Beautiful Feet and Holy Hands
Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10; I Timothy 4:11-15
Upon first sight of Juliet, Romeo says, “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear – Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (Romeo and Juliet, I, v. 46). In Twelfth Night, Viola, dressed in disguise as a man, comments on Olivia’s beauty, saying, “’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on. Lady, you are the cruelest she alive if you will lead these graces to the grave, and leave the world no copy” (Twelfth Night, I, v. 239). “Beauty too rich for use,” says Romeo. “Beauty truly blent,” says Olivia.
Then there is the poetic prophet Isaiah who says, “How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’.” While I can appreciate the poetry of “Beauty too rich for use” and “Beauty truly blent,” I stumble at the clumsy poetry of “beautiful feet.”
There is good reason why Shakespeare never wrote a play or a sonnet about feet. Based on my own unscientific, and yet no less empirical study of feet, I have reached the conclusion that the adjective “beautiful” has no business modifying the noun, “feet.” And yet, try to stop Isaiah from using this anatomical image. Even Knowing that in the ancient Near East a messenger’s feet would most likely be bleeding, filthy, and callused, the poetic prophet still enthusiastically exclaims, “How beautiful are the feet!”
This prophet-poet that we know as Second Isaiah wrote in a time when all of Israel’s trusted institutions had collapsed. The Babylonians had marched into Jerusalem and set the town afire, included the sacred Temple. Set out on a forced march from Jerusalem to Babylon were the most valued residents of Judah – their finest artists and intellectuals and brightest lights.
The prophet-poet, the messenger with “beautiful feet,” announces “God reigns” to captives living far from home, to exiles and hostages who felt God had left them desolate.” To the most despairing, Isaiah announces, “God reigns” and with that announcement, Isaiah announces that Babylon does not reign, even it seems like they do. The poetic messenger with “beautiful feet” announces that God is not a figment of weak imaginations or a distant deity removed from the traffic of life. No, even when life is the most confounding and heart-breaking, God reigns, says Isaiah. These words, this promise of the reign of God, are spoken by another messenger years later, a messenger standing at an empty tomb on the first Easter morning. The messenger declares, “Jesus is not here. He is not distant and defeated. He is risen and he awaits you in Galilee.”
How beautiful are the feet of those whose lives point others toward the gentle and just reign of our gracious God. These messengers with “beautiful feet” do not walk with a measured step or tiptoe around so as not to disturb anyone. These messengers can’t keep their beautiful feel still or quiet because they have too much to say and much too much to do.
“How beautiful are the feet.” From Wilmington to Newport News, from Alexandria to Atlanta, and now to Charlottesville, I have watched the beautiful feet of Habitat volunteers devoted to creating affordable housing with those who have been told, “You can never afford it.” These Habitat harbingers of hope not only swing hammers and nail sheetrock, their beautiful feet also take them to City Hall and to the Hall of Congress convinced that decent housing for all is not an impossible dream.
More recently, I have been moved by the beautiful feet of Yellow Door volunteers committed to providing temporary housing for families of immune-compromised children who are in extended stays at the UVA hospital. And I stand in absolute awe of the beautiful feet of the International Rescue Committee that will not rest until immigrants here receive not a tepid but a rousing welcome and have permanent not temporary housing. On my trips to Haiti, I have personally witnessed the beautiful feet of Rise Against Hunger members who believe that every child in every land deserves a decent meal every day. I am often humbled by the beautiful feet of dedicated souls in the Innocence Project who do all in their power to prevent states from executing innocent women and men.
While Isaiah speaks of “beautiful feet,” Timothy speaks of another part of the human anatomy. He describes, “holy hands.” Every time we ordain an elder at Cove, lots of “holy hands” touch those who are being ordained in a service that sometimes looks more like a rugby scrum than a religious rite. Every time we bless those who are headed off to school or who are moving to a new locale, we lift our “holy hands” trusting that God’s sure touch will be felt through our blessing.
But what makes our often aching, sometimes dirty, hands “holy”? Why place our all so unremarkable hands on someone else’s head or on their shoulder? I am indebted to my friend, Agnes Norfleet for reminding me what “holy hands” look like and what they can mean.
A few years back, Agnes was called home to Richmond to care for her ailing mother. She writes: “In the busy-ness of all that care-taking, there was a quiet moment when I was just sitting with Mom, next to her bed, and I noticed her hands. They were folded across her lap – a little frailer than I had remembered, but suddenly I realized how familiar I was with those hands. Hands that had cooked countless meals, given baths, combed tangles out, felt my forehead for a fever, hemmed skirts and sewn costumes. Hands that took up a hammer from time to time, and fixed broken things and made new things. Hands that, just a few years ago when mother was in her early seventies, had taken up knitting to make Christmas stockings for our babies.
“In that moment of noticing my mother’s hands, I looked down at my own hands, the ones that now change diapers, hold tiny little hands and bedtime story books, and put Band-Aids on skinned knees. I remember thinking, from generation to generation, much is passed on through the hands of those who love us and teach us to love.
“Someone once said that we learn the faith through the scent of the clothes of those who nurture us, and likewise, in small and intimate ways we pass down the work of faith from hand to hand” (“Hands On Ministry” by Agnes Norfleet).
I read those words from Agnes and started thinking about those whose “holy hands” have touched me, even in times when I felt the most untouchable. I thought about those whose “holy hands” have held tight those who had been injured by careless words, racist words, sexist words, words that had left a deep gash in their souls. I thought about those saints with “holy hands” who are sitting in this sanctuary right now or are watching this sermon on-line, saints who prepare the communion table for us to celebrate the supper together, saints who serve delicious food for fellowship after worship, saints who write notes of consolation to people they barely know and notes of indignation to legislators who think that “thoughts and prayers” is all they can do about the epidemic of gun violence in this land.
“Beautiful feet” and “holy hands.” These images from the poets Isaiah and Timothy are meant for a day like today. So, on this Mother’s Day, I invite you to think about the “beautiful feet” and “holy hands” of mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters, and all those special women who have made our lives richer and have handed down the faith to us.
I invite you to join me now as we name aloud those women, living or now gone, whose “beautiful feet” and “holy hands” have passed down the Christian faith to us and have given us the tenacity according to Timothy never to “neglect the gift that is in you.”
I will start by giving thanks for the “beautiful feet” and “holy hands” of my late mother, Marguerite Charles and my grandmothers, Myrtle Lewis and Esther McAfee. For those special women, for their “beautiful feet” and “holy hands,” I give thanks.
And, what about you. Who are those special women with “beautiful feet” and “holy hands” for whom you give thanks to God this day?