Lenten Reflection for Ash Wednesday, March 1, by Richard Sturm
‘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. Matthew 6:1-6
‘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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ Matthew 16-21
Ash Wednesday has long made me a bit uncomfortable—and the daily lectionary Gospel passage for today is one reason why.
Here in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be describing a Kierkegaardian “knight of faith” whose faithfulness is invisible to all outward appearances, but whose daily life is “blameless and upright.”
That’s why, today, I don’t feel completely comfortable wearing ashes on my forehead; it’s why, growing up, I never wore a crucifix; or why, when I was ordained, I felt awkward wearing a minister’s robe.
But something my nephew Mark said on that day, December 30, 1974, when he was three or four years old, made me feel better about making an outward appearance of my faith. My parents wanted a photo of me in my minister’s robe before we went to church for the ordination service, and my nephew was there when the photo was taken. He asked what was happening, and I answered, “Do you see what I’m wearing? What do you think I look like?” His answer: “A clown?”
In painting, the clown as an image of Christ has a fine tradition, and I like the way it contrasts his faithfulness with what the world ordinarily considers respectable. In times like ours today, whether or not others recognize me for who I am, I want my faithfulness to have integrity, grounded in my innermost soul.
O God, let me treasure Christ above all else. Let me proclaim as your faithful child, “You can have all this world. Give me Jesus!” Amen.
Richard Sturm is an Elder at The Park and serves as Secretary on the Ministry Council. Richard is semi-retired as a Professor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary at St. John’s University, and for many years he also served as Associate Minister here at The Park.