There are those outside the faith community who say the church and its ancient traditions are irrelevant, outdated and will die. The Sisterhood has wrestled with such questions of its place throughout its history – even from its origins in Toronto when only one parish in the diocese wanted to connect in any way with a monastic women’s community with Anglo-Catholic practices! Yet I have watched personally over the last twenty years of that history as SSJD has, guided by its leaders, made challenging and radical decisions – not for the sake of comfort but for the sake of faithfulness. You moved the whole mother house of the convent to this location; opened and closed houses in Montreal, Edmonton, Victoria; changed your practices around wearing the habit; established an order of oblates and shifted your relationship with St. John’s Rehab Hospital. These years were simply a continuation of the ways in which the Sisterhood has responded to the needs around the community since 1884 while retaining its core practices of faith and community life. That is what is needed now - faithfulness to the values and heart of Christian faith expressed in prayer and action through the charism of this community. At times that faithfulness has taken you into ministries of teaching, missional outreach, caregiving, pastoral care, hospitality and more recently into spiritual direction. You have faced changes with courage – though not, I know, without some internal controversy and on occasion, pain.
A recent article by Rachel Held Evans – now Episcopalian formerly an evangelical in the USA …commented on the trend to be ‘hip and cool’ in church worship – coffee perking at the back of the church, the most up-to-date music and technology, etc. She quotes blogger, Amy Peterson, who says – ‘I want a service that is not sensational, flashy or particularly ‘relevant’ I can be entertained anywhere At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
Well, monastic communities offer a space that is welcoming, non-judgmental, and open yet rooted in that ancient-future community living. You are living what Amy is talking about – that ancient-future way of worship and connection with God and God’s purposes.
So today we gather to install Sr. Elizabeth as Reverend Mother of this ancient-future tradition and community on St. John’s Day, your Easter season Patronal festival. In the readings for this day we hear some key messages for Sr. Elizabeth and for the community. The passage we just heard in 1 John carries the heartbeat that, to me, is at the center of all faith life, and especially in this community. “We have heard – we have tasted – we have seen concerning the word of life….. so that you also may have fellowship with us…..so that our joy may be complete! “
This community is made up of people who have met Jesus – and want to live in such a way that others may come alongside in fellowship which in turn completes your joy! It is a hopeful invitation into life. You as a community are a sign – an icon – of all who have seen and touched and tasted the word of life in Jesus Christ inviting others through your ministry of hospitality, pastoral visiting, spiritual direction – to come alongside in fellowship and in that fill your joy.
We also heard the moment when Moses meets God and desires to experience God’s glory. Moses was called into leadership to take the Israelites from Egypt out into the desert. He has taken them from a life of slavery but the future promised land is not yet in sight and they have been recalcitrant – complaining - rebellious – frustrating - (Not that the Sisters of SSJD could ever be recalcitrant – rebellious – complaining or frustrating!!) Moses now needs encouragement. The past looks better than the future….and Moses needs confirmation for himself of the bigger picture of God’s purposes by being touched by God’s glory.
There is a high toll on the leader – to stay focused on hope & purpose and not look for the quick fix to the questions of survival. Moses was called to be the steady, patient leader in the face of grumbling and to keep the people focused on their purpose and calling to take them to their destination. Moses needed to be grounded in his relationship with God in which he had a glimpse of God’s glory – in the same way as the disciples did in such moments at the Transfiguration, during the resurrection appearances and at the Ascension as they were prepared for leadership.
Therefore, Sr. Elizabeth – as you take up the mantle of leadership for this community remember these grounding principles for your ministry.
Before you were a Sister – before you were Assistant to the Reverend Mother – before you were a teacher – wife – mother – you are a child of God – Beloved of God. You will need to remember this each day when the burden is too great; or the frustrations too large; and even when the joys are bursting on you.
Then also remember your first calling by baptism to be with and to serve God. The baptismal covenant speaks of all the elements that are part of your community life – eucharist, scripture, prayer, confession. Spending time in prayer is built into your daily life – but leadership can nibble and gnaw at its time. Be firm and faithful to the disciplines of your baptismal calling as you have chosen to live them in community at SSJD. Give yourself time to touch the glory of God in your heart and soul so that you will have the strength you need for the journey of leadership.
Thirdly, remember that you are not alone. Moses quickly learned on his journey that he needed others to share leadership and appointed them. No leader serves alone. We serve in community with others whose gifts and skills complement and support our own. To return to 1 John - “we” have seen, tasted, touched….,not ‘I’ have seen, touched, heard. We share responsibility together. You are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12) and these earthly colleagues who each share a part of God’s vision for SSJD – have been called to this community, have been touched by God’s glory and are also faithfully trying to live out that calling. Draw on their gifts, their prayers, their support - and remember to laugh and play together.
This Sisterhood has the gifts it needs in its roots and history, its commitment to community, and in its leadership to face the challenges ahead. It is grounded in the love of God that has been known, heard, tasted, and seen in Jesus that binds this community together. You will find your joy – individually and together – as you faithfully live this ancient-future calling and are for the rest of us, an icon of all that we are also called to do and be in this ancient-future church.
Bishop Linda Nicholls
Diocese of Toronto, Anglican Church of Canada