...I hope that you will all recognize this clip from Star Wars – the fateful scene where Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father.
Star Wars? I can’t help it. Fathers’ day makes my thoughts turn to Darth Vader. Luke Skywalker’s father is Darth Vader! I have to admit that I didn’t see it coming when I first saw Star Wars… Even the fact that “Darth Vader” is a simple twist on the words ‘dark father’ hadn’t clued me in. So, in the bit of horrendous overacting we just heard in the clip, Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader - the evil knight of the dark side of the force – the guy who had just lopped off Luke’s hand with a light saber – is his father!
Bad news for the good guys – dad is the enemy! Which brings to mind another story:
Two little girls were walking home from Sunday school – a much more traditional one than we would have. They’re talking very seriously about what they just learned. "Do you believe there is a devil?" asks one. "No," says the other. "It's like Santa Claus: it's your father."
No, my own father is not a black-suited bionic villain and he is certainly not the devil. And, as a father, I know that I am not as bad as these extremes either. But I am surely not the ideal father I see portrayed on all those greeting cards! You know – the one who is always patient, all-knowing, can fix anything, always has time for the kids, is never preoccupied with his own problems, and is overflowing with wisdom… Is anyone like this?
Later in Star Wars, we learn more about Darth Vader. In fact, he wasn’t always bad. Once - before being turned to the dark side – he was cute little Anakin Skywalker – and then presumably that really wooden acting young man Anakin. And, in the end – at his moment of salvation – Vader goes back to his origins and returns to the good side of the force.
It’s quite a complex and rich image of what the word ‘father’ might mean to many of us.
Sigmund Freud – who had plenty of issues with his own father – cemented for Western culture the connection between fathers and the traditional view of God. It is no coincidence that God is addressed in Christian prayer as ‘our father.’
In Freud’s words “The psychoanalysis of individual human beings […] teaches us […] that the god of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.”
Of course, Freud was mainly talking about men here and their relations to their fathers, but that would take much too long to unpack then we have here…
Notice that the word used is ‘exalted’: the exalted father rather than the ideal or perfect father. The God of the Bible is powerful and praised, but he is an angry and often punishing God. He is not always a loving God and even goes to the length of destroying all of his creations when they didn’t perform to plan. Remember the flood? The animals going in two by two?
And maybe the Bible’s version is not such an unrealistic view of real fathers: sometimes loving, sometimes angry, sometimes punitive, sometimes supportive, sometimes strong and protective…
The portrayal of God in the bible – and especially in the Hebrew Scriptures – shows God acting like what is the essential character of real fathers – it make God look human. And fathers, no matter what else they may be and no matter what else we might have expected from them or from ourselves, they are all human. Being a father is a tough job for any human being. And we don’t get much training or preparation before the event As Frederick Buechner writes in his novel, Whistling in the Dark:
"When a child is born, a father is born. A mother is born, too of course, but at least for her it's a gradual process. Body and soul, she has nine months to get used to what's happening. She becomes what's happening. But for even the best-prepared father, it happens all at once. On the other side of a plate-glass window, a nurse is holding up something roughly the size of a loaf of bread for him to see for the first time. “
As young children, our parents are everything to us. At first, we are dependent on them for life itself. Even when we are older – when we can feed ourselves and when we know enough to stay away from moving cars and to keep our little fingers out of the electrical sockets, mum and dad still loom large. We need to know that they are there to make the world safe for us.
So, here is a newly minted father – astounded by the wonder of the little package now placed in his arms. He is awed by its promise and also by the responsibility that now falls to him. Somehow, he is supposed to be someone’s God – and no one is up to that job. Most fathers do OK. Some do very well. Some fail miserably.
And how they fare in the role of father affects everyone around them – including if you ask many sociologists the character of our society.
Eventually, we each grow to recognise that, while he may appear all-powerful and all-knowing for a time, ‘father’ is a role and not a divine status. With any luck, we learn to love the real person behind that name before it is too late.
In his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe writes of his character Sherman McCoy:
“Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later... that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps love, adopted a role called Being a Father so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life.”
Some of you will have had wonderful fathers. Some of you carry painful memories of fathers who failed you badly. For many of you, ‘father’ is a character from the past – he has died or disappeared from your lives. And in the way that memory does, your recollections have formed into the image of a particular character – a bit less real and human than the flesh and blood presence of the real thing. Maybe more perfect or maybe more flawed… Some of you will identify someone other than a biological father with the father role – and if you have had others support you in this way, you have been blessed indeed.
Each of us needs at times someone to be strong for us and to tell us that they believe in us – that we really can do it. This important role is often called father and today, we praise those men who have stepped into this role with intention, care, and responsibility.
I invite you now to come forward if and when you feel moved to do so to light a candle for someone who represents ‘father’ to you. If you wish, you may say a name aloud.