We celebrate Father’s Day today and wish all fathers well in their continuing journey of raising their children – it is, after all, a life sentence
Father figures are important. The spiritual tradition we inherit was heavily weighted in favour of the masculine – there are 1153 father references in the Bible, nearly three times the number for mothers (404). So for centuries the church pretty much had Father’s Day every Sunday – by default. Only in recent years have we seen the emergence of a viable theology which comprehends God in both masculine and feminine terms and expresses more balance, without being dogmatic or defensive on either side of the equation.
For some, God as “father” brings to mind images and memories of power over – domineering – unchallenged assumptions, even abuse – to the point where we acknowledge that, on Father’s Day, while many are given the opportunity to express gratitude for their fathers, others are presented with an often unwanted opportunity, or obligation, to continue to work at understanding, healing and forgiving, which admittedly can take many years.
We have a strong tradition of calling God “father” which is rooted in Jesus’ reference to God as his Father. Jesus calling God “father” was not meant as a literal image but in order to convey/express something of the love and accessibility of God – the care and protection a good father would provide. It was an image which would have been well known by his first hearers, and was obviously a very welcome contrast to the concept of God then prevalent.
In the first reading this morning from Proverbs, the writer is portrayed as a father attempting to pass on wisdom to a son, which perhaps is intended as a metaphor for God trying to keep Israel on the right track. It’s interesting that the wisdom the young men are supposed to strive for is portrayed as feminine – Sophia, the wisdom of God.
In the second reading today, St Paul, also rooted in those concepts of a God personalized as Father, is striving to establish a fatherly pastoral relationship with the church at Corinth – an early reference to the “father in God” concept of ministry. For him the concept of God as father is the model upon which ministry is based.
John Inge, the Bishop of Winchester in the Church of England, in an article about the importance of celebrating Father’s Day for the Church, said this:
“I have always believed in my head that God loves me unconditionally but it was only when I became a father myself that I began to understand it with my heart. From the moment when I first set eyes on my first child, now aged ten, my love for her was so immediate and strong that I would have done anything to protect her – and still would. And that set me wondering about the love of God: if I, with all my faults, could love like that, then maybe I could understand in a new way how it is possible for God to love me like this.”
I think Jesus’ portrayal of God as Father comes from two sources:
The first is rooted in his experience of his earthly father Joseph, who is too often portrayed as old and feeble. I saw a Nativity Set in a gift store recently and poor Joseph was looking positively anemic, much like a poster boy for erectile dysfunction, which obviously diminishes any sense that Joseph was a man in any real sense, and shows himinstead as merely a kind of custodian. This view may have supported the later understanding of Mary being a perpetual virgin, but to me it’s an unfortunate symptom of the Church’s awkwardness around the issue of sexuality in general. Joseph may have been somewhat older than Mary, but in my view, Jesus had a very strong and positive earthly father image as well, so in my view, Jesus was well mentored by both a man and a woman.
On another level, Jesus’ image of God as Father is connected to his deep mystical connection with the Spirit. Jesus is portrayed over and over as having a very direct connection with God, and rather than emphasize the transcendence or omnipotence of God, Jesus used the very down to earth and familiar term of father, and told stories like the Prodigal Son in order to convey his understanding of how God relates to wayward and fallible human beings.
Author Jodi Picoult, in Vanishing Acts, wrote: “I suddenly remember being very little and being embraced by my father. I would try to put my arms around my father’s waist, hug him back. I could never reach the whole way around the equator of his body; he was that much larger than life. Then one day, I could do it. I held him, instead of him holding me, and all I wanted at that moment was to have it back the other way.”
I remember how suddenly small my father looked as he came to Calgary to visit a few years ago – a sudden realization that the Dad who had loomed so large in my life was now small and fragile and looked a bit like a kid himself as he shuffled into the big city airport that was strange to him.
As a priest I have often been called Father, and I have been called Padre (which means the same thing), but there is nothing as wonderful as how it felt to be called “Daddy” by my children – to carry them on my shoulders, to hear their stories and adventures, and to contribute to their happiness. I got to be a Dad – it’s one of the most significant things about me, perhaps the best thing I ever did or ever will do. Now that is gone (certainly the carrying on the shoulders part!), but the memories are there, for each one of us, because we did have the kind of time that allowed real stuff to happen, and real connections to be made.
In his book, Achieving Success Without Failing Your Family, Paul Faulkner describes the decisions of an insurance executive. Speaking at a businessmen’s convention, the man stressed the importance of being a father first. The man’s daughter was in the audience.
…in the middle of his talk he had turned to her and asked, “Sweetheart, do you remember the time I won the million-dollar roundtable three years in a row?”
And she said, “No, Dad, I don’t think I do.”
And then he asked, “Well, do you remember when we used to have those Dairy Queen dates?”
And she said, “Oh, yes!”
And then he turned to the audience to make the point that daughters don‘t remember when you sell a million dollars worth of insurance, but they do remember your special dates. (from Max Lucado’s A Good Dad Makes Godly Decisions )
When my kids were in their teens I developed a policy of thinking of conversations with them in terms of talking to a 45 year old – aware that everything we say to them as children will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It helped.
I have talked to so many children – children who are now 70 years old themselves – as they recount the moments that mattered in their relationships with their parents. It’s almost always something that simple, but you have to invest in it, and as parents we have the choice as to whether we have a real or a token relationship with our children, with others, and with God.
I remember a coffee cup that said “Any man can be a father. It takes someone special to be a Dad.” Today is about those men who not only fathered children but became Dad to their children, and fathered them in a way that gave them a real lease on life.
We all know that the day must come when the Wizard of Oz must come out from behind the curtain. As we inevitably grow beyond our parents, we grow out of our early relationship with God too. Most of us pictured God the Father as a larger than life figure, but still just a magnification of some fatherly or grandfatherly figure we knew. And yet, ironically, though the God we were introduced to in Sunday School may fade away, as we continue to grow into a deeper and more informed faith, through new understanding and adult spiritual practices, the reality of God actually seems to get bigger, and more comprehensive, as we begin to embrace the larger world and our place in it.
Part of the role of fathers has been to expand our world beyond the nest, which is part of the way we realize the Gospel imperative to “love our enemies.” If our world remains small, the world out there remains mysterious, frightening, and threatening, like an enemy, whereas direct contact and experience in an expanding world helps us get past childish phobias and prejudices. Enmity is usually rooted in ignorance and prejudice.
As theologians like Mary Daly have shown us, we have moved beyond God the Father in many ways, and we are finally taking apart the mystique behind male domination which is often merely a disguise or justification for bullying. Of course, we now realize that women are the superior sex, but that doesn’t mean that the moral, spiritual and intellectual development of boys has suddenly become irrelevant! And the image of father needs to be redeemed and included as we evolve into deeper understandings of the full nature of the God we worship and serve – to exclude it being no better than excluding all references to women or mothers or whatever.
Jesus used the image of father as a way of helping people see God in more familiar terms, helping people to love God and to know that they are loved – rather than merely to fear God, or to think about God, as a substitute for relating to God in a more dynamic way.
Today’s Gospel says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” According to the teaching of Jesus, the clue to being a good father is to model one’s life upon that of God the Father, whom Jesus describes as being all about love. Through stories like the Prodigal Son, Jesus taught that we can always turn to that Father in confidence that we are loved. Today we celebrate fathers who have chosen to love and understand, protect and encourage, in the way the God of Jesus does.
To quote Bishop Inge again: “I have never known a love quite like the love of being a father and I rejoice in the great gift of fatherhood. I rejoice in it because of my children, to whom I am devoted. But I also rejoice in it because it helps me to understand more profoundly how God loves me, and how nothing can separate me from that love. Let’s celebrate Father’s day in our churches, honouring those fathers who have shown us something of God’s love, praying for fathers to be given strength in their crucial role and remembering that God, who is our Father in heaven, loves us more than we can grasp.”
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Proverbs 4: 1—10 Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain* insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favourite, 4 he taught me, and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. 5 Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth. 6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. 7 The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight. 8 Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her. 9 She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.’
Hear, my child, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many. I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. 12 When you walk, your step will not be hampered; and if you run, you will not stumble. Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.
2 Corinthians 1: 1—7 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation,4who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.5For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.6If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.7Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.
Matthew 5: 43—48 You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.