Fill Us Father
FILL US, FATHER
I have often spoken about my difficulties as a new minster, as a single man who moved 700 hundred miles from Virginia to Indiana. I have spoken about my trials learning about leadership, about my love for you as a congregation, about mourning with you, about rejoicing with you. But one of my greatest trials moving to Indiana often gets overlooked, I think. That trial is that there is a hunger I have. It is a hunger that is hard to fulfill here in Pierceton, Indiana. It is one of the greatest struggles I have faced while being here in Pierceton.
Of course, I am talking about my love for Chick-Fil-A. The original, Southern style, Chicken Sandwich. The pinnacle of fast food. I mean, God bless Penguin Point, but for me, it misses the point of what I am craving. And besides, they don’t serve Penguin anyway, so I think it is a little false advertising. I mean, folks, it is really hard for me as a Southerner to have to travel forty miles, one way, to get my Chick-Fil-A fix. Whenever I go to Fort Wayne, I always get two Sandwiches so I can bring one back and eat it on Sunday. (Chick-Fil-A is a Christian business, by the way, and is closed on Sunday, which I think makes eating Chick-Fil-A on Sunday that much more special.)
Last Friday, I was in Fort Wayne with a friend and we went to Chick-Fil-A. I was telling the cashier of my love for Chick-Fil-A and how hard it was being forty miles away from the nearest one. He told me that there was a woman from Alaska who would visit Fort Wayne and buy Chick-Fil-A in bulk (like forty sandwiches or more) and ship them back to Alaska, because there is no Chick-Fil-A in Alaska. Apparently, Alaska’s state motto is, “North to the Future.” Well, Alaska, Chick-Fil-A is the future, in my humble opinion, so you need to get with the program.
I get really hungry for Chick-Fil-A. Perhaps we each have that special food, that guilty pleasure that we crave, that we long for, that we obsesses about. But in a consumer culture of infinite choices, where we can get every hunger satisfied, it is hard to remember what Jesus tells us today;
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Today, I want you to take away two lessons.
First, I want you to know what Biblical righteousness is.
Second, I want you to know that the one who feeds us righteousness is our loving Father in heaven.
First, we must ask ourselves what Jesus means by “righteousness.” Let’s admit it, besides the term self-righteous, which has a negative connotation in our society, we don’t use the term righteousness that much. To quote Erik Kolbell, author of What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life, “Righteousness. It’s not a word we hear very often in common conversation. It doesn’t come rolling off the tongue at ball games or in barrooms. It doesn’t receive a lot of play in, say, the idle chatter of two friends walking their dogs or waiting for the morning train. It’s not heard a lot at the office water cooler. No, righteousness is what, when I was a child, I would have called one of those ‘Sunday words,’ by which I meant words we heard spoken with great gravity and reverence in church or in church school, but pretty much nowhere else” (Kolbell, 70).
But according to Kolbell, righteousness is not just about moral rectitude, about doing the right things. If it was, we could fall very quickly into self righteousness, works righteousness, into thinking too highly of ourselves. Instead, according to Kolbell, righteousness is “about relationship, about being right with God, about trusting more in God’s time, God’s way, God’s inscrutable wisdom than our own” (Kolbell, 70).
The term righteousness, in the Greek, is also translated elsewhere as justice, and includes both the conservative view point of personal moral behavior and the more liberal viewpoint of social justice and righting wrongs in society. To quote Leon Morris, author of the Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew:
“Now it is plain that Matthew has a strong interest in the upright living that should characterize the servant of Christ, and we must not try to turn him into a place shadow of Paul. But we must not minimize his emphasis on Grace either. Specifically we should notice that he is not suggesting that people can make a strong effort and achieve the righteousness of which he is writing: it is a given righteousness, not an achieved righteousness. The blessed do not achieve it but hunger and thirst for it. They will be filled, which surely means that God will fill them. Today there is a strong emphasis on social righteousness, the liberation of people from oppression, and that can scarcely be out of mind either. Righteousness is a rich and full concept, but whichever way we understand it, it is a righteousness that people cannot produce themselves. We are to do our best and we may be able to avoid ‘the gutters of life,’ but this righteousness is a gift of God. And of those who have this wholehearted longing for the right Jesus says, ‘they will be filled.’”
The word “Christian” means one who “is partisan for Christ.” And in my mind, that means following Jesus will inevitably make people on both sides of the political spectrum angry at Christians. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City and author of the book Ministries of Mercy, lays out what he believes to be the three main causes of poverty that he has gleaned from scripture and observed in his own ministry. These include oppression and injustice, natural disasters or calamities, and personal sin. To quote Keller, “Do we see now how crucial it is to distinguish these three causes? These distinctions are essential if we are to avoid uncritically adopting either the ‘liberal’ or the ‘conservative’ ideology toward the poor. The ‘liberal’ tends to see all the poor as oppressed, and thus does not see the importance of conditions in mercy ministry. But the ‘conservative’ tends to see all the poor as irresponsible, and thus overemphasizes conditions in mercy. Both sides oversimplify the complex causes of poverty” (Keller, 100).
Now that we have talked about the breath and depth of meaning of the word “righteousness,” we come to describing the character of the one who will fill our hunger for righteousness, for justice. To hunger for righteousness is more about trusting in the character of the one who will fill us than it is about trying to be do-gooders. And central to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew and throughout the New Testament is Jesus’ teaching on God as Father. I know many Christians may find the Trinity to be a confusing and abstract doctrine. But if we would only see the power that God has for us in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I believe we would release a blessing for our church that no church growth consultant could teach us.
As N. Graham Standish, author of Becoming a Blessed Church, the book I will be using for Sunday School this Fall, points out, “I believe that we experience the Trinitarian God as Purpose, Presence, and Power. For example, one of the most tangible ways we encounter God as Creator happens as we become increasingly aware of what our purpose is as a church and as individuals. We encounter God in Christ when we sense Christ’s presence in the life of the church – in worship, word, sacrament, music, drama, activities, meetings, and each other. We encounter God the Holy Spirit when we witness the power of God making coincidences (providence), miracles, and amazing events happen. Blessed churches have a relatively clear sense of what their purpose is and why God the Creator called them into existence, even if they are hundreds of years old. They tangibly sense Christ’s presence. They expect the Spirit’s power to work everywhere in the church, blessing the ministries, mission, and members of the church” (Standish, Becoming a Blessed Church).
Standish is a Presbyterian minister who revitalized a church outside of Pittsburgh, and I believe that his ideas are powerful and get at the heart of what Christ has for his body in this day and age. I hope you all will attend my class this Fall. But as you might have noticed, Standish refrains from referring to God as Father, instead choosing to use the term Creator. As some of you may know, there is a great deal of focus in the PCUSA about using gender neutral language and pronouns when it comes to referring to God and even finding some feminine imagery to refer to God. And in some ways, I am open to this. God is not a Man, except when it comes to the incarnation, and I suppose God could have made Jesus a woman if it had fit the time, place and culture. And I know many people, especially in today’s culture, may not have a good relationship with their earthly father, so the language of God as Father isn’t particularly attractive to them.
The typical scholarly argument today is that Jesus called God “Father” to appeal to a patriarchal culture. But I think there is a profound message that Jesus had for us in calling God Father, which goes beyond him simply appealing to a patriarchal culture. For while the Middle East was certainly patriarchal, Judaism of the time and of the Old Testament did not make a habit out of using human names or characteristics to describe God. It was against the Hebrew religion to depict God in an image, and even the revealed name of God, Yahweh, was not allowed to be spoken out of reverence. Most of the names of God in the Old Testament tend to describe how God acts towards her people rather than relating him to an earthly figure.
What I am saying is that Jesus would have earned no bonus points for calling God, “Abba,” which can perhaps be translated as, “Dear Father” or “Daddy.” While the Old Testament only calls God Father four times, the New Testament calls God Father over 250 times. The cry “Abba, Father!” is in Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, and Galatians 4:6, some of the earliest writings in the New Testament. Though Jesus would have won no favors for using such a description of God in his culture, he really did make it the center of his preaching.
I myself did not think of God as my Father in any meaningful sense until recently. I preferred to focus around imagery around Jesus or the Holy Spirit. I didn’t feel like I purposely ignored the Father; the name and imagery just didn’t really seem to be relatable for me, for perhaps many of the same reasons that you all might have issues about calling God your Father. But about three years ago, I received a word from a prophetic friend that changed my mind.
Now, some of you may have different ideas on the continuation of prophecy in the church. And I am not here to argue over the finer points of this argument. I just have no way of making this point without telling you what my friend said. You can judge if it is from God or not. The message this friend gave to me was very simple. She said, “Will, you know Jesus, and the Spirit, but you need to know the Father’s love.” I didn’t think much of this word when she first prayed it. But as the minutes passed, the word started to bother me. I had come to faith in a sort of born again moment, I had gone to seminary, worked in a church, had a lot of experience in urban ministry. I knew Jesus, didn’t I? I worked for justice, didn’t I? I knew how to write an exegetically strong sermon and how to provide proper pastoral care to my parishioners, didn’t I? How could I be missing something? How could I not know the Father’s love?
Driving home from this prayer meeting where this word was given, I pulled my car over to think about what my friend had said. I remember I was in Church Hill. I had done ministry work in Church Hill for several years, ever since the summer of 2009 when I did an internship with CHAT, a youth mentoring organization. As I reflected on my experience in ministry in Church Hill, I thought about the plague of fatherlessness in this historic inner city neighborhood.
As I thought about the plague of fatherlessness in Church Hill, my mind made a connection to calling God Father. What did this experience of the lack of fathers tell me about the reason that Jesus taught us to call God Father? How is fatherhood essentially different than motherhood? Is there anything about fatherhood that transcends culture, space, and time? For I believe it is this transcendent experience that Jesus was pointing to when he called God Father. As I thought about these things, an “eureka” moment struck me. I realized that the essential difference between motherhood and fatherhood that is constant in human existence is that a father must choose to stay with his child. A mother must carry a child, at least for a time. There is a natural connection. But a Father has no umbilical cord tying him to his child or his partner. A father must choose to stay. A father must choose to be with his child. And it struck me. God is our Father:
Because God chooses us.
Beyond our merit.
Beyond any natural connection.
The scriptures tell us that God is no respector of persons. God doesn’t see our outward appearance. He knows our hearts, the darkness and the light, and despite the darkness he reaches out to us with His Divine hand, and calls us by name, saying that we are no longer orphans, but adopted children of a loving Father, if we would only take His hand.
God chooses to love us because of her Sovereign choice. When I realized this, I was overcome and I wept.
You see, we like to think that personal righteousness and right living has nothing to do with social justice, with government policy. But the thing is, it is all connected. I have studied a lot about education reform, and I know some of you are teachers and are involved in the local school system. And it seems to me that teaching is an embattled profession. We heft all of society’s problems upon teachers, thinking that testing and accountability and scientific measurement can solve all our society’s problems. But even an excellent teacher can’t substitute for a father and mother in a home. Yet, without properly funded schools and a high quality education, a father has trouble finding a good paying job these days
I don’t believe in the “invisible hand” of the free market. Nor do I believe that the lumbering behemoth that is “big government” can manage all the complicated pieces of the economy. In our hearts, we know that the world isn’t that simple, that the other side, whatever side we are on, has points that we rather not think about, because if we did, we might have to change our viewpoints that we have held for most of our lives.
What I believe in is hunger. What I believe in is righteousness. What I believe in is not the invisible hand of the market but the invisible hand of our loving Father who knows our name and calls us before the foundation of the world. My question for you today is, why are we here? Is it just to gather on Sunday as we always have? Is it just to continue our traditions, as important and meaningful as those traditions may be? Are we hungry to know Him as our Father, to have Jesus reveal the Father to us? Are we hungry for purpose, for righteousness? For if we are, Jesus promises us we will be filled.
So fill us Father. Our hands are open. Show us the Truth. Guide us in the right. For we know that man cannot live by bread alone.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.