Laity Sunday has been a part of the church calendar since the late 1920s and 1930s. It honors the baptismal call of all Christians to ministries of teaching the faith, reaching into the community, witnessing to the gospel, and working to transform lives. For 2019, the theme for United Methodists is “Purpose: Growing in faith through participation in the means of grace."
The lectionary texts for this Sunday cohere with the question of purpose, or, to use another word, the question of vocation. We ask, as people of God, what is our vocation? How is God calling us to faithfulness? Too often, in the popular mind, vocation is simply understood as a job, but actually its meaning is much deeper. The word vocation is drawn from the Latin word, vocare, to call. To what am I called in my life? Vocation includes all of my actions to answer God’s call on my life.
In fact, my vocation is the life I reflect into the world. What is it that others see when they look at me? What commitments and hopes do I reflect? A passage from Isaiah clearly defines the vocation of each believer: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). God’s new life, God’s hope, God’s salvation is to be seen through our lives.
We seek out our “purposes” so that our lives reflect the light of God. Or as the Tools for Ministry: H.O.P.E brochure says for Laity Sunday: “One finds a sense of purpose in life as a disciple by learning what it means to live out one’s belief through acts of piety and acts of mercy, sharing one’s faith, being nurtured in the faith, and engaging in service.”
The lectionary texts all focus on what it means to search for and live vocation. For example, the Psalm for the day proclaims, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. . . . Through your precepts I get understanding” (Ps. 119: 97; 104 NRSV). For the Jewish believers who uttered this praise, the law was not a burden; it was a gift. God’s law was a guide for living. Or, as Jeremiah proclaims to the people in captivity in Babylon: God will write God’s law on your heart (Jeremiah 31:33 NRSV). The law was not simply a set of prohibitions. Rather, it provided the people with a vision of how they could interact productively and be faithful. A modern example might be laws that state which side of the street we are to drive (right in the U.S.; left in Great Britain). These laws provide for a safe flow of traffic. They facilitate living together.
Timothy’s letter continues this theme. He argues the teachings of the faith are “training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy: 3:16-17 NRSV). That instruction, as well as the affirmation of the law, has always been important for Methodists. The Methodist movement was rooted in discipline. Wesley taught that we supported one another in disciplines of study and living so that our lives witnessed to the God we proclaimed with our words. It was that “method” that resulted in the name “Methodists.”
Let’s focus on the Luke text. An intriguing portrait of vocation is given here. Jesus tells an amazing parable. A judge, someone who is expected to be fair and righteous, is not. This judge could not be trusted to adjudicate differences because he “neither feared God nor had respect for people” (Luke 18:2 NRSV). His life witnessed against justice and not for it. Reading between the lines, don’t you expect the people who heard this parable prayed they did not have to answer to this judge?
But a widow subjected to his judgment would not give up. Over and over, she “kept coming to him.” She endured. She was persistent and insistent: “Grant me justice” (Luke 18:3 NRSV). Those who heard the parable were probably surprised with her efforts, for they knew it would do no good. In fact, the surprise in the parable, a surprise that would delight the hearers, was the judge’s exasperated sigh: “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18: 5).
By rehearsing the parable, Luke reminds his readers of both God’s gift of justice and the vocation of the widow. She confronts the disrespectful judge, over and over; she called for justice. The widow witnesses through her actions.
In Jesus’ day, people regularly saw unjust judges. The Romans, who were in control, made fun of Jewish religious beliefs. The Romans claimed privileges for themselves. They kept a tight leash on the people and forced some leaders to comply with their wishes. Certainly, the Romans were disrespectful judges. But Jesus revealed that Roman injustice was not the only reality. He taught that in acts of healing, feeding, forgiving, and freeing, the realm of God was breaking through Roman power and control and offering experiences of community.
Vocation? God hopes that people’s lives witness and are light to the nations. The image of the persistent and insistent widow is profound. Her challenge of the unjust judge was her witness. We, too, are called by our baptisms to ministry — to work for justice continually. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and redeemer” (Ps 19:14 NRSV).
Questions for Reflection:
- It is Laity Sunday. Think about the multiple ways that people in your congregation, through their work and their broader vocations, embody the light of God.
- Think about the persistent and insistent widow. What are some of the ways that the people of God in your community call for justice over and over? How does your congregation join with the community in this work?
- The Wesleys talked about “means of grace.” Means of grace included regular prayer, study, and service by which people’s lives were formed in faithful ways. How do you highlight some of the means of grace in today’s worship?
The Rev. Dr. Jack Seymour (j[email protected]) is professor emeritus at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he taught for 30 years. He is an ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church. Jack is the author of Teaching Biblical Faith: Leading Small Group Bible Studies (Abingdon, 2015) and Teaching the Way of Jesus: Educating Christians for Faithful Living (Abingdon, 2014). He has retired in Nashville, TN, where he is active writing and teaching in the church.
See the UMC Discipleship Ministries brochure Tools for Ministry: H.O.P.E.