Genesis 17: 1-8
Mark 5: 21-24; 35-43
Earl was a powerhouse of a man with huge hands seemingly capable of handling anything, which is why he seemed to be entrusted with everything. He was president of the school board, chairman of the local United Way, a deacon in his Presbyterian church, and a shrewd but just banker. He made a name for himself, when as a young loan officer, he lent money to people who were not conventionally considered financial good risks. A sharp and perceptive judge of character, Earl knew whether or not he could trust someone's word. Under his leadership the poor in his Indiana town were able to both borrow and repay their loans.
The trouble began when Earl failed to show up at the bank one day. When his secretary called his home, his wife was beside herself. "I don't know what's wrong with Earl," she said. “He got up the usual time, said good-bye to our daughter as she left for school, but instead of getting dressed and eating breakfast, he climbed up into Scamp's tree house. And there he is; he won't come down, and he won't say a word."
In a small town, such behavior constituted a community crisis. Within the hour the bank president was in Earl's backyard, along with the chairman of the board, Earl's brother, the family doctor, and the fire and police chiefs, both of whom were family friends. By the time the 12 year old Scamp arrived home from school, it seemed that half the town was crowded into the backyard.
Earl's brother then climbed up into the tree house, but Earl kicked him in the head so hard that he practically flew out of the tree. “Well,” concluded the family doctor, “I think we had better send up some medics to put him in a straightjacket.”
"Don't you dare do such a thing to my father,” yelled Scamp. And then turning to her Mother, she ordered, "Send everyone away, Mom, now. We can handle this ourselves. Holy cow, she objected, looking the police chief right in the eye. All he's done is stay up in the tree house for the day; I do that all the time. And then Scamp told her mother to make a sandwich, which she brought up to her father. He ate, smiling at his daughter, though he would not speak to her. For three days and nights, Earl would not budge, and Scamp stayed with her father the entire time. Finally on the fourth day, father and daughter climbed down from the tree house together. Off Earl went to the mental hospital, where after a series of drug treatments, he began to respond---but only to Scamp. He would talk to her in a halting, hesitant way, and as the weeks became months, his talking improved, and so he finally was discharged, a tall, forlorn, gaunt man, totally dependent on his 12 year old daughter.
Scamp dressed him in the morning and put him to bed at night. And when she came home from school, the first thing she did was take him out to the park behind their home. There they played together on the swings and the see-saws, chased butterflies and birds, caught minnows in the creek. Sometimes he wet his pants like a toddler not yet toilet trained; at other times he would just sit, silently weeping with huge tears rolling down his cheeks. Scamp never asked him why he was crying; she would just sit him down, take her place next to him, holding his hand in her own. The tender love that flowed between them was palpable, and Earl's psychiatrist stepped back and said, "There is a healing power here which though I do not understand, I honor. Leave them be." And so everyone did.
On a beautiful morning in June, Earl woke up, dressed, went downstairs and began cooking breakfast. When his wife entered the kitchen, he smiled at her and said, "I think I'm going to work today. I feel like my old self." And so Earl went to the bank, and put in almost a full day. Days turned into weeks into months and years without anything strange happening. Earl was healed.
We all know that the Bible is filled with stories about fathers and sons. Abraham is promised a son, not a daughter. In our reading from Genesis today, Abraham is called the ancestor of a great nation, though the older translations all call him the Father of the nation. Jesus is the Son, and his God is called Father, never mother. But what about the relationship between fathers and their daughters? Though literature is filled with such stories--- who could forget King Lear and Cordelia, or Oedipus and Antigone---the Bible hardly pays fathers and daughters any mind. This morning's story about a father and his sick daughter is important enough to be told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it is not designed to give us any keen insights into the relationship between fathers and daughters. Its sole purpose is to reveal who Jesus Christ is, the healer, yes, but also the one whose power extends even over death. The story highlights Christ, revealing who he is---the chosen one of God. The story is not about a father and his daugher.
And yet consider this: Christ comes to the ordinary; he meets us in the midst of real life, where relationships among all kinds of people, including fathers and daughters, help us to become who we are. If you are a daughter, your father is most likely the first male relationship in your life. And that relationship carries its mark into adult lives---for both the father and the daughter and for better and for worse. When I was a hospital chaplain, I saw stubborn, ornery old men refuse to cooperate with anyone on the medical team until their daughters arrived. I recall this 79 year old man, suffering from dementia and a liver ailment. No one could get him to do anything, including his three sons and his wife. But when his daughter arrived from California, walked into the hospital room, and said one word, Daddy, he immediately calmed down. You see his sons called him Dad; only his daughter called him Daddy. And the same thing was true in my own family of origin. My two brothers in adulthood always called my father Dad, but to my sister and me, he always remained Daddy.
Thanksgiving of 2002, a little over a year before my father died, he suffered a stroke when he was at my home, visiting with my mother from New Jersey. We had no idea what the outcome would be, but for a few days, he lost his speech, and I simply could not believe it. I mean my father always had an answer for everything, and it was he with whom I fought and argued as soon as I could put two words together. My mother always tried to make nice; she hated controversy, while my father and I thrived on it. Thriving on controversy did not make our relationship easy; he was hard on me, and over the years we said things to each other, which would have been much better left unsaid. But I will tell you something--- as my father lay in Middlesex Hospital unable to speak, I would have given anything to hear one word---even a harsh one. My father recovered from his stroke. His speech returned to normal, and he could walk again though this time with a shuffle. But he would tolerate no reference to his stroke. When I mentioned that he had lost his speech for a few days, he simply denied it. "You're making that up, he growled at me. I was never that bad!” He did not want to admit his vulnerability any more than I wanted to admit that he was vulnerable.
My dad is gone now, having died in January, 2003, and still there are times I cannot believe he is gone. When my first granddaughter was born in 2005, my daughter wanted to know what I wanted to be called. Well, I said, Jason’s mother is grandma, and then there is Jason’s father’s wife, who also wantes to be called grandma, so I have to be called something different. I want to be called Zhan-Zhan. What? Well, I explained, that is what my father sometimes called me; it was a term of affection. He would often come into the room, and see me in my rocking chair reading and pondering, and he would say, “Zhan, Zhan, what are you up to, plotting against the government?” My daughter just looked at me as if I had lost my marbles. But it was not my marbles I had lost; it was my father, and hanging on to a childhood name, was one way I could hang on to him. And so to my granddaughers, I am Zhan-Zhan.
The Bible tells us a lot of things. The great genius and reformed theologian, John Calvin, reminds us that the bible contains two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of self and knowledge of God. And our knowledge of self encompasses our relationships with others, because who we are and who we become is always connected with the others in our lives. Now the bible does not tell us everything, and sometimes what it leaves out---in this case the experience of fathers and daughters--- communicates something very critical about that paticular culture--- how unimportant females were. Attention was so concentrated on fathers and their sons that it ignored a whole realm of human experience, where laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy happen every day. Those of us who are daughters know that the human story, including God’s part in it, can never be complete without the inclusion of fathers and daughters. Those stories are not always happy ones, but then truth is not always happy. Yes, there are times the Bible does not get the fullness of the life story, but because God is always working in history, because God is always pushing and pulling us to learn and understand new things, we are able to grasp what it is that the bible missed—in this case the importance of the story of fathers and their daughters.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!