Vanderbilts, Refugees, and Us

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 11, 2015.


A few years ago I read a book called: “The Power of Their Glory: AThe Gilded Agemerica’s Ruling Class: The Episcopalians.” It was published long before I read it, almost forty years ago, and I remember that when it first came out I read reviews of it but I didn’t think I could stand reading it so I didn’t. And then, ten or fifteen years ago, I decided I needed to read it because of another project I was working on, so I did.

Don’t bother. It’s a basically silly book – and boring. After a while you get tired of the name dropping, and there’s no real point to it: What it tells you is that a lot of silly people had more money than they knew what to do with and many of them were Episcopalians. But so what? Did you know that Cornelius Vanderbilt had a yacht with a crew of forty, formal dinner china vanderbllt yachtfor 108, and eight kinds of crystal glasses in the bar. It cost $7,000 a month to keep the thing in dry dock and a lot more to take it out. And that was in the 30s when a thousand dollars was still a lot of money. Did you know that Grace Vanderbilt spent five million 1900 dollars to build a “cottage” as she called it in Newport, RI.?

Do you care? None of that has much to do with you or me and the current crop of zillionaires make the old ones look like amateurs. It doesn’t have much to do with you and me but it does have something to do with the Gospel which talks again and again about wealth, and about riches, and about poverty, and about those in need.

It sometimes seems as if, every Fall, as we gear up for the annual stewardship campaign the Gospel comes back to this theme of wealth and poverty. I think in fact that it’s a theme that comes up year round, but we are especially aware of it in the Fall because we’ve just begun to plan about stewardship and it makes us more aware of what the gospel is always saying and what it told us this morning: “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.”

Now, I often point out that by any standards except those of the Vanderbilts and 1% the rich is not someone else. It’s us. In comparison with most of the world’s people we live in luxury, in luxury as unimaginable to them as the 1% to us. I can’t imagine owning a yacht with a crew of forty. I’ve never owned a rowboat though I did once buy a rubber raft. More than half the world’s people live on less than $2.50 a day. Twenty per cent live on just over a dollar. Relative to most people we are all very rich.

What annoyed me most about the book I read was that it put nothing in perspective. It told the tale for the fun of telling it but without a purpose except to entertain. But why would we enjoy reading about immorality? Of course, we do. We read about sex and violence and are horrified at one level and maybe secretly envious at another. Self-centered greed is equally immoral and we may be secretly envious and wish we too could have solid gold toilet fixtures but in a way that kind of greed is worse than murder and adultery because it does more harm. Murder seldom harms very many but greed has a quiet destructiveness that harms millions.

This is a very rich world. It’s a world of abundance whose resources we have scarcely begun to tap. There’s no need for anyone to go homeless or hungry but if one individual hoards up millions and billions, then others will not have enough and some will be hungry and some will die because of someone else’s greed. While the Vanderbilts ate caviar on their yachts, children worked twelve hours a day in the textile mills of New England and coal miners died early of black lung disease and the book I read never mentions that. It’s as if it didn’t matter. As if self-indulgence has no consequences. But greed kills. It kills those who needed what the greedy spend on themselves. And, in fact, it kills the greedy too. They die physically, of course, because of their self-indulgence in a day when no one knew about the dangers of nicotine or the value of exercise and diet, but even more important they die spiritually because spiritual growth is based on love of others. and you cannot love God and be indifferent to the needs of others.

“He who says he loves God and hates his brother,” said St. John, “is a liar.” It’s not possible. It can’t be done. Love can’t be limited. You can’t focus it on yourself and not love others. You can’t have it on Sunday unless you have it also on Monday. And you can’t spend some of your money lovingly and the rest selfishly. It’s all of a piece. And the greatest challenge we face is just that struggle to give our lives unity and wholeness to be the people God calls us to be all the time, not just some of the time, to live out our faith day by day and moment by moment, to be whole people, wholly loving, wholly serving, holy people. To give ourselves wholly to the God who gives all to us.

I was pondering all this recently and began wondering what it would be like to put a price on what God has given us. I wondered, for example, what we would be willing to give if we could go back to the moment before our birth and be offered a choice: You are about to be born into this world and the odds are not good that you will be an American – maybe one chance in ten. And faced with the possibility of being born into a family in Bangladesh trying to eke out a living by growing rice on a half acre of land in a river refugeesdelta subject to flooding and monsoons with a life expectancy of twenty-five or thirty or born into a family in Morocco where unemployment is 25% and families support themselves by sending their children out to work in mills making rugs for ten hours a day at ten cents an hour to be sold to tourists or a family in Syria where the best you can hope for is escape – to get out of there somehow by boat, by walking – just get out and hope to rebuild a shattered life.

Well, read the papers, watch television, and ask: where would I rather live – and if asked to put a price on it, what would you give – gladly – for the opportunity to live here and not there? And wouldn’t you be willing to share some of what you have with those who have less for the privilege of living in this country at this time? Do you suppose God gives us all this because we are more deserving or because God loves us more or because God hopes against hope that we, knowing as much as we do about the need, might be willing – even glad – to share our abundance.

But that’s to put it in material terms. Suppose you were given another choice: a life as rich as the Vanderbilts and all their ilk: yachts and mansions and servants, the whole thing, with a lifespan like theirs of sixty or seventy years and no more. Just that. One brief and possibly happy life – though I’m not sure how happy they really were – but then death, eternal death. If you haven’t learned to love here, if what you have learned here is self-centered grasping, how could you be happy in a place centered on self-giving love?

So there’s that on the one hand, and on the other hand a life lived with the hope of eternal life hereafter, a life centered on growing in love so that at last you might be able to hope to live and grow in love forever. What would you give for that? But of course, you can’t buy it and you don’t have to. It’s freely offered. God in love freely offers to us and the whole human race an eternity of love and the offer is for all those who have so learned to love that they would be at home in such a place. You can’t buy it. There’s nothing you can give to earn it. And yet giving is all that is asked. God gives to us to show us what giving can be. God pours out love on us to teach us how to give – freely, generously, totally because that is why we are placed here and that is what life is for.

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