A Season of Coming Closer
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

“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.

2 “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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “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. 6 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.

16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.

In Seminary one spring, a group of students invited me to join them in a spiritual practice during the season of Lent. Every Friday we would fast. We would not eat or drink anything, from the time we woke up until 6pm.

At 6pm, we would gather in the balcony area of the seminary cafeteria. And before eating, we would read scripture together, pray from the Book of Common Prayer, and lift up our own prayer requests.

I was excited to start that practice. And I felt honored that these other students would invite me to join in. I believed that this would be a big help in my faith and relationship with God.

But by about the third Friday, I started to wonder if fasting was the best spiritual practice for me. I was realizing that during the day, far from being more focused or appreciate or mindful, I was getting more withdrawn, angry, and without effort. I wasn’t as pleasant to be around. I didn’t have as much energy in my classes and the work I was doing with after school children. And even as we broke fast together, I can remember wanting us to hurry through those scripture readings and prayers and liturgy so I could finally just eat. That time of prayer and scripture reading, I barely heard or could focus on. Instead of this practice connecting me with God, it was distracting me from loving God and loving people.

For others in the group, this was a holy practice. It offered them extra time in the day to reflect. It made them connect more with the world and the gifts we have in it and be more appreciate of them. It pointed them to Christ’s sacrifice and love. This was a great practice for them. And I am glad I tried it, joining in with them that Lenten season. It was good for me to do that spring. But it also made me realize that not all spiritual practices are for all people. The next spring, I had to decline the group, because I had to ask myself: “What am I doing this for? Am I doing this to fit in? Am I doing this to check off a box of being holy in Lent? Or am I doing this to deepen my relationship with God?

In the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about three spiritual practices: giving money, praying, and fasting. And with each spiritual practice he tells us don’t do them for show. Don’t sound a trumpet when you give your money away. Don’t pray loudly on the street corner with lots of fancy words. And don’t look dismal and pray loudly when you are fasting.

Now there are times that we may not look our best when fasting or doing other spiritual practices, and there may be times when we need to pray in groups in front of others, and there may be times we need to let some limited number of people know how much we are giving.

But with each of these commands, Jesus is asking us a question: What are you doing this practice for? Why are you giving? Why are you praying? Why are you fasting? Is it because it is expected? Is it because it’s how you fit in (or stand out)? Is it because it helps check a box as others watch you? Or is it draw you closer to the life God wants for you?

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. And throughout Christian history, this has been a season of preparation. It is a season that we prepare our hearts and minds and spirits to meet the good news of Easter Sunday. There is some hard work involved in that. It includes remembering our mortality, confessing that we are sinners in need of grace, and repenting to God.

That word repentance, though, is more than just confession. Repentance means to turn. To turn our bodies. To turn our minds. To turn our daily practices. It is what John the Baptist shouted as people came to him to be baptized. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” But it is not just turning from something. It is also turning to something.

It is turning towards the redeeming, welcoming, wondrous love of God. And it is turning away from all that keeps us from knowing that love.

And I believe God has given us practices, and tangible everyday actions we can take in to assist us in this turning. It may be fasting. It may be singing a Hymn or Psalm. It may be reading this Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. It may be finding time for meditation and listening to God’s voice. It may be giving something up that you know is taking too much of your time, energy, and focus. Whatever it is, don’t feel like it needs to fit with what everyone else is doing. Don’t believe that yours can’t something unique. These practices, they’re not for others. They’re not meant to fit in a box. They are meant to help us seek after God and know God’s love in this world.

For me, a practice I realized this past week I don’t do enough is being outside at least one time a day. Whether its running or walking or praying, outside away from screens, away from a million distractions, I’m reminded of who made this world, and who I am in it. This past week, I was out running at night in 40 degree weather with cold, cold rain pouring down. But far from being miserable, it reminded me that I am mortal and fragile, but somehow incredibly made. My breath in front of me reminded me that I am alive and this day is a gift. I don’t know that running in cold rain fits into an unexpected Lenten box. But neither does God’s love.

So this morning I want to challenge you. I want you to take a moment of silence. And as you do, I want you to consider what is one (or two) practices you can do this Lenten season to turn towards God’s redeeming love. And then, I invite you to write down this morning one or two practices you can do these next six weeks that will strengthen your relationship with God. Let us pray.

Lent Practices 2018

1. What is one thing that is taking up too much of my time, resources, energy, etc. that I would like to give up for the Season of Lent?

2. What is one thing I can do in these next forty days to come close to God?
What specifically (time/days/places) will I do to follow through with this?