Four years ago, my parents’ social circle was rocked with scandal when one of their friends for over thirty years announced he was quitting his job and leaving his wife of forty years. Why? Because after decades of working as an executive for a family company, he wanted to pursue teaching, a career he said he had longed to do during his youth and now wanted to pursue before it was too late.
Well, you can only imagine the shock, disbelief among the friends, not to mention the condemnation for his actions. According to his wife, the decision to leave came out of nowhere, and of course, she felt devastated, hurt, and most of all betrayed.
It wasn’t long before friends began taking sides. Mostly her side, as the husband was branded as being selfish and self-centered.
As I have witnessed this type of situation play out many times over the years, it has become clear, there is no graceful way to end a marriage. No matter how amicably the couple may try to be in the beginning, at some point anger and fear set in and the couple finds themselves arguing over the most trivial of matters. In the end, there has to be a bad guy and a good guy and more often than not, the bad guy is the one who initiated the separation.
As I have thought about this situation and others like it, I have come to wonder if it is fair to condemn the individual for walking away or to find a way to support both members as they seek to rebuild their lives after such an abrupt change.
I ask this question in light of this morning’s Gospel. Just a few minutes ago we heard Jesus tell his disciples that in order to follow him we must first be willing to pick up our cross and carry it, and then anyone who is unwilling to give up his life will lose his life and anyone who loses his life will find it.
As I read Christ’s words this morning, I found them both interesting and downright insulting, especially when read in the context of who he was speaking to. If anyone had made the sacrifices and taken the risks Jesus demanded of his followers, it was the twelve disciples. All twelve men dropped everything in their lives, jobs, homes and families to follow him. I can imagine the gossip that spread though Galilee as wives and parents grieved what must have felt like the loss their spouses and children. “What is Peter thinking,” Peter’s mother-in-law says to console her daughter. “He is so irresponsible to have just jumped out of his boat to follow this crazy man Jesus from Nazareth. What? Does he still think he can change the world like he did when was younger. It is time for that man to grow up!” While across town Zebedee and his wife sit silently at dinner in disbelief, wondering where they went so wrong that their sons would abandon the family business to be followers of this “Jesus” character.”
As I think about the decision my parents’ friend and the disciples made, on the one hand there is little doubt selfishness played into their decision to leave all that was familiar and safe, but at the same time, in order to follow through on the abrupt changes they made in their lives, it also took courage. Courage to be honest as to who they were, as to where they felt God’s dream for them was leading, and most of all, the courage to walk out into the nadir of uncertainty and isolation.
Sometimes picking up our cross and following begins simply with being honest with ourselves and the world with who we truly are. Several years ago, a younger cousin found the courage to do just that. After growing up in a life of mid-western privilege, my cousin did what was expected of him in terms of college, career and marriage. Like so many men and women of our era and before, he followed the status quo in order to please his family and friends. Several years of marriage and three children later, my cousin finally found the courage to stop living the lie. He found the courage to face the wrath and ostracism he incurred by leaving his wife and being open as a gay man. Several years later, one cannot say that the separation and divorce went amicably or that my cousin handled everything with great finesse. But now, several years down the road, with his life of secrecy behind him he has found a new and honest life, while his ex-wife has found a new husband who fully loves her.
Yes, picking up our crosses and following Christ often begins with being honest with ourselves, with God and with those around us. It often means being willing to let go of the status quo and worrying about conventional expectations and diving into the painful messiness that often precedes new life.
Jesus never told his disciples following him would be easy. In fact, as we heard this morning, he was clear, following him would be, and is, costly. The cost is our hearts, our souls and our lives. There is nothing greater that can be demanded of us. But as Christ will demonstrate later on, although the price of following him is costly, the price is worth it, because somewhere after the cross and just beyond the tomb is resurrection, new and greater life. Life that is whole and perfect. Life that is only possible if we are willing to let go of this life and pick up our cross to follow the Christ.