Sunday, June 20, 2010

Our Father

Here's a sermon I delivered on Father's Day three years ago. The lectionary readings are not the same today as they were that day, but it is about fathers.

June 17, 2007
sermon given at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, Washington

When I sat down to look at today’s lessons, I was shocked and amused to find this reading from the Second Book of Samuel. It reads like something from a soap opera. But we didn’t hear the entire story this morning, so please allow me to summarize.

King David, the greatest political figure in biblical history, is a peeping tom. It seems he has become intimately familiar with the bathing habits of Bathsheba, the wife of a soldier named Uriah. So while Uriah is out fighting on the battlefield, David calls Bathsheba to the palace. They have an affair, and Bathsheba gets pregnant. Well! How about that for biblical family values?

Naturally, David tries to cover this up. He calls Uriah back from the battlefield: “Uriah, how’s the war going? Splendid, splendid. Hey, you look like hell. Go home and take a break. I bet you miss your wife – wink wink, nudge nudge!” And he packs a royal feast for Uriah to share with his household.

But Uriah refuses to go home; he goes to the barracks instead. He may not be out on the front lines, but he’s still a soldier on duty, and propriety keeps him from enjoying his wife’s company. So David calls him back the next night and, intending to override Uriah’s sense of honor, gets him drunk. No dice. Uriah stumbles over to David’s couch and crashes there.

So David takes drastic measures: the next morning, he sends Uriah back to the war, all the way to the front lines, where the fighting is heaviest, and he orders all the soldiers to fall back on cue. But – oops! – it seems nobody ever told Uriah the cue. Uriah is left exposed and is shot full of arrows. Immediately, King David sends for Bathsheba and marries her.

Where was Ken Starr during the David administration?

Well, this is where the prophet Nathan steps in to point out David’s sin in the reading we heard today. Nathan uses a simple parable to judge the king’s actions. David is distraught that he could have done something so unconscionable, and he begs God for forgiveness. Bathsheba’s son is born, but almost immediately, the baby gets sick and dies.

Happy Father’s Day!

Fathers and sons … fathers and daughters … most of us have at least some memory of our fathers, and many of us have ongoing relationships with them. Hopefully, we respect them more than we respect King David in this story. But even if we never knew our biological fathers, we all have a concept of fatherhood. Priests often play this role in a person’s life, for good or ill. You could say Nathan was a father figure to David when nobody else could be. And all of us who are the least bit familiar with Christianity know this phrase: “Our Father, who art in Heaven …”

In his classic book Your God Is Too Small, the Rev. J.B. Phillips wrote: “The early conception of God is almost invariably founded upon the child’s idea of the father. If he is lucky enough to have a good father this is all to the good, provided of course that [his] conception of God grows with the rest of [his] personality. But if the child is afraid (or, worse still, afraid and feeling guilty because he is afraid) of his own father, the chances are that his Father in Heaven will appear to him a fearful Being.”

Phillips went on to say, “Christ Himself taught us to regard God as a Father. Are we to reject His own analogy? Of course not, so long as we remember that it is an analogy. When Christ taught His disciples to regard God as their Father in Heaven He did not mean that their idea of God must necessarily be based upon their ideas of their own fathers … It is the relationship that Christ is stressing.” The relationship is that God is “our superior [to the degree that] we are the superior of an infant child crawling on the hearthrug …”

As someone who is relatively new to fatherhood, I’ll paraphrase Phillips in this way: God is Daddy coming to your crib in the morning. He smiles, sings softly to you, picks you up gently and changes your diaper.

Fathers and sons … fathers and daughters … we learn how to love from our parents. In his book Good Goats, the Rev. Dennis Linn postulates: “God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.” But what if I have a deadbeat dad whom I’ve rarely met, who seems unable or unwilling to pay child support? How good can I possibly imagine God, my Heavenly Father, to be? As Keanu Reeves said in the movie Parenthood, “You need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car … you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any [expletive deleted] be a father.”

Then there are the good fathers whose very example is hard to live up to. My father is a perfectionist. I say that not critically but with admiration, because I, also, tend toward perfectionism. But having grown up with my father, I have also seen some of his biggest flaws in action. For years, I’ve worked hard at not falling into any of the same traps he did. So imagine my shock when I realized a few years ago what I was really saying to myself: “My father tries to be perfect, so I’ll be perfect, too … only more so!” Dad, if you’re listening to the podcast … I love you. Happy Father’s Day. Forgive me.

For many of us, God is the Big Daddy who holds us up to impossible standards, and from whom we must seek forgiveness. Thank God for Jesus, who demanded that we do better, but who did not demand perfection. Jesus reminded us that God wants a relationship with us: a relationship of mutual caring, a relationship of authenticity, a relationship that brims with forgiveness simply because it is all about love.

So Jesus is at dinner with the richest and most powerful religious figures of his day. And a woman crashes the dinner party. The text says she was a “sinner.” What might this mean? A prostitute? (Yes, I know your mind went there first!) Well, even Jesus assures us in this passage that this woman has done some pretty awful things. She is an outcast – she is ritually unclean. And that means that anyone she touches, no matter how law-abiding he might be, will then have to go and perform certain rites to be allowed into the temple again. It’s the kind of thing that can throw off your whole weekend.

So the host of the party, Simon, is shocked—shocked—that Jesus allows this woman to touch him. And she doesn’t just touch him: she wets his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and smears ointment on them.

We don’t know anything about this woman’s father, but we do know something about her culture’s father figures, the Pharisees. All her life, she’s heard them pronounce that God despises her because of her sins, and that He always will. It is not the fault of Judaism; a simple reading of the Hebrew Scriptures could tell her God loves her, if she could only read. No, this is an issue of power—of the wealthy few living a comfortable life at the expense of women like her.

Then Jesus came along saying just the opposite of the Pharisees: that God forgives sinners. He was merely referring us back to the Scriptures again, but he was going a step further. He spoke about God’s forgiveness with such fatherly authority that he sidestepped the usual religious channels. This woman had heard all about Jesus, and she knew that if she could just touch him, he would understand.

Jesus showed us what a good father is really like: a living icon of God the Father. The example of Jesus can banish the ghosts of all our human fathers. Again, in Your God Is Too Small, J.B. Phillips wrote, “For all we know there many have been many of [Jesus’] hearers whose fathers were unjust, tyrannical, stupid, conceited, feckless, or indulgent.” The Pharisees could certainly have been accused of a few of these things. But Jesus redeemed the father-son analogy.

We human fathers do the best we can based on our image of God. If our image of God is warped, so will our parenting be. But if our image of God is refined by patience, gentleness, and forgiveness, our children will learn something about what God is really like. And we have Jesus as the example that both fathers and children can check themselves against.

In 2004, pop singer John Mayer gave us these lyrics:

Fathers, be good to your daughters/
Daughters will love like you do/
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers/
So mothers, be good to your daughters, too.


1 comment:

  1. And this was three years ago. What fine work must you be doing now.