Exodus 3:1-15

Matthew 16:21-28

Today, during Labor Day weekend, our denomination invites us to celebrate Christian Vocation Sunday. The lectionary readings certainly line up, and today I remember the Sunday ten years ago this weekend, when my call to ministry crystallized. That Labor Day weekend, I was getting ready for my senior year in high school, and it felt like time to decide what my next step in life would be.

The Old Testament text that day was the call of the prophet Jeremiah, but the dialogue was similar to our story today from Exodus. God calls, and Jeremiah responds like Moses does here: “Who am I to go to your people?” God’s response is pretty much the same as well: “I will go with you.” God calls people to serve and sends them on their way, but God goes with them as well.

I was thick in the mess of making decisions about college, and when I heard that text, somehow much of my life fell into place. I had started to realize that I needed to work with people, because even though I had so many other interests, “people work” fed me very differently. I was full of compassion for people in pain, and this “call” business gave me the idea that my own pain could serve as a guide for supporting other people in pain. Like Moses, I can’t look at God or even repeat the true name of God, but God looks at human pain – even the pain of His people enslaved in Egypt – and calls me to do the same.

My own sense of call is usually frustratingly vague. When people ask, usually all I can say is that God told me, “Love my people.” Of course, that’s just a way of stating the basic duty we’re called to as Christians. We’re all called, pretty generically, to love other people. That’s a pretty abstract idea, next to the particulars of Moses’ call here. Part of me would love to be told, “Bring my people up out of Egypt.” That’s a defined task with a measurable outcome, and those sound great, even if they happen to be things I’m not especially good at! Moses was wise and Spirit-led, to be sure, but he wasn’t exactly a contemplative thinker.

Then again, my call to love God’s people is unique to me. It’s about putting my particular gifts into God’s service, to love as I’m best able to love. That doesn’t actually have to do with necessarily doing the things I’m best at doing, but it’s about doing the things that are the most loving when I do them. That basic Christian call to love our neighbors is useless if we’re just talking about generic “love.” Love is only real when we live it, when we share it with real people who have real lives and real needs.

My particular call is to parish ministry, at least so far as I’ve discovered it so far. My special blessing is a call to stand in for Christ at various points in the life of the church. It’s not a universally accepted idea in Protestant religion that the pastor should stand in Christ’s place and represent the love of God, and definitely the whole church should carry out this part of our priesthood: we all represent Christ’s continuing life in the world. But my particular call, my shape of that priesthood, is to stand in for Christ when we need someone particular to do that. We often need someone else to help lift up God’s love in this extended family, and here I’m the person we call on to do that. That’s a sacramental business, to help make God’s love real.

Of course, my call is a professional, full-time job, but vocations don’t have to be. Full-time ministry fits me no matter what I’m doing, because I’m not very good at drawing lines between what I do for money and what I do because it’s satisfying work. Full-time paid vocations sure don’t fit everyone. Some of us take our primary identities, not from a full-time job, but from caring for our kids, volunteering, or something else. Where I and many others may be called to a particular kind of career, some of us have a much deeper calling in what we call “ordinary life.”

My own call has been confirmed many times over, in various different positions where I’ve felt that my identity uniquely belongs to this work. Ever since my first preaching work in New Sharon, just south of Grinnell where I went to college, I’ve found myself most built up by preaching and being with a congregation from week to week. Working for Habitat for Humanity, I felt affirmed in the tangible service to meet real needs, but I missed that connection with a congregation. Even working at the Olive Garden affirmed my call, as I found myself representing the church and the Good News to my peers, living out our great story that God’s people are accepted. As I’ve finally settled into full-time ministry here, I’ve been shocked on occasion as I realize that my job consists of caring for people. It’s amazing.

This role that shapes my ministry is particularly complicated, since I’m always in that tension between loving people and leading the rest of the church into love. I’m deeply satisfied by helping someone else thrive, and I’m very sensitive to the pastoral need to support other people in their ministry – this work isn’t just mine to do alone. At the same time, my deeper call is to minister alongside others, to join you and directly do the work we’re all called to. Eventually, I’m pretty sure I’ll learn how to do both of those at the same time.

Through this, I try to follow my deepest call, to love God’s people, and to let that love show up in my everyday life. The best guide is for us to seek the love of God in every moment, but that’s so much harder than it sounds. I’m not anywhere near perfect at this, as I’m still working to balance all the roles I fill and discern the path of love in my life. Love isn’t easy. It means overcoming my ego, conquering my need to fit in with the people around me, balancing my needs, and learning to see more clearly the true needs of others.

To really love other people, the true measure of Christian life is to look at the pain of the world. Just as God in Exodus is drawn passionately into the Hebrew people’s captivity and desire for freedom. Just as Christ shares our pain even to the point of going to the cross in kinship with us. We’re called to look at the world, to see the desire of our loving hearts: a desire for Good News to be shared with all people.

This desire isn’t a simple matter of “happiness.” This is something in us that can only be satisfied by living God’s love in the world. We find ourselves by giving ourselves up, because then we see where we truly belong. This self-denial isn’t about pretending that we don’t have needs or desires, but it’s about knowing our needs and balancing them with the greater call to love the rest of God’s people. This love is about God’s desire for the whole world to be made whole again.

If we’re like me, we constantly have to seek our vocation, because God is always calling for new life in every new moment. That vocation isn’t usually as clear as we’d like it to be. God’s plan is beyond us, and we’re not able to see past the horizon in front of us. On top of that, we all wear blinders – in the shape of ourselves, our desires, and our fears – that keep us from truly seeing what God wants us to look at. Life is a constant process of looking again at the world, as broken as it is, and seeing what God wants for it.

This love we’re called to embody constantly draws us out of ourselves, out of our fears and short-sightedness, into God’s new life for all God’s people.