“Yertle the Turtle” by Dr. Seuss
In ‘Yertle the Turtle’, who was the greatest turtle of the whole group? The one on the bottom. It was on him that everything was built. One little burb, and the whole tower toppled. And the weakest one was the one on top—the one who continued to need additional reassurances that he was the greatest, owned the most, achieved the most. And yet, though he would never admit it, he relied completely on all of the turtles beneath him. His weakness was based on his own delusions of power and authority—delusions of greatness.
Jesus tells the disciples that greatness is service. Greatness is caring for those who are presumably least. Greatness is bringing yourself down low. He not only says it, but he lives it. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes Jesus as one who could have grasped power and authority, but he chose to be great by becoming the lowliest of all. Born to an unwed mother in a barn, far away from home. Whisked away to Egypt as an immigrant to avoid certain death. Brought home again to dwell in the midst of an oppressed people.
God could have chosen to be born to a Roman—or at least Jewish royalty. God could have chosen to enter the world with defined power and status. But that’s not how true greatness works.
And, for those who want to follow Jesus and be his disciples, we are also faced with another truth. That is, following Jesus will not bring prosperity. Anyone who tries to sell you that kind of gospel is preaching lies. Following Jesus will not make life all rosey and full of rainbows. Following Jesus will not give you everything you always wanted. No, following Jesus is hard, and the best of us struggle with it because it usually means being on the outside in order to serve those in the margins. It means giving up what we think we deserve so that those who may not deserve it have just as much. Following Jesus will not make this world’s ideas of fame and fortune come true. Instead, following Jesus begins to turn this world’s values upside down.
Being a Christian brings us to a precipice—we cannot uphold the Christian values of greatness and downward movement while at the same time living into society’s ideas of greatness and upward mobility.
It is a very difficult teaching. It’s one the disciples could not get—did not want to get. And yet, it is what Jesus continued to teach and practice all the way to the cross. And, at least according to Mark’s telling of the gospel, by the time Jesus got to the cross, all of the disciples had abandoned him. And even at the resurrection, fear gripped the women who discovered the empty tomb, and they ran.
I want to share a poem with you by renowned author and poet, Wendell Berry. His books speak a very inconvenient truth about nature, ecology, and our systemic destruction of all that God has created—among other things equally undesirable. This particular poem is called “Look Out” and speaks to the greed and corruption born of the world’s sense of ‘greatness.’
“Look Out” by Wendell Berry
Come to the window, look out, and see
the valley turning green in remembrance
of all springs past and to come, the woods
perfecting with immortal patience
the leaves that are the work of all of time,
the sycamore whose white limbs shed
the history of a man’s life with their old bark,
the river quivering under the morning’s breath
like the touched skin of a horse, and you will see
also the shadow cast upon it by fire, the war
that lights its way by burning the earth.
Come to your windows, people of the world,
look out at whatever you see wherever you are,
and you will see dancing upon it that shadow.
You will see that your place, wherever it is,
your house, your garden, your shop, your forest, your farm,
bears the shadow of its destruction by war
which is the economy of greed which is plunder
which is the economy of wrath which is fire.
The Lords of War sell the earth to buy fire,
they sell the water and air of life to buy fire.
They are little men grown great by willingness
to drive whatever exists into its perfect absence.
Their intention to destroy any place is solidly founded
upon their willingness to destroy every place.
Every household of the world is at their mercy,
the households of the farmer and the otter and the owl
are at their mercy. They have no mercy.
Having hate, they can have no mercy.
Their greed is the hatred of mercy.
Their pockets jingle with the small change of the poor.
Their power is the willingness to destroy
everything for knowledge which is money
which is power which is victory
which is ashes sown by the wind.
Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church