Sermon Title “Follow Me” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! The story which Mary Lou read for us from Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus calls the first disciples is one which may be near to our hearts. Maybe you’ve seen this dramatized or portrayed in a movie or video, or maybe you like the setting of a lake and fishing, or maybe you just like the turquoise and shades of blue on the chancel table and in the new stained-glass windows. Whatever resonates with you in this passage, there’s a lot to like about the simplicity of Jesus walking up to a group of guys he has never met, saying “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” and them immediately walking away from their livelihood with no questions asked.
I can’t speak for you, but if I am honest — which I try to be — although this image of discipleship is near to my heart, there’ a part of me which would like to keep it at arms’ length, too. As much as I love the idea of people who are willing to drop everything and walk away into an uncertain future, I’m not sure I love the idea that I should be one of those people. This morning I want to talk about vocation, and what Christian vocation might look like, not only for fishing, but in the many ways that Christians with a variety of gifts are called to be in the world.
I want to start by unpacking the word “vocation” a bit, and tell you why I’ve chosen to use that term. Today in the United States we may associate that word with non-professional trades like construction, plumbing, being an electrician — things which you go to vocational school to learn. But the earlier meaning of vocation is different. Vocation includes the same root word as vocal, or voice, and the voice it referred to was the voice of God: vocation is a calling — an invitation, or a summons, or a command — to do the work of God. Originally a vocation would have been a call to Christian ministry as a priest or a nun or a member of a monastic community. Certainly Jesus’ call to Peter, Andrew, James and John was an invitation, but it was a very direct one: Follow me. Not, hey, if you’re free for the rest of the day and you think you’re interested, you might want to come and see this new thing that God is doing . . .
I like the word vocation because I believe it covers a wider range of the kind of activity I want to talk about. A job implies paid compensation, but not necessarily a sense of purpose; a calling may sound like it has to be in ministry or Christian mission. Some of the most important work I have done in my life — being a parent, being a student, volunteering in the church — doesn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. Many of you who are retired and are no longer employed, or no longer working full-time, have continued to use the experience, knowledge and skill you were once paid for to serve in roles and on teams here at Creekside. God bless you. You vocations are valuable to us, and this church could not function without your contributions.
But we may still wonder how our own stories fit into this story of disciples who left their job behind to follow Jesus. Is that our only option? Who’s going to pay the bills and takes care of the kids and shovel the snow from the parking lot? One of the radical notions of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, was that any work — any work which was not immoral — could be dedicated to God. Prior to that, the prevailing attitude was the folks in holy vocations were doing God’s work, and other people were doing necessary things which were not as good, and certainly not holy. The Church of the Brethren was begun by leaders who had other professions, farmers, printers, whatnot. Alexander Mack was a miller — not his last name, his vocation as someone who ran a mill to grind grain into flour. Even when the Brethren transitioned to set-apart ministry where church leaders were paid for their work (halleluiah), we still hold to the concept of the priesthood of believers: that is, every Christian has a role to play and contribution to make to the Church. This is not just a friendly invitation, it’s an imperative.
Some of you know I have been leading a monthly retreat group at Camp Mack. We’ve been studying the book Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. Here thesis is that everyday activities are the things which most profoundly shape us as followers of Jesus. In one of her chapters she writes about the connection between discipleship and vocation, and lists a variety of ways we can use our work to serve God. Some of these were things I’d heard before, some I wish I’d heard more often, and some were new to me. I hope you have already considered your own vocation — what it is and how you can use it for Christ and the Church. If you haven’t, maybe I can plant that seed today. I’m going to share some of these messages about vocation: pay attention to what resonates with you, or what might be a new way of considering how you can dedicate your work to Jesus.
We receive different (and conflicting) messages about work. We’re told that the main way to serve God in our work is by being personally honest and evangelizing our co-workers [FYI: Don’t try the evangelizing co-workers if you work in a government-funded school or health care setting]
Or by furthering social justice. Or by simply doing excellent and skillful work. Or by creating beauty. Or by working from a Christian motivation to glorify God by impacting culture. Or by having a “Grateful, joyful, gospel-changing heart.” Or by doing whatever gives you the greatest satisfaction. Or by making as much money as possible and being generous.[i]
There are a lot of options for imagining and dedicating our vocation to the work of Christ. But I don’t think this means that anything goes, if we just say what we’re doing is for God, we can do whatever we want. I think I have shared about when I was working in a commercial art department in Indianapolis and was uncomfortable with something a co-worker was doing and mentioned it them, and they said, “Why can’t you be like Keith? He’s a Christian, but you’d never know it.” There are workplaces where you can’t evangelize your co-workers, but if you can’t act like a Christian at your workplace — or wherever you do your work — maybe it’s time to consider a different vocation. Or, if you feel like you can make the effort to act like a Christian on Sunday morning — or maybe even through the afternoon — but that it’s too much effort the rest of the week, you may need to do some soul-searching about the priority you’ve given to following Jesus.
I visited with a Creekside member this week — you might be able to figure out who it was — who told me, “I try to be kind to everyone, in every situation, no matter what” That is a vocation. It might not put bread on the table, but it is a calling, and although treating everyone with kindness is a simple concept, it is not easy. Believe me, I try, and I don’t always do it well. It makes a difference if I’m just trying to be polite (even when other people are super-irritating), or if I remember that the other person is a child of God, and remember that I have shortcomings and need understanding and grace, too. By the way, it was Betty Yoder who told me that she tries to be kind to everyone, and you can absolutely see it in the way the staff at Greenleaf Living interact with her. It was inspiring to me to see how someone on a memory unit at a residential facility is still practicing Christian vocation, and still following Jesus.
I am not going to tell you what form Jesus’ call to Follow Me has to take in your life. What I can say for sure, is that Jesus extends that invitation to you, and you have the opportunity to accept it. When you do, that is the beginning of following Jesus, not the end-point. Even though I have heard and accepted a call to set-apart ministry, I still ask myself, Am I doing the right things? Am I doing enough? I’m sure some of you ask that about me, too. But like the commitment to believe in Christ and be baptized, the call to discipleship is personal, but it is never private. We live out our vocation in relationship to Jesus, but also in relationship to other people. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus and don’t think that needs to affect your relationships with other people — you were either a really compassionate person to begin with, or you’re kidding yourself. Sooner or later the path of discipleship gets rough, and we need more than our good intentions. That is a sermon for another day and another season — that is the journey of Lent, which we will begin together when I am back in the pulpit next month.Our final song has a beautiful text by John Bell. It’s listed in the bulletin and the Sing the Journey songbook as “Will You Come and Follow Me,” but the title which Bell gave to this song text is “The Summons.” As you sing, or if you choose to simply listen to or read the words, I invite you to consider how or if you have heard and answered that summons from Jesus in your own life, and if there may be more to which you are being summoned.
[i] Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary, InterVarsity Press 2006, p 91.