Last night, at Portsmouth Cathedral, I experienced the enormous pleasure of attending the ordination of someone from my former parish. If you've never attended an ordination, you really should make a mental note to go at some point. They are quite remarkable occasions, where someone who has gone through years of struggle with God, more years of study at college, many sleepless nights and buckets of 'formational' training finally stands before the Bishop. At the ordination of priests, other priests gather round and together with the Bishop we all lay hands on the ordinand - praying for God's Spirit to fill them anew for their vocation. It can be a very emotional moment indeed!
It also, happens to be the 10th Anniversary of my own ordination this weekend. 10 years since I had the hands of other clergy placed on me. 10 years since I was commissioned for a particular role within the Church.
I have to confess that I'm rather grateful to God that my commissioning didn't take the same pattern as the ordination of the Twelve Disciples in today's Gospel. Jesus sent them out, two by two - and he forbade them to take anything with them for the journey, except a staff: no bread, no bag, no money - and only one tunic. It seems that Jesus wanted his disciples to be wholly reliant on God, and on the hospitality of others. He called them to live on the charity of others - having no wealth that could be used to draw people to themselves. Even today, there is still something of that in the way the church commissions its leaders. Even Bishops are only modestly paid. Many vicars and rectors live in lovely houses - with big rooms and gardens that can be used for parish events. But we don't own them. Our allowances are carefully calculated to give us enough to pay the bills, but not so much that we find it easy to save anything. Most retired clergy end up living in rented accommodation, and have to cover services just to make ends meet.
In setting this pattern, the Church is trying to follow the pattern of Jesus. He understood that possessing too much wealth can be a very tricky thing for a human being to get right. Wealth can very quickly make friends for us. If we are wealthy enough to host parties, or give lavish gifts to our friends, then we will always have people who want to be around us. Wealth can be used - intentionally or not - as means of obtaining power over other people. The wonderful Billie Holiday reflected this idea in her song 'God Bless the Child', when she sang:
When you've got money, you've got lots of friends,
They're crowding round your door
But when the money's gone, and all the spending ends
They don't come round anymore
But Jesus didn't want his Disciples to go out with presents, or to put on dinner parties to invite people - tricking them into sitting down to hear the Gospel. His radical new way of living was not going to be based on using money as a lever to faith. Neither did he want to present the idea that his followers would somehow live more easily than other people. Following God, as most of us know only too well, is not a guarantee of wealth, or of good health. The kind of preachers who tell you that if you follow God, he will shower you with a new car and the end of all financial worries are wrong. Utterly wrong.
In fact, over and over again, Jesus warned his followers about the false promises of wealth. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. He told the stories of wealthy landowners who lost their lives just at the point at which they had gathered all their riches into barns.
Jesus called his followers into a very different way of life. It was a way of life, as Paul discovered, in which weakness would be the path to perfection. It was a way of life, as Ezekiel found out, in which there would be rebellion and hardship from a society which has stopped listening to God. And, as The Twelve discovered, as Jesus sent them out, it would be a way of life in which dependence on one another, charity, poverty, a refusal to claim ownership of anything, would be the ways to performing miracles and changing lives.
We still struggle with these ideas, don't we? These are counter-intuitive ideas. Every day, through our newspapers, magazines and TV sets, powerful forces are at work underminding this idea of Jesus. Through the media, we get a very different picture of what success looks like. Even when we hear the occasional story of the miserable millionaire, or the suicidal pop-star, we brush them off as being exceptions that prove the rule.
But Jesus continues to call us to a new vocation. He called me, 10 years ago, to give up a rather nice Government salary in favour of a church stipend. He calls Bishops, often some of the most talented men (and now women!) of their generation to similar financial restraint. And, I believe, Jesus calls all his followers to think very carefully - very carefully indeed - about how they use the wealth and opportunities that they have been fortunate enough to accumulate.
The word ‘vocation’ of course has the same roots as the world ‘vocal’. Our vocation is our ‘calling’. Some receive very special callings – perhaps to serve the church in an ordained or licensed ministry. But all God’s people are called. All of us have a vocation…a shared, general, universal vocation. All of us who own the title of Christ-ian are called to live in a way – in fact in The Way – that Jesus outlined. It’s a way of self-sacrifice. It’s a way of receiving, through giving. It’s a way of choosing the life of the community over the temptations of the individual. It’s the kind of way of life that draws people out of their homes, and into fellowship with one another. It’s the way of life that welcomes the stranger, and rejoices in difference.
The prophet Micah perhaps summed these ideas up with the greatest succinctness:
Micah 6:8: (God) has shown you O mortal, what is good: and what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
How can we act justly, when billions around us are starving and we fail to help?
How can we act mercifully, when we close our borders and our hearts to those who need our help?
How can we walk humbly with God, when we don’t pay any attention to the teachings of his Son?
This, then, is our calling and our vocation: all of us. Who knows where such a calling will lead us. Some may be inspired to take up new responsibilities and challenges in the church or in the workplace and world. Some may find new ways of using the gift of wealth they have been given to bless their community. Some may even find themselves wearing a clerical collar! All we can say, is that this is The Way of God: to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.
(Scriptures referenced: Micah 6.8, Ezekiel 2.1-5, 2 Corinthians 12.2-10, Mark 6.1-13)