Almsgiving, fasting and prayer
are the three spiritual practices
Jesus expects of his people.
But he expects them to be done in a different way
than most people do it.
Spiritual practices are not to be performances.
They are not to be done in order to be seen by others,
nor to be evaluated by the self,
nor to impress God.
They are not performances.
Almsgiving, or giving for the relief of the poor,
shows love for God by imitating his generosity
and being the conduit through which God provides for the poor.
Fasting is the denial of self
which gives up earthly goods
in order to focus on the one true need.
And finally, prayer is not a virtuoso act of holiness,
not the stringing together of beautiful words
or the feeling of deeply felt feelings
in order to force God to act
or to gain approval from others.
Rather prayer is trusting, loving communication,
asking God to do his will
and to sustain us on our journey.
Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer,
a prayer which, in its brevity,
contrasts with the long prayers of the Gentiles.
But this is not the truly distinguishing feature of the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus’ prayer life with the Father
was what sustained him in the desert wilderness for forty days.
It was the source and power of his ministry.
As a son of a Jewish family,
Jesus would have known the prayers of the Old Testament inside and out,
including and especially the psalms.
But when he taught the disciples to pray,
he took them into the prayer relationship he had with God his Father,
into a relationship of trust and love and complete communion.
When we say ‘Our Father,’
we do not mean that God has a generic relationship with all of humanity
as his creatures.
That would be ‘Creator.’
Rather, we mean that because Jesus has brought us into his community,
his ‘faith family,’
and named us sisters and brothers,
we may now address his Father as our Father.
We are brought into the circle of prayer.
Whether we are with others or not,
we never pray the Lord’s Prayer alone.
Rather, we always pray it with Jesus and all his faithful.
Imagine the next time you say the Lord’s Prayer,
being with Jesus and all the disciples,
not just the ones on the hillside hearing the Sermon on the Mount,
but all the faithful, living and dead,
those of every time and every place,
addressing ‘Our Father.’
It’s a wonderful thing to think about.
And by the Spirit, it’s true, even though we don’t see it.
In praying Jesus’ prayer, we ask for two things and two things alone.
We ask that the Father make his kingdom come.
This is elaborated in the first three petitions.
The second thing we ask is that God would sustain us on our journey.
That is summarized in the second three petitions.
Make your kingdom come,
Sustain us until that day.
It is a prayer that is more concerned with our need for God
and the world’s need for God,
than our needs for ourselves.
It is a very simple prayer,
so simple that we could spend the rest of our life talking about it
and never run out of things to say or consider.
But there is just one more thing I want us to think about tonight.
You see, the Lord’s Prayer is not for everyone.
There are some who are not able to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him.
Now anyone can say it, but that doesn’t mean they’re truly praying with Jesus.
By this I don’t mean that we need some sort of intellectual stature
or some kind of spiritual superiority
to plumb the depths of Jesus’ prayer.
What I mean is that we have to share in Jesus’ Spirit,
the Spirit which proceeds from Jesus and the Father.
And how do we know if we are sharing in that Spirit?
Jesus says that those who forgive others their trespasses
will themselves be forgiven by the Father,
but those who refuse to forgive will not be forgiven.
This is the criterion of an honest, Spirit-filled prayer,
whether we can pray it for others as well as ourselves.
When we say ‘Forgive us our trespasses,’
we’d better not really be saying, ‘Forgive me my trespasses,
but send those other people to hell!’
Rather, we include ourselves with others as those in need of forgiveness,
our forgiveness and God’s.
We seek to cast aside fear of the other,
trusting that God will provide,
and showing the same forgiveness toward them as God shows toward us.
Because that’s how Jesus prayed his prayer.
He did not need to ask forgiveness for himself.
He needed to ask it for us,
we who misunderstood him,
we who gladly hear his word and then wrong each other,
we who put him on a cross.
‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
If you’ve tried to do this and failed, join the club.
And we cannot be reconciled with one who will not reconcile;
we need not subject ourselves to abuse or violence,
and we may never be able to return to the same way
of relating to another who has hurt or wronged us in some way.
We don’t have to entrust our money
to the same person who embezzled from us,
even when he has repented from his sin.
But when there is a way to restore relationship,
or even to rework relationship,
we can be open to it,
rejoicing in God’s new possibility,
and we can always, always pray,
even when things seem hopeless.
There is no moment we will reach when we cannot pray for the other.
But those who refuse to pray in this way
or even to start to walk the path of this kind of prayer,
even when they cannot do it by their own strength,
show that they are not part of Jesus’ community
which prays for the kingdom of the Father.
They pray alone,
for they refuse to pray together with the one who forgave them their trespasses.
They do not long with Jesus for the reconciliation of all people,
and therefore they cannot accept the forgiveness which he offers them,
a forgiveness which would bring them into communion with others.
Again, we are not asked to perfectly fulfill a law,
we are called to walk a path.
We are not asked to say that we are not hurt and deeply so,
we are called to hope with Jesus’ heart
for a world at peace and reconciled
and to seek to live out that reality in our own lives.
Let us pray, therefore,
that we might be saved in the time of trial
delivered from evil,
and set in the community of Jesus’ disciples,
praying with him for the reconciliation of the world,
and the appearance of his kingdom.