Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 29, 2009

2009.11.29 “It is a Wonderful Life”

Central United Methodist Church

“It is a Wonderful Life”

Pastor David L. Haley

The First Sunday of Advent

November 29th, 2009

     “It will seem like all hell has broken loose — sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking. And then – then – they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style — a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”

       He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner.  The same here — when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here.  Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too — these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out. But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.  Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once.  So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21: 25 – 36, The Message)

Over the next four Sundays I am going to do a sermon series I have done once before, which, with the addition of projection to our service, I can now do here. It’s entitled “Christmas through the Lens of Hollywood:  Sermons for Advent on Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.”

The idea comes from a series of sermons preached by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, in Advent of 2003.  Rev. Hamilton encourages pastors to take his ideas and use them; an offer I took him up on, although you should know that most of the content is my own.  

        This series draws upon some of our favorite Christmas movies and songs, to give us insight into the texts, themes, and people of Christmas, which ultimately amounts to insights into our own lives. 

My sermon today is, “It is a Wonderful Life,” which draws upon the 1946 Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart, a Christmas classic.

My favorite Chicago movie critic, Roger Ebert, once said that there are some movies you only watch once. But there are others that you can watch over and over again: they are the classics.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” is such a movie.  No matter how many times you’ve seen it, you never get tired of watching it, or fail to be inspired by it.

Actually, the director, Frank Capra, never intended “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be a “Christmas movie.” It was the first movie he made after returning from service in World War II, and he wanted it to be special — a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens, who tried the best they could to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbors.

When the film came out, it received mixed reviews. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, without winning any. But when, through a clerical error, the copyright expired in 1974, it began to get TV “air time”, and soon became a staple of the Christmas season. The film has since been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, and number one on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time.

The movie works like a strong and fundamental fable, sort of a “Christmas Carol” in reverse: Instead of a mean old man being shown scenes of happiness, we have a hero plunged into despair.

That hero, of course, is George Bailey, played by one of the greatest and most down-to-earth actors Hollywood has ever produced, Jimmy Stewart.  George Bailey is a man who, as a young man, dreams of shaking the dust from his shoes and traveling to far-off lands, but one thing after another keeps him at home — especially his responsibility to the family savings and loan association, which is the only thing standing between Bedford Falls and the greed of Mr. Potter, the avaricious local banker.

George marries his high school sweetheart, the beautiful Donna Reed, from Denison, Iowa, in her first starring role. He settles down to raise a family, and helps half the poor folks in town buy homes where they can raise their families. Then, when George’s absentminded uncle misplaces some bank funds during the Christmas season, it looks as if the evil Mr. Potter will have his way after all. George loses hope and turns mean. He despairs, and stands on a bridge contemplating suicide. Just when he’s about to end it all, an Angel 2nd Class named Clarence Oddbody, of whom George says, “You look about like the kind of guardian angel I’d have,” saves him and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never lived.

In the course of the movie, what does George Bailey discover?

The first thing and perhaps most important thing George Bailey discovers, is, “The day of struggle is the day of grace.”

Because the fact is, “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life.”  There is a timelessness to George’s Bailey struggle which we can identify with. Why is life sometimes so hard? Why is it that sometimes no matter how hard we try, our destinies are shaped by forces beyond our control, such as Mr. Potters and the institutions of the world, as well as unpredictable twists of fate, sometimes plunging us into despair and hopelessness.  There are days where it seems the Mr. Potters of the world have won. 

But it is the message of the movie – and of the Scriptures – that the day of struggle is the day of grace; just when things are at their worst, lift up your heads, your redemption draws nigh.

That’s exactly what Jesus says in today’s Gospel.  There, he was talking about what would be the outcome of the disastrous Jewish Revolt in 66 to 74 A.D., when Jerusalem was invaded by the Romans, Herod’s temple was destroyed, bringing an end to the world as they knew it.  And yet he also says, that even at such a time the role of the faithful is to remain steadfast, faithful and full of hope.  For the day of struggle is the day of grace: “When all this starts to happen, stand up on your feet: Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”  And that’s exactly what George Bailey was to find out.

Remember that scene, where, faced with criminal charges, disgrace and ruin, not knowing where to turn, George ends up, not in church, but in Martini’s bar? Unaware that most of the people in town are praying for him, George slumps in despair, and desperately pleads, “God… God… dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if You’re up there and You can hear me, show me the way, I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God…”

In an interview in 1977, Jimmy Steward said:

“As I said those words, I felt the loneliness and hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless had reduced me to tears.”

What a comfort, what a hope for us to believe, as hard as it may be when we are there, the day of struggle is the day of grace.

The second thing George Bailey learns is that no life is ever unimportant or meaningless. Whether we know it or not, every one of us plays a role in God’s plans.  In modern life it we talk about the “ripple”, or “butterfly” effect:  how the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly in South America can have an effect upon climate change half a world away. In human interaction and relationships, something similar occurs.

Thanks to the work of his guardian angel Clarence, George is allowed to see what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never lived.   

For example, as George discovers, if he had not saved his brother Harry from drowning as a child, Harry would never have been a war hero, never would have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, never would never have saved a transport ship full of soldiers from certain death at sea, altering untold lives.

There are times in life where, like George Bailey, we feel like we make no difference, that if we had never lived or done whatever we have done, things would be the same.  There are times where we wonder, “what if,” what if I had done this or not done that?  But then, you realize that if that “what if” had taken place, everything else about your life would also change:  your spouse, your kids, your friends, your job, everything. And whatever you have done with your life “so far,” could be better or they could be worse.  That’s why it’s important to live the life we have, not the one we wish we had.

No life is ever unimportant or meaningless, even when it seems so. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” said Jesus. “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.  But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12: 6 – 7)

The third thing George Bailey learned was that, as we say, “What goes around, comes around.” 

In his Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul put it like this: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6: 7 – 9)

And that’s what George Bailey was to discover. That was the kind of guy George Bailey was, that was the kind of life he had lived, always helping others. And so when he came into his time of need – which we all do at one time or another – the people he had helped came through for him.

In the interview mentioned earlier, Jimmy Steward said that when he first walked down that shady street of Bedford Falls the first morning he started work,

“It reminded me of my hometown, Indiana, Pennsylvania. I almost expected to hear the bells of the Presbyterian church, where Mother played the organ and Dad sang in the choir. I chuckled, remembering how the fire siren would go off, and Dad, a volunteer fireman, would slip out of the choir loft. If it was a false alarm, Dad would sneak back and sort of give a nod to everyone to assure them that none of their houses was in danger.”

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”  Because, finally, “What goes around comes around.”

The fourth and final thing George Bailey learned is that, finally, “No one is a failure who has friends.”  The movie opens with George’s family and friends praying for him; it ends when by their gifts they come through to bail him out.

The truth is, when hard times come, it is not angels, but our family and friends that get us through. Maybe we can all learn a lesson here; perhaps we should all take more time to step off the “hamster wheel” of our fast paced lives, and spend a little more time cultivating and encouraging family and friends.  In the end, it is they who will save us in our time of trial, just as it was George Bailey’s friends who came through for him.

And that’s how the movie ends.  Let’s take a look . . . [show clip]

Donna Reed died in 1986, 2 weeks before her 65th birthday, of pancreatic cancer.  Jimmy Stewart died in 1997, at the age of 89. He once said that out of the 80 movies he made, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is his favorite.  He went on to say,

“I’ve heard the film called “an American cultural phenomenon”. Well, maybe so, but it seems to me there is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It’s simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.”

Frank Capra, who believed that the making of this movie was one of the main reasons for his life, remained hale and hearty until a stroke slowed him in the late 1980s; he died in 1991. At a seminar with some film students in the 1970s he was asked if there were still a way to make movies about the kinds of values and ideals found in the Capra films. “Well, if there isn’t,” he said, “we might as well give up.”

But we never have to give up.  Because . . .

The day of struggle is the day of grace.

No life is unimportant or meaningless.

What goes around, comes around.

No one is a failure who has friends.

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