Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
“Go Into Your Room and Shut the Door”
I’ve mentioned many times before that one of my favorite things about Grace Church is the fact that we offer at least one public service of worship every day of the year. I am very much sustained by attending Morning and Evening Prayer, where usually I can just be a member of the congregation, listening and praying along with everyone else. As many of you know, we also have regularly scheduled Holy Eucharist services on Wednesday and Thursday morning, each with its own flavor and emphasis and both great gifts for those of us who attend regularly.
At a recent weekday Eucharist the gospel lesson was the passage from Matthew that we read every year on Ash Wednesday. Here are the opening verses (6:1-6):
Jesus said, "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.”
This is always a challenging and awkward passage to deal with on Ash Wednesday when we’re all receiving a very visible and public sign of our Christian faith. But, although we should always be on guard against practicing our faith to impress other people, I happen to think that this is not a big issue for most of us at Grace Church today. Some of you probably remember a time when it was expected that nearly everyone went to church and so at least some people went primarily to see and be seen and maybe to connect with people with similar interests or of the same class.
At least around here, those days are long over. No one really cares – or is impressed – when they see us going to church. Today most of us come to church because we think it’s good for us. Today most of us come to church because we are fed by the Word of God, the prayers, the music, the fellowship and, most of all, the Body and Blood of Christ.
But, Jesus’ other point, the crucial importance of private and personal prayer, is one that I know challenges me and maybe you, too. Jesus’ point reminds us of the awesome and humbling truth that the God who made all that is wants to have a relationship with us – wants to know us and wants to be known by us. One of the most powerful and poignant moments in the whole Bible comes near the beginning. After Adam and Eve have disobeyed God they are frightened and ashamed. In the story we’re told that God comes through the garden looking for them asking the heartbreaking question, “Where are you?”
In a sense, God has never stopped asking that question. And we answer by setting aside time – even just a few minutes – for private prayer.
Easier said than done, I know. Many of us are busy and overburdened. Yet, there are prayer practices that we can fairly easily weave into our lives. Recently I heard a parishioner say that throughout her marriage each night she and her husband said the Lord’s Prayer together before going to sleep – a simple and beautiful practice she has continued on her own since his death.
When I’m at my best, I like to pray the Examen, a practice developed by Ignatius of Loyola. Essentially it’s a chance to take stock of my life in a prayerful way, to reflect on the times when I’ve been drawn to God and times when I’ve felt far from God. It’s a chance to ask forgiveness for the ways I’ve fallen short of the call to love and to ask God’s help to do better now and in the future.
Maybe you already have private prayer practices. If not, I encourage you to try carving out even just a minute or two – to “go into your room and shut the door” and begin answering God’s call to us. Jesus tells us that God will reward those who pray in secret. The reward isn’t health or wealth, but a deepening sense of God’s loving presence, giving us the faith and strength to face life’s many challenges and opportunities.