June 18, 2017

Proper 6 (Father’s Day)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            “You are going to die this death a thousand times.”  That’s what the therapist told me.  Comforting, isn’t it?  But true.  We were talking about my oldest son, and I was expressing frustration, grief, and anger that as a result of his diagnosis of autism, he wasn’t “stacking up” to his peers in a variety of areas.  The therapist listened, was candid and honest with me, and reminded me that for my son’s spiritual health and for mine, I needed to let me expectations for who I thought he should be or would be, go to the grave. 

            That was eleven years ago.  And I have lost count in the years since, the number of times I have put my expectations, my ego, my desire, to death.  It has hurt every time.  I hate it.  Every expectation of typical development for my son that I carried within me had to die, for his sake, and for mine.  Many fathers of special needs children refuse to do this, out of denial or out of shame because it sucks.  Nothing about dying is easy.   But it is necessary.   I’ve learned something in the ten years since my therapist said those words to me, and it is this: once I allowed the expectations, the needs, the desires, to die – I was freed to love my son not as I expected him to be, but for who God created him to be.  As a result of letting old expectations die, I was introduced to a new world more beautiful, than anything I could have possibly imagined.  James’ world.  It is a world where as a result of letting things die, I have arrived at an understanding of God who is more empathetic and loving than I ever could have imagined. 

            But not always easy to follow.

            Today we hear Jesus says these words to the disciples before sending them out to minister: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.”  If you know anything about sheep and wolves, you know that sheep do not do well overall in the company of wolves.  Jesus knows this, and similar to the therapist’s words to me, Jesus tells them: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”  If that’s not a “Happy Father’s Day” message, I don’t know what is!

            I understand Jesus telling them that the ministry Jesus is calling them to, will kill them.  Was he speaking literally?  Perhaps.  Today, I believe Jesus was speaking metaphorically –saying to the disciples that to do this work, their ego, their expectations, their desire for things to be better would have to die a thousand times.  Jesus was right, because he knew the deep spiritual truth that is the root of many world religions, which is that dying is the only way we learn to live.  When I look back on my life as a father, and the things I have allowed to die, I don’t look back in remorse, and thing “how depressing!”  I look back and say “thank God” because in letting those parts of myself die, I have learned to live.

            My oldest son is God’s gift to me because he has taught me that if you have the courage to let something die, God provides something more profound in its place.  That is the story of the Bible.  The people of Israel watched their holy temple burn to the ground, they experienced exile to a foreign land, and out of all that, the books which begin our Bible, were created.  The Apostle Paul, writes of his experiences dying daily for the sake of his ministry in 2 Corinthians, writing: “three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned.  Three times have I been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”  In the midst of all that, Paul had the courage to consider himself blessed.  Blessed because of the freedom the pain, the hardship, the dying, brought to him.

            A moment of personal confession: I have been a fan of the heavy metal band, Metallica, since high school.  During high school, when I was shamed by Christians for listening to a non-Christian heavy metal band, it made me like Christians less, and Metallica more. 

            At their concert last week at NRG Stadium, Metallica played a song from their new album entitled “Now That We’re Dead.”  By way of introduction, lead singer, James Hethfield, shouted out to the 75,000 people in attendance “if you want to live forever, first, you must die,” ironically a truth central to our Christian faith.  I think James understands these words more than he lets on, as witnessed by his own life.  James Hethfield is an icon of material success, selling millions of albums, he had all the money he needed and more: private jets, drugs, sex, mansions.  As a father Hethfield was absent, favoring extravagant hunting trips in Russia over attending birthdays for his young children at home.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone here that has material success was a spiritual nightmare.  Hethfield was an alcoholic, and a drug addict.  At a point of personal maturity, he admitted the crushing weight of his addiction, entered rehab, and has now been sober, married, and a father, for the past fourteen years.  The song “Now that We’re Dead” acknowledges what needed to let die in his own life, so that he might live.  Hethfield wrote the lyrics to “Now That We’re Dead,” including this excerpt that I now share

Bottom of Form

When darkness falls, may it be That we should see the light When doubt returns, may it be
That faith shall permeate our scars
When we’re seduced, then may it be That we not deviate our cause When flame consumes, may it be It warms our dying bones When kingdom comes, may it be We walk right through that open door Now that we're dead, my dear We can be together
Now that we're dead, my dear We can live, we can live forever

            Metallica are my favorite non-Christian Christian band

            What is inside of us that needs to die?  If you are like me, you probably have a long list.  That’s okay.  It all comes back to this – do we have the courage it takes to let it die?  Do we have the faith to let it die, trusting that in God death always leads to resurrection? 

            Today a clergy colleague of mine, Mark Brown, is spending his first Father’s Day following the death of his four year old son, Judah, six months ago, a pain incomprehensible to me.  On Facebook, he posts pictures of Judah’s grave, decorated with toys and lights, and flowers.  [PAUSE].   Yet somehow, from a strength that is not his, but is from God, he proclaims the resurrection which promises life.  He preaches it.  In the midst of this death, his faith has not died.  Today Mark Brown works as the CEO of West Houston Assistance Ministries, helping those in need, bringing life and healing to immigrants, the hungry, the homeless, and the poor.  The acronym for West Houston Assistance Ministries is W-H-A-M, or WHAM, which was also the name of a popular music group in the 1980s featuring the singer George Michael.  When Mark took that position, he was given a George Michael wig, which he was proudly photographed in.  Neither did death take away his sense of humor.

            The courage and faith of that father and priest, is with me today, a reminder that we die daily, and in our courageous dying, we are truly living.  AMEN.