Ecclesiastes 2 and 1Timothy 6
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
September 26, 2004
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it. You can’t take it with you. Paul wraps this truism with lots of apocalyptic talk and imperatives to fight the fight, take hold of eternal life. Yet, none of this is really possible unless you start from the first step, from the moment of recognition, you can’t take it with you.
Everyone knows this. We all scoff at the Egyptians who filled their tombs with treasures for the afterlife. Gypsies do this today. I will never forget listening to a funeral director describe Gypsy funerals to me. It is a kind of drunken brawl that ends with everyone throwing lots of money into an open casket for the deceased to take with them to the underworld. He also described the very costly damage that is done to the funeral home. I remember thinking, neither one of you can’t take it with you.
"You Can’t Take it with You" is the title of my favorite Frank Capra movie; the point of the movie is in the title which is one of the reasons why I love this movie. Don’t make it subtle, make it simple. It’s Frank Capra so everything works out in the end and Jimmy Stewart gets the girl. Yet the dinner table and the house where the movie is set is so terribly close to what it looks like when we try to eat a meal together- it’s just pure chaos- that I find a kind of comfort in knowing that somewhere else things are this crazy. At any given moment at the dinner table in the movie there can be dancing, unexpected guests, arguments, two, three, four conversations. I just wish our dinner talk was as witty as the movie- maybe someday.
The plot of the story is that a wealthy industrialist needs to buy one more piece of property to own twelve blocks and its all part of a big scheme. One man, though, holds out and refuses to sell- Grandpa, or Lionel Barrymore’s character. The plot thickens when his granddaughter is in love with the son of the rich man who wants to buy his house. Remember this is Frank Capra now. As you might expect the clash of these two men is all about our culture of rich and poor, how true happiness is not about things but our relationships and families. So on and so on.
Now the beauty of Capra is that he knows we are going to watch this. He has Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur and they’re beautiful and funny; he fills out the story with a nutty house and uptight socialites who can’t let their hair down. He knows we will grin in the final scene when Grandpa and the wealthy man play their harmonicas together, just like old friends. He knows this and yet he finds a way or sees that little, elusive piece that we all hunger for.
This little piece comes near the end when Grandpa breaks down and agrees to sell the house; it’s a dark day and all the gaiety is gone; movers have taken nearly all the goods- Capra does the sorry sop like no other. The beauty, though, comes when his granddaughter returns to the house and finds him alone in his now empty bedroom; the real struggle is revealed here when he confesses to his granddaughter why he was never willing to sell. It’s not the house or the principle or the money or a kind of protest. It is much simpler. If he leaves the house he is leaving the only real connection he has to his now deceased wife. He says, I feel like I am leaving Grandma.
Now remember this is Frank Capra so everything works out and everyone is happy in the end so don’t start crying. But there is a deep irony here which I have come to believe is why so many of his stories stay with us. The irony is that while you can’t take it with you, you can find in this life what is eternal, or as Paul says the life that really is life. You can’t take it with you, but you can taste and see the stuff of grace and mercy, beauty and truth, goodness and faith, and these things are actually what eternal life is all about- not what you take, but what you get.
I got a call the other day that my grandfather’s body is wearing out; it’s his kidneys, so it’s serious. He’s 94 and thus it doesn’t come as a great surprise. In fact when I saw him last month in San Diego, he said, "this will be the last time we see each other." This wasn’t said to create a scene or solicit emotion; he said it as a matter of fact. Let me explain.
James Francis Garry is a slender man who wears a tie and a hat if he goes out; he sold air conditioning until the company downsized; he served in WWII; raised two kids- sons; a devout Roman Catholic of the Irish persuasion. My first memories of worship were of watching him and my grandmother, Mary Garry, kneel in the Mass and feel safe as they walked away to receive the Eucharist.
He is rarely outspoken, always kind, and never in a hurry. He is one of the few men I have ever met who truly retired. Jim and Mary’s life has never been flashy or what one might consider exciting. The most excited moment in which I’ve ever seen my grandfather was when my grandmother convinced him to go on a roller coaster ride at Disneyland. The two of them were seated a few cars in front of me. With one hand clutching the rail, the other holding his hat in place- he never took it off- he kept repeating the same thing, "Oh Mare, oh Mare."
This was what he calls my grandmother- Mare, Mare! As the roller coaster train rose, with each click, his voice became more and more insistent. Oh, Mare, oh, Mare, oh, Mare! And then as it descended, everyone at Disneyland and perhaps even those still in the parking lot heard him shout, Oh Mare, Oh Mare! I don’t recall him riding another roller coaster that day.
They stay together- Jim and Mary Garry. If she is going, then he would go. That is a kind of unspoken rule. I only saw it broken a few times. Once was when my grandfather refused to go to Vegas. My grandmother has a sister who is a sister, a nun. My Aunt Eileen was a nun and every summer she and her friend, Sister Leon, would come and spend their vacation with my grandparents. From them I received a rather earthy picture of religious orders. For three weeks the sisters would play cards, drink beer, and watch soap operas- for which I will always hold them in the highest regard. Every year- with my excited grandmother and my reluctant grandfather- they would all head to Vegas.
One year he decided to put his foot down and refused to go. Since he was only one of the four who had a driver’s license I think there was some weight to his refusal. Without blinking the three of them bought bus tickets. When he came down for Sunday dinner it was odd without my grandmother; her absence was obvious. Sitting with him I could tell he was not right. I must have been eleven or twelve; I asked him, "are you O.K. grandpa?" "No," he said. "Freddy, I am lonely. I don’t like to be alone." That was all he said. I didn’t know what else to do but just sit there so I did.
Like a deep refrain the image I carry of my grandfather has worn a groove in me. When I think of him I see a man who doesn’t seem to care that you can’t take it with you, because he has found the life that really is life. He lives as a man who is satisfied to love his wife, content to spend his days with Mare. He loves his family, he worked hard, and served his country. He told the truth and treated people fairly; he didn’t ask for more than was fair and didn’t horde more than his share. Mainly though he loved his wife, still does. Somehow to spend the day with her, or decades with her, was enough.
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. Paul makes it sound so easy, so simple. And the funny thing is, it is. If you find the life that really is life, a lot of the things that seem to trip up or ruin or harm so many, they just don’t float the boat.
In the coming month we will be looking to the direction of the church and continuing our goal of freeing the church from using the endowment to pay the bills. It’s not a very grand scheme; it’s not very sophisticated. It is rather simple. In the sermons and the letters and the video the theme will all be the same: we need to be faithful today and not be dependent on the faithfulness of those who came before us. It’s good goal. Yet beneath the simple goal is a great leap of faith.
The leap of faith is in this notion of contentment. I can remember being surprised by this feeling when Kathy and I reached the tithe in our giving. I thought I would feel proud or strong or that it would be hard and it we would be in a hard place. The funny thing was the peace or as Paul says contentment that came when we learned how to tithe, it was like stepping into the life that really is life. It’s something close to the Frank Capra movie or the way my grandfather calls to my grandmother. It’s a quality of light and being and a tune.
I don’t know if it’s a kind of spiritual maturity; I think it’s just growing used to grace. It’s having the Holy Spirit say to you, peace isn’t out there. It’s here. It’s not in your head, it’s in your hands. It’s loving your wife; it’s loving your family; it’s being true, faithful more than faithless. Godliness is not a rigid perfection, but an earthy trust that we are God’s and that is enough.
In the coming month we will explore the direction of the church. We will talk about mission and community, neighborhoods and ministries. Yet, don’t let go of the real leap of faith: it’s about finding what is good in life, what is enough, what deeply satisfies, not just that you can’t take it with you, but that the good things abide.
Truly, the advice Paul gives to Timothy and to us here is hard to get excited about. And the reason is that the advice is dismissive. "Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; but as for you shun all this; those who are rich tell them not to be haughty." It is almost as if Paul doesn’t take any of this seriously, the stuff and the money and the budgets and the buildings. In truth he really says, get past it. Find what really is life and live that.
When my grandfather told me we would not see each other again I wasn’t ready to hear that. Partly because I don’t want him to die, which is just how it is. The other reason (which I certainly was unable to speak in the moment) is that in him I have received love and kindness, mercy and grace, gentleness and an example of how to live. What I wanted to say was that no matter how many days God gives to him those gifts I will always see again, because in those I have tasted what lies ahead, the life that really is life. Oh Mare! Amen.