HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT 2009

HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT 2009

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Romans 4:13-25 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) –in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Mark 8:31-38 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Two elderly women were out driving in a large car. Both could barely see over the dashboard. As they were cruising along, they came to an intersection. The stoplight was red, but they just went on through. The woman in the passenger seat thought to herself, “I must be losing it. I could have sworn we just went through a red light.” After a few more minutes, they came to another intersection, and the light was red again. They went right through it. This time, the woman in the passenger seat was almost sure that the light had been red and was really concerned that she was losing it. She was getting nervous and decided to pay very close attention to the road and the next intersection to see what was going on. At the next intersection, the light was definitely red, and sure enough, they went right through again. She turned to the other woman and said, “Mildred! Did you know we just ran through three red lights in a row? You could have killed us!” Mildred turned to her and said, “Oh my, am I driving?”

The story I just told is pretty typical of the humour associated with older folks or senior citizens in our society – making fun of how pathetic and ridiculous old people are – and seniors, being good sports, usually laugh too – because a good sense of humour is a sign of being a healthy and happy person – a sign of wisdom. But it’s got to hurt sometimes.

Lent is a fairly serious, if not solemn, time, a season when we contemplate priorities of various kinds, so today, since two of the lessons focus on the adventures of a 99 year old man, I thought I should reflect on seniors.

Have you ever experienced the frustration of trying to find a movie about people older than 17? We live in a world in which old people have been moved offstage, out of the picture. Last year’s movie “No Country for Old Men” won an Oscar for best actor, and portrayed a world of mindless violence, greed and fear. “You should live so long!”

When did that shift happen – when did we start pushing our elders to the sidelines and why did we do it? We now live in a culture dominated by youth – in fact, all evidence points to the fact that we are doing our best to perpetuate adolescence. Maturing and aging have become anathema, much as they were for Peter Pan and Tinkerbell and the lost boys, who resisted growing up and wanted to remain in Neverland forever.

We live in what has been described as an ADD Society, fuelled by stimulants like sugar, caffeine (and worse), hyperactive music and media — a manic, restless, society that can’t focus on anything for more than five seconds. Such a society is bound to be impatient to the point of anger, frustration, even violence, toward those who won’t or can’t move at that frantic pace. In a world where everything is defined by action, busy-ness, and productivity, elders are considered “unproductive” and they feel that. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a person in a care home saying that they feel “useless,” that they are a “burden,” because they can’t DO anything. How sad that we have lost the art and value of BEING, or the simple beauty of presence, just at a point in history when we really need to recover it (see Psalm 46: 10; or Matthew 6: 26–30).

A study about aging by Dr John Garry of Queen’s University in Belfast,, looked at young people’s attitudes to happiness in old age and how these attitudes affect their current health-related behaviour. Dr Garry said: “We have all heard the saying ‘life begins at forty’. But it seems that many people, particularly young people, actually associate growing old with being miserable.”

In that kind of culture, older folks experience a great deal of shame, confusion and stress, because they are not prepared for the way society kicks them to the curb, and robs them of a meaningful place in the world. They don’t necessarily feel any older than they were when they were 25, and they tend to think that they might have a lot to offer in the way of wisdom and experience, but by and large, no one’s interested. Suddenly, they begin to see themselves portrayed as ridiculous, senile, hard of hearing, out of touch, weak, useless. People start shouting at them, assuming they’re deaf, or talking to them as if they were 3 year olds.

But very soon there will be a majority of seniors, as baby boomers reach that magic age of 65. North American society is facing a crisis now as millions of baby boomers move into retirement and old age. Baby boomers in their hippie phase said “never trust anyone over 30.” That in turn has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the baby boomers who proclaimed it now have to live with the culture of hostility toward the elderly that they helped create in the first place.

I’ve always imagined what care home life will be like when people my age get there – the kinds of activities and music they will offer to keep us amused. I saw a recent list of songs that might be re-released for the huge new market of senior citizens, such as Carly Simon singing “You’re So Varicose Vein”, “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Walker” by Herman’s Hermits, and “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. And no retro album would be complete without the baby boomers’ all-time-favourite band, the Beatles, who might weigh in with “I Get By with a Little Help from Depends.”

In other words, it’s soon going to be time to redeem our image of seniors and to re-evaluate their place in society. In Job 28: 12, the question is put: “Where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” As the most self-absorbed, self-impressed generation in history moves into old age, will it be anything more than self-interest motivating a change in attitude? We need a new paradigm to emerge, and I hope to God this generation is capable of it.

In some societies, age and wisdom and respect have gone together, and once upon a time, religious traditions were very much oriented toward heeding the wisdom of the elders – hence the story of the young Jesus going to the Temple to converse with the elders. The Bible is very senior-friendly – it’s full of examples of really old people doing amazing things (see Genesis Ch. 5). In the biblical way of seeing life, aging is a process to be welcomed, a progression toward wisdom, experience and perspective, a progression toward God and our ultimate fulfillment, which can only be experienced partially within the context of this life. In the scriptures today we are given the story of Abram (who becomes Abraham) who begins a whole new life when he was 99 years old! “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” St Paul refers rather disparagingly to Abraham’s “body, which was already as good as dead . . .” Paul’s point is that Abram’s physical weakness did not hold him back, which is a testimony to the depth of his faith in the power of God, and also, of course, a testimony to the power of God. Exactly how old he was isn’t the main point (when the Bible talks of someone like Noah, for instance, being 500 years old before starting his family, you have to know there is a bit of hyperbole is in the mix) – the point is that for some callings, some ventures, a young inexperienced person can’t possibly do the job – it takes someone with enough age and wisdom to truly rely on God.

In today’s Gospel, Peter, in youthful certainty, says confidently to Jesus that they will never allow him to be killed. Apparently, they think they can preserve him “as is” indefinitely. Such are the illusions of youth. And Jesus, instead of being grateful for Peter’s protection and patting him on the head, tells him to get out of the way, precisely because he is not mature enough in his faith to be able to handle issues as big as suffering and death. Youth is full of illusions – that’s partly what makes it so exciting (and confusing)! But God also values seniors, and needs people, like Abraham, who are no longer susceptible to the false and temporary enthusiasms of youth. God needs people who have a larger perspective on life.

At 18, you think you know everything. Having a wisdom tooth removed last week ironically reminded me that being older means you finally recognize that you don’t need to know everything, and that allows you to be more open to mystery, or the wisdom of not knowing. There is something about the depths of kindness, suffering, understanding and patience you can see in the eyes and in the face of an elderly person that you can never find in the face of a youth. Yet we relegate our elders to the sidelines, ignoring them, and excluding them. Our preoccupation with youth comes from being afraid of death, and aging reminds us not only of death but of vulnerability, weakness, meaninglessness. Our tendency to shunt our seniors off to the sidelines and pretend they don’t exist seems like the most blatant form of denial and self-delusion, and does not make our difficulties with deeper issues disappear. The truth is, if we don’t want to be around old people, we won’t be able to stand ourselves when we get to that age.

One of the beautiful things about the church is that it is still a place in which the presence of our elders is valued, a place where young and old get to mix and connect and learn from each other. If we let them, our elders can help us shed our illusions and face into the bigger issues of life (and death), because they’re no longer living in denial and illusion. As Bette Davis said “Old age is no place for sissies.”

A young, big-city lawyer went duck hunting in rural Texas. He shot one, but it fell into a farmer’s field on the other side of a fence. As the lawyer was climbing over the fence, an elderly farmer drove up on his tractor and asked him what he was doing. The lawyer responded, “I shot a duck and it fell into this field, and I’m going to get it.” The old farmer replied, “This is my property, and you are not coming over here.” The indignant lawyer said, “I am one of the best trial attorneys in the U.S. and, if you don’t let me get that duck, I’ll sue you and take not only the duck, but everything you own.” The old farmer smiled and said, “Apparently, you don’t know how we do things in Texas. We settle small disagreements like this with the Texas Three-Kick-Rule.” The lawyer asked, “What is the Texas Three-Kick-Rule?” The farmer replied, “Well, first I kick you three times and then you kick me three times, and so on, back and forth, until someone gives up.” The young attorney quickly thought about the proposed contest and decided that he could easily take the old man. He agreed to abide by the local custom. The old farmer slowly climbed down from the tractor and walked up to the young lawyer. His first kick planted the toe of his heavy work boot into the lawyer’s groin and dropped him to his knees. A second heavy kick followed. Yet another thunderous boot left the young legalist grovelling on the ground. Grimacing with pain, the lawyer managed to summon the last remnants of his will and said, “OK, you old geezer — now it’s my turn!” The old farmer smiled and said, “No, I give up, you can have the duck.”

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, supposedly laughed when she was told she would have a child late in life. They named their son Isaac, and the Hebrew meaning of his name suggests laughter or humour. Maybe today, with 60-somethings having babies, Sarah would get a real chuckle. Sometimes, seniors get to have the last laugh, and the message in today’s scriptures might be: never underestimate a senior citizen – they’re wiser than you think.

The Rev. Grant Rodgers

rhgr@shaw.ca