Sunday 20th January 2019
The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
1 Samuel 3.1-20
Ephesians 4.1-16

"In those days," reports the author of 1 Samuel, grimly, "The Word of the Lord was rare" and, indeed, we learn that the sons of the Priest Eli are the worst offenders over whom he exercises no moral power for which the Lord will punish him, which leaves Samuel as a precious point of integrity, recognised by the whole nation.

This is not unfamiliar to us. We live in a world which we dismiss as ungodly and we place our hopes in Samuel-like figures such as Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa and Oscar Romero. But they, like Samuel himself are, to an extent, insiders, recognised religious figures.

But although religious figures are important for a wide variety of reasons, including officiating at special rituals - in our case Sacraments - and in embodying continuity and change in learning, and although we are properly called upon to try to imitate the best in our leadership and to look to the saints, that is not the main focus of our lives. As Rowan Williams has said, our vocation is to live up to our self, whatever we take that to mean.

In the Diocesan Year of Vocation it is vital that we grasp the crux of this ambition. Had it been left to me I would not have started an initiative by immediately having to define what the key word does not mean; but here we are. In this context "Vocation" is not supposed to mean, as the term is commonly used, the call to Ordained Ministry. In the context of this initiative it is supposed to mean understanding our Christian calling and living it out to the full, whatever that might mean.

The danger is that in recognising our calling we are too self-deprecating, too modest, on the one hand or that we are too optimistic, too ambitious on the other. The key to finding the right balance is to adopt an organic approach, to combine study and prayer with action in the context of the environment in which we operate and, echoing something I said a moment ago, we need to be judicious when we think about continuity and change. Our contemporary problem is that we seem to be so overwhelmed by change that it builds up resistance to itself and tempts us to defend continuity but we have to be careful to distinguish between change in fundamentals and change in surface factors.

Let me give just one example: the invention of printing at the end of the 14th Century brought about the most massive social revolution since the development of irrigation and grain storage technologies in the Second Millennium BC but this was not equalled by the plummeting cost of paper in the 17th Century as the result of water-powered pulp mills; and it was not equalled by the invention of radio, television or even the internet. In the 17th Century there was a furious controversy in The Admiralty because conservatives thought that the use of paper would destroy trust; in my lifetime people said that television would destroy our generation and now we perpetuate the prejudice by thinking the internet will destroy our grandchildren.

But whereas the press was revolutionary because of what it did for the cost of information distribution, more modern technologies alter quality and quantity but do not constitute fundamental change; what is endangering the mental balance of many younger people today is not the ubiquity of social media but a fatal lack of self-control by publishers and consumers alike.

And so the important factor in recognising and prosecuting vocation is the ability to distinguish between the fundamental and the superficial.

And before we become over-committed to anything, we need to be clear what God wants of us; and the confusing factor here is that, as demonstrated in the case of Eli and Samuel, what God wants may be contrary to what the Church wants. This is unfortunate but there are moments when we have to recognise this in our lives. Jesus was, to say the least, sceptical of organised religion and so should we be. A church, for example, that structurally puts heritage on an equal level with carrying out Christ's mission, is clearly in deep error.

So how do we bring all these factors together into a coherent vocational strategy?