There is a story told, which probably never happened - but it is a good story none-the-less.
The King of Sweden wanted to know what it was like just to be a normal human being.
One day, he managed to escape the palace driving a car without a large security detail and no one having knowledge of where he was or where he was going.
Not used to driving a car – he soon exceeded the speed limit and was quickly pulled over by a police office.
The officer asked for his driver’s license and registration.
The king, having never been in this situation before, has no idea what the officer is asking for.
And then the king had what he thought was a brilliant idea – as a form of identification.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out some money and hands it to the officer.
A bribe? No, not that at all. Rather he simply asked the policeman to look at whose picture is on the money – and, of course, there was the king’s face looking out from the bill.
The police officer, after getting the shock of his life – handed the money back, and let the king drive off– warning him to watch his speed.
Wouldn’t that be something that make us feel important – to have our faces on something as precious and indisputably valuable – as money.
Far from a trivial thing as citizens often argue about whose face should, or should not be, on coins and paper money. It says something. It means something – it is important.
“Whose image is this and whose inscription,” asks Jesus when handed a Roman coin.
Of course he knows the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to trap him -
If Jesus says yes to their question about paying the census tax - he will be viewed as being supportive of the Roman occupation.
If he says no, then he will be labeled as a subversive. . .
Jesus doesn’t take the bait and instead answers their question with one of his own: “whose image is this and whose inscription.”
And when they say Caesar – he challenges them to “repay Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
So what belongs to God? Well every created thing belongs to God – and most especially — all of US.
WE belong to God, and therefore Jesus is challenging each of us to give ourselves completely over to God – to surrender ourselves to God’s wants, God’s invitation to salvation, God’s will – not our own.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that giving to God what is God’s – is at the heart of a Christian’s life — faith – it’s at the heart of our Christian journey.
I think it is easy to hear this story – and immediately stop thinking about the coin – as it was just something Jesus used to make his point. The story really isn’t about the coin – right?
I’m not so sure. . . for the coin has something to teach us about faith and about ourselves.
We are like that coin – and the similarity is reflected in two important ways.
First, the coin has value – and so do we.
We are worth something. We matter. We are important and precious in God’s eyes.
Truly believing this is a spiritual game-changer – for it allows us to have a healthy kind of love of self that allows us to love others.
If we see ourselves as worthless – it becomes nearly impossible to live as God asks us to live.
And then secondly - -the coin is imprinted with an image – and so are we.
The imprint on each of us is NOT the face we see in the mirror each morning as we brush our teeth. . .
No, the imprint on each of us, the face that has been cast on the precious item that is each of us – is God – the image and likeness in whom we are created.
Think about those two things, just for a second. . .
We are of great value and we have been stamped with the image of God. What a gift. What a blessing – let’s not take it for-granted or try to deny it or hide it.
But is this the face we show to the world??
Or do we show the world something else – someone else??
Do we sometimes put on a mask of indifference or a lack of caring – and show that to the world?
Do we often put on a mask of judgment or prejudice, or criticism – and show that to the world?
Do we put on a mask of self-righteousness - an “I’m better than you” face or attitude?
Do we put on a mask of unkindness or pettiness or lack of compassion??
Masks maybe the thing to wear on Halloween – but they are NOT the thing to wear for life.
What face do we show the world?
Let’s always try, as consistently as we can – to show the compassionate, merciful, loving face of God – because that’s the image and likeness that is stamped on our hearts.
As you may well know, there are many frustrating things about flying these days. Long lines at security checkpoints - even in our new airport.
Extra fees for extra luggage. All sorts of restrictions that did not exist prior to 9-11.
But there is one thing that is especially frustrating. It doesn’t happen that often – but when it does, almost everyone lets out a moan or a groan.
It’s when the pilot announces there will be a delay in landing – and the control tower has instructed him or her to enter into a holding pattern.
And then the anxiety begins to rise over making connecting flights, or getting to a meeting on time, or just getting home for dinner.
Sometimes the holding patterns are due to weather, or increased traffic being diverted from someplace else. Often it’s because the plane which is leaving the gate where you’re supposed to go – has been delayed in leaving.
No matter what the cause – holding patterns when flying – can really be frustrating.
And they are in life, too.
Some of us are in jobs that feel like holding patterns. We are sort of “stuck” doing the same things over and over and over again –and we can’t wait for the day when we get to retire or have sense to take another job. . .
But one month becomes six, and two years become five – and well, nothing changes.
Unhealthy habits can be like holding patterns. Many of us continue to eat foods that aren’t good for us, or fail to get enough exercise, or fall into addictions that threaten our very survival – but we keep on going, and going. . .
And many of us are in holding patterns in relationships – holding on to grudges for years, or stuck in ruts which we never seem to get out of. Things just stay the same year after year.
And we even get stuck in holding patterns in our faith.
Jesus told the chief priests and the elders: “When John the Baptist came to you - You did not believe him.
But tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you say that, you did not later change your minds and believe in him.”
That was the tag line to the parable Jesus told them. The parable is rather short - as compared to last Sunday’s parable – a dad asks his sons for help in the vineyard - one says no - but then changes his mind. One said yes - but never goes – who did the father’s will?
Jesus says the first - the one who refused – but then changed his mind and went. Then Jesus tells his listeners what would have shocked them all: tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom before all you religious people. . .
UNTHINKABLE – they would have thought.
IMPOSSIBLE - they would have said. These are bad people – they were sinners – certainly outside of God’s good graces. . . But Jesus was implying they were actually doing something to please God - so that they were on the fast track to heaven. . . And what were they doing??
They were attempting to turn their lives around - -that is, they were admitting something was wrong, and they were being honest about what needed to change – and were allowing God to show them a new path forward.
All the while the chief priests and elders were way to comfortable in their own goodness – were embracing a kind of self-righteousness, convinced they were doing things right and they did not have to change a thing. >>
And so they were in a holding pattern – circling and circling - acting exactly the same and thinking exactly the same year after year.
Many of the sinners among them were in a holding pattern, too – repeating the same harmful behaviors – the same sins - over and over again.
They, too, were stuck – mired in lifestyles of which they were probably NOT proud, or maybe even ashamed of.
But some of them listened to the voice deep within them, and listened to the voice of John crying out in the desert - and listening now to the words of Jesus.
AND THEY MADE A CHOICE: to leave their holding pattern - leave what was familiar and comfortable and known – to embrace a new life - filled with God’s grace, mercy, and love.
BECAUSE God’s grace, mercy, and love – are available to anyone at anytime – who respond to God’s invitation to be saved.
The good, but challenge news is: God does not want us to remain in a holding pattern month after month, year after year. God does not want us saying “someday I’ll make the changes I need to make, but not right now.” Or “I’ll get around to it – eventually.” Or “I’m not doing anything really bad, so I’ll just keep at it.”
NO - what God wants is for us to be more – and give more – and love more.
And God doesn’t want that a year from now or after we have settled down in our new job, or home, or family.
God wants us to leave our holding pattern in this moment – in this very day - and to start heading toward our true destination: into the loving arms of God who wants to help is to be the best versions of ourselves — NOW.
We might expect another day – but we might not get one. Our bedsheets could become our burial sheets . . .
And God gives us the means to break our holding pattern - in this moment - in this very day - by giving us the Eucharist – which helps us to change more and more into the image and likeness of Christ –
For what difference does it make if the bread and wine on the altar are changed in the Body and Blood of Christ – if we, at the altar, remain the same?
We just need to do what the tax collectors and other sinners did: we need to honestly admit that we need to be better – decide we can be better – and then do what we need to do to be better – all with God’s help.
Moments in time...