Sermon for Trinity 5 2021
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?
On Wednesday I led class worship, as I usually do, in St Francis School where a child told me it was her birthday and she was 7. Oh it’s mine, too, I said. How old do you reckon I am? (Word to the wise- never do this!). 89? she asked, after a moment’s thought. Well, I’m not 89, but 64. Now, the only song I know about being 64 was written by Paul McCartney in 1967 on the Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’ album, , though he’d first thought about when he was still living with his father Jim who would reach 64 a year earlier. At that time 64 was old, as reflected in the song’s lyrics which are about a couple reaching their dotage , planning a holiday on the Isle of Wight, asking each other: will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64? Now, we know (or kid ourselves) that 64– even 74– is not old, and swan around in our jeans and T shirts, with guitars over our shoulders, but back then most 64 year old men dressed much the same as 84 year-olds, listening to dance-band music which their children thought ‘square’ while trying to shut their ears to the racket emanating from their rooms. It is to Paul McCartney, his fellow Beatles and others such as The Who and Roger Daltrey who hoped he’d die before he got old, that we owe the dubious accolade of redefining youth, wisdom and maturity.
In the Bible, both in the Jewish and the Graeco-Roman tradition, and for much of history since, young men were lauded for being strong and athletic and old men were seen as wise. (Hence the phrase, ‘elders and betters’ that some of you may have been brought up with.) The Prophet Ezekiel, being no more than 30 when called to prophesy, would have therefore struggled to get a hearing, as anticipated in the Lord’s words to him: ‘Whether they hear, or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.’ Even our Lord, when he came to his home town of Nazareth, was categorized as ‘the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses etc’. The fact that his teaching was deep and astounding seemed to count against him rather than for him, again, because he was only 30 and local. Unperturbed by this, Jesus seems to ‘shake the dust of his feet’ and stride on with his disciples to the next village where the message of the Kingdom is better received.
As for St Paul, he finds himself looking back from middle age to his conversion 14 years earlier. We are used to hearing of this event, and even speaking of a ‘Road to Damascus experience’ but what happened afterwards? It takes a great deal to make someone change course so completely. Paul is saying rather coyly that he ‘knows someone’ (obviously him!) who ‘was caught up in paradise’ and saw unspeakable things in his spirit. Such an overpowering experience reflected on over a period of 14 years – more believable rather than the instantaneous change of the account in Acts– , went down deep into his soul before preaching, founding churches, sending letters and being battered by controversies and persecution, as he is in Corinth. He refers to this experienced, mature person as ‘me’, suffering as he did from a disability he calls ‘a thorn in my flesh’. It is his response to this weakness rather than the sublime revelations given to him that make him strong. As God says to him ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
This all has a lot to say about age, wisdom, ability and maturity. The 1960s was not the only era of generational divide, and I sometimes feel quite old when I talk to my son and my nephews, wondering if they have sometimes ‘thrown out the baby with the bathwater’ in dismissing ‘outmoded attitudes.’ When I look, however, at how wasteful people of my generation have been and consider someone like Greta Thunberg and others of her age, I feel very convicted. The Bible, and our readings in particular, do not claim that age and experience have the last word. Ezekiel and other prophets were young when called, and the thirty year old Jesus was dismissed by the elders and betters of Nazareth. Some people mature as they grow older; others become hard and bigoted. As in the Bible, so now.
The middle-aged Paul, graced by God with deep and illuminating experiences written in his letters, must have been tempted to say to his critics at Corinth ‘you just don’t know what you talking about.’ Instead he chose not to boast but to reflect on his experiences of disability and concluded that ‘in my weakness I am strong.’
The fact is, we all need each other. The middle-aged and old need the enthusiasm and urgency ofyoung people, but they need to listen to the voices of experience. The strong and articulate should thank God for being graced with such things, as long as they acknowledge that true character is found in response to failure, not in endless success. In doing this we look to our Lord, who faced the humiliation of the cross before the triumph of Easter.
We also look to God our heavenly Father, the ancient of days, yet born in a manger at Bethlehem. In the words of Sydney Carter:
You are older than the world can be
You are younger than the life in me
Ever old and ever new,
Keep me travelling along with you.