Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” (John 12)
“Vocation is the residue that is left when all the games of self-deception have ceased.”
Vocation is a word that gets thrown around a lot in church, but like a lot of words that get frequent use, we don’t know much about what we mean by it. We associate it with some idea of being “called” (it’s Latin root, vocare, does mean to call), but exactly how we are to know by whom and for what is a bit unclear.
And so, like a lot of words whose meaning we casually take for granted, it is Rowan Williams who takes the idea of vocation and opens the true complexity within. During the Wednesday evening Lenten contemplative service, we have been reading excerpts from his essay, “Vocation,” and it is there that one finds those haunting words with which I began: “Vocation is the residue that is left when all the games of self-deception have ceased.”
Throughout this season, we have had as our theme “In the Looking Glass: Knowing Ourselves to Understand Others.” What we have been focused on is the idea that if we are to bridge any of the chasms that separate us from one another, we must first be able to see ourselves clearly—to recognize our prejudices, to know our motivations (both good and bad), to name our deepest fears. And Williams would have it that this need for such a brutal self-honesty lies at the heart of finding our own sense of calling, or purpose, in the world.
The trouble, he suggests, is that we all tend to have a rather dramatic idea of being what it means to be called—a bit like a theatrical casting, where God has a very big script (and a rather good one at that), but is rather arbitrarily assigning each of us our part in it. Yet the role we get, is often not much to our liking. We may be quite sure that we would make an excellent Hamlet, if only we were not trapped in the obscurity of Second Gravedigger—or we may be cast in a very large role for which we feel ill-prepared, and long for the relative anonymity of a small walk-on role. Either way, we have a sense that God hasn’t got it quite right, and that it all feels a bit capricious.
And so we feel the weight of having to try to be some one that deep down, we truly aren’t. And that is a heavy burden to carry—the weight of having to pretend to be something that is more—or less—than our true selves.
It reminds me of time when I was a graduate student, working during vacations for a temp agency in New York City. One assignment was to a fledgling investment banking firm, that in fact had only two employees. They had rented a very beautiful office in the Chase Manhattan building overlooking the harbor, but in fact it was just the two of them, and me (the secretary). When it came time for important conference calls, they would ask me to get on the call and act like I was part of the professional team, to make the firm seem bigger than it was. But that was always tremendously awkward, since I didn’t talk the lingo, and didn’t really know anything about what they were up to. Trying to be someone you aren’t, isn’t easy.
And so, the challenge is to do the hard work of becoming radically honest with ourselves, unmasking the external social structures and interior emotional needs that cast us into parts we are uncomfortable playing.
It is, says Williams, all about learning to hear our own true name spoken amidst the cacophony of other voices that call out to us. God, you see, in the act of creating is also naming—giving to each of us an identity that is uniquely ours. And so in the first instance, our vocation is simply to exist, to respond to the call to be. But in the second instance, our vocation is to exist as ourselves, as who we uniquely are.
And so, we are born into a web of social identities, from among which we try on a variety of possible roles. Like an adolescent teenager, we try out various ways of being our own person, looking for the one that fits.
But what we too often fail to keep in mind, is that these roles are ultimately not just ways of being me, but also of responding to God’s call to mirror back to God the same love and joy and mercy and compassion with which God looks upon us. Vocation, in other words, is finding the particular way in which I myself am best able to reflect back the divine light that shines upon me.
Which implies making a certain kind of commitment. If I am to live in the divine light as a musician, for instance, then I must be committed to a certain rhythm of study and practice. Or if I am to live as a spouse or a parent, then I am committed to a certain pattern of care and concern. Not that such life-long commitments claim to predict the future of who I will be—but they become the path along which I am continually moving, learning to be me.
Think back to today’s gospel—over the last few weeks, we have seen Jesus struggling to come to terms with his own sense of identity. The question for him, as it is for us, is how to reflect back God’s presence in himself (or to “glorify God’s name,” as John puts it). In what we read today, Jesus clearly has come to some kind of realization of what that means, and of what is to come, and willing takes it upon himself, for as he says, “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” There is a clarity in his sense of purpose, a “residue” (if you will) of all that his search in the wilderness for his true self has revealed, that now marks his vocation.
We human beings have an extraordinary power for self-deception. Somehow, we can easily look reality in the face, and then without any compunction simply deny it, if it suits our need. We can likewise look at ourselves, and refuse to see the structures of privilege or bias that cast us in roles we are not suited to play, not if we are to be truly our self. This Lent has asked each of us to look at what we reflect back to God through the manner of our own life, and to unravel the games of self-deception that we play at others’ expense—to find the residue that is our own truest self. For it is only when those games of self-deception have ceased, that we will for the first time truly hear God calling our own true name, and be able to respond, “Here I am.” Amen.