Matthew 16:21-28

An Invitation to Die

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Edward Stone Gleason tells this story about a man named Sam. [In Carl P. Daw, Jr., ed., “Breaking the Word: Essays on the Liturgical Dimensions of Preaching” (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994), pp. 142-43.]

It seems that for more than a decade Sam had operated a successful counseling business in a mid-sized industrial city in the southeast. His contracts were with major corporations which had brought growth and progress to the area.  The counseling center offered a variety of services, but most clients wanted help with a drinking problem. The center’s contract with each corporation enabled employees to seek help with a guarantee of anonymity.  Each employee’s problems and progress were treated as completely confidential, and it was well known that client files were for the eyes of the counseling staff only.

One day the executive vice president of the largest firm under contract made an appointment to meet with Sam. To Sam’s shock and amazement, this executive demanded to see the files for his employees. Sam told him politely but firmly that this was impossible. The files were completely confidential. The vice president’s face became red, and he spoke loudly and harshly to Sam as he repeatedly insisted that the files about his employees be delivered to him immediately. Sam continued to refuse.

Finally, the vice president stood up and moved toward the door. As he touched the doorknob, he turned around, paused, and stared at Sam. “Very well. Since you insist, tomorrow our legal department will contact you to terminate our contract with you immediately. How many of our employees do you suppose have availed themselves of your services? More than a hundred?”

Sam again reminded him that this was confidential information.

“No matter. You won’t be seeing them any more, unless you give me their files right now, and I mean right now.”

Sam had a vision of his counseling practice collapsing like a building demolished by explosives. He pictured his own personal finances also reduced to rubble. Then he addressed the executive in as measured a voice as he could muster.

“Dick, how many times do I have to tell you? It can’t be done. It just can’t be done. My center’s work with your employees is completely confidential. Cancel the contract if you must, but you’ll never get those files. Never!”

The vice president walked back and took his seat again. “Okay,” he said, in a subdued voice. “If that’s the way it is, then I guess it’s safe to tell you why I came. I have a drinking problem, and I need your help.”

When he uttered his final refusal of the vice president’s demand, Sam stepped into a kind of death. It was a death freely chosen, one that followed from all that he was as a professional, a counselor, a Christian, a human being. When he uttered that final refusal, he gave up his life as he knew it, trusting that somehow God would be there on the other side.

Sam had no idea what the next minutes held for him. In the language of today’s Gospel, he simply took up his cross, and by his own choice walked behind Jesus down the road to Calvary. All he could see ahead of him was death.

Sam held out against the vice president’s insistent demands as a matter of professional and personal integrity. Yet putting it that way makes his decision sound too abstract. He held out, at the cost of his life, because he could not forget the faces of clients who had trusted him and his agency, people in whom he had recognized the face of Christ. He could not fail to do for Jesus what Jesus had done for him.

Sam knew the demand Jesus makes of every disciple. There are different ways to phrase it:

— Pick up your cross and follow me.
— Give up your life for my sake.
— Surrender the whole world.

In the end, however, they amount to the same thing. Jesus asks of us no more — and no less — than he himself did for us. And this request shatters the life of every Christian like a rock thrown through glass. Echoing Peter’s refusal, we don’t want a suffering messiah, one who calls us to no better place than his own, a cross with our name on it.

Yet the message somehow reaches us. We are called upon to die for the right reason. Sometimes — though not always — our chance comes in one unforgettable moment, as it did for Sam that day in his office. The formation of a Christian character over time then shows itself decisively. Jesus offers us a cross with insistence, and we take hold of it, guided more by faith than fear.

Let me tell you another story of a decisive incident, and how one Christian was able to respond in faith.

Yesterday, my family and I went to Thumbfest, a folk music festival held at Camp Ozanam, located on Route 25 north of Lexington. I imagine that many people who drive by that camp find its name hard to pronounce, and do not know who it is named for.

Frederic Ozanam was a Frenchman whose life of only forty years ended in 1853. The France in which he lived remained torn as a result of the French Revolution in the late 1700s. The Roman Catholic Church had suffered the loss, not only of property and power, but of many lives, and its leadership had become reactionary. As a result, the Church, and even Christianity itself, was treated with distrust by the working class, and with disdain by many intellectuals.

Ozanam was in his late teens when he arrived at the University of Paris to study law. He was appalled to encounter there an atmosphere of bitter hostility to the Christian faith. With a number of his fellow students, he formed a study circle in order to present a positive intellectual witness to their faith. The group engaged in many debates and public controversies on behalf of Christianity. Then one day, a student threw at Ozanam this derisive challenge: “You Christians are fine at arguing, but what do you ever do?”

It was in that moment that young Frederic Ozanam was struck by a basic insight: Christianity is not about ideas, but about deeds inspired by love. His fine arguments were useless unless they were validated by how he lived his life. He resolved to start a fellowship of Christian lay people who would immerse themselves in the world of the poor and perform acts of service at personal sacrifice. This fellowship became the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

In making this commitment, Frederic Ozanam died to himself. He picked up his cross, and followed after Jesus.

The poor people of Paris were all around him, and their world was one of intolerable squalor. It is these people that Victor Hugo describes in “Les Miserables” as eking out their existence in overcrowded, disease-afflicted slums. There, the average lifespan of a factory worker’s child was estimated to be nineteen months.

The poor were plentiful, but to reach them, Frederic Ozanam not only had to “cross the tracks,” but to cross over a divide of bitter class hatred and enter a world little known to the clergy and intellectuals of the time. He went empty-handed. He had no program of social reform to offer. Yet he came to see the underlying issues accurately, and so he wrote, “It is the battle of those who have nothing and those who have too much; it is the violent collision of opulence and poverty which makes the earth tremble under our feet.”

Ozanam ministered not only to the poor, but also to the Christian community. He earned doctorates in law and literature, and became a distinguished and popular lecturer at the University of Paris. He believed strongly that the Church must overcome its attitude of defensive isolation and nostalgia for a bygone era. It was time, in his view, for the Church to ally itself with the people rather than be captive to political reactionaries.

Ozanam’s intellectual work proved itself to be no easy armchair endeavor. His writings drew wholesale criticism, and questions were raised about his orthodoxy. Here too Ozanam was invited to take up a cross, to die to familiar security so that he — and others — might live. [This sketch of Ozanam’s life is based on the art. “Bd. Frederic Ozanam” in Robert Ellsberg, “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time” (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 390-91.]

In our time, many presentations make Christianity seem something easy, a bargain that nobody can refuse. That God’s grace comes to us free and undeserved is a wondrous truth, but too often that truth is perverted. No mention is made that we are offered a cross as well as a resurrection, a death as well as a life. The idea is that if we simply trust Jesus, he will make life easy for us.

The life of Frederic Ozanam and the story of Sam both illustrate that there can be for us pivotal moments when we must decide whether or not to pick up the cross which is extended to us, whether or not to die so that we — and others — can truly live.

For some of us there are those moments, and for others of us the choice is less dramatic, less identifiable, but no less real. What we face may be more a constant choosing than a one-time decision. And for each of us, certainly, the circumstances are unique. What matters is not how the challenge appears, but the way we respond.

Frederic Ozanam heard the challenge to take up the cross in the taunt of an unbelieving student. Sam heard it in the threats of an irate executive.  Where do you hear your invitation to pick up your cross? Where is Jesus inviting you to die, that true life may be yours? May each of us be careful to hear and heed that voice.

Copyright 2006 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.