Sermon preached by Christie Broom, ordinand at Ridley Hall
What are you called to? This might feel like a scary question for this early point on a Sunday morning. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds the idea of ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’ quite intimidating.
I’m an Ordinand, so in many ways as a person who has been discerning a vocation to ordained ministry for around 6 years now this shouldn’t be the case – but it absolutely is! So often seems like we only hear about vocation in terms of people exploring whether they should be ordained, but that’s only one side of it. We all have a vocation.
The good news is that I can tell you what yours is. It’s the same as mine.
It is to draw near to God, and it is to pray. That is our first calling, this is a huge part of what ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind’ means because it enables us to love our neighbours – and everything else is shaped by this. In our gospel reading, Jesus talks about the sheep hearing his voice and knowing it. Our first vocation is learning to pick out the voice of God in amongst all the noise of the world.
But how does this work? What does it look like to lean into this shared vocation, and out of it to ask what work we should be doing? What should we be doing in our work, or our creative endevours, in our relationships?
Surprisingly, I found some clues in the birds of the flood narrative, so that is what I will be exploring this morning The birds are easily overlooked in favour of the more curious aspects of the story of the flood including the idea that more than 42,000 animals were said to be contained in the ark. The birds are important because offer us very different pictures of what it means to be attentive to God.
First Noah sends the raven who is described as going ‘about to and fro until the waters dry up’. The raven didn’t come back. This is in contrast with the dove who is sent out three times.
The first time, the dove is sent out and returns because ‘it found no place to set it’s foot’. Whereas the raven exhausts itself by going ‘to and fro’ without any success, and without anywhere to rest the dove returns to the one that sent it. When we are trying to discern what God is calling us to, it is imperative that we keep returning to the one that sent us.
At the moment we might feel like the raven, flapping around with nowhere to rest and no sense of where to go next. We are invited back to the safety of the ark, just like the dove, to rest and re-evaluate and be sent out again with renewed strength. For us, the ark is the place of prayer.
The dove is then sent out a second time, and this time it brings something back with it. An olive branch – a symbol of hope and newness. The dove could well have landed on the olive tree and chosen to stay there, but it didn’t. It returned again, feeling itself called back to the one who sent it, trusting that it would be sent back out at the right time. Sometimes when we have something tangible to grab on to – a new opportunity arises, or a door seems to open – we run with it out of fear that it’s the only option, that something else won’t come up so we’d be best off going with the first thing…. But God is still calling us back into the ark. Making our first calling prayer means being like the dove and bringing the first shoots of the new thing to the Lord, and asking for wisdom about how we should go forward.
The third time the dove is sent out of the ark, it does not come back because it is clear that the time has come to begin its work in the new earth. That’s not to say that when we know something is right and we begin to pursue a new part of our vocation we don’t keep coming back to God, but it’s a picture of the way in which eventually we have to get on with things.
I found that I went through essentially this process when I was writing this sermon. I felt like when I initially started thinking about it, I was flapping around helplessly with nowhere to land. But I realised that I didn’t want to be like the raven, and the best thing was to come back to God, to seek him and ask what he might be asking me to share about this text.
The next day I went out again into the wilds of the text and some commentaries, and came back again to the place of prayer with a little twig of an idea which felt like something to go with. But rather than leaping ahead, I felt God calling me back into the place of prayer, like Noah inviting the dove back into the warmth and safety of the ark, so that what came next was informed by being present with him. By the time I sat down the third time, I knew that it was time to get on with it, to do the practical work of putting words on a page.
I don’t know many people that are fully sure that they are absolutely doing the right thing all the time, but part of committing to pray and be with the Lord means entrusting our work to him, because he is the one who gives us meaning and purpose. We do the work that is before us, committing it to him and asking him to use us to build his kingdom. We keep coming back to the place of prayer. Returning to the one who sent us.
The final thing I’m going to say about this text is that Noah himself is a picture of one who takes his first calling to seek the voice of God really seriously. Even when the dove does not return and it becomes clear that it’s time to leave the ark, Noah waits for another 2 months to do so. He waits until God speaks to him and then trusting in Gods faithfulness he leaves the ark.
What I’m not saying is that if you’re trying to make a decision you should wait for a thundering voice from the heavens to tell you what to do. It might actually be the case that Noah was a little slow on the uptake and needed some clear encouragement to leave the ark, because he’d become a little too comfortable in his floating zoo. I would encourage each of us to keep returning to the place of prayer, and pay attention to what you feel.
Maybe there’s an idea that won’t leave you, or you keep remembering a particular person when you pray, so you have a conversation with them about the decision you’re trying to make. Follow that stuff up, pay attention to it and eventually you’ll find a way to discern between passing thoughts and the prompting of the spirit.
Doing those things are the reason that I’m training to be a priest. The community around me encouraged me to follow up on the funny feeling and the sense of curiosity about what it means to be ordained. All of this encouraged me to return to the place of prayer with what I thought might be the evidence that God was moving in this, and when I went out of the place of prayer to test the waters it became clear that there was something to my inkling.
All of this reassures us that God IS at work in our lives, and God has plans for us. So let’s return again and again to the place of prayer, trusting in the words of Jesus that we are the sheep and we can know the voice of the shepherd.