Sermon for Sunday, January 24, 2011 || Epiphany 3, Year A || Matthew 4: 12-23
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Just a few minutes ago we all prayed together for the grace to, “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.” Yet some might argue that no one in their right mind would answer that call as readily as the disciples in this morning’s Gospel. In fact, Commissions on Ministry, those Episcopal Church boards that either affirm or re-direct those who want to “answer readily” the call to ordained ministry in particular, are famously skittish about those who seem willing to drop their nets and leave their boats to answer Christ’s call a bit too readily.
Those among us who come from the Roman Catholic tradition, particularly those of a certain age, will no doubt remember hearing stories while growing up about this or that young man who had heard “the Call.” If Mrs. McDougall or Mrs. O’Brian’s boy got “the Call,” it was an honor to that family indeed! In those days if one received “the Call”, it was a given that one must be a very holy person handpicked by God to become a priest. Things weren’t terribly different in the Episcopal Church. Our understanding of words like vocation, call, and ministry were equally limited.
Until 1979, when thankfully, all of that officially changed with the publication of our revised Book of Common Prayer. Largely influenced by reforms in the Roman Catholic Church and Vatican II, the so-called “new” prayer book recovered a far more biblical and inclusive theology of call, vocation, and ministry. Now we recognize and uphold what we call “the priesthood of all believers,” and our Prayer Book catechism teaches us that the ministers of the church include both the clergy and the laity. “The ministry of lay persons,” it says right there in the Prayer Book, “is to represent Christ and his Church, to bear witness to him wherever they may be, and according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, and to take their place in the life, worship and governance of the Church.”
Now, that’s quite a mouthful. So this morning I want to offer you a much simpler understanding of call and vocation that comes to us from the novelist and writer Frederick Buechner. Perhaps you’ve heard it before:
“The place God calls you to,” writes Buechner, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Isn’t that wonderful? Buechner’s definition of “call” speaks so clearly to the joy that’s implicit in our authentic calls. When I was in college I was terrified that if I pursued what felt like a call to follow God, I’d end up spending the rest of my life alone, unmarried, and in all likelihood in some faraway place like India feeding starving children—which is what I imagined following God meant. So I abandoned any thought of the religious life, felt horribly guilty about it, and decided to be a student of God instead as a sort of avocation or hobby. It took me years to risk discovering that my heart’s desire, which was always to be a wife and a mother and to hang around churches, was precisely what God was calling me to all along. ‘The place God calls you to, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
What that means is that if you’re doing what you love…if you’re following your heart’s desire and trying to use that desire to make some small corner of the world a better place, you’ve already been given the grace we prayed for this morning. You’re already answering the call of our Savior Jesus Christ. You’re living at the intersection of your deepest gladness and the world’s hunger—or as we say in our parish mission statement, at the intersection of your faith and your life. This is precisely where Christ calls each of us. This is where each our unique vocations lies.
The philosopher/mythologist Joseph Campbell famously advised people to follow what he called their “bliss.” Call is the same thing. If you want to know what your vocation is, follow your bliss—follow your greatest gladness, follow your heart’s desire. But then don’t stop there. Offer it back to God. Ask how you might use it for the sake of His Kingdom.
Whether your passion is music or medicine, art or accounting, business or bricklaying, teaching or technology, sales or steam fitting, homemaking or haberdashery, God can take whatever brings your heart the most joy and He can use it for His purposes. God’s no dummy: He is, after all, the one who planted the seed of that desire in your heart in the first place– for whatever it is that brings you joy.
There’s an old story about a hermit who was asked why he thought God had called him to such a solitary life. The hermit’s simple reply was, “He knew I loved to be alone.” Exactly. God doesn’t call us to be miserable. God calls us to what we love, and to what is uniquely life giving for each of us.
Of course, like that hermit, we may not all be called to the most lucrative of vocations. We may not all be called to the most secure of vocations. Our hearts desire may not be for something that holds much prestige or power in the eyes of the world. But that’s okay. It has to be okay. That’s why it pains me to see parents pushing their kids into schools and careers for which they have no passion or joy. I haven’t regretted one day since giving up my career as an overpaid union-protected journalist to follow my heart’s desire into ordained ministry. In fact, in all fairness to Joseph Campbell, he didn’t just say, “Follow your bliss,” as it’s often quoted. He actually said, “If you follow your bliss, you will always have your bliss, money or not. If you follow money, you may lose it, and you will have nothing.”
The disciples in this morning’s gospel could’ve played in safe. They could’ve done the sensible, prudent, thing, and held on to their steady jobs as fishermen. No doubt, they were good at it. What they did in leaving it all behind made no sense by the world’s standards. But something happened when they met Jesus that day. Something leapt in their hearts as surely as it did in Elizabeth’s womb when she met her pregnant cousin Mary. And that something was joy. That something was gladness. That something was the flame of their heart’s desire being awakened. And the disciples followed it. They didn’t know where it would lead, but they stepped out and followed.
I get a newsletter from an Episcopal monastery in West Park, New York where I’ve been going on retreat for a number of years, and in one of the recent issues, the Superior wrote something about vocation that I’d like to read for you now, because it is so powerful, and so true for each and every one of us, lay or ordained. Listen, if you will, to what Br. Robert Sevensky has to say about call:
“…Each of us has a particular set of skills and gifts and life experiences on the one hand, and a particular set of opportunities or circumstances on the other, that uniquely fits us to serve and glorify God in a way no one else ever did or ever can. In that meeting between personal character and vital opportunity, lived out with fidelity, constancy and creativity over time, we find our truest selves. We discover our vocation.”
To answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ is to find the place where our greatest gladness and the world’s need meet in an entirely unique way. It is to live into our heart’s deepest desire, knowing it is God-given, and to offer it back to God for God’s use. This is what it means to live at the intersection of our faith and our life. This is what it means for each of us to pursue our unique call as followers of Jesus Christ, inspired by the Spirit, in response to God’s love. This is what it means to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and proclaim to all people—with our lives—the Good News of his salvation. Amen.