HW in HI
When I look at today's Gospel reading, I have to wonder about the people who put
together the lectionary. I wonder whether they figured that from time to time we would
find ourselves reading, "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his
child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them put to death" on
Father's Day! Maybe they just thought it would be a good challenge for the preacher
I was listening to NPR this week, and they had a group of dads in, talking about the
pleasures and pitfalls of being a father. The fathers of the little ones, the 3 and 5 year
olds were glowing with a sense of their own fatherhood, their ability to help mold these
little creatures God has entrusted to them. The fathers of the ten year olds reported
struggling with difficult questions and tough decisions. The fathers of the teenagers
reported struggling. Period. Just struggling.
I want to ask a question. Would those of you here that feel you've been a good father
stand? Or maybe just put up your hand. How about those of us that feel we've had a pretty
Fatherhood is a tough job. It would seem, however, that most of you dads are doing
better than you thought you were. You might take comfort in the musings of Samuel Clemens,
also known as Mark Twain: "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."
There are a lot of stereotypes for dads out there. Television gave us Father Knows
Best, and a whole slew of competent and incompetent dads. Ben Cartwright on Bonanza
(anybody but me remember that?) was a strong father, filled with wisdom and good judgement
and compassion. Desi Arnaz in I Love Lucy and Fred Flintstone were bumbling incompetent
dads. The list goes on and on.
I believe we expect a tremendous amount from our fathers. We want strength when we are
struggling, words of encouragement when we fall. Safety from our enemies. Protection when
they overwhelm us. We want forgiveness when we fall short. And we want unconditional love.
It seems to me that sounds a lot like God, and not so much like a human father. I
wonder whether we have not set fathers up just a bit, expecting them to have the qualities
of God. It happens naturally enough. When we are five, after all, we think they are God.
When we get to about the age of ten, we figure out they really aren't, and we are sadly
We spoke a few weeks ago about Jesus crying, "Abba" which means father or
dad, when he talked to God. And so we understand God as the Father. And yet even more.
Which is to say Father with a capital F. God the perfect Father. Jesus called us to try to
be perfect, "Just as my Father in heaven is perfect." Because the Father in
heaven really does know all and see all. That is the father that is always there, never
failing us. The Father in heaven offers forgiveness and unconditional love. And that's the
goal of modern day fathers too. Most try so very hard to fulfill their roles. Some have
been so overwhelmed by the demands of fatherhood that they have left. Some never even
stayed around to see how things were going to turn out.
Fred Craddock is a well known homiletics professor. Which is to say he teaches
preaching. I think hes another Methodist. In any case, he was in Tennessee a few
years back: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on vacation with his wife. One night they found a quiet
little restaurant where they looked forward to a private mealjust the two of them.
While they were waiting for their meal they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired
man moving from table to table, visiting guests. Craddock whispered to his wife, I
hope he doesnt come over here. He didnt want the man to intrude on their
But the man did come by his table. Where you folks from? he asked
amicably. Oklahoma, they said. The man responded: Splendid state, I
hear, although Ive never been there. What do you do for a Living?" Fred told
him: I teach homiletics. This got the gentleman going. Oh, so you teach
preachers, do you. Well, Ive got a story I want to tell you. And with that he
pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with Craddock and his wife.
Craddock said he groaned inwardly: Oh no, here comes another preacher story. It seems
everyone has one. The man stuck out his hand. Im Ben Hooper. I was born not
far from here across the mountains. My mother wasnt married when I was born so I had
a hard time. When I started school my classmates had a name for me, and it wasnt a
very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and during lunch-time because the
teasing of my playmates cut so deeply.
What was worse was going downtown on Saturday afternoon and feeling every eye
burning a hole through you. They were all wondering just who my father was. When I
was about 12 years old a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and
slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had
to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in church on me. Just about the time I
got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking
right at me. Who are you, son? Whose boy are you? I felt the old weight come
on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down. But as he
looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition.
Wait a minute, he said, I know who you are. I see the family
resemblance. You are a son of God.
With that he slapped me on the shoulder and said, Boy youve got a great
inheritance. Go and claim it. The man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and
said, That was the most important single sentence ever said to me. With that
he smiled, shook the hands of Craddock and his wife, and moved on to greet the people at
another table. Suddenly, Fred Craddock remembered. Not so many years ago the people of
Tennessee had elected Ben Hooper as their governor
Most dads struggle and do a pretty great job, some disappear. But Ben Hooper had a
story to tell: the most important parentage is this: we are all children of God.
So what of the brother against brother and child against parent? In the early days of
Christianity those that followed Jesus risked persecution. Jesus warned them, he warns us,
to put God first. Parents can be wonderful. God is even more wonderful. But the call is to
put God the Father, God the perfect, front and center.
Perhaps it doesn't take great wisdom to figure out that if we expect our fathers to be
perfect, if we expect Ben Cartwright or Robert Young to come leaping off the television
screen into our homes and point out the path to perfect fatherhood, well, it's not going
to happen. But God in heaven does show us something of the model for perfect parenting,
something about always being there, and probably something about forgiving fathers that
haven't quite managed perfection just yet. And God in heaven says: let me be the perfect
father. So here's to all the dads: those whove raised their children, those who are
trying hard, and even to those who were so scared they left. In Christ, they, too, are all
sons of God. Amen.