“Deep Gladness, Deep Hunger”

September 2, 2012


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Matthew 4:1-11


There’s an old hymn—I don’t even know when or where I learned it—that both encourages and warns us, singing: “Work, for the day is coming, when our work is done.” We are to work while we can, knowing that one day we shall die. Yet in the Book of Revelation, we hear these words that I read at the beginning of most funerals: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord…they rest from their labors and the works follow them.” Our work seems to bridge our living and our dying.

This seems to echo the thought of the apostle Paul, who concludes his discussion of the resurrection in his Second Letter to the Corinthians with words of encouragement: “In the Lord your labor is not in vain.” There is something about the work we do that endures.

For good or bad, so much of “who we are” is wrapped up in “what we do.” All of our actions reveal something of the inner mystery of ourselves, perhaps none more than our work. “Do your work,” Emerson said, “And I will know you.”

Because of my union background, I always like to take the opportunity on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend to reflect on our work and our faith, to see what connections we can make between the two.

My hope is that we can begin to bridge some of that “Sunday-Monday Gap”—you know the sense that what happens “in church” on Sunday is far removed from what happens in our work the rest of the week—whatever that work might be: paid/unpaid, full time/part time, at home/someplace else.

This morning I want to go beyond thinking about our jobs and consider what it means to have a vocation.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, to call. When we use “vocation” in a faith context it refers to the work to which God calls each one of us. Your calling could be your job—but not necessarily. Many people find a new vocation after they have retired. Many people sense that they are pursuing their calling by doing one thing even while they are paid for doing something else.

Work and calling are similar but they should not be confused.  In the best of situations, the two fit closely together. But it’s been said that “We may choose careers, but we do not choose vocation. In some sense, vocation chooses us.” To me that sounds a lot like Jesus, speaking to his disciples on the night of his arrest, saying, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit…”

Vocation—calling—chooses us and just doesn’t let go.

The novelist and minister, Frederick Buechner, famously said that: “There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.” He suggested that “a good rule for finding out [where the call is coming from] is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done,” concluding, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Your deep gladness.

The world’s deep hunger.

There is something profoundly religious about our work and the calling that underlies it. Vocation is, for each of us, a summons to the divine and to the discovery of what is sacred within us. It is an act of courage to “choose what has chosen us,” to explore what it is that won’t let us go, what calls us.

And that’s why those scripture lessons about temptation are so valuable to us.

Last Sunday I spoke about the need to know your heart’s desire, your deep gladness.

I asked you to consider:

            Is there a deep passion that won’t let you go?

Is there a desire that, fulfilled, would make your life worth living? 

Temptation speaks to our heart’s desire, our deep gladness. It gives us an opportunity to be clear about what we really want, what is calling us—or to go with something false. Usually temptation is not the offer of something evil—but of good that is twisted. It is the offer of “gladness”—but not the fulfilling gladness that we really seek. Most often, temptation offers a short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term joy.

What is your great joy? Each one of us needs to know our deep gladness because that is what will guide us in times of temptation. Your deep gladness is the star to guide you in the dark wilderness.

Temptation carries with it an invitation to give up control of our own lives.

This is what makes the story of the temptation of Jesus all the more interesting. Here we find someone whose personal integrity allows him to look at tempting options and ultimately hold to his own sense of right and wrong. By resisting the temptation to turn his life over to another, Jesus claims his calling. His ministry begins after that period of testing.

In this way, Jesus makes possible the hope that by the grace of God, we too might come to our senses and take responsibility for our own lives. What a difference that might make in a world in which temptation so often includes a devilish invitation to turn over control of our lives to someone else.

One of the gifts of the Congregational tradition is its emphasis on individual responsibility before God. When we are true to our tradition, we’re not going to let some snake—or anyone else—tell us what to do. Those occasions in which we make difficult—but right—choices are occasions when we get clear about our deep gladness.

Having a sense of your own deep gladness, if you would discover your calling, your vocation, you must also know about the world. Where is the world’s deep hunger that speaks to you? Some will find it far away. Some will discover it close at hand.

Either way, that deep hunger is “out there,” beyond your self. The Christian calling is never one of retreat to an inner “spiritual” realm cut off from the rest of the world. Our calling involves with the rest of creation.

And this is where the biblical image of creation helps. Those accounts of “beginnings” in Genesis are not scientific in any sense of the word. They weren’t meant to be.

The biblical account of creation is an expression that the earth belongs to the living God. It tells us that we are created in the God’s image—which is often quite hard to believe. And the image of God within us means that we have the privilege and burden of freedom and choice.

Since the world belongs to God, the deep hunger that we discover as we look at the world is the deep hunger of God’s creation, a holy hunger, a sacred longing.

The hunger of the world might be for health or beauty, for knowledge or peace, for joy or compassion. You might discover the world’s deep hunger in individuals or in groups of people. You might find it in nature. All creation cries out in some way. And there is one deep hunger that calls out to your deep gladness.

Those words from Genesis this morning remind us that ours is a “fallen” world—a creation that is alienated from its creator. The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God began the work of reconciling the world to God—and we are called to be agents of that reconciliation.

The world belongs to God; all things come from God. Your calling, your vocation, also has a divine source. “The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that you need most to do and that the world most needs to have done.”

Where does your deep gladness meet with the deep hunger of the world?

It will most likely be the place where you can give with abundance; you can love with abandon. You can give yourself to those you love, to the causes that claim your heart. You can walk in the way of peace in a world that celebrates violence; you can work for justice in a world that favors privilege; you can speak the truth in a world that prefers easy lies. You can laugh and sing and dance—maybe a little more than you would otherwise.

N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, put it better than anyone else when he wrote: “The resurrection of Jesus means that this present time is shot through with great significance. What is done to the glory of God in the present is genuinely building for God’s future. Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness—these all matter, and they matter forever.. Enfolded in this vocation to build now…the things that will last into God’s new age, is the vocation to holiness: to the fully human life, reflecting the image of God that is made possible by Jesus’ victory on the cross and that is energized by the Spirit of the risen Jesus present within communities and persons.”

What you are doing here matters. Whether you are here for four years or forty, whether you are just starting your career, or at its height, or retired, your work is worth doing.

The good that we do does not end with our defeat or even with our death. By God’s power our works continue, still bearing fruit.