Today is Vocations’ Sunday, the Sunday in the Church’s year when we are asked especially to pray for all those who feel called by God to ministry of one sort or another, to pray that they will answer that call. It feels very appropriate to me to be thinking about that, today because I will be away for most of next week serving on a Bishops’ Advisory Panel, helping with the process of selecting those who want to be ordained as priests and deacons. It’s an intensive process, for the candidates and advisers, so do hold us all in your prayers.
But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that vocation is only about those who get ordained, as Nicky will be in September, and I was 23 years ago, and those who are licensed Readers, like Kevin, those who get up in the pulpit and preach. Maybe we might we might expand it a bit to include Sunday School teachers like Babs, or those who lead home groups. Or perhaps we might go further than that and think of Servers and musicians and choir members and PCC members and Churchwardens and all those who enable the church to run smoothly – they may have a sense of calling to those roles too. Perhaps we might think outside the church, about people called to be missionaries, or those who work in the caring professions or in education – doctors and nurses and teachers. All of these things have been traditionally described as vocations, things people feel called to do, not just for the money, but because they have an intrinsic value.
But even if we included all those people, we would still be missing the point, because the Bible tells us that every one of us is called by God, called to spread the light we have found, called to use our unique gifts for the good of others. God made us as we are. He knows us as we are. He calls us as we are. Every one of us has a vocation.
At confirmation when the Bishop lays hands on the heads of those making their profession of faith, he says “God has called you by name and made you his own.” It’s a powerful statement. “God has called you by name.” The world may call us all sorts of names, good or bad. People might call us “Mum” or “Dad” or “Boss” or “Champion”, or they might call us “useless” or “unworthy” or “a waste of space”, but God knows who we really are. He calls us by our true names. He calls us “beloved” because he made us to be loved. He calls us “blessing” because he made us to bless the world. He has called us, whoever we are, whatever our strengths and weaknesses, whatever our age and ability. And note that he has called us – not he will call us or he might call us if we are good enough. He has called us. It’s already happened. From the moment we are created, we are also called.
That’s what vocation is really about. It’s about hearing our true names, understanding our true identities and living them out.
The word vocation comes from the Latin “vocare” – to call. We get “vocal” and “voice” from it. And right from the beginning in the Bible we find God calling.
It starts with God’s voice calling creation into being. God calls out into the darkness, “Let there be light” and there is light.
Just a few chapters later, he calls out to Adam and Eve, “where are you?” calling them to him, but finds, to his sadness, that they are hiding because they’ve learned fear from a lying snake. But God’s voice carries on calling out. He calls out to Abraham, an elderly man who thinks his life is over, “Go from your native land and become the father of a multitude” he tells him.
He calls out to Moses, from a burning bush, with the reassurance that he has heard and seen what his people are going through as slaves in Egypt, and that Moses will be the one to lead them to freedom.
He calls out to the prophets, with words of comfort and words of challenge for the times they live in.
He calls out to Mary, through an angel, telling her that she’s to bear a son.
He calls out to fishermen and tax collectors, through Jesus, and to women and children, lepers and outcasts - to anyone who will hear him - with the words “come and follow me” “let your light shine” “love one another as I have loved you.”
God is a God who calls and keeps calling. He calls everyone – there is no one who is left out.
God calls, but hearing that call is another matter. We may struggle even to hear that true name God knows us by, but it can be even more difficult to hear what God wants us to do, which path he wants us to follow amidst the clamour of all the other voices we her. In the Gospel reading Jesus didn’t just say “He calls his own sheep by name.” He went on, “and leads them out”. We are called to go places with God. But where, and when, and how? That’s the puzzle.
In that famous Psalm we heard today, Psalm 23, it all sounds quite easy. God leads the Psalmist beside the still waters, he guides him in the right pathways. When the road is tough, God walks beside him, right to the journey’s end, where the table is spread and the cup overflows. Well, that might have been the Psalmist’s experience, at least in hindsight, but mine, and I expect yours, is often rather different. We stumble along, vaguely hoping we’re going in the right direction, but find ourselves up blind alleys or going round and round in circles.
How can we help ourselves hear God’s call, to be aware of God’s guiding presence?
I was talking to someone the other day who reminded me of the Celtic Church’s belief in what are called “thin places”, places where we feel naturally close to God, where the barriers between earth and heaven are dissolved. These might be ancient holy sites like Lindisfarne or Iona, or places of great natural beauty. Churches can be “thin places” too, places where we naturally seek God. But it seems to me that the key to hearing God’s voice day to day, sensing that nudge that shifts us this way or that in the direction he wants us to go, is that we need to make our own “thin places”. The first reading we heard today might give us a clue how we can do that.
It’s from the book of Acts, and it’s probably a rather idealised picture, but it’s an attempt to describe what the author thought a healthy Christian community looked like, and he singled out some interesting features.
What do we find out if we look at it?
He tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. They came together, in other words - regularly, faithfully, expectantly. They valued each other’s gifts. They knew that they needed each other and could learn something of God from each other. You can be a Christian on your own, but often we hear God’s voice in the voices of our brothers and sisters, so if we don’t come together we miss that.
“They had all things in common” he goes on. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” That’s a tough one, and Christians through the ages have always struggled with it, but at the very least, it tells us that service of others, giving of ourselves, is important if we want to discover God at work among us. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that we will meet him in those who are hungry and thirsty (Matthew 25). God speaks to us in those who ask for help. If we don’t listen to their voices, we won’t hear his.
“They spent much time together in the Temple,” he says. The Temple was the traditional place of worship, the place where the Jewish people believed they’d meet God. The early Christians didn’t reject their Jewish heritage. They treasured it, as Jesus had done. So they kept on showing up in the place where they knew God might speak to them, letting the words of their ancient scriptures sink into them. them. We do ourselves a favour if we let the words of the Bible, the prayers we say and the hymns we sing become familiar. God often speaks to us through them, and they are always there for us when we can’t come up with words of our own. Tradition matters if we want a healthy faith.
But we are also told that they “broke bread at home”. They took those ancient traditions and words into their everyday experience, made sense of them for themselves, found in them new resonances in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And because of that, the traditions, and the people who kept them were transformed. They “ate their bread with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people. “
Through all these practices, by paying attention to the daily routines of prayer, service and being together, they became attuned to God’s voice, aware of his presence. They made “thin places” for themselves in their everyday lives, places where they knew they’d find God. Many of them had hard lives. Many of them were poor. Many of them were slaves. Many of them had to pay a high price for their faith, losing family and friends. Some of them endured squalid deaths, just as Jesus had done. But because they’d made these “thin places,” places worn thin by the holy habits they’d built up they were able to hear God’s voice, and answer his call, even in the midst of trouble.
God still speaks. I know I’ll be reminded of that this week as I listen to the stories of those who feel called to ordained ministry, as I have done when I’ve served on these panels before, but the truth is that all of us are called. We’re called by the voice of the one who longs to transform and heal us, and send us out to others in loving service. So I pray that we will all make for ourselves “thin places” in our lives so we can hear the voice that calls us loud and clear. Amen
If you are interested in finding out more about authorised ministry of one kind or another (lay or ordained) within the C of E, these links might help. Whatever you feel called to - inside or outside the church - I'm always happy to chat to you about it.