SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 43:14-21 – Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.[b]
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
16 Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series
July 23, 2017
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson
I got a call the other day from my friend Chris, with whom I was having lunch the next day. He said, “So, are you still able to make our lunch?” I said, “I sure am! I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at noon at Joe B’s.” He said, “Well, I won’t be there tomorrow.” I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because I’m at Joe B’s now waiting on you. Our lunch was scheduled for today.” Oops. He was right and my calendar was wrong.
The whole drive over to the restaurant, I was working on my apology speech. Do you know that feeling of making a promise and then not being able to keep it? I hate the guilt that goes along with letting someone down, of not keeping a promise you made. That’s one of the life situations dealt with in our movie for today. This summer, we’ve been watching and talking about movies made by Pixar, including “Toy Story,” “Cars,” and “Monsters Inc.” These movies appeal to kids, but also have deep messages for adults.
Today’s movie is “Up!” It’s pretty much an hour-and-a-half-long sermon, which is about how long this sermon will be. For me, “Up!” marks the moment when Pixar’s movies took an emotional turn. For those familiar with Pixar movies, “Up!” came right after “Wall-E,” which has a poignant message about care of the Earth, and right before “Toy Story 3,” which may be the best and most moving of all the Pixar movies. There is an emotional and spiritual depth to “Up!” that is not found in earlier Pixar movies.
The movie tells the story of Carl Frederickson. As a boy, Carl loved to watch newsreels about famous explorers and their exploits. He meets Ellie, a girl who is as outgoing and adventurous as Carl is shy and cautious. They develop a friendship, and Carl is initiated into Ellie’s club (she’s the only other member), with the motto, “Adventure is out there!” They fill up the pages of Ellie’s Adventure Book with their escapades, while still leaving a section blank that is called “Stuff I’m Going to Do,” Ellie makes Carl promise that he will one day take her on a dream trip to exotic Paradise Falls in South America.
Then, in one of the most well-crafted and moving sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie, we learn the story of Carl and Ellie’s life together, told with no words, only short scenes with a musical backdrop. We see Carl and Ellie getting married and buying a house. We see the joy of them fixing up the house together, and the sadness of a visit to the doctor’s office where they learn they can’t have kids. We see Carl’s job as a balloon salesman at the local zoo. We watch as Carl and Ellie save their coins to buy plane tickets to Paradise Falls, and then feel their disappointment as they are forced to use those coins to fix flat tires and pay medical bills.
At the end of this montage, as the couple is aging, we see Carl go into a travel agency and purchase two tickets to South America. The next scene is in a hospital room, where Ellie is hooked up to a bunch of IVs. And the final scene is Carl sitting on the steps of a church, surrounded by bouquets of flowers, holding the unused plane tickets. Ellie has died before Carl could ever fulfill his promise of taking her to Paradise Falls. Carl is not only dealing with the pain of losing his partner, but also with the guilt of not keeping his promise to her. Carl is mourning the loss of his wife and the loss of the life they planned together. There are still empty pages in Ellie’s Adventure Book. This was not the way life was supposed to happen for Carl and Ellie.
The story picks up with Carl in his beloved house, but he has changed. With Ellie gone, he is gloomier and more crotchety. Ellie brought color to Carl’s world, but now it’s dull and gray. Even his features have changed. His face is square, his glasses are square, his fingers are square, everything in his house is square. As you know, squares don’t roll, they don’t move. Carl is stuck in his grief. He keeps his house exactly the way it was when Ellie was alive, preserving the past, so when he is propositioned by a local developer to sell his house, his “no” is so emphatic that injures a construction worker. He is ordered by a judge to sell his house, which has come to embody for him his life with Ellie. It’s like he’s losing her all over again.
So rather than sell the house, Carl, the former balloon salesman, inflates thousands of helium balloons, ties them to his house, and floats away, with the intention of landing the house at Paradise Falls and finally fulfilling his promise to Ellie. While floating along at about 30,000 feet, he hears…a knock at the door. It seems that a local Wilderness Scout named Russell was trying to earn his last merit badge – “Helping the Elderly” – and got trapped on Carl’s porch when his house took off. Carl, who just wants to be alone with his grief, is forced to interact with this pesky kid.
Why is Carl taking such drastic measures? Wouldn’t it be easier for him to give up the fight, sell his house, and move into Shady Oaks Retirement Village? It might seem easier to us, but Carl is living his life backward rather than forward. He just wants life to be the way it used to be, when he was happy and Ellie was alive. And he knows that if he can get their house to Paradise Falls, he can recapture that joy and relieve himself of the guilt he feels for disappointing Ellie. He just wants things to go back to normal.
Have you ever had your “normal” interrupted? Maybe I should ask, “how many times this week did you have your ‘normal’ interrupted?” When we were younger, we all had a vision for how our lives should go. We had it all mapped out. And then life happened. None of us ever thought we’d have to deal with the challenges we’ve faced, the disappointments we’ve endured, the losses we’ve suffered. Some days, wouldn’t it be nice if we could reset the clock to before life changed without our permission? We all have some Carl in us. If we could only go back to the way things were.
Carl, Russell the Adventure scout, and the house all arrive at Paradise Falls. While there, they meet some new companions, including Kevin, a female bird, and Dug, a dog with a collar that translates his thoughts into human words. One of my favorite scenes is when the dog jumps on Carl, and says, “Hello, I just met you. I love you.” But even with these new characters, the story is still very much about Carl’s attempt to fulfill his promise to Ellie, even at the expense of helping his new friends.
Leaving his friends to be captured by an evil explorer, Carl finally gets the house to the exact spot at Paradise Falls where he promised Ellie they would be. He rearranges all the furniture just as it was and dusts off Ellie’s picture on the mantle. Finally, things are back to the way they were. Carl sits back in his chair to enjoy the peace he has so longed for, the peace of knowing he’s not a disappointment to Ellie, that he is a man of his word. But that peace doesn’t come. He thought he could recapture the joy of his past, but he’s only reminded of how he failed Ellie.
Carl takes out Ellie’s Adventure Book to reminisce about their adventures together as kids. When he gets to the section labeled, “Stuff I’m Going to Do,” he expects to find the pages empty, but instead they are filled with pictures of Carl and Ellie’s life together. He thought their normal life together was a disappointment to Ellie, but she saw it as a grand adventure. And written on the last page in Ellie’s handwriting, it says, “Thanks for the great adventure, now go have a new one!”
You know the life you are living now, the one that is so different than what you had planned, the one that has been interrupted by flat tires and hospital bills and doctors’ appointments and heart-break? That’s not a detour from the life you thought you were going to have. It IS the life you have. It’s your life, with all its joys and challenges. Yeah, sometimes it royally stinks and sometimes you’d trade your life for anyone else’s because it can be so hard. But it’s your life. It’s your adventure to live. Like Carl, we can wish for a different life, a better life. We can stay stuck in our grief or disappointment. But if we do, we’re missing the adventure of a life that is in front of us right now, the new thing God is doing in our lives.
Ellie’s note absolves Carl of his regret, his features soften, and this square, dull man comes to life in order to save his friends. He literally must clear the house of all of Ellie’s stuff for it to fly again so he can rescue Russell from the evil explorer. The cane he’s relied on to get around becomes a weapon and he moves with new-found vigor to be the hero. For Carl, the old has passed away and the new has come. At one point, to save his friends, Carl has to let his house, his last physical tie to his old life, float away forever. You know what he says? “It’s just a house.” His life is no longer defined by the regrets of his past, but by the love and relationships he is experiencing in the presence. In the end, he gets to pin Russell’s last merit badge on him, and the two share an ice cream cone together.
This movie reminded me of a poem by Kenneth Caraway, which says, “There is no box made by God or us but that the sides can’t be flattened out and the top blown off to make a dance floor on which to celebrate life.” Carl, who was boxed in by his grief, could have gone on living his square existence. Instead, he reluctantly lets people and creatures into his life, and his life becomes a dance floor for celebrating. What’s boxing you in? What’s keeping you rooted in the past? What past mistake, past regret, past loss is tethering you to the ground, enticing you to live your life looking backward? Whatever it is, could it be time to let it go, to fly away from the past in order to discover the new adventure God has for you?
If Carl hadn’t let go of his house, he would have missed the opportunity to be loved and needed by the people right in front of him. It’s never too late to be the person you were meant to be. It’s never too late to start a new adventure. Sure, your life hasn’t been perfect. Maybe it’s falling to pieces. Maybe you feel as if part of you is missing. You are not alone in feeling that way. There are people around you who love you, who need you, who want to walk with you into your next adventure. And more importantly, God is with you. God has been with you you’re your first breath, through your joys and disappointments, right up until this very moment. God is with you, and God will be with you.
God says in Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” We’ve all been in the wilderness; we’ve traveled through the desert. And we are here. God has done a new thing for us. Maybe God is doing a new thing right now for you. Are you stuck looking down at the ground, or looking backward at what used to be? Well…look up! Because Jesus Christ is here, at work, calling us into our new adventure. I pray we have the courage to follow him, to fly away from our past into what God has planned for us.