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Voices and Vocations: The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Vocations Sunday; Good Shepherd Sunday)

If we step into the shoes of the bystanders in today’s stories, we encounter, and I think, can relate to where they’re coming from and what they’re experiencing. In that first reading, we meet a satellite of the early Church. And you’d expect them to be confident and triumphant in their trust in the resurrection, even in the face of death. But we come across a scene similar to ones we’ve been through, of people in grief and mourning, we hear holding up articles of clothing that Tabitha, their departed loved one, had made. And then in the Gospel, people say “tell us plainly” to Jesus. ‘Who are you?’ ‘Can we trust you?’ in other words. What are the signs? What can you show us to help us over the hump of uncertainty to trust? How do we make a faithful and trustworthy decision? (‘Discernment’ being the theological word we often use for that.)

In a world in which life is precious and also fragile, and a situation in which we struggle to hear and recognize the voice or direction of God amidst the many other voices, inclinations, and authorities that surround us on every side. (Or even well up within us, leading us to ask whose voice it is that we’re really hearing.)

Jesus, in today’s reading says “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” A reassuring message we would all embrace… But sometimes there’s that lingering question: “but can I trust it? Some of our questions are broad and existential: “Do I really believe this?”
“What is my purpose?”
“Do I trust a certain Church or spiritual outlook enough to align myself with it?”
And some questions are more specific and practical:
“Should I move? Should I change jobs, or careers?”
“How can I address a difficult situation in my family, or amongst friends?”
Or generally, “what is the right ethical decision,” amongst two or more unideal options?

Wouldn’t life be a bit (or a lot) less stressful if we didn’t have to agonize over decisions like these? And yet Jesus, in the Gospel today, even says that some people will see his works and still not believe. They might hear his voice, but not recognize it. Something of a parallel to what we come across in the other Gospels: “they will hear [Jesus’s words in the parables], but not understand.

This is all important stuff to consider today: on a day sometimes called (as our bulletins note) “Good Shepherd Sunday” and “Vocations Sunday.” We are pretty used to talking, in our society, about professions, but less so about vocations. Sometimes there is overlap between one’s profession and vocation, and sometimes not. And I think either can be OK, because there remains a vocation, even if not 9 to 5.

In the Church we tend to align ordination with vocation. And there is good reason for that. But the very real downside is that this perspective has sometimes — oftentimes — obscured the reality that each Christian person has a vocation. Some of it maybe lived out in our liturgical or communal life as a congregation, but just as importantly, lived out beyond these walls. Our baptismal vows have a lot to do with life ‘out there;’ not just ‘in here.’ Really, the way I see it, we gather ‘in here’ because in our scriptures and sacraments it seems that the presence of God is, oftentimes, quite apparent. We grow and are changed in this gathering as Church. But the rubber hits the road when the deacon dismisses us — sends us back out into the world — where we seek to hear and follow Jesus’s voice in situations of often great need. But also ambiguity, and shades of grey.

Someone once defined vocation quite simply as “recognizing life as a gift, and honoring the gift in living.”* “Vocation” comes from the same word as “vocal” or “vocalization.” It has to do with voice, and with being called. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” If we are, in fact, created in God’s image we have a calling: to respond to that gift of life with thanksgiving. (It is no accident that our highest prayer, the Eucharist, is an act of thanksgiving.) And if, on that first Easter, there was some definitive shift in the direction of the world, in which we’re now called and more able to respond to the blessings and challenges of life unconstrained by fear and hopelessness, then we, too, have a calling to follow the real shepherd — the one who has shown us the way of self-giving love — and not the hired hands, or the wolves, that are also out there, competing for our attention and allegiance.

– To live with the resurrection as our defining narrative.

– To find our stories and our calling revealed, reflected, and shaped in the stories of Israel, the story of Jesus, and the story of the Church.

– To grow in your recognition that you have been called by this God of new life and new possibilities. And, in being assured in this calling, to be comfortable to be yourself, and to live your calling as the person God has created and called you to be. And to allow the other sheep to be themselves, and to find and live out their callings.

– To remember that as we struggle to hear, recognize, and respond to the voice of the shepherd, that we are not alone in this. But we have each other. And we have the gifts of scripture, silence, prayer, and the sacraments: those things we do that make the goodness of God more apparent to us.

And if we get to the other side and still find that we have outstanding questions, if not outright confusion, we can remind ourselves that vocation has to do with recognzing life as a gift, and trying our best, with God’s help, to honour that gift.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* William Stringfellow, A Second Birthday