A Wonder-Full Life: Looking Back

We are beginning a new worship series today, A Wonder-Full Life. We have already experienced part of it by remembering what brings us wonder and delight in our lives. What we are doing is developing spiritual practices that feeds that part of ourselves that is oriented toward serenity, harmony, truth, compassion, gratitude, love, and joy. But these are not always words we use to describe the role of money in our lives. In the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, a crisis of money creates vastly diverse reactions from several characters. These characters can hold a mirror to our own relationships with money. For the next four weeks, we will look squarely in the face of our money issues in compassionate ways that can offer more depth of meaning, healing, and wholeness, and a whole new “outlook” on what constitutes a wonderful life.


Each week we will hear a Scripture passage followed by a quote from the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Then, we will go from there.


This week our Scripture passage comes from Matthew 22. It is Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and cleaned the Temple on Monday. Now, it’s a particularly busy Tuesday. It is full of pronouncements and confrontations with the religious leaders. Our passage relates one of those confrontations, and not surprisingly, it involves the subject of money. It comes from Matthew 22:15-22.


      15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

      18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

      21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

     Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

     22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.


Now, we have our quote from It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the beginning of the movie, and we have just heard prayers of many people on behalf of a man that they know…


Joseph, the Angel: There’s a man down on earth that needs our help.
Clarence, the Angel: Is he sick?
Joseph: No, worse. He’s discouraged.


Who are these two angels talking about? George Bailey. What is he discouraged about? His life seems to be collapsing around him because there is an $8000 deposit missing from his business’s bank account, and a government auditor is there to check the books.  The building and loan business that he has invested is life into may fail. He may go to jail and let down all of the people who are depending on him. A loss of $8000 would be hard for many of us to withstand today, but this film is from 1946. You know how much that would be in today’s money? $110, 430. Having to justify a loss like that would be like a punch in the stomach for most people.


This man, who seemed to have his priorities in order and liked to help people, has money controlling his life to the point where he is seriously considering committing suicide to cover the debt.  A pretty dark subject for what most people consider a Christmas film.


As I mentioned before, we are going to be using this movie and its characters to help us look at our attitudes towards money be they anxious, balanced, or maybe a wish to avoid thinking about it at all. Then, we can be more open to appreciate the wonder in our lives and encourage others to do the same. Just like George’s angel, Clarence, does for him.


We begin by looking back. We can use some of the characters as representative types to help us understand our own attitudes about money and the control that it may or may not have over us. These descriptions come from the book Integrating Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart Centered Life by Maggie Kulyk with Liz Mc Geachy. As I briefly go through these, see if any of them resonate with you. Usually, people will be drawn primarily to one but may have aspects of others as well. All of these have more helpful and less helpful aspects. They aren’t meant to criticize us or make us feel guilty, but merely to help us assess where we are to see if it might be helpful for us to make changes to our attitudes. We may not even be aware of these attitudes, so it is good to find out in order to get into better balance and keep money from controlling us.


The Innocent

First, we have The Innocent which we will represent with the character of Uncle Billy.  The Innocent’s approach to money is like the ostrich with its head in the sand. They may be happy-go-lucky on the outside but are a little fearful and anxious on the inside. Their basic thought is, “I don’t want to deal with this, and I wish it would go away.” Or, “Somebody I love and trust should take care of this for me.” They want others to help them, so they will feel “safe,” but there’s often an underlying fear that whoever is helping them will abandon them. Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life has Innocent energies. He’s happy and funny on the surface, but inside he’s fearful and anxious. He’s dependent on others for his job, even though he’s fairly unskilled and scatterbrained—always tying a string around his finger to remember something he’s forgotten. For Uncle Billy, the Innocent, when problems arise, he’s non-confrontational but worried, turning to alcohol to make his problems go away.


The Victim

Next, we have The Victim represented by Ma Bailey from the time where George Bailey sees what the world would be like without him. Victim energy assures us that our problems are not our fault—they’re someone else’s. Sometimes we really are dealing with financial and other types of difficulties outside of our control, but often we have a part in it we don’t want to admit. We’d rather find someone or something to blame. Ma Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life—that is, Ma from the dystopian reality of Pottersville where George Bailey doesn’t exist—she is suspicious, distrustful, and bitter. When George comes to her house looking for help and mentions her brother, Uncle Billy, she turns him away, suspecting he’s trying to take advantage of her. George isn’t her problem, and she’s used to people abusing her. She’s a Victim.


The Warrior

The Warrior is Sam Wainwright. Warrior energy is focused, decisive, and gets things done. The caveat is that people with strong Warrior energy can get into the “sport” of it and forget it’s related to anything meaningful in their lives. Dealing with money becomes the thing itself. Sam Wainwright captures this in It’s a Wonderful Life. Sam is the friend of Mary and George who gets in on the ground floor of the plastics industry in the 1920s, becoming wealthy and successful. He is portrayed as someone who inherited the opportunity, but who also understands the business world and is happily unconflicted about making tons of money. He is somewhat goofy and materialistic, but also seems full of a certain joy of life.


The Martyr

George Bailey plays the part of The Martyr. We all know people with a high dose of the Martyr: resentful, self-sacrificing, long-suffering. On the outside they may be smiling, but inside they’re resentful. They are often perfectionists, expecting a lot from themselves and others and living with disappointment. There is certainly nothing wrong with caring for others, or giving of our time, energy, and money. The problem comes when the energy is used to rescue others while taking away their opportunity to help themselves, or when the giving comes at the expense of the giver. It’s a Wonderful Life protagonist George Bailey suffers from some serious Martyr leanings. He stays home to help his father take care of the building and loan and gives his college money to his brother. He dreams of traveling, but when his father dies, he stays home to keep the business going. He even gives up his honeymoon to save the building and loan. Meanwhile, he grows darker and more resentful as the years roll on. (That is until the end of the movie!)


The Tyrant

Of course, The Tyrant is Mr. Potter.  People with Tyrant energy use money to control people, events, and circumstances. At its core, this energy springs from deep-rooted fears and can spread easily into anger, almost like an addiction. This energy might have started in a healthy way—perhaps as a kind of Warrior energy—but it has grown wild into a tool for power. Tyrant energy can be found in people with a little money or a lot of money. If money is used to control others, and that control is based in fear and anger, the Tyrant is showing its colors. It’s not hard to see who the Tyrant is in It’s a Wonderful Life. As a somewhat one-dimensional character, Mr. Potter fits the model perfectly in his black suit and heavy wooden wheelchair pushed around by his flunky. He has a lot of money and uses it to get more. With no family, he seems to care about nothing but control over all the businesses in Bedford Falls.


The Fool

Clarence Odbody, the Angel represents The Fool for us.  Everyone loves the Fool. People with Fool energy are fun and spontaneous. Unlike the Innocent, who may seem optimistic on the outside but inside is anxious, the Fool is genuinely optimistic, inside and out. They also tend to be very generous. The problem with this “live for today” attitude is that it’s not always grounded in reality. People with a lot of this energy are not quite telling themselves the whole story. They don’t want to look at things realistically or bother to do the math because they might miss out on something. No, that would be a downer. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence, George Bailey’s guardian angel, has a bit of the Fool in him. He exists quite literally outside of the money system, so he’s the perfect image of this energy. When he’s told he’ll be returning to earth to help George, he has no clue how difficult it’s going to be to convince him that he shouldn’t throw away his life. In Nick’s bar, Clarence seems oblivious to the harsh reality around him (and to the fact that he has no money).


The Creator/Artist

Finally, George’s wife, Mary Bailey represents The Creator/Artist for us. The energy of the Creator/Artist is one of spirit and creativity. People with a strong level of this energy tend to be internally motivated and non-materialistic. The problem is that they like the freedom that money brings, but don’t want to be “sullied” by the material world. They may feel that because they are spiritual beings, they should not have to deal with money. The issue is not the amount of money they have, but the fear that they’re not being true to themselves and the belief that money is somehow tainting them. The one character in It’s a Wonderful Life who most approximates this energy is George’s wife, Mary, though it’s not a perfect fit. Like the Creator/ Artist, she is not at all materialistic. At the beginning of the movie, she turns her back on the advances of Sam Wainwright, the wealthy inheritor and entrepreneur, in favor of her real love for George. She doesn’t mind living in a drafty, leaky house, as long as she can pursue her joys: raising her family and helping others. We don’t know from the movie whether Mary is disdainful of money and the material world or whether she worries about “selling out”—common characteristics of the Creator/Artist.


Did any of these feel familiar to the way that you relate to or avoid relating to money? As I thought about my own life I found myself identifying more with The Innocent/Uncle Billy character. I think that it comes primarily from a time in my life when I had very little money. There would be bills that needed to be paid, and I didn’t know what to do. It could keep me from sleeping, so I did my best not to think about it. In the book, Maggie Kulyk, talks about the fight, flight, or freeze response. I was sometimes caught in the last, freeze. I’m not in that financial position now, but through this exercise I realized that I still tend toward this way of thinking. Now, that I know, I am in a position to change it.


Where are you? You may want to review these descriptions and consider them more deeply. By looking at these things we can be more balanced. We can see money as the useful tool it can be for our own lives and for helping others. We may feel freer to be more generous. Maybe you’re a lot smarter than me and figured this all out already.


We exist within this system of money, and the truth is that it is very helpful in our lives. It is much more efficient than bartering for everything. There is so much more available to us because of money. It also helps us in ministry and mission. We cannot always physically go help the people who need it. They may be too far away geographically, like with a natural disaster, say in the Bahamas, for example, or we may not be physically up to the task of building houses for people or making food or clothing, chopping wood. In those cases, money is so helpful to get the physical necessities from the people who can provide them. It allows us to help people here locally and all over the world. Did you know that a small part of what you give to the church here helps to pay for the education of children in Africa? It helps to provide clean water for the prevention of disease, not only in Africa and Asia, but in Flint, Michigan. When your money is pooled with that of other churches, it can make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people. You are a part of that. Money helps us extend our reach of who we can help, but it can also rule us. That is a bit of what Jesus is getting at in the Scripture passage we read.


We know that the authorities were trying to trick Jesus into giving an answer that would get him in trouble with someone. They asked him whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, the government. If he says yes, then he makes the people angry who don’t like the taxes that they have to pay simply for being a subjugated people in the Roman Empire. If he says no, then he can be arrested by that Roman Empire by inciting the people not to pay their taxes. When Jesus was a boy, there was a revolt over this very issue, and there were a lot of crosses around the countryside from the executions as the Romans crushed this revolt. (NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 2, pg 86-87)


Jesus avoids this problem entirely by reframing the question. They are in the Temple. He asks for a coin. Jesus has none. He asks whose image is on the coin and whose inscription. It’s Caesar’s, and the inscription includes the title “Son of God.” Sound familiar? People of the Empire were expected to worship Caesar among their other gods. Of course today, instead of worshiping the leader, people are more likely to worship money itself.


If you can, right now, pull out some money out of your wallet. Look at it. It all has someone’s face on it. The United States is pretty rare that the current monarch or ruler is not whose face is on our money. Most of our money has a dead president on it, but there are exceptions. As I mentioned before. Money itself can be a useful tool, and governments need money to provide the services and protection that we expect of them.


For Jesus (and for us) the question here is one of idolatry. Worshiping something, anything that is not God. Look around the Sanctuary at the people sitting here. Whose image is there? I refer you back to Genesis 1:26, “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness.” Jesus says to give to the government what is the government’s, but give that which is stamped with God’s image to God.


Woah! We’re suddenly not talking merely about money here. Jesus is talking about a lot more. All of us belong to God, and all that we have has been given to us. We can say that we worked hard and earned what we have, but how did we even come by that opportunity? Paul tells us in 1 Cor 4:7, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” James tells us in his letter in 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Hmmm …


“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and [give back] to God what is God’s.”


To whom do you belong, that is the question. Sometimes we feel like we belong to Caesar. We pay taxes. We have limits on our freedoms. We can be put in jail for civil disobedience. Perhaps, we feel like we are owned by our jobs, our families, or even our material possessions.


There’s an old song, “Sixteen Tons.”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store


Have you ever felt that way? Mortgages, credit cards, expectation, taxes, family, obligations of all sorts. Jesus says no to all that.


But to whom do we really belong? Take a look at any person. Whose inscription is on him or her? Each is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There can be no doubt, then, what Jesus means here. Give yourselves to God because it is to God that you belong.


It is God who claims us, who made us in his own image. We do not belong to anything or to anyone else. We don’t even belong to ourselves. We belong to God in all our being, with all our talents, interests, time, and wealth.


The consequences of belonging to God are extraordinary. First, it means that God will not leave us. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders that Jesus denounces were notoriously bad at caring for the people. They abandoned their responsibilities and the people God gave them to care for. They deserved condemnation. But, God does not desert his own. By Friday of Holy Week, Jesus made that clear in the boldest way possible.


Second, it means that because we belong to God, we belong to the people of God, the body of Christ. We are baptized into this fellowship and can only lose our membership by turning our backs on God. If there is any alienation, it is our own doing. And, if we return, God is there, as always.


Third, it means that we give to God that which belongs to God’s: that is, we give ourselves. We take the sacred trust and invest it in lives of worship. Sometimes, that worship occurs privately, in devotion. Sometimes, in church with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And the rest of the time, it occurs in the sphere of daily work and service. All of this is worship. Have you ever thought of it that way? Ultimately, giving ourselves to God means that we give ourselves to the world.


We are a part of this wonder-filled world that God created. The crazier the brokenness of the world seems to get, the more important it is for us for us to have a perspective check and recognize all the wonder and glory that surrounds us every day, and that includes us. That’s how we have a Wonder-Full Life.



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