Sunday, June 18, 2023
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio

“How (and how not to) Dad”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, June 18, 2023
Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-14 & 23-24

Happy fathers’ day everyone.

I remember when someone first greeted me that way, and I wanted to respond, uh, I’m not your father. At some point this just became something we say to any father-aged man on this day. Maybe we should be a little cautious about this—for some, fathers’ and mothers’ day are deeply painful. Some never had the children they wanted, or had children and it all went disastrously wrong, or their parents mistreated them. But this is precisely where Christian faith is ahead of us. Scripture makes clear that terms like “father” and “mother” are not merely biological. DNA is not destiny. Jesus calls God his Father. There are rumblings his whole life about Jesus’s unusual paternity. He has no children himself, no wife. In fact, for him, the church is a new family that displaces the old. One reason I love the church comes from my own difficult relationship with my mother—in the church I learned what motherhood could be. The church is where God heals the wounds where there should have been a good father, grandmother, son, granddaughter. And you can see that in our story for today.

Elisha is the prophet Elijah’s disciple and successor. Now Elijah is a little cool toward him. He tries to send him away three times. But Elisha won’t go, he promises to stay close. This sending away is still practiced in Judaism. If you turn up at a synagogue, and say you want to convert to Judaism, the rabbi is supposed to send you away three times. ‘No, being Jewish is hard, go back to something easier, like not being Jewish.’ Only if you persist past that are they supposed to let you prepare to convert. Elijah tries to put off Elisha. ‘Leave me.’ Elisha won’t go.

Woody Allen famously said 90 percent of life is showing up. Not leaving. That’s 90 percent of fatherhood too. Just being there. One of the best fathers I know, if one of his kids is facing something hard, plants himself by his kid pretending to read a book, expecting to be interrupted, and just waits for the kid to talk. Takes a while sometimes, but it works. My wife Jaylynn calls this being a potted plant for someone. Just there, unnoticed, quietly giving off oxygen, until you’re needed. 90 percent of life is a lot.

Parenting is hard. Mothers will usually stick around no matter what, but we fathers often vanish. Or we’re here but not really here: on screens, or attending to sports, or at work, tuned out to the kids. And I get it because fathering is hard! I mean, we offer advice and our kids seemed stunned how dense we are. Mark Twain said he left home at age 18 because he couldn’t believe how stupid his father was. Then when he came home at age 22, he couldn’t believe how much the old man had learned in just four short years. This relationship is fraught, so full of goodness, but also pain.

Elijah and Elisha show us something about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Their relationship recalls Moses’ relationship with Joshua. When Moses dies, he hands leadership over to Joshua, who conquers the promised land. Elijah and Elisha also foretell John the Baptist’s relationship to Jesus. John is compared to Elijah in the gospels. And because Elijah never dies—he’s taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot—he can turn up at odd moments in Israel. Jewish families leave a chair unoccupied for Elijah at Passover. Because Elijah’s not dead. So, you never know, he could turn up hungry. Or in a surprising disguise. And Elijah and Elisha are like the relationship between Jesus Christ and his beloved church. Let me explain.

As Elijah prepares to depart, Elisha asks for a brave thing. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Literally the Hebrew asks for a double mouthful of Elijah’s Spirit. A second helping, a bellyful (how we’ll all feel after the picnic this afternoon). This is partly a reference to inheritance. The firstborn son gets a double share of the family land to keep it from simply breaking up into equal but unprofitable parcels. Elisha is asking to be Elijah’s firstborn son. A bold ask.

Think of key moments in leadership succession—in politics or business or the military or a family. When we lose an elder, we feel that loss. We think ‘no one can measure up; things will get worse.’ But Elisha defies that logic. He says ‘Elijah, whatever made you special, I want more than that. Double that.’ Scripture is saying the next generation will be just fine.

One of the Bible study participants Tuesday, at our last meeting for the year, said we pray prayers that are too small. We should ask God for so much that God says ‘woah, hey, that’s hard, maybe ease up on me a little?’ When Jesus tells the disciples he’s going away, he says ‘actually you want me to go, because when the Holy Spirit comes, you’ll do greater things than I ever did. You want me to leave because you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ Uh, greater than raising the dead? Feeding 5000? ‘Yep. A double mouthful.’ And Elisha gets what he asks for. The rabbis count Elijah doing eight miracles in scripture and Elisha 16. Double. The transition from a beloved elder to a new and untested younger doesn’t have to be a loss. It can be a gain, a doubling, a greater portion. Religion is so often so deeply conservative — cherishing the past, fearing the present. But this is where Christian faith is radically progressive, optimistic, what’s the word? Hopeful, that’s it. The best is yet to come. An ancient church leader was asked if he feared the future. He said, uh, no—the future is when Jesus comes back.

And that brings us to you here today being confirmed, you who are joining the church as members. When someone joins a church, it’s like healthy skin being grafted onto a wound. It gives life and the pink of health to the whole body. We need y’all, desperately, to be the church God dreams about. The church can be the place where you learn how to be a father, how to be a son, how to be a human being, in an era when those skills have eroded terribly. In one sense, we are all bound by our biological father’s strengths and weaknesses. You eventually have to forgive your dad, he did the best he could, and even if he didn’t, you still have to find that forgiveness. There are dozens and dozens of models in here of what it means to be a dad. What it means to be a human. And you get to be that for others too. We come to church not for a spiritual pick-me-up, and please God not for the sermon. We come so God can make us a new kind of humanity. Happy father’s day to all of you who aren’t my dad or kid, but in Christ, you are.

I once pastored a man with the impossibly perfect name of Buck Robbins. He looked as craggy and wise as the mountains he’d grown up in. He’d been part of our church more than 80 years and spoke of his parents divorcing when he was three years old. In the 1930s people did not divorce, especially in Appalachia. His father’s family would cross the street to avoid him. He asked, ‘you know what kinda names they had for boys with no daddy back then?’ And do you know what that church did? The men taught Buck to fish and to hunt. To tell a story and to laugh. Taught him to be a man. And you know what they were really teaching him? That he was likeable, and so when they told him God loved him, he could believe it. And you know who our biggest advocate was for budgeting more money for youth? Buck would say, ‘most of my friends want to budget for us, because it’s mostly us old people giving the money. I don’t. I say give it to the kids.’ I wonder who has been a stand-in father for you? I wonder for whom you can do the same.

There are so many terrible examples of fatherhood out there. Consumerism says the goal of life is to be happy, unbound to anyone else. Well, parenting is difficult, inconvenient. That’s why people check out. But it’s actually good and holy to set aside so-called freedom to be a parent. There’s a deeper happiness found through that, whatever any ignorant person may say to the contrary.

There’s now a whole stream of political “thought” so-called in the US that says the problem is men aren’t being manly enough. If only they flexed, controlled their household, led in faith, things would be fine. Uh, no, the world is more complicated than that. But it’s not just conservatives who lift up harmful visions of fatherhood. Whiplash was an award-winning movie some years ago about a music teacher who nearly drives a student to destruction. Tar last year was about a female composer who is just as abusive as any man can be. We’ve all seen the films of coaches as drill sergeants, humiliating new recruits. So even Hollywood has this notion that to be a man is to be abusive and yell a lot. It’s a lie. There is authority in fatherhood, there is correction. But that’s only effective when it’s bathed in love. Peppered with respect and mutual affection. Now Hollywood also shows a longing for a good father figure in our lives—characters like Gandalf or Obi-Won Kenobi or Dumbledore show a wise elder speaking goodness. We admire them for their wisdom, not because they abuse. How hard is this to understand?! In our last story Elisha curses some kids and bears maul them. Uh, this is how not to be a father, or a human. Jesus commands us only to bless, and to forgive enemies—even snotty kids who insult you. Or authorities who crucify you.

Let’s look again at Elijah and Elisha. No yelling or cursing. No posturing of macho tough guy nonsense. No abandoning when things get complicated. Here’s what they do together instead. They live out the story of Israel. Like the church is supposed to do. Did you notice the place names? They go to Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho. Don’t skip over these. These are places Israel conquered coming into the promised land. Elijah and Elisha are reversing Israel’s entry into the promised land. See, Israel is failing to live up to the covenant. Its kings are offering sacrifice to false gods, putting up pagan images for worship. And Elijah is blasting them for it. Here the two prophets roll back up Israel’s entry into the promised land. They reverse it. They are leaving. They signify that God is leaving. And that Israel is leaving in the exile. When they cross the Jordan, they do it in the reverse direction that Joshua did, backing out the way Israel came in.

One of the most important things we fathers can do is introduce children to the story of Israel, of God’s faithfulness. The Bible is full of stories of parents passing on the big story. ‘Build a monument. So, when your children ask, what do these stones mean? You can tell them.’ That’s what this church is: a monument meant to incite our children to ask, ‘what are these stones for?’ Talk about the stories on the road, at the table, when you sit down and rise. Church is important, I’m giving my life to it. But we really pass on faith at home, at the kitchen table, in the car, in countless gestures and words and prayers. I read somewhere the best determiner for whether a child will grow up to be a Christian is not whether they’re taken to church as kids, though that’s good. It’s not even whether their father comes to church, though that’s better and rarer. Its whether their father sings the songs. See, whatever else kids do, they notice. And if you’re willing to belt out, with your less than perfect singing voice, a song you wouldn’t have chosen yourself, that shows them something. Way more than lecturing kids or making rules or playing the tough guy. Gentlemen: please sing. It’s not for you.

I’m not saying dads have to be saccharinely sweet, Lord, help us, I’m sure not. We all mess up constantly. We’re not pointing to ourselves, but to Jesus Christ, and his goodness. And not just to our biological kids. I love it when someone else at church corrects my kid. Or encourages them. Please y’all do it more often. Because it shows these aren’t my rules or stories or songs. They’re God’s, and they belong to all God’s people. Best thing we do for our children is pray for them. Feels weak. It’s actually the strongest thing there is.

The prophets arrive at the Jordan River. Elijah rolls up his mantle, so it looks like Moses’ staff. Strikes the river. And it splits in two, like the Red Sea once did. And they moonwalk out of Israel’s promised land. And then the fireworks. A whirlwind. A chariot of fire. Elijah’s taken up, like Jesus would be later in the Ascension. Elisha calls after him, more gibberish than complete thought: Father! Horses! Chariots! I mean, would you have a coherent thought? The mantle is left behind on the ground. Elisha takes it up. Returns to the company of prophets gathered around him: those interested in God, those trying to live differently, like us, church. And Elisha strikes the Jordan with the mantle too, like Elijah just did. And it parts again. The Jordan River is getting a workout this morning. Elisha has the power Elijah had. Except neither of them own it. It’s God’s power. Shared. God’s power is always shared.

The books of Kings are chock full of miracles. There are other parts of the Bible that are quieter with the supernatural: find me a miracle in the books of Ruth or Esther or Proverbs. Good luck with that. But the Kings recall the miracles of Exodus. Some of the Bible has signs and wonders. Some of the Bible is more like our lives: quiet of miracles. But even Kings has a hint of a sigh in it. The stories are told looking back. As if to say, ‘hey remember when there were miracles? Yeah, that was cool. Wish we could have one now.’

But here’s a minor miracle. Sometimes you connect with someone. And you become friends, across generations. They notice things about you. You notice things about them. And they encourage you. And you them. Lots of you have told me of older mentors who taught you your line of work, or how to lead, or what to do when parenting gets difficult. Church is a place where those connections happen. I’ve had amazing and Godly mentors in my life. And I only realized when I started mentoring others, oh, so the elder gets as much or more out of this as the younger. Some call it reverse mentoring. I guess what I’m asking is to make yourself available for this sort of relationship. Notice someone. Ask them nosy questions. Offer to pray for them. Bring up things that are awkward or difficult. Not just sports! We men are terrible at this. Women often make and keep friends. We men, I don’t know why, we don’t. It’s our loss. Scripture shows us relationships between men that matter. More of this please God. In our day of crushing loneliness, it’d be a miracle indeed.

Talking to my Tuesday Bible study I heard stories of good fathers, bless them. One said her father used to sneak up snacks to her after bedtime. She got specific: butter and brown sugar sandwiches. Yum. Or Spanish onion sandwiches. Tastes change, I guess. And she didn’t brush her teeth after. Gasp—can you believe it? Mom never knew. Several told stories of their father teaching them to knit. We associate knitting with femininity now, but in the wars, soldiers had to do it themselves, and passed that on. My dad was a psychologist. I knew his time with patients was sacrosanct. But once, when we argued, he came walking out of his office to talk to me. I was like, wait, this is the one rule, don’t interrupt therapy! And he said, ‘yeah, normally, but I sent the patient home to talk to you.’ I never felt so special. We threw the football, and he lost $100 that hour. When I got into ministry, I was pleased that mentors would invite me along when they’d go preach or travel. Then they’d invite me to talk too, make my own mistakes, receive gentle correction. One said, ‘hey, you’ve been to plenty of churches, try this one with me.’ And we went to a Metropolitan Community Church, the first gay-friendly church I’d ever been to. I met people there hungry for kindness—they’d had enough of meanness. And I heard a pastor pray to “our kind and loving God.”

As in everything we learn most about fatherhood from Jesus, which is weird, since he has no biological father or children. The Old Testament calls God “Father” a few times. Jesus calls God “Father” hundreds of times. It seems a distinctive to how he prays. See? This doesn’t mean an earthly daddy. God the Father has no male parts, no body, there’s no mother involved. So, what does Jesus mean? He means God looks out for him. Loves him. Hears him. Answers him. When Jesus faces his cross, its with this Father closer than his last breath. No two humans can be this close, this loving. We see who God is here. And Jesus invites us into his relationship with his Father.

After Elijah and Elisha leave the promised land, Elisha comes back in. With a company of friends. Like Jesus with the disciples. Like us, the church. And despite all of Israel’s failures and compromises, they go on living the covenant amidst a people who’ve forgotten how to. They’re going to model a different way of life. Fatherhood based on kindness, love of enemies, the wisdom of the Bible. It’s church, its humanity done right, it’s what being alive is for. Lord Jesus, give us all more of this. Amen.