You may have heard the same story I heard this past week on NPR, about a reporter named Al Letson, who is the host of the radio program and podcast Reveal. Al was interviewed about something that happened to him while he was reporting in Berkeley, California.
Al was reporting at what was meant to be a right-wing rally made up of white nationalists. However, that right-wing rally quickly dwindled and the members of that group began to leave as a new group, a group of left-wing protestors showed up singing and chanting.
Al Letson was there to report on the right-wing rally taking place, but watched it turn from a right-wing rally into a left-wing protest. And to further complicate this shift in dynamics, a group of leftist anti-fascist protesters (Antifa) showed up, their faces covered, all marching in formation.
Al Letson witnessed at this time, one man of the departing right-wing group, fall to the ground and the leftist anti-fascist group, with covered faces, circled around the fallen man and began to beat him.
This is what happened next according to Al:
“When I glanced to my left I saw, you know, a mass of people just coming off the lawn towards this guy, and I don’t know — I just, I thought they were going to kill him. And I just didn’t want anybody to die. And I just put my body down on top of his, in the hopes that they would not hit me.”
“What came to me,” says Letson, “was that he was a human being, and I didn’t want to see anybody die. And, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the events in Charlottesville, and I remember seeing the pictures of a young man being brutally beaten by these guys with poles, and when I saw that I thought, “why didn’t anybody step in?”
I think it is important to note that Al Letson is an African-American man and the group of right-wing protesters gathered that day were white nationalists. But in the moment that the man identified as part of the right-wing ralliers was on the ground being beaten, those divides didn’t matter any more to Al.
All he saw was a man on the ground, outnumbered and overpowered, being beaten and nobody was doing anything to stop it. And so, he stepped in and laid his body down on the man in hopes that the beating would stop. In hopes that he might save this man’s life.
As I sat down to write this sermon for today I could not get this story of Al Letson and the fallen man out of my mind. I couldn’t help but see the connection between what Al chose to do in that moment when he flung himself down onto a fallen man being beaten and what Jesus is asking his disciples to do in this morning’s Gospel passage.
Today’s Gospel passage is part two of the passage we heard last week. Last week we recounted a major “Come to Jesus Moment” when Jesus asked Peter “Who do you say that I am?” and we heard Peter proclaim “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
In this morning’s Gospel passage we hear the part of the conversation that took place immediately after Jesus praises Peter for his answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” Today, we don’t hear Jesus praising Peter, instead we hear Jesus yell at Peter “Get behind me Satan!”
First Peter is being praised and then Jesus calls Peter Satan. Emotions are clearly high, and things start to get confusing and complicated in this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
The conversation we hear between Jesus and his disciples today is the moment when Jesus reveals what he has been preparing for since he began his ministry.
The miracles Jesus has performed up to this point, the acts of mercy and grace Jesus has demonstrated and taught, this is only part of what it means to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
The other part, the hard part, the part Peter doesn’t like to hear, the part we know is coming, is still yet to be realized. This of course is the brutal murder and death of Jesus on the cross.
I imagine Peter feels he has arrived at something of a pinnacle moment in finally proclaiming Jesus Messiah. His faith has just gone through a huge transformation and it’s a turning point for him and the other disciples.
Peter and the disciples thought this might be the moment of triumph. They feel their answer has come, their savior is here. It’s time to rejoice! They are ready for the storyline where their Messiah comes and wins victory for them by thwarting the enemy and triumphing as King.
But Jesus bursts their bubble pretty quickly. The turning point they receive from Jesus, is a different storyline completely.
Instead of a storyline of earthly victory and triumph they receive a storyline of pain, suffering and death. Instead of the happy ending they have been waiting for, they hear their Messiah must march willingly into Jerusalem, to suffer and die at the hand of the enemy. And the part about being raised again in 3 days? I imagine the disciples can hardly wrap their minds around it. This is not the way the disciples were expecting things to go.
So, Peter is upset and who can blame him? And he begs Jesus to not go to Jerusalem. How can this be outcome for the Son of God? How can Jesus’ death be the way God will bring about salvation? They have been running from suffering and pain, seeking to heal sickness and death as they follow Jesus. How can it be that the suffering and death of their teacher, their savior, is what will happen next?
Jesus has known his death would be coming, and he has been keeping this part of the story close to him until the moment was right. Now that his disciples are able to confess him to be the Messiah he is finally able to share this next chapter that awaits him. And after all he has worked for, after all he has been preparing for, even dreading, the last thing he needs are his most loyal followers, his friends, talking him out of following the path that has been set for him.
So, Jesus says to Peter, “No! Stop. Don’t try to tempt me away from this path and fate. I know this is what I must do. Our lives are not our own, they are God’s. I must bear my cross.”
“If you really want to follow me,” Jesus explains, “You must also take up your cross. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. If you want to follow me, you have to sacrifice your life, sacrifice everything for the unconditional love of God.”
The work and ministry of Jesus’ life is beautiful and miraculous and one that I find easy enough to follow. It feels natural to base my faith on loving the outcasts and marginalized and do everything in my power to help those in need.
But this whole “take up your cross, lose your life” thing? Yeah, that part is a little bit more challenging.
I mean, what does it even look like to take up your cross and lose your life? To be clear, I don’t think Jesus is asking us all to go out and literally die on a cross. Rather, I believe what Jesus is saying in this moment to Peter and the disciples is that we must take up our cross by sacrificing our ego; by letting go of those material and superficial things we value, those superficial things we think define us. Taking up our cross means we let go of the storylines we cling on to, that give us a sense of control, and instead we move into a world where the storyline of our life belongs to God.
Now, God’s storyline is not always clear, in fact I would say it is always changing, and that is a scary thing. God is boundless and is continually working through us to make miracles happen in new and surprising ways. But we have to do our part and let go of what we think we know about the world and take up our cross.
At least if there’s one thing we do know about God’s storyline, it’s that it always seeks to tell the story of love.
I highly doubt if reporter Al Letson was thinking of this Gospel passage when he leapt on top of the man who was being wrongly beaten that day in Berkeley. But what Al did on that day is a picture of what Jesus was talking about when he said take up your cross.
Al Letson went to a rally to report on the divisions happening in our country between right and left-wing politics and ideals. He went knowing a group of people calling themselves white nationalists would be there rallying for a voice. He went knowing the risks to his own life as an African-American individual.
And when a man was thrown to the ground and beaten, it didn’t matter what “side” he was on or what he looked like. All that mattered to Al was that it was wrong, what was happening to this man, and that he didn’t deserve to die, no matter what his views may be.
When Al was asked by interviewers about how he was a black man trying to save a white nationalists’ life, here is what he said:
“It doesn’t matter whether he (the fallen man) sees my humanity, what matters is that I saw his. What he thinks about me, and all of that…my humanity is not dependant upon that.”
The video of what happened that day is incredible to watch. Not because Al Letson threw himself down on top of a fallen man in order to save his life, but because of how this one action changed the entire dynamic of what was happening in that moment.
When the left-wing mob saw that there was now an African-American man on top of the white nationalist yelling “Stop! No! Stop!” one individual in the mob stopped beating and kicking the man, then another one stops, then another, and another and then quickly everyone stops. One man even jumps out, as he realizes what is happening, and helps Al by yelling “Please stop! Stop!”
Al’s actions confused everyone so much the mob began arguing with each other and attention was completely diverted from the fallen man. What Al Letson did was amazing, miraculous even, not only for the fallen man but for the way that his one action quickly changed the minds of everyone around him.
Al changed the storyline; he stepped in with a storyline that was bigger than himself. He forgot his ego for that moment, he forgot about his bodily safety, he saw another human being on the ground and he stepped in making an impact that changed the world around him…if only for a moment.
Al changed the storyline for the fallen man on the ground and he changed the storyline for the mob who was beating the man. And it confused everyone. Al entered that heated divide of political ideologies with a different story, one where people don’t deserve to die just because they have different views. He entered with the storyline that every person’s life is valuable, that no one deserves to be overpowered and beaten by a mob.
Al entered with a storyline that says compassion for others is a better value to live by and strive for than political ideologies or the divisions that are created by them. He entered with a storyline that, I would say, looks something like the unconditional love of God.
Maybe taking up the cross looks something like this. Not specifically throwing down our bodies to protect those who are being beaten by a mob, I’m not advocating you actually go and put yourself in potentially dangerous situations.
I’m suggesting that taking up the cross might look like changing the storylines we operate by and get stuck inside. Maybe it means being compassionate with those we disagree with. Maybe it means entering difficult conversations with those who think, or look, differently than we do so that we might understand who they are and where they are coming from. Maybe it means working hard to love those who don’t like us. Maybe it means letting go of our egos and what we think we know about the world.
Maybe it means leaning more on our faith in the unconditional love of God, even if we are scared, even if we don’t know where we are going or what will happen next. Maybe taking up the cross means living into the surprising storyline of God’s, the storyline that will always say love in the face of fear, hate and violence.
Here is the final quote I will leave with you from Reporter Al Letson:
“You know, I mean this sounds really high-minded and maybe a little nutty, but I am a huge NPR nerd, and many years ago I was listening to Terry Gross and Father Greg Boyle was on there, and he gave this quote that has just stuck with me ever since.”
He said, “I want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found.” And it’s how I want to govern myself in the world.”
May we have the courage to “live like the truth is true and go where love has not been found.” May we take up our cross and follow Jesus.
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