The Ten – Trusting Your Community
The church we worked with in Atlanta was in a great section of town when the building was built in the mid 50’s. But it had changed by the time we moved there 50 years later. The combination of landlocked businesses and white flight had left the area with a lot of abandon buildings. An area that at one time was the place to be had become the most undesirable part of town.
We had two buildings on our property, the main building that had the auditorium with a few class rooms and a house we used for offices, a fellowship hall, and a youth area. Being in that old house late at night gave me the willies.
One Sunday morning when I arrived at the building, I noticed my office door was open, which was strange. When I got to the door I saw that my office was ransacked. My laptop, DVD player, television were all missing from my office. They had taken the TV, Playstation, and VCR/DVD player from the teen room as well as a large amount of food from our pantry. They took everything of value, everything.
I don't know if you've ever been the victim of theft but if you have then you know that more is lost than stolen property. Your sense of security is erased. If someone would brazenly break into a church then what else would they do? Your trust in other human beings is shaken.
The inevitable question a victim of theft asks is, who did it? Was it a stranger? Or was it a neighbor? Had they visited with us so they could scope out the building? That Sunday I changed. I began to look at our neighbors differently. In my mind everyone was a suspect. Could they really be trusted or were they waiting for another opportunity to violate the church and my property?
Security and trust can be replaced by fear in a moment. When you go to your car you check to see if someone is lurking in the shadows. At traffic lights you watch for suspicious looking pedestrians and make sure your doors are locked. Some people call that being paranoid and I won't argue that. Most people who have been victims of theft don't really care what you call it. They know what it is. It is fear. And fear is one of Satan's most effective weapons for destroying community. It is hard to love people you are afraid of. It is hard to share fellowship with people you don't trust.
Today we are returning to our series on the 10 commandments. Let me remind you that these are not a list of do’s and don’t; rather God is defining the relationship we are to have with Him and with one another. Don’t forget, God didn’t just invite me or you into a relationship, He invited us into a relationship. The Commandments start with how we treat God, and they end with a discussion about how we are to treat one another.
Beneath the terse wording of the eighth commandment, You shall not steal, is God’s desire for His people to live in a trusting, loving community. This morning I want us to consider a few principles of community found in the eighth command.
The first principle is the right of ownership is affirmed.
It is not a sin to have things. Most of us here this morning would say, well of course we can own things, have you seen how much tax I pay on the stuff I owe? But it’s important that we make sure we own things and that things don’t own us.
From the beginning God created people to be caretakers, we are to take care of the things that God has allowed us to posses. It is okay for us to own things. But, God never gives the Haves the right to oppress the Have Nots. God has never condoned His people amassing a fortune at the cost of others' well-being.
The Old Testament is filled with laws on how we are to treat the poor and struggling in our communities. In Leviticus 25 we are introduced to the year of Jubilee, which happened every seven sabbath years. During the year of Jubilee all debts were cancelled, all of them. Someone borrowed money? Cancelled. Someone owed you for some oxen they were buying on payments? cancelled. And all land that had been sold was returned to the family that had originally owned it. In other words, every forty-nine years, God wanted the wealth of the land redistributed, so that the rich could not just keep accumulating more and more wealth at the expense of the poor.
Some of you hear about the year of Jubilee and immediately think it’s a bit unfair. I bought that land fair and square. Now I have to just give it all back? I lent them some of my hard earned money, money I made with my own sweat, blood, and tears. Now that debt is forgiven? How is that fair?
So, God explains the fairness of the law in verse 23: And remember, the land is mine, so you may not sell it permanently. You are merely my tenants and sharecroppers! God was reminding them, and us, that everything we see, and everything we possess actually belongs to Him. So maybe instead of ownership, we should begin to think in terms of stewardship.
While owning things may not be a sin, but it is definitely a test. Living in community with God means that we understand that things are supposed to be used and people are supposed to be loved. But sometimes we get those two things mixed up.
We often buy into the lie that our things define our personal value. So we create this hunger for more and more things. Eventually, we reach the point where we are tempted to use people to get more things. God understands that temptation. That’s why the Bible often speaks about our relationship to things:
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Matthew 16:26
Jesus said to them, "Be careful and guard against all kinds of greed. Life is not measured by how much one owns." Luke 12:15
You see we came into this world with nothing, and nothing is going with us on the way out! So as long as we are clothed and fed, we should be happy. 1 Timothy 6:7-8
The relationship God calls us to live in, requires a delicate balance. It's all right to own things, but that right doesn’t justify grabbing for everything we can get. The thief's root problem is his dissatisfaction with what God has given him. As the preacher in Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
Stealing by its very nature, devalues labor and productivity. But it does more than that. It devalues people. It assumes that other people exist as an opportunity for exploitation. Stealing creates the mindset that people exist to serve the needs or desires of the thief.
The eighth commandment brings us back to the idea of loving our neighbors as ourselves. This commandment is not focused on possessions, but on people. We are called to work not so that we can amass for ourselves limitless possessions, but so that we can help people in need.
The second principal of community affirmed in this commandment is honesty.
Without honesty, our community becomes a combat zone where people take advantage of every opportunity to exploit another's misfortune for their own gain.
We have all heard stories of about how people will loot stores after a natural disaster. I remember vividly seeing pictures of people stealing everything from TV’s to shoes after Katrina. I remember how those pictures made my stomach hurt and my heart broke for the owners of those businesses.
It's pretty easy for us to judge to people who, in a moment of dishonesty, loot an electronics store, or steal someones purse. But what about the hundred ways our honesty is challenged every day?
What about change errors made by convenience store clerks?
What happens when the waitress forgets to include something on the tab?
What about people who steal their neighbors WiFi.
What about people who use someone else’s Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+ account?
What about saying your 11 year old child is 10 so you can get a discount?
What about charging a customer for 60 billable hours when you only worked 55?
What happens when you find a $20 bill lying on the floor of the mall? We're tempted to blame the inefficacy of clerks or the gullibility of customers. Or we fall back on the old adage: Finder's keepers, loser’s weepers.
It’s easy to say those are little things, and what does it really hurt if you use someone else’s Netflix account. But Jesus reminds us a little about the human condition in Luke 16 when He says If you're honest in small things, you'll be honest in big things; If you're a crook in small things, you'll be a crook in big things.(10-11) The call to being honest means to be honest in every aspect in your life.
God calls us to a rigorous standard of honesty. Deuteronomy 22:1 says that if you find your brother's ox you are to return it. And just in case someone tries to get fancy with the definition of brother, Exodus 23:4 says that if you find your enemies ox, return it! Honesty is not just the best policy, it’s God’s policy.
The third principle is the importance of giving.
The opposite of stealing is giving. That’s what the prophet Malachi teaches: Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse - the whole nation of you - because you are robbing me. (Malachi 3:8-10) God said that Israel was stealing from Him by failing to give to Him. But pay careful attention to what the next verse says. "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house."
God didn't want or need the food for Himself. He wanted His people to be the instrument that He used to help those who needed help. God has always wanted His people to give so that those in need could be cared for.
Stealing does more than reduce the victims ability to give. It reduces his or her will to give. When something is taken from us, we naturally become more possessive of what is left. The more possessive we become, the less generous we are. The less generous we are, the poorer the church and community becomes. It is rare to find someone who is a victim of theft as eager to give as someone who has never known that fear. The eighth commandment protects and affirms the value of generosity.
This is the truth in my own life. When Trista and I were first married we decided that we would use our Tax Refund every year to buy something for the church that we believed the church needed outside from the regular budget. We were pretty cheerful about that for the first 9 years of our marriage. Then we were robbed in Atlanta and that next year was a hard year. While we wanted to give to the church, the truth is that we struggled over giving something that would only be stolen or destroyed. We had allowed our circumstances to tarnish the joy of giving.
One final community principle; The 8th commandment teaches that possessions will never make us happy.
Burton Coffman writes that contentment is a virtue to be cultivated not by expanding wealth, but by diminishing desire.
When we keep the money we find on the floor of the mall without trying to return it, when we pocket the incorrect change, when we cheat on our taxes, when we lie about our kid's age to get a discount, we are confessing something about ourselves. We are confessing that we believe happiness comes from possessions. The more we possess the happier we are.
It’s a slow process so we don't notice it. But when we live that way, our community begins to break down. Eventually we begin to see people not as valued creatures made in the image of God, but as something to exploit. Possessions become more important to us than people made in God’s image.
We see people who have more than we do and we envy them. Envy turns to jealousy which has the potential to turn to violence. Life together becomes a dangerous, sometimes deadly game, where the one with the most is perceived to be the winner. But the truth is that we all lose.
But losing touch with each other is not the greatest loss. When we violate the eighth commandment, whether by outright theft, or by other more socially acceptable forms of dishonesty, we are also violating the first commandment to have no other gods before the one, true God. Something has become more important to us than God. That’s true because every command hangs from the first one of putting God first.
When we left Atlanta we still didn’t know who took my stuff, it never showed up in a pawn shop, the police dusted for fingerprints but they didn’t give them any clues. From the perspective of time, I don't really care to know. Eventually, Trista and I were able to replace everything else that was taken from my office. You can replace stolen possessions.
But when God wanted to replace a stolen relationship, it cost Him dearly. That’s why we gather at the tables this morning. When we sit around the table and take the emblems we are not focused on each others stuff, we are focused on each others souls. We gather at the table as an opportunity to practice community building honesty. As we look at the emblems and then at one another we are reminded of the overwhelming price God had to pay for us to have community in the first place. The same price He paid for your soul.
So this morning as we gather we must consider our table questions: Do we use our possessions to bring God glory? Or have we allowed our possessions to own us as we search for our own glory?