Skip to content

We All Have a Calling: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Sunday, February 10, 2019:
Isaiah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…”
“Last of all, as to one untimely born, the risen Christ appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

From a fishing boat sitting by the coast of a lake to nothing short of the throne of God, all three of those very different readings share common themes and elements. But it’s not just that confession of unworthiness I highlighted just now. All three of them are ‘call’ stories. A call motif is a key element of most of the basic plot types in our storytelling traditions. Someone is called out of obscurity, or out of an oppressive situation, and a mysterious figure, or ancient prophecy, or angelic being tells them that they’ve been chosen to bring about change, and will restore order to the universe. (Mary experiences such a call at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.)

But this experience of being called isn’t limited to comic books or fantasy novels. It’s not just for obvious heroes. In our everyday world we use words that often have something to do with being called: “purpose,” “passion,” and “destiny” come to mind. Or another big one is “vocation.”

But ‘vocation’ as it’s used most commonly has been relegated to the ‘religious’ pile. It comes up most frequently when talking about a religious vocation: someone who feels a calling to life in the church — typically as a clergyperson or someone who lives as part of a religious order. People of a ‘different order.’

‘Vocation’ might get extended periodically to some other groups. As I thought about it, I came up with: teachers; people who work in healthcare and social work; artists, musicians, and actors; and those who serve in the military. There’s often a mystique around these folks; this list is still somewhat exclusive. Limited to helping professions, and those who are a bit eccentric: poets, painters, and so on. Like Meryl Streep has a vocation to acting; but the cast of Grey’s Anatomy do not. Or, Bob Dylan has a vocation. But Bryan Adams… I wouldn’t use the word “vocation.” (Nothing against him or his brand of pop songwriting, but still, at least me, I wouldn’t jump to using “vocation” terminology.)

But there’s another understanding of vocation. We see it in the names of schools. Here in town, the high school we refer to as “KCI” is actually “KWCVI:” Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. And vocational school traditionally means having to do with trades, and technical skills, and practical things. So in this understanding, practicing a trade is a vocation. Being a plumber; a carpenter; a mechanic. I wonder, then, if it’s a vocation if it’s something that defines you. Something that you’re called upon to exercise, even when you’re ‘off duty.’ Like a plumber gets home from work at 5 or 6 o’clock on a Friday night. But if this plumber discovers that their neighbour has a flood in their bathroom, they’re going to help out (though maybe at time and a half). Is that what makes it a vocation?

So I’ll admit that I might not know decisively what makes a vocation. Or at least how it’s defined by society. But even if it remains a question mark, there’s something that’s truly troubling. That in the three readings we heard the issue is that people are given a vocation and feel unworthy. But the issue today doesn’t seem to be so much about people feeling unworthy, but rather, that fewer people seem to be hearing the call to begin with. At least not as clearly as Isaiah, and Paul, and Peter. (It’s telling that we sometimes hear church bodies setting aside a time for prayer and/or fasting, for an increase in vocations.)

So it was interesting that in The New York Times last week, someone was grappling with this same question, in a piece called “One Way to Make College Meaningful.” The author laments how there are two dominant — and rival — understandings of the purpose of post-secondary education. The first is that it’s “to discover and then to tell the truth” [citing Prof. Ron Srigley in his article]. That’s all well and good, but truth doesn’t necessarily put food on the table! So the other view is that education is all about finding a job. But the romantics aren’t satisfied with that, because it’s not dealing with the higher things like ‘truth’ and ‘beauty.’

So in this opinion piece for The Times the author talked about the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education. It’s a number of independent schools in dialogue with one another that are united in their belief that school isn’t primarily about beauty, or about money and job-hunting, but about discovering one’s vocation. Their goal is to educate “future leaders who are theologically literate, whose attitudes and behaviors are shaped by their values and commitments, and who are eager to sustain a life of service that is guided by a sense of calling” [https://www.cic.edu/programs/NetVUE].

Maybe this can help us as we wrestle with what vocation means for us today. Their definition, I think intentionally, overlap with how we would define the Christian life: living in a way that’s shaped by our values and commitments. And eager to serve others. And undergirding this, a sense of having been called. Like how Isaiah, Paul, and Peter didn’t come up with their calling on their own, but experienced an invitation from God and Christ.

I’d suggest that whether we are young or old, rich or poor, employed or not, artistic or pragmatic, we can all live lives shaped by our values. Our overarching value as Christians is about Easter: that out of what looks like death and defeat comes the surprise and joy and possibility of new life rooted in forgiveness, and compassion, and love of neighbour. And behind that is an Exodus ethic: that God hears the cries of the oppressed, sides with them, and works to bring about their freedom.

Some people seem to be guided by a sense of calling based on their unique gifts, or even sometimes on an inner voice, maybe quiet, maybe loud. Others might not. But we can turn to our scriptures and we recall that we follow in the footsteps of those who heard the call of Jesus. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch…. Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Vocation, I think, has something to do with following that call, or that invitation from Jesus to be people of life and light, rather than darkness and death. And whether we do so as professionals or not, is not the issue. Because our call comes from our common baptism that calls us to love and serve God and neighbour, practicing the ethics of Easter and Exodus. That is our vocation as Christians. It’s about hearing and remembering that call that comes from beyond ourselves, and living in a way that it shapes who we are on the inside. “Vocation has to do with recognizing life as a gift, and honoring the gift in living” [William Stringfellow]. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter