Sermon 08-07-16: “The Gospel According to Monsters University

August 17, 2016

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As I’ve done the past couple of summers, I’m preaching a sermon series using clips from Disney movies. This week’s sermon is based on the Pixar’s Monsters University. The movie is mostly about Mike Wazowski’s efforts to be someone he’s not. His struggle, as I discuss in this sermon, is not unlike our own. The good news is that God loves “losers” like us.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

The movie is set in a world inhabited by monsters, some of whom cross over into our human world at night and scare children as they sleep. In the opening clip, we see one aspiring “scarer,” Mike Wazowski, start his college career in the prestigious Scare School of Monsters University. Although Mike is a great student, he isn’t naturally scary, and we see him struggle for acceptance by his classmates.

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As someone who is already plagued with nightmares of being back in school—of not fitting in, of failing to make the grade, of being embarrassed and humiliated in front of my classmates—I confess that this first clip hits rather close to home.

I remember, for example, my first day of high school. The year before, I played Pop Warner football, and I earned the nickname “Mad Dog” for my toughness, for my persistence. And one of my high school classmates on that first day of high school, Jonathan Pearson, was also on my football team back then—so he knew that my nickname was Mad Dog.

And on the first day of high school he proceeded to tell everyone—people who hadn’t yet even met me, who otherwise had no idea who I was, including all these cute girls—he said to them, “Hey, look, there’s Mad Dog. Hey, Mad Dog!” And pretty soon complete strangers were passing me in the hall, “Hey, Mad Dog!”

So my efforts to be cool on that first day of high school were doomed from the start.

If you’re currently in middle school or high school, here’s a little secret about being an adult that we adults don’t usually tell you: We grow up and graduate, but the truth is, we don’t change that much. We still want to be one of the “cool kids.” What counts as “cool” changes, but we still look over shoulders and compare ourselves to the cool kids. And we feel miserable because we know we don’t measure up—just like Mike Wazowski in Monsters University doesn’t measure up.

In Luke chapter 7, Jesus is at a dinner party in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Simon is definitely one of the cool kids in his city. If he were in Monsters University, he would be president of Roar Omega Roar. Anyway, the dinner party gets interrupted by a woman who, in the eyes of polite society, is considered a “sinner.” She’s likely a prostitute. But she comes to Jesus and falls at his feet, and anoints his feet with perfume and her own tears. She’s overwhelmed with gratitude. She’s so thankful for Jesus—that he loves her, that he forgives her, that he accepts her—that he’s given her, even her, the gift of eternal life.

And this drives Simon crazy. And Jesus knows exactly what he’s thinking: Simon is thinking, “If this man were really a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this woman is, and he want have nothing to do with her.”

So Jesus tells Simon, in effect, that he needs to become like her—that this winner, this cool kid, this president of the Roar fraternity, needs to confess that he, too, is a loser… because of his own sins. To be sure, his sins are more “respectable” than the woman’s sins, but they’re no less harmful and destructive, and the sooner he understand that, the sooner he can be saved—just as she’s been saved.

Are you willing to confess to God that you’re a loser because of your sin? If so, there’s good news: Jesus loves losers. God loves losers.

Because of the cross, you’re not a nobody; you’re a somebody. Because of the cross, you’re not a loser; you’re a winner. Because of the cross, you’re not a hopeless sinner bound for hell; you’re a child of God who loves you with a love from which “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us.”[1] Amen?

Despite his best efforts, Mike eventually flunks out of the Scare School. But he doesn’t give up, as we see in this next clip.

After flunking out of Scare School for not being scary, Mike makes a deal with Dean Hardscrabble: If he and his fraternity of misfits wins the upcoming Scare Games, she will readmit him (and the others) into the school. On the eve of their final competition, however, the dean warns Mike’s friend Sulley that their ultimate success will depend on Mike’s being scary. And as “we all know,” she said, “he isn’t scary.”

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The actor Steve Buscemi, who is one of the voices in Monsters University, was in the news last week. As reported in Buzzfeed, Kevin Manion, a 20-something young man from Wisconsin, pulled a prank on his parents. He decided to swap every photo of him in his parents’ house with pictures of this actor. Now, as you can probably tell from these pictures on screen, Buscemi is not what anyone would call a traditionally good-looking Hollywood star. He has a face that’s made for voice acting in Disney cartoons, if you know what I mean. But Kevin Manion, who swapped out his photos for Buscemi, wanted to see how long it would take for his parents to notice that these pictures were not of his son. His dad noticed after two days; his mom after five.

Young man replaces his photos with photos of actor Steve Buscemi

Young man replaces his photos with photos of actor Steve Buscemi

Similarly, did you notice that when Mike looked at the trophy in the Hall of Scarers, the image that looked back at him was not who he was; it was distorted. No matter how hard he tries—and he tries very hard, as you saw in this clip—he cannot become the person he longs to be.

Paul makes this same point throughout his letters. In Philippians 3, for instance, he’s writing about people in the church, who call themselves Christians, who think that their standing before God has something to do with how hard they try—or on external things, like getting circumcised, or things they do, like following Jewish dietary laws and other Jewish customs.

On that score, however, Paul had them all of them beat. No one tried harder than Paul did before he found Christ; no one worked harder: Paul writes that he was

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.[2]

Nothing Paul did or could do, in other words, could compare to what Christ had done for him. Paul understood that his standing before God depended solely on what Christ, not on Paul and his own good works.

But let’s face it: We can easily forget this as Christians. Sure, in the past, before we were Christians, we needed God’s grace to save us. But now that we’re saved, we’ve got to earn it! So if I’m a Christian who struggles in my prayer life, who struggles to have a quiet time, who struggles with doubts; or if I’m a Christian who struggles with alcoholism or other addictions; or if I’m a Christian who’s fighting depression even though I know I have no reason to be depressed; or if I’m a Christian whose marriage has fallen apart; or if I’m a Christian who—despite my best effort, despite all my will power—continues to struggle with sin in my life; if I’m a Christian and I’m having these kinds of problems or others, well… maybe I’m not really a Christian at all. Maybe I was at one time, but now… How could God love me now? How could God forgive me now? How could God save me now?

And I’m mired in guilt. And I feel afraid. And I don’t have the peace that the Lord wants me to have. Like Mike Wazowski in the clip: despite best efforts, he’s never going to be the scary monster he so desperately wants to be. And it’s going to break his heart and make him feel terrible about himself.

God doesn’t want that for us!

When I was on vacation recently, I went to another Methodist church. The theme of the sermon was, in so many words, just be like Jesus… or else… or else be a self-righteous hypocrite.

This was not an edifying message for me. I wanted to tell the preacher, “Hold on a minute. I am self-righteous hypocrite. But it’s not because I don’t want to be like Jesus; it isn’t because I’m not trying to be like him; it’s because I try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail.”

Is there any hope for me? For us? For the Mike Wazowskis of the world?

Mike’s friend Sulley rigs the final contest in the Scare Games so that the judges think that Mike was much scarier than he really was. And because he cheated, Mike’s fraternity of misfits wins the Games. At least until the judges find out about the cheating… In this clip Mike has run away—into the world of humans—and faces the fact that he just isn’t scary. So his friend Sulley goes looking for him.

Sulley, a naturally gifted monster from a powerful family, tells Mike that, like him, he feels like a failure. “I’m the Sullivan who flunked every test, the one who got kicked out of the program, the one who was so afraid to let everyone down that I cheated. And I lied. Mike, I’ll never know how you feel. But you’re not the only failure here. I act scary, Mike, but most of the time… I’m terrified.”

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“I thought if I wanted it enough, I could show everybody that Mike Wazowski is something special.”

Brothers and sisters, it’s not a matter of wanting it enough. What does Paul say in Romans chapter 7? “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”[3] That’s true for everyone. Even people for whom we don’t think it’s true. Like Sulley, for instance. As far as Mike is concerned, Sulley has a it all together. But he doesn’t. “You’re not the only failure here. I act scary, but most of the time I’m terrified.”

By the way, this is the problem of comparing ourselves to others. We can’t do it accurately. A friend of mine likes to say, “We always compare our insides to someone else’s outsides.” That’s absolutely true.

The good news is this: if you say “I’m a Christian who tries and fails to be like Jesus” or “I’m a  Christian who struggles with sin” or “I’m a Christian who, despite my best efforts just can’t seem to get my act together,” it’s the same as just saying, “I’m a Christian.”

Of course you try and fail to be like Jesus. Of course you struggle with sin. Of course you can’t get your act together despite your best efforts. You’re not Jesus! Only Jesus is Jesus! The good news is you don’t have to be like Jesus! The good news is that Jesus knows we can’t be like him—which is why he came into the world in the first place; which is why he did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

In this final clip, there’s a scene in which a lovable middle-aged monster named Don Carlton, one of the misfits from the “loser” fraternity, has just been accepted into the Scare School. He presents his business card to Mike. Before going back to college, he was a salesman. In pencil, he’s written over the word “salesman” with the words “Scare Student.” Which is a great metaphor for being a Christian.

Imagine, after all, having a business card with your identity written on it. Not your job title, but who you really are inside, where no one can see—where you wouldn’t want anyone to see. What would your card say, if you were brutally honest? “Loser… Failure… Miserable Sinner… Bad husband… Bad father… Bad Pastor…” That last one’s mine!

The point is, you might be tempted to write something negative like that.

Now imagine Jesus coming along and scratching out that title. And look what he’s written in its place: He’s written: “Beloved child of God”—because through faith in Christ we are adopted into God’s family. He’s written: “Infinitely valuable”—because when God the Son died on the cross, God paid an infinite price to redeem us. He’s written: “Absolutely perfect”—because Christ was perfect on our behalf, and he’s given us his perfect righteousness as a gift.

And you might object, “Yes, but you can see under the pencil mark that nothing much has really changed! I’m still the same sinful person.”

Well, that’s true. But… we can also look forward to that day—on the other side of death, and the Second Coming, and the resurrection—when we will be transformed into new people, free from sin. Who we are now, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, is but a bare seed of what we will become in eternity.

In the meantime we still need grace; we still need mercy; we still need forgiveness—just as we did when we first became Christians. And the good news is that we have a heavenly Father who gives us all we need!

I conclude the sermon with a clip in which Mike and Sulley say goodbye to their fraternity brothers. Don Carlton hands Mike his business card, as described above.

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1. See Romans 8:38-39.

2. Philippians 3:5-9 ESV

3. Romans 7:15, 18b-19 ESV

One Response to “Sermon 08-07-16: “The Gospel According to Monsters University

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    You are right–there is no way we can “get in school” without Christ’s sacrifice in our place. And we can look upon ourselves as “redeemed” as a result, no matter how “disobedient” we are from time to time.

    Only thing we have to keep in mind, though, is that we do have to “change allegiance.” “How shall we, who are dead to sin, live any longer therein?!”, Paul, the “apostle of grace” says. So he says: “Test yourselves, whether you be in the faith.” James says, “Faith without works is dead,” as in, there is no life there. So, I guess the point is, we don’t have to be perfect, and that is a good thing, because we can’t be. However, we DO have to be “striving in that direction.”


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