Disney and the Gospels: Beauty and the Beast
Today, we’re wrapping up our sermon series on Disney and the Gospels with a look at a classic - Beauty and the Beast. Ok, so, Acts isn’t one of the Gospels, but we’re talking about the literal meaning of gospel here today - good news - so I figure it’s ok. I’ll admit: Beauty and the Beast isn’t one of my favorites. The animated version was released in the fall of 1991, when I had just started junior high, and I think in my head that meant that I was too old to really love cartoon movies. My childhood favorite was - is - The Little Mermaid, released just two years before when I apparently considered it still acceptable to enjoy a Disney film. But I still enjoy it - I took Sam to see it when it came back to theatres again some years ago. I really should have made Hannah Kingsley help me write my sermon today - she wrote her whole honors thesis for college on Beauty and the Beast, so if you’re a big fan, talk to Hannah ask to read her project.
The story of Beauty and the Beast begins with an enchantress disguised as a beggar seeking shelter from a selfish, cold prince, in exchange for the rose she offers him. He refuses, and when he does, she curses him and his servants. She turns him into a beast, and his servants into household objects, and says that unless he learns to love someone and earn their love in return before the last petal falls from the rose and he turns 21, he and his household will never return to their human forms.
Eventually, the Beast meets Belle when she exchanges herself for her father, who has been captured by the Beast. He starts out very angry at Belle when she tries to figure out what the enchanted rose is all about, but after he’s injured, and she helps nurse him back to health, he starts to develop feelings for her. As he tries to make Belle happy, and as she pushes him to do caring, thoughtful things that he’s shunned for so long, his heart begins to warm. Belle and the Beast share a romantic dance as we hear Mrs. Potts, the teapot, sing the song the choir shared today: “Tale as old as time. True as it can be. Barely even friends Then somebody bends Unexpectedly. Just a little change, Small to say the least. Both a little scared, Neither one prepared. Beauty and the beast. Tale as old as time. Tune as old as song. Bittersweet and strange. Finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
At one point, Belle realizes using the Beast’s magic mirror that her father is stranded in the woods, trying to rescue her, and the Beast, who has fallen in love, lets her go to try to save him. Belle takes her father home. In the meantime, the townsfolk, scared of the Beast and riled up by the vain villain Gaston make their way to his castle to attack him. The Beast doesn’t defend himself, too sad that Belle has gone until he sees that she, too, has returned to the castle to try to protect him. He fights off Gaston, but Gaston stabs him in the back. The Beast seems to die, and Belle, distraught confesses her love for him, just as the last petal is falling from the rose. But she’s in time. The curse is broken, the prince and his servants return to their human forms, and of course, they all live happily ever after.
I’ve been thinking about the Beast this week, and how he changes. It takes him a long time, doesn’t it? Even with the threat of a permanent curse hanging over his head, he makes it all the way to within a year of being permanently cursed without seeming to make any effort at learning to love or be loved in return. The fact that he has a whole household of people who are suffering because of his behavior doesn’t seem to impress him. But finally, when an opportunity to change falls into his lap, he reluctantly, even half-heartedly at first, takes it. “Just a little change, small to say the least … finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
What about you - have you changed? For the better? Have you had a time where you had to turn your life around? Where you’d gotten off track, but were able to bend, to learn, to grow - to change? Someone posed a question to me in a message this week. “Can people change?” Maybe you wonder that too - is it really possible for us to change? After all, we make commitments and resolutions and promises ourselves to do better in all sorts of areas of our lives, only to find ourselves falling into the same old patterns. Can we really change? For a while, when I was on Sabbatical, I was working regularly on surveys that paid a dollar or two to earn some extra money. And I often encountered some standard questions, some measures that are used in lots of psychological tests to provide a kind of baseline understanding of someone. And one set of these questions asks whether or not we believe people can change who they are, or whether we believe that people are immutable, incapable of really changing the core of who they are.
I’m not sure I always answered the questions the same way. Depends a bit on how I was feeling that day. But if I was thoughtful with my answer, I would always respond: Yes, yes we can change. Thank God, we can change. Because if we can’t change, I’m really not sure what life is all about, seriously. If I am bound in, locked in to never being able to break free from the ways I fail to be what I think God is calling me to be, if I am forever bound in sin, if I am forever bound to repeat the same mistakes and never truly learn anything, if I can never be impacted enough by the experiences I have and the people I meet and the love I experience, and above all, if God’s grace can’t change my heart - what is the point? Why try? That’s not to say that changing our hearts and lives isn’t hard. So hard. We know it is. But possible? I believe it. I rely on it.
One of the most dramatic stories of change from the scriptures comes from our text from Acts today. It’s the story of the conversion of the apostle Paul. When we first hear of Paul in the book of Acts, the book that describes the stories of what the followers of Jesus did to start what we know as the church after Jesus’s resurrection and return to God, we find Paul being called Saul. He’s a Pharisee - an expert in interpreting the laws of of Judaism, and we find that he means to enforce the laws at any cost. He’s been particularly pursuing folks who are followers of The Way, one of the first names for Jesus’ disciples. We see him in Acts standing as witness to the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the church, who refused to renounce his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, even when it cost him his life. As Stephen was stoned to death, those who executed him threw their cloaks at Saul’s feet. This background makes Acts 9 all the more stunning.
Saul is on his way to Damascus to get permission that he might capture anyone he finds who is part of this Jesus movement and bring them to Jerusalem to stand trial. And as he travels, a light from heaven flashes, blinding him, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks “Who are you?” And the voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus then tells Paul to get up, get to Damascus, and await instructions.
For three days, Saul can’t see anything. He doesn’t eat or drink. At the same time, a man named Ananias has a vision, telling him that Saul is having a vision of Anananis laying hands him to restore his sight. Ananias is skeptical. He knows the reputation Saul has, that he has been hurting the followers of Jesus. But Jesus says to Ananias: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles … I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias does as directed, and tells Saul he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he prays and lays hands on Saul. As he does this, something the text describes as “like scales” falls from Saul’s eyes, and his sight is restored. He gets up, gets baptized, and regains his strength, and immediately begins to preach a message of Jesus in the synagogues - that Jesus is the Messiah. And everyone is astonished.
Why does God reach out to Paul in the way that he does on the road to Damascus? Jesus never, at least as the scriptures record, never speaks to anyone in this direct way again to start their journey of conversion, of changing a heart.. So why Paul? Certainly, God working in Paul to change his heart and then to use Paul to spread the message of Jesus is a powerful testament to the life and work and ministry of Jesus. Who better to use than a totally changed, totally transformed Paul? But I think we can envy Paul’s experience a little, when we think about trying to change our lives. It feels so easy for Paul in some ways. I mean, we could change our lives, turn around, go God’s way completely and wholeheartedly too if Jesus knocked us down on the road and spoke to us directly from heaven, right?
But here’s the thing. First, I think God is really going easy on when God helps us change our lives and hearts gradually, step by step. Most of us aren’t ready to completely give up control to God all at once, and God doesn’t require that of most of us all at once. God calls to us, nudges and lures us, is patient with us as we take one step forward and two back, loving us all along until we feel God’s love deep in our bones and let God’s love motivate the transformation of our hearts and lives. Paul’s own faith journey goes in fits and starts even with his dramatic beginning. He struggles with his faith, struggles with his ministry, struggles with discouragement and failure and setbacks too. But he knows that his new life is a promise from God he’s experienced because of Jesus at work in him, and because of that, he perseveres, and continues to let God shape him long past the road to Damascus.
Can we change? With God’s help, we can. Sometimes God’s help comes like a blinding light that causes the scales to fall from our eyes. Sometimes God’s help comes and helps us make the little changes, like the Beast did with Belle, slowly making room in his heart to give and receive love and kindness. Either way, any way, our job is to seek to live in a way that keeps us open to God’s transformational work in us, ready to participate with God’s power to change us, ready to nurture what God does in our lives, to tend to our tender, freshly changed lives.
Can we change? I’ve been keeping a journal since I was in fifth grade. And sometimes, when I feel discouraged, I’ll read through some of my entries from over the years. Sure, some things I struggle with I’ve been struggling with since my first entries. But I can also find in the pages my journey into ministry, my faith maturing over the years, my growing to understand who I am and who God has called me to be, the times that I’ve taken risks and had God see me through, or times that I’ve failed but been loved by God and community anyway, and been able to keep at it, keep working to grow into who God knows I can be. Friends, God is at work in you too, and I know that the hand of God on your life has changed you. We can’t help but be changed by God’s touch on our lives. Trusting that, the more we open our hearts to God, the more we’ll find the new life we seek. Amen.