Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon September 6, 2015
15You shall not steal.
“KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY STUFF!”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
So how many of us have been the victims of a robbery? My beloved Beth was the victim of a strong-arm robbery when she was in graduate studies at DePaul University. I’ve been the victim of a number of robberies or attempted robberies. But one of these sticks out most memorably.
It was mid-December, 1982. I had just spent about four months on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Maui. I had taken a 6 month leave of absence from the Franciscans and had gone to Maui to write my first book. I wanted to write down what I believed and distill what I had been taught in four years of graduate studies in theology.
Now this was in the days before computers and all such high tech amenities. I had typed my manuscript on an electric typewriter. I finished it a few days before I was set to leave Maui. I flew from Maui to Honolulu and spent a week there.
Then I flew to California to spend a few days in Los Angeles. I had lived in downtown Los Angeles the summer of 1971 working in movies and communications at a Franciscan media center. I wanted to visit the friars there.
But here’s the point of this travelogue: when I arrived in Los Angeles, I rented a car. The problem was the rental company did not let me know I needed to double lock the trunk. Otherwise anyone could just press the release button and the trunk would pop open. I did not know this.
So, yes, I lost everything I had with me: my plane ticket back home, all my clothes, my typewriter, many Christmas presents I had bought for my family – including a small emerald ring for my mother, my traveler’s checks (I didn’t have a credit card in those days), ten year’s worth of research and typed notes, and the manuscript of my book. All gone!
To say I was heart-broken would be an understatement! I had been robbed and I felt lost and alone. One consoling fact was that the day before I left Maui – I had xeroxed a copy of my manuscript and mailed it to a friar friend of mine in Chicago. Luckily it arrived safe and sound. There was no chance I could have written the book over again.
Sisters and brothers, I still harbor resentment for whoever it was that robbed me. As we’ve already discovered many here this morning have been the victims of theft. But rather than compare stories – let’s look at this Eight Commandment and try to understand why it’s so important.
There are some who argue that if the Eighth Commandment was fully followed – the world would be much closer to paradise than it obviously is. There are some who argue that the Eighth Commandment summarizes all the other commandments.
Listen to what the Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggemann, has to say about this commandment: “Stealing occurs in many forms besides robbing someone. Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft. Misappropriating resources or funds for personal use is stealing. Using deception to make a sale or raise prices is stealing …
“Likewise, profiting by taking advantage of people’s fears, (their) vulnerabilities, (their) powerlessness, or (their) desperation is a form of stealing because consent is not truly voluntary ... Regrettably, many jobs seem to include an element of taking advantage of others’ ignorance or lack of alternatives to force them into transactions they otherwise wouldn’t agree to ...
“Although we may not rob banks, steal from our employers, or shoplift, we may very likely be participating in unfair and unethical practices (to gain an advantage over others.) It can be difficult, ever career-limiting (as well as career-ending) to resist engaging in these (unfair and unethical) practices, but we are all called to do so nonetheless.” My beloved Beth can testify to the truth of this last statement.
Brothers and sisters, we live in a greed-saturated world that fuels the temptation to steal! Wherever we look – we see people trying to take our hard-earned money dishonestly. We shudder when we get phone calls from supposed grandchildren who are apparently stuck somewhere in jail. If we want them to be released, we must send money to the jailers. How evil and sinful this is!
We shudder when we get phone calls from people pretending to be IRS agents who tell us agents are on the way to arrest us unless we pay what we owe – over the phone right now. We shudder when we get phone calls from people pretending to be computer specialists who will fix whatever ails our computers right now if we let them have access to our computers. It goes on and on!
We may well know there are nations sponsoring wide-spread stealing on the web. Ideas, patents, monies, and everything is up for grabs when countries sponsor such theft. For some years, our government was considering halting the production of $100 bills – because North Korea was so good at counterfeiting them. With the newer bills – counterfeiting is not so easy.
Countries like North Korea, China and others sponsor an army of internet hackers who work to steal information and resources from everyone they can. Our government is currently considering sanctions against China because of their blatant cyber-theft.
Look also at the serious issue of human trafficking. This is happening today on an almost unimaginable scale. Millions of people and billions of dollars are involved in human trafficking.
I just want to say that the Eight Commandment may be the one most broken by more people than any other. And the breaking of this commandment prevents us from living in a decent and safe world. Are not many of us afraid to go out at night? Do we not even fear someone breaking into our own homes?
There are, of course, many ways of stealing from others. Property can be stolen. But also one’s reputation can be stolen. This can happen when people engage in malicious gossip. Such people are stealing someone’s reputation – someone’s good name. The problem with stealing someone’s good name is that it is nigh unto impossible for the person to reclaim, to regain, his or her good name.
Gossip fills every corner of our world. Too much of our news is just thinly disguised gossip. Look at the tabloids whose headlines scream out to us as we wait to buy groceries. Too often politics runs more on gossip than it does on honest dialogue and debate. Gossip, brothers and sisters, can contaminate any church, any school, any business, and any organization. Gossip is often a failure to follow the Eighth Commandment.
One can also steal a person’s dignity. Whenever someone humiliates another person, that person’s dignity is being stolen. This happens more often than we imagine – especially in dealings with children. Numerous studies have pointed out that many, if not most, terrorists have suffered some severe humiliation at some point in life.
One can steal a person’s trust. Deception is so very prevalent in our advertising. Want to sell something – guaranteed to make you healthier or happier or more attractive to the opposite sex – dress someone up in a white lab coat and your odds of selling whatever you’re selling grows greatly. It is hard, sisters and brothers, not becoming brain-washed the more advertising to which we are subjected. We are almost daily being assaulted with lies and deceptions intended to steal our hard-earned money.
One can also steal a person’s trust with insincere talk. How many sexual conquests result from smooth talking rather than real and sincere love? The classic number 1 song, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (by Shirelles) is as valid a question today as it was fifty-five years ago. Anyone who proclaims love for someone just to make a sexual conquest is guilty of breaking the Eighth Commandment. And such a person denigrates true love – which slaps the face of the Almighty, who is the Source of All True Love!
One can steal someone’s intellectual property. We call this plagiarism. This means taking someone else’s thoughts and ideas and pretending them to be your own. I’ve mentioned this before – but I recall vividly the time I was sitting in a church in St. Louis. The preacher gave his sermon – word for word a sermon I had written for a sermon service.
I used to be paid to write sermons for a service that would then send them out to subscribers. But the idea was to use such a sermon as a reflection – as a way to jumpstart the writing of one’s own sermon. These sermons were not to be used word-for-word.
But that day in St. Louis the minister read my sermon – word for word – from the pulpit. He didn’t know I was there. After the worship, I approached him and said: “Nice sermon!” He blanched – we knew each other – and he knew I had written the sermon he had just preached. This, unfortunately, is not uncommon. I estimate that – at best – only half of all sermons preached in our country are actually written by the person delivering the sermon.
My beloved Beth has said time and again that maybe one of the reasons why we get thousands of visitors every week on our web site is because ministers are “stealing” my sermons. But – in one sense I don’t mind – I’d rather a preacher, a pastor, gave a well-thought out sermon than just speaking off the top of his or her head. This happens more often than I care to imagine, preachers who ramble.
Now, sisters and brothers, we know Jesus spoke about stealing on a few occasions. I believe one such passage can well sum-up what I’m trying to say this morning. This passage comes from the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) If the world took this teaching to heart what a different world we would live in! Amen!