Homily for 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2007
Last Friday a group of young people gathered to begin the countdown to World Youth Day 2008. WYD is not something which concerns young people alone. It is an event for the whole Church, young and old.
You may have seen the sign on the side of the road at Beerwah which says, "Growing old is necessary. Growing up is optional." There is a certain truth in that. We have all observed people of whom we would like to say, "Grow up!" Old age is perhaps one of the most important stages in one's life.
Australian statisitcs tell us that the average life expectancy of Australians has increased by 5.5 years for men and 3.9 years for women years in the last 20 years! That is extraordinary. There are minority groups like indigenous people whose life expectancy is nothing like that or course. I also read somewhere that life expectancy in the West has increased by about 30 years in the past 100 years. These are remarkable achievements through better health care and sanitation.
Those kinds of statistics have impelled governments to worry about who pays for retirement? So we have the enormous growth in superannuation schemes. Governments say they cannot afford to pay pensions to the growing numbers of retirees.
The bearutiful story the first reading today of Abraham and Sarah who are promised a child in their old age is a reminder that length of years is not just an economic problem (Genesis 18:1-10). Sarah laughed when she overheard the discussion about a child. She was long past the child bearing age. Nevertheless, at whatever age we are we have a value and a place in God's plan for the world.
Along with increased longevity the growth of what has been called "grey nomads" has been phenomenal in recent years. Thousands of retired and elderly people take to the road to do the outback thing. With superannuation or life savings to set up the 4x4 and caravan there is a great movement of people. However, many are not content with just being tourists. They have much more to offer society than that. So there has also developed a network of people volunteering to help isolated families and townships. People volunteer to spend a few weeks on an out back property working and making new friends. In so doing they restore the confidence and sustainability of the people and towns who are isolated and often suffering from drought. Both Volunteering Australia and the Uniting Church have programs in place to help this kind of thing happen.
I mention this to emphasise that old age or retirement are not just economic problems caused by people who are a burden on society. These later years are often incorectly called the declining years of life. For many old age has taken on a fearful aspect. "I dread growing old," is something I hear often. It is thought of as a senseless process of physical decline. People are seeking something more and there is more. The later years can be a most productive times of life and enable a deepening spirituality..
The gift of old age is that a person is free to see beyond the routine physical level of life that dominates us in our earlier years. People can be open to new perspectives on life. It is as though God gives us old age to enable that to happen. Spiritual needs come to the fore. People can become more reflective and prayerful. From a faith perspective we can see this time of life as one when God calls us to be closer to him and our true selves.
We are often reminded that our country is ageing. Some suggest people should have more babies to make us continue to develop economically. But are we willing to let such secular needs set the agenda for us? Should we not be prepared to sit at the feet of Jesus like Mary and listen to what God calls us to as children of the kingdom? It is a challenge that Jesus puts to Martha and to us whatever our age.
We do recognise those who in their old age despite their physical decline have truly "grown up". They are the wise ones, the elders, in our midst. They know God. They know themselves. They are not just the recipients of our welfare. They too have a contribution to make. They have the possiblity of a ministry unique to themselves.Fr Graham