(A sermon for Father’s Day, using Romans 8:15-17, Part 7 in a series on Christian Formation in the 21st Century)
It’s Father’s Day, and I am thinking about my father, remembering the days when he seemed larger than life. Daddy was not unusually tall, just under six feet, but he loomed larger in my small consciousness. He could carry me down the stairs piggyback, and we had to duck to keep from hitting the ceiling. He was big enough to take me out beyond the breakers at Virginia Beach. He slept, with my mother, in a tall, old-fashioned bed, and when he would relax there with a book on Sunday afternoon, he might as well have been on Mount Olympus. After we moved to Washington, when I was five, his work became more demanding, and I saw less of him, but when we were together, there was something magical about having his undivided attention. My dad placed a high value on education, and every time we were together was a chance to learn something new. So whether we were visiting the Smithsonian, or just taking a family trip in the car, there was always something to absorb, from the paintings of Renoir to the states and their capitols. I learned to spell well in part because he sent me to the dictionary whenever I asked how to spell a word. At the time it annoyed me! How can you look up a word you don’t know? But this technique got me reading the dictionary and learning more than one word at a time.
Words continue to fascinate me. How did we get the names we use for the people in the roles most important to us when we are small and helpless and just learning how to speak? When babies are happy, they babble “Dadadadada!” And when they need something, they intone “Mamamamama!!!” We’re born with an instinct for getting what we need! We call out to the protector or the leader, with a cheerful voice, hoping for attention and games and giggles. We know how to hit the soft spot of the one who provides milk, a soft place to snuggle, the warmth we need to survive. It really has little to do with male and female and more to do with the roles they have traditionally played.
When I moved to Vacationaland, 20 years ago this month, I found myself in a church where discussion about inclusive language in worship had been held and concluded already. The Doxology had no male pronouns—we praised God, not Him, in lines 2 and 3, and ended with Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. The Gloria Patri was no longer sung. Of course, there’s nothing telling us we have to sing either of these in a Congregational church, and as a childhood Baptist, I didn’t expect them to be one way or the other or necessarily to be used in worship at all. My only expectation was the Lord’s Prayer, with its familiar and familial language for God, “Our Father.”
The church had a songbook of newer hymns in the pews, right alongside the Pilgrim Hymnal. One of the hymns in it seemed to come up regularly in our worship, “Bring Many Names.” It was my first exposure to the notion that you might refer to God as “Mother.” I’ve got to tell you I hated hearing that. Absolutely hated it. God as Father was familiar and more than that, for a young woman who adored her dad, it made complete and perfect sense. The idea of God as Mother bothered me, and if you wonder if that had something to do with my experience of being mothered, you are reading me right. But despite my initial reaction to the notion that we could expand our images of God, I stayed and listened. Gradually, incrementally, I began to think of inclusive language as a growing edge, an approach to God that finally had me saying to myself, “Hmmm, maybe I need to go back and re-consider ALL my assumptions.”
There are, of course, many metaphors used in the Bible to express God’s nature as Creator of all there is. God is called Potter and Shepherd and Baker, as well as Rock and Wind and Fire and Living Water. Jesus is Shepherd and Living Water, too, and Vine to our branches and Mother Hen who wants to gather us like her chicks, to keep us safe. Wisdom, as expressed in Proverbs, is a feminine image, and many think of her as a part of God, too. Our scriptures contain a wealth of imagery familiar to the people of the time from farming to the nursing of little children, images that included the reality of all the people, men and women.
In speaking to Moses, God refers to God’s self simply as “I AM.”
But, it’s a powerful testimony that Jesus uses the word Father in referring to God. People who feel inclined to argue about hewing to exact words used in particular translations of the Bible might say that Jesus knew God and could have called “him” Mother if that were the truth. The truth is, a mother in the first century had no security without a relationship to a man. Mother was not a powerful title. That Jesus uses it in his reference to the mother hen, that he shows in some of the scripture stories a regard for his own mother, is astonishing and wonderful.
It’s more than names for God we have to consider, it’s all the language we use in church life. We need to test it to be sure we really understand the familiar words and also to be sure they will mean something to people hearing them for the first time. How did you learn the meaning of the word Introit or Benediction? Can you parse our liturgical words using your old high-school Latin? We do not approach words with a uniform interpretation. Our understanding comes from our education and our experience.
The work of the Search Committee, as they complete a draft of the Church Profile, has involved an intense examination of the words used to describe this church and the sorts of questions asked in the profile itself. We will toss out descriptive words and keep at it until there is consensus that the right word has been found. Every now and then, since I’m one of those English majors who grew up reading old novels, I suggest a word that isn’t immediately meaningful to even our very bright Committee members. Not too long ago we were talking about the character of Main Street Church, and I said, “You want to be honest. But you don’t want candidates to think you are hidebound!” This turned out to be an unfamiliar word, one only Mr. G and I had heard before. I had a sense of what it meant, but after our conversation, I got interested in seeking out its derivation. So I went to the Dictionary, something that would make my father proud.
hide•bound, an adjective
1 of a domestic animal : having a dry skin lacking in pliancy and adhering closely to the underlying flesh
2 : having an inflexible or ultraconservative character
Indeed, this church with its independent spirit is not, on the whole, hidebound. But we all have our little areas in which wrapping tradition tightly around us feels oh-so-comfortable and safe. And I would suggest that our journey as Christian people is neither.
Here the words of our lesson from Romans as interpreted by Eugene Peterson in “The Message,” a contemporary translation of the Bible.
This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What’s next, Papa?" God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him! (Romans 8:15-17)
Peterson found that the people in his church did not find the Bible as lively and vital as he did. The language was too stuffy or difficult; they sat and stared at their coffee cups instead of responding with joy to the Word of God. So Peterson began to translate the text they were studying directly from the Greek he had learned in seminary, not stopping to make reference to how they had been translated before. What had been fresh and exciting for people who first heard Paul’s letters read aloud in Greek suddenly sounded exciting to an average group of Bible Study students, too.
Language for most of human literary history has used the masculine as the default, and many of us church folk are okay with singing hymns about mankind or our fathers in faith. But we are living in the 21st century, and it’s time to look at how we use language and how it may be a barrier to those whose education is not along classical lines. To them, “he” really means a man, and “his” means something belonging to a man. It’s not just that people are insisting on political correctness. Old-fashioned language can be a barrier to people who are not familiar with the way we talk in church.
God, whether you want to say Himself or Herself or God’s self, is far beyond our human difficulties with or attachment to particular words. I believe God knows the difference between a person truly open to and reaching toward a relationship with God and a person whose heart and mind are doors slammed shut against the possibility. And scripture teaches us that even those door slammers receive a welcome when they come home, however prodigal they may be. Are we as open to the returning family member? Are we as open to the stranger who comes through our doors? Our choice of language is a statement about who we are willing to include, and who we don’t mind excluding.
We need to think about it because the most important thing about the word Jesus used to call on God is its intimacy. Abba, while a word for “father,” really holds the nuance of our word “Daddy.” Dadadadada: it is a loving sound, an infant articulation of joy taken in an important relationship. Jesus used “Father” as an expression of God’s desire to be in relationship with us, and we may trust it is true. The important quality in our response is joy, whatever the name we use to call on God. Amen.