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 like most communities, the combination of growing 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 and a few class rooms and an older house we used for offices, a fellowship hall, and a youth area.
Pretty soon after we started working with the church I noticed that sometimes I when I would enter the house the water would be running, the AC or the gas Reddy Heater would be running and the back door would be wide open. It gave me the willies. I mentioned it and was instructed to make sure the building was locked up tight and everything was off when I left for the day. But every now and then I would arrive to an open door, with the lights on and water running.
One day I parked in a different part of the parking lot, ran into the main building and then to the house. As I walked in the back door I saw a man trying to crawl out a window. I grabbed him and spun him around, with a What are you doing! He said he was cold and looking for a warm place to stay. I looked around and there wasn’t anything missing so I didn’t call the cops. But I did tell the deacon over building and grounds who promptly screwed the windows shut.
The next Sunday morning I arrived at the building and noticed my office door was open, and that my office was ransacked. My laptop, DVD player, television were missing from my office and the teens had lost their TV, Playstation, and VCR/DVD player as well. The thieves had also taken a large amount of food from our pantry, and broke the back door. 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 to steal from me 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? I found myself looking at everyone in that neighborhood differently, suspecting everyone. Could they really be trusted or were they waiting for another opportunity to violate the church and my property?
Security and trust are quickly replaced by fear. You always check the mirrors when you pull up to the ATM to see if someone is lurking in the shadows. At traffic lights you double check your doors to be sure they are locked. You watch your mirrors for suspicious looking pedestrians. Evaluate escape routes if someone should approach you car and demand that you give it to them. Some of you might call that being paranoid and I won't argue. 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.
Remember that we said from the very beginning that God invites us into a relationship with Him, and then HE describe what that relationship looks like. We must not forget that God did not just invite me or you into this relationship, He invited all of us into this relationship. The Commandments start with how we treat God, and they end with a discussion about how we are to treat all of the other folks that God loves, and invited into this relationship with Him and us. 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. That principle is valued and protected by this four word commandment. I believe that there are five 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 folks haven’t always thought it was ok for a Christian to own stuff.
In 1603 the Jamestown Colony attempted to organize itself around a socialist model, bypassing the institution of private property with state control of production and distribution. The goal was for everyone to have the same amount of everything. It failed miserably. In 1830 the Transcendentalists attempted the same approach and failed. Between 1815 and 1870 there were scores of such failed experiments in North America.
Everyone of these groups who try to start such a model turn to the Scriptures for support. Acts 2:42 – 45 "They devoted themselves to the apostle's teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and good, they gave to anyone as he had need."
While that might sound like a solid way to build a community, there are two issues that have to be faced by those that are trying to force community.
First, it was voluntary.
Acts 4:34 - 35 says that from time to time, people would voluntarily sell lands or fields and donate the money to the apostles to help care for the poor. No one demanded that kind of generosity as a condition of membership. In fact, when Ananias and Sapphira tried to boost their standing in the community by claiming to give all the proceeds from a sale of land, Peter said to them, "Didn't the land belong to you before it was sold? And wasn't the money at your disposal?" Selling your property was not mandatory, it was a voluntary way that people contributed to the kingdom.
Second, this economic arrangement was temporary.
There is not another instance of this happening in the entire course of scripture.While this is certainly a worthy example to follow; Acts 2 and 4 do not constitute a binding economic model.
If you and I are forbidden to take by stealth or violence the property of another, then God affirms our right to accumulate and own possessions. All through the Scriptures, the rights of people to own and manage possessions is affirmed. In fact, in the Old Testament, restitution is demanded of thieves who steal another's property. Exodus 22:3 requires a thief to pay back double what he took.
God sought to protect the right of ownership not because things can make us happy. But we need things: houses, money, and clothing to live. In protecting ownership, God was protecting life and health.
The second principle of community affirmed in this commandment is the dignity of work.
The experiments with early socialism failed in the colonies because people stopped working. Why should I have to work when the community will force those who already have the necessities of life to give them to you? I believe that Paul is addressing this type of mindset in Ephesians 4:28. "He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his hands, that he may have something to share with those in need."
There are really only four Godly ways to gain something; work for them, purchase them, inherit them, and receive them as gifts. Anything else is sinful. Stealing by its very nature it devalues labor and productivity. But it does more than that. It devalues people. It assumes that other people exist as an opportunity for exploitation and gain. Stealing create the mindset that people exist to serve the needs or desires of the thief. This is in direct contrast to what Jesus said about loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Remember that the Ten Commandments are a guide for how we are to live in a loving, nurturing relationship with God and His people. The eighth 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 third principal of community affirmed in this commandment is honesty.
Without honesty, community becomes a combat zone where people take advantage of every opportunity to exploit another's misfortune for their own gain.
Dr. Laura tells the story about an armored car that crashed off a freeway overpass in Los Angeles. Money from the car's vault flew through the streets. Adults and children from everywhere began to pick up the crisp bills and pocket them. When the police arrived all of the money was gone. And so were the people. The press found some of them and interviewed them. Several of the people claimed that the money was a gift from God because their lives were so hard. It didn’t matter that the money belonged to someone else.
It's pretty easy for us to judge to people who, in a moment of dishonesty, pillage an overturned armored car. 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? Stealing your neighbors WiFi. Lying about the age of a child to get a discount. Incorrect or falsified billings, 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: Finder's keepers, loser’s weepers.
But 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!
Stories like the one about the armored car are balanced by stories like this one, also from Dr. Laura. A young preacher was taking the bus to get to his office. He paid the fare, and the bus driver gave him back too much change. When he reached his seat he noticed the driver’s error and tried to rationalize that God had provided him some extra money he needed for the week. But, he just couldn’t live with himself, so before he got off the bus he stopped at the driver and said, “You’ve made a mistake. You’ve given me too much change.” And he preceded to give him back the extra money. The driver smiled said, “There was no mistake. I was at your church yesterday and heard you preach on honesty. So I decided to see if you practiced what you preached.”
The fourth principle is the importance of giving.
I don’t imagine that I need to tell you that stealing is the direct opposite of giving. Because I'm not the first to say it. In Malachi 3:8-10, the prophet asked a sobering question. "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." God said that Israel was stealing from Him by failing to give. 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 as well. 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 becomes. It is rare that you find a victim of theft as eager to give as someone who has never known that fear. And there are no real Robin Hood’s, folks who steal and have a heart to give. The eighth commandment seeks to protect and affirm 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 a portion of our Tax Refund 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. We wanted to give to the church but 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 inability of possessions to 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 our relationships.
We see people who have more than we do and we envy them. Envy turns to jealousy and our jealousy 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. Ultimately, though 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. Remember that 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. With the exception of the Laptop, Trista and I were able to replace everything else. You can replace stolen possessions.
But when God wanted to replace a stolen relationship, it cost Him dearly. That's what's at stake here. Not stuff but souls. The next time you or I are faced with an opportunity to practice community building honesty or community destroying dishonesty, we need to remember what price our God had to pay for us to have community in the first place. The same price He paid for your soul.