“The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Shared Armrest”
In my previous ministry before starting here at 1st Congregational, I spent much of my time traveling around the country working for the health and human service organizations affiliated with the United Church of Christ. I spent a lot of time on airplanes, which meant I spent a lot of time sitting next to strangers. I hate to admit this now, but I very quickly learned to lie when one of those seatmates would ask me what I did for a living. Or, at least, I would muddy the truth. “I work in the nonprofit sector doing leadership development and advocacy work,” I would say. Which, was technically true. But, I rarely said that nonprofit sector was a Christian denomination, nor did I say that I was a Christian minister. I confess that I left out those two very important features of my work and life because I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable…awkwardness…with a seatmate I had to share an armrest with for a few hours.
I learned very quickly that one of three things would happen if I was completely honest about my vocation with that stranger. One, they would automatically get a facial expression that was a mixture of fear and guilt. I assume this was because they weren’t religious and thought I would judge them for that, or they were but were not regular attenders of worship services, and were feeling guilty about that. I rarely found out though, because this type of seatmate would almost always put their headphones on to avoid conversation and eye contact with me until we landed. Though, they did usually let me have the armrest
The second group of people were the ones who were thrilled to have the undivided attention of a minister so they could tell me their life stories, confess every transgression in their past, and be reassured by me that they were indeed a beloved child of God even though they stole their brother’s bike 50 years ago. I learned more intimate details about strangers on a plane than I know about most of you as your pastor. This group of people also usually let me have the armrest but did not allow me to work or rest on the flight.
But, ultimately, it was the third group of people who I became fearful of when I was asked the question about what I did. And it was this third group that made me decide to hide a part of myself while sitting on an airplane. Because, upon hearing I am a Christian minister, they would narrow their eyes and immediately start grilling me about my beliefs and understandings of God – trying to place me into a category of Christian. Was I one of the ‘good’ ones or ‘bad’ ones – good and bad meaning something different to every person. Or sometimes they would try to trap me into saying something that would prove their assumption, which was that religion of all kinds is of no real value, just an antiquated belief system that should be left behind. These interactions were exhausting and at times intimidating. I never said the right thing, and I rarely got even a small sliver of the armrest.
But, what was once a periodic occurrence on an airplane for me, has become the norm of how we so often interact with people. In our highly polarized society many of us, myself included, have created our own litmus tests to try to place a person in a category that we have placed a value on. Do they wear a mask, or not? Do they leave space in line, or stand right next to you? Do they share posts from Fox News or MSNBC? Do they have a Biden or a Trump sign in their front yard? Think about it for a minute – what are the tests you have created? And what judgements do you make against the person who does not have the ‘right answers’ to your test?
But even more insidious than these tests our society has developed, is the suspicion that has grown around people we haven’t been able to figure out yet. The suspicion of the neighbor who has an American flag in their yard but no candidate sign – who are the voting for? The person in the store parking lot who appears to be reluctantly putting on their mask – are they reluctant because they don’t want to wear it and think it is dumb, or because they are sick of masks like everyone else? We have become suspicious about the people around us and are trying to collect information about them until we have enough to place them in a category. Are they good or bad? Right or wrong? Democrat or Republican?
This is nothing new of course, even though it feels more profound today. Some would even argue it is human nature. The Pharisees and the Herodians in today’s scripture were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would place him in a category. Though they tried to set him up with a question to which they saw having no right answer. Because the question about paying taxes had no right answer. The people of Jerusalem, an occupied people under foreign and hostile rule, were heavily taxed. In addition to land taxes and commodity taxes, they were also required to pay the Imperial Tax, and it was this particularly cruel tax Jesus was being questioned about. The Imperial Tax was more of a required tribute to the Roman Emperor, Caesar. It was a tax required for the Israelites that would be used to pay for the occupation – essentially they were required to pay for the cost of maintaining the hostile rule over them. Of all the taxes, this one was the most despised. The Pharisees and Herodians assumed that there could be no way for Jesus to answer this question without infuriating someone. To say, yes it is right to pay the tax would cast him as a friend to the Roman Empire and turn the Jewish people against him. To say, no it is not right to pay the tax would be crime against the Roman Empire, causing Jesus to be arrested. Either way, the Pharisees and Herodians assumed, Jesus would be silenced.
But Jesus refused to be categorized. Jesus refused to put himself unwaveringly on one side of the political divide or the other. Jesus pointed out that the coin used to pay this Imperial Tax was already stamped with the face of Caesar. So, Jesus said, since his face is already on it, it belongs to him. Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. It was an answer that out-witted his questioners.
Some argue that Jesus gave a non-answer, something scripted to purposely keep him out of trouble – essentially a meaningless response. Others argue Jesus was creating a dividing line between the material and spiritual. Some things are of this world and some things are of God, and never the two should meet. I don’t buy either of those theories.
“And they brought him a denarius. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Whose head is on this, and whose title?’ ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” The question to ask, then, is what is God’s? Following the lesson as Jesus taught, if the face of the emperor was on the coin, where is the face of God? Where do we look to find the face of God around us?
The answer is easy, we just need to turn back to our common creation story. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27). Where do we look to find the face of God around us? We look to our neighbors, we look to the strangers on airplanes, we look in the mirror. We are all stamped with the image of God, and therefore Jesus says, we all belong to God.
Jesus wasn’t giving a non-answer, he was pointing to a fundamental truth. Jesus wasn’t saying that the material and spiritual are forever divided, he was saying that they are intimately connected. Jesus wasn’t refusing to be categorized, he was saying that these categories we have tried to create don’t have any place in God’s Kingdom. Jesus has given us an alternative way of being in relationship with one another. Stop with the tests, Jesus said. Stop trying to decide who is right and who is wrong. Who is in and who is out. Because, ultimately, when we look at our neighbor there is only one category we can place them in: Beloved Child of God.
I wish now that I hadn’t given up on those uncomfortable plane conversations when my seatmate was trying to place me into a category. I wish now I had responded and asked my own questions. I wish now that I worked to create a relationship with someone, even if that person was suspicious of me. I wish this because I believe it would have put me in a better place today, helped me to not develop my own tests and categories for those around me. Helped me to not look at an unknown person with suspicion, but rather with hope. I think if I had done this, the armrest would have been shared more often: not given in deference, or taken in dismissal – but rather shared in relationship.
Even though I missed an opportunity to exercise my muscles for living in the Kingdom of God, doesn’t mean I can’t start today. Will you join me? Will you join me in not turning away from people who we disagree with, but instead walk towards them, ask questions, listen deeply, and see in them the diverse face of God? Will you join me in setting aside the judgement and instead find an opportunity for a relationship, no matter how complicated it is? Will you join me in trying to share the armrest instead of taking it? It is never too late to start. God rejoices each time.
Let us pray…
God, we come into Your presence with praise and thanksgiving for Your faithful love. Your love never fails—not even we turn away from You: when we ignore Your invitation, or desert You for gods of our own making. Even then You do not abandon us, but reach out—again and again— inviting us back into relationship once more.
As You welcome us, so You welcome our prayers. We bring them to You with confidence, knowing that You will hear and answer.
We pray for the world You created, and the people who share it with us:
– for countries caught up in war or violent conflict,
– for regions of the world struggling with increased cases of COVID-19,
– for those whose homes and lives are threatened by natural disaster;
For these and all the other areas in our world where there is need and despair,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for our country and for its people:
– for our government leaders, federal and local,
– for our judicial system, police forces and military,
– for our cities, towns, and rural communities,
– for employers and employees, for young and old,
For all who are part of this great country,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for our local community—,
– for those who are unemployed,
– for those in prison,
– for those who are hungry,
– for those who are alone and afraid,
For all our neighbors, both known and unknown to us,
Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for this congregation—our brothers and sisters in Christ,
– for those who are ill. or whose loved ones are ill,
– for those who are anxious about the future,
– for those struggling with their faith,
– for those who minister among us,
For all Your people in this place,
Lord, hear our prayer.
Pour out Your Spirit on us! Fix our hearts and minds on what is true and honorable and right. Give us the joy and peace that comes from knowing and doing Your will. Keep us faithful to the call we have received in Christ Jesus, our Lord, extending Your loving invitation to the world around us.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.