Monday, February 29, 2016

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth - #9 in a series on the Ten Commandments

Exodus 20:1-17

And God spoke all these words:

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

"You shall have no other gods before me.

"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

"You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

"You shall not murder.

"You shall not commit adultery.

"You shall not steal.

"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."


         When I was in high school, we lived in a very small town.  It was a mill town where there was only one mill -- a textile mill, and my father was the General Manager of that mill.  Like all Southern Mill Towns, the General Manager lived in a home provided by the company.  It was, like all General Manager homes, the largest home in town.  It was on a hill and overlooked the rest of the community.  Like all General Managers of small town mills, my father was watched and observed and talked about.   Sometimes, we had a lot of fun with some of the gossip that we heard about my father.

          The mill owned everything in town, including the community recreation center.  One day, they were doing some repair work there, and the workers found a time capsule in the cornerstone.  You know what I mean, a box imbedded in the concrete and bricks.  It contained things like a program from the 4th of July picnic, a newspaper, photographs, an annual from the local high school.  Nothing of value, just things that people wanted to preserve for the future generations to find.

          Well, word got out that there was a bar of gold in that time capsule.  My father displayed the contents of that time capsule in the office.  And everyone wanted to go and see it.  Lo and behold, no one saw any bar of gold there.  So word got out that my father had stolen the bar of gold.

          A few days later, my father fell and injured his ankle.  It was hard for him to get around on crutches, so he set up office at the house. People noticed he didn't go to work at the office, so word got around, that my father had been fired, because he had stolen that bar of gold.

          This all happened around Christmas time, and one evening, my mother was cleaning up from the Christmas decorations and tried to burn some boxes in the fire place.  She didn't realize these boxes had been treated in some way, and they wouldn't just burn up like most paper.  Instead, they burned very slowly.  Bits and pieces of the boxes went up the fire place and through the chimney and into the sky above the house.  From the outside, people could see all of these little bits of glowing material rising from the fireplace. Word got around that my mother was melting down the bar of gold into smaller pieces so she could sneak it out of town.

          Well, one of those burning embers fell on one of the canvas awnings over a window.  The awning caught on fire, and as people drove by, they noticed my father and me trying to put out the fire.   Word got around that my mother was so mad at the company for firing my father for stealing the gold, that she had a nervous breakdown and tried to burn down the house.

          Small towns have reputations for that sort of gossiping, but don't be fooled.  Even in the largest cities we are every bit as tempted and enticed to gossip as any resident of even the smallest town.

          The example I've shared this morning is entertaining.  It did no harm.  In fact, the more the rumors like that grow, the sillier they get.  And the sillier they get, the more we are able to laugh it off.  The fact that the whole town thought my father had stolen the company gold never jeopardized his job in the company.  If anything, it made him a more intriguing individual in the eyes of the mill workers.

          In the Ten Commandments, we are told very clearly, "Thou shalt not bear false witness."  Don't be confused by the legal language here.  The concern is not simply courtroom moments.   Most of us have never served as a witness in a court of law.  I haven't.  But most of us have -- and indeed probably ALL of us have  -- been guilty of bearing false witness.

The Internet has given fuel for bearing false witness.
Every few days I see an email or a meme online showing a picture of Donald Trump.  He is quoted as saying “If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they'd still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”  There is even a reference to People Magazine, with a 1998 date. 
But it is not true.  Look at the issues of People Magazine for that entire year and there is no reference to that quotation.  That quotation mentions Fox News, and while it did exist in 1998, it was very new and was a very small market that few people had started watching.
And yet every time we post that or forward that email, we are bearing false witness.  We are perpetuating a lie.
And just to be sure that there is equal time in this sermon, the other political party is just as bad.  For years there has been a photo circulating of President Obama putting his LEFT hand over his heart during the pledge of allegiance, as if to say that he purposefully disrespected the American flag.  But look in the background of that photo and there is a US Marine, and all the decorations on his uniform are on the wrong side – someone simply took a photo, reversed it, and circulated a lie about the President. 
Bearing false witness.

We bear false witness against our politicians, our teachers, our co workers, our boss, our pastor, our barber, all of our neighbors. 

One study has suggested that we are lied to about 200 times each day.

Most people lie to others once or twice a day and deceive about 30 people per week.

The average is 7 times per hour if you count all the times people lie to themselves.

Michael Lewis in his book, Lying and Deception in Everyday Life, states that, by the age of 3, two-thirds of American kids have learned to lie. By age 7, about 98% lie.

In the Ten Commandments, we are told very clearly, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." 

This is serious stuff – it is not always innocent or comical.  It is telling a lie about someone, and we are putting a person’s reputation and integrity on the line.

          In a courtroom, a witness stands before the court, places one hand on a Bible and raises the other hand, and dramatically says something like, "I swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God."  From that moment on, the witness is "under oath."

          The Christian lives his or her entire life "under oath."  The expectation is that when we talk about others, we speak only the truth.  James, in his New Testament letter, quoted Jesus when he said (in James 5:12), "Above all, my brothers, do not swear-- not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned."

          Mark Twain is reported to have said, "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."  Now that we live in an age of technology, the lies move faster and further than ever before.

          We have a responsibility to speak the truth, especially when we speak about someone else.

          Rosewood, Florida, was a town not too far from here.  It was made infamous in the 1920s when a white woman was beaten up by a man with whom she was having an affair. Wanting to come up with some story that explained her bruised face but hid the truth, she made the claim that a black man attacked her.  For two or three days, gangs of white vigilantes moved through the community beating and killing black residents in search of the one who is guilty.  Before long, houses had been burned.  A church had been destroyed.  Families were split up.  Lives had been forever changed, and some had been lost.  All because of one person who failed in obedience to the commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
          She lied – and worse, she lied about someone else.
          There is no Rosewood Florida any longer.

          As children, we frequently sang out a chant in response to someone calling us a name.  "Sticks and stones my break my bones, but your words will never hurt me."   We knew then, and we know now, the words of others may not break our bones but they hurt us deeply.

          In Proverbs, there is a list of things that God hates. That is an interesting word to use in connection with God.  God is a God of love, and it is difficult to think of Him as capable of hating, but the Word of God says in Proverbs 6:16-19, 

There are six things the LORD hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
(AND) a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up dissension among others.
           So when we see some interesting tidbit about a politician we don’t like, we had better verify the truth before sharing it with others.
           When we hear gossip about other people, we’d better be sure we speak the truth when we tell others.
           When we are angry and want to hurt others, we’d best not yield to the temptation to hurt the other person’s reputation.
           We are called to be a people of love, and we are called to be a people who protect the reputation of others.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Stop! Theif!! #8 in a series on the Ten Commandments

   When I was in my second year of Seminary, training to become a minister, one of the biggest surprises of my life was to see Zeb Osborne walk up the front steps and start attending classes.  I had met Zeb Osborne a couple of years earlier.   Before I entered the ministry, I worked with the South Carolina Department of Corrections as a counselor, working with the inmates.  And Zeb Osborne was one of those inmates.  

   Zeb was once described as the "meanest man in South Carolina prisons."  He was an impressive person, physically, because he had no nose.  Someone had bitten it off in a fight in the prison cafeteria.

   But Zeb had experienced a conversion, and unlike many jail house conversions, Zeb's experience was real.  He eventually got out of prison and went to seminary, and from there started a prison ministry that is continues to be well respected in South Carolina.

   I invited Zeb to come to a church I served several years ago to be our revival preacher.  When I suggested his name to the Session, there were some concerns.  After all, that church was in South Carolina, and a few of the people knew who Zeb Osborne was.  Naturally, some were still concerned that his conversion had not been real, but was a hoax to help him get a parole.  Others worried about what might happen and what Zeb might do.

   "Suppose someone loses some money and they want to blame Zeb," someone asked.

   Another was more direct, "Suppose we catch Zeb stealing the money?"

   One of the members of the Session, aware of Zeb's police record, tried to reassure the other elders, but failed to select carefully his words.  "I don't see why you worry about every little thing.  Zeb's not going to steal anything.  Zeb was not in prison for stealing.  He was in prison for killing a man."

   Needless to say, that did not comfort anyone.  But I share that story because it illustrates how we in our society feel toward someone who would steal.  We have a low regard for them.  And once they steal, we don't ever trust them again.  Or if we do trust them, it is because they have done what Zeb Osborne has done, making a dramatic and complete turn around from the life style of stealing.  We feel this way because most of us at one time in our lives have been the victim of someone who has violated this commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."

   We have returned home from vacation to find an open door, or a broken window, and grandmother's silver is gone, the TV is missing, or the computer has vanished.  Or we have stepped into our car to find someone has stolen our anti-theft device.

   Many of us, at one time or other, have felt the anger, the helpless frustration, the feeling of being violated that comes from being the victim of someone who broke the commandment, "thou shalt not steal."

   And if we have not had the misfortune of being the victim, we certainly know what it is like to live in FEAR of becoming a target of some nameless thief.  We lock our odors and windows, we buy elaborate alarm systems, we buy a gun, and still at night when we wake up at 3:00 in the morning we are like children in our fears.  We listen carefully at the silence, trying to find out if the noise that woke us up was the noise of someone opening the door or window.

   Or course, if we listen carefully to what we have said this morning, we are always the VICTIMS of stealing.  We are never the guilty ones.  It is the Zed Osbornes of the world who steal, not us.  It is the man whose face is covered by a mask, who enters a store with a gun, whose only identifying mark is an obscene tattoo on his forearm.  It is the nameless, faceless persons who come in the darkness and steals from our home.  It is the teenager who has been hanging around the wrong crowd, or the old man who knows no other way of life.  But it is NEVER US.  WE would never steal.

And I would like to think that none of my parishioners would ever steal anything.

But then I came across this interesting statistic.

According to shoplifting prevention groups, an estimated 27 million Americans shoplift each year, or one in 11 people.  Wow – that means that if we are a representation of America, about ten people in our first worship service and about 30 in our second service people here have shoplifted something. 

Tax time is coming up, and most Americans pay their taxes and are honest about it.  However, studies have shown that 17% purposefully under-report their income to the IRS.

You shall not steal – maybe we are not so innocent after all.  Maybe we need to ponder our guilt in this area and consider how to come clean.

In fact, if one does to this commandment
 what Jesus does to most of the commandments,
which is to broaden their meaning,
then we may find that 100% of us are somehow guilty of violating this commandment.

Remember when we were talking about the commandment, you shall not kill –

Jesus applied that to even having hate or anger in one’s heart as committing murder.

And when we were talking about adultery--  

Jesus said that even lust within one’s heart is tantamount to committing adultery.

And so what of stealing? 

How innocent are we?

Tax time is coming – how honest will we be?

Have we paid our student loans?  Just a few days ago a man in Houston Texas was arrested by SEVEN U.S. Marshalls.  He had neglected to pay $1,500 of a school loan he took out in 1987.  School loans are a heavy debt, but there are ways to legally deal with that burden if it cannot be paid.  Paul said in Romans, “Let no debt remain outstanding.”  To simply refuse to pay or even show up in court to address the issue is to steal.

Have we taken someone’s idea and claimed them as our own.  It might be a student plagiarizing at school, or someone in the work place taking a coworker’s idea to the boss and presenting it as his or her own.

Any time we are taking something that has not been rightfully given to us, or that we have not rightfully earned, we are stealing.

John Calvin broadened this commandment even one step further.  He said that this commandment required that we should all be content with our own lot.  This is not to say that we cannot set goals to have better things or nicer homes – but it is to say that until those things are earned rightly and justly, we are to be content with what we have now, as we work for something better in the future.

John Calvin and Martin Luther both agreed that the heart of this commandment about stealing is a matter of trust.

Years ago I had a parishioner who told that he was having trouble with his son.  His son was about 7 or 8 years old and Dad was noticing that things were disappearing in the house. 

Mostly it was food. 

The unopened box of cereal. 

A loaf of bread. 



Quite by accident, he solved the mystery.  He was cleaning his son’s room and he noticed that the area under his son’s bed was stuffed with all sorts of things. 

Ah – here was the food that had been stolen.

But that mystery was replaced with another mystery.  The 8 year old was not hoarding all of the food for himself.  He was taking it to his room and then distributing it to his younger brother and sister.

As I listened to this story, I thought I knew what might be going on here.  This couple had taken three siblings into their family as foster kids.  Eventually, they adopted these children. 

Being in foster care, going from one home to another, these kids sometimes did not know if they were going to be properly fed or not.  It had become the older boy’s responsibility to hide food under his bed so that they would not go to hungry at night.

Now that they were adopted into this loving family, they were going to have to learn to trust.  And for these kids, trust was going to take some time to build up and to really take root.

You shall not steal – at the heart of that commandment is the directive that we are to trust in God.

When we steal, it is because we do not trust that God is able, or that God willing, to provide us with the things we need.

What God would have of us is for us to develop a trusting attitude, but also a giving attitude rather than a taking attitude.

A thief takes.

A righteous soul both trusts in God, and gives to others.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The heart of what Jesus is saying here, and the heart of what this 8th Commandment is teaching us here, is that we should trust God, and love our neighbors MORE than we love things.

Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.