For the past two years, you have been students in Saint Luke’s College, a part of the Saint Luke’s Health System. Perhaps you’ve been told at some point that the Saint Luke’s Health System is associated with the Episcopal Church. Now, I’m an Episcopal priest, and it won’t surprise you at all that the Episcopal heritage means a lot to me. If you’ll bear with me a bit, I’d like to share some reflections coming from the Episcopal tradition that underlies Saint Luke’s.
Now, some of you will know that in the Episcopal Church we structure our worship according to a calendar. Certainly, we do remember the well-known days and seasons, like Christmas and Ash Wednesday and Lent and Easter. But in our calendar we also remember people, those folks we call Saints or Worthies. We remember them because they demonstrated in their lives the faith that lived within them.
For me as a hospital chaplain it’s been important that in that calendar we remember those who have provided health care. We remember quite a number who have found their ministries in caring for the sick and dying, I thought I might share some of those names with you.
Some you know. For example, we remember Florence Nightingale. You should know her work well, bringing sanitation and light and air into the tragedy of the Crimean War, and then to hospitals at home in England. We remember the Mayo family and the Menninger family. The hospitals they founded have become known world wide for care their of body and mind. And of course we remember the Beloved Physician, Luke.
Some you may not know. We remember, for example, the Martyrs of Memphis. In the 1870’s and ‘80’s Memphis, Tennessee, was so devastated by yellow fever that the city actually lost its charter. Anyone who could leave did; but there were so many who could not. A small group of people from a variety of faith traditions stayed in Memphis and cared for the sick. Constance and her companions were four Episcopal nuns of the Congregation of St. Mary, two priests, and a lay physician who stayed to care for the sick and the poor, and died of yellow fever themselves.
We remember Harriet Starr Cannon, who founded the Congregation of St. Mary, and began their vocation in hospitals. Coming from this order, it’s no wonder Constance and her companions saw their mission in staying to care for the sick.
We remember Damien and Marianne of Molokai. They were a Catholic priest and nun respectively who found their ministries and gave their lives caring for lepers, patients with Hansen’s disease on the island of Molokai.
We remember Innocent of Alaska, Russian Orthodox missionary and the first Orthodox bishop in the New World. He worked among the Aleut people, who like many native peoples suffered terribly from diseases brought by sailors and traders. He convinced them to accept vaccination for smallpox, and many were saved.
All these stories, all these people well known and less known, speak to me of a heritage, a tradition; and in this case, it isn’t the Episcopal tradition. After all, they weren’t all Episcopalian. Indeed, when in Memphis each year they remember the Martyrs of Memphis they remember those who were Christian, and also those who were Jewish, and some of no faith at all. If you know Florence Nightingale’s story well, you will know that she caused quite a scandal. She took with her to the Crimea some nurses who were Anglican and some who were Catholic and some whose faith was not recorded; and there were many who disapproved of that disregard for convention.
No, it is the heritage of those from every faith and culture and language who work for health and wholeness. It is the tradition, as you have heard, of those who feel called to give much because they have received much themselves. It is vocation, as you will hear, of those who find their service to their Creator in caring for the least and the last of their brothers and sisters. It is the heritage, expressed in Luke and Florence and Constance and Damien and so many others, expressed in so many languages of faith and in those moments when language fails, of those who have committed themselves to the care of the sick and the dying.
As you graduate, you take your own places in that tradition. I don’t really think it’s something that Saint Luke’s gave you. You came to Saint Luke’s because you had it in you. Rather, Saint Luke’s, reflecting that heritage of healing and supported by the Episcopal tradition, has worked with you to inform you in that heritage and to form you for that vocation. From now on, each of you will discover in your own life how you will express that it in word and deed.
You are part of the great tradition of those who commit themselves to the health and wholeness of others. May you so live out that tradition that you may take your place with those who have gone before you, and so shape and form the heritage of those who will come after.