Sermon for April 22, 2012

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Happy Birthday Song

Matthew 22:34-40. When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’


Alright, could I please have all the robbers, embezzlers, burglars, larcenists, pickpockets, swindlers and thieves in the congregation today please stand up? What? Most of us don't readily place ourselves in those categories, do we? This is an easy commandment to keep, right? Just don't do those things.

The eighth commandment. You shall not steal. On the Sunday right after taxes are due, no less. I have to be honest—this is probably my least favorite commandment. Growing up, my childhood hero was Robin Hood, followed by Billy the Kid, and in third place, just all Pirates in general.

I had another clash with this commandment early in my young adulthood, as a high school English teacher. In my first year of teaching, I found out that about half of my inner-city students didn't have computers at I stole some for them. Just kidding. I didn't do that. I actually got several local business to donate used computers, enough to make sure every one of my students had one. But most of the computers didn't have Microsoft Office, or else had outdated, non-functioning versions of it. The eagerly anticipated computers....were useless. I applied for a grant through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which exists to supply software to schools who can't afford it...and was denied. Most of the students in my school were below the poverty line, but the large district we were in was not. And that's when I became a full-fledged, full-knowing thief. I made 60 illegal copies of Microsoft Office and installed it on every computer. I'm not entirely certain I wouldn't do it again in similar circumstances.

You shall not steal. Raise your hand if your a thief? [Raising my hand]

This is one of the great ethical dilemmas for the digital generation. If I take your CD, you no longer have that CD. But if I copy it, now we both have one—is that stealing? Of course, the argument is that I'm not stealing from you, but rather I'm stealing “potential income” from the artist and the record label (mostly the record label) who copyrighted the songs.

Raise your hand if you're a thief?

By the way—speaking of copyright violations—the copyright to the song “Happy Birthday” that we sang earlier this morning is owned by the Time Warner Corporation, which prohibits its unauthorized use for commercial purposes, or (and I quote) for “performances which occur at a place open to the public, or any place where a substantial number of persons . . . is gathered.”

Raise your hand if you're a thief?

It's tricky, this “You shall not steal” commandment. And who exactly are we stealing from? The two sisters who penned the tune are long gone now. We're stealing from a large corporation that acquired the rights to the song when it took over another large corporation that in turn acquired it from another corporation.

As a former teacher and current student (at least for one more month, anyhow) I'm very aware of what some are calling a massive epidemic of cheating in our schools and universities. If I write a paper, and in it claim someone else's work as my own, I am “plagiarizing,” or stealing from that person the credit he or she is due for hard work. And yet, this is precisely what William Shakespeare did in almost all of his plays, as well as most of the early church fathers.

You shall not steal. I hope your definition of what stealing is, is starting to get a little messy. Mine is. We've been talking about a very new kind of stealing—theft of intellectual property—one that wouldn't have been considered stealing just a few hundred years ago. But that word “property” does have a lot to do with our understanding of stealing in the last two centuries. Theft is the unlawful removal of one's personal property, and I suspect that to most people, the eighth commandment seems to have something to do with protecting our right to personal property. We can thank John Calvin and the Reformers for that—in came in along with the Protestant Work Ethic. But it's not necessarily a “biblical” concept. More on that in a minute.

You shall not steal Personal Property. This is the crux of my most recent struggle with the eighth commandment. I've spent a fair amount of time these past few years in seminary trying to study, follow, and understand this crazy Jesus guy. And he doesn't seem to take a very typical approach to personal property. For one thing, he doesn't really seem to have any, apart from the clothes on his back. And he's always telling other people they should get rid of theirs. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Store up treasures in heaven, not on earth. He does “borrow” things, though—a tomb...the donkey he rides into Jerusalem on...and in that last case, some have questioned whether “borrow” is really the right word.

I'd go so far as to say that the eighth commandment is not Jesus' favorite, either. But I can only say that because we do know what his favorite commandment was. Someone asked him. It's our New Testament reading for today, and it's also part of what's called the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. It's not one of the ten, but as Jesus points out, it permeates and infuses all of the laws and all of the commandments. Even number eight – you shall not steal.

But how?

Here's my approach: In the Shema, there are three characters, three persons. Listen for them as I repeat it again: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Who are the three? Right. (me)...and my neighbor. And love connects all three.

I believe that we can better understand any law, any scripture, by looking for those three characters, and where the love flows (or doesn't flow) among them. So let's try this with the eighth commandment. It's short. Turn to one or two of the people next to you, and together see if you can identify where God is, where you are, and where your neighbor is in the commandment “You shall not steal.” If you need to add some “implied” words, feel free.

Here's what I come up with: (What is God's) I shall not steal (from my neighbor).

What belongs to God? Yeah, just about everything. That puts a different spin on the whole personal property issue. It's all personal property. God's, not mine. This makes sense, too, when you look at the word “steal” with Hebrew-colored glasses. Ganab is the Hebrew word for “take,” but it's very closely related to (and perhaps derived from) Ganaz, the word for “hide” or “withhold.” You shall not steal. You shall not withhold. Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in their commentary of the Ten Commandments note that “In Israel, the refusal to share the gleanings of the fields with the poor would have been understood as a form of theivery. You shall not withhold. And hold that thought...we'll come back to it.

The Shema—God, me, and my neighbor—is a delicate balance. I like to imagine God as the fulcrum upon which our lives are balanced (all your heart, soul and mind) and me and my neighbor are kind of here on either side balancing (love your neighbor as yourself). What happens if I start taking my neighbor's stuff—or even if I just amass a lot of stuff and don't share with my neighbor? I'm weighted down, heavy. I slide further and further away from God and my neighbor, until maybe I fall off.

By the way, there's a lot of talk in the air these days about redistribution of wealth. I'm not talking about something political. In our two party system, one party tells us the problem is “big government” taking more than its fair share—and the solution is to give that wealth to large corporations (codename: “market forces”) so they can redistribute it fairly to all the little people down here. The other party tells us the problem is large corporations taking more than their fair share...and the solution is to give that wealth to the big government so they can redistribute it fairly to all the little people down here. I'm pretty sure that in either scenario, you and I get robbed blind.

Proverbs names two types of people as particularly prone to theft: The first are the poor, which we might expect. Theft out of necessity. If there were no other options, would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving child? The other type of person Proverbs names as prone to theft might catch us by surprise: The rich. Theft out of avarice and desire for acquisition. Which is the greater thief—the poor man who illegally steals across the border to find work and feed his family, or the rich man who legally crosses the border into a poor country in order to exploit its workers and acquire more wealth? I don't know the answer to that question, but I suspect it's harder for us to judge the one who resembles us more. We are an acquisitive culture. We're pretty into our stuff. We pay for storage sheds to hold stuff that we don't want to see, don't want to use, but don't want to let go of.

Raise your hand if your a thief? If we're thieves, chances are its more out of avarice than necessity.

I'm also not just talking about money or property, either. I can withhold my time, my attention, my love from my wife and my children. When I spend too much time at work, I'm robbing them of something important God has given to them. If I am constantly seeking praise and honor, but do not give honor and praise others...I have thoughtlessly stolen from others what God generously provided in my need. Likewise, God has given me special talents and abilities—when I withhold them from the church, when I don't put them to use in service to God's kingdom (because I'm “too busy”) I am stealing from God and from my community.

Raise your hand if you're a thief?

If you want a really simple litmus test to know if you're stealing or not, ask yourself this question: Who primarily benefits from my taking (or holding onto) this? If the answer is “me and only me” you might be stealing. If it's “me and my neighbor” you might be keeping the balance. If it's “just my neighbor” you might be fixing an imbalance. I don't know if this gets Robin Hood completely off the hook, but he does seem to show a lot of concern for his neighbors, so maybe there's hope. The pirates...probably not so much.

Raise your hand if you're...Yeah. By now, I think we realize we're all thieves. Martin Luther said that “If all who are thieves . . . were hanged on the gallows, the world would soon be empty, and there would be a shortage of both hangmen and gallows.” We're thieves. But that's ok—Jesus spent his very last moments hanging out with thieves. Or, rather, hanging between them.

So what's a thief like me to do? Just repent? Easier said than done. Again, I look to Jesus for an answer. When Jesus had food, what did he do with it? When Jesus had time, what did he do with it? Jesus came and lived among us, and what did he do with his life? He gave it away. Giving is the opposite of taking. Generosity is the opposite of avarice. Letting go is the opposite of acquiring more stuff. Ironically (or perhaps beautifully) generosity simultaneously solves the problem of both the rich and the poor, and obliterates the need for either one to steal from the other.

I don't know if I'm quite ready to give up everything. I have some pretty cool stuff. But I could start by tithing to my church, instead of waiting until I make just a little more money, waiting until I make “enough.” I could start by giving one extra hour of my time each week to an outreach project, instead of waiting until my schedule clears up just a little more. Or 30 more minutes each evening to my family, or one nice compliment every day to someone different I meet, instead of waiting for someone to compliment me first. That and maybe turning over the key to my storage unit to the Salvation Army.

Raise your hand if you want to be a more Generous Giver.

Getting back to the eighth commandment and the Shema—There's one more important aspect to this balance of God, me, and neighbor: Who is my neighbor? Jesus had an answer for that one too, and it's similar to the answer for “what belongs to God?”

And that's actually where I want to end with all this—the neighborhood. You all know that Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, right? I think he was on to something. In order to keep the commandments—or at least to keep working at them—we need to be part of the neighborhood. We need to be in community with each other, and that's an important function of the church. We share with each other and with the community so that there is less poverty and necessity. We help each other to focus on acquiring heavenly things, so that there is less avarice. We give generously as God has generously given to us, and we love each other as we have been loved. We can't do it on our own, and thanks be to God, we don't have to.