Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once suggested the following definition for the word “vocation.” A vocation, he said, is “a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.”
There can be no doubt that Jesus had a deep sense of vocation, a sense that his purpose for being in the world was directly related to the purposes of God. Again and again, he repeats the claim that he has been sent into the world by the Father – not to do his own will, but God’s will; not to accomplish his own purposes, but God’s purposes. The words that he speaks and the deeds of power that he does are signs of God’s light and life breaking into the world. He knows the Father and has come to reveal the Father’s will to those who believe, so that they may have power to live as “children of God.” He has come to “lay down his life” in order that they might have “eternal life.” He has come, not to be served, but to serve.
At this final meal with his followers and friends, he makes it clear that his vocation is also their vocation.
As he was sent into the world, so they are sent into the world.
As he has testified to the Truth, so they are to testify to the Truth.
As he is laying down his life for them, so they are to lay down their lives for one another.
As he has come not to be served but to serve, so they too are called to spend their lives in the service of others.
At his final meal with them, he underscores this important lesson. “Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, [Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel about himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”(John 13:3-5)
Jesus’ action is practical, but also symbolic. He takes up the role of a servant so that his disciples will see and understand that they too are to live as servants of God’s love in the world. “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’” (John 13:12-15) His action is a metaphor, an image, an icon of the life of loving service to which they are called. This is your call, he is saying to them and to us. This is your vocation. This is your purpose for being in the world. You are to be servants in the world, servants of God’s love and compassion. You are to meet people in the lowest places in their lives, in the places where they know themselves to be soiled and unfit, and you are to love and serve them there, putting their needs before your own, laying down your lives for them. You are to wash their feet.
Tonight I want to tell you a story that illustrates what this call to service is all about. The story is from Robert Coles, the well-known Harvard psychologist and teacher, and is recorded in his book, The Call of Service.
In 1961, Robert Coles traveled to New Orleans to meet and to study the six-year-old girls who were the first to integrate the New Orleans public schools. He was fascinated by them, by their strength and stoic courage in the face of tremendous pressure and opposition. He wondered what made it possible for them, day after day, to walk past angry, shouting mobs who hurled insults and threats at them, in order to enter their new school. The girls had to be accompanied to school by U.S. marshals because local and state police refused to protect them. He tells us about Tessie, a first-grader at the McDonough School.
One morning, when Coles was visiting Tessie’s home, he witnessed a conversation between the girl and her grandmother, Martha. For the very first time, Tessie was hinting that she might like to stay home from school that day. Coles writes,
On that day, Tessie was not so much reluctant to go to school as tired and weary. She was recovering from a bout of the flu; she had slipped and fallen while playing in a nearby back yard; and she didn’t like her substitute teacher. The grandmother, privy as always to the child’s worries, doubts and difficulties, knew full well her granddaughter’s state of mind that early morning. Tessie had suggested (over breakfast) that perhaps, for the first time, she would stay home from school… The grandmother said yes, that would be fine if Tessie truly wasn’t well. But if she was more discouraged than sick, that was quite another matter…
“It’s no picnic, child – I know that, Tessie – going to that school. Lord Almighty, if I could just go with you and stop there in front of that building and call all those people to my side, and read to them from the Bible, and tell them, remind them, that He’s up there, Jesus, watching over all of us – it don’t matter who you are or what your skin color is. But I stay here, and you go – and your momma and your daddy, they have to leave the house so early in the morning that it’s only Saturdays and Sundays that they see you before the sun hits the middle of its traveling for the day. So I’m not the one to tell you that you should go, because here I am, and I’ll be watching television and eating or cleaning things up while you’re walking by those folks. But I’ll tell you, you’re doing them a great favor; you’re doing them a service, a big service.”
She stopped briefly to pick up a fly swatter and go after a bee that had noisily appeared in the kitchen. She hit it and watched it fall to the floor, then plucked a tissue from a box on the counter, picked up the bee, still alive, and took it outside, where it flew off. I was surprised; I’d expected her to kill the bee and put its remains in the wastebasket. She resumed speaking, and again to my surprise, connected her rescue of the bee to what she had started to say.
“You see, my child, you have to help the good Lord with His world! He puts us here – and He calls us to help Him out. That bee doesn’t belong here; it belongs out there. You belong in the McDonogh School, and there will be a day when everybody knows that, even these poor folks – Lord, I pray for them! – these poor, poor folks out there shouting their heads off at you. You’re one of His people; He’s put His hand on you. He’s given a call to you, a call to service – in His name! There’s all those people, scared out of their minds, and by the time you’re ready to leave the McDonogh School they’ll be all calmed down, and they won’t be paying you no mind at all, child, and I’ll guarantee you, that’s how it will be!”
As she was speaking, Tessie finished her breakfast, marched confidently to the sink with her dishes, put them in a neat pile, and went to get her raincoat and empty lunch pail from her room – all without saying a word. She was going to school…
The gift that Martha is giving to Tessie is the gift of vocation. She is instilling in her a sense that her purpose for being in the world is related to the purposes of God. She is teaching her the way of service. “You’re doing them a great favor,” she says, “you’re doing them a service, a big service.”
Martha helps Tessie to hear and to respond to God’s call. “You’re one of His people,” she tells her, “He’s put His hand on you. He’s given a call to you, a call to service – in His name!” And that is all the reassurance that Tessie needs. She knows that she belongs to God, that she has been chosen by God and “put here” for a specific purpose. She has been called “to help the Good Lord with his world” by loving and serving others – even her enemies and those who wish her harm – for Christ’s sake.
Tonight, in this liturgy, we re-enact the interchange between Jesus and his followers. We will wash the feet of others, and allow them to wash our feet. What we do here is symbolic; it represents the life of loving service to which we are called. God has chosen us. God has put His hand on us and given us a call, a call to service, in His name. Each of us is given a particular vocation, a special purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God. Each of us is called to serve as Jesus served, to love as Jesus loved, to lay down our lives as he laid down his life.
Take up these symbols, then, of the new life: towel and basin and water. Let them be for you a sign of your love for him and your gratitude for all that he has done for you. Let them be for you a pledge of your commitment to serve – not out of duty, but out of love; not to obtain a reward, but to imitate the One who freely and willingly laid down his life for you. Let them be for you a reminder of your true vocation. You have been called to serve.
Brueggemann, Walter; “Covenanting as Human Vocation;” Interpretation 33 (1979); pp.115-129.
John 17:18; John 20:21
John 3:31b-32; John 21:24; I John 1:1-3
John 10:11, 17-18; I John 3:16
Coles, Robert. The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism; (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993); pp.3,4.
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