Fathering Sunday

A Sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Franciisco, on March 31, 2019, by Christopher L. Webber.

There is a wonderful, old English custom called “Mothering Sunday.” It started In the Middle Ages when boys were often sent out at a very young age to learn a trade as an apprentice. It wasn’t an easy life but once a year they were given a weekend off to go home and see their parents and the weekend on which this happened was the one on which the Sunday epistle spoke about “Jerusalem above” who is our mother. It was the original Mother’s Day; long before Hallmark cards were ever invented, and it gave the whole concept of motherhood a deeper and theological meaning.

Motherhood is not just cards and flowers and apple pie; it connects with a deep imagery about ourselves and our eternal destiny.

So here we are celebrating the day when the apprentices came home to mother and now the assigned readings gives us as a gospel with the story of the Prodigal Son who is welcomed home by his father. Where was the women’s movement when they did that? And yet, when you stop to think about it, isn’t it curious? Suppose I were to tell you a story about a young man who took the inheritance and went off to Washington and wasted his money on wine, women, and song and then came home seeking forgiveness. Now, who would you expect would be willing to forgive and forget, welcome him back and cook up a huge feast with his favorite recipes? Who would do that: his mother or his father? Which would you expect? And yet the gospel story never mentions his mother; it’s the father who is filled with compassion and runs to meet him and prepare a feast.

Let’s look a little deeper.

The word for compassion is a very simple and obvious one in Hebrew: it is simply the plural form of the word for womb. The womb, the place of protection and growth and life is the obvious image of compassion. As the heart symbolizes courage and the head is wisdom, so the womb is compassion, and you might say that makes it a feminine virtue. Logically, we might expect the Prodigal Son’s mother to be the one to show compassion.

But look deeper still. Go back to that critical moment when Moses stood before God on Mount Sinai and asked for God to be revealed and God proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious . . .” (Exodus 34:6) God is known first of all as a God of compassion of which the womb is the symbol.

Then look at the last chapter of Isaiah and you will find a God who nurses Israel at the breast and dandles Israel on her lap and comforts Israel as a mother comforts a child. That’s not a passage we often read, but that, too, is part of the biblical picture of who God is.

We are learning a lot these days about what it means to be masculine or feminine. Oddly enough, at the very time when we are moving toward gender equality in the work place, in opportunity in every aspect of society, at this very same time researchers are finding (there are frequent articles in magazines and newspapers) that the male and female brain operate differently, that men and women respond in different ways in areas as different as the emotions on the one hand and solving mathematical problems on the other. Equal, yes, but different all the same and only now are we beginning to understand how different and why. And as a result, maybe – just maybe – we will begin to get a handle on the typically male pattern of aggressive behavior and learn better ways to channel it, and maybe – just maybe – we will allow men to show emotions more openly, yes, and maybe to be compassionate: more like the Biblical idea of God.

Have you ever noticed how often in the Old Testament the father figure is remote and uninvolved with his children? The story of Abraham and Isaac is a case in point: the father was even prepared to offer his son as a sacrifice. Or take the story of David and Absalom: David was the indulgent father, unable to say “no” to a son who finally saw no way get his father’s attention except by open rebellion. Again and again, we see fathers more concerned with their own goals and ambitions than with showing compassion, getting involved, saying, “I care.” It’s no wonder the image of God as Father never occurred to anyone until Jesus put it at the center of his teaching. It’s no wonder it still gives us a lot of trouble.

What image of God does a child have whose parents are divorced and whose father is a weekend visitor, compensating for absence by indulgence, married, perhaps, to someone else who has no interest in the child? Worse yet, how many children today grow up in one parent homes and maybe never know who their father is. Even in the so-called traditional home what image is provided when the child misbehaves and the mother says, “Wait til your father gets home”? The father becomes the avenger, the disciplinarian, the judge. How will children think of God when these are the images provided to them of fatherhood? What will the Lord’s Prayer mean to them?

I think we need to notice that Jesus never said “God is like your father.” He said that fatherhood can reveal God. But it’s a dangerous metaphor. It can destroy our faith. Worse still, it can destroy your child’s faith. But it can also hold up for us a vision of what fatherhood can be. It can give us an image of the potential in that relationship. And it can give the human father a role model better than those the television screen or the movies ever provide. This is what God is like. This is what true fatherhood can be.

So Jesus told this story, but why do we call it “The Prodigal Son”? A better title might be “The Compassionate Father.” It’s a story that suddenly brings into sharp focus all those Old Testament references to a God of compassion and mercy. It’s a story that reveals God as father by revealing the feminine side of God; a story that challenges us to rise above stereotypes and inherited patterns of behaviour and look again at the roles we play and the transforming biblical vision of God.

Heaven and earth cannot contain our God, nor is any metaphor, any image, adequate. Our God is a rock and a wind and a consuming fire; our God is just and compassionate and faithful. Our God comes to us in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the altar. Our God is like a father whose compassion is like the compassion of a mother toward her child.

1 Comment

Lesley HayApril 14th, 2019 at 3:17 am

Love this Chris. Great insightful modern take on a story so familiar that your fresh examination prompts much wider layers of thought.

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