“What is Your Vocation?” — Discipleship Preaching at Parish Evening Prayer

This week I had the privilege of celebrating communal Evening Prayer in my very own parish, including the option for preaching! As part of a visit to the nearby University of Notre Dame, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. preached on Mark 2:13-17 at Sunday evening Vespers at St. Matthew Co-Cathedral Parish.

It was a wow-ing experience. An eye-opening reminder of what preaching can be and do in the life of a believer. I’m going to provide an outline/summary of the sermon, and then offer some suggestions as to why so many members of the assembly were moved by the preaching.

Homily: Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.– “What is Your Vocation?” (Mark 2:13-17)

Once again he went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors and said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard this and said to them [that], “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

What is your vocation? For Levi, it begins with Jesus seeing him. In this scene, Levi is probably the only person to be ignoring Jesus–maybe he was too interested in money, maybe he thought he was a failure, maybe he thought he was unworthy, or maybe he just needed to responsibly stay at the customs post instead of following the crowd–but for whatever reason, he was ignoring Jesus. But Jesus sees him differently. He sees the “secret goodness” in Levi waiting to flourish.

Jesus’ eyes are always open…we can think of Zacchaeus, the widow with one mite, and more.

Jesus looks at Levi, maybe even smiles at him, and says “Follow me.” The beginning of every vocation is noticing that you are smiled at. Jesus looks at you. Jesus does more than take pleasure in seeing Levi, he invites him to be what God called him to be. Every Christian vocation begins with a yes, a send me. 

If you follow your vocation, this send me, you don’t know where it’s going to take you. Some of you here are lucky ones, who know your vocation–but even you do not know where it will take you.

What happens to Levi? The first thing Jesus did after calling Levi was to fill his house with disgraceful strangers.

What is going on here? God’s love is universal. Every one of us is loved into existence. The call of every vocation is to learn to love as God does. This means both in the particular and the universal. Usually, we begin with the particular, and then open to the universal. This is what happens to Levi–he follows Jesus (a particular interest) and finds his house open to disgraceful strangers (the universal). This is the Christian vocation, to enter God’s life–both in particular and universal love.

So how are you going to live that? How can you discover your vocation? Levi’s begins with a dinner party. We can suppose that this was an enjoyable event. The beginning to finding your vocation is what gives you joy. You cannot be a disciple with gritted teeth, as if it’s an unpleasant duty.

And don’t be fooled by sorrow or pain. The opposite of joy isn’t sorrow, it’s hardness of heart. The most joyful of saints almost all knew sorrow. But they did not have hardness of heart. God gives us a new heart of flesh, taking away our stony and hard hearts. In this we discover and live out our vocation to love, in the particular and universal, as God loves.

Thinking about Fr. Radcliffe’s Homily…

The Vespers service was immediately followed by a small reception in honor of our guest preacher. The comments I overheard among the congregation were extremely positive–“That was amazing,” “That was really different, but so good,” and “Did you know how long that homily was? It was long, but I didn’t even pay attention to the length.”

So what was going on? Why did this homily strike a chord as out of the ordinary? Some thoughts…

  • Topical Preaching —  The text chosen was not a text of the day from the lectionary or Liturgy of the Hours (in fact, Mk 2:13-17 only appears in the lectionary on Saturday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time…relatively close to mid-January, but I don’t think that’s why the preacher chose this particular Scripture). Instead, this appeared to be an example of topical preaching–where a theme, topic, or question leads to a selection of Scripture. Most of the sermons most Catholics hear are Eucharistic homilies, which necessarily start with a collection of lectionary Scriptures, not a topical focus.
  • Single Text — While this sermon was longer than the typical Sunday Eucharistic homily, the Scripture that was interpreted through the homily was on the shorter side. One text (not a lectionary set) and a relatively brief one at that. This created a sharp focus and opportunity to drive deeply into the topic of vocation without any distractions (however well intentioned) from other Scriptures.
  • Length/Centrality — This homily was much longer than a typical Sunday Eucharistic homily. In terms of the “feel” of the Vespers service, the homily was the high point, with a choral meditation (Craig Courtney’s arrangement of Schutte’s “Here I Am Lord”) as a powerful reminder of the topic of discipleship and vocation the congregation just heard preaching on. This was distinctly different than the context of preaching a Eucharistic homily.
  • Evangelism and Discipleship — Fr. Radcliffe made liberal use of the second person “you” in his questions and statements. This homily could be relevantly received by both those who were in the position of Levi (what we might call the “initial proclamation” stage of evangelization) and those who have responded to the call and are moving deeper into what discipleship means. For both audiences, the directness of “you” questions and statements implied a decision, personal choice, or at minimum, some type of individual response. While the Eucharistic homily has the specific purpose of moving the assembly to praise and thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table, the setting of Vespers offered a context where the “moving” of the assembly was focused on a particular step along the road of discipleship. Had something similar been attempted during Mass, it might have moved focus from the integral relationship between the Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist.

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