It’s from one of my favorite movies, and a quintessential moment in American film – the closing scene of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you probably know the scene: it’s Christmas Eve and George Bailey, who has been beset with crises both financial and personal, is surrounded by friends who have heard what’s happened, and have rallied to help him in his hour of need. And in the midst of this incredible outpouring of love and support, George’s brother Harry offers a toast: “To my brother George: the richest man in town!” And yes, he was rich indeed, understanding that what George Bailey learned from Clarence the Apprentice Angel is that being rich isn’t about money, but about relationships and how each life touches another.
I’ll bet I’ve seen it a hundred times, but that scene gets me every time – and not just because the little bell on the Christmas tree rings and Clarence gets his angels wings! That scene is a joyful affirmation of life, living and friendship; the realization that George’s friends didn’t come through for him out of guilt, obligation or undue pressure, but because this man had been a good friend who had always given generously to all those around him, especially those who were in need. George Bailey had a good name in the community of Bedford Falls, and that, in the long run, was of much greater value than any of the investments at Bailey Building and Loan!
It seems to me, in fact, that George Bailey’s “wonderful life” points up the very truth of the wisdom espoused in our reading from Proverbs this morning: that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” In other words, it’s by our actions, before others and before God, that we make a name for ourselves; and if we serve God by serving others, then rest assured, we will indeed be rich!
If that seems a pretty simple truth, you’re right. But then, simple truth is what the book of Proverbs is all about: a whole collection of short, two-line snippets of practical, Godly wisdom designed to help us align ourselves with the way God would have us live. Historically speaking, what we have in Proverbs dates back to the 5th century B.C., or even back as far as the 10th century B.C., to the time of Solomon; more than likely, it served as an educational tool for young Jewish scholars seeking to follow a path of righteousness, intelligence and human fulfillment.
The beauty part is that all these years later, these little bits of wisdom turn out to be amazingly contemporary and relevant to our lives today! Read through the Book of Proverbs and you’ll find solid advice for just about every part of human life – love, loyalty, and integrity; trust, honesty, and faithfulness; teaching children, obeying parents and utilizing good sense; avoiding the folly of fools while always walking with the wise.
To be honest, some of it comes off a little harsh given our modern sensibilities – there’s a lot of talk here, for instance, about “the rods of discipline” driving away the folly “bound up in the heart of a boy,” along with harsh warnings against becoming “winebibbers,” or “gluttonous eaters of meat.” Likewise, gossips, liars and others of low virtue are never portrayed in a sympathetic light; and there’s no attempt to understand it or explain it all away, as we so often try to do these days. At times, Proverbs offers us a rather unflattering reflection! But it also provides an effective compendium of wisdom as to the choices you and I make in this life; or, more accurately, it’s full of the choices that God makes, thus setting the standard for you and me.
Take, for example, the verses that we’ve pulled from the 22nd chapter this morning, all having to do with generosity of both resources and spirit unto the poor. At first read, it simply seems to stress the importance of charitable works: “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor …do not rob the poor …[n]or crush the afflicted at the gate.” But then, look again, and we discover that “the rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.” In other words, whether we have everything in life or nothing at all – what matters is that we belong to God – and thus life ought to be lived accordingly.
For instance, why be an advocate for those in need? Because, we’re told, “the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” And if that sounds a bit old-fashioned or Shakespearean sounding, try this translation from The Message: “Don’t walk on the poor just because they’re poor, and don’t use your position to crush the weak, because God will come to their defense; the life you took, he’ll take from you and give it back to them.”
No ambiguity there, friends! It’s clear here that God cares profoundly for the weak and vulnerable; and you and I can either choose to be on the side of God working with them, or we can make choices that go against them and thus work against God. And do not misunderstand: while in and of themselves, such choices might seem small and ineffectual, they have a way of building upon one another, so that eventually all the choices together ultimately end up either contributing or hindering the building of God’s kingdom on earth. So the wisdom here is that a good life and a good name comes from making the same choices in life as those of God.
This is the source of a good name, friends – not from popularity or personal charisma, and contrary to what others might have us believe, it’s not from wealth, either; or power, or one’s standing in the community.
Ultimately, a good name is forged in the ways we advance the cause of God’s kingdom; which is rooted in a life lived in God’s wisdom and a personal ethic built on God’s righteousness. Whatever else we can accomplish in this life, friends, nothing matters more than our relationship with God, and how that relationship informs the day to day business of our lives – to live any other way than that is to live in utter foolishness.
And, make no mistake: foolishness is something to be taken very seriously.
Not long ago I came across a very interesting article on the subject of – get this – “Character Deficiency Syndrome.” Seriously; this article, written by Rev. Gary Nation, a pastor and staff member at Texas A&M University, makes the case that a great deal of “the moral and spiritual depravity” of our times can be attributed to “Character Deficiency Syndrome,” or CDS for short! And lest we dismiss this as simply another psychobabble buzzword, understand that Nation defines this on the basis of a biblical understanding of …foolishness. He explains that there are four progressive stages of foolishness (understanding that in this case, when the Bible speaks of foolishness, it isn’t referring to being silly or funny, but rather acting unwise in life and living), and that little by little, these stages of foolishness lead us into the disorder of our lives and of society as a whole.
First, there’s the “Naïve Fool,” who is unthinking and gullible; he or she is the one who lacks an understanding of cause and effect. Then, there’s the “Self-Confident Fool,” the one known by his or her stubbornness and by the ways that his or her foot ends up in his or her big mouth. Next, there’s the “Committed Fool,” the one who decisively rejects wisdom, and in fact, pledges allegiance to destructive ideas and behaviors rather than to the more positive alternative. And finally, there’s the “Scornful Fool,” who openly mocks and has contempt for any kind of spiritual truth and moral righteousness. This is what Nation refers to as “Terminal Foolishness,” in which sin and abomination has truly become a way of life – and ultimately, death.
So do you see yourself there anywhere? The fact is, we’re all guilty of some level of foolishness – we have all sinned and we’re all guilty of what Proverbs refers to as “human folly.” But here’s the thing – Nation suggests that the only hope we have to combat this progressive foolishness, this “Character Deficiency Syndrome,” comes not at all by our own power, but only “by placing complete faith in the man who by His life, death, and supernatural resurrection from the dead, proved that He was and is the Son of God.” Truly, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” and the only way we bridge that gap between terminal foolishness and divine wisdom, human sin and godly righteousness, is by embodying the wisdom and righteousness which God embodied in Jesus Christ.
I’ll always remember one very hot and humid summer evening a number of years ago, out at the local grocery store trying to quickly pick up some item or another – I was, as they say, a man on a mission, so I’m booking it down the aisles so I can just get my stuff and go home! And though I didn’t see who it was at first, I certainly heard the voice, which, while small of stature, was very loud of volume: “HEY, MOM! IT’S THAT MINISTER GUY!” Well, of course, I had to back up to see who it was – and it turned out to be these two kids who’d found their way to our Vacation Bible School earlier that summer, and who were now at this store grocery shopping with their mother.
And so we talked together for a bit – I’ll never forget, they asked me where my guitar was; and I explained that generally I don’t carry my guitar in the frozen food aisle, but maybe I should do that another time (!), we talked about God and Sunday School and all sorts of things. It was fun – but you know what I remember the most? I remember stressing about how bad I looked at that moment! I mean, it was hot and muggy; as I recall, I’d been working outdoors and I was all sweaty and disgusting (friends, there is no circumstance in which any pastor should be seen wearing a dirty t-shirt that reads, “I’m well trained – just ask my wife!”): bottom line, I looked about as “un-ministerial” as it gets, and still these two kids spotted me – it never ceases to amaze me how that happens! But regardless of smelly t-shirt, torn shorts and ragged sneakers, I guess for those two boys, I still fit the part; and mostly, I suspect, because I simply took a minute to pay attention to them.
You know, where faith and wisdom is concerned, for better or worse, we all fit the part; but sometimes, that’s more than enough. When people see you and me; how we live, how we act, how we treat one another, they see who we are – that’s an impression that stays with people. I know that that’s a very important part of what we at East Church are teaching those wonderful children who as we speak are out back learning all about Joshua being “strong and courageous.” And I’m absolutely sure that this is what matters the most for people who come to church on a Sunday morning seeking something they can’t even begin to name; they’re just yearning to see in each of us someone “who fits the part,” and who has a good name – a name that’s synonymous with God’s wisdom, and God’s care, and God’s love.
Actually, it’s a pretty good way to describe what we do here, beloved – our mission statement, as it were; in the words of a well-known benediction, as we go forth, may we see the face of Christ in everyone we meet – but also, may everyone we meet see the face of Christ in us.
May God bless us as people and as the church, as we seek to serve him by serving others in wisdom and with love – and as we do, let our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry