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Ten For Our Time: When Family Comes First

May 8, 2005 | PROVIDENCE Presbyterian Church | Ephesians 6:1-3

Today we celebrate Mother’s Day, and in just a few weeks we shall celebrate Father’s Day. Interestingly enough, we have the observance of those two days here in America because two women, Anna Jarvis and Senora Dodd, were determined to honor their parents.

Anna Jarvis was concerned that in her church there was never any acknowledgement of the important role that mothers play in the human experience. These thoughts were triggered in her mind as she was taking care of her own dying mother, caring for her day after day ultimately witnessing her mother’s homegoing 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 that area. It started off as a church event. It became a city event, then a statewide 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 in order to try to explain to them why their mother would not be coming home again, in order to try to reassure 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. It occurred to her that maybe it would be a good thing to have a day honoring fathers as well. Shortly thereafter, she approached the Spokane city council, and they established a day for such a purpose. The idea caught on and began to spread across the country until at last in 1924, President Calvin Coohdge set aside a national day of observance known as Father’s Day.

Of course, the idea of honoring mothers and fathers did not originate with Anna Jarvis or Senora Dodd. It didn’t even begin in the United States. In fact, it arose from 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.

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

The Ten Commandments actually can be divided into two sub-groups. First, there are the four commandments at the beginning, all having to do with our relationship to God. We are to have one God and only one God. We are never to worship idols, images, or false gods. We are never to take the Lord’s name in vain, nor are we ever to use the name of God disrespectfully. 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 call us to honor other people in our lives. In the first four, we are called to honor God. In the last five, we are 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. 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. 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 on to 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 in Bethlehem and the message of that is quite clear. So Christianity is the only faith which places both at its beginning and at its center the family. 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. So the position of the Fifth Commandment delivers a very powerful message and the message is simply this: That of all human relationships the family must be number one in priority. In other words, family first, and believe me 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. We are to do that 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 little story about a father at the dinner table one night who said to his little boy, “Son, after we get finished with dinner we are going into the den, and we are 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”? Well that’s the way it is these days. Children, whether they are 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, even though that is the honorable thing to do.

Now I know that some of you may say to me at this point, “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 are not honorable?” Tough question. Good question. Fair question. So let me answer it. You are to honor them still. Please hear me out. Let me reverse the proposition if I may. If you are going to honor your parents only when they are honorable, does that mean that you want other people in life to honor and love you only when you are honorable and loveable? Or 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 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 receiving the gift? Of course not. So we are called by this commandment to honor our parents even if their conduct is not honorable. Why? Well, if for no other reason than they have given to us the gift of life. Hear me please; if you cannot honor your parents for any other reason than that, then 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 in your own experience the one holding that office 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 so, 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 your heart and to say to you today: honor the ones who have given you life. If you cannot honor them for any other reason than that, then honor them for that reason alone. Honor your father and your mother. Today especially let me add, please honor your mother.

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

Paul calls this commandment “the commandment with a promise.” Remember that the commandment reads “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 it mean that 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 there will be strength, permanence, and continuity in that nation. 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?” Now Marian Anderson could have pointed to so many such moments. She could have mentioned 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 twentieth century. Or she could have told about the day that she sang at the White House for an audience of four: The President and Mrs. Roosevelt, and the King and Queen of England. Or she could have 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 of thousands of people gathered on the Washington Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Yes, Marian Anderson could have pointed to so many great moments in her life. The reporter said, “What was the greatest moment in your life”? Do you know what Marian Anderson 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, 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. So when at last she could stand straight, strong, tall, and true, she went home to her mother and said, “Now I can stand on my own in life, and so I’m going to wrap my arms around you and I’m going to carry you just as for so long you have carried me.” That, she said, was the greatest moment in her life. Dear friends, 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. Do you know that the Fifth Commandment is different from all the others? It’s the only commandment of the ten which 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. But you won’t always be able to obey the Fifth Commandment 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. Then, having written those words on your heart, live them. Yes, for as long as you can, live them…

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