when so little is certain, Jesus welcomes us into the story with our doubts. That is point one. Take that home.

The second very important part is that our translation in verse 19 chooses to translate the Ancient Greek word from the manuscripts, “Matheteuo,” as “to make disciples.” This word is often, including in the King James Version of the Bible, rather interpreted as meaning “go and teach…” go and tell stories about me! The disciples aren’t being asked here to go and forcibly convert anyone to Christianity, as this passage is often and historically misused, but rather they are being sent forth (even the doubters) among them to share the good news and the Gospel of peace, of care, of love for neighbor, fundamentally… the Gospel that says, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We are called to be storytellers and teachers of hope rather than converters of condemnation. This passage shows us what our first and most important task is as Christians—we protect and share the story of love. Even if nobody else believes us and we look ridiculous… like an elephant walking around carrying a clover and listening and talking to a speck of dust… we share the story of hope in the times of fear. We do not give into the stories of hopelessness. 

Finally, “and remember”, says Jesus, “and remember… and remember… I am with [not I will be with you… but real and now and present tense with] you… to the end of the age.” The end of the age can also be translated to mean, “I am with you until the completion of time and eternity.” This is not a story that takes place in the past tense. It is a story that unfolds here and now and in our own time. We must accept our call, even with our doubts and fears and all of the ugliness of the world, to teach and share stories of hope and courage.

Today’s Scripture is a calling to be people of good news in the world. There is so much debate about fake news that we have entirely forgotten about good news.

Sometimes, friends, I worry that we in the United Church of Christ and other progressive churches have forgotten our task of the Gospel—of the good news. We have become the people of the bad news—the world is collapsing, the sky is falling, and there is no hope left in our hearts, faith in God, hope for tomorrow, celebration of the reconciliation and forgiveness of Christ! This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the dire realities of the moment, put our heads in the sand, stand idle in the calls for justice and change. No, no, no... we bring our doubts to the story—the doubt is welcome at the ascension. We bring all of ourselves, and yet like Dr. Seuss choosing to tell a new tale of hope later in life, we must believe that the speck of dust—the smallest voices of hope, the unheard voices are worth hearing. What story will we tell? 

In these times, we have a choice to make. I see us making the wrong choice on Social Media and email communications as we give into and embrace the anti-spiritual practice hatred and pessimism. In this time of political pain, pandemic pandemonium, real, relevant, and justified rage… what stories will we pass on to our kids? Will it be the stories of courage and hope, of people sharing with their neighbors, of churches finding new ways to do worship overnight, of people protesting for justice, of wearing masks to protect the most at risk, of the healthcare workers’ courage, of the amazing signs of love and Gospel Good News of Jesus Christ in our times? I see Jesus everywhere. Can we share those stories - or do we go deeper into the stories of hopeless, selfishness, fear, and learned ignorance? Do we let those voices overpower the whisper of the Gospel? That is what the algorithms of news and social media push because studies show that we are more likely to re-post the bad news which helps revenue.

I believe, by staying strong in our courage of the call to be storytellers of the Gospel -good news - to be teachers of love, to know in our hearts and in every fiber of our beings that Jesus is with us and in us—we can remember every day to tell the Good News stories and never lose faith even as we feel our doubt. Christianity has nothing if it doesn’t have the hope that every who on every speck of dust matters, you matter, you are loved, and God’s Realm of love and justice will absolutely prevail… even unto the end of time.

Finally, at the end of the story, Horton’s friends in the jungle also hear the who’s and come to believe that kindness, care, and love are a way to live.  The whole town of Whoville screams out to be heard, and then one more… the smallest Who cries out adding his voice of hope to all of the others crying out for it. Then the Jungle believes along with Horton…

Storytellers, people of the Good News… hear this lesson from the Gospel According to Horton:  

“And that Yopp… that one extra Yopp put it over! Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover! Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean. And the elephant smiled. ‘Do you see what I mean? ...They proved they ARE persons, no matter how small. And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!’

‘How true! Yes, how true,’ said the big kangaroo. And from now on, you know what I am planning to do?... From now on, I’m going to protect them with you!’ And the young kangaroo in her pouch said, …

‘ME TOO! From the sun in the summer. From rain when it’s fall-ish, I’m going to protect them. No matter how small-ish!” 

Let us protect this Gospel of hope and faith with Horton and his jungle friends both today and until the end of all time.


[1] Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears Who! (New York, New York: Random House, 1954), 1-6.

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