Grace in the Later Years
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 16, 2021
Reading: Genesis 21:1-7
The stories of the challenges faced by seniors during COVID-19 have been legion. There’s barely been a day when we haven't turned a page in the paper or switched on the news to find a story of a problem in our seniors’ communities. We all know of the problems and the challenges of long-term care and the travesty of how ill-prepared we were to take care of seniors and the most vulnerable, when the pandemic began. It’s an ongoing problem, and I suspect it will be a challenge for our society to rise to in the years to come. How do we protect the seniors and the most vulnerable when times are difficult?
It’s also been a great challenge for seniors who have not been able to see their loved ones, something that I mentioned about mothers last week. It applies to nearly all seniors. Many of them have not seen their loved ones or their families for months on end, and their means of communication and access have been denied, but just as important has been the social isolation.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about our seniors at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. Maybe some of you are watching today. I thought of all the things that we haven't been able to do, and the joys we haven't been able to share with you over the last few months. I'm thinking of the afternoon teas, the glorious homecoming services, when many of you were brought into the sanctuary for a time of communion and a special message from Doctor Hunnisett, Reverend Miller, or myself. I think of the SPRINT lunches every week, when as many as sixty of you would come and dine together and have fellowship. I think of the study groups that many of you attended, let alone on Sunday, meeting your friends and visiting in the house of the Lord. I know this has been difficult, and those good days will return, but right now, I know you're missing them. The phrase, “a pandemic of loneliness” has been coined to precisely describe the effect this isolation has on seniors.
I think there are other challenges as well, and they're not just related to COVID-19, about the place of seniors within our society and within our culture. At times we are dangerously close to an idolatry of youth culture, where all that really matters, are the youth and what happens to them. Don’t misunderstand me, the youth are important, they're vital, but not at the expense of seniors, their role within society and within the church. Let me give you a concrete and disturbing example that I encountered a few months ago. I was in a conversation and there were two other people in that conversation with me. This conversation revolved around churches and church attendance. One of the people in the conversation made a comment. He said, “Oh, I went and visited a church, and when I went to the back of the church and looked in for the first time, all I saw was grey hairs. Isn't that a shame – what kind of a future does that church have?”
I interjected with this phrase – forgive me for my anger. I said, “Where would you rather them be, Mount Pleasant Cemetery?”
Tom Petty had a good phrase: “If you're not getting older, you're dead.” I think that we oftentimes get seduced by the belief that there is no great joy, no vigour, no purpose if we are only surrounded by those with grey hairs. Look, I get it, I understand that the future is important, but not at the expense or the denigration of people who are part of the body of Christ right now.
In a wonderful book called The Spiritual Care of Seniors by George Strong, a minister from Ottawa, he looked at Roget’s Thesaurus, which said that when you look at synonyms for aging or older people, and you find twenty of them, he said, eleven of them were belittling. He found twenty-four adjectives for seniors or the elderly, or those with grey hair, and fourteen of those were profoundly belittling as well. He said, “You know there is a problem here when our language about growing old is negative, and that language permeates society.
I remember the tagline a few years ago by Buick: “This is not your grandfather’s Buick.” I understood that it’s new technology, it’s hip, and they want to appeal to a new market, but they did it by belittling the grandfather and his Buick. Why would you do that? Just pose the merits of the vehicle for what it is now, for young people. Do you see what I'm getting at? There is this danger that we look down upon our seniors. Well, I want to give an alternate view to looking negatively. I want to look at the grace of seniors. Today’s passage from the book of Genesis, is one of the great classics about the grace of seniors, and it’s all about the promises of God.
You see, in the Bible – and you can find this in Genesis 12 – the person of Abraham and his wife Sarah, were given a calling, a commission, a covenant, and their covenant was to be faithful to God. If they were faithful to God, God would keep His covenant with them that they would have successors, they would be the ones who would create more ancestors and children that are more numerous than the sands – the grains of sand on a beach or the stars in the sky. God made a promise to Abraham that if he would faithfully follow God, he would be rewarded with many children that would come in his line. But what happened? There was nothing. His wife Sarah did not bear any children. It looked as if the promise of God was a false one until we get to our text today, when Sarah is told that she is going to give birth. She’s a hundred years old, or somewhere thereabouts, and she is just laughing her head off. Are you crazy, Lord? Are you crazy, God? People are going to laugh at me, no one’s going to believe me. This can't happen.
I love what one of my African friends said in a sermon that he gave a few years ago. He said, Sarah’s biological clock had not only stopped ticking, the entire spring mechanism had been broken. There was no hope here and yet – and yet she conceived and had a child. What did Abraham do? He called him Isaac, and what does Isaac mean? It means to laugh – to laugh at the incredible work of the Lord. It must have been terrifying for them at a time in their lives when they’d be winding down to suddenly being parents of a newborn. It sounds incredible, doesn’t it?
I love what Jesus said when he talked, as I mentioned in a sermon a few months ago, about the rich person going through the eye of the needle, and the camel going through the eye of the needle. Jesus says, what is impossible with people, is possible with God. It’s about God here, but it’s also about Abraham and Sarah. They remained faithful to their God, faithful to their covenant, even when they did not have offspring, they still remained faithful.
Writing about them centuries later, the Apostle Paul suggested that Abraham and Sarah are our ancestors in the faith too, that we are part of the offspring. Even the gentiles are, not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense, because Abraham and Sarah believed, and their belief was their righteousness. Those who have faith and believe, follow in Abraham and Sarah. These two seniors remained faithful, and God rewarded their faithfulness. God bless Abraham and Sarah.
It also tells us that just like Abraham and Sarah, seniors themselves can have a mission in life. Even though they might be getting older, it does not mean that there is not a mission or a purpose for them within the realm of the works of God. I’ve always believed that one needs to make a distinction between getting older and aging. Getting older is a biological reality, and believe it or not, we’re all getting older at the same rate, but aging is a matter of the mind. It is attitudinal, not biological. I have witnessed over the years so many seniors who, even though they are getting older, have remained vital in mind and commitment, and a decision to help others.
As I was sitting and reflecting on Abraham and Sarah, thought about one of the great influences in my life: my grandfather, James Stirling of great Scottish roots and Lancashire upbringing, who was a strong man, but a caring man. When I was a boy, he used to take me for walks with two of his older friends. I think all of them had hip replacements, all of them used a cane, and all of them suffered from arthritis, but every day they went for a walk, and boy, did they enjoy taking me along. We’d sit on benches and watch cricket in the fields, and then we would return home. What was special about that was that in my conversations with my grandfather’s two friends, I learned more about British history, more about social compassion, more about the struggles of a generation who had come through two wars and a depression. I came to learn, for them, because they were Christians, how strong their faith was in the midst of adversity. You can be a senior yet have a profound mission and a profound role to play in someone’s life.
The great poet, Robert Browning, put it way more eloquently than I could. He said:
“Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be. The last of life, for which the first was made, our times are in His hand who saith, a whole I planned. Youth shows but half. Trust God, see all, nor be afraid.”
According to Browning, the earliest part of our lives is preparation for the latter parts of our lives. There is continuity here, there are lessons learned. I’d encourage seniors to continue to openly share their experiences and their knowledge, and to pass this on. It’s an important ministry. After all, that’s what Abraham and Sarah did. What had been their previous experience of having a call, resulted much later in them having Isaac. I believe this mission is both for society and for the church. There’s no question it’s there for society. We know that we need people who can transmit knowledge of history and pass it on. Not only like my grandfather’s two friends, but even more so, I realise particularly when I ministered in Africa, that the notion of the elder in the African community was vitally important. Oftentimes before major decisions were made, elders were consulted for their guidance and their point of view. Elders were revered and respected.
When I went to a church for a little while as a student minister, one of the first things that I was told was that I needed to have a conversation with the elders in the church before doing anything else. Why? Because they were the transmitters of culture, history, and faith. I learned more from those visits with those elders than I could ever have done from my own experience. I listened, and they were invaluable, and I've never forgotten them.
Other cultures do the same, but I'm not sure, honestly, if our culture in the West isn't losing that. I think it needs to be reclaimed because of what has been coined “the tyranny of immediacy”, a phrase I think I’ve used before. The sense that only what happens now matters, and that anything that preceded it doesn’t. But where does wisdom come from? Where does faith come from? It comes from the knowledge and the experience of people in their lives and in their faith. Their icons are Abraham and Sarah, for their mission was to carry out God’s promises. They became the transmitters of that truth. And so it is with what were known as the patriarchs in the Bible, but also the matriarchs, like Sarah, or like Ruth, that I looked at last week. They were powerful because even in their older age, they gave the world something precious.
When I look at some of the greats, even within our own culture and tradition, I am confounded by how so many of them did what they did in their later years. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, wrote many of his greater works well into his seventies and beyond. Goethe wrote Faust in his eighties. My favourite poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, wrote Crossing the Bar, one of my favourite poems, when he was eighty-three. And Maya Angelou wrote many of her poems in her eighties, her last one being, I think, when she was eighty-five.
There can be a rich vein of knowledge and passion that runs through seniors, who can make a great contribution to society and to the church. As we come out of the pandemic – and we will – my hope and prayer is that you who are more senior within our church, will see a vital ministry for yourselves, just like Abraham and Sarah, and that the rest of us will be open to hear it.
There is a word, finally, for the next generation, Isaac’s generation. Now, Isaac was not Abraham, and you often find that offspring don’t always live up to the standards of the previous generation. There are exceptions – William Pitt and William Pitt the younger, who were prime ministers in Britain eighteenth century were both magnificent prime ministers. In Massachusetts, there was John Adams and then John Quincy Adams, who became presidents of the United States. But for the most part it’s rare for the next generation to follow along and be as great as the original one.
Isaac had a lot to live up to. He was the son of Abraham and Sarah, and his life was a bit choppy; his relationship with his wife Rebecca didn’t always go smoothly. He had two sons, and one of them he liked the best, which was Esau, and his wife Rebecca liked the other one, Jacob. He got it wrong – Jacob was the one who to continue the line of Abraham with his descendants. Nevertheless, Isaac was still used by God. Even though maybe not as great as Abraham, he remained faithful to his God, and because he remained faithful, even with his own imperfections and the imperfections of his offspring, he was able to fulfill the covenant that God had with Abraham – the God, as we often say, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It’s the continuation of the passing on of the faith that the next generation, the younger generations, need to seize. It is for others to take what the seniors have left as a legacy, though not perfect, any more than Abraham’s, or Isaac’s was perfect. Nevertheless, in faith, go into the future learning from the past.
Dylan Thomas had a rousing call for seniors. He put it in these incredible words, and maybe these are words that sound like they're fighting words, but they're really more than that, they're inspirational words. Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
I would add to that, be a light to those who follow you, for that, it seems to me, is what Abraham and Sarah did, and they revealed God’s grace in seniors. Amen.