Vocation and the Communion of Saints
John Schwehn

As I write this piece honoring my parents, I am also composing a sermon that I will preach on All Saints Sunday. My calling, like my grandfather’s and great-­grandfather’s, is of the ordained persuasion. The pastor saints of my family live on through my vocation, which gives me pause to wonder how much my sense of call is, in fact, directly informed by the lives of my forebears. Luckily, I have a (autographed) copy of Leading Lives That Matter on my bookshelf, which, in its sixth part, explores the question of, “Can I Control What I Shall Do and Become?” Included within this section is the testimony of Thomas Lynch, an undertaker. In his essay entitled “Passed On,” Lynch describes the moment in his father’s life when he decided to become an undertaker. Lynch has continued in the family profession begun by his father, and he passes it on to his children. As I read his essay, I am reminded of a different piece of writing. This piece was published in The Cresset thirty years ago. It, too, is a writer’s effort to locate his present life’s work within the longer story of his family. It, too, is the story of a grandfather and a father and a family and a call. It is autobiographical, historical, and theological, and it was written by Mark Schwehn.   

In this article, published in 1984 in two parts and titled, “The Communion of Saints: A Journey Into the Past,” my dad details a journey toward a deeper understanding of his life in the church, his German Lutheran heritage, and the sacrament of Holy Communion. Geographically, the story he tells takes place in a car traveling from Fort Wayne to Chicago. My mom sits in the front seat, and my sister, Kaethe, in the back. Historically, his journey stretches back four generations, and it traces the peculiar, hidden fault lines between the family he seeks diligently to understand and the church they have all endeavored desperately to love. At the heart of his questioning is a desire to lift up a sacramental theology that offers a welcome to my (at the time) Congregationalist mom and a response to the religious relativism that the church of his youth had come to fear. There is also a longing buried beneath my father’s words, a longing to know and to understand all of those saints whose wisdom and whose stories so profoundly formed his own.

Vocation and the communion of saints: these two pieces of our Christian theological tradition received major makeovers from Martin Luther. Just as he broadened the doctrine of vocation to include the work of those outside the confines of religious orders, Luther also extended the title of saint to those outside the cemetery. No longer should we speak of saints only as those who have died, Luther believed. The saints are the living, too, and it is because God uniquely calls, blesses, and forgives each one of us that we are given a vocation to love God’s beloved creation. I think my father understood this when he wrote that article thirty years ago. But what he perhaps did not yet understand were the myriad ways in which our vocation can—must!—be embodied and lived out every single day, and this is one of the reasons why I love my mother.

Her articulation of a Christian faith practiced in the everyday both challenges and ­empowers those who struggle to connect the mundane routines of life with a sense of vocation. She reminds us that God calls us from within the ordinary roles and tasks we perform, that each new day is also a new opportunity to remember our baptisms and go forth in the name of Christ. Her life-affirming, embodied, experiential lens of faith found, I believe, a wonderful partner in my dad’s deeply rooted Lutheran heritage, in his faith in and dedication to the life and work of the church.

Thirty years ago, when my dad submitted that article to The Cresset, neither of my parents could have guessed that their next two children (twins!) would be called to serve this same peculiar, broken, beautiful church as pastors. Nor could they have predicted that one of those twins would consult a book that they together edited as he journeyed deeper into understanding this call. And yet, how could they possibly be surprised by these things? For a vital part of their vocation—as professionals, parents, partners, and parishioners—has been to encourage all of us (we saints of God) to journey deeper, further into considering our own. It is a vocation of careful scholarship and discernment and imagination. But above all, it is one of love.

So yes (of course!) my call, like Thomas Lynch’s, is influenced by these two people and by the generations that preceded them. And it is informed by the ramblings of a sixteenth century monk who declared me, of all people, a saint of God. And, for today (and always), I receive it all as a gift. For though my call to ordained ministry joins an old familiar story, the cries of my neighbor are new every morning. We still proclaim Christ crucified and risen, and the bread and wine that my Missouri Synod grandfather and great-grandfather blessed at the table is the same body of Christ broken open today (and tomorrow) for the life of the world. The communion of saints with whom I gather at the table each Sunday encompasses generations of the faithful who have formed the person I am becoming. But today I give thanks to God for the grace and wisdom shown to me in the lives of those who knew me first and best: my parents.

Saints indeed.


John Schwehn is pastoral intern at Westwood Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

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