Monsieur Hulot and the fools


Sermon for July 31st, 2022


Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

One of my favorite filmmakers of all time is the French director Jacques Tati. Probably his most famous movie is Mon Oncle, or “My Uncle,” but there is also Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Traffic, and his masterpiece which is called “Playtime.” If you get the chance, go and watch them. They are hysterical and you don’t need to speak French, because not only are they subtitled, but there is very little dialogue in the first place and it really doesn’t matter. Most of the humor is visual and auditory. 

Tati was most active in the 60s during a time of immense cultural change in post-war Western Europe, and the central character in his movies, Monsieur Hulot, with his characteristic hat, trenchcoat, umbrella and pipe, which Tati always played himself, he stands at the crossroads of two different worlds: the very messy ancient world of tradition and community; the old-world France of villages and street vendors and dilapidated buildings, and the new emerging modern France of super highways, steel skyscrapers, and clean sanitized suburbs. Monsieur Hulot is a product of the old world, and his encounters with the new world are a revelation of the absurdities of modern living. Because no matter how hard humans try to make things better, they usually just end up making them a bit worse, at least in Tati’s world. Now maybe that sounds depressing to you, but the movies really are hysterically funny, or at least I think they are and it could be because I identify with Monsieur Hulot. I feel out of place in the modern world too. I too am very skeptical of anything that gets labeled “new” or “progress.” 

The people in Monsieur Hulot’s old-world live in a bit of a mess, but it is a mess filled with meaning and purpose and everyday joys: little boys playing pranks and eating bits of sugary dough fried by a street vendor, old ladies haggling over vegetables, old men arguing at a local cafe, stray dogs and cats running around cobblestone streets, sunshine, grass and birds singing. The inhabitants of the new world? They live in a mess too, only they don’t realize it because they are so enamored with their ideas of progress. But their world is filled with cranes and jackhammers, and traffic jams and is made of plastic, steel and glass. In one film, Playtime, which is set in Paris, the only time you see any of the famous Paris monuments like the Arc de Triomph or the Eiffel Tower, are brief reflections in the glass windows of sterile, modern buildings. It could be any city anywhere: there’s no style, no local character or culture. So much for the bright future that humans are making for themselves. The people in Tati’s films that are obsessed with living in the future, walk right past the immense beauty that is right in front of them. Monsieur Hulot is regarded as something of a fool in each of these films, but Jacques Tati is only using him to show you who the real fools are. 

The real fools are the people who cannot see the beauty in the world, as it is. But you don’t have to be living in the modern world to be that kind of a fool. There have always been people in the world that are so obsessed with a theoretical, idealized future that they miss the very real, very beautiful life that is going on all around them. One of my favorite books in the Old Testament, probably in all of scripture is the Book of Ecclesiastes, which we heard excerpts from this morning. 

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I had to work all my life to build something for the future, only to have to die and leave it to people who didn’t work for it, and may not respect it, care for it, or use it wisely. What a waste. So I despaired about that, and then realized that despairing was a waste of energy too. 

Now you may think that Ecclesiastes sounds depressing, but I find it to be liberating. It is liberating, because you know what, the future can be a golden idol that people bow down to and worship. The future can be a false God that people make the most astounding sacrifices to. How many evils have been perpetrated in our world in the name of some idealized, theoretical future? All of the “isms” that have tried to rule our world: Communism, Naziism, Fascism, Socialism, Capitalism, Consumerism…all of those isms, all of them, have shown themselves willing to tolerate and even perpetrate horrendous evils now for the sake of some theoretical future. All for the sake of progress. All for the sake of the new or the novel. But what happens if those theoretical future utopias never materialize? What you are left with is pointless suffering. That is what the teacher in Ecclesiastes sees: so much pointless suffering. It is pointless suffering that comes from trying to live in and exercise dominion over a world that does not belong to us. We do not live in the future, and it does not belong to us. The only thing we really have control over, in so far as we have any control at all, is the life we are living today; the decisions we make today; the joy and the meaning and the purpose that we find today. We may hope for tomorrow; we may dream about it; we may plan for it, we may try to make it better for those that inherit it, but we have to live today. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to us. 

That doesn’t mean that we ignore the future; that would just be giving up one type of foolishness for another. The decisions we make now, the life we live now will have an effect upon the future, we must always be mindful of that, but we have to recognize that it may not be our future, it might be someone else’s. But whether we live to see that future hope or dream or not, we have to recognize that it is the life we are living now, right now, that truly matters. We need to live with the future in sight, we need hope for the future, but we need to live now. We need to find joy today, not tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be a big joy, it can be a silly stupid joy. It can be the joy of a good cup of coffee or a piece of crusty bread or a baby’s smile or a momentary break in the humidity, but we need to identify it and cherish it. We need to find purpose today; it doesn’t need to be the grand purpose for your entire existence; it can be the purpose of cooking a good meal for your family, or fixing something that was broken, or telling a story to your grandkids. We need to love today, we need to repent today, we need to worship today…not tomorrow. Today is all that you have been promised. What are you doing with what God has given you today? 

If you think about it, greed is a sin that is really focused on tomorrow: what will I have tomorrow? What could I have tomorrow? Greed makes us lose sight of what we have today. Greed makes us dissatisfied with what we have today. That’s why, when Jesus wants to talk about greed, he tells a story about a man whose only thought is about the future; how to control his future. But as it turns out, the future didn’t belong to him; it belonged to God. All that the rich man accomplished was wasting the great gift of the present day that God had given him. That’s what greed does: greed promises us tomorrow if we will only sacrifice the joy and all the other gifts we have today. But it is a false promise, because greed is a false God. Tomorrow, the future, it is something we can have hope for, but it is not an idol that should be worshipped.

God has given you the gift of today, with all of its messy beauty. Can you embrace that beauty, that gift, like Monsieur Hulot, or are you only looking at a world filled with things that you plan to someday fix? Some people may think that Monsieur Hulot is a fool, but he knows who the real fools are.