Recruiting of vocations
‘May the words of my lips and the mediations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you Lord, our rock and our redeemer’.
The topic of my sermon is one that I have had the opportunity to think about over the past year or so, and one that I believe is hugely relevant to all of us, but in much need of clarification. This is the topic of vocation, or calling. It is no secret to most people who know me that I have been reflecting on this topic in the particular context of the ordained ministry. But what I have to say this evening has nothing to do with ordination per se; rather, it is about what I will call the human vocation, the calling that all of us have as human beings, made in God’s image, to, in the language of St Paul, become sons and daughters of God.
I will begin by explaining why I think the term vocation needs to broadened and clarified, and warn against three common misconceptions of it. I then go on to ask: what does it mean for a human being to be called to become a child of God, and how are we supposed to respond to this call? As I answer this question, I will reflect on the call of Jeremiah, which we heard in our first lesson.
So let us begin. The term vocation is one that is often used to refer to the ordained ministry or the religious life; this, indeed, is the context in which I have been exploring it. This is what people have in mind when they talk about a ‘decline in the number of vocations’ or a ‘vocations crisis’. But without meaning to undervalue this use of the term, I think we need to be careful that we don’t blind ourselves to a much broader reference for it. While the calling to be a Priest or a member of a religious order certainly is a vocation, it is by no means the only sense in which we can or indeed should apply the term. After all, if vocations are what clergy or monks or nuns have, they are things that, by implication, the rest of us do not. But this seems contrary to the fact that the notion of a ‘calling’ applies to all Christians; as St Paul states in his letter to the Ephesians: ‘I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling which you have received’. So the first misconception about vocation is that it applies only to the ordained or religious life. Of course, these are very visible expressions of a person’s desire to serve Christ and his Church in a particular way, but, it seems to me, always only to enable others to hear His call.
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And there are two possible ways in which we could broaden our reference here. The first would be to borrow a little from secular language. To the world outside the Church, ‘vocation’ means certain kinds of profession – doctor, nurse, teacher – and the term ‘vocational training’ means a particular kind of process whereby one picks up qualifications for these jobs. And so why not broaden our conception of vocation to include roles for lay people within the Church – servers, worship leaders, administrators, even flower arrangers might come to mind. But I am not sure this is the right way to broaden the notion of vocation. Christian vocation, as I understand it, is far less about carrying out a particular job and far more about being a certain kind of person. It is only when we discover what sort of person this is that we feel truly at home – in our spiritual lives, in our relationships with others and in the world around us. St Augustine’s words in the opening of the Confessions strike me as spot on here: ‘Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. The second misconception about vocation, then, is that it involves doing a particular kind of job or adopting a certain role; in fact, as I will go on to explain below, focusing on doing at the expense of being often only contributes to this sense of restlessness, one that can only be removed when we take time to contemplate the beauty and greatness of God.
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But that is not to suggest that Christian vocation is an entirely subjective, atomistic experience of individual pilgrimage. It is noteworthy that Augustine uses the first person plural in this passage, despite the fact that his Confessions are about a highly personal journey of faith and conversion. Of course, it is usually the personal dynamic of our relationship with God that sustains us in our day-to-day spiritual lives. But we should not lose sight of the point that God calls us for a common and shared purpose. This is another negative consequence of the tendency to view vocation as doing a particular job or role. We focus far too much on a picture of ourselves as individual teachers, servers, and so on, and lose sight of the fact that we are being called individually to build up others communally, to serve the Church, which God has also called to have a particular vocation: to be a visible, corporate witness to his love in the world.
As a member of the Church of England, I do think this point is more difficult to see than it ought to be. One thing I love about the Church of England is its inclusive via media between various theological and doctrinal positions that are often difficult to reconcile. I love this feature of the C of E because it leads to greater tolerance of distinct viewpoints; in the words of Elizabeth I, the Church of England does not make windows into men’s souls. I think this radical inclusiveness is one of the Church’s greatest strengths. Inclusiveness is one of the most distinctive tenets of Christianity, certainly within the Pauline mission; as we heard in our second lesson, there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free, all are one in Christ. My greatest lament is that some appear to view this feature of the C of E as its greatest weakness. Rather than engaging in dialogue about the future of the Church, we break off into factions. We start viewing our religious witness as a matter of self-expression. This is at best unproductive and at worst dangerous – for the perception of the Church by those outside it, and for those who worship within it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that any particular view of Christian vocation is responsible for this phenomenon; but I am suggesting that it can lead us to a kind of spiritual blindness about the fact that vocation applies as much to the Church as to the individuals who comprise it.
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What, then, is the second sense in which the term ‘vocation’ can be broadened, if we should move away from simply thinking about individual jobs and roles? In my view, we should broaden it in the greatest possible way, and talk simply about the human vocation, the sense in which our human lives can, by responding to God’s call, be given spiritual meaning and purpose. As many of you know, I am a philosopher. Many people think that Philosophy is all about discovering the meaning of life. Perhaps I did too, once. But I soon discovered that Philosophy, for all its rewards and frustrations, is a slightly different sort of intellectual pursuit; indeed, the only time I ever heard somebody asking about the meaning of life in a seminar, the response was: what a silly question; life doesn’t have meaning, only statements do. However, as a Christian philosopher – which contrary to popular opinion most certainly is not a contradiction in terms – I can offer some brief thoughts on the human vocation, the purpose of being human or, to use a term that was important to Aristotle: the human ‘ergon’, or function.
In Christian terms, the answer to this question is in fact beautifully simple. We are all made and fashioned in God’s divine image, and we are all called in mind, body and soul, to fulfil our humanity by, through grace, becoming like Him. That’s right, Christianity teaches the rather radical idea that material human beings really can become like God, through the fact that we are made and fashioned in His likeness. But this requires a response on our behalf. And of course, we are imperfect beings – marred by a failure to see things clearly, to truly contemplate God’s call, marred, we often say, by our ‘fallen’ nature. Without getting too bogged down with a discussion of the Fall, I think we can all admit that we human beings get things wrong quite often; that, again to quote another of Paul’s most famous passages in 1 Corinthians 13, we can see things only in part, we need the revelation of God, through his son Jesus Christ, to give us the complete picture.
When I think about this notion of spiritual deafness, or the human inability to see clearly what our vocation is, what it is that will give rest to our souls, I cannot help but remember some wise words I once heard from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who I was lucky enough to hear talking recently about his own experience of Vocation. He said: ‘Now remember all of you, none of us has a hotline to God’. And then, he continued, ‘Remember, there was a moment when not even Jesus had a direct hotline to God’ – referring to the moment of his death, when he cries out on the cross the words of psalm 22 ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, words that you will hear in a few weeks in the Passiontide service. But it did not end there. Through the resurrection, which we look forward to during Lent, this season of preparation we have just begun, Christ opens for humanity the way of love that is stronger than death. Through Christ, the image of God is restored, and adopted humanity receives what St Paul calls the right to become children of God. ‘In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ’.
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But given that we do find it difficult to see things clearly – given that we don’t have a hotline to heaven – what can we do? How can we make ourselves more responsive to God’s call? Don’t worry if you feel rather afraid of this question: Jeremiah certainly was. Equally, don’t worry if you start finding reasons not to respond – Jeremiah did, too ‘God, I really do not know how to speak well enough for that, for I am too young’. Don’t worry, because God will always find a way round these sorts of problems: as he said to Jeremiah ‘I will most assuredly give you the words you are to speak for me’; a response I found most reassuring when thinking about how to express my thoughts about vocation in this sermon.
And so, when thinking about being responsive to God’s call, there are three things to bear in mind:
The first thing is to remember that calling really is personal. God’s words to Jeremiah apply to all of us: ‘Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I chose you. Before you were born, I set you apart’. How extraordinary these words are! They are echoed in the stories of Isaiah, Moses, and others – we also heard them in our psalm this evening – but no where better are they expressed than in the second chapter of the book of revelation, where it is said that God has given us all a unique name, written on a white tablet, to be revealed at the end of time. God’s name for you is not the name by which you are known to others; rather, it is known only to Him. It symbolizes the differentiated, developed person you are invited to become through your responsiveness to His personal calling. Indeed, another part of Jeremiah’s encounter reveals this sense of personal closeness, when God himself who is in so many ways the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, reaches forward and touches his mouth as an assurance of his presence. And the point to bear in mind here is that although we all have the same vocation – to become children of God – we are nonetheless uniquely made by God, uniquely called by a particular name, and we all have been given very particular gifts, and a very particular role to play in the life of his Church and the world he created.
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The second thing is to take time to contemplate, to think about all of this. Remember that vocation is not about doing; it is about being. And we can all learn something from this distinction. Those of you who are inclined to spend time in prayer will, I hope, agree with me that there is no better view of prayer than that of ‘wasting time in God’s presence’. In the fast moving world in which we live, it is all so easy to view even prayer as something with deadlines, objectives, goals, benchmarks; a means to an end rather than an end in itself. But prayer is or at least should be about simply being, simply contemplating. One meaning of Lent, as all you musicians will know, is to ‘slow down’. And so, why not try to make time during Lent for silent meditation. Visit some of the so-called ‘thin’ places of the world– places where the distinction between heaven and earth seems very thin indeed. Places like this chapel, for example. You’ll discover that, despite appearances, this ‘slowing down’ time is never really wasted.
The third thing is to ask yourselves is: who is this God who is calling me, anyway? Now, there is a sense in which all our talk of God is limiting and inadequate. But please don’t try to deliberately limit your picture of who God is, which is all too easy to do. We all have biases in our notions of God, and this is understandable. Even the ascription of Fatherhood to God is in many ways a metaphorical one (as Julian of Norwich said, God is as much our Mother as our Father).
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But part of spiritual growth is about shedding our defective notions of what God is like, in order to increase our openness to the reality of who He is; a God who is beyond our understanding and cannot be contained in metaphors and comparisons. When you read the Bible, be open to the fact that it really is the living word of God – it is a complex mixture of history, poetry, drama, myth, philosophy, which can always be visited and revisited to reveal the depth and richness of its divine author. This willingness to grow in Faith and understanding of God is a fundamental part of vocation. Indeed, I think a ready willingness to question, challenge and reconceptualise is exactly what is needed with the very idea of vocation itself
So next time you think about vocation, try to get beyond the image of a person in a dog collar or habit – especially if like a lot of people you have no desire to ever wear either of these things – and ask yourself: where am I on this journey? How is my soul restless? What kind of person is God calling me to be? And, when reflecting on these questions, I pray that you gain deeper awareness of your own spiritual calling, and its importance to the God who brought you into being precisely because he wanted you to respond to it.
And so, let me finish with a prayer from the third chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.