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Sunday, July 31, 2016

WE NEED GOD: To Learn to Share

A Sermon based Upon Exodus 20: 15; Leviticus 19: 9-20;
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 13, 11th Sunday After Pentecost, July 31th, 2016

Years ago, the people of Arizona were being plagued by José Ortega, A MEXICAN BANDIT, who again and again snuck across the border and robbed their banks.  With each successful robbery, he became bolder and bolder.  And yet the Arizona lawmen could never catch him before he skedaddled back across the border to his hide-out in the mountains of Mexico.  Finally, in frustration the Bankers Association hired a famous PINKERTON DETECTIVE and sent him down into Mexico to get back their money.

The detective sent off for the small mountain town reputed to be the hideout for Ortega.  The detective found the town, strode into the saloon, and there standing at the bar he found the man he was after.  José Ortega.  The detective pulled out his pistol and exclaimed, AAh Aha!  Now I’ve got you.   Thrusting his gun into the bandit=s face, he shouted, WHERE HAVE YOU HIDDEN THE MILLIONS you have stolen from out banks in Arizona?  Tell me, or I=ll blow your head off!@

At this point ANOTHER MAN, Juan Garcia, who was also in the saloon, stepped up to the detective and said, ASir, you are wasting your time talking to Jose like this.  He doesn=t understand a word of English.  He has no idea what you just said.  Would you like me to translate for you?@  The detective said, AYes, of course.  Say this to him.  ATell me where the money is or I=ll shoot you dead.@  So Juan Garcia turned to José and jabbered away at him for a few moments in Spanish.  There was much arm waving and chattering as a terrified José told Juan in Spanish that if he would lead the man to the corral a mile out of town, climb into the well and remove the red brick, there he would find over three million dollars in gold.
When José was finished speaking, Juan turned to the detective and said, AI=m sorry, Señor, but he says that HE HAS ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA where the gold is.@  (As told in An Encyclopedia of Humor, by Lowell D. Streikers, (Hendrikson: Peabody, Mass., 1998), pp 278, 281.).

This Eight Commandment reminds us that GIVEN THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITY, we might all be at least, occasional thieves, or should I say ‘opportunists’.     

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a Jewish psychologist, wrote: Our own logic can have us BELIEVING OUR ACTIONS ARE NOT WRONG…  In this world of wants, needs, possessions, power struggles, fame, fortune, desire, envy, loss, hurt and greedC people spend a lot of time redefining stealing in order to increase their comfort zone.@  Who hasn=t, at one time or other, rationalized the need to take something that belonged to someone else?  (The Ten Commandments, Laura Schlessinger, New York: HarperCollins, 1998) p. 243.

The FIRST TIME I EVER experienced a ‘rationale’ for stealing came from a school friend.  He invited me to accompany him on vacation.  While we were in a tourist store in the N.C. Mountains, my friend encouraged me to take something.  He demonstrated his own accomplished skill by taking a couple of pieces of cheap stone jewelry.  Then he said, AGo ahead, try it yourself.  It=s fun.@  When I started to protest, he looked at me and said, AOh, come on. Who=s gonna miss such a small stone.@  Well, that was the rationalization, so I did it.   We took them out without getting caught.  When I got home, I put that small polished stone in my desk drawer.  Every time I saw it, it got larger and largerB a constant reminder of what I know I should not have done.  If I had known where it came from, I’d taken it back.  It wasn’t worth how bad it made me feel.     

Once A RABBI and his daughter received $400 additional cash from an ATM machine.  The father planned to return the money to the bank in the morning, but WAS CURIOUS WHAT HIS DAUGHTER WOULD DO if it was up to her.  AI would return it,@ she replied, Aunless I really needed it.@  The second part of the sentence BROKE HIS HEART.  Seeing the heartbreak of her Father stuck with the daughter.  When she GREW older, working at the Synagogue herself, she often ASK TEENAGERS what they would do it such a situation. The answers she received through the years continue to break her heart.  Like, in the movie, The Big Chill, she has found that everyone has their own set of rationalizations for what they do: AHave you ever gone a week without a rationalization?@  (Broken Tablets, Rachel S. Mikva, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1999) p. 99). 

Think about SOME OF THE RATIONALIZATIONS you’ve used or heard?  The bank gives you some extra money and you say, AI didn=t steal it, it=s there stupid mistake.@  Or you say something like, AIt=s only fairC considering how bad I=ve had it lately.@  Or you=re walking through a store and there=s something you=ve wanted and no one is looking.  You think to yourself: AI deserve it because I don=t have it,@ or AIt=s not going to hurt anyone.@   You think:AI was only borrowing it@ or even sharper, AThey don=t deserve it like I do,@ or AI haven=t really taken anything.@   If you cheat on your income taxes, you feel like SOME KIND OF ROBIN HOOD, saying, AI did it for good reason,@ or AEveryone does it.@   There are all kinds of ‘rationalizations’ for taking, isn’t there?

But IN SPITE OF OUR RATIONALIZATIONS, this EIGHT COMMANDMENT speaks CLEARLY AND CONCISLY: ADo not steal.@ This means everybody, because what we know all too well is that stealing is not just a crime which plagues the poor, the wayward child, or the criminal.  The greatest increase in the crime today is Awhite collar crime@C people who steal when they even don=t really need what they are stealing.  In an interview with Richard Dreyfess, about his taking a role in the TV movie about the notorious swindler, Bernie Madoff, he said what disturbed him most about Bernie Madoff was even when he knew he that he had taken enough to live on for the rest of his life, he kept on stealing, just for the thrill of it.  In the end, it wasn’t even about the money.”

Have your ever wondered WHY PEOPLE WHO ALREADY HAVE THE BASICS IN LIFEC would think that they needed to steal or to GET even RICHER?  We could perhaps understand why a poor person might steal to put food their table. It=s still wrong, but understandable.   But WHY DO THE RICH, the well off and the well-to-do think that have to have more and more?  WHY WOULD KING AHAB have to have Naboth Vineyard?  WHY DID DAVID think have to take BathshebaC another man=s wife?  Why did one Rich Man, who was living in luxury, not want want help a poor, suffering, beggar, whom he daily stepped over, who was lying at his gated home?  LEONARD FELDMAN has a good theory.  He says that FEW OF THE well-off PEOPLE he=s had in counseling ever FELT SATISFIED with who they were or what they did for a living. AEven if someone has a huge income, he or she usually has sizable debts, risky projects, or internal fears that cause an ongoing feeling of insufficiency and stress@ (  Even with good incomes and economic circumstances, these kinds of people can FEEL LACKING AND INSUFFICIENT.  In fact, the more they have, the less many feel they have, so because they have much, they NOW MUST HAVE IT ALL. (The Ten Challenges, Dr. Leonard Feldman, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997, p. 179).

This year, in the very interesting Democratic Campaign for President, Senator Bernie Sanders, captured the attention of many young people when he said that “The Business Model of Wall Street is Fraud.(  That’s a big Statement, some say too big. But what we must understand is that there many ways to steal without actually being engaged in criminally defined ‘theft’.  And this is not just a “Business Model” that belongs to Wall Street.  Just compare the wages U.S. corporations pay their chief executives with the amount paid to other CEOs around the world.  In Germany, a corporation executive earns twenty-one times as much as the average worker; in Japan, sixteen. In 1980, the CEOs of U.S. corporations received 42 times the wage of the average worker.  By 1990, the ratio had risen to 85 times the pay of the average worker. In 2000, it was 531 times greater than the workers whose labors made their profits possible.  What do you call that?

Or to put it another way, the United Nations Development Program reported in 1998 that the world's 225 richest people had a combined annual income equal to that of the world's 2.5 billion poorest people.  That is approximately half the population of the globe.  Sixty of those people live in the United States. These are the same people who insist that welfare programs must be cut and that tax breaks are needed to secure the profit margins of the wealthiest companies in the world.  In a world such as this, the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal,” is as fresh as the morning paper. (Chittister, Joan (2012-08-01). The Ten Commandments:  Laws of the Heart (pp. 86-87). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition).

This Eight Command is perhaps the MOST OBVIOUS , most personal and most universal of all.  For these same reasons, it can also be the most “overlooked”, exactly because it is so ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ for us.  Let me explain.  As SMALL CHILDREN, since we are born very dependent, early on we feel the need to TAKE AND GRASP in order to survive.  I=ll never forget how our 3 year old daughter came home from the Boone General store with every pocket filled as full as possible with candy and gum.  She wasn’t born a thief, but SHE WAS BORN HUMAN who needed to learn that her needs and her wants too, could be met without having to take. 

All humans MUST LEARN THIS.   We are the most dependent creatures of all creation and we are born reaching, grabbing, and STRIVING FOR SURVIVAL and independance.  But there must be a limit, mustn’t there?  We must learn to earn and to share, but we must also learn that we will never be completely sufficient on our own, and we must finally learn that only LIFE IN GOD can give us a sense of SUFFICIENCY C not a live of taking, hoarding, and only obtaining for ourselves, but a life of sharing, giving and providing for ourselves and for others.  For you see, no matter how much or how little money we have, there are still ONLY TWO TYPES OF PEOPLE in the world: those who feel that what they have is SUFFICIENT those who, no matter how much they get, NEVER SEEM TO HAVE ENOUGH. 

The book of Leviticus reminds us how SUFFICIENCY IS ULTIMATELY IN GOD not in things.   PICTURE THIS.  YOU ARE A FARMER and you have a successful crop.  But since the weather is always unpredictable and you are thrifty, the natural urge is to harvest your crops and make sure that you don=t lose one single kernel of grain, or one single ear of corn.   When you glean, you glean is all and leave nothing behind.  The understanding is, that IF YOU HOLD ON TO IT ALL, you will be sure to HAVE ENOUGH to get you through the winter. 

However, that is NOT WHAT GOD commands for His people.  Their sufficiency is not in gathering all the crops, but THEIR SUFFICIENCY IS IN GOD and in God alone.  And since it is in God, they SHOULD BE WILLING AND READY TO SHARE with others who are in need. Listen to how Leviticus clarifies the implications of the eight commandment:  
AWhen you harvest your crops, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop.  It is the same with your grape cropC do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground.  LEAVE THEM FOR THE POOR and the foreigners who live among you, for I, the LORD, am your God.  Do not steal....Do not cheat one or rob anyone. (Leviticus 19:9-11).

THE EXACT OPPOSITE of this attitude of generosity is found in Jesus= parable of the RICH FOOL in Luke 12.  This is the story of a rich man who had a fertile farm that produced FINE CROPS.  In fact, his barns were always full to overflowing.  So what did this man do?   DID HE LEAVE EXTRA CROPS for the poor, or did he share with his neighbors, as it commands in the law?   NO WAY!  He said, AI know!  I=ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones.  Then I=ll have room enough to store everything.   And I=ll sit down and say to myself, My friend (he was probably the only friend he had), you have enough stored away for years to come.  Now take it easy!  Eat, drink, and be merry!@   But God called this man a fool, because that same night when he finished filling up his barn, he died.  WHAT GOOD DID ALL THAT EXCESS DO HIM? 

What Leviticus and Luke’s parable remind us is that there are OTHER WAYS TO STEAL than just taking from someone else.  Those who don=t find their sufficiency in God have a TENDENCY TOWARD HOARDING, holding, storing up in excess, taking advantage of others, and keeping others from getting what they justly deserve in life.  This is as much a theft as stealing itself.  It is A DESTRUCTIVE WAY TO LIVE because it makes your Neighbor a COMPETITOR, not a neighbor.  But those who have their sufficiency in God FREE themselves TO ACCEPT THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO THE POOR and the strangers (Lev. 19:9-10).  They know they have a responsibility toward those who work for them, those who are disadvantaged, and all those who are their neighbors.  Those who are SUFFICIENT IN GOD will be SUFFICIENT FOR OTHERS.

WHEN I LIVED IN EASTERN GERMANY, right after the Fall of Berlin Wall, the city where we livedC because of its new-found opportunity for wealth, all of Eastern Europe was under the CONSTANT THREAT of theft.  You had to LOCK EVERYTHINGC not just with keys but with extra strong security locks.  During most every night 6 CARS WERE STOLEN from our neighborhood.   My neighbor, who was a dentist, had his car stolen right out from under my apartment window.  One night thieves broke into our cellar and STOLE OUR Japanese BIKES.  We went to the police but they only laughedC since they had so much theft, they had no time for us.   When we went ON VACATION, whether it was Rome or Budapest, if you parked your car on the street, you had to move it ever 3 or 4 hours to keep it from being stolen or broken into.   Few, if any men carried wallets in their pockets.  In one extreme case, a man had his kidney taken out while standing in line at a flea market so it could be sold to a hospital for a transplant.  Why was all this happening?

Before the communist wall fell, there was a great SPIRIT OF BROTHERHOOD and helpfulness.  Because everyone had nothing, as Communism was bankrupt, neighbor would take time to help neighbor.  NO ONE WAS STRIVING TO GET AHEAD, because they couldn=t.  There were, of course, many negatives about that world (resources were very limited) but then again there were also some positives, I was told, because people had time to be real neighbors.  WHEN THE WALL FELLC new opportunities came, but much of the neighborliness was lost.  With new found freedom and FINANCIAL POSSIBILITIES, everything changed.  Overnight, people who were once neighbors, BECAME COMPETITORS and OPPONENTSC watching what the other was able to acquire with great envy.  The unrealized joy, peace, and RELATIONAL NATURE OF Old lives disappeared when people began to realize they could become rich, while others remained poor.  It was Aus@, but now it was Ame@ against Athem.@

While Communism was corrupt and doomed to fail, Capitalism can fail too, when it forgets the moral imperative and implications of this 8th commandment.  In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther EXPRESSED our basic, moral, human RESPONSIBILITY to each other=s welfare in this way, which must happen in a capitalistic world: AWe should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor=s money or goods, BUT HELP HIM TO IMPROVE AND PROTECT HIS PROPERTY AND BUSINESS.@   The point that Luther was making is that the eight commandment must be understood in both a PROSCRIPTIVE and PRESCRIPTIVE wayC it makes clear what we should not doC steal the things of othersC but it also MAKES CLEAR WHAT WE SHOULD DOC help protect the rights and needs of others.  In other words, we can steal both by the sins of  COMMISSIONC the things we do, or OMISSIONC the things we fail to do.  If we fail to reach out and help our neighbor we are stealing from them and from ourselves too.  WHEN YOU SIT AND DO NOTHINGC this could be the WORST, most obvious THEFT OF ALL---- you are stealing life, community, friendships, relationships and genuine care and concernC which the Holy Spirit is always working to inspire so that we might have not just money, but life.

AWill a man rob God?@  The prophet once asked (Malachi, 3:18).  It is a STRANGE QUESTION, is it not?  How does one rob the one who owns the universe?  As one Rabbi rightly explained AYou don=t break the commandments, in the end, the commands break you and they stand.@  (See Broken Tablets, p. xvii).  This is the prophet’s point, that when you take, either from God or from others, you are only robbing YOURSELF from the joy and peace we could all share. 

This commandment is much more than merely about protecting the rights to own property, but it also tries to protect the ESSENCE OF WHO WE ARE and who we can be.  It is said that when MATTHEW HENRY (who wrote a commentary on the Bible during the 18th century) was once himself robbed of his belongings, at the end of the day HE REFLECTED on the event and gave thanks.  He GAVE THANKS first that he was not hurt and ONLY PROPERTY was stolen.  Then he gave thanks that he was THE VICTIM of the theft, and NOT THE PERPETRATOR.   As J. E. Kalas has said: AIt is better by far to BE THE ONE STOLEN FROM than the one who steals.  The one who is robbed loses only earthly goods.  The THIEF LOSES SO MUCH MOREC his conscience, his character, and his relationship with others and with God (As told by J. E. Kalas in The Ten Commandments from the Backside, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998) p. 86.)

So HOW DO WE DEAL WITH OUR TENDENCY TO TAKE?  A LISTENER NAMED DEBBIE wrote to Dr. Laura saying, AIt=s funny how in America everything is negotiable.  I am an elementary school TEACHER.  Recently a student and I were having a discussion about certain Jewish laws.  I asked why we were not permitted to steal.   He had a whole host of REASONSC because it will upset everyone, because then no will be able to trust each other.   I told him that he missed the essential point.  The reason I don=t steal is simply one: BECAUSE GOD SAID NOT TO.   End of reason.@            WHEN YOU SENSE THAT GOD IS IN you, with you, around you, above you and below you, you will be SENSITIVE to others and toward God=s law.  But when you try to “hide”from his presence, you’re headed for trouble.  As the great Russian author Dostoevsky once wrote, AIf there is no God, then EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.@

Every once in a while the NEWSPAPERS WILL COME OUT WITH A STORY about a person who has stolen something years ago and escaped punishment for their deed.  But WHAT THEY DID NOT ESCAPE WAS THEIR GUILT.  UNCONFESSED GUILT IS A POWERFUL THING.  It can wreak havoc on your body and your soul.  But it doesn’t have to be that way because as John writes AIf we will confess our sins, God will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Forgiveness is wonderful thing, but true forgiveness, when it is rightly received also includes some kind of restitution.  Real confession means that YOU CHANGE YOUR LIFE and you GIVE BACK.  Because we all have a tendency to ‘take’, to ‘have’ and to ‘survive’, we also need to learn how to ‘give’, to ‘share’ and to ‘thrive’ in our living.  The only complete cure for ‘stealing’ is to learn how to share.

Do you REMEMBER reading about a SCHOOL TEACHER IN RALEIGH,  who gave one of her kidney=s to save the life of one of her students.  I bet that lady never had a problem of stealing?  Do you remember ANOTHER WOMAN, the Mississippi washwoman named Oseola McCarty, who had to DROP OUT OF SCHOOL in the sixth grade, but she worked hard and saved frugally all her life.  She recently celebrated her life of faithful stewardship by giving $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi for SCHOLARSHIPS for underprivileged students.   She not only had a sense of the PRESENCE of God in her life, she had a sense of community, concern, and COMPASSION for others.  What she wanted was to see others have that she did not get to have.  When word got out of what she had done, people often asked her, AMiss McCarty, WHY DIDN=T YOU SPEND THAT MONEY ON YOURSELF?@  You worked for it.  You deserved it.   Her answer came with a smile.  AThanks to the good Lord, I AM spending it on myself@  She was becoming a larger, bigger and better person than she would have been, if she had kept it all only to herself (As told by Kalas, p. 89).

This is the bigger POINT of the tenth commandment.  The person who does not to steal is the PERSON WHO COMMITS themselves to making the world a better place as we wait on God’s coming kingdom.  Scripture suggests that ON THE FINAL DAY, God will say: AYou who have been faithful in the little things of life, I will make you the rulers of the kingdom of heaven.@   WE WILL BE RICH, not because of what we=ve obtained or acquired, but because of WHAT WE GAVE AND SHARED with others.  Amen.