Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sermon for Vocations Sunday

Today is Vocations Sunday, a day on which the church invites us to think about God’s calling to us.  Often the word ‘vocation’, particularly when said from the pulpit, means nothing more than a recruitment drive by the church – wanting more clergy or religious or lay ministers or whatever.  But it is important to remember that we are all called by God.  We were called into being by God, our very existence is a response to God’s call.  In fact the church is called ekklesia in the New Testament which means the community that is called together.  So individually and corporately we are called. Together and as individuals we have a vocation. 
        And our primary calling is to be ourselves.  ‘Be yourself’ is a refrain that we hear a great deal in our society, and it can be give great freedom to be yourself, not to worry about other people’s expectations.  But there are also times when ‘be yourself’ tends to mean ‘put yourself first’, ‘do what you want to do’, or ‘don’t think about anyone else’.  Nevertheless the primary Christian calling is to be ourselves, because God has created us, God has called us into being, to be who we are.  If God had wanted us to be anything else, then that is how he would have made us.  Where we often get this wrong, is that we think that we know who we are, we think we know what it means to be ourselves.  But the truth is that all too often we don’t.  If we are called to be ourselves, to be the people who God made us to be, then we are called to discover who we are.  However young or old we are, none of us are the finished product.  We are constantly learning new things about ourselves. 
        So we are called to be ourselves, to explore who it is that God has made us to be. This vocation is given us by God as he created us.  But this is not the end of our calling.  Perhaps the most basic Christian calling is Jesus’ call to follow.  ‘Follow me’ he tells his disciples, then and now.  We are called to follow Jesus, to follow him in his care for people, to follow him in his willingness to sit and eat with the wrong sort of people, to follow him in his self-giving love.  ‘The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ says Jesus in our reading this morning.  Following Jesus is difficult and costly. If the vocation to be ourselves sounds liberating and affirming, then the call to follow sounds restrictive and hard.  It can even seem that the call to follow Jesus contradicts the call to be ourselves – how can I be myself if I am following someone else?  But in fact following Jesus is the only way that I can truly be myself.  It is as we follow Jesus that we are healed of all that makes us less than ourselves.  It is as we follow Jesus that we die to sin and to all that would keep us as less than ourselves and we rise to the new life that he brings.  We are all called to follow Jesus.
        The third part of our calling is the calling to belong.  Jesus tells us that ‘there will be one flock’ of which he will be the Shepherd.  We are called to belong to each other.  We are called together, never on our own.  We cannot be ourselves on our own – we are made to live in the midst of people.  We cannot follow Jesus on our own – we are called into the one flock with Jesus as our Shepherd.  We are called to love one another, and we cannot do that on our own.  God has made us to need each other, to need other people.  We need one another in order that we can fulfil our vocation together.  Together we will learn to be ourselves.  Together we will seek to follow Jesus.
        Our vocation is founded on these three callings – the calling to be ourselves, the calling to follow Jesus and the calling to belong to one another.  But we cannot leave it there.  We have to live out our vocations and that gets us into the very messy business of our lives.  Here we come to more traditional understandings of vocation in relation to jobs described as vocations – such as teachers or nurses, or a vocation to ordained ministry in the church.  But vocation is not just for some people – we all have a vocation, we are all called by God.  You may have a vocation to be a bus driver or an engineer or a mother or a friend or a singer.  There simply isn’t time to list all the possible vocations.  The key is to find your vocation and to follow it. 
        Following a vocation can be a difficult thing.  What you are called to may not pay good money.  You may be called to do difficult things, to change your life.  You may even be called to do nothing – perhaps the hardest vocation of all.  Vocation is an adventure, and the excitement that comes with this is matched only by the fear and trembling with which we must approach it.  The Methodists have a prayer which expresses a radical openness to the calling of God.  It goes like this:   
I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.’   
It is a difficult prayer to pray, but it is an important one.
        If we are to be called, then we must listen for the call and be ready to respond.  The other side of the coin to vocation is listening.  We can only answer God’s call if we have listened for his voice.  So let me end with a challenge.  Are we listening for the voice of God calling us to be ourselves, to follow Jesus and to belong to one another?  And how is that calling to be manifested in the realities of our lives as individuals and as a community?  Might God be calling you to a new thing, and might that new thing be ministry in the church as a lay preacher, a visitor, or even as an ordained person?  We are all called, we all have a vocation, and we must all constantly listen for the voice of God calling us to new things. Amen

Preached the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge and Derby Cathedral 29.4.12.

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