Reading of the Will
Scripture - 1 Peter 1:3-9
Have you ever been to the reading of a will? I’m sure some of you have. The family, the relatives, & any others who expect to be involved in the distribution of the inheritance gather in a judge’s chambers or in a lawyer’s office, & the will is read. It is a very exciting & anxious time; indeed, for some it is a life-changing moment.
I thought about this as I contemplated the text today from 1
Peter. Sometimes I forget that this is what we do every Sunday: read the will. That is what we are here for, to read God’s will so all the children of God can know what their inheritance is. Sometimes I forget that this is what we are doing. But today’s reading reminded me that we have, by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a permanent Easter benefit, an inheritance that cannot shrink, that cannot be removed, that cannot be altered, & that cannot pass away. It is, according to 1 Peter, kept safe in heaven, which means “guarded” in heaven or, as we might say, “kept under lock & key” in heaven, to be distributed to us. That is why we are here.
So, have you ever been to the reading of a will? Some people don’t even show up because they don’t want to be embarrassed. They say, “What if everybody is sitting there having their names called out & finding out what they get, then they don’t call my name & there I sit? Then what? I think I’ll just not show.”
According to the Old Testament, in ancient Israel there were some people in the family who may as well not have shown up because their names would not be called. The widow – we call her the ‘poor widow’ because that is exactly what she was in the economic system of the day – did not get anything according to the law. Zilch. She could sit there all day, but her name would not be called. That may seem strange to you (it certainly does to me) but I’m just telling you how it was. Part of her ‘problem’ was that she was a woman, a fact that accounted for a lot of things that she suffered. Inheritance went through the males, so she did not get any. Moreover, if the deceased had daughters, they need not show either. Their names would not be called. If you are a daughter in Israel, do not come to the reading of the will; you will not hear your name. Now if the deceased had only daughters & no sons, then the daughters could make a claim: “We are the closest thing to a son our father ever had.” But even then, sometimes they did not get heard because the money would go to the brothers of the deceased who had sons. There was no need for the daughters to show.
Today we don’t have these Old Testament rules & regulations because in our legal system wills & inheritances are up to the decision of the one who is the benefactor. I say the inheritance is up to the benefactor’s decision, which means that person’s current love, hate, or whim. The will can be changed, you know, & then changed & changed & changed, & you can sit there as a daughter or a son & not have your named called. Or maybe your name is called: “I leave to my son, Ralph, my dirty socks.” Having his name called can be a way of slapping Ralph in front of everybody. Why should Ralph show up? Why should anybody show up when the inheritance is up to feeling & whim?
Many a person who has a great deal of money also has a son or daughter who, as that person gets old, suddenly becomes really, really nice. “Would you like some more soup, Dad? Can I bring you anything, Mom?” Up until that time, Dad didn’t exist. Maybe he’ll change the will. Maybe I’ll get more than the others. Maybe I’ll get something big. And then the will is read & the family is torn apart. Brothers & sisters don’t speak to each other anymore because one got this while another didn’t get anything.
The benefactor can leave it all to the cat. “All that I own I want to be turned into cat food & given to our cat, Sylvia, & to the caretaker of the cat.” That can be done. It leads to lawsuits, of course. Was he really of sound mind? Was she under undue influence when she changed the will? It can be an ugly thing. I don’t know whether it is worth it to show up at the reading of the will.
Some people do not show up because they have no name. How can your name be called when you are nameless? We have a lot of graves right here at Shiloh that don’t have markers. Those empty places in our cemetery? They are graves that have no name. Who were those people? Who cares? They died without family, maybe they died paupers; for any number of reasons, no marker was put up. Who knows now? Why show up when you do not have a name?
One of the most painful things to me about the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic is all those folks being buried on Hart Island in NY. After they die from the virus, the family has 2 days to claim the body. If it isn’t claimed in 48 hours, they are put in a simple wooden box & buried in a mass grave. Prior to the virus, about 25 people per week were buried at Hart Island. Now it is 25 people per day. Why show up for the reading of the will? You don’t have anything, not even a name.
I think the saddest group that does not show up for the reading of the will are those who, in terms of expecting anything, have eliminated themselves. These are the folk who have disqualified themselves because of their low status in life, or because of something horrible they have done, or because of some addiction or habit in their life. Some people during their lifetime gradually erase themselves & stand looking at their shoelaces & say, “I’m nobody. Why should God include me? I’m nobody.”
Yet there is a marvelous prophecy in Isaiah 56 where the Lord says: Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say, “The Lord will exclude me from the people.” And don’t let the eunuch say, “I’m just a dry tree.” The Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, & remain loyal to my covenant: In my temple & courts, I will give them a monument & a name better than sons & daughters. I will give to them an enduring name that won’t be removed. The immigrants who have joined me, serving me & loving my name, becoming my servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure, & those who hold fast to my covenant: I will bring them to my holy mountain, & bring them joy in my house of prayer. My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples. What a wonderful truth!
Yet I still meet people who have disqualified themselves, some simply because they think they don’t have the right clothes to wear. Can you believe that? What is the right thing to wear? But here in 1 Peter, we find a group of people gathered to the rafters for the reading of the will. They are all here, jammed into one room, excited. I don’t know why they are there, because a lot of them are women. If you have read 1 Peter, you know that many of the people addressed are women. You know their names are not going to be called. Some of the people are slaves. If you have read 1 Peter, you know that some of the members of that church were slaves. Do you think they should show up? This could be the Sunday that they go fishing. Are they going to have their names called? Why are they here? They are all excited, all excited for the reading of the will. Women, slaves, & what 1 Peter calls exiles, foreigners, & transients. That is the way all the Christians back then were regarded. They were people without a country, non-people really. I tried to think this week about what would constitute a modern analogy to the way Christians were regarded by the culture of the time, & the only word I could come up with was ‘refugee.’ Refugees are nobody. Where do they live? Where is their place? What is their name? Nowhere & nobody.
Yet in this little church addressed by 1 Peter, the folks had all gathered for the reading of the will. Strangers, exiles, nobodies, slaves, women, everybody; they have all come & are all excited because they said, “The will has been guarded in heaven, under lock & key, & nobody can change the will. The inheritance is pure. The inheritance cannot perish. The will is enduring, & it is not the whim of the benefactor to change it.” These people are confident that they are going to be taken by the hand outside the building & allowed to walk off the size of their inheritance as the children of God & then taken back inside & run through the unsearchable riches of God’s love & grace. Every one of them is expecting it.
The leader gets up & reads the will. He says, “First of all, there is no silver or gold here. You have come to the wrong place if that is what you’re after. This is a church, & there is no silver or gold. There is, however, boundless mercy, &, when push comes to shove, that is the part of the inheritance that every one of us will want more than anything else: the boundless mercy of God. Not what we deserve, but what love gives.”
The leader continues: “There is hope, & that is what keeps us alive.” Truly, hope keeps all of us alive. Hope is what keeps farmers alive. They’re driving those mortgaged tractors across the dry, dry land, burning fuel they bought on credit, & seeing not a sprig come up. Well, maybe next year. Hope. Hope, not because it is spring & everything is beginning to bloom but hope that is built upon the nature of God who calls into being what does not exist & gives life even to the dead. That is the basis of real hope.
“There is security,” the reader of the will goes on to say, “security that God is with us & guides us & guards us. Even when we walk among thorns & endure suffering, there is security in God’s grace.” And finally, the reader says, “The last gift to all the children of God is joy.” Joy? You see it occasionally. I don’t mean a silly kind of joy; I don’t mean a smiley face on a pin in your lapel. It is more than that. I mean real joy, the kind that even has tears in its eyes & is still there.
I want to ask you something. Do you know of any people who live near you who do not show up for the reading of the will because they think they are not going to get anything? Do you know any people who for any reason have excluded themselves? If you do, I want you to contact them & say, “Last Sunday we read the will, & your name was called out, but you weren’t there.” And then tell them this: “We are going to read it again next Sunday.” Then invite them to this site to hear it. There is nothing like hearing your name called out, nothing like hearing the voice call your name & say, “Child of God, this is yours.”
That is what we do here, week after week. We read the will.