Don’t Feed Your Greed. Instead Love your Neighbor

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, September 10, 2016
Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: 1 Kings 21:1-7, Luke 12:13-21

Last week, I placed five imaginary chocolates here on the piano. Today, I’m going to put them in the shelf in the back of the lectern.
In their place, I have another treat for you.
This is a piece of blackberry pie. Not just any pie. This pie came from the kitchen at our house. It’s is my wife’s recipe done to perfection by my daughter. The crust is exquisite. The filling pops with incredible flavor—the berries are from a special place in our back field where the berries are different from berries elsewhere in our neighborhood. The berries in the small section of our berry row are amazingly flavorful. Building on these special berries, Bonnie has added sugar and lemon in exactly the right proportions to balance tartness and sweetness. The texture of the finished pie is heavenly.
On the plate beside the pie is a couple of scoops of Alden’s Organic All-natural Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. On top of the pie is whipped cream. Not Miracle Whip. Not some white stuff squirted out of a can. No, this is real cream, the kind that comes in glass bottles. My son did the whipped cream. He added just the right bit of sugar and vanilla, then hand-whipped it to a soft, creamy consistency.
I’ll take just a bite. Bliss. While you’re dreaming about blackberry pie. I’m going to talk about the tenth commandment: Do not covet.
What does it mean to covet? Today’s Old Testament reading illustrates what the word means.
Ahab was king of the nation of Israel. He was a successful king if you measured him by military and financial accomplishments. At some point he looked out his window at the property next door to his palace and thought, “That would be a perfect place for an intimate garden. I’ll buy it.” So he goes next door for a conversation with his neighbor. “Nathan, my friend. I see you have a very fine place here. How much do you think it’s worth?”
Do you mean what do I think someone might offer me or are you asking how much money would tempt me to sell?
How much would you take for this place?
It’s not for sale.
Look, Nathan. I’ll give you good money and I will find another property for you, one that would be even more suited for your vineyard, a place with more room, better access to water, better views.
You name it. Whatever you want I’ll give you, just sell me your place.
It’s not for sale.
This property has been in our family for generations. Selling this place would be disrespectful to my ancestors. I’m sorry, but no.
Ahab was upset. He was used to getting his way. After all, he was the greatest. He went back to his palace, crawled into bed and fell into a deep funk.
Sometime later in the day, his wife Jezebel came in. What are you so gloomy about?
He told her.
What??!! she said. “Are you king or not? You can do anything you want. You can have anything you want. But leave it to me. Just get up and wipe that pout off your face.”
Jezebel arranged to have Nathan framed for blasphemy. The stratagem worked. Nathan was executed by stoning for blasphemy and Ahab confiscated the property.
And lived happily ever after. NOT.
Stories of this kind of greed do not end well. They never do. Even if the coveting strong man appears to win, we don’t end the story there. We keep telling the story until we come to the part where it all blows up. Because we know that might does not make right. We know, deep in the core of our being, that just because someone can, does not mean that someone should.
Coveting means looking at the treasure that belongs to our neighbor—looking so long and so intently that we begin to scheme to snatch it. We begin to think how to use our power to overwhelm their power and take the best of their lives for ourselves. This is coveting. Don’t do it. It is evil. Wicked. Repugnant. Don’t!
It is easy to find modern examples of this kind of thing.
The current drive by an oil company to build a pipeline across Indian land in the Dakotas, sounds curiously like the story of Ahab. The company, with the power of money and government behind it, is determined to take Indian land for its own use.
Just this Wednesday, the Seattle Times had a front page story about poor people from Asia who are confined on fishing boats off Hawaii in a weird version form of legal American slavery. Why? Because they can. Years ago, a loophole was written into American law that allowed boats off Hawaii to hire people without the protections offered elsewhere to people employed on American boats. According to the report, the living conditions on many of these boats are squalid and miserable.
Why does this happen? The employees are desperately poor. The employers are driven by greed. They are determined to make the most profit they can, even if it means stealing from the lives of their employees.
This is evil. And everyone knows it is, once it’s brought into the light of day. This is the value of news reporting on this kind of abuse. The question for us is how do protect ourselves against the allure of covetousness?
The oil company does not have any animus toward the Indians whose land they are violating. They just want the money, the income, they will get from building the pipeline. These boat owners have no evil intentions toward the employees they are exploiting and abusing. I’m sure if we learned about the owners of these companies we would find they are nice people. They take care of their children. They are nice to their dogs. How is it that they have gotten sucked into this kind of covetousness? How can we avoid falling into the same kinds of evil?
Most of the Ten Commandments are expressed negatively which makes sense. It’s easier to detail the few things that are prohibited than to list all the good things that deserve our attention. So the commandments say, don’t worship idols, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t give false testimony. But when Jesus was asked to summarize the moral law, he switched to the positive. What is the great commandment? Love God with your entire being. Anything else? Sure. Love your neighbor as yourself.
The antidote to coveting is practicing loving our neighbor. When we deliberately focus our affection and admiration on another person we are made immune to the allure of covetousness. We avoid covetousness, all sorts of other stupid sin, by focusing our attention in loving appreciation toward God and neighbor. Our lives go where we look. So, let’s point our lives toward goodness. Point the front wheel of our bicycles toward love and generosity, toward compassion and kindness.
Years ago my son was taking horse riding lessons. I couldn’t figure out why he needed lessons. He could ride far, far better than I could. But he wanted to become even more skillful so we signed him up with a well-known teacher. I was standing beside the arena during one of his lessons. As far as I could tell, Garrett and the horse were doing everything they were supposed to. Suddenly, the instructor hollered at him.
“Where were your eyes?”
Garrett pulled up his horse while the instructor lectured him.
I couldn’t believe it. Over the years various family members have tried to improve my horse riding. They have directed me to do things with my hands. Hold the reins a certain way. Pull or don’t pull. Raise your hands. Lower your hands. I’ve been told, “Push him over with your knee. Sit back in the saddle.” There have been other commands equally as incomprehensible, but as far as I can recall, the skilled riders in my family have never ever told me to do something with my eyes. Most of the time, they just give me commandments. DON’T DO THAT!
But apparently once you’ve mastered the basics, once you’re doing more than just trying not to fall off, eyes become important.
The instructor told Garrett, “Your horse will go where your eyes go.”
It’s the same with life. We go where we’re looking. So let’s look toward goodness. Let’s aim to be generous and frugal, to be industrious and creative. And when we notice riches in our neighbors’ lives, let’s rejoice in their good fortune and ask ourselves what can we learn from their good success.
Let’s learn to look at our neighbors—the people around us, the people we work with, our classmates at school, those who sit near us in church—let’s learn to look with love, with affection and respect and admiration. How do we do this?
First, by the simple act of listening.
Long ago and far away, I was upset with the administration of an organization where I worked. I made an appointment with one of the vice-presidents. I had a prepared speech, the bullet points of my protest. I was ready to speak truth to power—that’s a high-flown label for grousing about the boss. 🙂
At the appointed time, the secretary sent me into his office. I was ready. I could feel the adrenaline rising. But before I began going through my list, I made the mistake of asking how he was doing. And he began telling me. His life was in crisis. I don’t remember any details now. It may have involved his kids or his parents or his marriage or all of the above. The details don’t matter now. The more carefully I listened, the more he poured out his woes. In his position he probably didn’t have many people to talk to. I never did get to my laundry list of complaints that day. I had to deal with them later. But I was struck with the power of simply inquiring and then listening.
When we listen to people, when we hear them, when we pay attention to their stories, we are unlikely to find our attention grabbed by their possessions. Instead of coveting, listening will lead us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Love your neighbor as yourself. You know how sweet it is to be heard. So listen. Practice listening. Practice asking questions and then shutting up and listening, waiting to hear. It is one of the sweetest ways to practice loving.
What shall we do?
Love our neighbor. Give affectionate attention to our neighbor. Listen to our neighbor. Learn their stories. Learn about their parents and their children and their dogs and their cats and iguanas. Listen so carefully, so gently, they find it safe to mention the places where they hurt. Hear their dreams and hopes and ambitions. Love your neighbor.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Pay attention to your neighbor until you can see their greatness, their nobility, their value. Pay attention to your neighbor until you understand how it is that God could love them so dearly.
This is a perfect preventative for coveting.
At the beginning of my sermon I talked about a wonderful piece of blackberry pie. I’m hoping you can still imagine it. Maybe you can even still taste it, still feel the smooth texture of the cream and the sharp bite of the blackberry flavor on your tongue.
Last week, in the lobby after church, several people told me they were still salivating over the chocolate I described at the beginning of the sermon. Their hunger for the imaginary chocolates I set on the piano stayed alive throughout the entire sermon. They could not take their eyes or their taste buds off that chocolate that was displayed here on the piano. (in imagination)
Today, at the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned chocolate again. But unless you are an absolute chocolate addict, my guess is you have not given it any more thought. For sure I haven’t been thinking about the chocolate pieces I hid in the back of the lectern. Instead, I’ve been dreaming of the blackberry pie and ice cream and whipped cream.
I forgot the chocolate because I cultivated my attention for something else.
The allure of coveting will evaporate as we give our attention to the actual humanity of our neighbor. As we practice loving our neighbor, the notion of snatching their treasures becomes unthinkable. Alien. Absurd.
When we are focused on money, it is easy to forget that employees or neighbors or people who need welfare are human beings. But when we turn from our spreadsheets and pay attention to the actual human beings who are being served or neglected, who are being enslaved, suddenly our moral duty becomes clearer. The more vividly we see real human beings, the easier it will be to join with God in his generosity and kindness.
The apostle Paul writes
When we love our neighbor we keep the law because all Bible commandments can be neatly summarized in this one command: love your neighbor as yourself. Romans 13:8-10
This is direction enough for life. Let’s do it. Let’s practice listening, giving, and loving. This is our holy ambition. This is our heavenly calling.