Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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Sermon for June 18, 2006

Given by George Peterson

Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

 

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY

 

Good morning, and Happy Father’s Day.  And because I did not preach here last month on May 14th, Happy Mother’s Day, as well.  Before I begin with my topic for today, I’d like to just ask you to think back upon our opening words this morning, #419 from the back of the hymnal –

 

      Look to this day!  For it is life, the very life of life.  In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence.  Yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision.  But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.  Look well, therefore, to this day. 

 

The quote is attributed to Kalidasa, and I wanted to ask you, does anyone here know who Kalidasa was or is?  Well, I must confess that I didn’t either.  So I did some research.  And here is what I found.  Kalidasa is considered to be India's greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist.

 

Almost nothing is known about Kalidasa's life, including exactly when and where he lived.  However, most scholars today believe that Kalidasa lived sometime in the mid 4th and early 5th centuries.  According to legend, the poet was known for his beauty which brought him to the attention of a princess who married him. However, as legend has it, Kalidasa had grown up without much education, and the princess was ashamed of his ignorance and coarseness.

 

A devoted worshipper of the goddess Kali (his name means literally Kali's slave), Kalidasa is said to have called upon his goddess for help and was rewarded with a sudden and extraordinary gift of wit.  Legend also has it that he was murdered by a courtesan in Sri Lanka.  He is generally considered to be the greatest Indian writer of any epoch.  So now you all know who Kalidasa was!

 

In case you were also wondering, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were not created by Hallmark or any of the other card companies to generate business.  In fact, the earliest Mother's Day celebrations can be traced back to the spring celebrations of ancient Greece in honor of Rhea, the Mother of the Gods.

 

During the 1600's, England celebrated a day called "Mothering Sunday", which was   celebrated on the 4th Sunday of Lent and which honored the mothers of England.  During this time, many of England's poor worked as servants for the wealthy.  As most jobs were located far from their homes, the servants would live at the houses of their employers.  On Mothering Sunday, the servants would have the day off, just like they would on Boxing Day, and were encouraged to return home and spend the day with their mothers. 

 

As Christianity spread throughout Europe the celebration changed to honor the "Mother Church" - the spiritual power that gave them life and protected them from harm.  Over time the church festival blended with the Mothering Sunday celebration.  People began honoring their mothers as well as the church.

 

In the United States, Mother's Day was first suggested in 1872 by Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words to the Battle hymn of the Republic, as a day dedicated to peace. Ms. Howe would hold organized Mother's Day meetings in Boston, Mass. every year.

 

In 1907, Ana Jarvis, from Philadelphia, began a campaign to establish a national Mother's Day.  She and her supporters began to write to ministers, businessman, and politicians in their quest to establish a national Mother's Day.  By 1911, Mother's Day was celebrated in almost every state, and President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 officially proclaimed Mother's Day as a national holiday.

 

The origin of Father's Day is not so clear. Some say that it began with a church service  in West Virginia in 1908.  Others say the first Father's Day ceremony was  held in Vancouver, Washington.  Regardless of when or where the first true Father's Day occurred, the strongest promoter of  the holiday was a Mrs. Bruce John Dodd of Spokane, Washington.  She thought of the idea for Father's Day while listening to a Mother's Day sermon in 1909.

 

She wanted a special day to honor her father, William Smart, a Civil War veteran who was widowed when his wife died  while giving birth to their sixth child.  Mr. Smart was left to raise the six children by himself on a rural farm in eastern  Washington state.

 

In 1909, Mrs. Dodd approached her own minister and others in Spokane about having a church service dedicated to fathers on June 5, her father's birthday. That date was too soon for  her minister to prepare the service, so he spoke a few weeks later on June 19th. From then on, the state of Washington celebrated the third Sunday in June as Father's Day.  In early times, wearing flowers was a traditional way of celebrating Father's Day.  According to the tradition, a red rose honors a father still living, while a white flower honors a deceased dad.

 

States and organizations began lobbying Congress to declare an annual Father's  Day.  In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson approved of this idea, but it was not until 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge made it a national event to  "establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children  and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations."  Since then, fathers have been honored and recognized by their families  throughout the country on the third Sunday in June. 

 

As a minister, I’ll confess that I’ve never enjoyed delivering the traditional Mother’s Day or Father’s Day sermon.  Let me explain why. 

 

In our culture, we are taught to “honor thy father and thy mother.”  Jewish and Christian religious symbolism is filled with images of marriage and family, and from an early age many of us are taught to understand God as a loving father.  As we all know, the family provided one of the most frequently used analogies for the relationship between Israel and God, as father, and also as mother.

 

The parable taught by Jesus of the Prodigal Son is one of the strongest biblical images of God as forgiving, loving, trustworthy, loyal and devoted.  God is the forgiving father, welcoming his son -- and us -- back home with tender embrace.

 

Yes, this is the ideal -- but ultimately, this ideal, like most others, is as hollow as the chocolate bunny on Easter Sunday.  There are some of us who are not reminded of such idealized motherly or fatherly figures on these holidays.  What about those of us who have been the victims of parental abuse or gross misconduct?  What about those of us for whom Mother’s Day or Father’s Day painfully reminds us that God did not bless us with such loving and caring parents? 

 

When I was growing up, I thought something must be the matter with me because I felt like an outsider.  My parents were abusive, but I was told that I should honor, respect and love them, no matter what.  The church perpetuated this notion, and never made mention of this other side of the coin.  “This is my Father’s world” sums up the basic Judeo-Christian philosophy.  And what about this other side of the coin -- the negative connotations of the image of God as Parent?  Clergy tend to gloss over things and talk as though every family is whole and “normal” and simple, or else they use the language of family diversity, but leave out any mention of the pain or fear felt by children of dysfunctional families.

 

As a result, it’s both sad and uncommon for both young and adult children of abusive parents to receive any guidance, sympathy or even awareness of their situation from religious leaders or fellow congregants.  The way I perceived it, God was a parent, just like my parents, and so, if I couldn’t entirely trust my parents, I couldn’t entirely buy into the concept of God’s love, protection and solace. 

 

I know that many of you here today come from loving, functional and nurturing families.  But I also know that some of you here today, like me, aren’t quite so lucky.  We have often felt ostracized, short changed and angry.  If God is like my father, then God is a very cruel person indeed.  

 

The poet, Anne Sexton, once said that “It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”  My father led two lives -- the one he showed to the rest of the world, and the one he led with his family.

 

The world knew my father as a handsome, gentle, kind and friendly spirit.  My sister and I knew him as a cruel, cold, abusive, unforgiving man.  When he died some 16 years ago, Linda and I went to the church with my mother and sister to visit with the minister who was going to conduct his memorial service.  The minister, who did not know my father, asked my mother to describe him. 

 

“Tell me about Norman, the husband,” he asked.  My mother -- who was herself both abused and abusive -- hemmed, hammered and stammered, shifting uncomfortably in her chair from one foot to another, and then shared a meaningless and irrelevant anecdote or two about him.  Then the minister turned to my sister and me.  “Okay, then tell me about Norman, the father,” he asked.  There was a very long, pregnant pause.  A profound silence.  I glanced at my sister, she glanced at me.  We had no neat stories, we had no fond memories.  We had only emptiness and despair.

 

When it was all over, and we were walking out of the church that day, I turned around to my wife, Linda, and I said -- “You know, the legacy my father leaves me today is the determination to not be like him.  When I die, and our three sons are gathered around in some minister’s office, and he asks them about George, the Father, I want them to share lots of wonderfully warm and loving memories!”

 

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston.  Her father, who taught German at Boston University and who published a noted study of bees, died in 1940 when Plath was just eight years old. 

She attended Smith College, won a fellowship to Cambridge University in England, and married the English Poet Ted Hughes in 1956.  She separated from Hughes in October of 1962 and committed suicide on February 11, 1963.  The posthumous publication of Ariel in 1965 cemented her reputation and made her a feminist icon and a martyr in the eyes of her fans. 

 

Her poem, “Daddy,” from the Ariel collection, paints a vividly disturbing and dark portrait of her father.  “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” captures the raw anger and angst of a child who has been victimized and traumatized by this particular man.  Of course, the real ambiguity of the poem emerges when we become unsure of whether Plath is speaking of her father or of the other abusive man in her life, her husband.  By the end of the poem, she in fact is really talking about both father and husband and even God. 

 

Now, let me make something clear.  I have no problem whatsoever with our society holding up examples of good, wholesome parenting for us to follow.  What I do have a problem with is our society’s and the church’s disregard for the victims of child abuse.

 

For me, the church must always, always err on the side of the poor, the less fortunate, the victims of abuse and other crimes, the downtrodden and the sick.  Always!  The church must be a safe place, and the church must always speak out and reach out! 

 

When President Coolidge established a national Father’s Day to "promote more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations," I think he was closer to the spirit of what the day should be than its present willy-nilly one way party or festival which places no burden on fathers whatsoever than to be honored in some way by their children.  How about if we turned things around and used this day for reflecting on how we might become better fathers?

 

Please join me in a brief prayer:

 

Dear Creative Spirit, Force of Life, we ask today for the wisdom to become better parents and grandparents.  We remember the victims of child abuse, and we pray for their healing as we work to make our sanctuary a truly safe place for all.

 

We are grateful for this hour together where we can unburden ourselves of our loneliness, our fears and our conflicts and share the joy of love and fellowship and spiritual journey. 

 

As we prepare to go our separate ways over the summer, may we go in good health and safety, ever-mindful that our church may suspend services, but our congregation and our nation never suspend illness, misfortune, calamity and loss.

 

So may we keep our hearts open to the needs of our neighbors and friends, and may we grow in spirit and in grace.  Amen.

 

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