Ordinary Sunday 5, 4 February, 2007
Very Rev'd Dr Peta Sherlock, Dean of Bendigo
It is a pleasure to be invited to preach here this morning, and I bring you greetings from the diocese of Bendigo, especially St Paul's Cathedral. Today I want to speak about vocation, because it is something on my mind, and if I were preaching at Bendigo Cathedral it would be what that congregation needs to hear, so I hope and trust it will be helpful to you.
It has been a big week for the Sherlock family. Our granddaughter started school. Five and a half, she has been working up to this for five and half years and has got to be more ready than any child who ever lived. She just soaks up stuff. She beats her grandma at chess (not hard to do). She has practically finished reading the Encyclopedia Britannica... No, that's not true, but she is so ready for this next stage of her little life it is a pleasure to see. It is about vocation. On Friday my husband drove home to Bendigo having finished his time at the MCD in Melbourne, with a great sense of having been in the right place at the right time for the past 5 years, but glad to be coming to live fulltime with his wife in Bendigo instead of weekends only. That's a few mixed emotions about vocation. There's a big what next?
In my first year in Bendigo, I have been saying yes to almost every invitation I have received and one was to a women's service group who asked me to speak about myself and my journey. I tried to explain to them about vocation, trying to tell them how I feel a deep sense of being in the right place at the cathedral. The person who stood to thank me afterwards said, Peta we are glad that you think you are God's gift to Bendigo! I didn't say that, I protested loudly, but that's what they heard. It's hard to explain vocation to someone who hasn't got that sense. But then I was talking to a new senior manager of our local Anglicare who also started to speak of this deep sense that everything in her life so far had been preparing her for this job. And we really clicked. Vocation! I cried. Yes! she said, and has been back to church every Sunday since to honour that call, to touch base with God who gave her that call.
In Scripture we find people whose sense of vocation goes right back to the womb. John the Baptist recognising his Lord even in the womb, Jesus himself, the prophet Jeremiah called while still in the womb. I remember being puzzled by some of the women who were ordained with me that they too had this lifelong sense of call. I don't have it, so I don't get it. But why does the call of Isaiah happen as late as Chapter 6 while the call of Jeremiah happens in chapter one? I find in this a similar experience to my own, and perhaps to Simon Peter's in the gospel for today.
One man going about his work in the temple and has an overwhelming sense of vocation which shifts his task from priest to prophet, and yet presumably the prophetic task grows out of all his past experiences as priest. The other, just as valid, a local businessman running his fishing business by Lake Galilee whose new vocation is summed up by a fishing metaphor, fishing for people. This sense of vocation does not mean that everything that went before was worthless. I value every one of my experiences in the past, painful and joyful, that has led me to my present ministry. Indeed, vocation means in God's economy, everything that has gone before is not wasted. I have spent some years learning the games people play in parish and diocesan life. Very helpful in the cathedral! I have been in a parish which had a lot of weddings and baptisms, so at Bendigo, I could pull out a half decent policy the moment I arrived and be able to get on with other more important matters. My experience as a school teacher? that's going back 15-20 years and the frightening thing in the past few weeks has been that I think I have been acting a little like a school principal calling key lay leaders into my office all January!
We do not know what Isaiah has done in the past, though we can do some educated guessing about his work in the temple. But now, at this point, all that experience has been gathered up into his new vocation to be a prophet, and indeed perhaps the most famous, most read, most beloved prophet ever. We do not know exactly what has happened in the formation of Simon Peter, but everything in his childhood, his schooling, his fishing business (I will make you fish for people) will bring him to the moment when he says "You are the Messiah, the Son of God." and those famous words, that extraordinary moment, will become the rock on which Christ will build his church. Simon Peter can never again say, "I always say the wrong thing."
So here's the challenge, what sense of vocation do you have this day? you as an individual, you as a parish? One of the tasks we have set ourselves this year at St Paul's is to seek to find out what God wants. It's one of Robert Warren's seven marks of a healthy church, which we agreed as a parish was most lacking for us. I have plenty of ideas what God wants us to do (many more than God seems to have, I might add). Many other parishioners have their own ideas, (there are plenty of strong-minded people at our church). But it needs to be together, listening talking praying doing, together, that we will find what God wants of us: prophesy, fish... run a cathedral, welcome others, connect with the city, give an intelligent basis for the faith, give people an excuse to dip their toe in the waters of church going. That's our task, and it may be your main task too.
How will we know as parishes when we find that vocation? My suspicion is that it will be while we are in the midst of doing the obvious, tidying up round the temple, worshipping together, fishing, we will have a deep sense of being in the place where God wants us to be.
So let me go back to the perception of the woman who heard me say I am God's gift to Bendigo. I dare to say, I am! and so is the whole congregation at St Paul's Bendigo. So are you, as individuals and as a congregation, God's gift to Melbourne? to the diocese? to the city? to each other?
But let me tell what happens occasionally, when I stop for a moment: I sit and think, I can't believe I am the Dean of Bendigo, I can't believe people listen to my preaching, I can't believe people think I know what I am doing, and I can't believe I sometimes think I know what I am doing! That's the bit where Isaiah says, I can't do that stuff! That's the bit where Peter says, Go away, I am a sinful man. But by God's grace, the call remains, the works are give to us to walk in. And so we walk and work, and by God's grace our works mean something and do something in terms of God's kingdom.
My hope and prayer for you this day as individuals, as families, as a congregation, as a parish church that your eyes and ears and hearts will be opened to this deep sense of who you are: that you will know you are in the right place at the right time, by God's grace, that you have a purpose in God's world, and that you can make a difference.
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.