The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Ash Wednesday Holy Communion      14th February 2018
Lent, Secrets, Silence
Jeremy Fletcher

Matthew 6. 1-6, 16-21

Jesus assumes much about his hearers in the Sermon on the Mount. In our Gospel reading tonight he assumes that we are disciplined in our religious action, or ‘pious’ (v. 1): specifically that we give alms (v. 2); that we pray (v. 5); and that we fast (v 16). You can expect to hear various calls at the beginning of Lent to take up new spiritual practices and to give up some cherished habits. That is not Jesus’s sermon. Rather, he assumes that prayer, almsgiving and fasting, are already part of the lifestyle of his hearers. You don’t need a special season to do them: they are just normal.

If they are not normal for you, then you are not alone at Hampstead Parish Church. We didn’t ask a question about fasting in our recent parish survey, but we did ask about prayer, Bible reading and about giving to the church. A quarter of the 171 people who responded said they prayed every day. But a quarter said ‘hardly ever’ or only once or twice a month. 8% said they read the Bible every day or several times a week. Two thirds said they read the Bible hardly ever or up to twice a month. Giving to Hampstead Parish Church is undertaken regularly by less than half of our database, and it looks like most people give around 2% of their income.  

If Jesus assumes these things to be normal, and most of us don’t really engage in them, Lent is a good time to reassess. Of course it’s not just about money: up 30 volunteers each night were involved in making the C4WS Night Shelter happen last year. Another group is at work trying to create a home for a refugee family. We give to the Food bank, and support many superb charities and organisations. We come to worship, and we’ll join in with Lent Groups so we can learn more. But, in ‘piety’ terms, our general bar is set very low, and Lent shines a searching light on how we go about being open to the will and love and challenge of God in Jesus Christ. 

The practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting lay bare our motivations and our desires. To give up a meal, not for the sake of getting slimmer and feeling good about ourselves, but to show that we know we do not live on bread alone, is to say that we trust God who provides for our needs, and that we identify with those who have little. To give up a meal, and then to give its equivalent to the food bank is to benefit someone else as well as ourselves. To readdress our giving, to this church and to other organisations, is to show that we know our goods and possessions are not our own. Storing up treasure on earth gets us nowhere eternally. 

And, says Jesus, when you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. Let me tell you that I think that’s the greatest challenge of all. In the seventeenth century Blaise Pascal, the philosopher, said: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. You might dream of the bliss of 15 minutes of peace, but recent research says it will kill you. A project in 2014 found that regardless of age, occupation, education or income, the vast majority of people were seriously distressed at being on their own with no distractions for fifteen minutes. Two thirds of the men involved were even happy to give themselves electric shocks to pass the time. 

We do not know what to do with silence. It lays us bare. It is not a modern, smartphone addicted, dopamine problem either. Pascal wrote three hundred years ago about humanity’s need to be ‘distracted’. Perhaps the hardest thing Jesus says here is not about giving up food or giving away our money, but that we might be on our own to pray. Public prayer gets a response. Private prayer is just us and God. So how about a Lent challenge.. Fifteen minutes of quiet, with no distraction, may be impossible for the majority of the population. But three minutes might be ok. Especially if you first use a pattern for prayer, like Morning and Evening Prayer on the C of E website, or its prayer app. Or if you take a Gospel, and read a chapter and then have some quiet afterwards. Or take a psalm and read it very slowly.

To give, to fast, to pray, is to expose our motivations and our needs. Jesus assumed we would do this, and was challenging the way people moulded them to fit their needs (for affirmation and popularity rather than growth in faith. It may be uncomfortable. But Jesus also assumes that God is involved in this too. Almsgiving lays up treasure in heaven. Fasting will feed us spiritually. Prayer deepens our relationship with God. We do not do them for reward. We do them because that is how we relate to God. We do them to show ourselves where our treasure, and our hearts are. May this Lent be holy. May you know your need for forgiveness, and may you find opportunity to give, pray and learn. For Jesus’ sake. Amen. 

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