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"The Father Who Reaches" - 2nd Sunday after Pentecost - June 19, 2022

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Do yall know what we’re doing when we read the majority of the New Testament – we’re reading somebody else’s mail from the first century. And Paul knew how to write a letter. He wrote them all the time, most of them lost to history. Tossed out with old bills and advertisements or slipped between the couch cushions or beneath the car seat. But the ones we do have – they make up most of our New Testament cannon. Paul would begin his letters the way most learned people would in those days. A greeting, a salutation, “Grace and Peace to you…” for instance, followed by his acknowledgment of the faithfulness or ministry that faith community was characterized by. Then, a prayer…beautiful, inspiring prayers. I find those prayers to be some of the richest words we have in the New Testament. Prayers calling for inner strength, prayers asking the eyes of people’s hearts be opened, prayers entreating to know the depth of God’s love and lives to be filled with such a love. All his letters…well, almost all. Not Galatians. Nope…Paul says, “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ….” then… “What is wrong with you?! I am amazed at how quickly you’re deserting the one who called you to follow another gospel!”

We could say, “Well, it was Paul’s first letter. He hasn’t learned yet – he hasn’t learned that people need a softer touch, a little stroke before you strike, he’s still pretty rough around the edges, still a lot of Saul the Pharisee left in Paul the Apostle.” We could say that…but that’s probably not entirely it. Paul (or someone writing on his letterhead) will later say in Ephesians to speak the truth in love, but Paul already knows, he’s already seen that doesn’t always mean speaking the truth people love to hear. And Paul is concerned, upset, anxious – because something is happening to these little churches in Galatia.

James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter and the rest of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem are writing letters too…but their letters are saying something different from what Paul had taught the Galatians. Word from Jerusalem is they still got to follow Torah (the Law) as the Jews always have, the Gentile males that are coming into the love and knowledge of Christ – well, they must be circumcised…dietary codes, purity laws, yep – got to follow those too. Now, they had their reasons – it was a complex time, it was frightening time, things needed to be handled delicately. But for Paul, that former Pharisee, blind-sided by Jesus on the road to Damascus – that is just preposterous. Because in Jesus, Paul believed, God had done what God had always promised to do reaching all the way back to Isaiah and Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets – re-creation and reconciliation. So, to require people, especially Gentiles, to be placed under the dictates of the Torah was to go back in time, it meant denying what had happened through Jesus. Paul picked up a pen and began to write a truth in love, but not necessarily a truth everyone was going to love to hear.

And in the letter to the Galatians Paul lays out for them the message of the gospel.

Now, it’s a packed letter – not as dense as his Magnum Opus to the Romans but possesses a density of its own. This morning the words we heard read are the center of the letter. Up until this point Paul has been turning the doorknob, the hinges creaking, the light beginning to peek through – but now, not only is he going to fling that door wide open but run around the house, throw back the curtains, open all the windows, let the wind blow in, and scatter all those stacks of letters from Jerusalem to the floor.

Before Christ, Paul writes, the Law was like a prison…before Christ, the law kept us under guard…before Christ, the law was a custodian, a “babysitter” but not the kind mom and dad hire to catch a night out. No, custodians were the servants of the house who kept close tabs on the children, the disciplinarians, the rule enforcers. “But now”, Paul writes, “we are no longer under a custodian.” And listen to this… “(Because) you are all God’s children through Christ.”

You are all God’s children.

We might hear those words today and think “Well…yeah.” Because many of us grew up singing, “Jesus loves all the little children of the world” but when Paul wrote those words, it was a scandal. “You can’t say that Paul! Only the people of Israel are the children of God. Only Israel belongs to the household of God. We’re the only…family of God.” But just as the prophets of old etched their words into the walls of time and just as Jesus’ life embodied those words – Paul is now moving past all the barriers – “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul is growing a diverse family, guided by a Father who’s made them “heirs to a promise”, a Father whose love knows no bounds.

Father is a tricky word, isn’t it? Now, I know that the God whose love knows no bounds is not bound to a particular pronoun. And I am moved by and grateful for the words of St. Julian of Norwich and others who help me see in God not just a father but a mother and reveal the feminine aspects of the sacred. But I’d be foolish to ignore that the word Father permeates the language of the Church. And today is Father’s Day.

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking of my own father. Growing up, I, like a lot of kids in the mid 80’s wanted a Slip n’ Slide. My brother and I saw commercials of kids our age catapulting themselves across a yard in a watery array of smiles and laughter and we wanted to do the same. But my father was a cheap man…so what he did instead was roll a line of black lawn bags across the yard and spray it down with a water hose. It did not have the intended effect. Then there was the time we begged for a basketball goal. So, he took a permanent marker and drew two lines on the gutter above the garage and said, “If you make it between the lines you scored.” But there are other things I remember too – how hard he worked in whatever he did – whether it be as a landscaper or pastoring a church. I remember his studying the Scriptures, early in the morning and sometimes late into the night. There are still more things I remember…

Difficult seasons where a silence existed between us, times of painful unknowing where neither one of us knew how to move toward the other.

There is a subtle passage in Norman Maclean’s autobiographical book “A River Runs Through It.” Norman and his father, a rather stoic Presbyterian minister, are two adult men sitting on the bank of a river watching the youngest son, Paul, by this point a master fly fisherman, perform his artistry. Maclean writes,

While my father was watching my brother, he reached over to pat me, but he missed, so he had to turn his eyes and look for my knee and try again. He must have thought that I felt neglected and that he should tell me he was proud of me also but for other reasons.

The image of the father reaching his hand out for his child but missing has always moved me. For me, it captures something of the fragile nature between a father and his child – a reaching toward a vulnerability that is strange and at times frightening. I am forever thankful I have a father who reached and reached again…and again.

Some of us in here have fathers who turned their eyes and reached again. Some of us have fathers who at least tried to reach out once. And some of us have fathers who never even tried to reach. Yes, “father” can be a tricky word…

Whatever the word “father” means to you this morning. Whatever joy or sorrow you may carry with that word…I want you to hear something. But you got to listen.

You are all God’s children through Christ.

All of you. You are loved.

Paul found in Christ the love of God; and in that he found (or was found by) a Father who never stopped reaching. Reaching past all the boundaries, reaching past all the things we think separate us from God.

The Father who reaches.

And he reaches still.


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