(Timothy 5:1-3, Galatians 3:25-28)
“A youth who does not cultivate friendships with their elders is like a tree without roots.” – Ntomba proverb
“The death of an elder is like a burning library.” – Ivorian proverb
One of the things I love about church is that it’s one of the few places in our society where folks from different generations come together as a community. We’ve got folks in their nineties and even in their hundreds, and we’ve got folks who are in the earliest months of their lives. And every age in between – especially when it’s not summer vacation time.
A common Spirit draws us together and we try to work out what it means to be a community of faith. We inherit this Spirit and this work from past generations who came together here as a community of faith. The folks who started our church 151 yrs ago themselves had inherited this Spirit and this work of being community in Christ from a whole lineage churches and meetings and informal gatherings stretching back two thousand years. There are a lot of ways that we’re different from those past generations, but there is an essential Spirit that we share that keeps bringing us back together.
In our reading from the apostle Paul from his letter to the Galatians, we hear his celebration about how through Christ, through that aspect of God coming here with us, through that Spirit, we are all one. We can enjoy a unity that overcomes all of the differences that can divide people in such dramatic ways. There is a greater oneness, Paul says, that comes by grace and, if we accept it, it can free us from all the ways we get set against each other, all these excuses we have to “bite and devour each other” as Paul puts it later in the letter, excuses we have to become conceited against each other or envious or negligent or violent.
Through Christ, Paul teaches, there is a kind of spirit body that embraces all of us into itself and brings us beyond all the ways we get divided from each other. It’s not like differences get erased, but rather embraced by a greater unity.
Paul is specific. And remember he’s writing to a group of people that Rome considers barbarians, whom Rome has conquered. He names divisions between genders, divisions caused by slavery, and those caused by tribe and religion and language.
We can probably add to this list other kinds of divisions that we know can become vicious. We humans seem to be really good at conjuring up up dividing lines and forming opposing teams and bashing into each other until we get some winners and some losers. When I worked as a camp counselor I was startled to see it just took someone the kids thought had authority drawing an arbitrary line in a field and diving the kids up into two arbitrary groups and making some rule for a simple game. And very quickly kids who minutes before were all kumbaya camp buddies are now getting really nasty and threatening with each other.
Sometimes we invent these divisions out of thin air, but a lot of times they arise from natural differences that we then make into barriers between us, that we use at the very least to ignore each other if not neglect each other, or worse.
The early groups of Jesus followers, the evidence is, were extraordinary at the time for how much social mixing was going on in their groups. The movement quickly spread across cultural lines. There were women leaders among men, and there were rich people and poor people, free people and enslaved people and Jewish people and Greeks and Gauls and Romans and Syrians, sinners and saints all coming together in this new body of Christ.
The evidence is also that it wasn’t like it was some utopia. They struggled in working out their difference just like we do. But they had a beautiful powerful Spirit to guide them through, just like I trust we do.
So I started by saying that one thing I love about church is that it’s one of the few places left where people from different generations come together. This is one of the divisions between people that we usually forget needs loving attention. The division between the generations, between elder folk and younger folk and everyone in between.
Our society is so in love with youth and youthfulness that it can pretend that old age is some kind of curse that we need to hide behind closed doors. Instead of talking about “our elders” we talk about “the elderly.” As if age is a kind of unfortunate condition rather than a station of life, rather than a process of fulfillment that ought to be respected and that has wisdom and experience and years of know-how to offer society.
The flip side is that the voice and the vision of youth are often dismissed. Young adults who are college age are still considered “kids.” Even though that’s not true. The media wants to talk about the Millenials, as if they – I guess I should say “we”, I’m on the upper edge I think – as if the so called Millenials are some kind of anthropological specimen, a strange fairy world where everyone’s tweeting around. Rather than treating young adults like people, who have passion and intelligence and creative vitality to offer society.
Good things happen when we cross these divides and form friendships across the generations, and form communities around a shared Spirit and shared purpose. This church has thrived and survived for 150 years because it has fostered that kind of community spirit. Church, and more importantly a relationship with God, is something we inherit and something that we pass down through relationships between the generations.
So this is a word of encouragement for friendship, for mentorship across the generations. And this is also a call for Neighbor 2 Neighbor. We are starting a committee to make sure that more folks from our community are visiting and getting to know our elders who are no longer able to make to worship and other activities. These are folks who helped to make this church what it is, to keep that Spirit of Christ alive and pass it down to us. These are folks who have lived and continue to live long, rich, and storied lives. So if you’d like to be a part of that, whatever generation you’re from, please connect with Charla Havlicak who’s heading up this Neighbor 2 Neighbor, or talk with me.
Thanks be to God.
[Delivered June 26, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla
Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg]