Chapel Talk

September 19, 2012
Luke 3: 7-18

Good morning. I thought I would begin my chapel talk with a statement that I’ll bet most students didn’t expect to hear today from the President: we want you to leave.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re glad that you chose St. Olaf, and that St. Olaf chose you. We worked hard to prepare for your arrival this fall, and now that you’re here, or have returned here, we’re working hard to ensure that you have the kind of experience that you both want and deserve. We cherish our students, and we want the best for you.

It’s because we want the best for you that we want you to leave. College isn’t an end in itself, though it might seem like it at times. Rather, college is the place, and this is the time, when you make the final preparations for your life as an independent adult. After four years at St. Olaf we want you to be on a path that leads to financial independence, professional accomplishment, and personal fulfillment. The experiences you have here — in the classroom, the residence hall, athletics, music, student government, student orgs — all point towards, and prepare you for, the roles you are going to play after college as a family member, an employee, a co-worker, a community member, a citizen — in short, a person of substance in whatever context you find yourself.

A crucial step that you can take in college to prepare for life afterwards is to discern your vocation. Now, I know that “vocation” is a word you hear a lot at St. Olaf. And perhaps you are inwardly groaning right now, thinking, “Not another talk about vocation!” But the truth is that vocation gets talked about so much because it’s important. A conviction that the work you are doing is valuable, that you do it well because it aligns with your gifts and your passions, and that it addresses the needs of the world, is essential to your overall sense of well-being, a key component of your identity. It gives direction to your energy and informs your choices. It’s a big deal.

As many of you know, vocation is a central concept in Lutheran theology. Martin Luther is credited with expanding the notion of vocation from referring specifically to a calling to the priesthood or a monastic order to embracing God’s call to perform a broad range of work and to refer to a broad range of activities in our lives. He wrote that, “[e]very occupation has its own honor before God, as well as its own requirements and duties,” and he argued that “Just as individuals are different, so their duties are different; and in accordance with the diversity of their callings, God demands diverse works of them” (Quoted in Kathryn Kleinhans, “The Work of a Christian: Vocation in Lutheran Perspective,” Word & World Volume 25, Number 4 Fall 2005, p. 396.)

If we adopt the Lutheran understanding of vocation, we can see much of human activity as having both its own honor before God and its own requirements and duties because it occurs in the context of God’s creation and addresses the needs of God’s creatures. One of the statements widely attributed to Luther, though I understand it can’t be documented in his published work, captures the main point nicely: “A Christian cobbler makes good shoes, not poor shoes with little crosses on them.” God’s people need well-made shoes, not cheap, uncomfortable ones that can’t be redeemed by the cobbler’s piety. The cobbler is called to make good shoes, the city council member is called to make good decisions, the financial planner is called upon to maximize her clients’ financial security, the parents are called to nurture their children, and so on.

Students in the process of thinking about their future should welcome a rich and expansive notion of vocation. The Lutheran notion of vocation frees you from having to sit quietly in a dark room waiting, listening anxiously, and hoping to hear God’s call for you to be one specific thing, and if you are napping when He calls and end up being an English major rather than a chemistry major your life is ruined and God is mad at you. Rather, you gradually discern what it is your gifts and talents enable you to do well, what you enjoy, what people need you to do, and then you do it very well for the good of God’s creation. The doing it very well part is at least as important, at the end of the day, as the what you are doing part.

What does it mean to do something well for the good of God’s creation? The Bible generally, and the text for today specifically, help us to understand that. In the passage from Luke that I read a moment ago John the Baptist is giving a fiery sermon to the crowds that have come to hear him, calling upon them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” After being called a “brood of vipers,” people in the crowd are understandably nervous about what John calls “the coming wrath.” They approach John, asking, “What should we do then?” Among those approaching for advice are tax collectors. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more money than you are required to,” he tells them. Similarly soldiers come to him, asking, “And what should we do?” “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay,” he replies.

The key thing to notice is that John doesn’t say, “Stop being a tax collector. That’s not an approved vocation.” He doesn’t say, “Being a soldier isn’t acceptable to God. You need a different vocation.” Instead, he says, “Do your job well.” Implicit in his answer is an acknowledgement that the world needs tax collectors, just as it needs soldiers. Doing those jobs, and others like them, serves God’s people and God’s creation, and the members of those profession are called to do good work.

As you think about your vocation and try with the help of your professors, your friends, the staff in the Piper Center, and others around you to discern what you can do well, what you like to do, and what the world needs, I encourage you to explore the broadest range of human activities, including those you might not normally hear people associate with vocation. You can serve God’s people in many ways anad from many professions. Think of Joseph, who in the Genesis story was made prime minister of Egypt and prudently stored up food from seven years of plenty so that when the seven years of famine occurred Egypt was amply supplied with bread. Administration is a vocation. Or think of David, called to be King of Israel. Leadership is a vocation. Think of Lydia, in chapter 16 of the book of Acts, a “seller of purple goods.” Being a businesswoman is a vocation. Lydia made significant financial gifts to help fund the early church. Being successful is a good thing, and being a philanthropist is a vocation.

I could go on with examples, but you see my point. Just as Martin Luther blew up the narrow meaning of vocation to make it available to all of the faithful, we need to blow up narrow conceptions of what kinds of work are worthy of being called a vocation. God’s people need good work done in every area of their lives.

So, now back to my opening statement — on a crisp fall day, in our lovely chapel, in the warm glow of goodwill that accompanies the beginning of a new academic year — that we want you to leave. What I really meant was that — after four rich years on the Hill — we want you to leave so that you can who live out Martin Luther’s vision of vocation in the workplaces and communities that you will inhabit across the world. That means aspiring to do the very best work in every sector of the economy, in every segment of society, in every part of the world as bankers and lawyers, teachers and social workers, CEOs and entrepreneurs, nurses and childcare providers, elected officials and government workers, environmentalists and farmers, scientists and inventors, professors and poets. We look to you to serve God’s people wherever they are and whatever they need, and we wish you Godspeed on your journey to discover your vocation.


David R. Anderson ’74