“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I have lost count of how many times we have asked that question to our oldest daughter. The answer varies widely depending on what phase she is in or what they have been talking about in school. I confess that there have been times when I was disappointed when she changed her mind – “author and illustrator” was my favorite, though “engineer” was a pretty good one recently. But my all-time favorite conversation about what she wanted to be when she grew up was actually a conversation about priesthood. I asked her my typical question, “So have you decided what you want to be when you grow up?” She replied thoughtfully, “I can’t decide. There are too many options.” Sympathetically I said, “I totally understand. It took me years to decide what I wanted to be.” And without a beat, she replied, with disgust, “And you decided to become a priest?!?”
The thing is, I do not think my daughter’s reaction is all that different than most people. Very few people ever imagine themselves being ordained. The vocation seems too foreign, to require some mysterious amount of holiness, or to just be too weird. All of that makes sense to me – not everyone feels called to the priesthood. But too often acknowledging we do not want to be a priest means that we stop using “call” language altogether. Instead of being able to talk about what we feel called to do in life, we instead talk about what we want to be when we grow up. A calling, a ministry, or even a vocation is something that clergy people do, not what we all do.
At least, that is what the secular world would have us believe. The church says something a bit different. Throughout our liturgies and Prayer Book, we talk about the ministry of all people. Our Catechism defines the ministers of the Church as lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. The Catechism further states that the ministry of lay persons 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.”[i] In the baptismal covenant, we all promise to proclaim, by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace. Now some of you may argue that you do those things – just not as your daily work. You are happy to be involved in church, but you do not see your life as a student, a secular worker, or a retiree as a vocation.
And stories like the one we hear in Jeremiah do not help us in this distinction. You see, we hear Jeremiah’s call today like we hear the call of most prophets – and rightly so, since Jeremiah is so similar to other prophets. Like Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, Jeremiah balks at the idea that God may be calling him to do something. Jeremiah protests that he is too young. Similarly, Moses tried to argue he was unskilled, Isaiah that he was unworthy, and Ezekiel that he did not know what to say.[ii] When God calls people to do big things, they often push back and seek an out. In most cases, their fear is legitimate. Being a prophet is often a thankless job – which can certainly lead to suffering, if not death. But invariably, God reassures the person being called. In Jeremiah’s case, God tells Jeremiah that he was born for this job. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
All of that sounds nice. In fact, many of us love this verse from scripture because the verse gives us a sense of comfort, belonging, and affirmation – a sense that we are all known by God.[iii] But what we forget is that in knowing Jeremiah so deeply, God also knows that Jeremiah will have to do a really hard job. The touchy-feely part of the text starts to wane when we hear the part about being a prophet – especially a prophet who will need to fear others. But here’s the real problem with Jeremiah’s call: we do not think God similarly calls us. Not even all priests see themselves as prophets. Prophets, priests, deacons – those are jobs that other people do. Those are not jobs we do. We go to school everyday. We are teachers, financial consultants, government workers, stay-at-home parents, or journalists. We are retired and are done with the “job” part of our lives. We hear stories like the call narratives of Jeremiah, Moses, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, and we can keep ourselves at a safe distance because those are the jobs that those people do.
But remember that catechism and baptismal covenant? The truth is we are all called to something. We all have a vocation. That calling or vocation may be our jobs or what we do every day. We may live out our vocation as a student when we stand up to a bully, play with the new kid who seems lonely, or help tutor the troublemaker clearly needs help. We live out our vocations at work when we advocate for justice for our coworkers, when we offer an ear to a coworker who is struggling, or when we organize a volunteer day for our company. We live out our vocations as retirees when we volunteer at the local homeless shelter, when we treat with dignity the workers we encounter who provide us services, and when we use our time to advocate for the poor.
But vocation is sometimes found outside of those typical confines. Sometimes living into our vocation means calling that person who has been on our minds – only to discover how much they needed a word of encouragement. Sometimes living into our vocation means helping the mom in front of us in the grocery store line who is clearly juggling children, groceries, and dealing with a cashier who has never handled food stamps or WIC benefits. Sometimes living into our vocation means praising and giving thanks to a preschool teacher who just got chewed out by a parent who thinks their child is just fine (when you suspect the child is actually really hard for the teacher to manage).
This fall, we will be starting up an adult education series called Discovery Class. The class is for newcomers and members alike, who want to learn more about our Episcopal Identity, the work of Hickory Neck, and how we can connect to a ministry. In the final session, participants will take a survey to help us discern how our gifts might best tie in with a ministry at Hickory Neck. The survey is a great resource because sometimes teachers are the best matches for Sunday School and Youth Group leadership. But sometimes, best matches for Sunday School and Youth Group are retirees who have been around the block and get how hard the teenage years are. Likewise, someone may have been may have been in construction or administration during their career, but really want to learn how to arrange flowers with the Flower Guild, or play with babies in the nursery. Though many of us have vocations and callings out in the world, sometimes the church is another place where our vocations and callings feed us and others.
So if we are willing to agree that we all have a calling or vocation, recognizing that some vocations can change and evolve over time, how do we know if we are living into our calling? The true test of a vocation might be something like this: whatever in your life is the most intimidating, daunting, or even terrifying task (be it teaching teenagers, asking for money for church, or praying in front of a group), and yet, when you try doing that task gives you an odd sense of deep satisfaction and meaning, is probably your vocation. Prophets would not go kicking and screaming if being a prophet was easy. And yet, prophets would not say yes without the assurance that God is with them, empowering them to be God’s agents.[iv]
This fall, I hope we will all prayerfully consider what ministry God is calling us to do. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, …The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[v] Though Church is certainly meant to give us comfort and encouragement each week, Church is also the place that strengthens us and sends us out into the world to do the work Christ has given us to do. One of my favorite church signs looked simple enough from the road – with the name of the church emblazed on front, as you drove into the parking lot. But on the backside, as you were leaving church each week, the sign had a separate message. The sign read, “Go in Peace to Love and Serve the Lord.” That is our dismissal this and every week – to not just consume Church, but to use Church as our foundation to go out into the world to love and serve. And our response is, as always, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.
[i][i] BCP, 855.
[ii] Bruce C. Birch, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 367.
[iii] John t. DeBevoise, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 364.
[iv] Thomas R. Steagald, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 366, 368.
[v] Ephesians 4.1, 11-13.