Urgency and Focus


A few years ago our family--my wife and our two sons--took a road trip from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. Plotting the drive, we decided to break up the trip, spending one night in Winchester, Virginia. Playing a key role in both the Revolutionary and Civil War, this small town possesses sites and stories of great historical consequence. One of those sites is a tiny log cabin that from the fall of 1775 to Christmastime 1756 housed the military offices of one George Washington. That cabin is now part of a museum dedicated to Washington's time in Winchester. We decided that this would be the site we would visit before we got back on the road. Walking from the hotel we came to the museum from what I later discovered was the rear of the building. There were no signs marking an entrance or hours and no one was there to meet us. We simply walked in through an open door. After about five minutes exploring the exhibits, we heard an indignant and aggressive voice directed our way, "What do you think you are doing?" We turned and standing there was a woman with a nametag indicating that she worked for the museum. "We are visiting the museum," I said. "Well, I can see that. But are you going to pay for your visit?" I responded, "I didn't know there was a cost. The door we came through had no sign saying there was a fee." She said, "Maybe so but the front door has a sign and had you come through that door you would have seen that you had to purchase tickets." After trying to explain--to no avail--the efficacy and practically of having signs on all the doors that are open, we purchased tickets and enjoyed the rest of the museum.

I wonder: what does a church, what does a congregation look like when it does not mark its doors? In other words, what happens to a church, to a congregation, that does not clearly and emphatically name, to borrow Bonhoeffer's well-traveled phrase, "the cost of discipleship" or the cost of entering and receiving the Kingdom of God? What does that church look like? Bonhoeffer described such a community after seeing it in action in New York City while studying at Union Theological Seminary. An extended quote here, he said this:

In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ.... So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that--who knows how?--claims the right to call itself 'Christian'. And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, [Bonhoeffer continues] anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership--that person can well assess the character of such a church.... In order to balance out the feeling of inner emptiness that arises now and then (and partly also to refill the church's treasury), some congregations will if possible engage an evangelist for a 'revival' once a year. The church is really no longer the place where the congregation hears and preaches God's word, but rather the place where one acquires secondary significance as a social entity for this or that purpose.[1]

These words were written almost nine decades ago and yet they still ring true for us today. Is it not paramount in our post-Christendom, post-foundational, religiously syncretic, and spiritually ambivalent world to mark the door so as to clearly and emphatically name what discipleship actually entails? Luke 9:51-62 clearly marks the cost for those entering and receiving God's Kingdom. I am reminded of the great line attributed to Mark Twain, "It's not the things I don't understand in the Bible that worry me, it's the things I understand perfectly clear that worry me." Jesus is perfectly clear: he is saying that his obedience to the Father--setting his face toward Jerusalem--will cost him his life. His obedience will set him apart from the foxes and the birds: he has no place to rest and no place to call home. And for those who come after him...Bonhoeffer was right, "When Jesus bids someone to come and follow, he bids them to come and die." What is clear in Luke 9 is both the urgency and focus that marks the call to follow Jesus in and for the world. There is no time to wait, even to bury one's own father. "Let the dead bury the dead," says Jesus. Now is the time to go and proclaim the Kingdom of God. Now is the time to follow. It can't wait. It must happen right now. 

It was his first time in a very long time to darken the door of a church. There were many indicators that this was his first time to attend worship at our church, not the least of which was his choice to sit in the pew and the very seat typically occupied by one of the longest standing members. No words were exchanged as the long-time member climbed over the visitor to take his seat. Now, it was a Communion Sunday and our church had a custom where the people would be served the elements in their seats. You would take a piece of bread and wait until everyone in the congregation had a piece and then, with a cue from the minister, everyone would partake at the same time. Upon plucking a piece of bread from the plate, the visitor ate it immediately and with great haste. The member whose seat he took looked at him cross. The little cups of juice came down next; they were on the shiny silver tray and the visitor immediately grabbed one, he put it to his mouth and swallowed it with one gulp. As if it weren't bad enough that this visitor was sitting in his seat but to now have him break the tradition of communion--a tradition this member observed his entire life--well, he just had to say something. "Excuse me, sir. We eat the bread and drink the cup together." The visitor said, "I am sorry, mister. But I really, really needed it now. I couldn't wait any longer."

Friends, we need to taste and see that Jesus Christ is good right now! Not tomorrow. Not the next day but right now. Even still, Jesus Christ calls you and me to follow him now. Not tomorrow. Not the next day, but right now. Not when you get everything in order. Not when life is a little more certain or less chaotic. No, Jesus Christ calls you and me now and is ready to send us to be his witnesses today. To forgive now. To love now. To serve now. To do justice now. To tell the truth now. To work for peace now and reconciliation now. To sacrifice now. To put others first now. To live for God now. To be a Christian now. Urgency marks the disciples' call. The call to follow Jesus is a call to follow right now.  

Discipleship is not just marked by urgency, but it is also marked by focus. Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."

Discipleship requires focused attention on the one who bids us to come, the one we choose to follow, and the one we must hear and obey and fix our eyes upon if we are to be found faithful in God's mission. Several years ago I had plans to meet up with a friend for a professional hockey game. This was in Philadelphia and he worked in Center City, and so I was going to be driving in from the western suburbs to meet him at the game. We had a mutual friend who was an executive with the company that owned and managed the arena where the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers play their home games, and his son, Jack, went to our church's preschool. Jack was six years old at the time, and he really wanted to go to this particular game, so his parents asked if he could ride with me and if I could hand him off to his dad at the arena. I agreed and Jack and I started our drive. As we got closer to the sports complex, Jack said, "Pastor Tony, do you know where you are going?" I said, "Of course, Jack. I grew up here. I know my way around." Jack said, "Well, it doesn't look like you know where you are going." I let that slide. A few moments later Jack said, "Pastor Tony, turn right here on Broad Street, loop around, and go into that entrance." "Are you sure, Jack? This isn't the way I usually go." He said, "Yes, I am sure." So I--reluctantly--followed his direction. He then said, "Okay, now turn here and you should park in that lot where the security guards are standing. I said, "Jack, are you sure? The sign says, 'VIP's Only.'" "Pastor Tony, I'm sure." As I pulled up to the security station, Jack said, "Tell him your name. You're on the list." "What do you mean I am on the list, Jack?" "You are on the list to park here." So I said to the security guard, "Hello, my name is Tony Sundermeier, and I think I am supposed to park in this lot." He scanned his paper and, sure enough, there was my name. The security bar was lifted; we drove in, and parked right next to the arena. We got out of the car and headed for the general admission area when Jack said, "No, Pastor Tony, this way." He motioned for me to follow him. If it wasn't obvious before, it was certainly obvious to me at that moment: I was following Jack! My attention and my focus were on him. We walked to a door marked "Executive Entrance," and the doorman said, "Jack, my man! How are you?" He shook his hand and introduced me, "This my friend, Pastor Tony." "Nice to meet you, sir," he said. We stepped in and there was Jack's dad. "Did you have any trouble with parking or finding us?' "Nope," I said. "It was easy."

That experience gave me a new perspective on Isaiah's words: and a little child shall lead them. This child, this one known to us by the name Jesus, sets his face and attention toward his Father's business. As his disciples, we have been called to focus on him. In the words of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, "Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation."

Friends, we are called to follow Christ with urgency and focus. We preference his word and his life above all others! And so may we follow him with urgency. May we follow him with focus, for the sake of his Gospel and the sake of his world! Amen!



[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Barcelona, Berlin, New York 1928-1931. Vol. 10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008. 313-17.