June 20, Father´s Day
Resurrecting God the Father, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, June 20, 2010, Father’s Day
It's Father's Day, and it's interesting - if not ironic - to note that the movers and shakers in most local churches are not fathers, but mothers; not men, but women. Sorry guys!
Out-numbering men, 60 to 40 percent, women are the heart and soul of the church. The ratio in some cases may run as high as 7 to 1. Even in churches that ordain only men, the inner circle of laypeople who actually run things is mostly . . . you guessed it—the women.
This is not late-breaking news. People who lament "the feminization of the church" have got to be careful. It is nothing new.
Leon Podles writes in his book, The Church Impotent, that "every sociologist, and indeed every observer, who has looked at the question has found that women are more religious than men."
Podles continues, “Men say they believe in God about as often as women do, but they attend church much less frequently than women, and they engage in private religious activities far less often. Most studies indicate that males are really less religious than females, and this appears to be true for all the Christian churches, denominations and sects in Western civilization”.
However, Podles does not establish any correlation between the feminization of God and the decline in male participation in church. Still, perhaps it's time on this Father's Day, to take a fresh look at God the Father. If we've lost the masculine side of God, perhaps it's time to resurrect it.
Talk like this makes some people squirm. After all, we're in a culture that is concerned about inclusive language. Even some churches have feminized their reference to God so as not to lock God inside a masculine box.
Today's passage from Luke tells the story commonly called "The Prodigal Son." Of course, since Jesus himself didn't give a title to this tale, it might also be called the parable of "The Lost Son," or "The Waiting Father," "The Loving Father, "Joy and Repentance" or "The Prodigal and His Brother." There are multiple characters and themes in this popular parable, and each is present with equal force and focus.
We all know the story. The young hothead is arrogant and self-centered. He thinks he can sell space heaters in Sinai. Now he asks for his share of his father's estate, in advance of his father's death, a request that would have been a terrible insult to a patriarch in the ancient Near East.
Of course, he returns home, humbled and acquiescent. And this is where we could run into problems interpreting the father’s role. Because we have developed a flat, one-dimensional "macho man" concept of fatherhood, we expect that if this father is true to his male genes, he'll both bar the gates and send his scoundrel son packing, or at the very least, he'll give him a job hosing the horses and let him live with his servants.
That is the expectation of his older, very macho brother. Come on, Dad, give him what he deserves. He's got it coming.
The father doesn't act that way, and in fact, behaves in quite the opposite manner, showing tenderness, forgiveness and mercy.
Ah ha, we might say! The father, as an image of God, has feminine characteristics. Let's embrace the motherhood of God because, after all, God is not just stern, harsh and unrelenting - like typical human fathers, but caring, loving, and forgiving - like typical human mothers.
Really? Says who?
Scripture offers a view of God as Father and it depicts him using a metaphorically wide-range of human emotions. To argue that we need to reject the fatherhood of God as a useful metaphor, because the word "father" evokes negative stereotypes, is naïve and theologically shallow.
In our text, we get a glimpse of God's full acceptance of those who rebel and return. It is full acceptance that comes even before the prodigal makes his confession. The story demonstrates just how committed God is to reconciliation.
Speaking of God in terms of gender assignment is merely an analogy or metaphor to help humans grasp the ineffable nature of God. But if one is going to assign gender to God at all (and Scripture does it frequently) it's helpful to remember that while Scripture does reference God in terms of the feminine, the gender-of-choice is regularly male.
As one who feels it is important to honor the original text, as God’s Word as well as profound literature, I believe Scripture is weakened by gender neutralized the entire text. I’ve tried reading it several times, and have not been helped by it.
The male metaphor emerges not just because of the paternalistic milieu in which the Scriptures were formed. God would not allow a defective image to portray his nature - whatever the cultural ethos. Biblical fathers, if they were true to their role, had hierarchical duties as the heads of families and clans to impose justice or show mercy. And they did both, as does God, and as we should as well.
Today, the role of fathers as the "head of the house" has been culturally eviscerated, and the theological notion of God as Father has fallen into disrepute. You have to admit in the theological and cultural ethos of the church today, it's very PC to diss the Father, and hug the Mother.
Masculinity misunderstood: It is a misunderstanding to see Jesus and the God he manifests as masculine simply because they are powerful and authoritative. While God and Jesus have the right to exercise naked authority and demand obedience from creatures, they do not.
In the Old Testament, God is shown as a lover and husband, stung by the infidelities of Israel. The prophet Hosea takes a whore as a wife, symbolically enacting the relationship of Yahweh and Israel. God's heart is somehow wounded by the failure of Israel to respond to his love.
In the New Testament, Jesus has no wife because his spouse is the church, redeemed humanity. His authority over the church is like that of a husband over his wife. Paul assumes the sacrificial nature of masculinity in the passage (Ephesians 5:21-31) that has so troubled feminists. He commands husbands to love their wives, as Christ loved the church, laying down his life for her. The husband has an obligation to imitate the divine Bridegroom, who sacrifices his life for his spouse. (Leon J. Podles, The Church Impotent (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999), 77.
Today is Father's Day, and we invite fathers to be true men in the model of God himself. We invite fathers to teach their sons what it means to be truly spiritual and what it means to have a deep connection with Jesus Christ. We ask fathers to renounce senseless violence and unbridled rage as being anti-male, and anti-God. Fathers, not mothers, are the key to strong and healthy families and offer the best prospect for sons and daughters who will grow up to love God and be committed disciples of Jesus Christ.
This is not to say that single mothers can't raise their children beautifully. But countless studies confirm, that all things being equal, children growing up in homes with the biological fathers do better in life. And children with godly, spiritual fathers do even better.
The resurrection of God the Father may be a key to reconnecting men with the church, because it is often in relation to a good father that men discover how to be good sons. Jim Dittes, a professor of pastoral theology at Yale, holds up the image of the Son as a model for all men.
He makes the case that men are always looking for new life through death and rebirth - which is why they so often upset the settled routines of life, go on pilgrimages and adventures, change careers and commit themselves obsessively to work or play or sex, in a hope of finding new life.
Sounds a lot like the Prodigal Son, doesn't it? So many males, in various ways, have played the role of the Lost Son at one time or another.
But men ‘behaving godly’ can do so by taking a page from Jesus the Christ. Masculine spirituality frequently involves a struggle.
Jesus struggled throughout his life. In the struggle of the garden of Gethsemane, he confronted God the Father and wrestled with his will.
Jesus also struggled with temptation, with evil, with earthly opponents, with his own perplexed disciples - and he challenges us to enter into these battles as well.
Through it all, God the Father is with us. He is like the father in the parable, accepting us when we rebel and return, when we wander and repent. He is the God of Gethsemane, laying challenges before us, but never abandoning us in our struggles. He is the God of resurrection, bringing surprising new life to those who have suffered and died in faith. He is a strong and compassionate God, loving us with the passion of a deeply committed parent.
Richard J. Foster writes in The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, “What we often call the parable of the prodigal son might be more aptly called "the parable of the powerless almighty father." In the father we see the power that does not dominate, the power that patiently waits.
The parable is about God, of course: It is also a parable that was lived out in the life of Jesus. Look at him working patiently with stubborn, rebellious disciples. Look at him at his trial, speaking not a word. Look at him hanging on a wooden throne in total helplessness. These, I submit to you, are acts of spiritual power of the highest order. (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985), 204-205.)
The challenge for men, as well as women, young and old, is to respond to such a heavenly father, on Father's Day and every day. To be like the Prodigal Son and return to him. To be like the Waiting Father in the parable and embrace your own children. To support your families through years of difficult and often unpleasant work, as men have done for centuries. To struggle with God, with temptation and with evil, as Jesus did throughout his own life.
Ultimately, God cannot be limited to gender descriptions. I call it “kindergarten terminology” (i.e. analogy, metaphor, pictures with words) to describe what is humanly un-describable. Not only is God our Father, Mother, Divine Parent, but God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of all things—much beyond our human ability to describe or define. However, Scripture has chosen to honor God with one title as God the Father. Happy Fathers Day and God bless you. Amen.
Rev. Rosemary Stelz