Preaching on Vocation
Preaching on Vocation
The longer I preach, the more I realize that in the fight for the kingdom of God, my arch nemesis isn't liberalism, conservatism, secularism, pluralism, or any of the isms at all—it's irrelevance. So many of the burning, acute issues of our day and age simply don't get talked about in church. At all. Tom Nelson wisely said, "In the church, we often spend the majority of our time teaching people how to live the minority of their lives."
He's so right. Think about it. After we're done teaching on a Sunday, most of our people will spend well over forty hours at their job. That's not even counting all the work they don't get paid for: parenting, cleaning the kitchen, yard work, exercise, social justice, and serving at the church …
Work consumes the lion's share of our lives. So why don't we talk about it more often in the church? We need to talk about it. The question is: How?
Work and discipleship
Well our teaching on work has to grow out of our teaching on discipleship. The longer I follow Jesus, the more I see discipleship as the primary category for what this is all about. I would define discipleship as living as a student, or apprentice to Jesus. Making it your life's ambition to be with him, learn his teachings, become like him, and, in time, carry on his work in the world.
Discipleship is holistic. It has to do with the whole person, with all of us. What we call "spirituality," along with work, marriage, sex, money, environmental impact, community, health, and on down the list. Every single category in our life needs to come under apprenticeship to our Rabbi, Jesus.
Most of us don't think about Jesus as a worker who was really good at his job. But he was. In fact, people even called him master. He had a trade. Remember that before he was a well-known Rabbi, he was a techton working in obscurity for three decades. Working hard six days a week, and then resting on the Sabbath, as an act of worship, and then doing it all over again.
If Jesus came today he could have been a software engineer, a high school drama teacher, a graphic novel writer, a diesel mechanic, or a journalist for the New York Times. In other words, he could very well do what our people do. He could live in their house or apartment, work their job, have their education and skill set, and none of that would keep him from 24/7 life in the kingdom of God.
So the central question of every disciple of Jesus is this: If Jesus were me, if he lived in my city, had my job, my income, my relationships, my personality, how would he live? That is the question. But it's a question we don't ask nearly enough.
At my church we have newly married groups because we really believe that marriage matters, and that if we're going to follow Jesus, we need to be good spouses. But why don't we have "newly hired accountant" groups and "newly hired investment banker" groups and "newly hired fireman (or woman)" groups? After all, if we really believe that what we do matters, and if we're going to follow Jesus, than we need to be good accountants, investment bankers, and fire-people.
We need to help our people see their work as an essential part of their discipleship to Jesus. After all, learning how to become a really good mom or dad to your children and a really good disciple of Jesus are the exact same thing. Learning how to become a really good manger in the high tech industry and a really good disciple of Jesus are the exact same thing. Learning how to become a really good screenwriter in Hollywood and a really good disciple of Jesus are the exact same thing. Are you getting my drift?
I love Dorothy Sayers' well known jab at preachers: "The church's approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables." She nails it. Her criticism is valid, but it doesn't have to be. We can help people wake up to the reality that their work is the primary way they cooperate with heaven's invasion of earth. This is what we get to preach and teach and shout from the microphone weekend after weekend.
Create a positive view of good works
Really this comes down to how we end a sermon, how we "land the plane." There are all sorts of ways to end a sermon. The evangelistic mega church usually ends with a call to follow Jesus. The contemplative, liturgical, "ancient future" church usually ends with an introspective question or moment of silence. The Pentecostal church usually ends with a passionate call to revival. And the Reformed church usually ends with a focus on justification by grace through faith. Tim Keller is the master of this. The emphasis is usually on what Christ has done for us on the Cross. In its simpler forms, you hear stuff like, "You can't do this, but Christ already has." As I look out across the topography of the Western church, this seems to be by far the most popular way to end a sermon. Now, there's no "right" way to end a sermon, and variety is the Tapatio on my taco, but I want to humbly suggest that there might be a better way forward.
There are a few latent dangers in the typical Reformed ending to a sermon. One, it can create a negative view of good works, work in general, and anything that falls under the banner of "self-effort." But last time I checked, good works were good. Jesus said, "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."
Paul said to the Ephesians: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Ironically, he said this right after the line about grace through faith, which is usually torn out of context. He told Titus that Jesus, "Gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." And of course his counterpart, James, said, "Faith without works is dead." The writer Peter went so far as to use the language of self-effort: "Make every effort to add to your faith goodness …"
But in a fair number of churches, good works are—oddly—thought of as a bad thing. Huh? When the preacher is constantly beating up on "goods works" and "earning" or "striving" as the antithesis of the "gospel," it's easy to see how the church could get a lackluster vision for work in general.
This can generate a second danger: this negative view of goods works can deflate people's passion for work in general. When the end of the sermon is focused on how "You can't do it, but Christ can," it can be hard to then move people to walk out the door and "do" whatever it is they were made to do. Where's the inspiration in that? It's a great inspiration for worship by singing, but not necessarily for worship by living.
Overcome the sacred/secular divide
Finally, all this can lead to yet another inevitable danger: the well-known sacred/secular divide. Preachers have been fighting this as least as far back as Luther, but the war's still on. So many people divide life into the sacred—the spiritual stuff, the stuff that matters to God—and the secular—all the other, non-spiritual stuff that doesn't really matter in light of eternity.
The problem is that by this definition, most of life is secular! How much time do we spend reading the Bible, praying, preaching the gospel, and so forth? The vast majority of our time is spent grocery shopping, walking the dog, cutting our toenails, reading at the park, doing yoga with our spouse, or eating a burrito and then feeling bloated afterward—but less so if you just finished doing yoga.
This is the stuff of everyday life. But often preaching—good, solid, well done preaching—that is Christ-centered, Bible-based, and theologically sound, can totally ignore the bulk of human existence, especially work.
A better way forward
So … is there a better way forward? I think there is.
I end most sermons by asking the question: How do we live this out, in community, with the empowering of the Spirit?
Look at it in three pieces:
Action: What is your sermon calling people to do? Hopefully something! Most of Paul's letters start with theology and end with practice. All of them end with a call to go out and do something. Can the same be said of our teaching?
Community: I'm constantly calling people to live the sermon out together, in community. This is key in the U.S. where hyper-individualism is the norm. Individualism is nasty stuff, and it thrives in the Petri dish of the sacred/secular divide. Individualism enables people to keep their spirituality in the private of their own homes, and out of, say, their office or career. It enables people to have a Jesus box and then another, separate work box. This is lethal to kingdom living.
But far too often our preaching just baptizes the status quo in this area. Often the "practical application points" are just as individualistic as the rest of culture. I'm not critiquing anybody here but myself. But this is something that must change, and can, pretty easily.
Spirit: This is where my Reformed friends are onto something genius. Whatever it is that the sermon is calling us to go out and do, we don't go at it alone. We have a community to help. And we have the Spirit to empower us to live out the kingdom of Jesus.
A huge chunk of my sermons—especially toward the end—are calling people towards "the practice of the presence of God." Calling people to live with God, all day long, and out of that place of intimacy and dependence, do the work that's spread out for them to do.
This all comes down to what you're trying to do with a sermon. For me, my goal is to shape a people into the image of Jesus in order to participate in his kingdom life and mission. This means I have to talk about work, because it's one of the main ways to participate in the mission of Jesus. I have to talk about all sorts of "secular" things. Because Jesus is looking for disciples, or apprentices, to follow him in everything. One step at a time.
John Mark Comer is the pastor for teaching and vision at Bridgetown: A Jesus Church in Portland, Oregon. He’s also the author of a new book called Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human.