God as father: Trinity Sunday and Memorial Sunday


Scripture: Psalm 103

St Patrick used the shamrock to explain the three Persons of the Trinity

We can legitimately think about God as Father today without feeling misogynistic. Why? This year, Fathers’ Day falls on Trinity Sunday, when we think about those three Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as in our opening hymn.  I hope that what I am about to say will not come over as too ‘preachy’. It is a statement of what I really believe about God.

The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus used the metaphor God as father when the disciples asked, “How should we pray?” He responded in the familiar words, beginning, “Our Father.” In Jesus’ native language, the word “Abba” was much less formal than Father, more like “Dad” or “Papa.” By using “Abba”, Jesus explained that the disciples should feel God as intimate, not remote. The pronoun “Our” also shows that sense of intimacy. Jesus did not pray to “My Father.” He included the disciples in the prayer. We continue to pray this way, both in church, and even when we when pray alone. “Our Father” reminds us that God as father is not just God as ‘my’ father.

The present Pope recently addressed a serious problem in the traditional words to the Lord’s Prayer. “Lead us not into temptation …” seems to imply that God leads us astray – surely not what Jesus intended! Francis suggested, “Let us not fall into temptation …” This makes it clear that God does not cause us to sin. This problem does not arise most Sundays at St. George’s because we use the words, “Save us from the time of trial …” The International Commission of English [liturgical] Texts approved this wording many years ago.

God as father means an idealized earthly father

Jesus’ metaphor is just one snapshot of a concept beyond human comprehension. Other pictures include shepherd, gardener, and judge. But today, our focus is on God the Father. So what sort of Father are we talking about? Scripture offers us two main threads. One is the judgemental God of the early Old Testament, beloved of many televangelists. This is the God of “Wait till your father gets home; he’ll deal with you.” He punishes people to the third and the fourth generation of those who do wrong. According to the Book of Revelation, God will sit in judgement on everyone at the end of time. Some will enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven. Others will have to endure the flames of hell for eternity.

Not all the writers of Hebrew Scripture described that vengeful god. The writer of Psalm 103 wrote of a God who forgives all our sins, and offers steadfast love and mercy. Like a human father cares for his children so, says the psalmist, God cares for us. “Just as a father is kind to his children, so the Lord is kind to those who respect him.” The psalmist gives the reason for God’s compassion. “He knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.”

The Christian story is the story of God’s love for us

An analogy for prayer is that the Lover meets the Beloved and says ‘I love you.’ I am not the lover, telling God, the Beloved, that I love him.  God is the Lover, telling me, the Beloved, that he loves me.  It is exactly the formula that the heavenly voice used at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Thus, God tells each of us, “You are my beloved son/daughter, and I love you.”

Simply put, the heart of the Christian story is the story of God’s love for us.  Its corollary that therefore we should love one another. Like Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, 500 years later, the author of Psalm 103 imagined God as an idealized earthly father. Although earthly fathers cannot possibly live up to the ideal, we see him with the child on his knee, or pushing the stroller in the park. This father reads stories to the children at night, helps them with their homework, teaches them to fly kites etc. The human father wants the child to achieve his or her best. Likewise this image for God encourages us to do our best. This is a positive and progressive Christian theology that is very different from the stress on human sin and worthlessness.

God calls us beloved, not unworthy

I once took communion to an old lady who was a shut-in. We talked about her family, her grandchildren. Something prompted me to ask her, “What do you think that God thinks of you?” Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, “Well, I’m a sinner.” I said that we had just said the Lord’s Prayer in which we call God, “Our Father.” Did she criticize her grandchildren all the time? “Oh no,” she said, “I would never do that.” “So,” I said, “why do you think that if God is our heavenly Father, he would be criticizing you all the time?” There was a silence of several seconds. Then she said, “You know, I’ve never thought of that.” My point is that the Church had basically brainwashed – or even abused – this poor soul for eighty years, all the while implying that she was not worthy of God’s love.

I don’t want to be pollyanna-ish and pretend that we never do anything wrong, or that there isn’t evil in the world. But I ask you to consider whether there really is anything in your lives that God would find unforgivable. Our journey through life is a voyage to learn the difference between right and wrong, between the beautiful and the ugly. We may not have arrived, but surely we can hope that we are on the way. That’s why I said some weeks ago that we do not make our weekly Confession to express our unworthiness. I truly believe that God wants to encourage us to be the best we can be. God says to us, in effect, “Try to do better next time.”

This is also our Memorial Sunday

Our cemetery provides a beautiful resting place

I have talked about the intersection between Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day. But there is another intersection today: Father’s Day and Memorial Sunday. Most of us here are old enough that we have lost to death many friends and family members, including fathers. But why have a memorial service? It’s not a question of being morbid. The relatives, friends, work colleagues … who went before us were part of our own stories. They were, and remain, threads in the tapestries of our lives. Although they don’t grow any more, those threads do not suddenly disappear because of death. That’s why today we remember the people who have been important in our individual stories, whether they are laid to rest in this cemetery, or somewhere else.

Finally, a request

Bishop John Spong wrote that when he encounters people who do not believe in God, he asks why.  The usual answer is that God is vengeful and judgemental. To this, he replies, “I don’t believe in that god either.” So on this Fathers’ Day, I ask you to do something specific. Please say goodbye to the angry judgemental God in your hearts. Then replace him with the image of a God for whom you are the beloved. Our ‘Abba’, like an ideal human father, knows that we will all make mistakes, but loves us anyway. This God invites us, his family, to the communion table. He promises that if we admit to our failings they will be forgiven, because he wants us to be the best we can be.