A Father's Day Sermon (2008)

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Being Father's Day today, I recognise that I'm a little biased about this field of knowledge. Then again, who knows better the joys and sorrows of being a man and a father then a man and a father? Whether I'm a good representation of either or not is beside the point, but let me share with you some of the joys of being a man, in order to prove my credentials:

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1. Only one suitcase is required for a 5-day trip.

2. We can open our own jars.

3. We can go to the bathroom without a support group.

4. The same hairstyle lasts for years, maybe even decades.

5. If someone forgets to invite us to something, they can still be our friend.

6. Underwear is $10 for a three-pack.

7. We don’t have to clean the house if the meter-reader is coming.

8. Car mechanics tell us the truth (at least most of the time ... I hope).

9. We can sit quietly and watch a game with a friend for hours without thinking "He must be mad at me."

10. Gray hair and wrinkles add character.

11. If another guy shows up at a party in the same outfit you just might become lifelong friends.

12. One wallet, one pair of shoes, one colour, all seasons —enough said.

13. We can do our nails with pocketknife.

14. We have freedom of choice concerning growing a moustache.

15. Christmas shopping can be accomplished for 25 people on the day before Christmas and in 45 minutes.

As you can see, at least I know a few things about being a man.

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Now, about being a father, while there are some similarities to the experience of being a mother, I still think there are some differences. Of the similarities, author Fred Barnes is said to have reminded us that

Fatherhood isn’t brain surgery. I say this in defiance of the new conventional wisdom that being a father is breathtakingly difficult, that it creates tough dilemmas, and that fathers need a strategy for carrying out their duties. I don’t think so. Most men I know have an instinct for fatherhood that is triggered the day their first child was born. They instantly recognised the number one requirement of fatherhood: to be there.

This point is exceedingly true, and particularly for fathers, who don't always have the freedom to be as present for their children as they would like.

Dr. James Dobson reports an experience with his dad which, I'm sure, will also resonate with the mothers:

My dad also loved me.  I’ve known that from my earliest moments of awareness.  I’m told that when I was a small child, perhaps three years of age, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. My little bed was located beside the bed of my parents.  Dad said it was not uncommon during that time for him to awaken at night and hear a little voice whispering, "Daddy?  Daddy?"

He would answer quietly, "What, Jimmy?"

Then I would reply, "Hold my hand!"

My dad would reach across the darkness and grope for my little hand, finally engulfing it in his.  He said the instant he encompassed my hand, my arm would become limp and my breathing deep and regular.  I had gone back to sleep.  You see, I only wanted to know that he was there! —Dr. James Dobson, Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives

As a father, I can tell you that such experiences, like when a young child reaches out to you for comfort and is actually comforted by the action that you offer, such experiences are wonderful and make fatherhood worthwhile.

However, there is one category of experiences that are definitely unique to fatherhood. The following anecdote is a good example:

A young boy was driving a hayrack down the road, and it turned over right in front of a farmer’s house. The farmer came out, saw the young boy crying, and said, "Son, don’t worry about this, we can fix it.  Right now dinner’s ready.  Why don’t you come in and eat with us and then I’ll help you put the hay back on the rack."  

The boy said, "No, I can’t.  My father is going to be very angry with me."  The farmer said, "Now don’t worry, just come in and have some lunch and you’ll feel better."

The boy said, "I’m just afraid my father is going to be very angry with me."

The farmer and the young boy went inside and had dinner.  Afterwards, as they walked outside to the hayrack, the farmer said, "Son, don’t you feel better now?"  The boy said, "Yes but I just know that my father will be very angry with me."

The farmer said, "Nonsense.  Where is your father anyway?"  The boy said, "He’s under that pile of hay."

I can almost guarantee that no son or daughter would do such a thing to their mother. This is a category of experiences unique to fatherhood —Are there any fathers here who want to give up the job now?

So, while I will share with you, this morning, a message from the Word of God, know that, althoughI will speak mostly to fathers, it will also be quite appropriate for all of us, as I do believe the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child.

Children and Fathers

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The passage of scripture that I would like us to reflect on this morning is found in The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians. Read along with me Ephesians 6:1-4:

bible: Eph 6:1-4

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honour your father and mother" —which is the first commandment with a promise— "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth."

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. —Ephesians 6:1-4

This is probably a very familiar passage, but let me share with you some of the background to this passage anyway.


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Scholars tell us that in many of the books of the New Testament (NT) a pattern is noticeable, where the author introduces the themes of obedience and subordination after discussing worship (B. B. Thurston, Reading Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians, 2007). This pattern is definitely recognisable in Ephesians (see also Romans 12; Colossians 3; Hebrews 13; James 1; and, 1 Peter 2), where the first half of this book is much more expressive of the nature of the Church as a body, a temple, a mystery, and finally a new creation; that new creation, however, demands a new lifestyle, which is described in the final half of the book.

Following the destruction of the second temple at Jerusalem (ca. 70), the disciples of Jesus were scattered around the empire and began to question their faith in new ways. Many of the leaders of the Church had died, the second coming of Jesus had not arrived (as was expected), the threat of persecution loomed large and with it the recognition that Christians can and do sin. As a consequence, the writers of the NT turned their attention to practical issues, such as codes of conduct for Christian households. Our passage from Ephesians falls in the middle of a typical example of such a code (Ephesians 5:21–6:9; see also Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Timothy 2:8-3:13; 6:1–2; Titus 2:1–10; 1 Peter 2:13–3:7; Didache 4:9–11; Epistle of Barnabas 19:5–7; and, 1 Clement 21:6–9).

However, before we assume that we can just transpose this code directly onto our own situation, we need to keep in mind that the typical household of the time was more like a family business than our contemporary nuclear family (cf. Acts 16:11-15, 40). So, to refer to a person's household would naturally include the extended family who, very likely, lived in the same complex, as well as slaves and hired servants, and even business partners. Nevertheless, the underlying principle of this code of conduct for Christian households —"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21)— this principle remains true for ancient, as well as contemporary, families.

"Children, obey your parents"

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With that background in mind, let us investigate the message of this passage directly, beginning with verses 1-3, which are directed at children specifically:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honour your father and mother" —which is the first commandment with a promise— "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth."

This is, perhaps, not a message that children want to hear —at least not teenaged children— but we would all do well to keep it in mind for two reasons:

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1. It is our natural duty.

2. It establishes a healthy lifestyle.

In verse 1, there is a little phrase, "in the Lord", that is more challenging than it may appear. Scholars tell us that this phrase may not have appeared in the original text because of the manuscript evidence. I guess that we cannot confirm this unequivocally, but the phrase raises intriguing issues.

If the phrase belongs, then a son could argue that because they are not believers he does not have to honour his parents —I'm sure that only a son would even dream of such an argument! This couldn't be further from the intention of the passage, which is rather to highlight that honouring and obeying one's parents is a natural duty. Honouring one's parents is the right thing to do; the "just", "honest", "good", and "righteous" thing to do, from a moral, legal, and religious viewpoint.

Verses 2-3 reveals that honouring our parents is our natural duty, being just and right, because God has ordained it to be so, it is a principle built into us at our creation. God even took it one step further, to make sure that we understood this fundamental principle, by including it as Commandment #5 of the Big Ten (Exodus 20:1-17). Of course, this point might only provide fuel to the flames of the disrespectful child trying to 'brush aside' his parents because they are not believers, but this principle is so important to the natural, created order, that it is the only commandment that comes with an overt promise: "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth."

Before I share with you the effects of this promise, let's first explore the reason for the promise.

In the witness of the Bible, it is understood that God rewards obedience. Psalm 91, for instance, 'spares no expense' in expressing this point of the fifth commandment:

bible: Ps 91:1-16

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty [...] "Because he loves me", says the Lord, [...] "With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation." —Psalm 91:1, 14, 16

Therefore, the disciple of Jesus can take great comfort in the knowledge that our obedience allows God to fulfill His promises to us. It is worth reminding ourselves that, both in Psalm 91 and in Ephesians 6, these promises are for this life (e.g. the phrase in Ephesians 6:3, "on the earth"), and do not apply only after death!

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Dallas Willard makes an interesting point when he argues (at a conference that I recently attended) that unless we can learn to honour our parents, then we cannot possibly honour God. By that, I took him to mean that the patterns and attitudes of our natural lives are irrevocably tied to our spiritual lives. Since God always intended that we would live under His grace, this commandment reveals not only our natural duty to our parents, but also a foundational principle for a whole and healthy lifestyle, which is God's promise to us, the pinnacle of His creation (Psalm 8).

Indeed, the family serves as our 'point of entry' into this world and the primary attachment relationships of the family provide a safe and secure place from which a child learns and explores and engages the environment and people that she will encounter (see "Attachment Theory" at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory, accessed 5-Sept-2008) for a description of the theories of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth). If a family cannot get this right, then it establishes dysfunctional and unhelpful patterns of attitude and behaviour that will not serve well the children born into that family.

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Carlyle Marney (a Southern Baptist preacher and academic) very insightfully taught that, in our lifetime, we need to take three trips home. First, we need to go home to ask forgiveness for what we have done wrong. Second, we need to go home to forgive our parents for what we feel they have done wrong. Third, we need to go home and ask our parents to accept us the way we are.

The following illustration, from an unnamed person, highlights the value of providing a strong foundation for our children:

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It happened some years ago that a most urgent and unusual invitation came to me to visit a military academy, in which the students had mutinied, in the hope that possibly I might be of service to the situation. The students had struck in everything: lessons, study hours, drill. The principal handed me a large number of telegrams which had come from the parents who had been wired regarding the situation. [Reading between the lines], these messages [provided a] look into the various kinds of boys’ homes and the parental relationships connected with them.

One father wired his son, "I expect you to obey". Another said, "If you are expelled from school, you needn’t come home". Still another, "I’ll send you to an insane asylum if you are sent home". Another said, "I’ll cut you off without a shilling if you disgrace the family". But the best message was couched in these laconic words: "Steady, my boy, steady! Father."

There was a man who believed in his boy and probably there is no greater influence upon a boy than a father who respects the spirit of his boy and treats him like a man. —quoted in P.L. Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, 1979.

This anecdote reveals a boy strong in character, willing to stand up for what he believed in, who was supported by his father, probably not just in this his moment of great need, but likely throughout his lifetime.

"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1), is not just a cliché or a good piece of advice; it is a foundation upon which we learn to live well in this world, all the days of our life.

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children"

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From wise words to children, this passage then proceeds to giving a very pointed instruction to fathers: "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). The Amplified Version very appropriately expands this verse, so as to provide a deeper insight regarding its meaning:

Fathers, do not irritate and provoke your children to anger [do not exasperate them to resentment] [...] —Ephesians 6:4, AMP

The Greek word translated as "exasperate" in the NIV and "provoke" in the NRSV means to rouse to wrath, to proke, exasperate, or anger. This admonishment relates to the attitudes of a father that lead him to behave in such a way as to elicit a strong and sinful reaction. "'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold" is an instruction given earlier in Ephesians (4:25-27). Although, as was discussed in my previous sermon series (Thrive Over Sin, Aug-2008), it just may be the case that such anger, on the part of our children, is justified and acceptable if we behave inappropriately toward them.

Behind the relationship of a father to a son —as with all relationships, the author of Ephesians is trying to help us to understand— behind all relationships lies the injuction,

bible: Eph 4:31-32

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. —Eph 4:31-32

This is even true for a father towards his children. It just may the case that the author had in mind the arbitrary exertion of authority to which parents often succumb, particularly in moments of great frustration —any parents know what I am talking about? A Roman father certainly had, and was expected to express, such authority. Scholars tell us that "a Roman father could expose a newborn, sell his children into slavery, force them to work under any conditions as he saw fit, and even kill them with impunity" (Thurston). We may cring at the thought —sitting as we are in a future, enlightened era— although we may cringe, such things do happen today. I do not want to even provide examples of the horrors that some children are forced to endure in this day and age, even at the hands of their fathers.

In contrast to such atrocious behaviour, a father is encouraged, in the Bible, to "bring [your children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Eph 6:4). Literally, this part of the verse is telling us "to nourish and provide for" our children with "emotional tenderness"; to "educate" and "train", with a view to their "long-term survival and prosperity". If we do our jobs as fathers right, "[training] a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6). In other words, our children will be encouraged and empowered to live according to the natural duty and lifestyle intended by God for us all if we do our job right, as a father.

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That "way" that a father trains his child in is "of the Lord"; which is to say that we do not guess at the right lifestyle, but instead receive wisdom from God, which we then pass onto our children. Towards such a lifestyle, Jesus is our model and its content. Thus, a father is to be the instrument of God's teaching, but, let us never forget, that the Spirit of God is the ultimate educator in all things to do with real life lived under grace.

So, despite the authority inherent to the role of the father, Jesus models for us, and we model for our children, that subordination must be freely chosen: Fathers must freely subordinate our desires and agendas to the role of caring for our children. In so doing, we protect their spirit, according to Dr. Dobson

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Our objective, then, is not simply to shape the will, but to do so without breaking the spirit [...]

Whereas the will is made of titanium and steel, the human spirit is a million times more delicate. It reflects the self-concept or the sense of worthiness that a child feels. It is the most fragile characteristic in human nature and is especially vulnerable to rejection, ridicule, and failure. It must be handled with great care. —James Dobson, The New Strong-Willed Child, 2004

Conclusion & Response

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If we can do that, then perhaps we too will deserve a Father's Day card such as one given by a 13-year old boy named Bart to his dad, which said,

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A good father flies kites with you at the park.

A good father takes you fishing.

A good father takes good care of you.

A good father keeps you out of trouble.

A good father loves you (and gives you just a sip of his beer). —quoted by William C. Noble, Sermons That Work (http://arc.episcopalchurch.org/sermons-that-work/010617sr.html, accessed 3-Sept-2008)

A good father knows what a child likes to do and spends time doing those things with him or her, whether the father likes such things or not. It is not the amount of time that matters, but the quality of time given freely by a dad for his children.

A good father cares for his children, providing the safe and secure foundation that they need to live well and good in this world. Do not leave this responsibility to the mother! A father can be just as nurturing, and remains just as important a role model, as a mother. Fathers, do not shirk your responsibility, but instead commit your ways to the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit will enable to be fully present for your children and to care for them well.

To the end of keeping your child out of trouble, take the time to earn her respect and admiration, so that you may maintain the right to share with her your wisdom. Protect her spirit, so that, when you discipline your child for bad behaviour, your love for her will not be in question.

The task of being a father is to guard and to guide. You cannot protect your children from all that will harm them, but neither should you! In the 2003 Pixar movie Finding Nemo, Dory very wisely says to Marlin, the father of Nemo:

video: clip from Finding Nemo

Dory: "Wow. A whale. You know I speak whale."

Marlin: "No, you're insane! You can't speak whale! I have to get out! I have to find my son! I have to tell him how old sea turtles are!"

Dory: "Woo-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-hoo! Hey. You okay? There, there. It's all right. It'll be okay."

Marlin: "No. No, it won't."

Dory: "Sure it will, you'll see."

Marlin: "No. I promised him I'd never let anything happen to him."

Dory: "Huh. That's a funny thing to promise."

Marlin: "What?"

Dory: "Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo."

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All of us learn 'in the school of life', and while it may be hard for a father to 'sit on the sidelines and watch' as your children 'get knocked about', we don't have to remain 'on the sidelines', but can instead teach and model to our children the wisdom of God found in the Bible, "his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2b). It is not surprising that Jesus used a story of the love of a father for a son to depict for us, in the form of a parable, the love of God for all of us:

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” —Luke 11:11-13

Give all of yourself to your children. Love them and bless them. If you can rely on God to guide and empower you to be a good father to your children, then it will serve not only them well, but you as just as much.

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