Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Fostering a Culture of Vocation

First preached as a sermon at Choral Evensong in Croydon Minster on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 20 January 2019.

‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’
(1 Samuel 3.18b)


‘Oh, you can’t possibly mean me’.

That is the reaction that many people give when someone else suggests that they might be just the person to take on some sort of role or to undertake a particular task, especially in the church.

Of course sometimes you’re being asked to do something, or to be something, just because no one else can be thought of or you’re the last person left to be asked, and so the ‘call’ to you is hardly flattering and you might feel totally misjudged and begrudge the request.

Sometimes though the ‘call’ is very much thought through: it’s not just that there’s no one else to do it; the person calling or asking has looked long and hard into your heart, weighed your gifts and talents and pondered who you really are in relation to a role or task.

I’ve used the word ‘call’, and the smart church word would be ‘vocation’, from the Latin vocare, meaning ‘to call’.

Reflecting on the need for the church to be more attentive to calling and vocation, the now Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, has written:

Many churches will need help in moving from an ethos of volunteers to an ethos of vocation. Often as a visitor to a congregation I see in the notice sheet or hear in the notices fervent appeals for people to offer their services to this or that area of church life. To ask for volunteers for many ministries is often to diminish their importance and the gifts of the people who may be called to do them. We are actually saying ‘anyone can do this.[1]

Bishop Steven goes on to describe an ethos of vocation in a church that ponders and identifies the gifts and qualities of particular people and giving prayerful consideration to what is an important ministry rather than ‘anyone can do this job’.

An ethos of vocation takes seriously the role that needs to be undertaken and takes seriously the person who might undertake it.

So what might the call of Samuel be described as in our first reading this evening?

Presumably Eli could have given the notices at the end of the Temple sacrifice and said,

‘The LORD God is looking for someone to volunteer to do his will. No one has been doing this for a long time, and if we don’t find someone then the lights will have to be turned out permanently. Whoever volunteers will have to say some very tough things to some very important people. Come and speak to me after the sacrifice if you’re interested.’

Had he done that I don’t imagine he would have had people falling over themselves to volunteer. He would have been deploying manipulation, a bit of threat and couldn’t be said to be inspiring.

No, it is God’s call! A call that Samuel came to understand through Eli. A little like St Paul had to understand more through Ananias who accompanied him immediately after his call and conversion.

Volunteerism can get us so far, but vocation is what touches our hearts and shapes our lives. The challenge then is for us to listen out for God’s call in our lives and discern it in the lives of others.

Eli was negligent, lazy and corrupt and his wayward sons were little better, but he did know when God was at work, that’s why he said to Samuel, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’.

This ethos, or perhaps better, culture of vocation needs fostering in the life of the church in general and this church is no exception.

In a culture of vocation what we want to foster is looking at one another to see in each other gifts and talents - not to plug gaps, for God will provide all that is needful for his church – in service of both of the local church and parish, perhaps as someone trained and licensed, like a Reader or Southwark Pastoral Auxiliary or, in a more local way, leading prayers or reading or being an advocate for social justice, challenging injustice and promoting the common good.

In a culture of vocation what we are looking to foster is a real intent to identify those who might serve the church even beyond this place, perhaps as deacons and priests, and in the spirit of the call of Samuel, you are never too young for that call.

What we are looking to foster is a deep sense that to be a Christian day by day is itself a calling from God. To be a Christian is the highest of calls, from which others flow! Baptism is the point of initiation into that life which is shaped by feeding on Christ in the Eucharist, the proclamation of his word, regular repenting and returning to the Lord and a depth of prayer that searches out God’s purposes as much as he searches our hearts.

As we know from Samuel you are never too young, or indeed too old, for that call, but in response we need to channel the spirit of Samuel who did not say ‘Oh, you can’t possibly mean me’ but rather, ‘speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.

© Andrew Bishop, 2019

[1] Steven Croft, Ministry in Three Dimensions: Ordination and Leadership in the Local Church, Darton, Longman, Todd, 1999, 2008. p.176.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Dramatic, demanding disturbing & fulfilling: The Baptism of Christ


The feast of the Baptism of Christ is one that is rich beyond measure: it’s filled with images and signs, pointers to who Jesus Christ is and who you and I are called to be become.

It is a truly mystical and beautiful scene.

The feast of the Baptism of Christ gives us a great opportunity to reflect on John the Baptist, the patron saint of this church, and what that patronage might mean for us.

It gives us the opportunity to reflect on who Jesus Christ is, in his divinity and humanity.

It gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own baptism, the sacrament that brings us into the life of the Church, the Body of Christ, and that can, and should, shape our identity as Christians not just on a Sunday morning, but a Monday morning and day by day.

And today we have a chance to reflect on these things through the readings we hear and also in our liturgy as, after this sermon, we will turn, literally, to the font, at which we will give thanks for Holy Baptism, as we recall God’s movement in, over and through water. We will pray that God might wash us and cleanse in us in those life-giving waters. And then we will get wet! Water will be sprinkled as a refresher of baptism, as a beautiful verse reflecting on the water of life is sung.

But first the gospel reading tells us about John the Baptist, our patron saint in this church. As always John comes across as a dramatic, demanding and disturbing figure: we hear again his call to repentance.

The challenge, and question, for us is how do we hear such a message? Do we write it off through familiarity or fear, or are we like the people who went out to hear John, ‘filled with expectation’?

Dramatic, demanding, disturbing. It’s a fiery message! Does that make you expectant… or nervous?! Some people hear John as off-putting, certainly to modern ears. It sounds unwelcoming: you might ask, ‘can we be a welcoming church to all if we have that sort of patron saint’?

Sometimes churches mistake being welcoming for giving newcomers, and those searching, precious little to engage with: we lower the bar so people can come in, but fail to raise the bar in saying that something wonderful, beautiful, demanding, and yet, fulfilling is to be found here.

John the Baptist makes straight paths; he opens doors: ‘let the King of glory come in’ (Psalm 24). His figure is carved above the North Door of this church and carved into the very wood of the West Doors. The power of his message is that all are welcome, but that a living relationship with God is wonderful, beautiful, demanding yet fulfilling.

Indeed John the Baptist is profoundly inclusive in the sense that his message is that everyone in all humanity is in need of restoration, in our relationships with one another and our relationship with God: as St Paul later articulated it, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.

In that sense John’s message is a profound relief to us all: because I am a broken person, prone to slip, slide and fall, - a sinner - my life is also an arena for God’s grace and forgiveness to abound.

John speaks of fire and water. Raw power. Flames represent the burning intensity of the power of the Holy Spirit. Like water fire can be destructive and also regenerative. Fire burns away the dross to reveal that which is most precious, like in the refining of gold and silver. The fire of the Holy Spirit incinerates sin.

Similarly water can destroy, wash away and also cleanse and bring life. It was over water that the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, moved in the beginning of creation, through water that the people of Israel passed from slavery to freedom and water flowed out of the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision bringing new life to everything it touched, even the Dead Sea.

All life begins with, and is sustained by, water: we’re each over 50% water! That’s one reason why the delivery of clean water to thirsty people and creatures is so important.

In each of our mother’s wombs we were held and sustained by the water of life, and at the breaking of those waters we came to be born.

No wonder then that the early Christian writers speak of the font as the ‘womb of the church’. The font, like the related word ‘fountain’, is a spring of water that bubbles up to eternal life. In the font a new Christian is born; waters are poured out and the newborn, the neophyte, emerges. In that way, plunged into the waters, like Christ descending into death, we are raised with the power of his new life.

Fire and water are symbols that speak of the life, vitality and growth that emanates from God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God who is revealed at the Baptism of Christ: the Father speaks from the heavens over the Son in the waters, upon whom rests the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove. The Baptism reveals the Holy Trinity.

The Baptism also inaugurates the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with which we are so familiar, his ministry of healing, restoration, reconciliation, teaching, telling parables, his betrayal, death and resurrection.
When we share in baptism we become part of the life of Christ: we become God’s precious children; the wrench like grip of sin is loosened; God calls us by name to live in full human dignity; and we are inspired, literally ‘spirit-filled’ to live in restored relationship to God, to other people and to ourselves.

It is in that context that we hear Isaiah’s words from our first reading – words worth pondering throughout this week – ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ (Isaiah 43.1-3)

There is something wonderful, beautiful, demanding, powerful and yet fulfilling here.

So now as the procession moves to the font please turn and face it. There we will, in the spirit of John the Baptist, make confession of our sins and shortcomings and then be renewed by the water from the font.

See there the fiery flame of the Paschal Candle of Easter burning representing the purging power of the Holy Spirit and the victory of Christ in resurrection life and then feel the waters coming upon you afresh bringing you God’s life, restoration and peace.

Monday, 7 January 2019

An Epiphany Sermon - Souls & Bodies: Journey to Bethlehem

This sermon was prepared for the Parish Eucharist at Croydon Minster, Epiphany 2019  but in the end not preached, as more (?Better) inspiration moved me to speak without notes...

‘Arise, shine for your light has come… And you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (Isaiah 60)


The Magi - wise seekers after truth - have come to their journey’s destination. They have followed the star and arrived in Bethlehem.

As a token of this we have placed their figures in our crib, and next Sunday in the evening, through scripture, prayer and music, we will reflect more deeply on the gifts they bring and on the wider themes of Epiphany.

To get to Bethlehem the Magi set aside time, money and effort to make a potentially perilous journey.

Gold represents the majesty of Christ, and, you could say, the cost of their journey; frankincense represents Christ’s divinity, and the spiritual dimension of their quest; myrrh foreshadows Christ’s death, as it is used for anointing dead bodies, and it tells us of the dangers the Magi went through to get to Bethlehem.

Their arrival in Bethlehem was an ending: they had reached their destination. But it was a beginning too. Things had changed; they went home, but by a different way, breaking new ground; life could never be the same again.

The Magi reflect the deep human propensity to want to seek out new things, to discover to explore. This impulse starts early: over Christmas we had niece and nephew aged 4 and 6 staying with us; say no more!

It continues into adulthood. The news over the last few days has been filled with human pursuits and searching: NASA’s ‘New Horizons’ interplanetary space probe; the Chinese landing on the far side of the moon.

Little children, the Magi, NASA, the Chinese space programme and all of us share the same impulse to explore, to gaze up into the heavens and see possibilities beyond what is immediately obvious or just there. (Of course for NASA and the Chinese there are other motivations too about power and domination).

This is of feature of the journey of faith.

‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ (Psalm 19.1) says the psalmist. In the heavens the Magi saw, a star that would lead them to God’s glory, but not where they expected it.

Many people today identify with journey, with quest, with seeking. The metaphor of life as a journey is a very powerful one: after all, Jesus described himself in journeying terms, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’; the Church is often described as ‘God’s Pilgrim People; and Christianity was first known simply as the ‘Way’.

Many people today, though, journey after an imperceptible something, not even as tangible as the star, no longer trusting that they can ever find a place to rest and be renewed.

This is encapsulated in the phrase often heard, ‘I am spiritual but not religious’.

That phrase – which needs addressing - captures the zeitgeist of our times. ‘I am spiritual but not religious’: it says, I want to have a sense of something wonderful, but I don’t want to be pinned down; I know there’s more to this, but I can’t trust the answers that others have found to be true; I seek after truth, but can’t trust that there is even such a thing as truth.

It begins to reduce being human solely to what is thought to be a spiritual quest and wrenches that experience away from our bodies. It means that there is a difference between how I feel and what I do. And the body is less and less valued.

To reduce being human solely to an unembodied spiritual quest means that I don’t need anyone else, it becomes essentially most lonely and introspective. As Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests, spiritual death is when life is shut in on itself. This is a huge burden to place on ourselves.

The most perilous, fearsome journey known to man is the journey into the human heart and to be at home in our mortal bodies.

There is a great divorce in Western culture, emanating from the thought of Plato, which seeks to separate out body and soul. This hasn’t always been helped by some strands of Christian thought over the centuries which has been suspicious of the body and implied that the ‘spiritual’ is more pure. This leads to us getting tied up in knots about purity, sexuality and physicality.

In society this body/soul split has accelerated such that the body is perceived to be an encumbrance on the true ‘me’ inside. It’s the disembodied spiritual quest and yearning. This can led to all sorts of pain and a sense of being ill at ease with one’s own body and, at its extremes, to the tragedy of bodily self-harm let alone the ways human bodies are also cheapened by others through violence, torture and pornography.

To be human is to be body, mind and spirit all together and to be called into relationship with other people and with God, the source of our life and hope.

Religious faith seeks to locate the spiritual life in the body with practices that shape and are shaped by faith, faith in the truth that finds us before we find it. This is about life turned out from itself towards God and towards others, whilst cherishing the God-given body that we have.

Christianity is nothing if not about our souls, our minds and our bodies. We draw this directly from the great Christmas gospel of the first chapter of St John’s gospel, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’: God’s truth, Jesus Christ, finds us before we find him.
Jesus Christ inhabits a human body; is a human body. The Magi’s spiritual quest is met in the reality of a human body that can be seen, touched and held. And in this body dwells the full presence of God. The glory of the Creator and the wonder of creation are here, in Jesus Christ.

The star led the Magi to something, someone, very specific, tangible and embodied: God in Christ. This is what our faith leads us to this morning as we come on our spiritual and religious journey to meet him afresh in his Word and in his Body.

We come to worship and to adore and to offer not gold, frankincense and myrrh but ourselves in his service.

‘Arise, shine for your light has come… And you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (Isaiah 60)