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A Father's Love

Sermon - 6/19/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 15: 11-24

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’

I was driving up to McKenzie Bridge on Wednesday for our annual clergy gathering at the Caddisfly.  As I often do on long drives, I plugged my iPhone into the radio to listen to some podcast I had downloaded months before.  In this case, it was a podcast from WNYC's Radiolab from last December on what causes ordinary people to perform heroic acts.  They told 3 stories of people who acted on the spur of the moment to save a total stranger. 

One story really stood out for me.  A 37 year old man was awoken in the middle of the night by a load crash. He ran out of his house wearing just pair of sweat pants to find a burning car wrapped around a telephone pole.  He did not yet know it, but inside were 3 drunk teenagers.  He could see the first teenager behind the wheel.  Flames leaping out of the hood of the car, he ran to it and managed to get the door open and pulled the young man out.  By then others arrived on the scene and someone yelled that there were more people in the car.  He returned to the car, flames now leaping 3 feet above the hood, and managed to pull out the first passenger.  In the process, he saw the third teenager in the back seat.  He also noticed that the dashboard was literally melting from the heat.  He returned a third time, barefoot and bare-chested, melting material from the roof dripping on his back, and grabbed the last passenger by the scruff of his neck, pulled him over the front seat and out the door.  When asked why he would risk his life to save 3 kids he did not know, he said his only thought was of his 16 year-old daughter sleeping safely in her bed and that if something ever happened to her, he could only hope that someone else would be there in her time of need.

We hear so many stories in the news of awful things that happen to children. I am especially aware on Father's Day of those who have not had the kind of father they should have had.  One thing we can do is simply to provide positive role models of fathers.  That story on Radio Lab got me to thinking of the many ways my own father has been a hero in my life. 

Dad entered college at Northwest Christian already married and with two kids.  He graduated with five.  It is no wonder that it took him nine years to get his degree. I was born right in the middle so only remember the very end of his college years when Dad served the church in St. Helens and spent his summer vacations harvesting wheat in eastern Washington to pay off his college debt.  With his degree in hand, Dad and Mom loaded us up into the Plymouth station wagon pulling all our belongings in the U-Haul trailer and moved us to Iowa.  For the next 3 years Dad rose early every Tuesday morning and drove 75 miles to Des Moines where he attended seminary at Drake, then came home Friday evening, prepared his sermon and conducted worship services every Sunday morning in two churches, 14 miles apart.  Monday morning he was off again. 

After those 3 years, now with seminary degree in hand, we got back in the Plymouth, sold all that wouldn't fit in the U-Haul and headed back to Oregon.  I was 11 and it was all great adventure for me.  It didn't dawn on me until I began recalling those years that we didn't have a full family vacation that didn't involve moving or Dad working until I was in 6th or 7th grade.  And it wasn't until I was in seminary myself, married with no kids and no sermons to prepare other than a couple for my preaching class and doing youth work in just one church only 20 miles away, it hit me: how on earth did he do it?  Not just seminary, but everything else as a father, husband and minister?  Dad is my hero.

Then I got to thinking about those 4 siblings of mine. As Dad is fond of saying, he has 5 kids, 2 of them are ministers.  The other 3 turned out all right.  So I asked them for their stories and here are the responses I got, all different and yet all the same.  First, that other suspect minister and the oldest of the gang of 5, my sister Katherine:

Before Taerie and Sherri came along and Dad was way younger than any of us right now, he looked a lot like Superman complete with the Clark Kent personae and glasses. He had boundless energy and superhuman strength but kept it in check while hiding behind his ministry disguise. He could do it all! Swim, water ski and do tricks on skis, lift heavy things, build anything, repair most things, ride bikes with no hands, ride horses bare back, make my ear aches go away in the middle of the night, inspire us with the mystery of Christmas, help us trust in ourselves lifting us to see the stars. He worked all week and on his vacations he worked under the hot sun in the wheat fields to provide for a growing family.  He bought a used Schwinn and refurbished it for my first bike, re-built a fishing boat that we sailed on many sturgeon fishing trips on the Columbia (who can forget the 32" sturgeon in our bathtub), [we’ll come back to that story in a moment] provided Steve and Dan with the coolest train track on the planet that surrounded their bedroom, and when we couldn't afford a horse in Iowa, Dad borrowed ponies until he could buy a A colt for $90 at an Iowa auction that we could feed into maturity and I got Rusty - my first horse.

At the other end of the family is the youngest, my sister Sherri:

Dad and I went river rafting [with my brother Steve, his wife JoLee and two friends]. as I recall it was supposed to be lower class rapids but turned out to be a little more technical than we bargained for.  At one point we got sideways in a small rapid section and our kayak flipped. Fortunately the water was shallow and I had the idea I could walk to shore, Dad said no way... get in the kayak you'll be safe with me.  I'll keep us going straight. We made it through that set of rapids.

Dad could not get in the kayak before the next set of rapids, (drifting behind holding the stern rope) he held us straight through the rapids and I was safe. But then the boat stopped, right in the middle of the rapids. I turned around and all I could see was the top of dad's hand wrapped around the stern line... he was trapped underwater with his foot wedged between some rocks!

I don't know if God was watching over us, but I know we were probably both praying or yelling... not sure which came first...... but we were in luck because his sandal strap broke and his foot came loose from the rocks and up he popped (hat and glasses still on) .  he was in shock from nearly drowing but he managed to get us to shore.  And I was safe - just like he said.

(PS from Steve: Dad had to be treated in ER for shock and an injury to his leg.)

My brother Steve, three years older than me:

I thought Dad was my hero when he offered to buy me my first car while I was working everyday after school.  He told me that he had found a Plymouth Fury which sounded perfect [with a name like Fury sounds like the perfect car for a teenager, right?] I couldn't wait to come home and see it after work.  What I found in the driveway was a two-tone pink and white monstrosity with a giant toothy chrome grille, rocket-shaped taillights, push button drive, and slick vinyl bench sheets--great for making out except that no girl in her right mind would be caught dead being seen in that thing!  I cried myself to sleep that night. 

Dad must have heard Steve crying because a few days later he drove home in a '62 Chevy Impala Super Sport, 327 four-barrel V-8, bucket seats, 8-track stereo, etc. The coolest car ever.  Steve continues,

He also taught us to fish and allowed us to bring home the live 4-foot sturgeon that we put in the bathtub. (Notice how the size increases with the retelling of the story!  So I remember this incident.  The minimum on sturgeon was 36”, or maybe 48”, and ours was just under that.  But I wouldn’t let Dad release it so we brought it home and of course you couldn’t kill it either.  So Dad put it in the bathtub.  Steve finishes the story…) Mom's horrific scream let us know that she had found it! 

Finally my sister Taerie, four years younger than me and the best story teller of all of us:

I knew all kid's dad's were not ship captains or the president but I didn't know any kids with a dad like mine and still don't.  He could command attention from the pulpit, pull an old lasso out of the shed and throw a loop over my runaway colt, sing, nail things to other things to make barns and extra rooms, fix my car, taught me to ride, throw and catch a football and took me shopping for my first purse.  

He took me shopping for a pickup truck and the dealer took my keys to have my trade-in assessed and took us for a test drive in a new Dodge.  I didn't really like it and it was a small pickup that he couldn't swear would pull a horse trailer.  There was a lot of pressure on me from both men to take the deal but as is almost always true when I am pressured, I resisted.  I asked for my keys back.  I started to feel a little panicky because the dealer wouldn't give them over.  And I thought Dad was annoyed with me.  I knew I was going to have to go against them both and it was bringing out a side of me that's never any good for all concerned.  Dad just stood up real slow and said "give my daughter her keys" in a voice I had never heard him use.  And then he said, "Give my daughter her keys, now." 

I've seen some impressive things in my life, but that moment is one I'll never forget.  My preacher dad was going to beat the crap out of a car salesman and because the Lord hates me, the car salesman backed down and I didn't get to see it.  But I don't suppose you can use such a story in church...

So many times he's been there for me when I thought I had to stand on my own.  He helped me take my dog to the vet for a surgery that was at best a last hope.  The end was sad.  Dog stories always end that way.  I know now what I didn't know then, that I prayed for help and help came. What I needed more than anything was what I had right with me.  Dad, making everything better, being strong so I could be weak. 

Waiting for a foal to be born, I slept all night every night in the barn he made out of our garage.  (interesting to note that he's made several barns where there might have been garages but never has turned a barn into a garage which is, of course, a sin) Dad woke me up in the predawn light, and before I could get my boots on, he walked up to the mare and caught the foal as it was being born, possibly saving it from a broken neck as the mare was giving birth still standing.  He eased the foal to the ground and all I could think was "where did he come from and how did he know?" But he's like that-- he swoops in and saves the day, sometimes it's just the right word at the right time or a warm hug that imbues strength when it seems to have deserted me. 

So here’s the thing.  Yeah, Dad is special.  A superman even, who swoops in to save the day, sometimes with nothing more than a word or a hug.  But so do a lot dads, like that 37 year-old father who pulled 3 teenagers out of a burning car thinking only of his own teenage daughter.  And I bet you if we collected stories of fathers right here, we would hear many amazing stories of fathers performing heroic deeds to save the day.  Sure, we hear stories of parents who do awful things to their own kids and we may even know a few.  The real story, however, is of all those unsung heroes out there who raised so many of us, demonstrating exactly that kind of love of the father with the prodigal son. 

May such be the role model that inspires us all.  May all fathers and mothers be the heroes their children desire and may all children find the loving heroes they deserve.

 


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