Vocation (Amos 7:10-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6: 14-29)
Over the last days and weeks most of us have been consumed by the story of the 12 Thai soccer players and their coach who wandered into a cave in order to do a team-building exercise. Indeed, when they became lost, it turned into a team-building exercise, not only for them, but for all kinds of volunteers from all over the world, with different languages, different political ideas, different economic systems, etc., all of them subsumed to one incredibly difficult and dangerous team effort to get them out, alive if possible. Who can forget the scene of the British diver who first located them alive after they were missing for so many days, and asked, “How many of you are there”? The word came back “Thirteen,” and he responded “Thirteen, Brilliant.” After that the heroism, skill and courage of the rescuers was compelling to watch. Even in the little bits we were able to see, we could imagine how much more was going on that we couldn’t. When they were asked why they were doing it, the rescuers all said something like it was just what needed to be done, and the right thing. One diver, I believe he was a Belgian, caught my ear when he said, “We are only doing what we were called here to do.” There was that over-arching and abiding sense of that throughout. They were doing it because it was right and because they felt called to do it. I am sure that how those words would get unpacked would vary a great deal among those folk. But, there they were, all different, united in a common mission or, if you will “calling.”
This week’s scripture lessons give us two stories that that tell about the kind of people God expects us to be and a teaching letter that addresses things more directly. We have one Old Testament Prophet (Amos) and one New Testament one (John the Baptist). Many times biblical stories are simply told, and we have to draw conclusions about what they mean for us in our own, often very different, situations. Nonetheless in these passages about Amos and John we can see the writers’ thinking through and trying to make sense of real human experience. Christian faith has, since the beginning, drawn conclusions from such stories of God’s actions with people, rather than memorizing lists of immutable doctrines.
In the light of what has played out in that Thai cave, it’s interesting that both Old Testament and Gospel lessons deal with what is sometimes styled as “God’s call,” to Amos and John, as people with a special mission and role in their societies. Because the Bible commonly tells this kind of story, we have sometimes concluded that God only calls such people as are in full-time ministry work – prophets and priests, or in contemporary terms, ministers, missionaries, church planters, and some might even include some seminary professors, and the like. Really, however, the Bible is clear that God “calls” every person. The old word “vocation” means “calling,” and the Bible witnesses that everyone has a vocation from God. If we use the term vocation at all any more it usually refers to our “job.” Are we a doctor, mechanic, engineer, lawyer, parent, business person, welder, homemaker, teacher, farmer, scuba diver, or what? Even in the ancient world, Amos described himself as one who followed flocks and engaged in agriculture. Jesus was a carpenter. Paul was a tent-maker, and so on. However, that’s not the primary meaning of the word “vocation” as it’s used in the Bible. The primary “calling” or “vocation” that God gives to every person operates both above and within the “job” that we happen to do. The immediate calling or vocation, so strongly felt by those rescuers, was to save that team of children and their coach. But, the Bible would insist, there was a calling running underneath or inside that immediate one.
This was also true of Amos and John. They were called to speak truth to power in their day. And their calling turned out to be costly. Amos spoke truth to power and was deported as an illegal. John spoke truth to Herod and lost his head. We know that, although all the soccer players and their coach were rescued, it was at the cost of one diver’s life. Responding to a call can be a dangerous thing. But the things that Amos, or John, or, indeed that great host of volunteers who teamed up and came to the rescue of kids they didn’t know, did it because of a deeper kind of call.
I think you know that First Baptist has taken some practical stands through the years for unpopular causes like the homeless (now more popular) and Hispanics (we’re working on that one still). But I think that whatever we say and do on the behalf of these folks comes as the result of our even more basic vocation from God.
I believe our basic vocation or calling is two-fold. First we are called to be recipients of God’s grace, and second to become channels of that grace to others within our place in the world.
First of all, what is grace? Like vocation, it’s an old biblical word, and like all these old words , isn’t used as much as it used to be. Briefly, by grace I mean God’s basic decision to love people who haven’t done anything to deserve it, often quite the opposite. By loving, I don’t mean God feels warmly toward them, but acts positively toward them, embracing them, lifting them up. God also acts to maintain these people in relationship. God’s call to each of us (our vocation) is, first to allow ourselves to be recipients of this divine grace, to accept the fact that God-in-Christ accepts us, and then, to turn to our community, our world, and become channels through which that same divine grace can flow, as water flows out into a desert. As I’ve said before, one pattern for this vocation is Abram in Genesis 12 who was blessed by God in order to be a blessing to all the clans of the earth. Another would be the Hebrews in Egypt who received God’s liberating grace (even though they weren’t wonderful and perfect and lovely). At the lip of the sea and apparent disaster, Moses said to the fretful Israelites, “Stand still and see the salvation of the LORD.” (Exodus 14:13). After they had come to Mt. Sinai God, further, charged them to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” – channels of God’s grace to others (Exodus 19:6). By the way, 1 Peter chapter 2 repeats this same call to the saints of the Church.
One thing to which these biblical patterns point is that our vocation is, first, an act of God. We need to relax and “stand still to see the salvation of the LORD” more commonly than we do. It isn’t primarily, at this point, about what we do. Our primary vocation amounts to allowing God’s grace to wash over us and fill us. It’s not a matter of saying “right” words, or believing “right” lists of things about God or Jesus or the Bible, or saying the words of “the sinner’s prayer.” The longer I live the more I think that decisions in these doctrinal matters are more so that we can rest in God than that so we can believe “correctly,” whatever that means. No, we all mess up many times, we don’t get it right, but we don’t get into God’s presence by what we do. We get there by or receiving God’s grace. And it wouldn’t be grace if we’d earned it, it would be payment, so we can’t be good enough. So, our vocation is two-fold: to be a receiver and a channel of God’s grace.
Actually, Ephesians 1 makes the same point. This section is really a prayer of thanksgiving for those in the congregations who received this letter. The passage is long, drawn out and fairly wordy. The only consolation we have is that, as bad as it is in English, it’s worse in Greek. Many sermons on this passage wander around with the text rather than coming to the points, which are the same ones I’ve already made. First, the writer is thankful that God has made grace available and that his readers have, indeed, received it. That’s the first part: they have allowed themselves to become recipients of God’s grace. When that happens human lives are transformed. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Life, including our inner life, is remade. Slowly we become more and more known by what Galatians 5 calls the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control rather than by such things as enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrelling, dissensions, factions, envy, and the like.
Now there’s a second part – becoming channels of that grace – that’s clearly expressed down in verse 12: “So that we…might live for the praise of God’s glory.” This means becoming living channels of God’s grace in the world. There is a real connection between these two things. As we realize that grace is God’s nature toward us, not just once but repeatedly, we begin to grasp that, when we mess up (as we will) we simply renew our understanding of God’s grace. Hopefully, as the process proceeds, we find it at least easier to want to do right.
And here, again, come Paul’s word in 2 Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” It’s not just our inner selves that are new, but our outer world as well. As we continually receive God’s grace, as our inner selves are more and more transformed by God’s presence, we begin to see the world as God sees it, and become channels of divine grace to those who are equally as undeserving as we.
Eventually we become serious about seeing our world as God does. Here’s where the danger in our vocation can come in. Both Amos and John the Baptizer looked at the world with God’s eyes and said, “This situation is not right, and I must tell the truth about it.” Social injustice usually addresses the privileged on behalf of the unprivileged. Since the privileged have the power, speaking the truth has an unfortunate consequence, many times, of personal suffering. Most of the Old Testament Prophets hold that the reason why God’s people ought to be concerned about the poor, the marginalized, and the weak is because God is. Having received God’s grace, we cannot help becoming channels of it. We must speak for the poor and marginalized. And, sometimes, that means that our words will have a cost attached.
Later, in Ephesians, we read of speaking the truth in love. Although this passage has to do with the way Christians relate to one another, God doesn’t have one standard for our behaviour in church and another in the world. We have mistaken the word love for simple “niceness.” Sometimes love requires intervention, but it is not destructive of personality.
So, how do we relate our basic vocation as Christians (being recipients and channels of God’s grace) to our “other” vocation or our jobs in the world? Or even temporary tasks that come to us? I think it goes something like this. Whatever our vocation or job is, we need to understand that, as we fulfill our primary Christian vocation and become recipients of God’s grace, one day, we begin to see the world more from God’s perspective, and begin to share God’s interests in the world. And, hopefully, we will become channels of God’s grace as a doctor, mechanic, engineer, lawyer, parent, business person, welder, homemaker, teacher, farmer, driver, or whatever. If we’re retired persons, then, God can use us in all kinds of things we may not have had time to do at one time. If we’re not well enough physically to do a great deal, you might do some things, like use the telephone or write letters or e-mails to encourage others. We may, of course, always pray. Whatever it may be that you can do, you can do it. What is your passion out there? Might it be volunteering at Monday’s Meal or the free legal clinic to help out, might it be volunteering for something else in the community. How can we free you up and enable you to do what it is you need to do as a channel of God’s grace? Think about it.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.