Thursday, September 24, 2015

September 27, Proper 21, You Can Do This #5: Practicing Honor

Heidelberg Catechism 104, Lord's Day 39, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” 

This morning I’m not going to preach about either the gospel lesson or the epistle, at least not directly. Instead I will pivot off them on the way to the Fifth Commandment. I preached on the gospel lesson three years ago, and interpreted what the Lord Jesus really meant by the word “hell”, which is actually a mistranslation. That sermon is still online at

My first pivot is the first part of the gospel. Here the Lord Jesus refuses to give his community clear boundaries. The disciples want boundaries. A kingdom should have borders, and a sovereign should defend those borders. The Lord Jesus says No. His kingdom has no boundaries.

This has been hard for the Christian church. We’ve often said that there’s no salvation apart from the church, or you can’t be a member unless you agree with us, or you can’t take communion unless you belong to us, and you can’t belong unless you are white, or straight. None of that’s from the Lord Jesus. So his community may not be a closed community. Closeness is to be valued, of course, but our closeness must always be open. The community of Jesus is an open community.

But it’s not an undefined community. It’s not a formless mass, it’s not a blob, it’s not a mob. The community of Jesus has texture, it has patterns of authority and offices: apostles and prophets, elders and deacons. Those patterns poke through in the New Testament, as in our epistle, where the community addressed by St. James already had a group of elders to go to—a group of officers with some authority of prayer and ministration.

But while those offices and patterns keep poking through, the New Testament is remarkably vague on them. It never defines them nor ever gives us a nice, firm structure of church government. Which is one reason we have so many denominations, with each of our differing systems of government appealing to different Biblical suggestions.

This is all a result of the Gospel’s premium on freedom and flexibility. And it’s not just the New Testament. It’s in the Old Testament too. If you compare what the Torah teaches to the other ancient civilizations, the freedom is remarkable. Every Israelite is absolutely equal to every other Israelite.

So who has the power? Who’s in charge? Whose authority should one respect? There is not one hint of hierarchy or nobility or chieftains or chain-of-command or upper class or lower class. Oh yes, there were traditional tribal patterns that poke through in the stories but they were tolerated and not divinely sanctioned. We could wish that women were the equal of men, but even here, unlike in any other ancient culture, women were equally in God’s image, and this was the seed of the future equality of women that St. Paul would advance.

I tell you all this to give you the context for the Fifth Commandment and the practice of honor. The context is freedom. But how do you keep freedom from turning into anarchy, and every man for himself? How do you keep the mass from becoming a mob? How do you convert your freedom from into the freedom for, your freedom from others into your freedom for others?

Freedom is a gift and a problem. You can control it with hierarchies and structures and authorities. You can limit it with rules and regulations. Or you can leaven it with honor, the spiritual practice of honor.

You begin with your parents, your father and your mother, and practicing on your parents gives you the skills and competence to honor others too. In principle. Your parents powerfully represent both God and neighbor. They are your first and closest neighbors, and in your infancy they might as well be God to you.

They were officers of God to you. No matter how good or bad they were, they gave your life to you. Literally. We say in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life, but that life was passed along to you mostly from your mother and somewhat by your father, and the givenness of your life is the underlying energy of your spiritual practice of honor.

You think of your life as your own, and in many ways it is, and you think you have a right to your life, and in many ways you do, but of course, most deeply, you do not. You don’t have a right to your life, unfortunately, against the infectious diseases in the air. Your life is not your own against the realities of hurricanes or earthquakes or even traffic on the BQE. No matter how much freedom and discretion you might deserve, your life is contingent in so many ways. If you can accept your contingency and even enjoy the absolute givenness of your life, then you are learning wisdom.

Maybe you own your home, maybe you own some land, but speaking both spiritually and ethically, you must regard that too as having been given to you, no matter how smart you are. To “live long” is a gift. To “live long on the land” is a gift. “That your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” is the symbol of the contingency of your freedom, and so the stated benefit of this commandment befits the challenge, and why it is wise for you to honor those two fallible older people especially who gave your life to you, without you having had any say in the matter.

Your spiritual practice of honor. Your stance and habit of honoring as you address the world. Honoring who and what have come before you, even when they are far from perfect. Even in your freedom, that you recognize your limits and your neediness.

When I teach seminarians, I tell them that when they enter their first charges, they will have visions for the future of where they want to lead that church. But they dare not do it without honoring what that church was and as it is right then already. Do not dishonor the preacher there before you. Do not dishonor the maybe faltering attempts those people made to be good and faithful in their way. Not just as the better strategy to accomplish your own vision in the long run, but as your own spiritual discipline of receiving gifts in which you had no say, of gaining that humility which is not servile but joyful and generous and free.

The more freedom you are given, the more honor you must practice, if, like Christ, you want to use your freedom for each other. You exercise your freedom for your neighbor as much as for yourself. It doesn’t matter how you feel about your neighbor. Good feelings toward your neighbor makes loving easier, but the proof of love is when you honor the neighbor you dislike, the bad neighbor.

This does not mean either endorsement or approval, nor does it mean not protecting yourself or your loved ones when necessary, just as the child of an abusive parent is not required by this commandment to keep yourself in danger, and you may need to cut that parent off, but you will not get healed from your abuse, and you might even pass it along, unless you can find the way somehow to honor the office of parenthood, if only inside your own soul with God. You can do it. I have seen it.

All of you can do it, but it’s tough. Like when the Bible enjoins us to honor the government authorities, even when it’s Caesar! Both St. Paul and the catechism say that God has put them there. Really? That’s harder to believe in than the Virgin Birth. Right now the dominant theme in America is distrust of politicians, and everybody trades on this cynicism, which is toxic for democracy. So we have to teach our children the practice of honor as counter-cultural. And you teach your children by practicing it yourselves. You can do it, and you can do it because you believe in God.

The Hebrew word for “honor” is also the word for “glory”. You give your parents a portion of the glory that you give to God, because they’re whom your Creator used to create you. The Source of life has given you your life through them, so you honor them for God’s sake. You honor these fallen and even hurtful people as one way of honoring the world that God has given you as “good” despite it all.

You practice this by living your life as a constant unspoken and even barely conscious prayer. You train yourself. “Okay, here I am in the DMV, and this minor official who has temporary power over me is being a real pain. And God allows this in the world that God has given me. It’s because of you, O God, that I will honor this person as best I can no matter how he treats me.”

People of color have to do this all the time. Women have to do this more than men. Children have to do it. All of you can do it. Now, honoring also means working to change the social structures to make the reality fit the honor. Be activists. Be agents of change. But do it with honor. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Always treat them like God loves them as much as God loves you.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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