Vocation Sunday: affirming the sacred in human life

IMG_7598There is a challenge, which I find particularly hard to do. It is to see if you can reduce your job, or any role you have, down to just a few words. I find it hard because there are so many aspects to being a Vicar, but it is a particularly awkward question that children sometimes ask. What does a vicar do all day? And today is Vocation Sunday, when we are asked to share something about what being called to ordained ministry is about. Thinking about this is not a bad exercise because it requires going to the core of what being ordained is really about and for, what is it that holds the multitasking of any given day. Today I want to share a few thoughts about how what I do relates to what the whole church is called to be.

Now leaving aside the jokes about only working one day a week, most of it is actually people focused. Even dealing with what feels like unending emails, there is actually a person at the other end and it is just another form of communication. So clearly one aspect is about people: people asking questions, people in distress, people wanting to celebrate or mark a life event, people wanting to pray or share news, people wanting to know more about faith and how that affects how we live, people in need of sacramental ministry. This brings a tremendous privilege when stories and moments are shared that are intimate and private, and being trusted with them I am acutely aware that I am standing on holy ground, the sacred space that is someone’s life.

That brings me to the central focus for all ministry, and that is that everything I do, everything all ministry does, is really about God. The lives shared are sacred, imbued with the sanctity that comes from God, who made us, redeems us and loves us. The stories told are blessed. The celebrations or moments of life marked are moments to be reminded of the gift that is life, and that life is held and loved by God in Jesus Christ. So what I do doesn’t fit into a simple sentence very easily, but all of it is about the moments when God’s gift of life is affirmed and proclaimed, when we are invited to reflect on how that gift is lived and enabled to flourish.

To that, the story of Jesus and how what he said affects how we live, has to be told, retold and refreshed. So preaching should be about connecting the gospel of Jesus Christ with lives lived. How we conduct liturgy and worship, should be about how we tell the story of Jesus and connect it with moments of celebration, thanksgiving, lament, loss and longing. All worship should tell a story about faith and the words we use are the words of a story-teller praying.

And then there is something that can particularly strain this people-and-God-centred role: the church buildings. Being responsible for a Grade 1 listed building in the city square, a 20th century brick built hall in a suburban area and a major historic monument in its own precincts, can make it feel like I am being squeezed into acting like a heritage manager at times. But again these spaces are vehicles to connect with people and delight in God. So the care we show to them is a reflection of the care we show to people; they are places that this sacred connecting can take place. The welcome they offer, that we offer in them, matters and proclaims its own message. And when they do that they are an asset. If we lose sight of it, they become a massive distraction and we lose our way.

Our Gospel reading this morning (John 10:1-10) gave us the image of a shepherd leading his sheep. They know his voice and respond to it.   There is an intimacy of knowing and being known. It is through this connecting that Jesus can be a gate, through which his people can enter the nearer, deeper, more intimate presence of God. He can do that because he is God among us, in John’s gospel he is the Word made flesh, he is the one who is the resurrection and the life, and the way the truth and the life. It is only through him that we have access to the heart of God, because in him the heart of God comes alongside, among us. In him God bridges the otherwise gap between creator and created; it is removed.

The role of the ordinated person is to bring all of this into the open and make it known. All baptized Christians are called to bear Christ to the world in lives of holiness and blessing. The job of the ordained is to provide a living and breathing focus for that. God calls men and women to be a reminder, to be set aside as a visual aid, for the Church, the community of the called, of this sacred vocation that we share together.

That is an awesome responsibility and the ordination service reminds us of this. It also reminds us that we are not up to the task in our own strength and therefore we are told to pray that God’s grace will be with us. Without God’s grace there is no ministry, just churchy activity, and that is pretty pointless without God’s love and presence.

Today is Vocation Sunday; a day to share something about what being ordained is about, what the role of the clergy is for and how it relates to the ministry of all baptised Christians. We should pray for one another as each of us seeks to live what Jesus said, to be bearers of the light of Christ to the world and in it. We should also pray for God to call men and women to particular ministries to provide the focus and the reminders of what we are called to be: to be ministers of word and sacrament. The mission of the church is a partnership and each of us carries a particular role to fulfill. All of us need the grace of God to fulfill the calling we have. Everything is to be founded in and on the one who is the gate to the redeeming love of God, Jesus Christ. Without that what we do is empty and lacks true purpose. With it, we embark on a life of service and hope proclaimed. On Vocation Sunday we stand on holy ground. Let us pray for all that helps us celebrate and affirm the sacred in one another and in ourselves.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 7th May 2017

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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