(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Click here to listen to the message or read it below.
One year ago today many of us celebrated the holidays in shock. Election results from the previous month were a surprise to many and troubling to some. Even so, the holidays are always a time of expectation and so 2017 was greeted in that spirit. All is not lost, I felt, and we must invest in our new leader a cautious hope that the good ideals of our nation and people will continue.
One year later, my hopes have been dashed. Health insurance for impoverished children is about to be eliminated, protected national lands that are home to wildlife and geologic formations of breathtaking uniqueness are now open for pillage, the stock market is at dizzying heights all because the richest 1% will get 82% of upcoming tax cuts, our free press is under attack, a credibly accused pedophile came within twenty thousand votes of being a US Senator – and he was overwhelmingly supported by white evangelical Christians, immigrants drawn to this land because of its ideals and the chance for a better life now cower in fear of a knock on their door in the middle of the night. We are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis, Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen have been called “good people” by our leader, and this nation now thumbs its nose at a treaty to fight catastrophic climate change. The world today, as opposed to last December, is very, very scary.
How is that for a cheery opening to this annual Candlelight Christmas Eve celebration message?
If you’ve been here the last two Sundays, you know my series theme this month is “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Holiday.” The title of that film and my message series certainly seem incongruous to today’s dark reality. Is life so wonderful in an America that is becoming mean-spirited and self-focused? No, it’s not. But themes in the film tell us that our lives ARE wonderful when they have meaning and when we practice and stay true to our values. By doing so, we fulfill our purpose in life to act selflessly and we thereby stand against the forces of greed, hate and selfishness.
Frank Capra, the movie’s director, made the film in 1946 when he saw that post-war America was quickly forgetting its values for the sake wealth. That’s exactly what is occurring today – no better exemplified than the passage this last week of a tax cut bill that enriches the very wealthy.
Capra elevated to heroic status no less a man than George Bailey, the primary character in the movie. George is not a typical hero. He does a lot of good. He tries to live out his beliefs despite inwardly wanting a more exciting and materially rewarding life. But George is not a knight in shining armor activist who calls people to follow him as he marches off to battle the evil forces in his time. Instead, he’s a flawed, sometimes jealous and frustrated man working, as he says, in a crummy little town, in a shabby little office, in a barely profitable little bank. He implicitly asks himself ‘What BIG thing am I doing to change the darkness of this world? He believes, throughout much of the movie, that his life is meaningless. In fact, he nearly commits suicide in despair over that thought.
But the reason why George is a hero is precisely because he’s NOT a well known architect, what he dreamed of becoming, or a famous activist who fights the good fight on a national stage. He’s an Everyman. He’s me, and he’s many of you. Even though George is flawed, and sometimes gets frustrated over a life he wish he had, George lives true to his values – one low interest loan to a struggling family, one gesture of kindness, one act of loyalty, one day of serving others – at a time. In his small job, small bank and small town, he makes a very big difference. He lives out and practices the ethics we all know to be good – sacrifice, service, kindness, humility, love and generosity.
For our holiday celebrations this morning and tomorrow, we might also remember those are the same values taught in the Christmas story. Whatever we believe about that story, whether it is fact or an allegory intended to teach, it nevertheless tells a similar tale of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. The birth of a child to poor family in a shabby little town, in a smelly little barn certainly does not seem inspiring. But the story resonates because of who that baby is said to have become – a man who called people to quietly and humbly practice goodness.
Jesus was not a warrior, ruler of a nation, or wealthy power broker. He was poor, uneducated and of average looks. But he launched a movement that has lasted two-thousand years through the power of his example – daily living a life of serving one leper, one blind man, one beaten down and distraught woman – at a time. With his deeds he showed others what the heart of god, or force of love in the universe, is like.
Two world views compete in the Christmas story and in the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – as they do today. One way of life, exemplified by the greedy Mr. Potter in the movie, or the ruthless and greedy King Herod in the Christmas story, exalts selfishness – grab all the money, pleasure, prestige and power that you can.
The other way of life, exemplified by George Bailey and Jesus, is one that gently practices timeless values.
These competing ways of life have always existed. People are capable of almost holy acts of goodness….but also of the most disturbing deeds of cruelty and indifference. The clash between thinking only of “me, me, me”, or instead of considering the feelings and needs of others, fights its battle in every human heart.
In today’s America, many people hate the values of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and the Christmas story – even though they claim to practice them. Arrogance and bragging about oneself, or what one has done, are somehow good. Amassing a huge fortune is seen as a sign of greatness. Attacking and demeaning others who disagree with you are considered a show of strength. Teaching a child, visiting the sick, cooking a meal for the homeless, living and serving one’s family, standing up for a friend who’s been bullied, being loyal and unassuming – well, those are naive, weak, and essentially insignificant deeds – such people believe. They don’t compare to the heroic actions of those who are in the limelight – or think they are – because of their arrogance.
But people who say that – are, forgive me – wrong. The enduring message of the Christmas story, and why the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ remains a classic, is the lesson that one poor and homely carpenter, one small town banker, one everyday, average congregation doing their part to serve others……..they are ironically very strong. In weakness lies power. In humility lies greatness. In love, service and gentleness toward others lies timeless truth.
Last Sunday during Joys and Sorrows time, Leslie Edwards expressed his appreciation for this congregation and its values of giving and volunteering. We know, of course, that despite his praise, this mostly white and economically comfortable congregation is not perfect and we have much to learn, grow and improve about ourselves. Inner vestiges of racial basis, white privilege and other flaws can still infect us. That is one reason why we’re here – to enlarge our hearts and minds.
And yet, Mr. Edwards’ compliments are also well deserved. We may be small in numbers, and we’re not famous, but we are large in heart.
A few people have said this congregation acts much like a social club – a white, suburban community that shares progressive beliefs but doesn’t promote them. They’ve also said that about me. In my case, they have a right to that opinion and I hope to be honest enough to examine my heart to determine if its true.
But about you, this small congregation, I do not agree with their assessment. Much like George Bailey, we are not perfect people. None of us are. We have miles to go until we might say we are enlightened. But we know that fact, and we are here most Sundays, and we volunteer, give and serve selflessly all in order to try and live out our beliefs and our values.
I personally do NOT accept the observation that, for instance, working on our Ways and Means team to raise money for the work we do, or spending time teaching children, or cooking a meal for a homeless shelter, or assembling a weekend food box for hungry children, or repairing this building, or taking time to reflect and learn from on an idea we heard here on a Sunday morning, that these, in their own way, do not also address issues like racism and thereby help change the world for the better.
In doing these things, we – like George Bailey – stand in resistance to the national darkness.
To conclude my message, Alan will soon show an 8 minute clip from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. To set the scene, George has just visited a world in which he had not been born. It’s a frightening place – one that our nation could become if we lose the values we hold dear. George asks god to bring him back to life – to the reality where he had been born. In the clip you’ll see, George not only realizes his life purpose, he also comes to understand the intangible wealth he’s amassed. He’s rich not from the money his friends give to cover his bank’s losses, but because of their love for him – and his for them. As you watch, I hope the clip helps you understand the same lessons – we each have much to learn – but there is greatness in our everyday acts of kindness and service. In these troubled times, at this holiday time of hope, let us continue to do our part to practice and encourage….throughout our land….the timeless values we cherish.
Let’s now watch the film clip.