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 A Sermon Preached by Rev. Judith Brown Bryan at Clarence Presbyterian on 
August 18, 2019.


You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Exodus 20:17

This morning as we continue our series on the Ten Commandments, we arrive at the 10th and final commandment. You may be wondering how we got here so fast. What happened to numbers 8 and 9??? There is a perfectly good reason for skipping them. And that is -I made a mistake.  I should have prepared thou shalt not steal, but somehow, somehow, I became carried away with coveting and was so far down the path that Greg graciously rearranged his preaching schedule to accommodate my fervor. I am grateful for the privilege to preach this final commandment, the perfect bookend for the Ten Commandments. 

Thou shalt not covet…. God is insistent and repeats it. Thou shalt not covet. This last commandment is unique.  Unlike the first nine that pertain to actions, the Tenth Commandment addresses our interior life –the desires, feelings and thoughts that no one knows or sees but for God and ourselves. It seems God is interested not only in our behaviors but also in our private life, our motives, our heart. 

Covet is a very strong verb. It is to crave, to lust after, to grasp. To covet is to ask: what do I want and how can I get it? To covet is the strong desire to possess what belongs to another. For the ancient Hebrews, it was specific to property: the house, land, wife and slaves because they were property, animals and anything that rightly belongs to the neighbor. In those days, the only way to transfer property was through inheritance. It could not be bought or sold. Why? Because all property belongs to God. The Hebrews were simply temporary tenants. You cannot sell what you do not own. 

Of course this commandment continues to have relevance even as we are free to buy and sell property. I’m guessing each of us has known what it is to covet what our neighbor has. We want their happy marriage, the 401K, the breezy laughter of the friends and family gathered on their porch, his golf game, the children who visit weekly, their annual beach trip. The entire advertising industry is built upon our desire to accumulate, to have what they have, the latest, the best, the most.  It’s what used to called keeping up with the Jones’. 

If they got a dishwasher or three-car garage, we need one too. If their child wins the spelling bee, ours better take home the tennis trophy. If she got a promotion, we will look for a new job that pays even better.  An endless trap of one-upping. When the grass seems so much greener over the fence, our lives come up short. We feel dissatisfied, even enslaved by our longings. There is always the next thing to lust after. 

I remember coveting the penny loafers some classmates wore. Once I had them, I noticed their saddle shoes and then the Dr. Scholls and Birkenstocks and so on.  Coveting makes us restless, even ungrateful. One Christmas I was absolutely certain my parents were going to give me a car. Not because I needed one. Not because they could afford one. Not because I had asked for one. But because my friend Pammy had one. 

I envied her freedom.  I so wanted my own car – whatever the make or model.  And when the hour arrived on Christmas to open gifts, there was no key, no car in the driveway. I was sorely disappointed and nothing I opened measured up. I allowed my selfish desire to spoil the day.  Instead of rejoicing in Pammy’s good fortune and her generous rides, I lived with jealousy. So you can see how coveting interferes with relationships.
We want what our neighbor has and not who they are. We begrudge their good fortune and let jealousy sit between us. Instead of sharing, we are left to hoard and compete. In the extreme, we take action: we steal or lie or manipulate or murder. When David coveted Bathsheba, he took her, manipulated her husband and then set up his death at the hand of enemies. See how devastating it can be to covet? 

Individuals are not the only ones who covet. As a nation, we covet an endless supply of oil, hardwoods in rainforests, cheap goods from Vietnam or China. Corporations covet the best returns, the dominant position. And so we are prone to strife and violence, to manipulative policies, to pollution of land and oceans, to the oppression workers and the poor. 

Of all the dark emotions, God only forbids coveting – not anger, not grief, not despair or fear. I don’t know why but I do know that wanting what we want, harboring envy and resentment leads to broken commandments, broken lives and broken communities.

How then can we be faithful to this 10th commandment? How might we curb our covetous, desirous nature?  I’d like to propose three paths. 

First, when we covet what our neighbor has, we are communicating to God that we are dissatisfied and ungrateful for what we have. These covetous feelings are voluntary. We cannot prevent them, but we do have freedom in Christ. We can choose what to do with them. We can self-police our desire for things, stuff, whatever belongs to others. We can cultivate a sense of enough-ness, that is, enough is enough. 

When we can distinguish between our needs and wants. We can commit to simplicity and have what we need, though not perhaps the best or most expensive or latest version. We can notice our needless longings and replace them – again and again and again because they will appear again and again and again. So we can pray for the grace to exchange grumbling for gratitude, restlessness with contentment, dissatisfaction with praise for all that we do have.  Grateful, content, blessed. Where our treasure is there our heart will be also, says Jesus. 

Then and secondly, putting aside our superficial cravings, we can turn to our deepest desires.  Desires are not wrong in and of themselves.  Indeed they can be useful. When we desire for our children to have a good education, we find the right community, the right school, work hard and save much.  When we deeply long to mend a relationship, we find a way to apologize and make amends. When we deeply love someone, we’d do most anything for him or her.  Desires generate energy. When we want to follow Jesus, we are driven to worship and prayer, study and service. Where our treasure is there our heart will be also. Our deepest desires are godly because God has planted them in our hearts. 

In John’s gospel, the very first question Jesus asked his disciples was ‘What are you looking for?”  He was asking for their deepest desire – what their heart, soul and spirit were longing for. This question is for us as well. What are our deepest desires? One way to answer is to consider how you would spend your time if you knew you had just months to live.  What would you be looking for, longing for? 

Most of us would say we want to be healed and whole; we want the surround of love and loved ones. We want to be truly grateful for each day and each moment. I can tell you that in all my Hospice visits, I have never heard anyone desire a new tennis racket or jeep or washing machine. We long for God. We want the peace that passes all understanding as we connect with God. Our hearts are restless until we embrace our heart’s true longing. 

The good news of the gospel is that God has already provided all that we need and will continue to do so. God is always with us no matter what discouraging horribleness invades our lives.  God’s strength is enough. God’s peace is enough. God’s love is enough. Indeed, it is everything. 

Lastly, I want to borrow a phrase from preacher, teacher, and writer Barbara Brown Taylor.  Her newest book is entitled Holy Envy, a book that comes out of teaching comparative religion at a small college in the south. The phrase holy envy describes how being astonished by the particular practices of different religions can help us strengthen our own. For example, she says, her Christian students were amazed to learn that the Muslim faith calls for 5 periods of pray each day.  No matter where they are or what they are doing, faithful Muslims stop, wash, and then engage body and mind in prayer.  Her students, Taylor writes, experienced a kind of holy envy that encouraged them to consider what it would mean for them to pause 5 times daily to pray. A deep desire was kindled in them to commit to such a discipline.  

I want to suggest that instead of coveting what particular thing our neighbor has, we might look over the fence to see what spiritual gift or character trait we most admire in him or her. What holy envy is kindled? For example, I have a friend who is innately generous and helpful. She will put aside a clean house and her calendar to bring a meal, make a phone call or send a card.  When I’m with her, I have holy envy and want to cultivate her generous spirit in myself.  

I have another friend who listens way more than he talks. He seems to assume the best of people so that I’ve never heard him utter disparaging word. I envy that too and so I am trying to imagine that most people are doing the best they can. It’s a practice, a work in progress to mature in the Christian life.  

And then there are those here among you I envy - for patience amidst challenges, for deep trust that all shall be well, for joyful living. This is holy envy, too, and I want to cultivate more in my heart of what I see in you. 

Thou shalt not covet. Enough is enough. Turn to what we really long for. Nurture those virtues that grow us in contentment, gratitude and peace.  We have the path. 

To end is to make a beginning said T.S. Eliot. When God freed the Israelites from slavery and sent them on their way to freedom, God gave them a sure-footed path in the Ten Commandments.  It is ours, too. This last commandment returns to the very first one. Remember? Choose God, for God wants all of us, not just our actions and behaviors but our whole being, our very hearts. Choose God for where our treasure is our heart will be also. May it be so, for Jesus’ sake.