Saturday, October 30, 2010

Burma Shave!

31 October 2010/Proper 26C - Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4/Ps119:137-144/Luke 19:1-10

Burma Shave!
To get the gist of this little morality play about Zacchaeus the tax collector we need to recall what we learned last week - tax collectors in the Roman Empire made a living off of how much more money above and beyond the tax itself they could collect for themselves. So not only were they collaborators with the occupying enemy, but they were stealing from their own people as well.

So when Zach voluntarily offers to give half his possessions to the poor and repay everyone four times what he had defrauded them, Jesus takes it to heart and declares "salvation has come to this house."

Begging the questions: What need we do for salvation to come to our house? How much is enough?

The story is told of the Duke of Cumberland, who, as a distant relative of the royal family felt that he could sit in the Royal Box at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. And that if he sat in the Royal Box he could worship as he pleased. So whenever the priest intoned, "Let us pray," the Duke could be heard to say, "Yes, let's, let's..." And while the priest was reading this story of Zacchaeus, and got to the part where Zach promises to give away half his possessions and repay everyone four times what he had defrauded them, the Duke shouted out, "Too much, too much!"

A similar attitude takes hold of the girls in my classes when I assign a one page paper. "Can it be a 16 point font? Can it be double spaced?" they ask. Which is another way of responding somewhat like the Duke, "How little can we get away with and pass?"

It is an all too human tendency this attempt to get by with the minimum. When it comes to the salvation of our souls, however, is this really the way to go?

And the Bible is relentless in reminding us over and over again that the management of our money, assets and resources, is directly connected to the salvation of our souls. Jesus talks about it all the time. In fact Jesus talks about money and possessions more than any other single topic except the kingdom of God, and often relates stories about money and possessions when talking about the kingdom of God.

His preoccupation with stories like that of Zacchaeus and parables about money and possessions is simply a signal to us that he took seriously the relentless reminders in Psalm 119 to always and endlessly meditate on God's law, God's decrees, God's commandments - many of which, like the law of the Tithe (giving 10% off the top of the best of our resources), are positive, but others of which are warnings in the negative.

Take the poetry of the prophet Habakkuk, writing during the oppression of the Babylonian captivity 600 years before the time of Jesus. Habakkuk issues the oft repeated cry, "How long, O Lord, shall I cry for help?" That is, when might we see some relief.

God says, in effect, erect a sign by the side of the road large enough for runners to see as they are passing by. It is the origination of the old Burma Shave campaigns leading eventually to the invention of the billboard - that's right, God ordained Burma Shave signs and billboards!

" Henry the VIII/Sure had trouble/Short term wives/Long term/Stubble/Burma Shave"

On this sign, however, Habakkuk is to "write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may see it!"

The vision begins with a warning. In verse 4, those who are "puffed up" and proud shall not live. Then in verse 5 (note how the good stuff always comes one verse after our lessons leave off) God gets going:"Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not Death they never have enough, they gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own." Those who attempt to live by their own devices have no life of good.

God's vision then gets on a roll, "Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!...Will not your own creditors suddenly rise, and those who make you tremble wake up? Then you will be booty for them because of all you have plundered."

Searching for an answer as to what qualifies as that which is "not your own," we surely recall Psalm 24 - "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it/the world and all who dwell therein." Again, just one verse after the 6 verses nearly all of us memorized as the Twenty-third Psalm, which itself declares, does it not, that all we need is the Lord?

For fun and for homework, you may wish to see what happens one verse after our story in Luke. Read Luke 19 verse 11 and the parable that follows. It is the oft misunderstood tale of a Master who leaves town to accumulate more "power," and leaves his slaves some money to do "business with" while he is gone. Two of them invest the money and make the Master more money. These investments often led to farm foreclosures leading to a lifetime of indentured slavery. The third buries the money and gives back the original sum: "I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit and reap what you do not sow."

This third is the "whistle blower." He unmasks the evil of those who amass fortunes off the back breaking labor of those who work day and night. He chooses to take the money out of circulation where it can no longer dispossess another family farmer.

When we take these lessons one verse further, we begin to see what is afoot. Habakkuk is urged to be patient in prayer, Bible Study and meditate on God's commandments - the endless 176 verse mantra of Psalm 119 returns this Sunday to remind us where true happiness and wealth really is to be had.

So will we be happy to get away with the minimum requirements? How much is enough? What need we do for salvation to come to our house today? Read, re-read and study these words - then go one verse or more further. See if our answers to these pivotal questions change as a result of our finding God's commandments to be our delight! Consider the law of the Tithe. Then remember the prophet:

Wealth is treacherous/The rich all huff/Like death they never/Have enough/ Habakkuk


Friday, October 15, 2010

To Love God's Law

17 October 2010 - Jeremiah 31: 27-34/2 Timothy 3:14-4:5/ Psalm 119:97-104/Luke18:1-8
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter's at Ellicott Mills

Oh, How I Love Your Law!
"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." Jeremiah 31:33b

"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation...." 1 Timothy:3:14-15

"Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long." Psalm 119: 97

"Then Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart...And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" Luke 18: 1, 7a

Psalm 119 gives us 176 ways to say the same thing - Happy are those who walk in the way of the Lord (Ps 119:1), Oh, how I love your law! all the day long it is in my mind (Ps 119:97). At 176 verses it is the longest of the 150 Psalms. It consists of 22 eight line stanzas, each stanza beginning with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is an astonishing exercise in puzzle working, poetry and praise!

Psalm 119 calls for the kind of continued learning Paul commends in his letter to Timothy (which by the way would be the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament since the New had not been written yet!). As a subject of our recitation and meditation, Psalm 119 offers an entrance into a life of continued, endless prayer. So Jesus tells a story to underscore our need to pray always and not lose heart! It is what Paul elsewhere commends: "pray without ceasing."

And note the forceful summary by Jesus: for those chosen ones who pray day and night, justice shall come and come quickly.
Are we even aware of this linkage? That our prayers are to be linked to justice?

Don't we often tend to be rather selfish in our prayers? We would always like immediate results - but would like those results to be centered on what we want rather than what we need. And what Jesus says we need is to pray always and not to lose heart.

There is no better place to begin to pray always than with Psalm 119. One hundred and seventy-six verses reminding us to have Torah, God's law, in our minds all day long. The word "Torah" or one of its synonyms appears in almost every one of the 176 verses: Torah, law decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances.

A Rabbi was once asked, "What does a Rabbi do?" He replied, "A Rabbi is to lead God's people to study Torah so that one day everyone will know Torah. On that day when everyone knows Torah, everyone will be a Rabbi so that there will no longer be any need for Rabbis!"

"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts." Jeremiah 31:33b This is the dream of God as revealed to the prophet Jeremiah - that we become a people of experts in loving the law and living the law.

We in the church tend to suffer grave misunderstandings about this word law. These misunderstandings come from mis-readings of Paul, compounded by particular Christian theologians throughout the ages. The word "law" sounds static with the sole purpose of convicting us of sin and misdoings.

Whereas a regular reading of all 176 verses of Psalm 119 would reveal a much richer range of meaning. The "law" is a treasure, a gift really, that makes one wise and happy! The psalm is written in the first person, making the words of the psalm personal, words that belong to us, words that are given by God to be ours! Torah is not a static set of rules, but a map that provides a personal way of life, a guiding force, a pathway from which it is all too easy to stray - but is sweeter than all alternative paths available!

At its core, Psalm 119 as a source of our daily prayer and meditation directs us to endlessly reflect on the Decalogue - the fancy theological name for the Ten Commandments. The first "table" or "tablet" of the Ten Commandments focuses on our love of God (4 commands), the second "table" or "tablet" focuses on our love of neighbor (6 commands). Jesus summarizes Torah, or the law, as just this in Mark 12:28-34 - Love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind, and Love your Neighbor as yourself - and in Luke he gives the example of the Good Samaritan, concluding, "Do this and live." Luke 10:28

Jesus spent much of his time discussing the law, Torah, with any and all persons he could! Jesus demonstrates that continual focus, discussion and meditation on God's law is what leads one in the way of life that is really life, and offers justice for all people.

Torah as understood at the time of Jesus was a continual unfolding of God's will, new each day, new in each age. Torah, or law, was not confining, but empowering and necessary to being God's people in the world.

Meditating on the law day and night, as Jesus lives and instructs us to do ourselves, reminds us of our God given responsibilities to love and care for our neighbors - especially those in greatest need.

It turns out God does have a plan to care for those in greatest need: we are that plan!

How wonderful it would be if all of us, every day, would read all of Psalm 119! How might the world be different if our love of God's law was something we treasured in our hearts all day long? For Jesus this is faith - Torah in action every day.

So it is he asks, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

All that we say and all that we do will be the answer to his question. Amen.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Less Faith and More Fear

3 October 2010/Proper 22C – 2 Timothy 1:1-14/Luke 17:5-10
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Faith and Fear

Many would agree with the proposition that we live in fear-full times. People fear for their jobs. People fear they may lose their homes. People fear an unidentifiable enemy may once again attack our shores. People fear there will not be enough resources to get through the next month, the next week, the next day. Parishes fear not having the resources to get through the next year. People fear the planet is undergoing irreversible damage due to human consumption. None of these fears is unfounded.

All these fears and more were in Paul’s mind as he wrote to Timothy. And Paul’s greatest fear was that Timothy and the young emerging church would be afraid to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ: “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord…”

This fear evidently seized the disciples as well – they had a fear of having not enough faith: “Increase our faith!” they cry out. And when faced with all the fears that seem to spring up day and night throughout the world and in our own inner worlds, many are the times we feel like making the very same plea – Lord, give me strength – Lord, increase my faith – Lord, get me through the night.

To which Jesus replies, in essence, “You just need the tiniest bit of faith imaginable,” coupled with a metaphor or parable about the relationship between slaves and masters.

Admittedly, our Republic is still young enough that any discussion that begins with the word “slave” attached still raises high emotional reactions – and with good reason. There are examples almost daily to suggest that matters of race, which are inextricably tied to slavery, are still matters of deep concern. Just look at the firing of CNN’s Rick Sanchez for calling Jon Stewart “a bigot.”

But at the core of this metaphor Jesus uses is a relationship – a relationship that is anything but casual.

So as I was sitting in the chapel at Fairhaven yesterday waiting for a funeral to begin, I read all 176 verses of Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is a long meditation on those who “walk in the law of the Lord.” Other synonyms for law are his “statutes”, “commandments”, “righteous judgments”, and “your word.” Then there is this synonym in verse 38: “Fulfill your promise to your servant, which you make to those who fear you.”

One dimension of our relationship with the Lord is meant to be “fear.” Which got me to wondering as I sat there in the chapel at Fairhaven: “Why do we fear all sorts of other things, but no longer seem to fear the Lord?”

That is what is at stake here – the fear of the Lord. Elsewhere we read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”(Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, Psalm 111:10, etc….) I have to believe that the question about increasing our faith is related to our inability to fear the Lord.

Which evidently leads St. Paul to write to Timothy, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a strong mind.” To which Jesus answers, you don’t need a lot of faith, you just need a tiny bit of faith and a proper amount of fear – fear of the master, which can be read as respect, awe, and reverence for the Lord.

So we see that the fear that should be our real fear, fear of the Lord, is a mixture of awe, respect and ultimately must be coupled with trust and love. So much trust and love that just the tiniest speck of faith and fear should be enough to move mountains and uproot trees!

To truly develop such faith and fear, I would suggest reading all of Psalm 119 once a day for 30 days. I believe that at the end of 30 days you will have at the least a mustard seed’s worth of faith in and fear of the Lord. It will lead to a new appreciation for his commandments and statutes.

As we move into our Stewardship Season and prepare to make our pledges for the year ahead, there is one command that is given to guide us – the law of the Tithe – giving 10% of our resources to the mission and ministry of Christ’s Church. Why, we might ask ourselves, don’t we have enough faith in the Lord and fear of the Lord to respect His command to Tithe? Why do we waste so much time and energy fearing those things we have no control over at the end of the day?

Might living into the commandment to Tithe actually Increase our Faith?
And might becoming Tithers deepen our relationship with the Master?
Might becoming Tithers be one way to demonstrate our witness and testimony about our Lord?
Might just a little Faith and more Fear – Fear of the Lord – result in less Fear in and of the world?

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed

You can take trees and hurl them in the sea

The lame will walk and the blind will see

Wars will cease with the end of greed

Bread multiplies so there’s enough to feed

As you sow you shall receive

As you pray you will believe

Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need

As you follow Christ, you’ll begin to lead