Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 20th January 2013
20 January 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
How did you, or how will you, decide what you would do with your life? That is a pretty fundamental question for each of us. While it is obviously a question when we first have to decide what subjects we are going to study at school, or at university if we were fortunate enough to go there, and then with the choice of an initial career, it might also well be a question at various later stages in our lives. Some people, for all sorts of reasons, feel at some later stage that they must take stock and review their future. Indeed, if I may be personal for a moment, it is an issue I have to face as I shall be retiring later in the summer of this year. What do I want to do with the rest of my life after retirement?
Now the author of the first lesson from the Book of Isaiah seemed to think that it was not entirely his own choice. ‘The Lord called me from the womb; from the body of my mother he named my name’. He seemed to believe, as others have believed after him, that somehow in his life he was simply fulfilling his destiny. And there certainly are those who still today believe that in some way God has a plan for each person’s life and we simply have to follow God’s plan and guidance, normally as revealed to us through prayer.
But is it really as simple as that? If it is then it creates all sorts of other problems and three come immediately to mind.
First, and at the most extreme, there is the rather terrible fact that some of the worst atrocities in history have been carried out by those who thought they were doing God’s will. Look at some of what happened during the Inquisition for a start and, all too often, in many other theocracies. Believing you are doing God’s will and imposing that plan on others is no guarantee of behaving honourably or even half decently.
Then secondly and at the other end of the scale of human freedom, looking at what some people have to face, it seems that their destiny is to live very harsh and unfulfilling lives. They might be in situations of abject poverty, or living under fearfully repressive regimes that deny much freedom to the individual, or they might live in war zones, as many in Syria and in the Sudan have to do today, or suffer some sudden and unexpected catastrophe that dramatically changes what they are able to do. Is that all part of a divine plan? I suspect not, because if so God would be seen by many people as almost a monster.
And then thirdly, and more prosaically in the conditions most of us live in when making career choices, almost whatever anybody wants to do, or even feels called to do, is subject to the decisions of others. Someone, for example, may feel that their calling is to be a professional singer, that is where their passion and their commitment lies, but whether they achieve that or not depends on other factors outside their control, not least of all market forces in a very competitive world. And if we consider professions that are often called vocations, medicine, the law, the ordained ministry, in practice whatever anyone might want to do they are subject to a selection process by others who guard the entrance into those professions, seeking only to have those who are considered suitable and, in most cases, who have passed the appropriate examinations.
So choosing what we shall do with our lives is never a simple and straight-forward process of following God’s will even if we could ever be sure we know what God’s will is.
Nonetheless most Christian people probably think that in examining what they should do, among other things they should pray. But what are we doing then? There is an arresting phrase in the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin.
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
Robing as our destinies something that has been decided from compulsions we may have recognised, but equally may not have fully understood, is a dangerous business. Of course we can and must examine ourselves, our interests, our passions, our abilities, even our ambitions, and be honest to ourselves before God in examining those. If we have any sense we are likely to talk about them with others whom we trust to advise us honestly about how they see our abilities and our passions. And in the case of most professions that are called vocations we also need to remember that it is not simply about finding fulfilment for our own abilities; most vocations are not primarily about serving the practitioner’s needs, but serving of the needs of others.
Now one of the people who talked at some length about the notion of vocation was the German church leader at the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther. Part of what Luther protested against was the notion prevalent in the medieval church that vocation simply applied to a religious office, as a priest or as a member of a religious order. Luther, by contrast, saw vocation as something that applied to all Christian people, and it was the call to follow Christ and to love one’s neighbour. A person’s vocation, as far as Luther was concerned, was to a life of Christian service in whatever a person’s station in life was, even in a role that was not specifically Christian as long as it was consistent with loving God and loving your neighbour. And that, I believe, is an important clue for people reflecting on what they might do with their lives when they are young or, when they are older, wondering what they might do with the rest of their lives.
I suspect it does not help for someone to think that there is only one path they can follow that will be consistent with doing God’s will; it is quite possible that God’s will is not that specific for each individual. Of course we can believe that God’s overall will includes the healthy ordering of society and of the church, but what role each of us may have in that is partly our own decision on what interests us and excites our passion and partly on the decision of others who have control over the entry to any job. But whatever emerges from that for each individual it then becomes the context for them to follow that basic calling to love God and to love one’s neighbour. Vocation is not just about the role we have in life, it is also about how we carry out that role.
So was Isaiah right in thinking he was called from his mother’s womb? Well maybe, but he could never know it in advance. Whether we have fulfilled God’s purpose can only ever be known in retrospect.