(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on June 16, 2019)
Some of you, perhaps, have visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe near LaCrosse, Wisconsin. If you haven’t been there, you really should go, because it’s beautiful. It’s located south of the city in the bluff country along the Mississippi River. You park at the bottom of the bluff, and then can walk up the hill on a winding path through thick woods to reach the church at the top.
The path has several shrines along the way where pilgrims can pray and meditate. And one of those spots came to my mind as I started thinking about what to say this morning, this day when the lectionary and secular calendars align so that Father’s Day falls on the same day as Trinity Sunday.
The statue is called “St. Joseph the Workman.” It’s different from a lot of images of Joseph, which often show him holding Jesus in his arms as toddler. This statue instead depicts a scene from Jesus’ boyhood. He looks like he’s maybe six or seven years old, and he’s in a wood shop. Joseph stands near him, explaining something to him. It’s an ordinary scene in some ways, a moment when Joseph looks like he’s teaching Jesus how to hammer a nail or use a saw (though there’s a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in the way that Jesus is holding two pieces of wood). But the major message that the sculpture conveys is of a father and son who love each other.
And in thinking about what to preach today, I kept coming back to that statue and what it represents. This is, after all, a day when fathers get honored, both human fathers and God the Father as part of the Trinity.
In the Gospels, there aren’t many details given about the relationship between Jesus and Joseph. But given the many positive things Jesus has to say about fathers in his teachings, we can guess that he had a good relationship with Joseph. He probably learned a lot of practical skills from him, including how to be a carpenter, but he also learned how to be a kind and ethical person.
One of the things I like about that statue at the shrine is that it emphasizes how both Jesus and Joseph knew how to work with their hands. These were working men who could use tools and build things. And Jesus, after all, spent many more years as a carpenter than he did as a rabbi.
Most of all, Jesus probably learned from Joseph the characteristics of a good father: how they hold you to high standards, but still love and nurture you.
That statue, and having to write this sermon, has made me re-evaluate some of my ideas about the metaphor of God the Father. This emphasis on God the Father was one of the main reasons when I left Christianity in my 20s. Christianity seemed hopelessly patriarchal and I resented all the masculine images for God. Maybe you’ve felt this at times too.
But eventually I found my way back to a church, in part by discovering the ways in which the divine has also been imagined and symbolized in feminine terms, especially in relation to the Virgin Mary. But the idea of God the Father has still rankled a bit sometimes.
The older I get, however, the more I realize that it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. We need God the Father in our tradition too.
It helps to know that one of the reasons why God the Father became so dominant in Christianity is that Hebrew has no gender-neutral pronouns. In other words, it lacks the equivalent of “it.” Also, Hebrew nouns are feminine or masculine. In Hebrew, for example, God is male, but shekhinah, a word to describe the presence of God in the world, is female. So some of the male emphasis in Christianity is rooted in this dichotomy.
But there’s no denying that this image of God the Father is a stumbling block for many. Feminists have rightly critiqued the ways in which maleness became the default setting for holiness.
And for many people, picturing God as a father is a problem because they have no models for a good father. So instead of a loving, nurturing father, the one pictured at the shrine in LaCrosse, they picture a flawed, oppressive father. And who wants to think of God in that form?
Part of what’s helped me reconcile this problem has been re-reading Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist of the mid-20th century. Jung was a student of Sigmund Freud’s who broke with Freud over his understanding of religious belief. Freud thought it a symptom of pathology; Jung came to believe the spiritual impulse was an essential feature of human development—in fact, it is THE most important feature.
Later in his life, Carl Jung put it this way:
“In thirty years I have treated many patients. Among all my patients in the second half of life, every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age had given their followers, and none of them was really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”
One of Jung’s most important ideas is that of archetypes. He believed these symbols are deeply embedded in human consciousness, that they’re part of our operating system as the result of millions of years of evolution. Some of the archetypes he described include the trickster, the wise old man, the hero, and the loving mother.
In studying these archetypes again, I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for what Jung writes about the shadow side of archetypes. The father archetype is of a loving, wise, strong male. Its shadow side is a tyrannical, oppressive father. And the shadow side of the loving mother archetype is the possessive, smothering, hurtful, mother.
I think these archetypes play more of a role in our religious lives than we often realize, especially when they get intertwined with our own lived experiences.
If you had a loving and nurturing father, you might not have many problems with God the Father. If you had a loving and nurturing mother, it comes naturally for you to imagine the divine feminine. But if you didn’t have either, then, well, that’s a problem.
These archetypes come into play more than we realize, I think, because relationships are at the heart of Christian belief. We’re not Zen Buddhists with an emphasis on no-self and lessening attachment. Instead we are invited to think of ourselves as children of God. We have creeds that reference the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The language of family, of relationship, is part of our religious identity.
Jung, I think, can teach us to view those symbols with deeper understanding. When we talk about God the Father, we should remember that this is a finger pointing at the moon, but not the moon itself. And acknowledging the shadow side of these metaphors is a good thing, too. Every symbol carries darkness inside it as well as light—and sometimes we can learn as much from the shadow side as from the light one. In my own life, that means acknowledging the shadow side of the mother archetype. The capacity for harm lies within both men and women.
Through the years I’ve also come to a much greater appreciation for the role of fathers in general. I remember my own dad, who passed away 20 years ago, much more frequently now than I have in years. That’s one of the gifts of growing older, I think. And I admire the fathers I know here at New Song, including Travis and Chris, who’ve adopted three children from foster care. I admire my husband Bob, who’s nurtured not only his own children, but has also mentored and taught many others. And I must admit it bothers me to see the ways in which fathers too often get short-shrift in our society, made fun of in popular culture or blamed as the source of social ills.
Let’s return to the story of Joseph. One of the things that’s interesting about him is that he is, of course, the foster father of Jesus. He knew before he married the young Mary that her child was not his biological child. But he was a good and honorable man and wanted to do the right thing by her. He knew how she would be shamed and ostracized for having a child outside of marriage. And he believed her story, that most unlikely story, of what had happened to her, the reason why she was pregnant.
The story affirms the diverse ways in which fatherhood can happen. Sometimes it’s an uncle or a teacher or a family friend who plays that mentoring role. In my own family, I’ve seen Bob fill that role for our godson Xavier, whose father died when he was six. When I see the two of them work on a carpentry project, I sometimes think of that statue in LaCrosse. Bob is teaching Xavier how to measure out a length of board and how to use a saw, but there are more important, larger lessons that are being taught as well.
And so I invite you to give thanks to the strong and good men in your own life—fathers and uncles and grandfathers and mentors and teachers. Men who were the equivalent of Joseph teaching the young Jesus how to cut a length of wood. These men help us understand why the imagery of God the Father is too valuable an archetype to throw out.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.