Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Judah to…
Generation after generation carrying out the legacy of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is a tradition of passing the torch, passing the legacy of God’s abiding presence from one generation to another. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the rather numbing recitation of how that legacy threaded its way through forty-two generations between the original covenant with Abraham and the arrival of one Jesus of Nazareth.
I share this with you because I have noticed that we in the presbytery have become nervous around the language of legacy. I have heard it said many times, “I don’t like the language of legacy. It sounds too much like death.”
It’s an interesting comment, really, because we all know that death is a given. Legacy is a choice.
I have a theory of why legacy sort of became a dirty word in our churches. I think it is because we had the luxury of being lazy for a time. I think there was a time that dates back about two generations where the church had a smooth-operating legacy plan (we didn’t call it that, but that is what it was). Like a factory assembly line we could guarantee that the church’s narrative would be carried on as long as we had Sunday School classes for children, confirmation for teenagers, college chaplains for the university-bound and baptism for the next wave of children. Wash, rinse, repeat and do it all over again.
Like our ancient story and the forty-two continuous generations, as long as all those pieces were in place we felt like we could guarantee that the covenant that was made with Abraham would be passed on to our children and then their children and then their children’s children and the church’s living legacy would be carried on for all eternity. We did legacy without even having to think about it.
The church has always been about carrying on God’s legacy from one generation to generation. And I think for most of our history the language of legacy was rooted in the language of life. It was about making sure that the gospel of life didn’t die with our particular generation.
But something happened.
Our airtight approach to legacy started faltering in the late 1960’s. We could no longer count on our children and our grandchildren to carry out our legacy by filling our Sunday School classrooms, memorizing our catechisms for confirmation and becoming active, pledging members of our congregations. In other words, our legacy model was failing.
And then I think we made a mistake. In response, we started talking about how to grow our shrinking congregations rather than how to pass our legacy on in a new way. We decided to tighten our grip on the future we wanted rather than to loosen our grip, let go, and entrust the future to God. And as we tightened our grip the language of legacy lost its life-giving power. Legacy became a scary word as we reserved it only for “dying” congregations.
If I had my way I would require every congregation to answer the question, “What will be our legacy in five, ten and twenty years?” Some may think that I have too much of a preoccupation with death. But it just isn’t true. I have a deep addictive desire for life. But I also believe that life, Jesus-like life, is only possible when we are honest about the reality of death.
Remember, death is a given. Legacy is a choice.
I can’t change the reality of death, but I can invite you to think about your ongoing living legacy.
- Maybe your church’s legacy will be once again filling Sunday School classrooms with children so that the next generation can carry on your Christian ministry in much the same style as you have become accustomed.
- Maybe your church’s legacy will be planted with the next generation of retirees moving into your community.
- Maybe your church’s legacy will be the Matthew 25 projects that you have initiated all over your community.
- Maybe your church’s legacy will be the community ministries that will grace your building long after your congregation is gone.
- Maybe your church’s legacy will be the radical story of trust that gets told all over the presbytery as you live into God’s unsettling and wonderful emerging future.
Remember, legacy is not about death. Legacy only acknowledges the reality of death in service of the gospel of life!
So, my friends, let’s get to livin’! Future generations will thank us.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades