Whose Is It Anyway?


TEXT: Exodus 20:15


In yesterday’s Daily Walk reading, we read through the Ten Commandments.  Since I’ve got a book coming out in the fall on the Ten Commandments, they are near and dear to my heart.  And since we’re in the season of Stewardship, I thought we would take some time and highlight commandment #8…Thou shalt not steal.

On the surface, this doesn’t take much interpretation:  Don’t take somebody else’s stuff.  Simple.  Anybody who robs a bank knows that they are taking someone else's money. They know they will have to use force; and they know that if they get caught, they will pay a penalty. We would use an insanity defense for someone who walked into a bank and asked for all the money without a clue that it would be a crime to get it. But the issue of stealing is not always that simple. In fact, I would say it is not usually that simple.

If you take a class in moral development, you will likely wrestle with a series of moral dilemmas. One class standard is called the Heinz dilemma. Heinz is a man whose wife is gravely ill. She needs a certain medication to live. The pharmaceutical company has a monopoly on the drug and jacks up the price beyond anything Heinz can hope to afford. There is no insurance, no benevolence or charity. Should Heinz steal the drug? The issue is now cloudier. Who should have a right to things like life-saving drugs...is it right for us to allow a corporation to own a drug?  It is a national question right now.

How about things like the European "discovery" of America, the "purchase" of Manhattan, and the displacement of native peoples both here and abroad. Who really owns the land? What constitutes a purchase...can a purchase be a theft? Suppose the inhabitants of the land have not been human but rather wolves or panthers or spotted owls? Whose land is it?

I learned in doing research for God's Top 10 that currently the US Patent office allows for the patenting of human genes. Not by the person whose cells they are, but simply by the researcher who isolates and identifies them. The researcher doesn't have to have discovered any particular kind of therapy or use for the gene and anyone who comes along later and discovers that a certain gene is instrumental in the cure of cancer will have to pay royalties to the person who first rushed to the patent office. Even if it turns out to be a gene that is unique to my body, I have no claim to it. The person who discovers how to utilize it has no claim to it.  Is it right that we allow someone to own human cell tissue? Human organs? Who owns the human body?

That question leads directly into the horrific form of stealing called slavery.  Can human life ever be property?  It is still considered so in many parts of the world.  Who owns the air and the water?  If my aeresol spray depletes the ozone and takes your life through skin cancer...is that stealing?  If my company pollutes the river where you earn a living by fishing, is that theft?

The commandment against stealing is just the tiny tip of an iceberg called "ownership." We cannot know that we are stealing unless we have a clear understanding of who owns what, and that is a murky question at best in our world.

All of those are things that are currently debated and legislated in various ways in the public sphere. But I'm not here to advocate for certain public policies...although I'm sure you can guess my positions from my examples. What I want to bring out is that all of these questions that plague our public discourse and disrupt our public life are at heart theological issues. The proclamation of the church in a world struggling with issues of ownership is that...in the words of the 50th Psalm:

"I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, says the Lord, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it."  We read basically the same thing this morning in the Call to Worship from Psalm 24.

I believe that the greatest sin on earth today comes from the breaking of the eighth commandment. We have taken the things that belong to God and appropriated them for ourselves. We were given all things to be held in trust...to be invested wisely until the owner should call for his own with interest. But in time, we forgot our charge and came to believe that we were not stewards but owners of the cattle on a thousand hills and the earth and all that is in it. We came to believe that we could invest them for our own gain and our own purposes...believing that they were ours. We have stolen from God.

Stewardship is not just a time of the year when the church begs for money. That tends to make us think that stewardship is a means to an end of added income. Stewardship is merely telling the truth about who and whose we are. Just as the season of Advent encourages us to prepare for the coming of Christ in our hearts at Christmas and the season of Lent encourages us to examine our lives and receive the forgiveness of Easter...so the season of stewardship encourages us to remember that we are not owners but stewards.

We do not own anything. We are stewards, holding the things of God in trust. This body is not my body that I can do what I want with. It is the body God gave me to do God's work in the world. I can enjoy all the benefits of having a body...it is a wonderful trust to enjoy. But the purpose is not for me to enjoy it, but to use it for the glory of God. I will give an accounting to God for the stewardship of my body.

We are fooling ourselves when we say "my children," "my house," "my friends," "my money," "my yard." All of it belongs to God. Even if we follow the Biblical mandate of tithing...the giving of ten percent of our income to God's work...we have missed the point if we are thinking it is ten percent of "OUR" income, or that the other 90% is ours to do with what we please. None of it is ours. 100% is God's. We have it only because God gave us abilities and opportunities and talents which we have invested for God by working. God cares about how we use the income from that investment.

The real stewardship question is not do you give 10% to the church...although that would allow the church to carry out God's work with ease. Don’t let me discourage you from that.  But the real stewardship question is "Would you be embarrassed to show Jesus your checkbook?" They are different questions. I have given ten percent to the mission of the church since my early teens. That's what God asks and that's what I do...I don't even think about it anymore. But that doesn't make me any less nervous about having Jesus see my checkbook. I often forget that all of it is God's money, and I don't always think about whether my spending is a wise and moral use of God's resources. And THAT is the issue of stewardship...not tithing, but the recognition that all of it is God's.

Thou shalt not steal. When we realize that everything belongs to God, we begin to see that most of us steal all the time. During seminary I was trained as a conflict mediator and spent two years mediating civil and some criminal cases for the Atlanta courts. Many of the criminal cases were cases of theft by appropriation. You leave your ipod at my house and I argue that possession is 9/10ths of the law and start calling it mine. I use it without your consent, leave it in places where it can be damaged, and maybe even sell it to earn a dollar or two. When you come and want your ipod back, I say it's mine and refuse to give it. The case goes to court.

Theft by appropriation is the most common way that we rob God. God's earth becomes ours. The Body of Christ becomes simply our body, and when God asks that his body use restraint so that others parts of his body can be strong...to limit gluttony in one part so that others may be fed...we refuse. The talents God gave us for the building up of God's people become our talent for our own benefit. The list goes on and on. Theft by appropriation. We do it all the time.

Yesterday I was at a special session of the United Methodist clergy in New England.  The Bishop told us about his visit to Nigeria just before Christmas.  The visit included a stop in the city of Zing, where a number of years ago United Methodists built a hospital.  It is the only hospital for hundreds of miles.  Bishop Weaver went in.  They were overcrowded…two and three people to a single bed.  But there was one thing missing.  There is not a single doctor at the hospital in Zing, Nigeria.  None.  Zero.  Our giving is too low to support one.  A nurse came up to Bishop Weaver.  “Why can’t United Methodists in the United States send us a doctor?” she asked.  The Bishop was shaken to the core.  He told us the story yesterday, tears streaming down his face as he said to us, “What do I tell her?”  We all looked at our laps.

We have come to believe that happiness comes through possession. If I can just own enough...if I can just control enough of my own life and my own destiny, I will be happy. That's a myth. Real freedom comes in letting go, not in holding on. If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.

Thou shalt not steal. Recognize the true owner of all things, and use God's gifts with courage and wisdom. See if it doesn't make the people and things that God has given you seem more precious and more sacred. It is such a privilege we’ve been given.  God is willing to partner with us in ministry.  The resources God have given to us are a sign of God’s trust in our faithfulness, and a desire to use us…even us…in helping to save the world.  See if it doesn't open your heart.  See if it doesn’t provide at least one doctor in Zing.  Amen.


Sermon ©2006 Anne Robertson

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