1 Corinthians 13
Highlands UMC, Denver
Thought for Meditation:
Whatever happens, we’re a family. And what’s important is that we love each other.
— Cheryl Hoover, Little Miss Sunshine
Today we’re continuing the Summer Movie Sermon Series
with Little Miss Sunshine --
the 2006 independent film, not the children's book --
about a dysfunctional family driving across the southwest.
You may have heard this saying,
from a poem by Robert Frost:
Home is where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in.
At the beginning of Little Miss Sunshine,
that’s about the nicest thing you can say
about the Hoover family.
Cheryl – divorced and remarried, mom of two, secret smoker,
too busy to cook so she brings home KFC for dinner every night –
is on her way to pick up her brother Frank
from the hospital.
On the phone as she drives,
she defends the burden by reminding her husband,
“He has nowhere else to go.”
Frank, a professor and Proust scholar,
has attempted suicide,
after losing the man he loves to his professional rival,
losing his job and his home, and learning
his rival has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.
Frank now has to room with his teenage nephew Dwayne,
who reads Nietzsche, hates everyone,
and has taken a vow of silence
until he achieves his goal of becoming a test pilot
with the air force.
The first night that Frank stays with him,
Dwayne writes him a note that says,
“Welcome to hell.”
Cheryl’s husband, Richard,
is a motivational speaker,
with a Nine-Step Refuse to Lose Program
that is just on the brink of getting the investors he needs
to take it to the big-time.
For now, his audience is limited to 10
less than enthusiastic students
in a night school classroom.
Living with them,
is Richard’s father, Edwin,
whom everyone calls Grandpa.
He swears like a sailor,
advises Dwayne to sleep around,
likes adult magazines,
and is generally grumpy and bitter.
Grandpa recently got kicked out of his retirement home
for taking up a drug habit (heroin) in his golden years.
Again, Home is where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in.
And then there is Olive,
Richard and Cheryl’s 7-year-old daughter,
who has recently been introduced
to the world of beauty pageants
thanks to her aunt in California.
The movie opens with Olive watching,
and carefully imitating,
the facial expressions and gestures
of the successful Miss America contestant
being awarded the crown.
It is Olive’s hopes and dreams
that propel the family to take a road trip together,
800 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico,
to Redondo Beach, California,
in an ancient yellow Volkswagen van,
so she can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine contest.
Now, Olive is a charming, loving, and confident little girl,
but she does not quite fit the image
of the typical beauty pageant contestant.
She’s… chubby, with thick, out-of-date glasses,
long brown hair that is always well brushed
but never styled,
and a heart that embraces all of her eccentric family.
Grandpa has been coaching her
on a dance routine for the talent competition,
but no one has actually seen what they’re working on.
(That becomes significant later on.)
They are quirky, complicated, dysfunctional characters.
Kinda like most of us.
And at the beginning of this journey,
most of them don’t really like each other.
Only Olive and Grandpa really want to go to the pageant,
but for various reasons, the others all have to tag along.
When Dwayne agrees to go,
he writes on his notepad,
“Okay. But I’m not going to have any fun.”
And Frank commiserates with,
“Yeah, I think we’re all with you there.”
Which is why Cheryl’s statement to her children,
today’s Thought for Meditation,
that what matters is that we love each other,
is more than just a sappy cliché.
It takes 800 miles and a mixture of grief and absurdity
to get them to that point.
As they travel across the mostly desert landscape,
things keep going wrong.
The clutch on the van goes out,
and because it’s old there are no parts available.
The mechanic who gives them the bad news
also explains that they really only need the clutch
to get to 2nd gear;
if they can park on a hill and just coast
until they reach about 30 miles per hour,
they should be fine from there.
But there are a limited number of hills
conveniently located on their route.
So each time they have to stop and then start again,
everyone has to get out and push,
then one at a time, run alongside the van
and jump inside while it’s moving.
Frank reminds his sister as they push,
“Did I mention that I’m the pre-eminent Proust scholar
in the country?”
Richard and Cheryl are so angry leaving one rest stop
that they actually forget Olive,
and have to circle back to pick her up,
not daring to slow down too much
as they cruise through the gas station parking lot
and she runs alongside.
Later on in the journey,
the horn gets stuck,
drawing angry glares
and causing a motorcycle cop
to pull them over,
with hilarious results.
In the interest of not spoiling
some of the major plot developments,
I won’t describe all the things that go wrong.
I will say that in everything,
from minor irritations
to major losses,
there is absurd, awkward, sometimes painful,
ultimately hopeful humor.
Richard, the father,
has based his motivational program
on his frequently-repeated belief
that there are two kinds of people in the world:
The irony is, of course,
that every member of this family,
at some point during this weekend road trip,
looks an awful lot like
what society would call a loser.
Both because they are not “winning” in life
according to most external definitions of success,
but also because they each experience loss,
especially the loss of a cherished dream.
Frank has lost love, employment, prestige,
Grandpa has lost community and independence.
Cheryl is losing patience with her family.
Richard learns his motivational program
will not get the investors he needs.
Dwayne learns he is colorblind,
and will not be able to fly jets.
And because this is not a Disney movie,
Olive doesn’t win the trophy
or the title of Little Miss Sunshine.
In fact, she is banned from ever again
entering a beauty pageant
in the state of California.
(As a side note, and without giving too much away,
I’ll just say that Olive’s talent performance
makes everyone really uncomfortable,
but it also sheds light
on why beauty pageants for 7-year-olds
should make us uncomfortable in general.)
To lose, to fail, to make mistakes:
these are part of the human condition.
We are all losers in that sense.
But what makes the difference
in the face of loss
is not some motivational mantra
about the will to win
or even having tried your hardest.
What makes the difference for the Hoovers,
what leads them out of the hell they start in,
is finding their way back
to loving each other,
and being family.
St Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth
is known for the chapter we read today
on the spiritual gift of love.
Of course, it’s the most frequently chosen Scripture
but it wasn’t written with romantic love in mind.
It is part of a bigger point that Paul is making
about what matters in the community of the church.
And what matters, Paul says,
is not which gift you have,
or whether your gifts are better or more important
than someone else’s.
It’s not a competition,
with winners and losers.
In the previous chapter he tells them,
you are all members of the same body;
together, you are the Body of Christ,
and none of you can be winners
without all of you.
Which means that the greatest spiritual gift,
the one that gives all the others meaning,
is the gift of love.
Not sappy, Hallmark-card, flowers and chocolates,
(Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
But fierce, strong, hardworking love:
Genuine care for the wellbeing of others.
Investment in relationship
through the disciplines of patience and kindness.
Willingness to put the best interests of others
as equal with your own.
None of your talents or sacrifice or knowledge,
not even your faith,
has any value or meaning
if you do not have love.
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
One of the things I love about this movie
is that the members of the Hoover family all mess up
in one or another of these ways.
And don’t we all?
But when the rubber hits the road,
they stand by one another.
They comfort each other in times of grief;
they support each other’s hopes and dreams.
They want to protect one another from heartache,
but when heartache comes,
they would rather get up and look foolish together
than silently allow others to pass judgment.
By the time they leave the pageant,
it seems that even Richard may have realized
that there are not two kinds of people in the world.
There are not simply winners and losers.
Rather, everyone figures out along the way:
you win some,
you lose some.
And what matters is having family
to accept you as you are,
to celebrate or mourn with you,
whatever the journey brings.
For those of us who follow Jesus,
part of the good news is that family is not limited
to the people we’re related to by blood and marriage.
All of us who do our best
to make up the Body of Christ:
we are family, whatever happens.
And what matters is that we love each other.
Even when the going gets tough,
even if we don’t always agree
or even like each other very much.
Even when society calls us losers.
After all, Jesus said that the first will be last,
and the last will be first.
And he showed us the face of God
by loving and living among those society called “losers.”
So perhaps there’s hope for us all of us
who don’t quite measure up
in the beauty pageants of life.
Hope, and faith, and above all else –
if we’re willing to keep pushing the bus together
and making sure nobody gets left behind –
May it be so for you and for me.