Easter III, 2019
Miss Leila Sanford spent her life as a Presbyterian missionary in the mountain hollows of Appalachia. Her work for decades was providing Christian education and support in these small rural and often impoverished hamlets. Her last posting was in Nelson County VA in the 1960’s and 70’s. There she was fondly remembered for her compassion for the people and her lead foot on the accelerator. She was known as “Leadfoot Leila,” though never to her face.
The people of the Tye River communities she cared for had little opportunity beyond the packing sheds and local textile factory. Miss Leila tried to do all she could to help them and find ways for the younger generations to have the opportunity to move beyond the hollows, if they chose.
One solution she discovered was making the church part of her estate planning. In her will she created an educational endowment using 5% percent of her estate. The endowment offered grants to children of two rural churches to attend college, vocational school or to apply for a grant to start a small business after high school.
Miss Leila never made more than about $5,000 a year in her mission work. However, 15 years after her death, when I began serving those rural churches, her small 5% gift had grown to be an annual grant opportunity of of $15,000. In the first year it was ever used, Harmony Presbyterian church helped their first ever college student go to Mary Baldwin, a student from Massies Mill at VA Tech, and one young man with his plumbing apprentice costs.
Iris Suber was a bit like Andy Rudy. To those who knew her at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Iris exuded a humble spirit. Never self-aggrandizing, always willing to lend a hand to a mission or other church project as she could. A schoolteacher for over 30 years, Iris was typically found behind the scenes rather than in the limelight.
When Iris died at 72 in 2009 the church learned she had left two gifts to the church. When the pastor announced the first gift of $500,000 at session, “they just kind of sat there.” Later they noted, “We were just so overwhelmed.”
The pastor said it was Iris’ hope that the church would “dream big, to really give the people a chance to step out and try things that they didn’t think they could try.” That initial $500,000 created The Trinity Endowment. The fund is designated for mission, building and maintenance and undesignated programs.
A year later, the session learned of Iris’ second gift, she had established in her estate planning, the Iris Suber Memorial Fund with $4 million. The fund was established with the Presbyterian Foundation and Trinity was tasked with creating avenues to apply its benefits to further God’s mission in the world.
Yet as her close friend, Ruth White, noted, Iris would never want to be in the spotlight, and the real reason behind her gifts was so that others could see her example of faithful giving and “go and do likewise.”
Our text today, Psalm 145, touches on why such folks as Leila, Iris and Andy did what they did for faith communities. The psalm is a one of praise to God. It opens with the recognition of God’s might and majesty and moves to tribute God’s mercy and faithfulness, focusing between the poles of God’s holiness and God’s love.
We tend to emphasize the attribute of God’s holiness rather than God’s love. Too many of us make our concern “what religion can do for me.” We have a consumer attitude toward faith, we want to “shop around” for what gives us the most, and at the least cost.
Yet it is just this recognition of God as King, God as holy which leads us to praise. Praise can only grow out of a faith that has fallen on its knees. When God becomes nothing more than a “heavenly pal,” or “my co-pilot,” there is little ground for praise. In faith, as in the rest of life, familiarity breeds contempt. And in that context, our religion, our faith, becomes more like a relationship between equals. William Temple, former archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “The proper outline for Christian prayer is not, ‘Please do for me what I want.” It is ‘Please do with me what you want.”
The psalmist tells us our praise of God is to be passed from one generation to the next. Martin Luther put it this way: “Every twenty years or so, God builds a new church out of little children.” Which is also to say, that the church is always one generation away from extinction! Our faith must be transmitted to the next generation, or it will die. The thrust of education in the church is to ensure the continuation of the faith.
Most of the time, however, we only pay lip service to this idea. Lyle Schaller calls it the “grandmother” syndrome in the church. We want to have lots of little children around, yet we are relieved that the responsibility for their care belongs to someone else. Yet unless one generation praises God’s works to another, our faith will be lost!
For this “Wills Emphasis Sunday, we must note that we pass on our faith through our teaching, and through the use of our resources. By remembering the church in our wills, by providing even after our death, funds that praise God through the church’s mission and ministries that are important to us in life, we help continue those things that make for faith. We cannot teach the next generation after our death, but we can make the means available for others to continue teaching.
Not long ago a cartoon showed two men discussing a third who had recently died. “How much did he leave?” asked the one. “Everything,” replied the second. When we die, we leave everything. The question is where.
In his will, Patrick Henry wrote: “I have now disposed of all my property to my family; there is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian religion. If they had this, and I had not given them one shilling, they would be rich; but if they had not that, and I have given them all the world, they would be poor.”
We can give our faith. One generation can praise God’s works to another, just as Miss Leila and Iris and Andy did. Our wills can be a means of sharing our faith. Won’t you share your faith with the next generation?