What will be our legacy?
A Sermon for the Sunday after Easter
This week we have witnessed the devastation wrought by hundreds of tornados, causing the deaths of hundreds of people in seven American states. This weekend, from across an ocean, many of us - more than two billion, they say - sat spellbound by the pageantry of a royal English wedding. The contrast, which at least one national nightly newscaster noted, between England's wedding and America's funerals-to-be is striking: two rites of passage, one about new life, the other about the end of life as people knew it. Here are two windows in time, inviting us to stop and reflect on the mystery of life and death.
Maybe it's because today is the last time I plan to be in this pulpit until I return from sabbatical in early July (I'll still be here for two more weeks, but I won't be preaching). Maybe it has to do with the fact that I will celebrate twenty-five years of ordained ministry soon. Maybe it was watching those dramas of loss and joy. Maybe it was saying goodbye to Jeff Cluxton, our Living Stones capital campaign consultant, as he moved on to work with another parish. Whatever the reasons, an unexpected question emerged for me as I prepared my sermon for today. The question is: What will be my legacy? To you, the people of All Saints'? To my family and to all the others for whom I care? To the larger communities of which I am a part? To the world? Perhaps this is a question for you to consider as well. What will be your legacy? How do you want to take your leave, how do you want to be remembered when you leave this place, this earth, this life?
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!" proclaims St. Peter in today's Epistle. He continues, "By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (I Peter 1:3)." What a great summary of the Easter story that is! The whole thing - all that we claim as Christians, compressed into one astonishing sentence! The fifty-day Easter season is only eight days old, and already, we need to be reminded--after all the bad news this week - that there is Good News as well. A wedding can help us get back in touch with the possibility of new life, a life of hope and joy. We can think of it as a symbol of God's glorious re-creation, even (dare I say it?) of Jesus' resurrection. So many dyings and risings this past week, so many expressions of just how true to life the Easter story really is.
Peter reminds us of this truth and of God's gifts to us - gifts of mercy, hope and new life. But how will we use these gifts? Will they be like so many gifts received at a wedding? Appreciated, of course, but so often ignored, exchanged, or put away, on a closet shelf? No! says Peter. God's gifts - new birth, living hope, resurrection - these are the gifts that last. These gifts, Peter says, are "an inheritance that is imperishable . . . " (1:4). An eternal, undying inheritance. Lasting gifts - even everlasting. What we could call a legacy.
If you look at page 501 of The Book of Common Prayer, you will find words we have just prayed. Please turn with me now to those words, words I have said so often, they sometimes come unbidden to my memory. At funerals, these are words spoken more often than any other words. They are the ones we wait to hear until we get to the graveside, when we commit the body of a faithful departed one to the ground and their soul to God's everlasting care. Here are the words: "My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore."
These two verses I've just read are also in our Psalm. And they can be found - did you notice? - in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter's sermon to his brother apostles quotes those verses, well-known to any Jewish person of prayer. Today, we heard someone speak them, as Peter once spoke them, and then, we spoke them. Throughout our lives, we will hear them, again and again. These are important, everlasting words. A glad heart, a spirit that rejoices, a body that rests in hope, pleasures for evermore - who among us here today, faced with our own death, would not long to die like this, speaking, perhaps even singing these words? Psalm 16 continues to express, even now, the kind of quiet, deep, everlasting joy we all long for, we all desire.
Have you known this kind of joy? I have. As a parish priest, I see it and experience it whenever I am with someone who has lived a holy life and dies a holy death. Holy living is not about perfection, getting things right. Holy living is not about never making mistakes, never committing a sin, never suffering. Holy living is about what we do, about what God does, with our mistakes, our sins, our suffering, even our dying. The joy of Easter, the joy of the apostles in seeing the resurrected Jesus, the joy of all the disciples and saints, down through the ages, the joy of knowing the risen Christ is "a joy that comes from having seen the worst of life and lived through it. It is a song of confidence and trust in the One who does not abandon us to death" (Feasting on the Word, p. 387).
In Boston's Holocaust Museum there is a sculpture bearing this inscription of a concentration camp survivor: "Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present that night to me on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend" (ibid., p. 390). Before being shuffled off to the gas chamber, this is the inheritance, the legacy left, by one friend to another.
What will be your legacy? What legacy do you want to leave when you leave this place, this earth, this life? To help you think about that, consider: What burdens you? What gives you joy? After proclaiming Easter, Peter goes on in today's Epistle to talk about that "imperishable" inheritance (I Peter 1:4). The concept of inheritance is used more than 250 times in the Bible, including those times when the people of God do not want an inheritance that is imperishable, a legacy that lasts. One Gospel story you may remember begins, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me" (Luke 12:13). A more altruistic version might be, "God, I'll just give all my money away, so my family won't fight over it." Like Leona Helmsley, who bequeathed $12 million to her dog. Surely none of us wants to leave a legacy of spite or bitterness. Might a better legacy be to reconcile with our family, friends and loved ones? To meet our death with no resentments, no regrets, no anger in our hearts?
There was a woman in a parish I once served who asked me to speak with her husband about his mother's death. "He refuses to go to her funeral," she said, sadly. "Would you please talk with him?" When I did, when I told him I was sorry for his loss, anger oozed out of him and he said, "Well, I'm not going to the funeral, because if I do, I'll just start a fight, and they'll throw me out."
The reason we are asked to write our wills, or make our funeral plans, or consider our pledge to this church's capital campaign is all about legacy. How do you and I want to be remembered? What work do we still have to do, so that our hearts will be glad when we die, our spirits rejoicing? I am not saying this work is easy. But there is help in doing this holy work, help this church can give us. If we cannot help one another with holy dying, how can our living be holy? How else can we be the true, authentic saints of All Saints'?
It is not just a literal dying of which I speak. Literal death is simply the last loss, the final letting go. "Every day a little death," goes the lyric from a Steven Sondheim musical (A Little Night Music). There are all kinds of ways people of faith, especially church people like you and me, hold on when we should be letting go, so others can enjoy what we leave for them. One of the things church people are famous for holding on to, tightly, are their grudges. "I don't give to that church anymore," someone might say, "because, twenty years ago, the pastor refused to bury my mother or marry my son" or . . . fill in the blank. Is this the kind of legacy we want to leave behind? Or do we want to be known in the next life, even by people who never knew us in this life, as someone who was glad of heart and joyful of spirit? What if, at the time of death, we said: "I have had a wonderful life, full of suffering but overflowing with joy, and I want to leave a legacy of love, gratitude and generosity"?
Sometimes we think our faith in God and in God's people needs some evidence. That's normal. That's what another Thomas thought he needed. I will not believe "unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side" (John 20:25). Sometimes we want to believe, but our un-belief needs a bit of help, some encouragement. And sometimes, other times, our times of stronger faith in God, we do not need to see the results beforehand. Sometimes, we do not need to have all the numbers of life crunched in a way that makes total sense. Sometimes, we trust God and each other enough to say things like, "All Saints' has been blessed beyond belief. Let's step out in faith." "Blessed are those," the resurrected Jesus says to his disciples, "who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:29). Peter says to his friends about their risen Lord, "Although you do not see him, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy" (Acts 1:8).
Sisters and brothers, tornados and weddings will come and go. Rectors and capital campaigns will come and go. And yet, amidst the comings and goings, the dyings and risings of our common life, let us not forget this one thing. We inherit this church and our faith in the risen Christ from others, those who have gone before us, those who are all around us. This is their legacy to us. Just look at this sacred space in which we worship God today. Just look at the works of mercy and justice this church does every day - reaching out, rebuilding homes, restoring lives, renewing our hope and our joy.
For the past two hundred and sixty-nine years there have been people who have experienced great gladness at All Saints'. They are witnesses to the resurrection, vessels of joy, models of God's generosity. They have passed their faith, hope and love along to us. A glad heart, a spirit that rejoices, a body that rests in hope, pleasures for evermore. They have left us a legacy. They have passed on an imperishable inheritance. What about us? What will be our legacy?