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Love 101 Sermon Series – What Is Love

What does it mean to love in our world today? Do we love our family the same way we love ice cream? Do we love God in the same way we love our favorite sports team? In this sermon series, we’re going back to the basics of what it means to love the way the Bible teaches us.

SCRIPTURE – I John 4:7-21 –  Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

SERMON
Love 101 Sermon Series
#1 – What Is Love
1 John 4:7-21
August 20, 2017

You all have heard me preach enough now that you know I like to start most of my sermons with some sort of ice-breaker. That’s Public Speaking 101, right? Get them laughing and you’ve got them listening. A quip or a funny story or – my favorite – a pun is a great way to get the ball rolling and ensure that I’ll have your attention for at least the next 30 seconds, hopefully longer.

But in the wake of what’s going on in the world lately, I’m not feeling very funny. Instead, my heart feels heavy. At our General Assembly last month, one of our denomination’s prophetic preachers said that the world is too broken for preachers to give cute sermons. Of course, I was in the middle of the “Gospel According to Pixar” sermon series. Ouch. And, in my mind, there’s still room for humor and light-heartedness from the pulpit.

But not now. Not today. Along with my heaviness of heart is a determination of spirit. We have work to do, church, and it starts with going back to the Bible and relearning what it means to be a child of God and a follower of Christ. Because when people can march without masks or hoods and call for violence against others not like them, when people drive vehicles into crowds, killing innocent people, including women and children, I’m not sure even Pixar is creative or courageous enough to provide answers. We need the word of God, both written and alive among us.

So we start a new sermon series today, planned weeks before the events of Charlottesville and Barcelona, called “Love 101: Back to the Basics.” We need to hit the reset button on who we are created and called to be, because this is where the good news of Jesus Christ starts. By the end of this series, you very well may say as you walk out to your car, “Geez! Enough about love already. I’m sick of hearing about love.” But I would hope we never get tired of hearing how much God loves us, and how much we are called to love each other.

So, you want an ice-breaker this morning? Here you go, courtesy of author Phillip Gulley: “For many, religion is how we decide who to love and who to hate.” As a loving Christian, I want to argue with him, but history shows otherwise. In fact, here’s a very unscientific list of the people I know who have been hated in the name of religion: the pagans, the Samaritans, the Jews, the Muslims, women, Protestants, the Jews again, divorced people, indigenous people, the Muslims again, people who dare to translate the Bible into English, the Jews again, black people, people who dance and play cards, homosexuals, people of a different political persuasion, and lets go ahead and throw the Jews and Muslims in there one more time. History shows that Christians have a poor record of finding motivation for loving these people, but have found ample reasons – based in scripture – for hating them.

What we need to name today is that any justification for hating someone that is rooted in scripture is sinful, because the Bible is clear throughout that hate has no place in God’s kingdom. Instead, God’s kingdom is characterized as a place where love abounds. In fact, the Bible goes even further than that, as we heard in today’s scripture. It doesn’t say God is loving, which of course God is. It doesn’t say God loves, which of course God does. It says God is love. So if God is love, and we are created in the image of God, then that means we are created to love. Man, have we messed that up or what? Maybe that’s because we don’t know what Godly love is. So let’s see if John can help us here.

John, wrote his gospel around the year 90 to a specific congregation. John had given birth to this church, but it was struggling to weather external attacks from the Jewish and pagan leaders and internal undermining from false teachers. Sensing that division was going to destroy his church, John wrote three letters of explanation and clarification, which are the three letters of John at the end of the New Testament. One of the things John is addressing is the hateful discourse coming from the mouths of the false teachers, who were trying to split the church and draw people away from the congregation. They were encouraging people to hate those not like them, which leads to our passage today. John is basically saying to his faithful community that they should test the words of this divisive group by using the measure of love. Is what they say loving? Are they demonstrating love in their actions? If not, then they are not of God, because God is love.

What kind of love is this of which John speaks, mentioning it 28 times in this passage? The Greek word for love here is agape. The Greeks actually had several words they used to describe love, which makes sense when you think of all the different kinds of love that exists. There was eros, the romantic kind of love. There is philia, a love between friends. Storge is a kind of family love, like the love siblings would have for each other.

But none of those describe the kind of love John is talking about here. He is talking about agape. Agape is a selfless, other-focused love that represents love in its highest form. When Jesus speaks of the love God has for him, it is agape love. In fact, John opens this passage by calling his readers, “Beloved.” The Greek word is agapetoi. We are agaped by God, and called to agape God and others.

So what separates agape love from the other types of love we experience in our lives? Is it possible to agape ice cream? Can we agape our favorite sports team? That is a completely different kiind of love, in my mind. So what is agape love, this love that defines who God is and how God feels about us?

Well, it’s not something we’re born with. We had a great discussion in Sermon Talkback this week about whether or not we’re born with love, or just the ability to love. We concluded that we’re born with the need to survive, and must learn to love, which often calls us to do things that go against our survival, like sharing our resources or making ourselves vulnerable. We are not born with agape love in our DNA.

So where does it come from? Simple. We learn to love by being loved, just like we learn to hate by being hated. If our parents show us love and teach us to love others, we are filled with love. And if our parents treat us hatefully and teach us that other people should be hated, we are filled with hate. Both the love we feel and the hate we feel is learned from others, and is a direct result of how we are treated and how we learn that God feels about others, especially those different from us.

We’re not born with agape, and we also don’t have the capacity to create agape, because it didn’t come from us to begin with. It’s a gift from God, the key word being “gift.” There’s nothing we can do to earn God’s love. Some folks think that’s the only way to get it. If you believe the right things or behave the right ways, then God will love you. Some folks believe Jesus died on the cross because God was so mad at us that someone had to be murdered in order to set things right. But that doesn’t sound like agape to me. Does it to you? We can’t earn God’s love. It’s a gift.

And it’s a gift given to everybody. Here’s where we humans start to lose the plot. John spells it out pretty plainly: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” You can’t wish harm on a person or group of people and love God. Those two things are diametrically opposed. I would go so far as to say you can’t condone hateful behavior, or stay silent while you watch it happen, and love God. The opposite of love is not just hate; it’s also apathy, indifference to the value of others in God’s eyes.

That’s because one of the crucial components in the definition of agape is that it is more than an emotion or a feeling; it is an action. Agape is not just a noun, it’s a verb. God’s love is something that is not just to be perceived or experienced; it is something to be expressed. It is not only expressed in loving others, it is also expressed in standing up to those who promote hate. Love in action is the most faithful way to counter the hate we see around us. Remember what John says: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

That’s a tall order, right? It’s up to us for God’s love to be perfected? And this is written by a man who, just a one chapter before, calls his opponents “children of the devil.” That’s not very loving! Even John can’t get this exactly right. The truth is I can never love like God loves, because God loves people that I don’t want to love. But agape calls me out of my comfort zone, out of my cushy, insulated world of people who are just like me, into a world where I am challenged to show love for those whom I’d just as soon ignore, dismiss, even write off as children of the devil. Hey, the Bible never says this faith thing was going to be easy.

Trish and I have a lot more to say about this in the coming weeks. And, unfortunately, the world will probably give us a lot more to talk about. Here’s what I want you remember today: You are loved. You are loved. No qualifiers, no conditions. You may not always feel loveable or act loveable, but God that doesn’t stop God from loving you. You are made in God’s image, God is love, so you are loved. But that sentence isn’t complete until we add that you are also called to love others. We talk a lot about love. We sing about love. Love is at the core of our belief in Jesus Christ. But the real question is do we show love toward real-life people in ways that help them understand that God loves them, too.

One final quote, again from Phillip Gulley: “We don’t need to accept Jesus into our hearts; we need to have the same heart as Jesus.” We can go round and round about the political and societal implications of racism and Confederate statues and terrorist and radical agendas, but we have to start here, at the heart of Jesus, at the heart of our faith. We have to stand up against anyone who claims that hate is a part of faith. We have to lift up our voices on behalf of those who are drowned out by racists chants. We have to have the courage to say that all people matter to God, especially those who are told they don’t matter by others. We have to not only say with our mouths but live out with our hands and feet the most basic, fundamental fact of scripture: “God is love.”

 

 

 

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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.

SERMON
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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The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series: Up!

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.

SERMON
The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series
Up!
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.

 

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The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series: The Incredibles

SCRIPTURE – I Cor. 12:4-12 –  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 

SERMON
The Gospel According to Pixar sermon series
The Incredibles
July 16, 2017

I want to thank the Elders of the church for leading worship last week while Trish and I were at General Assembly in Indianapolis. I especially want to thank Tara Wilkinson for taking on the challenge of preaching about “Finding Dory.” Her sermon was thoughtful, funny, and contained a powerful message. I listened to it on our website, and when it finished I fully expected a motion from the floor to call her as our new senior pastor. Thanks to her, and thanks to you for supporting her.

One of my favorite things to do at General Assembly is to follow people’s commentaries on social media. During the business sessions and the worship services, there’s always a flowing stream of comments that mixes thoughtful reflection, honest engagement, and lots of snark. I usually contribute to the last one. It’s the 2017 equivalent of the after-church parking lot conversation.

In recent years, people have created alter-egos on social media so they can hide their identity and still participate in the conversation. One of my favorite alter-egos is Disciples Batman, who will post things like, “I think Disciples churches should partner with at-risk children and youth. We can teach them to fight crime and give them a cape.” Comments like these certainly help make the business sessions feel less like business sessions.

Alter-egos and hidden identities play a role in our movie for today. This summer, we’re looking at the powerful messages in the movies of Pixar, like “Toy Story” and “Cars.” While these movies may seem like they’re targeted at kiddos, their themes and stories are universal and match up nicely with what scripture tells us about living a life of faith.

Today’s movie is “The Incredibles,” which came out in 2004. Seeking to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes, “The Incredibles” tells the story of Mr. Incredible, a super-strong hero who fights crime, and his wife Elastigirl, who can bend and twist and stretch her body like it was made of plastic. Mr. Incredible gets sued by someone he saved, which leads to a public outcry against all superheroes. They are forced by the government to give up their crime-fighting ways, they enter the Superhero Relocation Program, and they have to promise never to use their super-powers again.

So Mr. Incredible becomes Bob Parr, an insurance adjuster, and his wife, Elastigirl, is now Helen, a stay-at-home mom. They have three kids: Violet, a moody teenager who can turn invisible and create force-fields; Dash, a rambunctious 10-year-old boy who has super-speed; and Jack-Jack, a baby whose powers haven’t developed yet. The family is doing their best to live a normal life, to blend in with their neighbors, to appear not to be different in any way. The kids are ordered by their mom to never use their super-powers. She tells them, “The world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in we have to be like everybody else.”

The movie does a brilliant job of blending the real-life problems of a typical family with the Incredibles’ special abilities. They bicker at the dinner table, Dash annoys his older sister, Mr. Incredible slogs his way through his workday. But deep down, none of them are happy, because they are struggling with their identities. One on end, Dash wants to use his super power to try out for the track team, but his mom won’t allow it. On the other end, Violet hates that she has her powers. She says, “We act normal. I just want to be normal.”

Are you normal? I would tell you to turn to your neighbor and ask them that question, but you might not like the answer. Because I don’t think any of us are normal. The definition of normal is, “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” I want to ask, “What standard? Whose standard?” If my standard for normal is me, then that means everyone else is abnormal. And if my standard for normal is someone else, or some unreachable ideal state, then I’ll never be normal, a statement with which my family would whole-heartedly agree.

But as Christians, we aren’t called to be normal. We are called to be holy, and in our world today, which is dominated by greed, prejudice, and individualism, holiness is as rare as a super-power. To be holy means to be Christ-like, to be focused on serving others, to put our faith first in everything we say and do. And, folks, that is not normal behavior today. But we have those powers, don’t we? We call them spiritual gifts. The Bible calls us to live our lives this way…so why don’t we? Why do we hide our spiritual superpowers instead of exercising them to make a difference in this world? Are we afraid of being different, of being not normal?

The person in the movie who struggles most with hiding his identity is Mr. Incredible. Saving people is in his DNA, so he sneaks out at night to listen to police scanners and secretly rescues people from danger. When he gets offered a special mission to a top-secret island, he jumps at it, lying to his wife in order to go be Mr. Incredible again. After completing the mission, he returns home rejuvenated because he’s finally getting to use his gifts, to be the person he was created to be.

But you can only live a double-life for so long. Mr. Incredible gets captured by the evil villain Syndrome. His wife Elastigirl finds out, so she travels to the secret island to rescue him, and Dash and Violet sneak their way onto the plane to go with her. And at various points in the rescue attempt, each person has to use their powers to save the family. Each person has to be themselves as they were created to be, to use the gifts they were given. And by doing so, they save each other and they save their city, which is attacked by Syndrome’s evil robot.

Like the passage I read from I Corinthians, Paul talks often about the super-powers we are given by the Holy Spirit – the power to heal, the power to preach, the power to discern, the power to encourage, the power to be generous. There are many different powers, but they all come from the same spirit, and we all have one. We are all superheroes. God has empowered us to be difference-makers in this world, and if we’re not putting those powers to use, then we are not only ignoring the gift, we are withholding the saving power of Christ from others. I wonder if what causes God the greatest disappointment aren’t the things we do wrong, but all the gifts God has given to us that remain wrapped.

Every character in the movie is trying to discover how to use their gifts. They are seeking to answer the question, “Who am I?” Even the villain Syndrome, who, as a kid, was dismissed by Mr. Incredible, is seeking validation and value by trying to be “super” like his hero. But there’s a further point the movie makes about these gifts. Mr. Incredible gets himself into trouble when he tries to use his gifts alone. At one point, Elastigirl confronts him about trying to do everything himself, and he confesses, “I can’t lose you! I’m not strong enough.” But what he finds out is that he is so much stronger when he shares the burden of saving the world with his family.

And he learns that what makes him incredible isn’t his powers or his suit or his fearless courage. It’s his family. It’s being surrounded by those he loves that truly gives him value. When he tries to defeat Syndrome by himself, he is weak. But when his family joins him, and they combine their powers, they are all made stronger. What did the passage from Ecclesiastes say? Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm, but how can one person keep warm by himself? Although an assailant may overpower one person, two can withstand him.” We are most powerful when we are working together, sharing our super-powers of love and service with each other for the sake of this world.

            We don’t have to be Mr. Incredible or Elastigirl to do that. And we don’t have to be a movie star or an athlete or a business mogul or even Disciples Batman. We just have to be ourselves. As you learned last week from Tara and “Finding Dory,” our ultimate identity does not have to do with our abilities or our disabilities. There is no need to try and be someone. We ARE someone. That’s why Christ died to the cross, to remind us of our infinite value.

And we are called to be that someone right where we are. Mr. Incredible goes traipsing off to a secret island, hoping to find the “real” him that had been buried in his boring, normal life. And yet, it’s the most important part of that boring, normal life – his family – that saves him. Life isn’t always going to be an adventure, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t there.

What feels boring to you right now? Your job? Your home life? This sermon? I get it. I’ve felt it. But rather than longing for greener grass or a secret mission to spice things up, I wonder if you might look a little harder at what’s right there in front of you, including your church family. We are NOT normal, but we love you, and we want you to be who God created you to be. The world needs our super-powers to heal, to love, to include, to transform. Because the villains of racism and injustice and greed and violence seem to be taking over. I wonder what would happen if each of us used the gift we have to make a difference, no matter how small, in this world? I wonder what would happen if each of us decided not to be normal, but to be faithful, to change someone else’s life for the better, to let them know they are of value to God? I wonder what would happen if we all acted like we had spiritual super-powers? Now THAT would be incredible.

 

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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? 

SERMON
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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The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series: Cars

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.

SERMON
The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series
Cars
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!

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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.

SERMON
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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