I have a hunch that some folk might not be entirely happy with their vocation being described as strange, but for the record, this is the sermon as delivered this St Andrew's Day at the Diocesan Ordination, 2013.
Text: Matthew 4: 18-22
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Every ordination is an opportunity for the church to reflect on the mystery of our calling; this is not just for those about to be ordained but for all the ordained – for us all to reflect on the strangeness of our calling.
The gospel for the Feast of St Andrew is not a bad place to begin. Has it ever struck you that in this very gospel our Lord seems just a little bit casual in his calling of disciples? It all seems so serendipitous – notice the use of the conjunction ‘as’ – it all happens ‘as he is walking by the sea’ (in other words while he is doing something else). The familiar story shows the smooth surfaces of this substantial world being strangely disrupted. (We should have an eye for the comedy in this and spare a smile for those left to contend with the fish still to be cleaned, the nets still to be mended, and, worst of all, the explanations that will be required at home that night.
Think about it, God-incarnate (Jesus) wanders the sea shore and just happens to name Peter and Andrew, James and John who without debate or explanation summarily abandon all that we count as real and normal - homes and tasks, duties and practicalities - to follow Jesus, seemingly drawn to him as naturally as iron filings to a magnet or moths to a light – evidence, perhaps, for Augustine’s proposition that we are made for God and will know no rest until we rest in Him.
Where Matthew – sparely - tells us that they followed Jesus; John expands on what this means where he says ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory … full of grace and truth’; you will remember John elaborated further, saying that to follow Jesus, to live in the light of his truth, is to be set free; ‘the truth will make you free’. But, push aside the familiar phrase that we can barely hear, and listen to how the writer Annie Dillard grounds it afresh in a startling paraphrase; she says - ‘the truth will make you strange’.
That feels awkward doesn’t it? The humour of God is in our calling! We are not usually comfortable with strangeness: I remember my teenage daughter fiercely pleading that I not wear my clerical collar when I was to pick her up from school. She did not want to be associated with any strangeness! We need to sense the smile of God at such moments.
But ‘strangeness’ hangs on the sleeve of our life, and of the church. The first disciples are changed as they participate in the life of Christ. Following him they become signs in their communities and the early church and … here’s the catch … so must we.
The strangeness of the called and ordained life holds in its essence what we commonly call mystery or sacrament – understand, the ordained person is to be a living, breathing, mobile sacrament, exactly as in the old catechism ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. We are to be strange … mysteries … firmly oriented toward participation in the life of Christ and bearers of that life.
Every time we kneel alone at prayer; every time we take bread and wine for Eucharist; every time we take the oils; listen and ache with the sorrowing; share in the joy of a new life and sprinkle the baptismal waters; make the sign of the cross; absolve; speak words of blessing; and every time we stretch for the words that for a moment lift the veil of familiarity hiding the scriptures, we are caught up in our calling and participate in the life of Christ. It’s an awful calling: ‘aweful’ also in the old sense! Amidst (and despite) the intractable density and substance of the world, we witness to the holy flowing through it; to the glory, the joy and wonder, as close as breath. It is endurable only with the grace of laughter when so often we feel such shams, so aware of our failures and denials. The cross is always close – its weight dragging in our sins and weakness and fear. Doubt and anxiety will dog us – we should never be surprised by that. Often we feel strange to ourselves as nonetheless we persist to walk within the story of Christ.
Our calling is never quite ours – it is lived among the people of God – and that can be a consolation and a great joy, but it can also be a devastating and fiery furnace! Our calling can break our hearts. Anglicans stand in a living tradition of priest-poets: among them R.S.Thomas is my favourite truth-teller; in an early narrative poem, ‘The Minister’, he dramatizes the potential for incomprehension, conflict and tragedy in our calling. For instance, an opening fragment …
In the hill country at the moor’s edge
There is a chapel, religion’s outpost
In the untamed land west of the valleys,
The marginal land where flesh meets spirit
Only on Sundays and the days between
Are mortgaged to the grasping soil.
Come with me, and we will go
Back through the darkness of the vanished years
To peer inside through the low window
Of the chapel vestry, the bare room
That is sour with books and wet clothes.
They chose their pastors as they chose their horses
For hard work. But the last one died
Sooner than they expected; nothing sinister,
You understand, but just the natural
Breaking of the heart beneath a load
Unfit for horses. ‘Ay, he’s a good ‘un,’
Job Davies had said; and Job was a master
Hand at choosing a nag or a pastor.
And still, as the Word made flesh called Andrew and has called countless others; as His calling continues among us today, as in this Ordination; so in this Eucharist we acknowledge our strange calling to share in the great work of God. Through the bread and wine we raise up we look with yearning and hope toward the unimaginable fulfillment of God’s purpose for all creation.