Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When you get a group of seminary students together for the first time, one of the first questions is always “describe your call story.” At official events, it’s an icebreaker question designed to help people get to know one another. At unofficial events, people ask one another: Where were you when you felt God calling you to ministry? What was it like? My call story is that I felt like God was nudging me towards ministry from the time I was in middle school—a nudge that I resisted because I didn’t want to be a pastor at the time. One of my classmates felt the call when he heard a particular sermon—and he wasn’t even a Christian at the time, just tagging along to church with his girlfriend. Another felt the call while she was scrubbing toilets. Sometimes the call came from the outside—family, friends, teachers, and pastors, who saw the gifts of ministry in that person, and told them they ought to consider being a pastor or deacon. Sometimes the call came from the inside—an internal sense (sometimes vague, sometimes pointed, sometimes even in the form of audible words) that God wanted them to become a pastor or deacon. Some calls happened in appropriately churchy and reverent circumstances. Some calls happened in really weird or irreverent circumstances. Sometimes people take the call right away. Sometimes people run as far away as they can for as long as they can. There are as many call stories as there are people called. So the call story in our Gospel lesson—Jesus saying “hey, come with me and let’s fish for people”—is not even CLOSE to the weirdest or most far-out call story I’ve heard.
Of course, part of the reason that seminary students are obsessed with call stories is that we kind of have to be. In order to get into seminary as a Lutheran you have to share your call story with your pastor, your bishop, and a committee of pastors and lay people from your synod, and convince them that God is calling you to ministry while they examine your history, your relationship with God, your mental health, your debt load, and many other factors. And most other Christian denominations that require seminary training have similar processes. In the ELCA, during this entrance into candidacy for ministry, you have to write a six-page paper about how and why you feel God is calling you and what is the core of your personal relationship with God.
Now, I’ve written many long papers in my life. I was a history major and English minor in college. My senior thesis was 25 pages long, and while it took a while to get done, I didn’t find it especially challenging. Give me a topic I care about and I can give you six pages in a couple hours, no sweat. But that six-page paper about my own experiences was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in my life. It was so frustrating. It had me in tears. I could have written an abstract theological treatise, no sweat. My own personal relationship with God? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. I felt naked, vulnerable, like I was exposing something deeply private. My parents were not very comforting, pointing out that if I was going to be a pastor I was going to have to talk about Jesus in concrete and personal ways, and so I might as well start now.
But the question is, why did I feel that way? What made it so hard for me? Part of that comes from growing up in a church where there was a lot of deep theological discussion, but nothing was ever put in personal terms. Nobody ever said they saw God in something, or talked about how a piece of scripture impacted them on a personal level, or anything like that. On the extremely rare occasions someone stood up to give a temple talk, it was usually a lecture on why you should give the church money or something like that, nothing like a personal testimonial. There were edifying stories in the sermons, but those were about people I didn’t know, and usually fictional anyway. I was very well equipped by this upbringing to expound upon Lutheran theology and Biblical interpretation at the drop of a hat. I was completely unprepared to talk about—or even think about—what any of it meant for me, personally, or any community I was a part of. I was really good at explaining how one should feel or think about any particular Bible passage. But I was almost incapable of making the connection between theory and reality. And, unfortunately, this is not unusual in modern American Lutheranism. We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to sound like some of the more conservative churches we have theological disagreements with, and we don’t want to scare off any lay people by asking them to do something they might find too scary like speaking in public, and we want to make sure that everything said in worship or at a church event is theologically sound, and so despite our talk of a priesthood of all believers, the average Lutheran just doesn’t get the kind of support and help to be able to talk about the place of God in their life.
This is a problem for many, many reasons, but I’m going to focus on vocation today. Vocation, from the Latin word for “calling.” In the modern world, we use it in two circumstances: when we talk about people becoming church professionals such as pastors or deacons, and when we talk about “vocational training,” i.e. job training for blue-collar jobs like welding or computer repair. The thing is, both of these things are firmly within the Lutheran theological understanding of the word “vocation.” Vocation was actually a core part of Luther’s theology. At the time, “vocation” only meant things that church professionals—priests, monks, nuns, etc.—did on behalf of the church. Luther vehemently disagreed with this. Luther believed and taught that God had calls for everybody. Every job necessary to society could be a calling from God, because God was the ultimate creator of both humans and the societies we live in, no matter how marred by sin those societies are.
As Luther put it, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.” Or, as Luther put it another way, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.” A farmer may be called by God to grow food for people, just as a contractor may be called by God to make and repair safe housing for people, just as an insurance agent may be called by God to help people through disasters. Relationships can be vocations, too: some people are called to be parents, or to be friends, or spouses, and those vocations can be more important than any vocation we have career-wise. Vocations can change throughout our lives as our circumstances change, and we can have more than one vocation at a time. Vocation is—or should be!—the foundation of everything we do, not just in church and not just if we’re religious professionals, but for everyone. But in order for that to be true, we have to be listening for God’s call. We have to be praying about it, and thinking about it as we study scripture, and talking about it with people of faith whose opinions and judgment we trust. Not all calls are the same. For example, in the call story in our Gospel, the fishermen are called to leave their nets and follow him. In many other call stories in the Gospels, Jesus tells the people he’s calling to stay in their communities and do ministry there. Figuring out calls can be complicated. But if we’re serious about being people of God, it’s not optional.
And vocations aren’t just for individuals. Vocations are for congregations and communities, too. Because God is calling us, just like God called Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John the son of Zebedee. As we make decisions for our congregation today, we need to think about what God is calling us to do in the coming year. But it doesn’t stop at the congregational meeting. It’s a question that should always be in our thoughts, prayers, and discussions. May God be with us, and may we hear and respond to God’s call.