Devotional – Isaiah 58.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 58.1

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Weekly Devotional Image

Sin is an ugly word. It is an ugly word because it makes us uncomfortable. When I encounter people in my life who no longer attend church, they often describe their reasoning as “church was only about sin” or “I left every week feeling miserable.” Sin is an ugly word.

It is true that in some churches sin is the focus of nearly everything. But in Mainline Protestant Christianity, we avoid even mentioning sin because of its ugliness. We preachers would rather talk about God’s loving nature than God’s judgment. We would rather tell our people to love their neighbors as themselves than to tell their neighbors that they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard passages about condemnation than reflect on how they are still speaking directly to us even today.

And yet, God speaks through Isaiah to say, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

There are definitely bad ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. Logging on to Facebook in order to belittle the other for their differing political or social opinion might sound like a blaring trumpet blast, but it accomplishes nothing good. Sending anonymous letters or notes to people because of their former lifestyles might feel like “not holding back” but it usually just leaves them hurt and afraid. Judging others from afar with our like-minded peers might feel like “announcing their rebellion” but it will just harden our hearts.

ba5a88_745ed11d50df4caf94abfd12d5025422

However, there are good ways to “shout out” about people’s sins. First, we must remember that we too are sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory. Second, we can only speak the truth of another’s sin in love, which is to say, we need to be in relationship with the person to such a degree that they can hear what we have to say without blowing it off. Third, we can only “announce rebellion” if we are willing to help the person to move out of their sinfulness; we cannot simply declare their sin like a trumpet blast unless we are willing to do the hard work of helping them out of it. And finally, we can only announce another person’s sins if we are prepared to hear our sins as well.

The existence of the church is a response to our need to hear about our sinfulness. We gather together to hear the Word so that we might be transformed into God’s people. But this cannot happen if we are more concerned with transforming others, than with transforming ourselves. We cannot announce the sins of another, unless we can first say “Have mercy on me O Lord, for I am a sinner.”

So shout out, and lift up your voices like a trumpet. But beware, for the trumpet will blow in your direction as well.

Advertisements

God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Deuteronomy 23.12-14

You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

1 Corinthians 14.32-35

And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

 

 

We have a problem. I’m sorry that I have to use the pulpit to bring it up, but this is the best way to reach the highest number of people. We, as a church, have fundamentally broken one of God’s laws and we need to do something about it. We need to pray for forgiveness. We need to seek God’s mercy. And, we should get moving on this issue quickly in order to establish our faithfulness before the Lord.

We need to stop using the church bathrooms.

Now, some of you might be thinking: What in the world? Stop using the bathrooms? We’ve heard him say some strange stuff from the pulpit, but this has to be the strangest!

But scripture is pretty clear. We are supposed to have a designated area, outside the church, where we shall go when nature calls. We are supposed to keep a trowel with us at all times so that when we relieve ourselves outside, we can dig a hole and then cover up our excrement. We need to do this because the Lord is with us when we are in church, therefore this church must be holy and we can’t let the Lord see anything indecent among us.

So, after prayerful consideration, the trustees have voted to permanently close all the bathrooms in the church building, and we will construct some outhouses on the edge of the property for excrement disposal.

Just kidding.

lexica

Have you ever heard someone preach on Deuteronomy 23.12-14? I haven’t, nor have I even encountered it during a bible study. But in the 1880’s, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of sermonic conversation. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.

By the logic of the Old Testament, churches were seen just like the Israelite encampments and because of this the same rules about where people could relieve themselves were applied. Many preachers used this argument from their pulpit more than a century ago to fight the growing trend to build bathrooms in churches!

Today, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design will enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit in it, but how many bathrooms should there be, and where should they be put.

How do we understand the Word of God? Do we believe that all scriptures have been inspired by God and are useful for teaching? What does it even mean that God inspired the writing of scripture?

Years ago I was invited to participate in a bible study that met once a week. At the time we were going through the gospel of Matthew when one of the women in attendance interrupted with a dilemma for the group. Her son told her that he was thinking about getting a tattoo and she knew that God forbids this kind of behavior in the Old Testament. It was clear that she was looking for approval from the rest of us, but I opened my big mouth and said something like, “Well, I don’t think its that big of a deal” To which she replied, “If God says it in the bible, then the issue has been settled!”

I should have stopped right there, but I couldn’t help myself. “So, you don’t eat pork or shrimp? And you are going to rally the community together to stone your son to death for rebelling against you? And you didn’t mean to wear earrings today because you know the bible forbids them as well?”

This sort of extreme biblical literalism is problematic, and basically impossible. If we try to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be allowed to wear clothing with blended fabrics, we’d have to completely rethink our diets, working on the Sabbath would get us killed, and men would not be allowed to trim their beards. Ever.

            God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

This is another one of the trite and cliché Christianisms that float around in conversation. When Christians get into an argument about a particular biblical precept, like prohibitions against tattoos or homosexuality, they will take a verse and use it like a weapon against the person they disagree with. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

But, whether we admit it or not, rarely do we read the bible and think, “Okay, that settles it then.”

Today, no one worries about whether to build a church without a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belabor biblical dietary restrictions, and we neglect a great number of scriptures while at the same time we use scripture to attack others.

There are all sorts of rules and regulations in scripture that, if we’re honest, we pick and choose to emphasize.

bible-and-its-interpretation

As we read earlier, Paul is clear in more than one letter that women should not speak in church. And yet, this church had a female pastor for a number of years, and our liturgist this morning just read out loud from the bible! Heaven forbid! A woman speaking in church! Can you believe it?

Of course, some churches still believe that the words about the subordination of women are the gospel truth. In those church, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible Studies where men are present, and they are not allowed to serve in any capacity that would require them to speak in front of the congregation.

I’ll tell you right now, this church would not be here if women kept their mouths shut. We are as faithful as we are because the women in our midst have been brave enough to speak what God has placed on their hearts, and because we have listened.

So what are we to do? We can’t just throw out the bible, but at the same time we can’t live by every single word within it.

Like the apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking through it. But we also ask questions of it. We consider context. We wonder if God really intended women to remain silent in church. We recognize that things like slavery are counter to God’s will, despite more than 200 verses that support it in the Bible. We don’t preach and teach that having bathrooms inside churches are offensive to God.

We follow Jesus’ example.

Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, did not adhere to strict biblical literalism. He had different interpretations of the Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly disobeyed the Law by eating with those deemed unclean.

Living as a Christian, reading the bible, it’s all about interpretation. And, to be clear, interpretation does not mean to change the text, or to ignore it, but to proclaim it for this time and for this place.

Even the Bibles in our pews are themselves a work of interpretation. Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you take something like one of the most beloved of all scriptures: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life. The word for “perish” in Greek is apollumi which can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each of these translations can change the meaning of the text slightly, and are therefore a product of interpretation.

So whenever we take up a bible, whenever we flip to a specific passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the English translation. But nevertheless, even the best translations leave us to continue the task of interpretation.

How do we do it? Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our bibles in our living rooms never to speak about the words again, we don’t listen to a sermon only to have that be the only time we encounter the words.

We interpret God’s Word in community. We go to bible studies, we send emails to our friends and to our pastor, and we do what we need to do in order to comprehend that which is often incomprehensible.

And we let Jesus help us interpret. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As the definitive Word, Jesus helps us to understand the words of scripture. We read from the Old and New Testament alike through the lens of Jesus and we begin to wrestle with how these words continue to live and breathe in our lives today.

But that requires a lot more work than “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” It compels us to actually take up our bibles, read them, and talk about them. It challenges us to ask hard questions and produce new ideas. It requires us to believe that this book is in fact the living Word of God and that it continues to speak truth in new and exciting ways, perhaps in ways we cannot even imagine.

This last week has been filled with controversy from the Oval Office. In their first week, the new administration put forth a number of executive orders including a call to begin construction on a wall at our southern border, a gag order for the EPA, and the halting of refugee migration from a number of countries.

c3nffwbxaae5lbr

On the same day we celebrate the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe, our country said, “we don’t want them” to people fleeing persecution and destruction.

Now, no one has said that this has been done because of scripture, but the bible should have played a role in the decision if our politicians are going to keep claiming their Christian allegiance.

Moses was a refugee after fleeing from Egypt.

            Ruth was a refugee after her husband died and she followed her mother-in-law to a strange new land.

            The entire Israelite people were refugees in Babylon.

            Jesus, the one we worship here in church, was a refugee. Jesus, like people in the Middle East today, had to flee his home out of fear of violence, persecution, and even death.

And yet, we tout these certain stories from scripture and hold them over people’s heads about behavior and identity. But when we start actively preventing the oppressed from entering the country, we forget all about the story of our Lord and Savior.

People have used this book, with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward people of different religions. It has been used to incite fear and terror in those who do not believe. It has been used as a weapon again and again and again.

And now we, the people of God, join together to say “no more!”

“No more!” to the use of scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized. “No more!” to the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for whom they are. “No more!” to the backwards ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.

“No more!” to God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 1.27

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 1.27

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

Weekly Devotional Image 

When Pharaoh enslaved the descendants of Abraham, God chose a weak little baby abandoned by his mother to the Nile River to deliver the people out of bondage. When Goliath stood in front of the Philistine and Hebrew armies, God chose a foolish and weak little shepherd named David to bring him down. When the time came for the defeat of death, God chose to come in the form of a baby to die at the hands of the government in order to rise again.

Through the Old and New Testaments, God is forever subverting the expectations of the world with something foolish or weak. We can only imagine what people thought of Noah building his giant ark, or Isaiah wandering the streets naked for three years, or Jesus praying over a loaf of bread and cup of wine. God chooses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

For far too long, the world has treated an entire gender as foolish and weak. Even in this progressive land we call the United States of America, women still only make $0.80 for every $1 that men earn. The belittling of women is made manifest in a number of ways from churches that believe women do not have the right to preach, to companies that overlook hiring women because of their gender, to women who are made to feel that their fundamental role is to support their husbands.

But on Saturday, God subverted the perspective of the world through the gathering and marching of “foolish and weak” women to shame the wise and the strong. They did not need weapons and aggression and violence to achieve their goal, they did not need the tools the world values so dear, they used the foolishness and weakness of peace to say more than any weapon ever can.

632318086-dc-rally-women-march-washington

What good news it is to know that God is still upsetting and overturning the world to shame the wise and strong! How glorious to know that women all across the world can come together in such a holy way to protect those whom the world has dismissed! How beautiful to see women powerfully and deliberately march for empowerment!

God makes the first last, and the last first. The great story of scripture is the narrative of God turning the world upside down. O that God would do the same to all of our hearts who are more convicted by the ways of the world, than by the truth of the Good News.

God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

 

 

On the day of the funeral, everything felt too familiar. The pews were filling up with the same people who were here the week before, the same family was waiting in the narthex, and our organist was even playing some of the same music as people were walking in.

I stood right here in front of the gathered congregation and asked everyone to stand for the family. Leading the profession were two daughters who were about to bury their father after burying their mother the week before. Their grief and pain and anger were palpable as they slowly walking down the center aisle, and everyone watched them as they passed.

And we did what we do for a service of death and resurrection. We prayed. We opened up the hymnals and proclaimed God’s faithfulness through song. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

As we finished, I watched the pallbearers stand up and surround the coffin. With hands shaking in nervousness and fear they carried their friend’s body out of the church and put him in the hearse.

And we did what we do when travel to a cemetery. We got in our cars and turned on our hazard lights. We followed one another through the streets of Staunton. We watched cars slow down and pull over out of respect for what we were doing. We drove. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After arriving at the cemetery, I watched the same pallbearers carry the coffin to the grave over uncertain soil. With sweat perspiring on their foreheads they lowered their friend to the ground and stood beside the family.

And we did what we do by the graveside. We prayed. We listened. We placed dirt on the coffin. We said what we needed to say. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After the final “Amen” I waited by the grave with a few others, making sure the family was comforted. I overheard familiar and charming anecdotes about the man we just gathered to bury. I witnessed family members reach out to one another for the first time in many years. I saw a lot of tissues filled with tears wadded up in clenched fists.

And then I saw something I’ll never forget. A man, unknown to me, walked right over to one of the daughters devastated by the loss of both her parents. He placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

God won’t give you more than you can handle.

635787512482303409305489483_29f1979c65db2aa1627169bad37391df-imgopt1000x70

I’m sure that all of us here have heard this statement, or some form of it, in our lives. It is part of that trite and cliché Christian-lingo that we use to fill uncomfortable silences when we don’t know what else to say. And it’s not true.

Let’s start with the beginning: God won’t give you… We’ve talked about it with every sermon of this series so far; God doesn’t give us our sufferings. God is not some sadist who delights in our trials and tribulations. God is not some architect of divine destruction. God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what terrible things to send for us to handle.

Can you imagine going to a devastated neighborhood in Chicago to families whose sons have been killed by gunfire and saying, “Don’t worry God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to a young mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to the millions of people in this country who are terrified of losing their healthcare coverage in the next few months and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

God did not kill those families’ sons, God did not give that woman breast cancer, and God is not responsible for the arguments about whether or not to eradicate the Affordable Care Act.

Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.

The problem is that when we use trite and cliché words like the ones we are confronting this morning, we imply that God chooses to make people suffer.

Jesus, God incarnate, had been on the road for a while, going from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, proclaiming the Good News, teaching about the kingdom of God, and healing those on the margins of society. Word about his ministry spread pretty vast, and he returned to Capernaum for a few days, perhaps to rest. But so many people knew where he was that they surrounded his house and Jesus spoke the Word to them.

Some friends heard about what was happening, so they went to their paralyzed friend and carried him on a mat to Jesus. When they could not bring him to the Messiah because of the crowd, they carried him to the roof, dug through the ceiling, and lowered their friend to Jesus. And when Jesus saw the faith of the friends, he looked at the paralytic and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

What a strange and beautiful story. Friends with such profound faith were willing to carry their friend, and dig through a roof, just so he could encounter the living God.

I often wonder about the tradition of pallbearers at funerals. Did it start of out a practical necessity? Is there strong theological purpose behind it? Is it a unique Christian behavior?

But on the day I buried a husband after burying his wife the week before, the day I saw a man dismissively respond to the daughter’s suffering, I saw the connection between pallbearers, and the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.

When we cannot handle what’s happening in our lives, we need people who can carry us, and the ones we love, to Jesus.

We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy it feels like someone is sitting on our chest. We might give in to the temptation of an addiction and lose contact with the people we need most. We may fall into a pit of financial debt that feels impossible to climb out of.

If we are like most human beings, at some point we will absolutely face things that are more than we can handle.

So here’s a corrective. It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

6fa0c8a00d809d23761dfaa71b6b542a

This acknowledges that trials and tribulation will occur in our lives, and it promises that when we go through the muck and grime of life, God will be present.

When we’re walking through hard times, whether they were given to us by the random chance of life, or they’re a result of our own brokenness, or they’re signs of our captivity to the powers and principalities, it’s okay and good to admit, “I can’t handle this by myself, and I need help.” There are times when we need a doctor, or a therapist to carry us. More often, we need family, friends, pastors, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in our church family to come alongside us to carry us through.

God does not give us more than we can handle. God gives us Jesus Christ so that we can handle what life gives us.

For a lot of people, what happened on Friday in Washington DC was more than they could handle. Whether it was the pent up frustration with the political rhetoric that overflowed over the last 18 months, or witnessing a billionaire place his hands on Abraham Lincoln’s bible, or experiencing the great swing of the pendulum from one political ideology to another, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with violent protests and destroyed shop windows and attacked the police. Others responded with peaceful demonstrations making sure their voices were not stomped out among all the shouting debauchery. There were the political talking heads offering their opinions about who was right and who was wrong. There were smug smiles and there were frightening frowns. The inauguration, for some, was more than they could handle.

For others, the last eight years has been more than they could handle. Whether it was the constant feeling like the country was slipping out of their fingers, or the realization that the American dream is not what it once was, or the rise of oppositional and divisive voices, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with protests and boycotts of particular institutions, others responded by focusing inwardly and praying for change, and still yet others waited patiently for a new direction. For eight years there were plenty of talking heads offering their unsolicited opinions about who was right and who was wrong. The last eight years, for some, was more than they could handle.

Some say the time has come for all of us to just get along. A couple weeks ago I even told you that we, as a church, should have a collective New Year’s resolution to be more kind.

Kindness and getting along are good and nice. But there are people around us, people in our lives, who need more than kindness and getting along. There are people desperately clinging to the hope of their healthcare coverage completely unsure of what it about to happen. There are people who are hopeless when confronting their joblessness and economic futures. There are people shaking and quaking about their faith and whether or not they are going to be forced to register themselves because they wear a particular piece of cloth on their heads. There are people who see police officers as enemies and not community protectors.

There are people in our community; there are people in our church, who have more than they can handle right now.

We need people, like the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus, to carry others who have more than they can handle. We need people who can look us in the eye and tell us we have a problem. We need people who will call their friends every night just to get them through a profound period of loss. We need people like all the women who marched in solidarity all across the world yesterday. We need people with eyes wide open to the horrible suffering of the people around us so that it does not go on unnoticed. We need people who are unafraid of the consequences for questioning the status quo. Right now, we need people who are brave enough to carry us to Jesus. Amen.

 

dumb-things-christians-say-sermon-series-idea

Racism is America’s Original Sin

A few days ago Teer Hardy and I spoke with Bishop Will Willimon about his new book Who Lynched Wille Earle? The conversation also covered a number of other topics including the inauguration of Donald Trump, the black church, and prophetic preaching. Check it out here: The Idolatry of Race and subscribe to Crackers & Grape Juice.

 

4371604984_6212ed3d58_z

 

Devotional – Psalm 27.4

Devotional:

Psalm 27.4

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

Weekly Devotional Image

Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.

“What’s heaven like?”

If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.

st-peter-pearly-gates

If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.

But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.

However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.

The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?

As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A guy was walking down a street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and he began crying out for help. A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment, wrote a prescription, threw it down into the hole and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Reverend, I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me up?” The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church came up and the man yelled, “Please help me. I’m stuck down here and I can’t get out.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “Hey! It’s me down here! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumped right into the hole. The first guy said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” The friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

A relatively recent poll found that better than eight in ten Americans think, “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. In fact, more than half the people who responded to the poll were strongly convinced that it is one of the major messages of scripture.

Quote Typographical Background - vector design

Guess what? It’s not in the bible!

Do you know where it actually comes from? There are hints of the phrase in ancient Greek mythology, but it became popularized by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac published in 1736.

And yet, a majority of people in this country believe it is a major aspect of Christianity straight from the lips of Jesus.

Of course, there is some, very small, truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around our dinner tables praying for God to miraculously provide us with food, we’re going to be disappointed. We can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and through things like employment we can afford to provide food for our tables. God helps us because we work to help ourselves.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening to our spouses, nurturing our children, these things result in our lives being better because we have worked for them to be better.

But that pales in comparison to how “God helps those who help themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligation to help others.

Like the woman walking passed the man in the hole, it blinds us from our responsibility toward others and frees us from feeling guilty for how broken the world is outside of our respective bubbles.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves. Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves. Some people, in fact many people, are in holes so deep, with walls so steep, that they can’t climb out without help.

About a year ago, some of the pastors in Staunton got together to talk about ways we could minister to the homeless population in our community. We asked ourselves how our respective churches could work together to help the people that cannot help themselves.

At first we debated the pros and cons of establishing something like a computer lab to help individuals apply for jobs. The thought being that if they found work, they could have an income, and no longer be homeless. We discussed offering weekly classes in reading, mathematics, and financial management at the Valley Mission to teach important skills necessary for breaking free from the cycle of homelessness. But in the end, only after we finally connected with homeless community members in Staunton, we discovered what they really needed were showers and a place to do their laundry.

What we failed to realize was that all the best training and teaching would be meaningless if the individuals arrived to a job interview wearing the same clothes they had been sleeping in for months.

We, the pastors, had walked passed the hole many times and decided how to fix the problem from our vantage point, rather than jumping into the hole in the first place.

The Church, and I mean big “C” Church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to help others with the use of another trite and cliché sentence because God, over and over again, commands his people to take special care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the needy.

A cursory scan through the prominent stories of the Old and New testaments leads us to the biblical truth that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

maxresdefault-1

In Leviticus, God commands the farmers to not harvest all the way to the edge of the fields. Certain amounts of the produce were supposed to be left for the poor and the immigrant. Instead of consuming it themselves, or selling it for a profit, a portion was to be left for those who were not able to make ends meet or for the strangers in the land.

In another part of the Old Testament, God says that compassion for others is itself a form of worship. There are times when the priest and the religious leaders heaped up sacrifice after sacrifice, they had the perfect worship services with all the right prayers and all the right songs, and God tells them their worship has become lifeless.

            What difference does it make if we show up at a place like this for an hour a week if we ignore the people God tells us to care about the rest of the week?

In the New Testament, Jesus is forever going from town to town and seeks out the last, the least, and the lost. And when he finds them, the sick and the needy, does he say, “God will help you if you help yourself?” When the crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak, did he command the disciples to tell the hungry 5,000 that God will give them food if they go collect it for themselves?

No. Jesus helps them. He connects with their brokenness and brings healing. He sends the abandoned back to the villages that disowned them, he feeds the hungry out of the abundant grace of God, and he helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been the one down in the pit? Have you ever encountered a moment in your life that felt so suffocating and oppressive that you knew you couldn’t get out of it on your own? Have you lost a job, or a spouse, or a child? Have you received a frightening medical diagnosis, or a horrible tip for the stock market, or a habit that you couldn’t kick?

We can claw all we want, we can plead on our knees with our hands clasped in the air, but sometimes the only way out of the pit is if someone jumps in to help us find the way out.

From where will out help come? We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we see that our help comes from the Lord. The Lord who sends us a friend willing to jump down into the depths of our despair, the Lord who never abandons us even when we feel alone, the Lord who was willing to jump down into the pit of humanity and be born into this fractured world of ours.

That, my friends, is the whole point. We help others who cannot help themselves because God helps us when we cannot help ourselves. God came into the world as a baby in the deep pit of fear and suffering of a couple all alone in the world. God went to the margins of society in Jesus Christ to sink low into the stink of the world and offer hope. God went to the broken families and the battered spouses and the abandoned children and showed the way out. God went to the very depth of death just so that all of us could find the way to salvation.

Tomorrow, some of us who work will not have to because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is a day set apart to remember the man who led this country through a particularly horrible period of racial injustice. His life, his teachings, his marches, and his protests all bear witness to his willingness to jump into the pit of his people’s suffering, in order to find a way out.

A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

If we are serious about following Jesus, it’s going to cost us. It might cause embarrassment, or ridicule, or shame. It might cost us money, or time, or status. But jumping into the pit comes with a cost. Thanks be to God.

 

dumb-things-christians-say-sermon-series-idea