Feast of St. Luke 28 October 2020
St. Luke – Physician of the Soul
Rev. Isaac Bradshaw
The diaries of Parson Woodforde are a glimpse into the life and times of a 18th century Anglican parish. The Parson of Weston Longforde in Oxford, Rev. James Woodeforde, was one of those fellows who, despite everything else going on, would take time at night to note, mark and inwardly digest the events of the day. For nearly 40 years, the man marked each day with a brief synopsis. You gotta admire the tenacity.
And, of course, we have an entry today: Parson Woodeforde writes, “I entirely forgot that this was St Luke’s Day, and therefore did not read Prayers at Cary Church which I should have done otherwise. As it was not done willfully, I hope God will forgive it.”
Well, good news everyone… We did not forget!
St. Luke is the most prolific of our New Testament authors, including Paul. Between the Gospel of St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (both traditionally attributed to him), Luke is the author of almost a quarter of the New Testament. He sets out in both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to set out a history, a historical retelling of the events of Jesus’s life and the early history of the Christian church. It is likely that, of the four evangelists, Luke is the only gentile. And Luke is, by a mention in Colossians 4, traditionally understood to be a doctor of some kind. At the very least, the throw-away line in Colossians 4 would indicate that Luke was, by standards of his day, an educated man. Tradition also suggests that Luke was the first painter of icons.
So what do we make of this physician-evangelist. What sort of lessons can we draw from him in the 21st century?
Of course, the idea of a physician-evangelist shouldn’t surprise those of us in East Tennessee. For thirty-five years we’ve been home to the Remote Area Medical ministry, the charity founded by Stan Brock. We watched as Stan and that gorgeous DC-3 that used to sit out at McGhee-Tyson. In their 35 years, they’ve brought over a thousand pop-up clinics to rural areas of the United States, Haiti, Guyana and the Philippines at an estimated cost of $150 million dollars.
I don’t know if Remote Area Medical is considered Christian or is faith based, and some level, I don’t really care; physicians bring a kind of gospel, a kind of good news that, despite poverty and despite illness and despite need, individuals in our mountains, in our inner-cities are worth living full, healthy lives. I would like to think St. Luke the physician would see himself in the eyes of the doctors, nurses and professionals.
Our collect today, as well as our readings in Sirach make a connection between a metaphor of physical sickness and the spiritual sickness of sin. Our foreparents Adam and Eve struck us with an infection, an infection of the will, and an infection of the soul. This infection moves in us, pulls us towards death.
And of course, it goes without saying that this infection is pretty self-evident. I can go through the litany of things done and left undone, thoughts, words and deeds to illustrate the infection. The infection is, of course, personal and individual; and when a group of individuals get together, that infection becomes corporate and structural.
Even when we try to mitigate the infection, with rules and due process and rules for living. Just go to Walmart or Barnes and Noble, and in one hand you can pick up any number of self-help books with names like “Peace, Love and You.” Or “10% Happier.” Or my personal favorite, “Self Help for People who Hate Self-Help.” The Barnes and Noble website lists 2,791 titles in this subject. A self-help book for the infection of sin is a bit like getting a trepanation for a migraine; it’s gonna hurt worse than what you’re experiencing and will likely be much messier.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the author of our collect and The Book of Common Prayer, had a particular view of Scripture and of the “wholesome medicine” of the Gospel. For Cranmer, the public reading of Scripture was something like a sacrament, it was the place where Jesus Christ was made spiritually present. It was in Scripture, and in particular in the hearing and reading of it together as community, that the risen Jesus, through his church, taught and proclaimed the Gospel. And through being exposed to that presence of Christ in the scriptures, the Christian would be so immersed in that spiritual presence that we would become “the temple of the Blessed Trinity.” Cranmer writes in the First homily to Holy Scripture:
“The words of holy Scripture be called words of everlasting life, for they be God’s instrument, ordained for the same purpose. They have power to turn through God’s promise and they be effectual, through God’s assistance, and being received in a faithful heart, they have an heavenly spiritual working in them… He that keepeth the word of Christ is promised the love and favor of God, and that he shall be the temple of the Blessed Trinity.”
One of the projects of the Book of Common Prayer way back in 1549 was, to as Diarmaid MacCulloch put it, to turn all of England into a Benedictine monastery. The village would gather in morning and evening prayer. Daily. The idea was to return scripture to the hearing and reading of the people. For centuries, the scripture read on Sunday would be interrupted by, say, a Feast day, like, somewhat ironically, today. But so frequent were these interruptions that the weekly and even daily hearing of scripture meant no person, clergy or lay, ever heard the entirety of scripture. For Cranmer, this undercut the formation of Christian soul and Christian conscience for believers and was unacceptable. Cranmer understood, clearly, that an unformed Christian soul and an unformed Christian conscience could never encounter the infection of evil and walk away unscathed or, indeed able to resist it.
This week I spent some time finishing up a paper on a man named Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara was the Japanese Vice-Consul in Kaunas Lithuania from 1939 to 1940. Those dates are important, since Lithuania was situated in a meeting place between Nazi Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Sugihara was assigned to Kaunas primarily as a spy to keep an eye on the Nazis and the Communists. But as Jewish refugees from the invasion of Poland by the Nazis and the Soviets flooded Lithuania, Sugihara was faced with a dilemma. He had the power to issue transit visas to Japan, giving these Jewish refugees a way out of Europe entirely. But instruction from Japan was unclear. The tension in Kaunas and immediacy of the question of the Jewish refugees rose exponentially in June of 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania and ordered the consulate to be closed. Sugihara had a choice to either issue the transit visas, or simply close the doors and go home. From August 10th to Sept. 4,1940, Chiune Sugihara issued almost 2700 transit visas to Japan, saving almost 6000 Jews from destruction. The legend is told that, on his last day in Kaunas, Sugihara spent the ride from his hotel to the train station stamping and signing blank transit visas to Japan, throwing them out of the window to passers-by; this continued as he found his seat on the train departing Kaunus for Berlin, throwing more blank, but signed and stamped, visas through the window of the train. When the Nazis game less than 10 months later, they brought them the SS, and the Einsatzgruppen, who proceeded to murder 95% of Lithuanian Jews, the highest death rate for any country affected by the Holocaust. There are now 40,000 descendants of the Sugihara visas alive today.
How did Sugihara do it? He was a Christian. He had been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church in his 20s. He had heard Sirach’s wisdom. He had heard Paul writing to Timothy. He had heard Luke’s account of Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue. He had been formed by the spiritual encounter with Christ in the Word and in the sacrament. Sugihara proved Cranmer’s point: that it was the daily encounter with scripture in families and churches and small gatherings and big gathers that shaped and formed him, and when the infection of sin erupted in his sight, when the putrescence of antisemitism and exterminationism was before his eyes, he was able to do what had to be done. He disobeyed his own gov’t, his own political leadership, and followed God’s call and save thousands of people simply by filling out the proper paperwork.
This is the gift that St. Luke gives us. When Jesus reads Isaiah and says “This has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he is revealing the intimate connection between himself and the Scriptures; it is Jesus who is revealed when we read the Bible. Jesus is, for lack of a better way of putting, a Scripture that is alive, speaking to you, calling you to a life shaped and formed, healed and cured of its own spiritual sickness, able to encounter sin and evil, and respond as a follower of Christ is compelled. It is Jesus Christ who is the physician’s cure for the sickness of sin. It is Jesus Christ who is the Gospel itself.