Dying to Live: A Parable in Pixar

The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
March 29, 2009
John 12:20-33

Grace, Mercy and Peace be to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Letter to the Hebrews begins with this famous line,
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 
but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.
I’m convinced that God speaks to us primarily through his Son,
and most evidently through the church and its ministry of Word and Sacrament.
But . . . but I’m also convinced that God is at work beyond these walls, too,
speaking to us Gospel messages and giving us glimpses of his Kingdom 
through the popular culture, through various events and circumstances, 
through the stuff of our daily life.

Last weekend I gathered with over 250 youth and adults 
from Lutheran churches throughout the metro area.
As chaplain, I was charged with leading devotions and preaching throughout the weekend
on the theme, “I am … a child of God.”
Rather than simply get in front of the crowd of kids and adults and speak,
I decided to use some film clips from Toy Story 2, 
the animated film about the toys of Andy’s room.
You see, each toy is marked with Andy’s name in permanent marker,
an indelible mark that does not go away.
Throughout the weekend we developed this image, 
and came to see it as akin to baptism:
Just as Andy writes his name permanently on his toys,
so too does God, in the act of Creation and of New Creation, that is, of baptism,
write his name on us, indelibly, permanently.
We are children of God.

Today I’m not going to show a video clip to illustrate the Gospel – 
though if I could I would – but I want to use the same methodology,
to tell a story about God and God’s people by using a children’s movie
as our guide.
The movie this time is Cars, the 2006 animated film by Pixar and Disney 
about Lightning McQueen, a race car competing for the Piston Cup,
who learns the true meaning of winning and losing.
You see, in this movie Lightning McQueen is an arrogant rookie racecar
who has let his many surprising victories go to his head,
and has made the pursuit of winning the Piston Cup an all-encompassing goal.
But on his way cross-country to the final race of the season, 
a unique three-car race, the winner of which will win the coveted Piston Cup,
Lightning McQueen gets lost, and finds himself 
in a small, run-down, Route 66 town that time has forgotten, called Radiator Springs.
Nobody knows where he is, 
and the media circus begins to wonder if he was kidnapped or wrecked,
and also highlights how his toughest competitor is using the time before the race
to get cozy with the biggest and most prestigious sponsor in all of racing, Dinoco.
So on his way to his biggest race where he hoped to win the biggest prize of all,
Lightning McQueen gets lost.
Down on its luck, Radiator Springs is a town populated by cars who wouldn’t fit in elsewhere – 
the rough-toned Army jeep from the Vietnam era,
a rusty tow truck missing a hood and suffering from more than a few loose screws,
a sleek Porsche sports car who left the big city disillusioned with the quest for money,
and a former star race car whose final wreck years earlier
sent him into a tailspin of self-pity and denial.
In a world that is constantly racing forward, Radiator Springs is a town stuck standing still.
Upon first meeting the cars of Radiator Springs, 
Lightning comments sarcastically that “they’re not operating on all four cylinders,” 
and later he laments that he’s stuck in “Hillbilly Hell.”
That is to say, he doesn’t think highly of the misfit crew who calls Radiator Springs home.

But it is while he is lost in this town of misfits 
that Lightning McQueen begins a bit of a transformation,
begins to learn that the pursuit of winning and glory isn’t all it is cracked up to be,
that perhaps life has a different purpose, 
one found not in the solitary achievements of racing
but in a loving and nurturing community.
Just as this new reality, this new way of life is sinking in and taking hold of him,
just as he is finding Radiator Springs to be less a life-sucking Hillbilly Hell 
and more a life-giving caring community,
he is found by reporters and whisked away to California to race for the Piston Cup.

And so here we are, the final race of the season, the final scene in the movie, 
and the viewer anticipates a final victory from Lightning McQueen.
Lightning McQueen comes from behind to take the lead in this championship race,
and the crowd goes wild.

But moments before he crosses the finish line he notices that Strip Weathers, 

long-time veteran, champion, and racetrack good-guy known as “The King,”
who is driving in his final race before retirement,
had wrecked – tumbling and flipping on the infield.
Lightning slams on the brakes, halting just before the checkered flag, 
halting just before victory, 
halting just before attaining racing immortality
as the first rookie ever to win the Piston Cup.
As he gets passed by tough-guy Chick Hicks, who wins the race and the Piston Cup,
the crowd sits in stunned silence.
Lightning reverses, joins the wrecked Strip Weathers on the infield,
and starts pushing him toward the finish line.
“You just gave up the Piston Cup,” Strip strains to say to Lightning.
“I know.  But I think The King should finish his last race.”
Upon seeing Lightning give up victory 
and push the badly damaged Strip Weathers toward the finish line,
the crowd goes wild, and many eyes – that is, windshields – are wet with tears.
 
At the end of the race Tex, the owner of the premier racing sponsor Dinoco oil, 
comes over to Lightning and says, 
“Son, that was some real fine racing out there.  
How’s you like to become the new face of Dinoco?”
“But I didn’t win.”
“Lightning, there’s a whole lot more to racing than just winning,” Tex tells the rookie.
In the end, Lightning McQueen, turns down the offer,
choosing to stick with his rather humble sponsors,
a rear end bumper ointment company called Rusteeze.
Lightning loses the race, loses the Piston Cup, 
loses the chance to gain racing immortality 
as the first rookie ever to win the championship.
Lightning also turns down the prized sponsorship offered by Dinoco,
losing out on a lucrative contract and unknown opportunities.
Losing.
Cars is, in essence, a movie about losing.
But we can’t deny that he gains so much in that Podunk, 
out-of-the-way home to outcasts called Radiator Springs:
he gains a new sense of self, 
he gains an ability to care for someone other than himself,
he gains a caring, life-giving community.

Dear friends, this is a good story, 
but it is not just a Disney/Pixar story.
This is not just a Hollywood story.
This is, with just a little bit of interpretation or scratching around the surface, a Gospel story.
You see, it is in losing that Lightning McQueen gains so much,
most especially a new life,
with new priorities,
a new way of doing things that orients him toward serving his neighbor – 
the wrecked Strip Weathers – rather than serving himself with a victory lap.
But more.
This isn’t just about the new life and new orientation that Lightning McQueen gains,
in a self-help, self-serving kind of way.
No.  His transformation isn’t limited to himself.
By serving others and sacrificing himself,
he quite unexpectedly receives accolades much higher and opportunities much greater 
than the one who actually won the race,
and we see by the end of the film that he leverages some of those opportunities 
for his friends and his new-found community.
But more, by the end of the movie we see that Radiator Springs itself
is renewed by Lightning’s transformation,
and together that community becomes a new community, 
gets back on the map,
and indeed, grows in leaps and bounds.
And isn’t that what we hear in our Gospel story today, and what we anticipate for Easter?
The gift of new life for us and for the world?
Jesus tells of a single grain of wheat that is just a single, solitary grain.
But when it dies and falls to the earth, 
it grows and bears fruit, much fruit.
The grain could have kept its life, but that would have gotten it nowhere.
If it nose-dives into the earth, however, it gives life to many;
from a single grain is reaped a bountiful harvest of fruit!
The life of faith involves, in part, the relinquishing of the self,
as Lightning loses himself in Radiator Springs and gives up victory on the race track,
as that seed gives of itself in falling to the earth.
The life of faith calls us to self-giving acts that multiply,
that grow, that, to mix my metaphors, spread like holy contagions,
until many are infected and drawn together for a common purpose.
Jesus promises that from a single grain will come much fruit;
that in death we will find life.

Dear friends, we each have a bit of Lightning McQueen in us,
something in us that needs to die in order for a new life to take root in us.
For Lightning, it is his ego, his ambition, and his selfishness.
What is it for you?
And the church has a bit of Radiator Springs in it,
for like that town we can at times wonder desperately if the world has passed us by,
and we often find it hard to imagine what the gift of new life means for our community.
Individually we are Lightning McQueen.  Collectively we are Radiator Springs.

Dear friends, Lightning McQueen and Radiator Springs 
are restored from death to life on the digitally-animated screen of a children’s film.
So too are we brought from death to life, not with pixels and animation, 
but in flesh and blood by the power of God.
Though we die to sin each and every day, God raises us each and every day to new life in Christ,
and on that Last Day will raise us up
at the resurrection of the dead, when what happened in Christ Jesus happens fully in us,
inaugurating the life of the world to come.

So dear friends, there are two bits of good news for us today:
the story of God’s gifts of love, grace, and salvation is being told and retold,
in many and various ways – 
in pulpits, in Sunday School, and yes, even hidden in animated films about race cars.
God’s word, God’s life-giving story, God’s holy presence is not restrained,
but constantly coming to us, seeking us out, bringing to us Good News.
And the other bit of Good News for us today is this promise of life from death,
a counter-intuitive reality that draws us to the cross and calls us to taste death,
so that we might experience the riches of new life.
For we know that death is not the end of the story, but that new life – 
for us, for our community, and for the world – is God’s promise.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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