Sermon for 03-06-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 8: Money and Possessions”

This is the last sermon in this Ten Commandments series. Our next series, “The Seven Last Words,” begins this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent. Check back later this week for more details.

Sermon Text: Exodus 20:15-17

The following is my original manuscript.

As we drove through the Holy Land a couple of weeks ago, we often saw Bedouin people, like these shepherds, grazing their flocks in fields and on mountains. The Bedouin are a nomadic people who have lived in the deserts of the Middle East for thousands of years. Obviously their children enjoy waving at tourists and having their pictures made, but they live their lives mostly oblivious to the trappings of the modern world.

Bedouin shepherd boy

What was amazing to me was this: One time, we saw Bedouin shepherds leading a large flock of sheep to very sparse patches of grass on the side of a rocky mountain. It wasn’t much grass. Jimmy, our tour guide, said, “They always find food. There’s always enough.” From our perspective this dry, barren, desert terrain was incredibly inhospitable for supporting life—whether livestock or human life. Yet these Bedouin have been living like this for millennia—and flourishing. How is that possible?

They challenge me to consider just how little we really need to survive. And yet, don’t we live our lives as if we need a lot to survive? I do! This recession that we’ve been in has been a challenge for many of us and for many people that we know—in part because many of us are facing the fact that we can’t maintain the lifestyle that we were living before. Economists tell us that for the first time in a generation Americans are saving money again. They say this is happening because many of us assumed that if we owned a home, the home’s value would just keep on growing, and that would be our social security and retirement. We know that’s not true now. I think that’s one good thing that’s come out of all this economic bad news.

I keep listening to the news with hope that we will finally turn a corner on this recession. Who knows whether or when that will happen? But I also hope that in the meantime, God is using this recession to teach us or remind us that money and possessions are not the most important thing. Have you ever spoken to a parent or grandparent who lived through the Great Depression? My mom was a child of the Depression. She grew up poor in the country in Forsyth County. And she said something that I’ve heard many other people of her generation say: “We didn’t know we were poor—everyone was poor!”

My mom and her friends and family grew up knowing that money wasn’t the most important thing because no one they knew had any! They had love and faith and a strong church and the support of family and friends. And they made it through tough times—without a lot of money or material possessions.

These commandments—against stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting—say a lot about the sickness that we have regarding money and possessions. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as thieves, but John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, would say that our very lifestyle often robs ourselves, robs our neighbor, and robs God. The ninth commandment comes into play because we lie to ourselves all the time about money and possessions. One of the lies that we tell ourselves is that we’re not wealthy. And for most of us that’s simply not true. If we are middle or upper middle class Americans we are among the wealthiest three or four percent of people in the world. So when we read in scripture the harsh things that Jesus often says about wealth—or read the Book of James, for instance—that’s us they’re talking about! We don’t have to be Warren Buffett rich or Bill Gates rich to be rich.

To put things in perspective, when God gave these commandments to Israel, stealing one thing—a person’s coat or knife or donkey would be an economic catastrophe on par with a fire, tornado, or hurricane destroying our house! That’s how much wealthier we are than people in ancient Israel. And we might say, “Yes, but… it’s not wealth, per se, that’s the problem. It’s our attitude toward wealth. And maybe that’s true. But what is our attitude? What’s in our heart?

Let’s be clear: Making money and being profitable is a good thing. John Wesley agrees. In a sermon entitled, “The Use of Money,” in fact, Wesley says, “Make all [the money] you can.” We’re good at that part. Also, in that same sermon, Wesley says, “Save all [the money] that you can.” Being thrifty—buying things cheaply and not spending extravagantly—is good. We agree with Wesley on this.

But here’s the problem that Wesley had with the people of England and would have with us today: To what end are we making and saving money? See, Wesley says that we make all we can and save all we can in order to give all that we can. Give it away! We keep enough money to take care of ourselves and our needs, but we give the rest away. We make and save money so that we can share it with others; so that we can serve the Lord with it; so that we can use it for God’s kingdom. We don’t horde it for ourselves—or even for our children. Wesley, by the way, thought that leaving an inheritance for our children was a terrible sin for parents, because it encourages sloth.

And lest you think that this is just Wesley’s overly strict interpretation of scripture, listen to the apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 4: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands”—and why should they labor and work honestly with their own hands? “[S]o as to have something to share with the needy.” The opposite of stealing—the positive way of life to which the eighth commandment points—is sharing, giving away.

There is a name for the sin to which commandments against stealing and coveting point. And like the sins of adultery and fornication, which we talked about last week, it’s not a popular word these days. But it’s still a sin. And the sin is greed. It goes by many more socially acceptable names: ambition; getting ahead; providing for our family; building financial “security.” But it can easily become a kind of spiritual theft because it robs us of opportunities to give to God, who is the giver of all good gifts to begin with.

Wesley warned that we rob ourselves through sinful spending. I fall victim to this often. I’m pretty sure that most of us do. Just a few days ago, my Facebook friend Jeremy, who is a fellow Methodist pastor, posted this as his Facebook status: “Reading about the iPad 2 on my iPad makes me feel so 2010.” My friend wrote this with tongue pressed firmly against his cheek, of course, but it nicely illustrates the problem that one theologian describes as follows: “We think our lives will be less if we don’t have the ‘the latest,’ but then we discover that the latest becomes dated almost before we get it home. The rapid development of computers makes them a particularly gruesome master for those who must have the latest.”

I like that: gruesome master. Because this need that we have for the new and the latest masters us. It calls the shots. It’s in control. Make no mistake, it’s not entirely our fault that we are addicted to sinful spending. We Americans are bombarded with hundreds of commercial messages in an average day. And there are very brilliant people in the advertising industry whose job is to convince us to buy the latest and greatest, even though we don’t need it and it’s not good for us and there are better things we could do with that money. I still almost want to vomit when I hear or see these thoroughly unchristian ads from the Georgia Lottery. It is an evil institution and we Georgians should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing to permit it. I don’t care that it gives us the Hope Scholarship. It’s blood money that robs from the poor and the least among us, and we Christians should be the first to say so.

These advertisers want to get inside our heads with seductive promises in advertising that can never be fulfilled. You need this thing in order to be happy. You need this thing in order to be popular. You need this thing in order to be rich. You need this thing in order to be sexy and attractive.

Well, who says that’s true? Why do we believe them? Why do we give them authority over us?

It reminds me of the very first sin, when Eve falls victim to the serpent’s temptation. What is the temptation? That she would eat of the fruit of this tree and become like God, knowing good from evil. The serpent awakened within Eve a need that she didn’t previously have. She didn’t know that she even wanted to be like God before, or that that would be desirable, but now that you mention it, “Yeah, that would be a good thing.”

Don’t we just keep committing and re-committing that same sin all over again? Don’t we constantly fall victim to believing the lie that this thing or that person will meet some deep need and make us happy and fulfilled. If only I could eat the fruit from this tree! If only I had this thing! If only I were like him! If only I had what she had! If only I had a different job! If only I had a different spouse! If only I had different parents! If only I had a different life! If only, if only, if only…

I am so sick of thinking, “If only”! Aren’t you? What if we could live our lives without asking that question—for a change? Because you know what so often robs our lives of happiness and joy and fulfillment and peace and contentment? You know what keeps us from being fantastically wonderful. Thinking “if only.” “If only” turns our attention away from what our God has done for us and makes us think of what God hasn’t done for us. It makes us think that we’re entitled to something. It spoils us—it’s like the child who, at the end of exchanging gifts on Christmas, asks, “Is this all I get?”

It’s the very heart of ingratitude. It kills our contentment. It kills our spirits. It kills our relationship with God. And we wouldn’t even think to ask “if only” if we didn’t look over our shoulder at what someone else has. We wouldn’t be tempted to think that we came up short!

These commandments are telling us to cut it out. Knock it off! Stop it! This is not the way to live.

The tenth commandment, against coveting, speaks to a wrongful kind of desiring. A misplaced desire. It speaks to a kind of confusion in our hearts—confusing what we think we want or need for what we really need. You know what we really need? [Wait for response: God or Jesus is the right answer.] I need Jesus—more than I need any material thing; more than I need money; more than I need other people’s praise, acceptance, or approval; more than I need other people to have a high opinion of me; more than I need to be popular; more than I need to be loved by others; more than I need a relationship with a significant other; more than I need to be comfortable; more than I need to be safe; more than I need good health; more than I need to be secure.

I need Jesus.

I liked this movie The Social Network. Have you seen it? It doesn’t present the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it does hit upon a gospel truth: Remember the very last scene. After Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, accomplishes all that he accomplishes; after he amasses a net worth of billions of dollars—although to his credit, he doesn’t care much about money; after he achieves at such a young age what the rest of us can only dream of; after he has all the power and all the powerful and important friends he’ll ever need; he is still unfulfilled. The happy ending that we expect, which Hollywood usually delivers very cheaply, isn’t there. There is something that’s still missing from his life. Of course there is!

Remember the last scene? He sends a “friend request” to his former girlfriend—the one who put him in his place for being a jerk and broke up with him earlier in the movie. And he’s hitting the refresh button on his browser, waiting to see if she’ll accept him as a friend. Will she forgive him? Will she love him?

Our deepest desire is God, in whom we find love, forgiveness, acceptance, and peace…

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