The Gospel According to Pixar: On Being a Family

The Gospel According to Pixar: On Being a Family

About the sermon series

John 11:28-35

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”  And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  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 began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

This is the final week of our sermon series The Gospel According to Pixar. This week we
are focusing on the film Inside Out. The sequel has just come out in theaters and was part of the inspiration for this series.
Inside Out is a story about 11-year-old Riley, a happy hockey-loving Midwestern girl whose world is turned upside down when her family moves to San Francisco. Her emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust are the stars of the film. They are in headquarters and try to pilot Riley through these massive changes, and at the beginning, Joy is squarely in control.
Here’s Riley’s first day at her new school: show clip slide 3
Riley’s core memories are shown as floating islands near headquarters, and her childhood
memories are joyful, like her first goal in hockey or even that time she broke a cookie jar but was able to be honest about it.
But on the first day at her new school in San Francisco, Sadness takes control and even
futzes with a core memory, turning it from joyful to sad. We see Riley remembering what she missed so much, and she begins to cry in school. That creates a new core memory, one that is all sad. Joy panics and tries to control Sadness, but in their scuffle, they are both ejected from headquarters, leaving fear, disgust and anger in charge. show slide 5
That… does not go well. Eventually joy and sadness learn to appreciate each other and discover they can co-exist.
People often grin as they rattle off the shortest verse in the Bible, like, “I have memorized
a verse: Jesus wept.”
But I’ve come to see this verse as one of the core memories in the Bible. Not because it is
the shortest but the deeper meaning we gain when we take the tears of Jesus seriously.
Let’s start with the people involved. Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus were some
of Jesus’ closest friends. He visited them in Bethany many times. It was just 2 miles from
Jerusalem, basically the ‘burbs. And it was also on the way to Galilee if you took the Jericho
Road to the East. Modern Bethany is part of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian
Authority. It is called El- Eizariya, which means Lazarus’ place in Arabic.
But what matters most about them, based on John 11, verse 5, is that Jesus loved these
folks. They were like family to him, quirks and all. Jesus wasn’t repelled by Martha’s constant drive or overwhelmed by Mary’s devotion. He loved them.
But, word got to Jesus that Lazarus was ill and dying. And yet, Jesus lingered in Jerusalem for two days before heading to Bethany. For two days, the frantic voicemails from the sisters received no response. He told his agitated disciples that this would show God’s glory, but how could they know what that meant? We know in hindsight that this moment was the tipping point for Jesus. It was the domino that would set off a chain reaction. Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead. Crowds would be awestruck, and the Temple authorities would immediately demand his arrest. Then, Jesus would take the fateful road back to Jerusalem to face triumph, tragedy, more tears, and then another empty tomb on that glorious Easter morning. But before any of that had happened, all they knew was that Lazarus had died. Martha, ever the woman of action, came bounding toward Jesus on the road, emotions boiling in her like a steam train, anger and urgency, love and loss, hope that wouldn’t stop hurrying despite Lazarus’ death. Mary on the other hand was slower to greet Jesus. She was slower in general. When Mary saw Jesus, her knees buckled, and she poured her tears upon his feet. At other times in the Bible, she would pour fine perfume on his feet, but that day, tears of disappointment were all she had. All the neighbors were standing there as well, faces sick with sadness. And that is when “Jesus wept.”
It struck me that Jesus does not just welcome unpopular people. Jesus also welcomes
unpopular emotions within people. I think that many people hold a subconscious belief that because Jesus was so faithful, he must not have felt the feelings we feel, except maybe awe on a mountaintop or the delight of good bread. But we diminish our theology if we forget that, just as Jesus welcomed Samaritans and lepers and other outcasts, he also welcomed the family of feelings that exist in every human being, including the ones we might wish would go away.
Frances Weller is a grief specialist who wrote The Wild Edge of Sorrow. He wrote, “Our
refusal to welcome the sorrows that come to us, our inability to move through these experiences with true presence and conscious awareness, condemns us to a life shadowed by grief.
Welcoming everything that comes to us is the challenge. This is the secret to being fully alive.” Author Anne Lamott described her sadness like this little cat following her around
everywhere. She was worried that if she let it in once it would never leave because you know how cats are. But she realized that if she did not let it in, it would scratch up the door. So, she learned to make a cat door in her heart for her sadness to come in when it wanted to, and she discovered that just as soon as it came in, it would depart again. Jesus welcomed the messy humanity around him and also within him.
This story also glimmers with a liberating reminder that two things can be true at the same time. Jesus was not either faithful or sad. He was not either pursuing God’s call or loving this family. In Jesus’ faith, hot tears and deep faithfulness coexisted. The parenting class at BPC that read Good Inside by Dr. Becky Kennedy is familiar with this concept. In parenting it means we can say no when our child wants a third cookie and at the same time we can care about our kid’s disappointment about that. Father Richard Rohr calls this non-dual thinking. Academics might use the word dialectic.
When we accept that two things can be true, we can be less critical of ourselves or others
when we face hard decisions. For example, we can be confident that our decision to care for an aging parent is correct and weep that we missed a child’s soccer game to do it. Two things can be true. Jesus wept at the intersection of two truths. The truth that God’s love was more powerful than death and the truth that death creates profound suffering. Jesus wept when the truth of who he was, son of God called to walk this particular road, and the truth of who he loved, this precious family whom he never wanted to harm, came into conflict.
I want to share with you a story that means a lot to me. My friend Tom knew he was gay
when he was 8 years old. He told his parents this fact after a lovely day on the playground in elementary school. Then as he grew up, he learned to push those feelings as far down as possible.
His father was a Southern Baptist pastor in North Carolina who had written articles about God’s design for families, and it did not look like him. Tom feared the pain he might cause his parents if he came out again. But his parents had also taught him about the relentless love of God, the hospitality of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit of grace and truth. So, one day in his 20s a few weeks into his seminary studies, Tom drove to Winston-Salem to tell his parents who he was. And it was extremely hard. Their relationship was torn and marked by tears for quite a few years. But two things were true. Each needed to be true to their sense of God’s call and each felt sadness that it was causing pain in the relationship. And I think on a grander scale, two other things were true. Something that felt like Lazarus. Something had died and something was also coming back to life.
Fast forward to a Sunday afternoon in 2013. Tom was ordained as a minister of the word
and sacrament at a church in Baltimore. As he knelt on the red carpet of the chancel, his family of faith laid hands upon him and tears flowed again, this time tears joy. A voice spoke at the microphone that sounded like Tom’s, with the same North Carolina accent, just with a bit more age and a quiver of profound emotion. Tom’s dad prayed a beautiful blessing upon Tom and his ministry. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, folded his notes and put them in his pocket, and then he beamed a smile upon his son like a brand-new father. No matter how much of their story the congregation knew that day, people in the pews whispered to each other, “See how he loves him.” And I learned, like Mary and Martha, to trust in the longer story where Christ is always bringing about resurrection even where you least expect it.
It’s not always easy to be a family, a family of faith or a biological family or a family of emotions within every human being. We disappoint each other on the road. We dismiss God- given emotions. That’s true. But this is also true. God’s love will not let us go. Christ’s grace is summoning forth life from all our dead places. And the Spirit binds us together. Blessed be the tie that binds.