Mom, Dad, I’m Sorry
The Ten Commandments are like the preamble to the Covenant God makes with Israel, to his chosen people. It’s very much the tiny little box you check at the end of a webpage confirming that you’ve read everything and agree to the terms and conditions. These are the Ten terms and conditions of being one of God’s chosen people in the days of Exodus. Simple enough. But if you’re honest with yourself, the ten Commandments are a literal read it and weep type of statement. We read the list and as our eyes slide down the page we get increasingly anxious considering all of these shalts and shalt-nots.
And that’s what this brief sermon is about, one particular and powerful shalt that stirs up tribulation in even the most pious among us; the Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.”
If hearing me say that makes you nervous, and I think it should one way or another, then this sermon is for you. It’s a sermon that I hope and believe is for all of us. I’m pretty nervous too, because this is a topic that touches all of our lives, but it’s not often discussed. I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon about it directly, but it is certainly a part of life that is in need of a lot of grace.
So, why does it seem so difficult to honor our parents? Why are so many of our relationships with and around our parents just so hard? For some of us it’s simple and clear why tension and resentment describe the way we feel about our parents, while others of us are only beginning to process things after forty or fifty years of therapy. Or maybe your parents were absent, literally or figuratively. Maybe your parents, and the fact that you’re way too much like them, is the thing that’s creating a wedge in your family or your marriage. Maybe you resent your parents for turning you into the person you are today, and that’s not someone you like very much.
Or maybe all of this sounds very foreign to you, perhaps you are fortunate enough to be able to think fondly of your loving and present parents, but even you are beginning to shift in your seat a bit as you think about this commandment, because whether being told to honor your father and mother is difficult because you can’t stand to be in the same room with them, or because you worry that you can’t possibly live up to the standard and expectation to love them as well as they loved you—have you ever had the thought, “Thanksgiving and Christmas, family birthdays better be as perfect as they were at mom and dads, it’s the least I can do now that I’m hosting…”—we all feel pretty dishonorable under the spotlight of the Fifth Commandment. In one way or another, this is hard for all of us I’m certain.
Two weeks ago, I had a bit of an out of body experience. The battery in Courtney’s car died and I was driving it all over town trying to find a place that would not only sell me a new battery, but also put it in the car for me because I was just too tired to learn how to do it myself. After striking out several times I finally just pulled into a car garage, flipped them the keys and said, “please fix this for me.” While I waited I pulled out a book that I’ve been reading, Harrison Scott Key’s memoir, The World’s Largest Man. It’s one of the funniest and at times most profound things I’ve read in a while. It recounts a Mississippi childhood in which Key felt out of place in his home, particularly in relationship to his father, “a man”, as he writes “better suited to living in a remote frontier wilderness of the nineteenth century than contemporary America, with all its progressive ideas, and paved roads, and lack of armed duels.” It’s a great story about man trying to make sense of the man his father failed and succeeded in making him to be, a hunter, a handy man, a real man. And there I was, sitting outside (afraid to sit in their waiting room) while another man was fixing my wife’s car! Many of his quotes about his relationship with his father aren’t appropriate for church…, but here is one that touches on the deep struggle many of us have with the Fifth Commandment:
“Maybe all this time, maybe what I’ve wanted to know is this: Was I a good son? I did everything he’d ever asked me to do. Shot things, hooked things, cleaned and hit and tackled and mauled and murdered and burned so much flesh and flora, worlds of blood and dirt. When I was little, I thought I’d love this stuff, and when I was a little older, I thought I could learn to love it, and when I was old enough to be a young man, I knew: no. I know it hurt him, to see me quite football, then baseball, then the church he’d raised me in, to bury everything he’d given me, the hunting the fishing and fighting and foolish ways of a certain kind of Southern Man that I both am and am not. And I wanted to hate him for i. And guess what: I did. Like so many boys, I found myself believing my father to be a monster, an ignorant, hateful, bigoted wastrel who refused to respond and change and grow. That’s why I left home, and left him.”
The Fifth commandment shows us who we aren’t, we aren’t perfect children, we often don’t find ourselves able to honor and love our parents as we should or would like to. The real or perceived expectations of who we should be prove to be too heavy and we either give up and stop calling, or push back and start shouting.
The irony is that it’s the presence of the law in the child-parent relationship, the presence of commandment, expectation and judgement that can make it so difficult for us to fulfill the Fifth commandment itself, to honor your mother and father. But into what can feel like a pretty dark stalemate comes the grace of God. Into what feels like a waiting game, waiting for your parent or child to be the one to make the first move, waiting for the other to forgive and to love first, into this waiting game breaks in the grace of God.
And I want to mention two ways that it does:
The first is relatively simple, and it’s simply the Gospel’s powerful ability to call a thing what it actually is and what it actually isn’t. If the Ten Commandments show us who we’re supposed to be, then I think they do an even better job at showing us who we aren’t.
The Fifth commandment shows us who we aren’t, but it also shows us who our parents aren’t as well. They too are imperfect children, screwed up by absent and overbearing parents just like their parents and their parents before them. Just think about Noah passed out drunk in front of his son Ham, or Laban tricking his son-in-law Jacob into sleeping with the wrong daughter, Isaac and Rebecca pitting their favorite sons against one another, or for goodness sake think about Abraham who was just seconds away from killing his son Isaac! And these are just a few highlights from the very first book of the Bible! The law convicts us all, every one of us. It leaves no room for boasting in ourselves and how well we’re sticking to God’s terms and conditions, instead it names us as broken and needy, just like our parents. And then as we lay on our backs having just had our legs kicked out from under us by the law, our eyes are lifted up to the sky, it’s there that we hear the word of grace that we, that all of us, are God’s beloved children. The law of the Fifth commandment opens us up to our need for the grace that could only come from God the Father, the grace that puts an end to shame and judgement, heals resentments and restores us to new life.
And here is the second way this grace proves to be so powerful: grace alone has the power to bring about compassion and reconciliation.
As Paul Zahl writes, “[under grace] You begin to see your family in its true colors, you begin to love them as they are meant to be loved. They are meant to be loved as human beings, not as non-negotiable absolutes. Parents can begin to love their children, not as extensions of themselves and their own lack of success, or as compensations for what they did not receive and did not achieve, but as very rich gifts to be handled with extreme care and then handed back. Children can begin to love their parents as flesh-and-blood, as the fallible men and women they really are.”
Honor your father and mother. It’s not so easy. But there once was a father and a son who were able to do this, so well in fact that they loved each other to death on a Cross. But that love was ultimately an act of love given as a gift to you and me, children unable to love as perfectly as we’d like. And that gift is for children who are simply lost, who are deep down children, regardless of age, children who need to be forgiven and loved before we can offer much love and forgiveness on our own. To us, floundering breakers of the Fifth Commandment that we are, this gift has come. And the best news about it is that we don’t have to wait for this love to come, like a sad child waiting for his mother to arrive to bring your mom to school day, knowing full well that she’s forgotten. No, we don’t have to wait because the blood that is truly thicker than water has already been spilled. That blood as already washed you clean and your father in heaven has already looked upon you and claimed you, you of all people, as his beloved own child forever.