This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church. Today we were marking Methodist Homes for the Aged (MHA) Sunday, when we celebrate the wonderful work of that organisation and its work with older people – both in residential homes and in the community. We used this as an opportunity to reflect on the role of older people in our society more generally. The text was Luke 2:25-40, which tells of the infant Jesus’ encounter with two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna, at the Temple in Jerusalem when he was brought there by his parents.
Join the hand of friend and stranger; join the hands of age and youth; join the faithful and the doubter in their common search for truth.
Those lines come from one of my favourite new hymns: Jesus calls us here to meet him. Like many in our new hymn book, it comes from two of the Iona Community’s leading musicians, John Bell and Graham Maule. I love the way that those words remind us of how diverse the followers of Jesus are – worshipping today in every language under the sun – but how we have all something so fundamental in common. Our common search for the truth in Christ.
On this MHA Sunday, as we reflect on the work of that wonderful organisation, and the role of older people in our church and society more generally, I would like us to reflect particularly on the challenge of that second line: “join the hands of age and youth”.
This deceptively simple statement presents us, as God’s church and people, with an enormous challenge. How to bring young and old together, “in their common search for truth”. This is, of course, exactly what we see happening in the reading we have just heard from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:25-40). An incident depicted by many great artists, including Rembrandt. The elderly prophets, Anna and Simeon, come together with the young, innocent parents, Mary and Joseph, to point the way to the ultimate revelation of God’s truth in the world: the infant Christ child. Age and youth truly joining hands to demonstrate the unending story of God’s desire for a relationship with his creation.
Sadly, God’s creation has struggled over the years to emulate this excellent example and, as in so many other fields, has too often preferred discord to accord. We cannot even seem to bring the hands of age and youth together in the praise and service of the same Jesus Christ whom Anna and Simeon welcomed into the Temple so long ago. For as long as I can recall in church life, we have been wrestling with the challenge of how we manage the different demands, needs and desires of young and old in worship. I can remember – and I am sure you can too – seemingly endless running battles and open arguments in church meetings about different preferences for music and the style of worship. The word ‘chorus’ – referring to a certain type of praise music – was tantamount to a swear word in many churches. One of my colleagues even recounted how – happily some years ago now – an unfortunate young preacher had a copy of the new hymn book, Mission Praise, physically hurled at him in the pulpit, for daring to choose a chorus from its pages! In return, many cherished and much-loved hymns, rich in theological depth and meaning, were ignored or dismissed wholesale because they were ‘old’ or ‘fuddy-duddy’. And that is only music in worship. We have not got time to discuss the arguments about style of worship, times of service, the challenges of having young children in church, pews vs. chairs, etc., etc.
One result of those discussions has been that in many cases, efforts to “join the hands of age and youth” in worship have simply ceased. Many new churches were and continue to be founded effectively for young people alone, with a particular style of worship and music, leaving other churches – many of them Methodist chapels – to become effectively bastions of older people’s worship. One District Chair indeed described ministry in parts of East Anglia as being ‘chaplain to the over 60s’!
In recent months, there have been an increasing number of news reports and studies that have highlighted a seemingly similar phenomenon in our wider society. An increasing divide between young and old, that is in danger of becoming – if it has not already become – as severe as that between different genders and ethnicities. We have seen articles about the increasing gap in wealth and prosperity between some older people and some younger people (often described as ‘millennials’); sharp differences between age groups in relation to the chance of owing their own home, their age of retirement and even their life expectancy. In turn, this has led to expressions of anger and resentment about a status quo that seems to advantage one age group over another. Resentment that has provoked intemperate name-calling and angry exchanges from both sides.
On the other side of the coin, there is real fear among many older people to whom I speak about what is often called the ‘digital divide’. Despite the prodigious number of ‘silver surfers’, many older people feel increasingly cut off from the unceasing pace of technological development, which is permanently changing the way we work and live. Cherished ways of life and institutions are being replaced daily and many older people are effectively being driven out of work by their lack of skills and their inability to match the pace of change.
We see this divide too in matters of belief and outlook. This was perhaps demonstrated most palpably by the recent Brexit debate. Now, I must confess that I mention this subject with extreme hesitation because, as we all know, this particular topic is so toxic and so divisive that many of us would rather run a mile than even mention it! Whatever our personal views, though, it cannot be denied that age seemed to be an incredibly important determiner in how people voted. There were many other influences as well – where people lived in the country, gender, political background, and so on – but age seemed to be a remarkably significant factor, as this chart demonstrates.
Whatever our views on this issue – and we all are lucky enough to possess the democratic right to vote for whom or what we wish – I am sure that we all share the concern about this age-based schism within our society. From numerous conversations I have had during the campaign and since, I know the damage that this debate has done to inter-generational relations. Children and grandchildren at war with parents and grandparents over the dinner table. Families engaging in shouting matches at what were meant to be convivial gatherings. Claims and counter-claims of intolerance, arrogance and prejudice. Two years after the result, the inter-generational scars are still present in too many families.
I had a very interesting experience of this at my old church in Watford, a part of the country that voted almost exactly 50:50 in the referendum. On the Sunday after the vote, I chatted to many members of my, generally, older congregation before and after the service, who expressed a variety of views to me – fear about the future, confidence in the future, regret, and unashamed triumphalism, to name but a few. Meanwhile, I later discovered, the Sunday School teachers had had a virtual riot on their hands in the back hall, with the teenagers in particular venting genuine anger at what “those old people in there” had done to their future. There was precious little prospect of joining the hands of age and youth that day!
Sadly, there seems to have been very little work done, or even interest in, this demographic divide from our politicians – or any real sense that this is a problem at all. Yet I believe it is. It is not God’s will that his church – or indeed his creation – should be divided from one another by age. It is not God’s will that one age group should believe that it has a monopoly on the truth. It is not God’s will that differences in age should be used as yet another insult to hurl at one another, as we have so long used gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Instead, it is the example of Anna and Simeon in the Temple so long ago that is the desire of God’s heart for his creation: young and old coming together to seek a common truth, so that all may grow and flourish.
As God’s church, we need to witness to that truth, and I believe we have two particular roles to play as God’s Church on earth. First, we are meant to be a place of encounter. The aged Simeon and Anna met the infant Christ child at God’s Temple, and we need to ensure that we fulfil the same role. Like many people who grew up in church, I really enjoyed that mixture of ages around me as I grew into adulthood – it always felt like having lots of aunts and uncles, especially as we did not live near our extended family. I grew up being able to chat to people of all ages and backgrounds, and knowing that older people were genuinely interested in my life and development. There are actually precious few places in our society where that happens nowadays, and many children grow up not knowing any older people beyond their own family. This helps perpetuate the divisions in our societies, where we only meet and spend time with those of our own class, background and age: all of us living in our own, separate silos too often.
There have been numerous reports recently about successful experiments that have deliberately created places of multi-generational encounter. Nurseries in old peoples’ homes. After school clubs for teenagers run by older people. Young people who are struggling to find accommodation choosing to live with older people who have spare rooms but no company. MHA is part of some of these initiatives and is keen to bring younger people into their homes, and to create opportunities for those older people who are being supported in their own homes to have meaningful encounters with different generations.
What these schemes demonstrate is that ALL ages benefit from living regularly engaging with one another, if they are open to genuine encounter. Younger people can gain a sense of perspective and wise counsel; older folks can often gain a broadening of their horizons and a renewed interest in life. As a church here in Barnes, we are pondering our future mission and I would very much like us to consider whether this is an area in which we might like to engage: providing opportunities for different ages to come together for their mutual benefit, and to help break down some of the barriers that we have helped to create in our society.
The second thing that we can do, as God’s Church, is to be clear about how such mutual flourishing can happen and how such barriers can be broken down. And that is by pointing to the Christ child, as Simeon and Anna did, and specifically his example of sacrifice.
What makes Simeon’s encounter with Mary and Joseph in the Temple so poignant, of course, is his all-too accurate prediction of what the future holds for this tiny infant. This child is undoubtedly the salvation which God has prepared: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). But he is also “a sign that will be opposed” (2:34) and his work of redemption will not be complete until his mother’s heart is broken by witnessing the death of her own son. The work of God cannot be completed without sacrifice and loss.
So it is for us, for our church and our society, if we wish genuinely to “join the hands of age and youth”. Healing and understanding can only come about through sacrifice and loss. By being willing to set aside some of our own pre-conceptions, our own prejudices, our own certainty in how things ‘should be done’. In church life, as in all life, if we say “it’s my way or the highway” then genuine encounter is impossible. If we create meeting places for young and old, and both groups see it as an opportunity merely to re-create the other in their own likeness, then there is no hope of reconciliation. True encounter can never be about domination and control.
In the sacrament of holy communion, we are recalling God’s desire for genuine encounter with his most cherished creation, humanity. We are remembering how God wished to engage with his people, to break down the barriers that we had built up, and God’s desire that we should be reconciled one to another. But we recall too that that reconciliation only came about through sacrifice, by God giving up his divinity in the person of that vulnerable child from Bethlehem; of God giving up his immortality to dwell amongst us. Communion is a symbol of our desire to break down the barriers between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and one another. It is a symbol of our desire to emulate that example of sacrifice: our desire to live in harmony with all God’s creation.
In our worship as a church, in what we say and in how we treat one another, and in every aspect of our lives let us bear witness to God’s desire for a world free from division. Through encounter and sacrifice, let us strive to “join the hand of friend and stranger; join the hands of age and youth; join the faithful and the doubter” in our common search for truth. Amen.
Hymn words: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 28. Words: From Love From Below © 1989, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH Scotland. <www.wgrg.co.uk>