It’s happened to me a lot since, but I think the first time was at the barbers. ‘So are you a student?’ she asked. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘in fact I’m training to be a vicar’. ‘ooh’ she said ‘did you get the call?
I may be wrong, but I guess roofers or actuaries don’t get the same question. HR professionals and aircraft fitters probably have interesting stories to tell, perhaps a very profound sense of vocation, but for some reason it’s vicars who get asked. ‘So did God actually, like, speak to you?’
And I have to say that the story of my sense of call to the ordained ministry is a bit unusual. When I went up to university to study Biology, I popped in to see my godparents in their local church. It was vibrant and full of students I knew from my course. So I went back. Over time the teaching I received made the Bible stories I knew fall into place – a pattern developed that made sense of the faith.
By the time I was in my second year I had decided to try and use my career to serve God. I thought that might be through forestry – because I liked trees and forestry can do a lot of good in developing nations. Just the sort of places where barriers to teaching the gospel can be overcome by having a relevant professional qualification. So perhaps I could be a tentmaking missionary, doing forestry as my job and supporting a local church in my spare time.
Problem was I found that forestry can be a lonely occupation. For my research project I spent weeks in the wilderness with thousands of Corsican pine for company. That wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. So I prayed about it: ‘Lord, I want to serve you, what should I do?
And the answer came back. As clear as if a voice had spoken: ‘What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?’ And up from the depths, without even having time to think about it, I had a picture of our priest celebrating Easter sunrise, and at the same time I replied ‘I’d like to be a priest and tell people about God’. Now my call have been anything – just happened to be ordained – any other kind of job can be a calling.
Of course, that was just the beginning. That sense of call had to be tested. I completed my degree, took a year out to work for a church, went through the Church of England selection process, did theological training. It was a long and at times arduous process.
What was unusual was that I never felt reluctant about being ordained. After that first thought I knew it was what I wanted to do. Which did create some issues. At the time it was very much the done thing to be called reluctantly. To have to wrestle with God, to count the cost, be hauled unwillingly to the altar. Perhaps I’m lucky, but that was never me – I knew what I wanted to do. Maybe the selectors were looking for more self-doubt or humility but I certainly got the impression that someone who actually wanted to be ordained was an object of curiosity and some suspicion. After all, weren’t most of the people in the Bible rather resistant when they were first called?
Think of Moses in our reading from Exodus. He’s already tried to save God’s people once. Outraged when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he intervened and killed the Egyptian. But his people did not rise up to throw off Pharaoh’s yoke, and Moses fled into the wilderness.
For forty long years he shepherded the flock of Jethro, priest of Midian. Moses married Jethro’s daughter, had children. It must have looked like he was settling down, his turbulent past behind him he had at last made a humble but straightforward life for himself.
So when God spoke to him out of a burning bush and commanded Moses to go down to Egypt and set his people free, we can understand if Moses seems more than a little reserved. In v. 11 ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’
When God calls us – and God can call us in all sorts of ways. If you Google ‘Stories of Vocation’ all you get is nuns. Tons of nuns. But vocation doesn’t have to be something religious – vocation can be all kinds of work.
In fact vocation doesn’t have to be about work at all – it simply means responding to God’s call on our lives. When God calls, we may respond like Moses did. ‘Who am I?’
‘What, me Lord? I’ve never stood up at the front before! Me Lord? I don’t know how to run a campaign. Who am I to find myself suddenly in the limelight?’ Or perhaps ‘Me Lord? Are you serious? You know what happened last time. How the business fell apart. Me Lord? You know how I messed up.’
How does God respond? God doesn’t talk about Moses past failures. God promises that he will be with him. ‘I will be with you’. That is ultimately the most reassuring thing God can promise, that he will be with us. At times when I have doubted my vocation, the answer has not been: ‘You’re brilliant, you can do this.’ It was ‘I will be with you’.
That’s not a promise it will all be straightforward, after all Pharaoh took a lot of convincing. It’s not a promise the way will always be clear: many times Moses argued and shouted at God. It’s not even a promise we won’t mess up: there was a time when Moses let God down. But it is a promise that God will be with us, a call to keep close to him.
But Moses needs more convincing. In verse 11 ‘If I come to the Israelites and say ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’ and they ask me ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ You see what’s happening here? I don’t think Moses is imagining this as some sort of test. As if the Israelites know God’s name and they want to find if Moses knows the password too.
It seems as if Moses is basically saying ‘Who are you? Can I really trust you? Because I don’t really know who you are God.’ That’s often where vocation gets confused – if our ideas about God are mixed up.
When I was curate we used to have something called ‘Vestry Hour’. The Rector and I would take it in turns to sit in a cold vestry and people would come in to book their baptisms and weddings. You’d also get the interesting ones: teenagers who’d got frightened by Ouija, that kind of thing. Twice I had someone come in and say that they thought God was calling them to be a priest.
One of them is now a vicar up North. The other chap was more complex. ‘When I was younger I often thought God was calling me to be a priest’. ‘Great. Tell me about it’, I said. So he did. ‘Where are you worshipping at the moment?’ I asked. He looked at me blankly. So I suggested that if he wanted to be a priest it might be a good idea to start coming to church. He thought that was a bit much.
Maybe I could have helped him encounter God another way. Because vocation needs to be informed. As we respond to God’s call we get a better idea of what it is he’s calling us to. As we travel with God we get to know him better. If anyone feels lacking in direction, I’d say keep praying about it. If you want to know your vocation get to know God.
But will I be able to do it? I’ve never led a group before. I’m terrified by organising an event. Will they believe me asked Moses. And then in v.10 ‘O Lord my God, I have never been eloquent.’ God addresses this in two ways: Firstly in v.11 ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Is it not I the Lord?’ In other words, when God calls he also supplies. God gives us the abilities we need to do the task he calls us to, and it’s as we step out in faith that we find the abilities are there.
Once I was gathering volunteers to set up an Open the Book Group. I asked them all to training. Shortly afterwards I got an email from Victoria: ‘Christopher, I didn’t actually volunteer for this. But when you invited me to training I thought maybe God was in it. So I’m willing to give it a try.’ She did. And it was amazing. It was like God had unlocked something. Her confidence grew, her abilities flourished, she became an excellent chair of governors. When she stepped out it in a little way, God faithfully gave her what she needed.
Secondly, in v. 14 ‘your brother Aaron can speak fluently’. God provides help through others. We’re often called to play a role as part of a team, the body of Christ, where each member has a different role and the members complement one another. Seldom is anyone called to be a one-man band, and if someone’s sense of vocation is all about them then it might be misplaced.
It seems like God has addressed every possible doubt Moses could have. But in verse 13 we come to the nub of it. ‘O my Lord, please send someone else!’
Perhaps we can sympathise with Moses. For in our Gospel reading Jesus makes it clear that following him will involve sacrifice. In v.19 A keen young scribe wants to go wherever the Lord goes, but Jesus tells him that ‘foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’
In v. 21 and 22 a man wants to bury his father. This does not mean that the old guy has already died and the son just needs to go back for the funeral. No, ‘First I must bury my father’ means ‘I will come, but when I’ve fulfilled my family responsibilities.’ Of course, that could be years in the future. And do family responsibilities ever end? Jesus tells him that God’s call will not wait. Sadly I do sometimes meet people who regret not responding to God’s call when it came.
Finding our vocation may not mean becoming a penniless wanderer. But it might involve a wage cut, with all the implications that brings. The hours might be longer, or shorter to make time for other things. There may be uncertainty, at times it may be hard to see the way. We’ll be called to step out in faith, to do things we might never have considered. Remember though, Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all things will be added to you as well. God will provide what we need. If we respond to God’s call, if we answer the summons to join God on the journey he has planned for us, if step out in faith and entrust our future to him, we will be joining in an amazing mystery, the wonder of finding our lives caught up in God’s call.