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.

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