The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. This saying has been attributed to Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Abigail Van Buren, the African Methodist Episcopal minister L. L. Nash, and Ignatius of Antioch, among others. No one can identify the origin with certainty. But thanks to St. Luke, who we commemorate today, we have the words of Jesus himself to reinforce the idea: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
I daresay both sayings cut right to the heart of the matter. Is there anyone among us who does not carry the burden of some weight which might be called sin? Perhaps the burden has no name, is simply a gnawing feeling that something is not right. Or perhaps it does have a name, one that is too difficult to say out loud, yet echoes in the deepest chambers of the heart. And so we come to this hospital for sinners, in search of relief, healing, wholeness.
The quest begins with identifying and confronting the problem. The physician asks, What ails you? In this hospital for sinners, the ailments include the illnesses of body, mind, and spirit that beset us as individuals, as well as those that beset the world we live in: injustice, poverty, violence, apathy, greed, arrogance. All must be confronted, challenged, and — with God’s help — ultimately conquered.
I was recently introduced to St Anna’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans and was struck by the similarities between Church of the Advent (established 1844) and St. Anna’s (established 1846):
Like the Advent, St. Anna’s is an Anglo-Catholic parish, and was the first “free church” in New Orleans (not charging pew fees) with open seating for all, just as Advent was in Boston.
Both have weathered controversies over liturgical practice and survived conflicts with bishops. In the mid-1800s the Bishop of Massachusetts was outraged at the presence of a cross and “golden candlesticks” on the altar. In the late 1800s, the presence of lighted candles on the altar at St. Anna’s sparked an indignant letter from an evangelical parish in the diocese.
But perhaps most dramatically, a later Bishop brought an ax into St. Anna’s and destroyed the confessionals them in place.
St Anna’s and the Advent share a commitment to social justice — healing the ills that plague our society — as an essential expression of spirituality. This commitment demands both courage and humility. Courage to go against the prevailing norms, and humility to accept that our efforts, even when successful, will always fall short of the mark in this life. (Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.”) The Jesuit activist Daniel Berrigan taught that it is not so much the outcome that is the charism of social justice but rather the act of doing social justice that is trans-formative.
So here at the Advent our work to bring about healing of social ills includes, every Tuesday, offering a hot meal, a clean bathroom, and a gracious welcome to anyone who is hungry. And we regularly prepare a Sunday meal for the Common Cathedral community and join them in worship. The resulting trans-formations are both individual and collective. Just ask anyone who helps serve one of these meals. Just ask anyone who partakes of one of the meals.
At St. Anna’s, a highly visible social justice effort centers on violence — specifically, the number of people in New Orleans who die violent deaths. In 2007, while the city was still reeling from the affects of hurricane Katrina, more than 200 people were murdered. St Anna’s deacon, Elaine Clemments, said, “I feel that we have to do something. But it is so overwhelming I am not sure that anything will help.”
Thus, through courage and humility, was born the Victims of Violence ministry, a way to honor and remember the victims of violence, to pray for all affected by urban violence: perpetrators, victims, families, officials, and police officers. The outward and visible sign of remembering was to create a public tableau on the fence of the churchyard. This tableau, which has became known as The Murder Board, lists each victim by name (when known), age, and the method by which they were killed. For the past 11 years, the board has been — and continues to be — updated, month by month by month by month. So we remember seven-month-old Carter and 76-year-old Louie. We remember Jane Doe and John Doe. We remember those who died as a result of hit-and-run, of beating, of stabbing, and — most predominantly — by gunfire.
Like the Tuesday supper and Common Cathedral, the Murder Board is part of a quest for healing. Both are concrete, visceral examples of beleaguered human sinners calling out to our righteous and merciful God. With the psalmist we address the God who “heals those that are broken in heart: and gives medicine to heal their sickness.”
The physician Herbert Benson is credited with identifying the concept of “remembered wellness.” Would you be surprised to hear that this is what was previously known as the placebo effect? Benson lists three components that identify remembered wellness: (a) positive beliefs and expectations on the part of the patient; (b) positive beliefs and expectations on the part of the physician; and (c) a good relationship between the two parties.
This list of components — positive beliefs and expectations on the part of the patient; on the part of the physician or healer; and a good relationship between the two — calls to mind our relationship with God, doesn’t it? Perhaps you immediately think of your belief in God’s power to heal. Or perhaps you trust that God wants good things — health and wholeness — for you, and for the world. Perhaps you are here to nurture your relationship with God, or to repair it in some way.
The Murder Board made a huge impression on me. But for some reason I can’t escape a vivid image of those splintered confessionals. Why? Because I believe that in those fine and private places, a whole lot of healing happened. I suspect that many burdens were lifted, that many wounds were soothed, that many conflicts were confronted and led toward reconciliation. Because the people who entered into those confessionals, who entered into the act of confession, were patients in the hospital for sinners, drawn to there by wispy dreams of remembered wellness. They were asked, “What ails you?” and they opened their hearts to speak of relationships broken, mistakes made; of unhealed wounds and inescapable regrets. So healing could begin. So wellness remembered could be wellness restored.
On hearing that we are commemorating St. Luke today, more than one person asked me, “So, are you doing any special healing prayers in the service?” My answer: In this hospital for sinners, every service is a healing service.
The Great Physician asks, “What ails you?” Together, we answer in prayer: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” One by one, we answer from the depths of our desire for healing. We open our hearts and we open our hands to receive God’s bountiful love, to be led closer to the health and wholeness God desires for us, and for all creation, from the very beginning of time, now, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
For more on the ministries and history of St. Anna’s, see https://www.stannanola.org/
For more on the Murder Board, see https://www.stannanola.org/archived-content/missions/victims-of-violence/
For more on remembered wellness, see https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.med.47.1.193