This is a sermon I originally wrote for The Preacher publication, for the coming Sunday (which happens to be Vocations Sunday). Despite the fact it was written before Christmas, I’m reproducing it here without edit, recognising that our preaching is happening in very different ways, at present. And yet still, God is calling, and people are answering… What does it look like to work out vocation in darkness?
Some time ago I wrote a reflection on that, which is a different piece to this. You’ll find it here, featuring Leonard Cohen, who also appears below…
However you are preaching and teaching at this time, I hope this is helpful in sparking your own ideas for reflection.
Some months ago, my children took me to see the Disney film Frozen II. For 90 minutes we were spellbound by Elsa’s quest to find deeper meaning to her life, as she hears the call of a mysterious siren. Her agonising over whether to follow this call is captured in the soundtrack:
‘I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you.’
I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but I was surprised by how the theme of vocation ran as a thread through the narrative. Today, Easter Four, is Vocations Sunday, and we are tasked to think again about this unwieldy untameable notion that God has called, is calling, and will call us. There are plenty of ways that our readings today help us to think vocationally. We might reflect on the call of the Good Shepherd, and our response as his beloved sheep. We might consider our place within the flock, asking what it means for us to follow faithfully as we seek and share pasture.
Yet what I am struck by is Peter’s exhortation to Christian slaves: trapped so unjustly in a life of servitude and subjugation. If vocation is about finding oneself, about being free, then how can a life of slavery offer a way to live vocationally? Peter’s advice to these slaves to accept the authority of a harsh master causes me some internal conflict, and yet his advice comes to fruition as the chapter concludes. Vocation is rooted not in worldly freedom or self-discovery, but in the woundedness of Christ crucified, who embraces our pain and takes it upon himself, so that we might gather like sheep around their shepherd.
Enslavement in today’s world has many guises. We are alert to the reality of modern-day slavery, unseen yet on our doorsteps. We might know the pain of being enslaved by addiction, or destructive behaviour, or an abusive relationship. Our enslavement might be as painfully simple as being trapped by expectation or the circumstances of day to day survival: we give everything we have to ‘keeping the show on the road’.
How might we see sparks of vocation within the darkness of slavery?
Hineni: Here I am
I came late to the music of Leonard Cohen, but when facing vocational pain in my own life I found some comfort in his final album, You Want it Darker. The lyrics of the title track say something about a deep and unbearable wrestling with God:
‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.’
How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Is my brokenness worth anything?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?
If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through Scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.
And then, in the chorus of the song, comes resolution: a prayer, of sorts. ‘Hineni’, Cohen sings. A Hebrew word spoken in the Scriptures by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.
Hineni: Here I am. I’m ready.
Cohen offers a glimpse of hope. The life-changing opportunity to respond to God from even the darkest of places. ‘Hineni’, he challenges us to say.
The work of the wounded Christ
In Frozen II, Elsa’s costly moment of Hineni is enacted with and for her people. Our own vocational wrestling is done in community: with others and for others. The Good Shepherd of John 10 is the same Christ crucified of 1 Peter: the broken shepherd who bears the scars of his own vocation, and who calls us to follow him, together, into new pasture. There is an antidote to the world’s suffering: the work of the wounded Christ, enacted by good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to bringing about change and justice. Hard questions are a good place to start. They deepen our awareness and name our fears. Answers take time to emerge, and yet they are rarely beyond our grasp. In the end, we find that it is not so much about doing, as simply being: steadfast and faithful, in darkness and light. With Elsa, Peter, Cohen and Christ, we say: ‘Hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.’