The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“The Stolen Blessing”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 7:7-11
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
The Garrys are not a pious lot. Even on a good day, or if I ask really nice, not very sanctimonious. Our traditions and devotions are a bit varied. For instance, our Advent preparations are not a reading of Isaiah or even the countdown calendar. We watch movies. Lots of movies.
For many, many years the day after Thanksgiving was a trumpet blast announcing it was alright to watch The Grinch or Elf or Miracle on 34th Street. When the cold of fall gives way to the depth of winter’s approach, we watch Ralphie get a BB gun and Clark Griswold’s dream of a pool. At some point we need to get real and step into The Family Stone where you are invited to get over your bad self.
At this point, things start to diverge. Some of us call for Veggie Tales or the Bernstein Bears. Kathy wants to watch The Sound of Music as she decorates the tree after I am banished for trying to sing along with Julie Andrews. Lots of rituals and choices. Mine is more a solitary affair. Sometimes someone might be willing to join me in my annual movie ritual. Not always. Usually at someone point I sit down and watch It’s a Wonderful Life alone.
I need this. I need to hear George tell Mary “I don’t want any plastics; I don’t want any ground floors; I don’t want any marriage” and then fall into her arms. I need to see the strings on Uncle Billie’s fingers and Zuzu’s petals. Mostly I need to hear the prayer at the end. “Please give me my life back.” I wait for this. Jimmy Stewart on the bridge, snow pounding him. He is dying inside. I love this moment because Bert the cop shows up and knows him; Peter and Janie and Zuzu surround him on the stairs and Mary is Mary.
For me this is the quintessential Christmas movie. It’s about hometowns and families and dreams and sacrifice and love. Frank Capra takes you to the very heart of living and it’s Christmas. I discovered recently that it is about all those things, but then it’s not. What I learned a few months ago was that the movie was made as a way of coping with post traumatic stress. Frank Capra made this movie just after coming back from serving in WWII. It’s A Wonderful Life is about Christmas and families and hometowns and friends and sacrifice, and it is about how hard it can be to come back to a life you have lost after seeing the destruction and despair of war.
Frank Capra was one of five leading directors of his day that were called upon by the Army to make movies during the war. John Huston, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and Frank Capra left Hollywood and put on a uniform. They left their comedies and romances and thrillers and spent three years filming movies about bombing runs while being shot at in planes; or, they traipsed through the Aleutian Islands filming the profound experience of waiting for war. They made movies about how to be a soldier or how to be a black soldier or who was the enemy.
There is a fabulous documentary about this called Five Came Back. The title reveals the other side of the story. The five famous directors all went to serve and all five came back. The story of their experience is very interesting, but the story of their return is incredible. Each of them made a movie about what it meant to come home, the struggle to find a way back to normal life.
John Huston’s movie was the most provocative. He made a movie in a hospital where soldiers were recovering from trauma. The film was so real and true it was not released until the mid 1980s. It was so real the Army feared no one would ever sign up to serve again.
1946 William Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives which followed three men who returned from war and the brokenness defining each. He won the Academy Award for this film. It’s A Wonderful Life was nominated for best film that year, too, and didn’t win.
It’s amazing to watch this favorite movie of mine in a whole different way, to go back to the movie and unravel it from the experience of trauma. The angel Clarence gives George a glimpse of what life would have looked like if he never lived. He does this because George wants to end his life, kill himself. What I had watched as a moment of desperation and depression and disillusion for all these decades is still that for sure. But when I realized he made this movie as a way to process his feelings of being utterly lost, losing the goodness of life, his disconnect from all the things that mattered just a few years ago, the movie meant even more.
Capra was saying, praying, with George, “I just want my life back. Please, God.” George Bailey was a character in the movie, but he was also Frank Capra’s personal struggle. When George goes home and Tommy and Janey and Zuzu are on the stairs and they greet him, this is a dream, a wish of anyone who is struggling. For Capra though his was also a need to be welcomed home, to come home after seeing the madness and evil and the violence we create.
Mostly though Capra needed to remember, it’s a wonderful life we are given; it’s a wonderful life. He needed to say it out loud in a way that could be heard but also not imposed or demanded. This is what he needed to believe. God was good and kind and loving and gracious and sends would-be angels to guide us home, bring us back, talk us off the bridge. Such a great movie; strange to believe it means so much more to me after all these years.
All week I kept hearing Joni Mitchel sing “you don’t know what you have till it’s gone.” Her voice is part of the theme too. George didn’t know how wonderful his life really was until it was gone. Perhaps that is what Frank Capra wanted to say to all the veterans returning. We had something wonderful; I hope we can find it again.
Soren Kierkegaard described our life as lived in the Garden of Eden, or dreaming innocence, until we are cast out. What is traditionally read as the willful disobedience of Adam and Eve with the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Kierkegaard saw this as human development. It’s just what happens. We all eat the fruit and see life in its harshness at some point. The adolescent dream of youth is replaced by stark reality.
It could be said that all the stories of Genesis have this common theme: the transition from innocent bliss to the hard edges of existence. The story of Jacob and Esau and the blessing is just that. You can hear it in the plea of Esau, is there no blessing left for me? You can hear harshness in the answer of Isaac, “no.” Your blessing was stolen. This is a really hard story for us to hear in the west. We believe in unlimited good, in the American Dream of abundance and freedom for all and the land of opportunity. You don’t need a father’s blessing; you can make your own.
And in our last riddle today, this is the hurdle we must overcome, the lock we need to open to see inside and find the salvation and the ruin. For the key to this riddle is that we need to remember the goodness of life can be lost and can be found. Everyone can find this, but not all do. If you ask you will be given, but we don’t always know what it means to ask for a good life.
This is the last of the riddles in the ladder and as promised it is the hardest. This one is not only hard to understand it is hard because there are four riddles here not just one. There is the riddle of asking seeking knocking; there is the riddle of everyone; there is the riddle of bread and stone; and, there is the riddle of fish and snake. Each one is a part of the equation, a clue that must be solved to get to the end: God, the father, will give good gifts; you will see the wonder of life.
The movie It’s a Wonderful Life, like the other movies made after the five came back, tries to solve this riddle. What is the request we make at the door of heaven? What is the life worth living given by God? How is it this is open to everyone and not just a few? What will sustain us? What endangers this goodness (the snake)?
Frank Capra tips his hand at the end when Clarence the angel says, “No man is a failure who has friends.” The tip is that we don’t answer this riddle alone; this is not a solitary path. The loss of innocence, the harsh reality, this isolates us, makes us feel cut off. Capra has realized, you are going to need some help here.
This is the assurance Jesus offers at the end of the riddles: if you, who are evil, give good gifts, just consider the goodness offered by your heavenly Father. The assurance is not the gifts, but the love of the one who gives. The goodness of life is not a commodity or a fortune or a position; the goodness of life is a loving relationship.
When you reach the door of heaven, Jesus says, you are received by love. When anyone searches for this blessing God is ready to offer as one who loves. There will be a sustaining blessing; there will be care and kindness because we are beloved.
The five who came back returned to the states after walking the concentration camp of Dachau; they were the ones who recorded the horror. How could they go from something so devastating to light-hearted comedy? Each needed to solve this riddle; they needed to find their way from hell to the door of heaven.
Perhaps the most elusive truth of the riddle today is this: When you reach the door of heaven in the riddle, though, this is not the end of life. This is not a riddle for the afterlife or eternal life. Reaching the door of heaven is the way to reenter this life, to find again the joy of living, the ability to be satisfied. At the door of heaven we find the earth. Here we find how wonderful this life really is.
It may be that with all the crazy happening around us right now, or the persistent threat of illness or harm, that we are experiencing a bit of trauma. Maybe. And maybe for some of us this is the first time we have ever been so overwhelmed, so surrounded by the brokenness of life.
We can lose the goodness of life, the sweetness. Lots of ways out of the garden, the dreaming innocence. But there is a way back; there is healing to be found. We have a lot of brokenness in our daily life. The riddle promises a path to wholeness, but more importantly, the promise is for all.
The answer of Isaac to Esau is true. Isaac had only the one blessing. The answer of Jesus though is different. We all have this promise; we all can find the door of heaven.
We can all find the friends, be a friend to help find the sweetness of life; this blessing is for all of us. This is God’s promise to us and ours to offer to all. Amen.
- Genesis 27:30 - 40
- Matthew 7:7 - 11