Sermon: Practicing Piety

Matthew 6:1-18

In the midst of a major congregational conflict after the departure of a long time pastor, a consultant was called in to help sort out the mess.  One of the images she shared with us that was particularly helpful was this:  any church, any organization, for that matter, operates with what can be called “fault lines”, the lines which are potentials for eruption of conflict due to differences between groups of people.  Fault lines exist, the consultant said.  The key is knowing how to manage them so that simmering or hidden conflict doesn’t go boiling through like hot lava, causing destruction in its path.  Some of the obvious fault lines in most church families are—older vs. younger—these generational differences can create a clash of different perspectives, different interests, different abilities to make commitments, and more.  Then there is the fairly recent member vs. long time member fault line—the possible clash between ones with fresh ideas and the ones with the historical memory.  How often do churches fall apart over this fault line?  You can keep going to list the fault lines in any particular congregation—musical styles, theology, perception of the role of the pastor, etc.  Not for every church, but for Hunting Ridge, fault lines definitely exist with respect to race and culture.

One of the fault lines that had erupted with molten lava during the congregational conflict I mentioned before was the fault line over personal piety practices.  When I say piety, I do not mean people who think they are particularly pious, or holy, or saintly, with a “holier than thou” type of attitude.  A friend of mine used to say that some people are “so heavenly bound that they are no earthly good”.  That is not what I mean by piety.  Piety is basically the way or ways an individual or a group choose to practice their faith.  Some faith practices are followed because of tradition—like receiving ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday.  Some practices are followed because of the worship environment—dancing and clapping while singing, for example.  Some practices are followed because of a personal experience with God that leads you to express your faith in a particular way.  People definitely have different ways to express their faith.  That is all well and good.  But it is not healthy when I think you should practice your faith just like I do or you think I should practice my faith just like you do and both of us think the other doesn’t  belong on the pastor nominating committee or the Session, or even worse, doesn’t belong as a part of this church family.  Ouch!  That is when the lava starts flowing and the fault line opens and becomes a deep chasm between members of the church family and you call in a consultant to bridge the chasm.

Personal piety is a fault line because it is so important in our lives.  If it didn’t matter to us, differences in expressions of faith would not result in conflict.  Jesus lifts up three common practices of personal piety in this part of the Sermon on the Mount:  giving alms, or financial gifts to be used to support those in need; praying, and fasting.  He apparently assumes that people are already doing those things because they are a part of the life of any faithful Jew in his time.

They gave alms.  Practicing Jews knew the command from Moses recorded in Deut. 15:11:  “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”  And you remember the poor woman who gave her two small coins, all that she had, to the alms basket at the synagogue?  Lots of others were putting their alms in the basket that day, but apparently none gave with the amount of sacrifice that she had.

And they prayed.  Practicing Jews were accustomed to praying individually every morning, every afternoon, and every evening.   This was a personal practice, in addition to the corporate prayers which were offered at the synagogue, or the family prayers offered on the Sabbath.

And they fasted.  Practicing Jews would have understood fasting to be a common method of religious devotion associated with mourning, repentance for sins or for self-discipline in the life of faith.

Almsgiving, prayer and fasting are certainly not the only possible practices of personal piety, but Jesus uses them as an example, pointing out that it is how you go about them that makes a difference.  Just like the money he talked about last week—it is how you look at it that matters.   Jesus points out a fault line between those who make a big show of their personal piety and those who are more private about it.

We can identify with those three examples today because Christians have carried on the same kinds of personal practices of piety for almost 2000 years now.  Changes have occurred over the years, of course.   Some early traditions repeated the Lord’s Prayer every morning, afternoon and evening following the pattern of their Jewish ancestors.  We have a long standing expectation that our conversations with God are going to occur on more than just Sunday mornings in the church building.  Personal prayer is a key part of the Christian life.

So too, the Christian churches founded by Paul were expected to send an offering to the needier church in Jerusalem, an expectation of caring for those in need in your community and across the globe which continues today in many Christian traditions.

And although fasting is not necessarily as mainstream today as it might have been in the life of the early church, it certainly has never been unusual to hear of someone who has made a commitment to fast for a certain time period.  Sometimes on Fridays during Lent.  Sometimes for several days of a prayer retreat.  Fasting can be from food, from a particular activity, from a troublesome behavior.  I recently met someone who told me that he is fasting from e-mail at the moment.  I think it is not to get closer to God, but because he is feeling overwhelmed by the volume of emails he has collected.  Really, fasting becomes the commitment to set aside a time period when you are so focused on God that the other thing—like food or tv or whatever—is inconsequential.

How fascinating that these same three practices – helping the poor, prayer, and fasting–are three of the five pillars of Islam as well.  (The other two are making a pilgrimage to Mecca and giving testimony to your faith, or proclaiming what you believe.)

I can’t speak for Judaism or Islam, but I imagine that Jesus’ admonition to not make a show of any of these practices might be accepted in those communities of faith today.  Jesus saw the way to manage a healthy expression of personal piety is to remember that they are personal ways to relate to God—that means they certainly do not all have to be the same.  Neither are they to be done for praise from others, to gain notoriety in the neighborhood, or even in an attempt to “earn good marks” from God.  Better for any one of them to actually be done in secret, in private, without fanfare or trumpets.  Not that anyone was accustomed to having trumpets played when she put her money in the offering plate!  Jesus again exaggerates to make his point.  Trumpets make a loud noise, everyone notices.  Quite the opposite of the way we are to give alms.  Better to not have the right hand know what the left hand is doing in the matter of almsgiving.  Jesus encourages going to a private room to spend time with God.  In his neighborhood, I am not sure anyone would have had a room that could be private.  The chickens wandering through, the children chasing one another, the elderly mother in law bedridden on the corner mat.  Who had the means to have a private, quiet space for God?  So maybe the private room could be a room within ourselves.  Go to a space that is reserved for God, a space in your heart.  If you can’t find a physical quiet, private place, no one can keep you from finding that within yourself, a place where you set aside the immediate calls for your attention and take your worries and concerns, your hopes and your dreams to God in prayer.

The same rule applies for fasting.  If you are going to do it, don’t put it on facebook or instagram!  That defeats the whole purpose of a practice of piety which draws you as an individual closer to God.  Make up your mind how long and from what you will fast, and just do it, in private.  The greek word used again and again here is crypto—hidden things.  Our English words, crypt and cryptic come from this same root.  God sees what is hidden from public view.  God knows what is hidden in our hearts.  Jesus is not advocating keeping a secret that really should be told.  It is basically keeping your personal piety personal.  And that is his recipe for managing this particular fault line.  If you pray one way and I pray another, no conflict arises if we don’t throw it in one another’s face.  Sharing and learning from one another about prayer is not the same as trying to be noticed by others when we pray.  The same with any practice of personal piety.

I am not trying to say that Hunting Ridge is facing a fault line management problem.  Not that I am aware of.  Simply learning from the past.  Simply learning from the Master Teacher.  Amen.

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