Today is the fourth in a 5-part sermon series entitled “Reel to Real,” during which we will engage the popular culture through the medium of film. The intent is to add a Christian voice to the conversation being generated by each film. The springboard for this sermon is The Greatest Showman. The theme is what matters most.
Scripture: Psalm 27
All of us can point to significant turning points in our lives, points in time when the issue at-hand confronted us with a choice. A choice that required us to decide what was more important: path A or path B. I had one such experience many years ago.
I was serving in Mackinaw City at The Church of the Straits. Because I was relatively young, I didn’t have a lot of what we might call life experience, and I didn’t have a lot of preaching experience. So, to help make up for some of the deficit in experience, I subscribed to a preaching resource, a magazine full of sermon illustrations, stories, worship liturgies, Scripture study notes, and a couple of full-length sermons. Mind you, these sermons were intended to be fodder for one’s own sermon writing. But on one occasion, for reasons long lost on me, I decided to take one of those sermons, add a few of my own illustrations, and call it my own. I even used the same title.
The Monday after I needed to go to St. Ignace. The street into town takes you right past the St. Ignace United Methodist Church, where prominently displayed on the roadside is their church sign. As I drove by, I read the title of the sermon that my colleague preached the day before, and to my utter horror and embarrassment, I discovered that he and I had preached the same sermon the day before! Clearly, he subscribed to the same preaching resource. Now, I can’t tell you if that was the first time he’d preached someone else’s sermon, or the 50th time, or the last time – like it was for me. I was horrified by the prospect of one of my church members driving by the St. Ignace church and seeing the same sermon title as mine. And then they’d know!
I vowed on the spot that I would NEVER preach someone else’s sermon, no matter how busy my week was leading up to Sunday. That was a significant turning point for me. It forced me to decide what was more important – taking the easy way at the end of a busy week and using someone else’s sermon, or writing my own sermon at the end of a busy week, even if it means burning the midnight oil.
From time to time, we all have those life experiences that make as answer the question, “What matters most?”
Loosely based on the life of Phineas T. Barnum, the namesake behind the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Baily Circus, the film, “The Greatest Showman,” seeks to answer to this very question. What matters most?
The film opens with the young Phineas Barnum and his father living as paupers in 19th century New York City. His father is a tailor, and is at the home of a very wealthy family where he’s making a suit for the gentleman of the house. This gentleman’s daughter, Charity, is about the same age of young Phineas. And despite the efforts of her father to keep them apart, they strike up a lifelong friendship—she at finishing school and he living on the streets of New York City after his father dies. In time, their friendship blossoms into a romance where, now as an adult, he returns to Charity’s home to ask her father’s permission to marry her. He begrudgingly agrees, but adds, “She’ll eventually come back here. She’ll get tired of your life, of having nothing, and come back home where she belongs.”
But she loves him, and marries him, and together they set off on their life together. They have a dream – a dream they literally sing about (because it’s a musical). He sings, Every night I lie in bed, the brightest colors fill my head, a million dreams are keeping me awake. I think of what the world could be, a vision of the one I see: a million dreams is all it’s gonna take; a million dreams for the world we’re gonna make.
And she responds, in song of course, However big, however small, let me be part of it all; share your dreams with me. You may be right, you may be wrong, but say that you’ll bring me along to see the world you see. Together, they’re going to make their world the place of their dreams.
But just like with Ferdinand the bull who ended up back at the bullfight training farm in last week’s movie, life often takes a sharp turn when you least expect it.
- An unplanned pregnancy.
- The sudden death of a spouse.
- A tornado, flood, or fire that destroys in the house in a matter of minutes.
- A car accident.
- A cancer diagnosis.
- The closing of a factory.
Life swerves, and we’re suddenly confronted with the need to answer the question, “What matters most?” What do I do from here?
In the film, Barnum’s employer goes belly-up, and he returns home without a job or a paycheck. Their dreams looked as though they might go up in smoke. Which is when he reaches deep into that dream he has for himself and sees a new vision for his life. And he talks the bank into giving him a giant loan, and reinvents himself. But reinventing oneself rarely happens quickly. There are always obstacles to get over. Lots of them. But eventually he makes it. He’s big time. His shows are selling out. He’s making so much money that he purchases the mansion they dreamed of living in when they were children. Long gone is the drafty, leaky apartment. Long gone are the days of spinning the wishing machine and making wishes. Because now wishing has given way to actually getting. A what was only a dream in the past is now a reality. They’ve got it all.
But there’s a problem deep below the surface…in his heart. Though he has everything money can buy, what he doesn’t have is the thing that matters most to him: being accepted and loved for who he is. More than anything else, he longs to be accepted by his father-in-law and mother-in-law. Sure, he’s accepted and loved by his own family, and all the people in his show. Sure, he has the adulation of the middle class crowds who love his crazy show filled with odd and strange looking people. What he longs for is acceptance by the upper-class. And the more he does to make that happen, the more he loses sight of what really matters in his life. And at some point it all comes crashing down around him, and he’s confronted with the question we’re raising this morning: What matters most?
The Greatest Showman would suggest that what matters most is being a part of a family. That a home isn’t just a place you live, but it’s where you’re loved and accepted even if you’re a bohemian. And one could certainly argue that these are indeed important. When it seemed that he’d lost these things, suddenly he realized how important they are. And how unimportant fame and mansions and hobnobbing with the upper class are in the grand scheme of life.
From a Christian worldview, what perspective might we offer in this conversation about what matters most?
First of all, there’s no one correct answer. Even Scripture itself provides different answers. For example, when the prophet Micah asks what the Lord requires of us, his answer is: “to do justice, to embrace faithful love, and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8). When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, he quoted Dt. 6:5 – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” In Acts 20:24, the Apostle Paul says, “Nothing, not even my life, is more important than me completing my mission.” Arguably three different answers to the question, “What matters most?”
So, taking a cue from The Greatest Showman, this morning I’d like to suggest that having a home is, in fact, one thing that matters most in this life. A home where we are loved and accepted for who we are.
As the king and as a warrior, David knew what it was like to not be loved. In fact, he knew what it was like to be hunted down. He’s the author of Psalm 27, and he begins this poem by acknowledging this reality. He mentions the evildoers who come at him, trying to eat him up. And the armies of warriors that camp against him. And the war that breaks out against him. How many of us can say that we’re so unloved that entire armies have agreed to come against us?
In verse 4 we discover the one thing that he truly longs for. And I’ll let you in on something: it’s not acceptance by others, or the adoration of society’s important people, or even to be loved by those who are out to kill him. No, it’s this: to live in God’s house his whole life long, beholding and adoring his beauty. And from verse 5: to be sheltered in God’s dwelling during troubling times, and to be hidden safely away in God’s tent. David longs for a place to call home, where he’s safe, loved, and accepted. He knows that this kind of home is going to be where God calls home. In David’s time, that place was the Temple, where they believe God’ lived. Today, it’s the Church.
We often speak of the Church as the people—which is it. In the truest sense of the word, Church is not a building. It’s the people. As one of our Methodist hymns puts it, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” But, to suggest that it’s limited to a gathering of people is to misunderstand the deeper reality. The Church is the body of Christ in the world. As the body of Christ, we’re God’s dwelling place. God dwells within us. (He dwells within us, yes, but it’s not because we’ve somehow earned it; it’s not because we better than any other organization. It’s not like the Church was already around, and then God said, “Oh, I think I’ll go live there.” Rather, he created the Church to be his earthly dwelling place.) And he commissioned the Church to bear his light and life in this world, so that others might see it and be drawn to him. Not drawn to us so much as being drawn to him. So that others might come and find a home in him…within the body of Christ.
Yesterday I was talking with a woman who’s a member of Neighborhood Church here in Adrian. For many years she was active at a church in Toledo, but involved in a jail ministry here in Adrian. One of the women she’d been ministering to had come to faith in Christ while in jail, and was coming to the end of her sentence. She told me she wanted to help this young woman find a church home, so she started calling around to a number of Adrian churches to see if they’d be willing to invite this woman in to their fellowship and walk beside her so that she might grow in her new faith. And to her surprise, almost all of the pastor’s she talked with seemed very reluctant to do that.
I wonder, at that very significant point in this brand new Christian’s life, what mattered most for her spiritual well-being? Was it not finding a church home? A people who would risk welcoming her in and loving her, in spite of her life choices? I don’t know if a church home was ever found for her. But hearing this story made me ask myself, are we a house of God where people can come in and be sheltered during their troubling times, and hidden safely away in love and acceptance?
I’ve said it before, and you can be sure that you’ll hear me say it many more times. This congregation does not exist for those of us already here. Those of us already here have already found that home David was talking about. Our mission is not primarily to take care of ourselves. Our mission is primarily to be a safe and loving home for those who are not already here. And yes, this probably means getting comfortable with people who are a lot different than us. But not just getting comfortable with them. It’ll mean actively welcoming everyone who comes through our doors. And by actively welcoming, I mean talking with them, getting to know them, inviting them to sit with you, introducing them to others, showing genuine interest in them. But not just showing genuine interest; being genuinely interested in them.
Here’s the bottom line. When it comes to answering the question, What matters most? the audience I’d like us to consider is not us, but those who aren’t us. So it’s not, What matters most for our sake? But rather, What matters most for the sake of those not here?
Just as P.T. Barnum had to make a significant adjustment in his own life so that he was focused more on what really mattered most, what do we need to adjust in ourselves so that we can truly be a spiritual home where troubled people are loved and served while God fully draws them unto himself?