Bishop Marty’s sermon delivered during the Holy Eucharist celebrating the 130th Annual Convention of The Diocese of West Missouri on Saturday, October 26, 2019.The Rt. Rev. Martin S. Field 23 minute video. Resources
Vocation. I’ve talked before about the idea of vocation. In my opinion, it is an under-used and under-considered word in today’s Church, but – following only “stewardship” (a related and interwoven concept) – vocation may be the most important word in the Church’s lexicon.
The word vocation comes from the Latin word, vocātiō, meaning “a call or summons”. It can mean an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which they are suited, trained, or qualified. This is the common, modern use, used in non-religious contexts, but the meaning of the term originated in Christianity.
The idea of vocation is an essential aspect of the Christian belief that God created each person with gifts and talents that orient toward specific purposes and lean toward an identifiable way of life.
In the broadest sense, “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” More specifically, though, the idea was originally tied to a divine summons to service to the Church and to humanity through particular life commitments such as marriage to a particular person, consecration as a member of a religious order, ordination to the Holy Orders of the Church, or holy life as a single person.
The Protestant reformers, led by Martin Luther, redefined “vocation” in the broader sense of “the right use of one’s God-given gifts in one’s employment, in family life, in Church life, and in civic duties, and all for the sake of the common good”.
So, vocation is God’s call or summons. God, moreover, calls all persons – universally – to certain common vocations, such as: holiness, fairness, compassion, kindness, temperance, charity, chastity, humility, etc… all of which can be summed up (as Jesus did) by saying “Love God; love your neighbor”.
The book, Psychology in the Spirit, by Todd Hall and John Coe, offers a glimpse of the purpose of life, the vocation of life to which God summons us all, in an interesting way. Here’s a summary:
God exists, and we are made in his image (Genesis 1:26; 2:18) as fundamentally relational beings. We are created to be in relationship with God and other people perpetually. Considering that truth, we’re to love God with all our might and to love others just as mightily (Mark 12:30-31 and 1 Corinthians 15:28).
Unfortunately, we all have failed to live God’s will for our lives perfectly, and we have sinned. By the grace of God, we are reconciled to God by God’s actions in Jesus … meaning through God’s arrival as Immanuel, God with us. God is known to be with us through Jesus’ life and teachings, through his death on the cross, and through his resurrection (Romans 5:6-10). Because of God’s actions, we are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We’re intended to become as much like Christ as we can before our life on earth is ended (Romans 8:29).
God desires to fill us with the fullness of his presence — and through the power and guiding of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit — to enable us to love God and others and become more and more Christ-like (1 John 3:2-3 and Ephesians 3:17; 5:18).
Finally, the way we live is to bring glory to God (1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Peter 4:11).
This is the vocation to which God calls all Christians, and it belongs to each of us! It’s what God made us to be and to do.
But I also think there may be something missing.
Much of the traditional, theological language about “vocation” is about the individual. Individuals are called. Individuals love. Individuals marry or stay single. Individuals receive the Holy Spirit. Individuals make the right use of God’s gifts. Individuals grow more Christ-like. Individuals are ordained. Individuals … Etc. Etc. Etc.
What about communities? What about congregations? Dioceses? Denominations? And even beyond? Is there vocation for communities, too? Is a community’s vocation only the sum of God’s call to individuals? Or is it something bigger?
I believe it’s something bigger. I believe community vocation and individual vocations are intertwined and similar, but not identical.
People are called to love, so are communities. Individuals are called to kindness, caring, and charity, and so are communities. People are filled with the Holy Spirit. So are communities … or they can be.
But communities also have larger vocations. We instinctively know this because we know that we can do so much more when we practice service as a community rather than as stand-alone Christians. There are vocations, summons from God, that are specifically for communities, and not for individual souls.
And these are timely vocations, summons from God to address the realities of the present, to address specifically what’s happening now.
Working together, communities of God’s people are called to change unjust systems of society that enable and prolong discrimination; that accept and strengthen preferences for one racial, ethnic, cultural, or language group over others; that disregard the health of this fragile earth, our island home; and that embrace other … evils.
I also believe that the vocation for faith communities in our day is to share Jesus’ authentic Gospel with a society and world where even those who want to follow Christ have too often been led away from the central core of the Good News … who have been taught part of the Gospel and told it’s the whole Gospel … who have been instructed to believe misinterpretations of, and accretions onto, the Gospel, which twist and rob God’s Good News of its power to build unity and godly love. Instead, these teachers have misused the Word of God to promote division, sanction avarice, teach favoritism, deny the worth and dignity of others, and accept all manner of other views that I do not believe Jesus, the Anointed One of God, would embrace.
And — since these same misuses of the Gospel are what the unchurched population around us see and hear, as this is what gets covered splashed across the press and media — it’s easy to understand why folks outside the Church believe that what they’re hearing is the Christian message. Even if it’s not the message we hear and believe? Why shouldn’t many people today, as the polls show, believe that Christianity is a hate religion? Why has the Church in our day lost its relevance to so much of society?
When I ask those questions to myself as an Episcopalian, my mind raises more questions: have we contributed by being too busy preserving an institution? Too distracted by internal squabbles? Too focused on being what we’ve always been and showing concern only for ourselves and those who are like us? Have we forgotten who and what we are supposed to be? Why haven’t we been and done what we are intended to be and do?
Why haven’t we, as C.S. Lewis recommends, kept “the main thing the main thing”?
Am I being unfair? Maybe I am. But I am not alone in my conclusions. On Ash Wednesday of 2018, 23 prominent leaders of mainline churches and notable church-associated ministries (including our Presiding Bishop) gathered in retreat. At the end, they produced what I consider to be a remarkable document: Reclaiming Jesus: A Letter from Faith-Leaders in America. Written to address the current political and moral climate in our country, this letter also holds important reminders for today’s Church. Let me share a few excerpts.
“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation … [In such times] it is often the duty of Christian leaders … to speak the truth in love to our churches and to name and warn against temptations, racial and cultural captivities, false doctrines, and political idolatries—and even our complicity in them. We do so here with humility, prayer, and a deep dependency on the grace and Holy Spirit of God.
… In times of crisis, the church has historically learned to return to Jesus Christ. Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us… Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), [so our] faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.
The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history?
We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Therefore, we offer the following six affirmations of what we believe …
I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).
II. WE BELIEVE we are one body (Galatians 3:28).
III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25: 31-46).
IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives (Exodus 20:16).
V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination (Matthew 20:25-26).
VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus, when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18).
Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith.”
Long ago — if you’re old enough you’ll remember — comedian Flip Wilson had a recurring sketch about being the pastor of “The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now!”
He may have been onto something.
The Church has a role in what’s happenin’ now. It has a vocation to bring change, to build God’s Beloved Community, to fix broken societal systems that benefit only some, to help all to see and acknowledge our inherent oneness as children of the same Creator. Just re-read today’s Gospel portion! Therein is our vocation!
Interestingly, serendipitously, the needs of our society and the needs of God’s Church intersect to a high degree. I believe our society needs a renewed moral compass. I also believe The Episcopal Church needs to be renewed from its rock-bottom core values upward, so it can be that moral compass (one among others, to be sure). But I believe our Church can only be a moral compass if we, ourselves, are living out both our individual and communal vocations … the vocations I described so painstakingly a few moments ago.
For us that means discipleship – following and growing in Jesus … for which aids are readily available: The Way of Love materials for individuals and groups from The Episcopal Church, our Cursillo ministry of renewal, Renewal Works for congregations, our Christian Formation Commission for aid in Faith Development, and so much more.
For us that also means dedication to the various ministries that belong to both individuals and parishes and which can only be labeled Apostolic. Disciples and Apostles. You’ve heard me on this for three years, now. We are Disciples and Apostles!
So for us, that means seeing our community vocation on more than one level. God has entrusted us with individual vocation, and congregational vocation, but also diocesan vocation.
We can pursue our diocesan vocation effectively only when we know ourselves to be One Ministry, bonded by one purpose – one vocation. That’s why last year’s convention theme — which I’ve addressed all year during parish visitations — was “One Ministry in West Missouri”, a call to focus on our intrinsic and essential unity in God, our solidarity as The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement, and our need for and reliance on each other as co-laborers in the harvest field we call West Missouri.
And that’s why this year’s theme: “A Different Kind of Church: The Episcopal Church in West Missouri”, builds even further on last year’s theme.
We are One Ministry in West Missouri, but in a larger sense, we are one Ministry in the entire Episcopal Church. If in West Missouri our parishes are 48 mission stations or – as I like to call them – “points of light”, then our diocese is one of 112 diocesan mission stations – points of light – throughout the U.S. and 18 other countries.
We are part of something even bigger than the diocese. We are the presence of the Episcopal Church in the western half of the State of Missouri.
That’s why I’ve begun to think of us, and to describe us, and to call us what we are: “The Episcopal Church in West Missouri”. Our 48 parishes represent the work, mission, vision, and faith of The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in 37 municipalities, large and small; rural, suburban, and urban. Wherever we are present, the Episcopal Church is present. Everyplace we are the Loving, Liberating, Life-Giving Gospel of Jesus Christ is shared. Where we are, we stand for relationships characterized by The Way of Love. To borrow from our beloved Presiding Bishop Michel Curry, we stand for life that begins to look more like God’s intent, God’s dream, dream for the life of this world rather than the nightmare it so often is.
To be this, we need to be different than we have been, more focused, more centered on Jesus. We need to be the different kind of Church I think we are because God needs us to be different, to be unique!
We are a different kind of Church than what many of our neighbors have known, and we need boldly and unapologetically to embrace what makes us distinct.
We offer and work toward reconciliation between people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, origins, and economic and cultural backgrounds. We strive to welcome all, no matter how different from us they may seem. We build bridges of understanding between disparate peoples. We strive to mend a broken world. We seek to build God’s Beloved Community in and beyond the borders of our parishes, our dioceses, and our Church. We do so because we believe Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One of God, calls us to do follow this path.
I am proud of what we are becoming as we become more and more one in ministry, one in affection, one in support for mutual support, one in vocation and purpose.
There’s more we can do, to be sure, and more we must do. We can never stop growing into the moral likeness of Christ. We can never stop building the Beloved Community. We can never stop welcoming God’s children to journey through life with us and to join in our labors. We can never stop being faithful to our God-given vocation as the Church.
But there is one aspect of vocation I have not highlighted up ‘til now. Christians are called to the Vocation of Oneness. We are called to be one, and to act like we are one, and to act like we are one with all others and strive to build unity with all others.
The writer of the Gospel of John records that, during the Lats Supper, Jesus started to pray. His prayer was for us. (I share excerpts from a Bible version called The Message). Jesus prayed this way.
While I return to you, Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life that you conferred through me as a gift, so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind. In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world. I’m consecrating myself for their sakes, so they’ll be consecrated in their mission by the truth. The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they’ll be as unified and together as we are—I in them and you in me. Then they’ll be mature in this oneness and give the world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them in the same way you’ve loved me.
Thanks be to God for the summons, the call, the vocation he has bestowed to us. Thanks be to God for all of you, the faithful, imperfect, lovely people of West Missouri.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
ResourcesBack to Contents
- PDF Document: Draft 2020 Plan for Ministry
- PDF Document: Plan for Ministry presentation slides
- Brochure (PDF): Program/Ministry Development Resources and Help for Churches and Deaneries
- Link: Video on YouTube
- Link: Diocesan Convention Website