If we take back piety…

by Lea Matthews

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,
where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing at all during those days,
and when they were over, he was famished.
Luke 4:1-2

Piety is very close to being considered a four letter word these days, don’t you think? Piety has an image problem. The word connotes for us a faith set in stone, a life entrenched in ruts, and therefore, unmoving or unresponsive to the what’s happening in the moment, in the world. When you look up the definition of piety, you’ll find two. The first is simply a life of reverence and religious observance. The second goes something like this, “a belief that is accepted with UNTHINKING conventional reverence.” And if you put it like that, then yeah, I can understand piety’s PR problem. But piety, that first definition, as being defined by a life lived in reverence to God, a life whose source is the Spirit, sounds like something we could aspire to.

Today’s gospel lesson from Luke offers a different kind of piety. Luke shows us this dramatic scene, grand in its scale and in its stakes. Jesus, 40 days hungry, famished, gets tempted with bread. Jesus, founder of an alternative kingdom to the one offered by an ambitious and greedy world, gets offered dominion over all he can see. Jesus, suffering at that moment from the pains of humanity, gets baited to prove his divinity. To each of these tests, Jesus holds steadfast. He staves off the lure of temptation and the pull from the world and what it prioritizes.

And how does he do it? How does he hold onto what is sacred, what is too precious to release, even when hungry, depleted, and tempted? To the first taunt, when the Devil offers Jesus sustenance, a quick fix to his hunger, Jesus references the Exodus narrative, “humans do not live by bread alone.” Jesus reminds the Devil, and himself, of God’s miracle of manna given to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. The exodus is real to Jesus. He draws strength from the scriptural source. It matters to him. So he quotes scripture, yes, but he feels that scriptural power, and connects to God’s nourishment by ingesting their holy worth.

Next, when the Devil puts all the world on the table, and tells Jesus that he can have it all if he will only bow down, Jesus goes back to the law and recites the first of the ten commandments. “You shall have no other Gods before me.” It’s the law, right? And oftentimes, we think the law is there as a code, but is a guide rather than a source of the Spirit. But here, Jesus shows us otherwise. Jesus looks to the law in the moment of conflict and realizes that acceptance here would be spiritual compromise. If he were to accept the Devil’s dominion, he would essentially be re-enslaving himself. And the God he worships is God, the deliverer, not God the enslaver. Remembering who God is to Jesus, even as it is represented in his faith tradition, gives him clarity.

Then to the final test of Jesus’s divinity, the Devil gets smart and determines to wield the very thing that Jesus is using against him, the scripture. We know good and well that even the Devil can use scripture to make a claim. But Jesus proof-texts the Devil, trumping his manipulative and dangerous interpretation of the Psalmist’s words. Jesus knows the scripture so well that he can easily identify its misuse, in fact, its abuse. Here again, we see how the scripture is more than a treasure trove of stories to Jesus. He knows it intimately. He is in relationship with God, actively drawing from his faith tradition and from the Holy Word. It’s alive.

This example of Jesus on the cliff’s edge is piety at work. Not a piety separate and apart, rigid and isolated. Jesus just left the solitude of the wilderness, after all. This example is one where he is entering the world again, and demonstrating how to live in it, engaged, but making a new way. This, my friends, is a piety characterized by remembrance, reverence, and resistance. Where ritual, observance, and practice are not only necessary, they are life-giving. Don’t we want that, too? For a faith that matters? For our spiritual source to be so strong that it permeates all of our life?
We don’t usually find ourselves on the side of a cliff being offered a kingdom, or even attempt to do a 40 day fast, and some of us don’t even think of evil being physically embodied by any one person, much less the character of the devil. So when we read this story from Luke, it’s easy to dismiss it as the stuff of legend, rather than as offering us a very real ethic to live by. Jesus is showing us the way. And it is one of piety, real piety where tradition is remembered, God is revered, and the world’s momentary offerings are resisted for something more, something real to be found in the source of all, from God.

How do we, then, take on piety and do it in a way that is like Jesus’s example. And not slip into unthinking conventional rote behavior. Lent provides the invitation. In this season stretching before us, we are asked to examine ourselves, to find out where our source is, where our motivations come from, and if they are not from God, to let them go. To observe the season of Lent is a tradition. And like all traditions, we can go through the motions, checking the boxes, and simply move on. This isn’t the example of Christ on the cliff. The one of active engagement is. The one where we sink into the season, draw from it the lessons offered to us from our ancestors in faith. We can use the rituals to find God, to find ourselves…and to draw a connection between us.
I’ve had this on my mind all week. On Ash Wednesday, the Associate Pastor, Siobhan, and I set up an altar on the sidewalk outside of St. Paul and St. Andrews. Right on West 86th Street, by the entrance to the church. The table held two candles, the cross, and linens denoting the season of Lent and the sign of the cross. We stood in our robes on either side of the table, and each held a small wooden bowl with ashes burned from our palms last Holy Week.

When we first set up the altar and took our posts, it was 7am, still dark, and snowing. We had never done this, so we were excited and interested, I think, to see how it went. We stayed for two hours that morning, and because it was such a meaningful experience for us and for others, we went back out for the lunch hour. Simply put, it was wonder-full. It was an experience filled with God’s presence.
Many people asked me questions:

-Is it a blessing?
-Will the cross protect me?
-Do I have to be Catholic?
-Can I?
-Is it for me?

Many people gave me things:
-I got a lot of good mornings, Hi’s, and Hello’s.
-I lost count over the hours of how many smiles I received. Dozens upon dozens of them.
-I got some comforting advice from strangers…you need a coat under that robe! Go get a hat, young lady! You need an umbrella at least!
-One man gave me three quarters in my bowl.
-I received blessings from scores of folks, when leaving the table. God bless you, they said.
-One Jewish man passed by, wearing a yarmulke. He looked up, smiled, and gave me a peace sign. I returned it.
-One kid, probably 4 years old, craned his neck as he walked by, and gave me the most hilarious grimace. I returned it, too. He laughed.
-And I got so many thank yous. So many.
What people said also stuck with me:
-Oh I’m so glad you’re here. I work and can’t leave the job for to go to a service.
-I haven’t done this is over 26 years, since I left my home country.
-This is my first time.
-It’s not my holiday, one woman said, clutching her heart and smiling, so I don’t know what to say, but I wish you a good one. And thank you for being here.
-Que linda! I heard more than a few times.
-And Oh this is so nice! Many more.
-One young woman shouted back to me, “They should do this in the Bronx, too!”

I know what some will say, what some will think, to take ashes out of the church. To offer them outside of a worship service, even on the curb. They are lessened, some would think. They are made less-than, somehow. If people can’t fit church into their lives, then the church shouldn’t worry about taking it to them. I could not disagree more. Just as Jesus didn’t stay in the wilderness, our rituals don’t have to stay behind closed doors.

These were sidewalk encounters. Passing moments. A snatch of someone’s day met with a snatch of mine. But they were holy moments. They were divinely filled moments of people looking for meaning, and being so terribly grateful to find it in the mix of their regular days, their ordinary lives and routines. Not locked up behind some doors.

What is ritual, after all, if it isn’t alive anymore? What is sacred, if it’s kept secret and protected, apart and other? I learned so much from this practice of imposing ashes on the go. I watched how a ritual could change, take new form and new shape, giving us more. The ritual of ashes literally marks us, and draws us into deeper contemplation of our sinfulness, our mortality. But on the street, it changed entirely. It went from one that can become a practice of dour introspection and isolation, to a practice of joyful community building.

The ritual was real. It went from something that could have been rote, routine, and phoned in, to being an experience of God in the real world. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that the example Christ gives us to follow? Paul emphasizes exactly this in his letter to Rome. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” It must be in both, engaging our whole beings, our minds and our hearts, our words and our motivations. Jesus’s way is to fully engage in our faith. That’s why it is referred to as the way of Jesus. It’s total process.

I’m reminded of the branch of Judaism that came out of Orthodoxy, Hasidism, because its spiritual founders were horrified at the anestitized version of faith being practiced. One giant among the Hasidic founders, the Kotzker, was particularly worried by the reality that habit had completely taken over reverence, piety. Rabbi Heschel, in his contemplation of the Kotzker, wrote that he believed “if a man offered prayers today because he did so yesterday, he was worse than a scoundrel…Every day prayer had to have a fresh approach. One ought to search out the Truth daily, as if it had not been known before.” One must not be “stifled or tranquilized by comfort or easy belief.”
If we take back piety…if we take on a faith that remembers our traditions, reveres God in action and word, and resists the ease of a phoned in faith this Lenten season, I think we will be find ourselves prepared for the new life offered to us come Easter.

Heschel often said that the practice of one’s faith is like a watch that has to be daily turned. It has to be turned and turned and turned so that it doesn’t rust. It has to be kept oiled, juicy, ready. This only comes with practice. We must practice our faith, each time using the tools of our tradition with new eyes, new spirit, and a fresh outlook of wonder.

So we must live out our rituals, recite our scriptures, sing our songs, pray our prayers, embrace our traditions…so that when face a moment of temptation, a choice to compromise what is most sacred to us, we remember the way.

Because at the end of that way is God. Our source. Our deliverer. Our strength.

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