So, this sermon was preached on the day before I begin the 41st year of my ordained ministry. Plymouth, Southampton, Stanstead Abbotts UK followed by… South Dakota, Newport RI and Center City Philadelphia and back to Newport RI. Oh the joys and challenges, the quirks and oddities, the privilege and angst of parish ministry but, for those called to such a ministry, one that cannot be denied.
Here’s a picture of the West Front of the Exeter Cathedral outside which we waited until the Ordination Service began 11am (GMT), June 1977.
The sermon text (well, the basis of the sermon) is printed below the sermon audio.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday June 25 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale; “Seduced by Vocation”
So, I ask your forbearance as today I wallow in some nostalgia – forty years ago, tomorrow, I was ordained into the sacred ministry of the Church of Christ as expressed in the Anglican Communion.
Forty years ago, tomorrow, at 10:55am (GMT) I stood with an order of ordinands, a sequester of seminarians, outside the majestic and medieval west front of Exeter Cathedral – a cathedral completed in the early 1400s.
With a myriad of choristers, cathedral/civic dignitaries, bishops I waited until the massive west doors were open to reveal inside a huge congregation underneath the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England.
As the hymn “Christ is made the sure foundation” was proclaimed by organ, brass and voices so we processed into that impressive, maybe even intimidating, building.
I remember nothing of that service except the acute and keen presence of God present in majesty; sublime, exalted and transcendent.
I remember also my family, completely unchurched, commenting happily that my stole carried my initials AN – not knowing they were in fact alpha and omega.
And I remember the strangeness of wearing, for the first time in public, this plastic or linen neck collar; once sweetly called a fashion accessory by a Philadelphia hair stylist – often named “clerical dog-collar or ring of confidence” in UK.
Forty years ago…
In today’s first reading the doleful prophet Jeremiah reflects upon his ministry; a ministry that he clearly found depressing and one which often caused others in his sphere to share his dolefulness almost by contagion.
The prophet, reflecting upon his vocation to the prophetic ministry speaks of its seduction, its settling and its strength.
The seduction of vocation. “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me and you have prevailed.” Years ago I tried to explain to a parishioner that I was ordained not because I wanted to be ordained but that, at heart, I wanted to do what God wanted me to do. My journey to ordained ministry was not one of chasing the dream or pursuing a lifelong ambition; in fact quite the opposite.
What I wanted was to be work as a lawyer, a barrister and maybe even reach the dizzy heights of QC (Queen’s Counselor). And so with all my strength I tried to ignore, derail vocation to ordained ministry but in the end “I was enticed and the Lord prevailed.”
This past week I had the great joy of talking with a church member about vocation, about what the Lord wanted that person to do and to be… friends, I promise you, that all you need do is offer to God even the slightest willingness to know and to do His will and He will begin the seduction of vocation… and He will prevail, eventually.
The settling of vocation. “There is something within me like a burning fire, shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” In 1985 I made a decision to abandon ordained/parish ministry; I knew not for how long nor did I know what would take its place. The decision was made by me, not for me, for personal reasons. What I did not realize was that the vocation to parish ministry as an ordained minister had somehow settled deep within my psyche, even deep within my bones. It took the wise insight of a kindly bishop to tell Wendy (in my absence), “Alan has to get back to parish ministry; it is what he is about, it is his life.”
Friends, the Lord has for you a vocation… it is particular to you; I dare even to suggest that if you fail to respond the task will not be done. But this I know, once the Lord settles upon us a vocation (and doubtless we are called to several at different times of our lives) we will be uneasy, uncomfortable as long as we deny that vocation fulfilment and execution in our lives.
The strength of vocation. “The Lord is with me like a dread warrior, my persecutors will stumble and they will not prevail… O Lord of hosts, to you have I committed my cause.” I share with you, brothers and sisters in Christ, that there have been times when I have regretted my vocation; maybe even a few times when I have resented my vocation. Times when grass has seemed greener, or fields have seemed less confined… at those times it is the Lord who has been my strength and to Him I give the glory. At times of doubt, shallowness, confusion or frustration I have remembered what has long become my Scripture for ordination and I share it with you today – John 15:16. “Jesus says, You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed/commissioned you that you should go and bear fruit… the kind of fruit that abides forever.” When I, when you, when we recognize that we are called, chosen and that what we achieve has about it an eternal quality than we experience a strength of vocation that cannot be denied or ignored.
Yesterday, on my 40th anniversary, I officiated at a wedding; and that is now one of the special joys of my ministry. I thanked the couple for choosing their day of celebration to coincide with mine. I shared that my “love affair” with vocation has not been strewn with roses nor passed in unadulterated happiness but what has seen me through 40 years has been my darling wife (who has stood with me for 30 of those years) and the steadfastness of the Lord.
I pray for myself and for you all that we will be seduced by our vocation, that it will settle deep within our being and the strength of the Lord will be our joy and our stay. Amen