Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Career, or Vocation?
“I am sending Onesimus back to you … that you might have him no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother.” (Philemon)
It being Labor Day weekend, I propose that we spend a few minutes this morning thinking about work, and our relationship to it.
The theme is suggested not just by the holiday calendar, but also by the epistle lesson, drawn from Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul is imprisoned, and while in prison he has befriended a run-away slave named Onesimus. Now it turns out that Onesimus belongs to a man named Philemon, a leader of a house church probably in Colassae, with whom Paul is well acquainted.
The purpose of Paul’s letter seems to be two-fold. In the first instance, he implores Philemon to receive Onesimus back without punishment—already a bold request given that in the ancient world a slave could be punished however his master deemed fit.
But more than that, Paul also makes the even bolder move of asking Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother, because of their common bond in Christ. Now this really is a radical upset of the social relations of the time, because slaves were essentially considered to be subhuman. And here is Paul encouraging not only forgiveness and reconciliation, but recognition of Onesimus’ full humanity. He doesn’t go quite so far as to suggest that Philemon should grant Onesimus his freedom, but he does advocate that their working relations need to be founded on a sense of mutual respect and fraternity.
That, at least, is one interpretation of the letter. There are others, but I like this one, so that’s the direction we’re going to take, especially because it sets up the real theme that I want to talk about: work, career, and vocation.
If Paul’s letter is primarily about the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, and therefore the relationship that each of them has to the work of the household in which they each dwell, it raises for us a similar question: what is our relationship to the work that we do?
Such a question puts me in mind of the classic concept of the homo faber, that is, the idea that as human beings, we create the world which we inhabit through the work of our own hands. Theologically speaking, it extends on the notion of deus faber, the creative God, by suggesting that creation is not complete in and of itself, but requires the imaginative and productive engagement of the human community to bring it to its fulfillment.
Now, in a primitive society where human beings live an essentially subsistence lifestyle, such a portrait is pretty easy to see. But what about in the market economy of global mass cultural which we inhabit? It can be much harder to see the connection between the work we do and any creative process that claims to be contributing to the formation or fulfillment of the world.
One bridge across that gap is to reclaim a distinction between the idea of work as a career, and work as a vocation. David Brooks recently wrote a piece in the New York Times on exactly this theme, but there have been others before him: the literary critic Edward Said in his magisterial book on the creative process, called Beginnings: Method and Intent. And behind that work was the Italian Enlightenment political philosopher, Giambattista Vico. Distinguishing between career and vocation, in other words, a long tradition of thought, but one worth revisiting.
The substance of the distinction is this: the idea of career comes from the Latin word carraria, which means a track, a well-beaten path, an established road. It’s a course of life that has a pretty well defined trajectory: certain credentials are required to enter into it, certain hurdles have to be crossed, and certain expectations of advancement are assumed. Entering upon a career is a bit like turning into the on-ramp of a freeway: your direction is pretty well set for you from then on, and you can stay on the established road indefinitely, unless you choose for some reason to exit.
Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the word vocare, which is a verb meaning to call, to be summoned, to hear and to respond. To think of one’s work as a vocation is to have a sense of responding to a purpose that is larger than oneself, and of entering onto a terrain where the road is not so clearly marked or established. Vocation requires imagination, passion, conviction, and determination to persevere even when the way seems obscure and uncharted. It’s more like driving the backroads, with no GPS system in hand: you’re not sure where the road may lead.
As Brooks summarizes the difference between the two, “A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to.”
And there is an important corollary to this distinction as well. Because a careerist mindset focuses on a specific goal, it causes us to focus on the self as we move towards it: How can I win the most elections? How can I manoeuver to earn the highest salary? How do I get tenure? Whereas for someone with a vocational mindset, the emphasis is on the common good: How can I contribute to making the world a better place? What do I uniquely have to offer?
Now, a danger is that we tend to think that certain occupations are inherently careerist (politicians, for example), while others are vocational (preachers, for example). But the really important point is that any occupation can be inhabited by someone with either set of motives. There are on one hand plenty of politicians who are motivated by a vocational sense of public service; and on the other hand there are also plenty of preachers who are preoccupied with careerist advancement in the church.
But as people of faith, we should be drawn back to the underlying conviction that each of us, being created by God, is also called into the vocation of continuing that creative task by the way in which we live our lives—or more specifically, by the way in which we approach our work. Reciting the words of the creed (as we do each Sunday here in church), where we are reminded that God is our creator, could be thought of as a regular reminder of our call—our vocation—to play our part in creation’s completion.
So any labor can be done with a sense of vocational purpose, when it is done with a sense of responding to this divine call to serve God by serving others. Whatever work you do—teacher, engineer, homemaker, retiree, carpenter, gardener, lawyer, sanitation worker, or whatever—has this potential.
Oscar Romero, former Archbishop of San Salvador, played a big role in witnessing for peace during that country’s civil war through the weekly radio broadcasts of his sermon at mass in the cathedral. In one, he reached out to all those who labor in whatever kind of job, encouraging them to see their work in these vocational, and even priestly, terms:
How beautiful will be the day [he said] when all the baptized understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work--that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his work-bench, and that each metal-worker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office! [He continued], I know many cabdrivers are listening to this message there in their cabs ... You are a priest at the wheel, my friends, if you work with honesty, consecrating that taxi of yours to God--bearing a message of peace and love to the passengers who ride in your cab. (20 Nov. 1977)
Reminding us of the inescapability and inevitability of a true vocation, David Brooks puts it in the form of a double negative: a vocation is something that you can’t … not … do. You can’t be you, without it. So on this Labor Day weekend, I encourage you to ask yourself, what is it that you feel compelled to do, in order to be distinctly you? What work is it that calls you out of and beyond the limitations of who you are now, encouraging you to be more, to do more, and love more than you thought possible? When you have answered that question, there you will find your true vocation. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
 David Brooks, “Why America’s Leadership Fails,” New York Times, 23 August 2016.
 Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (Columbia University Press, 1985).