Legacy

Passage: Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Date: November 3, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

Some of you had the great pleasure of knowing Mary Jean Pagter, a member of Westminster who for the last few years lived in Eugene and who died earlier this year. Gregg and I did not have that pleasure, but we enjoyed notes from Mary Jean now and then, and we drove by her yellow-orange house on Northeast 21st often.

Her family chose not to have a memorial for her at the church but rather a gathering at her house where stories were told. One story was considered so good it was printed and passed out, and I’d like to share it with you.

Nan Norene is the daughter of Mary Jean’s longtime partner, Stewart. She writes that “Mary Jean grew up to be the person who rescued my father from incapacitating depression and difficult behaviors. [She]…was resilient and fearless in the face of obstacles. They were a couple from 1972 until his death in 2005, thirty-three years together. They never married and kept separate domiciles but traveled all over the world and camped throughout the western regions of North America. In his final two years when very ill, Mary Jean took my father into her home to help and care for him.

“… my father was intolerant and cranky with [my children] and ignored my husband. I despaired of him. But Mary Jean came [to see us] on every visit, and over time, with her warmth and blithe spirit, brought our children into better contact with their grandfather, who had been so unreachable. And in turn, my dad eventually came to know and love our children and respect my husband. Because of Mary Jean’s stubborn perseverance, [my family] sometimes saw the return of the sane, witty and curious man I had known as a child.

“Mary Jean gave me many gifts over my life, with her high energy, love, laughter and enthusiasm and special times together with her in Portland and Oceanside. But the return of my father to some peace and pleasure in life was the biggest gift. I will always be grateful to her….I think Mary Jean was the happiest person I have ever known.”

What will your legacy be? What will you leave to the world, to your community, to your loved ones?

By legacy, I don’t mean money, although that can be a helpful gift. And by legacy, I don’t mean successes and plaques and statues – I’m not sure we can say that Nelson Mandela’s legacy is found in the statue of him in Pretoria but rather in the hearts and minds and souls of the people of South Africa.

Rather, by legacy I mean something probably intangible, something that changes another’s life, maybe for the bad but more likely for the good. Bad legacies show up in things like generational poverty or cycles of addiction or abuse that are passed down. 

But it is the good legacies that we remember and note – legacies like Mary Jean’s, stubborn perseverance that withers a depression, that blithe spirit. As I look at the list of those in our congregation who died this last year, I see other legacies – the legacy of friendship, a brilliant scientific mind paired with deep and curious faith; I see the legacy of commitment in a 64-year marriage, the legacy of watching a single mother carve out an amazing life for her daughters. I see the legacy of ministry that touched the lives of thousands and a legacy of music. Goodness, we have been blessed by these saints.

What will your legacy be? What will you leave to the world, to your community, to your loved ones?

Today we heard the story of the end of Moses’ life. You could say he died a failure – he was faithful to God and for forty long years led the people through travails in the desert, only to be denied entering the promised land. Earlier in the story of that exodus, Moses had not obeyed God’s command, and as punishment, God would not allow Moses to cross the Jordan River to that land flowing with milk and honey. Moses dies on the slopes of Mt. Nebo in an unmarked grave. There’s no monument to him, no plaque, only a great vista of the promised land that would not be his.

But can we say Moses left no legacy? Can we really say he died a failure? We could if we use the world’s definition of those things – he did not achieve his goal. But as one Jewish scholar, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, says, “No one has cast a longer shadow over the history of the Jewish people than Moses – the man who confronted Pharaoh, announced the plagues, brought the people out of Egypt, led them through the sea and desert and suffered their serial ingratitudes; who brought the word of God to the people, and prayed for the people to God. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God and with men and prevails.” That, supremely, was Moses, the man whose passion for justice and hyper-receptivity to the voice of God made him the greatest leader of all time….But he was also the supreme teacher. The difference is that his leadership lasted for forty years, while his teachings have endured for more than three thousand years.”(http://rabbisacks.org/chukat-why-was-moses-not-destined-to-enter-the-land/)

What will your legacy be?

Now while that might seem like a question for those who have a few more years under their belt, I think it might be a question we should ask ourselves frequently, because thinking about what we want to leave to others when we’re gone impacts how we live today. The decisions we make today, the choices we make to do one thing and not to do another, have a lasting impact. Choosing how we spend our time, how we spend our money, where we volunteer, how we treat others, how we face adversity, how we share joy – those things matter every single day. And they will matter every single day long after we have taken our last breath.

So on this All Saints’Day, I encourage you to consider your legacy. When my family used to go camping, my parents drilled into us that old adage that we needed to leave the campsite cleaner than when we found it. Life is like that too.

Maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he wrote, 

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”

Maybe that is the legacy of the saints.
To the glory of God.