June 18, 2017 Father’s Day John 14: 15-31
Prayer: Dear Lord, On this day set aside to honor earthly fathers, we acknowledge you as our heavenly Father. But as creator, sustainer, redeemer, you are so much more. We pray that our worship this morning please you. We pray in the name of Jesus, the name you wore while among us. Amen.
Chasing a Father
My friend Matt Matthews was born relatively late in his parents’ lives. His two sisters were almost grown.
As Matt grew up on the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton, Virginia, he played soldiers and war and all those games that boys play. It made him curious about his own dad, who had served in World War II.
Bill Matthews had fought in the deadly Battle of the Bulge on the Belgium-Germany border. He’d been captured and spent the next seven months as a prisoner of war.
Whenever young Matt asked his dad about that time, Bill would reply, “Why do you want to know about that mess?”
That mess. That was about the extent of what Matt got out of his dad.
Looking back as an adult, Matt fears he nagged his father too often, that he wasn’t aware of the deep wounds his father carried, that putting “that mess” out of his mind might have been the only way he knew to survive.
Late in his father’s life, Matt took him to see the newly released “Saving Private Ryan.” That’s the Steven Spielberg movie that opens with a horrific, 27-minute depiction of Allied soldiers landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. It is widely considered the most realistic and devastating war scene ever shot.
Other veterans were in the theater that day, and the crowds parted to let them hobble through. As they drove home afterward, Matt broke the silence to ask his dad if the movie was realistic, if it’d really been like that.
“It was just like that,” his father replied. “Except it was worse.”
Matt’s father died in 2002. And Matt, who is now the pastor of our partner church, St. Giles Presbyterian, still wasn’t satisfied with how little he knew.
Matt happens to be a writer as well as a pastor. Years ago, we were sitting over bagels and coffee one weekday morning, and he told me this amazing idea he had to follow his father’s footsteps through wartime Europe. Since his father hadn’t talked about it, maybe he could find answers on the battlefields of Belgium and Germany and France.
Six summers ago, he took his wife, Rachel, and their three teen-age sons and they visited the sites where his father had been. They worked backward from Bill’s capture at the Battle of the Bulge, to the docking in Glasgow, Scotland, of a bunch of raw young recruits.
The book Matt wrote about it came out last month: One Thousand Miles: Following My Father’s WWII Footsteps. It’s an incredible Father’s Day story, the story of a search to understand a father, while at the same time wondering at his own fatherhood of three sons.
An indelible image for me came near the end of the book. The family arrived at the harbor in Glasgow, Scotland, at the River Clyde, where the Aquitania had dumped Bill Matthews 67 years earlier. Matt’s family had planned to take a ferry to experience young Bill’s time on the water. But the ferry cancelled its trip that day.
Recognizing that Matt needed some time alone, Rachel and the boys went into Glasgow to buy T-shirts. But Matt couldn’t leave the river. He felt unsettled, uncertain. They’d traveled so far and he still didn’t have the answers he sought.
Here’s what he wrote: “I knew I needed to leave this river. I needed to let go of this cold metal handrail, let go of my disappointment, and catch up… . I didn’t want to miss the buying spree downtown. I didn’t want to miss my own sons growing up.”
Matt came to the conclusion that he would never know his father’s wartime experiences the way he wanted to. He would never understand how that winter of ’44 and ’45 impacted the rest of his dad’s life.
His book doesn’t try to wrap everything up neatly. Instead, it invites us to view his struggle to know his father, invites us to view his joy in raising sons in a world not convulsed by all-encompassing war.
On this Father’s Day, we honor earthly fathers. And I’m so glad if you had a good one, like Bill Matthews, like Matt Matthews, like Ryan Coker and Rob All and Mike Winiski, the fathers of our graduates. Certainly, not everyone does. We know that in this place better than most.
Writers of our Holy Scripture struggled to create stories and metaphors that we could understand intellectually, emotionally, narratively. They talked of farmers and seeds, of builders and steadfast buildings, of seas and great hauls of fish, of mothers and dying children. And one of the most enduring stories they told is one of fathers and sons.
Certainly, they told of earthly fathers – Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Jacob’s 12 sons who became heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. They told of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and of Joseph, earthly father of Jesus.
But they also told stories about fathers intended to represent God. Jesus told about a father whose son demanded his inheritance. He used that inheritance to go to a foreign land and live riotously.
And when the son was poor and broken and had to return, his father welcomed him warmly, wildly, extravagantly. It is a picture of grace, a picture of a lavishly forgiving father.
Another time, Jesus questioned what father, when his son asked for a fish, would give him a snake? “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7: 10-11)
Jesus, in his parables and sayings, and the Scripture writers in their stories, used what their listeners knew and understood, what we readers know and understand. We understand fathers and sons.
And so in the gospel of John, Jesus talks extensively about a father as a way of showing us a closeness of relationship. In today’s Scripture, Jesus is talking to his disciples about the Trinity. About his existence in the Father and in the Holy Spirit.
Our understanding of the incarnation is that God became human and came to dwell among us. That some time later, the Holy Spirit came to live among us.
But that’s a difficult concept. And so Jesus talks in terms we can more readily understand. He talks in terms of a father and his son.
If you’d like to read along, please turn to John 14: 15-31. This is Jesus talking to his disciples before his death.
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.
20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’
23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
27 ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.”
‘If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. 30I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; 31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.
We talk about God the Father, Jesus the son, but we know it’s not a parental relationship in the human way. Still, this passage offers what is best in a parental relationship, and that is security, stability, love.
This passage makes up the second half of John’s 14th chapter. The first half is what I almost always read during a funeral: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. … And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself…. ” (John 14: 1-3)
But since John’s habit is to repeat – quite a lot -- we get this same comforting message in the second half of the chapter. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says again, “and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you. ’ ”
In the 20th and 21st centuries, we have never known what it means to know the earthly Jesus. But the disciples did. And they were afraid to contemplate a life without him.
This is how he assures them. “I will not leave you orphaned.” What a promise! I will not leave you orphaned.
And though he warns that his death is imminent, he says, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Clearly something is going on here beyond a human relationship. Clearly something is going on here that’s not been experienced before.
That something -- our living in Jesus and he living in us – comes courtesy of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.
I don’t pretend to understand everything about the Holy Spirit. My own father used to say, “I understand God the Father. I think I understand Jesus the Son. But I’m not sure I get the Holy Spirit.”
I’d explain for a few minutes, then admit, “I’m not sure I really do either, Dad. Let’s have ice cream.”
Scripture attempts to explain to us in ways we can understand this relationship among the godhead. And the closest it comes, I think, is when it draws on what we know of our fathers.
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…. (And) the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
Bill Matthews was in the Battle of the Bulge for only four days before being captured. The bulk of his World War II experience was as a POW before being liberated and making his way to Paris.
The World War II novelist James Jones writes of a group of soldiers fighting at an obscure crossroads in France shortly after that Normandy invasion depicted in “Saving Private Ryan.” Most of them lost their lives, but the unit held on until reinforcements arrived.
James Jones said that victory came in the second world war not so much because of the battles we can name – the Normandies, the Omaha Beaches, the Battles of the Bulge -- but because of heroic skirmishes by a few people in a thousand obscure and out-of-the-way crossroads.
Isn’t that sort of like good parenting? A relationship forged not in huge, memorable moments but in thousands of obscure, forgettable ones. Ones that foster security, stability, love.
Regardless of the kind of earthly father we had – good or bad, present or absent, caring or dismissive, protective or abusive – Jesus promises something else. A lifetime of interconnected moments. A lifetime of connections.
“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”