Proper 25(C): How Bizarre
By: The Rev. Anna Tew
We’ve all been there. You get in the car and decide to listen to the radio for a change. The music that comes on takes you back.
:opening guitar riff, with an overlaid Spanish-inspired horn:
Instantly, you’re transported back to the late 1990s as OMC’s “How Bizarre” blasts over the radio. You might be recalling a lot of things in that moment, but as for me, I was a pre-teen in the midst of news I didn’t quite understand about the President and impeachment. I loved the series Animorphs, which planted the seeds of how to accept those who aren’t like me and to fight controlling and dominating powers, no matter how powerless I felt. Oh, and the series was about human teenagers turning into animals. How bizarre.
But then, it was a bizarre time.
I hadn’t yet thought about racial dynamics and policing, and to tell you the truth, I never really listened to the words of “How Bizarre” until 20-something years later, just last week, when the podcast Switched on Pop did a series on 1990s pop.
“Brother Pele’s in the back / Sweet Zina’s in the front / Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun / Suddenly red-blue lights flash us from behind / Loud voice booming / Please step out onto the line / Pele preaches words of comfort / Zina just hides her eyes / Policeman taps his shades / Is that a Chevy ’69? / How bizarre.”
With this catchy hit, we all sang along, knowingly or not, to a commentary on race penned by BIPOC: “Every time I look around / It’s in my face.”
You see, it turns out that OMC, the name of the band, stands for Otara Millionaire’s Club. Otara, you might not know, is a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, where the band is from. The community has Māori origins and has historically been inhabited by Māori and other indigenous peoples. Like many communities of color around the world, it has suffered from European colonization and a subsequent lack of resources. Until the mid-2000s, it had one of the highest crime rates in the country, such that OMC had a hard time booking in New Zealand. Thus, along with the commentary on race and policing, even the band’s name, Otara Millionaire’s Club, is a tongue in cheek commentary. OMC flips our expectations upside down and teaches us some serious, life-or-death lessons, all through a catchy, happy little guitar riff overlaid with a horn.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us another catchy, feel good story so familiar that we may miss the words. Or, rather, we get so caught up in the words that we miss their meaning. We see “Pharisee” and immediately think of the people we can’t stand. Maybe we see the religious fundamentalists, or the evangelical right. Maybe we see self-righteous white liberals. Whomever you put in the position of Pharisee, however, if it’s not you, the impact you’re getting from the story is the exact opposite of its intent. This story isn’t about pointing fingers; it’s about realizing how righteous you aren’t. Let’s tell it another way.
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: two people went up to church to pray. One of them, a Lutheran pastor, loved justice, and was very proud of her stances against racism, sexism, and homophobia. The other was a white, straight Republican. He used to be religious, but now, he wasn’t sure, but here he was anyway. The Lutheran pastor, bowing her head in a corner pew, said this: “God, I thank you that I’m not like the NRA members I know, or the racists, or even this guy. I volunteer twice a week. I protest. I’m part of the resistance. I stand for your justice.” But the other guy, standing far off, wept over the state of the world, not sure what to do about it, but sure he had a part in it. He thought over the times in his past where he’d even said openly racist things, when he’d talked over women, when he’d ignored the violence and injustice in the world. “Oh God,” he cried, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”
“Jesus said, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14).’”
Let’s be clear: this story isn’t supposed to make you feel like a hero. It’s supposed to make you angry.
The tax collectors in the Roman world were the worst. They were seen as traitors, to God and to their people. They stole from their own people to benefit the empire. However much you can’t stand your political enemies today is at least how angry and betrayed the average person felt about tax collectors in first century Palestine.
This story isn’t supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you mad. It’s supposed to turn your expectations upside down and make you take a hard look not only at yourself, but at your perceived enemy. The person who’s supposed to be good comes off looking like an asshole, and the person who’s supposed to be an asshole comes off looking contrite, thoughtful, self-aware, realistic, and ultimately, justified.
I believe that the future of the world depends on how we treat those that we believe have got it all wrong.
This doesn’t mean that we should all ignore the wrongs done by others. I will not engage in spiritual bypassing, saying that if we’re just nice to those we think have it all wrong, that the world will be a better place. The story doesn’t say the tax collector lived happily ever after, either, or that there was never a reckoning for the injustice he caused.
What I am saying is that Jesus has a tendency to take our expectations — of ourselves and other people and the state of the world — and turn them upside down. It’s Christ who pulls the saint out sinners like us. It’s Christ who transforms death into new life.
So all I’m asking is this: let this story surprise you again. Let “How Bizarre” by OMC surprise you. The ending of that song isn’t a happy one, it’s a bizarre one. “Is that a Chevy ’69?” doesn’t solve racism. It just flips our expectations and surprises us and calls us to think more deeply as to why a traffic stop might be terrifying for BIPOC, and why this ending is bizarre and not as commonplace as a far more tragic ending.
The same is true of the publican and the Pharisee; the guy who has it all right actually has it all wrong. Sometimes the familiar songs and stories lay the hardest truths on us.
So let yourself be surprised, preacher. Stand for justice. See the humanity in others, even when they’ve got it all wrong. Pay attention. Notice when your expectations get flipped.
Let yourself say, at least once a day this whole week: how bizarre.
:guitar riff continues:
The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.