Blessing of New Mother Superior

13 July 2009

Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 34, 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:1, Mark 6:32-44

Taken, Blessed, Broken and Given.

Food has been an important topic in the folk-lore of the early days of our Community in London. There were bun schools where half-starved children were given breakfasts of currant buns and hot tea before being taught, and lunches of soup and bread provided for unemployed navvies. This focus seems relevant for today’s Eucharist, when we have gathered for the blessing of Sister Linda Mary who trained and taught as a Home Science teacher in the late sixties and early seventies before joining the community. And since then her sisters have frequently benefited from her culinary skills. But there are many other connections that can be made.

The gospel reading tells of the feeding of the 5,000 begins with the apostles returning after their first teaching and healing mission. They recount their exciting adventures to Jesus. It has been a fulfilling time for them but they are now exhausted. Jesus, ever respectful of the body’s needs, suggests they travel by boat to a deserted place where they can rest. How attractive that must have seemed to them! Unfortunately, as so often happens in life, something goes wrong. The plan, even though it is made by Jesus, is foiled. Enthusiastic crowds decide to follow them overland and are eagerly waiting when their boat arrives.

Deserted places or spaces, as we all know, do not always turn out as we anticipate. Instead of peace and rest unexpected guests arrive; a telephone call demands attention; or a family member has a crisis. Even if we do achieve the longed for quiet, it can be ambiguous, turning out to be not so peaceful and refreshing after all. Instead it is dry and barren, life seems empty and God absent. We are confronted by ourselves with our weaknesses exposed. 

We can imagine that the spirits of the apostles sank when they saw the crowd on the shore and even more so when Jesus instead of sending off this mob had compassion for them, seeing them as sheep needing a shepherd, and began to teach them. 

Gradually the day wears on until not only the apostles are hungry, but also 5,000 men and, we must not forget, the women and the children noted by Matthew! The disciples tell Jesus to send the people away. They are by now way beyond their emotional limits with hunger and fatigue, and the caring part of their ministry is no longer of interest.  But Jesus replies by asking them to feed the people. They understandably protest. It is impossible! Jesus next directs them how to do it, they are to find what food they have. They must have grumbled at this, they feel they have nothing. Nevertheless, they look around, probably somewhat reluctantly and manage to produce five loaves and two fish.  What a pathetically small amount it must have looked!  But Jesus acts as though it is enough for a great banquet, and immediately orders the disciples to seat the people in groups ready to be served.  

Linda may think at times, especially when she feels tired, that she has little with which to feed others, but something is significant in today’s story. Jesus refused to produce the food for the people. Instead he looked to an unlikely source for it, his exhausted disciples. We conclude that God needs our contributions, even seemingly inadequate ones. As a community, Linda and we sisters are called to find and offer collectively our five loaves and two fish to Christ.  We are in this way enabled to achieve together, in Christ and with Christ, more than we can as individuals. Deserts may look dry and deserted but they can be places where we find ourselves used, fed and nourished by God in surprising ways.

Returning to our story of the picnic and reminiscent of the actions at the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread supplied by the disciples, offers it to God in thanksgiving, blesses it, breaks it and gives it back to them to distribute among the people.  Then he does the same with the fish and there is more than enough food for everyone. They all eat and are satisfied. 

As members of the church we have all offered ourselves publicly to God at certain pivotal moments in our lives such as baptism and confirmation, and received God’s blessing and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps at the time we experienced warm fuzzy feelings, but then, horrors, as this story makes clear, we discover we are to be broken before we can be used to feed and nourish others and thus fulfil our Christian vocation!  

Today is the 137th anniversary of when Mother Emily, the founder of our community, took the step to become a professed sister. It was a day when she was blessed by God as she publicly committed the rest of her life to pray and work to the honour and glory of God and for the coming of God’s reign on earth in the community of the Sisters of the Church. In her life she experienced being broken to serve others. Particularly this was so in the 1890s when it is recorded that Emily faced troubles with sisters in the community, accusations of financial misuse, conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Benson) and public criticism of her work with unmarried mothers and orphans. In an outspoken letter she explained that the community’s “warm espousal of the cause of Religious Education, Foundlings, Starving men, and Tortured animals, goes against the spirit of the age, and brings with it much ill-will and opposition”(VV.p.158).

All of us sisters, including Linda, have been blessed by God at our profession. Today Linda will again be blessed and empowered by the Holy Spirit for the particular role of guiding and leading our Community. In 2 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation, in which the church is called to participate with Christ. We Sisters see ourselves as a living cell of the Body of Christ, the Church, and understand our fundamental ministry as reconciliation. In our rule we explain it as joining with Christ to bring about the reign of God into our world, that all creation, human and non-human, might be reconciled to God, living and working together in love for the well-being of all. This is our task which involves us all in being broken and wounded to better serve others.

Meals are traditional images or models of reconciliation, providing an opportunity for diverse people to come together in unity, sharing food and conversation, and to serve and be served by one another. Jesus demonstrated in his parables and actions that although feasts can cultivate status and hierarchical domination, this can be undermined when all, friends and enemies, are welcomed, mutually appreciated and encouraged to participate as God’s loved creation. Here in the Eucharist we have heard stories, and will shortly offer with Christ, ourselves, bread and wine to be taken, blessed, broken, that we might be given to participate in Christ’s life of serving and being served by one another and the world. 

For Linda this offering reflects her life given to God as a sister and now as leader in our Community, and her ordination as a priest in the church of God. She stands at the beginning of a new role in the community which will for her be both rewarding and demanding. However, the gospel is a reminder that these difficult periods have the potential to become opportunities, when as for the disciples and the crowd in the deserted place, she is fed and feeds others with the Bread of Life. Yes, there will be difficulties ahead but Linda is a member of a community in which she can find the nourishment and support of Christ in and through her sisters.

All our meals including the Eucharist are a foretaste of  the great eschatological feast when all creation, human and non-human shall be gathered up in Christ to enjoy one another in the love of our Trinitarian God. It is not just convenience, therefore, that after this service food will be served and stories shared in the presence of Christ.

Finally, on behalf of all my sisters, those present and those in England, Canada, USA and the Solomon Islands I wish to thank Anita for her past leadership, and pray for God’s strength for Linda, as she and we enter the next phase of our community life.

Helen CSC