June 19, 2018 - Tuesday in Proper 6
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others so that you may be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” But, for goodness’ sake, keep practicing; just do it in secret.
These days, we do not talk a lot about piety. Even as a priest, I do not talk a lot about piety. Partly, that is because of our Protestant heritage, and partly it is because piety is a way of life as old-fashioned as the word itself. What is piety? Piety is the practice or the devotion of our faith. It is the stuff we do that both reflects our faith, our relationship with God, and that nourishes it. It is, in effect, the “date-night” we spend with our Beloved.
Occasionally, someone will come to me and acknowledge that he or she is struggling in his or her marriage. “We just don't have that spark anymore,” someone will admit to me, “and I don't feel much like reigniting it.” Actually, by the time most people come to see me about marital struggles, it is well past that point. The spark is long gone and has been replaced by the destructive flame of resentment. Looking back, it is usually difficult to see where the problem started because the cause is usually an amalgamation of little things: a busy season at work, children who demand our time and energy, volunteer opportunities that take all of our free time, unexpected expenses or a decrease in income that leaves us in financial pinch. And that leads to other little things: staying later at work, skipping the family dinner, having an extra drink at night, zoning out in front of the television, crawling into bed completely exhausted, and waking up to do it all over again. It may be hard to see where the problem started, but it is almost always easy to tell how things got so bad: no time together, no romance, no conversation, no mutuality. We may not see it as newlyweds, but time shows us that it always difficult to live with another human being—a demanding, self-centered, egotistical human being—unless love flourishes between them, and, in order for love to flourish, one must practice it.
More often, someone will come to me and acknowledge that he or she is struggling in his or her faith. “I just don't feel close to God anymore,” someone will admit to me, “and I don't know how to get that spark back.” Again, it is hard to see where the growing distance started because it is usually an amalgamation of the same sorts of things—things that occupy our time and our resources in ways that draw us further and further from our relationship with God. “Oh sure, I still believe in God…sort of,” we say to ourselves, “but it's as if God isn't real to me anymore.” Maybe we have even forgotten how real God was to us in the past, leaving us doubting whether that relationship was ever real in the first place. When I ask someone who is struggling what his or her prayer life looks like, I get a range of responses like, “Oh, I sort of chit-chat with God throughout my day,” or “It's pretty good…but I suppose it could be better,” but no one ever says to me, “My prayer life is vibrant: I pray for an hour every morning and an hour every night and make lots of time every day to spend with God.” God is faithful. God is present. God is with us. But it is awfully hard to remember that in our minds and in our hearts and in our souls when we are sending God a text message to tell him that we will be in touch soon instead of holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes, and letting a passion grow between us.
That is piety. Piety is how we become intimate with God. It is the way we live out our faith in order that our faith might be strengthened. Typically, you cannot hold hands with a stranger and suddenly fall madly in love with him or her. In other words, piety is not where a relationship with God begins, but it can be where a relationship with God either grows and flourishes or dwindles and dies. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus names three classic ways that people of faith can practice their piety: giving alms, saying prayers, and fasting. But notice what Jesus tells us: “Beware of practicing your piety in front of others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” We do these things—we practice our intimacy with God—not because other people will be impressed nor because the preacher tells us we should but because the reward it provides is a deeper relationship with the One who created us and loves us.
When you say your prayers, when you come to church, when you put money in the offering plate, when you observe the religious feasts and fasts of the church year, are you doing those because they are what others expect of you, or are you doing them because you want to lose yourself in the love of God?
Sometimes, when a relationship falls off the tracks, it is hard to know how to get it going again. Sometimes it is painfully awkward—that first kiss, that first date, that first romantic encounter. And sometimes it feels that way with God. We do not really know how to pray anymore: "Dear God, I haven't done this in a while, and I don't really know what to say…" Does it help to remember that God is the one who always loves us, who never leaves us, whose tender care never wanes? It may feel strange at first, but do not be afraid to practice. Go into your room and shut the door where no one but God can see you. Start with a simple prayer, perhaps the one that Jesus taught us. Try giving something precious away to someone who needs it, and do not tell a soul about it. Give up a meal and instead spend that hour in your office or your breakfast room reading from the Book of Psalms. Practice your piety for God's sake and for your sake. Let the intimacy between you and the Almighty return, and let that flame be fueled each day for the rest of your life.