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