Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 – Blow the trumpet; sound a fast.
Isaiah 58:1-12 – The fast I choose is that you loose the bonds of injustice, share your bread with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into your house…
Psalm 51:1-17 – Create in me a clean heart O God…
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10 – We are ambassadors for Christ. Behold, now is the day of salvation. Paul shares that they have endured great afflictions for the sake of the gospel.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – Beware of practicing your piety before others. Give secretly. Wash up when you fast.
On Ash Wednesday we will read, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” and then we will smear crosses on our heads for all to see!
In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” but a few verses earlier, in Matthew 5 he said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 6 is the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches about prayer, fasting and giving alms. These have become the disciplines of Lent.
Prayer was important to Jesus. On February 4 we read about Jesus’ healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. At sundown the whole town showed up at the door with their sick. After an exhausting evening, we are told:
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:35-37)
Ministry is so exhausting, we need prayer to renew our strength. Isaiah 40 says those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. Prayer is waiting on the Lord. As the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46)
Jesus says, “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” What does it mean to be a house of prayer for all people? Are we a house of prayer? Are all people welcome? Who is not here?
It was the job of every rabbi to teach people to pray. It is, in fact, the responsibility of every spiritual leader to teach her followers to pray. How are we doing that? How and when does teaching about prayer take place in the life of your community? Lent? New member classes? Small groups? Adult education? Confirmation? Who is teaching lectio divina? Who is teaching journaling? Prayer walking? The labyrinth? Meditation? Contemplation? How are adults invited to enjoy the fruits of prayer?
For that matter, who is teaching fasting and almsgiving? Generosity? Hospitality? People are hungry for an introduction to the spiritual life. It is our privilege to introduce them to these spiritual disciplines, and Lent is tailor-made for this endeavor.
If we teach our people to pray, to reflect, to listen, they will benefit, our congregations will benefit and the world will benefit. Surprising things will happen. A few years ago I offered a 40-day devotional on prayer. www.bishopmike.com/pray. It may be a way to engage in waiting on the Lord.
Ash Wednesday is a great time to set the stage. Prayer is not just another task. It is the very conduit for our relationship with God. It is an invitation to come away, to get off the treadmill, and spend restful time listening. I believe our lives are chaos without this. One writer said our lives without daily prayer are like a book written without using the space bar: Canyouimagineabookwrittenwihtoutspacesbetweenthewords? This is how we live our lives in the modern world, without sufficient space, waiting, pausing, praying. Lent gives us an opportunity to realign this.
I am reminded that Marcus Borg spoke at our Theological Conference many years ago. One thing that stuck with me is what our people hear when we talk about repentance during Lent and Epiphany. “Repenting is not feeling bad about your sins.” Students of Koine Greek know this. Metanoia means changing our mind, our direction. Paul says in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In Philippians 2 he says, “Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus…” Repentance is about transforming our minds, our worldviews, our priorities. It is putting on gospel glasses and seeing the world through new eyes. In Lent we are offered a gift. New sight. We are invited to meta our noia.
Here is our gospel text from Matthew 6, an instruction from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as we embark upon our Lenten disciplines:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Here is powerful teaching on the spiritual life. You can see the clear teaching on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I notice that Jesus does not tell them to do these things. He assumes they already are. It it not, “If you fast…” It is, “When you fast.” Prayer, fasting and giving were normal aspects of Jewish life and piety. Indeed, while giving was not as common in Roman society, prayer and fasting were common practices in antiquity.
The thread that runs through all of these instructions is not to skip them, but to make sure your spirituality is not a shallow attempt to show off, and seem “holier than thou.” Spiritual practices are not for self-aggrandizement. They are not to impress others. They are for our relationship with God. Although Jesus participates in public prayer life of the Synagogue and Temple, he also encourages his followers to have a vibrant personal prayer life with God “in secret.”
The middle section of chapter six, which is missing in the pericope, encourages people not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words.” I like to ask people, “If prayer is communing with God, shouldn’t it be at the very least, 50% listening?” Jesus then goes on to give them what we now call The Lord’s Prayer. Note one of the remarkable aspects of this prayer is its brevity.
Jesus’ teaching on prayer is not to be verbose. If prayer is a conversation with God, should it not be mostly listening? Prayer begins with silence.
The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
– Mother Teresa
Why not invite your congregation to receive the blessings of a deeper practice of prayer this Lent? We follow a God who gives to us endlessly. Help them tap into this. Encourage them to renew their daily prayer habit, by setting aside time. Give them small group opportunities to process how their prayer lives are going. Preach weekly on various aspects of prayer. Daily prayer, weekly small groups, Sunday sermons on the topic everyone is engaging, this creates synergy. These three things form the foundation of any spiritual growth campaign: https://bishopmike.com/2015/02/03/spiritual-growth-campaigns/
Here is the good news for the church, a house of prayer. While ministry is exhausting, (heck, life is exhausting), God has given us a well from which to quench our spiritual thirst. When we are exhausted, Jesus invites us to come away to a quiet place and find refreshment for our souls. When we are exhausted from the ministry of the gospel to which God has called us, we are invited to wait upon the Lord. We are promised that those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will run and not be weary. They will walk and not faint. They shall mount up on eagles’ wings.
Is your house the house of prayer? Our Lord invites us to come, to eat bread and drink wine and find our souls refreshed. And it will become like a well within us, springing up to eternal life.
Let us be a house of prayer for all people.