This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.
The first reading comes from the Torah, the book of Genesis, chapter 22, verses 1-8:
‘After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.’
The second reading is an excerpt from a long poem titled “Seed Catalog” by poet Robert Kroetsch:
My father was mad at the badger: the badger was digging holes in the potato patch, threatening man and beast with broken limbs (I quote). My father took the double-barreled shotgun out into the potato patch and waited.
Every time the badger stood up, it looked like a little man, come out of the ground. Why, my father asked himself — Why would so fine a fellow live below the ground? Just for the cool of the roots? The solace of dark tunnels? The blood of gophers?
My father couldn’t shoot the badger. He uncocked the shotgun, came back into the house in time for breakfast. The badger dug another hole. My father got mad again. They carried on like that all summer.
Love is an amplification
by doing/ over and over.
Love is a standing up
to the loaded gun.
Love is a burrowing.
One morning my father actually shot at the badger. He killed a magpie that was pecking away at a horse turd about fifty feet beyond and to the right of the spot where the badger had been standing.
A week later my father told the story again. In that version he intended to hit the magpie. Magpies, he explained, are a nuisance. They eat robin’s eggs. They’re harder to kill than snakes, jumping around the way they do, nothing but feathers.
Just call me sure-shot,
my father added.
SERMON — “Dads to the Rescue”
Our Western cultural tradition has at least two ways of talking about fathers, and these two ways are represented by our two readings this morning. One way of talking about fathers is dramatic, big, astounding, and — a little bit crazy. The other way of talking about fathers is muted, down-to-earth, not very exciting, and a lot more realistic. Both these views of fathers have religious implications, but I hope to show that for our religious community, the second way of talking about fathers is probably going to be more productive for us.
Our Western religious traditions paint an ambiguous picture of fatherhood. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth tells us to think of God as an ideal father, fair and loving; but Jesus also tells his followers to abandon their human fathers to follow only their heavenly father. Within the pagan traditions as I have experienced them, men and maleness and fathers are respected, but the emphasis has been on the Goddess and motherhood, and sometimes fatherhood is pushed off to the side. In our own congregation, we see a higher attendance on the Sunday of Mother’s Day than we do on the Sunday of Father’s Day. Not that anyone is bad-mouthing fathers in any of these situations — but it does seem to me that we don’t quite know what to make of fathers; or what to make of men when you come right down to it.
These ambiguous feelings towards fathers get summed up in the rather peculiar story of the time when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. What a dramatic story it is!– Abraham has Isaac all ready to kill on the scrificial altar, and at the last minute God steps in and says to Abaraham, No you don’t really have to kill your son, this was just a test of your loyalty to me, and you passed the test. From a modern point of view, of course our first response to God’s request is something along these lines: You say you want Abraham to sacrifice his son, but then it’s just a loyalty test? –what, are you crazy?! And then we stop ourselves and realize that perhaps Abraham felt that his relationship to God was like a father-son relationship, and what do you do when your father asks you to do something crazy? Loyalty to something big and abstract can be tricky indeed.
I’m afraid, however, that that takes me right back to my initial reaction: You want Abraham to sacrifice his son? –God, are you crazy?! Yet somehow I do admire Abraham for upholding his loyalty to God, there’s a little piece of me that admires Abraham for having the confidence in his God to know that somehow things will turn out all right. But then I think, How can God ask this of Abraham? –how can God ask this man to kill his son? Why does God need to test his children in this way?
If you want to engage in pop psychology, perhaps you could say that this story points up just how complicated the relationships between fathers and their children can be. It may be that this story, like so many of the old, old myths that have come down to us, carries in it a grain of truth; perhaps the grain of an uncomfortable truth: parents do test their children; parents are not as simple as the sentiments on greeting cards.
But there’s another way of perceiving fathers that’s not so flashy, yet it really is just as pervasive in Western culture. This other way of perceiving fathers is low-key, down-to-earth, and probably closer to reality. We can see this second way of perceiving fathers at work in the second reading, the poem about the father and the badger.
The poem starts off with a kind of cliche: father heading off to kill a marauding animal. But then he can’t stand to kill the badger. Finally, he shoots at the badger, but he still can’t stand to kill it, so he almost deliberately misses, and to his surprise he kills a magpie. In the end, though, he has to tell the story so that he meant to kill the magpie — in the end, it seems as though the father in the poem has to live up to what men in our culture are supposed to do and be.
Actually, I prefer to think that the father in the poem knows perfectly well what he’s done. He felt he should shoot at the badger, but he didn’t want to hit the badger; in that sense, his aim was perfect, perfect because he missed the badger. Now by chance, he happened to hit a magpie, but that doesn’t make his aim any less perfect, so when he says, “Just call me sure-shot,” he’s only telling the truth.
And this portrait of a father is far closer to reality;– at least far closer to the real world as I’ve experienced it. Fathers, like all human beings, are complex, fallible, wonderful beings, mixtures of good and less-good motivations, complex mixtures of highest ideals and random happenings. Waht we see in this anecdote is that the poet’s father influences him so very strongly, strongly enough that he writes a poem about it, through a series of small actions. For, as the poet says, “Love is an amplification/ by doing over and over.”
There is a theological point in all this. But it’s not the stereotypical kind of theological point. We get no insights into deep metaphysics; we get no revelations into the ultimate nature of God or the universe; we do not receive ultimate instruction in the meaning of life. Rather, this raises a theological point in my favorite area of theology, ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of how congregations work in real life, and also of the ideals to which congregations should aspire. I happen to be particularly fascinated by ecclesiology because it is a study of how human beings can be in practical community together while trying to uphold our highest ideals; and therefore I believe ecclesiology has implications for the wider society, as we try to figure out how to live out our highest ideals without making an utter mess out of life.
So let’s get back to fathers, and from there we’ll see how fathers fit into ecclesiology.
Fathers can have a huge influence in the lives of their children. Indeed, any man, even men like me without any children of my own, can have an influence in the lives of the young people in their immediately surrounding community. The real problem is that too many men choose not to influence the lives of young people. I see this in congregational life all too often: usually, only a few men step forward to teach Sunday school. One of the things I like about our congregation is that half our Sunday school teachers this year were men.
One of the primary purposes of human life is to raise up the next generation. While parents have special responsibilities, we’re all charged with that task. In our Western culture, women have been pretty good at nurturing young people; but it does seem to me that we men don’t have such a well-defined role. Maybe it’s the influence of stories like God and Abraham and Isaac — who wants to be that kind of father-figure? I’d rather be like the father who doesn’t shoot at the badger, even if I wish he didn’t brag about killing the magpie.
Recently I’ve been looking around, and it seems to me that there are large numbers of young men who are adrift in the world, young men in their teens and early twenties. They’re just floating along, nobody has taught them how to use a compass, in fact nobody has so much as given them a compass, so they’re directionless; so they live their lives with no other purpose than playing video games, or getting drunk, or some other essentially pointless task. Some of these young men founder: they join gangs and get killed, or they wind up killing someone else; or they drift from job to job and never really get anywhere. If these young men were literally adrift — if they were literally drifting in small boats on the ocean — the Coast Guard would come out and rescue them. But no one is coming to rescue these young men.
I don’t know about the other men here this morning, but I know I did my share of drifting when I was in my teens. But mostly, I was fortunate in having a father and lots of other men around me who took me seriously, and helped give me direction. Mostly, they helped give me direction by showing me how to work. You may want to tell me that there are better ways to give a young man direction than by just showing him how to work, and you’re probably right; but at least knowing how to work kept me from sliding into too many video games, or too much drink, or something equally pointless and time-wasting, like joining a gang.
I’d like to think it would be better if my religion could have given me some direction, but just as Western religion is a little too ambiguous on what it means to be a father, it’s a little too ambiguous on what it means to be a man. Jesus is a fine role model in a limited way, but nothing in our religious tradition religion tells us whether or not Jesus had children, and if he did what kind of father he was; nothing in our religious tradition tells us what Jesus was like when he was working in his father’s carpentry shop, whether he was good with the tools or not; nothing in our religious tradition tells us if Jesus was married, and if he was what kind of marriage he had and how he treated his spouse. It’s very fine that we are told how Jesus preached and taught; but preaching and teaching about religion is the center of most men’s lives. Sure, we are concerned about the ultimate questions in life, and we appreciate Jesus’s responses to those questions. But as a man, I would feel better about Western religion if Jesus could be a role model for the concerns that I face every day.
I do a little better with Moses, although his marriage doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly good. Moses as a role model is more helpful to me, on a day-to-day basis, than Jesus. But even Moses isn’t quite good enough. I look for good male role models, and I just don’t seem to find them in the religious scriptures of our Western tradition.
Where I have found good male role models has been in local congregations. One of the things I liked about going to church when I was in my teens was that there were plenty of men who took me seriously. I remember lots of men who would speak to me, not as an equal, maybe, but as someone worthy of respect; for example, when we were ushering together, one man once told me why he still thought of himself as a Universalist, fifteen years after the merger with the Unitarians; that he would talk to me about serious topics, treating me as full human being, meant a lot to me. Other men talked to me about their careers, even about their disappointments. And the men at church held me to high standards, mostly by the examples they set with their own lives. By taking me seriously, they showed me that I too could follow their example and become a man who lived a life worth living, that I could accomplish something, that I could learn the self-control to become one of them.
Our religious scriptures tend towards the dramatic exciting stories that don’t seem to apply to daily life; but our congregations can be places where men can learn practical living from each other by example. And one of the things we can learn from each other, here in our congregations, is how to reach out to and mentor younger men out in the wider world: fathers with young sons can learn this from older men who have been through it already; and the rest of us can learn how to reach out to young men in the workplace or in the community, to nephews and other relations.
Our congregation should be a place where we figure out how to lives the best life possible, where we figure out how to become the best human beings we can become. Our own congregation is, in large part, that kind of place. And we have to figure out how to reach out to each other; how to extend that helping hand to someone else if that’s called for; or how to be a role model, when that’s called for. That’s true for all of us, men and women, of all ages. Our congregation is supposed to be a place where you can come if you’re feeling adrift, and where someone will at least hand you a metaphorical compass so you know what direction you’re headed in.
And I want to propose this as a good religious model for fatherhood: that a father is someone who can help us find direction when we’re feeling a little adrift. In extreme cases, a father can be like the Coast Guard coming in to rescue someone from a life raft after the ship went down, to rescue and get that person back to shore.
I also want to suggest that father-figures don’t have to be your actual father. As we know from the story of Abraham and Isaac, sometimes fathers can do some pretty stupid things. Sometimes you need a father-figure to rescue you from your actual father. That’s an extreme situation, but I also want to suggest that it doesn’t hurt for young men to have more than one father-figure in their lives. All fathers are going to be limited, fallible human beings, just like the father in the poem who misses the badger and hits the magpie, and later claims he meant to hit the magpie when we know he meant no such thing. So it’s not a bad idea for young men to have lots of men whom they can turn to if need be. We also know from the example of the Coast Guard that when they take on a rescue at sea, they don’t send in just one person, they send in a rescue team. Rather than just having one dad come to the rescue, we want to have multiple dads who are able to come to the rescue, if need be.
I keep telling you why this congregation is important, and here I am, giving you another reason why we need to have a strong, healthy congregation. But I feel an especial urgency about this reason. Young people are not treated well by our culture; too many young people lack meaning and direction in their lives; too many young people are allowed to go adrift. I can see this happening around me; and at the same time, I know from my own observation and from sociological studies that congregations like ours are quite good at providing support and direction for young people. Thus, there is a moral urgency to this task of keeping our congregation strong and healthy, so that we can support young people. We can make a difference in this area by committing ourselves to a steady course of small actions; for, as the poet says, “Love is an amplification/ by doing over and over.”
So this is yet another sermon where I exhort you to live up to our highest religious ideals; to live up, not to the dramatic stories in religious scriptures, but to live up to the ideals of a supportive, mentoring community. But of all the sermons I’ve preached this year, I think perhaps I feel most strongly about this topic: we need to look after our children and teens and young adults; in extreme instances, we need to be in a position to rescue young people who are adrift. And as this is my last sermon for you until August, that means you get to chew on this topic all summer long….