A sermon preached by Revd Maggie Guillebaud
Sunday 14 August 2022, the Ninth Sunday after Trinity.
Hebrews: 11:29-12:2. Luke 12:49-56
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon.
Vocation. From the Latin vocare, to call. In a secular context the sense that you are called, for example, to teach or nurse, or go to some of the most dangerous places on earth to help those in need. In a Christian context the sense that God is calling you to go the extra mile for him, and for some of us that meant a strong call to the priesthood. My vocation is what we are going to explore today.
For those of you visiting us for the first time I need to explain that this summer rather than preaching from the Lectionary, those lessons from the Bible prescribed by the church for preaching on any given Sunday, the clergy here are describing how they perceived their particular calls from God to the priesthood.
Because I am an older woman, the very idea of priesthood was never on my radar. There weren’t any women priests in the Church of England until 1994, by which time I was into my late forties. I might as well have aspired to being an astronaut.
But then the ground subtly began to shift beneath my feet in a totally unexpected, and unasked for way, in my early fifties.
I was, frankly, appalled, and not a little bewildered. Me? Surely not.
I took myself off to a convent where I knew I would receive wise counsel. One particular nun was completely wonderful. She made me write a spiritual biography, not for her to read, but for me to clarify my tumultuous feelings. She said to look for what she called ‘stepping stones’ in my spiritual life, going back as far as I could remember.
All morning I sat in the library, scribbling away. And by lunch I surprised even myself when I read what I had written.
Because a pattern emerged of which I had been wholly unaware. I had never before joined the dots. Now I began to.
I am half Danish, born in Copenhagen, baptised into the Lutheran Church, and taken to the Danish Lutheran church in London by my mother when we as a family came to live in this country. My Father was nominal Anglican but had no interest in the church. So I sat, as Lutherans do, to sing interminable and rather dreary C19th hymns by Grundtvig, enjoyed the Christmas Eve service immensely, and the annual church fete in the vicarage garden. My mother prayed with me and my brother when we were little. God’s presence was real, comforting.
Then off to boarding school, where I was confirmed as an Anglican. Daily prayers morning and evening, and church 3 times on a Sunday. Enough to put anyone off for life, which it did for a number of my friends. But God remained real and comforting in times of stress and the inevitable home-sickness.
University, marriage, motherhood, divorce, and a long period of living on benefits with two small children, re-marriage, a satisfying career in the arts and health, 10 years on the bench – my life had been eventful but was now was very full and enjoyable.
I taught at our local Sunday school in a very deprived part of Cheltenham. Our house straddled one of those invisible barriers in our cities between affluence and deprivation, what we locals used to describe as Queen Anne at the front, and Mary Anne behind. We worshipped at out parish church, which was in the Mary Anne bit. It was a shining beacon in a tough area. And then this creeping feeling that God wanted more of me. A feeling that I should explore priesthood.
At first I thought I was going a bit dotty. Then I summoned up enough courage to talk to my vicar, who was highly encouraging. And I had to tell my husband. What if he said no to the prospect of a wife as priest? Luckily he was hugely supportive, and not overly surprised.
What was required over the next 7 years – yes, it took 7 years from that first conversation to my priesting, and a full 10 years before I finished my theology degree – was staying power, as one obstacle after another was thrown in my path. Papers got lost, Directors of Ordinands changed, the chaotic discernment process seemed endless. There were long periods when nothing at all seemed to happen. I felt like a fish on a slab undergoing scrutiny before purchase. At times I despaired. And then I took a decision which changed everything: I decided to hand the whole process over to God. I had no idea if, or when, I might be accepted, or where I might be sent if accepted. I simply stopped railing against the ineptitude of the process and left it all in God’s hands. As the author of Hebrews writes so powerfully, faith, that jumping into the unknown, is sometimes the only course of action available. And for me the relief was enormous.
And then finally all the bits of the puzzle came together and I was off to Cuddesdon, an Anglican training college at Oxford, for 2 years residential training. I could hardly believe it.
It is often said that there are two kinds of experiences of vocation: the road to Damascus, and the road to Emmaus.
Paul, you may remember, was on the road to Damascus when he suddenly had a blinding vision of Christ, one which turned his life upside down as he became a follower of Jesus rather than a persecutor of Christians.
The road to Emmaus was completely different. Two disciples were walking along the road to Emmaus after the Crucifixion when a stranger joined them who they did not recognise. They told him about the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem, wondering that the stranger had not heard all about what had been going on. It was not until they went to what was presumably an inn to get something to eat that they finally recognised Jesus as he broke bread.
You could say that my vocation was like that: I had not recognised the stranger walking beside me since I was a little girl. Only gradually did he reveal his presence to me, and subtly shift all the preconceptions I had about myself and how I was to lead my life.
But of course getting accepted for training was only the beginning. Being priested was only a beginning, though perhaps a more testing one. Because priesthood, rather like marriage, is an on-going project. Every day you assent to continue in the life God has chosen for you. Every day you pledge yourself again to tread this path of love, whatever the cost. In marriage you renew your commitment to your spouse too on a daily basis. Everyday you have a choice to make.
People often used to ask what vocation felt like. A difficult question to answer. The best I could come up with was it was rather like falling in love: you cannot put into precise words how you know that you have met the one person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.
You just know it has to be that person and nobody else. That is what vocation felt like for me: there was no alternative.
Round the font you will see inscribed a text from Isaiah. ‘I have called you by name. You are mine.’ This statement applies to all baptised Christians. But to those of us who struggled, submitted, and finally took the leap of faith into an unforeseeable future as ordained clergy they have a special resonance. Is there someone sitting in this congregation who might be feeling a similar tug? I do hope so. Have the courage to explore it. You might be called to simply the best job in the world.