(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
To listen to the message, download it here. To read along, please see below.
Last Sunday during our communal prayer time, one of you offered up a thought and prayer for those who experience depression during the holidays. As most of us know, feelings of stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and regret are often strong at this time of year. We convince ourselves that we have to find the perfect gift for loved ones, that our homes must be decorated just right, that meals should be planned with care and that we should be filled with the joy and excitement of the season. All around us people seem happy – celebrating the season and the end of a year filled with blessings. Often, such perceived happiness contrasts with our own sense that life is not perfect, joyful or successful.
And it is interesting that the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a holiday classic because it is actually a dark, depressing and often sad film. It begins with hope and promise – and it does end on an upbeat note – but the body of the movie echoes many of our despondent feelings at this time of year. Indeed, the film is set during the 1930’s depression period and seems to confirm all of the worst aspects of American life – that it is a hard, dog-eat-dog struggle just to survive. One film critic at the time of the movie’s release noted that Frank Capra, as the film’s director, showed us how the American dream can too often be an American nightmare. Capra admitted in an interview, however, that his primary purpose in making the film was to counter the rising trend of Atheism in America. For him, there was and is a loving God who is active in our lives and whose ultimate design is for our well-being and happiness.
After a life of dashed hopes and deferred dreams, George Bailey discovers that the bank he oversees is missing $8000.00, on the very day a bank auditor is to arrive. Bitter at how his life has turned out and seeing no way out of his current troubles, George proceeds to a bridge and almost jumps off it as a way to commit suicide. He’s rescued, however, by his guardian angel Clarence who ironically jumps off the bridge first. George forgets his own suicidal intentions and rescues Clarence – thereby at least temporarily saving himself. Even so, he soon thereafter mutters to Clarence that he wishes he had never been born – his life being one of unrealized hopes, empty promises, endless drudgery and now almost total ruin.
It is fitting that George saves himself by saving someone else. And that is the story of his life. Like some of us who try to always be the likable and dutiful Boy or Girl Scout – always doing the right thing – George is the consummate “Do Gooder.” He dreams of leaving small town Bedford Falls and making his mark in Europe or other exotic places – only to take over the small town family bank when his dad unexpectedly dies. With money tight, he foregoes college so that his brother Harry can go. He saves the life of his brother and the reputation of the drunken town pharmacist who nearly poisons a customer. He and his new wife cancel a long planned honeymoon by using their savings to cover the withdrawal demands of bank customers caught in depression era financial panic. He settles into a life of a small town banker, making little money, just so that community members can buy homes and start businesses. He buys an old house that is in constant need of repair. He and his wife have several children with their own continual needs. Life for George seems to be one long struggle of doing the right thing while forsaking his own joy. What seems like the last straw in a life of setbacks, George’s bungling uncle loses an $8000 deposit and George is faced with the end of his bank, financial ruin and possible prison.
As George’s guardian angel, Clarence is ordered by his heavenly superiors to help George see the so-called light. In this way, Capra reveals his stated purpose for making the film. Life is indeed difficult and it is a struggle for so many people. But, as Capra takes pains to show, God allegedly intervenes in our behalf. God intends for our good, according to Capra, and he actively works to defeat evil and promote general well-being. Clarence, the guardian angel, takes George on a unique journey to show him what life would be like had George’s wish come true – that he had never been born. An alternate universe opens up for George – one where his brother is dead because there was no George to save him, and his wife is a lonely, unmarried spinster because there was no George to fall in love with her. Bedford Falls is unrecognizable because it lacks the homes and businesses George’s bank helped finance. Indeed, it is no longer Bedford Falls but, instead, “Pottersville” – a sinister place of seedy bars and rampant crime, owned and controlled by the greedy tycoon capitalist Henry Potter.
As Clarence tells George, he is offered a unique gift. He is given the opportunity to see what life would be like had he never existed. What George discovers is that the world and life in general would be dramatically different had he not been born. Clarence says to George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. And when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” And that is ultimately the message of the movie and of my message today.
Every single one of us are, like George Bailey, agents of change. We exert strong power over time and space. Any one of our actions or words alters the course of our lives and, usually, the lives of many others. As I often say, and as a foundation of my theology, we do not honor and celebrate a supernatural god that controls the universe. Instead, God is us and it is WE who are uniquely called to help build a better world. Here at the Gathering we celebrate the god power in each person – the potential for goodness, altruism, compassion and generosity that dwells in EVERY heart.
Humans are not mere puppets manipulated by a great deity from above. We choose, like George Bailey, the life we lead and the legacy we leave behind. Our lives have a purpose and a meaning to change the course of history – in good ways or bad. It is up to us – every one of us – to be the god force that is active, alive and powerful in this world. God is us. We are god.
And, surprisingly, it was Jesus who taught this very idea. As written in the Biblical book of John, he reminded a group of Jews that Scripture itself tells us that we are ALL gods. During one of his visits to Jerusalem, pious but hypocritical Jews demanded that Jesus offer proof that he was the Messiah. Instead of answering them, Jesus referred them to an often forgotten Psalm where God tells humanity that they should “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked. You are gods; you are all sons and daughters of the Most High.”
Jesus reminded the Jewish doubters of his own acts of compassion and called them to heed these words of the Divine. They are to be gods. They are to work in our world to make it better just as he, Jesus, had been doing. Instead of yearning for a Messiah to save them from an evil filled world, Jesus implicitly told them to get to work! You’re god! You’re to be your own messiah! Stop piously sitting on your hands while praying for a perfect world. Get out there and BE god by rescuing the poor, the hurting, the outcast, lonely, depressed and marginalized people in life. Stop dreaming about heaven. Go out and build it!
And ironically that is just what the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” teaches us. Instead of telling us that it is God who intervenes in our world to make it better, we are shown that it is George Bailey and people like him who make the real difference. George is flabbergasted at the darker world he sees would have resulted without him. Instead of continuing to despair over an unfulfilled life that seemed empty of excitement, George finally understands the wonder and beauty of his own life of impact. He’s shown the joy he gives his wife and friends, the promise he offers his children, the courage he’s offered his brother, the humility and decency he practices for his community, and the moral purpose of his life-long stand against heartless and rampant greed. By every life choice, by every small deed, by every gesture, word and thought, George had dropped a pebble into the pond of life – sending out ripples and waves of impact that helped create a richer, kinder and better world. At the end of the film George understands that far from being a hopeless, meaningless and joyless life, it is instead quite wonderful!
By each of our small acts in behalf of others, history is constantly rewritten and life becomes a wondrous journey of purpose. We are NOT bystanders or puppets in the drama of life, but living gods and goddesses who impact other lives and, indeed, all eternity by our simple acts of kindness and service.
The film, then, reminds us of many stories about making a difference in our world. I’m reminded of the old fable about a young boy and an old man who come across a very long beach filled with thousands of starfish, all washed ashore and slowly dying in the heat of the sun. The old man stooped down and began to pick up starfish, one by one, and tossed them as far as he could back into the ocean. The young boy, with tears in his eyes, looked up at the old man and said, “But, sir, look around us at all of this death. Thousands are dying. What difference can you make?” The old man smiled, patted the boy on the head and reached down again to pick up a starfish and throw it back into the sea. “Ah, you see my young friend, I have just made all the difference in the world for that one starfish.”
So too are we reminded of actual persons in history who dropped small pebbles in the pond of life. In the midst of one of the greatest horrors perpetrated by mankind against fellow humans, when over six million people were systematically slaughtered during the holocaust, only a few people morally stood above the rest.
Outside of the Auschwitz death camp, Oskar Schindler operated a factory producing war goods. His factory employed Jews relocated from homes across Europe to the horrors of Auschwitz. But Schindler fought and argued for every Jew in his employ and on his special list of factory workers. As long as they were one of his employees, they were protected and they would not be killed.
Stories are told of the Auschwitz camp commandant Amon Goeth, who for pleasure used a sniper rifle to shoot and kill young children in the camp yards. Or, how he would turn loose his two German Shepherd dogs to tear apart – limb by limb – Jews who displeased him. In one incident, the commandant came across a man in Schindler’s factory who was crying uncontrollably. He was told the man despaired over the deaths of his wife and children who had just been sent to the gas chamber. Goeth told the man he would help him then and there join his family in eternity. He aimed his gun at the man and sadistically ordered him to drop his pants and begin running. Schindler looked out his office window and saw what was happening. “Stop!” He shouted. “You’re hurting the morale of my workers which hurts the cause of the fatherland.” Goeth ignored Schindler and continued to take aim at the trembling man. In desperation, Schindler called out to Goeth and promised him a bottle of Schnapps if he would spare the man. Finally, Goeth complied. The man survived the war.
Another Schindler Jew was Murray Puntierer who also survived Auschwitz, emigrated to the US and founded a construction company in New Jersey that eventually employed thousands and built hundreds of homes and businesses. Puntierer named 21 New Jersey streets and even a public plaza after Schindler. He often reminded others that it was not he to thank for their homes and jobs, but Oskar Schindler for saving his life.
Near the end of the war, over five thousand Jews whom Schindler had saved gathered around to give him a handmade ring with a Hebrew inscription on it: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” One man, five thousand pebbles dropped in the pond of life, and the course of history is changed in countless ways for the better.
I do not believe any of us are so naive or so simple as to believe that life is not harsh and cruel. Just within our own congregation, people hurt, worry, are lonely, frightened and have major health challenges. How, for them or for many, many others in our world, can it be a merry Christmas or a happy holiday? Such words too often seem hollow and trite.
But the message of the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” and of Christmas itself is that any one of us, no matter our age, health or condition, has a meaning and purpose in life. The Christmas story of a poor young child, born out of wedlock in a backward and insignificant corner of the world, is that one person CAN make a difference in the lives of countless others. Much like Jesus, one person has the power to speak words of truth and compassion; one person has the power to touch and heal; one person has the power to give and share; one person has the power to uplift and ennoble the weak, outcast and marginalized; one person – in doing any or all of these things – has the power to change the world.
You, me, all of us do not lead hopeless and empty lives. Indeed, we must BE the living embodiment of hope to others. We’re the light, we’re the god or goddess, and we’re the source of tolerance, joy, kindness and generosity in the lives of our families, friends and strangers. We have the god power to inspire others by our example, to serve by our hands, to forgive by our humility, to comfort by our love, and to soothe by our kind words. From the moment we emerge into this noisy and confusing world and until the time we slip into the light of eternity, we each have a purpose. Heaven on earth is our vision, working to build it is our task and celebrating the wonders of life is our motto. This Christmas, this New year and all the days each of us have left, may we live, act and speak as the gods and goddesses we were created to be. Let us drop our own pebbles into the pond of life and send out ripples of goodness into the far reaches of space and time…
I wish you all much holiday peace, hope and joy.
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