What, Me Worry?
In God we trust.
It’s the four word motto that appears on all money minted and printed in the United States. And it’s something that we Americans simply take for granted. After reading the Matthew text for this morning, where Jesus says to the gathered crowd, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” I got curious about this unique intersection of faith and cash.
The first time the statement appeared on money was a two-cent piece minted 1864, and it wasn’t until 1938 that Congress passed a law requiring all money to bear its imprint.
But the story has twists and turns as well. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt intervened during the minting of a new twenty-dollar gold coin, preventing it from bearing the phrase. It was, not surprisingly, an unpopular decision. In response, Roosevelt issued a public letter, which contained this thought: “To put such a motto on coins…is…irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege. A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation.” In other words, he was concerned that such a statement about God printed on money ran the risk of insulting God by associating the heavenly name with something so earthy.
The next year, however, Roosevelt was overruled by Congress, and the phrase went on the twenty dollar coin. Since then, there has been little question about the practice. It has even survived several legal challenges that had looked to the principle of separation of church and state. In 1974, the Supreme Court upheld the motto, saying, in part, that “In God we trust” has “lost, through rote repetition, any significant religious content.” In other words, these words have no meaning – especially the word “God” – because we have come to take the phrase for granted. Perhaps Roosevelt was right?
I don’t know about you, but I’m curious how Jesus would see this whole conversation. The statement on God and wealth from the Sermon on the Mount might give some insight. But knowing Jesus, if we were to ask him a straightforward question, he would probably respond with a less than straightforward answer that would annoy, confuse, and – worst of all – require us think.
Do you remember the story where the Pharisees confront Jesus with the question of whether or not Jews ought to pay taxes to the Roman government? It wasn’t only a question, it was a trap. If he says “yes”, he betrays his people; if he says “no”, he betrays the government.
Either answer puts him in hot water. So Jesus responds, instead, with questions of his own, holding up a coin, and asking: “Whose picture is this? And whose inscription?” His challengers answer, “Caesar.” And there Jesus roots his reply: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what it God’s.”
All clear now?
The meaning of Jesus’ answer has been debated for centuries. And there are usually as many interpretations of it as there are people in the room. But the one that has stuck with me was not from a Biblical scholar, or a Seminary professor, or a beloved preacher. It was from a fourteen year-old Palestinian Christian girl, one of our students when we lived in the West Bank.
We were studying the text, and I asked the class, “What did Jesus mean by this?” I didn’t know what answers I would get, but I knew it would generate conversation. A hand shot up from the front row of desks. Amira replied, “The coin had Caesar’s image, so it belonged to Caesar. And we have God’s image, so we belong to God.” I would love to know what Amira thinks about a coin that bears the name of God: To whom does it belong? What does it look like to have a faithful relationship with money?
It’s a pressing question. These are anxious financial times; perhaps less anxious than they were two years ago, but we still have good reason to be nervous about money – about having enough, and about what happens if we don’t have enough.
Unemployment in Georgia hovers around ten percent. Foreclosures loom, making up 30% of housing sales last year. And some of you know the sting of these statistics in a way that goes well beyond the numbers and cuts to the bone. What happens to us, to our families, to our society, to all that we have come to know and rely on, when our anxieties turn out to be well-founded?
Is there anything that Jesus could possibly say to calm our concerns? Or is this one of those topics where we simply need to separate faith from reason in the same way that we separate church from state?
Jesus lived at a time that couldn’t have been more different from ours: culturally Eastern, historically ancient, economically simple. And yet, Jesus also has infinite wisdom about the nature of faith. In short, in God he trusted.
The truth is that, as much as things have changed, as much as we’ve learned in 2000 years, and as far as technology has progressed, very little has changed in our relationship with money. It turns out that Jesus talked about money more than any other subject – except the kingdom of God.
Our lesson this morning is no exception, as Jesus addresses the gathered crowd at the Sea of Galilee. They were a people living in politically fearful times. They were living under a foreign power with severe repression. Financially, they may have needed little, but they had even less.
Jesus has already taught them what it means to be truly blessed – not with arrogance and pride, but with meekness, poverty, and even grief. He has taught them how to pray – not bombastically, but simply, quietly, gently.
He has given a thorough analysis of what lies at the root of the Jewish law – not a laundry list of rules to follow or a series of “thou shalt nots”, but a heart that is focused on God. And now, as the subject turns, Jesus works to address the crowd’s economic anxieties. “You cannot serve two masters,” he begins. “So don’t worry. Don’t worry about whether you’ll have enough to get by. Birds don’t worry, and they’re fine; same with the flowers, and they seem to be doing OK. Why would you, who bear God’s imprint, fare any worse? Take each day as it comes. It’s going to be alright.”
Feel better? How’s that medicine going down? Jesus says it’s going to be alright. So just let it go, roll off your back. No sweat. Right?
I don’t know if it’s any comfort to you, but I take some solace in the fact that these anxieties are nothing new. People worried about provision long before Jesus came along; they worried about it in his presence; they have worried about it ever since; and they will worry about it long after we are gone. There is something reassuring in knowing that you are not alone.
But there is something much more amazing going on here: Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry. God will take care of you.” It’s easy to let that slip by, because it’s so easy to hear that as a platitude, a sound byte, a line worthy of a bumper sticker or a refrigerator magnet.
But think about what he is saying! God, the God, the one who made the heavens and the earth, the one whose name is above all names, the creator of the universe, that same vast, otherworldly God cares so much about you that your needs will be met. That’s it! There’s no trick, no hidden clauses. God’s imprint is on you; so there is no need for worry.
I thought of all this as I read the story of Thomas Cannon. Born and raised in a three room shack in rural Virginia, Cannon dropped out of seventh grade because his family needed the extra income. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he completed his high school and college education and got a job as a postal worker.
He never earned more than $30,000 a year, which he used to support his family of four. And yet, he managed to give away more than $150,000 of his money in $1,000 increments.
Cannon described his life this way: “We lived simply so that we could give money away. People say, ‘How can you afford it?’ Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means. I get money from the same place people get money for those other things.” As for his gifts to various people and organizations, he called them “divine invitations for generosity…We’re supposed to love God and love like God,” he said, “and we choose every day how we’ll do that.”
Let me ask you this: do you believe that God is real? Have you ever had an experience of knowing God, where you knew that there was more to this life than meets the eye: an answered prayer, a moment when someone came to be by your side, a coincidence that you simply knew, in no way, was mere coincidence? Have you known God in a tangible way: holding a newborn baby, sitting at the bedside of a sick or dying friend, loving someone more than you ever thought possible? If faith has ever been that real in your life, if you have ever had moments where grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace was the surest thing that you knew, then I’ve got good news for you.
Whatever you might think about that little four word motto on our money, I’m convinced that it could actually work to loose us from the anxious grip that money has on our lives. Every time you spend, don’t let the phrase lose its meaning. Remember: in God, not in wealth, do we trust. If you’re using cash, the reminder is right there – just take a moment to read it and let it become real. If it’s a check, or plastic, or even a cyber-payment, picture it in your mind: In God we trust. So don’t worry!