Numbers 20:10-13; Psalm 146
It’s good to back in the pulpit in Westminster Hall. I delivered last week’s sermon from Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico, standing outdoors, next to a cactus. In fact, during the Children’s Time I actually sat on a cactus thorn, but the theme was resilience, so I managed to maintain my composure through the entire children’s message. This is a much safer environment to preach in.
The desert always puts me in a biblical frame of mind, because so much of the story of scripture unfolds in dry wilderness.
We drove back to Minnesota on small, two-lane roads. It took a lot longer, but we got to see this beautiful land up close. We got see a fascinating panorama of rolling hills and wilderness, of farms and small towns. At one point in rural Kansas, in the middle of nowhere, we drove by a farm house that featured several political signs of the sort we had seen repeatedly along the road in the rural areas. The next farm, though, had only one, homemade sign. We slowed down to take a look. It was a hand-drawn image of a figure representing Jesus, and the words underneath it: “Jesus, I trust in you.”
I don’t know if the display was a response to their neighbor’s signs, or a political statement of their own, or simply an affirmation of their faith. I took it in the last way, and, honestly, appreciated their willingness to say publicly where they placed their ultimate trust. Many of us have signs in our yards and window; what about putting one out like that!
In this spring and summer of disease and discontent, with so much uncertainty in our world and in our communities and in our personal lives and families, it was refreshing to see an uncomplicated, straightforward declaration of trust that I chose to think had no ulterior or angry motive: Jesus, I trust in you.
And I was grateful that the roadside farmer-artist chose the particular verb. They didn’t say, “I believe in Jesus,” but, rather, I trust.
It may seem of little consequence, but the language we use when we talk about faith is revealing. Often when we speak of religious belief we find ourselves having to force inexplicable experience into rational categories. We may know in our minds that something is literally unbelievable, but we’ve made the decision to shrug off any questions, and grant intellectual assent to claims that are not credible. We say we believe – even against evidence to the contrary.
We do this in other spheres of life, as well. When science clearly shows one thing, sometimes people simply decide to believe another, throwing facts to the wind. Religion approached like that refuses to allow any ambiguity or show much capacity for modesty in its claims – and I want no part of such religion.
In contrast, with our Kansan farmer, to use the word trust moves faith into the realm of the unanswerable. Trust is a relationship, not a dogmatic assertion. Trust does not need to resolve every doubt, or rest upon certitude. In fact, it thrives on the ineffable. Augustine of Hippo said: Si comprehendis, non est Deus: “If you think you understand, it’s not God you’re talking about.” (Quoted by Douglas John Hall in christiancentury.org)
Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall defines faith as “awe and trust in the presence of the holy.”
Trust in the presence of the holy – like that farmer in Kansas.
Theologian Hall says
“Striving…for God is…of the essence of human being. It’s not the searching but the finding that’s the problem! Too much religion is entirely too successful in finding, defining, and circumscribing the Infinite and in using its convictions to denounce others. It substitutes doctrinal and moral certitudes for the essential otherness and mystery of the divine.” (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2010-12/against-religion?reload=1596932703941)
Religion that insists on its own accuracy in naming and knowing God is the antithesis of faith. God has no interest in such religion, no interest in religion for its own sake, or religion that has everything figured out, or religion in the service of some human cause or need – which is what a lot of people practice these days. On the contrary, the Infinite One wants us to trust in that which we can neither comprehend nor contain. Having faith – trusting – is how we love one another, even when we know we’re not perfect. Having faith – trusting – is how we love the One who created all that is, even when we cannot fully grasp the Divine.
As the psalmist says,
“Happy are those whose…hope” – whose trust – “is in the LORD their God…who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for those who are oppressed…watches over foreigners in the land…(and)… upholds orphans and widows.” (Psalm 146:5-7, 9)
In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers we encounter the Hebrew people in the midst of their 40-year trek through the desert. They seem not to have learned much on the way. We catch up with them just when it becomes clear they have a serious trust problem.
“The Israelites,” we read,
“The whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there. Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron.” (Numbers 20:1-20)
The mention of Miriam’s death is significant because she’s the sister of Moses and Aaron. She’s not the only one who has died on the way through that inhospitable land. Her death must have been something of a tipping point, triggering a revolt among the people. They have lost faith in the entire Exodus project. They’ve given up. They no longer trust it, or the God who started it. They’ve lost hope.
“The people quarreled with Moses and said…’Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? …There is no water to drink.’” (Numbers 20:3-5)
This is not the first time Moses and Aaron have faced rebellion on these long years in the desert. But they panic anyway, and run to call on God for help. The Lord – who’s fed up by this time with their fear – tells Moses to go out and stand before the people, lift up his staff, and strike the rock. God promises that water will come forth.
Moses not sure it’s going to work, not trusting in God, goes out and does as he is told. Water suddenly gushes into the desert, providing sustenance for the people and their animals. But God is not finished with Aaron and Moses. “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites,” God says, “Therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)
When we trust in God, we show God’s holiness – we let God be God – and enter into a relationship with mystery that we can neither comprehend nor contain. Moses and the Israelites had given up on that mystery and wanted something more concrete. They never seem to learn. Like 21st century Americans, they trust only in themselves. At one point they even build a golden calf – a god they can create and control, a religion they can understand and manipulate and use for their own purposes. They reject the God who comes as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, because neither fire nor the clouds are reducible to something comprehensible or controllable. Our God will not be managed by our puny human efforts.
Unlike the farmer in Kansas, who appears to understand all this, the ancient Hebrew people had a trust problem. They’re not alone. We all do.
The Pew Research Center has studied the level of trust among Americans today, and, not surprisingly, it is declining – whether related to trust in the government or other institutions, or trust in one another. The Pew studies were done pre-pandemic and prior to George Floyd’s murder – 18 months ago, which seems like another era. Two thirds of Americans said their trust in other people was on the decline, and 75% said their trust in the federal government was dropping. It’s even worse among Americans in their twenties: 60% of them said flat out that other people cannot be trusted.
How can we build a society on that?
We can sense what these last five months have done to the level of trust we have – in leaders, in systems, in one another or in the future. We have an acute trust deficit in our land, and our democracy depends on it.
But we’re not the only ones having trouble with trust these days.
In June of 2019 a small group of Westminster members visited the little village of Taizé, France, home to the Protestant monastic community created 80 years ago to welcome displaced people in war-torn Europe. It was a powerful, straightforward idea: express the love of Jesus in concrete ways by welcoming those who have been set adrift by the cruel realities of life. That should be the role of the church in any age and in every place.
Eventually the brothers of Taizé shifted their emphasis to ministry with young people. They wrote simple sung prayers in many different languages, and developed a contemplative style of worship and life together – a way to experience the holy – and invited young people to visit. The Taizé Community soon began drawing thousands from all over Europe and even from around the world, for intensive weeklong gatherings in the summer.
The day the Westminster pilgrims arrived at Taizé, hundreds of young people were there. We prayed with them in the vast Taizé worship hall. One of the Taizé brothers met with us. Two things he said stayed with me. First, he quoted John Calvin – of course, I would remember a quote from Calvin – as a way to explain what they did in their community: “The Bible,” Calvin said, “Is like bread: it is hard on the outside and has to be broken open.”
Secondly, to break open the bread that is the Word of God, the Taizé brother said, “We start with trust.”
He went on to describe their work each week with young people from all over the world. Every week they, with another new group of young people, they focused on developing and teaching trust, which, he said, was “the quality most missing in the human family today.”
I remember thinking at the time how insightful that assessment was. All these young people came because they hungered for something missing in their lives and lacking in the world they knew. The Taizé brothers sense they were longing to learn to trust.
Most of us – like the Hebrews of old – are in a similar place, bereft of trust. If we’re fortunate, maybe, we experience trust with our families and friends, but it rarely extends beyond the personal or the private. The flipside of trust is fear. What and whom we don’t trust, we fear. Our hyper-polarized and racialized American culture relentlessly chips away at our capacity, as members of the human community, to trust. Now, instead of trusting one another, we fear each other.
We cannot build genuine community without public trust. As Moses discovered long ago in the wilderness, if people do not share trust in something or Someone larger than themselves – a vision, a dream, a hope – then they soon lose their way…which brings us back to what we learned on the way home to Minnesota this summer.
I’m grateful for the Kansas farmer and their simple declaration of trust in Jesus. It reminds me of the One in whom I trust, the One I have chosen to follow, the One whose purpose is love and whose work is justice. And when I trust in that One, I can begin to develop trust in others.
Perhaps that roadside sign was merely another expression of a divided people…but maybe, maybe, it was a statement of one person’s willingness to look beyond themselves and make a commitment to trust in a larger purpose, however mysterious and unattainable and unknowable.
That larger purpose, based on their capacity to trust, invites them to step past rancor and move, finally, toward reconciliation, instead.
Maybe we learn on the way, that we, too, have been invited to do the same: to trust.
Thanks be to God.