I wish I had said no. When Jane, our principal minister, e-mailed to ask if I could preach on June 15, I wish I had said no. But no, I said, of course, yes, I can preach on the 15th. Then I looked up this date in the calendar. That’s when I wished I had said no. I discovered it’s Fathers’ Day. And I discovered that the gospel text is the Great Commission, the risen Christ sending his followers out to baptize everyone in the whole world. On top of that the Old Testament reading from Genesis is about human beings ruling over nature. Wow! I gasped, realizing that here we have patriarchy, colonialism and environmental exploitation all on the same day. And, oh, by the way, it’s also the second Sunday of Pentecost, or Trinity Sunday, so I must also say something about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. Can all this be deconstructed and reconstructed in fifteen minutes? Not likely, though I’ll give it a try. But you’ll have to jump with me when there are no obvious transitions.
First jump: Fathers’ Day. We ought to honor our fathers and thank them on this special day, no question about that. But if your father was absent or abusive, that’s a different matter. I will not wade into that political thicket where if you say anything about fathers being essential for good child development, you can be charged with racism, misogyny or homophobia. God save us from that! And in this brave new world of procreative technology, personal fathers are not even essential. No, fatherhood is not about procreation or gender. But it is about adult love for a growing child, fierce love, respect, working for what’s best for the child, modeling and teaching honor, responsibility, and boundaries. Those are not gender specific traits; they are human moral ideals. So even if your father was absent or abusive, today I ask you to think about those adults who mentored you—relatives, teachers, coaches, pastors—who challenged you, who loved you. Give them a kind thought this Father’s Day, a card or a call or a visit, perhaps.
Second jump: the fatherhood of God. Is this a notion that could be retrieved in a liberal and progressive church? Should it be? We no longer say, “Our Father who art . . . ,” but we say, “Our God who art . . .” Is anything gained or lost in that change? Clearly “Our God” makes the language inclusive, non-gendered. That’s a gain. But is something essential lost about a personal God? Persons are variously gendered. If God is a person, which gender is appropriate or even required? In Brian Wren’s hymn he writes, “Bring many names.” Perhaps that’s the best we can do. But should we cross out some names, like father, because of bad associations?
In 1983 I was a resident scholar at the Ecumenical Institute at St. John’s. Doug Meeks was one of the other scholars. He was then a theology professor at Eden Theological Seminary. Doug and I often argued about inclusive language. He believed that “creator, redeemer and sustainer,” used as an inclusive version of the Trinity in baptism, resulted in an invalid baptism. For Doug it had to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “Nonsense,” I replied. “Words do not validate or invalidate baptism.”
“Would you not agree,” he continued, “that Father, Son and Holy Spirit make up the literal name of God given in the bible?” “That’s ridiculous,” I replied. “Only one name is given in the bible, Yahweh, which means either being or becoming, or maybe both.” But Doug was not finished with me. “I’ll bet you don’t even know why the Nicene Creed says ‘begotten not made’ when speaking of the Father’s relation to the Son.” Now I’m not nearly as learned as Doug, but I did know about that word choice. For the ancient creed writers, “begotten not made” was their way of saying that the very being, the heart and soul of God, was part of the genetic makeup of Jesus of Nazareth, in a profound intimacy that would be diminished if God had merely created Jesus. The verb to beget means to father, to initiate procreation. (I’ll bet not one of you in this room used the verb, to beget, in the last week, or the last month, or maybe ever!) Now if the notion of a procreating God seems weird or even offensive, you’re in good company. Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith removed that ancient offense by saying this: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, . . .” That’s good enough for me: “shared our common lot.” In life and in death, in success and failure, in love and loss—God is with us. We are not alone; never. If the fatherhood of God can mean just that, let’s hold that thought.
Third jump: the great commission, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We now leave the precincts of racism, homophobia and misogyny and enter the domain of colonialism. Convert the heathens! Baptize them! Someday they’ll be just like us! (Now there’s a thought!) Matthew is the only gospel with the great commission at the end. Mark concludes with the empty tomb. Luke ends with the ascension of Jesus but no commissioning. John’s gospel ends with breakfast by the lake, also without a commissioning, except “Feed my sheep.”
What are we to do with this text? Can we wring the colonialism out of it? Maybe not, considering how it was used by colonizing Christian nations and missionary boards. But maybe there is a way. Here’s my effort: Forget for the moment Trinitarian baptism. Focus instead on making disciples. What is a disciple? A disciple is a learner, a student. We are commissioned to invite the world to learn along with us. We have something to teach the world. The world has something to teach us. That would make the great commission a truly liberating word.
Fourth jump: Today is the second Sunday of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Where does the Holy Spirit come in? Here’s my thought: If we are commissioned by the risen Christ to invite people to become disciples, to become learners, to become students, then the Holy Spirit energizes our invitation and energizes us and our fellow learners. There is nothing more dispiriting than un-energized students. Once I was invited to attend a doctoral seminar at Princeton, ten doctoral candidates and two professors. Great, I thought, a chance to hear the best and brightest doctoral candidates in the world! Think again! They could hardly squeeze out a few words without making eye contact with the professor and their colleagues, to see if they were okay. I became inwardly agitated. I felt I was channeling the Holy Spirit. I wanted to stand up and shout at them: “Speak up! Say something wild! Take a risk!” As a guest, of course, I could not do that. But perhaps I should have.
That’s how the Spirit inspires our learning, filling us with a reckless passion for the truth, driving us to speak up, to take risks. Like those Princeton doctoral students we can shut down and play it safe. But the Spirit will keep nibbling away at our shells. We could do a little nibbling from the inside too.
Fifth and final jump: the creation of humankind in Genesis 1. Does that story fit anywhere? Let’s try this: In this first of two creation stories in Genesis, we humans are made to be a blessing for all creation, to be good stewards. Good fathers are a blessing. So is the fatherhood of God, as well as the great commission. And the Holy Spirit energizes an inspired life.
So there it is: Fathers’ Day, the fatherhood of God, the great commission, the Holy Spirit, and the purpose of humankind, a quick and lite (l-i-t-e) sermon, but, I hope, with a little light (l-i-g-h-t) along the way. May the light of God, may the light of God’s wind, word and fire shine on us today and in all the days to come.