What Legacy Shall We Share?

May 5, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Psalm 16; Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

By next Sunday we’ll have held five memorial services at Westminster in eleven days. Gathering families to grieve and to give thanks for the life of a loved one is among the most important things a congregation does. Those whose lives we will celebrate range from persons in their mid-50’s to mid-90’s.

At each of those memorial services, we will thank God for the deceased and reaffirm that God’s love is stronger than death. We’ll recount something of the life of the person. And we’ll talk about how the person will be remembered no matter the circumstances of their death.

When a life on this earth concludes we’re left with memories, events, relationships, accomplishments that happened in the past, but we’re also given what might be called someone’s continuing impact into the future. That is their legacy.

At memorial services we often quote these words from the Book of Revelation: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. They rest from their labor and their works follow them.”

“I’ll always remember what he taught me…I’ll never forget the kindness she showed strangers…I’ll try to carry forward the joy he knew in life…I’ll work to share their commitment to serve others, which I found so inspiring.”

To think about legacy is to focus not on the past, but on the future.

This morning’s psalmist seems deeply satisfied with their life, remarkably at peace, ready to face whatever may come, confident in God’s protection. “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot,” the psalmist says.

The Hebrew poet refers here to the practice in ancient Israel of assigning portions of land that a family would receive. Their “lot” would be that piece of ground upon which they would sustain their family’s life for generations into the future. To declare, “The Lord is my portion,” and that God “holds my lot,” indicates profound trust in what lies ahead, a commitment to leave a legacy of service to God for generations to come.

The future is in God’s hands, and the psalmist is fine with that. Reflecting back on life, the Hebrew poet is thinking about legacy. “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage,” the poet says.

Not all of us can say with such certainty that “the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places” in our lives, but nonetheless the kind of soul-searching and life-review the psalmist undertakes in these lines encourages us to do the same. What heritage have we received that we might pass on? What can we do to help make the world a better place when we’re gone?

What legacy shall we leave?

Those are good questions for this annual Sunday at Westminster when we remember and give thanks for those who’ve chosen to provide for the church after they are gone. One way to think of a legacy gift is to imagine the church as one of our heirs. We leave an inheritance to our children because we love them and want to help sustain them when we’re gone. Why not the same for the church?

I know pastors who don’t encourage members to include the church in their estate planning. They feel it may detract from current member giving to the church if the congregation receives strong support from wills and bequests.

Frankly, that’s short-sighted. Legacy gifts are long-term investments in the life and health of the church we love, for generations to come. The annual budget doesn’t suffer if there’s support from estate gifts; on the contrary, the budget can actually support more mission, or add ministries, or repair the building.

People want to be generous with the last gift they will make, and why not be generous to the church! They’ll be invited to consider an estate gift to their alma mater or their favorite museum or the zoo. The church should also help its members to give strategically to the community of faith they have grown to love and whose support they have depended on.

A friend who served as a chaplain in a retirement community told me about the frequent conversations she had with residents there. A recurring theme was the challenge of sorting through the many requests for financial support they receive. She helped them by suggesting they consider first what in their life had mattered most to them, had given them greatest meaning, and had helped their life have purpose.

She was asking about what the psalmist called their “goodly heritage.” She was encouraging them to let go of expectations others might have for them and to create the legacy they truly wanted to leave. Once they looked at it that way – focusing on what had given them the most meaning in their lives – the residents found it liberating, and even joyful, to consider leaving a legacy. And, the chaplain said, that legacy often included the church. They spoke of their congregations as being with them at milestone moments – birth and confirmation, marriage and life transition, and times of illness and preparing for death…and there was the church to help them through.

That must be what motivated Charles Thompson to make a gift of $5,000 more than 100 years ago to establish the Westminster endowment. Thompson had served as Clerk of Session for 35 years. He had a “goodly heritage,” in the words of the psalmist, and he wanted to use it to help shape the future of the church he loved.

The endowment has grown considerably since that initial gift. Earnings from it are used wisely by the church – for deferred maintenance, for mission or music, or for the church’s annual support. We’re careful not to become overly dependent on the endowment in our yearly budget; less than 15% of our operating revenue comes from the endowment.

Those who make legacy gifts are building up the body of Christ. They’re thinking beyond their own legacy to that of the church. They’re helping shape the future of this congregation. Westminster’s Legacy program has received a wide-range of gifts, both small and large. People often think only those getting on in years make planned gifts – but everyone ought to have a will, and that’s the place to begin thinking about our “goodly heritage.”

What legacy shall we leave?

The writer of Ephesians dabbles in legacy when urging us “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” That’s another way to speak of legacy: what have you been called to do with your life? What gifts have you been given to use to make the world a better place? Where will you find purpose in life that will last beyond your life?

Ephesians speaks of the body of Christ and its many different gifts, each of which is needed to complete the whole. None of us is destined to be a singular hero. The Bible does not operate on the Great Man or Great Woman of history theory; on the contrary, scripture and our faith assume we will find our place and make our mark in the context of the community of faith like this. The question of legacy is not only a private issue; it’s also a matter of being part of a larger body, the church, the body of Christ.

Barbara Brown Taylor spoke this week at the Westminster Town Hall Forum on her book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. In the book she addresses the decline of Protestant churches in America much bemoaned by many. She names some of the usual reasons cited for the loss of members, and then she says,

“There is some truth to these charges…At the same time they obscure the last truth any of us wants to confront, which is that our…Christian lives are not particularly compelling these days. There is nothing about us that makes people want to know where we are getting our water. Our rose has lost its fragrance.” (Holy Envy, p. 157)

Those are challenging words and it’s not an entirely accurate description of the church these days. I find it hard to apply to our thriving congregation, but Taylor asks a good question: what gives meaning to the life of our churches?  She’s asking about the legacy not of individuals, but of the Body of Christ, of congregations. What are we known for? What difference do we make in the world, or in people’s lives?

Will people say of us…

“Look at Westminster. They built that beautiful new building in order to use it as a tool for mission and serve others. They were willing to open their doors to the city and be pushed to step outside their places of comfort.”

In the words of the psalmist, “the boundary lines in this congregation have fallen in pleasant places.”

Will people say of us…

“Look at Westminster. They’re deeply committed to racial justice and are not merely talking about it. They’re willing to let go of privilege and work with others to change systems.”

Is that part of the “goodly heritage” of this congregation.

Will they say of us…

“Look at Westminster. They stood up in support of LGBTQ folk or for immigrants or for people living in poverty, because it was the gospel thing to do. They’re willing over there at Westminster to stand with those on the margins of the culture.”

What legacy shall we leave? What is compelling about our life as a Christian congregation? What’s so persuasive about my faith, and yours, and the life of this church, that it draws others to know Jesus or to join with us from their own traditions and together find our lives changed and the world transformed?

What have we done with our lives that will matter after we’re gone?

Blessed, indeed, are the dead who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. They rest from their labor and their works follow them.

In a moment we will celebrate communion. Think of this table as a legacy table, where we gather to remember Jesus’ life and death and to give thanks for his risen life among us.

We are his living legacy.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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