July 23, 2013

Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Week VI – Piety

tangled ropes

Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 11
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 21, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Week VI – Piety”

Many years ago in a little village by the sea, a man lived in a house with a dog.
The dog was loving and loyal and kept the home free of nuisances;
 It kept its master’s feet warm at night.
The man enjoyed the company of the dog very much.
There was only one problem,
 Which was that every time the man wanted to sit and study,
 He would just have really gotten started, and into what he was reading,
   When the dog would grow restless and jump up on his lap and demand to be petted.
The man would pet the animal a while and then place it back down on the floor.
He would resume poring over his books --
   And again, just when he had reached the point of greatest interest,
     Up the dog would jump.
So the man devised a simple solution.
He placed a relatively short rope leash around the neck of the dog whenever he was studying
 And tied the other end to the leg of his desk.
After a few times of straining against the tether
 And trying, but not being able, to reach the man’s lap,
 The dog gave up and napped at its owner’s feet.

Now, this man was renown in the village for his superior mind and wisdom.
His friends and family and fellow villagers sought his advice on all kinds of questions,
 And he would meet them all in turn, showing them gracious hospitality
   And answering all their questions.
And it so happened that one day he was sitting before the fire
 Having a lovely conversation with one of his greatest admirers and imitators.
The dog was asleep at their feet.

The friend noticed the tether attached to the leg of the man’s desk across the room.
“What’s that for?” the friend asked, pointing at the small length of rope.
“Oh that,” the man said, “I always use that whenever I study.”
The guest made a mental note to himself: Rope on Leg of Desk.
Well, it didn’t take long for the secret of being “smart” to get out.
Everyone tied small lengths of rope to their desks before they studied,
 And they all said they felt so much smarter as soon as they’d done it,
 For if it was good enough for the smartest man in town, surely it was good enough for them.
Some just tied the rope and didn’t even bother with the studying; after all, what could it hurt?

Down the road, of course, the dog died;
 Down the road further still, his master, the smartest, wisest man in town, also died;
 He was buried next to the remains of his loyal animal.
And within a few generations, so went everyone else who ever knew him.
His name, and the name of his dog, were both forgotten.
But to this day, in that little village,
 People still tie rope to furniture -- they say to make them smarter.
They just do it. They don’t question it.
They can’t explain the connection.
Some people, who are unpopular in the town, say they’re pretty sure that tying ropes has no effect.
But everyone else is satisfied to do it;
 Because they just know that somehow, it makes them feel good;
   And feeling good beats feeling bad.

Can you see any of yourself in that story? I know I can see myself!
Can we see any of ourselves in that story,
 Especially in how we do church,
   And in how we decide what is important to us when it comes to church?

Can we see how some of what we do as church may be tending to default or obsolete structures?

For the past several weeks now, we have been working our way down a list
 Of what are called the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
We have been asking, and answering, the question,
 What does the Holy Spirit give us to empower us to be the Church?

This hasn’t just been some intellectual exercise.
The point is to see and to know quite clearly
 That this congregation already has everything it needs to be the Church.
That in fact it already is the church because it’s using these gifts:
 It’s doing the work of the church; it’s re-presenting Jesus Christ to the world in that work.
But also we know now that maybe,
 When we know what our gifts are, we’re less inclined to let them go unused,
   Or to exercise them upon obsolete and vestigial objects of faith -- those old study ropes.

The gifts of the Spirit are --
 Wisdom … Understanding … Counsel … the Knowledge of the Lord …
       Fortitude … the Fear of God … and Piety.

And ... I have to tell you that as a working priest, at least at the most superficial level,
 I have come to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the concept of piety,
 Largely because of how misunderstood it is --
   Because of how much furniture-tying is involved in it.
So when we wish to speak of piety,
 Quite a lot of what we have to do first, is to undo old concepts and behaviors.
We have a lot of rope to untie and set aside.

When we say, for example, that someone is pious, or full of piety,
 It can bring a series of negative images to mind --
   Or at least it can for me --
 Of some holier-than-thou prude, male or female, who’s ready to cast the first stone.
Someone who’s so devout he can’t see past his nose.
Or often the idea of piety is applied to worship services, and to how we personally feel about them.
This is a rabbit trail, but it’s one I think we should briefly go down,
 Because on the way we’re going to encounter a lot of heavy ropes needlessly tied to furniture.

Remember the tagline for Miracle Whip --
 “A sandwich just isn’t a sandwich without the tangy zip of Miracle Whip”?
I think of people over the years who have said things to me like,
 “You can’t change that service like that because it would be contrary to my piety.
“That new thing goes against my piety.” “Getting rid of that thing I loved hurts my piety.”
Even if they didn’t use the word, there’s a direct connotation:
 One thing about worship is so holy and precious to me that I need it to stay that way;
 It’s the tangy zip I need, or else it just isn’t worship.
For too many, piety equals an excuse to be stuck
 And to not evolve beyond a certain point in our relationship with God.

There are just a few things about this viewpoint that we should note.
The first is that I myself am guilty guilty guilty of precisely this kind of thinking.
I like things the way I like them.
As a trained priest, I also have the added burden of being able to justify on theological grounds
 Why the things I like should stay and the things I don’t like should go;
   There’s an awful lot of rope tied to an awful lot of furniture in my study.
But let’s be honest; that, very often, is nothing more than ego talking.
Ah, but somewhere in this work, I have been faced with this shadow of mine a lot,
 So slowly I’m confessing, slowly I’m learning.
(Ask me about the Prayer of Humble Access sometime.)
Anyway, this brings up an associated problem:
 Whatever this impulse is, it’s located pretty much within the individual,
 And is not held within the community at large;
 In fact, to the community at large, it’s basically unreachable and unavailble.

It is thus never subject to scrutiny or examination except at the level of the self,
 And so it is very rarely, if ever, wrong; it’s easy to imagine that I worship God in the right way.
Forget that I can’t even walk across my room for all the rope on the floor.

All of this is real, but none of it is actually piety.
In point of fact, none of what I’m talking about is piety at all:
 It’s personal preference; it’s style; it’s things we’re used to;
 It’s also the unwillingness, which again I myself possess a lot of,
   To be open to change.

Truth is, whether you cross yourself or genuflect or say Ah-MEN or AY-men is up to you.
I’m not right and you’re not wrong.
Whether you lift up your hands to God or use them to hold up a book to God is up to you.
Whether you love the music or the sermon or the readings or the eucharist
 Or the passing of the peace or -- let’s be honest -- the dismissal more than any other part,
 Is irrelevant.
Whether you prefer the solitary nature of the Daily Offices
 Or the cacophany of Sunday mornings is irrelevant.
Whether you love this hymnal or that one or none of them is irrelevant.
Whether you worship in a hip concrete-and-steel coffee bar
 Filled with postmodern postchristians,
   Or if you worship in a loved-on building like this,
   Or in someone’s living room or in a building that looks like a church to some but not to others,
     ... It’s all irrelevant.
The only question that matters is this: Is the name of God being praised?
Because real piety is in found in the Beloved Community of Jesus Christ,
 Worshipping together -- a collective of spiritually grounded individuals doing their duty --
 Who together seek to know God and to be known by God:
   Who burn to be transformed.

It’s nice that we all have individual ideas and preferences and behaviors
 For how we think things should be,
 But frankly I think God doesn’t much care.
The world doesn’t turn on whether you do them,
 And God isn’t offended if you do them, or don’t do them, or do them in a different order,
 Or update the way that you do them.
Just have some sensible grounding and a good corporate decision making process.

Mainly, it’s this: if you are contributing to the praise of God, then God is praised,
 And real piety has been dutifully carried out. That’s what matters.
Real piety is conscientious and loyal duty to God, often expressed as worship and praise.
The rest -- the stuff that’s about our personal preferences and being right -- we can set that aside.

Otherwise, clinging too tightly to what we know is right,
 The future God has planned for us could just slip right past us.

Think on what has been given to us over the years
 That simply began as a matter of convenience -- tying up a dog so we wouldn’t be bothered --
   And now the situation that gave rise to it is long past,
   But the practice has moved from practicality to just something we do by rote
   Because --
     And these seven words are poison --
       “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
And we’re still holding on, thinking there’s only one right way to follow.

We say it represents some almost primordial part of us --
 Can’t say why, really --
 Just know that if we didn’t have it,
   Things would be, ah, -- well, it just wouldn’t be church anymore.

All those things we do: they may be traditional, or they may be customary.
Yet they may very well hinder the movement of the Holy Spirit.
So much of what we cling to is not piety.
For piety is duty: conscientious and loyal duty rendered to God,
 The sacrifice and duty of our work and our worship.

And where does that leave little Nathan Garrett Rogers,
 Born at the end of April, and here to be baptized in due course this morning?
The fastest and most brutal answer is this:
 If the church of Jesus Christ can’t shuck itself of obsolete objects and personal preferences,
 It’ll just make it harder and harder for him to seek and find spiritual community.
But if the church will commit itself to real piety --
   Will commit, in hope and faith, to get out of God’s way and let God be God --
 If the church will do dutiful, conscientious, loyal service to God and worship of God --
 Then we will move along fine and pass the baton to Nathan’s generation.

Let us pray.Gracious Spirit, keep giving to us those things you know we need,
 And more than that, those things we need to give away.
Above all, give us the spirit of Jesus.

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