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Luke 3:4-14 (New International Version)
4As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6And all mankind will see God's salvation.' " 7John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." 10"What should we do then?" the crowd asked. 11John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." 12Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?" 13"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them. 14Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay."
9 A MIXED MESSAGE
Two stories to begin—In January 1997, a Brink’s truck carrying 3.7 million dollars’ worth of coins and currency crashed on an elevated highway in Miami, Florida. The money flew everywhere. For nearly two hours, news cameras captured the mad scramble of residents as they scooped up nearly $500,000 in bags, boxes, pants and literally anything else that was handy, until the police put a stop to the fun.
As of the turn of the century in 2000 only about $20 of the half-million had been returned. One man stashed two bags of loot at home while he headed back to the street in search of more returned home only to find that someone had broken into his home and scooped the cash he thought was hidden.
The second story: Are you aware the U. S. government has what is called the Conscience Fund? It was established to deal with matters like this. A letter was sent in February of 1974. “I am sending ten dollars for blankets I stole while in World War II. My mind could not rest. Sorry I’m late.” A postscript read: “I want to be ready to meet God.” Mind you there are others that are not sure they want a truly clean slate. One man wrote to the tax department. “Gentlemen: Enclosed you will find a cheque for $150. I cheated on my income tax return last year and have not been able to sleep ever since. If I still have trouble sleeping, I will send you the rest.”
Today I want us to think about our relationship with the money and things we accumulate. In The Ultimate Top 10 God tells us not to steal. What is God’s concern here? Obviously we are not to take anything that does not rightly belong to us. But how do we decide what is and isn’t on that list? I want to point us in three directions today—don’t steal from others, don’t steal from the world, and don’t steal from God.
9 A MORAL ISSUE
The first meaning of this commandment is the most obvious—do not take something that belongs to someone else. To get at this idea I want us to think about the life situation of God’s people as this law is given to them.
They have been slaves in Egypt, rescued from their bondage by the power of God. They are being formed into the people of God, and into a nation. One of the attributes of this transformation is that they will change from being a people who had nothing except what was provided for them by their masters, to those who will gain a land that promises great blessing. These were people forced even to forage for the straw that went into their bricks. They had nothing; they were going to have something. How were such people to live?
God tells them to gain rightly. I believe there is a recognition in this commandment that people want the opportunity to acquire money and material objects in such a way that relationships are maintained and community is strengthened.
This has only ever happened to me once, but it did happen. A number of years ago there was a milk store on Highway 7 in Markham west of McCowan Road. I was there one afternoon picking up some milk and likely ice cream also. On my way out I was stopped by a fellow who said he had just gotten a great deal on some stereo speakers and he would be happy to pass the savings on to me. I didn’t buy the speakers. It’s not that I already had the latest and greatest stereo in my own home; nor is it that I am opposed to good sound from my CD’s. I didn’t believe the story about getting a deal; I think the stuff was stolen. I never want to do anything to take what doesn’t belong to me. If I decide I need new stereo speakers I want to buy them with money I have earned. I want to feel good about the sound I hear.
Acquiring is then a moral and ethical issue. It is a matter of building both individual character and community strength. I mature as a person when I recognize the effort I make allows me to earn a wage and provide a certain standard of living in partnership with my wife’s career and her ability to earn. A sense of community flourishes
when, for instance, I know that any number of our neighbours can be trusted to take a key to the house to look in on the dog if we go away for a couple of days. I have no fear that the house will be stripped bare in our absence.
Having said that, God makes it clear in other parts of his Word that stealing sometimes includes taking what appears to belong to us.
9 I AM A STEWARD
I am helped with this understanding once again by an insightful book, The Ten Commandments for Jews, Christians and Others. The insight that is offered concerns my obligation to others. First of all, we need to remember The Commandments, while complete in themselves, also point toward the remainder to the Torah, the law of God. Chapters 17 to 26 of Leviticus are known as the Holiness Code. This instruction is found in chapter 19, verses 9 and 10. Mark closely what is said.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip the vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them there for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
God is telling me that my land is part of what has been entrusted to me as a steward. Therefore the one who entrusted this land to me has also laid on me an obligation to provide a means by which the poor and alien can also participate in God’s blessing. Note what it is I am asked to provide—I am not to harvest the land to the edge and share the abundance. I am to leave what falls, to leave the edges, so that the poor and alien can work and receive that same building of individual character which comes to me in my work.
Can this ancient concept of gleaning be applied in our modern world? Let me make a couple of suggestions. Both have to do with ways in which this church is involved in the mission of God’s kingdom. Last month members of this congregation responded to a call to collect their gently used clothing for Double Take, the store operated as one of the ministries of Yonge Street Mission. (If there are any of you saying to yourself,
“Darn, I meant to do that,” talk to me after worship. I have a couple of suggestions for you.
Double Take is a significant ministry that I think is a 21st century example of leaving the corners of the fields so that the poor can share in the abundance. Here are some of the things this ministry accomplishes:
•it took a derelict building and put it to good use;
•it provides employment and on-the-job training in one of the areas of the city where such help is most needed;
•it goes one step further in providing a place where those who are moving forward in employment can purchase the clothing needed for both interviews and when a new job is gained;
•it provides a way for you and me and others of means to not hoard all the white dress shirts in the GTA.
The second example of 21st century gleaning is micro-financing. Have you heard of this? Let me share some examples. Please take the insert you received with today’s worship folder. Micro-financing is a way of taking the gleanings from our abundance and providing an opportunity for third world entrepreneurs to start a business. Like Elena Lourdes from Bolivia who was given a loan with which she started a Salteñas bakery.
This is a concept which I believe is going to be the growing edge of world mission for us here at Blythwood. Let me tell you of some of the factors that are coming together and will produce a harvest, I believe, in the next twelve months. Do you remember Carin and Duane Guthrie whom we met here at Blythwood a few months ago? They are in Bolivia and their mandate is micro credit ministry. At the June 17 Blythwood Summer Celebration of Ministry we are going to bring a proposal to make Blythwood one of the Gurthrie’s partner congregations.
In August our Bolivia Mission 09 team will be traveling to Bolivia and included on the team are some people who have a conviction from God that microcredit ministry is one of the key ways we can make a difference. I believe they will come back and tell us how it can happen.
9 A GENEROUS FAITH
We are not to steal from others, from the world and we are not to steal from God. On the one hand, this is a silly thing to suggest. After all, how can a mere mortal steal from God? Is God not able, by his very nature, to prevent such theft?
Yes, of course, but God allows us to demonstrate through our choices where we have decided to put our trust. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews shares this counsel: Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me? (13:5, 6)
Time does not allow me to say anything more than this. You may have heard the story about the fellow who was being baptized who asked if he could keep his thumb and fore finger out of the water. When asked why, he explained: “I was hoping to put my wallet there. I want to keep that part of my life separate from this faith business.”
What we do with our money is a matter of faith. It is part of our relationship to God. And God is looking for us to be generous with what we have. God thinks anything less than that means we don’t trust him.