Readings: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Matthew 9:35-10:8
A little story for you today: “Dad, are bugs good to eat?” asked the boy.
“Let’s not talk about such things at the dinner table, son,” his father replied.
After dinner the father inquired, “Now, son, what did you want to ask me?”
“Oh, nothing,” the boy said. “There was a bug in your soup, but now it’s gone.”
And a few quotations too:
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”- Mark Twain
“The older I get, the smarter my father seems to get.” – Tim Russert
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads and fatherly figurers out there! I really relate to those quotes about how kids can come to appreciate their parents more as they get older. While my children are still teenagers, they are already showing that they appreciate all that I do for our family and it’s a great feeling that only makes me want to do more for them and grow our relationship further! Sadly, child-parent relationships are generally complicated and difficult to cultivate. Some of us have been privileged to enjoy meaningful and loving relationships with the father figures in our lives, others are still coping with the often-traumatic effects of negative or even abusive relationships.
God as ‘Father’?
This is why using paternal imagery for God can be both helpful and harmful to those using it. On the one hand, the Biblical writers, and especially Jesus himself, frequently refer to God as ‘Father.’ The ancient Hebrew people sometimes saw God in a fatherly way, caring for God’s children, providing for them in the wilderness, coming to their aid in times of need. When surrounded by threats, they found comfort in the idea that their God was mighty to save, taking great delight in them, quieting them with love, rejoicing over them with singing (Zeph 3).
The Aramaic word Jesus frequently used to describe God, Abba, had an intimate, almost child-like quality to it (something like ‘daddy’ for us) but also connoted a sense of respect lived out when the child does what the Father asks. Honoring one’s parents was a central tenant of Jewish thought and practice, and the term ‘Abba’ weds the responsibilities of the child to the intimate quality of this relationship.
What does ‘Father’ mean for you?
But what does ‘Father’ mean to you? When you address God as Father, in the Lord’s Prayer for example, is it comforting to think of God as a kind of father, or does your mind picture God as an impossible-to-please patriarchal figure?
One contribution of post-modern thought is the idea that meaning is contextually constructed. That is, our culture, education, personal life, etc. will colour how we view the world and how we interpret words and ideas. This notion brings me a certain hope as a Christian because I believe God is continually in the business of creating and re-creating, of forming and transforming, of wrenching life from death, and therefore God is a redeeming God. This means that meaning can possible be reconfigured as we find healing and hope in our faith in God.
God can use our pain and mysteriously turn it for good. Today’s Old Testament story is a good example of this. The story of Abraham and Sarah is a painful one in some ways. They were not able to have children, a pain that only would-be parents would understand. In their world, the women were predominately blamed for this (aren’t women blamed for everything in every age?!) So, I’m sure Sarah in particular, felt the pain of infertility. I really don’t blame her for laughing at the idea that in her old age she would give birth to a son. I wouldn’t blame her if it was a particularly bitter laugh. I also wish this story corrected the cultural assumptions of the day (that women were to blame for a lack of children and that their wombs simply needed ‘to be opened’).
Abraham as a Spiritual Father?
We would tell the story in a different way today for sure. But I what find hopeful is not simply the fact that God did eventually give them a son, for many of us do not receive answers to our prayers in such dramatic ways. No, what I am grateful for is that God would use their son to not only bless Abraham and Sarah, not only bless the Hebrew people that would descend from him, but that billions of people all over the world, across space and time, can find a spiritual connection to Abraham.
As I shared in the children’s moment, our tradition views Abraham as a ‘father in the faith.’ He is given as an example in both Testaments of the faithful follower of God who trusts in God’s promises, against all odds. Personally, I think he could be considered in this way regardless of whether he had a son with Sarah or not. Because whether God provided a miracle for him, Abraham committed to living a life of simply trusting in God. And so he is an example for all of us.
Jesus following in Abraham’s footsteps?
Jesus, of course, stands as the greatest example of what it looks like to trust in God, whom he considered to be his Father. And he would follow in Abraham’s footsteps in a sense by trusting in God’s promises and walking the path set out before him. His disciples would join him in this journey, and today’s gospel paints a picture of what this would look like for them. Remember, Jesus said he had to be about doing his Father’s business, and now he was passing on the responsibility to carry out that work to his followers.
What was this work? Proclaiming good news to those beaten down by unjust systems, bringing healing and comfort to the broken, and remaining faithful in the face of violent opposition. Jesus reminds them that they will not be able to provide for themselves (take no money or supplies with you) but God, their Father, will provide for their every need.
So, what can we take away from today’s celebration of fathers set alongside today’s scripture readings? I think we need to remember that the word ‘father’ can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It could stir painful feelings for some, and comforting memories for others. We need to be sensitive to these realities. And we need to be aware of what calling God ‘Father’ does for us. Does it draw us closer to God? Does it help us to picture God as a nurturer, provider, protector, educator and source of strength and hope? I do think we need to be careful about thinking of God as male, or of limiting terms like ‘Father’ to gender stereotypes. For both fathers and mothers possess the qualities I just listed.
I do know of some folk who find that calling God ‘Father’ has helped them heal from the trauma of abuses suffered in their youth. For them, God serves as a kind of Father they wish they’d always had. Others do not have this experience, so they might need to refrain from using this language in their spiritual lives. In both cases, they can be considered as following in the lineage of Father Abraham – placing their lives, including their hurts and pains, into God’s hands. And like the disciples, we may find that as we step out and take risks of faith, we don’t need to cling to our securities and self-preservation tactics, but may find nourishment, care, and provision in God who is both Father and Mother, and yet also so much more than these.
Thanks be to God.