The Gospel According to Pixar: Finding Our Way Home

The Gospel According to Pixar: Finding Our Way Home

About the sermon series

Luke 15:11-32

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.

He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field, and as he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”

Pixar tells beautiful stories that speak to children and to adults. That’s because they are
human stories. They plumb the depths of our humanity.
Today, we are truly going deep. Into the deep blue sea.

In the film Finding Nemo, Marlin is a clown fish who lives in an anemone. But soon we
learn that Marlin is an overly anxious father. He is neurotic. In the first scenes of the movie, we learn why his heart is so clouded with worry. A barracuda gobbled up all of Marlin’s 399 other children and his wife, Coral. That was when a grief-stricken Marlin declares, “I will never let anything happen to you, Nemo.” From then on, Marlin sees the ocean as a dangerous place and he never leaves Nemo alone. He won’t even let Nemo go to school. And of course, Nemo strikes back defiantly and says to his Dad, “I hate you!” and swims away. Soon, Nemo swims too near the surface, and he is caught by a scuba diver and ends up in an aquarium in a dentist’s office in Sydney Australia.

The movie is about Marlin’s desperate quest to find his son, in the company of surfing
sea turtles and a blue tang fish named Dory with no short-term memory. And it is about Nemo’s quest to escape the aquarium with the help of its odd cast of characters to get back home.

Jesus told beautiful stories, deeply human stories called parables. Parables are stories that
have a purpose. In the Gospel of Luke, there is a trilogy of stories about lost things… First, the lost sheep. Then, the lost coin. Today’s is perhaps his most famous story, the parable of the lost sons. Yes, sons plural. One son was caught in a net of reckless irresponsibility and the other son was stuck in a tank of bitter self-righteousness.
As familiar as this story is to us, I want you to imagine with me what it would have been
like when Jesus shared this story the first time. Jesus would be speaking Aramaic, his native
tongue, not Greek. Luke says Jesus was surrounded by tax collectors and sinners when he told this story, so imagine a crowd of undesirables and white-collar criminals. But Luke also said there were Pharisees and teachers of the law in the crowd, and they were, as my grandmother might say, non-plussed by Jesus and the company he kept.
In this first telling, there would be at least three moments when the crowd would have
been utterly shocked. There would have been audible gasps. The first pearl-clutching moment would have been the son’s demand of early inheritance. That request would not have landed like “Hey, I am thinking about long term tax implications. Could you set up an irrevocable trust?” It would have landed like, “Why are you still alive?”
“Horrible!” But the father divided his assets, gave the younger son his portion, and he quickly blew all of it in dissolute living. Dissolute can be translated as wasteful, riotous in the King James Version, or that word we probably learned from this story, prodigal. In any case, this word means the first century version of Vegas. Soon his money is gone, along with his fair-weather friends and any luck he ever had. He is alone in the slop of terrible choices. A famine strikes the land, and he is forced to pick up day work feeding pigs. There is the second gasp. Not just a gasp about his hunger but because in 1 st century Judaism, pigs were considered ritually unclean. Many people still think that, such as Samuel L. Jackson in the ‘90s film Pulp Fiction. All of this means that the son is far from home in every way conceivable. When he came to his senses, or in the Greek, when he came back to himself, he makes a plan to go back home and beg his father for a job, working up a speech along the way that might or might not have been sincere, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like a hired hand.”

And then, the text says, “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with
compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Gasp number three. Why gasp then? 1 In those days, it was considered unbefitting for a man of any social class to run. At first that struck me as scholarly trivia, that men back then would not run because it exposed their bare legs, but the more I thought about it, I could not remember a single time I had seen my own father run. He could put the pedal to the metal in his Toyota Avalon. He could hoof it through an airport. Maybe he ran the hills of Danville for exercise, big maybe. But then I remembered that infamous time when I was 5 years old, riding my loud Big Wheel trike without realizing I was veering right into the road with a car coming. I imagine my father ran then, fueled by the kind of adrenaline it would take me decades to comprehend.
In Finding Nemo, Marlin and his friends cross the entire South Pacific to find his son.
Their search is so diligent that word spreads across the ocean about this lost Nemo, carried by whale songs and pelican briefs. Against all odds, the tank fish help Nemo escape and Marlin and Nemo are reunited.
In the parable, the father covers the younger son with the finest rings and robes. He kills
the fatted calf for a feast of celebration. And he also reminds the older son of all that he has not lost and never will. The father revels in extravagant, wild, even prodigal love. He says, “We have to celebrate. My son was lost and now is found.”
In 2021, the New York Times ran a story that made me gasp. A father in China named
Guo had been searching for his son for 24 years. In 1997 his son was playing outside while his mom was making dinner and was abducted by traffickers which continues to be a heartbreaking problem in our world. The parents set out on frantic search. Mr. Guo travelled to more than 20 provinces around the country on the back of a motorbike, travelled more than 300,000 miles,
1 This sermon owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Rodger Nishioka, from Village Presbyterian Church. chasing tip-offs. In the process, he broke bones in traffic accidents and even encountered highway robbers. He wore out 10 motorbikes. Carrying around banners with his son’s picture on them, he is said to have spent his life savings on his mission, sleeping under bridges and begging for money when he ran out of cash. “Son, where are you?” the banners said, alongside an image of the boy in a puffy orange jacket. “Dad is looking for you to come home.” He also became a prominent member of missing-persons organizations in China and helped at least seven other
parents reunite with their abducted children. News of Mr. Guo’s search spread and became the subject of a 2016 movie in China called Lost and Love. Then, against all odds, police found Mr. Guo’s son through a DNA match. He had been working as a teacher in a nearby province, they were reunited in 2021 on live television. His mother sobbed saying, “my darling, my darling, my darling. We found you.” And his father, something of a folk-hero in China by then, comforted her as his voice shook. 2

It often feels like we are living in a dangerous world, full of barracudas and sharks, those
who would take what doesn’t belong to them and those who seem to throw their own lives away. But today’s message is the simplest and most profound that we have in our faith. Love is stronger. And just saying that makes me gasp as its truth.

A social worker I know who helps lost people of many kinds told me her mantra is
“Never bet against the human heart.” I believe that is true. And I believe the church as its best is an odd cast of characters that help people reunite, with each other, with themselves and especially with God.


But the deeper truth that we often miss is that are swimming in an ocean of God’s love.
Our true homecoming is when that love sinks in, and we realize that we are loved in our
diligence and in our wastefulness, whether we are starving for approval or a bowl of rice, when we feel lost and when our losses pile up so much that we can’t see straight.

Jesus himself is the story of God’s love running toward us, putting rings of recognition on
the kidnapped and the trafficker alike, putting robes of reconciliation on the junkie and the
judgey alike. A love that turns tools of death like crosses and tombs into portals of eternal life. A love that sets a feast of forgiveness before us where we finally taste the deepest reunion.

‘Tis grace that’s brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.