February 10, 2019: “Trust / Worthy”

Reading: “Trust” (by Thomas R. Smith)

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers –
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

Sermon: “Trust / Worthy”, by Rev. Susanne Intrilligator (copyright)

Husbands and boyfriends and people of all kinds, be advised! Valentine’s Day is coming this week. This is your official warning. You can’t say no one told you.

So this month is a great time to look at trust, which is the underpinning, the foundation, the bedrock of all our relationships. From employers to friends to lovers, from voting to parenting to praying, trust — or lack thereof — informs our connections and our actions.

And these days, trust seems to be in short supply, like a dwindling resource, or an endangered species, Trust seems to be ebbing away, slipping through our fingers. Or is it?

Let’s look at trust today on three levels — interpersonal, cultural, and congregational. Where to begin? Let’s start with interpersonal trust, in a foundational text for Western civilization and an important source for our faith, the Hebrew Bible. Used in weddings for hundreds of years, this famous verse speaks a young woman’s love:

“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Such is a beautiful traditional biblical grounding for a wedding, from the Book of Ruth. But what many folks don’t know that these words of trust are not spoken by a husband to a wife, or vice versa, or by lovers of any kind. They are from a woman to her . . . gulp . . . mother-in-law.

Yes. If you’ve had a mother-in-law you might find this surprising. But one of the most beautiful love stories of all time, a landmark in any Western literary investigation of the concept of “trust,” occurs between in-laws.

Here’s the story. In the time of the Judges, about 1000 years before Jesus, there was a famine in Israel. A family from Bethlehem decided to leave, to search for food. The father, Elimelech, was married to Naomi, and they had two sons. They journeyed to neighboring Moab, home of a rival people, enemies of the Israelites, and Elimelech died. The sons grew up and married Moabite women, but then the sons also died.

At this point, at the opening of the Book of Ruth, Naomi is a poor childless widow, so she decides to move back to Israel, to be near her kinspeople, who have a duty to help and support her. She encourages her two daughters-in-law to do likewise, to stay with their kin in Moab and remarry there.

One of the daughters-in-law, named Orpah, takes this good advice. She says good-bye to Naomi and goes back to her own people.

The other daughter-in-law, Ruth, however, does the unexpected. She takes a leap of trust. She opts to leave her own people and move to Israel with Naomi.
Ruth declares:
Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.

What a risk to take. To declare your love and commitment to someone else, a fairly powerless someone else at that, and to leave your family and your country.

Why does Ruth do it? What did Naomi do to earn such deep devotion and trust? Sadly the bible doesn’t tell us. We have to fill in the blanks with imagination.

But if their lives were anything like ours, it shouldn’t be too hard. How do you earn people’s trust in everyday life, and they yours?

According to psychologists, it’s not the grand Valentine’s gestures that count. Instead it’s the tiny, everyday increments, the “how was your day?” — and actually putting down your phone and listening to the answer! — that counts.

As I said earlier, psychologist John Gottman uses the metaphor of the emotional bank account. Social work researcher Brene Brown has a similar concept.

Talking to her 9 year-old daughter, Brown refers to her class’s marble jar. Every time a class member behaves well or shows kindness and care to one another, the teacher drops a marble in the jar. When it’s full, they get a party or a treat. It’s a concrete symbol of building trust. Brown asks her daughter, “Who are your marble jar friends? They are the ones you can trust.”

Her daughter tells her about the friend who always saves her a seat in the cafeteria. And if there isn’t one she’ll share her own. She calls it a “half a heiny” seat.

According to Brown, the research shows trust is built up just this way, slowly, in the smallest of every day interactions, when others reach out to you, show care for you, really listen, keep your confidences, share their seat, and remember the details.

So, for interpersonal trust, if we hope for Ruth and Naomi-style devotion, or just good parenting or decent friendships, it’s important always, to keep filling those marble jars, making those deposits of kindness, like you did this morning, so trust can grow.

. . .

How does trust work on the cultural level? And, spoiler alert, is it changing?

In the summer of 2006, my husband James and I needed a vacation. Our youngest had been born the October before and was now a vibrant toddler, so at that moment we had three kids under 6, whom, due to James’s job as a professor at the University of Wales, we were raising totally on our own, an ocean away from our families and our culture. It was exhausting. We needed a vacation. And it needed to be cheap.

Online, I’d happened on a website called Home Exchange.com. For a small registration fee, you could post up photos and info about your home and invite people from around the world to trade with you. It was a perfect solution for us.

At the time, we had a lovely large home in a picturesque Victorian seaside resort town. The whole town was bay windows and lace curtains, painted in candy colors, with two beaches and decent shopping. On paper, we looked good.

So via the website, it didn’t take long for me to draw the interest of a French family who happened to have a 3-bedroom apartment above a bakery in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Not far from the Rodin Museum and the Eiffel Tower. Oui Oui said me.

In the mail we sent keys and instructions, and a few weeks later we set off for the airport.

We arrived in Paris in the evening, and the last leg of course was the worst. The supposedly 15 minute walk from the subway took far, far longer, it felt like hours, with suitcases and a stroller and a toddler in a backpack and a 5-year-old darting around traffic on a scooter. Finally, finally, we got there. Around 9:30pm, we faced the apartment building’s front door. James dug out the keys and the paper instructions.

He put the key in the lock. Nothing happened. It didn’t turn. It couldn’t turn. It didn’t work. Not at all. We called the owners, but no answer.

What to do now?

10 pm. I found a Chinese takeout place down the street and I settled the cranky children around a table.

What if? I started to wonder.

What if this whole thing was a fake, a fraud? What if some guy somewhere just slapped up photos of a random apartment and sent us some keys from the bottom of his junk drawer? Our vacation would be ruined. Where would we find a hotel room at this time of night, in this residential neighborhood?

Oh no, worse yet. What if it was a British fraudster who lured us to Paris so he could just empty out our house? Right now, in fact, he could be pulling up a truck to our front door and taking everything we owned. Our neighbors wouldn’t know enough to stop him. Would home insurance even cover that, if we had invited him and given him our keys?

Oh dear God, I thought, my heart pounding. I prayed. I tried not to panic, in front of the kids. The minutes ticked by like hours.

. . . .

Researchers in the field of trust tell us that for most of human history, trust functioned pretty much as in the Ruth story from the bible. People lived in tribes and/or extended family groups, for mutual aid and protection. From birth to death, you interacted mainly with your own group, and you shared food and resources and a duty of protection, and so you trusted each other, for survival.

However, all that started to shift in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the industrial revolution and slavery. Suddenly people moved en masse from villages and ancestral homes to plantations and cities, and kinship networks broke down. Who to trust now?

In place of these networks, some built alternate networks in local communities and churches, and for about 100 years most placed their trust in social institutions like the military, police, government, the media, and public education.

In recent years, however, another major shift has taken place. With more displacement and movement, local networks have crumbled, and at same time public trust in social institutions has eroded. According to Gallup polls, over the last 25 years, public confidence has dropped sharply for institutions including the church, media, the presidency, Congress, and public schools.

Now, we live disconnected, separate from our extended families and sometimes even from our nuclear families. Our towns and neighborhoods are less connected, and our faith in institutions is at an all-time low.

Should we be mourning the loss of trust? Yes and no says Oxford researcher Rachel Botsman. Yes, old beloved institutions are suffering under the weight of scandal, corruption, and exposure. But are we really living in the Age of Distrust?

Botsman says no. We haven’t lost trust in all humanity, we are living inside another huge cultural shift.

In the beginning, says Botsman, cultural trust was local, then it was institutional, now more and more, it’s distributed. We are creating platforms, complete with reviews and feedback, that allow us to build trust for total strangers. Trust is shifting to new platforms, more horizontal, egalitarian, and transparent in nature.

Trust isn’t dying, it’s morphing into something new.

And it’s changing how we hail rides, get dates, go shopping, plan vacations, and connect with the rest of humanity.

. . .

After about an hour in the Chinese takeout, James’s phone finally rang. It was the French father. So sorry, he had forgotten about keys for the outer door of the building. He was calling his friend nearby, who could contact his housekeeper and get us a key.

By 11pm, we were finally in the apartment, and boy, was it worth the wait! Floor-to-ceiling windows, a well-stocked kitchen, bunk beds, a high chair, and all the toys and books and kids videos we could use in two weeks. Everything a parent could want that a hotel room doesn’t have. For free.

And a magical, memorable vacation ensued. That could not have happened any other way. Because we took a crazy risk. Because we trusted total strangers, through the internet.

Trust isn’t dying. It’s just changing, radically, along with our social structures, and we can’t yet see the other side of this mass transformation. For better or worse. And yes, maybe that makes us all a bit anxious.

. . .

Which brings me briefly to talk about trust on the congregational level. In the past several years, in addition to all the cultural anxiety, the mistrust, the dizzying pace of change out there, this little church has been working hard in here, to evolve, to grow, to become more aware and diverse, to navigate a big transition, and to manage more than its fair share of conflict. From what I can gather, it’s been a bit tiring.

Which is why this year we’ve re-purposed the House Meetings, to take a break from problem-solving and focus instead on enjoying each other’s company. We are filing up our marble jars by listening deeply, sharing from the heart, and keeping confidences. We are building the church by building trust, and I feel in my heart that it’s working.

Along with the board, church president Chuck F. and I are hoping to follow this up with two more initiatives meant to strengthen our bonds. Later this year we hope to introduce a Covenant of Right Relations process, so that we can share agreements how best to treat each other in all we do. And we are now working to assemble a Right Relations team, a group of leaders called and specially trained to help us live into this covenant and learn how constructively and lovingly to call each other back when we stray.

In this important first year of our ministry together, it is becoming more and more clear that the foundation of our work is trust. And so we share a commitment to build trust here among us, in ways large and small, in everything we do.

. . . .

Hey so whatever happened to our friends Ruth and Naomi?

Well, as soon as they arrived back in Israel, Ruth went to work gleaning in the fields, which means following along the harvesters picking up whatever bits they missed. Ruth just happened to land in the fields of a rich man named Boaz, who was related to Elimelech, her late father-in-law. Boaz had heard about this kind and faithful woman, and he took an interest.

Yes, you guessed it, a happy ending. They got married and had a son, who had a son who became King David, royal ancestor of Jesus.

Ruth, poor widow of the hated clan of Moabites, risks her life to accompany her friend and mother-in-law Naomi back home. Her trust is rewarded, repaid with kindness and wealth, and her name is hallowed forever. Not too shabby.

There aren’t always happy endings, of course. There are no guarantees for any of us. Enormous shifts are happening in our world, and we can’t see the other side. For better or worse.

Yet on the whole, even now, we can trust, we do trust, ourselves, each other and the larger mysterious ground of our being. We do trust. Like Ruth.

Because the act of trust makes us stronger
and more whole.

Because to trust is to reach for what can be,
for what we hope we can be.
Because to trust contains within itself the very thrill of living.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going . . . and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

I trust you. Amen.