A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
This is the last of three sermons in which I’ve been preaching about what it looks like to use our time, treasure and talents in the service of God, particularly after Covid-19.
Two key issues have been the focus of these sermons. The first is the long-term effect of the pandemic on the way we experience life, and the way in which is panning out in terms of the long-term cultural changes. Some of the things we thought might have changed have, we’ve discovered, stayed the same; some changes have come along and stayed and are now part of our lived experience.
The second is how the ongoing themes of Christian stewardship help us in this moment. Just to recap the three stewardship principles: the ongoing and extravagant goodness and generosity of God who gives us all that we have; the invitation by God, as followers of Jesus, to offer our lives in generous service, as a response to God’s own generosity; and the principle that, to do that involves the giving of a proportion of what we have – time, money and gifts – explicitly, often through the church.
This is time of the year that people are ordained in the Church of England and this weekend happens to coincide with my 30th anniversary as a priest. One way of thinking about how we all use our gifts and talents, today’s theme, is to think in terms of vocation.
We often associate the word vocation with ordination, a call to ordained ministry, but that understanding is insufficient. Jesus calls people not to roles but to discipleship. He calls people to follow him. Each of us are called to do that, walk alongside Jesus. The lifelong journey of the Christian person is this discipleship. Do you remember the words of the famous prayer of Richard of Chichester, “to know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.” This is essentially what being a disciple is: knowing more clearly, loving more dearly, following more nearly.
But the question of what is your vocation is more a “how” question. How do each of us following Jesus? And, as we are all very different people, I am me and you are you, what does that mean for us as individuals? This is the task of helping discern vocation.
Vocational thinking starts for us with God, and with our relationship with God. A vocational approach to life starts with “how can I serve God better?” Or, “how can I draw closer to God?” Or, “how can my life be more Christlike?” It’s not difficult to see that for some these are the questions that prompt them to consider ordination. But we just don’t need everyone to be priests. Jesus sends us out into the world, as we see in our Gospel reading. The very fact that he needs to talk to the disciples about the way they are welcomed, or the experience of rejection, shows that it is the world where we find our true calling. What you do in your daily lives and careers is the real place where vocation is lived, not what priests do, or what we do in church on a Sunday morning.
Vocation is finding the place where our desire to serve God, and our desire to serve the world with our particular set of personality traits, gifts and aptitudes, meet. Or, to use a quote that I often use in pastoral encounters, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
The place to start is with God or with the world and the vocational question is the place where God and the world meet in our lives. As we think about our own lives, especially after the pandemic, you might want to explore those two polarities. If you are driven first and foremost by a desire to serve and know God, it’s worth exploring what it is you are drawn to in your relationships with God? Is it a deeper experience of prayer and worship? Is it a greater knowledge of Christian faith and the bible? Is it – and this may be surprising – is it a deeper desire to be more authentically yourself? Each of these promptings are often the work of the Holy Spirit, encouraging us to go more deeply into our lives. What is it you seek more of? And then, in the light of that, explore how you most often find that you find these things in your outward facing lives? So, for example, someone who discovers God in other people may find that training as a counsellor or volunteering for a refugee charity might be an expression of that vocational sense. I hesitate to be too prescriptive here: it’s very easy to rush to find things to do and not to take the time and space to explore. Ultimately, this is a matter of careful prayer and thought, not a rush to start doing something new. It’s a new direction in life, not a new year’ resolution or a new hobby.
For other people, it’s the world’s deep need that maybe your initial driver. You look at the world and God’s beloved creation and your heart aches for people and what you see around you. Your passion to change things comes from God, but the vocational question is about how best to serve God. So the question for you is where you sense God’s presence in the world, or perhaps where you sense God’s absence and where more love and justice is needed? Exploring those questions of human need can be just as valid a starting point for thinking vocationally as starting with a desire to know God more. But thinking vocationally for the activists, the ones who want to mend the world, needs to be about God too. We discover that God is the source of our strength to serve the world and, vocationally, we will be most effective serving the world when we do it in God’s strength, when we connect our passion for the world’s need, with God’s passion for the world. We will soon run out of steam if we try and do it alone. We will burnout.
It’s important to note that vocations can change. We see this in everyday life. People change and discover that the path they set themselves on is no longer for them, and that a new path is necessary: for some that is a career change or a different kind of work/life balance or a new focus of interests. Many people realised this more clearly during the pandemic: priorities changed and people are more open to a new direction.
It’s easy to avoid starting to think vocationally. Many of us may feel a bit stuck in a rut, or that we have got the point where the possibility of change seems remote, given all the things in our lives that seem immovable or non-negotiable. Or perhaps we just think that we are too old to change, to set in our ways. Maybe the opportunity to think through life from the perspective of Christian vocation is a gift to you here. Maybe this is what it might mean after Covid to think about the stewardship of your talents. Maybe this is a prompting of the Spirit
But we were, and some of us probably still are, exhausted by Covid and its aftermath. One of the great challenges of our post-Covid world, especially when it comes to the way we use our gifts and talents, is our apathy or lack of empathy. I think we have all felt this from time to time, especially with the huge number of things that have come our way in the past three years, whether that is Covid, Ukraine or the post-Brexit adjustments, or just the usual personal stuff. It’s easy to stop caring and to withdraw into ourselves. Our Gospel reading today is in some ways a reminder that, when we fail to care, when we lose our passion for either God, or serving the world, or even both, then we risk the loss of the great reward that comes with it. The disciples are encouraged in the reading to see those who welcome them as serving God. This is true for us. When we maintain our passion for God and God’s world, the reward that comes is great. We please God, we meet the needs of those we serve. When we lose that passion, we start to think less about life as a vocation to serve God and the world and more about life as transaction: a job, a paycheck, and the like. Jesus reminds us that if we are tired, or worn out, or have lost the energy to be a faithful disciple, we can come to him again and be fed and re-energised by his love. Perhaps we saw a little of that in our former curate Joe, who arrived so tired and disheartened but rediscovered his sense of vocation while he was with us.
How do we do this, though? Well, the great spiritual writers often say that the habits we form of prayer and service are our greatest gifts when things get tough. As we think about what we can offer God in terms of our gifts, or the way our lives can be not just about jobs and tasks, but vocations, I encourage you to let the habits of prayer, worship and the service of other continue, because when we find ourselves falling out of love with life a bit, or falling out of love with God or our neighbour, keeping on keeping on with our prayer and our service, is the surest way to find our way back to the love of God and neighbour that inspired us in the first place.
Let’s think about our lives and the stewardship of our gifts and talents, as vocational questions then. Ask yourself in this service, pray as you come to the Eucharist, about your place in God’s purpose and will. And, as our final hymn invites us to, let us find our source of energy and purpose in him: “thee, only thee, resolved to know, in all I think or speak or do.” Amen.
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