June 11, 2023
Seventy-five Years Old… Already as Good as Dead
Genesis 12:1-4; Romans 4:18-21
Rev. Pete Peery
“Seventy-five Years Old . . . . Already as Good as Dead”
God goes about God’s purposes in a very strange way. In our Genesis text — a key text for grasping God’s way, — this strangeness of God becomes vivid with this line: —“Now Abram was seventy-five years old.” It seems like a throw away line. Yet, be sure. It is not.
Seventy-five years old . . . I know a good number of us in this room know what it is like to be 75. I am one of you! Being 75 I have discovered it is a good thing I am now retired. For if I were not so, how would I have time for the doctor’s appointments: not just my annual visit with my internist, but the orthopedist, the ophthalmologist, the dermatologist who always wants a pound of flesh, the urologist, not to mention the dentist or the gastroenterologist, God forbid!
Being 75 and visiting doctors so often, I have to remember my real first name, (which only my grandmother who died sixty years ago used), is the name the medical staff will call out to summon me from the waiting room. And on those doctor visits you better remember your birthday! You will have to repeat it dozens of times. At 75, if you are like me, you may still go to work out at the Y. But the hardest exercise is getting up off of the exercise mat! At 75 getting shoes to fit is a huge problem. At 75 names may come to you — but not until 2 in the morning.
“Now Abram was seventy-five years old.”
My mom, who went to seminary long before women were allowed to be ordained, was determined to have us children trust the Bible even when some of its stories seemed outlandish.To reconcile our modern experience to all those Old Testament people, who seemed to live for centuries, she would say they counted years differently in biblical times. Perhaps a year was like a month or so in our time. Wrong! the Apostle Paul declares. For in his telling Paul notes that when Abraham was called by God, Abraham “considered his own body, which was already as good as dead, (for he was about a hundred years old) . . .”[i] Abram was seventy-five years old. And of all people, God calls Abram, ancient, decrepit Abram.
As God sets God’s sight on Abram, in the wake of the Flood and Noah’s heirs living in disarray, the story of humanity had ended in barrenness — hopelessness.
In the call of Abram God initiates a new era, a new history, — a history of blessing. The scholar Walter Brueggemann says, —“If it had been our task to begin a new history we would have done so in a more hopeful [way].”[ii] Out of all the ways God could bring blessing to the whole world God trusts and calls a 75 year-old and his barren wife. Strange!
This is the beginning of what is called salvation history. For from Abram and his wife Sarai come God’s people Israel. Out of Israel comes the Messiah, Jesus. Out of Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, comes the Body of Christ, the Church. Abraham —Israel —Jesus — the Church. All called out ones. All chosen by God to be ones through whom God would work, to bring blessing to this world God so loves.
Jesus, — God’s own self, — made flesh to dwell among us, is one thing. But Abram? — 75 years old and already as good as dead, Abram? And Israel — tiny, scrubby Israel, least among all the nations? Yes, even Jesus, a peasant, refugee, homeless person, executed as a criminal? And now, the Church — as it is in this nation, in this world?
C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, shared a mythical rendition of the church as he experienced it in England. What the churchgoer sees when he goes inside, Lewis says, —[is] the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer [the churchgoer] one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided, [the ones who] sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, . .. [It makes church seem to] be somehow ridiculous.[iii]
Lewis wrote that in the 1940s. But is it far off from what church is like even now? And being that way, what has happened to the Church? How strong is it? How faithful is it? How influential is it?
Just look at our own communion. Forty years ago this summer, when the Presbyterian Church finally reunited after the Civil War, we were 4 million members strong. Today we are less than 1.2 million. And of that 50% of our members are over 55 years old; 32% over 70; and only 25% are under 25.[iv]
What has happened to us has happened across the board in numerous communions of the Church in our culture. Has it happened because folks participating in the Church have experienced it in the manner of C.S. Lewis’s imaginary churchgoer? Or perhaps has it happened, as the Barna Research Group has found in polling data that among young Americans significant negative perceptions have arisen about the Church? These young people find the Church to be judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned.[v] Or is it because of what a writer in the New York Times noted just last month, that there now is convincing research showing that the connection between right-wing politics and some Christians is pushing people away from the Church?[vi]
Frankly, all of this — and more — is likely true. And all of this has had an impact on this congregation. First Presbyterian Church of Asheville is not as robust in size or prestige as it was in the days of Robert Campbell or Grier Davis, pastors here from 1892 to 1960. In my day here I had a member come to see me — furious. “I joined this church because the mayor and the president of every bank in town were members here,” he said. “Now, none of them are here! What have you done to this church?”
Abram was seventy-five years old . . . already as good as dead. We, the Church — the Church in this place, — are not what we once were. And, truth be told, our frailness is in part due to ourselves: — our resistance to dealing with our sins of exclusion, of racism, — of sexism, of elitism, of plundering the planet.
Yet, God has a strange way.
God called Abram and Abraham’s descendants Israel. God sent Jesus — one utterly rejected by the whole world. And, through that rejected, yet Risen One, — God has called — and continues to call — the Church, — yes, — you and me — we who are right now Christ’s Body — through whom God trusts to bring blessing to all the peoples of the earth.
Let me pause on that word blessing. I learned recently that blessing signifies flourishing.[vii] To be blessed is to flourish. God was trusting through Abram, — already as good as dead Abram, — to bring flourishing to this world. And now God is trusting the Church, this church, you and me who are of this church, — to be ones through whom God brings flourishing to this world in this day. It is stunning to be so trusted by God!
Two stories and a song and I will be through.
The first story comes from the time when Margaret and I worked in London. While there, I had the privilege of serving on the Peacemaking Council of the United Reformed Church. The renowned church missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, whom Patrick mentioned about a month ago, was a member of that council. The time, the early 1980s — was as era of nuclear threat in divided Cold War Europe and one of brewing tensions in British cities and villages between immigrant and native communities. The council was charged with nurturing the church to engage in activities seeking reconciliation across the continent and at home.
Another member of the council was John, — a young, popular, spirited pastor. Frankly, John had sort of given up on the church. His vision of work for this Peacemaking Council was for it to establish what he called “Peace Communities” in every town. These “Peace Communities” would initiate actions for peace and justice in their location. After an impassioned speech urging the council to spend significant moneyhiring organizers to form these “Peace Communities,” Dr. Newbigin spoke up, — quietly, yet firmly. “John,” he said, “we already have ‘Peace Communities’ in every town and village. They are called congregations — congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Abram was seventy-five years old. Frail, decrepit. Already as good as dead. Yet God called and trusted Abram to be one through whom God would bring flourishing to the world. Lesslie Newbigin reminded all of us on that council that God was still trusting the Church, regardless of how frail it is, — to be the body through whom God is bringing flourishing to a broken and fearful world.
The second story is about the way God works through us to bring flourishing to people around us, even if we don’t know that is what is happening, —just as we are going about life being the people God created us to be. A church Meg and Jarrett once served had a slogan they printed on tee shirts: Receive love. Give love. Repeat. Just being who we are as church — which in essence means doing just that, — receiving love, giving love, repeating that cycle, — what might God do through us?
The story is about my own mom. Mom was in her late ‘80s, — legally blind, confined to a wheelchair or a walker due to cancer that had metastasized to her spine. Dad had died. We had moved her to a recently opened assisted-living facility in Charlotte where I was serving a church about 10 miles away. A stalwart member of the Church, Mom demanded that she attend worship in the church I was serving. Since I was obviously tied up on Sunday mornings and Margaret was singing in the choir, — thankfully Pen, then 16 years old, was driving. He agreed to drive over each Sunday to bring his grandmother to church. On the first Sunday of this venture, as he was rolling his grandmother out of this new assisted-living facility, he was stopped at a counter near the door. “Someone needs to sign Mrs. Peery out,” the attendant declared. Pen proceeded to take the sign-out clipboard to sign Mom out. The attendant looking at Pen and guessing his age said, “Someone over 18 needs to sign her out.”
Mom, in the wheelchair with her head down said, “I’m over 18,” to which the attendant said sternly,
“Someone over 18 and of sound mind needs to sign Mrs. Peery out!” At this point Mom, reached up, grabbed the clipboard and said, “I am over 18 and of sound mind! I will sign myself out!” Which she did. And Pen rolled her on out and brought her to church.
Now, I do not know if Mom ever considered that, through her action of just being the full person God called her to be, God was working to bring flourishing to the world around her. But what I do know is this. That assisted-living facility subsequently changed its policy and strived to honor more fully the humanity and agency of the residents there.
Abram was seventy-five years old . . . already as good as dead. Yet, God called Abram. God trusted Abram. God believed in Abram, believed he was one through whom God would bring blessing. Just so, God has called the Church — this church — you and me, regardless of how frail, how broken, how flawed, how old, how young we might be. God believes in you — dear people of First Church Asheville.
God believes in us. Which leads me to the song from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Some of you may remember it. In it a rock singer belts out in a plaintiff voice,
I believe in God . . .but does God believe in me? . . . .
I’ll believe in twenty gods, If they’ll believe in me.
That’s a pact. Shake on that. No taking back.[viii]
The call of God to Abram, — the call of God to you and me — the Church: —it is utterly stunning!
For it means, God believes in us. That’s a pact. Shake on that. No taking back!
[i] Romans 4:19
[ii] Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis Interpretation Commentary, Atlanta: John Knox Press. 1982. p. 117.
[iii] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters.
[iv] Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “Comparative Summaries of Statistics”. 2022
[v] Barna, “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity”. Sept. 21, 2007, (website)
[vi] Grose, Jessica. “Christianity’s God a Branding Problem,” The New York Times, May 10, 2023.
[vii] Newsom, Carol A. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 55.
[viii] Bernstein, Leonard. Mass.