Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Using "Father" in Church

(A sermon preached on Trinity Sunday at All Saints Episcopal, Littleton NH, 5/30/2010)
This morning is one of the few "doctrine days" in the Episcopal Church: Trinity Sunday.

I shared thoughts last year on the difficulty of explaining the Trinity. It is, after all, a concept designed to describe the indescribable.

Jesus’ example from last year’s reading was this: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

What I think Jesus is saying is that life's greatest mystery...the nature of God, and our relationship with God...can not be explained by "how." (See last year's blog post)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s quote (from a Speaking of Faith interview) that I used last week ended with the same idea: faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.

Explaining the Trinity is like describing why looking at the mountains still invokes an overwhelming sense of beauty and amazement, no matter how long we live among them.

So, this morning, I thought I would take a different tack, and speak on why I so seldom use the word “Father” in church.

Compared to the last generation of clergy, and certainly generations before that, I use the word “Father” a great deal less in my ministry. Part of this is that I don’t use it to describe my being a priest.

There are three reasons for this. The first is the most obvious: calling Episcopal Priests “father” makes little sense, as we have women priests. Thanks to Barbara Thrall’s presence as your former rector, any tradition to call me father is for the most part long in the past.

Even so, I want to share the other reasons for not calling clergy father. Father, of course, draws on imagery of one’s parent. Loving, wise, and experienced, are all great images of father. Authority, however, is just as common of a conclusion. Plus, most people bring their “father baggage” to the term. Distant, disappointment, absent, and abusive are certainly aspects of father that some people have personally encountered. You can imagine the barriers that this would place on someone’s relationship to “father priest.”

Finally, it is all to convenient that the term Father, long insisted by the church as the correct term to be used for God, just so happens to also be what priests should be called.

It’s no wonder that I’ve never been comfortable with being referred to as “Father Kurt” (besides, my father is named Kurt...that’s complicated enough.)

Addressing clergy, however, isn’t the only way that I tend not to use the term Father. It’s true that in liturgies, I sometimes replace the word “Father” with “God”, or some other image for God.

Some of the reasons not to use the term for clergy are related to the choice to use something other than Father for God.

There is a clear male image that is invoked by referring to God as father. A male image isn’t bad, but it’s incomplete for God, and often literalized.

Our relationships with our biological fathers or the fathers of our childhood certainly influences the way we see Father God. There are, of course, good images to be found in the metaphor. Imagine, however, how hard it would be to have to refer to God as “Father” if one’s father was absent or abusive.

Finally, there is the clear parental authority suggested by father. Father knows best: do right and Father will reward you, do wrong, and Father will punish you.

Now, I’m not saying that father’s a term to be avoided: that would be a mistake. There’s a lot of good to be found in the image of father: love and relationship, concern and protection. In our liturgies, I try to reserve the use of Father for two places: direct references to the Trinity, like the Creed where I’m using Father with Son and Holy Spirit to describe God, and instances where I am referring to Jesus’ describing of God.

It’s clear from our scriptures that Jesus described God as Father: that’s who God was for him. It was a really different way, at the time, to refer to God. It wasn’t just the idea that God could be loving, or concerned about people like a father, or one’s protector. What was unique about Jesus’ referring to God as Father was the intimacy that it suggested. Abba, Daddy, was not a term of distant authority, but of someone personally known and loved. Jesus, throughout his ministry, focused on his relationship to God. Whenever he interacted with others, his relationship to God framed the encounter. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was always near.

Applying this to liturgy is not always clear cut. There’s nothing wrong with starting the Lord’s Prayer with the words “Our Father.” That’s a close enough literal translation to what Jesus said. If we want to pray, however, in the way that Jesus prayed, then we want to invoke the intimate relationship that Jesus calls us to have with God. “Father” may not be the best way for each of us to do this!

I’m critical of the use of the term father by the church, but only because I first see brilliance and ingenuity by it. “My Father” was Jesus’ way of describing God: it worked completely for him. The church, in its wisdom, realized that it was not that “Father” was God, but that in Jesus’ example, God could be seen in the relationship between father and son.

That relationship of father and son is furthered by the way that others are, at their best, able to identify and witness to the sacredness found throughout the world. That’s the Spirit.

Three in one, Father, Son, and Spirit, describes an ongoing relationship: it is the great metaphor of God for the Church, and in it we can begin to see and experience God.

The church, at various times, loses its metaphors. “Father” has become the primary, in some places the only correct way, to refer to God. Ironically, this tendency could not be farther away from the mystery that the doctrine of the Trinity invites us to encounter. Father needs to be reclaimed, not as the one right way to refer to God, but reclaimed into the relationship that is witnessed between Jesus, his understanding of God, and with the connection with those who have followed.

Three in one: it describes relationship where one dwells within another and another...whole and yet different. Water is solid, liquid and vapor. Space is height, width & depth. God is Creator, Redeemer & Sustainer; God is wisdom, love and grace, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

God is known in the mystery of Trinity.


1 comment:

Kurt said...

PS: Since posting this, I have been reminded by a few Jewish authors that Jesus describing God in such an intimate way is unusual for a 1st century Jew, but not unique. I trust that they are right in this...