There is someone in our family of whom we are rather proud – she’s just written and directed a new comedy series on the BBC called ‘The Other One’. The premise is that a man called Colin dies suddenly when it’s discovered that for decades he has actually had two families. And he has two grown up daughters – Kathy and Kat – it turns out born within five days of each other; one very middle class, tightly wound, high achieving – the other quite different, more brash and fun-seeking, more down to earth. The comedy develops as they become friends. Holly, the writer, decided to make the story about the daughters, not about the father. He disappears before the opening credits.
Of course, this kind of story – though it’s a comedy in this form – might feature in many lives – and it’s not always funny. I can remember my own father telling me about the time when he went to look up his own father after he had not seen him for years. My father’s father had married again and had a new family now. My father knocked on the door and hoped to be re-united with his father after a long time apart. There was a quick, muffled, conversation between his father and the new wife behind the front door (while my father waited on the step), and then the door was firmly shut. My father was, like Hagar and Ishmael, left out in the wilderness, albeit a wilderness in Sussex… Fathering, like mothering, is sometimes not all we would hope for it to be.
So, today, on Father’s Day – perhaps we might look to the Bible for a great story about how to be a good Father. But we find the story of Abraham, a man who had children with more than one woman and who cast one of them and her child out into the wilderness (supposedly because his wife told him too – just as my grandfather’s second wife didn’t want him to have anything to do with his son by his first marriage). We’re told that he was distressed to be doing this… and that God told him not to worry because God would sort it out. But it’s hard to imagine that Ishmael ever sent back a Father’s Day card to Abraham.
The Bible is full of stories of fathering, and sometimes mothering, that goes wrong. You can find fathers with multiple wives, fathers who are ready to sacrifice their children if God asks them to (Abraham again!), fathers who have favourites – remember Jacob giving Joseph that coat of many colours – or at least a coat with sleeves? There are stories of rivalry between siblings – from Cain and Abel to the prodigal son and his elder brother. The Bible is full of family sagas, of wounded hearts and faltering love, of abandoned children and abandoned fathers… The Bible holds up a mirror to our own family lives and to our own communities and nations.
It’s a wonder really that we call God Father when we see how often fathering, and mothering, go wrong. There is in us all the small child that wants to hear the voice that Jesus heard at his baptism, ‘You are my beloved son (or daughter) and in you I am well pleased.’ I remember that after my own father died my brother and I each thought that we were the favoured one. Maturity came in recognising that we have a human, not a perfect, father, – but that he loved us both, if both of us imperfectly – and perhaps his imperfections were forgivable given his own absent father…
The wonder is, of course, that so many very human fathers do find miraculous depths and qualities of love for their children – that so many do much better than Abraham… that many would willingly sacrifice their own lives to save their child. We should never let the painful stories and the distressing stories obscure the gobsmacking reality that countless human fathers are possessed of a love they had never known before their child is born. Think of the quiet dignity of Jerry McCann. Think of Prince Harry announcing the birth of Archie… I think of the countless fathers I see around our way these days teaching tiny dots to ride a bike on quiet roads with a tender patience.
We can only call God father if we recognise that God loves us in the way that we all long for and which no human father ever quite manage but sometimes, sometimes, we glimpse. God has no favourites, God does not abuse or abandon, our lives matter to God; the child of the slave, the child who has different abilities, the child who survives only a day, the child who is poor, any and every child.
In the Gospel reading we hear Jesus, who called God Father, say how not even a sparrow falls without God noticing. There is a wonderful African American spiritual that says –
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches over me
If we are blessed in this life we have an earthly father who loves us – in all the extraordinary ways that fathers do – but whoever we are we are blessed with a heavenly Father – who loves every single one of us, who hears our voices in any wilderness and who lifts us up. Thanks be to God for that. And being loved like that – let’s recognise too that each one of us is a beloved child of God, who is the source of all our lives. We are all beloved children with whom God is well pleased. Amen.