First, a brief history of Father’s Day: It was founded on June 19, 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd in Spokane, Washington. Her father, William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran, was a single parent who raised his six children.
It had a rocky start – Congress turned down several attempts to formalize it, fearing that it would become commercialized. (Imagine!) In the 1920’s it faded, Sonora Dodd had other things on her mind, but in the 1930’s she found help from the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers, who were interested in selling ties, tobacco pipes and clothes for dad; by the 1980’s the retailers referred to Father’s Day as a ‘second Christmas.’ It wasn’t until 1966 that Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June; and finally in 1972 Richard Nixon signed it into law.
Unitarian ministers honor Father’s Day by designating it as the final sermon-Sunday of the church year, leaving for Maine on the afternoon of Father’s Day! (or shortly thereafter.)
Fatherhood is challenging…rewarding…frightening…a blessing, and you fill in the blanks. ______________; ____________.
The sermon title comes from Robert Frost’s famous poem, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Winter Evening. When Frost was asked the line ‘miles to go before I sleep,’ was about one’s time left before dying, he said “No. It was about someone who had a long ride home,” then he added, “but I’ll take credit for any interpretation – a poet has a right to do that…after all, it’s my poem…you can tell me what meanings come to you.” (I paraphrase.)
‘Whose woods these are I think I know…’
I’ve always assumed that the narrator of Robert Frost’s famous poem was a man, but there’s no reference to gender, except in the line which says, ‘his house is in the village, though.’
The narrator stops to watch the woods fill up with snow; it’s a Sabbath moment. Remember, the Sabbath is simply a time to stop trying to alter the universe…and if you’re not trying to alter it, to change it, to fix it, you are more likely to be paying attention to what’s happening…like the woods filling up with snow.
Father’s Day is a time to stop trying to keep all those promises you make as a father/parent, and to notice the depth of appreciation you feel for your father…to make it a Sabbath moment…to stop awhile and pay attention to that which we may otherwise take for granted, or fail to notice.
In any case, the poet says he gave his harness bells a shake.
Can you hear those bells? It was quiet — ‘the only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.’
You can hear the wind…whewwwww.
Bells are used to celebrate the mass, suggesting, we might suppose, that those few moments of stopping in the woods provided a spiritual time, a religious moment, if you will – a time to stop, a Sabbath moment…a time to stop trying to alter the universe, which is what the Sabbath is…and just notice the new snow falling, to listen to the bells on his horse’s harness, like bells in a church service…mass…
They are referred to as Sanctus bells, getting their name ”…from being rung first during the Sanctus [Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…]. They have been rung as part of the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Church for more than 800 years.” The bells are a signal to the faithful to be ready for the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
It’s as if the bells were saying, “Pay attention! Something special is about to happen…something supernatural.”
Frost’s famous poem is a reminder to stop, now and then, and pay attention: something special is happening here in the woods, here in Nature, and in those moments of such stopping the natural becomes super-Natural!
The bells create a joyful noise ‘unto the Lord,’ as the Psalmist put it: ‘enter into his gates with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise, and be thankful…’
That’s what Father’s Day is about – a time to stop to say thank you; pay attention, something special is happening.
The bells in old New England churches, mostly Congregational churches, were used to summons folks to church for Sunday worship…Sabbath…
To worship, in its original sense, is to think about your values – what is ‘of worth,’ as the original meaning of the word worship suggests.
Father’s Day is a time to reflect on the parenting you received from your father, and from others who served as guides, as role models, as providers.
Father’s Day should have a Yom Kippur aspect…because we who are fathers know the imperfections of our parenting. How do we know? Oh, they tell us! One way or another, they tell us.
What they don’t know is that our imperfect parenting allows them to accept their own imperfections!
The primary point of the sermon is that fathers have ‘promises to keep.’
Some of those promises are explicit…they are fully and clearly expressed…they leave nothing to the imagination.
Fatherhood isn’t like that. Most of the promises are implicit…leaving almost everything to the imagination; the promises of fatherhood emerge; they change with the years and the unfolding of a child ‘as a unique person.’
Fatherhood is a collision with one’s self. Head-on collisions hurt, they can even be fatal.
Fatherhood is a constant, never-ending challenge, filled with surprises, filled with rewards, touching the deepest places in the human soul.
Fatherhood is the process of growing a new soul, of moulting, shedding the hard outer layer; the shell of certainty is replaced by the soft layers of vulnerability – the need to accept a new, deeper kind of insecurity.
You have to feel lost in order to be changed by the experience. It’s a confrontation of the deepest kind; it’s sometimes lonely.
To say that ‘it is not easy’ is the greatest understatement in the process of becoming a parent, and the process of becoming a parent lasts from the birth of your child all the way to the last moment of your life.
We who are fathers and grandfathers have ‘promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.’ Our life is filled with implicit promises, with feelings of insecurity, the lack of safety in an unsafe world.
The biological act of procreation doesn’t a father make. In an unexpected pregnancy we may ask, “Who’s the father?” Father is a noun, but it’s also a verb. The noun simply means the sire…it’s about biology…who’s your daddy?
Fathers live with a certain anxiety – the fear of failing as a father, since the role is not clear, especially in a culture that is in the midst of such profound changes as our culture is.
It’s interesting that the word father is used for God. We’re told that when Jesus prayed he said, “Our Father.” Indeed the prayer is often referred to as ‘the Our Father.’
In some Christian traditions a clergyperson is referred to as father.
In the Genesis story Issac’s father, Abraham, followed God’s order to kill his son as a sacrifice, to show his unswerving obedience to God. The story says that God had to send angel to stay his hand.
Isaac never spoke to his father again afterward incident.
Sometimes fathers are abusive. The Bible promotes corporal punishment: ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’
Sometimes fathers become estranged from their children. Sometimes fathers have to be forced to pay child support – not in a divorce settlement, which is a different category, but for having sired a child.
One of the most powerful parables is the story of prodigal son. You probably know the story:
Luke 15:11-32, The Parable of the Prodigal (Lost) Son
11 Jesus (said): “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
It is, of course, a story about forgiveness. You might even call it ‘unconditional love.’ The father feels forgiven as much as the son! The older son has a good point, of course.
The parable is more complicated than it seems at first blush. Why on earth would a father give the younger son his inheritance? Presumably he knew something about the likelihood that his son would not be a good steward – that he, in fact, would squander the money.
It’s almost as though he’s setting this son up – the younger of his two sons. Does he want to ‘teach the older son a lesson?’ If so, what is it?
The father in this story was irresponsible, which raises the whole question of a father’s responsibility – the promises a father makes, either explicitly or implicitly.
It was wrong to have given him the money. We must assume the father in the story was intending to teach his son a lesson. It was a big risk. It gave the father the opportunity to be forgiving, and to win his younger son’s approval…appreciation…love; which every father wants.
The story is a parable, however. A parable is like a poem – it’s like a metaphor – not to be taken literally: ‘this is compared to that.’ Indeed, that’s where the word parable comes from: The Greek parabole, a saying or a story in which something is expressed in terms of something else, from the prefix para, ‘a throwing beside,’ from para, ‘alongside’ plus a throwing, related to the word ballein, ‘to throw.’ A parable is a poem…
But as I was saying before the horse ‘gave his harness bells a shake’ and threw me off, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is about Father’s Day; it’s about what it means to be a father; it raises questions about a father’s responsibilities and the implicit promises as well as the explicit promises.
From ‘The People, Yes‘ by Carl Sandburg
A father sees a son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
‘Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.’
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum and monotony
and guide him amid sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
‘Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.’
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
And left them dead years before burial:
The quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
Has twisted good enough men
Sometimes into dry thwarted worms.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use amongst other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is a born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own.