Sermon: 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 27, 2013

This past summer I had a migraine headache or the first time in my life. What a horrible thing! It’s called a “headache,” but everything from my eye sockets to my ankles hurt. I can’t even explain how miserable I was for about two days. Modern medicine relies on specialists to treat very specific illnesses or areas of the body, but the truth is that if one part of our bodies doesn’t feel good, none of the rest feels good either.

This is why, when we hear news about the children dying in drone attacks in Pakistan, or whole villages affected by malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, it makes us feel sick to our stomachs. Because, although our stomachs live here in Madison, WI, as Paul writes to the church in Corinth, God’s people are all one body. We are one cohesive whole, with many different moving parts, and “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” We might try to isolate and treat the source of the hurt, but in the end, the simple truth is that pain in one area radiates through the whole body. We cannot say, “Not my problem,” because it is our problem. Paul tells us that the weaker parts of the body are indispensable. Which is to say, we cannot live full abundant lives unless the children in Connecticut, and the senior citizens in Syria, and the teenagers in Japan are living full abundant lives too. If they are in trouble, so are we.

Even more disturbing is that as soon as we start to sort out problems by dissecting THEIR problem or OUR problem, we have deepened the sickness of the whole system. When we label certain parts of the body as weaker or less important, we have begun to tread on dangerous ground. It is not up to us to judge the components of God’s holy body. Such conduct puts us in the position of assuming the wisdom and authority of God. We are humbly reminded by Paul that the eye quite simply can’t survive without the lungs, and the brain without the aorta is not a living entity. As soon as we deem parts of God’s creation as more or less worthy than other parts, we have fallen into sin, for all of the body of Christ is essential.

And yet our society thrives on determining who is better than and who is less than. Think of the popular reality shows in which contestants are constantly voted off the island or eliminated from the contest because they are not as strong or as smart as the other contestants. Think of how our culture treats people with mental or physical illnesses. They are considered weak and deficient. Think about how popular plastic surgery is, how hard it is for people to admit that they are no longer young and beautiful. Would that still be the case if we lived in a culture that treated the elderly as if they were venerable, interesting, and special? Or is the panic to avoid aging based on our keen awareness that in this culture, elderly people are often discounted, excluded, ignored, and undermined? If any of these concerns and anxieties sound familiar to you, if you have ever worried that you were outdated, or unimportant, if you have ever panicked that you are of no particular value, hear Jesus’ words today, words from the prophet Isaiah that he read to his home congregation: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And then Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And he sat down. Everyone stared. What did he mean? He meant exactly what he read: Jesus came for the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. Jesus did not try to get his name on the waiting list to meet the stars. He didn’t hang out with the beautiful and superbly competent and successful people. He came for and to the parts of the body that the mainstream thought of as dispensible, insignificant–if they thought of them at all.

This is Jesus’ first sermon in Luke’s Gospel, and colors everything that follows. In fact, I think this text encapsulates Jesus’ whole mission in Luke’s book. This is what the Gospel all about. Jesus doesn’t say, “I am here to help you get into heaven when you die,” or “Here Are Five Steps to Success.” He says, “I am here to make life meaningful and whole for all of creation right now.” This text reminds us that salvation begins, not some time after we die, but here on this earth. Jesus offers sight if you are blind, freedom if you are enslaved, good news if you are economically struggling. You are part of the Body of Christ. Your existence matters. And so does the existence of troubled teens in Colorado, and feverish children in Mexico, and languishing prisoners in Guantanemo and elsewhere. Redeeming and honoring the parts of the body that don’t seem to matter much is the heart of Jesus’ ministry and teachings.

And if we are the Body of Christ that means his mission statement is also our mission statement. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. We also have been anointed to bring good news to the poor. We have been sent to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. We have been sent to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. That is our work. That is what the body of Christ in this world has always been about.

Recently a member expressed concern about Trinity’s finances, and asked whether or not we will still exist in 10 years. In our congregational meeting later this morning, we will discuss the financial challenges facing this congregation. But my question then—and now, for all of you—is not whether or not we will exist, but what we will exist FOR? Why should Trinity Lutheran Church exist? In what ways are we living out the Gospel together? If Trinity is somehow conveying good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, if we are letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, then we must exist, because God’s mission has become our mission. If we are not, there is no point in our going on.

Of course, there is no end of ways for God’s work to be done. And we can’t possibly do it all. Even Jesus did not heal every sick person he encountered, nor did he abolish slavery or reform the corrupt church system in his home town. But he did his piece and he told his disciples (including us) to go and do likewise. Trinity cannot address all the issues in the world. But we need to be serious about identifying what it is we are called to do, and then be about doing that.

What does this mean for us here at Trinity? Which of Jesus’ priorities beg our attention and our action? Who are the poor among and around us? How can we bring them good news? Who are the blind? Who are the captives? How can we make God’s vision of wholeness a reality for them? How can we proclaim freedom not just to their spirits, but to their economic situations, their physical situations, their social situations? As we strive to uncover our collective and individual callings, I want to mention a few specific ways that I’ve seen Trinity answering the call to carry on Jesus’ mission. And I encourage you to note when and where you see us being the Body of Christ too. The more we notice and encourage all the parts of the body working, the more functional and healthy the whole body is.

It is clear to me that this community of faith gets that spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ is not just saying, “Jesus loves you” and walking on by. This congregation’s participation in making and serving nutritious and delicious food as well as providing hospitality to our homeless families through The Road Home is a vital example. In the work of this ministry, we are remembering that Jesus’ own body and blood are present in of the bodies of the poor in our community. And I value the time and energy I see devoted to students who need tutoring over at Operation Fresh Start. And the quiet contributions people of Trinity make to the needy fund, the Malaria Campaign, the ELCA world hunger appeal and many other worthy projects. All of these are ways in which we acknowledge our economic partnership and solidarity with those who struggle. These are ways of reducing the suffering in the body of Christ, almost as if we were sponging his brow, or rubbing Vicks on his congested chest.

On Wednesday at noon every week, a group of people gathers around the week’s Scripture texts for a lively discussion about God and to nurture relationships with each other. Similarly, a group of teens meets on Wednesday nights to wrestle with God’s word. And in worship we hear God’s word read and sung. As Christians dwell in God’s Word together, God brings sight to us blind people. Our eyes are open and we see the human predicament, as well as God’s compassion for all of creation. We hear from one another words of forgiveness and encouragement in our struggle to be faithful. The body of Christ has its blind spots for sure, but, as we heard in today’s Old Testament reading, when we gather around the Word together, our eyes are opened a little bit wider, our chains are loosened, and we are able to walk freely, living in God’s promises.

The Body of Christ is one body. We are all in this together. Like it or not, what happens to others, happens to you. If teens in Helsinki are in agony, then you are too. There’s no way around it. But if a family has slept well in cots upstairs and seen their whole family have breakfast in our kitchen, they can walk around with their heads a little higher this week, so you can too. There’s no way around the fact that their good news is our good news too. Because “when one member of the body is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

The Holy Spirit is upon you, Church! You are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. And even in resurrection, those hands and feet have great big wounds in them. But Christ’s damaged hands and feet bear grace and truth and compassion to all. And so do ours. You are set free from the belittling ideas that you have about yourself or that the world tries to tell you you ought to have about yourself. You are part of Christ’s body, part of the holiness of God in this world. And you have been called, not to be insignificant, but to carry the good news to the poor. You are chosen to proclaim release to the captives. You are sent to proclaim the recovery of sight not just to those with literal eye diseases, but also those who are blinded by pride or anger or shame. You are part of an ancient rhythm of proclaiming Jubilee, Sabbath time, to those who work without ceasing, who look for value in what is accomplished, rather than in how God has created them. You are part of the body, and without you, the body would be less than the image of God, in which it is created. Together we are the very image of God. So, to quote Nehemiah, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine. And send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared. For this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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