St Luke's Day--Ecclesiasticus 38: 1-4, 6-10, 12-13; II Timothy 4:5-13
It’s a joy to be in Champaign, and at Emmanuel, for the weekend! Some of you I’ll see just today, but others of you I’ll see today and tomorrow, when I’m here for my regular annual visitation.
I’m doubly glad that, as the calendar chips fell, we’re celebrating the new ministry of Beth Maynard at Emmanuel on St Luke’s Day. By long and strong tradition, Luke is the author of a two-volume work of fairly-sophisticated literature—at least any beginning student of New Testament Greek would tell you it’s sophisticated—a two-volume work, consisting of the gospel that bears his name, occurring third in the customary numerical order of the gospels, and the Act of the Apostles, which begins with Our Lord’s Ascension, and goes on to chronicle the day of Pentecost, the earliest history of the Church, and the missionary endeavors of St Paul. Again, by tradition, Luke was a physician, whatever that might have meant 2000 years ago.
So it’s not surprising at all to find, both in Luke’s gospel and in the book of Acts, a strong thread of interest in the ministry of healing. In Luke’s gospel, healing emerges as the preeminent focal point of Jesus’ ministry—healing motivated by and accompanied by deep empathy and compassion. Jesus seems to have been emotionally invested in what he was doing. In Acts, healings are equally abundant, especially so in the early chapters, and always, of course, in the name of Jesus.
Luke having been a physician explains the choice of the reading from Ecclesiasticus 38 on his feast day. Mother Beth is not a physician, but she is an agent of the Great Physician, and so is here to exercise a ministry of ongoing healing. Healing is called for when a body is broken, or isn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to. The problem that calls for healing can be something quite physical and discoverable, which is why we have physicians like Luke and his professional descendants. But it can also be a dysfunction of the spirit, something that a physician can’t find or help with. Beth is trained and formed to be a physician of the soul. Now, along the way, she might become your friend, or she might not. You might turn out to like her, or you might now; she might end up liking you, or she might not. But all that’s beside the point, because at the core of her reason for being the rector of Emmanuel is to care for your soul, to point you to Jesus, to redirect you when you lose your focus. She’s not responsible for getting you into heaven, but she is responsible for pointing out the way. So, dear people of Emmanuel, let her do her job. Let her be the physician of your souls, and don’t distract her from that with all sorts of busy work. Work with her to help her keep the main thing the main thing.
We also hear from St Paul this morning, by way of his second letter to Timothy. Now, it’s pretty anachronistic to speak of things like “ordination” and “bishops” when we’re still looking at the mid-to-late first century, but if we were to follow the evolutionary trajectory of those terms backwards in time, we might be able to say that Paul had ordained Timothy to be the first bishop of the church of the city of Ephesus. In any case, Timothy had pastoral oversight responsibility, so, when we read this epistle, we’re listening in on some advice from a senior pastor to a junior pastor. Paul tells Timothy, “Always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” I am confident that Mother Beth will “do the work of an evangelist” among you as she exercises her ministry in this place. In season and out of season, she will indefatigably proclaim, in the words of the Victorian warhorse hymn, “tidings of Jesus,” good news of “redemption and release.”
Now, let’s look back to Ecclesiasticus for a bit, as the author lauds the medical profession: “There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians, for they too pray to the Lord that he grant them success in diagnosis and healing, for the sake of preserving life.” This is not easy work, I have to tell you, although it probably comes as no surprise. In doing this work of caring for souls, in doing this work of proclaiming good news, borrowing language now from II Timothy as Paul speaks of himself, Beth will also be “poured out as a libation.” That’s the ominous fate she has assumed in her ordination. Pastoral ministry is a life in which one expects to be expended, poured out onto the ground. One of the more difficult and heartbreaking ways this experience of being poured out happens is that the pastor gets betrayed by someone thought to be a close friend. Paul laments to Timothy about a fellow named Demas, who, “in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Cresens has gone to Galatia,” and “Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” And that’s how this passage made it into the lectionary for the day, with the mention of Luke alone sticking with Paul, probably imprisoned in Rome near the end of his days. Over time, I expect Beth will probably develop her list of “deserters” such as Paul mentions here, only saying instead of “only Luke is with me,” perhaps, “only Mark is with me!”
But, for you own sake, if not for hers, do not let Beth pour herself out too much too quickly. For she herself is also in need of ongoing healing, and one place she needs to find that healing grace is from those among whom she ministers. Never forget, although I think I hardly need to remind this particular parish, that you have an investment in your rector’s spiritual health. If she ever gets to the point when she’s beginning to run on Empty, then she’s got nothing to give you. So, hold her accountable about taking her day off, taking her vacation, and seeing to it that her well is regularly replenished, so she can be the pastor and leader you deserve. And most of all, help make it possible for her to say, echoing the words of Paul to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry!”
Emmanuel Memorial Church, rector and people together, is called to be an icon, a vibrant sign, of healing and wholeness. Caring for one another, under the leadership of your priest and pastor—and, I might add, in communion with your bishop and the rest of your family in the one church of the Diocese of Springfield—you are today embracing your vocation to be a herald and a witness. As a herald, your constant message is, “The brokenness of the world is not the last word. God has the last word, and that word is health, wholeness, and life.” As a witness, your job is to model what you proclaim, to be a community that, in Christ your head, embraces health, wholeness, and life, for the sake of the world for whom Jesus died.
Blessed Luke, pray for us … and praised be Jesus Christ.