Sermon: February 7 2016

Readings

Isaiah 6:1-8

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin verb vocāre, to call, to name, or to invoke. It is a word with which those of us who have been ordained to the priesthood are intimately familiar. Prior to ordination, we were made to discern our vocation, and then others were made to test it. There is a lot of navel gazing in this process, and if one is not careful, it can mutate into a narcissistic enterprise: and, worse still, a perversely clericalised one, in which priests are made to seem somehow superior to laypeople. What every ordinand needs at some point in the process is a reminder that her priesthood, should she be ordained, is inseparable from the priesthood of all believers. Most of us get this from Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1960s, who wrote in his classic book The Christian Priest Today that priests are “called to reflect the priesthood of Christ and to serve the priesthood of the people of God, and to be one of the means of grace whereby God enables the Church to be the Church”. In other words, the vocation of the priest is to serve the vocation of the other members of Christ’s Body that this Body, the Church, may fulfil her mission in the world.

The second thing that every ordinand needs is a reminder of what vocation looks like in the Bible, which is, after all, the primary source of the Christian imagination. This is particularly important because part of the priest’s serving the priesthood of the people of God is reminding the people—that’s you—of the very same thing. We are, that is to say, to remind each other what God sounds like when God calls.

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Abraham attempts to pass his wife off as his sister.

Moses kills a man in a fit of rage.

Jacob cheats his brother out of his inheritance.

David send a solider to his death, so he can have his wife.

I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!

Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!

I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle!

Thus spake Isaiah the prophet, and Peter the pope, and Paul the persecutor of Christians turned proselytiser par excellence.

These stories tell us two things. The first is that we are not doomed to be who we are when we are at our worst: our lowest points do not define us. The second is that the call of God sounds nothing like an annual appraisal upon which some future reward is conditioned: God all but ignores our protestations of unworthiness. God is in the business of touching our lips with fire—your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out—and telling us not to be afraid.

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There is, in a sense, everything to be afraid of. Isaiah is commanded to remove his sackcloth garments, and walk naked and barefoot for three years (as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush). Peter is, according to tradition, crucified upside down. Paul, likewise, is beheaded, also under the Emperor Nero.

It is, it seems to me, too convenient to reassure ourselves with the idea that our calling is to an easier life than Isaiah’s or Peter’s or Paul’s; a more middle-class form of mission and ministry, to be conducted through the writing of cheques and the making of phone calls. I say this as an academic with rooms in North Oxford, and a part-time curacy in a well-resourced parish church smack in the middle of town. I say this as someone who probably relates more with Jonah—who fled when he was called—than the protagonists of today’s readings. And therefore, I say this to myself as much as to you, perhaps even more so. We are not, all of us, called to abandon our comforts and head out into the wilderness, but some of us are: we had better listen carefully and listen well. And, if and when the time comes, my hope for myself and for you is that we will—trembling to be sure, but faithful anyway—say “Here am I; send me”, and, leaving everything, follow him.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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