Wednesday, August 08, 2007

SErmon from Sunday, August 5

Based on John 12:32-36 and the song You Can Fly! from Peter Pan

I checked out this book from the library. I thought I’d just show it to you here; it’s called The Gospel According to Disney, written by Mark Pinsky. The idea of the book is that it tries to get at religious themes that run through Disney movies, and talk about the ways in which those religious themes are like Christianity, and ways in which they are not like Christianity. It is one in a series of books by this name; others include The Gospel According to the Simpsons, The Gospel According to The Beatles, and The Gospel According to Harry Potter. I’ve enjoyed all the ones that I’ve looked at in the series, and if you want a good read, I really do recommend it.
You know, Disney is a really powerful force. Starting in 1937, before most of us here were born, Disney released the first of what has been to date 46 classic animated movies as well as many other live-action movies, and other straight-to-video productions, etc. Some of the movies are timeless classics; the first one, from 1937, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi followed in short order. Some of the movies have been forgettable and forgotten: Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Hercules have all drifted to the bargain bin at your local Wal-Mart. But all in all, the Disney movies have had an impact on generations and generations of kids. How’s this for a track record? These six classics were released right in a row: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians. I don’t know anyone who has never seen at least one of those.
Disney is a strong force in the entertainment world. Right in the middle of that run of amazing movies, in the 1950's, Time magazine ran a cover story on Walt Disney. Here’s what they said in 1954: “Measured by his social impact, Walt Disney is one of the most influential men alive...The hand that rocks the cradle is Walt Disney’s–and who can say what effect it is having on the world?” In 1988, a later author spoke of Disney’s entertainment empire as being like a church:
“Walt’s entertainment edifice was a unique institution–a cathedral of popular culture whose saints were mice and ducks, virgin princesses and lurking sprites, little boys made of wood and little girls lost in wonderland. Virtually every child attended this secular church, took fear and comfort from its doctrines, and finally outgrew it.”
I think this quote is on to something; Disney has doctrine! Disney movies have their own theology, their own way of looking at the world. And in some ways it is very close to Christianity and in some ways it is not so close to Christianity. Now that doesn’t mean, of course, at least in my mind, that we stop watching Disney movies altogether. That’s part of what art does; it challenges you from another point of view that might not be your own. But if you want to appreciate the art of Disney and also guard your heart, it’s good to know what it is that you’re seeing and getting into. What is the Gospel according to Disney, exactly?
One of the reasons I picked this song is because Mark Pinsky, the author of this book, says, “If there was ever a recipe for the Disney gospel, this is it.” According to this song, there are three things you need to fly: faith, trust, and pixie dust. Let’s look at those three things for a minute: faith, trust, and pixie dust.
Faith is one of those words that has different meanings to different people. In terms of the New Testament, faith means a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, a strong enough belief that you are willing to make a wholehearted change in your life as a result. Yet people use the word faith to mean other things as well. Some people use the word faith to mean a person’s spiritual side; like when people say, “I’m just rediscovering my faith.” Some people use the word faith to mean self-esteem, or an ability to believe in yourself even when things are difficult.
So what does this song mean by faith? Well, it should be obvious that it doesn’t mean what the Bible means: “All it takes is faith” doesn’t mean “All it takes is a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, a strong enough belief that you are willing to make a wholehearted change in your life as a result.” Obviously, it’s not that. I think here that faith means “a belief that the impossible can be done.” Peter says that you need to have faith to fly–you need to believe that the impossible can happen. Your brain says it can’t happen, but you’ve got to believe it can happen. You may never have seen a person fly before, but if you’re going to have any chance of it happening, you’re going to have to believe it can happen.
Now, I know that this is not what the Bible means by faith. But I think there’s something to it. It not as deep and rich and meaningful as what the Bible means by faith; but yet it is undeniably true in the Christian life. If you are going to take the plunge and live the Christian life, you’re going to need to start by believing things that are simply unbelievable. You’ll have to start believing things like the dead coming back to life. You’ll have to start believing that a little boy, born of a virgin, was actually God Incarnate, and you’ll have to start believing that a crucified criminal deserves a spot as king of your life. And that’s just the stuff about Jesus; that’s the easy stuff. It’s much harder to believe some of the other stuff that comes with. When you pass by the homeless person on the street, you’re going to have to believe that that person bears the image of God and that Jesus loves that person especially. When you deal with your frustrating neighbor or your aggravating in-laws or the town gossip, you have to believe that God loves that person and can heal and change your relationships. The call to believe in Jesus is the call to believe that a new Kingdom is here even though we can’t see it, a new Kingdom even though the evidence on CNN and FoxNews says things are worse and worse. To be a Christian, you have to believe the unbelievable. And so you do need a little bit of faith–even Disney faith. You need to believe the impossible is impossible.
To fly, says Peter, you must also have trust. Trust is sort of putting hands and feet on faith. In the Bible, there is a famous verse in Psalm 20: “Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Chariots and horses were weapons of warfare in those days. Just like nations today try to get nuclear weapons to be more powerful, nations have always tried to have better weapons than other countries so they could have an edge in battle. And you can imagine that in those days, if there was one army that had horses and chariots, and the others were all fighting on foot, the army with horses and chariots would have a huge advantage.
And so the question is, “when the chips are down, who do you trust? What do you rely on when you have nothing else to rely on?” It is a very modern question put an ancient way. Who do you trust today? When I was a boy, watching the Cold War unfold on TV, I used to be afraid of what would happen if the Cold War warmed up a little bit and turned into a literal war. Would I grow up to have to be a soldier? I had heard about men being drafted in Vietnam and the World Wars. Would that happen to me? Would my life come down to the bounce of a pingpong ball in a draft lottery? I worried a lot about it as a kid, about war coming. I remember what used to give me peace at night–I would think about our nation, America, being strong. I had confidence that we would not go to war, at least a long war, because of our nation’s military strength. I reminded myself that we were the strong ones, that America had more power than any other nation.
As a boy, I put my trust in America. When the chips were down and I needed something to help me sleep peacefully, I found it in our country’s military strength. Do you see? I trusted in chariots, I trusted in horses.
Now I am a man and I trust differently. I still have trouble sleeping sometimes; not so much because I’m worried about what kind of world I will see in ten or twenty years. Now I have trouble sleeping because I worry what kind of world Gracie will inherit when she grows up. But I have learned to trust differently. I have learned to yield her to the future not because America is strong, but because God is strong. I know that I can grow old and leave the world to her not because I have so much faith that America is stronger than the rest of the world and she’ll be safe here. Instead, I can grow old and leave the world to her because I know God is and that’s all that counts. That is how I am learning to trust.
This is not all that different from what Peter Pan means when he talks about trust. Faith is believing that the impossible can happen; trust is expecting to fly. Faith admits that flying is a possibility; trust is jumping and expecting not to land until you’ve flown. Trust puts hands and feet on your faith. You can say you have faith in all of these things, but trust lives out that faith when the chips are down and everything is at stake.
In looking at faith and trust, we see that while the Disney gospel is not perhaps exactly like the Christian gospel, it does have some important points of contact. To be good Christians, we need to have faith that what seems impossible can happen. We also need trust–we need to be able to live that faith out when the chips are down.
So all that is left is pixie dust. Faith, trust, and pixie dust are all you need to be able to fly. Pixie dust is, of course, that little cloud of sparkling dust that follows fairies and pixies. If you are touched with this supernatural substance, you are able to bend the laws of nature and fly! And then, we all know, off to Neverland!
Faith and trust are ideas that have some connection with Christianity, as we have seen. But “pixie dust:” not so much. At first, it might be tempting to equate pixie dust with the touch of the Holy Spirit. After all, we need to have God’s touch before we can really succeed.
But pixie dust is different. You see, pixie dust is magical; not spiritual. It is magical; not spiritual. What do I mean by this? Magic has to do with taking the physical world and bending it to do what we want it to do. Think about the magicians who you’ve seen; the great magicians seem to assert their power over the laws of nature. They pull rabbits out of hats that seem too small to fit a rabbit; they escape from locked handcuffs; they saw a person in half and magically put them back together. Magic tantalizes us because it points to a power which we all wish we had over nature. We wish we had unlimited power over nature, to make it do what we want it to do. Pixie dust is like that; it is magical. It says, “Don’t you really want power? Don’t you really want the power to fly? This dust can give it to you! It can make you really powerful!”
The temptation toward magical things goes way back, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve looked at the tree in the middle of the Garden. God told them never to eat of that tree; didn’t tell them why, just told them not to do it. And so one day Satan comes up to them and says, “You know why God doesn’t want you to eat from that tree, right? It’s because as soon as you eat it, you’ll have power! You’ll be like him!” And the temptation to have power over nature, that temptation to bend the rules, to make our own rules, defeated Adam and Eve and they gave in.
That temptation, and pixie dust; those things are magical, not spiritual. The spiritual life is altogether different from pixie dust. They are so different because they have entirely different goals. The magical person seeks to have power to control nature, to manipulate nature, to gain power over it so nature obeys the will of the magician. But the spiritual person seeks not to change nature but to change themselves. If I am a spiritual person, I recognizes that the greatest good that could be is not me getting my way, but God getting God’s way. And if I have to change to make that happen? Then I want to change because I know I will be happier if I change to become more like the person God wants me to be. A magician is bold and assertive, daring to assert their power; but a Christian cannot afford to be that way. Because if a Christian dares to assert their power, then they instantly become not like Christ.
The passage Dustin read way back when is when Jesus is talking to his disciples. And he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Many Christians talk about “lifting Jesus up” in worship. One song says, “Help me lift him up;” another says “Lift Jesus higher.” But in those days, when Jesus talked about being “lifted up,” it was a polite way of talking about being crucified. To be crucified was to be nailed to a pole and quite literally then to be lifted up, high off the ground.
And what Jesus says is so profound: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” It is in this moment–in the moment when Jesus is most deeply submitted to the Father’s will–that Jesus is carrying out his mission most fully. If Jesus’ mission is to draw all people to himself and to God, that does not happen when he is most boldly asserting who he is–it happens when he is submitting himself most fully to the will of God for his life, even if it is most unpleasant. It is hard for us to imagine that it was when he was being lifted up that Jesus was doing what he was made to do.
And it was hard for the disciples to imagine too. And they tell him so. They say, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” In other words, we know that the Messiah is eternal. What do you mean, the Messiah has to be crucified? How can this be? It doesn’t make any sense! Yet Jesus insists that this is the way it is–he must lose himself to truly accomplish his life’s goal.
You know, we live in a difficult world. Or maybe it would be better to say that we each live in our own difficult world. A wise person once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” And that’s true. Each of us has our own unique struggles, our own unique difficulties and hardships. Our kids, our parents, our jobs, our churches, our families, our communities, our bodies, our nations–each of us is fighting a great battle in our own way. It’s sometimes tempting to take the Disney Gospel way out. It’s tempting to treat God like the pixie dust that lets us fly away from our troubles to some Neverland. So we go to church to escape, or to tune out. It’s tempting to make our prayers magical instead of spiritual: we pray only to escape illnesses or escape difficult situations. And of course this is natural and even right. The Bible is full of prayers like this, prayers for escape.
But even as we pray to escape those difficult things that make our lives so hard, we also should remember that God may be using those things to shape us and grow us. It was the difficult task of submitting that made Jesus who he was. And so it is with us in our lives. At its heart, the spiritual life is not about using God’s power to make our lives easier or more powerful; at its heart, the spiritual life is about the amazing truth that God is changing us from one thing into another. God is changing us from being dysfunctional beings, who seek our own good and look out for ourselves, into something new and glorious, something fit for heaven. God is changing us into a people who care for each other in a pure and holy sense; and into a people who care for the suffering of the whole world and are willing to lay down ourselves for each other rather than always looking out for ourselves. And that process of change is not easy. A change that big, a change that radical, will not be smooth always and will not always mean we can escape difficulties. Sometimes it means learning from the difficulties, allowing them to mold us and shape us into his image.
You can learn a lot from Disney movies, and I hope Gracie grows up watching them. I hope she learns faith, belief that the impossible can happen; I hope she learns trust, the necessity of putting hands and feet on that faith. But in my heart of hearts I hope she finds something better than pixie dust, something better than magic, something better than bending the world to get her way. Instead of always pushing her way, I pray she gives herself to God completely so she can be more than she ever thought possible. I hope and pray that for you as well.