Monday, March 6, 2017

In God We Trust (?)

In November of 1861, letters were written between the Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania and then Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase on the subject of inscribing “In God We Trust” on U.S. coinage. The pastor thought that something was “seriously overlooked” on the coined currency of our nation, and by that he meant “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”

As a result, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto, in a letter dated later that month:

Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.

Working out some tweaks in verbiage along the way, in 1873 Congress passed the Coinage Act and had the motto, “In God We Trust” inscribed on all coins. But the use of this motto over the years did not go uninterrupted. And the Act only included coinage. Paper currency did not have the motto, In God We Trust, printed on it.

It wasn’t until a law was passed by the 84th Congress and approved by the President in July of 1956, some 83 years later, declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto of the United States. In God We Trust was first used on paper money in 1957, when it appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. By October of the same year, In God We Trust was printed on every denomination of paper currency, and has been since.

I’ve found it curious over the years, why we continue to have this motto written on our currency. I wonder if this sentiment is really what is in our hearts: In God we trust.

I find it curious because we live in a culture and society that teaches, and well, preaches that our self worth is wrapped up in our own financial success. We are bombarded constantly with advertisements about what clothes to wear, what products to buy, and what vehicles we should drive. We are labeled as “consumers” by those who compete feverishly for the money that is in our bank accounts. In God We Trust. Do we even notice it on our currency anymore? This is especially difficult in a time when we use our debit cards and automatic payments for most of our transactions. But regardless of how we use our income, the question for me remains, ‘what does it mean to trust in God?’

The first Sunday in Lent always begins with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and nights. There he is tempted by the devil three times.

Jesus’ forty days in the desert echo Israel’s forty years there. Like the people of Israel in their
exodus from Egypt, Jesus is out in the wilderness, hungry and tempted. “If you are the son of God,” the devil says, “command these stones to become bread.” In other words, if you really are either royal or divine, prove it by using your power to your own benefit. What kind of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of showing off his power and feeding himself? What kind of king ever goes hungry?
In response, Jesus places himself not among the privileged few but among the ordinary people of God. Quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus replies, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” For Jesus, being the Son of God means accepting his humanity and depending on God for daily bread.

After his first failure to lure Jesus into misusing his status, the devil tries again, taking him to Jerusalem (“the holy city”), to the very highest point of the temple. This time the tempter challenges Jesus to prove his identity by throwing himself down and letting the angels rescue him.

In the final temptation, the devil promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus will worship him. The implications are stunning. The devil assumes that all authority in the world belongs to him, to give to others as he chooses. But Jesus orders Satan to leave, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

The temptation of turning stones to bread for food, the temptation to test God’s power to rescue, and the temptation to rule with power and influence, and his subsequent refusal of each, are not stories meant to set Jesus apart from us. Matthew does not tell the story to make us feel inadequate by showing us things that Jesus can do and we can’t. On the contrary! This story is meant to encourage us – because Jesus “was tempted in every way that we were, yet did not sin” reminds us that Jesus was tempted by the very things that we are tempted by, that is, dependency on our own doing and trust in ourselves by our own right. Matthew’s story of the temptations proves to commend the faith that is already in us.

The temptations of Jesus are not about that shady, sneaky devil that has nothing better to do than trip us up and make us bad people, not at all. These temptations are about Jesus putting his whole trust in God’s grace and love, intertwined in the life of Jesus that empowers us to do the same; with God’s help and grace.

Do you trust God?

Let’s go back to that first temptation in the Garden; the one that Adam and Eve blundered big time. The serpent offers Adam and Eve the promise of ultimate, God-like knowledge, at the outset of his exchange with the woman the serpent suggests that God is not trustworthy. The serpent begins, sowing the seeds of doubt, and then asserts, “You will not die,” contradicting the words of God.
Having undermined Adam and Eve’s confidence in God, the serpent then invites them to establish themselves -- that is, craft their own identity -- independent of their relationship with God: “when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Who needs God, after all, when you can be “like God” all on your own?

Now back to Matthew. While the content of the devil’s temptations include the capacity to turn stones to bread, call upon angels for safety, and the promise of power and dominion, each again is primarily about the devil trying to undermine Jesus’ trust in God. And I think the devil continues his work around us.

The question of whether we trust God is an important one. Because when we trust God, it shows; in our lives, in our dealings, and in our habits. It’s not to say that we won’t be tempted; we will be. Again, realize the consumer-driven culture that you and I live in. We are constantly being told that we are not smart enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, insured enough, or just simply not cool enough, unless we purchase “x”.

So we take matters into our own hands. And when we do, we believe that we must take control of our own lives. We nudge God to the side, and say that the stories we hear in church are nice, but we come to church for other reasons. When we take matters into our own hands we deny the promise of the trust we are to have in God that we made at our baptism. So we satiate our desires as we see fit. We test God to see if God will give us what we desire, rather than what we need. We seek reckless ambition to achieve status and wealth and to be accepted by others who have achieved the same.

David Lose writes inspiringly, “that Jesus resists [these temptations] not through an act of brute force or sheer will, but rather by taking refuge in an identity founded and secured through his relationship with God, a relationship that implies absolute dependence on God and identification with all others. Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace for all good things. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and allegiance only to the Lord God who created and sustains him.”

When we decide rather that we are not in control; that we are not owners of our lives and possessions, but that everything is God’s, then we don’t nudge God out of the picture of our lives. We place God at the very center of our lives. Why? Because we trust. And when we trust in God, we start seeing the world differently and acting accordingly.

When we trust God it becomes easier for us to follow his commandments; to love God and our neighbor, to put no other god before our God, to seek peace and justice among others, especially for the poor and those who differ from us, because we trust that God is in control and that God will work things out. To trust God is to love others.

When we trust God we more easily share our money and possessions and for the right reasons! We don’t use money to get our way or withhold money when something happens that we disagree with. Money should never be used as a weapon. Yes, I speak of the very money that has printed on it, “In God We Trust,” but too often it seems that it is the money that we trust, not God. So we grip tighter. So instead when we give as Christians, we do so generously, because we are God’s children and we trust that he is in control and will make all things right.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. We began this holy season on Wednesday, but we begin anew today. We begin once again to look into our own lives and wonder how we can begin to trust God more. Jesus was not given special powers so he could ward off the evil one and continue on his merry way. No. Jesus trusted God. He trusted God when he was tempted, which was probably many more times than just three, he trusted God when he was betrayed, he trusted God when he was arrested, and he trusted God even to his death.

And during this season of Lent we are reminded of God’s grace all around us. The ashes on our foreheads from Ash Wednesday remind us more than that we are dust, but that we are God’s children. We are called to self-examination, but we are also reminded of God’s grace and love and forgiveness. May our focus this Lent not be our shortcomings, but rather the abundant grace that God continues to offer us in Jesus.


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