On June 16, 2013 we explored the role of men in the church, and of dads in faith formation — and the fact that the church is called to engage and love the children among whom we have been placed. Our scriptures included Job 1:1-5 and I John 2:12-17
Every year, the Gallup Poll asks Americans, without any prompting, to answer this question: “What man and what woman, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?” Each of these men has been named as “The Most Admired Man” according that poll.
Why? What makes those men worthy of our admiration? It can’t be their moral fiber – sure, you’ve got Billy Graham on the list, but you’ve also got two impeached presidents. Do we look up to them because they have great power or wealth? Maybe. Almost everyone on the list has those things.
Mostly, it seems to me, it has to do with their address. 54 of the 66 “winners” have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and been sitting US Presidents at the time of the poll. So maybe it’s an accident of geography.
I’d like to tell you about a man who isn’t on the list. Of course, the list only goes back to 1946. If it went back three or four thousand years, this guy would be a lock to make it. In fact, it says so right in verse three of our first reading: that Job was “the greatest man in all the east”.
Well, isn’t that a little like saying that Johnny’s makes the best pizza, or that Dave Carver is the best-fielding pastor in the history of CHUP softball? How do you back a statement like that up? “Greatest man in the east?” How do you know that?
The author of Job anticipated your question and gave you an answer: if you want to know what made Job so great, look at the way he treated his kids. Every year, when they would celebrate their birthdays, he would be holding them in prayer, making sacrifices on their behalf, and seeking to protect them from harm. Job was the greatest, according to the Bible, because he did right by his children in the eyes of the Lord.
I thought about this passage a few weeks ago when we were having communion. I noticed a young dad in our congregation sitting with two boys – his son and a friend – and teaching them how to worship and what made communion so important. At that moment, I thought, “Maybe there is nothing we do that is more important than helping men to teach boys how to worship and respect the Lord.”
I did a little research, and discovered that it’s not just me that thinks this way. A study reported in The Baptist Press indicated that if a man is the first in his family to become a Christian, there is a 93% probability that everyone else in the family will claim Christ. That compares with a 17% probability if the wife is the first to become a Christian and a 3.5% chance if the first to believe is a child.
The Journal of Child Development reports that fathers have twice the influence of mothers when it comes to helping teens stave off risky behaviors. This doesn’t say that moms don’t have a role – only that dads have twice as much influence on their teens.
And a study done by the government of Switzerland determined that if a mother goes to church without the father, 2% of the children are liable to participate regularly in church as adults. However, when the father goes without the mother, 44% of the children will grow up and join a church. Men matter when it comes to the life of faith, and the church needs to be attentive to that.
And someone is crying “Shenanigans!” We didn’t hear a Mother’s Day sermon, but we’re getting a Father’s Day sermon? That’s sexist!
Probably. But it’s been my experience that I don’t need to encourage women to nurture children in the faith as I do the men. And the truth is, my friends, that I know way too many people who have had insufficient parenting from both their fathers and their mothers…but I know more people who have been wounded by poor fathering. And the statistics would seem to bear me out on this:
1/3 of the children in the USA are currently living in homes without their fathers present. Children who are being raised in father-absent homes are four times more likely to be poor than their peers. 90% of the nation’s homeless or runaway children are from fatherless homes. 85% of the children who have been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder are children with no father in their lives. 63% of youth suicides are children whose father is absent.
Now look – none of these statistics predicts anything about a particular child, and clearly, we have men and women in our midst who were raised without their fathers present and who have done magnificent things. So what does this mean? It means that we as a church – and we as a society – have a stake in supporting and encouraging men to be the best dads that they can be.
Which leads me to our New Testament passage for the day. We call this letter “I John”, although it doesn’t say anywhere in the text itself who wrote it. The author is an unnamed person connected with the circle of Apostles. He appears to be an older man, one with authority and some personal knowledge of Jesus. He could very well be the John who was named in the Gospels as one of the first disciples. He could be another church leader named John. The point is, he’s a man with status and influence in the church, and here, he writes to three different generations within the church.
In a rambling, repetitive, poetic address, the elder speaks to “fathers”, “young men”, and “children”. You probably noticed that all of the pronouns in this translation are male – just like many of them in this sermon. I would suggest that in John’s culture, it was appropriate to use masculine imagery when referring to everyone in the room – and I would further suggest that what he has to say applies to each of us as well.
He writes to the children, he says, because they have had their sin forgiven, and they know the power of God’s love in their lives.
The young adults he commends for being strong in their faith, and for standing up to “the evil one” in a difficult time.
And he reminds the so-called “fathers” that they knew Jesus in the flesh – these were older adults who were of his own generation.
So the “why” is this: I write to you because you know the grace of God, you struggle with the evil of this world, and you know the power of Jesus…
What does he actually say? What’s the message he’s trying to get across?
It’s simple, actually: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.”
Wow, doesn’t that sound…well, pretty rigid? I mean, it could be the ground rule for a whole puritanical lifestyle. “Do not love the world or the things of the world…” sounds like John could be saying, “Don’t smoke, don’t go to the movies, don’t dance, and watch out for that liquor!”
While John may or may not approve of any of those things, that’s almost certainly not what he meant to say this passage. He deepens his message in the next verse, when he warns against “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”. Historically, the church has said that the prime dangers to faithful living are money, sex, and power – specifically, money, sexuality, and power that is twisted and abused. And if we think of those categories, I think we’re closer to what John means.
“Do not love the world…” The word John uses for “world” is “cosmos” – and it means the created order. In the New Testament, “cosmos” is always finite and limited. Of course it is, because the cosmos is created.
What John is saying to the church of his day is that they dare not love – that is, give themselves to – something that has been created. Do not give to a creature that allegiance, respect, loyalty, and devotion that belongs only to the Creator. John would say that you cannot give yourself away, because you already belong to God.
So, what are the implications for the church? It seems to me that every congregation, in John’s time and in our own, needs to be a community wherein one generation teaches the next to celebrate forgiveness, to struggle with evil and to know Jesus. We are blessed with children who are led by young adults and supported by their elders. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right?
According to the most recent census data, there are 1,262 children who live in Crafton Heights. Of those, 492 are children who live in a home with “female householder, no father present”. Many of these women are among the bravest, toughest, most courageous people I know. Their task is herculean. But they cannot – and they should not – be doing this alone.
The call from today’s scripture reading is for the people of God to be fatherly – whether or not we are biological fathers. What does this mean? I think it means that we follow the pattern laid out by Job: we engage children spiritually. We don’t just run a program: we nurture the child. And we don’t just “love kids”: we pour ourselves out for specific children who are known to and loved by God. We pray with and for the children in our midst. And we are not only willing, but eager to make sacrifices on behalf of our children.
The stereotypical question to a child is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And we all smile when some gap-toothed eight year old says, “I’m gonna be the President of the United States!” That answer, statistically speaking, gives you the best shot at being the most admired man or woman in the world.
It would be cool if one of our kids grew up and lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But it would be better, I think, if a few of them grew up to be Job.
In fact, I dream of a congregation that could be “The Job Corps” (rhyme with “robe corps). Now, you know that The Job Corps is a government program designed to help young people find a career and earn a living. Great. But the Job Corps is an expression of the church that could and should go wider and deeper and broader than any of that – the Job Corps could be that expression of the body of Christ that values children with and without fathers enough to model faith for them, to live in covenant love with them, and to guide them into faith themselves.
I’m preaching to you, Church. I’m preaching to you, children, who know the truth – who can sing along that “Jesus loves me, this I know”, or “Jesus is my firm foundation – I know I can stand secure…”
I’m preaching to you, my younger brothers and sisters, who struggle to find time and balance and energy in your lives. You who are becoming Cross Trainer staff for the summer and you who are parents of young children; you who are fathers, you who are married to amazing dads, and you who wish that your child’s father could be bothered to take more of an interest in that child’s life; I’m preaching to you because you know the struggle against evil, and yet you know that the word of God can abide in you!
And I’m preaching to you, mature adults. You may not be of Christ’s generation, but you know the Lord. You have seen and sensed him at work in your lives. Your task as biological parents may have finished, or at least be winding down. But I know at least 492 children in census tracts # 2814 and 2815 who need someone like you to help with the Faithbuilders program, or to volunteer afterschool, or to pray with the Youth Group. You have known Christ. Now, make him known to those who follow you and him. And may God bless you as you become the Job Corps in this time and place. Amen.