Who’s Your Daddy?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Trinity Sunday
May 30, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: By grace we are all adopted into God’s family.

The late Fred Craddock, notable preacher and teacher of preachers, told a story about a schoolgirl who had a peculiar advantage over her schoolmates.

Imagine an old, one-room schoolhouse, with all the kids in town learning together. The school bell rang each morning, calling the children out of their homes. At the end of the school day it rang again, and the children tumbled out the door, hurrying back toward their homes and toys.

One little girl didn’t fit the pattern. She arrived each morning before the other children, to help the teacher prepare the classroom. She stayed late as well, to clean the blackboards and dust the erasers. During the school day, she hung on the teacher’s every word, eager to learn.

One day the teacher, exasperated with her students’ short attention spans, their noise and mischief, called the class to order. “Why can’t you be as she is?” she asked, indicating the girl who came early and stayed late. “All day long, she’s attentive and courteous.”

“It’s not fair to ask us to be like her,” objected one boy from the back row of desks.


“Because she has an advantage over us.”

“I don’t understand,” said the teacher. “What’s her advantage?”

“She is an orphan,” he replied.1

Family is where you find it

The orphan girl in Craddock’s story knows intuitively, maybe even subconsciously, that family is where you find it. She looks to her teacher to stand in for her missing parents.

Others have learned this same truth: that family is where you find it (or maybe we should say, “where you make it”). We’ve all heard of dysfunctional families — and yes, the phrase is overused — but no doubt about it, there are some families out there that are truly dysfunctional, the sorts of families from which social workers sometimes have to rescue children for their own safety.

What happens to those children? They have a rough road ahead of them. Many of them — especially if they’re older at the time they enter the social-services system — will drift from foster home to foster home. Some will fall through the cracks of overburdened, underfunded state agencies.

But for others, the system does work. Some of these children do make it, and here’s how they do: At one time or another, in one way or another, these young wards of the state learn they have to make their own families. They have to find the people who will be, for them, their mothers and their fathers, their sisters and their brothers. And they do.

It’s not a subject most of us like to think about. We’d rather imagine the classic, TV-sitcom, mother-and-father-and-2.3-children suburban family. But the truth is, not all families are perfect: in fact, whose family ever is? Maybe your family was — or is — far from perfect. Many families are good, but other families labor mightily to be merely good enough. We need to celebrate those families as well, especially the non-traditional families, the ones that don’t have the typical cast of characters. These are the ones that struggle to make do in difficult circumstances, and somehow — by dint of hard work and an ample supply of God’s grace — muddle through.

God’s non-traditional family

We’ve got another reason to celebrate such families: In the eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul describes God’s family as a non-traditional family. Listen to what he says: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs...”

Did you catch what Paul’s saying? He’s saying the family of God is one great, big, non-traditional family! There’s nothing natural about the likes of us being part of God’s family. If we’re so blessed as to be in that family at all, it’s only because we’ve been adopted into it.

We’re foster children, spiritually speaking — every last one of us. We were falling through the cracks of the heavenly social-services system, until someone — Jesus Christ — swept us up and whisked us away to a place of safety.

Everyone in God’s family is adopted: everyone, that is, except for Jesus. No one’s born into it. Now, some of us may like to think we were born into God’s family — that, because we were baptized and brought up in this church (or one very much like it), we belong here by right — but we don’t. The only reason any of us is here at all is because, at that moment we were baptized, God signed our adoption papers. And then, when we made our public profession of faith, we claimed God’s family for our own.

If any of you happen to be newcomers here, today — if you’ve come to check this church thing out, and are wondering whether there’s a place here for you — let me reassure you. You may look around at all these people who seem to be friends with everyone else, who know all the hymns, who act sometimes like they own the pew they’re sitting in, who seem to have it all together. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: they don’t. They’re adopted!

Adoption as Paul knew it

When Paul wrote to the Romans about adoption, he had a very specific image in mind. Bible scholar William Barclay does a great job of explaining this. He reminds us that Paul was not only a Jew, but also a Roman citizen. Paul was a scholar not only of Jewish law, but of Roman law as well. He and his readers know that, in the Roman empire, family ties are all-important.

Roman society was rigidly patriarchal, and the family you were born into — who your daddy is, in other words — makes all the difference. Yet, even the Romans had a way around that rigid legalism. That “way around” was adoption.

There were two steps to a Roman adoption, according to Barclay. The first was a symbolic sale, very similar to the sale of a slave. Copper coins and scales were used symbolically in the adoption-ritual. Three times the money was counted out, as the young man was placed on the auction block. Three times his birth father was given the opportunity to buy him back. When this did not happen on the third attempt, the adopted father stepped forward, beginning a legal process to transfer the person into his own family. When this was accomplished, the adoption was permanent: and nothing could undo it.

The son adopted in such a way was no slave, despite the symbolism of buying and selling. Once this long ritual had been completed, the son was a child of the adoptive father in every sense of the word. He stood to inherit the father’s property in equal portion with the father’s natural children.2

That’s why Paul describes us, the followers of Jesus, as being not only “children of God,” but also “heirs.” We’re written into the will, so to speak. The inheritance we will receive one day, by God’s grace, is eternal life.

So close is the adoptive relationship Christians have with their God that Paul uses a most familiar form of address. “When we cry ‘Abba! Father! ...’” he writes. “Abba,” as you’ve probably heard, is a term of endearment from the Aramaic language, the language Jesus himself spoke. It means not “Father,” but “Dad” – maybe even a young child’s “Daddy,” many scholars think. When Christians pray to God, Paul’s saying, we’re not writing a formal business letter to some impersonal bureaucrat. We’re addressing the best of fathers, who loves us very much and wants nothing but the best for us.

Princes of Maine, kings of New England

You may have seen the film, Cider House Rules , or read the novel of the same name by John Irving. It’s a story that takes place in an orphanage in the state of Maine, in the early- to mid-twentieth century. One of the main characters is Dr. Wilbur Larch, played by Michael Caine. Dr. Larch is an obstetrician who directs the orphanage. Despite many personal flaws — including a secret addiction to the ether he uses in his medical practice — Dr. Larch and his staff manage, against difficult odds, to provide a stable home for dozens of young orphans. He’s a crusty, eccentric character who ends each day standing in the dormitory doorway and bestowing upon his charges this unconventional blessing: “Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England!”

These wards of the state know they have no such birthright. In our American democracy, no such birthright exists: There are no such things as kings or princes. The birthright exists in Dr. Larch’s mind: and, by intoning those words night after night, he makes his young charges feel like royalty.

As caring as the orphanage staff is, the large, rambling house still has an institutional feel. It’s not truly a home. The children fantasize about the day when some real parents will show up and adopt them.

In one poignant scene, a young soldier in uniform and his wife drive up to the orphanage, to look the children over and choose one for their own. (The story takes place long before modern social-services screening procedures.) Hurriedly, the children put on their best clothes and spruce themselves up, each one hoping to appear sufficiently adoptable. Inevitably, one child is successful, and the others sadly trudge back to the dorm, hoping next time it will be them.

There’s no such limitation in God’s house; there’s plenty of room in God’s family for all.

“The film’s message,” write Christian movie reviewers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “is simple and clear as a bell: We are all orphans with a little bit of Bedouin in our blood, wrestling with who we are, where we come from, and why we’re here at all. Go where you are wanted. Go where you are needed. Go where you belong.”3

So, claim your inheritance!

We began with a Fred Craddock story, so let’s end with another one. This one’s not fictional. It really happened.

Craddock and his wife were on vacation in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. They were eating out in a restaurant. They fell into conversation with an older man who asked Fred what he did for a living. He told him he was a minister. The man responded by saying that a minister once did something very important for him. He pulled up a chair.

Oh no, said Fred to himself. Now I’ve got it coming. And I’m on vacation! But the story the man told was worth every minute of his time.

The man said he’d been born just a few miles from that very spot. His mother had not been married to his father, and — it being a different era from today — this son of a single mother grew up as a social outcast. His schoolmates ridiculed him. He quickly learned it was safer to sit by himself at lunch and recess. Every time he went to town with his mother, he could feel the looks and the shaking of heads. He could hear the unspoken question: “I wonder who his father is?”

In my early teens,” the man said, I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. It had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face and a heavy beard and a deep voice. I went to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since I was, as they put it, a bastard. So I would go just in time for the sermon, and when it was over I would move out because I was afraid that someone would say “What’s a boy like you doing in a church?”

One Sunday some people queued up in the aisle before I could get out, and I was stopped. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. It was that minister. I cut my eyes around and caught a glimpse of his beard and his chin, and I knew who it was. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could see mine and seemed to be staring for a little while. I knew what he was doing. He was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, “Well, boy, you’re a child of —” and he paused there. And I knew it was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again. He said, “Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance, boy.” Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, “Now, you go claim your inheritance.” I left the building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.

“I was so moved by the story, Craddock continued, “I had to ask him, ‘What’s your name?’ He said, ‘Ben Hooper.’ I recalled, though vaguely, my own father talking when I was just a child about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor a bastard, Ben Hooper.”4

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

Go forth and claim your inheritance!