(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Over the last two weeks, we’ve looked at this holiday film classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” from a few different angles. We talked two weeks ago about how the film helps to redefine what is considered to be a family. George Bailey comes to understand that family is not just those who are related to him by marriage or by blood but by affinity, shared experiences and mutual care. Family for George and for us are those whom we rely on in times of trouble – friends, associates, members of one’s faith community and even total strangers. As I said in my message two weeks ago, our real family members are the people in our lives related not by blood but by heart.
And last Sunday, we saw how the film shows us that small acts of kindness or service to others send out waves of influence far into the future – much like ripples created from dropping pebbles into a pond. George discovers in the movie what life would be like had he never been born – how his family, his friends and his community would be far worse if he had never lived – and thus changed through his big and small acts of influence. Our call is to live like George – to do our part by impacting the world for the better, and in our own way acting much like the little “g” gods we were created to be. God is not some outside influence controlling our lives, she or he is us and it is WE who are to work in helping to build a better world.
And consistent with those two themes from the movie is one from the clip we just saw. Far from being a man of power and wealth, George Bailey is an Everyman. He’s not college educated, rich or from a prestigious family. He’s a little guy who fights passionately for what he believes to be right – to help other average people, to speak against greed and indifference, and to promote opportunity for everyone.
George Bailey is the classic underdog in life who is up against strong forces of money and influence exemplified by the town tycoon, Henry Potter. What he discovers during the course of the film is that genuine strength comes not from being rich, well-armed or connected to people and positions of power. The paradox of the underdog is that strength comes from weakness, humility, gentleness and concern for others. George is the perfect Christmas hero – an underdog much like the historical person Jesus was – poor, uneducated, from a backward and insignificant town and born to equally poor, young and uneducated parents. Despite his flaws, his weaknesses, and his relative poverty, George discovers the innate power of his ethics, compassion and desire for basic justice. There is strength in weakness. There is power in being an underdog.
We find hundreds of examples of that fact in history and in popular culture like movies or books. Fictional and mythological underdogs abound. Hollywood loves them. As a few examples for us to consider from fiction and mythology, (show slide) Moses led his people out of slavery and into a promised land – despite his fears and lack of self-confidence. (show slide) The mythical David, as a symbol of the historically oppressed Jewish people, fought and conquered a much stronger Goliath. (show slide) Rocky Balboa is the classic underdog who fought and defeated much stronger boxing opponents. (show slide) Clark Kent is the fictional nerd and underdog whose alter-ego is Superman. (show slide) Captain Underpants is a contemporary cartoon character who, like many nerds and offbeat kids, fights against bullies and adults who taunt them. And, finally, (show slide) Rudolph is a classic fictional underdog – a symbol of those who are different and shunned by others. He nevertheless heroically saves Christmas.
From the pages of history are many other underdogs who altered the course of human life. (show slide) Gandhi was a man of small stature with unusual ideas about personal habits but who, by his non-violent protests and ideals, defeated the British Empire and forced it out of his native India. (show slide) Nelson Mandela fought white establishment and brought down South Africa’s apartheid system from a prison cell. (show slide) Abraham Lincoln is the archetype of an American underdog hero. Educated by himself and a small town lawyer of no wealth or prestige, Lincoln rose to the Presidency and navigated the nation through its most serious crisis. He had a deep sense of humility and self-effacing charm that acknowledged his underdog status. Once, when accused by an opponent of being two-faced, Lincoln quickly replied, “If I were two-faced, do you think I would wear the one I have on!?” (show slide) Martin Luther King, Jr. walked in the non-violent footsteps of Jesus and Gandhi to bring down American Jim Crow laws and inspire a nation.
Each of these fictional and historical underdogs found greatness not in money, status or military conquests but in their commitment to high ideals. They remind us of what we celebrate today – the birthday of a prophet, a teacher, a man of history who has profoundly impacted the world. One who, by his ideals and his teachings, radically influenced the way humanity thinks about violence, forgiveness and concern for fellow humans.
Whatever our beliefs about the Biblical Christmas story, we cannot ignore its essential message that each of us, in our ordinary or humble ways, can change the world for the better. As arguably the most influential person in human history, Jesus began, lived and ended his life as an underdog.
Jesus was a nobody who hung out with other so-called nobodies in his society – thieves, prostitutes, fishermen, lepers and women. He was described as ugly, scorned by the elites and a man of sorrow and depression. He did not promote the advantages of money or military might but advocated, instead, virtues of meekness, gentleness, forgiveness and non-violence. Far from being a warrior king of great physical power, he exerted influence through the power of his ideas, his compassion and his humility. Indeed, Christian author Philip Yancey once said that while the world celebrates wealth and influence – the heart of Jesus was with the poor, weak, hungry, sick and outcast.
We find from the story of Jesus, from fiction and from the examples of history that there is strength in weakness. There is power in being an underdog. There is greatness not in arrogance, but in lowliness, flawed humanity and a humble heart.
The irony of this fact is that as humans we strive to be strong, powerful and rich. We want to be seen as successful in the game of life – as winners and not losers. Too often, we instinctively celebrate brute strength or great knowledge over thoughtful introspection, war over deliberate negotiation, and ironclad conviction over compromise and cooperation.
Those who are underdogs, who are considered weak by the world’s standards, they often find their power in the ability to see the potential of others. People who are underdog heroes are not conflicted by their own flaws or diminished by the abilities of others. They offer the kind of grace and confidence to allow others to achieve and succeed according to each person’s individual strengths. Most importantly, underdog heroes have deeply rooted empathy for the struggle of others. Better able than most who enjoy the fruits of wealth, status and success, underdogs understand the difficulties, pain, hard work and perseverance of those who must struggle just to survive.
And Americans have always loved underdogs. Our nation began as an underdog and we celebrate those who by diligence and effort make their own way in the world. As a nation of underdogs, we also incline to empathy and compassion for people who are equally underdogs. We celebrate, serve and cheer them on. Without making too much of a political comment, our last election was, I believe, decided by this sense of American empathy: Who did most voters believe is an underdog and thus able to identify with and understand their own personal struggles?
The paradox about ourselves, however, is that as much as we admire strength, we cheer for the underdog. Our need as individuals and as a nation, however, is to learn and adopt the ethics and values of the humble. We need to embrace the irony that there is strength and goodness in weakness. Underdogs are more likely to seek cooperation by promoting the individual strengths of each person. Underdogs are more able to empathize with the weak and powerless by understanding that only when most people have opportunities in life to achieve and thrive, will society as a whole be better off.
George Bailey did not run a charity that gave out free money nor did he advocate for a government to do the same. He ran a for-profit bank that trusted the implicit goodness of all people to work hard if only they are given a chance – a helping hand up instead of a helping hand out. He challenged Henry Potter for not loaning a taxi driver the money to buy a house because the loan was too small and the risk too great. George’s bank did make that loan, however. As an underdog, George saw in the taxi driver an ordinary Everyman like himself – someone who worked hard, tried to do the right things in life and dreamed like all people to raise a family in a decent and safe home. Customers in his bank, as he said in the clip we just saw, are people with dreams and fears and struggles. They are not cattle or calculations on a ledger sheet for how to amass great wealth. That is a deeply American value. It is a deeply human value. It is an intrinsic value of Christmas and of the historical Jesus. Every human is fearfully and wonderfully made, with dignity and value, and with unique abilities to offer the world.
This Christmas, let us aspire to our inner underdog. Let us celebrate a culture of humility, gentleness and, indeed, weakness. In doing so, we will find new strength, new abilities and new powers to build a more compassionate world. Out of the tragedy last week in Newtown, Connecticut, we learned even in horrific moments of violence, underdogs have power and strength. A principal who dedicated her life to serving children, physically threw herself at the armed gunman and helped save many young lives, even as she was herself killed. A teacher hurriedly rushed her students into a closet and then lied to the gunman that they were in the cafeteria – even as she too was killed but her students spared. Their names and their legacy of underdog heroism will live far longer than the strutting actions of a gunman who arrogantly sought violence in a false belief it gave him power.
The film “It’s A Wonderful Life” shows us the innate strength of an underdog hero like George Bailey. The story of Christmas shows us the power of humility and weakness in a child born in a manger. It shows us the strength of ideals like generosity, care, tolerance, non-violence and forgiveness in the life of that child who grew into a man of no wealth, prestige, beauty or military might. As people with flaws, insecurities, weaknesses, fears and doubts of our own, let us each find our underdog selves. True to the life and ethics of Jesus and true to all of history’s underdogs, let us then go out and build a brighter, more peaceful and more joyous world.
I wish us all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…