The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series: Toy Story

Today, we start our summer sermon series called “The Gospel According to Pixar.” These movies are a part of our cultural vocabulary and have themes that resonate with both kids and adults. I hope you will hear God’s word for you through these movies and sermons.

SCRIPTURE – Ephesians 1:3-10 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ[b] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,[c] having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this[d] is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

The Gospel According to Pixar
Toy Story
June 11, 2017

In 1989, Disney came out with a brand-new animated movie based upon a Danish fairy tale about a mermaid who trades her voice so she can have human legs and marry her prince. Do you remember “The Little Mermaid?” I fell in love with Ariel. I knew all the words to all the songs. I would drag my four-year-old sister to the theater so that I didn’t seem like that creepy college guy at a kids’ movie. “Kory, do we have to see ‘The Little Mermaid’ again? This is the third time this week.” “Yes! Now be quiet and eat your popcorn. The movie is starting. And give me back my Ariel doll.”

Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with animated movies, especially the ones from Pixar studios, which is owned by Disney. They have this amazing ability to weave together a kid-friendly story, an appealing visual aesthetic, and a great marketing campaign, with complex adult themes that are poignant, moving, and sometimes fairly heavy. And they ARE heavy, right? For example, have you noticed that in almost every Disney movie a parent is either missing, dead, or dies during the movie? I still think I’m scarred from Mufasa’s death in “The Lion King.” Warning: I have cried during every Pixar movie, sometimes more than once, including last night, and will probably cry several times during this sermon series. Disney’s movies, especially the computer-animated ones that have been produced by Pixar studios, have touched us and become a part of our culture vocabulary. If I say “Hakuna,” you say…(Mattata). For many of us, these movies are a part of who we are.

So…what does this have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? You might think, “not much,” but hear me out. I believe God speaks to us in a variety of ways, including scripture, prayer, and other people. But is it possible that God could also speak to us through a wooden cowboy toy, a neurotic clownfish, or furry monster? I believe there are themes in these Pixar movies that not only speak to us as human beings full of emotions, but also as people of faith struggling to figure out how to be followers of Christ in this complex world. These movies may not be explicitly Christian, but they are certainly spiritual.

Today, we start our summer sermon series called, “The Gospel According to Pixar.” Each Sunday, we’ll be looking at one of the Pixar movies and exploring the faith-related themes of characters and storyline. On the Saturday night before, we’ll be showing the movie in our Children’s Wing. But don’t worry if you don’t get to watch it, or even if you’ve never seen any of the movies we’ll be discussing. We will give you a thorough plot summary of each movie so that you’re up to speed with us, and I believe you’ll find that these themes are universal.

We’ll start with the very first Pixar full-length feature, released in 1995. “Toy Story” was the first completely computer-generated animated movie, garnered three Academy Award nominations, and made more than $373 million worldwide. It spawned two sequels that were even more successful, and “Toy Story 4” is slated for release in 2019. Not bad for a movie about a bunch of talking toys, right?

“Toy Story” centers around Woody, an old pull-string cowboy, the favorite toy of a little boy named Andy. When Andy leaves the room or goes to sleep, Woody and all the other toys come to life, including a T-Rex, a Mr. Potato Head, a platoon of green army men, and a bunch of others. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, going with him on trips and sleeping in Andy’s bed at night. He even has Andy’s name written in permanent marker on the bottom of his shoe. On Andy’s birthday, the toys nervously listen in as Andy opens his presents, hoping they don’t get replaced by something new and shinier (except for Mr. Potato Head, who wishes for a Mrs. Potato Head).

Andy’s big present is a game-changer: a state-of-the-art spaceman with flashing lasers and plastic wings named Buzz Lightyear. Buzz immediately threatens Woody’s leadership of the toys. He’s cooler, he has more gadgets, and he can fly. Woody has serious laser envy. Suddenly, Woody has competition as Andy’s favorite toy.

Can you relate? Do you remember the good ol’ days when everything was going just the way you wanted and you were at the top of your game? I can remember a time when I was introduced as the “young” minister at Crestwood. No one introduces me that way anymore. Times are changing, a lot faster than we want, and with it, the nature of our roles and existence change. We’re no longer young. We’re no longer full of potential. Our drawstrings start to frazzle, our joints start to creak, and we’re no longer the “young” minister, or we’re no longer a parent of little kids, or we’re no longer employed, or we’re no longer healthy. Like Woody, we know what it’s like to have life change and feel left behind.

Woody struggles because he no longer feels like he’s important. Andy has a new favorite toy. Woody gets so jealous that he pushes Buzz out of a window to try and get rid of him. Jealousy is a nasty animal. It can make us act in ways that go against who God created us to be. It’s so easy to look around and see people who are wealthier, healthier, better looking, more successful, people who have it all together. What does that do to our self-worth? The less we think of ourselves, the less we think God thinks of us.

If Woody is suffering from a lack of self-worth, Buzz has the opposite problem. He actually thinks he’s a real spaceman, sent to earth to fight the evil emperor Zurg. Despite Woody’s efforts to show Buzz he’s just a toy, Buzz carries this inflated sense of himself. He thinks he’s more important than Woody and the other toys because he has the cool lasers and the wings and the spaceship.

While they have completely different views of themselves, both Buzzy and Woody have fallen prey to the lie that they are defined by external circumstances. We do the same, don’t we? What do we let define us? We are defined by our jobs, our bodies, our families, our intellect, our GPA, our health, our usefulness. And if any of those things make us feel worthless, then we think if we can just improve one of those qualities, it will make us more intrinsically valuable as a person. If I can just change something on the outside, it will make me better inside.

I’m not a great golfer. I’ve never been and I’ll never be. But that doesn’t stop me from buying new golf balls, or new golf clubs, or trying a new swing. I got new irons a couple weeks ago, and you know what I can do now? I can hit the ball even further into the woods than before.  If I can just change this, buy that, then I’ll be a better person, a more desirable person, a more attractive person. It’s a crisis of identity, a forgetting of who we are. Woody thinks he’s no longer worthy to be Andy’s favorite toy, and Buzz thinks he’s too good to be just another toy. Are you not good enough for others? Or are you too good to need others? My guess is most of us fall on one side or another of that divide, sometimes switching sides in the course of a day, depending on a well-placed compliment or an ill-timed criticism.

Woody and Buzz’s roles reverse in one of the pivotal moments of the movie. The two have been captured by Sid, the neighborhood boy who likes to torture toys. While in captivity, Buzz sees a TV commercial advertising a new toy…called Buzz Lightyear. And he realizes that Woody is right. Buzz doesn’t have any special powers. His laser is just blinking light. He’s spaceship is made of cardboard. He’s just a toy. And because of that, Buzz now thinks he’s worthless. Guess who comes to his rescue?

Buzz says, “I can’t help anyone… I’m not a Space Ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little, insignificant toy.”

Woody replies, “Whoa, hey, wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger.”

“Yeah right,” Buzz says.

“No, it is. Over in that house is a kid who thinks you’re the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.”

Both Buzz and Woody have let their importance be defined by their usefulness, their attractiveness. But the lesson the both learn is that it doesn’t matter how important you are; it only matters how important you are to someone. Woody reminds Buzz that Andy, that little boy, loves them so much that he has claimed them as his own. At that moment, Buzz lifts up his foot and sees Andy’s name written there, just like on Woody’s. His confidence is restored and he and Woody defeat the evil Sid and rescue the other toys.

Do you have those moments where you feel worthless? Like you can’t do anything right? Like nobody cares? Did you know you have someone’s name written on you? It’s not on the bottom of your shoe. It’s in your heart. God has written God’s name on you, permanently marking you as God’s favorite person. You are THAT important. If God has a wallet, your picture is in it. If God has a phone, your photo is on the screen. If God has a refrigerator, your drawing is hanging on it. You are that important to God. God loves you to infinity and beyond. You are God’s favorite.

A few years back, Molly was a part of a large group of elementary kids who sang the national anthem at a Legends game. There were probably 50 kids on the field. But when they started singing, I swore I could hear Molly’s voice over all the others. When Sydney graduated a few weeks ago, even though there were 500 kids in blue robes in Rupp Arena, she seemed to stand a bit taller than everyone else. Have you ever looked at something your child or grandchild or relative has done and said, “That’s my boy! That’s my girl!” That’s what God says about you.

If we let the world define us, if we let others define us, then we are never enough. But, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” God chose us! There’s a great scene in the movie where Buzz gets trapped in one of those arcade claw machines, surrounded by a bunch of green three-eyed alien toys. Each time the claw descends, the aliens hope that they are the ones who will be chosen. Well, guess what? Like that claw, God has descended to us, in the form of Jesus Christ. And he didn’t choose just one of us. Ephesians says, “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” He didn’t come down and choose one of us, the best of us, the most attractive of us, the most useful of us. God chose all of us. All of us. That includes you.

Our purpose in life is not to be important. Our purpose is to remember we are important.  That’s what Christ reminds us from the cross. We’re so important that Christ died to show us the profound depth of God’s love for us. And because of that, who we are is enough. Just as Woody helped Buzz realize his importance, we are called to do the same for others. Because God has chosen all of us, God has written God’s name on all our hearts. You are God’s favorite.


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