This sermon was written and delivered by Jeremy Tayler, an ordinand at Westcott House, part of the University of Cambridge on Sunday, August 10, 2014.
Let me be honest with you. When I exchanged emails with Tuomas about the possibility of preaching here over the summer, and he suggested that I might preach on vocation, I was not keen. Having recently gone through the Church of England’s discernment process for ordained ministry, I spent the best part of two years talking about vocation. And so I suggested to Tuomas that we first take a look at the readings set for today, hoping they would would be my “get out of jail card” and give me something other than vocation to talk about. Of course this was a vain hope: the God of the Bible is a God who calls. Almost any set of readings could be relevant to the subject of vocation, and today’s readings are particularly so.
I don’t intend to talk about the discernment process – if anyone has any questions about that, I will be happy to talk about it afterwards over coffee. Let me rather offer some reflections on vocation drawing on the readings we have heard.
There are two things to be said before we start to look at the readings:
First, vocation for all; it is not only about ordained ministry. Every one of us is called; every one of us has a vocation to be a part of the Body of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a mistake for a priest to think that vocation is something that applies especially to him or to her; it is equally a mistake for a layperson to think that vocation is something for priests, and that laypeople can safely get on with their lives without thinking about vocation. We are all called.
Second, there is no personal priesthood; priesthood is not the property of the priest. Jesus is our High Priest, and the Church is a priesthood; those called to the priesthood are called to embody the priesthood of the whole Church in a particular way, but the priesthood that they share in belongs to the whole Church and ultimately to Jesus himself.
Now, let’s look more closely at the readings.
Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water.
For most of us, vocation is something we must live out with others. In our gospel reading, we heard how the disciples travelled together in a boat. When Peter saw Jesus, he separated himself from the other disciples, getting out of the boat and attempting to walk to Jesus alone, and he quickly found himself in trouble. This is a good image for the kinds of difficulties that can arise when we attempt to write others out of the story of our faith and our vocation. In much contemporary Christian culture, people are fond of talking about their personal relationship with Jesus, or of Jesus as “my personal saviour”; while this is not wrong, it is not enough. Of course Jesus calls us into a relationship with him; but he also calls us into relationships with others. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, as He and the Father are One; St Paul teaches that we are the body of Christ. Vocation is not about me and Jesus and never mind everyone else; we cannot find our own way to Jesus across the water while leaving our brothers and sisters behind in the boat.
In our Old Testament reading, Elijah, like Peter, has left everyone else behind to run to God; Elijah had good reason to run, as he was fleeing the threat of death. The voice of God comes to him when he is alone in the mountains. The idea of finding God in the sheer silence is one that often appeals to us. And it is certainly true that we sometimes need to be alone and quiet to hear God’s call – Jesus himself leaves his disciples to spend time alone with the Father in today’s gospel reading. But what is often missed in Elijah’s story is that the still small voice of calm sends Elijah right back into the midst of the community that he had run away from, with all its dangers.
Like Peter, and like most of us, Elijah cannot live out his vocation as a private relationship with God; as difficult, as dangerous as it may be, his vocation requires him to be amongst his people, to be a sign of God’s presence in the midst of the bloody chaos. Most of us, thankfully, will not have to live amongst the sort of violence that characterised the Israel of Elijah’s day; nonetheless, the thought that we can run to God in the mountain, and work out our vocation alone with God, leaving the mess of our lives and relationships behind, remains beguiling. And whilst we may from time to time need to seek God in quiet and silence, we must also be ready for the still small voice of calm to tell us that our vocation is precisely to stand with others in the midst of the mess, not to escape from it.
What are you doing here, Elijah?
People often ask me if I ever have doubts – doubts about my vocation, doubts about my faith. And of course from time to time I do, as I suppose most of us must if we are honest with ourselves. But for me, doubt has mainly worked in the opposite direction; in fact I would go so far as to say that doubt is one of the most important ways in which I have experienced a sense of calling. We usually think of doubt in terms of things that happen to us in our lives causing us to doubt our faith; but the sense of doubt that eventually led me to enter the Church’s discernment process was the opposite of this: it was rather that there was something in my faith that caused me to doubt many things about my life. The decisions I took, the plans I made, the jobs I applied for, the degrees I studied for, the attempts I made to build a career for myself: all the while, it was almost as if there were a voice in my head quietly but insistently asking “What are you doing here?”.
Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.
Peter’s other mistake in this story is to try to decide for Jesus what Jesus should call him to do: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. The initiative comes from Peter, not Jesus. Perhaps Jesus complies with Peter’s request hoping that Peter will learn something from the experience. This continues to be a temptation for Christians. We all form our own ideas about what we think God should call us to do; we might want to walk on the water, but God might prefer for us to help keep the ship afloat.
How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
Vocation is for all; it is not something that the clergy can regard as their personal property, nor is it something that the laity can delegate entirely to the clergy. Jesus calls all of us to follow him; he calls all of us to witness to his love for humanity in word and action, and to serve him by serving others. Of course he calls different people to do this in different ways – some as priests, some as deacons, some as musicians, churchwardens, Sunday school teachers. Some serve Jesus through a ministry of hospitality; others serve Jesus as friends, in family life, in their professions and hobbies. But Jesus calls us all. Vocation is not only an individual matter – it is something that we must live out as a Church, as communities, as families; vocation can be uncomfortable – it can lead us to doubt and question ourselves and our priorities, and it can lead us to people and places we might prefer to avoid.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world,
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good,
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
(St Teresa of Avila)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost