Monday, June 27, 2016

You Are A Toy

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Galatians 3:25-4:7:

Today we begin on a journey that will take us through the next six weeks looking at the gospel messages we can find in the movies of Pixar.  Now notice that I am not saying that we are looking at the gospel of Pixar, or the gospel according to Pixar, but instead the gospel in Pixar. I think that distinction is important because we have four gospels already, and last I checked Pixar was not one of them. But we can find important themes and messages in these movies that resonate with us and our understanding of the Christian life, they have things they can teach us. Indeed, one of the things that makes Pixar films so special is not just their attention to detail and storytelling, but that there are so many things going on in them that are so true to life, even if they are normally told through non-humans. And so my disclaimer here is that I have no intention of looking at everything that might be seen or discussed in each movie, but will only be focusing on specific ideas.  We start, perhaps appropriately enough with the first feature length Pixar film, Toy Story. Not only was this their first film it was also the first feature length film created entirely with computer animation, also known as CGI, and it forever changed animated films, and it also has lots of Star Wars references in it.

Toy Story, in case you are not familiar, tells the story of a collection of toys that belong to a boy named Andy, and when humans are not around, the toys come to life and interact with each other. The head of the toys, and Andy’s favorite, is a cowboy doll named Woody, and his world is turned upside down when Andy receives an action figure by the name of Buzz Lightyear. Woody becomes jealous of Buzz, and in trying get Buzz stuck behind a desk so that Andy will play with him instead, Woods accidently knocks Buzz out a window and Woody and Andy get stuck in the home of the next door neighbor inhabited by Sid, a terrible kid who destroys toys for fun, and Woody and Buzz begin an adventure to try and get back to Andy before he and his family move away. Now one of the biggest problems for Woody is that Buzz believes himself not to be q toy, but instead to be the actual Buzz Lightyear. Check out this scene set after Woody has knocked Buzz out the window, and they find themselves lost in a gas station….

That’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie, because both of them are so convinced that they are right and the other is wrong.  Nothing Woody can do can convince Buzz of his true identity, at least not yet. Now the theme of identity is a prevalent one in Pixar films. To name just a few, there is Dory in Finding Nemo, who doesn’t remember who she is, there is Remy in Ratatouille, a rat who is and wants to be a chef, much to everyone’s consternation, and then there are the Incredibles, a family of super heroes who have to live with secret identities, never revealing their powers to the world. In it, Helen Parr, the mother, also known as elastigirl, tells her daughter Violet “Your identity is your most valuable possession; protect it.” Identity is important in Pixar, and it’s important in real life. Trying to answer the question “who am I?” or who are we, has been something philosophers have been struggling over for millennia.

Trying to say who we are is something with which all of us struggle, and all of us seek some answers to, and put qualifiers on, and we wonder about. When we meet someone new, one of the first questions we tend to ask, is what do they do, or perhaps where are they from? That is, at basic, who are you? Is there anything about those answers that will give us a way to identify each other. And of course, we might also seek approval and identity from other people, and those who strive to be told they are good enough by someone else in order to feel good about themselves, are seeking for something which can never truly come from someone else. Woody yelling at Buzz that he is a toy is no more going to convince him of that fact, then someone else thinking that if only someone else will tell them they are good enough that it will solve all of their problems.  That’s not who we are as Christians. We don’t get our sense of meaning, our sense of identity from others, we get our sense of meaning and identity because of our understanding that we are beloved children of God, that we are made in the image of God. Our sense of purpose and belonging, our sense of meaning, and where we get the ability to do things should come from that identity, rather than any of the things that the world tells us should give us our worth.

I’m often asked why I think so many people don’t have anything to do with the church, or with religion in the US, while the church is exploding in Asia and Africa. There are lots and lots of reasons, but one of the things that has been true is that as economic conditions improve in people’s lives, they are more likely to move away from religion. That is when we have the money to be able to be comfortable, to not worry about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, shelter, safety, then they are more likely to feel they don’t need God, because they have what they want, and they got it all themselves. Buzz has this same problem.….

It’s sort of like what football coach Barry Switzer once said, “Some people are born on third base and they go through like thinking they hit a triple.” Buzz sees what he wants to see, which is what all of us do, we don’t often recognize what is right in front of us, and too often we think that we have gotten what we have through our own efforts with no assistance from anyone else, and certainly not God, that everything we have is because of our own work. Even if we just got lucky, like Buzz does, and therefore think that we can truly fly. Now sometimes that’s enough, and we can keep our blinders on and keep moving forward, but all too often something happens in our lives, a tragedy occurs, we have a significant setback, and we come crashing down, just as Buzz does when he finally finds out that he can’t actually fly.

Most of us have probably been there, and the longer we have been alive the more likely it is to happen, where we at least feel as if we have fallen off the cliff, and perhaps even feel as if the cliff has landed on us, we hit rock bottom, and we wonder what’s going to happen, where we are, what can we rely on anymore, and truly begin to wonder who are we? The same thing happens with Buzz, and then he has a breakthrough….

I think the entire movie turns on two points contained in that clip. The first is that when Buzz finally sees the “Made in Taiwan” print on his arm. Of course it’s been there all along, but he’s never seen it, because he never wanted to see it. We do the same thing, because all too often we see, and hear, what we want to see and hear. If it reinforces our beliefs, such as our ability to fly, then it gets remembered and validated, but if it doesn’t accord with our beliefs then it gets dismissed out of hand, if it’s even seen or heard at all. I’m currently reading a book on the discovery, or recovery, of a Caravaggio masterpiece that had been missing for nearly 100 years. It was finally discovered hanging in the dining room of a Jesuit community in Ireland. Lots of people who knew their art had seen it there, including the assistant director of the National Gallery of Ireland, had seen it there, but no one thought it was what is was, because why would one of the great masterpieces of the world be hanging in some priest’s dining room? We see what we want to see.

But just as Buzz had never seen the made in Taiwan mark, so too did he not understand the other mark that had been made on him, even though he had seen this one, and that was the mark that Andy has placed on his foot, writing his name there, saying “You belong to me.” Buzz had seen that mark before, but he never really understood what it meant, until he had hit rock bottom and Woody has to tell him that he is something much greater, and something much more important, than being a space ranger, because he is a toy, and “over in that house is a kid who thinks that you are the greatest… and you are his toy.”  This really saves Buzz from his despair because for the first time he truly understands and has assurance that he is loved by Andy not because of what he does, but because of who he is. His identity is not dependent upon his defeating the emperor Zurg, it is not dependent upon all the things he thought it was dependent upon.  He is Andy’s toy, and Andy’s name has been written on his foot to confirm it.

We too belong to someone, and that is that we belong to God. While we certainly have lots of other identities, our primary identity is that of beloved children of God, and while God has not written God’s name our foot, we know that God has written it in an even more important place, and that is that it is written on our hearts.  That’s what Paul says in the passage we heard this morning from his letter to the Galatians: God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.  It is as children of God, in which all are made equal, for there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, no longer cowboy doll or space ranger doll, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. We are adopted by God and made heirs to the promises of God.

Now in the ancient world adoption had nothing to do with making sure children had parents, but had everything to do with inheritance, which is why Paul is talking about being heirs. Families without a legitimate heir could adopt a male child into the family, usually as an adult, in order to become the heir to the family fortune, which works out well for both parties. But what would also happen in these adoptions is that in addition to receiving a new identity, a new name of the adopted family, if they had any debt from their original family that debt would be wiped clean, their debt would be erased, that’s why what Paul is saying here is so important. Their past debts were erased, forgiven, and they were made new children and heirs and given a new identity. They stopped being Buzz Lightyear space ranger and became something even more important, they became Andy’s toy, and they were important because Andy loved them.

When we are adopted by God because of Christ, we become sons and daughters, God claims us as God’s own and writes on our hearts, you belong to me. We are children of God. No matter what happens, we are children of God. No matter what people say about us, about who we are, we are children of God. No matter what we think about ourselves, we are children of God, and God loves us. You are a child of God, that is our identity, and that is so much better than being any type of space ranger. God has written God’s name on our hearts and proclaimed as God’s own, beloved children, so when someone asks who you are, all we need to say is “I am a beloved child of God, and so are you.” I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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