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How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord… Really?!: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 29, 2021:
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

On Facebook a former classmate of mine joked how it’s a little awkward to have this gospel reading, with its criticism of hand-washing, in the contemporary context of a pandemic. But both of those readings, from James and Mark, have to do with living out faith in a particular context. The Letter of James, famously — and to Martin Luther’s horror — is about the necessity of really living out our faith. To do otherwise is like looking in a mirror, only to forget what you’ve seen two seconds later. Though even in this letter, there’s an emphasis on listening, and careful action. Doing something can be risky.

And then this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees; one of many. The Pharisees were working out what it meant to live as a Jew in an occupied territory, in a relevant day-to-day way, when access to the Temple was not always possible. Jesus and his movement is dealing with this question, too, though sometimes arriving at different conclusions. What are the “commandments of God,” and what are merely “human traditions” is the question, and it’s something that we wrestle with in our own day, as we ask how our scriptures, traditions, and practices might speak to us, and the world around us, in a situation that’s a lot different than it was fifty years ago, let alone five hundred, or two or three thousand years. The fact that we probably each have a Bible on a shelf in our home (or at least access to one online) sets us apart from just about everyone who lived before the invention of the printing press in the 1400s…

Right at the top of this service we had the song (and perhaps you sang along, or followed the words in the bulletin that was circulated) “How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord.” It seems to be written as an assertion, a statement; not a question.

How clear is our vocation, Lord,

when once we heed your call:

to live according to your word,

and daily learn, refreshed, restored,

that you are Lord of all,

and will not let us fall.

There’s a website I often consult, with recordings of the music of just about every song in our blue hymnal, so a few days ago I looked this song up, to refresh my memory of the tune. And to my amusement, the musician who maintains the website wrote a footnote about this piece, saying:

As one who works with people trying to discern their vocation [usually to holy orders], my experience has been that vocations are rarely “clear”.  So even though I love the way the text is set, the structure of the poetry, how tasty those holy words feel sung to that beautiful music, I have to sing this hymn with my fingers crossed, because I don’t really believe the first verse.  In my experience, living the Christian life can bring moments of clarity, but also moments of questioning, uncertainty and ambiguity.  This text is too static and “certain” for me. *

So maybe that organist’s sentiments resonate with you. How clear is our vocation, really? Perhaps moments, or stages of clarity. Other times, we step out in faith, depending on the mercy of God. Or you might recall times in your life where you were absolutely certain about something, in a way that you fail to recognize now. Or decisions that were so fuzzy and laboured when you made them, only to be revealed as so obviously the right thing to do, in retrospect.

As we find ourselves in need of direction today, and maybe even clashing with others in conflict, like in the gospel story, the readings today remind us to act, but to act in compassion, and to be conscious and careful with our susceptibility to anger. And Jesus in the gospel challenges us to recognize the rightness of our action being judged from where it arises, inside ourselves. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” And so as Anglican Christians we have resources within and around us — prayer, Bible study, the liturgy, the sacraments, our relationships with one another — that may not necessarily give us absolute clarity. But they are part of a life-long discipline, or regimen, or struggle; actions and activities that address who we are on the inside, and shape who we are on the outside.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter