Vocation, vocation, vocation!

Rev Dr Tim McKenzie
March 7, 2021

Last week, Wayne shared with us the importance of seeing all of life as the domain for living out our faith, including our work life.  Here are some of the highlights of what he shared:

  • God is depicted, right from page 1 of the bible as a worker. So our work is part of us being made in God’s image
  • That means our work is not demeaning, or regrettable, but rather it’s part of our god-given, human dignity to work.
  • And he reminded us that lots of life involves work, not just our paid work, but volunteer work, house work, childcare, study, gardening and so on.
  • All these are spheres in which we can learn to partner with God.

Really helpfully, Wayne pointed to the three kinds of God’s work as umbrella categories for our work.  Our work can partake in

  • God’s creative work, whereby we are involved in enriching and cultivating creation, including the human story;
  • God’s sustaining work, whereby we are involved in maintaining or taking care of some aspect of God’s creation, including God’s human creatures
  • God’s redemptive work, where are involved in work that heals, restores, transforms, and brings new life

And in all these, our work presents us with opportunities for worship, as we offer our work, however exciting or routine it is, back to God in a spirit of service, and joy.

One small example this week came from the NZ Herald. In a really powerful story about the injustice of many people’s work lives was a powerful story about one woman, Tina Eitiare, who declared with real joy: “I just love cleaning”. 

Vocation, biblically speaking

Today, I want us to think mostly about the idea of vocation. My hope is that, as we develop a biblical understanding of vocation, it will help us to experience our work as part of our life of faith.  Today that’s particularly our paid work, but it isn’t just our paid work.  

Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, to call.  So, its origin contains the sense of being led to a particular profession, by God.  That sense remains in the first common meaning we hear today.

  1. This meaning is exclusively religious.  It describes a calling by God to become a monk or nun, or a priest, or maybe a pastor. (Official Catholic doctrine is more nuanced than this – of course – but ordinary usage tilts the playing field in the direction of ordained vocation.) If you google it, it’s mostly used in this sense by Catholics.  But it’s also pretty prevalent language among Anglicans at their most poncy. Some of you are going to get ordained one day, and you’ll discover this when you start filling in all the application forms.  “Describe your sense of call to ordained ministry…”.  So here vocation is an extra special version of What Colour is Your Parachute, for particularly special people God chooses.
  2. The second meaning is a secularised version of the first. “It’s my vocation” is more or less equivalent to saying that you’ve found the perfect career, with a sense of fulfilment about it – and perhaps compulsion.  Kind of like finding your soulmate, but for paid work, not romance.  “Here I work, I can do no other.”

Now, these uses of the word vocation are OK, but they do both share a kind of elitism.  And elitism is not a biblical way of thinking. Sadly, the elitism arose because in late antiquity the church came to prioritise what we weirdly called “the religious life”, over “the secular life”.  Now, those are really pretty terrible terms, aren’t they? They imply that a really faithful Christian life can only be lived in the church, or in the monastery. If you get the call to be a monk or a priest, you’re in. But  … if you’re out there in world, making desks for priests to write on, or growing grain for priests to eat, or raising children who will one day become priests; well, that doesn’t quite cut it. 

At its worst, this understanding got mixed up with the whole muddled theology which says what we do is what earns us God’s favour, and perhaps even our ticket to heaven.  God must be pleased with me, because I’ve got a vocation to work for the church, whereas Troy over there…

Fortunately, there was a revolution at the Reformation.  Luther and others realised this was bad theology, bad for society, bad reading of bible.  Now that we’ve got the internet, we can see this for ourselves. Just look up “call” at biblegateway.com.  You’ll see nearly all the uses of the word, in English anyway, are about humans calling out to God, or humans naming things.  Calling hardly ever describes God giving a particular person a particular vocation.  Samuel, is possibly an exception (1 Samuel 3), as (intriguingly) is The Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42 and 49).  But mostly even the other prophets aren’t described as called by God.  God addresses them, gives them task, or commission, but not a separate ontological status.  Take Amos, for example.  He’s a shepherd and an orchardist, a grower of figs (Amos 1.1, 7.14), and God gives him the task of prophesying.  There’s no suggestion he ceases to be a shepherd.

So, in nearly every case, the language of God calling people is language about God establishing his people, collectively.  Thus, it’s a calling to be the people of Israel, or the new Israel, who is called into being through Jesus.  Thus, “Out of Egypt, I called my Son [Israel]” (Hosea 11.1), or “God is faithful; you were called by him into fellowship with his Son” (1 Cor 1.9).   The primary meaning of calling is a calling to belonging and identity as God’s holy people.  There’s very little about particular people called to particular tasks.

What then is the use of “calling” language in helping us understand our work?  Our reading from 1 Corinthians 7 is instructive here.  Paul is  responding to some new believers in Corinth, who’ve got a really dualistic view of their new life.  They seemed to be saying, now that we’re Christians we should get divorced, because we shouldn’t have sex.  In response to this, Paul says, “No, every person should remain as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them”. Which, practically, means: don’t get circumcised if you’re not already.  Don’t get divorced if you’re already married.  And don’t be troubled if you’re a slave; work out your life as a believer, as a member of the family of God, in the household where you’re enslaved.

That one’s a bit controversial, as if Paul is endorsing slavery.  He clearly isn’t, because he goes on to say that slaves should buy their freedom if they can.  But, what he is saying is “your primary calling is to life in Christ; your employment situation is one of the places where you work out your calling, but it isn’t the same as the calling.”  In his book, Wayne puts it like this: “our daily activity is not (biblically speaking) our calling. It is simply the way we work out that calling, the way we express our love of God, the way we put into practice our service for him” (Wayne Kirkland & Alastair MacKenzie, Where is God on Mondays?, Hendrickson, 2015, p. 73).

We can see this in our earlier readings about Zacchaeus and Joseph.  After Jesus calls Zacchaeus, there’s no suggestion that he ceases being a tax collector. Rather, he’s given a whole new identity from which to do his tax collecting.  He now does it with a love of neighbour, a commitment to the poor, and commitment to equity.  He’s still working for the system, but as chief tax collector, he’s able to model a new way of being in the system. And though we don’t know the rest of his story, it’s possible to imagine some powerful ripples coming from his changed approach to his work, as he starts to live out his identity in Jesus in radically fair and generous ways.

With Joseph, the story does show us some of the ripples.  His identity firmly rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham.  From that identity, he worked out of the situation in which he found himself, which was the Egyptian civil service.  As a member of the Egyptian government, he worked “as unto the Lord”, saving many from hunger in a time of famine, and ensuring good and trustworthy government.

What Calling to Identity in Christ doesn’t mean for our work

Now, this emphasis on our primary calling being to a new identity in Christ doesn’t mean we have to be totally passive about our careers.  Remember, slaves should buy their freedom if they can.  I think of Peter McKenzie-Bridle who has had about four totally different careers in his short life so far, I think?  

Nor does it mean that God never guides us into specific roles or asks.  But if our primary calling is into Christ, then from that calling into an identity as his beloved sons and daughters, there’s all manner of work we can do alongside him, as our acts of worship and service, and taking our part in his work of enriching, sustaining, and healing the world. That’s pastoring as much as policy work, preaching as much as policing. (Tim Keller has much to say about Martin Luther’s emphasis on our participation in God’s work. E.g. Luther read verses like Psalm 145:16, or Psalm 147:13 and asked, How does God strengthen the bars of the city? Through locksmiths, and guards, and police people. All are partaking in the actual work of God. See Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavour, Kindle Edition with 3 other books, loc. 7433.) 

So, how then do we choose our paid work?  Do we have to wait for a bolt from the blue?  No, but we should still pray about it.   Ask God to guide you.  Though I don’t think that my entry into vicar-ing was an extra special call, totally different from one you might had, I did pray a lot about, angst about it, talk to people about it, sense God’s leading in it, a lot.  So.  Pray!

But it’s also a matter of knowing yourself, and the person God has created you to be.  The famous Frederick Buechner quote isn’t a bad guide: “The place God calls you is the place your deep hunger and the world’s deep hunger meet”. Here’s another, from Os Guinness, that Wayne’s book uses (Kirkland & MacKenzie, p. 73):

Calling means that our lives are so lived as a summons of Christ that the expression of our personalities and the exercise of our spiritual gifts and natural talents are given direction and power precisely because they are not done for themselves, or for our families, or our businesses or even humankind, but for the Lord, who will hold us accountable for them.

In other words, from your vocation as someone called by Christ, be realistic about your personality, giftings and talents, and use those as a guide to the kind of work appropriate for you. 

But, it’s also important to recognise that your work is not just for you; it is your opportunity to contribute and serve and worship, and know God’s delight, on the big canvas of God’s world.  Tim Keller in his book, Every Good Endeavour, notes how this frees us from the cultural expectations that want us to do particular kinds of work. In his church, loads of people feel forced by living in New York to go into high-paying finance jobs.  No doubt, that’s a good place for some to go (especially if you “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”, (John Wesley)).  But, equally, if you recognise that your gifts are given as a way of worshipping God and loving others, then you’re free from any narrow compulsion of what kind of work you ought to do.  You’re free to serve.  If you’re wired to be a lawyer, you don’t have to be a high flying corporate one; you can consider being an Annaliese Johnston-type one.

[t]he gospel frees us from the relentless pressure of having to prove ourselves and secure our identity through work, for we are already proven and secure. It also frees us from a condescending attitude towards less sophisticated labour and from envy over more exalted work [Tina Eraiti]…. Since we already have in Christ the things other people work for – salvation, self-worth, a good conscience, and peace – now we may work simply to love God and our neighbours…

Now, it’s worth asking ourselves: if I don’t have that security, self-worth, and peace, have I really taken on board the radical gift God has for me in the gospel of Jesus?  And if you haven’t, why not take it to prayer ministry this morning?  Because it is such a relief when we do have those anchors in life.

I want to finish on a related but practical note.  I had set aside Friday afternoon to write most of this sermon, but Friday afternoon got “interrupted” quite significantly by a couple of things.  One was someone who showed at my front door, who hadn’t been to church in years, just as I was about to get into it.  I was tempted to seethe internally about this interruption and to get all anxious.  But then I remembered the Tim Keller quote.  Would seething take me deeper into my security in Christ, ahem?  And then I also remembered this prayer, which I’d read in Wayne’s book, earlier in the day.

Holy Spirit of God, please show me
• How to work relaxed 
• How to make each task an offering of faith 
• How to view interruptions as doors to service 
• How to see each person as my teacher in things eternal. 
In the name of him who worked only to his Father’s timetable. Amen.

My “interruption” and I proceeded to have a really wide ranging conversation, in which we talked about the Jesus Prayer, and sin and the Lenten Bible Studies, and we opened the bible and it was a really rich time.  And I remembered afresh that this isn’t about me looking good to you guys with a great sermon, but about me offering all my work to God, and loving God’s world through what I do, trusting that God works for good in all of it.  Just as it is for you.

Holy Spirit of God, please show me how to work relaxed, how to make each task an offering of faith, how to view interruptions as doors to service, how to see each person as my teacher in things eternal. In the name of him who worked only to his Father’s timetable. Amen.

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