Honoring Parents

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, September 17, 2016.

 Texts: Exodus 20:1-17, Mark 7:6-13
Wednesday, I was talking with my brother, Gary, about plans for my dad’s memorial service. He is the family historian and the designated organizer of the service. We talked about various elements we wanted in the service. We discussed Dad’s oversized virtues and how to celebrate them. Then Gary raised a very delicate question: there will be some people present who were wounded by Dad’s defects. How can we honor Dad without trivializing the hurt these people experienced? The stories of Dad’s generosity and drive and diagnostic prowess are true and multitudinous but I appreciated Gary’s sensitivity. Dad blessed many people but he wasn’t flawless. So how do we appropriately honor him and those who were impacted by his flaws.
A delicate question, indeed.
The fifth commandment declares, “Honor your father and mother.”
It is a basic human virtue. Families and societies build on this virtue. Even if this were not stated in the Ten Commandments, it would still be just as essential for healthy, happy life. Honor your parents.
As I was working on my sermon this week, it struck me that I have usually read this commandment through the lens of a couple of passages in the New Testament.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. (Ephesians)
Children, obey [your] parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. (Colossians)
When I think about the words, Honor your parents, I have usually imagined children, kids, little people like the beautiful crowd that comes up here for children’s story.
Monday morning I was sitting at the kitchen table working on paying bills, when suddenly I became aware of a conflict. My daughter-in-law had given my three-year old granddaughter some instruction which I didn’t hear. And my granddaughter gave some response, which again I didn’t hear. I became aware of the conversation as I heard my daughter-in-law say,
“Kyra, what did I tell you?”
At about the same time, my son walked into the room and joined the contest.
“Kyra, can you say, ‘Yes, Mother?’”
No, Kyra could not say that.
So the conversation continued. There was a lecture about the right way to respond when mother gives directions. There was an explanation of the consequences of refusing to respond with respect and obedience. I was glad to be a bystander instead of the responsible adult.
Such conversations are not infrequent in our house. For some reason, my grandkids appear to have received a genetic inclination to stubborn resistance to adult direction. 🙂 So it falls to their parents to educate them on the importance of showing proper respect and deference.
Honor your father and mother. That’s the command. That’s what kids are supposed to do. Parents are constantly trying to figure out how to shape their kids so they will give proper honor and respect to parents and teachers and other authority figures. It’s a pretty universal ambition of parents. And we happily look to the Fifth Commandment for divine backup. The commandment says, Honor your parents. So we imagine God backing us up as we try every technique we can think of to get our kids to show us proper honor and respect.
That’s how my brain used to process this commandment.
However, this week, meditating on the commandment, a different perspective came into view.
The Ten Commandments were not aimed at children. They were not aimed at slaves. They were not aimed at women. They were aimed at people with power—which in the world in which the Ten Commandments were given, generally meant men, men with property and money and family.
The Sabbath commandment explicitly mentions children and servants and animals and in the process makes it clear that the commandment is directed to the men who have power over children, servants, and animals. Men, don’t make these others work on Sabbath. Men, take Sabbath off, and make sure that all the creatures whose lives you control also enjoy Sabbath rest.
The last commandment again mentions animals. It also mentions women. And makes it clear that the force of the commandment is aimed at men with power. Do not take your neighbor’s treasure. Do not scheme to get your hands on your neighbor’s livestock or your neighbor’s wife.
When we read, Honor your parents, we should understand this command is addressed to us, not to our children. This is not God backing up parents in their perennial battles with rambunctious, strong-willed children. This is God challenging grownups who manage their own lives—who are free to make their own decisions about time and money and words—this is God challenging us to honor our parents.
The command is directed to those of us with power. In the ancient  culture it would have been aimed primarily at men. In our culture where power is more widely distributed, the command applies more broadly. But let’s be clear, the primary target of this commandment is grownups not little ones. The commandment is aimed at those of us who usually sit still in our pews not at the ones who are squirming. 🙂
It is directed to people who have full power to honor or not to honor. The command calls us to look at ourselves. Will we honor our parents? Will we ignore them or scorn them or hate them or mock them?
We are free to choose. Let’s honor our parents. Because, as the commandment reminds us, this honoring is crucial to healthy, happy life.
How is honoring our parents linked with healthy, happy life?
First, it helps to counterbalance the notion of radical individualism that is eating at our social fabric. When we honor our parents, we are remembering that our life is a gift. We did not spring from the dirt. We did not create ourselves. We were born. When life works the way it is supposed to, a mother and father gave us life and thrilled at our birth. For years, every breath we have taken has brought joy to a man and woman whose hearts we own, ineluctably, irrevocably, incurably. Our failures have crushed those same hearts. Our hopes have been their hopes. They have hoped for us even when we were too busy or too preoccupied or too beaten to hope.
When we honor our parents, we are giving attention to some of the most deeply-rooted natural human goodness God has planted here in the world. Another word for honoring our parents is gratitude.
Honoring our parents, this special form of gratitude, is like making a contribution to public radio. If you listen to NPR you have heard their fundraising appeals. They make quite a point of the uniqueness of their business model. They give everyone the program. You listen for free with no contractual obligation. The programs are broadcast whether we give or not. As the fundraiser begs and pleads for the listeners’ money, the listeners remain free not to give. If you give, it is your own choice.
It’s like this with honoring parents. They remain our parents whether we honor them or not. The life they have poured into us is ours whether we acknowledge it or not. Giving gratitude and honor to our parents does not create the goodness of our parents. Their goodness is a given.
The question is, will we see it? Will we honor it?
If we do, our lives will be even more richly blessed by the goodness to which we have turned our attention.
Few earthly parents are flawless. Honoring our parents does not require us to pretend our parents are flawless. It simply means that at least on occasion we turn our full attention to the gifts we have received from them, the good things that have come our way because of our parents.
Some parents have done such damage to their children, that the children must avoid all contact with the parents. This is rare. But it happens. In these cases, the children must take extraordinary action which I won’t attempt to address in this sermon. My concern is the great bulk of us who have ordinary parents who have the ordinary mixture of goodness and brokenness that is the common lot of humanity.
The commandment is aimed at normal life and normal people. For us honoring our parents is crucial to the cultivation of our well being. Honoring our parents means acknowledging that no matter how hard I have worked, the capabilities I have poured into my work came from somewhere else. They were gifts before they were habits and achievements.
Second, honoring our parents means giving attention to the gifts and deliberately turning our attention from flaws and defects and wounds and holes and neglect. Letting go of history so we can build a future.
This kind of deliberate focus sets us up for worship.
Christian theology declares God is perfect. God is our father in heaven who supplies our every need, the mighty defender who protects us from all harm, the eternal judge who insures justice for all. That is what we sing. That is what we proclaim in our theology books.
But that is not what we experience. In our own lives or in the lives of people we love or at least in the lives of people we read about in the newspaper or on line, every need does not get supplied. Not every person is protected from harm. “Justice” seems unduly influenced by money and power.
When we honor God, we are deliberately focusing our attention on the good things in creation. Just as in honoring our parents, we interpret their actions in light of the kind of good intentions we know ourselves to have as parents, so in honoring God we interpret the world through the lens of what we know of the heart of a good father or mother.
God intends blessings. God’s will is peace and justice. Evil and pain, poverty and war and oppression are contradictions of the purposes of God.
When we honor our parents we are practicing looking in the direction of their best intentions, their highest evident virtues. And the more attention we give, the easier it is for us to move that direction.
In the same way, in worship, we give our attention to the highest virtues of God. We contemplate generosity, mercy, truthfulness, faithfulness. And in our contemplation God draws us to himself and shapes us in his image.
When Gary and I talked about our dad’s memorial service, Gary was right to be sensitive to the reality that Dad was not perfect and that his imperfections left marks on other people. And he was right to want to portray as vividly as possible Dad’s larger-than-life virtues. Gary was quite explicit in his desire to take this opportunity to put Dad’s virtues on display because of the potential for this display to impact others. Gary and I both know people who are believers and church members because of the goodness of our father. We know people have gone on to make a major impact on the world for good because of ways our dad invested in their lives. We believe that when that kind of generosity is examined and celebrated, those who see will themselves be ennobled and elevated. Honoring our father will affect our characters. Publicly honoring him has the potential to call others to higher living.
Let’s study our parents to find their greatest virtues and then give appropriate attention to those virtues and the love and affection that connected those virtues to our lives.
Let’s honor our parents.
Let’s give ourselves in worship to the most glorious visions of God.
And pray that God will shape us into parents worthy of honor, Christians worthy of the name.