Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Tender Love of Your Heavenly Father” (2 Corinthians 5:14-17)
June 17, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On this Father’s Day I am preaching on the tender love of your Heavenly Father.

Father’s Day is a joy for those who are close to their father, for those whose father was there for them—and perhaps taught them how to bait a fishhook or set up a campsite or throw a football or play a D-chord on a guitar, for those whose father not only loves them but likes them, for those whose father believes in them.

Last week I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.  It was an epic day.  Last year one of my favorite bands, Journey, was finally inducted, and at the induction ceremony keyboardist Jonathan Cain said this:

I want to begin by thanking my father, Leonard, for believing in me, my mentor, my vision keeper, who prophesied success from the time I was eight years old…and later said to me, “Son, don’t stop believin’” on a life-changing phone call as I struggled with my career back in the 70’s.  He’s gone now.  I miss you, dad, and I love you.

The tender love of his father, and that life-changing phone call from his father inspired Jonathan Cain to write Journey’s biggest hit, the legendary song, “Don’t Stop Believin’”, an anthem that has resonated with millions of people.

One of my favorite comediennes is the hilarious Amy Poehler, who used to star on the TV shows Saturday Night Live and later Parks and Recreation.   In her 2014 book Yes Please she reveals the positive impact her father, William, had on her life:  “For my wedding, my father, his friends, and my uncles performed a surprise tap-dance number with top hats and canes.  He is generous, nosy, and good at arm wrestling” (202).  Then Amy Poehler recounts some things her dad taught her: “Girls can do anything boys can do.  Street smarts are as important as book smarts.  Your mother is smarter than me and I am fine with it.  You don’t want to be the creepy dad.  It’s okay to cry.  It’s okay to argue.  (and finally) Tell everyone you meet what your daughter does until your daughter asks you to stop” (206).

Father’s Day is great for the Jonathan Cain’s and Amy Poehler’s of the world, but not so fun for those whose relationship with their father is, or was, strained or nonexistent, for those whose father was not there for them, whose father neither likes them nor loves them.  In January while driving to Oxford I took a detour through Columbus, Mississippi and visited the childhood home of the great playwright Tennessee Williams.  Upstairs there is an impressive display of photographs and memorabilia documenting his life and work.  One quote under a childhood family photo was particularly poignant: “Tennessee would spend his entire life regretting the lack of his father’s love.”  That is a loaded sentence.  And sadly, Tennessee Williams was and is not alone.

Many years ago I presided at a wedding for a couple in their early thirties.  The bride was an Ivy League educated surgeon, an accomplished overachiever—very soft spoken and kind.  Her first marriage had ended in divorce because her husband was abusive, and she had later fallen in love with a fellow doctor.  She was thrilled about getting remarried, thrilled about having a second chance.  During the premarital counseling she shared about her strained relationship with her father, and how his mere presence caused her to become flustered and insecure.  Just prior to the wedding rehearsal I saw this firsthand.  She was not herself at all.

Her father pulled me aside into the narthex and began ranting about his daughter and how angry he was about her divorce because no one in the history of their distinguished family had ever been divorced.  He looked at me angrily, “You’re a priest.  Tell me what you would do about this!”  I asked, “Do you really want to know?”  He leaned in closer, “Yeah.”  “I would give your daughter a hug and tell her that you love her and that you wish her all the best.”  He shook his head at me, “I can’t believe you condone this,” and walked away.   And indeed at the wedding rehearsal and wedding his brilliant daughter was not herself.  Even the most accomplished are not immune to father issues.

And unfortunately it is common for those who have been wounded by their earthly father to view their Heaven Father through that same lens of hurt.  But your Heavenly Father loves you more than you could imagine with an unconditional love with no ulterior motives, no strings attached, no catch.  Scripture assures us, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now” (1 John 3:1-2).

In today’s passage from his most vulnerable letter, his Second Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes about this tender love of God:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

Then Paul takes it a step further:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

Do you believe that?  Do you believe that out of his tender love your Heavenly Father sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross for you?  Do you believe that your Heavenly Father does not regard you from a human point of view, but rather from a divine point of view of tender love, a divine point of view that sees you as a new creation, a divine point of view that makes everything new?  Do you believe that?

That sounds too good to be true, but it is true because it is the gospel.  Every year on Palm Sunday we pray, “Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature and to suffer death upon the cross” (BCP 219, italics added).  On Good Friday God was not concerned about the distinguished reputation of your family (or the lack thereof); God was concerned about you—and still is.  The tender love of your Heavenly Father for you has never changed.

In his 1994 book Abba’s Child, the late preacher and writer Brennan Manning recounted how receiving this tender love from our Heavenly Father changed the trajectory of his life.  In January 1977 he went on a silent retreat and struggled, or as he put it, he was “scatterbrained, disoriented, rowing with one oar in the water.”  But something happened after a night of prayer, as he wrote: “At ten minutes after five the next morning I left the chapel with one phrase ringing in my head and pounding in my heart: Live in the wisdom of accepted tenderness” (64).

Let me repeat that: Live in the wisdom of accepted tenderness.  He then defines the difference accepting the tender love of your Heavenly Father can make in your life:

The experience of a warm, caring, affective presence banishes our fears.  The defense mechanisms of the imposter—sarcasm, name-dropping, self-righteousness, the need to impress others—fall away.  We become more open, real, vulnerable, and affectionate.  We grow tender (64).

In other words, accepting the tender love of your Heavenly Father will eventually bear the fruit of tenderness in your life.  But even if you refuse the tender love of your Heavenly Father, his love for you still remains unchanged.  In perhaps the most gospel-soaked of Jesus’ parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus depicts this unchanging tender love of your Heavenly Father.  The younger of a wealthy man’s two sons demands his inheritance and squanders all of it, until he hits rock bottom.  Jesus describes what happened next:

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 (Luke 15:20-24).

And let me let you in on a secret: the celebration continues even now.

One more illustration…Like millions of others I am big fan of Star Wars, which is replete with father issues, from Darth Vader revealing himself as Luke Skywalker’s father in The Empire Strikes Back to Kylo Ren killing his father Han Solo in The Force Awakens.  The author Ian Doescher has rewritten the Star Wars films in Shakespearean English.  Each volume of his “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” series, like the bard’s plays, is divided into five acts and employs iambic pentameter and other literary devices.  In The Force Doth Awaken listen to how Ian Doescher renders the heartbreaking scene of Kylo Ren, who has pledged himself to the Dark Side as his father, Han Solo, bids his lost son to come home:

Han:   Come, return unto thy home.
         We miss thy gentle presence in our lives.
         ‘Tis not too late—‘tis never too late, my son.
Kylo: I do confess that I am torn asunder.
        From all this pain I fain would be set free.
        I know what I must do, yet fear I’ve not
       The strength to make it so. O wilt thou help?
       (Kylo Ren reaches to hand Han his lightsaber)
Han:   Of course, whate’er thou wishest, my sweet boy—
         Thou bring’st and e’er did bring me such great joy.
Kylo (aside): Beyond the chamber dies the light outside,
         An ‘twere the light within my very soul—
        Thus in my core doth darkness reign at last.
        (Kylo Ren turns on his lightsaber and runs Han through)

But listen to what Han says to his son who has just mortally wounded him:

Han:   My son, whose face is still so dear to me—
         O, how I see thy mother still in thee (142-143).

Han Solo’s tender love for his son, Kylo Ren, literally cost him his life, and yet even as he died, his tender love for his son remained unchanged—“my son, whose face is still dear to me.”  That mirrors the tender love of your Heavenly Father for you.  No matter what, your face is still dear to your Heavenly Father.

Regardless of your earthly father’s human point of view toward you, or your human point of view toward your earthly father, scripture is clear that the divine point of view of your Heavenly Father toward you is one of tender love.

So on this Father’s Day, “Don’t stop believin’” because the gospel is all about second chances and coming home and celebrations and God making everything new.

Don’t stop believin’ because the gospel is all about the tender love of your Heavenly Father for you.