SERMON 6/3/12 Trinity Sunday Year B
One of my favorite films when I was young was “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” The central character is Charlie Bucket a poor boy living with his widowed mother and four bed-ridden grandparents in a dilapidated house in an industrial town. Charlie supplements the meager family income by delivering newspapers after school. One day, the family, along with the rest of the world, learns that the local candy maker Willy Wonka has hidden five Golden Tickets amongst his Wonka Bars. The finders of these special tickets will be given a full tour of his tightly-guarded candy factory, as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie wants to take part in the search, but cannot afford to buy vast quantities of chocolate like other participants. Four of the tickets are found by: Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous German boy; Veruca Salt, a spoiled English girl; Violet Beauregarde, a gum-chomping American girl; and Mike Teevee, a television-obsessed American boy. On day while delivering papers, Charlie miraculously finds a silver coin on the ground, buys a chocolate bar and he is able to join the tour. The interesting twist to the tale is that a rival choclatier was covertly coaxing each ticket winner to steal the secret candy, “Everlasting Gobstopper,” with promises of great reward. Nevertheless, the central theme of the movie is the life changes these characters experience as they encounter the rather odd, and sometimes frightening world of the chocolate factory. For some of these characters, the paradigm shift they experience results in some strange outcomes.
Augustus, the gluttonous boy falls into and nearly drowns in a lake of chocolate. Veruca, the spoiled little girl gets attacked by a band of oversized squirrels and falls into a pit. Violet swipes some miracle gum that makes herbthink she is eating a seven course meal, but as she begins tasting the blueberry pie dessert, she turns blue and expands into an enormous blueberry. Mike, the TV obsessed little boy, gets zapped by a size-reducing machine and is diminished into a very small, TV sized child. Throughout all of these tragic events, Charlie remained the sweet, gentle, wise, and compassionate soul that he was. Everyone around him was being transformed, literally changed by their experience. The character that has always intrigued me the most though, is not any of the gluttonous, obsessed, or spoiled children, and honestly, although I admire him greatly, not even Charlie. For me, the most intriguing character in the film is his Grandpa Joe.
Joe, who only a few days before the Chocolate factory tour began, was bed-ridden, depressed, down-trodden, and without hope experiences a shift, a new beginning, a re-birth. It happened when he discovered that he would be able to leave his current predicament behind, and go and explore the mysteries of the walled off Chocolate factory with his grandson. Margaret Hess wrote an article in Christian Century in which, she stated, “ Curiosity is the first step in seeing things through new eyes and can lead to a redemptive revision of the story of one’s life.” 1 She added, “Think about it: if you are born again, then you must grow up again. Think about your life. What would you do differently if you had half the chance? How would you grow up differently? How would you re-edit the narrative of your life? As you enter more deeply into your puzzlement . . . you’ll find that Jesus is inviting you to be curious about your life, and to rethink your assumptions, with an altered perspective.” 1 Accepting the re-birth of the Spirit, the re-birth that Jesus was offering Nicodemus, and is offering us, is like taking off the blinders and seeing things afresh.
Living each day afresh, with curiosity and openness, is not something set aside merely for children. No, we are never too old to experience re-birth. When Jesus challenged Nicodemus, you can not see the Kingdom of God without being born again, Nicodemus responded to Jesus with skepticism and with curiosity, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” With his question, Nicodemus was only scratching the surface of what Jesus was saying. From his perspective, re-birth would be like striving for a single after the “Everlasting Gobstopper” and yet, missing the opportunity to take hold of the big prize, a lifetime supply of chocolate. Jesus was encouraging, challenging rather, Nicodemus and is challenging us, to go deeper and to experience life afresh, like a child, through the eyes of a child.
At a pivotal point in the movie, the children and parents enter a large part of the factory where everything that surrounded them was incredibly edible. Flowers, grass, tree leaves, and even the lake itself were all made of confectioner’s treats. As the group entered that huge space, attitudes changed for child and parent alike. There was amazement in their eyes, a wash of joy in their responses, a child-like awe in their voices. For each guest at the chocolate factory, in a moment they came to know that we are never too old to experience re-birth. We can experience new life in Christ, but we must be willing to see things a little differently.
I started flying at the age of 15 and my flight instructor was an amazing woman named Evelyn Bryan Johnson, who passed away about a month ago. When I began taking flight lessons with my Dad, I still remember the day he introduced me to Evelyn. I thought, there is no way I’m getting in the airplane with this lady. See, in 1980, Evelyn was 70 years old, appeared a bit frail, and had to have two cushions to see over the dashboard. Honestly, I wasn’t certain that she could handle that little airplane. I soon learned that she was an amazing pilot, a great teacher, and a gifted spiritual mentor. Evelyn was a pioneer, who during World War II, while her husband was serving overseas, Evelyn taught elementary school, and ran the family dry cleaning business. As if all that responsibility was not enough, Evelyn one day took a leap and made the journey to a little airport in the next town, and began taking flying lessons. Later, she later earned her pilot’s license, flight instructor certificate, helicopter instructor certificate, and eventually she received a type-rating in a jet. Evelyn became an FAA examiner and with that designation, she gave more flight tests to people seeking pilot licenses, than anyone alive. She logged over 56,000 flight hours and was added to the Guinness’s Book of Records as the human with the most flight time logged.
Evelyn was the best teacher I ever had. She taught me how to manipulate the controls of the airplane of course, but she taught me something even more important, she inspired me to see things differently. She literally showed me life from a new perspective, a new altitude, a new vantage point. Evelyn saw life through a childlike wonderment and the excitement and joy of teaching and sharing the gift of aviation changed her and her students. She was an amazing woman who actively taught, flew, and managed a local airport up until her 96thbirthday. She helped thousands of men and women see life differently because she was willing to see things afresh in her own life. At 96 years old, Evelyn would tell each of us, we are never too old to experience re-birth. In the Christian journey, no matter where we are along the path, even if we are nearing the latter twists and turns of the path, there are new adventures, new discoveries, and new revelations before us.
Jesus calls us in this life of discipleship to experience re-birth evey day, and we must know that it is not merely a mental exercise. The knowledge of God’s amazing, life-altering, community gathering, restoration bringing Love, is not merely an assertion, “Yes, I believe all that,” and that is sufficient. Re-birth takes us from belief into the experience. We move from an assent to trust in Christ, to the change in life, that comes from that belief. When we begin to see life afresh, when we experience re-birth, the way we live each day, changes.
In Fort Myers, there is a large homeless population who literally lives on the streets surrounding a large downtown park . A few years ago, Terri, three young adults and I went down to the park in Fort Myers for the first time to share food with the people who lived life in these despicable conditions. Nearly fifty people showed up in the park that night to be fed. We spent three hours listening to their stories, sharing our lives, and ministering to each other. It was an amazing experience for all of us. For a few hours the homeless experienced loving community, a bountiful feast, and a respite from their difficult lives. The group that accompanied us to the park, experienced something as well. On the way home that night, it was strangely quiet in the car until one of my young friends said, “I will never look at someone on the streets the same way again.” “The difference between them and me is not what I thought it was, but all that keeps me from walking in their shoes, is one paycheck.” My young friend that night experienced the lesson, which Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus and through that experience, my friend had been reborn. Her curiosity about the plight of others and her childlike expectation, her willingness to face her own discomfort, brought her face-to-face with what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus invited her to believe in him and then, to bring love to others. That transformation required moving from sitting back, watching from the sidelines and cheering Jesus on as he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, or walked up the hill of Golgotha. Following Jesus meant coming along side him and doing what he does. Re-birth means a shift of thought and heart and then, it requires a shift of how we live. In the Willy Wonka movie, Gene Wilder sings an amazing song that seemed to capture the essence of re-birth, of seeing life through the eyes of childlike wonderment.
Come with me and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you’ll see
Into your imagination
We’ll begin with a spin
Trav’ling in the world of my creation
What we’ll see will defy
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it
There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there, you’ll be free
If you truly wish to be
There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there, you’ll be free
If you truly wish to be
Christ invites us to live free, to experience grace, reconciliation, mercy, and love. Jesus commissions us to go out into the world, and through our lives, become the means by which others might life life anew. We can be this vehicle of grace that is, if we truly wish to be.
1 Hess, Margaret B. “A Curious Man.” Christian Century 114.16 (1997): 475-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 29 May 2012.