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Other-Reliance – 11/17/2013

One merchant went to another, seeking a loan. The other merchant was willing, but sought some reassurance. “Who will be the witness to our transaction?” he asked.

“There can be no greater witness,” the first merchant answered, “than the Holy One, who surveys the whole of the universe and takes note of every detail.” The second merchant agreed that this was the case, but asked, “Who will be the guarantor of this loan, to take responsibility if you cannot pay me back?”

“There can be no more reliable guarantor,” the first merchant replied, “than the Source of All, to which everything that is owes its existence.” The second merchant could not find fault with this either, and so agreed to the terms and granted the loan.

Now with the money he needed to undertake it, the first merchant set off on a journey across the sea, to sell his wares in a distant port. His voyage went well, and he was able to sell his goods for the price that he had hoped, making enough money to pay back the loan. But he could not find another ship that was sailing back where he had come from. The next would not leave port for several weeks; he would not be able to pay the loan back on time. Determined to do all that he could, though, the merchant placed the pile of coins he owed into a hollowed-out log and sealed them in with a cork. He then tossed the log into the sea and prayed – if he could not fulfill his obligation, it would be up to the one who had guaranteed it.

When the merchant finally did return home, he went at once to the house of the colleague who had made him the loan. Begging for forgiveness, he explained the situation and offered to pay the overdue debt in full. But the other merchant refused, explaining, “On the day when your debt was due, I went down to the sea to watch for your ship. When none arrived, I went for a walk along the beach, and spied a few good pieces of firewood. I took them home, and when I cut into the first, a pile of coins fell out from within it. So you owe me nothing, friend; your debt has already been paid.”[i]

There is a plain reading of this story which is sweet, perhaps, but not very practical. What about all the deals that really do go sour? The agreements that are never honored? The promises that remain broken? One cannot base an economy on throwing money into the sea. It is an observable fact that things often do go wrong, that we prove unable or unwilling, time and again, to fulfill our obligations to each other. This truth gives the lie to any theology that says that some otherworldly power will take care of everything single thing, no matter what any of us do. The necessity, and the limits, of whom and how much we can trust are major themes throughout the world’s religions. The story of the two merchants comes from the Muslim tradition, but it should not suggest an unconsidered surrender to fate. In another story from the same faith, this one from the hadith – the sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad – the attitude seems much more pragmatic. Someone asked Muhammad, “When I leave my camel for the night, should I tie it up, or should I trust in God?” The prophet replied, “Trust in God. And, tie up your camel.”[ii]

This is the second-to-last sermon on Robert Plutchik’s eight essential emotions. Next month’s emotion will be anticipation – so we have that to look forward to – but today’s topic is trust. Trust can be said to be our belief in the benevolence of someone or something. When we trust something, we are relying on its truthfulness, its fairness, or its positive orientation towards us. There is evidence now that connects the presence or at least the strength of trust in humans to oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”, a chemical in the brain. In one study, test subjects played a game where they had to choose to keep a small sum of money or to loan it to another player for the potential of a larger reward and also the potential of a total loss. After they were given the results of the first round of games – in which their trust had been betrayed about half of the time – those who were given oxytocin were more likely to continue to make the trusting choice in subsequent rounds. And I read about this study in an online publication of Scientific American which was edited by Jonah Lehrer[iii], the science author who admitted last summer to having falsified quotes – betraying the trust of his audience. Two-thousand and three hundred-odd years ago, it is said that the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope walked the streets of Athens carrying a lantern even in the bright light of day. He said that he was looking for an honest man – there is no record of his having found one. In his age and in our own, it can seem at times that we have no one in whom to place our trust. In such an environment, the very meaning of trust only diminishes over time.

Haddon Robinson, who is a long-time professor at Gordon-Cromwell Theological School, not far from here, relates a story about Monroe Parker, a renowned Baptist preacher. Rev. Parker was out in the country on a hot summer’s day and stopped at a little store. He wanted to buy a watermelon, but the cost was $1.10. “I’ve only got a dollar,” he told the shop keeper. “I’ll trust you for it,” the store owner replied. Monroe thanked him kindly, and turned to leave with the fruit. “But you forgot to give me the dollar!” the merchant pointed out. “You said you’d trust me for it,” came the reply. “Yeah, but I meant I would trust you for the dime!” Parker answered thusly, “You weren’t going to trust me at all. You were just going to take a ten-cent gamble on my integrity.”[iv] Trust means risk: some real need must be served if it is born out, some real loss incurred if it is broken. This is just one of the reasons that the major financial arrangements that govern our economy are so badly out of whack. The lenders, those with the money, no longer need to trust their debtors to repay them – they have the machinery of the courts to extract whatever they are owed on paper, and the certainty of a public bailout should they suffer any major private loss. Those same institutions also have little need to care about earning the trust of their customers, since we have so few alternatives to the banks deemed “too big to fail.”

All of this can lead to an attitude that all we have to rely upon is our own private selves. Years ago, our theological ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay, Self-Reliance, and our tradition and many others besides have been greatly impacted by it. It was an ode to nonconformity, to following your own truth and doing what you know is right even when tradition and social expectation and the whole rest of the world is against you. “Trust thyself,” was his refrain:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.[v]

There is, I believe, a kernel of great wisdom in those words which our tradition has taken to heart. That it is the duty and calling of every person to serve as a guide, a redeemer, a benefactor, that we each have unique and valuable insight, and that there are times when tradition and common sense and the status quo are the enemy of what is true and right in life, and so must be opposed. But you can also hear, I hope, a troubling strain in his words and one which undermines his own message. He declares his audience to be men because he is speaking only with men in mind. He says that they must not act like “minors and invalids” because again his words are not meant for these groups, and he has discounted their lives, their experiences, and their truths in constructing his thoughts. And that is particularly unfortunate because if Emerson had more closely consulted and considered women, children, disabled people, or any other group outside his social location, he might have realized what he was missing about his own predicament: His life and your life and mine, like any other, privileged or oppressed, renowned or marginalized, depends entirely on the lives of others. The world we inherited at birth was built by countless others before us. The selves we possess today did not spring, self-created into existence with no help or influence from anyone else. Each day, we depend on the passive and active assistance of others in order to continue being and becoming who we are.

In fact, the more privileged our lives, the greater our dependence on others, since living in a state of oppression means navigating and surviving hostility, mistrust, and betrayal. There is some evidence that we are trained to trust – or not to – by our experiences. There’s a famous psychological study in which a researcher offered nursery school children a snack treat. They had the choice to eat it right away or to wait fifteen minutes – if they waited, they got an extra treat. The study linked children’s ability to delay gratification to several different measures of happiness: health, academic and professional success, relationship satisfaction, etc. One more recent study suggests added a preliminary step to establish a precedent of trust between the child and the person administering the test. The researcher first made a promise which they either kept or failed to keep, before offering the snack and explaining the deal. When the researchers had kept their earlier promise, almost all of the children waited for the extra treat. When they had not, nearly every child ate the first treat right away. This all suggests that some of the behaviors we associate with self-control may actually be about trust, and our ability and inclination to trust others is, at least in large part, a product of our circumstance. Trusting is a habit, and it is formed or broken down, like any other habit, through experience and practice.

There is a Buddhist story about this. There was a certain king of a certain country who had a certain prized pet elephant. The animal was large and powerful but gentle and kind. That was, until one day when her handler came to feed her – before he could get too close she picked him up with her trunk and flung him against the side of her stall, breaking his arm. Upset at the news, the king set one of his wisest courtiers to solve find the reason for the elephant’s sudden violence. Patient investigation revealed that a band of thieves were meeting in the stables each night to plot their robberies. They quarreled often, and sometimes came to blows. Surrounded by violent, mistrustful people, the elephant had learned their habits. The wise counselor recommended inviting the most gentle souls that could be found to meet in the royal stables each day to share a meal and each others’ company. After some weeks, the king ordered that his elephant be released from her stall again for the first time. She stepped out carefully, and greeted her handler with a gentle touch, caressing the healing arm she had broken. She had built a new set of habits – she had learned how to trust again.[vi]

In our tradition, congregations choose their ministers: there is no greater or higher authority directing this Reverend to go here and that Reverend to go there. But there is a council of people, both lay and ordained, who oversee a sort of licensing system for our ministry and those who wish to enter into it. We call this stamp of approval fellowship, and to some degree it is a sign of trust – the people with this heavy responsibility have declared by granting a person fellowship that they can be trusted with the role of minister. Though it should be said, of course, that no person is above scrutiny, and when one of our ministers does falter or transgress, this same body considers how and whether they can remain in our ministry. After we start out and begin our service in congregations or hospitals or prisons or anywhere else where ministers are called to be, this committee still keeps in touch with us. They give advice and direction, and help us towards the goal of final fellowship – the point of permanent trust without any asterisk, the transition from the minister who does ministry to the minister who might hope to teach ministry by example. A little over a week ago, I got some very good news in the mail: I have been welcomed into final fellowship. It is the last great milestone of ministry I hope to see for a long time, since the next one is retirement. I want to express, this morning, my gratitude to you: I could not have arrived at this point without great partners to do ministry with, or a location I which to do it.

And as is more generally the case, what is true of ministry is true of life. We each have a context and some amount of community on which we depend. Sometimes the bonds of trust that form those networks are strained or broken – because we messed up, did harm, or broke faith with others, or because others betrayed the trust we placed in them. Wisdom and self-preservation demand that we exercise some care in the people we deeply trust: who we choose to be most vulnerable to, to depend most deeply on – that is, of course, in those cases where we have a choice in when and how to be vulnerable. But we also cannot wait around for perfect people to arrive: such animals do not exist. Rather, we are potentially great, possibly loyal beings who mess up, and sometimes make very bad choices. The lives we lead, and the world we build together, will be better the more that we are able to risk trusting one another. The more that we are able to practice making amends for our wrongs, and forgiving enough to rebuild bridges of trust that have cracked but not yet collapsed.

This, to me, is the deeper meaning of the story that we began with, of the two merchants and the money cast into the sea. We cannot just wait on the shore for a piece of driftwood with what we’ve got coming in it. But we must risk trusting one another with what is most precious to us, even when some of our hopes are disappointed and our expectations go unmet. Because sometimes great possibilities do drift to us on the unknowable currents of the ocean of the cosmos, and the more open we are, the more available to trust and to be trusted, the more frequently such gifts find their way into our hands.

[i]  Based on a traditional Muslim story collected in Ayat Jamilah, by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane

[iv] This anecdote can be found in a great many sermons (from a number of different denominations) available online, probably because of its presence on searchable “sermon illustration” websites, like this one:


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