After hearing someone tell of using children’s books in sermons, I decided to give it a try for the summer. I started with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, and then The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
During the children’s time I’d read or summarize the book. Then the sermon would pick up one of the main points and connect it to the scripture text.
There are terrific online resources such as the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children and a site called Teaching Children Philosophy, the work of Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg and his students from Mount Holyoke College.
Both sites include summaries and discussion guides for parents and teachers to use literature to develop moral and philosophical thinking. As a pastor I am interested in good theology, but a philosophy conversation partner is a helpful overlap.
I also found the New York Public Library list of the 100 most-read (i.e., checked-out) books of the past century to be useful. These three sites give ample guidance to find worthy books with great themes.
Ministers before me have preached on Horton. It lends itself to the gospel and biblical themes such as perceiving beyond what we already know, being present and paying attention, valuing the smallest of God’s creatures, and personhood.
I wrote the sermon in a Dr. Seuss-like voice, though it occurred to me that “this might totally flop.” It didn’t; people loved it. Of course, being only 10 minutes long helped.
The interesting aspect of writing “like Seuss” is the simplicity and childish playfulness. You can make up a silly word to get a rhyme; have fun with it.
That’s not a bad way to see good preaching — capturing the heart and mind in the first sentence and keeping them all the way to the closing prayer. The point comes across in a disarming way. And they listen.
I took the text from Luke, moving from chapter 14 to 15. What caught my attention was Jesus’ admonition to his hearers to “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Then, in Luke 15, I was drawn to the contrast between “the tax collectors and sinners coming near to listen to him” and the Pharisees and scribes “grumbling.” Their hearing was blocked and their eyes unable to take in the joy of what they saw.
Here, then, is what came out:
Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen! (Luke 14:34)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:1-6)
As a pastor I am interested in good theology, but a philosophy conversation partner is a helpful overlap.
What if Dr. Seuss could give my sermon today? It might sound like this:
Some don’t believe that God really is
And that humans are only a chemical fizz
But into that world came the man Jesus Christ
Making loaves and fishes multiply out of sight
Lots of people were listening and heard Jesus say,
“I have come now among you to love and to save,”
And the Negabob Naysayers and all their friends
Said, “No, there’s only the way it has been”
There are good ones and bad ones and you must ask us
Who is God’s favorite and who are the just?
For the Negabob Naysayers were in charge of stuff
and decided that God’s heart was not big enough.
They got mad at Jesus, he talked kind of crazy
He listened to people they thought were all lazy,
Didn’t do doodly squat when it came to the Law
They were nothings and no one cared about them at all
But Jesus was calm, and he taught them a lesson
How to open their ears and learn how to listen
Not unlike old Horton, they started to hear
Past all their habits and troublesome fears
The Negabob Naysayers only got madder
So they went to the governor Pilate to chatter
And said Jesus finally had gone too far
If Pilate was smart, he would start up a war
The Negabob Naysayers thought they loved God
They just hated his people that they thought were odd
But Jesus just loved and invited them in
The ones who were lepers and the ones who had sinned;
The ones who were traitors and those who did wrong
Some lived in graveyards and howled all night long;
Others were lost in the crowds around him
But he still could feel them touch his garment’s hem
The crowd would be roaring, no one could hear,
When one called out to him, he said, “Please, come near.”
Sick ones and sad ones and some with bad pasts
All of them offered new beginnings at last.
They laughed and they cried, it was too good to be true,
He said, “Don’t be worried, God still cares for you.”
You may think you don’t matter at all,
but to God, a person’s a person, no matter how small.
The Negabob Naysayers told some big fibs,
About things that he said and things that he did,
So they tried to stop him with a terrible cross
And even his followers thought all was lost.
But God played a wonderful joke the third day,
He turned all the tables in a most funny way
What seemed the end was beginning again
A tomb with no body, and alive to his friends,
They didn’t believe Mary when she came to say,
“He’s alive, he’s alive, I just saw him today.”
The words he had told them, and the way that he lived
Must be the right ones to follow and give
And he gave us a life and a way to go round
To find what is lost that waits to be found
And so now, he gives us his eyes to see,
And his ears to listen to life carefully,
Just like Jesus, we hear through the noise
hearts of dads and mothers and little girls and boys,
people who nobody listens to anymore,
hear them longing for God’s happy forevermore
Big ones and small ones and rich ones and poor
People with mansions and those with dirt floors,
We hear tiny voices forgotten by all,
‘Cause a person’s a person, no matter how small.
Oh, the world that we live in still clatters and clangs
There are still kangaroos and the Wickersham gangs,
Their ears so stopped up they don’t believe me or you
So afraid they would boil us in Beezlenut stew.
The Negabob Naysayers tweet, shout and moan
About good ones and bad ones and that we’re all alone
They would have us, to hear it, give up on love
Stop loving Jesus who’s weak as a dove
But I always remember when I get afraid
That when things look their worst, just to wait a few days
For you never know if you have ears to listen
Just what might happen to that one or this’n
God loves us all, but God doesn’t shout,
God whispers and sings and spreads his love out.
So all that he asks is that we quiet down
Stop all the screaming and knocking around
Even if the Negabobs don’t believe us
We refuse to let negabobbing stop and deceive us
The whispers of God’s love are right over there
In us and with us and here everywhere
God loves the creation and flowers and trees
And animals and even loves you and me.
So when people are hurting, and you know they do,
Don’t get all huffy, just stay calm and true
They cry out sometimes out of pure pain
Afraid of the world and of you and the rain
Not sure you can hear them or that you care
Wondering if God really is there.
Be just like Jesus, and listen real clear
Don’t listen to terror or sadness or fear,
Don’t write off each other like old Negabobs
Don’t give up on failures and mad ones and slobs.
Jesus can clean out the wax from their ears
Open their eyes and dry up their tears.
Even the Negabob Naysayers still have a chance
If they’ll give up naysaying and join in the dance.
So if you’re not too sure that you matter to God
That you’re not important or that you are odd,
Remember that Jesus came to this speck of dust
To seek and to save him and her, you, and us.
O God, whose eye sees all things, knows all of us, loves beyond our knowing, open our hearts, clean out our ears, make us think right, forgive us where we fail, that we might strive again to hear the whispers of love and life you offer us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
By Gary Furr
—Gary Furr, pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., blogs at garyfurr.me.