Fr Tony's Leaving Sermon, Trinity 3, 2013
St Paul’s Parish Mass 16 June3 2013:
Galatians 2.15-end; Luke 7.36-8.3
The occasion is a dinner party hosted by Simon the Pharisee to which Jesus has been invited, and at which a sinful woman was also present. It is described graphically by St Luke, contrasting an act of loving devotion on the part of the woman with a blatant disregard and lack of consideration and courtesy on the part of the host. The scene juxtaposes a woman with a dire need of forgiveness as opposed to the self-sufficiency of a man who feels he has no such need, only to project his own self-importance.
This is a story, like so many in the gospels, which stresses the contrast between Pharisaic self-righteousness and the needs of a person for forgiveness and compassion. On his part, Jesus shows his love and compassion for her. We see the reciprocal act of giving and receiving unconditional love. Jesus is reflecting and acting out the supreme love of his Father. This powerful intertwining love that binds Jesus to his Father is what unites the Holy Trinity in the way that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are lovingly active in our lives and everyday experience ― whether we are aware of it or not.
And so, on this Fathers’ day let us dwell on God our Father’s love and, at the same time, let us acknowledge the importance of our own biological father’s love. I’ve often wondered why it is that the church gives far less attention to Fathers’ Day than it does to Mothering Sunday ― and why it is we don’t refer to it as ‘Fathering Sunday’?
Even at this late stage in my priesthood I feel like starting a movement in the church, a movement which emphasises the continuing role of the father in nurturing children in our homes, celebrating the role of the father at the centre of family life, offering care, guidance, stability and love. And at the same time, why can’t we adopt Fathering Sunday as a celebration of God’s continuing nurturing love and compassion for each one of us?
Many of us develop our personal perception and internalised picture of God through our experiences of our relationship with our own fathers. This may apply particularly to women, many of whom I have encountered in spiritual direction who suffer a distorted image of God, an image created by an unsatisfactory relationship with their own fathers.
Child psychology quite rightly emphasises the bonding which is so profoundly powerful between mother and child, maintaining that the roots of security and creativity lie in this bonding which takes place in the early months of the life of a suckling baby. This emphasis may deflect us from an adequate understanding about the nature and importance of fatherhood for both girls andboys ― girls needing the experience and security of male love of the kind that should only come from their father. On the other hand, boys need a nurturing father with whom to bond and identify in order to move through adolescence and develop an adequate male role identity.
Why, I ask myself, do I feel so passionately about this? I suppose it must be because, through family break-up, I never knew my father, and he played no part in my childhood or adolescence. And he, in the passage of time, was replaced by an abusive stepfather who ridiculed, bullied and ostracised me throughout all my formative years. Strangely, it is only in relatively recent years that I have come to understand that this destructive and damaging man can still loom over me and, even today, can powerfully comes to life when I encounter anyone who engages in the same kind of attitudes towards me.
How, you might ask ― how did I emerge relatively unscathed? I’ll tell you: I adopted, at the age of about five or six, Jesus as my loving Father ― Jesus, who was always with me, my unseen friend, who loved me despite my waywardness. Such was the relationship between St Paul and Jesus ― Jesus powerfully lived in him ― and he and Jesus were bonded together in that love.
Why can’t we adopt Fathering Sunday as a reminder of the critical need for fatherly love in all our lives? Not merely marking it with a token English breakfast in bed or a tin of lager at lunchtime, but celebrating with thanksgiving the contribution of fathers at the very centre of family life. Just as a dog is not just for Christmas, so should fatherhood be an all-the-year round commitment. Here in church together, we can celebrate the ways that God our Father’s love is manifest in this wonderful world that he created for us.
Without a role model I had to learn by trial and error to be an adequate father, probably making fundamental mistakes along the way― remote when I should have been close ― too tied up with proving myself at work to spend precious hours with my children. Today, I am grateful for grandparenthood to give me a second chance; and circumstances have allowed me to take on the role of a surrogate father at a very critical time in our family life. Strangely, I think I would make a pretty good father now!
The key word in all I have been saying is ‘bonding’ both in parental relationships with their children and our need for this kind of bonding with God; spending time together, enjoying his company, knowing and receiving his love. We bond with God in our worship together, and we bond with him in our private prayer-time and devotions.
And that is why I shall always be eternally grateful to you, dear people of St Paul’s for welcoming me as one of your Priests nearly eleven years ago. You gave me a spiritual home when I needed one and you adopted me as your ‘Father Tony’. As your Father Tony you offered me another slant on fatherhood, and one that I have cherished as a calling in itself, a privilege that I hope I have never been tempted to abuse. And I, have been nurtured by you, received and accepted by you, and loved by you. And I hope in some small measure I have managed to return that love, reflecting God’s love and compassion in our everyday lives. These years have been the happiest and most fulfilling of my ordained ministry, for together we have basked in God’s love and in his transforming power and, together we have worshipped him in spirit and in his truth. And for that great blessing I shall always be profoundly thankful to all of you.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen