In preparation for this sermon, I went to the SunTrust Bank in Atlanta and asked the teller, a young woman named Wendy, if I could please have $188 in paper money, including a $1, a $2, a $5, a $10, a $20, a $50, and a $100. She looked surprised, so I told her that I was a preacher, I was preparing for a sermon, and I wanted to know whether or not all of those bills had the words "In God We Trust" printed on them. Wendy smiled at me, and she said, "Reverend, why don't you just let me photocopy those bills so that you don't risk overdrawing your account?" Being half-Scottish on my mother's side of the family, that sounded like a good idea to me, and so Wendy made the copies and I have saved them.
Everybody knows that George Washington is on the $1 bill. Flip it over, and, sure enough, there are the words "In God We Trust." But did you know that Thomas Jefferson is on the $2 bill? He is. And flip it over and there are the words "In God We Trust." The $5 bill pictures Abraham Lincoln on one side, and on the other side are the words "In God We Trust." Who's on the $10 bill? Well, that's right. It's Alexander Hamilton; and, sure enough, on the other side are the words "In God We Trust." Twenty-dollar bills picture Andrew Jackson on the front, the White House on the back, and at the top are the words "In God We Trust." A $50 bill features Ulysses S. Grant, with his beard and stern demeanor, and on the other side are the words "In God We Trust." How about the $100 bill? You're correct. Benjamin Franklin is on one side, Independence Hall on the other; and sure enough, there are the words "In God We Trust."
Before I left the bank, I asked Wendy, the teller, if she could show me a $500 bill. She smiled. Then she replied, "I'm sorry, Reverend, but they don't give us any of those." I smiled back and told her that my wife, Barbara, who oversees the money in our family, doesn't give me any of those either. So I can't tell you whose picture is on the $500 bill, but I am absolutely certain that on the other side, the words "In God We Trust" are printed there, because in 1955, Congress passed a law requiring that all of our money would carry that same inscription.
And here's the point: For the past 50 years, half a century, every single bill and coin that has been used in buying or selling, in lending or saving, in spending or giving, every single piece of our currency bears the words "In God We Trust." And, yet, how many of us have ever stopped to wonder why or to ponder what those words really mean and imply?
If you're the pastor of a church or chairperson of the stewardship campaign in your congregation, then you already know how the anxiety level goes up during the annual giving drive. A Baptist minister in West Virginia preached his heart out on Commitment Sunday, but by the end of the following week, the secretary told him that the money just wasn't coming in. Well, the minister was in a hurry on his way to lunch, so in frustration, he told the secretary to write a letter to the entire congregation and to sign his name. "I'll leave it up to you," said the preacher. "Just make it a strong and forceful appeal." By the end of the next week, he received a letter in response from a prominent doctor who apologized for having missed Commitment Sunday because he was on call, and enclosed was a check for $1,000 together with the promise that the doctor would try to be more faithful in attendance. The doctor's signature was there at the conclusion of the letter, and then he included the following postscript at the bottom of the page: "Please tell your secretary that there is only one 't' in dirty and no 'c' in skunk." You see, what that minister and church secretary needed was a little more trust.
And so it is with all of us, especially when the stock market drops and the corporations we thought were rock-solid begin to fail or become embroiled in a scandal, or when the Pentagon is hit and turned into an inferno, and towering skyscrapers tumble down to the ground, or when we send our sons and daughters into Afghanistan and Iraq, not knowing how many of them are going to come back. In all of those circumstances and so many more, when our confidence sags and life around us seems insecure, how can we find the courage, the confidence, and the trust we need to go on instead of giving up?
My friends, I would submit to you that as King David and the people of Israel and then the Christian church following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ embraced the kingdom of God long ago, and as the American dream was born and the foundations of this nation were laid in the 17th and 18th centuries, God has raised up the leaders and inspired the people to trust in him down through history every step of the way.
The late Methodist bishop Gerald Kennedy described the situation immediately following the Revolutionary War with these words:
"General George Washington, after the war was over, realized how precarious our future really was. For two years no peace treaty was formally signed and the army had to be maintained in case hostility broke out again. It was hard to keep up morale, for the men were terribly underpaid, poorly fed and miserably supplied. It was a time of testing. The soldiers and even a few officers began a movement to take things into their own hands and redress their grievances, but then Washington called them all together, not to chastise them nor to silence their legitimate protests. With no show of anger or of being offended, he took a statement from his pocket about the meaning of the war and the hope for peace. He looked out at his men and he said, 'Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but also almost blind in the service of my country.'"
Washington did not need to say anymore. His officers saw how sad a thing it would be if they undid the whole purpose of the war and the ideals they had fought for and for which so many had died. So they trusted in their leader, and all of them trusted in their God to see them through to the other side.
All these years later, it seems to me, and it may seem to you, that America is suffering through a crisis of confidence and trust in our leaders. Presidents will have to earn our confidence from now on just as George W. Bush is discovering day by day. For as Alexander Solzhenitsyn described it so well, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us, but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
My friends, as we struggle with doubt and with despair, with personal and family problems, with financial pressures and the paralyzing fear of failure, as we acknowledge as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and members of every faith tradition that we have sometimes lost our way and fallen short of the original vision which laid the foundations of this nation. We have the opportunity today to renew and to reclaim our trust in one another and in our leaders and in God Almighty to be and to become the people whom the Lord has called us to be.
Maya Angelou, the great and prolific African-American poet, went back to her hometown in Stamps, Ark., with the television commentator Bill Moyers to meet with a group of children in the elementary school that Angelou had once attended. Maya Angelou looked into the eyes of those young children, and she said to them with honesty and with humility, "When I look at you, I see who I used to be. When you look at me, I hope you see the person that you can become."
Friends, if we believe, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, that God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose, then we can know, we can trust beyond a shadow of a doubt with Paul and Maya Angelou and all of our spiritual forebears that God's promise is being fulfilled in this nation today. It is a grand and glorious promise, a promise God intends to keep, the promise of his kingdom on earth and the hope of the American dream.
In closing, I want to share a prayer with you. It was written by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who spent more than 25 years of his life in a Kentucky monastery and who became well known for his popular books on theology and spirituality. But Merton also struggled like all of us to discern God's will and to trust in God's way.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me, and I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, I will trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.