Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 13, 2009

2009.12.13 “Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood:“The Transformation of The Grinch’”

Central United Methodist Church

“Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood:

“The Transformation of The Grinch’”

Pastor David L. Haley

The 3rd Sunday of Advent

December 13th, 2009

     “When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?   It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as “father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there — children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

       The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?” “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.” Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?” He told them, “No more extortion — collect only what is required by law.” Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail — and be content with your rations.”

       The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?” But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

       There was a lot more of this — words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them.   The Message!  (Luke 3: 7 – 18, The Message)

You’re probably starting to wonder about this whole thing of Advent, our four Sunday season of preparation for Christmas.

Because the contrast between the Scriptures of Advent and the world around us is stark: the greens and the Christmas trees and the decorations are hung, Christmas carols are in the air, and in many Nativity sets the baby is already in the manger.

Why, then, is the church making us listen (for the second week in a row!) to stories about some wild-eyed preacher in the wilderness who yells not only at the powers-that-be, but also at the sincere seekers who have come out in the middle of nowhere to hear him preach?  Admittedly, it’s hard to connect this message with the theme of “Joy” given to this Third Sunday in Advent.

And yet, that the way the Gospels begin.  Before we can get to the familiar and comfortable stories of the birth of Jesus, the church makes us first listen to this rough-voiced, reckless, preacher in the wilderness who wouldn’t last five minutes in most of our pulpits.

This is Advent. Right alongside the “merry” of the season that calls us to shop and decorate, cook and celebrate, is this other kind of preparation calling us to get ready for the coming of the One promised to us.  

And what is the message?  Last week it was a message “of life change, leading to forgiveness of sins.” This week, that message hasn’t changed.  As John says:

      It’s your life that must change, not your skin . . . What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

Great – along with everything else at Christmas, that’s just what we want to hear.  Along with everything else we need to do, here’s another to add to the list:  “Change life.”

It is interesting to me, as I have thought about it, that this has also been the message of these great Christmas movies.  In this case Hollywood has got it right. Whether George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” or the Grinch in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the point is not Christmas sentimentality, but life change, redemption, transformation.  What would it take for that to happen in our lives?  Do we like the movies because we’re intrigued by that remote but unlikely possibility, or are the movies so popular because that is a possibility that so many of us desperately long for? 

And yet, one of the great things about John’s message is how it combines grand anticipation and dramatic warning with simple instruction, that is down-to-earth and do-able.  John doesn’t tell the people to get back to church, to overthrow the Romans, to transform the world in some sudden, drastic revolution.  On the contrary, he tells them the same things that our parents told us, and we tell our children: “Share with one another. Be kind to one another. Don’t fight. Be fair. Don’t hoard, or lord it over one another.”

As Kate Huey says in her commentary on the Gospel:

“At the heart of it is the basic justice and goodness which knocks the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve invented, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.” (“Look Forward,” Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, i.UCC.org, 2009)

So if you come to church this week, overwhelmed by the magnitude of world events which seem as large and powerful to us as the Roman Empire must have seemed to Jewish peasants and shopkeepers, if you come to thinking, “What should we do?” – short of radical transformation – we find ourselves called to the same basic goodness and justice that John exhorts people to exercise in their everyday lives.

Which brings us to our movie of the day, and one of the great social critics of the 20th century, Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Suess, and especially the movie made from his book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Contrary to what many people think, Theodor Geisel wasn’t Jewish, but was in fact a life-long, Lutheran. Nevertheless, he identified with his fuzzy anti-hero, the Grinch, and didn’t go in for the fancy celebrations surrounding the holiday, and according to his niece Peggy Owens, wasn’t “into the sentimentality” of the season. 

“The Grinch hated Christmas!  The whole Christmas season!

Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.

It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.

But I think that the most likely reason of all

May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

 

So in 1957, at the age of 53, with the intent of critiquing the commercialization of Christmas, Seuss published The Grinch, and thousands of children first discovered the story of the Whos, that endlessly cheerful bunch bursting with holiday spirit despite all efforts to prevent it.

Nine years after the publication of the book, in 1966, television came calling, and, in what would turn out to be a collaboration made in heaven, Seuss turned to Chuck Jones, the animator behind Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, the Roadrunner and many others. The two artists first met while collaborating on a series of military training films during World War II, directed by – guess who? – Frank Capra, the eventual director of “It’s A Wonderful Life.

The voice of the Grinch and the story’s narrator is Boris Karloff, an actor known for his roles as movie monsters, especially Frankenstein. Albert Hague’s songs helped lift the cartoon to classic status — especially “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch,” sung by baritone Thurl Ravenscroft, the “grrrrreat” voice of Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger. How the Grinch Stole Christmas first played on CBS in December of 1966, and continued every Christmas for 22 years.  Interestingly, when it’s played now, it has to edited for time, because commercials are longer now than they were in 1966, which makes you wonder who won here?

What are the most important themes of “How the Grinch stole Christmas”?

(1) Like most of us Grinches, the Grinch is against the commercialization of Christmas, but throws the “baby out with the bathwater.”  But as we learned from the play, Wicked, growing up green tends to have effect upon you, not always for the good.  So like most fanatics, one definition of which is “Someone who does what God would do if only he were in possession of the facts,” the Grinch decided to do something about it. 

Today the Grinch might be like the man whom Jay Leno told about the other night in his opening monologue:  “In Toledo, Ohio, a man attacked a Salvation Army bell ringer, grabbed his red kettle, threw it in the back of his truck, yelled, ‘I hate Christmas,’ and drove off. Here’s my question (said Leno): What is Dick Cheney doing in Toledo, Ohio?”

Sadly, as is often the case, it turns out The Grinch was the one in need of transformation.  Because change – where does it begin?  Change always starts with – and in fact may only be possible with – ourselves.

Because what The Grinch discovers is, (No. 2) we don’t “make” Christmas, nor do our traditions or our commercialization of Christmas. Even when we feel like we can’t afford it, or that “Christmas won’t come for us this year:”

“He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming!

IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

It came without ribbons! It came without tags!

It came without packages, boxes or bags!

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.  “Maybe Christmas. . . . perhaps . . . . means a little bit more!”

Yes, the movie stops short of the meaning of Christmas, which as a Lutheran, Dr. Suess undoubtedly knew. As Christians, we believe that Christmas was the Gift of God to us in Christ, born as a tiny baby in humble circumstances.

But in 1950’s America, when post-war austerity was waning and marketing was discovering T.V. (“Grrrrreat”), Dr. Suess also knew that the meaning of Christmas went beyond a baby born in a manger, went beyond significance to only the Christian religion, and was a universal message of peace and love for all humanity (or Who-manity), regardless of material circumstances:

Christmas Day will always be

just as long as we have we.

Welcome Christmas, while we stand,

heart to heart, and hand in hand.

Note, in the clip, at the Grinch’s moment of literal transformation, when his eyes turn blue, his complexion changes, and his heart becomes three sizes bigger.  [Clip]

Despite the widespread appeal of the story, not everyone was pleased. Geisel once received a letter from brothers David and Bob Grinch of Ridgefield, N.J., asking if he would change the Grinch’s name. Friends were teasing them. Seuss responded, “I disagree with your friends who ‘harass’ you. Can’t they understand that the Grinch in my story is the Hero of Christmas? Sure . . . he starts out as a villain, but it’s not how you start out that counts. It’s what you are at the finish.”

      “It’s your life that must change,” said John the Baptist, “not your skin . . . What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

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