"First let me go and bury my father."
"Let me first say farewell to those at my home."
Not unreasonable requests. For each of us who have answered Jesus call to follow him, I would imagine that there were many 'firsts' that delayed answering the call. And tending to family matters at home would certainly rank high up there on the list.
As clergy lay out their priorities and boundaries one of the most common convictions is that, first, they are called to be husbands/wives, fathers/mothers. Their vocation as pastor is seen as secondary to their vocation as spouse and/or parent. Its a reasonable conviction.
The church has struggled as women, once a seemingly endless supply of volunteer workers, entered the work force with careers of their own. I'm not blaming women, here. They have a variety of vocations, as men always have had, and its simply a fact that with women now being gainfully employed, there are simply not that many people left to do the Church's bidding Monday through Friday. Two things: I don't think we appreciated the extent to which women were the backbone of the Church throughout those years that they were available for the countless hours of volunteer service that they so selfishly put in. And second, it is clear that vocational obligations for both men and women, are the 'first' in their lives. "I have to work." is seen as a valid reason for not being available at Church. Period.
Not an unreasonable request.
"I will follow you wherever you go, as long as my schedule allows."
But in the face of all these reasonable allowances, there stands this radical invitation to follow. And make no mistake about it, it is an invitation to something that will lay an ultimate claim on our lives.
Dare we believe that the call to enter into the Kingdom of God is so compelling as to trump all other concerns and obligations in our lives?
The Social Gospel movement of the last century was motivated by a deep seated conviction that working to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth was the primary call of all Christians. That this was conceived of as even possible was a sign of the unbridled optimism of the pre-war years. All of the ills brought about by the industrialization of this country were seen as solvable. Unfortunately, that optimistic outlook that the Kingdom of God could be realized within our society was shattered by the confrontation with reality that came with the two world wars.
In response, the neo-Orthodox movement replaced the Social Gospel movement. Theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr began writing books such as "Moral Man, Immoral Society" and largely laid to rest the notion that the Kingdom of God would ever be realized in our societies. That the world would remain essentially as it always has been. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." was Niebuhr's prayer. And perhaps we've embraced that first line about accepting the things we cannot change, too much.
What has been lost in all of this is a sense of urgency around the kingdom work, and the belief that the Kingdom of God has anything at all to do with this life.
If we would follow Jesus we would do well to realize and remember, that at the center of all his teachings was this matter of the Kingdom of God being at hand.
Back to the notion of burying our father. This seems like such a reasonable request because we have so watered down expectations regarding the Kingdom of God, that it goes without saying that such matters can wait. Today, we have a funeral to attend.
The Church will likely bury a lot more people in the coming decades than we will baptize. I believe that there is a simple reason for this. We have become caretakers, not crusaders for the Kingdom of God. We see our primary obligation as caring for those in the pews, our family, and rarely go beyond that to the transformative work that is at the core of what Jesus talked about as the Kingdom of God.
If we expect people to leave everything and follow Jesus (and us. . .) we have to rethink our dismissal of the Kingdom of God as only a possibility in the afterlife, that is, it is far off, and embrace Jesus' teaching that it has indeed "come near."
Related to this teaching about the Kingdom of God, what people long to hear is the promise that following Jesus will actually make a difference.
Then, and only then, will they be content to let the dead bury the dead, and seize the moment to follow this one we call Jesus.