The Gospel According to Pixar sermon series: Inside Out

This is the last sermon in our series on Pixar movies, and it deals with one of the best and most complex of all of them. God bless!

SCRIPTURE – John 16:20-24 – Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

The Gospel According to Pixar sermon series
Inside Out
July 30, 2017
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson


I remember when I was a kid, my Memaw Bonnie had to go the hospital for some tests. She was having some cognitive issues, so the doctor ordered an MRI of her brain. The family waited anxiously for her to come home with the results. When she walked in, my uncle asked, “What did they find?” and she said with joy, “They didn’t find anything!” And I, being a kid with a kid’s sense of humor, found it outrageously funny that when the doctor did a scan of my Memaw’s brain, they didn’t find anything.

Wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in people’s brains? Only about a million times a day, right? Well, our movie today, “Inside Out” gives you that opportunity. This is the final sermon in our “Gospel According to Pixar” sermon series. I hope you’ve received it the way I have experienced each of the movies: entertaining, enjoyable, but also insightful, and a catalyst to think about some of life’s deeper lessons.

In many ways, “Inside Out” is the deepest of all the movies we’ve examined, which makes it really, really hard to explain to those of you who haven’t seen the movie. I’m going to do my best, so hang in there with me. The movie focuses on Riley, an 11-year-old girl living with her parents in Minnesota. But only part of the movie is about the outside world. Most of it is about the emotions that exist inside of Riley.

I’m going to give you some visual cues to help you picture these emotions, and you can also use the front of your bulletin to see them. The main emotion in the movie is Joy. There is also Fear…Disgust…Anger…and Sadness. Inside Ellie’s brain is a control panel for her actions, and each emotion pushes the appropriate buttons that make Riley function. So, when her dad tries to feed her broccoli as a baby, Disgust takes over the control panel as Riley’s dominant emotion. When she doesn’t get the toy she wants at the store, Anger pushes the buttons. But it’s Joy that has control most of the time when Riley is little, and Joy works hard to keep the other emotions at bay.

Once we learn a little bit about Riley and her overall happy life, Joy says, “Riley just turned 11, what could happen?” Well, lots. First, her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco for her dad’s new job. Riley is uprooted from her home, her friends, her school, her hockey team. She is forced to leave the place where she’s made all her happy memories. She is plopped down in a row house with no yard and sent to a school where she doesn’t know anyone. Want to guess which emotions take over the control panel? Sadness. Fear. Anger. Joy works hard to keep a balance in Riley’s life, but the other emotions start to dominate.

Riley begins to struggle and feel isolated from everyone, especially her parents. The movie personifies this by having Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s memories, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show. You can imagine that things don’t go well. Riley fails her hockey tryout and gets more sullen. She has a fight with her parents and withdraws into her anger and sadness. Finally, Anger gives her the idea of running away, back to Minnesota where all her happy memories were made. As Riley sinks deeper into her negative feelings, Joy begins to disappear completely from her life. It’s powerful allegory for what depression looks like.

While Joy and Sadness are lost together, Joy makes an important discovery. Her goal has always been to keep the other emotions at bay and to ensure that Riley is always happy. There’s actually a moment in the movie where Joy draws a circle on the ground and says to Sadness, “Your job is to keep all your sadness in this circle. Don’t let it go anywhere else.” But the circumstances of life have dictated that those other emotions need to be expressed at times.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like expressing what you were truly feeling wasn’t acceptable? Riley’s mom tells her, “You’ve always been our happy girl. If you could just keep smiling, we can help Dad figure everything out.” The world tells us that our only choice of emotion should be Joy, that we should always be happy. If we go around being fearful or angry or disgusted or sad, people think something is wrong with us. Just imagine the reaction if you answered the question, “How are you?” with something other than “Fine.” “I’m sad, thanks for asking.” “I’m really angry. Wanna know why?” We can’t do that. That’s socially unacceptable. So instead we’re fine. We have to be fine. Even the Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice.” That’s A saying fit for a keychain, isn’t it?

But the Bible says more than that about emotions. You heard what Psalm 55 said: “I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught by the noise of the enemy.” Have you ever seen that on a keychain? There are plenty of psalms that express a whole range of emotions, from anger to fear to frustration to elation. As followers of Christ, we have good reason to always be joyful, because we have a reservoir of hope gifted to us by our faith in Jesus Christ. But we also live in this world, which can stir up in us so many emotions at the drop of a hat or post of a tweet. Is it OK to feel those emotions, too? Or should we just be fine?

What emotion do you think about when you think about Jesus? We’re told in Luke 10 that, “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.” In John 15, Jesus says to his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Yeah, Jesus was a pretty joyful guy. But was that the only emotion he experienced?

“Disgust” is defined as “a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive.” When a man brings his son to Jesus for a healing because the disciples were not able to do it themselves, Jesus says, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” Does that sound like profound disapproval to you? That’s only one example of the many times Jesus was disgusted with his disciples.

A man with a withered hand came to Jesus on the Sabbath to be healed, and the Pharisees and religious leaders said he was breaking a commandment by healing on the Sabbath. So it tells us in Mark 3, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” You’ve probably heard the story of Jesus turning over the vendors’ table in the temple because he was angry that God’s house had been turned into Fayette Mall. Jesus could get angry.

Everybody knows the shortest verse in all the Bible, right? “Jesus wept.” But do you know the context? His friend Lazarus has died and Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha have called on Jesus for help. Jesus knows he’s going to bring Lazarus back from the dead, but when he comes to the tomb he is overcome with the emotion of the situation. John 11 says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.” Jesus knew what it meant to be sad.

What about fearful? I always think of Jesus as confident, serene, resolute on fulfilling his mission. But Luke’s gospel has this peculiar account at the Mount of Olives, where Jesus goes to pray before he is arrested and then crucified the next day. Luke tells us, “Then he knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.  In his anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” Considering what he was about to face, how could he not be afraid?

Jesus knows what it’s like to experience the full range of human emotions, because he was fully human. That says to me that all our emotions are valid and worthy of acknowledgment. It may not be socially acceptable to feel grief or anger or disgust, but it is a part of who we are as God’s creatures. Sure, it would be nice to have Joy at the controls all the time, but if that were the case, we would take the blessing of that emotion for granted. Think of it this way. The joy of Easter Sunday, the fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead, is only meaningful to us if we experience the sadness and pain of Good Friday. Sometimes we have to go through the hard parts of life to more fully appreciate the good ones.

In the movie, Joy finally comes to that realization, that Riley’s other memories have a place outside of that small circle. And at that moment, Sadness emerges as the true hero of the story. Joy and Sadness make it back to the control panel just before Riley runs way, and Joy steps out of the way so Sadness can take control. With Sadness at the helm, Riley says to her parents, “You need me to be happy, but I want to go home.” Her parents take her into their arms and share their own sadness about leaving Minnesota. And at that moment, Riley makes a new memory, one that mixes the emotions of joy and sadness, symbolizing the complexity of our human emotions. The movie ends with Riley getting an upgraded control panel in her brain so that there’s room for all the emotions to function. And Joy says, “Riley’s 12 now. What could happen?”

We know what could happen, right? Life. Life not only could happen, it will. We know it because we’ve lived it. We’ve experienced the power of our emotions. Those are not something to apologize for or feel ashamed about. Those are a gift from God. They allow us to truly feel all that life has to offer us, the highest highs and the lowest lows. For Riley, the key to her dealing with her difficult emotions was sharing them with others. When she finally told her parents why she was sad, they opened up about their own sadness, and in the midst of their shared grief they found joy together.

Who’s running your control panel? If it’s joy, then rejoice! But if it’s a less socially acceptable emotion, know that what you feel is just as accepted and valued by God as joy. Have you told God how you are feeling? Have you told someone else? You are not alone on this journey of life. We are walking it with you. And so is Jesus, who knows anger and disgust and sadness and fear. He knows what you’re going through. Remember what he said in John 16: “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

My prayer for you is that, in the midst of the difficult emotions you feel, you trust that something new is being born within you, something that will restore your joy and reconnect you with God. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but with the support of your friends and family and church, it will happen. Jesus says, “You will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy.” Thanks be to God.







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