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Easter 4, Year A, St Mark’s, 17.04.05 Vocations Sunday
1 Peter 2.19-25
John 10.1-10 (1785-16=1769)
Summary: My vocation (and how I came to it) and yours.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. It is as well the World Day of Prayer
for Vocations. And it also happens to be my birthday, which is why I asked
Alistair if I could preside and preach today.
With the idea of vocation in mind, let me share with you how I became a priest. I certainly did not start out with the intention of becoming a priest. I think my central desire was that I wanted to teach. From somewhere around the age of 8 or 9 I took up inorganic chemistry as a hobby, along with trains. By about the age of fourteen chemistry had taken over completely from the trains, and I gave all my trains, track, and accessories to my brother’s son in Texas, whether he wanted them or not. It was about this time that I gathered several friends in the neighbourhood out on our front porch and began to teach them chemical symbols and valence numbers, as well as the rudiments of chess. I guess I was just so full of what I was learning that I wanted to share it. As far as I can remember, that is the first time I ever did some teaching. Needless to say, I had long-suffering friends.
My father, my mother, my sister, my brother, my sister- in-law and my brother-in-law had all gone to the University of Michigan. So it seemed the natural thing for me to go there too, even though we lived in Oak Park, Illinois. My father had been a civil engineer, and my brother was a chemical engineer, so, without much thought about it, it seemed a logical thing to do my degree in chemical engineering.
The College of Engineering had its own professionally staffed English Department, and at least at Michigan more English classes were required of engineering students that any other undergraduates apart from English majors and pre-law students. That first year, for expository writing our teacher was a stuttering but outstanding teacher named Tom Sawyer. His classes were so lively that as long as two or three of us were walking across campus after class, we would still be carrying on the same discussion. The second expository writing course was taught by a Harvard graduate, and it was dull as ditchwater. So one day I went and buttonholed him in his office, and told him so. The next class was the one and only lively one of the semester, and then he reverted to style. I later had occasion to go to the secretary of the English department and I mentioned to her this teacher with the comment, "You know what the Yale men say about the Harvard men: You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can tell him damn little." "Well!" she said, "I see no call for that. My Father and my brother are both graduates of Harvard."
Later I started an elective course in scientific German. The first day we had a superb older member of the German faculty who said, "You know the science and I know the German. We’ll work on this together." Unfortunately, the second day he was replaced by a post-graduate student, who had to take the class as a condition of his fellowship. It showed badly, and the class hit the buffers. So, again, I went to see him, and his attitude was that, quite frankly, he really didn’t care. So I dropped the course.
These stories illustrate my ongoing concern for teaching.
My first year at Michigan I attended St Andrew’s Church at 11 o’clock on Sundays, which was Morning Prayer except for the first Sunday of the month. I found the sermons very dull. I went several times on Sunday evenings to Canterbury House next door to St Andrew’s. Canterbury House is the American equivalent of Ang Soc, The Anglican Society at British Universities, that is the student chaplaincy. But by the end of my first year I had effectively lapsed, except when I was home with my mother in Oak Park, where I continued to serve at both Sunday and weekday celebrations.
Now, it was the American practice to have two of what we called laundry cases. Fill one each week with dirty clothes, post it home, and receive the other one back the same week filled with freshly laundered and ironed clothes. Sometime during this second year my mother wrote me and said, "Jim, I know you are not going to Church, because there are no white shirts in your laundry. You need the Church, and the Church needs you." Well, if you had known my mother, you would know that I started going to church again with alacrity. But this time I went to the 9 a.m. College Eucharist, which was, naturally, held at St Andrew’s, and this was followed by breakfast at Canterbury House. To cut it short, I found my Lord in the Eucharist and a deep Christian fellowship at Canterbury House, and I started to become so pious that I practically drove my mother nuts. When a friend said to her, "Don’t worry. He’ll grow out of it", I was not best pleased. But obviously somewhere down the line I grew, not so much out of it as beyond it.
Sometime during this period I became academically very apathetic, and my
studies suffered. I thought of shifting to studying English Literature or even
musicology. But in the end I pulled up my socks and finished my degree in
chemical engineering. I then enrolled in graduate school and started studying
for a master’s degree in the same subject, while taking an elective course in
the philosophy of education.
However, the Hound of Heaven had caught up with me, and I became very restless. I rang my mother and told her how unsettled I felt. In her highly pragmatic way, she said, in effect, put up or shut up. She arranged for me to see Father Holt, our parish priest, and I went home that weekend, talked with him, he rang the bishop, and I became on the spot a postulant for holy orders.
I went back to Ann Arbor, and spent the summer term filling in, e.g., a course in philosophy to prepare me for seminary.
That autumn of 1951 I began work as a research engineer for Continental Can Company, a job I enjoyed doing for the next three years. In what was probably a late form of rebellion, I was tired of being known as Mrs Gibbs’ little boy, so I changed parishes and enjoyed being a very active layman, which I found quite fulfilling. I had a real desire to teach, and what I now wanted to teach was the Christian faith, but not necessarily as a priest. As I have told you in the past, up to this time I had always stuttered, but the problem came under real control and virtually disappeared after I took a course at Northwestern University called Group Therapy for Stutterers. And so, almost by default, I entered seminary in 1954, doing some additional studies in New Testament, and I was ordained deacon and priest in 1957 in the Diocese of Chicago, to which I still belong canonically.
I was used in the deanery to help teach some lay courses on liturgy and worship, and this was really enjoyable. Somewhere along the line I reached that moment, like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh, where I realised that this is what Tiggers like best, and I finally knew I was in the right slot as a priest.
In 1958 Dorothy and I were married, and almost immediately the Bishop appointed me to be the Vicar of St John’s, Lockport. The next year Stephen was born, and the following year, 1960, we cast our bread upon the waters and came to England to do my doctorate at the University of Nottingham. In short, through my research I fell deeply in love with the New Testament, and it became my privilege to share and learn with and from my students in England and India over the next 18 years. So my calling has been to be a teaching priest, which is why it was such a joy for me to be able to engage with you in a couple of Lenten studies over the last several years.
And the end result of all my research into the writings of the New Testament has been to show how carefully structured many of them are and built upon a deeply Jewish background, but with one central and overriding concern and conviction. And that is that the gospel is about becoming truly human, truly humane as seen in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. And the good news itself is, to put it bluntly, that God loves the hell out of us in order that we may love the hell out of our neighbour. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, "bear one another’s burdens and thereby fulfil the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2), ‘for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Gal. 5.14).
Now, today, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. What does that sound like to you? Praying for more deacons, priests, monks and nuns? If that is all it is, then, for most of us here at St Mark’s, our only part in it would be to pray. But, at least as far as I am concerned, that is far too narrow a concept of ‘vocation’ for Christians. Our calling, our vocation, is to follow Jesus. At the end of today’s Gospel we have heard the witness to Jesus of the Johannine community: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly". Thus our calling in Christ, our vocation, is to bring life to others. And to bring it to others wherever we are and whatever we are doing, no matter how big or how little. If you have read The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, or that anonymous 19th century classic, The Roadmender, then you know that washing up the dishes well, or darning the socks, or even casting your vote in the General Election, can be part of that vocation. And in the words of Christian Aid, "We believe in life before death". You and I have been baptized into Christ and raised up into new life in him in order that we may be life-enhancers. And that is the calling that all of us have in Christ in this Eastertide and in all our days.