19th Jun, 2005

The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

“So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

We find in our Scripture lessons today the word “father” and the theme of fatherhood, which is an interesting coincidence since the lectionary did not necessarily intend them to be read this day which is Father’s Day. As a preacher I usually do not base my sermons on either Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, convinced as I am that such days are inventions of a secular society whose greeting card companies and florists promote them as another opportunity to make a buck.

However, my curiosity got the better of me, so in doing a little research I discovered that the instigator of Father’s Day was a devout woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, who in 1909 while daydreaming in Church during a Mother’s Day sermon; decided to honor her father, a Civil War veteran and widower who raised her and her five siblings on his own. Her efforts paid off and the first official commemoration was June 19, 1910, and in time presidents endorsed the holiday and it was made an official U.S. holiday in 1972 by Richard Nixon; perhaps to distract us from the revelations another U.S. father, known to us at the time only as “Deep Throat” was leaking to the press.

Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, all preachers know, can distract us from the crisp message the Scriptures are attempting to convey to us through our week-to-week set lectionary texts. The lesson from Genesis is an extraordinary one to be read at Mass on Father’s Day! The son of Abraham, the great father of the faith, is cast into the wilderness to die. Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman who is the child’s mother, has run out of food and water. She lays the exhausted, parched, and famished boy under a bush and says, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” She then cries aloud and weeps.
This could be a scene from contemporary Dafur, Sudan, or from countless desperate places in our world today, where mothers and children are abandoned by fathers, by warring governments, by economic forces beyond their control, and sent out to many kinds of wildernesses to die.

Today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel is not much better. “I have come to set a man against his father,” Jesus declares. “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” These verses, which never fail to startle, with their “slash and burn” approach to family life, remind us that it is God’s world and God’s agenda: sword before peace, cross before comfort.

Our allegiances are not to human institutions but to the majesty and power of God who is making all things new. I venture to say that most of us are what we would consider “good citizens.” We keep informed, vote, pay taxes; we’re not murders, muggers, rapists, dope pushers. We try to be faithful partners and spouses, loyal friends, conscientious guardians to our animal companions, good parents to our children, ethical in our work, all-in-all basically good role models. But all our upstanding lifestyles and good citizenship are beside the point when measured against Jesus’ reckless imperatives involving swords and crosses.

Indeed our profoundly felt obligations to our families, jobs, country and all we have at stake temper our zeal for the radical commitment Jesus admonishes and render us cooperative citizens even though our society exhibits so much de facto atheism. The fact is, our worldliness leaves us hoping that Jesus’ grace will in the end overwhelm His demands. So let’s be honest, after all we’re all friends here, right? Most of us know in our hearts that we have no intention of fulfilling Jesus’ incredible demands: sell all, resist all temptations, take no heed for the morrow, leave one’s family, bear the cross. Our premeditated disobedience makes our claims to being Christian somewhat curious. How a cynic might delight in our liturgies that come stocked with prayers and confessions.

Often appeals to cheap grace are our attempts to follow Jesus. Thus we can consider ourselves “obedient” when in fact we are merely being guided by one or another set of worldly ethical agendas; admittedly some noble, while others are not. Christians have convinced themselves that they were following Jesus by joining a host of movements from the New Deal to laissez-faire capitalism, from Nazism to Marxism, from paternalism to feminism. Jesus can be made the champion of every cause.

In his story of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky charged that if Jesus returned to preach the Good News, His words would so unsettle the Church, which had compromised Jesus’ teachings to make them humanly bearable, that He would in the end be killed by the Church hierarchy. Of course, that’s a dramatic overstatement, but it is certainly thought-provoking.

The cliché that Christianity is an impossible possibility reminds us that despite our limitations and hesitation in following Jesus’ strictest demands, we can still be seekers and in our seeking at least be brought closer to God, if we uphold the Gospel integrity of love. As the collect of today’s Mass reminds us, it is God’s loving kindness which is the foundation of our lives.

For those of us with loving parents, it is through their example we know what it means for God to love us – to love us so much that He could not bear to let Hagar and Abraham’s child die in the wilderness. For those whose parents were not so loving, perhaps this action of God provides an example of care and security that can provide hope in desperate situations. God hears the cries of Hagar and the boy, sends them water and sustenance, and stays with them while the boy eventually grows and prospers.

So, Father’s Day can be a distraction from the Gospel unless we go hand in hand with our fathers, real or spiritual or symbolic or adopted into the heart of what God is calling us to do. Hand in hand with our fathers, we call to mind the Genesis story, and look at what is going on in the Sudan or South Central L. A. and countless other places in this battered and broken world, and resolve to be that angel of God who through the impossible possibility brings God’s gifts of water, sustenance and hope to a world that too often cries in despair.

Amen.

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