A Higher Calling
Updated: Aug 30, 2019
Deuteronomy 5:1-16; Luke 13:10-17
Good morning! For those of you who weren’t here the last couple Sundays, this sermon is part four of a six-part series on the Ten Commandments. If you missed any of these sermons, you can go to the church’s website and read the written text of my sermons. And if you want an e
xtended discussion of the Ten Commandments, please check out my podcast at softidolatry.com. Also, today, we’re celebrating the sacrament of baptism—now I know this sounds a lot like the intro to last Sunday’s sermon, but this is actually fresh content. Yes, we’re having another baptism today.
This morning we’re celebrating the sacrament of baptism for Charleigh Marian Pullen. She’s the daughter of Steve and Jill Pullen; Jill was baptized here in FPC when she was a baby, and when her mother, Laura Kiwit was an active member. And guess what? Jill and Laura are transferring their memberships back to this congregation. We will officially recognize their membership after some paperwork is done and the Session has met and examined them, sometime this fall. Today, we will welcome Charleigh into the family of Christ! She gets to be the focus of our attention today. And Jesus. We’re focused on Jesus, too. Right?
When I introduced this sermon series a few weeks ago, I pointed out that, Jesus, when he’s asked which commandment is the greatest, he offers a short summary of the Ten Commandments. He says—I’m paraphrasing here—love God with every fiber of your being and love your neighbor as you love yourself. There’s no commandment greater than these. Nor can we separate out any one commandment from all the rest; they all function together.
The first four commandments tell us how we are supposed to love God. The last six tell us how we are supposed to love our neighbors. The Fifth Commandment states: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Like many of the commandments, it’s not hard to understand. In fact, for many people, it’s not even that difficult to live into. Yet I wonder, why is this commandment the pivot from loving God to loving neighbor? Why is this the first instruction regarding how we treat our neighbors? Wouldn’t it make more sense if this section of the commandments began with something like, “you will not commit murder,” or “you will not steal?” Wouldn’t killing or stealing be more disruptive to society?
To put it another way: if I’m rude to my mother or my father, that makes me a big jerk. Period. But how is that even on par with killing or stealing? Right?
There’s a subtle clue in the last part of this commandment: “Honor your father and mother… so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
In ancient Israel, property was life. The basic family unit was called the beth av, or the house of the father. This wasn’t just the physical house, but all of the land and livestock that was owned by the family, too. This provided the income to feed and clothe the entire family—mom and dad, all the kids, and usually some extended family members, too. This might have included elderly grandparents, mothers-in-law, or perhaps cousins who had been orphaned.
It was the duty of the father to provide for all of those people. It was also the duty of the father and mother to produce a male heir, someone to inherit the property—this is going to be really important next week, when we consider the commandments against murder, theft, and adultery. In that society, there was nothing that was more important than the orderly transfer of property from one generation to the next.
Remember, property was life. If you were the youngest of several sons, then you were very unlikely to inherit much or any property from your father. There was no chance that you could marry someone, because you had no property. Your best hope was that your oldest brother would keep you on in the house so that you could provide labor, and also, that you could help defend the property, if someone tried to take it by force.
The Hebrew word for inheritance is nahala. And just as the house of the father was the inheritance for the eldest son, the entire land of Israel, the Promised Land, was the inheritance, the nahala, for the Israelites who were about to enter the Land of Canaan. In effect, God is saying, you have to honor your parents, so that you preserve the inheritance, the transfer of property, so that society will continue to function. If you don’t, you will squander the inheritance, the gift of the land that the Lord has given you. This preserves the order and harmony of the entire society.
The Fifth Commandment is about relationship. Think about it; the very first relationship that any of us have is with our parents. They teach us how to relate to others. They set the tone. And then our next set of relationships is usually with our grandparents and our siblings, if we have any.
This is all great, provided you have a good and healthy relationship with your parents. But the sad truth is, not all of us have good or healthy relationships with our parents. Some parents don’t know how to love. Others struggle with depression or other mental health problems. Many parents wrestle with addictions—addictions to alcohol, drugs, or gambling can destroy a family. Still others are abusive, physically, verbally, emotionally, or in other ways that I don’t care to name from the pulpit.
We are all broken by sin; none of us is exempt from that. Yet we must acknowledge that some people are so broken that they inflict their brokenness on others, especially their children. How do we honor our parents if they have hurt us beyond all measure?
There’s no easy answer to that question, but in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus shows us where to find the grace in the law.
In that story, Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath. On the surface, it seems like Jesus has violated the Fourth Commandment; he heals a woman; that’s work. In the eyes of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus has not kept the Sabbath holy. But Jesus points out that everyone who owns livestock—that is, everyone who has property—feeds and cares for their livestock, even on the Sabbath. There’s a higher duty, a higher calling. We’re all supposed to protect the things that give us life; this is about human flourishing. And if we don’t take care of the things that give us life, we can’t flourish. This includes our mental and physical health.
Thus, Jesus releases us from a simplistic understanding of the law. Jesus doesn’t release us from the law, he releases us from a black-and-white picture of the law. He provides context for what is most important, so that we may flourish. As I said last week, God still needs whole people. We can’t be in a right relationship with God or with our neighbors if we are not whole.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Sure, I had some rough teenage years, where I wasn’t so good at honoring my father and mother. I would guess that I’m not alone in this. However, if you had a challenging relationship with one or both of your parents—or worse, a toxic or destructive relationship with your parents—your first duty, your higher calling, is to work on healing yourself.
By all means, see a therapist. Join a support group. These are not signs of weakness. None of us can work these things out on our own. It is a sign of strength to admit that you need help, and that’s the first step on the road to recovery. Yet therapy is not a substitute for lost family. For that, we all need community.
This is where the Church comes in.
The Church can be a place where we practice community and family! The church can be a surrogate family for those of us who have had difficult or damaged relationships with our parents. The Church can also be a surrogate family for those of us who are separated from our birth families from distance or death.
When we baptize Charleigh Pullen into the family of Christ, we mark her as one of us, a member of a much larger family. This font is a reminder of that grace which is offered to us in the family of Jesus Christ. May we all live into that grace and be that family for Charleigh and for one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church in the world today. Remember that we are called to practice community and be an extended family to one another. Through the practice of community and family, we may find God’s peace. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!