Commemoration of Luke, Evangelist
25th Anniversary of Miriam Hull’s ordination
We are called to be witnesses. All three of our texts today call us to be witnesses to the wonders of all that God has said and done. All remind us that God is a God who saves and heals and forgives, over and over. They are all texts appointed for Oct. 18th, the official day for commemorating St. Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. And, they are also the texts that were preached when Rev. Miriam Hull was ordained 25 years ago.
We celebrate and thank God today for St. Luke, who authored one of the most beautiful books about the life and teachings of Jesus, and for Miriam and others who have shared that story in word and deed. There are some wonderful connections between Luke and Miriam that I want to highlight, even if you already know some of them, because I think they complement one another in ways we may not have considered.
To begin with, let’s appreciate the fact that Luke’s Gospel is particularly attentive to the role of women in ministry. In the very beginning of his “orderly account,” Luke has Elizabeth, an older woman, and Mary, a young girl, speaking about their soon-to-be-born sons. Luke makes it clear right away that women are God-bearers, called to bring the Word of God to the waiting world. Throughout his Gospel, Luke shows many women—Anna, the prophetess in the Temple; Mary and Martha, the sisters from Bethany who served Jesus; and many, many others, named and unnamed, doing the work of the kingdom of God. So I like the fact that Luke enjoys a special place in Miriam’s story—seems like turnabout is fair play.
One of the other connections between Luke and Miriam that is immediately apparent is that Luke obviously appreciated and understood the role of songs in forming and nurturing faith. In the very first chapter of his Gospel, he sets the prayer of Hannah from the Old Testament into a song for Mary, which we now know as The Magnificat. Then angels sing Gloria in excelsis Deo, and Jesus is born. And soon after, Luke puts the words of the Nunc Dimittus—“Now let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled” into the mouth of Simeon, the elderly priest who beholds the baby Jesus and knows he is the Messiah. I don’t think there is anyone who knows Miriam who doesn’t know that one of the ways that she witnesses to the Lord she knows and loves is through singing.
The most obvious link between Luke and Miriam, of course, is that Luke is reputed to have been a physician, and Miriam, before becoming an ordained pastor in the ELCA, was a registered nurse. There is something beautifully harmonious about the idea that both Luke and Miriam served God as healers in the medical field, addressing people’s physical pain, as well as spiritual healers, addressing the all-encompassing need for God’s grace and love. Both Luke and Miriam knew that medicine was one of the ways in which God called them to use their gifts in service to the Lord. But it was not the only way. People from all walks of life are called to be witnesses.
But their stories are different too. Luke probably never went to seminary, nor was he ordained. He did dedicate a great deal of time and energy into recording, as precisely and beautifully as he could, the words and deeds of Jesus in his Gospel, as well as the words and deeds of the early church—and, more importantly, the Holy Spirit—in the book of Acts.
Miriam, on the other hand, DID go to seminary, and did get ordained to be a minister of word and sacrament in the ELCA. From 1987 on, her service to God took the form of preaching, teaching, counseling, and in other ways tending to the needs of congregations. But I know that, no matter how glorious that October in 1987 certainly was, Miriam’s ordination on was not when her ministry began. Nor has her ministry ever ceased, even though she is not called as a full-time pastor in a congregation now. As with all Christians, Miriam was doing the work of an evangelist long before her ordination. Ask her children. Ask her friends and family. Ask this congregation, who knew and loved her before you ever called her “Pastor.”
We thank God that Miriam answered the call to ministry, and we bless the Lord for all the ways that Miriam and other pastors have served their Lord in ministry. But that does not let anyone off the hook in the collective calling we all share as the priesthood of all believers. Though it would be handy to think that we could ordain pastors and assign them all the work of witnessing to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the truth is that EVERYONE is called to do exactly that! While some people are called to a specific kind of ministry that involves preaching and teaching, each of us is being addressed by Jesus as he sends his followers out to the world he loves by saying: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things!” YOU are!
And you might want to argue back, “But Jesus, I didn’t actually witness you doing any of those things! I wasn’t even born yet! I can’t explain any of it logically, or historically, or scientifically. How can I be a witness?” And Jesus will smile. And Luke and Miriam will smile too. “ And you might want to add, “OK, so neither Miriam nor Luke was an eyewitness either, and they still found a way to announce your salvation to the world. But they are seminary-trained! They have the skill of expressing themselves eloquently! And they are more spiritual than I am!” And they will smile again. And you may come up with some more protestations, but they will come to nothing, because we all know that, deep down, these are all just excuses. We are called to be witnesses. And that scares us to death.
And probably that is a good thing. If we give voice to the words and deeds of Jesus, we can expect some rough treatment at the hands of others—look at what happened to him! We might indeed have days when we feel like Paul does when he writes to Timothy in today’s second reading. He has been testifying to all he’s come to know and believe about Jesus (it’s worth pointing out, I think, that he never met Jesus in person either), and so far it’s resulted in his being beaten, and tried, and thrown into prison, more than once. He’s exhausted, and says he feels like he’s being poured out like a libation. He’s lonely, and begs for companionship. At least one of the people he considered a friend and fellow servant of Christ has abandoned him and their shared ministry. He is not finding it easy to be a witness. So we shouldn’t expect it to be easy for us either.
We live in a society in which it is increasingly challenging to witness to the power and grace of God. I asked some people recently what gets in the way of their testifying to how they have seen God at work in their lives and in the world. The most frequent response was the desire to distance themselves from the way the media portrays “Christians.” We don’t want to appear like the nut jobs running for office Arkansas who were in the news this week—one of them using Biblical reasoning for wanting to legalize people killing their disobedient children, and the other one saying that if slavery was such a terrible thing, Jesus or Paul would have spoken out against it. If this is the perception of who Christians are and what Christians believe, we want to be as far away from them as possible.
And you may remember a Pew study I quoted to you recently, in which the number one attribute people associated with the term Christian was homophobic. Other characteristics people associated with Christianity include judgmental, narrow-minded, backwards, and violent. How do we bear witness to the Lord Jesus we have come to know and love when these are the attributes people associate with those who love Jesus? How can we join Paul in saying, at the end of the day, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith”?
On the other hand, has there ever been a more compelling reason to be a witness? If hatred and bigotry are what people think of when they think of God, there is now, more than ever, a great need for our witness! Now more than ever, we need to be telling the stories of the mercy and grace we have experienced in our walks with God. Luke told stories of God in his own way. No other Gospel writer includes the story of the Good Samaritan, in which a stranger—the least likely candidate to represent God— comes across a man who was beaten, and nurses him back to health. No one but Luke shares the story of a father who gives half his wealth to a son to goes off and squanders it. Who, when he finally realizes he’d be better off as a servant on his father’s estate, comes home, not to be executed for his disobedience, but embraced and welcomed home by his forgiving father. These are stories that need to be heard! We are witnesses!
Now more than ever, we need to testify about a God who is GOOD, who forgives and welcomes everyone, who loves the whole world and all that is in it. Luke’s told his stories, his ways of knowing God. They are his stories. But now it is time for you to tell your stories, in your own way, to a world that is aching to hear them. It may be scary. I am guessing Luke was nervous about being a witness. I’m pretty sure Miriam was nervous about accepting her call too.
But this is the Good News, my friends: God knows that it is hard to be witnesses, so God does not send us out to do it alone. God sends us Luke, who shares his stories, and God sends us Miriam, who speaks and sings and prays words of hope and encouragement. And God sends us each other, as companions for the journey. And most of all, God sends us the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus does not send his disciples out as missionaries until they have been “clothed with power from on high,” and Jesus will not send us out without that power either. We are witnesses, but God will go with us, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God!