When Mark, Rachel, and I first sat down to discuss the possibility of doing another movie sermon series, this time based on the idea of a “call,” there were dozens of film suggestions thrown out into the ring. When “It’s a Wonderful Life” was mentioned I quickly stiffened and said “That is one of my least favorite movies of all time! I HATE that movie! I know everyone loves it, but personally, I can’t stand it! I saw it once, years ago, and if I never see it again it will be too soon!”
So Mark looked right at me and said “You seem to have a lot of passion for this movie. I’m putting you down to preach on it.” And so here I am.
Now, I knew that I was going to have to watch the movie again if I was going to preach on it, and I knew that it was going to require an open heart and fresh eyes. I needed to watch this movie in a different way, and that’s exactly what I did. But before I get into that, I do feel the need to tell you specifically why I have hated this movie for all of these years.
It’s because the bad guy wins! Now, I know that some of you perhaps have not seen this movie, but I have to assume that this is because you are either consciously avoiding it, or just don’t care about it, because it is almost inescapable. Therefore, I am not going to worry about spoilers for today. The plot of the movie goes something like this:
Young George Bailey spends his life helping others to the point of complete self-sacrifice. He runs his father’s building and loan, the only company in town not owned by evil businessman Mr. Potter, and over and over again he gathers the poor and needy under his wing and helps them build homes and businesses, because even $20 is a huge deal to these folks. They have almost nothing, and he helps them. But then, one Christmas Eve, George’s bumbling uncle loses an $8000 deposit. And not just loses it! Accidentally hands it to evil Mr. Potter over at Mr. Potter’s bank. When Uncle Numbskull goes up to the teller to make the deposit, he can’t. The bank already has the money, but it is not in the account, it is in Mr. Potter’s lap. This causes a warrant to be issued for George’s arrest, he gets drunk, drives his car into a tree, and then goes to jump off a bridge. But wait! He is saved by an angel named Clarence, who decides to show George all of the good that has come from his life, by taking him to a world in which George Bailey was never born. And it is a terrible world. Well, this convinces ol’ George, so he goes home and decides to live after all, and then, miracle of miracles, all of those poor townspeople with no money gather up all of their savings and donate it to George, who can then go off and give it to, you guessed it, Mr. Potter over at the bank. Everyone hugs, and the movie ends with the happy music playing.
Wait a second! Let me get this straight: Mr. Potter now has $16,000, instead of the 8 he was supposed to have. Everyone in town is now completely broke, having given up every last bit of money they had to keep George out of jail, and so once the curtain is down and the cameras are turned off, things are looking pretty bleak for the people of Bedford Falls. Any financial progress has been halted for the good people, and the villain is now in a stronger position than ever, ready to crush anyone that gets in his way! Are hugs really better than a secure financial foundation? This seems like just the sort of thing that the 1% would want us to believe, to keep us down! This is reverse capitalist propaganda! This is terrible! And to top it all off, George never gets a single thing that he actually wants! He hates his job! He hates the town! He’s miserable! All he ever wanted to do was get out of there! Why is this a happy ending?!
Okay, thanks for indulging me. That was what I used to think. And then I watched the movie again. And, actually, I still think that. I do think this message is one that the upper class would love to foist onto the lower class. The rich can get richer, and who cares? As long as you have friends, that’s all that really matters! But of course, this is also a message that Jesus would love to foist onto us as well. Right? The idea of community, of taking care of one another? That’s what we here are all about! It’s right in our mission statement! We’re a worshiping community, walking in the way of Jesus, believing in place. “It’s a Wonderful Life” could be our theme movie! But aside from the message of the overall film, I want to spend a few minutes focusing on ol’ George Bailey.
Do you remember when God told Jonah to go to Nineveh? I seem to recall something about fleeing. This is George’s problem too. He wants out of there. His stated mission, right from the get-go, is to travel the world, and to shake the dust of that crummy little town off of his feet and travel the world. And yet every time he gets the chance, something happens. First he is on the way to his big trip to Italy and Greece before heading to college, when his father dies. Of course he is not going to disappear at that moment, so he skips the trip and oversees the affairs that need to be overseen, especially his father’s company, the Building and Loan. But then he is still set to go to college, knowing that he wants nothing to do with the tiny office that his late father once occupied. It is as he is walking out of the door that he hears Darth Potter decide to dissolve the institution. Here is where we get his first real sense of calling. He tells off the villain and then heads out the door to college, but he never makes it.
Did you see it in his face? Wanting desperately to escape, but knowing in his heart that he could not abandon the people of his town to the lives that lay ahead of them, if the schemes of Mr. Potter were successful. So he stayed. He used his college money to send his brother instead, still waiting for the day when his now educated brother would come home and take over so that George could have his turn at life. I don’t think I need to tell you that this never happened. George’s brother went off to fame and success, becoming a national hero, while George stayed behind and continued to help the community.
Oh, but we haven’t given up hope yet! With scrimping and saving George managed to save $2000 for his honeymoon, but wouldn’t you know it, the day of his wedding the depression hit and there was a run on the bank. It was either let the company slip into Mr. Potter’s control, or give away all of his money to the frightened townspeople in order to save them all. George never left town. He continued on and on, serving the community, making it a better place, and resenting it the entire time.
I wonder if the reason I have such a negative reaction to this movie is because I feel like George Bailey sometimes. I brought something in to show you. This is my special book. About ten years ago my wife and I discovered something online called the Traveler’s Century Club. It is a group of people who have been to over 100 places on the planet. There is a list of places which they publish, that are either politically, geographically, or geologically different, and there are currently 324 places on that list. So, for instance, Alaska is its own place, because it is politically different from its neighbors and geographically different from the rest of the U.S. Prince Edward’s Island is its own place, because although it is politically and geographically identified with Canada, it’s geological make-up is different enough to give it its own listing. I know all of this because I made it my goal to travel to every one of the places on that list.
I bought this book, and I labeled slots for each of the places on the list, with a spot for a picture over each label. I planned it all out. Cruises were a good place to start, because you could hit a bunch of different islands in one go. Europe would also be easier, because we could just get a Eurorail pass and take in loads of countries in one trip over. Part of the reason I originally became an opera singer was because I wanted a job where I could travel the world. I researched and priced cruises to Antarctica. This was a serious dream, and I was ready and willing to put in the time and effort it was going to take to do it. Can you imagine? Everywhere in the world! And it seemed possible! This is what my book looks like today on the inside.
You see, the opera thing didn’t work out exactly like I had imagined. And then we had kids, which made traveling far more expensive, and a teensy bit less convenient. I couldn’t get a job for several years. We had no money. We had no vacation time. We had a whole lot of life, and not very much dream fulfillment. So when I watch this movie, I am rooting for George to see the world in a very personal way. I am angry that he never leaves town, because sometimes I am angry that I never left town. I suppose one of the messages of this movie is that we shouldn’t overlook the blessings in our life just because we obsessing over the future, but there is a deeper level to George Bailey. He doesn’t just overlook his blessings. He actively despises them.
So what happens when you are called to do something that you don’t want to do? What happens when you have plans, but then the Lord tells you to change them? What happens when you have long-held beliefs that you might need to think about changing? In the case of Ananias, you change them. “Lord, this guy is no good! He’s coming here to kill us all! You aren’t seriously asking me to open my doors and invite him in, are you? What’s that? You are? Huh… Well, okay.” Ananias is reluctant, but he gives in. He is open to God’s calling in his life, even when it takes him to places he doesn’t want to go. Jonah requires a little more convincing.
“You want me to do what now? Nope. No thanks. See ya!” Jonah flees, hops on a boat, and tries his best to avoid the call. So God send a storm and a fish and gets Jonah to say ‘uncle,’ and Jonah goes off to deal with the people he doesn’t feel like dealing with. And he resents it. And when the people are eventually, spoiler alert, not destroyed, he gets bitter and resentful all over again. He is the George Bailey of the Bible.
And then we have Job. Job is having a rough life, but he is still faithful to what he perceives to be God’s calling for his life. His friends, on the other hand, decide to come up and give him a little comfort gospel. This is what they are telling him just before the verses we heard earlier. “Don’t worry, Job!” they say. “Things will be fine! The bad guys go to jail at the end, and everybody else kisses and lives happily ever after! Isn’t that great!” Unfortunately for Job’s friends, and for the rest of us, that’s not actually how life is, and Job does not mince his words here. Listen again to how he responds, from “The Message.” Job says:
“I’m not deceived. I know what you’re up to,
the plans you’re cooking up to bring me down.
Naively you claim that the castles of tyrants fall to pieces,
that the achievements of the wicked collapse.
Have you ever asked world travelers how they see it?
Have you not listened to their stories
Of evil men and women who got off scot-free,
who never had to pay for their wickedness?
Did anyone ever confront them with their crimes?
Did they ever have to face the music?
Not likely—they’re given fancy funerals
with all the trimmings,
Gently lowered into expensive graves,
with everyone telling lies about how wonderful they were.
“So how do you expect me to get any comfort from your nonsense?
Your so-called comfort is a tissue of lies.”
Wow. See, this is exactly my problem with the movie! The bad guy does not pay for his crimes, and the good guys suffer! But Job lays it out straight for me. Those happily ever afters I am looking for? Those are Hollywood lies. Those are falsehoods spread around to send me in the wrong direction. And they totally worked. Like Job’s friends, I was looking for some comfort, some sort of assurance that the sacrifices I make in this world will reap benefits in this world. I want to know that the wicked of this world will be punished, in this world! I want to know that everything is always going to be okay for people who do good! And you know what? It’s not.
Sometimes God’s call takes us to places that we don’t want to go, and doesn’t take us back out again. Sometimes the plans we make when we are twenty never actually happen. Sometimes our dreams go unrealized, as we make sacrifices for our neighbors. And the good news is, that it’s okay. We live blessed lives! If we are truly living the way Jesus is asking us to live, then we will be rewarded, but it might not be in the way that we originally requested.
How many times has it taken something bad to make you appreciate something good? Have you ever hit what felt like the bottom, only to be lifted back up again? When all is lost, our true comfort comes from knowing that all is not lost. The victory is already won! But not our victory. God’s victory. Is that comforting? Not always. Not when we are ignoring God’s call and working at cross-purposes with each other. Life sure doesn’t look like a victory to someone who has goals that conflict with God’s calling in their life.
But what this movie, and the scriptures, tell us, is that it is never too late. Jesus comes right out and says it. Two sons are asked to do something by their father. One says yes, but doesn’t do it. The other says “no way!” but eventually gets the job done. Which is better? The lesson here is that it is far better to flee from God’s call at first, only to be brought around to it later, than to nod your head in church and then walk out the doors to live a life devoid of a calling. The story of George Bailey is the story of sacrifice. From the opening scenes where he rushes into the water to save his brother from an icy grave, George is the one who takes all the hits. His brother comes out unscathed, but George, as you see him pulled out of the ice by his friends, loses all of the hearing in one ear. Like a brand plucked from the burning, George begins his life with a calling. He is spared for a purpose, and he fulfills that purpose, no matter how hard he tries not to. When you are truly called, it’s hard to escape it. And it can take everything you’ve got. But deep down, you can feel it! Can’t you feel it? The comforters try hard to make us think that it is all about us. That we need to feel good all of the time. That your vacation to Mexico is more important than fixing the church’s elevator. That soccer practice is as important as worship. And we can rationalize it all away. It’s easy to do. We can come to church one or two times a month, and then wonder why this doesn’t feel like the tight-knit community we were hoping for.
Or, we can take up our calling and meet the challenges head on. What is the church’s call? What is this church’s call? Is it taking us to a comfortable place? An easy place? Or is it more trouble than its worth? And who gets to decide what the church’s call is anyway? I don’t have all the answers. All I ask is that we not live our lives like ol’ George Bailey. When you find your calling, through community, and through study, and through prayer, don’t fight it. Don’t resent it. Embrace it! I know it’s not easy, and it will take a lot out of you. In fact, it will take everything out of you. But giving joyfully is so much easier, in the long run, than wandering through divergent timelines with a goofy angel who hasn’t even got his wings yet, or being swallowed by a fish.
Lord, thank you for this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, wonderful life that you have given to each one of us. Thank you for the ups, that renew our confidence, strengthen our faith, and energize us for Your work. And thank you for the downs, that shake up our preconceptions, test our limits, and wake us up to Your will. Help us all, as we go out into the world, to live our callings with open hearts, open minds, and open arms, and remind us constantly, as others fill our heads with tissues of lies, that it’s not all about us, and it never was. For the final victory, as always, is Yours alone. Amen.