The Gospel According to Pixar: Holding On and Letting Go

The Gospel According to Pixar: Holding On and Letting Go

About the sermon series

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.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
    who makes a way in the sea,
    a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
    army and warrior;
they lie down; they cannot rise;
    they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
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.
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,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

The Pixar movie Up, released in 2009, is about Carl Frederickson and his wife, Ellie. They have a beautiful love story. They grew up together and got married. They worked together at the South America exhibit at the Zoo, Ellie tending the birds and Carl selling balloons. Ellie was outgoing and adventurous. Carl was quiet and square, from his square face and square glasses to the way he lived. The movie begins with images of their life together.

After Ellie dies, Carl becomes ever more attached to the house they built together, even
calling the house Ellie. He becomes rigid and combative with the neighborhood changing around him, but underneath it all, there is guilt that he never made good on that promise to take her to Paradise Falls in South America, the adventure he thought she deserved.

Carl holds on to that promise, and ties thousands of helium balloons to the house itself, wrenching it off its foundation. He pilots the house through the clouds all the way to the falls, but he accidentally brings with him a little boy named Russell, an adventure scout who was hanging out on the porch when it went up who just wanted to earn his badge of assisting the elderly.

Children watching this movie might delight at the power of the balloons to lift a house,
but grown-ups watching this movie gulp at the tugging power of the past. We might even weep into the popcorn as we confront the rickety dream houses we ourselves still hold onto, the furnishings of our lives that once were beautiful but become baggage when we fight with change, the errands we keep doing motivated more by guilt or grief than by joy or faith. Oh yes, we know how present the past can be and deep in our gut, we know how much courage it takes to let go.

It is hard to let go… of a person or an identity. Hard to let go of the story we thought was
our trajectory. Hard to let go of promises we made even when they don’t make sense anymore. The prophet Isaiah knew all about that. He told the people “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?”

This text often springs forth from church mission statements or this very bulletin, but
Isaiah was speaking to the Israelite people in a dark time of exile. People who had been driven out of the promised land. People who wondered if they had also lost their identity as God’s people. People who had lost their old home but were still tethered to it because it was wrapped all around their view of God. They were holding on to a foundational story of the former things, which in this case – scholars believe – was the story of Moses and the exodus and the promised land.

Sometimes our connection to a foundational story of the former things can be even stronger than our connection to God at work in anything new. So, Isaiah asked them to do one of the hardest things people ever have to do which is to imagine freedom in a new way. What if this time freedom is not Moses parting the Red Sea and giving people dry land to walk on? What if this time freedom is water sustaining them in the wilderness and rivers in the dry land finding them where they are? What if the past is blocking the view of the new thing God is doing that is already springing up? Beloved preacher Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Anything can become an idol, including the best things in our religion, when we let them stand between us and the living God.”

And then there are the disciples in the Gospel story from Luke. They have to let Jesus go
all over again, this time as he ascends to heaven. After all they have been through and all they face and all their questions, their desire to hold on to the tangible Jesus instead of follow the way of Christ in uncertainty must have been palpable. But they did it and their faith grew as a result.

When Carl and young Russell reach the Falls, Carl continues to be literally tethered to the
floating house by an old garden hose. Suddenly he finds himself in an unwelcomed adventure, protecting a rare 12-foot rainbow colored bird, whom Russell names Kevin. A man named Charles Muntz has been trying for decades to capture the bird in order to redeem his tarnished reputation in the scientific community. Muntz lives near the falls in a grounded blimp – there’s a metaphor for you – with a pack of dogs whom he equipped to speak and hunt down this special bird. And they will stop at nothing except SQUIRREL! We learn that Charles Muntz had been Carl’s childhood adventure hero, but he became a villain all because he could not let go of the humiliation of his past.

I have sometimes called myself an athletically nostalgic person. I have all the yearbooks.
I have my name tag from summer camp in 1993 and all my old mixed tapes. And, beyond that, I majored in Latin and Greek and study scriptures that are thousands of years old. I might just be a professional in the arena of former things. So, when it came time to say goodbye to my childhood home in Danville, I struggled. Wooden butterflies and glass birds felt like my grandmothers. Paperweights and old records felt like my grandfathers. Music boxes and suncatcher prisms dangling over the windowpanes felt like my mother herself and oh how I wanted something to hold on to. All that might have been clutter to someone else, even to me 10 years prior, was fast becoming a sacred shrine. I felt like a priest among relics of former things. Or like Harry Potter among horcruxes, those special old things that contained part of the soul of a person and made those people immortal. I remember when one of those prisms broke. That was when I had my own Isaiah moment. I realized that these things as beautiful as they were were a far cry from the people themselves. That prism could not be not the light itself. It had always been just a pass through. As I held that glass in my hand, I thought about the light of Christ, broken for us. My rainbows started to change, from this one particular prism casting light on the floor of beloved Danville linoleum to the enormous covenant God made with Noah and all humanity long ago, with a rainbow as its symbol. I felt lifted above one foundational story, that I was so fortunate to be loved by family, into an even bigger one, that this love, this beautiful and broken holy light is everywhere. It was as if I moved from being a person in black and white film reel faith into spiritual technicolor. Maybe grace is like spiritual helium, lifting us out of wherever we are stuck.
Holding that prism in my hand, I remembered an old CS Lewis quote, probably a quote
that was highlighted in one of the hundreds of books we moved. “There are far, far better
things ahead than any we leave behind.” I took a deep breath. Said a prayer. And put that
prism back in the box.
Toward the end of the movie Up, Carl finds a note from Ellie in the photo book. One he
had never seen before. She said, “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one!”
On Father’s Day, many of us feel the tug of the past. We think about our fathers and grandfathers. We watch with broken hearts the war in Israel and Gaza and behold the messy conflicts in our own country, and the past feels ever present.
Then we come to church and our faith asks a bold, pesky question of us: “Behold. I am
about to do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” The living God is still loving us, the living

Christ is still forgiving us, and the holy spirit – that rare bird – is still stirring us toward the
adventure of caring for one another and this world this day.
So, today’s message – so simple and so hard – is this:
Whatever is holding you back, let it go.
An old hurt, let it go.
An old story about yourself that is no longer true, let it go.
Beliefs that freedom can only mean this or that shape of your body, this or that kind of
relationship, this or that party winning, this or that job, this or that church, let it go.
If I had to summarize the Christian life it would sound like this:
To behold the new thing that God is doing in your life and in the world, to nurture it with
every drop of faith you have no matter how old you feel or how dry the land, to help other people rise out of whatever has them stuck, whether it is the pain or the past or poverty, and to follow the Christ light where it leads, that is the adventure we are in. There are far, far better things ahead. Let’s go.