Third Sunday after Epiphany
The 39-year-old James Montgomery Flagg had a deadline to meet. It was summer of 1916 and he had to design a cover for Leslie Illustrated magazine. He was highly encouraged to design a cover that would help convince Americans to enlist in the United States Army. Frustrated as the deadline grew closer and closer, Flagg stood in front of a mirror and looked at his own tired face. And then it hit him. Flagg decided to use his own image as a model for the now famous Uncle Sam design. The image became a hit and was widely used by the United States’ military recruitment efforts. You probably know the image. These are the ones of a kind of scrawny older man with steely blue eyes gazing directly at you. He is usually decked in red, white, and blue, has a top hat on, and is usually accompanied by the words “I Want You!” Uncle Sam became one of the U.S. military’s most effective recruiters. Uncle Sam convinced thousands and thousands of Americans that they had a gift to give to their country and that that gift was worth risking one’s life. I Want You. Uncle Sam told you that you are valuable and the U.S. Military was actively coveting the gifts that you have. I Want You. (http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/53455)
The apostle Paul takes it a step further. The Church of Jesus Christ, does not just want you- it needs you. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” He goes on to speak humorously about how the foot can’t discount itself for not being a hand and an ear for not being an eye. Every body part is needed. If every member were an eye then the body of Christ would be some sort of underwhelming B-movie horror monster. We need you to be the body of Christ- ears, feet, eyes, nose, toes, and all.
We might discount ourselves for not being strong enough or smart enough or healthy enough. We might discount ourselves for being too old or being too young. But for the body of Christ, there is no “too” anything. Everyone has a gift to share with the church. You don’t get to retire from being the body of Christ.
A few years ago I led an adult catechism class (sort of a Confirmation part deux). This class was one of the motliest of crews. In it was a CEO who had helped close down a large hospital, a woman who was an at-home caregiver for a woman in her 90s, a recovering alcoholic who had just started coming to church and learning what this Jesus stuff is all about, and others. I cannot imagine another place where these very different members would be in the same room. You would not find them in a PTA meeting or even at the same movie theater, but there we were learning the 10 Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer together. They are together as the body of Christ. I can say confidently that we needed everyone there to make that class what it was. The CEO had a thoughtful way of asking deep questions, the caregiver was gifted in bringing out the spirituality of the group, and the newbie had a curiosity that was very contagious.
We are a pretty motley crew here at St. Bart too. Young and old. Black, white, Latino. Social workers; those gifted with technology know-how; bankers; plumbers; teachers; healers, college, high school, middle school, and elementary school students; lawyers; knitters, quilters, crocheters and other crafty folk; artists; singers and musicians; good listeners; good talkers; faithful pray-ers; and more. Where else would such different members get together under one roof? Do not think for a minute that your gifts or you yourself are any less valuable than another member of the body. The body needs you. The same goes for those who aren’t here today and all those whom God has loved and freed.
When the church is really acting as the body of Christ, it is a place where every member of its body is celebrated and valued. The church is a place where all are welcome not because we have some sort of obligation to be tolerant and nice of those “lesser” members of the body, but we actively welcome because we recognize our need for another member’s gifts- we covet those gifts. God tells us that there are no “lesser” members. God has freed that person from the bonds of sin and death and so God has told that person, no matter how seemingly weak or dispensable, that they have value and are needed as an active part of God’s body in the world. The body of Christ needs all of our gifts to share the love of Christ with a world that refuses to see its own value in the sight of God.
In our Gospel reading Jesus makes his inauguration sermon setting the tone for the rest of his ministry. Reading out of the scroll of Isaiah, he announces that he has been anointed by the Spirit of God to “bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… to let the oppressed go free.” The crowd goes wild. Jesus has come to set us free! But Jesus’ care for us who are poor or oppressed by the weight of injustice and sin is not reduced to simple pity. The freedom Jesus offers us transforms lives. It empowers us. Jesus doesn’t just say, “There, there you poor and oppressed thing,” pat us on the head reassuringly, and then go on his merry way. No. Jesus free us to be his body in the world. Freed from the power of sin and death, we are given grace sufficient to proclaim sin’s demise and to walk in newness of life. Jesus forgives our sin and defeats its power in order to set us free.
In his famous sermon “You Are Accepted” Paul Tillich defines grace as a great gift that brings about new life and connection to each other, ourselves, and God. He proclaims,
For some people, grace is the willingness of a divine king and father to forgive over and again the foolishness and weakness of his subjects and children. We must reject such a concept of grace; for it is a merely childish destruction of a human dignity… For others, grace is the benevolence that we may find beside the cruelty and destructiveness in life. But then, it does not matter whether we say “life goes on”, or whether we say “there is grace in life”; if grace means no more than this, the word should, and will, disappear… In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin grace abounds much more.
Nothing separates us from that love of God in Christ Jesus. He came to this world to proclaim healing, release, and freedom. Grace is the triumph of mercy over sin. Grace is the triumph of life over death. Tillich affirms that grace changes guilt into confidence and courage. You are not worthless and dispensable. You are valuable, you are needed, and you are freed. In Christ’s gift of life and forgiveness we are assured that we are valuable in the sight of God. God saw our weakness and Christ adopted it to make it his own. In his weakness he gave himself and did what no strong person could do- defeat sin and death. God has used the supposedly weak things of this world to bring about salvation and freedom for all. God has claimed you as God’s own daughter or son and has promised to free you from all that imprisons you. God sees you as valuable and necessary.
It is exactly in those moments when we feel lost, weak, blind, and imprisoned that the grace of God breaks in to set us free. I can’t say it better than Paul Tillich, so I’ll let him tell it,
[Grace] strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know…”After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience… but acceptance.
You are the loved, accepted, and transformed member of Christ’s body who is a part of God’s transformative work of salvation to the whole world. In Christ’s weakness we are made whole. In the weakness of the body of Christ, the world is made whole. The body of Christ does not just want you, the body of Christ needs you. Amen.