Sunday 26 January 2020 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
3rd of Epiphany
(Isaiah 9.1-4 1 Corinthians 1.10-18) Matthew 4.12-23
The great 17th century poet John Milton went totally blind in his mid-forties. He wrote a sonnet about his struggle which ends with the well-known line: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’. In the poem he asks whether God calls him to use the daylight for work even though he can’t see anything. And he pictures God as a king directing the parts played by his servants.
‘His state is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait’.
At any time there will be some who don’t have a task. They simply attend, ready to be sent, or ready to be equipped. Milton took comfort in this and remained productive, going on to write his most famous work, Paradise Lost, by dictation. He also stayed reproductive, marrying his third wife when in his mid-fifties, the 24 year old Elizabeth Mynshull who came from round here. And later she lived as a widow in Nantwich and attended the Baptist Church then on Barker Street, and was buried there.
It’s not easy, to stand and wait. Isn’t the Christian life meant to be like Simon and Andrew, or James and John? They heard a specific call, and from then on they knew where they should be and what they should be doing. Isn’t that the pattern throughout Scripture? Moses and the voice from the burning bush. Isaiah and the vision of God in the smoke-filled temple. Paul and the blinding light from heaven.
We most naturally think of God as a king controlling operations, and we want a part to play; ideally with guidance as clear as in a military chain of command. That would give us a sense of certainty, and the satisfaction that we were needed.
It’s far from clear though that these four Galilean fishermen were able to think that way. It’s easy with hindsight to read all these calls as compellingly clear. But they didn’t have the perspective on Jesus that we have. They trusted him when it was far from obvious that he would turn out to be the Saviour of the world. Even now, is that self-evident?
The first to be called is Simon and we read that he is ‘Simon, who is called Peter’. It’s an interesting addition, and it reminds us that the name ‘Peter’ was given by Jesus. The starting point of God’s call was not to a job but simply the giving of a name.
Now and then people say to me, ‘What should I call you?’ and I wonder what they’d like to call me. We use that word ‘call’ both for the simple act of naming, and for the more profound sense of vocation. I assume the former and reply, ‘Anything you like, but Mark will do fine’.
But should we think of the call of naming and the call of God’s vocation as different? Is naming less profound? Only if we understand naming as a kind of labelling, just a means of identification, like the number on a lamp post. We don’t though. Names confer dignity and are a vocation in themselves. And for us the most significant naming is at our baptism. We are known and loved by God, and that continuous act of creation by which we are given being is also the call to be the particular child of God you are, with your name.
Of course, there may be all kinds of specific roles we go on to play, but the call of God doesn’t just come when there’s a job to do. It’s there at all times. And our worth is not defined by our usefulness.
You have all been given a Time & Talents leaflet this morning and you may think that all I’m saying is undermining any attempt to recruit more volunteers. What I’m really trying to do is to establish a place from which we can affirm the dignity of all our work. Or the dignity of simply being and waiting if, for whatever reason, we are not in a position to offer ourselves for any of these tasks. It’s an understanding of vocation that undercuts any attempt to grade roles by importance.
The Church of England has come a long way in recent decades in valuing lay ministry, but there’s far more to do to change a culture where, as David Taylor put it last week, the word vocation is hijacked to be limited to ordained or at best licensed ministries. The lay conference mentioned in the notice sheet is related to a national initiative to help everyone to see their whole lives as a working out of their faith and vocation. Baptism is the most fundamental ordination. Clergy are no more called by God than anyone else. Their vocation is not higher, not holier, and not harder.
So as we seek to discern how we may offer our time and talents, we do so from a place of freedom. Freedom from having to find a role that will prove something, or earn some favour, or give us status. And freedom from the fear of failure.
Think about Peter, Andrew, James and John. Were they trained experts in the gospel? They barely understood anything about it. Time and again they got it wrong. Later they’ll be arguing about who will be the greatest in the kingdom. But Jesus took them on and they grew. They began to realise that it wasn’t all about them. Following Jesus was discipleship, being formed into a follower, an imitator, someone who gradually takes on that attitude of Christ’s service.
And that is the experience of many people who take on roles of service in and beyond the church. Sometimes you just have to get stuck in, not knowing what it will be like, or whether it’s for you, or whether you’ll enjoy it. And you find it’s a blessing to be taken out of yourself, to give your attention to others and their needs. That way we soon find that we are calling each other – in the best sense of the word. By encouraging and recognising each other’s gifts we build up the church.
This morning at All Saints’ Headington, Oxford, a service of thanksgiving is taking place to mark the retirement of their vicar, the Revd James Cocke. He has been in post since 1957. 63 years – the longest serving incumbent in the Church of England. He is 93 years old. And he said this to his local newspaper, ‘One of the best traditions of Wells Theological College, where I was trained for the Sacred Ministry of the Church, was the cultivation of a willingness to pursue the job without drawing undue attention to self’.
Perhaps that’s why he’s never looked for greener grass and stayed settled for so long. He’s grown to love the people and hasn’t focused on himself. And it appears he is leaving behind a thriving church.
I’m reminded of a parishioner at Plemstall who while I was there completed 60 continous years as a member of the Parochial Church Council. Walter Johnson – may he rest in peace – he died last year. He loved the place and welcomed new generations and the change they brought.
Of course, we’re not all called to such lengths, but whatever our place and position we are called to cultivate an attentiveness to others rather than ourselves.
Our altar servers have a prayer on the noticeboard in their part of the vestry which goes like this: ‘Lord, make me invisible to everyone except you.’ You have to understand that the right way. If I acted as if our Head Server were invisible I’d be in trouble. And if Alison were invisible to the choir / Jon were invisible to the band, I’m not sure what they’d sound like.
The prayer is that the manner of our service, for all of us, should not distract, but enable us above all to know Christ’s presence with us and draw us out to worship him.
They also serve who only stand and wait. That’s true of each of us at different points in our service. You make a difference to the worship just by being here. Let us wait on God, trusting that he knows our name, he calls us into being, and he is ready to receive our gifts.