Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Growing Old Grace-fully (Sunday 11B)

Therese Sangster is a former parishioner in her nineties, blind and rather frail. She now lives in a care facility some distance away so I can no longer visit her regularly.

But when our seminarian Juan was visiting the sick on Friday, I asked him to make an extra trip and take Communion to Mrs. Sangster. When he got back, I asked how he found her.

“She was wonderful,” Juan answered. “She said ‘I may be blind, but I can still tell that you’re good looking!’”

I told him that it was clear Terry Sangster lives by faith and not by sight!

That humorous story captures the spirit of a great lady, but it also introduces the subject of my homily today: growing old gracefully. Terry Sangster is one of those people described in today’s psalm, which says that “the just will flourish like the palm tree, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green…”

When was the last time you heard a homily on the Christian view of growing old?

I think it’s about time. In the first place, of course, most of us will grow old—older, for the most part, than a generation ago. Thinking about aging in terms of our faith is a very sensible thing.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul talks about the attitude a Christian should have to the passing years. While we are on earth, we need to keep one foot in heaven: “While we are in the body, we are away from the Lord.”

At no age, but especially in old age, we should not be overly attached to our earthly life. Paul says plainly that “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” In his letter to the Philippians he says that our citizenship is in heaven, our true homeland.

He doesn’t mean that Christians have no interest in this world, but that the source of their deepest identity and hope is their faith. You might compare it to the citizen of one country living in another.

All of us have to struggle to balance our daily duties and burdens with the need for prayer and reflection. Although retired people can become very busy, for some a slower place is just what they need to get their spiritual priorities straight. A wise monk has written that “being immersed in our everyday world is what very often prevents us from lifting our minds toward the realities of the life to come.”

Even ill health can be a hidden blessing if it slows us down enough to pray or makes us focus on the shortness of life.

But there’s more to growing old gracefully than just keeping the right balance between this world and the next. To grow old gracefully—that is, to grow old with God’s grace—is first of all to grow.

Sometimes we think that Christians emerge fully-formed from the baptismal font, or from their Confirmation. Or maybe it’s the sacrament of marriage that completes our character. Yet Ezekiel, in our first reading, shows how God worked slowly in restoring Israel: God plants a twig and waits for it to grow into a lofty cedar.

A chapter earlier, Ezekiel prophesies to Jerusalem about the covenant the Lord made with her when she was young—even the holy city needs to grow in accordance God’s plan and purpose.

Nothing about God’s plan seems to be all-or-nothing or all-right-now. The whole Bible is a story of God’s patience with sinful humanity, from Adam and Eve on. And Christians are called to imitate God’s patience even in dealing with themselves. The Letter of James calls us to be like the patient farmer, who waits though the autumn and spring rains before he sees the crop. And St. Paul tells the Galatians they must not grow weary in doing good, because eventually they will reap a harvest.

St. Francis de Sales says “have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them– every day begin the task anew.

Blessed John Henry Newman said “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Who knows this better than the elderly?

Let’s also look briefly at today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God.

There was an article in the paper this week about the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It described the establishment of this modern dynasty kingdom was established on a specific date by specific means. If you go to the royal website, there’s a timeline and if you click on it you lean that the kingdom dates to May 25, 1946.

There’s no such timeline for the Kingdom of God. This is one of the most complex terms in the New Testament, but there’s one thing quite certain about it: the Kingdom is a work in progress. Today, Jesus compares it to the seeds that grow slowly and produce a harvest, or to the mustard seed that becomes a great shrub.

Our Lord is speaking of his Church, now spread to the ends of the earth, fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy in our first reading. But he is also speaking to us about our own growth as Christians. Like the sower who scattered seed on the ground, we do not know precisely how God’s grace works to produce good fruit in our lives. The Kingdom of God becomes our true homeland only through years of discipleship and perseverance, as we await the final day when God brings in the harvest of our lives.

One of the blessings of life in a parish community is seeing how faithful Christians grow as they get older. I know some children in our parish who have all the qualities of the child saints of history; there are a few young adults living lives of great virtue; there are a number of middle-aged married couples whose lives are heroic in charity and fortitude. But if you were ever to calculate the statistics, the greatest number of saints in our parish are those who have run the race and fought the good fight—the elderly.

Parishioners of a certain age—I dare not name a figure—are the backbone of some ministries, disproportionately generous donors, and remarkably faithful to daily Mass. Some make it to Sunday Mass at great sacrifice. Others provide tireless assistance to their children and grandchildren. And many of them are models of charity and patience at home and in the parish.

Let’s thank God today that we have these women and men who so faithfully promote the coming of the Kingdom in our parish, especially since our world almost seems to have forgotten the virtues of perseverance and fidelity.

The current debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide is being driven by fear—fear of living and fear of dying. The serious Christian does not need to live in fear. As today’s psalm says, they bear fruit when they are old, because they live by God’s grace.

So let us all be inspired by the lasting faith and the good cheer of people like Terry Sangster, and by the prayerful devotion of the elderly parishioners right beside us in church. By imitating their perseverance, we can all grow old grace-fully.

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