A Sense of Vocation

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Sermon #24 (3rd September 2017 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

Each new month brings a new theme to explore in our services here at Essex Church and the topic we’re going to be looking at in September is ‘Mission and Purpose’. Over the next few weeks Sarah will be helping us to consider our collective purpose, looking at some inspiring stories of Unitarian missionaries who came before us, asking what we can learn from them, and what we are called to do together as a community. We’ll be looking at what our mission might be and how best we can address the pressing issues of our time.

Today I’m going to get us started by considering our mission and purpose as individuals. Our ‘calling’, or ‘vocation’, if you like. Some of us might be at ease with these concepts, and applying them to ourselves, while others might find them a bit BIG and intimidating. Be not afraid! The message of today’s service, in a nutshell, is that we all have a calling, one way or another, a unique opportunity to use our gifts for good in the world. I’m not talking about vocation in the sense of being called to the priesthood or ‘Holy Orders’ – at least, not uniquely, though maybe there is someone in the room (or listening to the podcast at home) for whom that is their ultimate vocation – but perhaps there’s a way of seeing things in which you could say we are all ultimately ordained to a life which is unique, unrepeatable, and shot through with the holy (or at least with endless opportunities to sense a sacred dimension, if only we are willing and able to make ourselves vulnerable, and open ourselves up to it). Our calling, whatever it is, might not be especially prestigious or dramatic. We might not have been summoned by a voice from the clouds, a sudden thunderbolt, or a burning bush to get our attention. But nonetheless, every single one of us has a sacred purpose in life, I reckon. And there’s something to be said for taking the time to reflect on what that might be, and for making that a conscious focus, one which shapes the course of our everyday lives.

There’s a well-known story – I’m sure many of you will have heard it before, but I think it’s a good one, it bears repeating – it’s the story of the three stonecutters… On a misty autumn day, hundreds of years ago now, a traveller in the West Country came across a gang of workmen going about their business beside the River Avon. The traveller was curious as to what they were up to, so he went up to one of the men, and politely asked him, ‘excuse me, what is it that you’re doing?’ The man didn’t look up from his work and practically grunted in reply, ‘I’m cutting stones. What does it look like?’ Clearly he didn’t want to make conversation. The traveller’s curiosity wasn’t satisfied, so he went up to another worker, and asked again. The second man briefly looked up from his work and replied, ‘I am a stonecutter. I came to Salisbury from the north to find work but as soon as I earn a few quid I’m going home again.’ The traveller thanked him and moved on to try and strike up conversation with a third man. He asked, once again, ‘excuse me, what is it that you are doing?’ The third worker paused, looked the traveller in the eye, and then looked up to the sky. He replied, ‘I am a stonemason and I am building a cathedral. I have journeyed many miles, and spent months away from my family. I miss them desperately. But the Bishop told me of his vision for this holy place. The cathedral will not be completed in our lifetime but the future – this glorious dream – depends on our efforts here and now. One day, many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know it is the right thing for me to do.’

The story of the stonecutters illustrates the way in which exactly the same work, the same action, towards the same end, can be understood quite differently depending on the quality of the lens through which we choose to view it. There is something ennobling about choosing to see our work, our contribution, whatever it is, as having a holy purpose in the grand scheme of things, as being a small but essential part of the unfolding of the universe. Take yourself seriously – at least some of the time, anyway. Act as if what you do matters. Because it surely does. And by holding this sense of purpose – of higher calling – in mind, you may find that you are inspired to achieve greater things than would have done otherwise(or you might find that you have a greater level of engagement, enthusiasm, commitment, and satisfaction in those smaller, humbler, everyday activities, those works of love which are no less valuable in making the world go round.) Joan Chittister, the spiritual writer and Benedictine nun, puts it this way: ‘I came to realise that work is the lifelong process of personal sanctification that is satisfied only by saving the globe for others and saving others for the globe. My work is God’s work, unfinished by God because God meant it to be finished by me.’

In our first reading, the theologian Frederick Buechner spoke of vocation as ‘the work a person is called to by God… the thing we are summoned to spend our life doing’, and reflected on the difficulty of discerning God’s voice from all the other voices that might be pulling us in different directions. Of all the possible paths that stretch out before us, which is most in tune with our highest values, our ultimate concerns? Buechner offers the rule of thumb that God calls us to ‘the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

In our second reading, the Quaker educator and activist Parker J. Palmer spoke of vocation as ‘a gift to be received’. He emphasises that it isn’t about striving to contort yourself into something you’re not; rather it is about allowing your true self to flourish in authentic service to the greater good. Palmer suggests that instead of asking ‘what should I be doing with my life?’ to discern your true vocation you should begin by asking ‘who am I? What is my nature?’ Elsewhere in his excellent book on this subject, ‘Let Your Life Speak’, he says:

‘Vocation does not come from wilfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions. Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.’

Words from Parker J. Palmer. This way of thinking about vocation is valid, I reckon, regardless of where you are on life’s journey, or what stage of life you are currently in. It makes it a bit more obvious that we’re not talking about work as in a day-job or career but more as the entirety of all the contributions we make to society, humanity, the world. Whereas Buechner’s account of vocation is more about looking forward, prospectively, and listening for the call which will guide our next steps and shape our future course in life, Palmer’s account offers a way of making sense of the span of life we have already lived. Look back over your life so far, in all its light and shade, and ask: ‘what is it truly about?’

The poet David Whyte has something similar to say on the nature of true vocation:

‘A true vocation always calls us out beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place. Strangely, we find that all along, we had what we needed from the beginning and that in the end we have returned to its essence, but an essence we could not understand until we had undertaken the journey… A calling is a conversation between our physical bodies, our work, our intellects and our imaginations, and a new world that is itself the territory we seek.’

And there are some words from Victor Frankl on the front of your order of service today:

‘One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.’

We can look back over the entire history of the universe as it has led up to this moment: an apparently random, chaotic, we might even say miraculous, unbroken chain of events has brought each of us here into existence, alive, awake (I hope!) and sitting here now. Each of us was born into a particular context which, as far as I can tell, we did not choose. We each have our own peculiar set of characteristics and quirks, inherited and learned; strengths and weaknesses, privileges and disadvantages, experiences of life and love; (hopefully) we each have at least a bit of hard-won wisdom accumulated along the way. Each of us is in a unique position to use our particular gifts, our personal resources, whatever they may be, to do good in the place where we find ourselves. Ask yourself: what is it that you – and only you – are in a position to do?

Maybe that’s your calling.

It might not be anything all that high-profile, attention-grabbing, or seemingly significant. It doesn’t have to look like a consistent, coherent, tidy, life-long vocation – all-joined-up. It might be more of a patchwork in which you are making up the pattern as you go along. But it is your irreplaceable contribution to the unfolding of the universe and it may well have profound and far-reaching consequences way beyond those that are immediately apparent to you. Do what comes naturally; play to your strengths; go where the spirit leads; and, in doing so, respond to the world’s great needs, which are all-too-apparent wherever we are.

I’d like to close with some words of encouragement from the theologian Mary Jo Leddy:

‘Each one of us has at least one significant word to say with our lives. This word is who we really are, who we are meant to become, our calling in this world. Within this word lies the secret of our happiness, the source of our power, and the mysterious point of our being. Through this particular word of our lives we bring the one thing still wanted and awaited in the world, the one thing necessary that no one else can give.’

May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: