The story of Jonah and the big fish
1 Samuel 3.1-10
Mark 1.14-20

It was December 1996, slightly more than half my lifetime ago, when I attended what the United Reformed Church calls a National Assessment Conference, a major part of the process of discerning a candidate’s call to the ministry. This was long before the refurbishment of Westminster College was even thought of, and in those days it was a cold, dark, and austere building, which is perhaps understandable for a college named after the Westminster Confession.

In the outside world, Kofi Annan had recently been elected Secretary General of the United Nations, John Major’s government had lost its majority and was relying on Ulster Unionist votes, and there was a reasonable amount of snow on the ground in Cambridge.

It was just after the end of term, and I travelled down to Cambridge from Durham, where I was an undergraduate, with a great deal of luggage to take home with me to Nottingham. In those days, dress codes were more expected than they are now, and I spent a great of time thinking through what to wear. The assessors had already arrived, and it turned out that they already has a file of paperwork on each of the candidates that was well over half an inch thick.

The assessors were all older people, who seemed to have a great deal of experience of church life in various ways. One was the husband of someone who had been Moderator of the General Assembly. Another was the wife of a well-respected minister, who had herself had a number of particularly relevant experiences. There was a chaplain, a retired Minister who had been a Synod Clerk and a Synod Moderator, who led worship and then seemed to spend the rest of the weekend hanging around in the Common Room waiting for people to talk to him. He was probably a saint to give up his weekend for that.

One of the candidates was a lady who a head scarf for the whole weekend, telling us that the Bible said women should keep their heads covered in church. I’ve never seen her since then. Another of the candidates said he was already doing the job and had come to be rubber stamped. I’ve never seen him since then. Another of the candidates was around my own age, and is now a senior Army Chaplain. Another of the candidates looked at the most enormous bowl of prunes that the College had out on the breakfast table, and wondered aloud whether they were trying to loosen up the candidates. Not everyone realised she was joking, but we’ve been good friends ever since.

The point, of course, was that all the candidates were there because we believed that we were being called to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments in the United Reformed Church by God, and the United Reformed Churches had to see whether they agreed with that opinion; if you like, whether the internal calling was matched by the external calling, whether what we offered was what was needed by the Church. There are no quotas, there is no proportion who must be accepted or turned away, but the likelihood is that some will always come away surprised and profoundly disappointed that the Church’s opinion does not concur with theirs.

This is a very particular piece of the Church’s work, focussed solely on calling to ordained ministry. It has been conventional in the Church to talk of ‘vocation’ only in this terms, as applying to clergy and maybe monks and nuns in those churches that have them. That’s a kind of professionalisation of the idea of calling which is echoed by the description of certain other roles, such as teachers and nurses, as ‘vocational’.

There is a truth in each of these uses of the terminology of vocation, and they are nothing but the truth, but they are far from being the whole truth. Of course, some are called to ordained ministry, just as some feel motivated even in spite of themselves to roles which serve the health of society in other professions, but the call of God is not to a few hundred or a few thousand, it is to absolutely everyone. God is calling to every one of you here, and he calls ceaselessly to all the people he has created. For every one of us, that call to relationship with God is the most important thing in our lives, the starting point which makes all else possible. We are called to faith, and we will never have a higher calling.

All too often, I think that we diminish the meaning of vocation if we farm it out to a special body of professionals. To be a Christian is to live in response to God’s call, to ask yourself what it is that God asks you to do today. Before everything else, we’re all called to be people of faith, whose own lives are palpably affected by the relationship we have with the one who has given us everything.

Whoever we are, we all have that call to faith, hope, and love. These fundamental things can be expressed in the most mundane of circumstances, what John Keble called ‘the trivial round, the common task’ – in a cup of tea with a neighbour, or in George Herbert’s sweeping a room as for God’s laws. That call to integrity of life lived with and for God is the highest vocation you or I will ever have.

But there is another dimension. Part of the way God has made things is that no two people are the same; however many we are, we each have our special qualities and particular potential. And we are called to use the whole of ourselves for God, which means that we should reflect on how our special qualities can be best used in God’s service, what it is to which we particularly are fitted.

Sarah Mulally, the new Bishop of London, said that “before becoming a priest, I was a nurse and then the Government’s Chief Nursing Officer for England. People ask what it is like to have had two careers. I reply that I have always had one vocation – to follow Jesus Christ, to know him and to make him known. For me that means living in the service of others. Washing feet is a powerful image which has shaped my life. As a nurse, the way we wash feet affords dignity, respect and value. As a priest I am called to model Jesus Christ, who took off his outer garments and washed his disciples’ feet, even the one who would betray him. I keep that model of service before me, seeking to serve others and value them. To be able to do that here is a wonderful privilege.”

We heard from the Bible three very different callings. Jonah called to go to Nineveh, very much against his wishes. Samuel, called by God as a young child. Disciples called by Jesus.

What does God’s call mean for us?

How, today, are you going to answer the most important calling you have, to love God and to love your neighbours?

What are the gifts with which God has endowed you, the experiences, the skills, the insights?

And how best can these be put in his service?

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