Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father

February 4, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


This is one of the happiest days in our church year. Maybe it' s a romantic notion, but I can' t help but feel the ghosts of this church gathering around in joy on Membership Sunday, wishing us good years and godspeed together. Some of them are smiling, and I imagine some of them clucking their tongues and shaking their heads ruefully from the other side, remembering some serious conflicts they had when they were alive and walking in covenanted faith with this same congregation. But they' re well beyond all anger now, and they' re watching us with great affection. "Cherish this church," they say. "Expect it to break your heart at times. It is setting before you the loftiest expectations: to love, to learn, to forgive, to courageously challenge your sins, to share your sorrows."

I talk to those guys on the back wall pretty frequently [The back wall of our church features the portraits of my predecessors in the ministry at First Parish Norwell: all men—VW] My boys. Hello, fellas.

I live in the same house they all lived in since 1875. There isn' t a night I' ve paced the floors over at the parsonage that I don' t feel them pacing with me, keeping me company. When you belong to a congregation as old as this one is, you' re never alone. There are too many church mothers and fathers always us. Too many ancestors. Or perhaps I should say, "many ancestors." I, for one, believe that we can never have too many ancestors. If you stick around long enough, you' ll hear them whispering in your ear. And if you stick around long enough, you have the blessed and bittersweet experience of having beloved spiritual mothers and fathers who pass over to become ancestors. We invoke them here this morning, with loving memory. Whenever we welcome new members among us, there is also cause to remember those who have gone on to the "choir invisible, whose music is the gladness of the world." (George Eliot)

The other night on a PBS show called, "African American Experience," I watched African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explore his ancestry. Gates was trying to find out for once and for all whether or not his great-great-grandmother, Jane Gates-- a slave --was given the house she lived in by her former owner, Samuel Brady, because she was the mother of his children. That had been the old family story, passed down for generations, and Skip Gates wanted to know the truth about his paternal heritage. The show made for riveting viewing, and in the end, DNA testing determined that, in fact, he was not the descendant of Samuel Brady, but, as Gates himself concluded, "of some other white man."

At one point in the program, Gates is talking to his own father, a gentleman of extremely advanced age who remembered Jane Gates' daughter. Did she ever talk about whether Samuel Brady was her father? Skip Gates' father said, "Oh no. They didn' t talk about that in those days." And Skip responded, "Right. No one back then said ‘Who' s your daddy?' " Father and son laughed.

We all want to know where we come from. Appearing as we do on the stage of human life at a specific moment in human history, we are in love with the concept of who we are, and it matters to us whose blood runs through our veins. Even if our descendants are unsavory characters, we want to claim them, whether they be biological kinfolk or ours by adoption. We have to claim them.

Maybe we come from honorable, hard-working people, or maybe we come from thieves and scoundrels. No matter how hard the news, we want to know. To be bereft of such knowledge is spiritually impoverishing, and can leave us floundering all our lives with an incomplete sense of identity. It is for this reason that family secrets are so particularly damaging, and that the damage can run like a thread through generations. Stories make no sense when chapters are torn out by shame or sorrow. The complete book of our lives requires that every chapter be given its fair reading.

Today we continue our series on the Ten Commandments, and today we come to the fifth: "Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee," Exodus 20:12.

This commandment marks a transition in the Ten Commandments. The preceding four commandments deal with the vertical relationship between the individual and God: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me, thou shalt honor the Sabbath," etc. But here, we have the first commandment that explicitly refers to the ordering of human relationships, and it centers on the Hebrew word for honor - "kah-bed," –whose root word means "weighty." It is the same word used in describing the proper relationship to have with God.

A tough commandment for some of us, and one that may create inner conflict. Yes, ideally we would all honor our parents. We would love to have parents we might admire and want to emulate. But what if mother and/or father have behaved in ways that are abusive, reprehensible, unworthy of respect? How does an African-American descendent of slaves "honor" the great great grandfather who kept his his great-great grandmother as property, and raped her? How does anyone honor a parent who has grievously harmed or wronged them?

But wait. The commandment doesn' t say "Thou shalt respect thy mother and thy father." It says, "Thou shalt honor." A very important distinction. To honor our mother and our father means, I think, to acknowledge that however hard the family story we have been part of, it is our story to wrestle with, to make sense of, perhaps to triumph over. One of my favorite writers, the columnist Molly Ivins, died this week. She said that she got her feistiness largely from standing up to her domineering and cruel father. That' s one way to honor they mother and thy father: to develop our character in such a way that ensures we shall not repeat their mistakes.

We come together in church community because we have not been tutored in wisdom by our parents in a complete way; because even as adults out of our childhood homes, we need yet to be "brought up," to continue the process of learning and growth that our parents or guardians – however imperfectly – began when we were small. It is a humble undertaking. We do it without the usual markers of growth: there are no report cards here, no pencil marks on the wall to show how much we have improved in stature, no conferences with the teacher to discuss whether or not we are living up to our potential. It is up to us to keep track of our progress, and to find those teachers and mentors and spiritual parents who can help us in our struggle to become more whole, to become more human, to live more deeply, reverently, consciously and compassionately into our best selves.

So many of us have church mothers and fathers who model for us the way we want to be in our own belonging. If you have a ministry here, how did you learn it? By admiring a spiritual mother or father who came before you, probably, whose joy in service inspired you and whose particular church contributions you may have taken on yourself as a tribute to them.

Who taught you how to run a stewardship campaign, to visit the sick, to teach Sunday School, to polish the silver and to iron the linen, to cook for 65 people, to preach, to listen with attentive care, to repair leaks in the side of the building, to show up every Thursday for choir practice? Not your biological mother or father, most likely. A spiritual mother or father, someone whose disciple you willingly became, someone whose memory you honor yet today by the works of your hands and the commitments of your heart.

And so it goes. And it goes, and it goes. Honor thy mother and thy father. It doesn' t mean to pay uncritical respect to those striving and flawed mortals who sired you, but to understand where you come from, to accept the bright and the dark aspects of that story – in order to, as the Bible suggests, dwell with more blessing in the place that God has given you to be in this lifetime. Even if we have been lucky enough to be born to wonderful parents, we are nevertheless also free to choose many mothers and fathers along the way who might nurture us more perfectly, who might stir our souls with yet more admiration, and who keep hold of our hands even today, grown as we are, in crossing the dangerous streets of adult life.

As we join in the spirit of prayer, I hope you will call to mind the image of all the mothers and fathers who are worthy of that name.