Some years ago I had a series of conversations with a man. Let’s call him Bill. He had fallen dramatically and publicly into disgrace. At least, it felt like disgrace to him. And that’s why he had sought me out for guidance.
People from all walks of life and from every corner of our city knew his name and recognized his face. And well they should have. Bill had been instrumental in transforming and even saving scores if not hundreds of lives.
In recovery himself, Bill ran a center devoted to helping addicts and alcoholics get and stay sober. As Ronald Rolheiser put it somewhere, sobriety is around ten percent about not drinking or using. Mostly it’s about living a free and happy life. The price of that freedom is radical devotion to the truth and getting over yourself.
|Edvard Munch’s “Despair”|
Sober people live their life as an open book. They know that they are only as sick as their secrets. They are free to look anyone in the eye, and themselves in the mirror, precisely because what you see is what you get. And just as importantly, sober people live no longer for themselves but for the sake of others. They are free from the tyranny of their own ego.
At least, that’s the ideal of sobriety. Truly sober people also say that life is about progress toward that ideal, not perfection.
Part of Bill’s effectiveness, and the source of his widely held esteem, was his sobriety. People looked up to Bill as an example of what recovery can mean. Integrity. Respect. Self-respect. Success. Happiness.
And then Bill relapsed.
His life did not implode all at once.
After a few social gatherings, people began murmuring that Bill seemed to smell like alcohol. They couldn’t be sure, so they didn’t say anything beyond the rumor mill.
I found out later that his wife had begun to suspect that he was drinking again. She was sick with worry, but she couldn’t bring herself to confront him. And she was afraid to confide in anyone else.
Finally, a larger organization hosted a reception. It was the organization under whose umbrella Bill’s rehab center operated. Supporters and graduates attended. So too did the CEO of that larger organization. And Bill got undeniably hammered. Several people had to help him out of the reception. His wife drove him home.
The next day Bill was removed from his position and the story hit the news. He couldn’t face his old friends, and most of them just didn’t know what to say to him.
|Tetsuya Ishida’s “Lost”|
Bill felt isolated, abandoned, and ashamed. And so, in desperation, he found his way into my office.
Initially he spewed resentment and hurt at all those who had abandoned him and disgraced him. Then he gradually started telling me his story. He had been a decorated war hero, an officer admired by those under his command. He prided himself on leading his men into combat, always ready to die to save them.
He looked up at a picture on my wall: Christ hanging on the cross between the two thieves. “I know how to do that,” he said. “I know how to be the one who dies for people. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how not to be the hero.”
This was in fact a cross moment for Bill. Each and every one of us will have cross moments.
For the most part these moments are small and can pass by without notice.
For instance, we may have to let go of being right or doing things the right way in order to keep a cherished relationship. Maybe we have to drop our impressions and opinions of someone else, even when it makes us rethink who we are. Sometimes we have to let go of old hurts and resentments, even though the scales are simply not balanced.
Few of us will face cross moments so dramatic and heart wrenching as Bill’s. But they are no less significant.
|Robert Spencer’s “Crossroad”|
And each of these moments lead to the final cross moment. The moment we must decide to let our life go in holy surrender or to lose our life in fear and despair.
Bill’s challenge—and I suppose the challenge we all face—was to understand what Jesus is really asking of us when he tells us to take up our cross. He’s not asking us to be a hero. Neither is he asking us to play it safe.
Here’s what he actually says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus is urging us to do something at once dangerous and holy. To let the self that we have constructed and nurtured and protected and promoted for years upon years die. To let go of all the accomplishments and attachments by which we identify ourselves in order to receive a new self that only he can give.
Bill assumed that Jesus was calling him to be a hero. I suspect that plenty of us think something similar, only less extreme.
We assume that taking up the cross means to obey moral laws and to do spiritual things like read the Bible, say our prayers, and go to church. Or, more blandly, we mistake being respectable and nice for the heart of the Christian life.
No amount of being good and being religious will give us new life. Only resurrection will do that. And as Robert Farrar Capon put it, resurrection is only for the dead. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”
|Norman Rockwell’s “Good Friends”|
Don’t get me wrong, being good and keeping spiritual practices mark the Christian life. But they are the result of resurrection, not the steps by which we achieve it.
Bill’s identity derived from being a hero. First in war, then in sobriety, then in recovery services, Bill’s accomplishments had earned him the admiration of a great many people and had given him a significant status in the community. This self died with his relapse.
Eventually, Bill was going to have to face letting this self go even if he had remained sober until his last breath. In my office that day, he was stricken with grief for the self that had died. He was clinging to its stinking corpse with all his might and fury.
Christ’s invitation to him—his invitation to you and me—is to let that self go. Paradoxically, life comes only after death. One cross moment at a time.
This sermon was preached at Christ Memorial Episcopal Church in Mansfield, Louisiana.