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Abram was 75 years old when.....

16th March 2017: WMC
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Preached by Revd Keith Underhill on 12th March 2017.

On 29th March this year, Robert G.P. Weighton, (Bob, as I knew him as a church member and friend in Alton) will celebrate his 109th birthday. He is the oldest man in Britain.

Bob still lives independently in sheltered accommodation, looking after himself, cooking his own meals and writing for the monthly church newsletter. He takes himself down with the aid of his rollator, to the local Waitrose, close to where he lives, where he is known by everyone and in many ways, fulfils the role of a chaplain.

Some of you will have already encountered him through a newspaper clipping I shared with you at Eileen's Tuesday Housegroup and his appearance on the DVD that speaks about Anna Chaplaincy that you have passed around and watched.

We know that he will be 109 in just 17 days time, because Bob has a birth certificate, because he has a National lnsurance number, and because his life story (well the first half of it) has been documented in the first volume of his autobiography (We were seven and other memories volume 1) temporarily out of stock on amazon.co.uk, where a review reads thus;

"Compiled from a series of memoires written by the author for the private enjoyment of his family who arranged for publication in time for his 100th birthday in 2008. It recounts a fascinating and fulfilling life covering perhaps the first 40 years of this son of a Scottish veterinary surgeon. The book offers a rather humbling insight into the life of a man with a strong moral purpose. Having qualified as an engineer he trained as a missionary and the book covers life in Hull in the 20s and one has the sense that as a fairly privileged young man, very early in life his exposure to real poverty in his home city had formed his character and beliefs at an early stage. The author and his wife's experiences as missionaries in Taiwan pre Second WW are recounted".

There is no doubt that on this date towards the end of March, God willing, Bob will be 109.

Today's set lectionary Old Testament lesson ends at the first half of verse 4 of Genesis chapter 12. Depending on which translation you use, the verse itself continues and ends with these words, Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Was Abram, (later to be Abraham) really 75 years old when he set off to do God's will? Was he actually 75 years old when he was told to go into the unknown, to leave behind all that he knew, all that was familiar, the safety and the security of what was and to go to a land that God had not yet told him about in order to be a blessing to all and a father of a great nation?

Certainly this is what Genesis 12 says, but Stephen, the first Christian martyr, the one who was stoned to death with Saul, (later to become St Pau), looking on approvingly, says in his speech in Acts chapter 7, that Abram didn't leave Haran until his father Terah died.

Now Terah died we are told when he was 205 having fathered Abram when he was 70, so that would mean that in fact Abram was even older when he set out on his journey at the age of 135!

However, whether he was 75 or 135 years old doesn't really matter and we will never know of course. We do not have a birth certificate for Abram, nor a National Insurance number come to that to prove how old he was. To obsess about his actual age, is of course, to miss the point.

The point being made in this first book of the Bible is that when God called Abram to get up and leave, to begin this adventure, to "Go boldly" into the unknown, he was very old. He was settled and life was comfortable and predictable.

We had our Local Preachers meeting last week and at our previous meeting before Christmas had decided that we would all read John Bell's book, "10 things they never told me about Jesus", and then discuss it together in March meeting, which we did.

In this book, John Bell (he of Iona fame), reminds us of the importance of older people in the Christmas story and that although at the heart of the story of God coming amongst us is a tiny baby, Christmas is really about old people.

He says that Joseph is commonly presumed to be older, partly because he knows about divorce procedures and also because he is not around when Jesus aged, thirty, preaches in his home synagogue.

The shepherds would have been adult men rather than boys and the wise men would have been considered as such through the accumulation over the years of wisdom and experience coupled with longevity.

And of course Herod, the old and threatened King of Judea.

John Bell also points out that the story is bookended between senior citizens. Zechariah, a retired priest and his wife Elizabeth who in their twilight years became the parents of John the baptist and then Simeon and Anna, two aged and devout believers who were waiting for God's promised deliverer to appear.

He then writes; "Christmas is about old people. that is the Gospel truth. It is consonant with the foundation story at the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures in which God calls a retired couple, Abram and Sarai, to be the progenitors of the Hebrew race. It is as if God's vocation for the elderly is that they should be the midwives of the new thing God is doing – an expectation and accolade sadly avoided in many churches in favour of labelling older people as resistant and reactionary".

Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

We are used to the church's emphasis on the importance of children and young people's ministry, of how they are the church of the future, as well as being the part of the church of today.

We hear encouraging stories of how 3Generate (the national Methodist children and youth conference) has grown (in fact they have now changed the venue for this year to accommodate even more who wish to come) and how this event and forum plays an important role in the wider life of Methodism, with the voices of those young people challenging the rest of the church on the important issues of the day.

Circuits and churches still seek to employ youth workers and workers with children and families and rightly so.

Yet the reminder that Abram was 75 (or 135) when he left Haran for the unknown is a reminder that in the life of faith and of doing God's will there is no such thing as retirement and that God still has work for everyone to do.

Today's passage is also a reminder that older people matter!

This is at the heart of the work and concept of Anna Chaplaincy – (which I have been involved in from its very beginning – we will be hearing more about Anna chaplaincy in the autumn)

Anna Chaplaincy is a blend of advocacy and pastoral work in partnership with others. It is like planting a flag in the middle of where we live saying, 'Older people Matter.'

In a society and church increasingly focused on youth and families, being an older person can be isolating and challenging.

Anna Chaplaincy seeks to accompany older people at this stage of their life. It is an ecumenical, community-based, chaplaincy approach to promoting the spiritual welfare of older people.

Anna Chaplaincy is a person-centred, non-judgemental ministry for people of strong, little or no faith at all.

It is a way of offering spiritual support to older people.

Anna Chaplains also have a wider role within the community as an advocate and a champion of the contribution older people make to society and the church enabling cross-generational encounters in the church and wider community.

In our world where it is easy to believe that if you are not young, you are not important and have nothing to contribute, the fact that Abram was no spring chicken when he hot footed it into the unknown, is a reminder of how God sees things in a totally different light.

One of the things we did in Alton right from the beginning of Anna Chaplaincy, was to hold an "in celebration of age" service. This has now become an annual event, with the numbers growing each year.

I remember being on the door with Debbie Thrower, the first Anna Chaplain, welcoming people as they entered the church. One older lady said to Debbie in a rather off-hand and dismissive way, "What is there to celebrate about older age! I'm not sure why I'm here. I have only come to support you Debbie."

At the end of the service (which does not for one moment underestimate or ignore the challenges of older age) had finished and the refreshments consumed, that same lady, who seemed to be walking with more of a spring in her step, sought out Debbie and said; "I'm so glad I came, I'm going home feeling two feet taller!"

Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

As part of the promotional DVD produced by the Bible Reading Fellowship for the Gift of Years – we are introduced to May Gates. May had relatively recently settled into a care home at the age of 100. Almost blind, she had managed to live on her own until circumstances forced her to move.

In this new setting, May found her last and final ministry and she tells all those who watch the DVD – that the last thing she does before going to bed every night is to walk down the corridor and say to all the other residents on that landing "Good night and God Bless" as she holds each and everyone of them before God.

Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

The truth is, that it is never too late to be given a task or a ministry to fulfill by God and you can never be too old to be a blessing to others.

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