Posted by: owizblog | March 10, 2013

The Fatherly, Mothering Love of God: Mothering Sunday Sermon, UCB, 10 March 2013

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This is going to be an odd sermon. And those of you who just said, even just in your heads, “In this church aren’t they all?” – I know who you are, and I’ll speak to you afterwards! It is going to be odd, not just because the Gospel reading comes in the middle of it, but especially because it’s Mothering Sunday, and I’m going to spend a lot of time speaking about fatherhood. Here’s my problem, you see. How do we talk of God the Father, on Mothering Sunday? Or to turn it round – how, on Mother’s Day, shall we speak of the God we’ve been taught to call Our Father?

Some quick thoughts to get us started on a story we all know, which we’ll hear in a few moments, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

bust-on-a-pedestal-at-the-old-national-gallery

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I hate being in a room which has in it things on pedestals; statues, busts, vases. Pedestals are there to defy the law of gravity, and I’ve a long history of accidentally helping gravity get her own back by knocking things on pedestals – or tables, or shelves – over. I know that a human being on a pedestal is just waiting to be brought crashing down.

Heroes are to do with pedestals – and also with frameworks.

networks

Heroics are deeds which make sense in a particular cultural framework, in the setting of a particular community or society. It is possible for someone to be a hero to just one person, but usually, people are heroes because they fit into social moulds, and shared understandings of what people should be, of what a society thinks it’s good for someone to be.

That said, I do have people I admire. One of them is John Glenn, American hero, astronaut, one of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts,the first American in space, and the second man to orbit the earth.

John%20Glenn%20being%20inserted%20into%20the%20Friendship%207%20spacecraft%20on%20the%20day%20of%20his%20launch%20February%2020%201962

John Glenn orbited the earth seven times in a space capsule so neat that they spoke of not so much getting into it as putting it on. And when he returned to earth, he was an American hero. Which meant that his heroic deed was fitted into the pattern of manly heroics – and I do mean manly – that his society understood, with rules of heroics that he had to conform to. Matter-of-fact, understated, cheerful strength. A sense of confidence in what he had done, and what else he could do, if called upon to do it, which was demonstrated just exactly in not boasting. And his family – his folks, his stock – were expected to be the kind of people (people like us, the American TV audience would say) who bred heroes, or at least men who could rise to heroism should it be demanded of them.

And so on his return to Washington, he was greeted at Andrews Air Force Base by his parents.

The voiceover – a resonant American oratorical voiceover – is fascinating:

“Mother and son share a warm embrace!”

“Father and son exchange a manly handshake… “

That’s what’s expected of heroes, and their families, in mid-twentieth century America. That’s the pattern that father and son had to fit into.

Handshake+Hug_+Quite+awkward_9d75b9_3461728

The pattern’s changed.

But there’s still a pattern. Or, rather, there are patterns…

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And here’s another story of fatherhood.

I used to watch Top of the Pops quite regularly. By the time I’d got to my thirties, I wasn’t watching it so much because of the music; music had moved on. I had started to find myself saying “That’s not music!” – by which I meant “not the music of the seventies” which is still, for me, the standard by which all pop music is judged.

In the order of things, I became a dad a year before I became the father of a daughter. I’d always said to myself that if I were blessed with a daughter, I would bring her up to know that my daughter could do anything any man could do!! After all, I was the laid-back, liberal new man of a nineties enlightened, tolerant dad, was I not?

And there she lay, about six weeks old, in the crook of my arm, as I watched Top of the Pops.

And a group called Colour me Badd came on. I’d seen – and smiled at – lots of self-designated wannabe bad boy pop stars before. That was just a measure of my capacity to be tolerant and liberal – and smug about it! But this lot turned my defences. I don’t know what it was about them, but they really got to me!

angry-homer

That’s not true. I know what got to me. I had my baby daughter in my arms.

And to my wife’s astonishment, I sat bolt upright, pointed at the screen, and growled “If anything like that ever shows up at my manse, asking for my daughter, I’ll…” I won’t shock you with the cold threats that followed.

Here’s something we need to grasp this morning. All ways of picturing God are ways of picturing God. They aren’t God. When we start worshipping our ways of picturing God in the place of God– well, there’s a name for that. It’s called idolatry.

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There are ways of picturing God that make him into the kind of severe father he’s depicted as so often, in parodies of Christianity, but also, monstrously, by Christians. But we need to remember, too, that lots of words that we think are self-explanatory, and use that way – community, family, leadership, following, mother, father – are not words that mean the same thing to everyone. Some people will have had complicated experiences with any one or more of these conceps – and will have big, and understandable, problems with them. If we insist on using words that we think are plainly good, and straigntforward, we don’t just make things complicated for some people. We run the risk of using language that gets between them and God.

I’ll say it again. All ways of picturing God are ways of picturing God. They aren’t God. When we start worshipping our ways of picturing God in the place of God, there’s a name for that. It’s called idolatry.

And Jesus’ story, which we hear now, is all about the gentle smashing of an idol that can get between us and God, because it’s the story of the smashing of a false image of fatherhood that nearly got between a boy and his dad.

prodigal-son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: Luke 15: 11ff.

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.

And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.

His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

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We understand fatherhood, in our culture, as to do with the way the world is. We understand fatherhood as being to do with the fact that the world is in lots of ways non-negotiable.

harsh world

We can wish that the world was very different to the way that it is. We could wish that it was fair, and kind, and full of niceness and honesty. We could wish that bad things didn’t happen, and not just the bad things that happen through human agency: us getting badly, or unfairly, or hurtfully treated. Bad thngs like accidents, and illness, and tragedy, that just do happen. And they do just happen, because the world doesn’t cut us slack.  It isn’t like that. We understand fatherhood as what teaches us to face up to that – to our responsibilities, to what we have to carry on doing even when “the world is rough”, to negotiating, and dealing with things, and not just taking the hump when people and situations won’t just give us what we want.

Motherhood seems to us, in our culture, to be about different things. Motherhood is about acceptance, and unconditional love, and giving us back our place in the universe, when life has taken it away from us. Motherhood is about that protective place that we can return to, that we think about when we’re away from it, that gives our soul, or very being, an anchorage in things. Whereas fatherhood seems to be about teaching us to face up to things as they are, to things we can’t change, to the loss of things that are gone forever.

Think of the picture of the father in Jesus’ parable. And compare the picture of the father, with the picture the son has in his head as he sits in the pigsty and wonders if there’s a home he could ever go back to.

The boy thinks of his father, and imagines that he’s lost his father’s love and respect.

He’s wrong.

The boy thinks that if there is a place for him now, it can only be the place of a paid servant. There can’t be unconditional love, only the charity and kindness that’s conditional on him working for his place in his father’s house.

He’s wrong.

The boy comes back unsure of his reception, expecting to get his character and a severe lecture, in which he’s told his place. He’s wrong, because even as he tries to burble out his apology – the words he’s prepared in his head to tell his father what an idiot he’s been, how he knows how he’s betrayed everything his father tried to help him build in his life, how he knows what his father is going to say, must now say, and agrees with him in advance, his father isn’t listening.

The father is hugging his son so that the boy is trying to talk through a mouthful of clothing, his father is calling the servants, telling them to hurry up with a cloak that isn’t just warm, but of such plush quality that the boy knows how precious he is, just from being wrapped in it, and telling others to run a warm, comfortable bath, because the boy needs it, since he’s filthy from the pigsty and the journey – and remember that the father is saying this while hugging a man in this condition – and telling others to kill the fatted calf, because with due respect to the Co-Op, even that stuff from the Simply The Best range, good as it is, won’t fill the bill tonight.

prodigal son2

And the boy who sat in the exile of the pigsty, wondering if there was any place left for him in the universe, can’t but realize that he has come home.

Don’t you see that this boy’s father is doing all the things that we would call mothering…?

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We don’t get this parable, we don’t understand it, if we try to fit it into our understandings of fatherhood. But then, we don’t get God if we try to cram God into our ideas of fatherhood.

Indeed, the deeper lesson is that we don’t get God, if we try to cram God into our ideas of God.

It only sounds trite because it’s so neat, but there’s an enormous truth to the New Testament translator J. B. Phillips’ wee comment that “If you can picture God, then your God is too small…”

What Jesus gives us in this parable isn’t a new picture of God. It’s something far smaller, and simultaneously far vaster, than that. The Prodigal’s dad isn’t God. He’s a father doing what human beings will sometimes do, rising to astounding heights of humanity, and loving unconditionally. Mothers will do that, too. Our problem is that in our culture, we usually expect mothers to be the ones who love unconditionally, and fathers to be the ones who set the rules, who remind us that life is hard, and we have to measure up, to deliver on performance, to do our duty…

But our culture is changing. However much we lament it, our culture is in a process of deep transformation, and if we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that it isn’t going to go in reverse.

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And we know that there are hundreds of thousands of “non-traditional families” in which there are only women to do the roles of offering unconditional love, and of imposing the rules and setting the expectations. Jesus came from a non-traditional family himself. It’s worth contemplating what rich model of fatherhood Jesus had in the Joseph he and his mother lost so early, that is inscribed for us in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And as H A Williams notes, what a rich model of mothering love he must have had, in Mary… And there are many families in which there are only men to do the mothering, as well as the fathering. Divorce, bereavement, all kinds of other circumstances, make for situations in which this is what has to happen.

And we know that they manage it. Because that’s what love is like. Loving fathers can mother, in their own way, and loving mothers can love as a father loves. But love always points back to its source in God.

the-prodigal-son-1924

[The Prodigal Son, 1924, Giorgio de Chirac: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/giorgio-de-chirico]

The Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t an allegory. It’s not a simple sort of coded message, in which you substitute God for the father, and yourself for the Prodigal – or the unco’ guid, or the kirk-greedy for the elder brother, or ministers, deacons and elders for the servants, or goodness knows who or what for the pigs in the sty! This is the Gospel, not Bletchley Park!

This is the story of a father whose love destroys the cage of severe expectation the son had built around himself and his dad– that his dad would never understand, could never love him the same way again, that he had no claim on his father’s love.

It’s love that defines fatherhood and motherhood, says Jesus, not the other way around. It’s being there, and doing what needs to be done, and it’s the inexhaustible, unwearyable commitment to me that becomes the basis for my living in the world, and facing everything, and knowing that I can’t be overcome.

We call God “Father” because God is love; a love reflected and refracted in the loving – the accepting and challenging loving, the fatherly and mothering loving – which is what parenthood is.

We don’t say “God is love” because God is Our Father. We can say “Our Father…” because God is Love.


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