Today’s gospel contains a message about vocation, about calling. Well, it contains many messages about many things, but let’s focus on vocation. The vocation of four fishermen, and you and me, and the Church of the Advent.
When Jesus encounters the four fishermen, is there anything remarkable about them? At that point in their lives, probably not. They were just guys with boats and nets and mouths to feed and skills they had inherited or been taught, skills at which they might have excelled or might not. I suspect Jesus called to them based more on their potential than on their accomplishment. This is good news for all of us: Jesus is not looking for what you’ve done in the world but is counting on you for what you can join him in doing.
Once they heard the voice of Jesus, I imagine it wasn’t simply a matter of “Follow me.” — “Oh, okay.” There was a bit of conversation that ensued; and here is a blank page in the story — an empty space where each one of us can reflect on the particularities of what happens in our lives when we hear that voice, or, better yet, feel the ineffable tug that comes from being called.
Remarkably, all four of these people, just as they are, follow after this stranger who interrupts their daily routine. All that is asked of them at this point is simply that they follow: as they are, from where they are, being who they are. As is true for the followers of Jesus who come after them, the meaning of their choice will unfold only over time.
The questions or doubts or hopes or fears of those fishermen and so many others (including you and me) — as compelling or disturbing or inspiring as those factors might be — are not really the point here. Rather, no matter what the response is to hearing that voice or feeling that tug, it must inevitably lead to the realization that if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives. The words of the psalmist bear this out: “You have searched me out and known me … you discern my thoughts from afar.”
One way to think about vocation is as the possibly overlooked place where neither function (what do you do) nor identity (who are you) alone can carry the fulness of your being.
The theologian Frederick Beuchner has written, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” This paints a pretty rosy picture of vocation: “deep gladness” is a characterization with which some — including me — might quibble. But none could argue that the world is not a place of deep need. The desire to respond to that deep need led to the founding of this parish 175 years ago. It was conceived not as a shrine but as a place that existed theologically before it existed physically. One founder commented that Boston’s Episcopal churches … “had the prayer-book, but hardly its spirit; they did not follow its principles.”
The founders proposed that the best way to follow those principles was “to secure to a portion of the City of Boston the ministrations of the Holy Catholic Church, and more especially to secure the same to the poor and needy…”
Through the decades, the founders and those who came after them bore witness that deep need endures. It is not restricted to the poor and needy. It can be elusive. Just over one generation ago, the parish’s rector noted that “The Church of the Advent is a parish which, above all, is grounded in a vocation that has to do with the burden and the joy of history.”
From the Advent’s very beginnings, the burden has been closely felt by some; others have been been embraced by the joy; many have experienced both. This is meet and right: Even before the Advent was founded, William Croswell acknowledged that he would come to Boston as the new parish’s first rector, willing, he said, to “[identify] myself with the good or evil that is in store for the church.” We detect no sign of rose-colored vocational glasses in those words.
Making decisions about our individual vocations and the vocation or vocations of our beloved parish is not restricted to check marks on a ballot or motions at a meeting. Discerning our individual and communal vocations is an exercise most effectively undertaken together, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, with care and honesty and hope and love. Today, as 175 years ago, as Jesus walks the rugged shores and dusty streets of our lives, he calls to us, again and again and again, Follow me. Follow me. Follow me.
Those who hear and respond to the call learn in a visceral way that in order to walk toward something — even the unknown — one needs to turn and walk away — even from what is most familiar and precious. And that often for things to come together, they must first fall apart.
All this leads to the eternal truth which will over time emerge:
The peace of God, it is no peace / But strife closed in the sod / So let us pray for but one thing / The marvelous peace of God.