I first met him when he called my office one weekday morning. We had just moved to Savannah and I still did not know many people. When I answered the phone this man with a thick German accent asked if he could come by for a visit. He told me his name was Helmuth and that he had recently moved to town. I assumed he was church shopping and so we set up a time to meet.
A couple of days later Helmuth came to see me. At first glance he was a very unimpressive person. He was short and bald wearing worn khakis, an old button down shirt and tennis shoes – the kind of tennis shoes you buy in the big bin in the department stores. I could tell he was in his late 80′ s but he had a warm smile and a firm handshake. I invited Helmuth to sit down, welcomed him to the island and asked him how I could be of assistance. He explained that he had just moved in to a rental unit on the island having recently sold his home in Connecticut. The day before he had received the final payment from the sale of his house and he asked me if I was the person he should give the check to. A little confused I asked what check and he said God tells us that we should give away 10% of what we have in gratitude for this life. I have been very fortunate and I would like to give your church $10,000.00. I was stunned and I must admit a little skeptical, it crossed my mind that this elderly fellow might not be rational. But then he handed me the check, a cashier’ s check in the name of the church. As my mouth hung open Helmuth held up a stack of other checks and said in his thick accent, It has been a pleasure to meet you, would you now please show me the way to the other churches.
That was the beginning of one of the most wonderful relationships of my life. Helmuth later joined St. Peter’ s and we became fast friends – worshipping together, sharing meals together, and studying the Bible together. I later learned that he had come to this country as a teenager during the years between the two world wars. Arriving in New York City he taught himself English, married another German immigrant and worked most of his life in a factory near the city. They bought a very modest home in Greenwich in the late 40′ s where they raised their two children. Helmuth worked into his 70′ s until his wife became ill and he retired to take care of her fulltime. She died about a year before his arrival in Savannah at which point Helmuth sold his vastly appreciated home in Greenwich and came to live with his son who was retiring to the island.
In many ways I have to say that during my time at St. Peter’ s Helmuth was one of my spiritual guideposts. He was a man of deep faith and as a result he was a man of deep joy. He had no pretensions, no huge ego needs, no axes to grind, he was not false in anyway. He loved God and he loved people and you felt good just being near him. He had worked and struggled all his life but he had an inner peace, and an inner joy that I found amazing. We lived on an island of lavish homes, fancy cars, big boats and expensive country clubs. Helmuth had none of this but it was obvious to most of us that he was the richest of men.
What does it mean to make it in this life? What does it mean to be successful? In Jesus day the Pharisees and the Scribes thought they had it all. They were the religious authorities in a culture where religion was everything. They were socially prominent, morally superior, accounted the best off everything. But in Jesus’ eyes none of that mattered. They might look holy with their impressive religious garb but to Jesus they were a sham the people they appeared to be on the outside did not match who they were on the inside. They were hollow, false, hypocritical and to Jesus there was nothing worse. Don’ t be like them, Jesus told his disciples; because real greatness is not something external it is something internal. Don’ t be like them, Jesus told his disciples, because real success is not about having more, it is about being more more loving, more forgiving, more humble. Success, and greatness are about serving others.
One of the reasons I loved Helmuth so much was that he was a living example to me of who God wants us all to be. Not because he was poor and unassuming but because he was whole, and happy and free. He had what he needed in life, nothing more and nothing less, and with that he was satisfied. He was not focused on himself but on loving those around him. He lived to give and in his giving he found solace. He followed Christ by serving others and in so doing his life was rich with love.
I know this is a message you have heard me preach before and I do it because it is one of the central messages of the Gospel. Jesus wants us to know that our lives will never be in sync until we get out priorities in order. And for most of us our priorities are backwards. Jesus tells us over and over again that there is no real happiness in acquiring things but we don’ t believe him. Jesus tells us that status and titles and honors mean nothing if we are not the people on the inside that we profess to be on the outside but we don’ t believe him. Most of us still cling to the idea that this world holds the golden ring to happiness if we only work a little harder, if we only try a little more. But God came among us to show us that the secrets of the fulfilled life lie in places we least expect. Jesus came to teach us that in fact the golden ring is only gold plated and in the long run if we cling to it too tightly we end up with tarnish on our hands.
During my travels to South Africa I spent some time in the hill country outside of Johannesburg. There the communities are so poor that they make the townships like Soweto look like Beverly Hills. As we toured the area the living conditions, the disease and the malnutrition stunned me. And yet there was a priest in that community a well-educated, young priest who saw it as his ministry to care for those people. He didn’ t live somewhere else, somewhere nicer and then drive in to do his work. Rather he lived in one of the shacks right along with the people he served. I was immediately drawn to him. We sat and talked for a few minutes about his ministry. He offered me tea in a tin cup and gave me a milk crate to sit on. He looked tired and his face was drawn. His clothes were dirty and his clerical collar was ragged. But in his voice and in his eyes there was a peace and strength that amazed me. He wasn’ t a martyr, he wasn’ t bucking for sainthood, he was just a man serving God the way he thought he should and finding great depth of meaning in the process. When I left him that day eager to get back to my room for a hot shower and a good meal I knew I had met a great man, I knew I had met a disciple of Jesus.
Wouldn’ t this life be easier if we could just let go of a few things? We all have our phylacteries and our fringes; those things that we think make us more important than we really are, those things that we think lift us up in life but in reality just weigh us down. Wouldn’ t it be freeing to set some of that aside for a while? We don’ t have to give away all our possessions and go live with the poor, unless that is our personal calling. We just have to learn the one thing our Lord tries to teach us over and over again – that real success in this life has little to do with our titles and our toys and everything to do with the richness and depth of our souls. Amen.