The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series: Finding Nemo

SCRIPTURE – Mark 8:34-37 – He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 

The Gospel According to Pixar
Finding Nemo
July 2, 2017

On Saturday, I’ll be heading to General Assembly, the every-other-year gathering of our entire denomination. This year, it’s being held in Indianapolis, the first time since 2009 it’s been there. That assembly was an historic one for me, because it was the site of one of the happiest moments of my life, and one of the scariest.

During that assembly in 2009, I met up with Dave Miller. Dave was on the search committee at Crestwood Christian Church, and he had a contract for me to sign in order to become that church’s next senior minister. In case you were wondering, that was the happy moment, not the scary one.

The scariest moment happened while my family and I were gathered in the exhibit hall, talking with our friends Bruce and Laura. Molly, who was about five at the time, wanted to go see something several aisles over, so Laura volunteered to take her while we continued talking with Bruce. About five minutes later, Laura came rushing up to us with the most panicked look on her face, and said, “I’ve lost Molly!” Words can’t describe what happened in my heart at that moment. Just as this news was sinking in, around the corner behind Laura walked Molly, not a care in the world, as if to say, “I know exactly where I am!” But for a split-second, we thought we had lost her.

As we continue our “Gospel According to Pixar” sermon series, we’re looking today at another story about being lost: “Finding Nemo.” So far in this series, we’ve talked about “Toy Story,” “Cars,” and “Monsters, Inc.” We’ve learned about the power of belonging to God, the importance of having good friends, and the way love can overcome fear. Are we talking about a bunch of kids’ movies or the Bible? Powerful stuff.

The theme of being lost should resonate with those of us who follow Jesus, because he gives us plenty of examples of what God does when we’re lost. He tells the parable of how the shepherd leaves behind the 99 other sheep to find the lost one. He tells the story of the woman who loses a coin and searches frantically until she finds it. And he wraps up his trilogy with the story of the Prodigal Son, the lost boy who is lavishly welcomed home by the father, who says, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because he was lost, but now he’s found.”

Marlin also knows what it’s like to lose someone. Marlin is a clown fish who has the unfortunate personality trait of not being very funny. Instead, he’s incredibly anxious, a constant worrier. When Marlin was younger, his wife and 399 babies were eaten by a barracuda, leaving only Marlin and his son, Nemo. What’s a Disney movie without a parental tragedy? Happens in almost every one. As you can guess, Marlin is incredibly protective of Nemo, to the point that Nemo begins to resent Marlin’s helicopter parenting.

On Nemo’s first day of school, Marlin accompanies him to class and follows closely as they take a field trip. Nemo, in an effort to assert his independence, ventures beyond the safe zone and is captured by a scuba diver, who wants to add Nemo to his exotic fish collection. Marlin’s worst fears are confirmed, and now he has to leave the safety of his comfort zone to do find Nemo.

Nemo’s capture highlights for Marlin the brutal truth of being a parent or loving any child, and that is from the moment a child is born and that umbilical cord is cut, we are forced to participate in the painful practice of letting them go. The take their first steps away from us, they say “Mine!” for the first time, they get on their first school bus or move into their first dorm room. The art of parenting, of loving a child, is the art of learning to let go.

I remember Sydney’s first day of Kindergarten. Of course, Leigh and I were both more than a little anxious, but as Sydney got on the bus for the first time, I reassured her that everything was going to be just fine and there was absolutely no reason to worry. Then, acting like I was heading off to work, I got in the car and followed the bus for the entire route until it got to the school. I silently cursed the bus driver for going two miles over the speed limit, and I almost called the police when he rolled through a stop sign. Letting go, letting our children become their own people, entrusting them to others, can be really hard.

God knows about this, right? From the very beginning, God gave his children, Adam and Eve, the freedom to do what they wanted, even if it meant not doing what God wanted them to do. And ever since then, we’ve been testing our limits with God, pushing the envelope, asserting our independence by defying God, running away from God, doing the exact opposite of what God wants us to do. Have you run away from God? I know I have. But God never stops chasing us, never gives up on us.

Once Nemo is taken, Marlin has to decide what to do: maintain the control over his life that he craves, or let go of it in order to venture into the dark, murky, unknown ocean to find his son. Of course, he chooses to find Nemo. Along the way he meets Dory, a flighty fish with a short-term memory problem. You’ll hear more about her next week. Dory joins the hunt for Nemo, doing her best to help Marlin by speaking to whales and sacrificing herself in a swarm of jellyfish. And yet, because he is such a control freak, Marlin can’t fully put his trust in her, actually sending her away because he thinks she’s slowing him down.

Despite all that’s happened, Marlin still thinks he can control his life. He’s like the guy who bought a universal remote control, and said, “This changes everything!” Marlin thinks he holds a remote control for his and Nemo’s life. That would be nice, right? I’d pay just to have a mute button for some folks. Or to be able to rewind bad decisions. Or to fast-forward through tough times. But the truth is, there’s no remote for life. We can’t control it; we just have to live it.

Deep down, Marlin’s problem is not with Dory; it’s with himself. He believes the only person to blame for this trouble is himself. First, he lost his wife and babies because he didn’t do enough to save them, and now he’s lost Nemo. He’s a failure. If he could have just tried harder, if he could have just exerted more control, things would have been better. He says to Dory, “I promised I would never let anything happen to him.” And Dory, in all her wisdom, says, “That’s a funny promise. If you never let anything happen to him, then nothing will ever happen to him.”

The pivotal moment in the movie comes when Dory and Marlin are swallowed by a whale. Sounds a bit like Jonah, huh? Marlin is afraid they will be eaten, but Dory, using her ability to speak to whales, learns that they have to go to the back of the whale’s throat in order to escape.       Dory tells him, “It’s time to let go.” Marlin asks, “How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” Dory responds, “I don’t.”

That’s about the best sermon I could ever preach right there. “How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” “I don’t…but I do know that God is with us when we let go.” The security God offers is not a promise of what won’t happen but a promise of what will happen: that God will be with us at all times, even in the darkest valleys. And we find freedom when we are able to let go of the things we can’t control and trust that God is with us on the journey.

What has holding on gotten Marlin? He’s isolated from his friends and alienated his only son. What has holding on gotten you? Has it brought you the safety and security you’re seeking? Has it kept bad things from happening to you or your loved ones? You know the quote, “You miss 110% of the shots you don’t take.” Marlin would say, “But if I don’t take the shot, the other team won’t get the ball, and I’ll be safe.” And Dory would say, “Where’s the fun in just holding onto the ball?” Didn’t God give us our lives to live them? So what is keeping you from living yours?

Marlin ultimately does let go, dropping down into the whale’s throat, only to be resurrected through the blowhole and back into the sea. What was it Jesus said? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” From that point on, he’s a changed fish. No longer held back by his fears, he courageously seeks out Nemo, not afraid of riding a current on the back of sea turtle or enlisting the help of sharks and seagulls. He learns that dark, murky ocean is also teeming with colorful, joyful life. For the first time, Marlin relies on others to help him. He gives up his control and, in the process, saves Nemo’s life.

Marlin learns the blessing of a life lived in faith, the paradox that security is found, not in control, but in surrender. The more we are willing to surrender our lives into God’s hands, to trust that God walks with us, the more we find peace in the fact that it’s not up to us. God walks with us…into the delivery room…onto the bus for the first day of school…into the hospital…into the lawyer’s office…into the belly of the whale. And if God walks with us into those situations, God has the power to bring resurrection out of them. In what part of life are we holding on too tightly? What do we need to let go of in order to experience the blessing God has for us? What new realm are we being called to explore? A new relationship? A new job? A new leadership position? Remember, God goes with you.

Here’s the thing about trying to control our lives: we’re not very good at it. Have you noticed that? We’re weren’t created to be in control. We’re dangerous when the remote is in our hands. Ask Adam and Eve. Or the Israelites. Or just about anyone who has ever lived. We are most fully ourselves when we surrender ourselves to our faith in God. But how do we know something bad isn’t going to happen? We don’t. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives for my sake, the sake of the gospel, will save it.” So do we just play it safe, hold onto the ball? Or do we venture in the dark, murky, unknown future, a future that is also teeming with new life? When Marlin did, he found Nemo. I wonder what we’ll find there?


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