[This is the manuscript for my first of a two-part sermon on vocation preached at Christ Church of Austin on October 6, 2019. You can find the audio here.]
Vocation: “the way that we are specifically called, shaped and gifted to love God and others in a given season of life and work.”
And it is our mission during this season of our church life
“that every unique image bearer of God at Christ Church would understand better God’s work in their current setting, know their own vocation, and be supported, connected, and commissioned in that vocation.”
So you’ll notice I think that a lot of what we’re going to be doing in the coming weeks and months is derived from this mission.
I was in a meeting hosted by Austin Bridge Builders recently,which is a great organization is Austin that brings different churches and church leaders/pastors together to work on common ministry goals in the city. And this particular gathering was of people interested in the ministry of faith and work. And so I was asked to share about what we’re doing at Christ Church, and I told them about this tagline: Everyone Called. Everyone Commissioned. In Every Arena.
And the group loved it! These other pastors wanted to use it. And they were from like pretty big churches. Which made me feel good.
So it sounds nice, but I do want to ask: is it really true? It’s a bold claim. And I ask this question sincerely! Is everyone really called and commissioned? Everyone?
Maybe at one time in our lives, many of us really did strongly believe this, you know. And maybe you still do. But think when we are kids, and we were asked, what do you want to be when you grow up? Or in college, same thing… Or just being told, especially my generation, you can do anything, be anything you want –
“I can do all things through Christ who give me strength.” Philippians 4:13
Or, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, pans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
Take these verses out of context, and it easily becomes a kind of permission for slip for uninhibited ambition and optimism. Expectation for the absence of suffering, setbacks, disappointments. Blissful fulfillment in every endeavor as long we work hard, stay positive and trust the Lord.
But as we get older and as we face difficulties in life, there’s a weariness and probably a doubt or even a cynicism that can develop around this idea that we’re called by God or sent to do something. Maybe at one point you were confident in it, but life happens, and now you’re not so sure. Or maybe you believed in having a calling in principle but haven’t ever really found clarity around your own calling. I think both of these experiences are common and need to be acknowledged.
And if that’s where you are, that’s ok! You’re not alone. There are many other Christians who have been that place and who are there right now.
For the past month, and for the next few weeks leading up to the Parish Retreat, a number of our small groups have been going through and are using a study of the book Called by Mark Labberton— the name of the book and discussion guide is called Called🙂 – and it’s a really helpful overview and introduction to what is meant by Vocation.
So I want to read a quote from the book itself that help us situate our understanding of this idea of vocation in 21stCentury North America:
“The church in the West is immersed in a social context with seemingly endless choice that drive us to constantly reassess how to maximize our self-interest at every turn. This can move us to feel that we’re unable to fully follow God until we find that one special job or partner or activity that we think most satisfies us and God…”
“Middle-class America is part of the dominant culture and a small percentage of the world. The norm for most people includes neither adequate resources nor the freedoms we experience.”
“Not all of God’s people will find the perfect job, do the work that best suits their gifts or have the chance to express their most creative and particular, [fully developed or mature] selves. Poverty, injustice, [tragedy,] lack of education or opportunity, and circumstances in general keep many from [fully living out their vocations].”
And I think it’s important to say this is true in Middle-class America as well, not just in Majority World countries.
This reality of unrealized, unfulfilled vocation has to be named at the outset for us to have integrity in how we talk about vocation. It isn’t an afterthought. It’s front and center. And because of sin, it is the norm for so many people, past and present. Frustration, disappointed, confusion, delay, sickness, disability, regret, lack of opportunity, premature death, and so on.
This is the truth! This is life East of Eden. In Christian theology, this is the concept of the already and not-yet nature of the Kingdom of God. It’s near, and we can taste it – God’s original purpose for our lives and work with him isn’t completely lost, but it’s fleeting. It isn’t guaranteed here and now.We trust and hope and long for the full restoration and coming reign of Jesus over all things one day, when creation will be made new and healed and brought to its completion. But that day is not yet here.
So we live in the in-between. And to say that everyone is called and everyone is commissioned is not something we necessarily experience as true at all times and all places. It’s actually more of an eschatological statement! In other words, it’s like praying, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
At the same time, even if we find ourselves in difficult or even oppressive circumstances, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have a calling! Many people find themselves in situations of injustice, persecution, slavery… all kinds of evil. And yet God can still use them.
Vocation is dynamic and it’s in process. It can change based on where and in what kind of situations we find ourselves.
So it may not be something that we particularly want to do, but that’s never really been a biblical prerequisite for calling. It also may not be something we feel adequately prepared for or qualified to do!
From Abraham and Moses to Jonah and most of all, Jesus himself, praying in the garden for God to take this cup away from him…
Maybe you’ve heard that adage at some point in your life in church: “God doesn’t call the equipped. He equips the called.” It sounds a little bit cliché, maybe, but if we were to just look at some of the key figures called by God in Scripture, it seems about right!
One of the verses we’re holding up that guides us in this is found in Romans 12:1, as we saw last week, and it’s in the Vocation brochure — The Message translation:
1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.
And going to verse 2 in a different translation:
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Two quick takeaways here that are guiding how we’re approaching much of what we’re doing this year:
There’s both an inward and an outward call in this passage.
The inward part is the mention of transformation by the renewing of our minds – offering up our bodies and our lives as living sacrifices to God, in worship! One of the common Christian phrases used to describe this activity is spiritual formation.
The outward part, though, is also mentioned, and it comes at the end where it says that then we’ll be able to test and discern what God’s will is, what is good and pleasing and perfect. This is not as common of a Christian phrase, but we’re describing this more outward activity as vocationalformation.
Spiritual formation and vocational formation. Both are included in our mission and purpose as Christians. Spiritual formation is what is common to all of us. Follow Jesus, obey what he commands, offer our lives to him – love God, love others. This leads to our transformation.
But vocational formation sometimes has to be more carefully discerned. It’s more specific and seasonal/contextual/individualized (not individualistic though!). It’s particular to each of us, and to use our definition again, it’s the way we’re specifically called, shaped and gifted to love God and love others in a given season of life and work.
So when we say, Everyone called. Everyone commissioned — in Every Arena…There’s also this big open space between called and commissioned that isn’t described.
What happens in between calling and commissioning? That’s what we’re interested in. That’s where the equipping takes place.
Think about the disciples and all that happens between their being called and then being commissioned – between when Jesus says come and follow me, and when they’re given the Great Commission before Jesus’s ascension.
That’s our work! The vocation and spiritual formation between calling and commissioning, and we’re all in different places in that journey, and that’s ok.
But another key element is that it happens in community. It’s not a private, individual affair. It needs to get worked out in the church.
When I first got here in May, in the first 24 hours, I was part of an intensive planning meeting– “retreat” – to build some consensus around what this whole initiative is about. Of course, there was already vision for it, and a job description and all of that, but there had to be concrete plan developed out of that vision and description. And in the process, we had to get clear on what it is we were even talking about with this idea of Vocation.
And so we wrestled with that for a while! It took time and some back and forth. It was bit of struggle– not in a bad way, but just different people, experience and perspectives trying to grasp at the same thing. In fact, that’s a good way to do it, but it takes time.
But I share that because it wasn’t easy right way to establish what we’re trying to say about vocation.
You’ve heard our definition of vocation and the mission of this initiative:
“Vocation is the way we’re called, shaped and gifted to love God and others in a given season of life” – and we want everyone at Christ Church to experience this!
But there was more to do than just defining vocation. Vocation isn’t an idea that stands on its own or starts with us – with the individual, with our own strengths, gifts or passions.
I like what Will Willimon says about this in regard to vocation:
“Vocation is not evoked by your bundle of need and desire. Vocation is what God wants from you whereby your life is transformed into a consequence of God’s redemption in the world.”
So vocation begins with God and with the gospel– God’s plan, God’s mission of redemption for the world, through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So it might look something like this:
It might seem obvious, but it’s probably the most challenging aspect of this whole idea. Vocation is not ultimate. It is derivative and subsequent to our purpose and identity that is given to us by God in Christ. The order of the four circles is very important.
The gospel– God’s saving work through Christ and the Spirit on our behalf
Identity – God’s beloved, made in his image, and for relationship with him
Purpose – To be loved by God and make disciples by loving God and others
Vocation – The specific way we fulfill this purpose in a given season of life
And I think it’s safe to say that anytime we misunderstand or distort our conception of vocation, it’s probably because we’ve mixed up this ordering.
God’s love for us and our love for God is the start and finish of our vocation. – Labberton
Our identity stands completely on this. Everything vocational can be taken away in an instant.
God’s love is conditioned on anything we can do, and neither is our identity. We’re loved because we are. And that’s it. Grasping this, accepting this, and living in this, is the foundation of any sustainable vocation.
Even the mission and calling to love God and others, which is indeed our common vocation, cannot be sustained apart from our first being loved by God. He chose us. We didn’t choose him.
And finally, another way that we mix up the ordering of this sequence is by not only placing our sense of vocation and identity above God or his purpose for us, is by thinking about vocation is primary individual terms, rather than as a community and as a church.
When vocation or calling is referred to in Scripture, it’s usually in the form of a collective and common calling– one that applies to Israel, the church, or to all followers and worshipers of God.
In our society, the individual is often thought of before the group or the community, and career choices or what neighborhood we live in, what school we go to or send our kids to – these kind of questions tend to be discerned and asked at the private individual or at most nuclear family level.
In sum, it’s Life Together– We live and experience our calling with other human beings but with those in Christ’s family especially. My vocation can be discovered only in the context of our vocation. We discover and live our identity and purpose in Christ with and for one another. This is what we do as a church! (Labberton paraphrase)
Everyone Called. Everyone Commissioned. Amen.