Anyone who loves American literature will no doubt remember the seventeenth chapter of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – that’s the one in which Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper find themselves somehow attending their own funeral. Here in part is how Mark Twain describes it:
As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 17
I don’t know why, but as I contemplated tonight’s service this passage came to mind. It’s one thing to attend your own funeral. It’s quite another to find yourself the preacher at it. But I will leave it to you to discern between the touching incidents and rank rascalities of my tenure here. Of course, this isn’t exactly a funeral, but it does signal the end of both a working life and a pastoral relationship. Do I address you as the tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral, the seventh rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, the ninth dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, the thirteenth rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, or as the fifth vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu? Kathy and I are entitled to be buried in four churches. How do we choose? I’ve been doing this work for forty years now, so it’s probably important to say something memorable and summative. Or at least something interesting. Let’s hope I can at least hit one of those three targets.
In the past weeks many people have asked me to speculate on my legacy here at the cathedral. (When you come, they ask you about your vision. When you leave, they ask you about your legacy. While you’re there, you’re just trying to keep the ship afloat.) I have pondered this question without success on and off since Kathy and I made the decision to retire last August.
And then a week ago today I found myself attending the community Eucharist at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts—the seminary from which I graduated in 1976 and where I serve now as chair of the Board of Trustees. EDS is an important place to me. It’s where Kathy and I met, and for that alone it would have a high place in my affections. There’s no place in the world like Cambridge, Massachusetts when you’re in love and in your 20s.
Because I arrived late to last Monday’s service I sat in an out-of-the-way corner of St. John’s Chapel, and even though I had been in that building several hundred times over the course of the last 50 years, I saw for the first time a beautiful brass plaque I had never noticed before. It read:
To the glory of God
And in Memory of
John Seely Stone DD
Born Oct 7 1795
Died Jan 13 1882
First dean of this school
Servant of God
This memorial bears witness
To the Love and reverence of
The graduates for their friend
Looking at that plaque, I realized I’d forgotten what I ever knew about John Seely Stone. I have long ago lost the book I had which told the seminary’s history, so I tried googling John Seely Stone. To no one’s surprise, you can’t seem to find him on the internet. I did find references to Seely Posturepedic Mattresses and to film star Sharon Stone, but nothing about John Seely Stone, D.D., the first dean of Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. So much for legacies.
Aside from a small plaque hidden away in a remote corner of the chapel, John Seely Stone doesn’t have much of what we might call a “legacy” at EDS. There is no Stone Hall, Stone Library, Stone Auditorium. His name has no ostentatious memorial. Yet I will bet that when he founded the school, John Seely Stone had no idea that it would some day produce people like Jonathan Daniels—enshrined now in the cathedral’s human rights porch—or that it would be the first theological school to teach scientific biblical criticism, admit women as students, have ordained Anglican women on the faculty, and admit openly gay and lesbian students. Dean Stone doesn’t have much of what you or I might call a legacy at EDS, but his ministry built an institution whose life and work has changed the church and through it the world.
So perhaps it won’t surprise you when I say that I do not believe in personal, institutional legacies. Working to lead an institution is something like writing in sand or water: it takes all one’s energy when you’re in it, but six months after you leave, the place seems to be doing just fine without you. I very much doubt that you will see a Hall Auditorium, Hall House, or—what I’ve always secretly dreamed of every place I’ve worked—a building named “Gary” Hall anytime soon either here or at Cranbrook, Redeemer, Seabury, or St. Aidan’s. And even if such an unlikely edifice were built, 50 years from now who would really know or care?
So I don’t believe much in institutional legacies. What do I believe in?
We are now in the third week of Advent, a season that looks in three directions at once. In this season we look backward to the coming of Jesus in historical time. We look forward to the coming of Jesus at the end of history. We look among us for the coming of Jesus into our life and experience now. Advent reminds us that Christianity is only partially, and not primarily, a historical faith community. Yes, we care about and honor the past, but only insofar as the past can help us size up and operate effectively in the present and build for the future. We Christians look for God not as someone remembered but as someone expected. God is coming toward us. That is what this season is about: not only are we preparing for Jesus’s birth at Christmas, we are getting ready for the future to which God and Jesus call us. When he ran for president in his parody campaign of 1968, comedian Pat Paulsen adopted as his slogan, “The Future Lies Ahead”. That’s pretty much always been my eschatology.
So what is a priest’s legacy? What is any Christian person’s legacy? The season of Advent orients us in the best way to think about answering these questions. Those of us who do this work do not do it in hopes of leaving something behind. We do it in the service of moving ahead. We do it in preparation to meet the one who comes towards us in Advent.
I began with a book. Let me end with one. The last paragraph of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch expresses in ways I cannot this Advent sense of the importance of living in expectation and service and leaving the legacy question behind. As George Eliot says,
For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.—George Eliot, Middlemarch
Dean John Seely Stone is all but forgotten, but the school he founded continues to envision and enact transformative change in our church. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are best remembered for their rank rascalities. George Eliot suggests that Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch will be remembered, if at all, in the quality of the lives she touched with her many “unhistoric acts” of charity and grace. In the end, to the extent that they exist at all, institutional legacies don’t count for much. To be concerned with building or maintaining a legacy is to look backward. And if there’s one thing I know after all these years about God, it’s that God is someone out there, ahead of us, calling us toward a future of hope, justice, reconciliation, and love.
In future years we will all be pleased to forget the rascalities and remember good things about each other. But for now, the future lies ahead. It is time for Kathy and me to move on in service of that Advent vision and for others to carry on the work of leading this cathedral church to whatever future God intends for it. And so I leave you with the apposite words of someone you’d never thought I would quote from a pulpit—none other than General Stonewall Jackson, a man whose name and image will no doubt endure in this cathedral at least as long as my own. “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Amen.