By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
In a time when unemployment is high, and its burdens experienced by many, matters of job and career receive more attention than usual. Indeed, even when the economy is less troubled, we are a people preoccupied with matters of career and job. And we think we know what these mean.
A job involves paid employment, or by extension a job can be any significant responsibility we take on. A career is what happens as a person undertakes a series of jobs over time. Career carries with it a sense of increasing experience, and often greater responsibility and reward.
But to these two realities a third must be joined to fill out the picture. We can have a job, or even a career, or we may not have them. But we always have the third reality, which is a calling.
The celebrated sociologist Robert Bellah sees it this way: a calling links what we do to a larger community wherein we contribute to the common good. A calling links the person to the public world.
Another way to look at it is that someone would still follow a calling even if he or she has no need for the money or position that accompanies it. People follow a calling because they believe it is right for them to do so. The work may be hard and not particularly successful, but they find it rich with meaning and significance.
Here again, Robert Bellah is helpful. He tells us: “The notion of calling is an effort to make real the reign of God in the realm of work.” That realization involves the recognition “that we all need each other, and that our real reward is our sense of contribution to the common good.” [Robert N. Bellah, “Economics and the theology of work,” UME Connexion, Spring 1985, p. 11. This article was originally published in The New Oxford Review, November 1984.]
The American novelist Frederick Buechner makes a similar point when he asserts that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, 1973), p. 95.]
A calling is there when you don’t have a job.
A calling is there when you’ve never had a career.
A calling is there when you’ve never had paid employment or after you’ve retired from the world of work.
A calling is there even when it seems less a career or a job than the picking up of a particular cross.
It is a calling because someone calls you, and keeps calling you, so that the phone in your heart rings incessantly.
It is God who calls us, calls each one of us by name. The one who sustains us in existence also summons us, that in concert with the rest of creation we may enter into fuller and more authentic life.
All well and good. But for many people, the notion of calling is completely off the screen. Their work experience has been unhappy, and though they may make a living, it drains them of their life. Or if they have known success and satisfaction, still they lack the language to speak of themselves as called to what they do.
I would assert, however, that God keeps knocking on their door, asking them to do what they do as somehow partners with him in rehabbing creation so that it more closely resembles the divine intention.
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Indeed, there is something about a calling that almost guarantees we will find it hard to recognize. God is mysterious. The divine voice speaks with power, but often softly. We must entertain possibilities, be open to surprise.
Consider what happens to Samuel. He’s a boy who lives and works in the temple during a period when the religion of Israel has run out of gas. One night God calls to Samuel, speaks to him by name. He thinks it’s the old priest Eli. Eli, for his part, thinks the kid’s having bad dreams.
Finally the priest wakes up to the realization that God, who hasn’t spoken much to his people lately, is speaking to this particular boy. Eli still has enough faith to tell Samuel to listen and obey when the voice speaks again. Samuel heeds the voice, and grows up to become a pivotal figure in the tumultuous history of Israel.
Or consider Nathanael. One day Philip shows up, waving his arms and exclaiming that he’s just met the one long promised in the law and the prophets. Nathanael’s answer is a sneer. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” When the messiah arrives, certainly he won’t appear in a crossroads too small to have its own McDonald’s.
But his own encounter with Jesus spins Nathanael around fast and pushes him in the right direction. He had felt God present one time while sitting under a fig tree. He had told no one about it, yet Jesus mentions the incident right away. So Nathanael becomes a disciple. Jesus invites him to follow, and that is what he does.
Nathanael is surprised, and so is Samuel. Not without difficulty, they recognize their callings. One’s a kid, the other’s a smart aleck. The purpose of their lives comes to light. There’s hope for the rest of us too.
We can start to perceive our calling. If we have begun, we can continue to recognize it. Almost certainly, it involves surprise. The reason for this is that God has better things in mind for us than we can ask or imagine.
Better things than our society says to us.
Better things than our family says to us.
Better things than we say to ourselves.
Notice I did not say things more profitable or glamorous or respectable. I said better things. Again, as Buechner puts it, there exists that place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. God wants to lead us there, and so calls each of us by name.
Maybe you know people who are aware of that place. Maybe you are such a person yourself. The job may not pay well, and the career is nothing to write home about. But God keeps returning you there where you do something significant to meet the world’s hunger, and experience a gladness deeper than you think you deserve. You realize you’re not just earning a paycheck or developing a resume, you’re answering a call. It does not shrink you, but stretches you instead.
The path may be littered with surprises. When Albert Schweitzer died, I was about twelve years old, and didn’t really know who he was. Since then I’ve learned. He was a theologian and scripture scholar whose work was bold and innovative. He was an organist of exceptional ability whose recitals drew enthusiastic audiences. You’d think somebody of this sort would figure he had found his calling, and that would be that.
But Schweitzer didn’t stop listening, and God didn’t stop calling, and the surprises kept coming. In his late thirties he abandoned his promising academic career and headed off to equatorial Africa to serve as a medical missionary. He went to a place where there were no great universities where he could teach, no great organs for him to play, but plenty of sick people for him to help. Later his hospital was destroyed, but that did not end his commitment to Africa. He recognized his call to build it a second time. Deep hunger and deep gladness met repeatedly through the decades of his life.
We can look at how others were called, and learn from their example. We can profit from the stories of Samuel and Nathanael and Albert Schweitzer. We can be inspired by the stories of those who led our nation to greater freedom and justice: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks. We do well to take courage from how they responded to God’s voice speaking to each of them.
Finally we must hear and heed our own call. Each of us can listen intently, for God speaks to us, perhaps through a still, small voice; perhaps through the turmoil of daily events. To hear our call is always an instance of grace.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).