Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Estate Planning

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 12:13-21, 22-34

When Marcellus and Geraldine Dodge were married in 1907, [Slide 1] they were reported to be the richest newlyweds in America.  Marcellus Dodge was the heir to the Remington Arms fortune.  Geraldine was a Rockefeller, daughter William Avery Rockefeller, the co-founder of Standard Oil.  They lived on a beautiful 250 acre estate in Northern New Jersey, [Slide 2] complete with forests, lakes, lush green lawns, gardens, a guest house, a stable, and a 35 room mansion.  There were also rows and rows of dog kennels.  Geraldine was big into dogs.  This is a picture of one of the dog shows she hosted on the grounds of her estate. [Slide 3]

I knew about the Dodge estate because in 1977 I was part of the grounds crew.  They hired seminary students to help mow, trim, and rake during the summer, and that was my summer job after my first year of seminary. [Slide 4]  I mowed around the base of the trees where the large tractor mowers could not reach.

The irony is that when I worked on the estate in the summer of 1977, it was deserted.  Geraldine Dodge died in 1973, ten years after her husband, leaving no children or anyone else to take over the estate.  So the property was managed by a trust company who hired the seminary students to help take care of it.  All summer we mowed lawns that no one ever saw except a few deer.  We swept out stables and kennels that had been empty for years.  Sometimes I stopped to look in the windows of the old mansion, and I could see the grand ballroom. [Slide 5].  But it was completely empty, stripped of all furniture, tapestries, light fixtures, art work, drapes, and everything else except a few tattered pieces of wallpaper sloughing off the walls.

And now, even that is gone.  The year after I worked there the estate was sold, the buildings were torn down, and the land developed into a corporate office complex. [Slide 6: Blank]

It reminds me of the parable Jesus told in our first scripture reading.  Jesus tells a story about a farmer who is incredibly prosperous.  His barns are filled, and he has another bumper crop on the way.  So he thinks to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”  Then he says to himself, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.”

There is an obvious detail in this story that I had not noticed until it was pointed out to me in a commentary.  It is humbling to me how many times I can read a familiar Bible story and fail to notice an obvious detail until someone points it out.  The rich man in the parable has no one to talk to but himself.  Did you notice that?  Anyone as successful as this guy should be throwing a party.  In Luke 15 Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who finds a lost sheep, and Jesus says, “When he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”  In the same chapter Jesus tells about a woman who finds a lost coin.  Jesus says, “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”  One lost sheep or one lost coin, and it’s like Mardi Gras right there in the neighborhood.  But this farmer has year after year of bumper crops, and no one with whom to celebrate.

This is highlighted by the question God asks him at the end of the parable.  In verse 20 God says to him, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  I have always understood this question as a way of God emphasizing that you can’t take it with you.  When you die, you leave all your possessions and bank accounts behind.  That is true, of course, but I now I realize that the question goes even deeper.  When God says to the man, “Whose will they be?” God is pointing out to the man that he has no one to inherit his estate.  He has no relationships in his life, no people with whom he can share the joy of what he has been given.

That, to me, was the saddest thing about the Dodge estate.  They were the richest couple in America, and when they were gone there was no one to inherit their estate.

So back to the parable.  Someone comes up to Jesus and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  In response Jesus tells a story about a man who dies with no one to share his estate.  Do you see the irony?  In essence Jesus is saying to the man, “Don’t you see?  Your relationship to your brother is more important than the money.  Quit worrying about how much of the estate you get, and think about what a gift it is to have people in your life that you can care about.”

As I said, our second scripture reading today is like a commentary on the first.  Notice the connections: [Slide 7]

-          In the parable the man says, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods” (v. 18). [Click 1]

-          In the commentary Jesus says, “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them” (v. 24). [Click 2]

One is concerned about building bigger barns, and the other does not need them.

Now Jesus is not saying that we don’t need to do any work.  Even the ravens have to go out gathering the food.  But Jesus is saying, “Don’t be compulsively fearful.  Don’t be obsessed with the size of your 401-K.  God knows what you need.”

Here are more similarities. [Slide 8]

-          In the parable the man says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (v. 19). [Click 1]

-          In the commentary Jesus says, “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. … Your Father knows that you need these things” (vs. 29-30).  [Click 2]

Again Jesus is not discouraging us from meaningful productive work.  He is discouraging us from trying to find security in accumulated assets.  When St. Augustine preached a sermon on this text, he said about the man with the barns, “He did not realize that the bellies of the poor are much safer storehouses than his barns” (Augustine, Sermon 36:7).  Our security does not lie in our possessions but in our relationships—first our relationship to God and then our relationships to others, including those in need.

 On more example: [Slide 9]

-          In the parable God says to the man, “You fool!  This night your life is being demanded of you.” [Click 1]

-          In the commentary Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your lifespan?” [Click 2]

Life is a gift we did not earn and cannot control.  All we can do is to use the days God has given us to be a blessing to others and to God. [Slide 10: Blank]

I once heard a psychologist tell about playing a game of Monopoly with his family.  His daughter found the game in the back of the closet and had never played it before, so she brought it out and said to her parents, “Let’s play this game.”  So the family sat down to play.

The psychologist, of course, had played the game numerous times as a youth, and immediately he began using all his old strategies for winning.  He bought Boardwalk and Park Place, three out of four railroad, and began acquiring other property as fast as he could, especially all the properties of the same color that would give him a monopoly.  The daughter did not realize that was important.  Soon the rent money started coming in, and the father used the rent money to buy houses to put on his property.  That got him more money, so he could buy hotels, and soon he was piling up huge amounts of money on his side of the board.  The game went on like this for a while, when suddenly his wife, daughter, and son all hit a string of his most expensive properties, and in three moves they were wiped out.  Just like that, the game was over.

Because he had been a fairly obnoxious player, the family left him to put the game away by himself.  So there he was.  One by one he took off all his houses and hotels, and put them back in the box.  Then he collected all the deeds of his property, stacked them together, put a rubber band around them, and put them back in the box.  Then he collected his money: the $500 bills he had stuffed halfway under the board, and the 100s and 50s and 20s, and he put them all back in the box.  And suddenly, he told us, he experienced a strange empty feeling inside.  For here were all his possessions, everything he had worked for, everything he had saved for, everything he had invested in, and it was all going back in the box—everything except the relationships he had so cavalierly disregarded.

Our security does not lie in our possessions but in our relationships, starting with our relationship to God.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7