Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of Proverbs, and this morning I’m going to be reading several verses throughout my sermon—through this section of the proverbs I’m preaching more on themes than on passages. If you want to use one of our Bibles, you can raise your hand and someone will bring you one.

We’ve been in a series through the book of Proverbs for a while now. Proverbs is a book of wisdom, and wisdom is different from information. Information is what’s trending and we’re always creating new information and staying in the know, but wisdom is that which has been true from the beginning. Information is of the mind only, but wisdom is of the heart, the blend of knowledge and feeling, value and purpose. Perhaps more than anything what we need in our lives is not the information of our day, but the wisdom of times and places other than our own to help us break free of the common ideas and behaviors which have so shaped our culture and our lives today.

Solomon, who wrote the Proverbs, insists wisdom isn’t hiding, but God is proclaiming and revealing it in every corner of creation—it’s just in the noise of this life, it’s hard to know what to believe. Who can you trust to know and speak the truth? How can we live in a way that won’t leave us empty and alone, that won’t leave us on the wrong side of history, or regretting what we’ve done?

The last few weeks, we’ve talked about the relationships within families, and we’re going to come back to that. We also looked at advice in the Proverbs toward making big decisions, how we’ve convinced ourselves that our plans are more important than they actually are, how we spend a lot of our lives asking for guidance on things which have already been revealed. Perhaps more importantly, we talked about the way in which God is able to take all of our decisions, even our mistakes, and in his sovereignty weave our plans and sins into his plans, making beautiful meaning of our brokenness.

This week, we’re going to dig deep on something we just touched on briefly last week—another old idea; one we’ve largely lost from our lives and churches, but we ought to recover: the idea of vocation. I don’t just mean work, but Christian vocation. I would argue vocation is one of the main themes of the book of Proverbs, and as such we should see vocation as central to a life lived in wisdom, but vocation in the old sense, not our ideas today. Pray with me, briefly.

Vocation. I know when I use that word in our day and age, most people’s minds go immediately to work—your job. And the wisdom literature has a lot to say about work. For instance, Proverbs 18:9 “Whoever is slack in his work, is a brother to him who destroys.” Meaning not doing anything of value to your community is tantamount to vandalizing your community, with how much strife you cause. Or 12:11 “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” You should find work, and put effort into it, try to do it well.

But before you start going around telling people the Bible wants them to go farm a bootstrap for 80 hours a week, you should hear the rest of what Proverbs has to say about work. For example, that it’s foolish to spend all of your life working and never enjoy time with your friends and family. That you should build in time to rest, despite the cost. That you shouldn’t work for someone who demands more of you than they should. That you don’t have to pursue your passions and find fulfillment in your work—God is the one who fulfills and sustains us. Work is meant to provide for yourself and the people around you.

And vocation in the old sense is a much larger idea than just work. Vocation, in the old sense, means all the ways you use your talent and abilities to serve your family and community. As Peter writes in one of his letters, “as each has received a gift, let him use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” Marriage, family, for example, for centuries was seen as one of the cardinal vocations of the Christian, for men and women. I remembered as I was writing this, a certain joke website publishing an article years ago with the headline of, “Father of three wonders when he’ll get a chance to influence others for Christ,” which is their tongue-in-cheek way of saying, if you have a family, that’s already a ministry—and it should be your primary one.

Citizenship was also, for centuries, seen as part of the Christian’s vocation. Learning ways of interacting in civic life toward the thriving of the community. The separation of church and state is not, or should not be, a separation of the Christian and the state. So hopefully you can see what I mean. Vocation: all the ways you use your talent and abilities to serve your family and community. What talents do you have? What gifts? What abilities? I don’t care what your role is, we need you. Without you we are a body missing members, a temple missing stones.

Two things are true from the scriptures this morning, and I want to speak both truths: you ought to pursue vocation in your life, one, and two, you ought not to allow it to consume you. Because in the end, your efforts and abilities are not what sustains your community—it’s God’s providence. God gives his servants rest.

Towards the beginning of Proverbs, if you were here for the beginning of this series, Solomon compares what he calls foolishness, folly, or wickedness, he compares it to the ancient Canaanite god Mot, Baal was the God of rain and sky, like Zeus, but Mot ruled the underworld, the god of death—do y’all remember this? Mot was said always to be devouring, yet never satisfied in his hunger. His throat led to Sheol, to the underworld, so everything he swallowed collapsed into the abyss.

It’s a good image. A convicting one for me. I confessed to you, at the start of this series, that work in my life can be this way— work is one of the things which consumes my life, which is always devouring my time and energy and yet always seems to want more of me, but I’ve been without enough work, too, and that was an equally desperate situation. Maybe you’ve been there, or maybe you’re there now, where your work, or the lack of it, is devouring your life. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it, and I know how helpless it can feel. You have to find a balance. Work is like water; you have to have enough to live on, but too much will drown you, and it’s difficult to find balance. Sometimes you can feel afloat and stranded, like if you change your life in any way you’ll be adrift without much hope of rescue.

I’ve talked with a lot of people, especially through the pandemic, who are struggling with vocation, and who have stopped believing it’s possible to find a healthy work-life balance. The news has been filled with stories of young families, especially young moms, leaving the workforce in droves over the past few years, or changing jobs, going remote, going part-time, and as a father with young kids, I completely understand it.

We’ve inherited, and created a culture where everyone works full-time and yet childcare has been unavailable or unstable for years, and everyone with kids right now is realizing just how much family can require of you. I was talking to one friend the other day who told me she’s lost hope she can find any kind of balance—she’s just trying to survive and she’s not alone. A lot of people aren’t having kids, or waiting indefinitely, or trying desperately for someone to not work or go part-time, and there’s a general sense among people my age of impossibility and waiting for the world to change. A multi-platinum album from this year largely about work and family declares, “I don’t know anyone who is truly satisfied.”

Let’s ask this question this morning: is there something else between dropping out and falling down? Is there a third way, a middle way, perhaps, between thirst and drowning, poverty and exhaustion? In answer, the wisdom literature speaks of vocation as balance, as a path toward wisdom and righteousness.

I’m not going to be able, this morning, to get to the bottom of what Scripture has to say about vocation and balance, fall and oppression—I want to admit that, before we get to the end of the sermon and you think—he didn’t fully answer the question. True, but I want to make a start this morning, and I’m increasingly convince the answer lies in a piece of our theological heritage we’ve lost in evangelicalism today, rather, and this is a bit uncomfortable: we haven’t lost it, we abandoned it. The theological word is sacramentalism, which means that God is able to inhabit earthy things in a spiritual way and speak to us in and through his creation.

Throughout this series in Proverbs, I’ve used these proverbs of ancient wisdom as a way of launching off into the great tradition of the church. The refrain of proverbs is, “Son, listen to your father’s instruction,” meaning it would be wise for us today to hear the words of our fathers, our ancestors, our brothers and sisters in Christ in other times and places. Vocation is something talked about all through church history, but perhaps the biggest focus on vocation came from the works and writings of Martin Luther, the German reformer, and at the center of his teaching on vacation was his belief in sacramentalism, which for him meant that God was able to inhabit daily tasks, people were able to worship in every thing they did, to mirror their creator and in every moment or service or creation.

If you know anything of Luther’s thought, you probably know his thoughts about good works. He taught that, while faith in God would lead a person toward good works, those good works couldn’t save or sanctify you. We are saved by grace through faith alone, not of our own doing, but a gift of God. And if you’re thinking, “Well, that’s not Luther, that’s the Bible,” I would answer that Christians need to be reminded from time to time of the Bible, and what it teaches. We have a great capacity in believing only part of our faith. Luther taught, God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does. God doesn’t benefit from your good works, but your neighbor can.

You see, in his day, what we would call career had basically three options: those who fought, those who worked, and those who prayed. The fighters were the nobility and chivalry, the Lords and knights. Those who worked, meaning the middle class of craftsmen and merchants. And those who pray, meaning the clergy, which at that time would have been largely comprised of not just churches but monasteries as well.

The clergy were seen as the pious ones. They did the good works of the community, and received the spiritual rewards. They were the saved ones, the good people, saved and glorified by their good works. Other professions were distractions from the devotion and piety of the church. Pastors, monks, were revered as the holy ones of society, and the others were too often told they were sinful or less holy, in need of indulgence or purgation or atonement in order to enter the society of the pious. Pray more, pray harder. Give more, believe more, be more.

In that society, Luther’s message was radical. He taught that holy-seeming acts which aren’t in service of your neighbor, but instead for your sake alone, aren’t actually good works. A pastor who focuses his energies on his own holiness without loving the people in his community isn’t a good pastor. He writes, “If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even for one’s enemies.”

Luther saw every moral work as holy work, because people were spending their days denying their own needs in order to serve the people around them, a daily kind of dying to self. Luther taught that the cobbler, or brewer, or farmer who worked every day to provide some sort of good or service to their community was holier that the monk who spent his life in prayer but never left the monastery to involve himself in his community. The mother who pours out her days to care for her children and keep her house had done a holier work than the most ascetic priest who also fails to care for his people. To be clear, he’s arguing, not against the institutions of church or monastic life, but against a kind of piety that maybe makes a person seem holy, but actually does very little for the community. Luther’s faith was one that fit just as well in a stable as in a basilica, which is good, because our savior inhabited both spaces.

And I agree with him. I appreciate what I learned about humble service as a coffee barista for all those years putting myself through seminary about as much as I appreciate what I learned in my actual seminary classes. I learned in those shops what hospitality means, how to make someone feel like you want them there, like they belong. How to listen instead of speak. How to welcome and serve people who were entirely unlike me and believed things I did not.

I tell people all the time, who aren’t part of this church, one of the holiest people I know is a maintenance worker. Another is a librarian. Another is a teacher. Another cares for the elderly and works every day to improve their quality of life. These are holy works. Service, building, knowledge, care for children and widows. What religious act is purer than these? Consider for a moment that Jesus’ life was primarily spent working construction—the holiest man ever to live spent probably fifteen years working a job, and three preaching. Luther taught that vocation was our practical way of dying to self every day. As parents, as spouses, as servants, as workers—we’re learning every day to place the needs of other people ahead of our own.

Our need is not frantically to add more good deeds in and around the work we do, but rather to learn to pursue our vocations in holy ways. What does it look like to be a holy postman? A holy construction worker? A holy truck driver? We still need this word of wisdom today. We’re still divided as a church, but we’re no longer reformed in our view of vocation. We call ourselves protestants, but I see many of the same misunderstandings which characterized the church in Luther’s day present in our own.

Ask yourself, why do churches insist on compassion ministry projects which gain a lot of attention but don’t really meet a deep need of the community? We would rather do a toy drive than create a job, rather do short-term trips than move into the city, rather preach a sermon to strangers than serve and care for a coworker.

And still today, pastors are revered as the holy ones, and religion, good works, are seen as their craft and trade. Pastors are expected to be the holiest people in the church, the most devoted, the most Christ-like. We don’t talk about teaching school in devotion to Christ, or working retail, or waiting tables, or practicing law. If a child is interested in the things of God we tell them they should go to seminary, become a pastor.

And we again believe that religion is something we do at church. We come, we sing songs, we listen to the sermon, and we go. Most of us leave our religion at the church when we go. Along the way, we’ve stopped believing God is able to inhabit earthy things, even though the entirety of scripture is revealing him to be a God who does just that. All through the Bible, whenever our God is asked how he’s different from every other god in the world, all the things we might worship, he responds, I’m the God who is with you.

In the ancient world, when people believed gods lived on the tops of mountains, in high places, over and over again, God shows his presence on earth, among his people. When his people scattered into every nation on earth in the exile, God promises in a thousand ways, I’m still with you. I’m going to go with you; Immanuel, God with us. He is the God who emptied himself, entered into earthly humanity, lived as one of us, ate at our tables, and worked in our fields to be with us, God with us.

But I’m afraid in subtle ways we’ve stopped believing God is with us, that he comes to us where we live and work. God lives at church. We don’t think he’s in our work-a-day lives unless we bring him there in some special way. We don’t expect to encounter him in our lunchtime meal or our morning routine. We don’t make space for him throughout our day. We’ve allowed the separation of church and state to become a separation of faith and work.

Practically, what I’m suggesting looks like breaking down the dividing walls between the various parts of your day. I’m not saying you need to let your work bleed over into your family time or your time in church; opposite. Treat your family as though they are your primary vocation. And let what we do here in church overflow into your work life. Whatever it is you do, make it holy.

For myself, I’ve been thinking for months now about what is means to be a holy pastor, instead of assuming that just because my work is church work that it’s good work. I need to love and serve my people, to build times of rest and prayer into my day, allow myself to slow down in recognition that the work of God in New Orleans doesn’t depend upon me, and I am not necessary to it. I need to be more vocal about the needs of my family here and at my work, because they are my primary vocation. Pastor, father of four, finally realizes where his real ministry lies.

Meals, too, are sacred times of fellowship. I don’t want to waste them. It’s easy to forget, eating most of the time with three toddlers, but meals are a gathering of God’s children around a table he has providentially provided. I want to sit at the table with people I love and commune with them, remember them. Practicing hospitality at work and at home as I practice it here, doing what I can to make people, even my children, feel welcomed, like they belong. Listening instead of speaking. Serving instead of asking to be served. Living according to Christian discipline even when I’m tired at the end of my day.

And what would it look like to build confession and assurance of pardon into my family life? I’ve been trying to apologize to my kids when I lose it, when I don’t parent well, rather than blaming my mistakes on others because I can. Hopefully these things can help you find ways, in your life, to remember the God who is with us wherever we go, even if we go home. Even if you rise on the wings of the dawn and drive to work. He’s there, and his right hand will hold you fast.

For you, maybe you aren’t pursuing vocation right now and you need to find work, reach out to family. Maybe your job is devouring you and you need to get a new one, or advocate more for your primary vocations of life in family and in your church community. Maybe you need to build in more times of rest, prayer, and fasting. Maybe you need to allow the needs of your family to get in the way of your career.

I don’t know what it looks like for you, but I do know that where we’ve made mistakes, if we confess them one to another, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleans us. I do know that nothing is worth selling your soul. And I know, if God is speaking to you this morning, today is the day you should hear his voice and change the path you’re walking on. The days that are past suffice for acting foolishly.

I’ll close with this, an answer to a question I get all the time as a pastor: people ask me if we will work when the Lord returns to renew the earth. I believe, yes, but oppression will not exist. Nor will the fall strip us of the fruit of our labors. Nor will our own brokenness limit us in the expression of our talents and abilities. Imagine a community in which people serve one another with their God-given talents in perfect expression and in fair exchange. Every kind of good work valued and lifted up. May the Lord in his wisdom come soon. Pray with me.