Saved Seeds and A Falling Mantle: What Legacy Are You Leaving?
Sermon by Leighton Ford at Wee Kirk, Linville, North Carolina August 13, 2006
Scriptures: Mark 4:26-33, 2 Kings 2:1-14
The biblical story is one of a legacy passed on from generation to generation, in faithfulness to God’s kingdom – and sometimes, tragically, of a legacy wasted. What do your heirs expect and want from us/you? What are we/you called to pass on to them? And will we/you do it with faith and faithfulness, and confidence in God?
Three weeks ago an event took place on a remote northern archipelago that got scant notice in the media, but may be hugely important to the future of our world.
Leaders of the five Nordic countries gathered between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole. There, in an abandoned coal mine on a barren mountain, they laid the foundation of an underground vault, the size of a truck trailer, which will hold millions of seeds.
It will be a kind of “agricultural Noah’s Ark” – containing one hundred thousand samples of rice and wheat – some of the most valuable natural resources in the world, the biological foundation for agriculture.
This “safety deposit box” for seeds will be the world’s biggest gene bank, saved to help the world survive a potential catastrophic event, such as an asteroid strike.
The vault is being dedicated not just to preserve seeds, but to capture the imagination of the world: to help us remember how precious and irreplaceable these seeds are.
It makes me pause to ask:
What seeds do I have that need to be preserved? What legacy to pass on?
If you are a Bible reader and believer, you will know these seed-preservers are in step with the finest biblical tradition: a legacy passed on from generation to generation, with God’s coming kingdom always in view.
Jesus put a sharp point to this in two of his shortest parables – about seeds.
The kingdom of God (he said) is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and
would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does
not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full
grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle,
because the harvest has come.
“Sow the seed,” he tells them (and us) – the good word of God’s kingdom. But remember: you don’t make it grow, and you don’t control the results!
Then he gave another picture from agriculture.
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the
seeds on the earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all
shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its
Imagine! Now Jesus was no city slicker, ignorant about farming. He had walked through mustard plots and wheat fields. He had plucked kernels from stems. He’d felt their taste on his tongue. And he knew that for a mustard seed to become a tree was a miracle!
And so he was saying to his disciples (and us) – “Your faith may seem so small, like dust, like almost nothing. But from so small a thing can come a great tree!”
Denise Levertov, the Jewish-Christian poet catches the paradox. It is, she writes
as if from a mustard-seed
a great shade-tree grew. That rare,
that strange: the kingdom
a tree. The soul
a bird. A great concourse of birds
at home there, wings among yellow flowers.
kingdom of faith, the seed
waiting to be sown.
“The waiting kingdom of faith ..” – that is what we are called to.
“The seed waiting to be sown …” – that is the legacy we have to pass on.
So sow the seed! says Jesus. You can’t control its growth. You can know that it will grow beyond anything you can imagine!
This is a word for us, folks, both the younger ones and the older among us, here at Wee Kirk. It is a captivating word to help us think about legacy – our seeds – or to use another metaphor, about the mantle we may pass on.
A Falling Mantle
Just after my fiftieth birthday our older son Sandy died during heart surgery at Duke Medical Center. After his death, in one of his notebooks in his room at Chapel Hill, I found an unfinished poem, he had been writing to give me for that birthday. Some of his words are still too poignant for me to repeat. But he closed with this image:
What a golden honor it would be to don your mantle,
to inherit twice times your spirit.
For then you would be me and I would continue to be you.
Sandy did not don my mantle. But in a way he passed his own mantle on, to me, to our family, to the hundreds and hundreds of young leaders around the world we have been able to help through the Sandy Ford scholarships as they train for ministry, and the Leighton Ford Ministries mentoring groups for them in the years since.
That image of the mantle came to Sandy from our Old Testament reading, one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible: about Elijah the most famous prophet of Israel; about his startling departure from earth to heaven in a flaming chariot; about the mantle that fell from him to his faithful apprentice Elisha.
Three things strike me in this story.
The first is the strong bond between the older man and the younger – how Elisha refused to stay behind as Elijah, knowing that his time has come to depart, goes to Bethel, on to Jericho, and down to the Jordan river. Elisha is determined to stay with his mentor all the way.
Then there are the final words they exchange when they have crossed over the river (in itself a symbol of the coming transition), words with so much heart meaning.
“Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” offers Elijah.
The old prophet is leaving behind his own career. Now he is totally focused on his young protege, and on the future.
And Elisha responds, “Please let me inherit a double-portion of your spirit.”
What is this “double portion” of his mentor’s spirit that he asks for. Does he want to be twice as great as Elijah? Twice as famous as his older guide? He did actually do twice as many miracles as Elijah.
But something more was in his mind. A “double portion” was the part of an inheritance left to the oldest son.
So what Elisha is saying is: I want to be your spiritual son, to have your spirit so I can be God’s person in my generation as you have been in yours!
I often say to the young leaders we work with: be kingdom seekers, not empire builders. Elijah and Elisha were both “kingdom seekers” – concerned for God’s kingdom, not their own reputations.
A third note strikes me in this story: how God met both Elijah’s offer, and Elisha’s request.
“You have asked for a hard thing,” Elijah tells Elisha, shaking his head. “A hard thing, But if you see me as I am being taken up your request will be granted.” It was not Elijah’s to give; it was Elisha’s to receive if he was ready.
On the other side of Jordan Elisha does see: a chariot of fire and horses of fire come and Elisha watches Elijah ascend in a whirlwind into heaven.
“Father, father!” the young man cries. “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” and in grief he rips his own clothes into pieces.
Then he sees that his mentor’s cloak, his prophet’s mantle has fallen to the ground. He picks it up carefully, returns to the river and, just as he had seen Elijah do, he strikes the water with it and says, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” And the waters part, just as they had for Elijah.
When the company of prophets who have also been watching from a distance see this they declare, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”
It is not Elijah who matters. It is not that his mantle has some magical power. It is the Lord God of Elijah who gives his Spirit to carry on his kingdom through the next generation and on.
This is biblical legacy. There are so many models of this falling mantle. Moses succeeded by Joshua. Paul mentoring young Timothy. Above all Jesus at the last supper, leaving to his disciples his legacy: his peace, his joy, his love, his mission, his Spirit.
So the mantle is still falling, and the seed waiting to be sown.
What seeds do we have to sow? what mantles to pass on?
What can we leave of the Spirit of God, and for the Kingdom of God?
There are some things fairly easy to pass on – property, stocks and bonds, tangible things that we list in our wills.
But then there are things that are not so easy it seems to pass on. As Elijah said to Elisha, “You have asked for a hard thing.”
But the things hardest to pass on may be the things that matter most.
This past week Jeanie and I have been asking each other, and a number of friends, this question: what do you most want to pass on to your “Elishas”? And, what do your Elishas want from you? I have asked that to our older grandchildren and their replies are enlightening!
But it’s not an easy question to answer, to put into words, is it?
I am told that during World War II, during the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, when the Jews saw German soldiers tightening the noose around their ghetto, realizing their resistance was near its end, they wrote “ethical wills” – about the intangible values they wanted to be remembered for, and to pass on.
I want to suggest that you take some time this summer, perhaps this week, as couples, or friends, or just by yourself – to ask: what would you put in a “spiritual will”? And whether you are younger or older it’s not too soon to ask Or too late.
And think how the story of Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus’ stories can help us.
Elijah and Elisha’s story help me to ask: what can I leave?
What are the intangible things – things of the Spirit, things of the Kingdom, things of lasting and eternal value – things that have been entrusted to us on loan – that we can pass on?
What really matters? How can we help our “Elishas” to serve God’s purpose in their generation?
Jesus’ stories of the seed help me to ask: how should I leave it?
Is the way I am leaving a legacy a way to control? or a way to contribute? A way to keep things my way? Or a way of letting go so others can find God’s way for them?
I had dinner last month with a young man whose whole family has been blighted by a controlling, manipulating grandfather. This man was a very successful, brilliant, and wealthy doctor. He was also a consummate egotist. He used his estate and his will as a sly way to manipulate his three sons to do what he wanted.
The result: the family is broken. The sons do not speak to each other. And over dinner the grandson I was with had tears rolling down his face as he spoke of the hurt it had brought.
“I want to know my cousins,” he said, “but I can’t even see them.”
So it’s just as important to ask, very honestly, not only what should we leave, but how should we do it. Is it a way of trying to keep my own kingdom going, or a way of seeking God’s kingdom? A way of trying to hold on as I grow older? Or a way of letting go so those who follow can live for God fully in their generation?
What do Jesus’ two small stories say to us?
The story of the farmer who sows the seed, and goes to bed, and lets it grow says:
You can’t make seed grow, and you can’t make the kingdom grow, and you can’t make
others grow. So sow the seed humbly, remembering it’s not your seed anyway, it’s
The story of the tiny mustard seed that becomes a great tree says:
Even the tiniest seed – the smallest thing – sown in faith, grows into something
magnificent. It’s not how much you have to give, but whether you give it expectantly
So a legacy is not about an image we want to preserve, but a trust we want to pass on.
How do we leave this kind of legacy?
As Elijah said to Elisha, “You have asked for a hard thing. But if you see me go you will receive it.” Elijah couldn’t make it happen …. he could only drop the mantle and entrust it to Elisha and to God!
So how do we pass on this spiritual mantle? Sow these intangible seeds? The things we can’t enumerate in a will or write with a check?
We treat them as a trust!
As a mantle – we can’t make them wear the mantle, but we can drop it so they can pick it up!
As a seed – we can’t make the seed grow, but we can plant and water it!
One man’s way of “passing it on”:
This week a friend here in Linville told me about his 70th birthday party this past March. Because this was a very special occasion he did not want it to pass without a very special observance. So he told his children and grandchildren what he wanted for a present: he asked each of them to write him a letter (for his eyes only), and in the letter, he asked, “Tell him about yourself: your dreams, your hopes, what you want to do with your life, what you want me to know about you.” Those letters were his presents! “And I was wonderfully surprised,” he said, by what they wrote.
But he also gave each of them a present: a photo of himself and his wife, beautifully framed, and on the back of each their name, followed by the seven “maxims” that have guided his life!
I hope his story may lead you to think and pray and ask God to show you creative ways to “pass it on.”
How then can we entrust the mantles and the seeds to God and to them?
we do it by the way we live: is what we want to pass on the same as what we will pass on – what they actually see in us?
we can do it by the words we write, as my friend did
we can do it by the prayers we pray: do you in fact pray these desires to God?
we can do it by the blessings we give, affirming the gifts we already see in them
we can do it by the hands we lay on them, in the very physical act of giving a blessing
we do it by the faith with which we commit them to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Elijah and Elisha, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to their God and our God.
Passing it on: to every generation
Twenty five years ago this month, Jeanie’s mother was slowly slipping away in the home where she had lived for many years on the dairy farm on Park Road in Charlotte. Jeanie was there for many hours the day before she died, staying with her. Mother Graham was very weak, but at one point she motioned to Jeanie to lean close to her. She raised her arms to Jeanie’s shoulders, patted them, and whispered, “Daughter, pass it on to every generation.”
What was she passing on, in those hands and words? Not just her house, or the material things she left to her children and grandchildren. What she was passing on was the faith, the hope, the love – the gospel that made her son Billy an evangelist, the Word of God that made her daughter Jeanie a faithful mother and teacher and spiritual leader. She left our son Sandy a few hundred dollars and a bed. Three months later he died without spending the money or ever sleeping in the bed. But what she passed on to him was of eternal worth.
It was the gift of eternal life. Of a mantle that will never wear out. Of seeds that will grow until eternity.
So the biblical story is of a legacy passed on from generation to generation, in faithfulness to God’s kingdom – and sometimes, tragically, of a legacy wasted. What do your heirs expect and want from you? Have you asked them? What are you called to pass on to them? Have you told them? And will you do it with faith and faithfulness, and strong confidence in the God who is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come?