June 16, 2024- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


June 16, 2024                                                Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

II Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17                         The Federated Church, UCC


     As many of you no doubt saw, the great basketball player Jerry West died the other day. From nearby West Virginia, it was West’s silhouette that became the logo of the NBA. A 14-time All-Star, a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest players and executives in basketball history, West also suffered from lifelong depression. His autobiography was called, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. He wrote there that “his childhood was devoid of love and filled with anger as a result of an abusive father” (The Plain Dealer, June 13, 2024, p. C5).


     As is Mother’s Day, Father’s Day can be a time of wide-ranging emotions, can’t it. These days honoring our parents, while often filled with enormous joy and gratitude, can also be tainted by experiences or memories of fathers who ignored us or disdained us or abused us. And my guess is that, for many of us, our experience of our parents has been something of a mixed bag. Like all of us, parents come as full human beings, replete with both luminous gifts and sometimes shadowy limits.


     The other day, I was looking at a photo of my parents on their wedding day. It sits on the desk where I work at home. My proud and smiling father, erect and graceful as always, dressed in formal tails, stands next to my beaming mother. They look radiant. As I gaze at that photo, and the one I’ve seen in today’s video tribute to fathers, I am sad that he has been gone for more than fifteen years now.


     Part of my sadness is at his death, of course. But part of that sadness is that I never really knew him as well as I would have liked. He talked to me hardly at all about his life. I knew virtually nothing about his challenges and his joys. And his affections and energies were largely directed elsewhere—a protective mechanism, I’m guessing, so that he wouldn’t have to reveal too much, and perhaps to feel the pain of what, in many ways, was likely his own tormented childhood.


     My father, Burton, as I’ve mentioned here before, was something of a prodigy. He and his sister Joan formed a tap-dancing team when they were in their early teens, and danced together on Broadway in New York City. They lived and performed at the Barbizon Hotel, and were part of a musical revue that also featured Buddy Ebsen, Shirley Booth, and Van Johnson, names familiar to a certain demographic here this morning. My father and Joan were stars.


     My father later went to The Juilliard School to study piano. And eventually he settled on his life’s work as an ordained minister and a scholar of the New Testament. All his life, his star shone brilliantly, and he was widely acclaimed for both his work and his charismatic personality. He was charming and funny and larger-than-life.


     We could see this engaging charm in our family. He was a superb story-teller and had flawless comic timing. And he had an appealing way of gently teasing the people he loved. I have a vivid memory of his visiting Mary and me when we lived in Rhode Island. He went to the coat closet one day, found his coat on the floor, and said loudly and playfully to the house, “Mary threw my coat on the floor.” It was said so endearingly that it made Mary and me feel as though he adored her.


     That was one side of my father. That wasn’t all, though. Because along with all that success and charisma, I think my father also suffered from his own persistent torment. And that torment was not unrelated to the fact that he had a father who virtually despised him. The dancer/pianist/theologian didn’t come close to meeting my banker grandfather’s standards for a successful life. My father never once talked about this with me, never said a cross word to me about his father, and never revealed anything about their relationship. What I couldn’t help but notice, though, was that we, as a family, only rarely visited my grandfather, and only ever for a few hours at a time. Indeed, even my mother remembers only one time when my father mentioned the relationship he had to his own father. “I was not,” he said to my mother that time, “the son my father wanted.”


     I weep now at the thought of a son who was not his father’s desired child, a son who didn’t measure up, a son who always failed his father’s litmus test. My father’s mother died when he was fifteen, so for decades thereafter, my father’s only living parent loathed him. I know that. And I take in something of what that must have been like for him. And yet even as I am aware of the obstacles my father faced in learning to be a different kind of father, I also sorrow at the fact that he and I were not as close as I might have hoped. I yearned for something I didn’t quite get. And at the same time, it’s abundantly clear, with his upbringing, why a closer relationship might have been a challenge for him.


     My experience of my father’s absence has been mild, of course, compared to the experience others have had. Some fathers have been incessantly critical, others cruelly judgmental, still others have resorted to violence. I suspect there’s an often-unspoken sorrow or perhaps fury that many here have had about a relationship that has not been what we might have hoped.


     To be sure, some people, of course, including perhaps many of you, have had filling and rewarding relationships with their fathers. It’s certainly not the case that all fathers are judgmental or violent or even emotionally distant. Such an experience of disconnect from our fathers is common enough, though, that it seems worthwhile to acknowledge the father-shaped hole that dwells in the lives of many of us. For some here, if we’re honest, this day brings with it a degree of lament.


     The apostle Paul was well-acquainted with lament, and with the incompleteness and disappointment of the relationships that mattered to him. He wrote a series of letters to a church in the city of Corinth that reflect the struggles he’s had with the people of that church. Just as we may have been let down by relationships with fathers or mothers or siblings or children or friends or neighbors or coworkers, so Paul was let down by the intransigence and hard-headedness of the people with whom he was trying to figure out how to be church. His correspondence with that church is often forthright and bracing.


     The striking thing about Paul, though, is that he seldom if ever totally loses heart. There is, in Paul’s writing, an indomitable spirit of hope. No matter how bad things may seem, in Paul’s eyes there is always the possibility of a fresh start, a new day. And this is because there is a grace oozing beneath the surface that constantly works for a better tomorrow.


     There may be no better example of Paul’s resilient hope than the end of the passage we heard earlier. “So if anyone is in Christ,” says Paul, “there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17). To live in Christ is to know that God is always working for good in every dimension of our lives. God doesn’t do magic tricks that make problems go away. Instead, God is in the nudge, the imagination, the inclination. God is the One who awakens us, who gently and surreptitiously shapes us into the new creation that can and does remake what is broken and reshape what is contorted.


     As much as I have lamented that I didn’t have a closer relationship with my father—and it’s a real lament, one I want not to sugarcoat—I am also always aware of the blessings that did bloom in the connection he and I had. There were times in our relationship when the new creation that Paul speaks about sprouted in surprising and life-giving ways. As distant as my father could be, he could also be stunningly present.


     Two moments in particular stand out to me, moments some of you have heard me mention. One occurred when I was in my mid-20s. When I graduated from college, I moved to Boston to be near my then-girlfriend. After a few years, that relationship ended. This woman was the first love of my life, and when she and I split up, I was heartbroken. It felt, in a way, as though my world had ended. My father, for reasons I can no longer remember, came to visit me in Boston shortly after that breakup, and took me with him to my parents’ home in Maine. Soon after we got in the car, I started to cry. Without making a big deal of it, my father gently reached his hand over to mine and simply held it as we drove along Storrow Drive on our way to Maine. He didn’t say a word, and I don’t remember that I did, either. We just drove on that way, his hand holding mine and affirming his deep and abiding care. It meant the world to me. And in that moment, I could see it: “there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”


     The other moment I remember so vividly with my father happened a few years later. Some of you know that in my late 20s, I struggled mightily with what I should do with my life. I come from a long line of ministers that my mother once numbered at twenty-four. For years, beginning in my childhood, I had thought that maybe the ministry was for me, as well. But when you have that many ministers in your family tree, it can be difficult to discern whether this is really a calling for you, or whether you’re just doing it because everybody else did it.


     So I finally decided to go to seminary. And after two years there, I found I couldn’t do the work. I was supposed to write two papers at the end of that second year, and when the end of the semester came and I still hadn’t written a word on either paper, I realized that something was amiss, and I dropped out of seminary. For three years, I did other jobs. And all the while, I went weekly to talk to a nun about why this whole journey of mine into ministry seemed so torturous. She helped me to see that I was putting so much pressure on myself to be “good” at ministry that I had lost all sense of lightness and joy in it. My accomplished father loomed so large in my heart and mind that I was deeply afraid that I would never live up to his standards. And that fear paralyzed me.


     So once I thought I had figured this out and could now return to seminary, I decided this time to go to the school at which my father taught. And I took a course from him. And lo and behold, when I reached the end of the fall semester, I once again couldn’t write a word on the 20-page paper he had assigned. Déjà vu all over again! Christmas came and went, and I hadn’t written it. New Year’s came and went and not a word had emerged. Finally, at the end of January, and without the slightest progress having been made, I was desperate, and I didn’t know what to do. So I called him up, and immediately started to cry. “Dad,” I said, “I can’t write the paper. Nothing I write will be good enough—it won’t be what you would do.”


     And this father of mine, from whom I had felt this lifelong distance, said the strangest thing to me. He said, “You’re being anti-historical.” What an utterly bizarre thing to say to your weeping son! But it made me laugh. And he started to laugh. And then he said, “You’re not being fair. You’re comparing yourself at thirty to me at sixty. You mustn’t do that.” And then he said words that were utterly life-giving to me. He said, “I know before you write that paper that it will be wonderful.”


     And there was something about that conversation that broke the logjam. Almost immediately I was able to write that paper. And to this day, I think it was probably the best paper I ever wrote. All because my father had shown his confidence in me. All because my father had shown his trust that I would be able to write a paper that I, and he, would be proud of.


     When I hear the word “grace,” that’s the first scene I think of. I know that in those moments, a radiant blessing had come to me. Or, to use Paul’s words, in Christ, I had become a “new creation; everything old [had] passed away; . . . everything [had] become new.” And it was because somehow my father had been able to transcend his practiced distance, and had found a way to embrace me as I was. I revel in that moment. And I remember that it’s in such moments that fathers pass along the new creation to their children. And it’s in such moments that grace springs to life. And it’s in such moments that all of us pass along that new creation to those we love, and to those we don’t know, and even to those from whom we’re estranged.


     My prayer this Father’s Day is that we might lament what we didn’t receive from our fathers, that we might revel in the gifts we did receive, that we might engage the power of God to bring healing and forgiveness wherever it’s possible, and that, above all, we might remember that in Christ we become “a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”