A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 2, 2007.
Based on Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18 & Luke 14:1,7-14 (Proper 17, Year C).
The contrast is stunning. One gave away a fortune during her lifetime and beyond. The other horded everything in life and tried to do the same in death. Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley: the Philanthropy Queen and the Queen of Mean. Polar opposites in so many ways, yet united in both the timing of their deaths (one week apart) and the location of their final resting places at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I pray that they’ll both rest in peace. Though in the case of Mrs. Astor this means a quiet, unassuming burial plot while Mrs. Helmsley will be interred in a massive marble mausoleum. One will join her husband Vincent; the other will one day be joined by her very wealthy dog.
This isn’t to skewer the one and beatify the other. We all have our positive attributes and our warts – it comes with the human condition. And in fairness, Leona Helmsley’s will reportedly left millions of dollars to charity in addition to the $12 million left to her dog Trouble. These two strong-willed women were products of very different worlds. Leona Helmsley worked hard for everything she had; Brooke Astor married into money. Helmsley became a symbol of 1980’s greed and excess; Astor was an icon of generosity and grace. They embodied the stereotypical difference between old money and new.
But there’s also a spiritual dimension here that reflects upon how we all live our lives. Granted for most of us the sheer financial scale is somewhat less grandiose. But as insecure and frail human beings, we often fret about our legacies. Will we be remembered when we die? Will we “leave our mark?” We want our names to live on forever whether through financial bequests or children or large gravestones, we seek something permanent amid this fleeting and transitory life.
I’d argue that this notion is often driven by a simple lack of faith. We don’t trust Jesus’ promise of eternal life so we strive to do everything we can to cling to this life. We refuse to release our grip upon what we know. We’re unable to slip into the next world without trying to remain in this one. It’s what drives the desire to erect monuments to ourselves after we die. It’s nothing new. Over the years this has caused so many to go to extreme measures to secure enduring legacies. In Egypt the kings built massive pyramids. Louis XIV built Versailles. Closer to Westchester County, Donald Trump built Trump Tower, not to mention the golf course just up the road. And while the building materials may differ, the principle remains the same: build something that will endure throughout the ages and you will never be forgotten.
But it doesn’t work that way. The writer of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, who was well-versed in the dichotomy between human wealth and the richness that comes only through faith in God, makes it clear that there is only one way to secure an everlasting legacy: glorify God in your own day. Because when you glorify God, God never forgets your righteousness. It is indelibly written on God’s heart. And your name lives on generation after generation as a member of the communion of saints.
So if you’re truly looking for a way to leave a legacy, live your life in Christ. Sow love, be kind to others, worship God intently. Be a peacemaker, comfort the afflicted, be merciful to the poor. Buildings eventually crumble. Companies go out of business. People grow old and die. But the glory you earn through Christ never fades.
And this transcends all the money and expensive building materials in the world. God doesn’t care one whit about the size of your mausoleum. When you die, it’s your soul that lives on. “For when one is dead,” Ecclesiasticus reminds us in stark terms, “he inherits maggots and vermin and worms.” Here’s a reality check: no matter how grandiose your mausoleum, in the end it’s still filled with maggots. Perhaps, as Helmsley famously said, “Only the little people pay taxes.” But no matter our tax bracket we do all die and when we do, we’ll be judged not on our financial wealth but on the richness of our souls.
While the Astors and the Helmsleys ran in different social circles, they undoubtedly attended all sorts of fancy dinners parties in their day. If I had a nickel for every time Brooke Astor graced the society pages of the New York Times I’d be able to leave Delilah a few million dollars. And when these two women went to these events they were treated as honored guests. But in this passage from Luke, Jesus points out that honor is not earned or seized but rather given by God. It doesn’t come through the balance in your checking account but through the acts of mercy and goodwill offered others in God’s name.
Humility is a profound spiritual virtue. It keeps our relationship with God in the proper context. We are not God. Death is truly the great equalizer for those who forget this. “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord,” we hear again from Ecclesiasticus. “The heart has withdrawn from its maker.”
As many of you know, Mrs. Astor’s Holly Hill estate is just across the street. And she attended All Saints’ at one point, certainly before my time here. Her oft-quoted motto was “Money is like manure; it should be spread around.” Maybe that should be this year’s stewardship theme.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007