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?

Bargaining and Meritocracies Have No Place in the Kingdom of God

“Save me, St. Anne,” Martin Luther supposedly said, cowering in a lightening storm, “and I shall become a monk!”

Spoiler alert: he didn’t die. And, I guess it follows that, because he didn’t die, he had to become a monk.

I’d bet that we’ve all found ourselves at the Divine craps table before, making a wager in exchange for an ideal outcome or a blessing. That kind of bargaining is pretty normal for humans, actually. In moments of despair we’ll cling to whatever hook calls itself “hope” at the time.

Luther, though, backed himself into a tough corner there. I wonder what he would have done had he just pushed through the fear and panic without making the wager. Perhaps he would have become a monk all the same. It certainly was on his heart (much to the dismay of his father).

Sometimes we back ourselves into tough corners, too, setting the parameters for Divine agreements that we have no business setting.

I know more than a few people who asked for a miracle and, when it didn’t happen, took it as proof that there was no God. Conversely, sometimes miraculous things do happen (life in general, and biology in particular, is tricky that way…it usually follows norms but, every once in a while aberrations happen and the lotto numbers appear), and people have taken it to mean a Divine blessing has fallen their way.

The problem with both of the above scenarios is that none of that is objectively provable, Beloved. In other words: you make the meaning in both situations. The center for meaning there is not some “Divine plan,” but that “choose your own adventure” you’ve assented to in your own heart.

Humans make meaning. We have to. It helps us love and move and breathe with purpose in this world.

In other situations we do less bargaining and more earning. Through oblations, good deeds, generous donations, self-sacrifice, we secretly or not-so-secretly think we’re earning chips on the Divine poker table, increasing our chances for a nice pay-out.

We’re taught in life that we live in a meritocracy: work hard, reap the benefits.

Except, that’s largely a lie.

The world is not one where the hard-working are rewarded (cough: looking at you minimum wage) and the slackers go without. It’s one where opportunity shines brightly for some, and less brightly for others, due to a complex mix of historical racism, geography, health-factors, gender discrimination, sexual privilege, socio-economic influences, and just sheer luck (or lack of it). And, truthfully, I’m probably missing some factors there…

The tricky thing, of course, is that this “meritocracy lie” is less of an outright fib, and more of a “half-truth” parading around as the whole enchilada. Hard work does, sometimes, get you somewhere for some people. But I know folks who do all the right things and get the short end of the stick anyway. It seems their chip stack at the Divine poker table never grows, no matter how they play their hand…

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from John’s rendering of the life of Jesus is one that, I think, encourages us to disabuse ourselves of either of the above ways of operating.

People read John 3:13-22 as Jesus writing some greedy wrongs of the Temple in those ancient days, and surely some of that might be true. This act will be, in John’s Gospel, the reason for Jesus’ arrest.

But the larger lesson here, and the one I think is more helpful in shaping our spiritual sensibilities, is the idea that Jesus is actively dispelling the notion that we can bargain for God’s blessing, or that we can buy or earn our way to the miracle-circle of life.

The hope that God provides is not one that ensures a certain outcome, but rather one that says, “No matter the outcome, I am with you.”

I think that, especially in these days of illness and vaccine, storms and cold and “why the hell are we still here a year later?!” where certainly honest prayers for help and concern have been thrown into the universe, perhaps the best thing that the church can do right now, even with all her flaws, is to reorient our people toward the deep truth that bargaining and meritocracies have no place in the Kingdom of God.

It’s natural for humans to do that kind of thing, of course, which is one of the reasons we know it can’t be God’s standard operating procedure.

Instead, God invites us to move away from the craps table and cashes in all her chips on our behalf instead, standing beside us in the lobby of life as a friend, not a dealer, having decided that the “house always wins” mentality the world uses is not only not a good way to live, but certainly isn’t the abundant life the Divine intends for us.

If you’re still not convinced, flip ahead in the story just a bit to where Jesus is praying in the garden in the wee hours before they’ll string him up. There he doesn’t bargain with God, but rather just says what he truly desires, “Don’t let this happen…” he says.

No conditions. No wagering. No, “see how good I’ve been?!”

He just says, “I don’t want this.”

But then he says (in not so many words), in a wisdom that is so instructive for me…for all of us, “But if it happens, walk with me.”

Put down your chips, Beloved. They’re not worth anything lasting, anyway. God’s not dealing out blessing and curses, aces or fives.

God’s alongside us. We don’t need to bargain. We don’t need to earn it. Hear it and live.

Names Mean Something

Hi, Pastor.

If you’re looking for something to hang the sermon off of this week, a really effective golden thread that weaves its way throughout Genesis (17: 1-7, 15-16) and Mark’s Gospel (8:31-38) is the importance of names and naming things.

You might think it’s low-hanging fruit, but dig deeper there…I think you’ll find some profound insight here. So many sermons will focus on Jesus calling Peter “the Satan,” and the scolding lessons that will come from thinking that Jesus had come to take the easy way out of the Divine work, but I’m just gonna throw it out there that the church doesn’t need another sermon like that.

It really doesn’t.

Either the hearer will feel shame because they, like Peter (like all of us?) miss the mark, or they will feel their ego swell because they don’t believe that about themselves and really we don’t need any more tearing down or puffing up in the church. That deflation-inflation rhythm has led to a mass exodus over the years, and rightly so.

What we need is an invitation to go deeper not pull a moral from it all.

Like, what if this whole Peter episode was less about Peter missing the mark, and more an invitation for Peter to reflect more deeply on his name? Jesus had just one short episode earlier called him “The Foundation,” and it might be worth noting that a) that’s something to live into and b) even foundations aren’t infallible.

And notice Jesus doesn’t name Peter “Satan,” but in saying that out loud perhaps he’s asking Peter if he’s forgotten who he (Peter) is. “Remember, Simon, what I’ve named you…”

Remember who you are.

And for the assembly that name is given in baptism. It’s not “Brian” or “Shelita,” it’s “Beloved.”

It’s, “Child of God.”

Because, here’s the truth BELOVED, this world is gonna call you all sorts of names.

It’s gonna call you lazy.

It’s gonna call you wealthy.

It’s gonna call you a son-of-a-bitch.

It’s gonna call you a slut.

It’s gonna call you a fag.

It’s gonna call you a role-model.

It’s gonna call you a star athlete.

It’s gonna call you intelligent.

It’s gonna call you single, partner, parent, aunt, loner, Democrat, Republican, patriot, Communist, lover, fighter.

It’s gonna call you stupid.

And it’s important to remember, Beloved, so that you don’t do that deflate-inflate rhythm on a daily basis, that all of those names can be stumbling blocks when twisted in the wrong way, and though they try to stick on you like Velcro, the waters of the font have washed it all away in favor of:

Beloved.

Abram gets a new name. Sarai gets a new name. Simon gets a new name (and he’s asked to remember it!).

And so do you.

I say all this, too, because names become important for us in other ways, too. Because when a Beloved is given a true and rightful name, or they choose one for themselves, that, too, deserves honor and respect.

Like, no pretending you can’t pronounce a name that’s from another culture. That kind of privilege degradation has been pulled by white people for a long time. It’s a way of saying, in not so many words, “You’re not one of us, and I don’t have to bother learning your name.”

They are Beloved, just like you, so don’t try to pretend they’re not.

And like, when our Trans siblings identify that their birth name does not fit their gender and have found a name that suits them well, we honor it, by God.

They are Beloved, just like me, so no getting around that fact just because it’s confusing for our simplistic understanding of gender or not “we’re not comfortable” with it. Want uncomfortable? Try living as a gender you don’t identify with…

Names mean something. Names are important. And on this road to Calvary that we call Lent we’re offered a chance to reflect on what we call one another and what we’re called by God.

And I just think it’s an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up, Beloved.

A Matter of Words

If I were preaching tomorrow…here’s what I’d preach.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Beloved, when I was eight years old, I was told by my 3rd Grade teacher that I was, “just not good at math.”

I went through the rest of my elementary, middle, and high school years believing what she told me. It was just a fact: I wasn’t good at math.

I carried this truth upon my shoulders until I went off to University where, as part of my Philosophy Minor I had to take a course called “Logic and Critical Thinking.” It involved a number of word problems, proofs, and in that course, at the age of eighteen, a full ten years after I first was told with all certainty that I was “just no good at math” I realized I had been lied to.

And here’s the shame of it: because I had been told that I was no good at math, and I believed it, I never explored math. I always took the lowest math courses I could find, the most remedial in the catalogue.

I just took it as truth because, well, they were a teacher, right?! They knew best, right?

Words matter.

My friend, as a kid, was called a “fag” every day at school.

Now, I don’t think his bullies actually implied that he was trying to sleep with other guys, though maybe that was part of the implication, I don’t know, but really what they were trying to do was dehumanize him in some way. They wanted him to know, in no uncertain terms, that he was different, unwanted, and unliked.

And, well, later on in his years, when he crouches in a corner clutching a bottle of pills, thinking maybe he should just swallow them all…I mean, that’s part of what was running through his head, Beloved.

Words matter.

In Genesis today we hear that not only do words matter, but words create matter! The Divine speaks into the chaos of the universe and forms order out of it, parting the waters and the celestial bodies, helping to create a rhythm to the hours, helping to create safe spaces for all kinds of what would be created: land dwellers like you and me, ocean inhabitants like the majestic whale and the whimsical sea horse, and those who take to the air like the high-flying condor and the swift hummingbird…and, well, the Wright Brothers who, by the way, just a few days before their first flight would read in an op-ed of a national paper the projection that flight was generations off for humanity.

Good thing they didn’t take those words literally or seriously, right?

Words matter. Words create matter.

Words can create: safe spaces, brave places where creation can be comfortable, order in the chaos of a world that seems hell-bent on entropy most days.

And words can destroy, Beloved. They can stigmatize. They can dehumanize.

They can incite.

Terrorize.

We’re all acutely aware of this now, right?

So today, here are some other words, words to create a brave and safe space, words to lift up and inspire and provide some baptismal hope on this Sunday where we remember not only the baptism of Jesus, but our own baptism:

God loves you, for Christ sake, and will not let you go.”

These words were spoken to me again and again by my Theology professor and surrogate grandfather, Reverend David Truemper. He said these words, wrote these words, inscribed them on my heart, and I etch them now on yours, and he did this even as his body was laid waste by a cancer that ransacked him in my Senior year.

Cancer is a word that can destroy and terrorize, but these words carried him through it to the other side of the Jordan where he undoubtedly heard, “You are my son, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.”

It is good you exist.

In one of my darkest moments as a teen, these words were spoken to me by a friend who guessed I was on an edge. It reminded me of something very deep and very true.

We shall overcome…

In my Black Church course in seminary we started out the semester standing and singing this song, all together, led by our professor who had, himself, marched the streets with Dr. King. Tears ran down his face as we sang, a second baptism of sorts washing our heads and our hearts, re-centering us. We were not pastors who preached just any words, but we must be pastors who preach liberating words! Gospel words. Words that don’t rev people up into frenzies, but lift people up to new heights, by God!

You must work for justice and peace…

I’ve said these words over a hundred times in these last ten years, making sure that before people get to the font they know what they’re doing. These words are part of the baptismal liturgy, and they make clear that entering the waters of baptism means exiting oceans of hate and violence. The waters of baptism don’t wash away prejudice, but they birth you into a life of unlearning it, by God. They birth you into a life of reading the scriptures not through a lens of grievance, greed, and group-think, but through a lens of grace, both for yourself and your neighbor.

Justice and peace hold hands, Beloved, because one ensures the other. Peace and justice work for the good of all people. They lean toward truth and away from lies. They overthrow the halls of power not by force or “trial by combat,” whatever the hell that means, but by a fierce determination that changes hearts because they say, “See how much they love…a sacrificial love.”

Love lifts up the oppressed, it does not oppress.

And, finally, how about these words, ripped straight from our Gospel today:

You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.

Here’s the thing, Beloved: words matter. The words that grip you, matter. The words that you cling to, matter. Words affect matter, and as you know, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return…”

We don’t just matter, we are matter.

You are matter. I am matter. And matter, Beloved, can be manipulated. Molded. Moved, for good or ill.

Which means we have to be honest about words, Beloved. Words matter.

In the spirit of our baptismal calling, we condemn words that incite, right?

It’s no wonder that in the Gospel of John Jesus is called The Word. God’s love letter to the world. Because words matter, love letters matter, and when we have words that go against The Word, that aren’t love letters but hate speech, we rely on those sacred words, like those I lifted above to carry us through.

To remind us not to fall victim for wards that affect matter, but rather live in the embrace of words that remind us that humanity matters, peace matters, love matters.

And yes, words will call us to flood the streets in protest. But we cannot do so over just any words, especially lies and feigned grievances. We do so over words like, “I can’t breathe,” and words like, “You can’t marry,” and words like, “You’re illegal,” and words like, “Move to the back of the bus.”

Marching on those words is not marching for grievances, it’s marching in solidarity with true grief! And if you cannot tell the difference, well, then we’ve grounded ourselves not in The Word who calls us to defend our neighbor, but in words that call us to destroy.

Beloved, we’ve been doused in a river of news this last week, an ocean of words that have spilled over into our hearts, homes, and have covered our heads. There were points this last week where I felt like I was drowning in sorrow, in anger, in sadness.

But we must remember those other words, Beloved. Words that can carry us through. Words that compel us to counter the words of lies, selfish grievance, and hate. Words from The Word.

So, Beloved, be baptized in the deep words that compel you to peace and justice, not the shallow words of grievance and guilt.

Be baptized under the name of the one who created you, not the name of any demagogue out there who longs to move you against your neighbor.

Be baptized under the name of the one who says, unequivocally, “I love you. You are my Beloved,” and who will love you to death and one step beyond to show how true those words are…

Have these words poured over your heart and head today.

Because, words matter.