Byron C. Bangert

May 3, 1998

Numbers 27:1-11; Psalms 37:7-11; Luke 12:13-21

I want to show you something. Here it is. This is a copy of my "last will and testament". I dug it out of the bottom of my filing cabinet on Friday night. Hayden has one just like it. I wanted to show this to you this morning as a way of talking about wills. I also wanted to see what it said. This will was made out and signed in 1985. It is really out of date. Son Andrew was just 9, and son Nathan was not yet 6. There are provisions in here for their guardianship, in the event of Hayden's and my deaths. There are provisions for setting up a trust until our children reach the age of majority. Fortunately, my father, who is named executor or "Independent Personal Representative" in the event of both our deaths, is still alive and healthy. Nonetheless, it is time for Hayden and me to update our wills.

I have something else to show you. It is a little pamphlet that you can find on the tables in the Lincoln and Sixth Street narthexes. It is called "Planning Your Future Witness." It is a way to set down certain of your wishes in the event of your death. We keep a file in the church office for those who have completed this form. On this form you can record what sort of service, if any, you would like. You can list favorite hymns to be sung, or music to played. You can request scriptures to be read and indicate your preferences regarding the disposition of your remains. You can record where your funeral home arrangements, if any, have been made. You can indicate your preferences regarding memorial gifts as well, and let us know your closest next of kin.

Here is another pamphlet called "Living Wills and Life Prolonging Declarations." It reviews the law in Indiana and contains sample forms of the "Living Will Declaration" and the "Life Prolonging Procedures Declaration." You have to be at least 18 years of age to make either of these declarations.

Finally, this is a Uniform Donor Card. On the back in fine print it says, "This is a legal document under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act or similar laws." There is a similar form on the back of your Indiana driver's license though, if yours is like mine, it is sealed in plastic so it cannot be filled out or signed. With this card you can give away any or all of your body organs or parts, or you can give your whole body, if needed, for anatomical study.

Each of these documents offers a way to express your will after death or after the point at which you can no longer meaningfully express your will in this life. All of them have significant implications for the lives of others. Thinking about any of them forces each of us to confront the fact of human mortality. In particular, each of them invites you to imagine what a difference you would like to make when you are no longer able to make it yourself. Imagine what you want to have happen--to what you have possessed, to those who will survive you, to your bodies, among the community of your family and friends--at the point of your dying and death. Here are some significant ways to express something about who you understand yourself to be, who you care about and what you value, and how to distribute or dispose of what you leave behind.

Few of us relish the thought of no longer being part of the life of this world. We are not eager to dwell upon the prospects of death. So most of us put off writing our wills, declaring our desires regarding medical treatment and care, making funeral arrangements, consigning our organs and body parts for the use of others, expressing our wishes about how we are to be remembered--until we sense that the time is approaching when such decisions really matter. In many respects, this strikes me as healthy. We ought to pour most of our energies into living, not into planning for when we are gone. But sometimes we wait too long. And we live in a world in which we cannot count on common practice and the good will of others to decide all these things for us in the best possible way.

In traditional societies, people know what they are supposed to do when they, or loved ones, are dying. They know what observances will be held upon their death. They know how their wealth and personal effects will be disposed. In our society, very little of that can be taken for granted. That means some difficult, unwelcome, and often painful decisions may await the family and loved ones at the time of an individual's dying and death. One reason for making a will is to make some of these decisions easier for your survivors. Another reason is to insure, as much as possible, that you are able to make the kind of difference you would want to make after your death.

In preparing this sermon, I discovered there is only one place in the Bible where there is any mention of a will (Hebrews 9:16-17). The idea of inheritance, however, is very important in both Testaments, though in significantly different ways. Inheritance practices are obviously very important in our Old Testament text. In this particular passage, the first question is whether daughters can inherit when there are no sons. The over-riding concern of the inheritance laws in the Old Testament is to keep land in the family. Every tribe or clan, except the Levites, was supposedly given land on which to dwell. Land meant livelihood. Land meant a stake in God's promise to the people of Israel. Land meant a franchise in the commonwealth of God's people. There is no mention of individual wills in this context. The laws of inheritance existed to preserve a divinely-sanctioned social order. They simply had to be carried out. Disputes arose when family members differed regarding the disposition and control of the family inheritance. The social order was threatened when some of its members were dispossessed of their inheritance. The psalmist counsels patience in the face of perceived threat or injustice: "those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land" [37:9].

In the New Testament, by contrast, there are only a few references to family inheritance--one of them in our text from Luke. Jesus dismisses the concern of the younger brother in this story. Refusing to arbitrate between him and his older brother, Jesus proceeds to warn against greed: "One's life does not consist in the abundance of one's possessions" [12:15]. What really matters is not earthly riches but being rich toward God. The inheritance that stands out in the New Testament is God's kingdom, a moral and spiritual commonwealth of those who do as God's wills and desires.

Whether land and its associated wealth in the Old Testament or kingdom in the New, however, the biblical emphasis upon inheritance is clearly linked with God's purposes, and with how God wants our lives to be ordered in relation to others. The purpose of an inheritance is not to show favoritism, or to provide advantage, or to promote greed, or to manipulate and control behavior. In the Gospel of Matthew, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and in prison, "inherit the kingdom," but it comes to them as a gift and unsought reward, not an expectation. The vision of the kingdom is a vision of the world in which our wills are conformed to the Divine Will.

Let me try to bring this down to earth. There are lots of practical reasons for writing a will. Without a will, the probate court will decide how to distribute your estate, in keeping with the laws of the state. The results may differ greatly from your wishes. Moreover, a will is an act of consideration toward those loved ones who will survive you. It leaves little room for dispute and little cause for anguish about your wishes. A will is also necessary to provide for the guardianship of your minor children. A will is not needed for every such matter, however. There are ways of passing on major assets without a will. Deferred gifts of various kinds, charitable gift annuities, living trusts and life insurance are other ways that may be more suitable in certain circumstances. But a will remains an important means of insuring, so far as possible, that your wishes are fulfilled.

I would hope, however, that you would regard the writing of your will not just as a matter of expediency but as an expression of your religious faith. And I would think that you would want your will to embody in important ways those same values and commitments that were central to your life of faith. Suppose for a moment that, before you died, you were given a month to dispose of everything that you have. At the end of this month, you knew your life would be ended. Until the end of this month, you knew that provision had been made for all your needs. All you had to do was decide the best way to distribute what you had. It seems to me that is a helpful way to think about a will. The main difference is that you may have to leave some of those decisions, especially the details, to others.

Most of us, in making a will, want to be sure that our spouses and children are adequately provided for. When Hayden and I last made our wills, we willed everything to each other in the event of our individual deaths. But then we made particular provisions in the event of both our deaths. We also made provisions in the event that we were to die without surviving children. Those provisions have to do with the disposition of the bulk of our estate. In the event that our children do not survive us, nor we each other, our estate is to be divided among five non-profit organizations, all of them at least marginally church-related. Two of them are colleges, two are divinity schools, and one is a church service organization. When we re-write these wills, we will doubtless make some changes, but I suspect we will want to make similar provisions for our estate to go institutions and causes that we support. And I suspect that most if not all of those will be in some way church-related. For the much more likely event that our children do survive us, I am sure we will make provision for them and their needs. But I suspect that we will also provide that some portion of our estate be given in ways that will continue to sustain the causes and communities that have been important in our lives.

As a pastor I have often been dismayed at how seldom the church and its organizations are named as beneficiaries in people's wills. This seems true even for people who have given significantly of their lives, their time, their energies, and their money to the church during their lifetime. Often there seems to be little relationship between the way the person's resources were used in life and the way they end up being distributed in death. I am not sure why this is, but I do have some hunches. One of those hunches is that most people seem to feel an obligation to give to surviving family members at death beyond what they would ever have given them in life. I won't try to say anything more about this this morning except that it would be nice if we could give more to each other while we are still living, and not wait until we die.

A second hunch I have about why the deceased person's resources are often distributed in a way that seems incongruent with the person's life and commitments has to do with poor planning. Maybe there is no will, or maybe the will is poorly written. Several years ago an elderly church member who sensed that she did not have much more time invited me into her home for a visit, at least in part to inform me about some money she was leaving behind. Her closest living relative was a nephew in a nearby town who had been helping with her financial affairs and who, I assumed, would inherit the bulk of her estate. But she told me that she had set aside a couple bonds or CDs--I don't remember exactly--that were to go a former minister of the church and to the church itself. Part of her concern was that the former minister, who had moved away, would be located in order to receive his bequest.

Sure enough, when she died and the time came to talk with the nephew and the attorney about her request, a CD or bond apparently was found in the safe deposit box for the former minister, but there was nothing for the church. It seems there may once have been, but when it had last come due a couple years before, it had not been renewed in the name of the church. Exactly what had happened and how I do not know. This experience, while hardly typical, struck me then and strikes me now as how it usually goes for the church. It was all too typical of how the church often loses out. People have good intentions, they care about the church, but they do not act upon their intentions, or they fail to make clear and adequate and legal provision for the church in their wills. Time and time again I have encountered situations in which people have died, leaving behind resources that will never be used in ways that would seem to fit with what that person would have intended.

My third hunch about why there is this difference between the way people have spent their resources while they lived and what happens to their resources when they die is related to the common worry that the funds may run out. Many people are rightly concerned that they may not have enough to see them through their last days. If you are not sure there will be enough, it is hard to make plans to dispose of the remainder. More often than not, however, there is something remaining. And more often than not, there are ways to provide for the causes you want to support without jeopardizing what you may need for yourself, or what your loved ones may need. You can never be sure how much of your resources will remain, but you can designate a percentage, rather than a specific dollar amount, to be given out of whatever remains. You can set up a trust that provides for the needs of a loved one, with directives on how to distribute what remains after those needs are met. You can also make a gift that will continue to provide you a life income as long as you live. These and various others ways can serve to direct your remaining resources in keeping with your own values and commitments without putting yourself or your loved ones at risk of not having enough.

A fourth hunch I have about the incongruity of peoples' giving in life and in death has to do with the difficulties of thinking long and hard about our wills and our deaths. It is easier just to assume that most of it will go to family, easier to make minimal alternative plans, and easier to imagine ourselves holding on to, and using up, what we have as long as we can. Hayden and I discovered when we wrote our last wills that, by including provision for the residual bequests, we were making our wills more complicated and more expensive. But that seems a small price to pay for the potential benefit that might result. We should try to be as careful and thoughtful and thorough in making out our wills as we have been in saving and investing for our futures and for the needs of our loved ones. We cannot control the future, and we should not try to do so. But with our wills we can express our commitments, our values, and our religious faith, by directing to whom and to what extent our remaining resources will be given. Surely that is worth thinking about and spending the necessary time and money to accomplish.

One more hunch I have about why wills turn out the way they do is that many of the most deserving causes, including the church, are very hesitant to ask people to include them in their wills. Perhaps it seems too self-serving. Or perhaps it just seems insensitive to ask people to think about death, and about what will happen to their resources after they die. We wish to be in the business of helping others, not exploiting them. If people volunteer on their own to write us into their wills, fine and good, but we do not want to be seen as pressuring them, let alone being eager for them to die. Many other organizations, however, are not so hesitant to ask, and the results are obvious. Most people know they can't take it with them, so the challenge is to help them find the most responsible and meaningful and faithful ways to leave it behind.

We live in a society that finds its much easier to think about the short run than the long. And perhaps that is in our nature. As economist John Maynard Keynes would point out, "In the long run we are all dead." Where there's a will, nonetheless, there's a way of thinking about the long run, a way of caring and providing for those persons and institutions, those communities and causes, that have made our days worth living by giving meaning and purpose to our years. We would not want them to forget us. We should plan not to forget them. AMEN.