An escaped southern convict is trying to get back home. He goes through many trials and travails on his journey, gets all the way back, only to discover his wife has a new suitor, and he must now also try to regain his place in his family. This is the Coen brothers “O Brother Where Art Thou”, a retelling of Homer’s The Oddessy. As this man comes back home for the first time, he sees his three girls singing a song at a town gathering. He rushes over to them and his children run to the edge of the stage. “Daddy!” exclaims one little girl. Then, she corrects herself, “You ain’t our daddy - not since you got hit by that train.”
“What are you talking about, I wasn’t hit by any train!” They go on to tell him about the suitor and that the marriage will be tomorrow, when this suitor will be the new daddy and that he’s bona fide. “But I’m your daddy - I’m the dang pater familias” (which means “head of the family”). He then went to find his wife, and asserts the same thing. “I’m the pater familias!”
His wife retorts, “No your not, you're not bona fide, you’ve got no prospects, better to tell them their daddy got hit by a train!” How many of us have been told in one way or another that we “ain’t bonafide - ain't proper?” Thankfully, God doesn’t call us to be proper; God calls us to be like Christ, to be more pastoral than proper.
These letters we read from today, they are presented to individuals, and called pastoral as such. Indeed, so much of being pastoral means considering the feelings and needs of individuals, which includes how those needs and feelings may not fit in with the standards, with what is proper. It’s no mistake that spiritual leaders in the church are called pastors: pastors help us think critically, mature in faith, let go of that which rebels against God’s will for our freedom from fear, to embrace that which enables us in God’s will for our learning to love - not indoctrinate.
We do, in the Reformed Church have our doctrine, what we call the standards. There are in fact seven Standards in the RCA. Standards meaning a “measure, norm, or model.” Back in May we had a member who I I applauded for her spiritual maturity in coming to ask a question about the Heidelberg Catechism and how disturbed she was by part of it, specifically question and answer 12, where she found the phrase: “We deserve punishment, how can we escape it?”
There is a proper response to this discomfort. One that would insist, “Get in line and follow this prescribed answer.” It is the response some faith leaders take. A pastoral response takes a different route. A pastoral response encourages the learning, the mystery, the grounding in God that helps us unfold in new ways as yet unknown to us, the vulnerability and tenderness within us. It is to say, “Yes, I can hear how this is disturbing, and it actually disturbs me, too.” So first let me say, this is a document written by human beings trying to figure out where Christ's death fits into everything. Some of you may already know that the Heidelberg was used way back in the day to teach little ones. This is what their Sunday School was like in the early days of the church. The children were asked these questions, and they were to memorize the answers. (In my opinion, not a terribly fruitful spiritual practice, but I can also recognize it as a source of comfort.)
There are parts of the Heidelberg that I really appreciate. And there are other ways to understand our need for grace apart from this way. Personally, I'm a big fan of reading the doctrinal documents like reading the Bible. It's not perfect, it must always be inspected with a view to learn more, it has some disturbing as well as gorgeous parts, and ultimately, we are called to be in relationship with it and speak with it. It's wonderfully, spiritually mature to read this and question it. That was just question 12. At General Synod they got to 108/9 out of 129 as something to which we must adhere.
They got all the way to 108/9 to discuss “unchastity”. I confess, I am skeptical of their concern with purity and proper places. Hopefully our reading of the gospel of Matthew helped to demonstrate that Christ was not terribly concerned with purity. Christ was concerned with being in community with the outcast, with loving and uplifting those society deemed improper.
As much as we see these portions of our standards, we can look, too, to Heidelberg # 1 : my only comfort in life and death is that I belong, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” The very first thing we are given in the Heidelberg. And I don’t wonder if it reminds us that from the outset that when we look for comfort elsewhere… look to other standards, to idols the church itself has created or idols of the world… it doesn’t ultimately serve our bodies and souls.
This week your worship elder was kind enough to share her copy of “How to Speak Zucchini.” This was the first book of Bob Pope’s. I found it to be a delightful page turner of contemplative wisdom. I deeply appreciate the ways in which he talks about how we can sometimes hesitate with our affections, scared to be generous. And in so many ways we are taught this by the world - fathers can often feel the burden of having to be the pater familias. This is the model that - while it’s morphing - it’s still quite strong.
At our consistory retreat, during lunch we talked about how we can have messages sent to us by what we watch and be influenced without noticing. I shared my recent obsession with Mad Men, and in the very first episode, a woman in the business contemplates, “I didn’t realize it until just now, but it must be very difficult to be a man, too.” I wonder, what would it mean to release our fathers from this burden of their proper place? How can we rejoice in even the smallest ways that they stand in their pastoral place? How do we uplift a masculinity that does not demand their heart, body, or soul to be numbed, that includes tenderness and affection.
Honestly, Father’s Day is just as dicey as Mother’s Day. I don’t know what manner of father many of you had. It might be too painful - some fathers have not been given the tools to undo a brokenness the world insists on. Most likely, he was like everyone else - broken in some ways, and beautiful in others. We can celebrate the beautiful pastoral place a father can hold.
I can celebrate my father’s beautiful tenderness, always encouraging me when I fail. I can celebrate the ways in which I know George will be tender, crying this weekend as he brought a young man back to base who was kicked out of rehab. I see both of these men I love struggle with the expectations placed on them to be stronger, to be more in control, the most in control. It is beautiful to behold, when they work to shed their “proper” notions for that which is pastoral. Today, we are each invited to insist on the tender, the pastoral, the affection. Embrace the Christ who is our true standard, our measure of compassion, our ultimate peace, our one true comfort, ever-revealing in new ways. You are already embraced in the pastoral arms of Christ.
Photo by Jonas Kakaroto on Unsplash