May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
Today is a day of great celebration as we give thanks for the life and work of Mother Esther, the founder of the Community of the Holy Name. Born in England in 1858 she was received as a novice into the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage in 1884. Sent to Australia for her health, she was asked to help establish the, “Mission to the Streets and Lanes of Melbourne”.
Quite early in the work of the Mission she saw that a Religious Community living among the poor would greatly enhance the work they were able to do, and so the Community of the Holy Name was formed.
CHN has made an extraordinary contribution to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and to the poor and vulnerable people of that city. The ways in which the sisters have cared for the physical and spiritual needs of the poor and the marginalised are many and varied.
- Sunday schools
- day schools
- soup kitchens
- youth clubs
- mothers’ clubs
- children’s homes
- a babies’ home
CHN sisters served in courts and prisons, work that led to the establishment of a girls home, the House of Mercy, that later became Retreat House in Cheltenham.
Mother Esther’s original vision for the community was that all would work, and all would pray. The first Rule of the Community she shaped their life together with these words:
The aim and object of this Community into which these Sisters have been called, is two-fold. First, the Glory of God and the perfection of those He calls out of the world to serve Him in the Religious Life, under the perpetual vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Second, the Community has been founded for active Mission work in the Church for the honour and love of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ.
Mother Esther and her fellow sisters lived a life of sacrifice and work, always ready to serve the poor and those in need, motivated by the love of Jesus, trusting that the future is in the hands of God who loves us.
Our lectionary remembered Mother Esther yesterday, on 11 September, but the readings set for today seem perfect for the celebration of her life and work. Isaiah speaks of one who faithfully teaches. James, of one who completes faith through works. And in the Gospel, we hear of the vocation of Jesus and those who follow him.
Again and again, as we have been working our way through the first half of Mark’s Gospel, we have heard the repetition of the question first asked after Jesus calms the storm; Who then is this?
Now, finally, at the central point of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples directly, Who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah’ (8.29).
This moment of revelation and clarity is followed immediately by a return to incomprehension and confusion as Jesus tells the disciples what his messiahship will mean:
that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8.31).
Peter, deeply shocked by such words, cannot accept them. This is not how he, or any of the disciples have understood the role of the Messiah. It is certainly not how we imagine successful ministry today! No wonder Peter rebukes Jesus! Perhaps there have been times when you have rebuked him too? Certainly there have been times in the last 16 months, beginning a ministry under lockdown that I have said to Jesus, this is not how it is supposed to be Lord!
Jesus in turn rebukes Peter for his failure to accept what Jesus has said. Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things (8.33). One commentator says that this passage is the most verbally abusive writing in the Gospel. Peter tells Jesus to shut-up, and Jesus not only tells Peter to shut-up but actually names him Satan!
If we are paying careful attention to this confronting language, we might remember the language of the first healing recorded in Mark’s Gospel. In chapter 1, while Jesus is teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, he is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. Jesus rebukes the spirit telling it to shut-up and leave the man alone. The people who witness this are amazed both at Jesus’ teaching and at the authority with which he cast out the demon.
Now, Jesus rebukes Peter as he did the unclean spirit. He offers a new teaching with authority, a new way to freedom from all that possesses us, entry into a life lived without fear, but none of this will happen in a way that makes any sense to the world.
Instead, this new teaching overturns the way in which the people understand the Messiah and the consequences for those who believe in him. Jesus makes it clear that the suffering that he will experience will also be shared by his friends.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it (8.34b-35).
Jesus’ words to the unclean spirit, to Peter, and to all his disciples, are words to us too. Jesus silences and rebukes the things inside us that control our lives. He invites us to follow him in a costly life that will involve the ongoing, daily, casting out of those things that distract us and take our attention away from God. He offers us a new teaching with authority.
This teaching has never been easy to accept. If we really listen to Jesus’ words, they will shock us as much as they shocked Peter. They are words with the power to shatter the grip of the world on our lives and to challenge the way we gauge success.
These are words that humanity always needs to hear. Words of hope and challenge for those inside and outside the church. Words that motivated Mother Esther to give up her life so that others might live.
Perhaps, in this time of pandemic, we need to hear these words even more than usual. Now, when our usual structures and activities have gone, what is at the centre of life? How has the pandemic changed the way in which you hear Jesus’ words? What does discipleship look like in these times?
The lockdowns seem never-ending and so many people are fatigued by the constraints and difficulties of this strange new life. At the moment, we do not even have the hope of the successful elimination of Covid-19 to spur us on. We are simply asked to continue in faithfulness because losing our lives in this way is the right thing to do. Perhaps Jesus’ words about self-denial, and losing our lives for the sake of serving the life in others might help us to persevere.
The example of Mother Esther and of the sisters of the Community of the Holy Name helps us too. When Mother Esther began her work there were no sickness benefits, no dole, no aged pensions. The Sisters would get up at 5 in the morning, go to the city market to buy meat and vegetables and make soup to feed over four hundred men, women and children.
I imagine there must have been times when the poverty, danger and degradation of the lanes of Melbourne seemed overwhelming but the love of Jesus impelled her on, meeting the needs of the world with the outpouring of her life, offered in active work for the Glory of God and for the honour and love of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ.
Often, our life in the church is not what we expect it to be. The world around us seems mostly disinterested or actively hostile. It is easy to cling to what we have known out of fear that we will lose our life.
But this is not the way to which Jesus calls us. The response of the world, the survival of the church, these things matter to us but they are, ultimately, distractions from Jesus’ call to us to take up the cross and follow him. We worship a crucified Lord. A Lord who offers a new teaching with authority, a new way to freedom from all that possesses the world, a life lived without fear, a life that finds itself in self-denial and the willingness to learn to live on the far side of death.
As we seek to do this, we trust, with Mother Esther and the Community of the Holy name, that the future is in the hands of God who loves us.
The Lord be with you.