Father’s Day (Luke 15: v11-32, The Lost Son)

Father’s Day   (Luke 15: v11-32)

I’ve begun several of my talks over the years explaining how I’ve come to a decision on what to chat about. When I realised that today would be Trinity Sunday my heart sank. It’s such a difficult topic. I googled for some ideas, only to find that it is a day which most preachers dread or, to disguise this, when they suddenly think of a student who needs preaching practice. I even asked Bob if he would do a swap with me, but to prove the point, he felt the need for an urgent holiday!

Luckily I realised that there was something else which is special about today, and touches on at least the first part of the Holy Trinity. In 1911 the American progressive reformer, Jane Addams, wrote, “Poor Father has been left out in the cold. It would be a good thing if he had a day that would mean recognition of him.” Sixty-one years later, Richard Nixon signed a bill into American law making Father’s Day a national holiday. And in the way of so much, it has made its way across the Atlantic to us.

I say us, but I don’t really include myself in that. Many of you know that I was, and am, an only child, but maybe not so many know that my Dad was absent for much of my childhood. He was in Export Sales all his working life, starting at Hoover vacuum cleaners, moving on to Thermos, Dunhill, Rothmans, and then most of the way around the Unilever companies. Most of his time was spent on business trips to wherever he had responsibility for – often half of South America where his Spanish and Portuguese came in useful, or the Scandinavian countries where he could get by in a mixture of German, Swedish and a bit of Russian. These trips often took three weeks or so at a time. From a young age I refused to speak to him on the rare occasions he was able to phone home, and was entirely blasé about yet another trip to Heathrow airport to drop him off or hang about waiting to collect him when his flight from Columbia was late. I only became slightly more interested in his trips when he arrived home, suitcases ready to be unpacked, hopefully containing a present; another costume doll for my collection, or something exotic, like once a lime, which I could take to school for show and tell. When he wasn’t selling things to the rest of the world, he spent another six weeks or so away with the RAF voluntary reserves. So were he even to be there on Father’s Day, it was not something which we ever celebrated.

He didn’t get off to a good start when I was born, having arrived late to the hospital after his plane was delayed in a snow storm, only to tell the nurse that he would have preferred a boy! I believe he has now come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t, and that this comment was born from the fact that he was worried about how to be a father, and that it might come more easily with a son. He just didn’t know how, not having had a happy childhood himself. He didn’t have a good relationship with, or a good role model in, his own father, nor with the two step-fathers which his mother later provided him with. Don’t get me wrong – he did, and does have his strengths. If he could be of any practical use, he would always go the extra mile or two. Literally. He drove all the way to southern Germany to pick me up after my year abroad because I’d accumulated far too much stuff to fly home, for example. He was great at correcting my French essays, he made me a dolls house, and a lovely wooden sledge. He is excellent at First Aid thanks to his military training. But he didn’t do the touchy-feely stuff; we didn’t chat. I’ve had to find other men in my life for a shoulder to cry on – my husband, my boss, the odd vicar……  

But still, Father’s Day – it just wasn’t part of our routine. And for years I justified this to myself by the fact that it’s not part of the Liturgical calendar. Father’s Day seemed like a day cooked up by the card industry as an attempt to give Dads equal fuss. I knew it was done with good intentions. But, it has never had the draw and impact that Mothering Sunday has enjoyed. A small boy apparently once said, "Father’s Day is just like Mother’s Day, only you don’t spend as much on the gift."

I might add that I have come round to the idea of celebrating Dads more in my adult life, having witnessed the good relationship my husband had with his father, and then in turn, that he has with our own children.

For the most part, mothers are blessed with the special ability of nurture and healing. Dads have traditionally been very different and tend to be the one to mend broken stuff, solve logical problems, act as the provider and defender of the family. The sixth of the Ten Commandments “‘Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you' is a command with promise. Give honour to your parents, and you will be a person whose life will be long and have a quality existence. So it is fitting that we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

We are a society searching for a model father. There is no such thing as a perfect human father. Some do it better than others, and it comes easier to some than others. But we do have a model in our Gospel reading today.

Jesus told the story that has come to be known as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It is a parable to illustrate what God was like when his children stray. It is about what God wants. It describes family relationships and how different members act.

It teaches us how we can come back to the Lord, finding Him loving and waiting for us. The “waiting father” stands as a representation of God. Here we have the father interacting with his sons in a way which gives insight into how to be model fathers and, in a broader sense, model parents.

It was not unusual for a Jewish father to distribute his estate before he died if he wished to retire from the management of his business affairs. Under the law, there was a clear delineation. The older son must get two-thirds and the younger son one-third. But there is a certain demanding attitude on the part of this younger son. He is saying, “Life is too short for me to wait for you to die or to retire. I am going to get it anyway. Give it to me now. I want out!”

The father could have said no. He could have tried to blackmail him, telling him how much more he would have in the long run if he stayed around home. He could have played the comparison game, saying, “Why aren’t you a good son like your older brother? What are you trying to do, break your mother’s heart?” No, this father was willing to evaluate each one of them for who they were as individuals. He knew their strengths and weaknesses. He was prepared to let this young man be an adult.

And so he handed over his share of what would one day be his inheritance. It is not the giving of the inheritance that is the point. It is the gift of freedom and the ability to go that is the action.

Apparently he had money, and he had servants. He could have assigned one of his servants to shadow the son, going wherever he went, keeping an eye on him and then reporting back. He could have kept track of his associations, so that he wouldn’t squander the fortune, thinking, “I’ve worked hard for all this money, and no son of mine is entitled to waste it.” If things got really bad, he could have had him brought home. No, the model father didn’t stand in the way of consequences. As much as his heart was breaking, he let go.

The father, as he worked his field, was constantly scanning the horizon. Jesus alerts us of that fact. He says, “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him”. His was a love that refused to give up. Love exploded within him. He ran, embraced his son, kissed him. The son gave the speech he had carefully prepared, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”. The father didn’t linger even a minute. He wasn’t interested in saying, “I told you so!” Instead, he was overwhelmed with a joy that flooded through his system. He could do nothing but rejoice.

He didn’t even give his son a chance to ask to be a servant. He called for the best robe. In the Hebrew tradition, that robe stood for honour. He called for a ring. The ring stood for authority. If a man gave another his signet ring, it was the same as giving him power of attorney. He called for shoes. The shoes stood for a son as opposed to a slave. The children of the family wore shoes. Often the slaves didn’t. He called for a banquet, “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

We don’t know the end of the story. We do know that the other son got angry. The father had to live with that anger. The other son viewed this as unfair. He wasn’t the least bit interested in being part of the celebration.

Jesus had a very interesting way of bringing this story to a conclusion. It ends with the father’s response to the elder brother’s accusation that there had never been a party for him, but that this loser ends up getting the fatted calf killed in his honour. What’s the father’s response? He acknowledges the faithfulness of the older brother. He makes no demands for performance on the younger brother. Life goes on.

Jesus is talking about our heavenly father and not an earthly one. In this parable we see a father that has a divine love. A father that can always do the right thing because He is God. For us being a father is a learning process. The story indicates that God gives us free will. He allows us the freedom to choose. He could control us, and make the path easy to choose Him but, he keeps just enough distance that we have a choice….. God has the wisdom to let us learn the hard way, and the love to welcome us back anytime we mess up, no matter how badly. When we go far off, never expecting to return, he waits, Not patiently, but anxiously, for our return.

God never says ‘I told you so’. God is God, and God is the perfect father.

We are called to faithfulness, the same faithfulness that is modelled by the father in this story. God pity the son or daughter who has a parent who has given up on them. Very few experiences could be more devastating than to be disowned by one’s parent.

Dads aren’t like God in that they aren’t perfect. They can and do make mistakes. God’s love for us as His children can never fail..... He confronts us. He realises that we are the ones responsible for whatever mess we’ve got ourselves into. He is there to provide love and support.....but whenever we struggle trying to get out of a mess, it’s because God wants us to learn a lesson. He sometimes even disciplines us, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.

Some of us use our own fathers as a guide to what we believe God is like. If your father was distant or not there you may feel that God is the same way. Some of us had a real fear of our fathers. We feared punishment and rejection.

Wait until your Father gets home!  In the past Dad was often used as the ultimate punishment machine. Not for me - by the time my Dad got home, tired and jet-lagged, weeks later, none of us could have remembered what my crime was. And anyway, the naughtiest thing I ever did was cut paper with my mother’s best dress-making scissors!

Some of us may have found that we could never be good enough. Perhaps it was over school marks, or friends and or any choices in life that we were judged harshly. We might feel like God is disappointed in us as a result.

But what the Heavenly Father wants is the same as the earthly ones....

Dads want to give their children the things they want. They want their children to be happy. They want their children to become independent.

Dads will let you make a mistake and hope you will learn from it.

They want their children to be wise and equipped to face the world. They want to know their children are doing well and are not suffering. They want their children to know that they can come home. As does God.

So on Father’s Day we might wonder about what to get Dad. Would he like breakfast in bed, or be taken out to lunch? What about a new gadget that will operate every appliance in the house by voice command? But I would guess that, really, most Dads would just like to hear from us regularly. As would God. Just like them he waits for the phone or the doorbell to ring. So if we can’t, or don’t want to, treat our earthly fathers to anything special on this Father’s Day, we can all remember Our Heavenly one every day. Go on - there is nothing he would love more than to hear from you!

Call… often; because, you know, he worries.