This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from a sermon titled “Unitarian Christianity,” which was preached in 1819 by William Ellery Channing. This sermon gives the classic old Unitarian view of God

We conceive that Christians have generally leaned towards a very injurious view of the Supreme Being. They have too often felt, as if he were raised, by his greatness and sovereignty, above the principles of morality, above those eternal laws of equity and rectitude, to which all other beings are subjected. We believe, that in no being is the sense of right so strong, so omnipotent, as in God. We believe that his almighty power is entirely submitted to his perceptions of rectitude; and this is the ground of our piety. It is not because he is our Creator merely, but because he created us for good and holy purposes; it is not because his will is irresistible, but because his will is the perfection of virtue, that we pay him allegiance. We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically. We respect nothing but excellence, whether on earth or in heaven. We venerate not the loftiness of God’s throne, but the equity and goodness in which it is established.

We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system….

To give our views of God in one word, we believe in his Parental character. We ascribe to him, not only the name, but the dispositions and principles of a father. We believe that he has a father’s concern for his creatures, a father’s desire for their improvement, a father’s equity in proportioning his commands to their powers, a father’s joy in their progress, a father’s readiness to receive the penitent, and a father’s justice for the incorrigible. We look upon this world as a place of education, in which he is training men by prosperity and adversity, by aids and obstructions, by conflicts of reason and passion, by motives to duty and temptations to sin, by a various discipline suited to free and moral beings, for union with himself, and for a sublime and ever-growing virtue in heaven.

The second reading is excerpts from a poem by Lawrence Frelinghetti titled “An Elegy To Dispel Gloom: (After the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco, November 1978)”:

Let us not sit upon the ground
and tell sad stories
of the death of sanity.
Two humans made of flesh
are meshed in death
and no more need be said.
It is pure vanity
to think that all humanity
be bathed in red
because one young mad man…
lost his head.
The force that through the red fuze
drove the bullet
does not drive everyone
through the City of Saint Francis
where there’s a breathless hush
in the air today
a hush at City Hall
and a hush at the Hall of Justice
a hush in Saint Francis Wood
where no bird tries to sing…
Do not sit upon the ground and speak
of other senseless murderings
or worse disasters waiting
in the wings.
Do not sit upon the ground and talk
of the death of things beyond
these sad sad happenings.
Such men as these do rise above
our worst imaginings.


Today is Father’s Day. This year, on Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a father; and I’ve been thinking about fatherhood in the most general terms: that is, I’ve been thinking not only about men who are fathers to children, but other kinds of fatherhood. George Washington is called the father of our country, and for that matter just as Lyle Ritz is called the father of jazz ukulele. The word “fatherhood” covers all these things; and I’ve been thinking about the thread that runs through all these different uses of the word “fatherhood,” for I believe there is a thread that runs through them all. In order to tell you about the thread that runs through all these senses of fatherhood, I’m going to tell you the story of a man who had no children of his own.

Back in 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco to open a camera store. Milk was an openly gay man who lived with his partner Scott Smith; remember that in 1972, it was much more difficult to live as an openly gay man than it is today. Milk was also an organizer and a community activist who not only found himself being called “The Mayor of the Castro,” a sort of figurehead for San Francisco’s gay community, but who was also adept at building solid alliances with a variety of ethnic groups in the city. With the help of these alliances, in 1977 Milk was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, an elected body which is roughly equivalent to our own city council. Harvey Milk was one of the very first openly gay persons elected to public office in the United States.

Milk only served for a short time, however. There was another member of the Board of Supervisors, a man named Dan White, who had run for office proclaiming that he was going to rid San Francisco of “radicals” and “social deviants”; White was the only openly anti-gay member of the Board of Supervisors. In 1978, Dan White decided to resign his office. The mayor at that time, George Moscone, accepted White’s resignation — and then when White changed his mind and tried to take back his resignation, George Moscone, with the encouragement of Harvvey Milk, refused to allow White to do so. This enraged Dan White so much that he got a gun, stuffed extra ammunition in his pockets, broke into San Francisco City Hall through an unlocked window in order to avoid the metal detectors at the main entrance, and then shot both George Moscone and Harvey Milk dead in their offices.

When the singer-songwriter Holly Near heard about the shootings, she wrote the song we just sang, “Singing for Our Lives,” which is sometimes called “Song for Harvey Milk.” Many San Franciscans were outraged by the shootings, and the way I was told the story, Holly Near sang this song in order to turn people’s anger away from merely destructive violence and rioting, towards lasting social transformation. And there was rioting after Dan White’s trial. He got off with a sentence of voluntary manslaughter, after a jury believed his defense attorneys who said that White’s mental capacity had been diminished by eating too many Hostess Twinkies. White was sentenced to a mere seven years in prison. The rank injustice of this light sentence led to the White Night Riots in San Francisco on May 21, 1979. In the end, Dan White was released on parole in 1985, and less than a year later he committed suicide: his hatred and the anger took over his life, and he turned it all on himself.

But let’s get back to Harvey Milk’s lasting legacy. Even though he only served as an elected official for less than two years, Harvey Milk has served as a hero and an inspiration to many people; even Time magazine recognized him as one of the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century. I feel Harvey Milk’s legacy has been to show us how to build alliances with those who are different from us. When he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk said to his supporters, “This is not my victory — it’s yours. If a gay man can win, it proves that there is hope for all minorities who are willing to fight.” [KQED Web site] He’s not a hero because he inspired Holly Near to write a song. He’s not a hero because he was openly gay and got shot dead by some hate-filled antigay man. He’s a hero because he stood up for an eternal principle: that there is hope for us when we build bonds between ourselves and other human beings.

While Harvey Milk and his partner never had children of their own, it strikes me that Harvey Milk had the essence of fatherhood in him. He stood up for the rights of all minorities, in exactly the same way that good fathers will stand up for their children. And when I talk about good fathers who stand up for their children, I don’t mean those horrible sports fathers who assault other kids’ parents when their own kids strike out or fumble the ball; that kind of sports father is merely using his child as a means to fill his own need for power and control. No, I’m talking about the kind of fatherhood that values children as ends in themselves, the kind of fatherhood that helps children become the best that they can be without trying to reshape them into an image of what the father thinks they should be. It is the kind of fatherhood that is motivated primarily by unselfish love.

Nor is it just men with children living in their household who can exhibit this kind of fatherhood. Men whose own children are grown, or men who, like me, have no children of their own:– like Harvey Milk, these men can still attain to the kind of fatherhood motivated by unselfish love. All men can take on the best characteristics of fatherhood: we can treat all persons as ends in of themselves, rather than as means to meet our own ends; we can act as if all persons are of infinite value in and of themselves.

Our culture tries to tell us men that this is women’s work, or mother’s work. Women and mothers are supposed by our culture to be more aware of the needs of others; after all, it is women who can give birth, which seems the most intimate connection that one person can have with another person. Perhaps there is some truth in what our society tells us, but the real point is that we men are also capable of deep sensitivity to the needs and interests of another person. We too are capable of treating other people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to our own ends; we too are capable of unselfish love towards others. And I believe this unselfish love is tied to two basic liberal religious principles, one found in Universalism and one found in Unitarianism.

In the first reading this morning, we heard a classic statement of Unitarianism dating from 1819, from the Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing. In the reading, Channing meditates on what it means to talk about God as a father. Channing tells us that if we are going to talk about God as a kind of father, then we must ascribe to God not just the name “Father” but also the best characteristics of a good father. If we are going to talk about God as a father figure, then we must affirm that such a God will have the same unstinting love for others that a good father has for his children; the same desire that others may improve themselves that a good father feels for his children; the same equity that good father displays; the same joy in the progress of others that a good father takes in the progress of his children; the same willingness to forgive that a good father feels towards his children; and the same ability to mete out justice when it is needed that a good father has with his children. I have to admit this sounds hopelessly idealistic — what human being can live up to such vision of fatherhood? Yet this old Unitarian description of God the Father is meant to describe a religious ideal to help guide us fallible human beings. William Ellery Channing gives us, as a religious principle, an ideal of fatherhood that combines joy, forgiveness, justice, love, and equity. Even if many of us no longer view God as some kind of father figure, we can still appreciate this religious ideal of a good father; an impossible ideal, but an ideal which can inspire us, an ideal from which we can draw strength. This serves as an example from our Unitarian heritage.

Turning to our Universalist heritage, we turn from this specific idealistic vision for fatherhood, to a more fundamental principle,– and that is the principle that all human beings are worthy of love. When the old Universalists spoke of the “Fatherhood of God,” they meant that God’s love must extend to all human beings, for each and every human being is worthy of love. The old Universalists knew that God could not be a hateful, hurtful God with flashing eyes and a thirst for vengeance; they knew that God’s core being must be love. Indeed, they said of their Father-God that “God is Love”; I take this to mean that, from their religious point of view, the essence of fatherhood is all-encompassing, forgiving love.

Their notion of fatherhood began with a love of one’s own children, but it went far beyond that. Some of the old Universalists read their Bibles pretty literally, and they indeed believed that the first humans were actual creations of God, and therefore in a very real sense God’s own children. Many Christian groups have interpreted the Bible with the understanding that the members of their little group are the only true descendants of God, the only true children of God, and that therefore God does not extend love to anyone outside their little group. But those old Universalists knew that God’s caring love extended to all human beings, to all persons. This kind of fatherly love knows no bounds: this kind of love goes beyond one’s immediate children to all of humanity, because all of humanity must all be God’s children:– this was a basic religious principle of the Universalists.

We might use different terminology today than those old Unitarians and Universalists used. Certainly, we have grown beyond the need to understand God as exclusively male, as exclusively a father; now we can understand the concept of God to include both mother and father. We can also choose to reject the concept of God completely. Nevertheless, we still draw inspiration from those old Unitarian and Universalist God images, inspiration which can help us better understand the basic religious principles at the root of fatherhood.

What are those basic religious principles? Harvey Milk, although I’m not aware that he belonged to a religious community, lived out the religious principles that I am talking about. Harvey Milk started his career of public service with those closest to him, the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco. But he extended his concern and his care — we might say, his love, except that we are unaccustomed to talking about love in relation to politics — he extended his care and concern beyond his immediate community to include other minority communities. We could say that he was the father of a broad-based coalition of people all working towards justice and equity for all. I don’t mean to elevate Harvey Milk to sainthood, but he did build alliances and relationships to include all kinds of people, and in this sense he represents a wider love for all humanity. He is not a saint, but as the father of a small but influential political movement in the city of San Francisco, he has set a worthy example for us to emulate here in our own city.

Before I end, I’d like to return for just a moment to Holly Near’s song. Holly Near wrote the song “Singing for Our Lives,” to help us turn anger into love and transformative action. When faced with rank injustice, it would be easy to let anger take over our hearts. Unfortunately, unadulterated anger only serves to drive people apart, and in the end those who harbor anger in their hearts find that anger destroys them. So I believe what Holly Near is telling us in her song is that sometimes we need to combine our love with the energy that comes in anger. Holly Near tells us that we are singing for our lives, and as a singer-songwriter she immediately thinks of music as a way to combine love with the energy that comes from anger; but we know that religion can do the same thing for us. The energy from the anger will drive us to address injustice, while the love will allow us to do justice with compassion, and to transform the world without stooping to violence. On this Father’s Day, may we remember this basic religious principle:– Love is the most powerful force in the universe; and as a religious people, our mission shall be to spread the doctrine of love.

Can You Fix It, Dad?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Bridging ceremony

Each year, a few young people from this church end their time in high school. Usually after they are through with high school, they head off to find a job, to join the military, or to attend college or further education. And often that means that these young people move out of town, or have busy schedules that don’t permit them to come to church as often.

Our young people enrich the life of this church immeasurably. They bring their own perspective to church life, they bring their own talents and enthusiasms. Sometimes, they can help to challenge the assumptions of older generations, which can inject new energy and life into this church. So when the end of high school requires some young people to move on, it’s a real loss to the church.

But it’s also a time of excitement. We are so pleased that these young people are entering a new phase of life! They may not be around as much as in the past, but we want them to know that we will always be glad to see them here, that we hope they continue to be a part of this church. We want them to know, too, that we will support them as they make the big transition away from high school and into something new — we will support them in their dreams, and their emerging new lives.

This is our chance to recognize these people in what has become known as a “Bridging Ceremony,” bridging the gap between youth and adulthood.


First, I’d like to ask anyone who, like me, spent part or all of their growing-up years in a Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist church, to join me up here at the pulpit.

Next, I’d like to ask everyone who is in high school, and those adults who have served as youth advisors, to come stand up here in front of the pulpit.

Jarrod Hines and Dani Everton have graduated from high school and both will be attending Bristol Community College. Would you two please join us up here in the pulpit?

Welcome, Dani and Jarrod! We welcome you into the community of adult Unitarian Universalists.

Those of us standing here at the pulpit also grew up as Unitarian Universalists, and we have either stayed, or we have come back. Know that you will be welcomed into other Unitarian Universalist churches (and if you aren’t welcomed, you can do what some of us did and demand to be welcomed in!). Know that you will always be welcome here — come back and visit, or remain here as members.

And I deliver this charge to all the adults in this church: whenever you meet a young adult who grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church, you have the privilege and the responsibility to welcome them here in this church — just as other Unitarian Universalist congregations will have the privilege (and responsibility) to welcome some of our young people into their congregations.


The first reading this morning comes from Kenneth Patton:

“The family is the center of devotion; we declare it so. The child justifies the family, for no child survives without its nurture. We live for the family, more than we live for nation, corporation, or religion. Parents have one superlative function, to bring new lives into the world, to share in the creation of persons. The old man, sorting essential works from trivia, knows fatherhood was the best of what he had to do.”

[Patton, Hymns for Humanity.]

(I would add, that those of us whose families are child-free are equally responsible for children, for all children, the children of humanity.)

The second reading consists of two aphorisms from Ben Franklin’s 1739 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac:

“Honour thy Father and Mother, i. e. Live so as to be an Honour to them tho’ they are dead.”

“Let our Fathers and Grandfathers be valued for their Goodness, ourselves for our own.”

So end this morning’s readings. Though I have to admit, as I thought about these two sayings, the less sure of them I became. The sermon will, in part, be an attempt to make these sayings a little less slippery.


“Can you fix it, Dad?” I’m not sure I ever asked that exact question of my own father, but it’s the classic question for children to ask of their parents.

And right at the outset, I should point out that even though we’re in the fourth wave of feminism in North America, our culture still thinks that men are better at fixing things and women are better at nurturing;– thus, in families with two parents of opposite gender, when we hear the question, “Can you fix it?” many of us are likely to imagine that the child is asking her or his father to fix something. Of course, that’s not necessarily the case in the real world. In my family of origin, both my mother and my father were equally good at fixing things for us when we were small. So both mothers and fathers are perfectly good at fixing things. But because it’s Father’s Day today, I’m going to talk about fathers.

“Can you fix it, Dad?” It seems to me that young children are most likely to ask to have very concrete things fixed:– a broken doll loses its arm, or a broken toy truck loses a wheel, and the child asks, “Can you fix it?” What adult could resist such an appeal from a child? Dad bends down and fixes the doll or the toy truck. Maybe it’s not the best repair job in the world, but from the child’s point of view it’s a miracle, and the child is impressed by Dad’s love and power and kindness.

A string of repair jobs follows. Dad stitches together a toy tiger which has somehow lost its head. The repair jobs get more complex. The child presents Dad with a broken tricycle, and Dad has to ask some friends at work how in tunket you repair a broken spoke on a tricycle, and then Dad has to borrow a spoke wrench, find out where you can buy a tricycle spoke, turn the cussed thing upside down, tell the child to go away so as not to hear Dad’s swearing, and repair the stupid thing. At last it’s done, and again the child is impressed by Dad’s love and power and kindness — and perhaps has learned some new words too boot.

These repair jobs get progressively more difficult. The difficulty increases exponentially with the age of the child. Soon they get so difficult that even Dad can’t fix it. The family cat or dog dies, the child is at last old enough to understand death, and the child realizes that Dad can’t fix death. The family experiences discrimination of some kind, the child is old enough to realize the emotional impact of discrimination, and the child sees that Dad can’t seem to do anything about it. In my own case, Dad and I were playing baseball in the back yard. I pitched the ball to Dad, he hit a little pop fly straight at me, and I was too slow and clueless to either duck or put my glove in front of my face. The ball whacked me on the forehead, and though it didn’t hurt that much, that whack on the head provided a moment of enlightenment that made me realize first of all that Dad couldn’t protect me from myself; and then I realized that Dad couldn’t fix my essential inability to play team sports.

At some point, each one of us realizes that our parents aren’t all-powerful. That moment came for me with a dramatic whack on the head when I was seven or eight years old. That’s a pretty common age for children to come to the realization that our parents aren’t quite as all-powerful as we had originally believed. The effects of this realization can reach far and wide in the child’s life. The effects can be relatively trivial — not long after I got that whack on the head, I gave up on baseball, joined the Cub Scouts, and followed in Dad’s footsteps by pursuing outdoors sports like fishing and boating and hiking.

Or the effects can be quite profound….

By the age of seven or eight, many children have finally become aware that their parents are not all-powerful, and I think that’s why many traditional religions have a rite of passage for children of that age. Some traditional Christian churches allow children to participate in their first communion when the child is seven or eight. Although I can’t accept the theology behind it, the ritual of first communion makes good psychological sense. Just when the child has come to doubt that his or her own father is all-powerful and capable of fixing anything, the religious community comes along and affirms the existence of an all-powerful father-God with whom one can have mystical union through the ritual of communion.

Of course, the idea of an all-powerful father-God doesn’t work any better in the long run than the idea that your own flesh-and-blood father is all-powerful. In some traditional religious communities, people of that religion learn to talk to their father-God through prayer and they might even ask, “Can you fix it, Father? Can you fix it, God?” From what I’ve seen, the notion that God can fix anything only lasts until the teenage years. But the moment always seems to come when the young person’s prayer goes unanswered, at which point the young person either has to develop a more subtle way of understanding God, or the young person winds up rejecting the notion of an all-powerful father-figure and often rejecting her or his childhood religion. Both options seem to be perfectly valid — perfectly valid, that is, as long as the young person comes to realize that the world is a flawed place, filled with injustice and many kinds of evils, and that there is no one out there — not your own dad, not God — who can fix your life and make everything all better.

And if you want to know why some young teenagers seem to be really, really cranky, who wouldn’t be cranky when you have to face up to the fact that the world is filled with injustice and evil and no one’s going to fix it for you?

We adults know that the world is filled with injustice and evil, and we know that no one is going to fix things for us. When I hear the question, “Can you fix it, Dad?”, I have a twinge of nostalgia, remembering my days as a young child when I thought Dad could fix anything. As an adult, I now know that no one can fix everything. From my religious point of view, that means that I can’t honestly believe in a God that is all-knowing, completely good, and all-powerful — because such a God would surely know when bad things happen to me, such a God would want to fix the bad things that happen to me, and such a God would have the power to fix the bad things that happen to me. And since bad things keep happening to me, the evidence leads me to conclude that there is no God that is all-knowing, completely good, and all-powerful. The answer to the question, “Can you fix it, Dad?” is always — No, not really.

Many people, when they reach to this conclusion, just give up the whole notion of God — I’ll talk about that option in just a moment. But many people find alternative ways to understand God, and I’ll tell you about two such God-concepts that happen to be current in Unitarian Universalist circles.

First, there’s so-called “process theology,” which I have to admit that I don’t fully understand. But as I understand it, the process theologians tell us that God is changing and growing and evolving — that’s why it’s called “process theology,” because God is in process. Well, that would imply that God is not all-knowing, completely good, and all-powerful. It’s sort of like when you go into the photocopy shop, and you see the sign on the wall that says, “Good. Cheap. Fast. Pick two.” So maybe if you walk into the office of a process theologian, you’d see a sign on the wall that says: “All-knowing. Completely good. All-powerful. Pick two.” But I’ll tell you what it’s really like. It’s really like your younger self suddenly realizing that your Dad can’t fix everything in the world, and that he is fallible and growing and changing, just as you yourself are. That’s process theology.

Another way that some Unitarian Universalists understand God goes under the general heading of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism is a pretty vague term these days, and it can include everyone from Emersonians to Goddess worshippers to ecological activists. Most Transcendentalists see divinity in the processes of Nature, and some would even say that all of Nature is divine, is God. Transcendentalists impress me as being essentially optimistic, believing that the arc of the universe tends towards goodness, which leads to them fighting against human-created injustice. If Transcendentalists had to choose from all-knowing, completely good, and all-powerful, I think most of them would choose just one — that God is completely good — the rest is up to us. And that’s like your younger self realizing that what your dad really offers you is his love, and pretty much everything else is going to be up to you.

What about those among us who don’t believe in God? There are many ways to not believe in God, but I’ll just talk about the one most common option that happens to be current in Unitarian Universalist circles today.

The best-known option for religious people who don’t believe in God is humanism. I would define humanism as deep trust in the human capacity for good. Humanists also acknowledge that humans beings do not always act in good ways, which means that we have to figure out how to build a society that helps us act in the best ways possible. Humanism requires of us that we work together with other human beings to address the very real problems that we’re facing. Perhaps humanism can best be compared to your younger self coming to the long, slow realization that your dad is not superhuman, but that he is human just like you, he’s just another human being that maybe you can work with to address the world’s problems.

At some point in your life, you realize that your dad can’t fix everything because your dad is fallible, and he is growing and changing. At some point in your life, you realize that what your dad really offers is his love, and even though it must be admitted that not all dads are able to offer that we can acknowledge more generally that love is the most powerful force in the universe. At some point in your life, you realize that your dad is fully human, with all that statement implies.

I began by asking the questions: “Can you fix it, dad?” The short answer is no. When I finally figured that out, I got along much better with my dad; and it was easier on my dad when he knew that I knew that he couldn’t fix everything about my life. I know my dad can’t fix the world. My dad doesn’t try to fix my world. We’ve gotten to the point where we just talk like two human beings.

And what do Dad and I talk about? Well, we often talk about what’s wrong with the world; that is to say, we often talk about what needs to be fixed.

I don’t want to speak for my dad, but I think he and I both agree that the primary moral and ethical problem confronting anyone living in the United States today is the fact that we are involved in a long-running war in Iraq. My dad and I both happen to believe that the Iraq war is immoral and unethical; but neither one of us believes that some father-God is going to come and end the war for me. Nor do we believe that the United States has some father-God on my side, and that therefore anyone who disagrees with our country is automatically wrong.

That is to say, we do not believe that some magically powerful figure is going to fix all the problems of the world. And that means that we know full well that if something is going to be done about the war in Iraq, it’s up to us to do it. Dad belongs to Veterans for Peace — he’s a veteran of the Second World War — and he marches with the Veterans for Peace in town parades. He also witnesses for peace in his Unitarian Universalist church. For my part, I preach peace from this pulpit once in a while — not so much as to bore you — and I try to carve out enough time to witness publicly for peace; so I joined some Quakers in a public witness for peace in front of the Capitol building in Washington, DC, a couple of months ago.

I no longer say to my father, “Can you fix it, dad?” Now we say to each other, “How can we fix it together?” My wish for fathers, and for all parents, is that their children grow and mature enough so that they can ask that same question of their children: How can we fix it together? And my wish for all children is that they might have a relationship with their parents where they can ask: How can we fix it together? This will not be possible for all parents nor for all children; it is an ideal, limited by the realities of parent-child relationships.

But if I had one wish on this Father’s Day, this is what I would wish: That, to the extent possible, children will grow up and mature to the point where they can look their parents steadily in the eye and say, Let’s work together to fix this mess we’re in. That allows us to value our parents for their Goodness, and it allows us to value ourselves for our own goodness. So we would honor the human race, honor ourselves by fixing injustices as best we can, slowly building a heaven here on earth.

Dads to the rescue

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from the Torah, the book of Genesis, chapter 22, verses 1-8:

‘After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.’

The second reading is an excerpt from a long poem titled “Seed Catalog” by poet Robert Kroetsch:

My father was mad at the badger: the badger was digging holes in the potato patch, threatening man and beast with broken limbs (I quote). My father took the double-barreled shotgun out into the potato patch and waited.

Every time the badger stood up, it looked like a little man, come out of the ground. Why, my father asked himself — Why would so fine a fellow live below the ground? Just for the cool of the roots? The solace of dark tunnels? The blood of gophers?

My father couldn’t shoot the badger. He uncocked the shotgun, came back into the house in time for breakfast. The badger dug another hole. My father got mad again. They carried on like that all summer.

Love is an amplification
by doing/ over and over.

Love is a standing up
to the loaded gun.

Love is a burrowing.

One morning my father actually shot at the badger. He killed a magpie that was pecking away at a horse turd about fifty feet beyond and to the right of the spot where the badger had been standing.

A week later my father told the story again. In that version he intended to hit the magpie. Magpies, he explained, are a nuisance. They eat robin’s eggs. They’re harder to kill than snakes, jumping around the way they do, nothing but feathers.

Just call me sure-shot,
my father added.

SERMON — “Dads to the Rescue”

Our Western cultural tradition has at least two ways of talking about fathers, and these two ways are represented by our two readings this morning. One way of talking about fathers is dramatic, big, astounding, and — a little bit crazy. The other way of talking about fathers is muted, down-to-earth, not very exciting, and a lot more realistic. Both these views of fathers have religious implications, but I hope to show that for our religious community, the second way of talking about fathers is probably going to be more productive for us.

Our Western religious traditions paint an ambiguous picture of fatherhood. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth tells us to think of God as an ideal father, fair and loving; but Jesus also tells his followers to abandon their human fathers to follow only their heavenly father. Within the pagan traditions as I have experienced them, men and maleness and fathers are respected, but the emphasis has been on the Goddess and motherhood, and sometimes fatherhood is pushed off to the side. In our own congregation, we see a higher attendance on the Sunday of Mother’s Day than we do on the Sunday of Father’s Day. Not that anyone is bad-mouthing fathers in any of these situations — but it does seem to me that we don’t quite know what to make of fathers; or what to make of men when you come right down to it.

These ambiguous feelings towards fathers get summed up in the rather peculiar story of the time when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. What a dramatic story it is!– Abraham has Isaac all ready to kill on the scrificial altar, and at the last minute God steps in and says to Abaraham, No you don’t really have to kill your son, this was just a test of your loyalty to me, and you passed the test. From a modern point of view, of course our first response to God’s request is something along these lines: You say you want Abraham to sacrifice his son, but then it’s just a loyalty test? –what, are you crazy?! And then we stop ourselves and realize that perhaps Abraham felt that his relationship to God was like a father-son relationship, and what do you do when your father asks you to do something crazy? Loyalty to something big and abstract can be tricky indeed.

I’m afraid, however, that that takes me right back to my initial reaction: You want Abraham to sacrifice his son? –God, are you crazy?! Yet somehow I do admire Abraham for upholding his loyalty to God, there’s a little piece of me that admires Abraham for having the confidence in his God to know that somehow things will turn out all right. But then I think, How can God ask this of Abraham? –how can God ask this man to kill his son? Why does God need to test his children in this way?

If you want to engage in pop psychology, perhaps you could say that this story points up just how complicated the relationships between fathers and their children can be. It may be that this story, like so many of the old, old myths that have come down to us, carries in it a grain of truth; perhaps the grain of an uncomfortable truth: parents do test their children; parents are not as simple as the sentiments on greeting cards.

But there’s another way of perceiving fathers that’s not so flashy, yet it really is just as pervasive in Western culture. This other way of perceiving fathers is low-key, down-to-earth, and probably closer to reality. We can see this second way of perceiving fathers at work in the second reading, the poem about the father and the badger.

The poem starts off with a kind of cliche: father heading off to kill a marauding animal. But then he can’t stand to kill the badger. Finally, he shoots at the badger, but he still can’t stand to kill it, so he almost deliberately misses, and to his surprise he kills a magpie. In the end, though, he has to tell the story so that he meant to kill the magpie — in the end, it seems as though the father in the poem has to live up to what men in our culture are supposed to do and be.

Actually, I prefer to think that the father in the poem knows perfectly well what he’s done. He felt he should shoot at the badger, but he didn’t want to hit the badger; in that sense, his aim was perfect, perfect because he missed the badger. Now by chance, he happened to hit a magpie, but that doesn’t make his aim any less perfect, so when he says, “Just call me sure-shot,” he’s only telling the truth.

And this portrait of a father is far closer to reality;– at least far closer to the real world as I’ve experienced it. Fathers, like all human beings, are complex, fallible, wonderful beings, mixtures of good and less-good motivations, complex mixtures of highest ideals and random happenings. Waht we see in this anecdote is that the poet’s father influences him so very strongly, strongly enough that he writes a poem about it, through a series of small actions. For, as the poet says, “Love is an amplification/ by doing over and over.”

There is a theological point in all this. But it’s not the stereotypical kind of theological point. We get no insights into deep metaphysics; we get no revelations into the ultimate nature of God or the universe; we do not receive ultimate instruction in the meaning of life. Rather, this raises a theological point in my favorite area of theology, ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of how congregations work in real life, and also of the ideals to which congregations should aspire. I happen to be particularly fascinated by ecclesiology because it is a study of how human beings can be in practical community together while trying to uphold our highest ideals; and therefore I believe ecclesiology has implications for the wider society, as we try to figure out how to live out our highest ideals without making an utter mess out of life.

So let’s get back to fathers, and from there we’ll see how fathers fit into ecclesiology.

Fathers can have a huge influence in the lives of their children. Indeed, any man, even men like me without any children of my own, can have an influence in the lives of the young people in their immediately surrounding community. The real problem is that too many men choose not to influence the lives of young people. I see this in congregational life all too often: usually, only a few men step forward to teach Sunday school. One of the things I like about our congregation is that half our Sunday school teachers this year were men.

One of the primary purposes of human life is to raise up the next generation. While parents have special responsibilities, we’re all charged with that task. In our Western culture, women have been pretty good at nurturing young people; but it does seem to me that we men don’t have such a well-defined role. Maybe it’s the influence of stories like God and Abraham and Isaac — who wants to be that kind of father-figure? I’d rather be like the father who doesn’t shoot at the badger, even if I wish he didn’t brag about killing the magpie.

Recently I’ve been looking around, and it seems to me that there are large numbers of young men who are adrift in the world, young men in their teens and early twenties. They’re just floating along, nobody has taught them how to use a compass, in fact nobody has so much as given them a compass, so they’re directionless; so they live their lives with no other purpose than playing video games, or getting drunk, or some other essentially pointless task. Some of these young men founder: they join gangs and get killed, or they wind up killing someone else; or they drift from job to job and never really get anywhere. If these young men were literally adrift — if they were literally drifting in small boats on the ocean — the Coast Guard would come out and rescue them. But no one is coming to rescue these young men.

I don’t know about the other men here this morning, but I know I did my share of drifting when I was in my teens. But mostly, I was fortunate in having a father and lots of other men around me who took me seriously, and helped give me direction. Mostly, they helped give me direction by showing me how to work. You may want to tell me that there are better ways to give a young man direction than by just showing him how to work, and you’re probably right; but at least knowing how to work kept me from sliding into too many video games, or too much drink, or something equally pointless and time-wasting, like joining a gang.

I’d like to think it would be better if my religion could have given me some direction, but just as Western religion is a little too ambiguous on what it means to be a father, it’s a little too ambiguous on what it means to be a man. Jesus is a fine role model in a limited way, but nothing in our religious tradition religion tells us whether or not Jesus had children, and if he did what kind of father he was; nothing in our religious tradition tells us what Jesus was like when he was working in his father’s carpentry shop, whether he was good with the tools or not; nothing in our religious tradition tells us if Jesus was married, and if he was what kind of marriage he had and how he treated his spouse. It’s very fine that we are told how Jesus preached and taught; but preaching and teaching about religion is the center of most men’s lives. Sure, we are concerned about the ultimate questions in life, and we appreciate Jesus’s responses to those questions. But as a man, I would feel better about Western religion if Jesus could be a role model for the concerns that I face every day.

I do a little better with Moses, although his marriage doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly good. Moses as a role model is more helpful to me, on a day-to-day basis, than Jesus. But even Moses isn’t quite good enough. I look for good male role models, and I just don’t seem to find them in the religious scriptures of our Western tradition.

Where I have found good male role models has been in local congregations. One of the things I liked about going to church when I was in my teens was that there were plenty of men who took me seriously. I remember lots of men who would speak to me, not as an equal, maybe, but as someone worthy of respect; for example, when we were ushering together, one man once told me why he still thought of himself as a Universalist, fifteen years after the merger with the Unitarians; that he would talk to me about serious topics, treating me as full human being, meant a lot to me. Other men talked to me about their careers, even about their disappointments. And the men at church held me to high standards, mostly by the examples they set with their own lives. By taking me seriously, they showed me that I too could follow their example and become a man who lived a life worth living, that I could accomplish something, that I could learn the self-control to become one of them.

Our religious scriptures tend towards the dramatic exciting stories that don’t seem to apply to daily life; but our congregations can be places where men can learn practical living from each other by example. And one of the things we can learn from each other, here in our congregations, is how to reach out to and mentor younger men out in the wider world: fathers with young sons can learn this from older men who have been through it already; and the rest of us can learn how to reach out to young men in the workplace or in the community, to nephews and other relations.

Our congregation should be a place where we figure out how to lives the best life possible, where we figure out how to become the best human beings we can become. Our own congregation is, in large part, that kind of place. And we have to figure out how to reach out to each other; how to extend that helping hand to someone else if that’s called for; or how to be a role model, when that’s called for. That’s true for all of us, men and women, of all ages. Our congregation is supposed to be a place where you can come if you’re feeling adrift, and where someone will at least hand you a metaphorical compass so you know what direction you’re headed in.

And I want to propose this as a good religious model for fatherhood: that a father is someone who can help us find direction when we’re feeling a little adrift. In extreme cases, a father can be like the Coast Guard coming in to rescue someone from a life raft after the ship went down, to rescue and get that person back to shore.

I also want to suggest that father-figures don’t have to be your actual father. As we know from the story of Abraham and Isaac, sometimes fathers can do some pretty stupid things. Sometimes you need a father-figure to rescue you from your actual father. That’s an extreme situation, but I also want to suggest that it doesn’t hurt for young men to have more than one father-figure in their lives. All fathers are going to be limited, fallible human beings, just like the father in the poem who misses the badger and hits the magpie, and later claims he meant to hit the magpie when we know he meant no such thing. So it’s not a bad idea for young men to have lots of men whom they can turn to if need be. We also know from the example of the Coast Guard that when they take on a rescue at sea, they don’t send in just one person, they send in a rescue team. Rather than just having one dad come to the rescue, we want to have multiple dads who are able to come to the rescue, if need be.

I keep telling you why this congregation is important, and here I am, giving you another reason why we need to have a strong, healthy congregation. But I feel an especial urgency about this reason. Young people are not treated well by our culture; too many young people lack meaning and direction in their lives; too many young people are allowed to go adrift. I can see this happening around me; and at the same time, I know from my own observation and from sociological studies that congregations like ours are quite good at providing support and direction for young people. Thus, there is a moral urgency to this task of keeping our congregation strong and healthy, so that we can support young people. We can make a difference in this area by committing ourselves to a steady course of small actions; for, as the poet says, “Love is an amplification/ by doing over and over.”

So this is yet another sermon where I exhort you to live up to our highest religious ideals; to live up, not to the dramatic stories in religious scriptures, but to live up to the ideals of a supportive, mentoring community. But of all the sermons I’ve preached this year, I think perhaps I feel most strongly about this topic: we need to look after our children and teens and young adults; in extreme instances, we need to be in a position to rescue young people who are adrift. And as this is my last sermon for you until August, that means you get to chew on this topic all summer long….