The Church is still One Vast Hospital

A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38

“Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Those words of Jesus remind me of some other words spoken to me by one of my spiritual directors, years ago. Sister Clarice asked me about what she called “your 'C.I.'” “Who is your 'C.I.'?” she asked. “That's your source of Constant Irritation,” she explained. “Whoever that person is, whoever seems to be the person who always pushes your buttons, that's the one who is your source of Constant Irritation. That's your cross to bear.”

When she asked me, I knew the answer immediately. My “C.I.” was Paul, the senior warden, the chief lay leader of the first parish I served. At the time, the rector, Ed, now of blessed memory, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As a new, freshly ordained priest, I was, in some ways, “in charge” of some things, like pastoral care. But in other ways, I was definitely NOT in charge. Yes, Paul was my “C.I.,” hands down. He pushed my buttons, all the time. Part of it was our difference in style. Part of it was my youthful arrogance and undeveloped wisdom. And part of my Constant Irritation was in our roles, creating even more conflict in the midst of caring for a sick rector, while no one was fully in charge. There were many sick people, and lots of them needed help. All of us needed Jesus, the Great Physician.

Last February, at our annual parish meeting, I cast a vision for this church in my State of the Parish address. My vision for All Saints' is still this: we will continue to become, more and more, a church that heals. I believe God is calling All Saints' to be “a church that heals” by living more deeply into our mission statement: Reaching out, creating sacred space, welcoming all in Frederick.

There is no more obvious witness to that vision and mission here at All Saints', past and present, than the event coming up this Friday and Saturday. As part of Maryland's “Heart of the Civil War” remembrance, we and six other churches or historic sites will observe “One Vast Hospital.” The brochure you were given today tells you how both adults and youth will re-enact that history. One hundred fifty years ago this Church Street building and what we now call the Court Street building were two of the places where thousands of wounded soldiers were brought from the nearby battles of South Mountain and Antietam. Surgeons, nurses, clergy and other citizens came together, to welcome all who needed healing here. They reached out in love and created sacred spaces where All Saints' could be, more and more, a church that heals. The agonies of battle and outrages of war were brought right here, into these sacred spaces.

There is another kind of battle, another kind of war with us in church today. It's on our minds and in our hearts. The attack on the United States' diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday – the actual 11th anniversary of September 11 – took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in new agony and outrage. Provoked in part by an anti-Islam video, protests broke out in more than 20 countries, as far away as Australia and the Sudan. On Monday Denise Parker, our Junior Warden, left on behalf of her company, IMA World Health, to work once again in the South Sudan. I want you to know that Denise e-mailed the Vestry yesterday. She is alive, safe and well, helping to care for the poor there.

That video is "disgusting and reprehensible," Secretary of State Clinton said Thursday. And it is no good reason for violence. Of course, the video and the violence that followed was, in large measure, created by relatively few people who do not speak for all their fellow Muslims, Jews or Christians. I confess I'm still astonished at the outrageous behavior of one, ultra-conservative Florida pastor, who helped publicize that inflammatory video. This pastor, you may remember, made international news on each of the last three 9/11 observances. He has burned the Koran and encouraged others to do so. Another Rector of another Episcopal church named All Saints’ wrote about that pastor this way in his blog: “The so-called Christian pastor who stirred this act of bigotry against Islam has hijacked Christianity” (the Rev. Ed Bacon, All Saints', Pasadena, CA, 9/14/12).

Has Christianity been hijacked? Maybe our forebears were clear about what it meant to follow Jesus during the Civil War, but in 2012, what does it mean to be an American Christian? What does it mean for Christians, like you and me, to be the church – not in 1742 or 1862, but in 2012? What does a healthy Christianity, a healthy church look like?

Susan Nienaber, the consultant and conflict resolution specialist who has worked with your Vestry over the past year, believes the true measure of a healthy congregation is the degree to which a church tolerates not just bad, but outrageous behavior. This week one major magazine called this new worldwide unrest the result of a “global industry of outrage” (TIME, 9/24/12). So, the question is: Just how much outrageous behavior will we put up with?

Maybe it's too much for us to try and change the world, but what about the church? What positive, healing difference in people's lives can we still make here at All Saints'? Those who are in search of a church that heals might include people who feel captive or imprisoned by their lives. Maybe they want freedom, from an abusive relationship or clinical depression or excessive debt. Maybe they are veterans of one of the many kinds of this world's wars, internal or external – or both. It's not just wars with other countries or other people, but battles with ourselves or with God. This summer I was unexpectedly given a question for my own spiritual life, a two-part question that might also be helpful to you. What battles are we still fighting? What peace do we need to make with our past? Peace. Freedom. Healing. These are universal human needs, needs of people of all faiths. And people who have no faith at all.

As Christians, we will – we must have honest, open questions about our faith. And when we try to answer our questions about Christianity, one good place to start is always the Cross. Jesus makes it clear to Peter and his disciples that for him, being the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the one who came to anoint others with the healing power of the living God – for Jesus, being the Messiah comes with some humanity. Some unexpected frailty. Some real pain. And great suffering. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected. . .and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now, that REALLY pushed Peter's buttons! Talk about irritation! NO WAY, Jesus! said Peter, trying to talk Jesus out of the truth. And Jesus' response? Where is the Peter I know and love? You sound like the Devil talking!

Friends, I believe following Jesus in 2012 is more challenging than we ever dreamed it would be. Taking up MY cross – knowing what MY cross actually IS – seems more difficult to discern than ever. I don't know about you, but I don't have this all figured out. What I do know is this: that wisdom about my “C.I.” - my Constant Irritation – is not just about someone else anymore. Over the years my source of Constant Irritation has become. . .me, the man in the mirror. ”Before you accuse me,” one great, old blues song goes, “take a look at yourself.”

In other words, when someone else pushes my buttons, I now try – slowly, reluctantly, imperfectly – to look at myself and ask, How am I part of this problem? How am I putting that irritating person's hand on my button and helping them push it? How am I acting like Peter, instead of being more like Jesus? How am I letting Evil speak for me, even when I don't know I'm doing it, especially when I'm silent?

Then, these questions begin to come: Today, how is Jesus calling me to deny my false self and embrace my true self in Christ? Just what IS my cross? How is God calling me to a life of service to others, such that I am willing to lose the life I know for a new life I don't yet know – the life of peace, freedom and healing Jesus wants me to embrace? And this one: How are we – how are you and I, together – to become, more and more, a church that heals?

At Grace Church, the parish where my priestly buttons first got pushed, four rectors in a row were forced to leave prematurely. All four suffered greatly with some kind of debilitating illness. Today, years later, that parish, with their new rector, Shawn, is thriving (check out her video on “Why I am an Episcopalian” at Healing has come once again to Grace Church, as it has come, so often, to All Saints', over 270 years. With God, peace, freedom and healing all happen. But not unless All Saints' Episcopal Church keeps choosing to be a church, as someone once put it, that is not a museum, not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners. All Saints' is still one vast hospital, a church that heals by reaching out, creating sacred space and welcoming all in Frederick. ALL of us. Even the most irritating.

Let us pray.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: As we commemorate the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attack on our nation, continue to look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 815 (alt.)


—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
September 16, 2012