Matthew 9:35—10:8 [10:9–23]
Since we celebrate Father’s Day today, I was thinking back to my childhood memories of being with my dad. There are familiar moments, typical events. Like sitting on the couch with my dad, watching Star Trek- and when the scary aliens started fighting, feeling much safer for having my dad next to me. Or following Dad out to our backyard to watch the spring storms roll in, trusting that he would keep me safe, while insistently suggesting we run to the basement for cover. Or- a memory of a safer moment- sitting at the kitchen table, while Dad made specially shaped pancakes for breakfast. These are a few of the familiar memories that have formed the basis of my relationship with my Father.
Trust, love, safety, presence- these are some of the qualities I have been blessed to experience in my relationship with my dad. I think I have been very lucky. Because of our good relationship, I get it when Jesus calls God Father. Jesus is God among us- choosing to live a human life, to try to express really big and awesome Godstuff to us, so that we can grasp at least some small piece of who God is. Jesus calls God Father, Daddy, because we all have fathers, we know who that is. The problem is that we don’t always have fathers who demonstrate the type of self-giving love that Jesus is trying to tell us about. Our fathers have faults, because they are not God. When the word “father” brings us a familiar image of incredible love and forgiveness because we have experienced that type of relationship from our human father, we find it easier to think of God as Father. But when we’re not really sure who a father is, or haven’t been able to experience a father at his best, it can really be hard to see God as Father. Our picture of God can become clouded with our experiences of disappointment, abandonment, or abuse. We are singing a number of hymns about God as Father, pray to “Our Father”, but father is not the only image we have of God. We call God counselor, advocate, friend, comforter- many other titles that might build from experiencing relationships with other humans, people from whom we might catch a glimpse of the incredible love, patience, and presence of God.
Familiar phrases can sometimes roll quickly through our mouths and not quite engage our brains or hearts. Father God can sometimes be that phrase. We meet another in our reading from Romans: suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us …
The progression in this phrase is one that has given comfort and meaning to many people during difficult times. Various phrases in our culture are rather similar: “what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger” as well as the expectation that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. These later phrases focus on the benefits of hard times and the expectation that we have the power and responsibility to lift ourselves out of our own problems.
There have been people who use this verse to condone suffering. They declare that since suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, it’s ok to keep people in their situations of suffering. After all, Paul clearly acknowledges that there will be suffering, and it produces good character and spiritual development.
When I was in high school, I left the country for the first time. I traveled with my dad and a team from Lutheran Disaster Response to work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges. There wasn’t a whole lot of obvious post-hurricane cleanup to be done; we came as the relief effort was drawing to a close. So we traveled into a village of squatters, living in small homes, sometimes only consisting of a few walls of pressboard and a bit of corrugated metal for a roof. Those I met lived in conditions I considered situations of suffering. I suppose it could have been worse, they had electricity and water running through the makeshift village, after all that is more than some have. I was always met with kindness, hospitality, and generosity. People seemed so happy- and their faith was so strong. And so it might be easy to use these folks as an example of how situations of suffering produce people of strong character and faith. We might almost envy their situation.
Across the street from this precarious village, this illegal settlement, was a very different housing opportunity: multimillion dollar oceanfront homes and a condominium complex. If we could choose to be born into either situation, certainly we would choose the squatter’s village for its faith benefits? I think not.
The problem we face with familiar images for God and familiar Bible passages is that we forget to consider what they really mean for us. Paul starts out with suffering. He’s talking to the early church- and they know suffering. Some have known the struggle of explaining a new faith commitment to skeptical family members. Paul himself faces imprisonment during his ministry. Paul’s acknowledgement of suffering echoes up the centuries to us. There is suffering we all face- in broken relationships, death of loved ones, loss of homes and jobs… We all face difficult situations at some point in our lives.
We get into trouble when we start justifying the presence of suffering based on passages such as these. Justice is also a very important theme throughout Scripture. When we have told slaves to accept their situation, sent battered women back to their husbands telling them abuse is their cross to bear, and comfortably muse on the faith growth of the poor- we are living in sin. We force people into suffering and miss the point Paul is getting at.
Paul is speaking to people who know suffering and acknowledging it. Sometimes we pretend there is no suffering in our lives or our world. We think it’s something we need to fix alone, something to be ashamed of. We’re told to put on a happy face. We’re told that if we only had enough faith, nothing bad would happen to us. Paul knew better than that. Suffering happens. In God’s vision for creation, it shouldn’t. But we are broken people and it does.
This Romans passage is not about condemning people to suffer, nor is it about wearing rosy glasses through our own experiences of suffering. It is about God being with us through the worst and best of times. “God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”. God is present with more love and forgiveness than even the best father we have known. God is the Father who gently covers the skinned knee with a bandage, who holds us tight when our first best friend decides we’re not cool enough anymore, who stays up late to help us cram for that history final, who speaks words of encouragement when our own children are born.
God welcomes us all into the family. No suffering, no sin, can keep us away. In our deepest moment of sin, God comes to us. Jesus’ incarnation, suffering, and death show us God’s love. We are children who have done nothing to deserve love, helpless as newborns, rebellious as teenagers. But God loves us with the intensity of a father for his beloved children. And that is something to celebrate this Father’s Day!
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