Find Your Calling
June 25, 2017
Mark 1:17-20; Mt. 28:16-20
From the time we are children, we find ourselves walking along the beach at night, surveying the wondrous sweep of the heavens above us, wondering to ourselves, “Why and I here? And what is my life going to be about?”
We peer into the future and imagine ourselves as the Doctors we hope to become one day, the pilot flying confidently in the skies, the teacher making a difference in the lives of people in need. We are wondering to ourselves, “Who am I and what am I supposed to achieve with my life?”
What is it that will bring me the fulfillment so that I can savor what is good about our living?
Whether we are particularly religious or not, almost all of us recognize this as one of the fundamental spiritual quests of our lives. We are here to actualize our potential. And we need others around us to help mentor us to show us what we can become and to pay attention to us to see what is in our character that can be molded to become something worthy, something honorable.
This was the great contribution of Martin Luther in the Reformation and it was one of the most profound factors in shaping meaning and value in Western thought for the modern world.
Luther was born in a feudal era that was socially stagnant. Saudi Arabia comes to mind as one of the few societies left, where we pay attention to the intrigues of succession within the Royal family, who have a monopoly of control over all the assets of the kingdom and there is effectively no social mobility. You are either born into a royal family or you are not and the economic roles are determined by social class as they were for your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents, as far back in the shrouds of time as anyone can remember.
In this world, young people had only one real choice to follow a sacred vocation or a secular one. You could devote your life through the Church or you could work with your father and your uncles in the family business, cutting stones or making beer, whatever your family did for as far as they could recall.
Or you could join the monastery and enter the sacred community, following the order of life prescribed by St. Benedict or St. Ignatius, following a life of prayer that was built into the structure of the day, with 5 worship services beginning at dawn until vespers, following the seasons of the year with special feast days that recognized saints.
For this, you had to take special vows of poverty and celibacy and so it came to be considered ‘the higher way’, the more spiritual path. Indeed, after 1500 years of Christianity, monasteries had something of a lock on ‘the spiritual calling’ in Europe. Every time I go to Europe, I can’t help but reflect on just how many monasteries there were, not only in the countryside but in the major cities as well.
The spirituality of monasteries, then as now, stressed withdrawing from the temptations and the complications of the secular world to devote your life to contemplation of God through following the inward mystical path of silence, meditation, and fasting. You eschewed the temporal in favor of things eternal.
This was the higher way, the more spiritual way.
Martin Luther, as you may know, joined the monastery as a very young man but like a lot of young men, he found the requirement of celibacy more of an obstacle than a guide.
But he fell in love with a Nun and eventually they married and had to leave the monastery. But he remained a Biblical scholar and, like a lot of scholars, Luther spent his academic career contrasting the simple teaching of Jesus with the immensely complex theology that had grown into the Vatican teaching over the past 1400 years.
In the process he made a simple observation that changed the course of Western thought that led directly to the secular society as we know it today, so much so, that it is somewhat impossible to imagine what we would be like without it.
And it was the meaning of “Vocation” or “Calling”. Luther pointed out that Jesus never calls us to retreat from the world in the way that Monastic spirituality was defined. Neither did Jesus teach us that there is some special interior light that we could access and nurture in solitude which was the normative teaching of his day in monasteries.
Rather, he said, our spiritual calling is to be found “in the world”. We are actually called to become morally and spiritually mature in and through our jobs. We are called to make a difference in our communities. We become “holy” or “spiritually integrated” in how we live our lives as community leaders, as leaders in our extended families, as leaders in politics and business.
There is no spiritual purity in withdrawing from the world. We actually need to make our mark in our everyday lives as parents, as better businessmen, as citizens that work towards the common good.
What Luther did was make the social order a place to exercise virtue and this shift became so important that people started to think that it was noble to leave our world a better place. Luther said, “The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor....The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.”
This is where we developed the Protestant Work Ethic, the idea that it is our responsibility to make the world a better place and to leave our children a better world than the one we inherited. It literally changed the course of Western Civilization and is credited with the impetus behind development, higher education, and the value we place upon finding our fulfillment through our work in the world.
Adam Leipzig had an experience that most of us have had here. He goes back to his 25th reunion at Yale. Towards the end of the evening, he is gathered around a whole group of people that he went to college with. Over and over, he hears people saying things like, “My life is almost half over and I’m not sure what I’ve done with it.”
It is an odd comment coming from people that are financially successful. They have one home, sometimes two. They’ve had one spouse, sometimes two… But they aren’t fulfilled. They feel like something is missing, like they have missed the point. 80% of the people he talks to feel this way.
Because they don’t have a sense of purpose. They are doing their job well because it pays well but they feel like they are killing time and wasting themselves aimlessly even if they are rich.
But about 20% of the people don’t feel that way at all and a lot of the time, they weren’t making as much money as the 80%. But they didn’t feel that way because they have a sense of purpose in their lives. They had a calling.
Jesus calls the disciples. They are fishermen. Jesus tells them, “I will make you fishers of men”. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I came not that you simply might have life but that you might have life abundantly.” I came that you might find the deeper meaning and purpose that gives our lives savor, worth, profundity.
We admire Jesus because he was a man who found that sense of mission and purpose in his life. He found something worth dying for, which means it was worth living for. It gave his life a deeper meaning and he sent us into the world to help make disciples, to help other people find their calling in this life.
And you know more about this than you think you do. We all hear the question at cocktail parties, “So what do you do?” Half the time, you probably hate answering that question because it is an invitation to compare who is more important than who in your little circle of acquaintances.
But what if I asked you this… What is your signature strength? What is it that you are an expert at or that you are becoming an expert at? If we gave you a day next week to do what you find deeply satisfying, what would you do? What would that be?
Saint Paul used to say this is your gift. Psychologist today say this is your ‘signature strength’. We all have one. What is yours?
And who do you practice it for? Who do you serve? The Psychologist, Martin Seligman, at the University of Pennsylvania has been doing studies on what makes for fulfilling human existence for the past 20 years and he is starting to summarize his findings. He says that we tap into a deeper human meaning when we are able to practice our signature strength in a community of people that are important to us and to get affirmation for doing it from them.
Who is your community? Jesus taught much the same thing. In the gospel of Matthew he says, “You shall not be like the Romans who use power to Lord it over one another. For the greatest among you is the one that serves.” Today we would say that if you want to wade into the deeper pool of meaning that our life has to offer us, find a community of people that you can serve and make their life better.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for others”. And, of course, Jesus not only taught that. The saying in John is a reflection of the way that Jesus lived. He emptied himself in the service of others and through that came to realize who he was and what he was about.
How will the world be left a better place because you have been here and practiced your signature strength? Who is it that you serve?
Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that Christianity teaches us that our own personal fulfillment is a by-product of a life lived in love fulfilling other people. What cause will you invest your life in through this chapter of your life.
And, finally, who are you? Who are you really? That becomes a more complex question the older that we become. We are from a certain family, but we are also more than the sum of our family identity. We are from a place, but we are more than the sum of our childhood. We have been educated in a certain way, but we are different than the people that we were educated with at the same time.
Increasingly, we discover the truth that Gandhi learned about the process of self-discovery. Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others”. All along, you are actualizing your potential when you practice your signature strength in service. Some of us through our job. Others in the way we give back. Others in the way we give a hand up to the next generation.
We are all like the soldier at the end of “Saving Private Ryan”. In the midst of a raging battle, Private Ryan is told he gets to go home. He is conflicted, confused. His comrades around him will not be so chosen. But he gets a chance, just like we all have a chance now, to live a normal life, in a relatively peaceful era, with relative safety and the chance to grow old well.
His commanding officer is mortally wounded and he pulls Private Ryan close to him and he gives him the haunting advice, “Earn this” he says. Don’t waste this opportunity! Don’t let your life slide by after so many have sacrificed for you to live in peace and freedom. Make it fulfilling.
The movie fast forwards 50 years. And now he is an old man, reflecting on those words again and he asks his wife the same question that we all ask our spouses, our closest peeps. He says, ‘tell me I was a good man’. Tell me I made a difference. Tell me that I actualized my potential and that my life was worth living.
Brothers and sisters, may you make a difference. May you live a life worth living. And through your service, may you come to know who you really are. Amen.