"A Fire in the Belly"

November 19, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Exodus 20:17 and Matthew 6:19-24
(part of a series on the Ten Commandments)

In this series of sermons on the 10 Commandments, we have reached the last one. Hallelujah! My jubilation is not so much because I'm ready to move on to other material (which, I must confess, I am). Rather, it's because there is more excitement at the beginning of a series than toward it's end. There always seems to be more "fire" when you start out on a venture, than when you bring it to a close. Am I right?

From my perspective, this 10th commandment seems to be about "Fire." Before explaining what I mean by this, let me read the whole verse, as it is written in Exodus. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

A few preliminary notes about this text are in order. When it speaks about a neighbor's "house," this verse is not really referring to the actual building, though a person can certainly covet, strongly desire, be on "fire" (if you will) for somebody else's dwelling. Travelling to church through this rather upscale neighborhood, have you ever been a little envious of some of these large estates? Be honest now. Yes, we can covet a neighbor's house. However, in this passage of scripture, a better translation might be "household." That is, the larger picture of a family and all its trappings. People and possessions included.

Now, let's be honest and say that we can't fully step into this old, old text because we, for the most part, no longer see our world in quite the same way. In the first place, unless I am really mistaken, no one in our congregation owns any slaves. It's slightly illegal nowadays. Likewise few, if any of us suburbanites, possess an ox or a donkey. A horse, maybe. In the second place, are wives considered possessions anymore? Even the most conservative person, hopefully, would have problems with that. A woman, or a man, or any human being, is not a piece of property. Such a statement is not merely "politically correct." In our society it is morally correct.

Yes, our discomfort over this 10th commandment may be due, in part, to the different way in which we view our world today. Even so, we still catch the drift of the word, don't we? What we do understand of it makes us uneasy. "Don't covet your neighbor's household." If the truth be told, our whole economic system is built upon covetousness. Advertisers are in the business of stoking up the fire of our desire for things. It's what makes the world go round.

I've often thought of the ridiculousness of Thanksgiving being the start of the Christmas season. Actually, it started in September, but from now until the end of the year we will be bombarded with this spirit of Christmas, which may have little to do with what happened in Bethlehem long ago. Come Thursday, we will carve the turkey and, hopefully, be thankful for all our blessings. The next day begins the mad drive toward December 25th. We're not really thankful for all we have, are we? We want more.

It's appropriate that we come to this last commandment on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, isn't it? "Don't covet your neighbor's possessions." The words give us pause to reflect. On the one hand, we might ask ourselves, "how am I being subtly drawn into this spirit of dissatisfaction over what I have?" To covet another's possessions is to be discontent with your own, is it not? "Why am I dissatisfied?" "Am I really discontent, or is this a seed of destruction placed in the soil of my life, a weed that will soon take over the garden unless I pull it out by the roots?"

On the other hand, this commandment leads us to ask: "For what am I thankful?" "What does it mean for me to live a life full of thanksgiving?" "How can I GIVE thanks, an act which implies releasing what I possess, rather than holding on to it tightly?"

We're moving into the positive direction of this negatively worded commandment. As I have said before in this series of sermons, every "thou shalt not" is undergirded by an affirmation and a positive path on which to tred. The opposite of covetousness is what? Thankfulness. Now, Thanksgiving is also more than just a word. It is a way of life.

Let's explore this word "covet," though, a little more. As you know, I like figuring out where words come from. The other day, I discovered that the English word "covet" goes back to the Latin word "cupidus." Take off the "us" on the end of "cupidus" and you have "cupid," that mythical little Roman god of love who flies around with his bow and arrow, shooting darts of desire at men and women. Another word for "covet" is "desire."

Is "desire" all wrong? I mean, can this 10th commandment be abbreviated, as the apostle Paul does in Romans 13:9, to "You shall not covet"? That is, when we have a passion for something, are we running counter to what's right? Put that way, few of us would agree. If anything, we'd all like a little more fire, wouldn't we? A lot depends, though, on what kind of desire we're talking about.

Last week Colin Powell removed himself from the race for President of the United States. On that occassion, he had alot of interesting things to say, but one in particular caught my attention. "...to offer myself as a candidate," he said, "requires a commitment and a passion to run the race and to succeed at the quest - the kind of passion and the kind of commitment that I felt every day of my 35 years as a soldier, a passion and a commitment that despite my every effort I do not have for political life, because such a life requires a calling I do not yet hear." (The Washington Times, 11/9/95. p. A12)

Though I didn't find it in any newspaper report, I thought I heard him speak of this passion as "a fire in the belly...." I appreciate such honesty. Somehow, in looking over the entire field of candidates still in the running, I'm not sure I see that kind of fire. I have a feeling that with those words, he's hit the nail on the head of our country's discontent over things political. There is "fire", and then there is "fire." Does this make sense? There is a passion which flows out of the right kind of desire. And then there is a passion which belongs more in the category of "coveting a neighbor's house."

There is a "fire in the belly" which is, in the end, more like heartburn. And then there is that "fire in the belly" which motivates us to move in the right direction in life. To be honest, it's sometimes difficult to know the difference between the two. Perhaps it has something to do with the distinction between "getting" and "giving." In both cases, our hands are outstretched, but in one the object is to grasp, while in the other the object is to release.

When the Bible speaks against covetousness, it is not urging us to become stoics. Stoicism was a religion, back in New Testament times, that sought to remove all passion from life. Fire is dangerous to the soul, stoics believed, therefore don't play with it - put it out. Our Christian ancestors, though they found much to admire in stoicism, walked carefully around it. Life in Christ is not a "fire-less" life. For us, the opposite of covetousness is not stoicism, the absence of desire. It is, as I said earlier, thanksgiving. That is, we replace one fire with another.

Whereas covetousness pushes us to grab all we can get - money, things, people - thanksgiving leads us to let go and appreciate all the good gifts that surround us along the way. In the battle of T-shirt slogans, I've seen two that provide some light among the young, who are searching for a passion to power their lives. "He who dies with the most toys wins," reads one. The other says, "he who dies with the most toys still dies." It makes a difference which fire powers your life.

Thanksgiving has its origins in a Hebrew festival where God's people brought to their Maker and Redeemer the first fruits of their labor. They offered to the sacrificial fire the best of what they produced - not the seconds, the leftovers, but the first fruits: the best. That's what Thanksgiving is all about. It's more than just gratitude over what we have, though appreciation is always a good thing to share. Thanksgiving is an offering to God of our best. The resulting fire is lit in our belly, so to speak, a desire that propells us forward, a continuing reason to step out in faith every day of however many years lay ahead of us in this life.

Jesus said, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Giving thanks, that is, releasing our best (which does include things such as money and possessions, but also involves the most important parts of who we are), opening our grasp and letting all this treasure flow into God's fire sets us on fire. This is the right kind of passion. "A fire in the belly," if you will, from start to finish, that cannot be extinguished. That's the promise which undergirds this last commandment.

1995Peter L. Haynes

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