June 20, 2004 (Father's Day)
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Galatians 3:23-29
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Luke 15:11-24

Then Jesus said: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

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Sermon: Going Home

In the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son we hear the story of a young man who cashes in his inheritance and spends it all in dissolute living in a foreign land.  He realizes the mistake he has made and returns home to seek the forgiveness of his father.  His father greets him from afar and proclaims: let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!

In the familiar song, Amazing Grace, we hear the story of another father’s son who was lost, but now is found, who was blind, but now sees.  Though he has been through many dangers, toils, and snares, the writer of the hymn confesses – ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

From the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, to the now iconic lament of Stephen Spielberg’s lost alien, “ET go home” – the issue of our relationship to our homes, our roots, our mothers and fathers, the traditions and moral certainties of our upbringing remains a psychological, religious, and political knot we can spend our lives trying to untie.

The Prodigal Son was returning to his earthly father and his childhood home and the traditional values that had guided his parents and grandparents for generations.  The author of Amazing Grace was turning his back on his past, his father, his society, and a worldview of time which was sanctioned by both the law of the land and the traditional reading of the Holy Scriptures.

That worldview concerned race and slavery.  John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, was born in 1725 in London.  For the first years of his life he was raised primarily by his mother, since his father was the captain of a merchant ship in the Mediterranean Sea.   But his mother died when he was seven and his father sent him to boarding school until his eleventh birthday when he joined his father on the merchant ship.

One time on shore leave he met a young woman who captured his heart and missed the departure of his ship.  As punishment his father sent him as a common sailor to Venice, but on a trip back to England he was pressed into service by the English Navy..  When he deserted, he was captured, chained in irons, publicly stripped, whipped, demoted, and told he had to remain on the Navy ship for another five years.

However, shortly after he was traded to a merchant ship heading for West Africa.  On this ship he met a slave trader and who hired him as a servant and apprentice.  At one point in Africa John became seriously ill and close to death, terribly abused by the master, sometimes to the extent of locking him in a cage and leaving him exposed to the wind and rain for days at a time with little or no food.

Just when John Newton had lost all hope, his master decided to get rid of him and he found himself in the service of another slave trader who could see John’s intelligence and abilities and treated him well and put him in positions of responsibility and management of his business. 

His life took another turn when a friend of his father showed up with a message to return home.   John’s reluctance caused the friend to make up a story about an inheritance that was waiting for him and tricked him into boarding a ship.  Among other calamites, this ship almost sank in a violent storm, which the Captain blamed on God chasing down John Newton like he did the prophet Jonah.

Upon return to England, John’s sailing and African experiences secured him a position as mate and later captain on a slave ship which traveled the great triangle from Liverpool, England to West Africa and then to Charlestown, South Carolina.  Now he was the master and others were in chains and his cargo was up to 600 human beings condemned to life as the property of others.

About his work, John Newton once wrote: "During the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple to its lawfulness. I was upon the whole satisfied with it as the appointment providence had marked out for me.”

But quietly, slowly, inevitably, his heart turns from sailing and the slave trade towards service to God, and what he once thought of as God’s ordained order in the subjugation of one race by another he comes to see as a terrible sin.  He sees himself as a morally wretched, his past life lived in blindness; the physical danger to which he was exposed become nothing compared to the spiritual danger.  He was lost, but now is found – and grace will lead him home.

It may be hard for us today to understand how the world and even people of faith could have seen the slave-trade as a God-ordained reality.  It is a story even more complicated than that of John Newton, but the complications were not what held sway over people – it was the simple fact that their preachers taught it, their parents believed it, God said it, and that settled it.

The proof was in scripture – the story of Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:
The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father;
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.”

Now there’s an interesting Father’s Day text – the youngest son sees the father drunk and naked and the father curses the son to a life of slavery – the son and his descendents, traditionally understood as the people of Africa.

This story, while perhaps unfamiliar to us, was used as the cornerstone of the religious view which sustained slavery.  It was put together with a few other verses, like the apostle Paul’s admonition for slaves to be obedient to their masters, and accepted as biblical truth for generations.  To question slavery was to question not simply the traditions of society but the very word of God.

Perhaps one way we can understand this today is to look at how the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and a few other verses from the Old and New Testaments have been used as the cornerstone for a religious view of homosexuality as perverse and sinful.  Again, it’s a complicated story, but again it boils down to “our preachers taught it, our parents believed it, God said it, and that settles it.”

An author who was writing a novel based on the true story of a gay man tossed from a bridge to his death interviewed more than four hundred gay bashers in prison.  Few showed remorse or saw anything morally wrong with their crimes.  Homosexuality was wrong and against the Bible, they said - homosexuals represented Satan and the Devil.  Who could do wrong in destroying Satan and all his works?

In my home growing up homosexuality was considered queer, perverse - abnormal at best.  That certainly was the dominant and almost unquestioned view right through my college and seminary years.  However, after leaving school and as my personal and professional associations began to include gay people, I moved from thinking of homosexuality as deviant to thinking of it as a disability, like being blind in one eye – not really your fault, not really sinful, but somehow less than whole.

Now I think I was the one who was blind in one eye, and have come to affirm loving same-sex relationships as an expression of God’s glory in the amazing diversity of human nature. I feel shame that I ever saw them in a context of perversity, deviance, or disability.  I don’t know that I could have convinced my father of this point of view, and there are no doubt some sitting here today who do not share it.  But feeling that my eyes are now open, I have little patience for maintaining the barriers based on the old world view - barriers put between gay people and the fulfillment that can be found in being a spouse or a parent or simply living honestly as you are in an open society.

There are times, as the prodigal son learned, when it is good to return home and honor the values that our parents received and passed on to us.  But there are also times, as John Newton learned, when the call of our heavenly home requires us to turn from the past to go forward, trusting only in the grace of God to lead us home.  Let us pray that we are blessed with grace, wisdom, and courage in our journeys as we struggle to discern and to do what is good and holy and pleasing in God’s sight.

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