God gives us all that we need, but sometimes we are not very good at recognizing and receiving God’s gifts. The Vicar of St Martin in the Fields, the Revd Sam Wells, said this to a conference of diocesan directors of ordinands that I attended last week.
The Church of England is anxious about the number of clergy who are due to retire in the next ten years. Both the two previous and the present incumbents of St Mary’s are members of this generation. All over the country there will be shortages of priests. In anticipation of this, the Church is hoping to increase the number of people who enter training for ordained ministry by 50% by the year 2020.
This is an ambitious goal, I am sure you will agree. It may seem unlikely in the extreme. But Sam Wells and other speakers told us that it is not impossible. It does require, however, some creative listening. If we believe that God gives us all that we need, then the vocations are out there. We are just failing to identify them. God has been calling people to service but the Church has not been able to recognize them.
This is not just an Anglican problem. I have heard Roman Catholics say that they are tired of being asked to pray for priestly vocations, when thousands of married men are only too eager to enter, or return to, the ordained ministry. The Church seems to want a different kind of answer from the one that God is giving. Sam Wells also pointed out that for nearly 2000 years, no one seemed to notice that women are also called by God to priestly service. If it weren’t for the ordination of women in the Church of England, the present crisis would have hit us twenty years ago.
There are undoubtedly many other people whose voices and stories are going unheard at the present time. The Church is being challenged to listen creatively to young people, to minority ethnic people, to those whose sexuality or disability or educational background seems to make them less likely to be spotted as potential candidates for priesthood. All these people are God’s gift to the Church.
In a couple of weeks, on All Saints Day, the diocese will begin a season of praying and preaching about vocations to ministry. Timothy will remind us of his own story. We will all be asked to think about the simple and direct question: is God calling me to be a priest?
I want to leave that question in the ether for now. We will return to it in two weeks. But I want to go back to that quote from Sam Wells, that God gives us all that we need.
Today’s gospel puts this assertion to the test. Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs. Notice they don’t seem to have volunteered. He just appointed them. And he sends them on their way with no rucksack, no provisions, no money, no change of clothes.
Even the fifteen people who will sleep in St Mary’s every Monday night in the coming months of the cold weather shelter have a little bit more than that. They are glad to have at least a set of dry clothes, a phone, a bus pass, and a map to the next shelter. Imagine for a moment what it would be like to set out on a journey with nothing. We only have to look at the news to see this happening in real time, as refugees from Syria crawl onto the shore of Kos and other islands with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They really are like lambs among wolves, as Jesus describes them, faced by physical danger, criminal traffickers, and a very mixed reception from the countries they arrive in.
And yet God provides what is needed. God does this through motivating people to be the givers and the welcomers. When we pray, we become aware of what we need to do. We hear the call to action.
Sometimes it is only through experiencing, or witnessing, a radical trust in God’s provision that we come to understand the truth that God gives us all that we need. I have often spoken about the time back in 1981 when dozens of young volunteers were sent from the Taize Community to London in obedience to this gospel passage. They had come to spend three months preparing a European meeting of young people. They came with their clothes and a minute living allowance, and they spread all over London, visiting churches, explaining their task and asking for hospitality. My husband David and I were so bowled over by their radical trust that we put two of them up on the floor of our tiny flat for the whole autumn. It was an amazing experience to take part in the meeting of 10,000 young people who gathered from many countries for four days of prayer and fellowship just after Christmas.
The brothers and volunteers of Taize read this gospel and believed it. The Lord told his disciples that they would be provided for, and they were. God gives us all that we need. We have to learn to trust that we are in safe hands.
That is why the stories of the dramatic decline of the Church of England didn’t cause too much alarm at our conference. Clergy numbers are falling, rural churches are struggling, dioceses are watching their money run out, but we were still full of hope. If there seems to be a dearth, that is because we are failing to recognize God’s gifts. We are looking in the wrong place, or for the wrong thin. Perhaps we are making an idol of a particular form of religious institution. The Church of England as we know it may possibly disappear, but God will provide what is needed for the gospel in the 21st century.
St Luke’s Day, when we read this gospel every year, is also of course the day when we offer the ministry of healing, obeying another part of Jesus’ clear instructions to his disciples. Cure the sick, and say that the kingdom of God has come among you, he tells them.
God gives us all that we need. We are so prone to anxiety, as if it all depends on us, from our financial security to our physical health to our personal happiness. But the message of the gospel is that the kingdom has come near. God is with us. That is how God chooses to be, always – not above us, or turning away from us, or ignoring or judging us, but with us. That is what the incarnation is about.
If God is with us, St Paul writes to the Romans, who can be against us? It may seem that we have many enemies, whether they are debts or illness or job difficulties or relationship problems.
The challenge to us is to take the gospel seriously, rather than literally. We don’t have to empty our pockets, give away all our possessions and hit the road – though we might be surprised by the ensuing adventure if we did.
But Jesus does invite us to trust him with our life’s journey. To believe that God is always with us and for us. To expect abundant life whether or not we have material riches or robust constitutions.
Say to those of a fearful heart, God will come and save you, saves Isaiah. On St Luke’s Day we are particularly invited to look up from our worries, from the seeming dearth and deficiency in our lives, and to ask God to make us rejoice in his healing and saving presence. God wants to be in relationship with us, his children. God longs to bring us wholeness and peace.
So we are going to join in prayers asking for the grace that we need, believing that God provides for us, and recognizing that in order to receive God’s gifts, we have only to open our eyes, our ears and our hands. After the intercessions, everyone is invited to come forward for anointing with the oil of healing and the laying on of hands. This can be done in silence, or you are welcome to name the gift or the person you are praying for. Come in faith that God gives us all that we need.