Early on in the pandemic, I heard a friend say that she watched all of Netflix. I feel sure that's not possible, and I haven't watched everything Netflix has to offer, but maybe like you, I've recently enjoyed subscribing to several streaming channels, just to have something fun to do while we're spending so much time at home. Our family subscribed to Disney Plus last summer, really just to watch Hamilton back in July, but we're hooked on it now. So, when Soul came out back in December, we were all excited to watch that one too.
Pixar is good at making movies, and Soul tells the story of two characters; one is trying to figure out how to get back to his life so he can fulfill his purpose. His name is Joe Gardner. And the other - not yet named, just numbered 22- is not sure if she's ready to start living because she doesn't know what her life's purpose should be.
It's kind of a nebulous concept, this movie, but it gets to a feeling that a lot of people feel. We all ask: Who am I? What am I here for? And, sometimes, probably too often, we ask ourselves, Shouldn't I be doing something more?
I'm working on that last one. After all, some pastors serve churches with more members than I do. Some pastors have more books on their bookshelves. Some pastors tweet tweets that go viral. Some pastors can sing or play guitar. Some pastors, it seems, are more successful and more faithful, and I wonder if I've been doing enough and if I am enough. Do you know what I'm talking about?
There is a very real struggle for me that our world seems to capitalize on. Our celebrity culture seems to break the world up into those who count and those who don't, so that we can tell who is somebody and who isn't based on numbers, likes, and followers.
Are you somebody, or aren't you?
In the movie both characters figure it out, in the end, but it's a struggle to get there. Getting there is always a struggle.
You heard what happened with Jesus. Last Sunday, we heard sermons concerning Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. But the temptation didn't end there. After 40 days in the desert with the devil tempting him to take power and seize control, to be someone other than who he knew in his heart he was meant to be, Jesus emerged from the desert only to be tempted by his friend.
We read from the Gospel of Mark:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Why? Because Peter didn't want Jesus to be that kind of Messiah. Peter didn't think that suffering had anything to do with being the Messiah. Peter wanted a nice, quiet Messiah, who would be everyone's hero and who would one day retire with him to the beach, and together Peter and Jesus would look back on all their years of ministry and Peter would say to his friend in the beach chair next to him, "Jesus, it's been a wonderful life, hasn't it?"
Maybe there was a part of Jesus that wanted this kind of life too, so he must rebuke Peter just as he rebuked the devil back in the wilderness: "Get behind me, Satan! [he said to his friend] for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Isn't it easy, to set your mind on human things? But not everyone does, or not everyone does all the time.
When the great evangelist Rev. Billy Graham died, I remembered one of his most famous quotes: "My home is in heaven. I'm just passing through this world." That was him, maybe all the time, maybe only on a good day. Well, for the rest of us, it's pretty easy to get stuck in this world. Isn't it easy to set your mind on human things?
A Puritan prayer book that I love says it this way: "O Savior of Sinners, raise me above the smiles and frowns of the world, regarding it as a light thing to be judged by humans."
Do you know anyone who needs to pray that prayer? I know I need it. Maybe you do too.
In this strange time of COVID-19, isn't a prayer like that one what we all need? For friends forge ahead with plans to get together, yet something inside you says, "Is that really what we should be doing right now?"
For some, especially in small towns, whether or not a mask is covering your face when you're walking into a gas station or a grocery store is no simple thing, because now it also makes a political statement.
We ask ourselves: "How will I even protect myself, when I'm faced with mollifying one group of people while disappointing another?" How can I speak, when obvious statements like “Black Lives Matter” carry with them not the value of human life, but allegiance to a particular group and a particular way of seeing the world?
You know this struggle. It's a fool's errand to walk the middle path, trying to appease everyone, though I've been that fool again and again and again, and I bet you have too.
You lean one way and you're someone's hero but someone else's enemy - and it sure does feel like you're dying a slow death if you are unable to rise above the smiles and frowns of the world - if it's impossible to regard it as a light thing to be judged by humans, because your mind is set on human things. "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things," and if that's the way we choose to live, then it's going to be nothing but torture from here on out.
It was that way for me in my first year of ministry. I began my ministry at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church out in Lilburn, Georgia, and I was going to be everything to everybody even if it killed me.
Someone asked me if I liked to listen to “The Fish” - that Christian radio station - and so I started to listen to it. A group wanted to start a Bible study, and so I helped them get it going, then another group wanted one, then another, and before long I was leading a Bible study every day of the week, listening to “The Fish” in the car, even though I didn't want to.
There was no place of solace. I was trying to please someone everywhere I went. So, basically, the hardest thing about my first year of ministry was that I was trying to be, not the pastor who I was, but the pastor who I thought they wanted me to be.
Then one morning I woke up with a rash on my stomach. This is personal and kind of gross, but I want to tell you about it. It started out red and itchy, and it wouldn't go away. My wife Sara finally sent me to the doctor. He told me that it was hives and that he could give me some medicine for it, but really it was just from stress and what I needed to do was find a way to relax.
"You're a preacher, right?" my doctor asked. I told him that I was, and so he said again, "What you need to do is find a way to relax. Have you ever heard of prayer?"
What is prayer but the constant reminder that our identity comes not from humans but from God - that our primary relationship must be between us and our Creator. To quote that great prayer for illumination: "Lord, among all the changing words of this generation, speak to us your eternal Word which does not change." Because it is God's voice that must define us, not the whispers of the gossips or the pressure to conform.
Jesus did ask his disciples, "Who do they say that I am?" - though the difference between him asking this question and us asking the same is that he didn't really care who anybody said he was. Because he already knew.
But what about the senators? What about the governors? If your actions are tied to public opinion or interest group donations, can you really be free?
And what about the mobs who storm the streets? If you have to demonize the people who don't agree with you, then aren't you letting other people define who you are?
We all have to slow down and accept it. We have to let it sink in. We must feel it like cool water on our face. For in our baptism the Lord already told us who we are:
"You are mine, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased."
The difference between all of us and Jesus is that he never forgot it. He was always bold to believe it. And he never depended on humans to tell him who he was or how he should live.
So, let our prayer be: "O Savior of Sinners, raise me above the smiles and frowns of the world, regarding it as a light thing to be judged by humans."
And may our song be like that great but lesser-known hymn, "How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord":
If worldly pressures fray the mind
and love itself cannot unwind
It's tangled skein of care;
our inward life repair.
[Fred Pratt Green, How Clear Is Our Vocation Lord, 1981.]
For how will we make it to the Kingdom of Heaven, if deep in our hearts we long for the approval of a broken world?
Therefore, we must set our minds not on human things but on divine things. As you wrestle with the great questions of human existence, whether they're present in your own mind or just now being introduced because of a Pixar cartoon on Disney Plus, know that our purpose, our calling, our reason for being here is so simply summed up in the awe on the character's face as that helicopter seed lands in the palm of her hand.
They're also right there in the words of the Westminster Catechism:
What is the chief end of all of us?
To glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.
May it be so with you.
And may it be so with me.