In the early 60s, Walt Disney manufactured an attraction for the 1964 World Fair in New York with the working title ‘Children of the World’. He tasked the famous Sherman brothers to write a song especially for this attraction – and to come up with a simple melody and simple lyrics that could easily be translated into many languages. This was an easy task for the Sherman Brothers, who churned out tune after tune – in the later 60s most famously for the Disney movies Mary Poppins and the Jungle Book.
I the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, the Sherman Brothers wanted to write a prayer for peace and understanding. And so they introduced it to Disney and sang it as a slow ballad:
It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all*
Decades later, Richard Sherman recalled Walt Disney saying about that first rendition, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’ll work – but we gotta put it in a new tempo.’ And that’s what the Sherman Brothers did. And that’s how we know the song today.
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small, small world.*
And, just as an aside, Disney liked this song so much that the whole attraction, which was moved to Disneyland in Anaheim after the World Fair concluded, was named ‘It’s a small world’.
I think the Sherman Brothers were on to something, even back in the early 60s. In recent decades, the world has gotten so much smaller – and is getting smaller still. Well, not really, but in the sense that we as human beings, that we as part of creation are more interconnected than ever.
Just think about how many different people someone from the medieval ages would cross paths with during a lifetime. Most stayed put in their village or city all their lives. Maybe a couple of hundred? Maybe a couple of thousand?
With how many people do we cross paths today? Well, right now, our physical contact with others is limited (for very good reasons), but try to think about how many interactions you usually have during the course of one day. Think about how many places you have traveled, how many people from different cultures you have encountered. Think about how many people you passed by without paying attention, in the street, at airports, in markets and stores. There’s this rich and complex and sometimes chaotic crisscrossing of the paths we as human beings tread – so many paths of life that intersect. Sometimes for a fleeting moment – sometimes for a lifetime.
Technology has made it even easier for us to connect, and thanks be to God for that in times of a pandemic. We can virtually connect with folks around the globe. That’s just amazing.
And our economy is global these days. No country is fully independent. We all need or want something from some other part of this world. And if you don’t believe me, just imagine your day without coffee…
It’s a small world. We also experience this is more disconcerting ways. I already mentioned the current pandemic – what originated in China has quickly traveled the entire globe and has affected lives everywhere. Not even the White House is immune to it, as we learned not too long ago.
It’s a small world – the effects of rapid climate change are not just something that affects creation and people in places far, far away, but we are confronted with it in the places we live as well. Think about the wildfires here in California and other western states – yes, there always have been wildfires, but not of that magnitude and frequency that we experienced the past few years. In many places in this world, it’s much hotter and drier than usual – even in Germany. The chickens have come home to roost.
More and more we come to realize that ‘It’s a small world after all’, and it’s not an innocent ride. We have to realize that we are part of the world, and, like all parts, we are interconnected. It’s no use trying to isolate ourselves –and how could we? Our paths of life intersect on so many levels with the paths of others all around the world. We have to realize that there can’t be a clean compartmentalization anymore: my space, your space, my possessions, your possessions (or the lack thereof), my issue, your issue, my way (or the highway), your way. We all share this one small world, for better and for worse.
As people of faith, we ought to know about this interconnectedness of all humanity and creation – we find it throughout the entire Bible. It starts with the creation story itself, in the very beginning, when, after everything is created and creation is complete, God says, it is very good. We hear how the initial unity and peace are destroyed once the first humans greedily reach for more than is so abundantly provided for them, and paradise is lost. We have visions in the books of the prophets about all peoples of the earth gathered and united once more on God’s holy mountain. And this is the same vision Jesus casts, a vision we find reinforced powerfully and beautifully at the very end of the Bible, in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation.
We were created as one, by the one. God is the head and the heart of all creation. God is the one who is the creator, the sustainer, and the redeemer of all. We are connected to God, and as co-creations interconnected with everyone and everything. Myriads of paths of life intersect in this small world God so lovingly created – and with the creator of all.
Believe it or not, but that’s where today’s gospel comes in. Some Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. Jesus then wants to see a coin and asks whose picture is on said coin. The answer is easy: the emperor’s image. So give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s, says Jesus.
Some interpret these words in the sense that there is a compartmentalization: the secular world, represented by the emperor, and the spiritual realm, which is God’s. But the issue is much more complex: Caesar, the Roman emperor, was worshiped as a god. In fact, every citizen in the Roman Empire was required to worship Caesar. The Jewish people were exempt from that rule – they were allowed to worship the one God alone. But they still had to pay taxes to Cesar, to show their allegiance. They still were required to make sacrifices to the god in Rome.
So Jesus pits one deity against the other here. Or better: the one true God against the idol. And Jesus challenges those who challenge him: who is in charge, ultimately? Which God do you choose to follow? Which God has power over your life? It’s not just about taxes – it’s about our allegiances. It’s about what paths – whose paths – we follow in life.
What Jesus says is that not all ways lead to Rome – but all ways lead to God and come from God and go through God. And these are the ways of life – everlasting life that starts in the here and now and includes all of creation, this intricate and interdependent web God so lovingly has woven.
It’s a small world. And it is God’s world, all of it, every aspect of it. Imagine how this world could be transformed if we gave God the glory and honor and thanks and power over all aspects of our lives. If we let ourselves be driven by our faith in the one God, who loves and forgives, to become loving and forgiving ourselves. If we understood ourselves as mere parts, and not as masters and manipulators, of this small and beautiful world God created – enjoying this marvelous gift and at the same time treating it with the care and respect it deserves. If we honored the manifold and wondrous paths of life we encounter as we journey through this beautiful small world. Imagine: paradise lost might just be found again.
*The lyrics of this song are by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, written in 1963
This post is also available in: German