Discerning the right calling | Sermon from 8/12/18

The little girl was hopping mad. I think her name was Brooke. But I’m not sure.

We were in a group of four, sitting at our little desks. I was sitting in my chair, I remember, fidgeting, staring at a blank sheet of paper. The task was to write a poem. The year was 1992. I was in fourth grade. And Brooke was cute.

It seems like it was fourth grade when I first discovered girls; more so than the flings on the playground when I had girlfriends in, say, first or third grade. Those were like a girl having exclusive rights to play with me on the playground. In fourth grade, it started to be more than that. And how do boys act when they’ve suddenly discovered that girls are more than fun playmates? They do about what I did.

At the top of Brooke’s page were the words “Monster in my closet.” Inspiration struck! Suddenly a whole poem flowed out of me about a monster in my closet. I didn’t even believe in monsters, I hadn’t been scared of my closet ever that I could remember, but there was the poem. I remember somehow working the pop-o-matic die in the game of Trouble into the poem. It was, in my nine year old brain, a masterpiece, the best thing I’d ever composed. I was super proud. Not only that, but I had loved every minute of the writing process, even the writer’s block, for it led to creativity.

And, of course, when I had finished, I showed Brooke what I had written, snickering. She said, “you stole my idea!” I told her I had borrowed her idea and we could have the same idea. I then got up to show Ms. Clonts, our teacher. Brooke started to protest, yelling, “Ms. Clonts…!” But she was cut off before she could finish as Ms. Clonts told her it was time to be quiet.

The next thing I knew, Ms. Clonts was reading my poem to the whole class, talking about what a remarkable piece of poetry it was. She declared she’d hang it on the hallway wall, just outside of our classroom, as an example of the tremendous work we were doing for her. I was so proud. Brooke, a redhead, turned a shade of red darker than her hair. I chuckled to myself, poked at her the way pre-pubescent boys do, and basked in my glory.

I discovered two things that day for sure: girls were pretty cool and I could write.

At church, I told my story. In response, I heard that God had a plan for my life, a calling on my life, for one particular job and for one particular girl. Somewhere out there was the woman God had destined and designed just for me. One day, I’d discover the job that God had made me to do, and only me especially, for God had a very special plan indeed for my life.

Church, with the reinforcement of family, taught me that there was one job for me and one girl. This was the case for everyone in the universe, so I was told. Over the course of my schooling, I found talents in math, social studies, and, yes, writing. I discovered I’m an excellent debater because I have a penchant for constructing arguments that win. I am also a great listener and a good counsel. These are talents I discovered.

But they didn’t matter because God had a call on my life. Perhaps they’d be put to use, but the first and only task was to figure out what job God had called me to. I had a calling on my life, as I understood it from church, and my job in school was to discover that calling and then put to work the right skills to fulfill it. When I got to college, the task was to major in the area that would let me live the calling of God on my life.

Problem was, I had no idea what that calling was. I felt no strong calling. I knew where I had talents, but because I was raised to think that I had a calling to fulfill, following after those talents didn’t matter. Maybe those talents would never be utilized, depending on what my calling was. It was extraordinarily tough to figure out, to find, this calling because I had no strong conviction one way or the other.

As such, I shifted from Music to teaching to history to psychology as majors looking for the one right answer, for God had a calling on my life, as I understood it, and my job was to find that.

What is the calling on our lives? Frederick Buechner famously declared that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That’s a beautiful sentiment, but if you’re like me, you’ve spent time wondering where that intersection is, exactly. You’ve been walking a road, waiting to stumble upon that intersection. At times, you think you’ve found it, but it’s turned out to be a fork in the road, or an overpass, or some other reality that gives the illusion of being an intersection but is not, in fact, an intersection. You’ve been searching for your calling only to come up short again and again.

Schooling is supposed to be about discovering calling. Somehow, at the end of high school, we’re supposed to know what God’s call on our lives is, what we’re to do for the rest of our lives, and then follow that by training for it in college. Somehow, we’re supposed to discover that intersection in the timing of our schooling, and not after. Somehow, we’re supposed to know the one job God has destined for us.

School’s back in. Today, we celebrate the start of a new school year. We gathered earlier to bless those who will be back in school: students, teachers, administrators. I feel that blessing as I am, once again, a student, having embarked on my doctorate this past Thursday. But in light of school being about discerning God’s call, finding that one job to which we are called, that one vocation to which we are destined, we’re left asking these questions: To what are we called? How do we discern God’s calling?

What is that one thing to which God has called us?

Let’s read together what Paul has to say about calling in Ephesians chapter 4, verses 1 through 16.

What is that one thing to which God has called us?

Paul begs the church in Ephesus, and us today, to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. Such a calling demands a focus on unity, recognizing there is one body in Christ. Paul explains that such a body is possible because Christ descended, he came down to earth to show us the way. And, too, Christ descended in the form of the Holy Spirit, fulfilling the promise to always be with us. In doing so, we have gifts that God has given us, gifts to be put to use for the body of Christ to mature each other and build up the body of Christ in love.

Paul tells us quite a bit about what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. He speaks of gifts we’ve been given, specifying those as apostles, teachers, prophets, evangelists, and pastors. These offices of the early church were to be fulfilled by people who had particular skills befitting those offices, talents given as gifts by the Holy Spirit. It’s a great example of division of labor, the necessity of having multiple people, using their gifts, to fulfill the work of the church. No one person can be everything and no one person, not even priests, are called to fulfill all; only Christ can do that, so we each have been given gifts of the Holy Spirit, a particular way to live out Christ’s call on our lives.

But we haven’t answered what that call is. We might have gifts, but which ones are we supposed to use? What if we have gifts that lend themselves partially to being an apostle and a prophet, but not clearly to only one of them?

These five offices are famous in church curricula. They’re often the focus of a sort of spiritual personality survey, where your giftedness from the Holy Spirit is assessed and you’re assigned to one of these five offices based on the results. Then, the assessment declares, you’ll know what your calling is.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve taken a million of those assessments. They’re all over the internet: spiritual gift inventories that use this list or the more famous spiritual gift listings in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. I got all sorts of results. I compared those to personality inventories I took on the web, like bootleg Myers-Briggs, as well as the real Myers-Briggs. In high school, I took a career assessment that supposedly would return a list of jobs I was best suited for. The top result was this: egg farmer. I’m not even sure that’s a real job. Suffice to say, none of them really seemed to answer what my calling is.

In fact, I found them about as useful as this recent quiz I took on buzzfeed: which Disney villain matches your personality? The answer, by the way, is Captain Hook.

Knowing that I’m, apparently, similar in personality to Captain Hook is about as useful as those inventories that told me I’m a really good counselor or have the skill set of an egg farmer. What are we to make of all this? All these lists, quizzes, declarations that we’re called? Underneath it all is a desire to be of service to God, a longing to fulfill the role God wants us to play in the world, so that we, as a part of the body of Christ, can bring love, peace, joy, and hope to the world. At a basic level, we just want to serve the world in the name of Christ.

How do we figure out how to do that? How do we find out what our calling is?

One of the persons who best seems to know the answer to that question is my faither-in-law. He’s a salesman, I think. I’m not really sure what he does on a day to day basis, but I know there are sales and IT solutions implemented. He’s a super talented administrator and manager of people. Wherever he has lived, and the places are many, he has employed those gifts for the benefit of the churches he attends, usually fulfilling a function like a church administrator or executive pastor. His work has greatly benefited those churches wherever he has gone, ensuring their smooth operation and increasing their functionality.

So doesn’t that mean he should work for a church? And just because he’s gifted in that way, does that mean he’s living out his calling? Is selling and implementing financial and database software solutions for corporations the right job when he’s clearly making such a difference in churches?

Maybe he’s gifted at something else and that’s how he should be living out his life. Even though he’s doing great work for his church, even though he’s proving invaluable to his pastors, even though he’s building up the body of Christ, is that the right work? Is that his right calling? What’s the right answer?

What is the calling on his life?

[Pause]

We’re asking the wrong question.

How do we find out what our calling is? When we received the Holy Spirit, we received our calling. Paul makes that clear in the scripture when he says “but each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift…The gifts he gave were…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” In the midst of all the flowery and explanatory language, Paul gives a clear statement of calling: to employ our giftedness for building up the church.

The trick there is employing our giftedness, not our giftedness leading to particular employment. By that I mean this: Paul calls on us to be a part of the body of Christ. That is the calling to which we are called, as he says in verse 1. We’re to participate in the life of the church, growing in maturity ourselves and lending our gifts to the church so that others can grow in maturity as well. Just like the human body when we are children, we gain the Holy Spirit as babes in the faith, growing up in maturity hopefully to an adulthood of faith. Our giftedness, the things that we’re naturally good at, are to be used by us to help others grow in their faith.

What is the calling on our lives? It’s simple: To build up the church by putting our gifts to work to make Christ known.

We have conflated calling with a job, as if calling was restricted to our particular vocation. This is simply not usually true. On occasion, God calls someone to a particular job. I stand before you as one of those people. But more often, the call of God is more universal: use what you’re good at to help the church do its work so that we, together, may become more mature in faith.

When Paul speaks of being the body of Christ, he means that literally. We have an incarnational faith: that means we understand ourselves as the church to be the embodiment, the literal body, of Christ to the world. Christ’s presence, Christ’s descent to the world, is not only in the Holy Spirit or in his earthly ministry; it’s also here and now, through us. But none of us are Christ; we have a role to play to be a part of the body so that, in total, we are the fullness of Christ to the world.

To be employed for the church is to serve Christ’s purposes in the world. By church, I mean both our local church and the church universal, the holy Catholic Church we declare in the Apostle’s Creed. Church means the body of Christ, it means playing your role in the world to make Christ known. That can take many forms. It can mean volunteering, it can mean your full-time job, it can mean focusing on parenting, it can mean blogging, it can mean a whole host of things. The question is this: what are you good at naturally? Then the question is: how are you using that skill to make Christ known?

Some of you put your administrative gifts to work here at the church, ensuring its operation. Some of you put your financial gifts to work, ensuring our functionality. Some of you put your teaching gifts to work, some of you put your service gifts to work. There are a myriad of ways we live out our gifts into this church and the world, being together the body of Christ so that others may know him.

If putting your gifts to work to make Christ known sounds like you, you’re living the “calling to which you were called.” The is no deeper calling to discern unless God makes a calling abundantly clear. We’re not left trying to divine God’s calling. Finding out what God’s call is has nothing to do with a y-shaped stick looking for water; and yet, we treat it that way. If God is calling you to something specific, as God did for me as a pastor, it will be obvious in an almost inescapable way.

How do we find out what our calling is? We already know the answer: it’s to serve the church by using our gifts. That’s the example of my faither-in-law. He lives out his calling by serving the church, using his gifts of administration and people management to make a difference. His day job builds up those skills, for he’s honed natural giftedness through decades of experience. The church universal is better because of his service, and that’s what Paul asks of all Christians here in this text.

Calling isn’t some mystical concept that we’re on a mission to discover. We don’t go to school to discover a calling on our lives, even if a few of us might. The call on our lives is simple, grand, and demanding: find out what you’re good at and then make use of those gifts for the benefit of the church.

That’s how we live a life worthy of our calling, as Paul puts it. We grow disciples, we aid in the maturation of the church, by giving selflessly of our gifts fo the church. If we’re good at making money, that might be generosity in financial gifts to the church. It might also be serving in a financial leadership position. If you’re good at nurturing people, it might mean teaching Sunday school classes or it might mean leading a small group. If you’re good at finding problems, it might mean leadership by coordinating solutions. If you’re good at serving, it might mean starting a new ministry, working with the worship team, or volunteering as your schedule allows in the plethora of opportunities across our community.

It can mean any number of things. Some of us are, indeed, apostles, teachers, and prophets; but some of us are also committee members, communion stewards, food bank workers, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, meals on wheels deliverers, and backpack ministry organizers. God has granted us gifts through the Holy Spirit. The use of those for the church is the call upon our lives. The question before us isn’t what our calling is. That’s the wrong question.

The question before us is if we’re answering the call; the call to put our gifts to work for the church.

What are you gifted at? Are those gifts being used for the benefit of the church? If the answer is no, then commit to use them here, with us. More than likely, that means a conversation with me or another church leader for where there’s opportunity.

Calling is, indeed, “the intersection of where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger,” but that could also be the definition of the church. We stand, or are called to stand, at the intersection of the Dodge County’s deep hungers with the deep gladness we know, the gospel of Christ. To do that, we need everyone giving of their giftedness. None of us can do it alone. I can’t do it alone. None of us can because none of us is Christ.

But together, we are Christ. That’s the good news of this scripture: we, together, putting our gifts to use for the glory of God, are Christ to the world. We, by working together, can eradicate the the hungers of Dodge County.

All it takes is knowing your gifts and then putting them to work here. So what are your gifts? That doesn’t require an inventory, an online survey, or a buzzfeed quiz. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s easy to see what you’re naturally good at. Once you know, ask yourself if those gifts are being put to work for the glory of Christ.

If they’re not, come talk to me or someone else about opportunity. We need you.

And if they are, continue to labor. Our work is not in vain, for our work builds us up in love. We can be the love of Christ to the world, the literal embodiment of Christ, if we will live into our calling.

So put aside notions of calling as a particular job or a particular thing to do. Find and use your gifts here. For together, we can be Christ to a hungry world.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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