From Our Archives
For other essays on this week's texts, see Debie Thomas, The Undivided Trinity (2020); and The Best of All Beginnings (2014); and Dan Clendenin, Original Goodness: A Prayer from Outer Space (2011).
For Sunday June 4, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
2 Corinthians 13:11–13
This Week's Essay
My wife recently retired from twenty-five years as a public school teacher. I always viewed her teaching not just as a career, but as a calling, and even a sacred gift to our community's civic life. After teaching, she became a full time nanny to our grandkids. Similarly, our three children attended public schools, and then large public universities.
Across those years, and in those settings, my wife and kids grappled with what it means to follow Jesus, as Johnny Cash put it in his song A Boy Named Sue, "in the mud and the blood and the beer." That is, out there in the big, bad world. The idea was to be fully immersed in the world, but at the same time not to become a worldly person.
In his controversial book The Benedict Option (2017), Rod Dreher argued very much otherwise. He said that the cultural war is over and that Christians have lost. Consequently, he urged Christians to secede from mainstream culture. We should turn off our smartphones and watch only movies and television that are consistent with Christian values. Christians should take their kids out of the public schools.
I respect Dreher's decision to home school his own kids, but not his generalized advice to all the church to abandon the world. Every family, child, and parent is different. We all have different opportunities, constraints, backgrounds, experiences, interests, abilities, finances, geography, and so on. We shouldn't presume to advise every believer based upon our own beliefs and choices.
There's an important exception here for a tiny few believers, as the title of Dreher's book suggests — those who have a monastic calling to die to the world and live a cloistered life. I have tremendous admiration for our monastic sisters and brothers, and have taken numerous retreats at monasteries, but they have a unique calling that should not be prescribed for the rest of the church, as Dreher seems to suggest.
In Matthew's gospel for this week, Jesus sends out his followers to spread his good news "to all nations (Luke 24:48; cf. Matthew 28:19). Mark's parallel passage is even more emphatic — we're sent into "all creation" (Mark 16:15). And in Luke's sequel to his gospel, Jesus sends us to "the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8). So, we're sent into the world to share good news, not to separate ourselves from the world into what David Brooks called in his critique of Dreher "neat homogeneous monocultures" that foster "narrowness, prejudice, and moral arrogance."
In the first pages of Genesis this week, God calls us to tend the garden and till the earth, to be trustworthy stewards of the gifts of creation that are given to all people. Prior to and more important than original sin is Original Goodness. The essential goodness of creation is the most conspicuous theme in this story. On the six successive days of creation Genesis repeats the same refrain six times, that God saw what he had created "and it was good." Then, on the sixth day, "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (1:31). Satisfied with this "vast array" of created goodness, on the seventh day "God rested from all his work."
To early Christians who insisted on abstaining from marriage, sex, and certain foods, Paul was blunt: "Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:4).
For the most part, the church has commissioned a separate group of people — missionaries and clergy, to fulfill the so-called Great Commission of Jesus. Already in the New Testament Paul mentions certain people who were paid to spread the good news.
But there are some churches out there today that are experimenting with new ways to think about our sacred callings to embrace the secular world, or, as a friend of mine likes to put it, our secular callings in the sacred world. Consider these four examples.
At Central Presbyterian Church on Park Avenue in New York City, pastor Jason Harris commissions some of his congregants to their sacred vocations of secular work — finance people, lawyers, artists, and health care providers. He wants to close the gap between sacred and secular callings. In this view, virtually all callings can be sacred vocations. I like that.
Similarly, pastor Ryan Beattie of Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Washington has done four similar commissioning services. In the backyards of Microsoft and Amazon, he blesses his parishioners and has them stand to explain what they do and why they do it. It's an effort to connect worship on Sunday with work on Monday.
Pastor Jon Tyson of Trinity Grace Church in New York describes how Steve Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture challenged him: “There are people who labor all week long, and you bring missionaries up front and you pray for them, and you commission and send them out. Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if you could take the people and send them into the city that you love so much, so that they felt like missionaries to their industries?”
Since that challenge from Garber, Tyson has started a new practice. Before he preaches, he has a parishioner from a specific vocational sector come forward, then he has people in the congregation who work in that same field to stand up. They are then blessed to fulfill their commission. After one such service, a teacher remarked to Tyson, “That was the most powerful moment in my entire life in church. Thank you.”
I have a friend in my church who's a corporate attorney. After reading the book Lean In; Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, she joked that she wanted to write a Christian and counter-cultural response called Lean Out. It wasn't that she so much disagreed with Sandberg's message, but rather that at her age and stage, and in a world that defines work and success in narrow ways, she was interested in other aspects of life like care for the poor and her pro bono work.
But she recently took a new job at a new firm, where she's the leader of the firm's pro bono and women's initiatives programs. So, once again she's "leaning in," by choice, and being a presence of God's kingdom in her work-a-day world.
And let's not forget all those who work inside the home instead of outside — like my wife who went from teacher to nanny. These people often work without pay, and are more often than not women rather than men. Some of them do so by choice, and others by necessity. They, too, fulfill a sacred calling.
Our three children have taken different vocational paths — law, big pharma, and finance. I kid them that they have prevented me from joking about three work places that are often the target of sarcasm and criticisms.
Every call to our work in God's world is uniquely personal and deeply sacred. That's why the poem by May Sarton for this week is so powerful: "now I become myself." And similarly the poem by Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: "What I do is me: for that I came." And likewise To Be Famous by Boris Pasternak: "So plunge yourself into obscurity // And conceal there your tracks. // But be alive, alive your full share, // Alive until the end."
The prayer of Jesus to his heavenly Father sends us into the world while avoiding worldliness. The call is to avoid both separatism and conformity. Martin Luther King described this as "transformed nonconformity."
"They are not of the world any more than I am of the world," said Jesus. "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world."
NOTE: See "Helping People Connect Faith and Work" by Skye Jethani and Luke Bobo.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
THEE, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
What I know of thee I bless,
As acknowledging thy stress
On my being and as seeing
Something of thy holiness.
I have life before me still
And thy purpose to fulfil;
Yea a debt to pay thee yet:
Help me, sir, and so I will.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) Wikimedia.org; (2) Wikipedia.org; and (3) The Economist.