Luke 12:13-21

Overlooking Saipan

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


In 1923 a group of the world’s most successful men met at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. In the group were the president of the largest steel corporation, the greatest wheat speculator, a man who was president of the New York Stock Exchange, a member of the president’s cabinet, the canniest investor on Wall Street, the future director of the World Bank and the head of the world’s largest monopoly. A few years later this was their fate: Charles Schwab died in debt; Arthur Cutten died in obscurity, Richard Whitney became insolvent, did time in Sing Sing and was blotted out of the “Who’s Who.” Albert Fall was pardoned from prison in order that he might die at home. Jesse Livermore, Leon Fraser and Ivar Krueger, the match king, committed suicide. All learned how to make money. None of them learned how to live. In 1930, Charles Schwab said, “I am afraid. Every one is afraid. I don’t know, we don’t know, whether the values we have are going to be real next month or not.”

In the past month the Dow Jones reached its highest ever point and then plunged. My brother-in-law told me of a house in his suburban Minneapolis neighborhood—the asking price was $480,000 and they took $280,000.  Garrison Keillor opined about men in suits standing in bread lines—God forbid that the Great Depression should come back. But know this— good times don’t last forever. For some people the good times have been few and far between.

Jesus talked about a rich man in our lesson. What happened to this man of two thousand years ago once he had erected the new storehouses to enjoy his accumulated gains? His life was required of him. He told himself, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up for treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

I met a friend this past week at the Bethel Bible Studies training session in Madison, Wisconsin. Pastor Bill served at St. Paul’s Lutheran when I was pastor at Trinity Lutheran in Crookston, Minnesota. He is older than I and I asked him what he was planning to do about retirement in a few years. He joked and said that he would keep preaching. I was with him ten days at the conference and finally on the last day, the subject came up again and he broke into tears. His wife had gone into a nursing home, he said, with Alzheimer’s. It was their 36th anniversary that day. I did not know about her disease. Bill could make no retirement plans, not even think of anything other than being with her.

The Williamses were our neighbors when I was a child. They scrimped and saved all through their life for a glorious retirement. They planned to travel and see all the amazing things that they never had. Through the years they hadn’t traveled but saved for a wonderful retirement. Then Woody went blind. He never did see the wonders of the world; they never left home.

I know some of you have had life do this to you too—change your plans. When Jesus talks to His followers about receiving a cross to bear, Jesus is warning us that our life will not be charmed. We will not escape life’s troubles by being a Christian. Here’s how Harley Swiggum founder of the Bethel Series puts it:

“Those who are in Christ
shall each have their own flower bed.
Rightly related to God, they shall find a heaven upon earth
and all things shall work together for good
to provide them a garden-like life.
Thorns and thistles shall be unknown to them;
and they shall sit in their flower-decked domains,
passing the time of day,
reveling in the sunrises and rejoicing in the sunsets.
Their hours between conversion and the grave
shall be marked with sweet repose
and uninterrupted pleasantries.
Their spirits, freed from the weights and burdens
that plague others,
shall soar ever upward
until they touch the fleecy clouds of God’s blue heavens.
God’s pets, they shall be spared suffering, pain and tension.

The Bible tells us that we will take up a cross as Christians; it isn’t an option. That cross may be sickness, it may be financial loss, it may be a troubled family or it may be emotional pain, loneliness. We may think ourselves secure enough to take our rest, eat, drink and be merry but we do not know if we may be like the man in Jesus’ story whose soul was required of him.

I would like to talk about Pastor Harley Swiggum. He must be in his eighties now but he is still vigorous and witty and still carries a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. Swiggum talked to our class this week at Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison, to Pastor John and I and pastors and leaders from California, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Florida, Minnesota, China, Venezuela, Northern Ireland about forty of us gathered to take Bethel Series training.

Harley Swiggum told us how at the end of World War II he and a few other Navy personnel were assigned to the island of Saipan in the western Pacific. The island had been secured and there was really nothing for him to do there. He said his task was to clean the heads in camp—and apparently won a citation for the cleanest bathrooms on the island—but that took about seven minutes a day. Then what? He could play some cards with the other sailors but there were no books to read and nothing much to pass the time.

Exasperated, he pulled about the New Testament he had been given by the American Bible Society. Harley had been baptized and confirmed in the Norwegian Lutheran Church and his parents were Christians who prayed for him, but after confirmation he pretty much never attended church or thought about spiritual things. With time on his hands, however, he started to read the Gospels. He read them over and over. He even found a special place to read them, walking to the highest mountain above Camp Calhoun overlooking the island of Saipan, feeling the fresh tropical breezes and being confronted by Jesus Christ.   As read and reread the Scriptures Jesus became real to him and his faith grew. He started gathering the other men and they read the Bible together.

Later Harley Swiggum went home, went to Luther College and Luther Seminary and as an intern and first call pastor went to Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison. He was given the assignment of education pastor. There were 1200 children in Sunday school and no adult education. A few elderly women had gathered for years in Bible study. As he put it, they liked each other so well that they could have read the telephone book and had just as good a time.

He thought back on his days on Saipan and wondered if he could start an intensive adult education training class. He asked the senior pastor, Morris Wee, for support. I remember hearing Dr. Wee as a child when he was senior pastor at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He may be the finest pastor I have ever encountered. He was a great preacher and a man of vision. He even served here at Central Lutheran for a year after he retired, I believe.   Wee said to his colleague, draw up a program for adult education that will help them understand the Bible and change their lives. Twenty-eight people started the series up in the attic of Bethel Church. They memorized concepts of the Scriptures, studied long and hard for two years. Swiggum knew that people learn more easily with something visual and he contacted an artist to illustrate the concepts, he gave tests and played memory games   and the program took off. Within just a couple of years, it grew into a national program changing the lives of millions.

In 1967 and 1968, I was one of the people whose lives were deeply affected by taking the Bethel Series. It was much better than anything I had encountered for helping me see what the Bible really says. My dad’s life was enriched. He was an energetic businessman who sang in the church choir but wasn’t much one for prayer or Bible study or talking about spiritual things. But he enrolled in Bethel. Once a week for two years he studied the Old Testament and New Testament and got a good overview of what the Bible said. It changed the life of many at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, my home church in Moorhead, and I have heard it enriched the lives of many here at Central Lutheran Church.

The real text of the Bethel Series is the Bible itself. There is no better way to come close to God than to spend time where God promises to come close to you, in the Scriptures. There is no better way to be rich toward God than to give up the time and energy that this Bible study will take, to think about what God is calling you, personally to do with your life, to understand God’s purpose for you and your brothers and sisters in Christ.

You don’t know what life will bring. I don’t know what waits for me. There are people right here this morning facing Alzheimer’s or cancer, blindness. Some people may have large barns filled with grain and the opportunity for ease, the time and health and wealth to eat, drink and be merry. For others, life will just not be that way. But we will all have a time when we were asked whether we were rich to God and even better the question whether we allowed God to be rich to us. In the name of Jesus, God’s greatest gift to us, Amen.

Copyright 2007 James D. Kegel.  Used by permission.