June 12, 2016 – Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Psalm 10:14, 17-18; Psalm 18;6, 16; Psalm 121:1-2

        Last week we explored the half-truth: “Everything happens for a reason.” This week we are focusing on the half-truth: “God helps those who help themselves.” Adam Hamilton, the author of this series, recalls a segment of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  The host would go out on the street and ask questions of passers-by – he called it ‘Jaywalking.’ The topic was for folks to name one of the Ten Commandments and to the surprise of Leno, many answered with this half-truth: “God helps those who help themselves.”  According to a study by the Barna Group, 8 out of 10 Americans think this statement is in the Bible – 5 out of 10 believe it is one of the Ten Commandments.

Now in case you were not sure, I included the Ten Commandments on this slide!  I can assure you “God helps those who help themselves” is NOT one of them!  While this half-truth is not even in the Bible, there is a sliver of truth to it that bears considering.  However, in other areas it is clearly in opposition to Biblical teaching.  So let’s look at the bit of truth in this half-truth.  When we sit down to offer grace over our meals, we recognize that God is responsible for our feast. However, many hands had a part in placing in on our tables.  Farmers and plant workers, transportation drivers and grocery clerks all played a part in providing the meal.  I too have a part in that if I do not do my job, I would not get paid and therefore would not be able to purchase all the elements before me.  I remember hearing an interview with Bob Carlisle, the author and singer of the popular wedding song “Butterfly Kisses.”  He was asked what he thought of the tremendous success of his song.  Carlisle, a strong Christian man, noted that he appreciated God’s blessings on the popularity of the song, but also noted that when his kids open the refrigerator door, they expected to see food in there!  It is this recognition that we have a part to play in providing for our families – in being good stewards of all God has given us, that resonates with this half-truth.

I remember when I was laid off from my job. After the initial devastation and pity party, I prayed for God’s help and guidance, and I got down to business. I updated my resume, applied for unemployment, signed on to every job site out there, sent out resumes daily, filled out endless applications, followed up with phone calls, attended job fairs, etc.  I had a part to play in gaining active employment.  If I would have simply sat at home and prayed for God to give me a job, I would probably still be unemployed.  When we evaluate the Jerusalem Cross, we see a combination of faith and works. We all have a part to play in providing for ourselves and others.  We pray for guidance while we work.  “Our faith is meant to move us to action even as we trust God. We pray, and we work” (Hamilton, p. 58.)  When this church burned down in the late 70’s, I’m sure a lot of folks prayed for answers. I am also sure the task of rebuilding was taken on and folks got down to work, building this new sanctuary. Prayer and works go together. Time and again scriptures support this blending of faith in action.

We have explored the measure of truth in this statement, “God helps those who help themselves,” yet we need to consider how this statement is decidedly unbiblical.  At times this phrase may be used as an excuse to NOT help others. Shouldn’t we all just pull up our bootstraps, dig in, and solve our own problems?  We see those with cardboard signs and hear the stories of scammers that are well off yet play on the kindness and generosity of others.  Didn’t Vivian Leigh put it this way, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers?” (From A Streetcar Named Desire)  We may be so afraid of the vast minority that are just pretending to be in need but are just in fact lazy, that we neglect our Christian calling to love our neighbors.  Mother Teresa put it this way, “The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.”  It is easy for us to sit in a seat of judgment from a perspective of plenty.  The whole truth of the statement, “God helps those who help themselves” is in fact the opposite – God helps those who cannot help themselves.

There are numerous scriptures throughout the Bible that speak of the widows, orphans, and the poor.  It is clear the message is to care for them in specific ways.  Farmers were told to leave a portion of their crops unharvested so the poor could come and take what they needed for survival. Along this vein, one of my hopes for our community garden is to host a free farmers market at the end of the season.  There are many who would like to eat healthy foods but simply can’t afford them.  Our goal was to stick to organic, non-GMO produce and make the ones grown in the church boxes available to anyone who wants them.  Caring for those less fortunate is the whole premise behind the BackPack buddies program and I want to thank you all for you incredible generosity. Because so many donations have come in over the year, we are now able to use budgeted funds to support other local ministries and strengthen our ties with our local schools.

There is another aspect to consider with this statement, “God helps those who help themselves.”  The truth of the matter is we can easily fall into the category of not being able to help ourselves “…because we have descended too deeply into sin and despair” (Hamilton, p. 69.)  Those are the times when we can feel completely helpless. Times of grief or depression, times of stress or anxiety, times of emotional hurt – these are the times when God’s help comes in the form of unconditional grace.  I have presented this diagram before but here we see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  We have talked about those basic needs and how God intervenes, usually through people, to help provide those basics for our neighbors in need.  God has specifically called each of us to this work.  But when you look at the next layer of needs, there are other needs that as social human beings we can find ourselves lacking.  There are distinct needs for acceptance, love, a sense of community and belonging. We need to know that we are valued and our lives have true meaning.  That is where the grace of God comes in.

I remember a time at my previous church when I was having a particularly difficult time.  I had struggled through the commissioning process where I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry and was challenged pretty hard by my clergy colleagues.  I was struggling with where I fit in as an associate pastor, and was basically having a bad day.  About mid-morning my home church pastor, who served as my mentor through the process, was in the area and stopped by for a visit.  He reminded me that I was called by God and to never doubt that calling.  I truly believe God placed a nudging on his heart to come and visit me. That to me is God’s grace in action.

Many here have taken on the ministry of visitation to our sick and shut-ins. I have never visited anyone who did not comment on how much they appreciate the visits, cards, calls, and prayers.  We all need to feel included, knowing our lives matter. We need each other not only to share our burdens but to celebrate our joys together.  There is blessing and grace that is showered upon each of us.  Others here have felt specific calls to ministry – ways to share God’s grace with others.  From our Angel Tree program, to the Knittin’ Chicks, to the bereavement/hospitality team, to the fundraising teams, to Angel Gowns – and the list goes on and on – we are called to share God’s grace with others, particularly those who find they cannot help themselves.  Know the whole truth of today’s focus – God helps those who cannot help themselves, often working through others, through us, to share the incredible love and grace of Almighty God. Amen.

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