Sunday, 1 November 2015

Mid-life Opportunity

A sermon given at St Matthew's Church, Oxford, Sunday 1st November 2015

Readings: Matthew 6: 19-34; 
2 Corinthians 11: 21 – 30

This is the fourth in our series of sermons on ‘Growing up in Christ’.  We have been looking at birth, childhood, youth and today we come to middle-age.  In this sermon I want to talk to you about journeys and in particular the journey we are called to called to go on in the second half of life.  I’ll give you an example of such a journey from the Bible, drawn from the story of the life of Abraham.  I’ll also explain why I think this second half of life journey is different from the first half of life journey.  I hope you’ll find this sermon useful even if you don’t think you have reached the second half of life yet

At this point I’d like to try an experiment.  Please could you look at your neighbour on your right and work out for yourself what stage of life you think she or he is at.   Is she or he young, middle-aged or old?   Now I’d like those of you who think of yourselves as young to put up your hands.  Now those of you who see yourselves as middle-aged.  Now those of you who think you are old.

My prediction is that what you thought, whether your neighbour is young, middle-aged or old, doesn’t tally very well with how they view themselves.  I also thought that most of you would think of yourselves as middle-aged rather than young or old.   Was I right? 

Of course age is partly objective, partly subjective.   Clearly at aged 0 you are not old and at aged 100 you are not young.  But in between?  Some say you are as young as you feel and we might equally say that you are as old as you feel or even that you as middle-aged as you feel.

The title of this sermon is ‘Mid-life opportunity’.  This is obviously a pun on ‘Mid-life crisis’.  To claim that you are having a mid-life crisis has come to be regarded as a bit of a joke, somewhat self-indulgent, even selfish.  But the NHS Choices website gives the mid-life crisis a page and even attributes it to physiological changes that take place in middle-age.   They suggest that around 20% of people have a mid-life crisis.

But defining what a mid-life crisis is clearly tricky.  It seems to be connected with reaching a point in life – somewhere between youth and old age - where you re-evaluate your life up to that point and seek to decide what to do next.  It’s often connected both with a dissatisfaction with life as it is or as it seems to be and a growing realisation of mortality.  And perhaps this is something everyone in middle-age experiences – at least at times.

It sounds over-dramatic to call this dissatisfaction with life and realisation of mortality a crisis in most cases – and so when planning this sermon series we decided to entitle this sermon ‘Mid-life opportunity’.  I am now a bit concerned that talking about mid-life opportunity is to deny the suffering that some - perhaps many - people experience as a result of reaching the middle of their life.  And we that know that suffering isn’t necessarily bad or to be denied.   The way of the cross teaches us that.  

And obviously middle-age is generally more of a process than an acute event such as the term crisis implies.  Clearly too middle-age is not all suffering and viewing it as an opportunity is surely more of a hopeful way of looking at it.

Perhaps, rather than viewing middle-age as the occasion for a crisis, or even simply as an opportunity that you can take or leave as you choose, we should see middle-age as a journey. 

The Biblical writers constantly use the journey as a metaphor for life.  The story of the Exodus involves a journey first from their home in Canaan to Egypt, on the part of Joseph and his brothers, and then from Egypt back to Canaan by the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses.  This journey home for the Israelites has lots of formative incidents along the way: the destruction of Pharaoh and the Egyptian Army who are pursuing the Israelites, the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, etc.  Jesus’ parables often involve journeys.   For instance the parable of the Prodigal Son involves the younger son leaving home on a journey of adventure only to return home to a welcoming father when things get difficult.  

No doubt you can think of many other journeys in the Bible.  Many of these journeys involve a returning home.  And life itself, of course, involves a journey back to where you started if only in that, as you get older, you become more dependent on others for your very existence, just as you were when you were young.  But more importantly, as Richard Rhor, paraphrasing TS Elliott’s poem East Coker in the Four Quartets, says: ‘Somehow the end is in the beginning and the beginning points towards the end’.  This is from his book – Falling up: a spirituality for the two halves of life - from which I have drawn upon heavily when writing this sermon.

Now Biblical journey stories are often illustrative of the first half of our lives.  They are about the creation of identity.  The Israelites – after the Exodus – see their identity as a people chosen by God and rescued from the Egyptians.  They see Moses as the founder of their religion – a religion centred around the law, given to Moses on that journey.   The prodigal son, through his journey, comes to the realisation that home with his father is where he really wants to be.   In the first part of our lives our task is to find our self.  Part of that finding our self is to work out our relationship with God, to recognise and to accept his power to give our lives meaning.

A well-known first half of life journey in the Bible is the journey Abraham takes as the start of his life – or at least his story as recorded in Genesis.  You’ll remember that God tells Abraham to leave Haran - the country in which he is living at the time – for a new land which God will show him - Canaan.  God tells Abraham that this is because, ‘I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing’.  Abraham obeys God’s instructions and, with his family, including his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, sets for Canaan.  When Abraham gets to Canaan, God says to him, ‘To your descendants I will give this land’ and Abraham and his family settle down in Canaan.  This too is story about how Abraham comes to see himself, how he finds his identity as the founder of a great nation whose home is Canaan.

Now if this were a fairy story the story would perhaps end there with: ‘And they all lived happily ever after’.   But we know that, in this respect at least, fairy stories are not true to life.  So too things don’t go smoothly for Abraham.  He ends up staying in Egypt for a while, where he runs into trouble with Pharaoh because he fails to tell him that Sarah is his wife and is forced to leave.  He falls out with his nephew Lot and then patches up the quarrel.   But also Abraham begins to question his identity when he and Sarah fail to have a son.  How can God of make of him a great nation if he has no son and heir?  But as we know God does give the couple a son – Isaac.

At this point Abraham is required by God to go on a second journey, this time to for the land of Moriah and up one of the mountains there, where he is to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham obeys God, goes up the mountain, and is just about to sacrifice his son, when God supplies him with a ram to sacrifice instead.   And Abraham returns home to Canaan.

Now this isn't a journey of identity creation.   It’s symbolic of a journey of the second half of life where the name of the game is letting go of the identity you have, often painfully, constructed in the first half of your life.  Abraham has to let go of his identity as the founder of a great nation in order, perhaps paradoxically, to get it back.   In this he has to trust God to do what seems logically impossible.   If he kills his only son how can his descendants become as numerous as the stars of heaven as God has promised him?

This is the nature of identity.  Jesus say in all four gospels as he does, here, in Matthew’s gospel:  ‘Anyone who wants to save his life, must lose it.   Anyone who loses his life will find it.’  

The purpose of the journey of the second half of life is therefore different to the journey of the first half of life.  This is to find a role, develop a career, accumulate some wealth for reasons of financial security, find some friends and a partner, have a family.  Of course not all of these things are given to all of us.  We’ll also, if so inclined, find a religion to believe in, a religious group to belong to and a place to express our religion.  We might even learn to put our trust in God and find salvation in him. 

All of these things are good: the development of a career, the finding of a source of salvation, even the accumulation of wealth – if you don’t take that too seriously – see it as your ultimate treasure.  The first half of life is unlikely to be problem free.  In fact it is highly unlikely to go as you hoped when you were young.   And on the way you are likely to encounter suffering.  Jesus says that whosoever wants to join him on the journey will need to take up his cross. 

In the second half of life things get done to us rather than us doing things.  Our career comes to an end whether you like it or not, our children leave home to create their own identities, you are progressively likely to lose your parents and friends through death.  You may start to lose your own health.  What were religious certainties may come to seem more uncertain.  

However another journey awaits you if you are willing to take it.  Not everybody goes on this journey even though aging itself is inevitable.  As Richard Rhor says, ‘The first half of life task is no more than finding the starting gate.  It is merely the warm-up act, not the full journey’.  However ‘a ‘further journey’ is a well-kept secret, for some reason’.  Many people do not even know there is one ‘and there are too few who know that it different from the journey of the first half of life.’

In fact it is incredibly easy to get stuck on the first half of life journey.  To ignore the fact that you no longer have the same role and purpose that you had.  In fact this denial may lead to the mid-life crisis of the type which leads people to try and start the journey again to seek to create another identity.  The journey in the second half of life has, or rather ought to have, a different purpose.

TS Elliott says, in his poem East Coker:  
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

The good news that there is a guide for this exploratory journey to a deeper communion: the Holy Spirit.   As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, ‘The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.‘  The Holy Spirit guiding on this journey from home and toward home is also described by Jesus in John’s gospel as an advocate who will teach us and remind us as if some inner part of us already knows where we are to go but still needs us a prod in the right direction.

This being done to rather than doing in the second half of life means that our task becomes to accept what is given to us.  We no longer have to strive for an identity, to prove who we are.  Life can become purely trust in God for what we need – as Jesus enjoins us to do in our Gospel reading today – saying that if we seek for his kingdom – that deeper communion that TS Elliott talks about – then everything else that we need will be given to us. 

In the second half of life there is no longer any need to protect or project one’s identity as Paul is, in effect, is saying in our Epistle reading today where he reflects back on his life and calls himself a fool.   When you are in the second half of life, finally you are who are and can be who you are without disguise or fear.  

So I hope that I have convinced you that second half of life journey can be even more exciting and in the end more worthwhile than the first.   As some of you know I have just turned 60 and one of my 60th birthday cards said, helpfully I think, 60 is the new 30 x 2.

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