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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 18, 2018

 Our Father: Life’s Two Vital Words

Genesis 28:10-17; Matthew 6:7-15

            Ed Perrin practices law in Dallas, Texas.  He served as an Elder in the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church outside of Dallas, and grew up in the church, where I served for eleven years before coming here, in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  I learned in a very curious way that Ed Perrin was quite the high school football player.  The way I learned about it was when Spartanburg High, where my children went to high school, a large, very diverse public high school, had one of the top twenty-five rated football teams in the country, according to USA Today.  They had a wide receiver who was a USA Today first-team, all-American on that team.  There was an article in the sports page that this young man, who went on to play at Clemson University and had a remarkable career, had broken Spartanburg High School’s record for career touchdown passes, breaking the record held by Ed Perrin. 

            That Christmas rolled around, Ed was back home with his family, along with his wife Linda.  Coming out after church, I said, “Ed, I had no idea that you were a football star, and much less, a record-holding football star!”  He said to me, “You know the funniest thing about that, Todd?  I learned that my record was broken, but I never knew that I held it!  I didn’t know I had the record until my mother called me on the phone, having read the same article in the paper that you did.  I’ve been a record-breaking wide-receiver for years, and I never knew it until it was broken.”

            I have laughed about that every time I think about it.  It makes me wonder: How many people go through this life not really knowing how significant they are?  How many people live their whole lives, and never really feel, in the words of poet James Weldon Johnson, that they are “somebody,” but operate under the mistaken notion that they are “nobody,” that they do not count, that their lives do not matter.  How many kids grow up in this world without knowing how precious, how treasured by God, how intrinsically valuable they are?

            This Lenten season we are going to be looking at The Lord’s Prayer.  Some call it “The prayer behind all prayers,” others call it, “The Great Prayer.”  I want us to consider this prayer as more than simply a prayer we pray, but a prayer that can guide our living.  Because especially if we grasp hold of the significance of how this prayer opens, with those two simple words, “Our Father,” we are taught a world, both about who and whose we are, and who the God is to whom we pray. 

            Some people have a hard time for all kinds of reasons, thinking of God, using the term “Father.”  We will get to that later.  But, in a very real sense, maybe the word “our” is even more problematic.  When we pray “Our,” we are not using it in the possessive sense.  This God is not our property, and not a genie we rub for whatever we want, whenever we want it.  We do not use “our” in the possessive sense that somehow we could ever own God.  Rather, we use the word “our” in the astounding recognition that the God who created us, the One who created the entire universe, who set the stars and the planets in their courses, has willed, and actually wants to be our God.  Before ever we have reached out to God, or thought about God, God reached out to us.  The scriptures put it like this in John: “We love, because God first loved us.”

            Thomas Aquinas wrote once that “We were created for friendship with God.”  So the “our” that Jesus invites us to open the prayer with, when in Luke’s Gospel they said, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” the “our” suggests that we are connected with God because God wills and longs to be our God, and to call us His people.  And not only that, but to use that word “our” is to recognize that we are not the only ones invited by Jesus to pray in this way, but we are part of a family that stretches the whole world over, the world that God loves so much that He gave His only Son in order to redeem.

            I love the notion that many people have, that Christian faith is personal, that prayer is intensely personal.  But I always want to add this caveat: Christian faith is never private; it is never just a matter between me and God.  Christian faith, Biblical faith, is always profoundly communal, and to be friends with God is to recognize that God has called us to be friends with God’s friends, for all of us together to join as family using that inclusive, that welcoming, that all-embracing word “our.”

            I learned the song as child in Sunday School.  It is one of the most profound Christian lessons I have ever learned.  “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in God’s sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  I assume that means Jesus loves the big children of the world as well, which would include most of us in this place today.  It is not up to us to define the family of God.  God, who is our Creator and our Redeemer, has already done that for us.  When Jesus says, “When you pray, pray like this, saying ‘Our Father,’” He means for you to pray to God recognizing that to be friends with God is to be friends with all of those whose friendship God in Jesus Christ seeks.  Jesus put it like this: “A new commandment do I give unto you: Love one another as I have loved you.”  This is an unqualified command, and it is a call, not just to friendship with God, but friendship with everyone whom God seeks out to be His friend, even the one lost sheep that Sandra spoke of in her children’s sermon today.  You either accept that the family of God extends a word of welcome to everyone, or you spend your life working against the very purposes of God, and the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

            Let’s attend now to the second word of the prayer, the word “Father.”  When we pray to God as Father, as Jesus often did, I cannot imagine that the doctrine of the Trinity could be deduced from the Bible as it was, were it not for the prayer life of Jesus, where Jesus most regularly referred to God as His Father.  This was something done very rarely in the Old Testament, but something done almost regularly by the prayers we know from the Gospels that Jesus prayed.  But here is the point: We are speaking primarily about Jesus’ relationship to God, not ours.  To refer to God as Jesus’ Father is not to speak of them, God the Father and Jesus the Son, first and foremost in a gender specific way.  The point is not that God is male, and that God is father and that Jesus is son, and if you do not fit either of those descriptions, somehow you are a second class Christian.  All of the language that we use to describe God, all Biblical language, is analogical language, and all of it falls short of capturing the fullness of God.  Indeed, gender difference, male and female, were the Creator God’s ideas in the first place!

            To refer to God as Jesus’ Father, is rather, first and foremost, to speak of the closeness and the quality and the character of Jesus the Son’s intimate relationship with God, His loving and heavenly Father.  As such, we speak of God as Father only because Jesus did so.  We come into a familial relationship with God totally on Jesus’ coattails.  We are, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “children by virtue of adoption.”  We do not call God “Father” and call ourselves members of God’s family based on our virtue, or something inherent in us that qualifies us as a worthy member of God’s family.  We only come into that relationship because Jesus is worthy.  Our choir sings it almost every Easter season, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.”  We are members of God’s family by adoption, by an act of staggering grace on the part of God in sending His Son, His only Son, to love us, to die for us, to redeem us, and to make us, by faith, children of God. 

            The whole business of adoption is powerful to me.  You read scripture passages, and then life happens to you, and you read them completely differently on the other side of the experiences you have.  Some of you know that I am the youngest of three children.  I became a father first in my family.  My sister, who was the middle child, came second.  My brother and his wife, we all assumed, did not choose and did not want to have children, until one day when they told us they could not have children.  They were in their mid-thirties, and they qualified, Luther and Lisa, almost immediately, as a couple that passed muster with the Pittsburgh Home for Children.  Then they waited six long years, and when Luther was forty, and Lisa was thirty-nine, they were given a son, Brice Jones, the apple of their eye, and they thought that their family was set.  They remained active in the life of the Pittsburgh Home for Children, because they felt so grateful for how Brice had blessed their lives. 

            One day they received a call, when Brice was about three.  A little girl had been born to a teenage, unwed mother, and she had some seizures after birth, and some very questionable scores on tests that are given to newborn babies.  The family that the Home had approved had backed out; they decided there was too much risk.  The caller said to Luther and Lisa, “Would you be willing to adopt this little girl?”  They thought about it.  I assumed they prayed about it.  They called my cousin Doug who was a neurosurgeon in Greenville, North Carolina, and talked to him about it.  And then they said, “Yes.” 

            Almost from the start, you could tell that Chrissy was different.  She related to Luther and Lisa, and Luther and Lisa alone.  It was excruciatingly painful for Chrissy to be in family gatherings – we come from a big family, my father was one of eight children – and I cannot imagine how painful for Luther and Lisa it was that normal, social interaction was so difficult, so traumatic for Chrissy.  Luther and Lisa have all these years, poured themselves into their little girl, just like they have into their little boy.  That is a sermon in and of itself.  Chrissy today is a public school teacher, and it is nothing less than a miracle that she has grown up and now fills that role.

            I will never forget when the two of us had our very first connection.  I will call it a breakthrough, because for years I was with Chrissy, and she could not look at me, would not talk to me.  She would often make fun of the fact that I looked like her Dad, but she knew I was not Luther.  She directed all that conversation to her mother or father, and never to me.  My mother was very ill, and I was in Philadelphia at the hospital.  Luther was there with Chrissy, just the two of them, and out of the blue, she looked to her Dad, not to me, and said, “Would he play Hangman with me?”  You know the game, Hangman, right?  So, Luther asked me, and I said of course I would.  So she put down eight dashes for an eight-letter word and proceeded to hang her Uncle Todd in no time.  Then she filled in the blanks.  The word was “adoption,” and without looking at me, she said, “I’m adopted, you know.  It means my Mommy and Daddy really wanted me.”

            I love how Peter puts it: “Once you were no people, now you are God’s people.  Once you had not received mercy, now you have received mercy.”  All because in Jesus Christ God really wanted you!  “You did not choose me,” said Jesus, “but I choose you.”  It is one of the best reasons why we baptize infants in our life, to underline the fact that we do not have to create a relationship with God, or earn a relationship with God, or somehow find a valid way to have a relationship with God.  God’s love and our relationship with God the Father is given to us, promised to us, by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is who you are.  Someone God really, really wanted!

            I think of this business of adoption in Chrissy’s case, if she had been raised by an unmarried teenage mother, with all the issues she had, it is hard for me to imagine that she would have had a chance in the world.  Instead, she had my big brother and his wife pouring everything they had to offer into her.  Paul puts it like this: “We are heirs, joint heirs with Christ,” and all that belongs to our heavenly Father is ours, because of how greatly God our Father loves us and treasures us, as blessed sons and daughters of the covenant.

            Days have a way of running together, don’t they?  But some days, for all of us stand out.  The date of February 18, 1999, shall forever be one of those days for me.  Earlier that summer, my mother, who had breast cancer eighteen years before, discovered that the cancer had returned as ovarian cancer, and throughout the summer and into the fall, about every three weeks, I would take a flight to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where my mother had moved in with my big sister, Linda.  (If you don’t know her, she is the bossiest human being God ever created, and my mother’s care was going to be on her terms or no terms at all!)

            I had planned that Sunday to jump on a plane, right after church, and go to Philly to see her, thinking to myself that maybe this would be our last visit.  On that Thursday morning, my brother-in-law Lou called me on the phone, and said, “Todd, if you want to see Eva, you better get on a plane and get here as soon as possible, because she has taken a turn for the worse.”  I dropped everything, got on a plane, flew to Philadelphia, and rented a car.  (Actually, the guy said, “Do you know how to drive a stick, because the only vehicle we have is a pickup truck with stick shift?”  I said, “I’m from South Carolina.  Of course I can.”)  I drove the pickup truck to Abington Hospital, and walked into the intensive care unit.  As soon as I walked in, my mother, who looked like a shadow of what she had looked like months earlier, smiled, and very softly said, “All my children are here.”  We all held hands – Chrissy, and Luther and Linda and my brother-in-law Lou – and we recited together the words of the Twenty-third Psalm.  It turned out those were the last words that my mother ever spoke. 

            I have thought about that moment over and over again, and I cannot help but to think that God is tired of His children, His sons and daughters, allowing so many silly differences to get in the way of all of us holding hands together, as children who are recipients of grace that we will never deserve, and whose value we can scarcely calculate.  I imagine that God longs for us to be able to say together, “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.”

                                                                                    Amen.

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