Introduction to the Scripture:
Today we’re continuing the series God Through the Ages. Every Sunday we’re considering a different stage of life. We started with babies, then children, then teenagers, then young adults. Last Sunday we considered the season of wilderness and crisis that goes with mid-life. Today our journey has reached the stage of older adults; next Sunday we’ll consider the experience of oldest adults.
Now if you’re not sure whether you are middle-age or older, or whether you’re older or oldest, that is okay. It is less about your chronological age and more about the stage you find yourself experiencing.
First, I want to thank Jessica for selecting our scripture today. Ron is about to read a magnificent gem of a story that often goes overlooked.
Before we hear this reading, let me set the scene: David is the king of Israel. His son Absalom, from whom he had been estranged, recently returned to Jerusalem. David forgave Absalom, but over the next few years, Absalom launched a revolt against his father so he could claim the throne. Father and son each had their own armies battling each other, and one night, David received word that “the hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom” (II Samuel 15:13). David and his crew decided to flee Jerusalem. But David needed help. Anybody would!
Thankfully for him, during the course of their escaping and hiding, David arrived at Mahanaim, and several people provided supplies for David and his troops. One was an older, wealthy man named Barzillai.
Soon thereafter, Absalom was killed; he was riding his mule when he got his head stuck in a tree; the Bible says he was left “hanging between heaven and earth” while the mule ran on. When David learned of this, he grieved for his son, and he prepared to go back to Jerusalem. Our scripture describes David’s trip back across the Jordan.
May God give blessing to the reading and hearing of this word.
[II Samuel 19:31-40]
Reflection on the Scripture:
Old Men Shall Dream Dreams
You heard what happened. Out of gratitude for Barzillai’s generosity and faithfulness, David invited him to join his entourage and cross the Jordan River to move to Jerusalem. And Barzillai turns him down. He says to the king, I am eighty years old! It is time for me to go home and retire. What life is there for me in Jerusalem? I don’t want to go clubbing till four in the morning; I want to stay with my family and be buried where my parents are buried. Instead, I will send my son Chimham to go with you.
The Bible editors decided to title this story “David’s Kindness to Barzillai.” And okay, that’s not inaccurate, but anybody can see, this story is about Barzillai’s kindness to David— which David receives and returns until you can’t tell who started it. That’s how blessing works too.
The Bible tells us David let Barzillai go home, and gave him his blessing. And you and I know that means David got blessed by Barzillai. There’s no giving your blessing without getting blessing all over your own hands. That’s how blessing is like glitter.
Hundreds of years later, another old man named Simeon shows up at the temple to get a glimpse of baby Jesus. When Simeon sees the baby, he blesses him, and you know Christ blessed Simeon right back. Eighty-four-year-old Anna was there too. She was a prophet, and she took one look at that baby, and she knew. Oh how Simeon and Anna rejoiced! They just saw their dreams come true. They meant to bless baby Jesus, they went and got themselves good and blessed.
In case you ever wonder why an octogenarian would keep dreaming of the promise of God, that’s why. The dream could come true. Show up at the temple one morning, or at the crossing with the king, and you’ll come home later with all the songs of praise still ringing in your ears and glitter all over your hands.
The title of the story Ron read is “David’s Kindness to Barzillai” even though I would have called it “Barzillai’s Kindness to David.” Even though this story is really about the mutuality of blessing, I’m pretty sure I can guess the verse that we hear the loudest. Barzillai comes right out and says the thing many older adults fear. He asks David, Why should I be a burden to you?
In our world, it is difficult to reach the stage of older adulthood and not entertain the worry: But what if I become a burden? Even if I just retired and am nowhere near burdening anybody, what if this happens to me one day…
First, let me say. There is something reasonable about this fear. Part of growing older involves the diminishing of some abilities. That’s true. One day you really could need surgery, and you will need your son to use vacation time to come and stay with you afterwards. The day might come when you stop driving at night, or at all, and you really do need someone to give you a ride. You really could lose your mobility, or your memory, or your money, and need immense help. This could happen to any of us here.
If your deepest fear is that you might need help one day, well, live long enough, and you will need help one day. But oh my friends. Needing help doesn’t mean you’re a burden; it means you’re a human being. And that’s different. (Or it’s not all that different and there’s no being human without burdening each other, so maybe we should lean into it a little more and get good at it…) Of course, I know.
We live in a world that places tremendous value on self-reliance. We are shaped by the values that proclaim everyone should pay their own way in this world; nobody deserves a hand-out. In our pursuit of individual independence, we practice believing that there’s a problem with needing help.
I won’t say this about everything, but I will say, this is one area where the church knows better. In the church, there’s no shame in needing help because there’s nobody here who doesn’t need help.
Imagine if the church could lead the way in overcoming society’s obsession with self-reliance. We could show them what it looks like to be a community where we burden each other a little more, and help each other a little more, and move deeper into the flow of giving and receiving.
“Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Not so it’s tit-for-tat! Not so we help the people we’re related to by blood because of familial obligation, but as Lilla Watson said so famously, “because your liberation is bound up with mine, so come, let’s work together.”
Imagine if the church could be a place where when somebody says, “I need help” we believed them, where when somebody says, “I want to help. It’s no problem for me to pick up your grandchildren,” we believed them.
Here’s the thing. If we, as the church, manage to pull this off, if we create a culture where everybody needs help and everybody gives help, something happens to that question, “What if I become a burden?” It loses its potency. It becomes less frightening and whole a lot less interesting. Instead, older adults begin asking, “In this new chapter, what is my purpose? Who needs the help that I can offer?”
It is such a stealthy turn! You won’t even see it coming, but just like that, we switched the question from, “What if I need help one day?” to “What if somebody here needs my help?” Just like that the blessed become the blessing!
And look, I know how this might sound. Who does this thirty-eight-year-old think she is standing up here telling older people to shift their gaze toward serving others? That takes some nerve! All I can say, in my defense, is that I learned this from you.
At Church of Peace, older adults are leading the charge to serve those in need. Older adults work at our Food Pantry, keep the Book Nook going, lead PeacePals, serve as Deacons. Older adults demonstrate how playing music connects to caring for those in need. Older adults make quilts and casseroles; they call contractors; they set up and tear down tables and chairs. Again and again.
Older adults are leading by serving. They are leading our church by asking, “What is my purpose now? Who needs my help?” The thing about these questions, is there’s no way to ask them and not see some of God’s unfolding dream —for the neighborhood, for the church, for the world. Then there’s no way to see some of what God is dreaming and not expose that promise to the rest of us.
Please don’t miss the miracle. The older adults are teaching us how to see God’s dream for the world, how to see the merger where your dream and God’s dream rise up together. This begins by helping the person in front of you, then helping the next person, then the next one, then Behold.
Barzillai gave David his blessing before he turned back and went home. Anna prophesied, and Simeon’s eyes saw the salvation of the LORD, and you know baby Jesus got blessing all over them. Young women see visions and old men dream dreams. All the old people dream the dreams of God until all of us can see beyond ourselves and turn our gaze toward the promise of God’s kingdom —where everybody needs help, and everybody gives help— on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so.