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The disciples ask for a teaching about prayer and Jesus offers this one–what we call the “Our Father…” or the Lord’s Prayer. When I was growing up in the church there were only a few correct ways to refer to, or talk to, God. You could call him Father or Lord or you could call him Father God or Abba Father or Jesus or refer to him as just “HE.” Like Prince. Calling God Mother or using a non-masculine pronoun to refer to God in any way shape or form, well, it was not done, and if you tried, you’d get the smack down by a deacon or the pastor or somebody.
Unfortunately, the biblical names for God in the Lord’s Prayer and in Jesus’ other references to God all get translated into masculine forms in the English. That not only excludes a great variety of other nuanced gender identities, but it also domesticates the prayer and pulls it far from its Aramaic origins in which words have a variety of textures and a multitude of meanings. “Our Father who art in heaven” is only part of what is meant by Abwoon d’bwashmaya–O, Birther! Father-Mother of the cosmos, O father and mother and child and friend–hallowed be thy name, holy is your very self showing up in us– focus your light within us — make it useful. It is a wonderful prayer that reminds us that the fullness of our lives and of the Mystery that is beyond all that we can ask for or think, but our language to describe God and one another is limited, as is our understanding. I’ve been pondering all the ways that the Father and Mother of us all, the Abwoon d’bwashmaya has helped you and me to be born into who we are. Who have been the incarnations of grace for you in your life? Who disappointed you? Who was/is a mentor, a hero, helped form you into you? Remember your father, perhaps, remember your mother or grandfather or grandmother or teacher or coach or someone else who helped to bring you into being, without whose contributions, you as you would not exist. Some of us have been blessed with very present and active and loving fathers or mothers or grandparents or other caregivers. Others of us have had absent or angry ones, whose contributions to our lives have been dangerous or painful, and for most of us, our human relationships are complex and nuanced.
With regard to the notion posited in the Lord’s Prayer, that the nature of our Father and Mother, the birther of the cosmos can be seen reflected in the qualities of human beings beyond our understanding, I would like to share with you geneticist and professor Michael Bracken’s story. (from Fathering magazine)
He writes, “My father was a virgin when I was born. I didn’t know then, of course, but I learned of it later. I was working at GeneTech, running comparatives on my wife and me to see what kind of children we might have if we left everything up to nature. We were odds-on favorites to produce healthy blue-eyed twin girls. With that in mind, and despite my own occupation as a genetic manipulator, I saw no reason to tamper with our production adventures. So, with time on my hands that afternoon, having completed all my projects by mid-morning, I decided to run tests four generations back. My wife’s ancestors were genetically pure—not a chromosomal disorder among them anywhere. So, too, were my mother and her ancestors. On the other hand, my father’s genetic heritage ended with my father. I reran the tests three times, wondering what I had done wrong, before I came to believe what the results had repeatedly proven. My father was not my father. Alone in my office, the irony of my father’s last words echoed in my head. When he lay dying in the hospital, his body a frail tangle of bones kept alive by machines, he’d grasped my hand and whispered, “My son!” a few minutes later he drew his last breath and the machines flat lined. “Father,” I said silently to the computer printout. “I’m not your son.” An hour later, I disembarked from the train and walked nearly a mile to my mother’s house in one of the few remaining inner city neighborhoods yet to be overtaken by high-rise condominiums. I visited my mother at least once a month and always on major holidays, but a mid-week arrival surprised her. She ushered me into the living room, “Why are you here?” she asked. “What’s wrong?” I settled into the sofa, the worn springs sagging beneath my weight until I was nearly enveloped by the cushions, and told her about the genetic tests I’d run that day. She listened quietly, her fingers knitted together in her lap. “Who is my genetic father?” I finally asked. She shook her head slowly. Wisps of blue-grey hair floated around her face. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I’ve never known.” “How can that be?” I pushed myself from the couch and paced over to the mantle where my mother had lined a dozen family photos like soldiers fighting against time. I pointed to the picture of my father standing before the Sears Tower on the very first day of his very first full-time job. He wore an ill-fitting blue suit purchased off-the-rack at some discount store, a smile on his face as wide as the Grand Canyon. “I don’t share anything with this man.” My mother pushed herself from her chair. “I’ll make tea.” “Making tea doesn’t solve anything,” I called to her back as she disappeared into the kitchen. “Every time there is a problem you make tea.” I stared at the photos—my father holding my second-hand bicycle as I learned to pedal; my father in paper gown and cap, perched on the side of my mother’s hospital bed, as she held me only hours after my birth, my father holding my mother on their wedding day, the swell of her abdomen tight against the material of her white wedding gown as I grew inside her womb. My mother placed the tea on the table, and after adding cream and sugar to her cup, she took a delicate sip. “I thought my life was over and that I couldn’t tell my parents about that night. I never did.” “I always knew you married because you were pregnant,” I said. “We married because we were in love,” she returned. “You were almost two before your father and I…before we consummated our marriage,” she said softly. “He was a gentle man, and very patient.” I’d never heard my father raise his voice in anger. He’d never struck me in punishment for any of my childhood wrongs. Instead, he’d talked to me. Quietly, patiently, telling me what I could do to resolve the problem. “He worked hard,” my mother continued. She stared at the mantle, past me, “He never had enough time.” He was gone when I woke up in the morning and sometimes didn’t return until after I’d fallen asleep. Over the years his hard work and dedication only merited small raises, but he never complained. I needed a new uniform for Little League the same month some punk slashed all four of our car’s tires, but my father bought the uniform and walked to work each day until he’d saved enough money for new tires. He worked two jobs to help send me to college and biomedical school. She spoke of him then, spoke of all the years he had loved her and cared for her, and all the years he had done the same for me. He had been a small man, stronger in spirit than he was physically, seeming to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Finally my mother set down her teacup. “There were six of them,” she said quietly, “They took turns.” My mother and father had been on their way to their high school prom, walking the nine blocks in the city from my mother’s home because my father’s family did not own a car. Six teenaged gang members had accosted them, beating my father senseless and tearing my mother’s virginity from her. A neighbor walking home from the bus stop found them in the alley, my mother cradling my father’s head in her lap, and weeping silently. The police were never notified, and my parents moved from the neighborhood a few months after their wedding. My mother’s eyes turned to the photo on the mantle of my father carrying me on his shoulders when my Little League team won its first game on the last day of the season. He had attended each game, sitting in the stands and cheering, no matter how many times I swung and missed, no matter how many times I threw the ball to first base and watched it sail into the stands, no matter how often I failed to demonstrate even the most rudimentary athletic skills. “I married the father of your soul,” she finally said, her voice barely a whisper, and I wondered if I would ever be as much a father to my children as my father had been to me.”
Though the circumstances may be different for us, there are many examples of the sacrifices and contributions good fathers and other mentors make to our lives, beyond and before we ever know or will ever realize. In this wonderful Scripture in Luke 11 given for today, Jesus pictures a friend at midnight, who, when someone he loves shows up on the doorstep, does whatever he can, when the loved one asks, he gives, when the loved one seeks, the door is opened. And then Jesus goes on to describe how loving fathers give their children good things, needed and nourishing gifts, even if the fathers themselves are not perfect. In this day we may reflect upon the present or the absent father we may have or had, and we may also seek new ways to be present and loving examples and friends to others all around us, knowing that we may be for another, the face of God. How may we be conduits of that creating and recreating love to others? I reflect upon the lives of so many of you–the courageous people in this church who parent children, yours and not yours–who are heroes for other people’s children, who through the years, have worked and played with them, taught them that they are empowered girls and boys, shown them unconditional regard and love, shown them the face of God. On this particular day, I think of all the young parents and other young adults in our church who are skilled and responsible, who are present and active, and how much I thank God that all our children and youth and adults have been blessed by your presence and your example. I think of you–the middle-aged and older men and women who have given of yourselves, through many years, sharing hobbies and trips and ball games and teaching and school projects and scouts and mentoring and volunteerism and presence and work and play. Your gifts of being in this world—in your particularity—have influenced all of us with the beauty of your example.
Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells us the story of the prodigal son, or the story of the loving father in which the father is pictured much like the father in Michael Bracken’s story—a father who, when the events are hard and the pain is great and the separation is long, still runs with open arms to meet us. That is the Beloved One who welcomes you, who welcomes me, in this day. That is the Beloved One who is embodied in us on this day of mixed blessings—grace and grief, rejoicing and regret, joy at memories, sorrow in loss. May we be available to the bounty all around us, the overflowing chances to see and to experience what it means to be loved by a gracious Creator and to walk in the company of good and courageous others–all of us, together. Blessed be. Amen.