Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Good Father (from Beth's sermon archives)

A Commentary on the Text

          Almost all of this is inspired by or taken directly from Bruce Feiler’s book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.

          There are a few important things to note about Genesis 18:
          (1) God appeared to Abraham, that is Abraham was in God’s very presence somehow in the midst of the three strangers, who are not people, but divine beings of some kind.  Some say angels, some, particularly later Christian writers, say that the three were in fact God.  In fact, Orthodox Christians portray the three at the table as a representation of the Trinity.  From the following chapters, it would appear that God was one of the three (see 19.1).  But what is important for us is that it is God, not angels or messengers, who speaks to Abraham.
          (2) Laughter is a big part of this story – in fact, the child of Abraham and Sarah, is named “He laughs”.  That’s what ‘Isaac’ means in Hebrew.  Sarah laughed out loud when she as an old woman was promised a child.  Earlier, in 17.17, Abraham, hearing the same promise, actually falls on his face laughing.
          (3) Sarah observes from the tent . . . in that time, as it is even today in many Middle Eastern homes, women are not allowed in the company of men not a part of their family, so Sarah is culturally sidelined to the background in this story.
          (4) Abram’s name was changed by God to ‘Abraham’.  The name Abram means ‘the father is exalted’ or ‘mighty father’ in Hebrew and Abraham means ‘father of many nations’. [Feiler, p. 69].

A Good Father

          To understand the importance of Abraham and this story about Abraham for us, perhaps we should begin with the first verse of the first chapter of the book of Matthew, the first Gospel of the New Testament: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
          Abraham is the father of Ishmael, and thus the father of Islam; Abraham is the father of Isaac, and thus the father of Judaism; Abraham is the father, the ancestor, of Jesus, and thus the father of Christianity.
          On this Father’s Day, as Abraham’s children continue to fight with and kill each other around the world, perhaps if we consider Abraham to understand better what a good father is, we might better learn what it is to be a good child of that father.
          A good father does not take himself too seriously . . . when God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child, they were both so old that the reaction for both of them was to laugh . . . indeed, Abraham literally fell on the ground laughing.  A good father takes God seriously, but never himself . . . for to be a father is to be willing to be ridiculous in the eyes of the world.
          A good father loves expansively . . . in Genesis 12, God promises Abraham that he will be the father of the nations, that Abraham will be blessed in order to be a blessing to the world.  This was not a genetic, but rather a spiritual promise . . . the blood of Abraham does not flow in my veins, yet Abraham is my father too, for Abraham’s love is an expansive love, with arms outstretched to embrace the whole world.  Consider in our text today that the very next thing to happen after the promise of a child from God is that Abraham and the visiting God travel to Sodom and Gomorrah, which God proposes to destroy, so bad are the reports of their behavior.  And they were bad . . . very very bad.  Alive with the promise of new life for himself and Sarah, Abraham does not hold back in fear . . . rather Abraham wheedles, cajoles, negotiates with, and even threatens God with the loss of God’s own honor should God do this thing . . . Far be that from you (to kill the righteous with the wicked)!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?  
          Abraham’s love is not limited to his own family or tribe; it is not even limited to those who deserve that love, for Abraham bargains for the lives of everyone in the two cities . . . and God agrees!  The love of a good father for his family changes how he sees the whole world. . . for a good father sees the whole world through the eyes of love.
          A good father is thankful and prays for his children.  In the Qu’ran, the Muslim holy book, Ibrahim (Abraham) prays to God, “Praise be to Allah, Who has given me in my old age, Ishmael and Isaac.  My Lord, make me, and my descendants, steadfast in prayer.
          A good father is not perfect; a good father makes mistakes . . . Abraham tricks powerful men who give him hospitality into thinking that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife . . . twice!  Abraham sends Ishmael away into the desert to please Sarah . . . Abraham takes a knife in hand to sacrifice Isaac . . . the same Abraham who argued and pled with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah says not a word in protest about sending away his older son or taking a knife to his younger one.  Feiler notes that Jewish thought suggests that Abraham was testing God rather than the other way around.  The only problem with this is that Abraham tested God with lives other than his own, with the lives and well being of his sons.  Even good fathers make mistakes.
          In trying to make sense of all of this, especially about the story of the sacrifice of his son, Jewish believers have understood the story to stand for the place of suffering a believer must endure for their faith; Christian believers emphasize the aspect of faith; and Muslim believers, the importance of Abraham’s obedience.
          Suffering, faith, obedience.  Which is it?  Is it all three?  None?  Or something else entirely?  The fact is that even, and perhaps especially, good fathers will be misunderstood by their children.
          A good father was once a son . . .in Christianity and Judaism, Isaac is the one on the altar to be sacrificed; in Islam, it is Ishmael.  But interestingly, all three religions “share a legend surrounding the offering.  Immediately after the [son] is saved, he lies on the altar, clutching the knife, the emotion of the ordeal flooding from his body.  God tells him he will grant him any prayer.  ‘O God, I pray that you grant me this,’ the [son] says.  ‘When any person in any era meets you at the gates of heaven – whether they believe in your or not –I ask that you allow them to enter Paradise.” (Feiler, p. 109).
          Finally, a good father seeks the reconciliation of all his children . . . in Abraham’s case, that was not to be until his death, and then, maybe only for an instant.  In Genesis 25.9, we read that Abraham’s sons “Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . . east of Mamre . . . with his wife Sarah.
          Feiler says that Abraham “dies at peace.  Even better, his death promotes peace.  At Abraham’s burial, his two most prominent sons, rivals since before they were born, estranged since childhood, scions of rival nations, come together . . . Abraham achieves in death what he could never achieve in life:  a moment of reconciliation between his two sons . . .”  (p. 208).
          Could it really be that many of the struggles of the three faiths today can be reduced to a family squabble, albeit a squabble of epic proportions?  Could it be that we are all really just trying to say, “Daddy loves me best?”  Maybe.
          And maybe it’s time, from the world’s stage to the privacy of our own homes, to embrace the notion of Muslim Sheikh Abu Sneina, “So was Abraham a Muslim? . . . For me, Abraham submitted himself to Allah.  He did everything for God.  I don’t know if he’s like me, but I would like to be like him.”  (p. 163).
          Maybe we should worry more about whether we’re like Abraham and less about whether Abraham is like us.
          It’s what a good father would want from and for his children.


  1. Thank you for these thoughts. I struggled with Feller's book- maybe I need to go back and re-read in conversation.

    I liked that you addressed the fact that Abraham was less than perferct- but still loved. Loving is what make us like Abraham- makes us like God- who we were created in the image of.


  2. I know this doesn't have much to do with what you've wrote but I notice that you're a pastor and it is about fathers and wonder if you can answer this question for me.
    I know one of the commandments is to obey thy father and mother but what if the father is not good? And so you do not obey and therefore don't follow the commandments?

  3. Rio, This is a ver hard question and I suspect there’s lots of pain behind it.

    The first thing I would say about the commandment is that it says to ‘honor’ our parents, which is not the same thing as obeying them blindly in all things.

    I would understand ‘honor’ to mean to respect their humanity and the fact that our parents literally gave us life. Sadly, with some parents, that is the only commonality we may have with them.

    A child in an abusive situation is ALWAYS right to seek help and protection for themselves, especially if no one else is offering it, even by the simple act of saying ‘no’. And although that’s probably not the motive of the child, such action does, in fact, honor the parent, I think.

    For God has made us all to be good and loving people, reflecting God’s image to others. When we fail that, we stray from God and the path God intends for us and the people in our lives who remind us that we are made to do and be better are indeed honoring our humanity, even when we are not honoring it within ourselves by the things we do.

    Does this make sense? What I’m trying to say is that abusers typically don’t see reporting them as ‘honoring’ them, but it is. Honor is not blind obedience. Honor is bringing out the best in others, not the worst. It is not giving in to the evil which resides in others to appease them.

    So in a very real sense, by refusing to do the bad that a parent would have you do, you are honoring them.

    As an adult no longer in the situation, the question is a bit different. It often relates to forgiveness as the path of honoring those who gave us birth. Forgiving is not saying that what happened was okay; in fact, it’s the opposite. Forgiveness is naming what happened as wrong and hurtful and saying ‘I no longer hold this against you’.

    It’s also important to remember that forgiveness is NOT accepting the unacceptable. It’s not excusing the past. It’s not giving permission for unacceptable behavior from the past to continue into the present. For example, an adult sexually abused as a child may forgive the parent, but that does not mean the adult will be in relationship with the abusing parent or allow her own children to be in relationship with them.

    The best I know to explain that is that forgiving someone who has done me harm means that I acknowledge and name the harm, I free them and myself from being held bondage to the present resentment for the past harm, and it also means that if it’s the kind of behavior that warrants it, I still hold them accountable for it, for my own protection and for the protection of others, even them from themselves.

    All of this is very hard. And it’s a process, rather than an event: it takes time. The value of honoring the humanity of another, even the other who has done us great harm, is in living into and being the person God created us to be, regardless of what the other person is doing with their own life. It is always remembering that Jesse Jackson’s affirmation, “I am somebody” is true for us all. God made you; you are somebody; and God truly desires what is best for you.

    I hope this helps.

    One final note: for my own part, I could never have come to these understandings by myself. The support of self-help groups, a church family, a therapist, and a listening friend can all be crucial to our own spiritual growth. I hope you have a community of support and if you don’t, I hope you find one.

    In God’s own peace and love,

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  5. Thank you for your advice.