Acts 1:12-14, 21-26
1 Peter 4:13-16
Who has not been called by God? For calling is manifestly a divine attribute. From Abraham to Moses to Elijah to Elisha to John the Baptist, interaction with God always seems to include a calling away from one life and toward another. Yes, He hides us under the shadow of His wing, and He gives His angels charge over us, but God has plans! Our relationship with Him goes far beyond nurturing and protection as would be true of any mother or father. Things are expected of us, and failing to fulfill these expectations amounts to failure, a wasted life. I do not mean that mother or father will be disappointed. I mean that we would have failed to exercise everything we were made to be — carefully designed and crafted and fitted to be, as surely as a carefully designed sailboat whose sails will never filled with wind and whose hull will never touch water. So full of promise, so full of ability and capacity, yet rotting on a trailer behind someone's barn.
During the spiritual conferences leading up to Easter, we noticed that Judas is a variant form of Judah, which in first-century Palestine meant, "any Jew." We might say "Everyman." When Judas was called among the Twelve, the ministry to the Gentiles had not been revealed, at least not overtly. It is fitting, therefore, that the man who should replace Judah is Matthias, which is close enough to the Greek Matthetes (Μαθητης) to give us pause. For Matthetes in Greek means simply disciple. The parallel is startling: the Jewish Everyman being replaced by the Gentile Everyman; through this we are able to see that that however the disciples are called, they always include us. There is always one who represents the rest of us. And this is right. Who could question it? For everyone is called to vocation as surely as everyone is given a soul at their conception. To deny your vocation is to deny all the treasures that God has placed inside you. It is to deny life itself.
To enter vocation is to venture into a cloud of unknowing, into a mystery. Yet, this venturing is the only way we have to plumb the depths of our interiors. As with many mysteries, we enter a paradox, for we cannot discover our vocation unless we attempt it, and we cannot attempt it until we know what it is. We are left, therefore, to trust in God, that by trying our hand at those things that attract us, we will discover what God has made us to do and to be. No one else can give us the answer; we must journey alone to a far country where we will meet with the strangers who are our vocations.
It follows from this that I cannot speak about anyone else's vocation, for the only compass I have in this undiscovered country is my own person. I am left with no alternative than to talk about myself, therefore, which is to be avoided in the pulpit at all costs! I ask your forgiveness by way of saying that I offer my poor tale in a spirit of humility ever conscious that it is God alone Who has given me whatever gifts I may have. And if my story has one point it is this one, for it is a cold fact that I never planned anything that I ended up doing, and all that I had planned never eventuated or worked out.
When I was in high school, I was certain I did not want to go to college and for years lived a counter-culture life in southern Vermont. Later, as a man in my early twenties, I tried my hand at ancient languages and literatures and discovered that I had a gift that had been invisible to me all of my life. In the end I matriculated at three Ivy League universities, took five degrees (two of them terminal degrees) and then taught, on-and-off, for thirty years at the university level. But this life was not to be my happily-ever-after ending. While I prepared for this career during eleven years of university study and published my first book, I was to be broadsided by a whole different career even before the book was completed.
By twists and turns, I would be offered a research fellowship at Bell Labs. Yet, I had not the slightest clue that I had any aptitude for science or mathematics. Nonetheless, I accepted the offer gratefully and worked for two years in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the site of the Research Area at Bell Laboratories. To my complete surprise, I was then offered a job developing software at the Unix System Development Laboratory. I prospered in this atmosphere rapidly, inventing and developing an electronic publishing system that is still used worldwide and then found myself returning to the Research Area and then joining a group who were collectively known as the Special Assistant to the President of Bell Labs. Later, MIT recruited me to lecture at their Center for Advanced Engineering Studies, and I taught compiler design among other advanced software topics.
I had planned none of these things. In fact, I would have laughed at the very idea of it in 1971, when I thought I would die in Vermont as a farmer. More important, I did not know that I was able to do any of these things. I just began doing them and discovered the gifts God had given me. How does anyone know what gifts they have until they exercise them? Yet, all of these gifts would most certainly have died within me if the accidents of life had not taken over. You know the saying: one thing leads to another.
The greatest surprise, though, still lay ahead. As I was negotiating an agreement with MIT to appear on a regular television program in Boston, God called me to the priesthood. It was a vivid experience, a supernatural experience, even a traumatic experience. And I learned more about Jonah than I ever thought possible. I learned that God is neither a meek and lowly man who just wants everyone to love each other nor a senile old grandfather with a great white beard who just wants everyone to be happy (to borrow C.S. Lewis' words). No, this stage of my calling, while it began with God's still, small voice and subtlety, was far from subtle as the Almighty God, the Lord of Hosts, revealed more and more of Himself, and I recall that Jacob wrestled until dawn with a divine being and then would be disabled from this ordeal, walking with a limp, forever after.
Like Jacob, whose name would henceforth be Israel, nothing would ever be the same. A new world and a new life opened before me. You could say that my life had not yet begun. For life never begins until we awaken to God, which is the vocation that we all most certainly share and upon which everything depends. Once I had committed to my religious vocation — living each day with Him and His surprises, following Him wherever He led — I experienced a fullness, a peace, and a happiness that I had never known before. And I remembered what my religious-sister mentor in seminary told me: "The last great adventure is following God."
People talk of vocation as if it were a neutral event, as if you could receive a call from God and then day, "Sorry, I wish I could make it, but I have other things going on just now." As Joseph Campbell famously wrote on the "Refusal of the Call," where once your life had been a verdant garden it now becomes an arid wasteland. This life-and-death dimension of vocation is to be found throughout the Sacred Scriptures and in the very first words of the Apostles' Teachings — "Two ways there are: life and death."
This crossroads is mentioned, though subtly, in our Epistle reading this morning: "And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias." As all the disciples knew, divination by lots was basic to first-century Judaism. At Yale University, the School of Divinity has two Hebrew words upon its official seal and over its gates: Urim and Thummim. These are associated with the high priest's breastplate and were used to divine God's will. We do not know exactly what these objects were, but we do know, as we find in 1 Samuel 14:41, that they were used to divine who was accursed and who was blameless, who was innocent and who was guilty, who were among the goats and who were among the sheep. There was no neutral in this lottery. You were either with God or against Him. And if I may reach way back to my counter-culture years, I will quote Eldredge Cleaver: "You are either part of the solution or part of the problem."
But as radical as these things may sound, they are not saying anything that we do not already know. Our life in this world is brief. It leads from God at our birth and to God at our death. And at the moment that we close our eyes, only one question hangs in the balance: Were we friends of God? Or will we hear Him say,
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only
the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me,
'Lord, Lord, ...' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me,
you evildoers.'" (Mt 7:21-23)
"Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which His Compassion looks out upon the world.
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do Good. Yours are the hands
with which he Blesses all the world."
"To love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.
This is the First and Great Commandment.
And the Second is like unto it:
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
On these Two Commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."
".... what must I do to have life." But there is so much beyond "having life." In fact, among the many who do have life, this is the least common denominator; it is the beginning. Do you not know that in every age God looks for at least one about whom all nature might say, "This is a man ... This is a woman." David was such a one as this and Job. God chose Moses because his heart was right. Before He was called, Moses' gifts were sleeping. He lived among lowly shepherds, the lowest rung on the social ladder, in a wilderness where he was something of an alien to them, an outcast even among shepherds. But the events which lay ahead would reveal the greatness that was in Him. Had He not given himself over to these events, all of that treasure would have died inside of him.
How many who will hear these words are the very ones in Whom God has placed greatness. I assure you that your friends and your teachers and your mother and your father are the last to know. They will be of no help to you as you attempt to divine this. Only by doing will you be helped .... by God. Consider this: no one in Nazareth saw anything special in Jesus, the Man-Who-Is-God. "Is this not the carpenter's son?!" Even His mother and brothers, as the Gospel of St. Mark clearly depicts, were beside themselves because Mary's Son seems to be crazy.
Your gifts are sleeping within you.
perhaps you are the one in this age on whom God depends,
in whom God has placed remarkable gifts,
for whom there will be mirth in Heaven .... when these gifts are exercised.
But, first, you must venture out into the wilderness,
away from the known and the comfortable as Abraham and Moses and all the Prophets did.
You must venture out,
out, out beyond the country of the already-known, and toward Him,
where He alone knows.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit.