by: Denise Robinson
The Bible Meets Broadway: Mary Poppins
Luke 12:13-23, 34; Mark 12:41-44
I wasn’t very old when I first saw the Disney movie, “Mary Poppins.” There was singing, dancing, magic, and laughter. Who among us wouldn’t want a practically perfect nanny with a bottomless carpet bag filled with furniture and clothes and games and books and everything you can imagine? This week we continue our sermon series, The Bible Meets Broadway, looking at the Broadway musical Mary Poppins. Although the show ran for more 2,600 performances on Broadway, the story still is best known from the beloved 1964 Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. But that wasn’t where Mary got her start. The magical English nanny was the creation of P.L. Travers, whose real name was Helen Goff. She wrote a series of 8 books based on the character that sold moderately well, until Walt Disney persuaded her to make the nannie who kept popping in and out into a movie star.
The story of Mary Poppins, whether from the book, movie, or musical, offers some important lessons for children and adults. Here is a woman who comes floating down to earth from the clouds to live with a normal family and show them, and us, a different way. Mary Poppins offers hope on hope on hope. And she does it with fun and with song. She spends time with the outcast and lowly Bert and the other chimney sweeps; she feeds the poor; she performs miracles; she sees the heart in other people; and she can let herself go to enjoy the moment of laughing on the ceiling with Uncle Albert. She transforms the hearts of the Banks family to see that material possessions are meaningless in the face of what love means. You see the biblical parallels, don’t you? I have always thought of Mary Poppins as a favorite kids’ movies. It’s a kids’ movie. And then it doesn’t take long to realize that this is a great movie for all of us, whatever our age.
Like, never judge by appearances. Mary Poppins also tried to teach the children in her charge how to handle things they didn’t like to do. It’s a lesson many of us adults struggle with and one we try to teach our children. When we find ourselves complaining about something that needs doing, I suppose we could sing a verse of “A Spoonful of Sugar (Makes the Medicine go Down),” and get on with it, whatever it is. There’s a long list of biblical lessons that Mary Poppins tries to teach her young charges, but the one that I think is most important is also the one we humans, young and old, seem to have the hardest time learning: It is better to be kind than be right. Julie Andrews holds a snow globe as she sings this lesson and, in the globe, we see St. Paul’s Cathedral and an old beggar woman who sits on the steps selling bags of breadcrumbs for two pence a bag. The children’s banker father had discouraged feeding the birds and giving handouts to beggars. He may have been right in some sense, but Mary understood that it was much more important for the children to learn to be kind. So, she sang the beautiful song that Christina sang for us: “Feed the Birds.” Making kindness, mercy, and generosity a lifestyle is not a natural thing. It requires that the Holy Spirit rewire our hearts. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, puts the Gospel lesson like this: “To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. … Live generously. Here is a simple rule of thumb: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our God lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. God is kind; you be kind. Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”
Robert Sherman, who, with his brother Richard, wrote “Feed the Birds” recalled that: On Fridays, after work, Walt Disney would often invite us into his office and we’d talk about things that were going on at the Studio. After a while, he’d wander to the north window, look out into the distance and just say, “Play it.” And Dick would wander over to the piano and play “Feed the Birds” for him. One time, just as Dick was almost finished, under his breath, I heard Walt say, “Yep. That’s what it’s all about.” This is the metaphor for the whole film. Kindness to those who don’t earn it, or deserve it and can’t repay it, may be the metaphor for the Christian life itself. Oh, we talk a lot about love, but we usually mean something we FEEL. What Jesus is trying to teach us, and what Mary Poppins reminds us, is that ultimately what we do matters. That is why Jesus keeps talking about how we treat our enemies. We are never going to feel good about them, but we still are expected to behave with charity, mercy, and compassion. It isn’t how we FEEL about them; it is how we treat them that proves what kind of people we are. “Feed the Birds” makes us sad because the Sherman Brothers' analogy makes us think of all those occasions when we haven't extended the hand of friendship to others who needed it, even we would have suffered no great detriment in making a positive difference to the life of another human being.
Today, however, our Scripture readings take us to another biblical truth in Mary Poppins, one that focuses upon the father, Mr. Banks. Mr. Banks is always in control, Mr. Banks always knows what to say, Mr. Banks always knows what is best. And what is best is to have a certain reputation, have money, have a position in society. As you can tell, it’s all about having. This is what Mr. Banks wants his children to learn – and that means you don’t associate with certain people, you don’t give money to feed birds, and you don’t fly kites in the park like common children. In Luke 12, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd numbering in the thousands and he is speaking with them. In vv. 6-7, his teaching to the crowd reminds us again of the song “Feed the Birds,” when he says: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.” But then, as Jesus continues speaking, someone in the crowd interrupts and asks Jesus as a teacher, one with authority, to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. It’s an odd place to make such a request; it doesn’t fit in with anything Jesus has been talking about to this point. On the one hand, Jewish law clearly mandated that a family inheritance was to be divided. But, on the other, here we have a person sitting in the presence of Jesus, able to ask Jesus anything, and the concern is money. I want what’s mine. Jesus, who understands the motivation behind the question, responds: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” From there, Jesus immediately launches into a parable or teaching story – a rich man has more crops than he can store. What is the solution to his problem? He could give the grain to those in need or even sell it to them at a reduced price. Instead, he decides to build larger barns so he can keep the grain for himself; it will take care of him and his family for years to come. Now he can relax, eat, drink, and be merry. Except, as Jesus reminds him, he is a fool. The man, rich though he is, has no guarantee that he will live all those years. If his life is taken that night, what good will it be that he stored all that grain. It won’t help him and it won’t help anyone else. Reminiscent of “Feed the Birds,” Jesus then reminds them that life is more than what we have, what we possess – life is about us living for the kingdom of God, giving to others in need and trusting God for what we need. And then in that well-known verse, 34, Jesus says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Where is your heart? In our sermon text for today, Mark 12:41-44, Jesus is again teaching and the illustration comes from watching people come and put money into the treasury. The treasury was in the Temple in Jerusalem; inside of the Temple, at the entrances, there were chests or boxes set out for money to be given – Temple taxes had to be paid and offerings were also gathered to pay Temple expenses and then perhaps, if any was left over, it would be used for the care of the poor. As Jesus watches, he sees rich people come and put in large sums of money. Then he sees a poor widow come up and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. I can only imagine how the widow felt that day in the Temple, watching the others pass by on their way to the collection box, all dressed up in their fine clothes. As she watched them donate large sums of money to the Temple funds, making sure everyone noticed their generosity, I wouldn’t be surprised if she felt embarrassed and inadequate. All she had to offer was a tiny amount – it hardly seemed worth her while. She could have held onto her money out of shame that she had nothing more to offer. She could have kept it for food or other necessities. She could have left the Temple behind forever, feeling that she didn’t belong with all these people who had so much more to give. But instead, she chose to offer what she had. Quietly she dropped in her two little coins and went on her way – thinking no one would notice. But God did.
Two small coins that were together were worth one penny. How many times have you walked through a parking lot or down a sidewalk, seen a penny, and passed by without picking it up? Why? Because it wasn’t worth the trouble to bend over and pick it up. But Jesus calls his disciples and in vv. 33-34 says: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” There are a few things to notice about these verses. First, Jesus sees what each gave and what each could give. He knew, God knows, what we give to others and to the church and what we keep back for ourselves. Second, Jesus knew the motivation of those who gave. Jesus doesn’t criticize those who are rich for being rich, nor does he criticize them for the size of their gifts. But he does look at the heart and in so doing commends the contribution of the widow, not for the amount, but for her heart for God. The message is that our giving should be abundant based on what we have, come from a heart of love and thankfulness to God rather than from a sense of obligation, and show our trust in God that God will meet our needs even as we give. Where our treasure is, there is our heart. Where is your heart this morning?
In the movie, Jane and Michael Banks had had enough of nannies hired by their parents. They had run off several. When a police officer returns them to the family home, they drag in the damaged kite they had been trying to fly in the park. Mr. Banks strengthens his resolve to hire the authoritarian nanny he believes the children require. So, Mary Poppins arrives, promising to be firm and lay down the ground rules. But soon, she and the children go on fanciful adventures by jumping into the sidewalk art where they discover another world; by being sucked up through the chimney and dancing on rooftops of London; by snapping fingers and making the toys put themselves away. Mr. Banks has none of it. It’s just not possible; the world doesn’t work that way. And, even if it were possible, it is simply not a good idea. Life for Mr. Banks is about structure and rules and not wasting time on such things as flying a kite. It takes the children to first recognize the transformation that Mary Poppins brings into their lives. Slowly and not at all easily, Mr. and Mrs. Banks understand that their lives have been changed forever. They have learned to see with their hearts, to believe that there is more to life than position and money. They have learned they need to live more gratefully, love more openly, and give out of generosity. And though he was once lost, Mr. Banks comes back to the house with a repaired kite and the enthusiasm to spend the afternoon in the park with the family. He has found his heart.