The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law
Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-4; Mark 3:31-35
You haven’t forgotten the commandments have you? In their original form they were probably not more than one or two words each, the rest of the words around them and the other 603 rabbinic laws in the first five books of the Bible being how they were interpreted by later people. The first commandment is about loyalty to one God. The second commandment is about not remaking God in our image. The third commandment is about not making careless use of God's name. The fourth commandment -- the first of two stated in positive terms -- is a command to rest and remember. The fourth is as much about our relationship with God as the first three. If we don't "cease work" every seventh day so that we can "remember," then in time we will forget who we are and whose we are.
That brings us to the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother." Honoring and caring for one's parents was important in ancient Israel, just as it is in our society today. When the commandments were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, there would have been even more particular concerns. At that time, the people of Israel were nomadic, perhaps even refugees, always on the move with no land of their own. What happened when the seniors were no longer able to keep up with the rigors of the constant march in the wilderness toward the Promised Land, unless cared for by their children?
We can draw our own pictures of the needs of senior citizens in our time. I think it is fair to assume that provisions for seniors in our society have come about in response to the respect for age suggested in this commandment. One of the realities of our day is that more parents are living longer than ever before. With the Baby Boomer population beginning to retire, the number of seniors is increasing even more rapidly; so rapidly that many young people worry that there will not be enough resources to care for them when they are old.
These are all important issues that cry out to be addressed in our time, but I believe that the fifth Commandment is about more than caring for aging parents, important as that is. Why would "honoring parents" be ahead of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery? I think it is because the commandment to "honor parents" was as much about people’s relationship to God as it was for their relationships with each other. At heart, the commandment about honoring parents has to do with the means whereby faith can be passed from one generation to another. In a pre-literate nomadic society, how was the knowledge of God's great saving act in liberating them from slavery in Egypt to be passed down to future generations, if not from parents passing it down to their children? I think this is why a scribe added to these words to this commandment: “so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” If people didn’t remember who they were and whose they were, they would lose the land that God was giving them.
The struggle between the generations is inherently filled with tension and one of the most critical aspects of life. Without the passing on of the faith from one generation to the next, faith will be lost. The generational covenant breaks down when one of two things happens: either when the parents do not pass on the faith to their children, or when the children refuse to accept it and do not pass it on to their children. Some in this room would tell stories about how your parents did not pass the faith on to you and how you had to come to faith some other way. Others in this room would tell stories about how your parents were faithful in passing the faith on to you, but you left the church when you left home and have now found your way back. Some of you in this room would tell stories about how you tried to pass on the faith to your children but they didn’t honor you by receiving it and passing it on to their children.
The responsibility of parents to pass on the faith to their children is at the very heart of the meaning of the Fifth Commandment, not just children's responsibility to honor their parents. In the Gospel text we read today, Jesus had just begun his ministry, had healed several people and cast out a demon. Some people said he was crazy, or was demon-possessed. Jesus' mother and brothers apparently believed that, or at least were so concerned about Jesus' embarrassing the family, that they came to get him. Jesus doesn't let them get anywhere near him. He says to the crowd, "Who are my mother and brothers?" Then, looking at those sitting around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." These sharp words of Jesus are reminders that the commandment to honor parents is a two-part covenant: parents are to be honored when they are faithful in their parental responsibilities, and that includes passing the faith on to their children.
It might have been at that meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference when, at age 18, I was first appointed to pastor two rural churches west of Fort Worth. At each Annual Conference in June there was always a guest preacher who would preach four or five times during conference. I don’t remember his name, but he was some high powered preacher from a large church somewhere. I don’t remember any of his other sermons at the conference, except for one point he made.
There must have been a thousand people—lay and ministerial members of conference—gathered at First Church in Fort Worth where we always had Annual Conference. I’m not sure I had been listening before, but he got my attention when he said, “I’m DAMN tired of fathers telling me that they have fulfilled their parental responsibilities by putting food on the table, clothes on their backs and seeing that their children get to school.” Despite the fact that this was Texas, I think I can be fairly sure that four-letter expletive had never before been uttered from that pulpit. And from the silence that followed, I’m pretty sure that none of the other members of the conference had ever heard such language from a preacher in a sermon. Having gotten our attention, he went on: “Parents who do not provide for the spiritual growth of their children have failed in one of their primary parental responsibilities.” The preacher had used that four-letter word for effect, and it was effective, at least with me. I’ve often wondered how many of the others who were there still remember this point he made. For people of faith, parenting includes the responsibility to provide for the spiritual growth of our children.
When I was a teenager I didn’t want to go to church, but my mother made me. I made things pretty tough on her. It seemed like we had an argument every Sunday morning about going to church, but she always swept aside my arguments with the maddening, “Of course you want to go.” I went unwillingly, and years later, I was glad that she made me go. Even though I could not hear God calling me to worship, she could. And she fulfilled that part of her parental responsibility. Today, I give thanks that she did.
The spiritual nurture of children has never been easy, and it’s even more difficult today. For one thing, the structure of the family has changed since the time that preacher spoke. Families with two parents in the home are now in the minority and by the year 2010 less than 30 percent of our children will have two parents at home. That makes the job of parenting, and “Christian” parenting, even more difficult.
We can lament this situation with all kinds of “Ain’t it awful” complaints, but that is not going to change anything. It seems to me that the need for help in the spiritual nurture of our children is one of the critical reasons for being part of a community of faith, like this one on the Old Glenn Highway. In every age, but especially in this one, we need support in the all-important task of passing on the faith to our children.
In this community of faith, those of you who are not married, those of you who are married but not biological parents, those of you whose children are raised and gone, all have an opportunity—no, more, you have an obligation—to be models for our children of what it means to be Christian. Those of you who are parents and in the process of raising your children, what you do with your children and how you provide spiritual nurture for them is not only important for them, but for all of the children and young people in this congregation.
We have many programs here (Sunday School, Youth Group, etc.) to assist in the parent’s responsibility for the spiritual nurture of their children. Today, we presented Bibles to the third graders. There are many adult classes and groups where adults can be nurtured and thus be better prepared for the task of spiritually nurturing your children and answering their questions when they do read the Bible. When someone invites you to work in Sunday School, Children’s Choir, or in one of our youth ministries, I hope you will seize the opportunity with enthusiasm. You can help bridge the generations and contribute to all of our being faithful in observing the fifth commandment.
I have a special word for those kids and young people who may be here today because Mom, Dad, or someone else made you. I want to tell you that they made you come because they believe they wouldn’t be good parents if they didn’t. They believe that just as they have a responsibility to see that you are fed, clothed, cared for when you are sick, and go to school, they also have a responsibility to see that you learn to pray, that you learn about the Bible, and that you learn what it means to be a Christian. I don’t know what you will decide about your own faith when you grow up. You’ll have to make that decision. In the meantime, if there is an intergenerational struggle going on at your house, I hope the struggle is to honor and love.
That is, of course, not the only intergenerational struggle in today’s households. Families often include elderly parents in the home or in managed care facilities. These relationships have their own dynamics and struggles. If you are experiencing the intergenerational struggle at this level, I hope that struggle is also to honor and to love.
We sang these words earlier in the service: “O Lord, may church and home combine to teach thy perfect way, with gentleness and love like thine, that none shall ever stray.” Would you let those words be your prayer today?