“In God We Trust?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, October 2, 2016 titled “In God We Trust?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.


You know the old Chinese curse?  “May you live in interesting times!”  And though I’m not sure there have ever been any times that weren’t, our moment feels like a crisis, doesn’t it?  What’s going to happen with this election?  How are we going to get beyond gun violence, terrorist threats, racial division, domination by the one per cent, and the American church in decline?  The Yankees aren’t in the playoffs, the Horns aren’t dominating, the world feels off-balance!  This is a partial list, of course, but we are living in interesting times.  And where do we turn?

During the Civil war Salmon Chase pushed Congress to start printing “In God We Trust,” on federal coins, which was intended to be both a reassurance and a claim that God was surely on the side of the North.  At the height of the Cold War with the atheistic Soviet regime, President Eisenhower signed a law to make “In God We Trust” our national motto and to place it on all currency.  Once again a reassurance, and perhaps a claim against other nations, though ironically, “En Dios Confiamos” is also the official state motto of Nicaragua.

“In God we trust” our official national motto, but is it true?  Not to mention the violation of the separation of church and state, the motto seems hypocritical when we spend 54% of the discretionary federal budget on national security and focus so much energy personally on gathering all the wealth we can.  It might be more honest if our currency said, “This Is What We Trust!”

Mottos aside, trusting God is hard, especially in uncertain times.  In uncertain times, we are more likely to question our faith, to doubt traditional certainties, or even abandon God altogether.  And, notoriously, God seems silent during such days.

In his time the prophet חֲבַקּוּק (Chavaqquk) breaks from the tradition of his forbears to question God.  Where his contemporary Jeremiah questions why God chose him, Habbakuk challenges whether God is just or worthy of trust.  In this way the almost anonymous prophet anticipates the hard God-questions of Job and Ecclesiastes.

And I say “almost anonymous” because unlike the other prophets, we know almost nothing about this guy.  In Hebrew his name means “embrace.”  That’s kind of cryptic, isn’t it?  Maybe in his frightening times his name is a way of saying, “I need a hug.”

He says nothing about where he’s from, and the brief book that bears his name comes from three time periods and perhaps three authors.  But we don’t need to know much about the man to know he raises a question every man and every woman asks in days of distress:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”

The Rennaissance artist Donatello sculpted his image of Habbakuk for the bell tower of the Duomo in Florence.  It was his favorite work.  His contemporaries nicknamed it “Lo Zuccone,” (“The Pumpkin”) for the shape of its head, but Donatello captures realistically the humble melancholy of the prophet.

Like all the other prophets , Habakkuk complains about his own people’s idolatrous greed and injustice against the poor by the powerful rich. So God announces the Chaldeans (a.k.a. Babylonians) will be a tool of Divine judgment.

The Chaldeans – modern day Iraq – are a powerful empire. Like the Assyrians before them, they dominate a conquered nation by dragging its leading citizens off into exile, leaving the rest to struggle to survive with no experienced leadership to guide a revolt.  Habakkuk’s people will be exiled to the capital city of Babylon itself, its imperial symbols intimidating from the walls.  As Habakukk describes them:

At kings they scoff,
   and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
   and heap up earth to take it.
Then they sweep by like the wind;
   they transgress and become guilty;
   their own might is their god! (Hab 1:9-11)

The Chaldeans are God’s judgment against Jerusalem, the consequences of their own actions.

“Wait a minute,” Habbakuk complains.  “That doesn’t seem right.  My people have done bad things.  But how can God judge us through a people who are even worse?  So he asks God,

Why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they? (Hab 1:13).

He prays, but he gets no answer.  He worries, but he finds no relief.  Habakkuk is stuck.  In a violent, uncertain moment he cannot make sense of the silent inactivity of God.  So he announces he will sit in a watchtower and wait for God to come through.  We don’t know how long he waits.  Maybe it’s hours.  Maybe years. You can’t hurry God.

God doesn’t work on our timetable. He may question God’s timing.  He may challenge God’s ways. But Habakkuk still waits in faith and trusts God to answer. In uncertain times like ours are today, it is natural and reasonable to question God.  The faithful way to do it is to question God directly.  To wait on God in prayerful trust.  To remember God is still ultimately in control.

And that is God’s answer to Habakkuk:

Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that someone running may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay (Hab 2:3-4).

This is the same encouragement 2 Timothy offers in another troubled time:

Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

As Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

God tells Habakkuk the Chaldeans will get what they deserve, too, in due time.  And of course, they do.  In fact, their empire lasts less than 80 years. But God urges the prophet towards a different way of being in the world from the greedy powerful among his own people who oppress the poor or the mighty empire from the east who will take them down.  God says:

Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith (Hab 2:4).

The opposite of pride is humility, from the Latin humus, meaning “dirt.”  Just as life springs from the soil, so life in the spirit springs from humble trust in God.  In uncertain times we are faced with our limitations, how little we control.  And that’s humbling. But we are also reminded of the majesty of God, who is in control, whose vision for humanity is peace, justice, love.  That’s humbling in a good way.  Maybe that’s what Habakkuk’s name means.  “Embrace God.  Embrace a humble faith.”

We are so divided these days in our country.  I wouldn’t overstate that because if you read history you know we’ve always been that way.  We have problems, but we have faced harder times as a people.  And when we begin to feel despair and question God for not intervening and doing things the way we would, let us remember – and proclaim – and especially live by the vision Habakkuk gives us: “The righteous will live by faith.”  “Faith” meaning humble trust that the future ultimately belongs to a loving God.  “Faith” meaning the faithfulness to stay calm and connected and concentrated on what God wants to bring to life.  In these troubled times, the world needs people of humble faith who model the loving way of God.

And so we gather with Christian brothers and sisters all over the world on this World Communion Sunday to share a simple meal by which we remember the love of God which leaves no one out.  We gather with other Christians we don’t really know, from other nations and tribes and ethnicities to say we are all kin to one another, let there be peace between us.  We gather with other Christians we know all too well to say we might not agree with our minds but beyond our differences we belong to one another.  We gather in humble trust that God will bring us to that day made certain by God when peace and justice and love will reign.

Come to the table of grace today and let all pretense go.  God is with us.  Christ invites us.  We have no other claim.  We have no other hope.  We need no other way.  In God’s time, in God’s way, justice will prevail and all will be well.  Amen.  May we pray?

Eternal sovereign God,

Like a flock of pigeons we are so easily disturbed.  And there are fearmongers at home and abroad who want to set our hearts a flutter so that we live in constant anxiety.  And rather than staying calm and trusting in you, we blame you or abandon you like a child blames and wanders from a parent.  At this table today we submit in humble trust to your constant care and we embrace your loving ways.  Then, renewed by your Spirit, we will go to engage a troubled world through your loving ways, in the name of Christ.  Amen.

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