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Sermon of Reverend Timothy J. Kennedy
Pastor Kennedy

Best Foot Forward

Ash Wednesday - Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

1“Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2“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. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“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. 6But 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.

16“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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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.

Appearances matter - at least we often think they do. I like the story of the woman who was out in the yard working when a moving van pulled up next door. She walked over to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood wearing her dirty work clothes, with mud under her fingernails and grimy sweat across her brow. As she greeted the neighbors, the mantra ran through her mind, "Oh my gosh! You only get one chance to make a first impression." The following week, the new neighbors invited her and her husband to a housewarming party. The woman wanted to make a better impression this time. She colored her hair, squeezed herself into a corset, painted her lips, applied eye shadow to her eyes and false eyelashes, painted her fingernails, and popped in her contact lenses. She admired herself in the mirror and said to her husband, "Well, tonight they are going to see the real me!" Who can blame her? She merely wanted to put her best foot forward!

Appearances matter. We all know people who like to proclaim, Take me as I am; what you see is what you get." I'm not saying people are hypocrites when they make that kind of claim, but it's been my experience that what we see seldom goes beyond skin deep. The reason being is that we are all actors and actresses in our own ways ... wanting people to see the best in us as we put on a smiley face and attempt to put our best foot forward.

I traveled by bus throughout Israel last summer. The first time we left Tantur, the ecumenical study center, the driver placed a big white sign by the passenger side windshield. Since it was in Arabic, I asked our guide to translate. "This is an Arab bus, owned and operated by Arabs. Please do not throw stones." When we got close to Tel Aviv, the driver pulled another sign from behind his seat, and replaced the first sign in the windshield. Since it was in Hebrew, I asked our guide to translate. "This is a Jewish bus, owned and operated by Israelis. Please do not throw stones." How do you tell the difference between a Arab bus and a Jewish bus? A big plastic sign in the windshield. Appearances matter.

Can you imagine the hypocrisy of that bus? It became Arab or Jew on a whim ... whenever it became convenient to be one or the other. I have to admit, I wonder if this is how I sometimes live out my Christian calling. When the situation demands it, I am "churchy," a disciple of Christ; I pet the dog, pat heads of little children, and appear to all the world like Mother Theresa with slacks ... as I try to put my best foot forward. At other times, when I think others aren't looking and lurking, and God just might be distracted, I am something else, indeed. If you can relate to this, welcome to Lent - and not a moment too soon!

"Lent" comes from an old English word meaning "lengthen." At this time of year, the days begin to lengthen, and spring is in the air. Although, given the forecast, I hope the first robin of Spring is still south of the Mason/Dixon line! Nevertheless, Lent has the sense of springtime. Lent is a season of the Church Year which prepares the Christian for the Easter event, much the same way Advent seeks to prepare us for Christmas. And Advent and Lent both begin with REPENT! The Greek word "metanoia" (repent) has the sense of turning your life around. But not all the way around. Not like the actor on Oprah confessing how he had been so messed up with wine, women and song. "But then the Lord came into my life and turned it around 360 degrees!" I never was much good with geometry, but by my calculations, if the Lord turned him around 360 degrees, the Lord left him facing the same direction. Repentance, then, is a turning of our lives 180 degrees, or there abouts. Away from selfish desires which cause us to sin!

Ash Wednesday has been a traditionally somber day for Christians. Some of us chose ashes as a sign of our sin. Others did not. However, hopefully all of us chose to be here to say unto God in the presence of "the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, I have sinned and I am dreadfully sorry." Not that God needs to hear it ... God knows our heart. But we need the healing, and the cleansing of confession. A major theme of our Lenten journey is this: we sin, God sighs. Appearances matter. And God wants to give us all a new look.

This certainly sounds like a whole lot of bad news, doesn't it? We are so helpless. And yet, the situation is by no means hopeless. We gather this evening because we recognize the hope that is ours through Jesus our Lord. We sin. God sighs. We sin. God dies. By all appearances, God's gamble on the cross for our salvation, ends in defeat. Appearances matter ... but not everything is as it appears to be. For we know the conclusion of our journey through Lent. A rolled away rock and an empty tomb. Glory to God ... the Risen Christ puts his best foot forward: all nail-scarred and perfumed - his best foot forward!