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Home Improvement: The Commandment You Can’t Always Obey

Ephesians 6:1-3

I am not a stockbroker, but let me give you a tip. Now might be a good time to buy stock in greeting card companies, floral delivery services, or the telephone companies. Why? Because the two biggest profit-making days of the year for those companies are just ahead. I refer, of course, to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Interestingly enough, we have the observance of those two days here in the United States because two women, Anna Jarvis and Senora Dodd were determined to honor their parents.

Anna Jarvis was rather concerned that in her church, there was never any acknowledgement of the important role that mothers play in the human experience. Those thoughts were triggered in her mind as she was taking care of her own mother at her mother’s dying bedside, caring for her day after day, ultimately witnessing her mother’s home-going to heaven in 1905. After her mother’s death, Anna Jarvis approached her church and asked about the possibility of having a service to celebrate mothers. It took two years for the church to decide that it was a good idea, and as a result, in 1907, her little Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia had a service of worship honoring mothers in the human experience. It started off as a church event. It became a city event, and then a state-wide event and ultimately, of course, a national event. The first National Mother’s Day was celebrated on May 10, 1913.

A couple of years later, Senora Smart Dodd was listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in her own church in Spokane, Washington. As the sermon unfolded, suddenly her mind went racing back across the years to the day in 1890 when her father, Billy Smart, came home from his wife’s funeral to embrace the six small children in the household to try to explain to them as best he could why their mother would not be coming home again and to try to assure them that as far as he was able, he would try not only to fulfill the role of father for those children, but he would attempt to be their mother as well. Listening to that Mother’s Day sermon, Senora Dodd reflected on how magnificently her father had fulfilled both of those roles in her life, and it occurred to her that maybe it would be a good thing to have a day honoring fathers—and so shortly thereafter, she approached the Spokane, Washington City Council and they established a day for such a purpose. The idea caught on and began to spread all across the country, until at last, in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge set aside a national day of observance known as Father’s Day.

Of course, the idea of honoring fathers and mothers did not originate with Anna Jarvis or Senora Dodd. It didn’t even begin in the United States. In fact, it arose from one of humankind’s most ancient and most treasured pieces of literature. I refer, of course, to the Ten Commandments, which Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, and I refer specifically to the Fifth Commandment which reads: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you will live long in the land which your God will give you.”

Today, I want us to focus together on the incredible power contained in that commandment. I want us to focus on three things. I want us to focus together on the Fifth Commandment and learn what we can learn from these three things: The right position, the right principle, and the right promise. It does have a promise. Do you remember Paul, writing in the Ephesians? When he remembered the Ten Commandments, and when he remembered the Fifth Commandment specifically, he said: “That’s the one with the promise.” Yes it is, and I want us to focus on that commandment with its promise together.

Focus first, please, on the position of the commandment. It presents the right order.

The Ten Commandments can actually be divided into two subgroups. First there are the four commandments at the beginning. The first four all have to do with our relationship to God. We are to have one God and only one God. We are never to worship idols or images or false gods. We are never to take the Lord’s name in vain; we are never to use the name of God disrespectfully. And we are always to set aside at least one day every week especially for the purpose of honoring God. So the first four commandments have to do with our relationship to God. The last five commandments have to do with our relationship to our neighbor. Those five commandments, every one of them, call us to honor other people in our lives. The first four, we’re called to honor God. The last five, we’re called to honor other people. Right at the hinge, right at the turning point, right at the place where you move from honoring God to honoring other people, right at that point comes the Fifth Commandment which says: “Honor your father and your mother.” The position is no accident, and there is a powerful symbol contained in that position, namely, if we can learn to honor God, then we can learn to honor our neighbors, and the place where we learn to honor both is right under our own roof.

Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that Christianity is the only religion in the world which dares to call God “Father”? That is because the family is the center of the Christian faith. Have you ever paused to consider just how important the concept of the family is in our Christianity? I mean, that’s the way it began. If you look at the other religions of the world, inevitably you will find that the purported leaders of those religions have come onto the world’s scene as fully-grown individuals. Not so Christianity. Christianity began in a family—a mother, a father, a baby. Christianity began in a manger of Bethlehem, and the message of that is quite clear. We tend to forget it. We’ve seen so many artistic renderings of the Holy Family that we tend to forget that Christianity, our faith, is the only faith which places both at its beginning and at its center, a family. The message is quite plain. Our Christian faith teaches us that life is a gift from God, and that gift is delivered to us through our family. The family, then, is not an incidental piece of the social order. The family is not something dreamed up for the pleasure and benefit of humankind. The family is nothing less than the centerpiece of God’s whole creation. The family is nothing less than the very essential thread weaving our whole social fabric together. The family is nothing less than the critical building block for the construction of the Kingdom of God on earth. And the Bible teaches us that the purpose of the family is simple—it is to give life, to protect life, to inspire life, to encourage life, to shape life, to develop life, to direct life, to educate life, to celebrate life. Life is a gift from God, and that life comes to us through our family. The position of the Fifth Commandment delivers a very powerful message to us. The message is simply this: That of all human relationships, the family must be number one in priority. That’s the purpose of the position of the Fifth Commandment; to remind us that that’s the right priority order. Family first. In this time and certainly in this land, we need to be remembering that.

Focus next, please, on the principle of the commandment- it prescribes the right honor. 

The word honor in the dictionary is defined as “to place in a position of esteem and authority”. In other words, we are to esteem our parents by yielding to their authority. It is as simple as that, but I know that is not easy. We are called by this commandment to honor our parents by yielding to their authority. Remember though, we are to yield to their authority only in so far as they do not ask us to do something contrary to the will of God. Otherwise, we are to yield to their authority. Tough thing to do.

I have always loved Frank Harrington’s wonderful story about a father at the dinner table one night who said to his little boy: “Son, after we get finished with dinner, we’re going into the den and we’re going to talk about the facts of life.” So after dinner, into the den they went. They sat down and immediately the little boy said: “All right, Dad, what is it that you want to know?” That’s the way it is these days. Children, whether they’re grown or not, tend to think that they know more than their parents and consequently they find it somewhat difficult to yield to parental authority.

I know that yielding to authority is not always pleasant. Then let me remind you of something. We’re living in tough times, in a tough world, and in a tough world, parents need to be tough enough to deliver some tough restrictions—loving, yes, but tough restrictions. Mark this down, please. Life in the home must be lived above the level of life in the streets or we shall die in the streets. A child is like a tree, planted high upon a mountain, where strong, blasting winds blow and if that tree is left to its own, it will be bent, perhaps even broken, by the unrelenting blast of the wind. But if there is someone to tend that tree and feed that tree and stake that tree to the ground and prune away the branches which are not conducive to growth on that tree, then that tree will grow strong and straight and true, regardless of the unrelenting blasts of the wind. That is what honorable parents desire, and that is what honorable parents do. You see, honorable parents do not always want their children to be children. No, they want their children to get to the point in life where they stand independent and responsible, where they stand strong and straight and tall and true, where they are ready to face any storm that life might blow into their experience. That is the goal of every honorable parent.

Oh, I know—do I ever know—I know that some of you may say to me now: “But my parents aren’t honorable. My mother has made my life a nightmare. My father has treated me harshly, maybe even abused me. How can I honor my parents when my parents, by the very standards you have just mentioned, are not honorable?” Tough question. Good question. Fair question. Let me answer it. You are to honor them still. Now please hear me out. Let me reverse the proposition. If you are going to honor your parents only when they are honorable, does that mean then that you want other people in life to honor and love you only when you are honorable and loveable? Take it a step farther. God has chosen to love and honor us with the gift of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, even when, and in fact precisely because, we are not honorable and not loveable. Would you want God to withhold that gift until we become honorable enough or loveable enough to warrant the gift? Of course not! We are called by this commandment to honor our parents even if their conduct is not honorable. We are to honor them. Why? If for no other reason than they have given us the gift of life. If you cannot honor your parents for any other reason than that, honor them because they have given you the gift of life in this world. In other words, I am calling us to honor the office of parenthood even if the one holding that office in your experience, does not behave in an honorable manner. Or twist it around like this. If you owe a man money, you are not relieved of that debt just because the man happens to be a drunkard. Just do, you owe your parents the gift of life and their conduct in no way relieves you from that debt.

So the great loving heart of God speaks to my heart and calls my heart to speak to yours and to say to you today: Honor the ones who have given you life. If you cannot love them for any other reason than that, honor them for that reason alone. Honor your father and your mother; especially, let me add, please, honor your mother.

Focus please now on the promise of the commandment. It produces the right reward.

Paul says, “That Fifth Commandment. That is a good one. That’s the one with the promise.” Honor your father and your mother so that you will live long upon the land which the Lord your God has given you. What does that mean? Does that mean if we honor our parents we’re going to live to a ripe old age? Heavens no! That’s not what it says at all. What it means is simply this: That in a nation where children honor their parents and where family life stands as the first priority, in that nation there will be strength and permanence and continuity. In other words, when children are engaged in honoring their parents, that produces stronger families. Stronger families produce stronger people. Stronger people produce a stronger society, and a stronger society produces a stronger nation. What the commandment promises is that if we honor our parents and if we build strong our families, then this nation shall endure.

Marian Anderson was one of the greatest women America has ever produced. This warm, wise, superbly-gifted woman was the first African-American to regularly sing from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. On one occasion, a reporter asked her: “What was the greatest moment in your life?” Marian Anderson could have pointed to so many moments. She could have isolated the time when the great Arturo Toscanini, the best-known conductor of the day, declared for all the world to hear that Marian Anderson possessed the most magnificent voice of the 20th Century. She could have told about the day that she sang at the White House for an audience of four: President and Mrs. Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England. She could have easily referred to the time when she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the Congress of the United States of America. Or she could have pointed to the day when she sang at the Easter Sunrise service before hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people gather on the Washington Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and those who heard Marian Anderson sing that day say that it was one of the greatest moments of the 20th Century and they have never forgotten a single second of the sound. Marian Anderson could have pointed to so many great moments in her life. The reporter said: “What was the greatest moment in your life?” You know what she said? She said, “The greatest moment of my life was the day I went home to my mother and said: ‘Mom, you won’t have to take in washing anymore.'” Do you hear what she was saying? This family of hers which had loved her and encouraged her and supported her and sacrificed for her, this family which had done everything needed for her to get to the place where she was in life, this family was first in her mind and first in her heart. And so when at last in life, she could stand straight and strong and tall and true, in that moment, she went home to her mother and she said: “Now I can stand on my own in life, and now I’m going to wrap my arms around you and I’m going to carry you just as you for so long have carried me.” It was the greatest moment in her life. I don’t see it often enough, but once in awhile I see it, and whenever I see it, I thrill. Whenever I see a child, young or old, saying to a mother: “I can now stand straight and tall and true. I can make it on my own. But now, I’m going to put my arms around you and just as you for so long have carried me, now I am going to carry you.” A nation filled with children honoring their parents like that is a nation which shall be blessed, and a nation like that will endure.

Just had a thought. You know, the Fifth Commandment is different from all the others. It’s the only commandment you won’t always be able to obey. All of the other nine, you are called to obey for as long as you live. Until the day you die, you are called to try to obey the other nine. You won’t always be able to obey the fifth one because in the normal course of events, your parents will precede you in death, and then the option of honoring them in this life will no longer be yours. So take these words written on stone and write them on your heart: HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER, and having written them on your heart, live them, yes, for as long as you can, live them…

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