6:1 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.[a] Concerning Prayer 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. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. - Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 NRSV
Sermon by Pastor Joshua Demi
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time when prayer and fasting are on a lot of people’s minds. Lent is a time that The Church has set aside to be intentional about prayer and fasting, in preparation to celebrate Easter, to prepare our hearts so that the reality of Jesus’ resurrections and all that it means can nestle into our hearts, and sink into our bones. The season of Lent lasts 40 days (not counting the Sundays), inspired by Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. Sundays are not included in the count because every Sunday is essentially a mini-Easter, a celebration of the resurrection, and so it is common to break one’s Lenten fast in small ways, to remind oneself that today we celebrate. A good example of this is our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, who observe probably the strictest Lenten fasts the entire Christian world,. Eastern Orthodox Christians typically fast from abstaining from all animal products as well as cooking oils during Lent. But on Saturdays (when many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters begin preparing for Sunday, through Saturday evening Vespers) and Sundays, are able to use a little bit of oil to cook with, while still abstaining from animal products. Today we are going to turn our focus to what The Bible says about prayer and fasting, particularly when it comes to how we are to pray and fast.
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.”
– Matthew 6:1 NRSV
The first principle of prayer and fasting is that it ought to be done for God and or God alone, not to make ourselves look good. They are ways to meet God and connect with God, not ways to make oneself look good. What follows after this verse is not a blanket prohibition against praying or giving alms, for fasting in public, but an at times hyperbolic elaboration on this verse. Jesus himself practices public prayer by participating in worship at the synagogue, and communal fasting by participating in Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 23. Likewise, in the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus’ did not reprimand Zacchaeus when Zacchaeus publicly declared that he would give and extraordinary amount of alms to the poor. The story of Zacchaeus is one that some of us may remember being told for the first time as children in Sunday school. Perhaps you even sang the song as a kid: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. After Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house, after Zacchaeus (who was a tax collector) sits down with Jesus, his life is changed and he pledges to pay back anyone he has cheated four times what he took from them. Jesus does not reprimand him for talking about it publicly, but commends his faith. Jesus did so because Zacchaeus didn’t saying that in order to make himself look good, but simply out of enthusiastic repentance.
16And 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.”
– Matthew 6:16-18 NRSV
This isn’t a blanket prohibition about telling people you are fasting, or fasting in such a way that people just naturally know that you are. As I mentioned a moment ago, in the Old Testament there were times of proscribed fasting where the entire community would fast together, not unlike the modern church does during Lent. Jesus’ point is essentially: don’t brag about it and don’t draw attention to yourself. Wash your face, do your skin care or beard care, or whatever, routine and fast not so that you would be seen by others, but by God. Lent is a really interesting time because it is an opportunity to fast while avoiding any temptation to draw attention to yourself or make yourself look like some kind of “Super-Christian”. There are no “Super-Christians” during Lent, because when we’re doing this together.
Whenever you fast don’t worry about whether your fast makes you look good, just fast. When you pray don’t worry about whether you look good, or whether your prayer sounds good, just pray. This principle is very freeing. It’s freeing because it means that if you pray in church, at Sunday school or your small group, or you pray around the dinner table, and your prayer doesn’t sound good, if it’s not that eloquent or spiritual sounding, that’s ok. It’s not supposed to sound good; it’s just supposed to be sincere. Likewise, if your fast is not this huge, burdensome “super-fast”, but something simple – costly to you, personally, but simple – that’s ok. It’s not supposed to be this huge grandiose thing; it’s just supposed to be sincere. An awkward, fumbling, stammering prayer, prayed sincerely is pleasing to God. A simple fast, that is costly to us, but no so burdensome that we know we will be unable to keep it, offered sincerely to God, is pleasing to God.
Prayer and fasting are about connecting with God and therefore they will look different for each person. Let’s look briefly at Matthew 6:7-8.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
– Matthew 6:7-8
Here it’s important to keep in mind what Jesus does not say, lest we misunderstand him. Jesus does not say that we should refrain from saying prayers that repeat the same words multiple times. In fact, there are prayers in the Bible which include the repetition of the same phrase many times, like Psalm 136, which repeats “His steadfast love endures forever” over and over again. What Jesus does say is: “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” One can heap up empty phrases while praying spontaneously, without repetition, carefully choosing all the right religious buzzwords meant to make one sound spiritual. Likewise one can pray repeating the same phrase several times, like a prayer chorus, or the refrain is a modern worship song, and pray it sincerely.
Some people, or even the same person at different points in their life, will inevitably connect most deeply with God, pray most sincerely, in different ways. For a long time I thought that the only way to pray was spontaneously. But, the problem is, I have ADHD. Anyone with ADHD can probably attest to the, for lack of a better term, “pinball effect”, where your mind bounces around, because every thought reminds you of a different really interesting thought, so where you begin by talking about the weather, and then five minutes later find yourself talking about the relationship between Walt Disney and The Brothers Grimm. Personally, structure and repetition help me focus, and enable me to articulate the deepest groaning of my heart in ways that I can’t spontaneously. If you struggle to focus during prayer, particularly if you struggle with ADHD, structure may help; it may even be worth looking into some kind of tactile aid, like a prayer rope or prayer beads, which can help your brain focus by giving you something to do with your hands. The point is that there is no mode of prayer – be it spontaneous, or contemplative, or the use of formal pre-written prayers – which is inherently more spiritual, or more biblical, than any other.
Lent is an opportunity to explore our prayer life, to ask how we can set our egos aside and pray more sincerely, more fervently, whether it be by praying spontaneously and speaking to God as a friend, drawing on the great prayers of Church history, singing our favorite hymns or worship songs, or all three. Likewise it’s an opportunity to think about how we can fast most sincerely, most fervently, and be intentional about doing so. We have all given up a lot in the past year, but we’ve filled those voids with with something, or some thing. Some of it may be good, some of it may be decidedly not, and some of it may be good things that have taken up far more of our lives than they have any right to. An honest fast, a fast which is not about looking good but about setting something aside so you can connect more deeply with God, will look different for different people. This season is an opportunity to ask what has taken up more of our lives than it ought, we have been been using to fill voids, and how can we fill them with something better.
Whenever you fast don’t worry about whether your fast makes you look good, just fast. When you pray don’t worry about whether you look good, or whether your prayer sounds spiritual, just pray. There is no need to look good our sound spiritual. God hears the inward cries of your heart, and those prayers from your heart, and that constant daily struggle to set something aside so you can connect more deeply with God are beautiful to God. God shears the prayers no one else hears. God sees the struggles no one else sees. God sees you; God hears, you; God loves you… always.