When Paul wrote his first letter to the church at Corinth he was not a happy man. He had founded the church, and he had spent a year and a half with them. But not long after he left, he discovered that they were coming apart at the seams. There was serious dissension and there were serious moral problems. Moreover, he himself was the object of personal attacks. Among these were the charges that he was a bit of a boaster and that he was preaching the gospel just to make a buck off the flock. In his letter, then, not only did he feel obligated to set them straight about their internal problems, he had to defend himself, too. In this morning’s epistle lesson, he is doing the latter. His preaching the gospel is no matter for boasting, he argues. He does it out of an obligation. God touched Paul’s life precisely so that Paul would preach the gospel. He didn’t really have a choice. Thus, it isn’t for a reward. If he were doing it on his own accord, sure, maybe that would be possible. But he isn’t. Instead, he says, “I am entrusted with a commission.”
What does that mean to be “entrusted with a commission”? Well, that this isn’t just a job, and it isn’t just about Paul and Paul’s career. There is something about the job that personally commits him to it, but above all he is committed to it for the sake of the people he is preaching to. This is a job done for others, but also one that draws him personally into the task. He himself is on the line in what he does for those to whom he speaks.
This sense of commission and commitment is at the root of all Christian religious vocations. A vocation is a matter of being called and being drawn into the task, and it is to be done for the good of others. Over the course of time, this sense of vocation came to be formalized and was explicitly expressed by doing things such as taking vows, as in the case of ordination or of becoming a monk or a nun.
While I am not entirely sure about the etymology, I do have a strong suspicion that these vows, which can also be called professions, are linked to what we today call the professions, that is to say, careers such as law, medicine, teaching, and the like. I think that this is a bit better than a guess, since training for all these professions was at the core of the Western university system, and the faculty of the first universities in the middle ages were made up of men in religious orders. They put their stamp on what a calling should be. Even today you can see it. There is still something quasi-religious about entering many a profession. Even now, in many professions some kind of vows are taken, even if they are not religious. Physicians take the Hippocratic oath; it is an impressive and moving sight to see new medical doctors at graduation all solemnly reciting it. Lawyers are sworn in as they are admitted to the bar. But there is something more, something which makes the link between the original sense of commission and commitment more than an historical fun fact. This something more is the sense of commission and commitment that all of these professions have, or should have or used to have. This something more, I think witnesses to what these professions really are, and what they do for us.
It is all the professions, and not just religious ones, that I would bid us think about for a moment this morning. I do so because what they are, as a whole, is so important to us as a culture, and personally. I also do so because I think that importance is easily marred, and because I think we are losing the sense of just how and why professions are important. That loss is both social and personal for the ones in the professions.
Now, what exactly constitutes a profession may be a bit hazy. It may simply be, as a dictionary is likely to define it, any calling that requires extensive academic education and training and involves a specialized knowledge. In that case, the number of professions is huge. But if you look at what might well be called the paradigmatic professions – ministry, law, teaching, and medicine -- it turns out that something more than training is part of the deal. Behind each of those professions is an explicit sense of something like what Paul was talking about – a commission and, consequently, a commitment to others. Behind all of those four professions is not just specialized knowledge, but also a commitment to put that knowledge to the good of others. Doctors have patients, lawyers have clients, teachers have students, ministers have parishioners. The knowledge that each of them has is a knowledge whose main purpose is the betterment of the lives of others, a betterment that is not just economic trickle down. Each of those professions, therefore, owes its human worth to how it betters and makes easier the lives of others. Those in the professions should have a commitment to bettering the lives of others, and not just their own. As a consequence, all of them are humane knowledges, too, for there is as much art to them as science. While they each specifically treat some part of the human being – body, mind, soul, social being – as humane knowledges they each need to be concerned with the whole person, and not just the part. This includes both the people they work with, and themselves.
It doesn’t always happen that things work this way in the professions, but this humane application of knowledge is what should happen. It is what distinguishes a profession from technical, even great technical, knowledge and expertise. It distinguishes it from business and commerce. Professions, as I am talking about them, are moral endeavors, and they need to be seen as such. Given that, one can then expand the number of professions beyond the original four: architects in creating spaces for human life are certainly professionals. Social workers certainly are. I would say accountants are, too. At least, my accountant has always made my life easier at tax time. You can expand the list as you will.
In our time, we worry about the debasement of social life. We worry about its quality, we worry about how it has become fragmented and atomized. As we worry about how human beings interact, it is therefore well-worth worrying about the state of the professions, and what they mean to us. This occurred to me this last week when a physician at Michigan State University was convicted of the sexual abuse of over two hundred young women that he treated in relation to various university sports teams, including the United States Women’s Gymnastics Team. The sentence – up to one hundred seventy-five years – was proportionate to the crime. To everybody’s mind, that abuse is what horrifies; it is what will be remembered. But, what few have pointed out is the crime that will do even broader damage, and may well be longer-lasting and have greater social effect. It is the damage that Larry Nassar did to the profession of medicine. Just as abusive priests destroyed the faith of millions of Catholics, so Nassar will destroy the faith of many in his profession.
Nassar was surprisingly unapologetic about his actions until the end when he was sentenced. But even at the end, he tried to defend himself by saying that his treatment of these young women was successful. Perhaps; at least in the sense that their muscles healed, and they were physically able to return to competition. But that defense is not the defense of a doctor. It is the defense of a technical worker. A doctor is concerned with the whole person, not just a part. A doctor has a commission to care for the whole person. A doctor also has to think about his or her own life as a whole; you can’t compartmentalize your technique from your sexual predations. For Nassar to think that the outward success of his treatment was in any sense a defense is a loss of integrity in medicine. For anyone to buy that as an even remotely acceptable defense is to witness to the dehumanization of the profession. For Nassar’s self-justification is no more a doctor’s defense than that of a Nazi doctor who argued that valuable medical knowledge came out of torturing Jews in death camps.
Now, to be sure, abuses in the professions have been around as long as there have been professions. Money and ambition have been corrupting temptations for a long time. Abuses happen, and the profession goes on despite the bad apples. We even have time-honored words for such people: bad doctors are quacks, self-interested lawyers are shysters. Priests and ministers have been parodied by the best of them – Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry and Moliere’s Tartuffe come to mind. Bad teachers have been the stock in trade of both tragedy and comedy. Yet, I have a sense that we may be coming upon a new problem, one where technical expertise, which really does have a certain kind of success, wipes out the humane commitment of the professions and turns them into mere technologies. Once we lose the institution of the professions as humane occupations that are not simply technique, then we will have lost some real depth in our social interactions with each other. For once that happens, the doctor will no longer be expected to listen to you or to your story. It will be just the test numbers that matter. I think we are witnessing that more and more already as our doctors never look up from their computer screens into our faces. But, let me also say that the best doctors are not very fond of those screens and are openly critical of them. Similarly, we tend to think that the teacher is only as good as the scores his students get. We are already far down that path. The lawyer is no longer one to persuade her client about where his best interest lies. She just is supposed to win. The minister is just a comforter, and no longer one who speaks to the soul, challenging it for its own good once in a while.
The social impact of this sort of loss is immense, because it involves the loss of the human element of dealing with human beings. Professionals, in the best sense, exemplify what a vocation should be, at least ideally. We can’t afford to lose that example or the ideal.
Now, I will leave it to others to dwell further on the social aspect of this loss. Instead, let me say something to you as Christians, as people who personally have a stake in what Paul is talking about when he talks about his commission. I say it also to you because so many of you are actually professionals in both the broad and narrow sense, and what is happening affects you in many ways. You personally need to be aware of what is at stake.
In the Reformed tradition, there is an important concept called “effectual calling.” It is, unfortunately, rarely talked about anymore. That is unfortunate, because it plays a central role in the Christian life. The Christian life begins in baptism, where we are set right with God, where we get back to zero, as it were. It then ends in our full and explicit communion with God. But to get from zero to eternity, from emptiness to fullness, you have to grow and be formed. As it turns out, God in choosing you has also chosen a way to form you. He calls you, and to make sure that you get to where he calls you he gives you the means you need to get there. Those means are what “effectual calling” is about. They make the call effective.
Effectual calling is a matter of God having a plan for your life. It is often a very specific plan, and it may well be the job you undertake in life. Sometimes it is obvious, as in the case of a minister’s calling. But, it can also be in any number of other jobs. It can be anywhere where you are living out a commission as St. Paul did. That commission may or may not be a personal passion. But if it is a calling, it always makes a demand on you and, above all, a demand on you to do something for the good of others for Christ’s sake. You don’t have to be a professional in the narrow sense to have a calling, if what you do is to bring Christ’s light somehow into the life of others. But if you are a professional in the narrow sense as well, then you particularly need to realize that being a professional is a matter of having a commission. You need to realize that, if you are ever to be fully reformed in God’s image, you can never simply be a person who is about numbers and technical expertise. You also can never separate your job from your soul or the lives of the people you touch.
There are a lot of forces in the world that push all of us in the direction of separating out technique from what is required of us as beings who have souls. We need to be aware of that, and we need, in whatever our calling is, to make sure that we exercise humane knowledge. That is a matter of fulfilling our commissions as Christ gave them to us. But what we also need to do when we do that is to show the world something that it is losing and that it needs. Our clients, our parishioners, our patients, our students, our audiences, need that humane knowledge that we exercise. But, so do the professions themselves in which we do our work. To show them what work is that is the result of a commission, can be a great work itself.