Monday, April 14

Sermon: The Happiest Place on Earth

4 Easter, April 13, 2008
Gospel: John 10:1-10
Preacher: Laura Gottardi-Littell

What do you think is the happiest place on Earth?

(listen for responses)

Those are all interesting responses but I happen to know for sure what the happiest place on earth is.

Give up? Why it’s Disneyland of course.

How do I know? Because I was there last week, with my family, and there were several signs in the park that said it was the happiest place on earth. And when one kid was whining, his dad reminded him: “This is the happiest place on earth, for crying out loud.”

So I wonder --- what goes into making it the happiest place on earth? Because on some level it is. Our first day in the park we gladly followed our friends around – they knew the best rides and shortest lines – and I didn’t care much what we did, I felt carefree and ready to go with the flow. It felt magical just to be in Disneyland for the first time. The way I felt in London, Paris, and Athens ---- wow, I’m actually here. You know the feeling, when you find yourself in some special place you thought you might never make it to. We saw the fireworks in the night sky, even saw Tinkerbell live and flying through the air. We rode as many rides as we could until the park closed at 11:00 p.m. The other mom and I were getting pretty silly toward the end. We were having fun and deconstructing the experience at the same time. She mentioned some pink Tinkerbell pajamas her family had seen in a gift shop and wanted to buy for her. And how she found herself craving them. And I started craving them just hearing about them.We were enjoying the experience and making fun of it at the same time. “If this is mind control I think I like it!” I said and she laughed “I never knew a frontal lobotomy could feel so good.”

In college, my popular culture professor talk to our class about theme parks and try to get us to deconstruct them.
There’s a dark side to Disney. Many Disney films for children are excessively violent. A disproportionate number of them feature girls and women with waist sizes too small to be healthy. And the whole princess thing – we could spend hours on a feminist analysis of that. The movies also are usually very Eurocentric, very white, although there’ve been some recent attempts to correct that, like the Lion King and Pocahantas. Disney is also a huge corporation with theme parks and merchandise and movies sold all over the world. A true venture in global capitalism. It’s a small world after all.

A small world. A controlled world. And the shadow side of all that. Let’s see…who else in history was interested in controlled environments….could it be Hitler? Disney is not Hitler by a long shot, but you see what I’m saying…there is a shadow side in controlled environments, in crowd control, in gated communities. E. L. Doctorow in his book The Book of Daniel compares Disenyland to a concentration camp, He writes: “The problems of mass ingress and egress have been solved here to a degree that would light admiration in the eyes of an SS officer.”

At Disneyland, there is much to enjoy and and admire and also much to deconstruct. Many ways to experience it.

Being there got me thinking about Jesus.

What does Disney have to do with Jesus? How does a Christian deconstruct Disneyland? What happens when a priest goes to Disneyland? Well….

I’m very glad that I have Jesus in my life. That I don’t regularly live in Lala Land, am not stuck in a permanent Disneyland.

Yet in the process of deconstructing Disneyland, I also found myself deconstructing the church. Because the church, has some Disneyland aspects to it. Much of the Church is wonderful and beautiful and even fun, like Disneyland. But it too has a shadow side -- a history of violence, racism, and sexism. It too can try to mediate reality to people, to pre-program reality for us. It can be a controlled and controlling environment, Even if it is often a pleasant one. It too has its stories that often seem fantastical. And if we as church are not willing to integrate the insights of the larger world, we are in danger of living in a fantasy land and shutting out many people. We create a small world for ourselves. A Christian enclave. A Christian theme park. A ghetto, as Larry says.

Take the stories of our faith…lovely and strengthening. Deep within our psyches. we learned them in childhood, along with the Disney stories. Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath… My kids are starting to ask me “Are those true stories? How did that happen?” And I have to pause. My children know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I tell them about how some stories may not have happened exactly like they’re writen, but they are true stories because they point us to deeper truths. I have a certain level of comfort with miracle stories – I believe God can do many strange things. But I’m concerned about telling my kidssome of these storis are factual. Like the story from Daniel about the three men who stand in a fiery furnace and live. What if they try that at home?

So I tell my kids that when Genesis says the world was created in 7 days that’s a way of saying it was created in God’s time, which is different than our time. 7 days is symbolic . And I think they get that. And it helps them deal with what they learned at the Field Museum which is that the earth was created 4.5 billion years ago and that humans, homo sapien appeared about 200,000 years ago.

I worry that we may lose the deeper truths of Christianity if we insist on the literal truth of our stories. If we shut out what we know from science and culture, we risk making Christinaity an enclave or ghetto. We make our Disneyland, a world distinct from reality, a gated community that limits our awareness and keeps others out. A small world.

I don’t think Christianity should be a controlled environment. Where you check your brain at the gate. I don’t think it’s that kind of gate, or that kind of enclosure.

Today’s gospel tells us, that Jesus is the gate and the good shepherd through which we enter a place of green pastures, and there we can safely graze.

Thank God there is this gate and this shepherd. For there are a lot of gates that lead to unhealthy places. Where we can be lured by bad shepherds or by life’s difficulties. We can go through gates that lead to self-centeredness, self-hatried, addictions, isolation, depression, anxiety, cruelty, ennui…places that ultimately lead only to emptiness and pain.

So yes it is so incredible that we have a shephered who is good, who will lead us to paths of righteousness and lead us beside still waters. Thank you God for that.

As a young adult I felt a compelling need to go in just the right gate – which for me meant making a choice for Chistianity. But part of the beauty is that it was a free choice., even if heavily shepherded by God. And once I’m in the gate I don’t want to stop making choices. I don’t want to be separated from the rest of reality. Jesus says in today’s gospel that he came that me have life more abundantly, not more narrowly.

The pasture should be broad and wide.

And part of this wideness means making room for culture and the insights it can offer us as church.
In my ideal Chrsitianity there’s room for listening to music that’s not Christian – because it’s good music or just because we like it. There’s room for having colelagues, friends and family who are non-Christian. For taking seriously the wisdom gleaned by science and philosophy and history. For enjoying Disneyland. For living in the whole world and not comfining ourselves to an enclave.

I think this is because I understand Christ as part of the world. God entered the world and lived in the world. Christ did not intend to found a church that would be over and against culture, replace culture, or dictate culture to us. Jesus came that we would have life more abundantly, not more narrowly. Jesus repeatedly reached out beyond the structures of the organized religion of his time.

Louis Dupre, who teaches philosophy of religion at Yale says that as Christians, our job is to integrate the sacred and the profane. Our western culture no longer integrates Christianity into the rest of life for us. In our postmodern world, Christianity is simply one story among many other equal stories. Jesus is no more the way than the Buddha or Mohammed,or Mickey. So it becomes our individual task to integrate our faith into the rest of our life. And one way to accomplish it is to have an interior spiritual life – a life of prayer, to become a Christian from within . To have a personal response to the Divine.
Dupre says its up to us to integrate the fragments of meaning we see around us. And not to be at war with culture. A secure Christian allows society and culture to be what they are, without being defensive, because our spiritual strength comes from within us. (Louis Dupre, The Christian Century, July 16-23, 1997, pp. 654-660).

There’s a book called Christ and Culture by another theologian, H. Richard Niehbuhr. Niehbuhr speaks of several different types of relationships Christians can have with culture, including “Christ against culture,” and “Christ Over culture.” His preferred relationship is that of Christ transforming culture. Not only are we as Christians to interact with culture, we are to critique it. And ultimately help transform it.

So maybe it’s OK that I was at Disneyland, interacting with it, enjoying it, and also critiquing it, with an eye to what it was missing. And perhaps its OK that I love the church and also critique it, with an eye to what it is missing and how we might help transform it.

Many people at Disneyland could benefit by being reminded – or hearing for the first time – of the deep truths of Christianity. That there is a God larger than Mickey who offers more to them than materialism and Tinker Bell pajamas.

At the same time the church needs to allow for other realities without seeking to impose only its own reality.

This is what happens I guess when a priest goes to Disneyland.

The happiest place on earth? I’m not sure where that is. But I think it may be a place in our hearts that comes into being when we have listened to our shepherd’s voice and entered the gate, but not put a lock on the gate or barbed wire on top of it. When we have made and continue to make a personal response to God, when we have an interior spiritual life. When we help others come into that pasture, and give them room to move about within. An internal place where we know Jesus, and out of that secure knowledge, interact with society and culture, help transform them, and allow ourselves to be transformed by them. So that both church and world come to look less like a fantasy land, gated community, or concentration camp, and more like a green pasture with goodness and mercy for all.