Today in the life of the church, we celebrate William Augustus Muhlenberg, a priest who in the mid 1800s founded the Church of the Holy Communion in New York City. Muhlenberg’s life and work is a testament to a life of bold faith and deep conviction. In a time where church pews still had to be rented, his parish had free pews, a parish school, a parish unemployment fund, and provided trips to the country for impoverished children in the city. He also deeply valued beauty in worship and of communion, which was celebrated every Sunday at the Church of the Holy Communion, which in the mid 1800’s was unheard of in the Episcopal Church. He went on to commended to the General Convention that Eucharist should take a more pressing and important role in the weekly life of Episcopalians, and while the memorial he and others proposed in 1853 wasn’t adopted, it would later be an influential source for liturgical revival. Muhlenberg was passionate about caring for the poor, for children, and absolutely convicted that God’s grace abounds more than we can imagine.
When I looked up who might be assigned for today’s mid-week meditation, I went back and forth on whether or not a priest from the mid-1800’s needed our five minutes of attention when we are already so oversaturated with news and content, because while he may have done good things, it’s Holy Week after all, aren’t there more pressing things for us to talk about? But as I began to read into his life and work, not only was communion an important thing for him, but he also founded St. Luke’s hospital in New York with his co-partner in ministry, Anne Ayers.
St. Luke’s hospital has been a force of compassion and healing throughout New York in its history, being the first to establish a Woman’s Hospital in 1855. And in 1859, when consumptive tuberculosis patients, who were highly contagious and often had limited or no access to hospital care, patients were welcomed at St. Luke’s. St. Luke’s, of which Muhlenberg was the pastor-superintendent until his death in 1877 stood as a beacon of hope not only for the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden, but also for the whole city.
This hospital is still in operation and has, of course, grown, but it is no longer known by the name of St. Luke’s, instead it is known as Mount Sinai Morningside. And this hospital might sound familiar to us, even out in Bowling Green, KY, as Mount Sinai Morningside is one of the hospitals in New York that is caring a heavy burden as they navigate the way the coronavirus has ravaged the city. This hospital, founded by Muhlenberg, who we remember today is still known for the things that its founder instilled as the hospital began their work. In this time of global pandemic, centuries after he founded it, the hospital founded by Muhlenberg stands not only as a beacon of hope for the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden, but also for all of us.
Let us pray the collect for today’s feast day:
Do not let your Church close its eyes, O Lord, to the plight of the poor and neglected, the homeless and destitute, the old and the sick, the lonely and those who have none to care for them. Give us the vision and compassion with which you so richly endowed your servant William Augustus Muhlenberg, that we may labor tirelessly to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
And in closing, I’d like to remind you that my friends, life is short, and we do not have long to the gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and make no peace with oppression. May we, like Muhlenberg, live our lives with deep compassion and unwavering conviction to do the work we have been given to do.
A midweek reflection live-streamed to the people of Christ Episcopal Church on the feast of William Augustus Muhlenberg, April 8, 2020.