Posts Tagged ‘Public Piety’

Motivation 3-6-19

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, based on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, I explore an ironic passage in which Jesus warns us against public displays of piety on the one day in the Lutheran world when we publicly display our piety.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of there sermon here.

May the grace and peace of our Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

When I got into the office this morning, the very first thing I did was move around the church to bump up the heat for this evening…so I went down stairs to the two different thermostats in the basement, and then I came into the sanctuary to bump up the temperature in here.

And as I walked up the aisle towards the thermostat located right over there…I noticed something…with our maroon colored carpet here in the sanctuary…any salt left behind by people’s shoes is blatantly visible…and considering the weather and the amount of salt that each of one us is walking over every day…you can imagine the MULTITUDE of salt that was left behind last Sunday…and since the cleaning ladies aren’t here until Thursday, that salt wasn’t going anywhere.

This is one of those moments that qualifies in a job description as “any other duties as required.”  And so I busted out the vacuum to give the carpet a quick once over and clean up the majority of the left over salt. Now as I was vacuuming, I just kept thinking about a statement that Jesus makes very pretty early on in the Sermon on the Mount…about a chapter or so before the portion that I shared just a moment ago…one that perhaps sounds familiar to you. (pause)

If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored. It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. (pause) But…evidenced by my work this morning…what Jesus failed to tell us with that pithy little saying…once the salt is trampled underfoot, it sticks to our shoes, and it will be carried back inside again.

And with that realization…along with awareness of what today is, I present to you a new statement…Remember that there is salt…and the salt it will return. (pause) Now its not much of a stretch to go from that statement to our actual statement that applies tonight. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. A phrase which is spoken to each one of us tonight…as a reminder of where we came from…as well as where we will return…a statement that we will hear along with the tradition of smearing ashes on our foreheads…a visual sign of our mortality…a tradition which we do each year to kick off the season of Lent.

This action is a physical statement of our faith…an action that we participate in as a way to physically live out that faith…and there’s a word for this type of thing…piety…a way that we show reverence to God or a way that we act that fulfills a religious requirement…that’s what piety means. And tonight…in one of the rare instances here in our Lutheran tradition…tonight as we hear those words, and receive those ashes on our foreheads, we publically practice and display our piety…

And I don’t know about you…but I can’t help finding a sense of irony tonight…because on this night when we do just that…public displays of piety…our gospel lesson is a warning from Jesus against…public displays of piety. (pause)

And with that…we have a couple of different choices right now.  I can stop now, offer up a prayer of repentance, we could all say amen, and sheepishly sneak out the back…or we could take a closer look at just what Jesus is talking about here…I’m gonna lean towards the latter if that’s ok. (pause)

Now sure enough…Jesus does offer this warning about 3 different types of religious practices…but what’s strange about it…is that none of these things are bad.  Giving alms…offering as we know it…though giving directly to the less fortunate would probably be a better description…that’s a good thing.

Praying…nothing wrong with that one…its something we do here in worship every week and its something that we do individually whenever we talk to God…prayer’s good right? (pause)  And fasting…maybe not the most common practice in our tradition…but fasting as a way to focus our attention back to God isn’t a bad thing either…and many participate in this spiritual discipline.

So I gotta ask…Jesus…what are you talking about in these three warnings? I wonder…why is he warning us against them…or is he?  Does Jesus tell his followers not to give alms…not to pray…not to fast?  Or does he give a warning about the motivation behind these actions? (pause)

If we consider each of the three statements…I think we’re getting closer to his intention.  When you do these things…when you practice your piety…do not be like the hypocrites…they do these things publically…and they act to draw attention to what they are doing…so that they might be seen by others.

The motivation behind our actions…behind our tradition and our practices…that seems to be the key…because who are we doing it for? Who is our audience? Is it other people? Or is it God? That’s the big question that we need to be asking ourselves…especially tonight as we have gathered to do something similar…and maybe, just maybe…the whole thing can boil down to the final statement that Jesus makes for us tonight.  Where your treasure is…there your heart will be also.  Jesus is talking about our ultimate desires…because if we’re simply playing the crowds…or we’re acting in a way to get ourselves something that the world tends to value…we need to remember that all that is fleeting…but treasures in heaven…I think that’s something altogether different. (pause)

I’ve had a lot of conversation over the years about what these heavenly treasures might be…conversations that are often tied to questions about what heaven’s going to be like…what will we experience in the afterlife? What will we see or hear…what will we think or feel?  And when we’re honest in those conversations we have to acknowledge that we don’t know…but when I find myself in these conversations…often times with an individual who is looking at the rapidly approaching end of this life…I tell them that whatever it is that they will experience…they won’t be disappointed.

And that right there probably brings us around to the important aspect of this day…and this worship service…and this public display of our piety that we will all participate in.  In a few more moments, each one of you will come up this aisle…and I will look you in the eye, smear ash on your forehead and tell you “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Those words refer to your mortality…they refer to your death. They are an acknowledgement that this life you are leading…is fleeting.  I’ve shared with you before, that this action that we share tonight is one of the most personal and powerful moments that I have every year…because with each passing year, the depth of the relationship that I hold with you as individuals deepens.  I’m your pastor…I consider many of you friends…I have family sitting out there.

For some of you, I have buried your spouse…or your parents, or your siblings.  Some of you young ones out there…I baptized you…the nature of our relationships differs from person to person…but as I look you in the eye and say words that speak of your death, its hard.

I’m not sharing this to toot my own horn or to make you feel sorry for me…but rather I want to highlight the importance of relationship that lies between us…and not only that but to remind you of the importance of the relationships that you hold with one another…and to go one step beyond that…perhaps most importantly tonight…to remind you of the relationship that you hold with God.

The relationship that you hold with the one who made you in the first place…remember that you are dust…know where that comes from?  Genesis…and God making humanity out of dirt…and God being a little on the nose in naming this mud person Adaam…from the Hebrew Adamah which literally means dirt. And then following the creation of humanity out of dirt or dust, God calls us Very Good…and being there in relationship with this very good creation that in which God finds delight.

God finds so much delight in you…that God will not be separated from you…and so through whatever it was that God was accomplishing through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ…God is making that ongoing relationship with you a reality…one that not even death can stop.

Because despite our brokenness…God has offered us healing…and we will hear that tonight as well…because immediately after you hear the words that speak of your death…you will also hear the body of Christ broken for you….the blood of Christ shed for you…and remember this has been done for the forgiveness of sins…it has been done…for…you.

This is a promise that we cling to…and that is faith…believing the promises that God has made for you and to you…let us each hold on to that faith…let us each hold on to that promise, and be motivated by the love of the one who made us in the first place…and let us act accordingly…whether we are doing it in public or in private…may we each be motivated by gratitude to the one who loves us and made us in the first place. Amen.

Why Are We Doing This Again 2-10-16

In this sermon for Ash Wednesday, I explore Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. In this passage Jesus warns us against public displays of piety, which is ironic considering this is a day when we are doing just that.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Ash Wednesday…the day, or in this case the evening, that starts off the season of Lent. In a moment of disclosure, I first started thinking about Lent as a whole back about Christmas time…as I started to mull over possible themes and characters that would take us through the season. But on thing that I didn’t really have to think about much was tonight…Ash Wednesday as a whole is pretty well set in terms of worship and liturgy by this point…and so about the only thing I needed to do was pick out what scripture lesson I would utilize for the sermon. This happens to be one of the days in the church year that uses the same set of lessons every year, and so in order to keep some variety, I made the overarching decision a couple years back that I would rotate the lessons.

So my first Ash Wednesday, I used the reading assigned out of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Last year, the old testament reading from the prophet Joel seemed to be in order and so, a month and a half ago when I started looking at stuff for tonight, it seemed like a no-brainer…go ahead and use the gospel reading from Matthew. I made the decision, marked it in my files for prep work, and moved on to other things.

Then about a week ago, as I knew that Ash Wednesday was pending, I figured it was high time that I start thinking about it…about this day…which is sort of the one time in the Lutheran church when we gather together to recognize our limitations and our sinfulness and the reality of death in our world…and as part of the whole deal, we receive the sign of the cross, in ashes, on our foreheads…in short…we display a sign of our faith…something that one might call a public display of piety.

And I was thinking about that very notion…this public display of piety…I opened up to Matthew 6 only to find…Jesus warning us against public displays of piety…this resulted in the most epic facepalm that I have ever endured…and my first question, was what in the world am I going to do with this one? (pause) Adding to the ironic nature of this whole deal, in the study Bible that sits on my desk…the one I utilize most often in my work…I had previously highlighted the final verse of Matthew chapter 5, which seemed to add insult to injury, as Jesus tells his audience “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

That highlighted verse seemed to taunt me throughout this past week as I considered the notion that here on Ash Wednesday we are actively reminding ourselves of how much we are NOT PERFECT …of how much we ARE NOT…like our heavenly father…needless to say, this one has given me the feeling of being behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

But yet, here we are tonight…gathered together, to do all of this…to acknowledge our shortcomings…to remember that one day we will return to the dust that God formed us from back in in the beginning…and in the end to quite literally bear that truth right there on our faces.

And in the midst of it, Jesus gives us 3 different warnings…and if we are paying attention…all three really narrow down to the same thing. When you practice your piety…don’t be like the hypocrites who go out of their way to call public attention to it…because that attention is their reward…but when you do it, do it quietly and your Father in Heaven will see it. (pause) That’s the gist of all three warnings…and after Jesus has made each of these three individual warnings…he sums it all up…Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in to steal.

Now I thought about that statement for quite a while…wondering just what this earthly treasure is that Jesus is talking about…and if we think about it generically, I guess it makes sense…don’t put all your stock in things that won’t last…clothes wear out…money can be lost or stolen…nothing in this world is permanent, no matter how much we might like to think it is…but what about when we start talking about this lesson…and these warnings against piety done for the purpose of public opinion? When we think along those lines, maybe this all starts to make a little more sense…because if we are giving alms…or praying…or fasting…and shining a spotlight on ourselves just to make sure everyone else knows what we’re up to…well then we pretty quickly fall into the trap of politicians…doing it all for the purpose of public opinion…and we all know how fleeting that is don’t we? And just like things wearing out…people’s opinion of us can be taken away pretty quickly, leaving us with a whole lot of nothing. (pause)
And so, on the flip side, Jesus tells us to store up treasure in heaven, treasure that will not spoil and cannot be taken away from us…but I found myself wondering…just what is this heavenly treasure? (pause) Certainly we could say that its eternal life…that’s what we’re after…or God’s favor and that’s true too…but I don’t think we should limit to just that…because if all of this stuff that we’re doing here…all of these things that we say and do…if its all just for the sake of building up some eternal life insurance policy…well then I think we’re missing the point of why Jesus entered into our reality in the first place…those things are part of it…but Jesus also came that we might have life and have abundantly…life, in the here and now…a life that’s fulfilling…a life that’s complete…because it is a life IN RELATIONSHIP with our maker….with the one that formed us from the dust in the first place….that’s a heavenly treasure.

But all that being said…I’m not suggesting that public displays of piety are a bad thing…Jesus isn’t really saying that either…he doesn’t tell the people to stop doing them…rather, he’s telling us that we better make darn sure to question our motives for it…what’s our reason for doing it…because if we’re doing it just to be seen…well then there you go…you’ve been seen…and having been seen by others…maybe praised…maybe scorned, who knows…but having been seen, I’ll ask the question…is that enough for you? Does it make you feel whole…good…complete…perfect even? (pause)

We can’t achieve perfect can we? And so I’ve often wondered just what Jesus was talking about with that passage…be perfect as your Heavenly father is perfect…but then I did a little digging, and I realized that this is a pretty awful and inaccurate translation. A better way to say is to be complete…be fulfilled…be ENOUGH…as your heavenly father is enough.

And God is enough…He really is perfect, even if that goes beyond our ability to understand…but the amazing thing about this…is that our perfect God…the one who made us in the first place…HE calls us enough…He calls us Good…and this is something that is utterly different than the notion of perfection…the notion of the ideal…the thing that we SHOULD strive for.

And interestingly enough…when we start thinking about creation…God never intended perfection in the first place…that’s a Greek idea…a philosophy…a way of thinking that came around WAY after the world was made…this is why when we see Greek sculptures and paintings from Jesus’ time, they all feature humanity in its perfect form…something that we certainly never see when we look in the mirror…but they thought that with enough work and training and study we can continue to better ourselves to the point of perfection…but reality…especially the reality made by God back in the beginning…well God had a different word for it…In the Hebrew, it’s the word TOV…kind of a fun word…and TOV…it means…Good.

During creation, we hear it over and over again…God makes something…and he looks at it…and its TOV…its GOOD…and then God makes humanity…he bends down and grabs a bunch of dirt…and he forms it into an image that mirrors God himself…and he breathes life into it…and there’s a man…and then he takes out a rib from the man and God makes a woman…2 parts that equally mirror the image of God…and God says…that’s TOV…and not just that…its REALLY TOV…its VERY TOV…its UBER TOV.

God makes us…and God call us Good…and this is before the fall and the presence of sin entering the world…the world…and humanity was not made perfect and God never intended it…but God calls us Good…just as we are…but then when sin did enter in…and twist around this Good reality that God had made…and it separated us from being in relationship with God like he intended…well he still thought we were good enough…that we were enough for him to do something about it…and that’s why Jesus came into this reality in the first place…not to perfect us…but to bring us back into relationship with God…the one who calls us…TOV. (pause)

And so tonight…as we have gathered…one by one we will hear the words…remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…and one by one we’ll have ashes spread on our heads…and we’ll display publically our acceptance of our limitations within this world…and as we do…may we remember that we are not doing it to be seen by one another…we are not doing it to earn the praise and admiration of other people…but rather we are simply acknowledging the truth of our existence…flawed though it is…but that in our flawed reality our God calls us Good…He calls us Enough…and worthwhile…God calls us…TOV. And if God believes we’re good enough…then maybe, just maybe, we are freed to believe it about ourselves. Amen.