[Jesus taught his disciples, saying: “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.”

Matthew 6:6

Whenever you pray,” Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel reading, “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.”

This year we have a rather unique opportunity to do this, don’t we? We have an opportunity to pray in secret, and to fast in secret, and to give in secret, and even to worship in secret. I am preaching to an empty congregation today, unfortunately, so that we can all worship safely in our homes. But I don’t know who is worshiping, and who isn’t. I can’t see you worshiping. Your neighbors can’t see you. Fellow members of your congregation can’t see you. Only your family, if you are able to worship with family, and your heavenly Father, who “sees in secret,” as Jesus says, can see you worshiping this year. 

Jesus is talking in this reading about prayer, of course, not worship. Worship is meant to be a communal act. We are not supposed to be worshiping in secret. We are supposed to worship together. But, still, because of this pandemic, we have a chance to think about Jesus’s teachings on prayer a little differently, and to see them through the lens of this worldwide crisis. So, here again, is a little of what Jesus said, and read it in light of this pandemic:

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.

Matthew 6:5-6

Don’t be like the hypocrites, Jesus says, who pray so that they may be seen by others. And can’t we say the same of worship? Don’t worship to be seen by others. Don’t fast, give, worship, or pray to be seen by others. Worship and pray to be seen by God, and simply to be with God. Worship and pray to thank God for our many blessings. To ask God for help in our many struggles. To confess to God our shortcomings and failings. And to intercede before God on behalf of all those in our community and world who are grieving, lonely, or struggling in other ways, sometimes known only to God. Pray for these things, not to be seen by others. And worship for the same reason. 

This unique Ash Wednesday brings this home to us in a powerful way. This is a day for us to come before God, simply to come before God. Not to come together. Not to sing, or to receive our ashes, or to celebrate Holy Communion. Not even to share a meal together. This is a day for each of us, for every family, for every person, to approach our heavenly Father in our homes, with our doors shut, to worship and pray in secret, to the God who sees all things. 

But even though we might do this by ourselves, we don’t just do this for ourselves. We do this for our world. We do this to pray for this broken, grieving, hurting world. Here is a passage from Joel, the first reading that is read each year on Ash Wednesday. And again, read it in light of this pandemic:

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

Joel 2:16-17

Powerful, isn’t it? And I assure you that this year, more than any year, I am weeping before the Lord, between the vestibule and the altar. And praying that our Lord would spare all of God’s people. The prophet Joel reminds us in this reading that one of the most important things that a priest, a minister of the Lord, can do, is to pray: to intercede before God on behalf of God’s people. And I consider it a great privilege and responsibility, as your pastor, to pray for each of you, and to pray for our community and world. 

But today, I also want to remind you that you, too, have been given this very important task. You are also priests and ministers of the Lord, called to intercede for our world. The New Testament teaches us that all Christians, baptized into Christ, are priests; all of us are ministers of the Lord. In First Peter, we are reminded of this, with these powerful words: 

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 Peter 2:9

You and I, together, are a royal priesthood. We are all priests and ministers of the Lord. When the church forgot this, 500 years ago, it was Martin Luther who reminded them of this important teaching, that every baptized Christian is part of the priesthood of all believers. Martin Luther did not invent this teaching. He simply re-discovered it, and reminded the church of it. Because it is clearly taught in the New Testament, and clearly practiced by the church throughout the ages. The church has always, at its best, recognized that praying for the community and world around us is among our most important tasks. 

And this year more than ever. Our call is to intercede for this world. In secret, perhaps – in our homes, by ourselves, or with our families. But, still, to intercede, to pray, to our heavenly Father on behalf of all our world. 

We can’t do this together this year. Not physically. And others won’t even know that we have done so. And we aren’t even promised to see any immediate results. Isn’t that the nature of prayer? Isn’t that what Jesus is teaching us here? To pray, not for earthly rewards or results, but to pray because God wants us to pray. To pray always, as Jesus also taught us, and not to lose heart. But to pray. Trusting, believing, that our heavenly Father sees us when we pray, and hears our every request. 

I know that I am not alone in looking forward to a time when we can come back together – to pray, and to sing, and to receive holy communion, and to share a meal and fellowship together. My heart longs for these things more than I can even put into words. St. Augustine once said that sometimes God defers our hope to stretch our desire. I don’t know if that is what is happening now, but my hope is certainly being deferred, and my desire for church and community is certainly being stretched. Here is a little more of what Augustine said about this to his congregation:

For just as, if you would fill a bag, and know how great the thing is that shall be given, you stretch the opening of the sack or the skin, or whatever else it be; you know how much you would put in, and see that the bag is narrow; by stretching you make it capable of holding more: so God, by deferring our hope, stretches our desire; by the desiring, stretches the mind; by stretching, makes it more capacious. Let us desire therefore, my brethren, for we shall be filled.

St. Augustine

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us stretch our desire this Lenten season – for worship, for community, for prayer, and for God. As our hope continues to be deferred, let us keep growing in our faith, so that we can hold more of all that God intends for us. 

As we spend time with our heavenly Father, behind our closed doors, in prayer and worship, let us grow closer and closer to God. So that we can leave our homes, with a renewed desire to share our faith, our hope, and our love with all the world. To the glory of God. Amen

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