Vocation: I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means
Today let’s talk about the nature of call.
When people use the word Vocation, you can practically hear the capital “V.”
There is an all-too-persistent notion in the church the vocation is strictly the realm of the ordained clergy.
That is not true! Why do people think that?
For one thing, it’s the legacy of a clericalism that created and reinforced a false specialness in the clergy and placed them above lay people.
I also suspect that for some lay folks, denying they have vocation can be a helpful way to escape discerning it.
When we do think about vocation as applying to all people, another trap we fall into is elevating it into some sweeping destiny that encompasses one’s whole life.
It’s a similar phenomenon to the One True Love™ school of thought in which there is One Perfect Person for you who will Make All Your Dreams Come True and you will live Happily Ever After. (This is a damaging and limiting paradigm for so many reasons, but that’s another sermon.)
So when we elevate vocation into a Sweeping Destiny of answering God’s call in a noble, heroic, world-saving way, a task that will remain constant and unchanging for an entire lifetime, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of problems.
First of all, it ignores the potential for vocation to change and evolve over time.
What you are called to do at eighteen may not be the same thing you’re called to do at eighty.
In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it probably shouldn’t be or we need to start asking if you have really opened yourself up to growth over the last six decades.
Next, the Sweeping Destiny model of vocation puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the individual to get it right.
You’d better make sure you don’t have a headache or aren’t too caught up in speculating on your favorite TV show’s plot on the day you commit to your Vocation.
What if you get it wrong? What if you choose the wrong path? Will the Earth crash into the sun?
And not only do you have to choose rightly, you have to act perfectly in the execution of the vocation. Because if you fail at doing it, maybe you failed in discerning it, and again, we’re back at the Earth crashing into the sun.
The consistent problem with this approach to vocation is that it takes us further from freedom and deeper into the prison of our need for security, control, and approval.
The Sweeping Destiny/One True Love approach to vocation can only create people—lay or ordained—ethically trapped on a path that often devolves into a job with tasks.
That does not create transformed people.
In fact, it often creates burned-out, bitter people who are phoning it in at whatever “vocation” seemed so noble and beautiful five or ten or fifty years ago.
(That doesn’t mean that every minute of living out vocation is sunshine and roses or it isn’t real. But when duty devolves into dread, something is wrong.)
So what can we say definitively about vocation?
I think we can say that we actually all have the same vocation at heart which is in fact a sweeping destiny, and that is not a destiny to do anything, but a destiny to be something.
And what we are to be are people—individually and collectively—radically free to receive and respond to the transforming nature of God’s love in the moment.
Your overall vocation is to be a part of the Incarnation.
And in the course of that life-long vocation, you will find lots of little vocations.
Some of them may feel and be pretty big, like taking a job at a non-profit, getting ordained, or adopting a child.
But there are so many little vocations calling out to us from everyday life that we treat as simply choices between what we like and don’t like, rather than opportunities to be true to our transforming inner nature.
My vocation this morning was to answer a phone call from a grieving friend rather than let it go to voicemail.
Your vocation this June may be to volunteer at a kids’ camp.
Someone else’s vocation for the new year might be to go to an AA meeting and start getting honest about the fact that maybe the drinking has gotten out of control.
Life adds up to a series of vocations, an ongoing music of God calling your name out of the circumstances of your everyday life.
God speaks out of our grief and our impatience and our joy and our energy and says, “Here—here is a chance to choose.”
And sometimes that choice can feel overwhelming, or difficult to make, or simply wearying with the effort to act out of our higher selves.
But that is precisely why we must tend always and with unrelenting attention our vocation of being.
If you answer the call to be a radically free child of God, treating the chains of circumstance as completely irrelevant to your ability to welcome Love, your vocations of doing will become clear.
Paying attention to our being vocation also helps us with another pitfall of our doing vocations: mixed motives.
I can say honestly at my current place of spiritual growth that I got ordained eleven years ago 50% wanting to serve God and God’s Church, and 50% wanting to Be Special.
I’ve got a collar now! And a title! People will think I know stuff about God!
I get to have “The Rev.” on my business card, and people will say about me, “How noble, she’s giving her life to the Church!”
Well, honestly, that’s okay.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the very real fact that many of our vocational aspirations have a big dose of ego motivation within them as long as our awareness of it grows over time.
I don’t think we’ll ever completely escape mixed motives this side of glory, but I do know God’s work in us can slowly liberate us from anything, even this foundational ego control.
I do believe I was truly called to be a priest even with that 50/50 split of God-serving and self-serving motives.
But in answering my true vocation of being transformed by love, I am called for that split to (God willing) shift to 75/25 every now and then.
I am called to more and more freedom from the need for the perks and status symbols that I couldn’t admit at least partially initially motivated me.
Even though we treat vocation like a straitjacket or a jail sentence, congratulating ourselves on giving up all other options to do this good or noble thing, as I said above, I really feel that our deeper vocation is to a radical freedom.
This freedom echoes God’s freedom, and allows our discipleship to begin afresh and take new directions at any moment.
The needs of those around us shift and evolve moment to moment—why should our ability to respond to those needs be locked into rigid parameters that ossify over long years of assuming we figured out God’s will a long time ago?
The vocation of love creates two freedoms: the freedom to respond in real time, and the freedom from our customary self-limitations and ego control mechanisms.
We can be open to how our call may be different from year to year, day to day, and hour to hour, and we can reach beyond our habits of fear and self-interest that keep us locked up in habitual responses and patterns.
Both freedoms can help us enter the dance with God rather than acting like our feet are nailed to the floor.
We see the connection to vocation as freedom in our scriptures today.
We have three different call stories in our texts: Paul, Peter and Andrew, and Jesus.
Their responses to call all center in different ways in the foundational freedom of the call to be in God and with God and of God.
Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
He’s very clear that baptizing is not his call, and he refuses to break faith with his awakened heart, as Jim Finley says.
His call is to preach, and here he shows his freedom from ego control: “not with eloquent wisdom.”
He’s basically saying, “My call isn’t what you Corinthians want it to be, and that’s too bad, because I know what it is. Also, I’m really not very good at it, I’m kind of crap at my job, but that just makes the Cross proclaim itself more clearly.”
Now that’s freedom in vocation!
Peter and Andrew show the freedom of the moment-to-moment response to God’s call making itself manifest out of nowhere.
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
They are ready to abandon their job, their security, their means of economic survival, their families, their friends, their habits, their very way of life, the moment they hear Jesus call.
Once again, freedom in vocation.
And then Jesus. Our blessed Jesus.
Consider where he is emotionally in this moment we read in our text from Matthew today.
“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
He has just learned that his cousin, his friend, his forerunner in the gospel has been arrested. There is every likelihood that John will receive a death sentence.
I don’t know about you, but I very much doubt that if I got news like that, my first response would be, “I think I’ll start a hugely ambitious new ministry project!”
But that’s exactly what Jesus does.
In this place of grief, of fear, of threat of violence, of sadness and loneliness and uncertainty—here is where Jesus steps out and answers the call to be who he is and begin his work.
Jesus has a radical freedom to answer call that manifests itself in a radical freedom to go forth in faith in the midst of profound vulnerability.
He is able to be vulnerable to God’s call—open to it, ready to be moved and changed by it—even in the midst of his own vulnerability so profound that it would leave the rest of us hiding away from the world for months and maybe years.
This is one more example of Jesus walking around as God’s unprotected beating heart in the world, and the example we are to attempt to follow in whatever way we can.
So let’s do it together.
Let’s not worry too much about what we’re called to do.
But let us pray with faithfulness, curiosity, and fervent desire to respond to our call to be radically free children of God formed by love from moment to ever-changing moment.
“Follow me,” Jesus says.
Let us pray until we are wholly transformed into “yes.”
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