Okay… I’m afraid I’m going to do something in my reflection on this week’s readings that I’ve never done before – I’m going to focus in on the epistle reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. I often find the New Testament letters to be rather preachy and didactic, which appeals to me far less than narrative or poetry. Of course, the letters are supposed to be preachy and didactic; that’s the whole reason they were written! Sometimes it helps me to add some line breaks to the letters, to get more space between those tightly packed thoughts – and I promise you, if you have to write longhand rather than typing at the keyboard, you pack your thoughts much more tightly, and you plan out what you want to say before you have to spend the time and the precious paper and ink saying it. So here are the parts of the epistle this week that sang out for me.
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.
For one believes with the heart and so is justified,
and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
The scripture says,
“No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
the same Lord is Lord of all
and is generous to all who call on him.
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
shall be saved.”
But how are they to call on one
in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one
of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear
without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him
unless they are sent?
As it is written,
“How beautiful are the feet
of those who bring good news!”
Paul is reminding here of the Great Commission, our purpose as Christians. As wonderful as it is, we are not supposed to be Christians for ourselves, but for others. We are Christians to – and I hate to use the E-word, especially knowing how Episcopalians disdain it – evangelize. Our job is to bring others to Christ, to bring the Good News to life in the world. This letter tells us that there are two parts to this – believing in our hearts, and speaking with our lips, so that anyone in the world can call on God and be saved, be gathered into God’s welcoming, loving arms, be forgiven and included at the great Feast in God’s kingdom. To be a Christian is not to gloat in one’s personal invitation to the Feast, but to give that invitation away to another. And the best part of this is, every time you give away your invitation, God gives you another; the more invitations you give away, the more invitations God gives you. God doesn’t want anybody to be left out of the feast – not Jews or Greeks, not slaves or free persons, not men or women, not heterosexuals or homosexuals, not dictators or murderers, not philanthropists or AIDS orphans, not saints or sinners, not prostitutes or demoniacs or tax collectors, not anybody.
The thing is, how can these people accept God’s invitation, if they don’t even know they’ve been invited? And this is what Paul says – those of us who are Christians are essentially God’s mail carriers, responsible for delivering God’s invitations to everyone we meet. Of course, the invitations aren’t engraved with beautiful gold calligraphy on vellum or linen. In fact, the invitations are often messy, complicated. They’re all mucked up with humanity, with our flawed and imperfect world and our flawed and imperfect selves. In fact, many of those of us who are Christian may have trouble believing that we have been invited to the Feast, before we even try to invite someone else. We know our own flaws so intimately, and those flaws loom so hugely for us. I think many of us see our own brokenness as much larger than anyone else’s, so we can think we are the brokennest, the worst, the ugliest. The truth is, of course, that most of us are pretty much equally flawed, pretty much equally broken and ugly. We think of ourselves as the feet – funny-looking, callused and rough on the bottom, bumpy and hairy on the top, with those goofy and useless baby toes. Feet have to be covered up, protected from the elements, and it’s hard to make feet look good.
But Paul says in this letter that the feet that bring good news to others are beautiful, and he’s right. We warmly welcome someone who brings us good news, and we find every part of them to be wonderful. Of course, in biblical days, it would be the host’s responsibility to help a guest to be cleaned and refreshed, and part of the ritual of hospitality was to wash the feet of your guest. It’s very likely that you would be kneeling at the feet of your guest, washing the dust and grime from them, while she or he told you that good news – you would be focused on those feet… and they would be the most beautiful feet you’d ever seen.
My feet are not very beautiful. I have bunions, usually red and swollen by the end of the day. Like my mother, my feet have a hereditary malformation in the bones that is exacerbated by the connective tissue disorder we share. My feet are wide and grow flatter every year. Even with my toes painted, my feet are not pretty. The soles are thick, rough, callused; I spend as much of the year barefoot as I can, so that by July, I can take my garbage to the curb and check my mail without having to wear shoes. They’re serviceable feet – they carry me well, when I wear good shoes – and I try to take good care of them. But they’re feet, just plain, ordinary feet. They’re practical, functional. I don’t think of them as pretty, don’t think of them as beautiful, not like my hair or my shoulders or my hands that are beginning to look like the hands of a woman in middle age. But when my feet carry me to another, when I am bringing good news, Paul says those feet are beautiful. When my hands bear a letter that contains joyful news, they are beautiful. When my lips speak words of peace and love and God’s grace, they are beautiful.
We dread the e-word in the Episcopal Church. We don’t do things like invite someone to church, because surely they’re happy with whatever they’re doing, and we wouldn’t want to be pushy or rude. The thing is, is it pushy to share invitations to God’s Feast? Is it rude to offer companionship on a Sunday morning, to extend the hospitality of one’s parish to a friend or loved one?
A few months ago, I was getting a haircut while my kids were at their piano lesson, and the stylist was talking with me about music. She asked where their lessons were, and I told her – the church is right across the street. She became excited when I told her about our music program, our incredible choir, our beautiful worship, and I said the words, “It would be great if you could come one Sunday!” I actually said that, to someone I’d never met before that morning. I invited her to church. Yes, my friends, I committed… evangelism. I’m not sure whether she’s had a Sunday morning off from work at the salon, so that she could come to church. But I hope that at the very least, a seed was planted, and she knows that she is invited to God’s Feast. I hope she knows that like anyone else, she can call on God, and God will answer, and she will be saved.
In the gospel lesson this week, Jesus walks across the lake during a great wind, to meet up with the disciples in their boat. Peter gives it a try, too, but he becomes frightened and he doubts, so he begins to sink. He calls on Jesus – calls on God – and Jesus answers, pulling him back up, and chides him for his doubt. And then, they get back into the boat, and everyone says that Jesus really is God’s son. They evangelize; they tell others about the miracles Jesus performed, the lessons that Jesus taught, the story of the life of their savior. I think sometimes that it wasn’t faith that Peter lacked so much as courage.
It is courage we often lack as well, courage to spread the good news. We are afraid we might be rejected. We might be plain, practical, ugly feet rather than beautiful ones. There’s some other good news in these stories, though. Jesus didn’t leave Peter to drown; Jesus helped Peter back up into the boat. And Peter – goofy, bumbling Peter, who never seemed to do anything right – Peter became the first bishop of the church. So we who know our flaws and brokenness, we who know we’re ordinary, funny-looking feet, we can become beautiful feet, too. All we need is our belief in God, in Jesus, and the courage to carry that good news to another.
You are hereby invited to feast at God’s Table. Please, bring a friend – bring everyone you know!