Four years ago, when I was still getting my feet on the ground as your new pastor, I preached a sermon on Groundhog Day. Last week, as I was looking ahead at my preaching schedule, I happened to notice that this year Groundhog Day falls on a Sunday: today, in fact. I started wondering if I shouldn’t dust off that old sermon and preach it again. As it happened, that evening I had a choir rehearsal, so I decided to take an informal poll of our choir members. Would they prefer to hear that old sermon, or a new one? The results were unanimous, which is why today’s sermon will be Groundhog Day, Again. And if that would not have been your choice, well, you can blame the choir.
Groundhog Day is not an especially prominent event in our theological calendar. In fact, it’s not a theological event at all. When I did a little research into the day, I discovered something I had not known before. There are actually lots of Groundhog Day celebrations around the country, and each one has their own unique groundhog. In Ohio they have “Buckeye Chuck.” Georgia has “General Beauregard Lee.” In Alabama it’s Smith Lake Jake. And then there’s “Staten Island Chuck,” Sir Walter Wally, Dunkirk Dave and Peewee the Woodchuck. Not to mention, in Canada, “Balzac Billy, Wiraton Willie, and Shubenacadie Sam.” That’s quite a collection. And all of these “rodent meteorologists” as one wag put it, are famous for predicting the weather for the last few weeks of winter.
The original, in this country anyway, is Punxsutawney Phil from Punxsutawney Pennsylvania, where they trace the Groundhog Day tradition all the way back to 1887. According to the History Channel website:
Groundhog Day has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas Day, when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on this concept by selecting an animal – the hedgehog – as a means of predicting weather. Once they came to America, German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition, although they switched from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful in the Keystone State.
Now, I wouldn’t normally pay too much attention to something like this, not professionally anyway; not personally either for that matter. But, as you probably know, back in 1993 a movie came out starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell that became one of my all time favorites; Groundhog Day. The movie tells a story about Phil. Not Punxsutawney Phil, although the groundhog does make several appearances. This is a story about Phil Connors. Phil is a weatherman with a TV station in Pittsburg. Every year, for the sake of its human interest value, he is sent upstate to the little town of Punxsutawney to report the weather live from Gobbler’s Knob. Phil has had this assignment for four years, and he is clearly sick of it.
We don’t get very far into the story before we have Phil’s number. He is a cynical, bored, burned out and deeply self-centered person. Throughout the day in Punxsutawney he goes through the motions of his job in his usual sarcastic way, making snide comments about the Groundhog, the townspeople, his film crew and life in general. At the end of the day he climbs into the van with his crew to return to Pittsburg. However, a blizzard moves in forcing them to return to Punxsutawney for the night, and that’s when the fun begins.
Phil wakes up to what he naturally assumes is the next morning, only to discover that it’s Groundhog Day all over again. He is confused and disoriented. No one else seems to realize that Groundhog Day had already been and gone. Somehow he has gotten stuck, like a needle on an old record. He stumbles through the same events and experiences he’d already had on the previous day with an increasing sense of panic. Finally, he falls into an exhausted sleep. But the next morning, that same Groundhog Day starts all over again. He sees a Doctor, then a Psychiatrist. He begs his producer to get him some help, but nothing works. He wakes up the next day, and the day after, and the day after that without making any progress. No matter what he does, his alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m. sharp. Sonny and Cher are on the radio singing “I Got You Babe,” and it is still Groundhog Day.
At first this is a living nightmare, but eventually he begins to adjust. At one point he is getting drunk with a couple of men he meets at the bowling alley. Phil, in a philosophical mood, asks them a question. “What if there were no tomorrow?” One of the men answers him in this way. “No tomorrow? That would mean there’d be no consequences. There’d be no hangovers. We could do whatever we wanted.” For Phil this is an epiphany. The lights have suddenly been turned on. No consequences! If there are no consequences, then he is free to cast off any and all restraints and become the completely self-indulgent person he really wants to be, and that’s exactly what he does.
He proceeds to crash around town in his friend’s car, all the while chattering on about his newfound freedom. “It’s the same thing your whole life,” he says. “Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don’t mix beer and wine, ever. And, oh yeah,” he says, steering the car straight into the path of an oncoming train “don’t drive on the railroad tracks.” Phil proceeds to do all the things he has ever been told not to do. He does get arrested and thrown in jail, but the next morning it’s Sonny and Cher on the radio. Groundhog Day all over again. There are no consequences, or so he believes.
But, day after day, as he goes about doing whatever he feels like––cramming his face with doughnuts, being rude to just about everyone, manipulating women into sleeping with him, even robbing a bank––his life continues to be a meaningless and endless series of days in which nothing really matters and nothing really changes. Self indulgence, he discovers, is ultimately empty and boring.
Finally, he can’t take it anymore. He trades in self-indulgence for despair and he decides to end it all. Phil snatches the groundhog right off of Gobbler’s Knob and then drives himself and Punxsutawney Phil spectacularly off a cliff. But in the morning, it’s still Groundhog Day. Nothing has changed. Phil proceeds to kill himself in about twenty different ways––jumping off a building, running in front of a truck, electrocuting himself––but nothing works. He is still stuck in Groundhog Day. Not only are their no consequences, there is also no escape; at least not in the direction he has been looking.
Finally, Phil sits down with his producer, Rita, and explains what has been happening to him: how he has been cursed by the fates to relive Groundhog Day endlessly. But Rita has a different take on it. “I don’t know Phil,” she says. “Sometimes I wish I had 1000 lifetimes. Maybe it’s not a curse. Maybe it just depends on how you look at it.”
Once again, Phil has an epiphany, and having nothing to lose, he decides to give it a try. He’s still stuck in Groundhog Day, but his whole attitude changes. He starts living for other people instead of just for himself. He searches around town for people to help. He gives money to a beggar he had always avoided. He fixes a flat tire for a carful of older women. He even catches a boy who has been falling out of a tree, day after day. Gradually, Phil begins to come out of himself. We get to watch as his life gradually transforms into a thing of beauty, compassion and creativity. Nothing has really changed except the way he chooses to respond to what has always been happening around him. Finally, after a long and beautiful day with Rita, he says to her, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.” The next morning, he wakes up and the spell is broken. Groundhog Day is over, and he can go on to live the rest of his life, which he does … with Rita … in Punxsutawney.
I love this story. Part of what I love about it, is that it’s a true story. It’s not historically true, probably. But it is true emotionally and spiritually. Have you ever felt like your life was stuck in a rut? Have you ever found yourself living the same patterns, beliefs and behaviors day after day, over and over again? Of course you have. It happens to all of us sometimes. And when life gets like that for us, it’s so easy to
become wrapped up in cynicism, self-indulgence and despair. And when that happens, the days may click by on the calendar, but as far as any real change or growth is concerned, it might as well be Groundhog Day, over and over again.
But fortunately there is a way out. It’s the same way that Phil Connors finally discovered in the movie. It’s the same way that has always been commended to us by our faith. As Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me….. What does it profit us if we gain the whole world, but forfeit our souls in the process? … Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” If we wanted to put it a different way, we might say it like this: those who live only for their own gratification are bound to become trapped in a meaningless existence. But those who discover the grace of living for others will find in self-giving what they could never have found in self-indulgence.
This is one of the great paradoxes of our human lives. We cannot live fully, we cannot live abundantly, so long as we live only for ourselves. Abundant life is a life lived for the love of God and for the love of the people and the world God has given into our hands. As Saint Francis said, “It is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in dying to ourselves, that we are born to eternal life.” So, maybe Groundhog Day is a theological event after all. Maybe it can remind us that sometimes we need to lose our lives, in order to find them.