Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Edinburgh, 22 January 2017
I wonder if you know that I went to Finishing School? Lucie Clayton College, to be precise. Joanna Lumley went there in the 60s. When I attended in the 90s, they still had their model of a car, so one could practice getting in and out of it without showing one’s knickers. Just the passenger seat, mind: ladies don’t drive. I learned how to sit for a ‘girls in pearls’ photo, how to glide down a staircase, and how to say No to men: “I’d really rather not.”
One very sensible exercise involved being filmed while answering random questions, to test our coolness under fire in an interview situation. One of the questions was: If you were asked by Jesus in a dream to build a chapel on a traffic island, would you do it?
I’m always reminded of that when I hear today’s Gospel. If you were casting your nets – or just sitting at your desk, quietly sending off emails – and Jesus said ‘follow me’, would you? I imagine rather many of us are hoping that we never have to find out.
But what’s it like, being called? Sometimes Jesus shows up in person, by the sea of Galilee, so you can’t miss him. Sometimes a blinding light comes down from heaven, on the road to Damascus, which is also pretty clear. Matt Woodcock, vicar of Holy Trinity Hull, says, that in his case it wasn’t the road to Damascus, but the A19 To Selby. As he was travelling to cover a court case in his former life as a journalist, he says: “I felt an overwhelming sense that God had something urgent he wanted to tell me. Either that or someone had spiked my Pot Noodle.”
But sometimes it’s just not that clear. Do you remember the boy Samuel? He thought it was Eli calling him. It was Eli who figured out that it must be God, and encouraged Samuel to answer God’s call. I think that for many people, discerning God’s call feels more like that. A Victorian farce with the doorbell constantly ringing, but when you answer the door there’s no-one there. Or like a comedy sketch in an old movie, when the operator puts your call through to a series of other calls, none of which make sense or connect with yours. For some people, it’s more like a haunting, a roaring in the ears that won’t go away, and the only way to shut it out is to behave really badly to try to force God to change his mind.
The most usual description of a calling, though, is of a feeling of rightness: joy, peace, and a clicking into place of pieces that didn’t fit together before. Many of those called, talk about a transition from feeling restless or disorientated, to a sudden feeling of peace and clarity.
I think it’s often been assumed that being called is just about the religious life. When we say: do you have a call?, we normally mean …to the priesthood. But I want us today to think about vocation in a far wider sense, while giving particular thanks for those in our midst who have said yes to a call to ordained ministry.
St Paul talks to the Corinthians about this more general call when he writes: ‘Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ In the tradition, this has become thinking about Charisms, which is about the gifts of the spirit given to us for the good of others.
Do you remember where we left off last week? The final hymn was Charles Wesley’s ‘Forth in thy name, O Lord I go.’ And the last verse had us singing these words:
For thee delightfully employ
whate’er thy bounteous grace hath given;
and run my course with even joy,
and closely walk with thee to heav’n.
This resonated with me because I’d just written a piece for the Church Times about vocation. (It really is quite amazing who reads the Church Times. I’m thinking of announcing my brother’s engagement there.) In the piece, I noted that when we talk about secular vocations, we tend to explain the meaning of work with reference to its end, or telos, rather than by attempting to find meaning in the work itself. We put up with bad pay or difficult colleagues, or we give our labour as volunteers, because the end justifies the means, whether that’s a secure income, professional recognition, career advancement, good company, or great work-life balance.
But I’m keen for us to explore the meaning not just of work but of working: the how as well as the what. If we’re clear that the very act of working is vocational, our daily behaviour becomes a sacrament and an offering. Indeed, the virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre would argue that work is an opportunity for virtue, because doing it well requires excellent practices. I’ve just finished writing a book about this notion, called Leadersmithing. It uses the metaphor of apprentice pieces, like the one I have here. It’s a very small font, made as a test piece by an apprentice stonemason to show he was ready to turn professional.
In fact, it’s a Cadgwith font, and you find them in museums all over the word. Mine was found in a cupboard in All Saints’ Church, in St Andrews. It’s made of serpentine, which you only find in the UK in the Lizard peninsular. In fact, the entire peninsula is made from serpentine. And the custom was, that if you wanted to work this kind of marble, you served an apprenticeship there, copying in miniature the font in the local church at Cadgwith when you had served your 7 years. If you could create something this perfect in miniature, it showed you were ready for the big stuff. The incumbent there still uses one of these, with a rather fancy lid, for baptisms on the hoof.
And I wonder if this apprentice piece is the perfect metaphor for finding meaning in the stuff of the work that you do. Could you turn even the most mundane of your upcoming meetings or reports into a triumphant apprentice piece, to hone the excellence of your practice? What do you face this week that you could sanctify with your holy attention and effort?
I’m not sure how you construe vocation in your own life. Perhaps you know what God is calling you to do. Perhaps you’re still searching. Either way, know this: God has made you for a purpose. And God is working his purpose out, in God’s time, not yours. So if you’re not yet clear, you may need to keep busy making purpose IN your work, while you wait to learn the purpose OF it.
And if you ever do hear God whispering in your ear, don’t be afraid. God never gives you more to carry than you can bear. If God thinks you’re ready, you probably are. So be like Samuel, and ask Eli; then be Andrew and Simon, and follow him.