This final sermon in our “Disney Summer Drive-In” relates to various Christian and biblical themes that emerge from the Disney-Pixar movie “Up.” They include: the meaning of marriage; God’s miraculous involvement in our world; self-sacrificial love; and, as always, sin, forgiveness, and salvation.
Sermon Text: Matthew 19:16-26
The following is my original sermon manuscript. Our license prohibits me from posting video clips online, but I describe below each of the clips that I showed.
[Show Clip #1. Montage of the married life of Carl and Ellie, concluding with Ellie’s death.]
Have you heard the shocking news about the divorce rate in this country? The shocking news is that the divorce rate isn’t nearly as bad as you think—if, like most of people, you think that about 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. According to a Harvard-trained researcher who recently published a book on the subject, it turns out this 50 percent figure was based on a projection made in the 1970s of what researchers thought the divorce rate would be by the ’80s and ’90s. But these projections never came close to being realized. The true divorce rate among couples who are getting married for the first time is more like 20 to 25 percent. Still too high, of course, but significantly better than we thought. Among couples who are actively involved in church, however, the divorce rate is even lower—in the single digits or teens.
Most marriages make it. And not only that: research shows that most married people, over 60 percent, report being “very happy” with their marriages. It also shows that married people who are currently unhappy in their marriage will become happy if only they can hang in there for five more years. Of course, if you know the pain and heartbreak of divorce, these words will be little comfort, and I don’t mean to pour salt in the wound or make you feel guilty—not at all—I’m just trying to encourage those of us who are married or thinking about getting married that things aren’t nearly as bad as our culture makes it seem.
In general, married people are happier, they live longer, they’re healthier, and they’re wealthier than not only single people—but also people who are living together without tying the knot. As one writer says, marriage is a great “‘shock absorber’ that helps you navigate disappointments, illnesses, and other difficulties. You recover your equilibrium faster.”
And we see this shock-absorber quality in the marriage of Ellie and Carl Fredricksen. We see them bounce back from the heartache of being unable to have children. We see them bounce back from disappointment when life keeps interrupting their plans to take that dream vacation to Paradise Falls. Of course, by the time they can finally afford to go, Ellie’s health prevents her. But they’re there for one another to the very end.
This is exactly what God intends for marriage. In Ephesians chapter 5, after arguing that husbands and wives should love one another with self-sacrificial, Christ-like love, the apostle Paul quotes Genesis chapter 2, saying, “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” The love that married couples have for one another, in other words, ought to look like the love that Christ has for us, his Church.
That’s why we Christian couples are supposed to stick together for better or for worse: because that’s what Jesus does for us. Do you think you have to put up with a lot in order to live with your spouse? Well just think of what Jesus has to put up with in order to live with you! In fact, he went to Calvary and suffered death and hell so that he could live with you. And he was glad to do it—out of love.
See, Paul says that the gospel itself is a love story: just as a man “leaves father and mother and holds fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” so our Lord Jesus Christ left his Father in heaven and took on our flesh in order to hold fast to us, his bride, and become one with us. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a love story about how much God loves us!
Well, after Ellie dies, Carl sort of gives up on life. He gets stuck. He becomes a grumpy, bitter old man, filled with regret. If, like me, you loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show, you’ll appreciate that the voice of Carl is played by actor Ed Asner. Imagine Lou Grant becoming a grumpy old man! Anyway, Carl wants to be left alone… but there’s this very persistent kid named Russell, who just won’t give Carl what he wants.
[Show Clip #2. Carl meets a very persistent Wilderness Explorer named Russell, who refuses to leave him alone.]
From that point on, no matter how hard he tries, Carl is unable to get rid of the boy. And that’s a good thing because this boy will eventually give Carl a new lease on life!
The Book of Ruth tells the story not of a grumpy old man, but a grumpy old woman from Bethlehem named Naomi. Naomi moved with her husband and two sons to a country called Moab when famine struck her homeland. While in Moab, her husband died. Her sons got married, but they died too. So she told her two daughters-in-law to return to their families—maybe they could find new husbands. Meanwhile, she said she would return to Bethlehem alone—even though, without husband or children to care for her, her financial prospects were grim.
Over Naomi’s very loud objections, her daughters-in-law Ruth refuses to leave her side: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” The Bible says that when Naomi saw how “determined” Ruth was, she didn’t say anything else. Naomi was stuck with Ruth, whether she liked it or not. Ruth’s persistence and love meant that Naomi’s life was rescued and redeemed.
In the church council homily I gave last Tuesday, I talked about that scripture passage from Matthew 14 where Peter miraculously walks on water, however briefly—what a miracle it was! I believe strongly that these kinds of miracles—which break the laws of physics—can and do happen occasionally. But… if only we have the faith to see it, there’s another kind of miracle that happens all the time. These miracles aren’t as spectacular, perhaps, but they’re just as much the result of God intervening in our lives and world: It’s the kind of miracle that happens when God puts people in our lives at just the right moment—to love us, to help us, to encourage us, to support us, or to rescue us from trouble or harm.
We live in an age in which most people think that either God does something or human beings do something, or nature does something. It’s either/or but not both. So if we’re facing a life-threatening illness and a doctor intervenes to save our lives using the best of modern medicine and technology, we rarely think, “God saved my life! What a miracle!” But why not! It wasn’t so much the doctor healing us as God healing us through the doctor! So of course we’re thankful for doctors—for their years of training, their wisdom, their skill—but we’re mostly thankful to God, because God was healing us through the doctor. God was performing a miracle through this other person.
And it’s clear from God’s Word that God does this sort of thing all the time.
So… think about how you, like Russell in the movie, like Ruth in the Bible, can be a miracle to someone else. It could be that even right now in your life, God is calling you to be a miracle in someone else’s life. Answer that call! There are so many people in the community of Hampton, Georgia, who need us at Hampton United Methodist to be a miracle! Believe that that miracle can be you!
Carl’s biggest regret in life is that he was never able to take his wife on that trip to Paradise Falls in South America, which had been a childhood dream for both of them. So he resolves to do the next best thing. As a man who made his living selling helium balloons, he attaches thousands of balloons to his house until it literally floats up in the air. He flies his house all the way to South America, to Paradise Falls—and of course, his faithful friend Russell tags along.
When they arrive there, Russell befriends a tall, colorful exotic bird whom he names “Kevin,” not realizing that the bird is female. This species of bird, which doesn’t fly, is unknown to the outside world. And before long, Russell and Carl find themselves working to save Kevin the Bird from a mad scientist and explorer named Charles Muntz, who wants to capture Kevin and bring him back to the U.S. Muntz won’t let anyone, including Carl and Russell, stand in his way. And Muntz has bred an army of super-intelligent dogs to assist him in the task.
In this next clip, Carl and Russell think they’ve successfully eluded Muntz, but then this happens.
[Show Clip 3. To divert Carl's attention from rescuing Kevin the bird, Muntz sets fire to Carl's house. Carl abandons Kevin in order to save his house. Russell is heartbroken and disappointed. At the end of the clip, Carl sits inside his house at Paradise Falls. He got what he thought he wanted, and he's miserable.]
In the gospels a rich young man comes to Jesus, asking him what “good deed” he must do in order to have eternal life. And Jesus reminds him of the Ten Commandments. “Do these things, and you’ll have eternal life.” And the man said, “Well, I’ve kept all these laws. What am I missing?” And Jesus said, “To be perfect, go and sell all of your possession and give the proceeds to the poor. You’ll have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.” And if you remember the story, the man walks away deeply sorry because he was very wealthy, and Jesus was asking for him to make too big of a sacrifice.
Jesus is always, always, always calling us to put love for others ahead of love for ourselves, ahead of our own needs and interests—even if that means giving everything we have away! In this clip, it was as if God were calling Carl to put love first—to stop thinking about himself for a moment—what he wants and thinks he needs—and to start thinking about Russell. To attach a greater value to people than possessions—including even his house, and with it all the many mementos and reminders of his beloved wife. Like the rich young man, when Carl’s loyalties were put to the test, he failed. “I didn’t ask for any of this,” Carl said. And that’s true, he didn’t.
None of us asks for the painful, fearful, difficult stuff that often comes our way. None of us asks to sacrifice for the sake of love!
We don’t ask for it, but Christ asks it of us!
Like many people in the Atlanta area the past few days, I feel a little uncomfortable at the thought of the CDC bringing these two missionaries suffering from the potentially deadly Ebola virus to Emory Hospital—so close to my home. I really want to live in a safe, suburban, middle-class, first-world bubble, in which all that bad stuff like the Ebola virus stays on the outside—far away from me—in places like Africa and other parts of the world. Maybe there’s a part of you that feels that way too? If so, we’re wrong!
And thank God for these health-care workers who choose love over their own sense of safety and security!
What would Jesus do? What would Jesus have us do? The answer is clear.
By the end of that clip, Carl got what he thought he wanted. But it was clear that he wasn’t happy. What a shock! The secret to happiness does not consist of getting what we want. Have you figured that out yet? The secret to happiness is doing what God wants for us.
Carl eventually learns this lesson.
[Show Clip 4. Flashback to Carl's childhood when Ellie shows Carl her "Adventure Book" scrapbook. The key section of the book is entitled "Stuff I'm Going to Do," filled with blank pages, on which she says she'll insert pictures of her future adventures in Paradise Falls. In the present, Carl is now at Paradise Falls, flipping through his wife's scrapbook. He realizes for the first time that Ellie filled those pages with adventures from their married life together.]
There’s a great John Lennon song that he wrote for his young son called “Beautiful Boy,” which is on the last album he recorded before he died. It includes this profoundly good lyric: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Life certainly happened to Carl and Ellie while they were busy making other plans—plans to go on that great adventure to Paradise Falls. The truth is, just by living his life with her, Carl had given Ellie the best adventure she could have hoped for.
It wasn’t what they wanted or hoped for when they started out. It was better than what they wanted or hoped for.
Don’t place your faith in whatever your version of Paradise Falls is; place your faith in God: he’s always got something better in store. “We know that all things,” the apostle Paul says—all things—“work together for good for those who love God.” We can trust God to redeem all of our hurts, all of our failures, all of our disappointments, all of our mistakes, indeed, all of our sins—and transform them into something good.
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Even when you’re busy making other plans, God is busy making your life a part of his plan.
By the end of that clip, Carl is ready to begin his new adventure. And in this final clip we see Carl act heroically to save Russell and Kevin—even if it means losing everything else—including his beloved house, including even his own life. When you’re in that place, well… then you’re ready to follow Jesus. Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” And he said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Friends, do you realize that Jesus Christ laid down his life for you? Like Carl, we can be plagued with guilt because of the sins of our past. The good news is that God the Son, Jesus Christ, took the guilt of our sins upon his shoulders and suffered the punishment that our sins deserved on the cross so that we could have forgiveness and eternal life.
In this final clip, you’ll see Carl literally unburdening himself of all the stuff from his past—which had weighed him down and prevented him from truly living. What a perfect symbol of of what God does with the sin and baggage of the past. When we give our lives to Jesus Christ, the Bible says that God remembers our sin no longer. He gives a brand new start. Whether we’re eight years old—or 98. Amen?
[Show Clip #5. Carl sets out to rescue both Russell and Kevin. In order to get his house off the ground, he throws out furniture, appliances, pictures, and mementos of his life with Ellie. With great heroism, he saves the boy and his bird, even though it means destroying his house. From the vantage point of Muntz's dirigible, Russell and Carl watch Carl's house descend into the clouds. Russell says, "Mr. Fredricksen, I'm sorry about your house." Carl replies, "You know, it's just a house."]
 This information comes from Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 23-26.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ephesians 5:31-32 ESV