Sermon for January 13th, 2019
11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.
1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Faith & Film VII: Mary Poppins Returns
Three Minute Film Summary
The original Mary Poppins film ends with the Banks family (Mr. and Mrs. Banks, and their children Michael and Jane) flying a kite in the local park. 54 years later in our time, 25 years later in theirs, the Banks children have fallen on hard times. Jane and Michael Banks have grown up and together are caring for Michael's children, Annabel, John, and Georgie. Their mother, Michael's wife has recently passed away, and the Banks' home on Cherry Tree Lane is threatened with foreclosure by the very bank that Michael (like his father before him) works for.
On a windy day in the park, the older two children, Annabel and John, lose their youngest brother, Georgie, as he chases after his kite (which happens to be the very same kite from the original movie). A friendly lamplighter (or "leerie") named Jack helps Georgie to reel the kite back in, and as the clouds part in a glorious burst of sunshine, we see descending from the sky, kite in hand, none other than Mary Poppins, who explains that she has come to look after the Banks children once again.
What follows are several fantastical, musical, dance-filled adventures in this world as well as well as imagined ones, as Mary Poppins, along with Jack the leerie, and the children, and a whole host of characters (animated and otherwise) help the Banks family to put their house, their family, their finances--and most importantly, their outlook on life--together again.
Darkness and Light
If all this sounds a lot like the original Mary Poppins movie, that's because it is--it follows a lot of the same cues, especially in the songs and dance numbers, and the costumes and characters. But there are some striking differences when it comes to the tone of the film and some of the plot points.
I want to pause here and make a small point about why we do this film series every year: I've always believed that the stories we tell (and go see) as a culture often tell us more about ourselves (our fears, our hopes, our dreams) than they do about the story itself. This is especially true of stories that are told and retold in different eras.
I watched the original Mary Poppins film and this new one back to back--and I couldn't help but noticing that where the first film was whimsical, lighthearted, and a little meandering...this newer film was dark. Throughout the film, a gray fog permeates the streets of London. They key scenes in the film (in the beginning, middle, and end) all take place in the dark of night. In the original film, all of the animated sequences were bright and cheery--and while that's often the case in this film, too, the darkness (and some pretty menacing animated villains) finds its way into even the animated sequences.
In the original film, Mary and the children visit her Uncle Albert, whose affliction is that he suffers from unstoppable laughter that causes him (and then the children) to float to the ceiling. In Mary Poppins Returns, Mary and the children visit her cousin Topsy--her affliction is more disturbing: Every second Wednesday, her entire world turns upside down (topsy turvy) and, in her words, "everything turns turtle."
In fact, the entire plot of this new film is driven by the heart-wrenching loss of a mother and wife, by the despair of a father who is lost, children who have had to grow up too soon, and by the looming threat of financial ruin in difficult times. Sound familiar? This movie says a lot about who we are right now, and what we're feeling.
But...(remember this is a Disney film)...it's also a movie about hope in hopeless situations, and in that sense it's also just the message we need to hear. In all of the darkness of this movie, there are tiny pricks of light. Through Mary's cousin Topsy, she teaches the children that when the world turns upside down...turn with it. Adapt.
In the original film, Mary Poppins' sidekick was Bert, the chimney sweep. In this film, it's Jack the Leerie. I think this is significant. A leery is a lamplighter--someone who lights a small light in the darkness. And that's a very Christian theme--the gospels are full of passages about the light shining in the darkness, and not hiding your light, but letting it shine for the world to see.
The following clip is a behind the scenes look at one of the song and dance numbers, appropriately called "Trip a Little Light Fantastic. But pay special attention to the contrast of light and darkness, and to the director's words about what he's doing with this number.
In the course of doing research for this sermon, I came across a fascinating online article from a Catholic film reviewer, who compared the original Mary Poppins to Mary, the mother of Jesus--going through a long list of similarities. By the end of the article, I was pretty convinced.
But in this newer, darker film, the character of Mary Poppins reminds me more of an Old Testament Prophet. Like the Prophets of old, Mary "Pops in" (hence her last name) and pops out of the story when the main characters have lost their way. She performs miraculous acts that redirect them, and points them (literally in the words of one of the songs) to the "blessings that come from above."
Specifically, she reminds me of the prophet Jeremiah, known as the "weeping prophet" because he ministered to the children of Israel after the fall of Jerusalem, when many had lost loved ones, lost their homes, and lost their hope in God. Jeremiah spoke the words of comfort found in today's scripture passage: "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."
This is similar to the message of hope Mary Poppins brings to the Banks family, and her constant reminders to them that what is lost is not forgotten, that what is broken can be mended, and (in the following clip) that all things are possible, even the impossible (which also happens to be something that Jesus said).
Childhood Lost and Regained
In the original film, the Banks children are clearly...children, and it is their father, Mr. Banks, who must rediscover his inner child. But in this film, especially at the beginning, the (new) Banks children come across as tiny, super responsible adults--they have been forced to grow up quickly after the death of their mother, and to care for their father as he grieves. Mary Poppins helps them to regain their sense of wonder and imagination, their childishness and whimsy. And (like the original film) in the process their father manages to rediscover his childhood, too. There's a great scene near the end of the film where the father, Michael Banks, takes a balloon from the balloon lady in the park (wonderfully played by Angela Lansbury) and looking deep into his soul, she asks him, "Have you forgotten?" At first he seems puzzled and says, "You mean how to hold a balloon?" To which she replies, "No...what it's like to be a child?"
Likewise, Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 18 that if you want to enter into the kingdom of heaven, you have to be able to "change and become like children." In other words, you have to be able to see the world with the humble faith and imagination of a small child. And sure enough, as the characters in Mary Poppins Returns take their balloons from the balloon lady, rediscovering their inner child, they begin to float and soar into the heavens, singing the final song "Nowhere to go but up."
This is a Disney film, so of course there is a happy ending--but I think it's a more nuanced happy ending for a more nuanced era. Some of the problems are resolved, but not others. The Banks family is able to save their house from foreclosure, but their mother is still gone, and they must learn to adapt and find comfort in each other and in her memory. The world remains a difficult, "topsy turvy" place, but they learn to adapt their perspective (there's nowhere to go but up). The gray fog and the darkness of difficult times remain, but they learn to be small lights shining in that darkness.
May we learn from their story, and see our own gospel reflected within it. May we too, find hope in the midst of despair, be lights shining in the darkness, and with the faith and innocence of God's children, may we look to the heavens, where both our blessings and our future await.