Every person leaves behind some kind of legacy… good, bad, or a little of both. Perhaps what brought this to mind for me is the two funerals I have preached since we worshipped here last Sunday. The suicide of a young man from the Museum whom we as staff knew, then the death of our good friend, Morris Battles, earlier this week. These losses make one stop and think.
Our Old Testament passage from II Kings provides us a perspective with which we can approach these questions of life and death. It gives us a glimpse of the legacy associated with the prophet Elijah. His life was apparently so spiritually rich that his disciple Elisha wanted what his mentor had, and even more so.
In his last earthly day Elijah turns to the younger man and says, "Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you." Elisha answer, "If it be possible, please let me inherit a double share of your spirit."
No greater honor could have been paid Elijah than someone valuing his life so much that he not only wanted to be like him, but doubly so. Which one of us could have a higher tribute than for another to find such value in our life? And so we might ask of ourselves, will our living make this kind of difference to others? What legacy will we leave behind?
I think of this whenever I walk through a cemetery. Every stone represents a life spent upon this earth. I find myself wondering about the kind of persons that these individuals were. Were they happy? Were they fulfilled? Would they have been people I could have been friends with if our lives had crossed? Are they remembered by anyone now?
In a cemetery in Tiffin, Ohio, there's a simple gravestone with the name "Walter" carved into its surface. It stands next to that of his parents, in a little section given over to the Baker family. A large oak tree shades the area.
Walter was just 24 when he died in Columbia Falls, Montana, in 1891 from what we would understand today as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. He passed away on Sunday, May 10, and was buried in Ohio just eight days later, on Monday the 18th. The extraordinary extent to which his family had to go to make that happen is, indeed, a story of love in and of itself.
From Columbia Falls, near the Canadian border, to the nearest railroad station was 120 miles. Walter's body was place in a stagecoach, transferred to a steamer to cross the 40 miles of Flathead Lake, then put on another stagecoach for the rest of the journey. Once aboard a railway car he was taken to Missoula where the train was met by his sister and brother-in-law who had left Ohio immediately after hearing of his death.
They traveled to Helena, Montana, on Thursday, reached St. Paul, Minnesota, on Saturday, to Chicago by Sunday morning, and arrived in Tiffin late that same evening. The funeral was held at 9:30 the next morning. Considering the distance of 2000 miles and the transportation system of the 1890's, this trip was an amazing feat on the spur of the moment. Yet, all of this is just a sidelight to what is really important about Walter Baker, of his life and legacy.
This news item appeared in the Toledo Blade, with the dateline of Tiffin: "The startling and profoundly sad new of the death of Mr. Walter B. Baker has been received here. Mr. Baker, who left for Helena last fall, was one of the most promising, warmly loved and highly esteemed young men of this city. He was exemplary in his habits, high-minded in his views, and of the perfect integrity of character and intellectual capability that marked him out for a high position in life."
The Tiffin Advertiser said this: "Walter was a young man who was admired for his many virtues. His character was unimpeachably noble in every way. Honest, pure, bright, and manly, he won for himself many admirers who sincerely sorrow that one so young and gifted, and with a promise of large usefulness, should fall so early in life's career…. In this day when subtle and deadly temptations lure so many promising youth from paths of virtue and integrity, such young men like Walter Baker are, indeed, exceedingly rare... whose splendid virtues the young manhood of this generation would do well to emulate."
Of course the style of writing in those days seems a bit strange to our ears, but the message comes through quite clearly. No lack of tributes were paid to him, including those by his fellow members at St. Paul's Methodist Church. One friend summed up Walter's life in this way: "I can truthfully say he was always liberal, ever ready to make sacrifices for the pleasures of others, and was an honest, kind and loving friend. He was reared in the church, lived up to its precepts and was a regular attendant upon its services. His religion was not paraded, but was real…."
When Walter Baker died, he was not quickly forgotten. He never had the opportunity to get married, to have children, to achieve his potential in a career. Yet, at least in the circle of those who knew him, his short life had not been lived in vain. He left his mark upon others by how he lived. People saw in his life an example for their own and for other lives.
While Walter Baker is no relation to me, each summer when I attend our Ohio Conference UCC meeting at Heidelberg College I slip away long enough to put a few flowers on his grave. Walter Baker deserves to be remembered by someone who knows his story. Now you know it, too.
Our New Testament passage reveals another person of character, that of the man Saul who was so infused by the spirit of Christ, that this changed his life forever. Even his name was new from this point on: he was now Paul, servant and disciple. In a day when many were not reluctant to bask in their own self-importance—not all that different from today—he writes to one of his church communities: "For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake." We still are shaped in faith by this man's words. He is not forgotten.
And what of us? What is the legacy we will leave? How will people remember us? One thing is certain: those who leave a mark on life are those who live generously. They are people who give readily of their money, their possessions, their time, and of the fullness of themselves.
They don't ask, "What is the least that I can get by with? What is the minimum I have to do?" The remembered are those who cared enough that they invested themselves in others, who received God's gifts and contributed them back for the betterment of all, who took the opportunity to build up meaningful relationships with those around them. The remembered are those who dared to live life as if it could make a difference for those who would, at last, hold them only in memory.
We leave only one legacy in life. What that will be is largely our own determination. How you live today sets the direction for what will come tomorrow.
I hope it can be said of you that a hundred years from today, on some beautiful day in June when billowy clouds float across an incredibly blue sky, someone will stop and put a flower on your grave, say a brief prayer, and thank God for the legacy that was your life.