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On Legacy

with Rev. Alex Lang

July 25, 2021

When you die and people are talking about your life, what kind of legacy will you leave behind? This Sunday we will discuss how we can leave a legacy worth remembering.

The Scripture

Mark 9:33-37

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity[a] he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Luke 11:5-10

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity[a] he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Read the Full Text

Over the summer we’ve been doing a sermon series called Philosopher Kings. The term Philosopher Kings comes from the famous philosopher Plato who believed that those who have spent the time reflecting on how they navigate life are those worth following. This is not just true of trained philosophers, but of average ordinary people.

This sermon series examines the life philosophy of members of our congregation. Every sermon will begin with a life philosophy from one or more members of our congregation who submitted them to me back in January of this year. Then we will take these ideas and talk about the biblical scriptures that reflect on that philosophy. The goal of this series is to demonstrate that everyone has something to teach us about life, faith, love and our relationship with God.

Finish reading

Today, is our last sermon in this series and we are ending by talking about our legacy. I want to begin this sermon with a life philosophy that comes from Marilynn and Jim Graves. Marilynn’s father was a pastor and he often said to Marilynn, “The legacy you pass along is far more important than the legacy you inherit.” In other words, none of us can choose the family into which we are born. You can’t choose whether your parents are good or bad people. You can’t choose whether they have a lot of resources or a few. But what you can choose is how you live your life once you become an adult.

Jim’s dad would often say, “Your name is the only thing you really own, so make your name a good name.” When you’re gone from this earth and people remember your name, what will they think of? What will they remember about you? I’ve been performing funerals for the last 12 years and I can tell you what the difference is between the people who are beloved and the people who won’t be missed. In the end, it comes down to how much they invested in their relationships.

Unless you are someone who is incredibly unique, like an Albert Einstein, or a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Marie Curie and you’ve made a major contribution to human society, nobody’s going to care what you did for your job or how hard you worked or how much money you made. When I’m sitting in a room with a family and they’re reminiscing about this person who just passed away, the families with the most tears are consistently the ones who felt loved and cared for by this person. 

I’ve seen both sides of the coin. There aren’t many tears when a person had an abrasive personality. If they were unkind or selfish or critical of the people around them, their family will speak about them in very clinical terms. He grew up here. He got this job. He married this person. He had these children. No tears. No sadness. Just, this is who he was and now he’s gone.

But when someone was kind, giving, selfless and loving, oh man, that person is missed. From the moment the family opens their mouths, you can hear the grief and the sadness. It’s heart-wrenching. She’s not here anymore and that’s devastating because she held such an important place in our lives. The implication is that nobody’s ever going to be able to fill those shoes. The loss is profound because it’s not just the loss of a person, but the loss of a relationship that made their lives better.

To achieve a life like this is not as simple as it sounds. It takes effort and work. It doesn’t often happen naturally, so it requires investing in a life philosophy that will provide you with the framework to help you get there. Marilynn has an interesting framework that she draws from Ralph Waldo Emerson who defines a successful life in this way: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”

I think this is a beautiful summation of a life well lived. For Marilynn, this quote encapsulates the idea that her presence in the world does matter and it is her responsibility to make a positive contribution to the world. She’s very specific that it’s not about doing huge things. It’s not about moving mountains, but leaving the world a bit better and making sure her name stands for something positive and caring. When Marilynn is gone, she wants people to say, “I breathed easier because Marilynn was here.”

This idea that we need to leave the world better than we found it is fundamental to the Christian faith. Today we read a very important passage from the gospel of Mark where Jesus’ disciples are arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Jesus intervenes in this conversation and tells his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

This is so counterintuitive to the way we think about success in our society. So often, success is defined by being the best at what you do. Whether you’re the top sales person, the president of the company, the head of staff at a church, the best athlete, the best student, the smartest, the brightest, the most talented. These are the things we are taught to strive for because our society equates success with being the best.

But Jesus says the exact opposite is true. Those who are the most successful are the greatest servants. A servant, just so we’re clear, is someone who tends to the needs of others. A servant is someone who puts others before themselves and cares intensely about the people around them. As with everything having to do with Jesus, he flips the idea success upside down. In our world, we revere the person who can afford the servants. Whereas, in Jesus’ world, it is the servants themselves who are revered.

Now that inversion of success might sound like magical thinking, but it’s not. Remember what I told you about the funerals I perform? It is the person who is kind, giving, selfless and loving who is revered by their family and friends. Although as a society we admire and covet those who are materially wealthy and the best at what they do, when push comes to shove, that’s not actually who we admire most. Although we don’t want to admit it, in our heart of hearts, all of us want to be associated with someone who puts us before themselves.

This, of course, is the core of the Christian faith. We are servants first and foremost. So if you want to leave a legacy you can be proud of; if you want to do what Emerson said in his poem where he states that you know one life has breathed easier because you lived here, then one of the most important ways you can make a positive contribution to the world is by adopting a servant’s heart.

In fact, according to Paul Palmer, a retired pastor who attends this church on occasion, if you were to take nothing else away from the Christian faith, it’s not doctrine. Paul says, “Topics like the Trinity, virgin birth, miracles, etc., while they may have symbolic meaning, who knows any detail about their actual physical reality? Not I. Neither do I lose any sleep over being agnostic. And yet, all the while, I am happily Christian. Christianity is about what we do (via justice, peace, working for the common good), with Jesus as our most sublime teacher and example.”

For Paul, living like Jesus, being a servant to others, that is the key to a successful life. But that’s only the first part of leaving behind a legacy that you can be proud of. The other side of the coin when it comes to our legacy is found in a life philosophy from Mike Noble. And Mike, if you know anything about him, is very direct and to the point. For Mike, his life philosophy is follow-up, be persistent. Mike told me a story as to why this became the core of his life philosophy.

When Mike was 15, he applied for a job at a new clothing store opening at the Fairlane Mall in Dearborn, MI. After Mike came back home from filling out the application, Mike’s father said that Mike needed to follow up with the manager a couple of days later. Mike thought his dad was nuts. Kicking and screaming, Mike did call the manager, who was taken aback that Mike had bothered to follow up.

The manager asked Mike to meet him at another store in a couple days. When Mike went into that store and met the manager in-person he said to Mike, “We’re going to hire you because, of all the applications we got, you’re the only one to follow-up to express your interest in a stronger way.” Needless to say, Mike was stunned. His father had given him a pretty solid piece of advice.

From that day forward, Mike has always “followed-up”. Whether it be in work, with friends or with acquaintances, if there’s the possibility of establishing a good potential connection, then he will always follow up. This has been indispensable in his professional career. Mike’s clients will often comment on how dependable he is by staying on top of things and following up on the smallest details.

In friendships, Mike tends to be the one who keeps a line of communication open and alive. This is a rare trait. Most people are too busy to maintain so many personal connections. But what Mike has found is that his efforts are greatly appreciated. People often thank him for caring enough to maintain their relationship by taking the time to reach out. Put simply, Mike is reliable and reliability plays a big role in leaving behind a positive legacy.

Why? Well, you have to be there. As Woody Allen once said, “90% of life is showing up.” And so many people don’t show up. They’re not there when it counts. We have to hire jobs at the church all the time and I am amazed by the number of people who don’t even bother to respond to a request for an interview. You took the time to give me your resume and I liked it enough to give you an interview and now you’re not even writing me back?

There are so many people in life who are unreliable. You cannot depend on them to be there for you. So you can have a servant’s heart where you’re kind, giving, selfless and loving, but if you’re not there when people need you most, then none of that matters. Who cares how wonderful of a person you are if I can’t depend on you? It is the combination of reliability along with a servant’s heart that creates a legacy that is worth remembering.

You see this in Jesus’ teachings. In the parable we read this morning, Jesus talks about how persistence is at the core of the Christian faith. Jesus tells the story of a man who goes to a friend’s house at midnight because he needs some extra food for his guests. He’s knocking on the door, asking for three loaves of bread. The friend answers, “Don’t bother me! I’ve locked the door. My children are already in bed with me. I can’t give you anything.”

But the man is persistent. He keeps knocking on his friend’s door, until eventually the friend opens up and gives him the bread. Jesus says that he does this, not because they are friends, but because of the man’s persistence. In the same way, Jesus tells his disciples they need to be persistent. He says, “Ask, and it will be given you…For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

The idea is that you need to be persistent. You need to follow-up. You need to be there for others and not shrink away from your responsibility as a servant. And what I have noticed in my life is that it is far easier to do nothing than to do something. It is far easier to say, “You know what, no, I’m not going to help out. I’d rather stay home and do what I want to do than sacrifice my time.”

And this mentality is becoming more and more common. Whenever I talk about the future of the church or I envision what the church could be, I have so many people tell, “It can’t be done. It’s not possible.” Really? It’s not possible? Based on what Jesus just said, anything’s possible. It’s just a matter of how persistent you want to be to make it happen.

People told Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement was pointless because white people would always be racist. Why keep fighting for something that’s never going to happen? But he was persistent over years and years and he won with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That would have never happened if he just gave up. What if King said, “You know what? You’re right! This is impossible. Stop the protests. Stop the marches. We’re done. Oh well, we gave it our best shot.”

Whenever anyone tells me something can’t be done, you can be sure that’s fuel in the fire for me to become even more persistent. What I want people to say about me when I die is, “He was there when we needed him, he gave us his whole heart and he never ever gave up.” That’s one of the best legacies you can leave behind and I hope that is something we would all strive for in our lives.

But that’s us as individuals. What I want to end this series with is a larger question that involves every single person connected with this church: what is the legacy we want our church to leave behind? When people hear the name First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, what do we want them to think? Do you want them to think: First Pres is a nice place to bring your family? Do you want them to think: they had beautiful worship services or a fantastic children’s program or a great youth group?

Or do you want them to say, “I came to First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights and it changed my life. They were kind, giving, selfless and loving. They were there for me when I needed them and I was able to breathe a little easier because of them.” The former is easy to do. The latter is much harder. It takes persistence and effort by every person in this building. We have to push ourselves to be those servants who Jesus talked about. We have to push ourselves to show up when it matters.

In the next few weeks you’re going to be hearing from the leadership in our church. They’ve been working very hard to restructure our Session so that we can become the kind of a congregation who leaves a legacy that truly makes a difference in the lives of those who walk through our doors. But here’s the rub, you all are going to have to be the ones to bring this new vision to life. I can’t do it. Judy and TC can’t do it. The leaders can’t do it by themselves. It requires all of you and I believe it is possible.

There will be some who will say it can’t be done. There will be some who say, “You know what, no, I’m not going to help out. I’d rather stay home and do what I want to do than sacrifice my time.” But for those of you who want to see this church reach its potential, the time is now. We need you to do more than occupy a pew on Sunday morning. We need you to help us to define the legacy we plan to leave behind. All of you will play a role in that legacy—all you need to do is show up, be a servant and, together we will find success! Amen.

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