Yesterday’s homily, preached for the seminary chapel service. It combined three of my favorite things (Advent, Isaiah, and feast days) with three of my least favorite things (forced conversions, child exploitation, and feet). I may have gotten a little schizophrenic trying to get it all in there.
This was my introduction to the service:
Today is the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of all foreign missions. Born in the kingdom of Navarre (present-day Spain) in 1506, Francis Xavier became Ignatius Loyola’s college roommate at the University of Paris and went on to become one of seven founding members of the Jesuit order. Sent to the Far East by the King of Portugal, Francis Xavier used Goa, India as his base for a series of missions to India, Indonesia, and Japan. He became determined to introduce Christianity to China, a lofty goal, since at that time China was closed to foreigners. He died off the coast of China on December 3rd, 1552, awaiting a boat that would agree to carry him to the mainland. He was canonized in 1622, and is said to have converted the most people since St. Paul. Modern scholars number his converts around 30,000.
December 3, 2012
Chapel of the Abiding Presence
Full disclosure: I had no idea who Francis Xavier was when I first received notice that I would be leading worship on his feast day. I turned to Wikipedia for answers, and learned that Francis Xavier is known mostly for his missionary work in Asia. I had some trouble working up proper enthusiasm over this fact. I’m a post-modern gal, believing in the virtues of religious pluralism, and moreover I am Lutheran, a population of people who generally invite strangers to come to church with them once every 23 years. I couldn’t quite see how I was going to come to terms with this Jesuit priest who went off into the native populations of India, China, Japan, and the East Indies to convert them to Christianity.
Well, I thought, maybe the scripture for the day has something that speaks into this dilemma. So I opened to Isaiah 52 and started reading, How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news….Ok, I thought, fine. Clearly the will of the lectionary is for a service on the theme of evangelism. Who am I to argue?
But wait a minute. What did I just read? The feet? How beautiful are the feet? Seriously? Can you picture this…a nation of people who are standing in exile, waiting in readiness for a message of redemption and restoration, and the messenger is sighted, and the crowd begins to murmur and stir, and the messenger comes struggling up the mountain, out of breath and eager to deliver her news, and as she opens her mouth to speak the words that people have waited so long to hear, all they can look at is…her feet?
Why? Bewildered, I pulled up Bibleworks and ran a search for “feet” and “foot.” And guess what I found? Feet are everywhere in the Bible. The words appear almost 400 times, and references range from foot-washing, to shaking the dust from your feet, to sitting at the feet of the teacher. There are idioms and euphemisms involving feet, including “covering the feet,” which means answering the call of nature, and whom of us who have taken Dr. Steven’s Old Testament class will ever forget the euphemistic use of “feet” as it appears in the story of Ruth and Boaz, among other places? And of course, feet are everywhere in passages concerning pilgrimages and journeys.
In the culture of biblical times, feet got a lot more play than they do now. H.L. Leuring writes in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia about how the dusty roads of Palestine, the absence of socks, the popular choice of sandals instead of boots, and frequent barefoot walking “make a much greater care of feet necessary than we are accustomed to bestow on them”. And perhaps most important for our purposes: “The roads of the desert were not only dusty but rough, and the wanderer was almost sure to ruin his ill-made shoes and wound his weary feet.”
That means that the feet of the messenger who climbed the mountain to deliver the news of salvation would have been anything but beautiful. They would have been dirty, and cut-up, perhaps bleeding and bruised. The writer of this verse chose to point at the poorest and dirtiest part of the messenger and call those feet beautiful not because the messenger got a pedicure and rode up the mountain on a cloud, but because the message itself was so glorious, so transformative, so full of joy, that it made even the meanest part of the person who spoke such words beautiful.
What blessed good news for all who are called to prepare the way of the Lord, because we all of us have parts that could be far more beautiful. In the case of St. Francis Xavier, these parts included forcing native converts to take Portuguese names and dress in Western clothes, as well as approving the persecution of the Eastern church. He had a deep-seated abhorrence of pagan idol-worship, and used to have children report to him any person who kept idols in their house. He’d then go to that house with that band of children, and have the kids destroy every idol they could find, all the while insulting the gods their parents worshipped. In one case, he had a Christian house where he found idols burnt down as an example to others.
Is the beauty of the Christian message such that it can cover up the ugliness of manipulating children and turning them against their parents, of religious persecution, of forcing one’s culture upon others? Does St. Francis’ success make up for his less worthy methods of evangelizing? Do ends justify means, as long as the end is the kingdom of God?
No. The beauty of the Christian message lies not in who or how it is delivered, but in whose it is. Despite all we can do and have done to screw it up, the message is God’s, not ours. The good news belongs to a God who has become flesh, who knows our weaknesses, a God who formed our hands and feet for service but who knows how often they are turned to acts of worldly power. The beauty of the Christian message is that it belongs to a God who is willing to use our feet of clay to carry forth that message anyway.
When we walk out of these doors and into the world, our sacred faith often becomes a private matter, concealed in the interests of self-protection, or out of fear of not conforming with the politically correct, or worst of all, out of anxiety of starting down a slippery slope at the bottom of which we find ourselves convincing children that their parents are going to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus. Yes, we have an onus to hold ourselves theologically and morally accountable for the ways in which we go forth to evangelize, and yes, despite our care, we’ll still make mistakes. But there is grace abounding in the good news that we bear to the world, and loveliness in our message so intense that it beautifies even our dirtiest, most broken parts.
“Keep walking,” God says, when we stumble over our own feet as we try to put ourselves at others’ service and find ourselves yielding to self-interest instead.
“Keep walking,” God says, when we strive to speak for God and end up putting our feet in our mouths.
“Keep walking,” God laughs, when we believe our pilgrimage is at an end and we have learned everything we need to learn, and have gone everywhere we need to go.
“Your feet were made for walking,” I imagine God singing, in surpassing imitation of Nancy Sinatra. “And that’s just what they’ll do. I’ve called you as my people, and I do my work through you.”