Here’s what I said on Sunday about vocations
[Sorry about the poor audio. We’ve some major problems with the sound system that are going to take some weeks to sort out – however, the Vestry are well aware that Something Needs to be Done].
The Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church have asked the whole church today to reflect on vocations. The idea is that on this Sunday, when the readings tend to reflect on the idea of Jesus as the great shepherd of the flock, we think about the notion of calling. So we must think about how we discern Godâ€™s calling and what we might make as an appropriate response.
I am aware as I begin to open up that subject that we are stepping on sacred ground and must mind where we go. Immense amounts of sadness and disappointment have been the result of vocations, and not exclusively clerical vocations, which the church has not been able to affirm and rejoice in. On the other hand, this is, as the gathering place for the diocese, a place where vocations are delighted in and celebrated in ordination services and in various ways of thanksgiving for lay ministry, including the Ministry Celebrations Service in the summer.
But I do with caution. And I begin with my own experience.
My own path to priesthood was not an easy journey. I had formal interviews with over fifty people before I was ordained. It appeared at one time that my vocation was to make people pull their hair out as they tried to work out what to do with me. Indeed, the existential question faced by Maria in the Sound of Music seemed to be at the very heart of who I was. â€œHow shall we solve a problem like Kelvin Holdsworthâ€ was very much the question the church faced as I insisted that I had a vocation to the priesthood in the face of a goodly number of people who were really not so sure that I had. Or perhaps it was in the face of a goodly number of people who were simply not sure that the church could cope with it if I had. And when the church thinks about vocations, it has to think about its own needs and stability and future as well as the care of the person involved.
I remember being referred for a vocational interview with an older priest once. Oh, he said, Come round for Evensong and Afternoon Tea.
Those of you familiar with the ways of the church will know that this was code for two of the ancient ways by which the church discerns vocations: Trial by Liturgy and Trial by Cutlery.
As a relatively new Anglican, I managed to make it through Evensong â€“ still a fairly unfamiliar service to me. I thought I had stood up at the right time, left spaces between the psalm verses without butting into the wrong place and had generally behaved as well as I knew how.
With the service out of the way, I thought I had passed the test fairly well.
Fairly well, until I was ushered into the Rectory for tea. My confidence in my liturgical abilities was somewhat shaken as I reached over the table to help myself to something.
â€œHmm,â€ said the rather snooty priest, â€œHmmm â€“ well at least you know how to cut cheeseâ€.
Iâ€™ve never forgotten how that moment made me feel. In an instant I found myself what on earth Iâ€™d got wrong earlier in the encounter and secondly, I found myself wondering what on earth the wrong way of cutting cheese was.
It may well be that the reason I stand here today is because I had the fortune to pick up a cheese-knife the way that someoneâ€™s nanny had taught him.
That day taught me that the churchâ€™s expectations of vocation sometimes have an undercurrent of class snobbery in addition to issues of sexism, racism and homophobia and what not which seldom get addressed in the common life of the church.
But this is what I have learned about vocationsâ€“ three things â€“ it is real, it is all about jazz and it is fabulous.
Firstly, it is real. Even though Iâ€™m very suspicious of people who claim that they have a hotline to God â€“ some people experience a sense of call that cannot be expressed in any other way than that they come to a day in their life when they say, â€œIt feels as though God is calling me to do this thing â€“ can you help me to work out if Iâ€™m rightâ€.
What I get the chance to say on a day that the church designates as vocations Sunday is â€“ if it feels like that, talk to someone about it. Ask the questions. Have the conversation. Explore what comes next.
In the face of a rather grand funeral this week I started thinking about how I wanted to be remembered when Iâ€™m dead. That might seem like a question to keep for the time of the year when we think about all saints and all souls. But remember they are only glimmers of the reflected light of Easter. Questions about how I will be remembered when Iâ€™m dead begin with the question how shall I live today.
I believe God calls us all to be disciples â€“ calls us all to live and thrive and grow and bless others by that life. That is the extraordinariness of vocation in the commonplace.
And Iâ€™m convinced that God calls people to do amazing things in unexpected places too. The ordinariness of vocations to the extraordinary.
Both are real. Both are true.
Secondly, it is all about jazz. When I was in America at the end of last year, I encountered one or two services where there was jazz â€“ Iâ€™d hoped to find more. Now, Iâ€™m not a great jazz freak, but one of the things that fascinates me is when I see a jazz band passing a tune around, first one player plays the tune â€“ then another takes it up and adds their variation on it, then another has a go, then maybe it goes back to the first. The beat of life in the music goes on. The essence of the tune remains the same throughout. But the life comes from the call and response between the players.
Call and response. Yes. Call and response. Thatâ€™s part of how God deals with us. God calls us. We respond with our variation on the tune. God calls us again with another variation. We respond in kind.
So much of the pain that the church has got into has come from trying to presume that the call of God is a static thing â€“ the voice of God pronouncing who or what we shall be.
Godâ€™s call goes on every day. And it is the same every day. And the thing that is the same is that it is new every morning.
Iâ€™m not sure whether this Sunday with all its sheep neatly in flocks being led by shepherds really is a good day to be thinking about vocations. It tends to make us think of ordained people neatly leading congregations.
Godâ€™s call is a bit more dynamic and a bit more interesting than that.
For finally, it is fabulous.
My selection to be a priest was laboured and painful. My training was grim. The way that Iâ€™ve been managed has been ghastly. And the truth is, I have a wonderful, fabulous, fulfilling life.
God does not call us at Christians to anything other than to be a fabulous people. Vocations are about adventure, change, growth and love.
Because thatâ€™s what God is about and we bear the image of a God who is always changing.
Adventure, change, growth and fabulous love.
Expect nothing less.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.