Sermon
February 15, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading:


Jeremiah 17:5-10 : Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.


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Sermon: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash

What is your view of human nature?

Are people basically good unless twisted by some trauma along the way, their souls pure until squeezed by the forces of society and the demands of conformity?

Or, are people tragically flawed and dangerous, with pride and passions that put them at risk for violence, aggression, prejudice, and evil?

Or are people flawed – but in a funny sort of way, for the most part, with a few nasty exceptions that give this human family a bad rap?

The title of my sermon this morning is “In God we trust; all others pay cash.” I’ve stolen this title from Jean Shepherd, a wonderful humorist who had a radio show on WOR in New York when I was growing up. You may know him because he later did a series of programs for Public Television called Jean Shepherd’s America.

Shepherd had a great talent for describing the funny foibles of family and friends. He often spoke of his father, “the old man” as he always called him. One time the old man tried to save some money by ordering a house from the Sears catalog – an entire house in boxes to be delivered by train. The old man recruited a gang of friends to help him with the promise of beer, but as the train was late and the beer was broken out early – you can imagine – disaster ensued. When the delivery from Sears finally arrived the assembled crew just ripped into the boxes and left all the parts of the house scattered along the tracks in the rain - yet another good idea gone bad.

Probably his most famous narrative is now a staple of Christmas stories on television – it’s about a boy who has one wish for Christmas – to get a Daisy Brand Red-Ryder BB gun. He is consumed with desire for it but his mother repeatedly crushes his dreams with the familiar "You'll shoot your eye out!"

At the same time, the boy’s father – the old man - wins a lamp with a ceramic base shaped like a woman’s calf and a fringed shade looking like a flapper’s dress. It is just the sort of prize to stoke the fires of the old man’s pride, and to make Mom’s face turn red. When the old man decides to put the leg lamp in the living room window for the all the world to see, Mom’s worries about the BB gun are put on the back burner and our narrator is one happy boy.

Shepherd’s stories were had at their core the third view of human nature which I offered – humans as flawed, imperfect, subject to self-delusion and sins of pride, but – if you can only keep your sense of humor about it - basically good natured and harmless – with some nasty exceptions.

Our spiritual heritage takes a somewhat different and darker view. Our Calvinist and Puritan church teachers did not see the nasty exceptions as exceptions – they saw them as illuminations, as revelations of the depravity of the fallen nature of humanity – a nature which is separated from God and which, when push comes to shove, will rebel against the most basic concepts of conscience and justice.

The first death recorded in scripture is a homicide, Cain killing Abel, and this reveals the jealous, violent, sinful fallen nature of this new creature that walks upright and talks with God. The true exceptions in this view are the Saints, and saints are saints not because of their human nature, but because they have been redeemed by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

There is a pattern of teaching in the church that has treated the contrast between human nature and God as a seesaw. Imagine you have God on one side and humanity on the other – if you want to elevate the trustworthiness of God, then by contrast you lower your estimation of human nature; the greater the depravity of humanity, the greater the contrast with God; The greater the spiritual need of humanity, the greater the gift of God in Christ as the means of salvation.

I tend by nature to be in the Jean Shepherd camp, and I don’t know how many still think along the hard core Calvinist line, but the problem is that proponents of the human depravity point of view have too much data to draw from, too many examples that allow them to make their point.

How many more stories can we bear of trust betrayed? Just since the beginning of this month we have been transfixed and horrified by the scene, captured on video, of a grown man simply walking up to an eleven year old girl on the street, taking her by the arm, and steering her towards her death.

Why was this man on the street? When Joseph Smith abducted and murdered Carlie Brucia in Sarasota Florida it was the culmination of ten years of constant encounters with the law over crimes – crimes mostly involving drugs but also including attempted kidnapping.

What kind of person does this crime – is he a disciple of the devil, an aberration of human nature? Or is this yet another heartbreaking example of how people want what they want when they want it - how they are ruled by passions and a lust for power, sometimes fueled by addiction or perversity, and damn the consequences or the lives of those who get in the way.

All week long the experts were on the air discussing how to thread the thorny path of teaching your children who to trust and who to fear – can you trust the coach, can you trust the teacher, can you trust the preacher? Are we supposed to live our whole lives at orange alert?

I suppose some people might even take this train of thought to the next level and ask if you can trust God. Perhaps they feel that you cannot separate the trustworthiness of the creator from the creation – that just as you need to have a wariness of your fellow man you need a wariness of nature – of disease, of accident, of flood and draught and defects of body and mind. Cancer, heart disease, and car crashes have brought a lot more grief into the life of this congregation than crime, and grief has been no respecter of those who trusted in God or worked to live as disciples of Christ and inspired us with their courage and faith.

In God we trust is not a statement that answers every question – certainly not questions about what trials, tests, struggles, fears and separations we might have to face in this life. Trust in God does not put us into a safe zone in terms of what will happen to us. Trust in God did not even protect Jesus from his suffering – a suffering so fierce, at least in the Gospel of Mark, it caused him to cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

What can trust in God mean then? If it doesn’t keep us safe from the disasters of nature and the crimes of human beings, then what difference does it make?

Maybe the only thing this trust can keep safe is our souls – maybe it can keep us safe from becoming an example that would cause others to lose their own faith in God and take the darker view of their fellow human beings. Maybe trust is God does not keep us safe from what happens to us, but it can keep us safe from inflicting suffering on others.

When Jesus was on the cross he was taunted by voices from the crowd that cried out: He saved others, let him save himself. But his power to save others did not become a power to save himself – he trusted in God for his ultimate salvation, but he had to endure that moment. He lived out for all to see the words he had spoken to the disciples: Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.

Of all the stories that were told after 9/11, one that spoke to this point was the story of a survivor – a fireman who had responded with his unit and ended up the only one left alive to tell the tale. The problem was he didn’t remember what happened to him. He had been found, unconscious, outside the towers and couldn’t recall why he was there when his friends were inside. He was tormented by the fear that he had broken faith with his fellow fire-fighters; that he had turned and run, leaving them behind. He was desperately searching for some evidence that would assure him of his integrity, and his soul could find no peace in his physical survival until that question was resolved.

Perhaps trust in God is not about our safety, but about our integrity and the peace that comes from being steadfast in the face of fear and the reality of our own mortality.

This morning we read a passage from Jeremiah: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. This, you may know, has been used as a verse in a spiritual, a spiritual that has given strength to people in many adverse situations including the threat of violence in response to non-violent protest for civil rights.

When people faced snarling dogs and high pressure fire-hoses, when they face beatings and bus burnings, lynching and shootings, what did they mean when they sang those words: We shall not be moved?

Did they mean they would be safe from all harm, or did they mean they would face the threats and the fears and stand steadfast for their cause? Was it about their safety or about their integrity?

God does not give us an answer to our questions about the nature of human nature, but God does offer us strength in the struggle to be persons of integrity, faithfulness, compassion, justice and mercy. God reaches out to us in Christ and invites us to walk the path to peace in our soul and to share that blessing of peace in this world. All the rest we must entrust to the care of God. Amen.

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