On Asking What You Look Up To and Quoting Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber

You put me on a pedestal and tell me I’m the best
Raise me up into the sky until I’m short of breath (yeah)
Fill me up with confidence, I say what’s in my chest
Spill my words and tear me down until there’s nothing left
Rearrange the pieces just to fit me with the rest, yeah

But what if I, what if I trip?
What if I, what if I fall?
Then am I the monster?
Just let me know
And what if I, what if I sin?
And what if I, what if I break? Yeah
Then am I the monster? Yeah
Just let me know, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Shawn Mendes’s album Wonder (featuring the Bieber) holds this kind of deeply distressing song “Monster,” the opening lyrics of which kind of trip and tumble out of the artist’s mouth. Bieber’s adds the next verse, equally as pleading and ponderful, giving an honest assessment of what it’s like to be famous before you can barely tie your shoes, let alone tie responsibility to your actions.

Too much money and too little mentorship have led to some pretty tough goes at life for otherwise quite privileged people. Fame, power, and fortune do not fall upon the morally perfect (some might even say, “deserving,”) and yet Jane and Joe Public like to act as if it should.

We’re all scoffers in our corners of secret envy.

Here’s the thing, Beloved, this Sunday’s Gospel asks the brutally honest question of us and minces no words in doing so: what do you look up to?

What do you think is going to save you in the end? What do you put on a pedestal?

Your bank account?

Your reputation?

How you look in the mirror?

Your privilege? It’s saved so many people over the years…ugh…but not forever…

Your job security? Hasn’t the pandemic dispelled this myth?

Your high-placed friends and contacts that pull the strings of power?

Your charisma or ability to “always land on your feet?”

Your power, your booming economy, your superior gun arsenal that you’re so proud of?

What do you look up to?

In John 3:14-21 the Christ recounts how, when they were wandering listless in the wilderness, plagued by venomous serpents who would take their lives, Moses took the bronze replica of that thing which killed them, hung it on a pole, and placed it in the middle of them all. To be cured of the venom, all you needed to do was gaze upon that golden serpent and be healed.

But, here’s the thing Beloved: the bronze serpent didn’t do the healing.

In fact, I’d say that the serpent mocked the whole thing, kind of like all of our idols end up doing in the end.

The bronze serpent is an idol of their fear, and like the hangover sufferer who still has a day of vacation left, the idea that some “hair of the same dog” will cure the ill plays into their desire to grab on to relief of any kind.

Enshrine the thing we fear, and we will bow to it.

Enshrine the economy as the thing we have to worry about the most, and who cares if the wages suck for the workers just scraping by.

Enshrine our weapons above everything else, and sure food stamps can be cut, but not that military budget.

Enshrine our power on a pole and sure, we can make sexist remarks or grab women anywhere we want because treating others isn’t the point, power is the point.

All idols are bronze. Hollow not hallowed.

The bronze serpent didn’t heal the people; the Divine promise did. A promise that they didn’t trust in the first place, which is why they were suffering in the wilderness and wandered into snaky territory!

And look: I get it. Divine promises are hard to trust.

It’s hard to trust that you will be OK when it feels like everything is falling apart. It’s hard to trust that you’ll live through the pain when it feels like you’re in a desert of a world and all you want is some reprieve. It’s hard to trust that you are loved and perfect as you are when it feels like everyone is rejecting you for being who you are.

Divine promises are hard to trust.

And so we set up other things on poles and bow down to them: fame, fortune, money, power, celebrity, economy, keeping up with the Joneses, the latest-and-greatest, the most…

Hollow. Not hallowed. Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, those erstwhile prophets who we figure think mostly about profits, are probably right.

Most of what we bow down to in these days are just monsters of our own making. Hollow like that bronze snake.

And so what does the Divine do?

In the Jesus story we see that the Divine takes our violent propensities, our desire for rock star saviors, our need for power, fame, and fortune and kills it to prove how impotent it all is in the end.

And then takes the one thing, love and companionship, and raises that after three days to say that that…that love, that never-ending presence of Divine love and companionship…that cannot die.

Look up to that kind of Divine love. That kind of Divine “not-leaving-here-without-you”-ness.

Look up to that, Beloved.

So, the question remains: what do you look up to, Beloved?

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