“Follow me,” Jesus says. “Follow me.” Much easier when you had Jesus right there in flesh-and-blood telling you to leave things behind and follow him. Literally following him, walking behind him, listening to him as he preached and taught and healed along the way. Literally following Jesus seems easy compared to what we have to do now. We have to figure out how to follow Jesus in the more metaphorical sense.
Luckily for us all, there are many ways that we do that. Now that we don’t have to drop literal fishing nets to literally follow Jesus, we have the challenge and the gift of following Jesus in many different ways. There are multiple ways that we can follow Jesus in our lives. We might be called in many different ways, we might be called to follow him down any number of paths.
This call to follow Jesus is referred to in the Church as “vocation.” Vocation comes from “vocare,” the Latin word meaning “to call.” Jesus calls us to follow him, and that is our vocation.
The Church, however, does a terrible job of explaining vocation. Over the years we’ve made some big mistakes on what vocation means, and so let’s name those mistakes so we can get vocation right.
The First Mistake: that some vocations are more important than others. This has a long, long history. The Church has often lifted up certain vocations as being holier and better than others. To be called to be a priest was a noble thing, to be called to be a monk or nun was even holier, that God had called you to be super special, more important than the regular folks.
Nope! There are many different vocations, and it’s a mistake to rank them in a hierarchy. Different vocations are simply different. All vocations are important in the body of Christ.
The Second Mistake: that vocation never changes. The Church sometimes acts as if the way we follow Jesus doesn’t change over time. But it does. Maybe the passionate young person becomes the contemplative elder over time – the way that person follows Jesus changes, and both might be the right vocation for the right time. Or flip it around: maybe the reflective, quiet young person gets to be a fiery prophetic voice for truth in their old age. The way we follow Jesus can change over time.
The Third Mistake: that God has one single vocation in mind for you, and it’s your job to figure it out. We sometimes hear that phrase that God has a plan for us, and the way we think about it is that God has a plan written out, and we’re supposed to figure it out.
I’ve struggled with that a lot in my life. Some of you may know that I tested a monastic vocation with one of the Episcopal Church’s monastic orders, the Society of St John the Evangelist. I walked in the door of the monastery with a suitcase full of guilt. That this was what God wanted, and that if I didn’t make it, then it was my fault for disappointing God and not living up to the plan. Ouch! That’s a heavy burden, and it sure didn’t make the work of figuring out whether I was meant to be a monk any easier. And even though monastic orders have tried their best to fix the assumption that being a monk or nun is the “superior” vocation, it’s still in the air.
And so I left the monastery. It was deeply embarrassing. Did I disappoint God? Did everyone think that I was an indecisive flake? It seems I took that suitcase of guilt to the monastery, and apparently I made sure to pack it up and take it with me when I left.
The truth is, though, that our vocation is not a secret that we have to figure out. It’s a calling from God that we work out together with God. God works with our hopes and dreams, God works with our desires, and God’s far more creative than to have just one plan for us. We are called to be faithful to God with whatever we do.
So looking back, we see that whatever our vocation is, whatever we are called to do, whatever we think we might be called to do, whatever it is, follow Jesus with what you do. Listen deeply to God, and follow Jesus. Embrace the messiness of it.
So over the years of figuring out what God is calling me to, I’ve discovered that it really is a messy thing, not clear cut and easily defined. There are many different ways to go, and God’s got creativity enough to make it up as we go along, too.
I’m a priest. I’m a thinker and a teacher and a preacher. I’m a parish priest. I’m monk-ish; not a full-fledged monk, but have monk tendencies, but still too much of a hermit to be a monk, so last year I became an associate of a monastic order, the Order of Julian of Norwich, so I can keep my monkish, hermit-ish tendencies in a fellowship with others. I’m also more things than these. I am, in short, called to be me.
Our vocation, our call, is to be ourselves, fully ourselves, truly ourselves, really ourselves, because that is who Jesus has called to follow him. He calls you to follow him.
Follow him. Follow Jesus. Amen.