Sunday, 16 June 2013

Father's Day - All Age Worship and Baptism

Today is Father’s Day, and what better day for a baptism? Today as we baptise Kate we also pray for Brian, her father - and Melissa as well, of course - celebrating with them the gift of this child that has been entrusted to them. We know Kate is a great joy to them, but also, that having her has meant taking on a whole new set of responsibilities, and worries as well. Bringing up children isn’t a walk in the park. It is hard work, tiring and costly – not just in financial terms. Every parent wants to get it right, to be the very best parent they can be, to give their child what that child needs so that they grow up happy and healthy. But it’s not easy. Children don’t come with an operator’s manual – you just have to work it out as you go along.

That’s why I thought for today’s Bible reading we would have a famous story from the Bible about a father – perhaps this father can show us how it’s done.

I am quite sure that when this man from Jesus’ story became a father he felt just the same sorts of things as any parent here. Let’s imagine we were there at the beginning, when the father in this story first became a father, when the first of his two boys was put into his arms. He was so proud, so delighted. Surely this was the best baby there had ever been! And then his wife had another child. The best baby all over again!

He was going to be the best father there could possibly be. He sat with his children, all beaming smiles and gazed in wonder at them… He was going to teach them right from wrong. He was going to love them and protect them. He was going to teach them to treat others fairly. Nothing bad was ever going to happen to them. And they were going to turn out to be fine, upstanding young men, a good support to him and to one another, achieving great things, doing great good…

In the darkness of the night, he would imagine their future, and it was always a good one.

As they grew up of course there were ups and downs, times when he had to tell them off, but it was still going to be all right, because he loved them and was working as hard as he knew to be a good dad.

So it was a bit of a shock when his younger boy, still just a teenager, came to him one day and said. “Dad, you just don’t understand me! I’m leaving home! Give me my inheritance, the money I would get when you died (ouch!). I want to go off and make my own life somewhere far away, where I can be myself!”

The neighbours were horrified when they heard it too –
“What an ungrateful wretch!”
“Still, I told you things weren’t quite as hunky-dory as they looked in that family!”
“That boy must have learned that sort of attitude from somewhere, “
“ I blame the parents myself – they must have been too soft on him.”
“Or too hard!”
“Anyway, I supposed he’s given him a flea in his ear now and grounded him for his rudeness?”
“No, he’s given him the money”
“Given him the money! Whatever for? Well, that’s the proof then – fine dad he turned out to be!”

It didn’t help matters much when reports started to filter back that this son was throwing his money away on wild parties and women who were no better than they ought to be…

What did the father feel like in the midst of all this…we can only imagine… what would you feel like…? I think I would feel I must have failed somehow.

He still loved his younger son. Every day he sat staring down the road in the hopes he might see him returning. But what if it really had been his fault…? As the days passed he questioned himself endlessly. What if he never saw his son again? What if something happened to him? Where had that perfect baby gone?

But at least he still had his older boy with him. Now there was a good lad. Never moaned, never complained, always worked hard… He  couldn’t be a completely bad dad, because at least the older one had turned out well .

But then his younger son came back. At first he couldn’t believe his eyes. The figure in the distance just seemed so familiar – the way he walked, something about him… But it was him, he was sure. So he leapt up and ran towards him, and before the boy could say a word he threw his arms around him. He was thin and ragged, but he was there, safe and well. He was so overjoyed he didn’t pay any attention to the apologies the boy was stammering. And soon the party was in full swing.

And that’s when he discovered that actually the older boy wasn’t quite the paragon of virtue he’d assumed either. He was actually bitter, jealous. “You’ve never thrown a party for me…”he whined, “But you could have had a party whenever you wanted!” said his father. And the scales fell from the fathers eyes all over again. That dutiful, obliging boy he’d thought he had, had actually been a simmering cauldron of resentment. And he’d never noticed…

Sometimes people call this story the Prodigal son. Sometimes they call it the Two Brothers. Sometimes they call it the Loving Father. But actually I think it ought to be called “The Father who discovered he’d been getting it wrong, somehow, all these years , and he didn’t even know how…”
It’s not a snappy title, but it’s accurate.

Obviously by the end the relationship with that younger son was mended, and we have to hope that now that resentment of the older son was out in the open that would be healed too, but none of that would have taken away the father’s awareness that actually this wasn’t how he had planned and dreamed it.

And that’s what makes this story such a powerful one. Because anyone who is part of a family will find themselves somewhere in it sooner or later, perhaps as one of the two children, perhaps as the dad, wondering whether there was anything he could have done to prevent all this heartache and trouble. We might even find ourselves in several of the roles over our lifetimes.

The one thing we can predict – the only thing, in fact – about family life, is that it will go wrong, at least some of the time, that people will hurt each other, fail each other , disappoint each other. The point of the story, though, is that when that happens, it isn’t the end…This dad turns out to be a good dad, the best dad there can be, not because his children never get in a mess, but because when they do, he doesn’t give up on them – or on himself. Somewhere, somehow, he finds the strength to go on caring – not to live their lives for them, but to love them anyway.

And that brings me back to this baptism. Of course, we hope that Kate’s life will be full of sunshine and joy, that everything will go well for her, that she will be blessed with every blessing that any baby ought to be blessed with. But the reality is that sooner or later, things won’t go to plan, because she’s a human being, and so are Brian and Melissa. What happens then? This sacrament of baptism reminds us throughout that it isn’t the end of the world, that there can always be a new start, not just for the prodigal son, or daughter in this case, but also for her parents. In a minute, as we prepare to baptise Kate, we will light our paschal candle. We have a new one every Easter, a reminder of the resurrection of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness can’t overcome. And of course we will be pouring over her the water of baptism – she doesn’t need to be washed clean of anything at the moment, but there will come a time when its promise that, it will all come out in the wash might be vital.

Baptism is about a lot of things, but most of all it is about God’s love, love which like the Father’s love in the story we heard, somehow is always there, through thick and thin, when things are going right and when they are going wrong too – and that, for all fathers and mothers is a reassuring message. You don’t have to be perfect, any more than your children do – God loves you and is with you anyway.

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