SCRIPTURE – John 15:12-17 – This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[d] any longer, because the servant[e] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series
June 18, 2017
What did you want to be when you grew up? Maybe you’re still figuring that out. I wanted to be a Major League baseball player. I just knew I had the skills to be the next Tony Perez or Pete Rose. I was confident that I could overcome the fact that I was slow and uncoordinated. And I didn’t like having the baseball hit toward me. Or thrown toward me. Eventually, I realized that being a baseball player was probably not in the cards for me, so I settled on a more realistic life goal…to be a world-famous BBQ taste-tester! I’m still working on that one.
Is it a good thing to be world-famous at anything? As we have observed, fame comes with a cost. That’s one of themes of the movie, “Cars.” For our summer sermon series, we’re looking the movies from Pixar, the Disney animation studio which has given us such great movies over the years. Last week we learned from “Toy Story” that God’s name is written on our hearts, that God has claimed each and every one of us as God’s favorite. This week, buckle up! We’re taking a ride with “Cars.” By the way, it is a 100% coincidence that we’re talking about “Cars” the same weekend that “Cars 3” opens in movie theaters. That never entered my mind when planning this series. Still, if Disney wanted to write Crestwood a check to thank us for the publicity, we wouldn’t turn it down.
“Cars,” which was released in 2006, was geared toward the fans of Nascar and other types of racing. It tells the story of Lightning McQueen, a super-fast race car who’s in the running to win the season championship. His competition is The King, a well-respected veteran in his final season, and Chip Hicks, a cocky, unlikeable challenger. At the end of the last race of the season, those three are tied for the lead, so one final race is scheduled to decide the champ.
As the movie begins, we learn a few things about Lightning McQueen. He’s very outgoing and friendly, he’s adored by his fans, and he loves being famous. With his signature battle cry, “Kachow!” he dreams of the limelight, of winning the championship, of leaving behind his old sponsor so he can be the spokes-car for an elite new one that would bring even more fame. And we learn that McQueen is so driven to become famous that he doesn’t care who he hurts along the way.
McQueen is the epitome of selfish. He’s already fired several employees because he won’t take their advice, and he believes that nobody can do anything better than he can. Do you know anyone like that? Unfortunately, my wife, Leigh, is married to someone like that. For instance, when I’m putting something together, like a piece of furniture, why take the boring route and use instructions when you can go on the adventure of figuring it out yourself? I’m so good at it that I usually have several parts left over.
We all have that independent streak in us, don’t we? Our country was founded on the principle that no one can tell us what to do, especially some stuffy monarch from across the pond. We are who we are today because of our obsession with independence. But it has a dark underside, as Lightning McQueen learns. There’s a reason Three Dog Night sang, “One is the loneliest number.” McQueen’s stubbornness and refusal to ask others for help gets him into trouble and leaves him alone in his quest to become the champ. At one point, McQueen is offered twenty free tickets for the final race to give away to his friends, and he can’t name a single person to share them with.
On his way to the big race in California, McQueen falls asleep and gets lost, ending up in the little run-down desert town of Radiator Springs. Radiator Springs used to be a popular stop along Route 66 for tourists, but once the new highway was built, everyone focused on getting somewhere on time, not having a good time, so Radiator Springs is struggling to survive. In his effort to get back on track, McQueen tears up the town’s road, and is arrested and sentenced to rebuild the road before he is allowed to leave for California.
Since McQueen is stuck in Radiator Springs, he’s forced to spend time with the local town cars, and he slowly starts to realize the value of spending time with people, not just using them as a means to an end. He goes on a leisurely drive with a girl named Sally and spends quality time pulling pranks with a tow truck named Mater. McQueen’s vroom-vroom has been turned into a ho-hum and he starts to see the benefit of slowing down every once in a while. Is McQueen getting an oil change for his soul? By the time he finishes the road and leaves for California, not only has his tired been rotated, but so has his perspective on life.
McQueen makes it to California just in time for the final race against the King, the good guy, and Chip Hicks, the bad guy. But when the race starts, McQueen realizes he’s missing one very important thing: a pit crew. He’s been so independent that he’s forgotten to ask people for help. That’s when he looks over and sees the gang from Radiator Springs has made the trip to California to be his pit crew and cheer him on. Their presence inspires McQueen to do his best and win the coveted championship and the new sponsorship. With them helping him out, McQueen will be more famous than ever. Kachow!
Except…he doesn’t win. Chip Hicks, the low-down nasty cheat, crosses the finish line first. Wait! I thought this was a Disney movie. The good guys always win is a Disney movie! On the final lap of the race, Hicks causes the King to crash. McQueen, who’s about to cross the finish line in first place, looks back and sees the King in a pile of metal, unable to finish his final race. So, McQueen stops inches from the finish line and goes back to get the King. While Hicks is crossing the finish line to win, McQueen helps the King back onto his tires and carries him to the checkered flag so that the King can end his career in style. McQueen finishes in last place.
Is this the same Lightning McQueen who ran off all his friends because he was so hungry for fame and fortune? Jesus says, “What good is if it a person gains the whole world but lose their soul?” That’s a question McQueen was forced to wrestle with during his time in Radiator Springs. What good is it to win if you don’t have anyone with whom to celebrate? During his exile in the wilderness of Radiator Springs, McQueen learned that some things in life are more important than winning. Or, maybe a better way to say it is that there are other ways to win than crossing the finish line first.
In speaking about topsy-turvy world of faith, Jesus said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Even though Chip Hicks came in first, it was Lightning McQueen who won by sacrificing himself, by giving up what he wanted to help someone else. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down their life for a friend.” I always thought that line from Jesus meant a person had to die for someone else to be a good friend. But to lay down your life simply means to put aside your own needs to help another person, just as the folks in Radiator Springs did for McQueen, and just as McQueen did with the King.
McQueen had to overcome one of the biggest challenges for anyone, human or car: our inherent selfishness. Every single one of us, to our core, puts ourselves first. That’s not a judgment; that’s human nature. Our vocabulary reflects that. We don’t have words like “otherishness” or “other-defense” or “other-centered.” But we often speak of “selfishness,” “self-defense,” and “self-centered.” I believe selfishness is at the root of all other sins, because we tell ourselves that we’re more important than others, that we don’t need others.
And those others include God. Pastor Will Willamon said this: “We are reasonable well-fixed, fairly well-off, mostly successful in getting the things we want, and we are surprised there is anything, including our situation with God, that is not the result of our own doing. We don’t need God; we can solve most of our problems ourselves.” Sounds like Lightning McQueen, doesn’t it? Does that also describe you? Have you relegated God to the “man upstairs” so you can do your own thing downstairs? Is God a convenience for you, or a necessity?
There are plenty of examples if the Bible of people putting themselves first – Adam and Eve disobeying God, the building of the tower of Babel, Jesus’ disciples asking to sit next to him in Heaven. We’re just not good at putting others first, at “otherishness,” even when God is the Other. Like McQueen stuck in Radiator Springs, sometimes it takes getting a little lost to truly find ourselves, and what we find is that our self is most valuable when it is inextricably linked to others and to God. There’s a reason our vision statement at Crestwood is “connecting people to God and each other.” We have to be intentional about making those connections.
In the end, McQueen gives up his goal of being famous. Because of his heroic actions in saving the King, he’s still offered the lucrative sponsorship, but turns it down to stay with his original sponsor, who stuck with him during the tough times. McQueen moves his headquarters to Radiator Springs, which transforms the town into a major tourist attraction once again. Turns out getting lost was the best thing that ever happened to Lightning McQueen.
Maybe it’s time for you to get lost. Please don’t take that personally. What I mean is that maybe it’s time for you to set aside whatever goal is driving you forward, commanding all your focus and attention. Maybe it’s time to get lost for a bit, lost in prayer, lost in nature, lost in a good conversation over a steaming cup of coffee. Maybe it’s time to get lost in helping someone else, in hearing their story, in feeling their pain. Is there someone around you who needs help in crossing their finish line? What are you willing to give up for yourself in order to help them?
Jesus says in Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Say it again, Jesus, because we need to hear it. Today. And tomorrow. And the next day. There are more ways to win in life than being first. There is love, the kind of love that causes someone to lay down their lives for someone else, just as McQueen did for the King, just as Jesus did for us, just as we are called to do for others. Kachow indeed!