Sermon Text: Exodus 20:12
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The following is my original manuscript.
Today, as we continue our sermon series on the Ten Commandments, we are making a transition. You may recall that Moses brought these commandments down from Sinai on two stone tablets. It is commonly believed that the first four commandments—which speak to our relationship with God, or the vertical dimension of our life—were on the first tablet. And the next six—which speak to our relationship with our fellow human beings, or the horizontal dimension—were on the second tablet.
All the commandments are essential and necessary. But isn’t it interesting that the first commandment of the second tablet concerns family? It ranks ahead of even “you shall not murder”?
I think in part it’s because there is no human relationship that’s more important to our world than the relationship between parents and children. Even marriage, as important as that relationship is, only directly affects two people, or one generation. The relationship between parents and children, however, extends its reach far into the future, affecting countless lives and generations of people.
Remember the second commandment? It included those frightening words about God’s “punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation”? I do not believe that we should interpret these words mean that God wants to punish innocent people for something they didn’t do. I think it means that God lets sin and its consequences run their course—that God doesn’t necessarily protect us and our families from sin’s consequences.
Moms and dads, the cold, hard, sobering reality that we all face is that the choices we make today have lasting consequences in the lives of our children and our children’s children—and so on. In the movie The King’s Speech, for example, we learn through the course of the movie that Prince Albert, who suffers from a debilitating stammer, does so in part because of the way he was physically abused when he was little boy in the nursery. And this abuse happened because his parents were distracted and inattentive, and showed favoritism to his older brother. And, assuming the movie is true, we can imagine that this mistreatment could have had important and even devastating consequences for a nation.
Last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama told a group of assembled clergy, “The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray.” If we truly understand our awesome responsibility as parents, and the enormous challenges we face, we should also say, “Parenting has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray.” It’s humbling. The importance of this relationship can hardly be overstated. So it’s no surprise, then, that this first commandment of the second tablet relates to family.
“Honor your father and your mother…” Two weeks ago I volunteered at my kids’ elementary school in something called the “Watch D.O.G.S.” program. The D-O-G-S part stands for “Dads of Great Students.” One of you said, “Oh, so your kids have to make really good grades for you to qualify to participate?” I said, “No, they ask dads of mediocre students to participate, too.” The point is that the school asks all fathers to take half a day off work and volunteer at school. For example, we helped unload cars in the carpool lane morning, and then volunteered in each of our kids’ classrooms. And then we ate lunch with our kids.
Can I tell you I was deeply moved by the experience? Here’s why: For whatever reason, my kids loved having me there. All three of them. And their classmates and friends seemed to enjoy having me there, too. They were high-five-ing me and stuff. I felt a little like a rock star.
And I know as they get older they won’t always want me around all the time… But even as a kid, when I was in third or fourth grade, my parents embarrassed me—I didn’t want them around my friends. Really, about twice a year moms were invited to eat lunch with their children—dads didn’t do that kind of thing back then—and I was like, “You’re not going to come to that, are you?”
Needless to say, I didn’t get that vibe from my kids at all. I felt, well… honored. And I felt humbled by the experience, too. I thought, “I have dropped the ball in so many ways as a dad. I often haven’t made time for my kids. I have too often taken my kids for granted. And somehow in spite of all that they’re pretty amazing! They’re getting what the fifth commandment means.” Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m doing O.K. as a dad—and certainly better than I was when I was juggling graduate school and work and family. But this experience with my kids made me want to be a better father. It reminded me of something important: My kids need and deserve my very best as a parent. There is nothing more important that I can do in this world than give my children my very best.
Your kids need and deserve your very best as parents. There is nothing more important that you can do in the world than give your children that.
And you might say, “Yes, but… You’ve been mostly talking about how parents treat their children. This commandment is about how children treat their parents, right?” It doesn’t say, “Parents, love your children with everything you’ve got, and do your very best by them. It says, ‘Children, honor your parents.’” And that’s true. The “honor” that children owe to parents is without condition, by all means. But… we parents should strive to make it easier as opposed to more difficult for our children to honor us. Amen? Because, as with any other Christian virtue, they need to learn how to do it—which they can learn through our help, our guidance, and our example.
Think about this: Jesus grew into the person that he did in large part because of his parents—their love, their example, their instruction, their discipline. In the mystery of the incarnation, Jesus isn’t born fully equipped to be the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God. God in Christ isn’t just pretending to be a baby and a child. He had to learn and grow like anyone else, as Luke’s gospel makes clear. When God became human, in other words, he accepted the limitations of being human—he was limited in knowledge and power. He wasn’t simply a chip off the old block because he was like his heavenly Father, but also because he was like his earthly father and mother. When Jesus called God his Father, therefore, don’t you think that he was reminded of his human father, Joseph? Don’t you think that Jesus’ understanding of God as Father was shaped profoundly by Joseph’s love and care and discipline? I’m sure that God chose Joseph to be Jesus’ father, just as he chose Mary to be his mother, because Joseph taught Jesus what a good and loving father looks like. Not that Joseph and Mary were perfect, but don’t you just know they were great parents?
What about us? If you’re a parent, what are your children learning about God and his love through your example? To say the least, it challenges me to think more soberly about my role as a human parent.
O.K., let’s look at the commandment from the other direction. Of course the fifth commandment means that dependent children ought to obey their parents. But Bible scholars are quick to point out that this is not the primary meaning of the commandment. The commandment is mostly written with adult children in mind. What do adult children owe their aging parents when their parents’ most productive days are behind them, when their health is diminishing? What do adult children owe their parents when the children no longer depend on them anymore for material support?
I’ll bet some of you parents of grown children are waiting for that day to come! When your grown children are no longer dependent on you!
Be that as it may, I was so impressed with what Laura Gurley said in the video we watched earlier. Her mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and she no longer even remembers her daughter. I know some of you have experienced or are experiencing this right now with your own mother or father, and I can only imagine how difficult that must be. But Laura honors her mother by caring for her in the most intimate of ways—and in return she receives not even a glint of recognition for the effort. Her mother can’t appreciate her or thank her or return Laura’s love in any way. That’s heartbreaking.
But that’s what the fifth commandment looks like sometimes. In fact, that’s what unconditional love looks like!
Fortunately, God doesn’t ask us to love in this way very often—because it’s difficult, and we’re not very good at it. We often love others with the expectation that our love will be returned in some way. That’s why falling love—romantic love—as great a gift as it is, hardly counts as love. Being in love is the easiest thing in the world because it’s all about feeling. When we’re in love, while we’re in love, we love because doing so makes us feel very happy—at least until one of us falls out of love and break up, and then we feel absolutely miserable!
But think about other kinds of love: We love our friends, we give generously to our friends, we help our friends, we often set aside our own interest for the interest of our friends. But that’s only temporary, because our friends return our love: they give it back to us by helping us, giving to us, sacrificing for us. Even when we minister to people in the name of Christ—by going to places like Honduras or Paraguay, or by visiting the sick in a hospital, or by teaching children in Sunday school or Vacation Bible School, or by going to feed the homeless—the people we minister to are often able to return our love in some way, even by saying “thank you” or hugging us. Or even if they don’t or can’t do this, we often experience a warm feeling that comes from doing something good for someone—or we feel a sense of accomplishment. We love, but we also get something out of it by doing so.
And there’s nothing in the world wrong with any of that! God gives us these good feelings, which often accompany our love!
I’m only making the point that the kind of love that the fifth commandment requires goes even deeper than that—our responsibility to honor our parents is completely independent of how our parents make us feel, or what we get out of it. And although, if we have good parents, we have much to be thankful for, the honor we owe our parents isn’t even a question of whether they deserve it or have earned it.
I hope you see that the kind of love that we owe our parents in the fifth commandment is a lot like the kind of love with which God loves us. When God loves us, there is not even a tiny part of God that is thinking, “What’s in it for me?” I hope that our lives make God happy and well-pleased with us, but make no mistake, God loves us anyway.
This is the kind of love that motivated God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, to come to us in Jesus, and show us how to live truly human lives; show us the way to the Father; show us the way to eternal life. And out of love, God willingly chooses suffering and death on a cross, in our place, that we would be reconciled to God.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is unconditional love in action. May God teach us to love like that!