Monday, June 13, 2016

Sermon: "Help Yourself", Psalm 69:1-3/1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21 (June 12, 2016)


Sermon video here.

The “how-tos” of being a Christian are a tricky thing. As much as we want to believe that we understand the basics, they can be surprisingly tough to pin down. Even the Ten Commandments are a bit murky if you stop to think about it: what does it mean, exactly, to take the Lord’s name in vain? What does keeping the Sabbath holy really entail? Are we instructed not to murder, or not to kill at all? And what’s the difference? We may think that we’ve got it all figured out, but what we generally assume as givens are really closer to educated guesses based on context, scholarship, and a healthy dose of personal theology.

Since there’s so much interpretation involved, it’s no surprise that we like to summarize our faith in short sayings that are easy to remember. This totally makes sense. We want our faith to be easily accessible, easily shareable, and easily relatable. So we tell each other things like, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” “Let go and let God,” and “When God closes a door, God also opens a window”. (By the way, this is not at all a modern tendency: things like stained glass windows, hymns, and bible storybooks all have roots in our human desire to make our faith accessible to the illiterate, to newcomers, and to children.)

There’s no problem with this impulse in and of itself. I mean, this is part of the reason that Jesus spoke so often in parables—religion MUST be accessible and relevant in order to be meaningful to people. The problem comes when we accept these platitudes at face value and don’t examine them at all. When we give them unquestioned authority that they just don’t have on their own, it’s easy to forget the more complex lessons from scripture (which we understand as both unique and authoritative in its witness to God in the world).

One of these sayings that’s really troubling to many people, myself included, is “God helps those who help themselves.” Even though this maxim can’t be found anywhere in scripture, it sounds like a reasonable enough theological assertion. We know that God can work through our actions and make wonderful things happen. So sure, let’s tell each other that helping ourselves is the best way procure God’s involvement in our lives.

Except that if we don’t take the time to explore this idea, what message does this send to the alcoholic? To the person afflicted with depression? To the person trapped in an abusive relationship? To the person who’s been traumatized, for whatever reason, and isn’t able to “get over it”? When words like these are uttered thoughtlessly as an end to conversation, it rarely imparts new, insightful wisdom on its object. Instead, it re-traumatizes the person within their own sense of helplessness. It tells them—intentionally or not—that God only values those who are able to be their own heroes.

These are not just theoretical conversations for me, and I’m sure for many of you, too; I’ve seen eating disorders, alcoholism, anxiety, and depression rip families apart—including my own. I’ve watched those on the outside entirely abandon relationships with those struggling, figuring, “If they don’t want to help themselves, then there’s nothing I can do.” I’ve had this reasoning used to explain why my own friends have disappeared in the past. I’ve been advised to take this stance towards others myself. And I’ve seen how this narrative endlessly feeds the sense of complete powerlessness that defines these illnesses and traumas.

But where I find pain in the demand for self-sufficiency, I also find reassurance in scripture. I find comfort in the fact that, page after page, the Psalms plead with God for the very help that so many of us seek today. They describe an overwhelming darkness of the soul, a complete and utter isolation from all that’s good, a deep and muddy pit of despair that has no escape. In short, they describe a helplessness that can ONLY be answered by the divine. Today’s reading from Psalm 69 is just a snapshot of the thousands upon thousands of words spent in scripture showing that sometimes, helping yourself just isn’t possible, and that it’s normal, necessary, and yes, even holy to ask God for help anyway.

Now, God is generally silent within the text of the Psalms—we never do find out how (or if) God responds to each prayer. But in the absence of God’s active voice, the psalmist goes on to remind us of God’s long and faithful history of deliverance. Rather than despairing in our helplessness, we’re invited to cling to our understanding of God’s nature, holding fast to the bigger picture which reassures us: yes, we can be confident that God will help, again and again and again.

In this light, “God helps those who help themselves” seems a little less compelling than it may have at first. Although WE may value one another based on our efforts or accomplishments, God doesn’t see us through these human eyes. Our theology, informed by scripture, insists that a relationship with God isn’t earned through our own efforts, but is the gift of God’s grace alone. By definition, grace is the free and UNMERITED favor of God. This unmerited favor is what led God to help Abraham and Sarah by giving them a son, even as their doubt led them to try and conceive a child through Sarah’s handmaid. It’s what led God to help the Hebrews by delivering them from the desert in spite of years of complaints and misgivings. It’s what led God to help Saul, a persecutor of Christians, transform into Paul, the Apostle to the gentiles. And it’s what brought Christ to earth in the midst of our sin to help us, through his life, death, and resurrection. If God’s love and intervention depended on human competence, we wouldn’t be here today. We don’t earn God’s help; in fact, as scripture illustrates, it often comes when we least deserve it.

And yet by the same token, we can’t just sit back, do nothing, and expect everything to turn out fine, right? You’ve probably heard the story of the man trapped on his roof during a flood who denied help from a canoe, a motorboat, and a helicopter, saying, “No thank you; God will save me.” Of course, the man eventually drowned, and when he got to heaven he demanded to know why God hadn’t rescued him. Incredulous, God replied, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter; what more did you want?!?” So while helping yourself isn’t a prerequisite for God’s aid, surely God appreciates a little self-advocacy.

Here's where Ahab comes in—he’s a really great example of how “helping yourself” can go awry. King Ahab somehow thought that having Naboth’s vineyard was the right thing. In all likelihood, he probably believed that he was doing a genuinely magnanimous thing for the guy. He offered what most of us would agree is a fair, even generous, trade for the land. Sure, the tantrum Ahab threw after being told “no” might seem a little excessive, but I can’t say that I always behave like a mature adult when I’ve been denied what I believe is a perfectly reasonable request. By all accounts, up until this point, this story is no more than a disappointing potential business transaction.

Enter Jezebel. Ahab’s wife quickly encourages him to take matters into his own hands. “Are you the king or what?” she asks. “You’re not out of options. If you want that vineyard, let’s get you that vineyard.” She pushes Ahab to “help himself”, to take charge of the situation. And that’s where the trouble starts.

One could argue the problem with Jezebel’s plan wasn’t the fact that she “helped herself,” but the way that she went about doing it. Certainly, killing someone in order to take something that belongs to them falls pretty solidly into the category of “wrong”, and it’s definitely a big problem. But that’s not the underlying issue here. The real issue is that GOD DIDN’T WANT AHAB TO HAVE THE VINEYARD, but Ahab and Jezebel went ahead and helped themselves anyway.

By the time Elijah found him, Ahab knew that what he and Jezebel had done was wrong—a prophet of God is only your enemy if you’ve acted in a way that displeases God. But the thing is, if you want something badly enough, it’s easy to convince yourself that the wrong thing is actually right. Maybe at one point Ahab had persuaded himself that, as the king of God’s people, exercising his authority was actually demonstrating God’s power. Probably not…but maybe. From this perspective, helping himself would have actually been an admirable thing, something that God should have fully supported. Maybe, when Elijah first arrived, Ahab was stunned that he was being chastised instead of congratulated.

The risk we run when we try to help ourselves on our own is that, too often, we help ourselves into the wrong choice, misguidedly believing it to be right. And what happens when you believe you’re acting in a way that deserves divine approval, but instead are faced with the brutal condemnation of Elijah? You feel cheated and angry. And you turn away from the grace and forgiveness that God offers you freely in the face of repentance, as happened in the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel (go ahead and look it up later if you need to). So those words, “God helps those who help themselves” transform from an empowering promise to a taunting lie.

Therefore, with all the trouble that this saying can cause, I propose that we amend this bothersome cliché. Inevitably, we’ll find ourselves, like the psalmist, without hope and without options, and we’ll find ourselves, like Ahab, wanting to help ourselves to things that God doesn’t want for us. We’ll find ourselves in a position where we need to do something, but we don’t know what it is that we CAN do. Sometimes, the only thing that we can do to help ourselves is to accept God’s love readily, in spite of our sense of unworthiness, in spite of our confusion, and in spite of our desire to take matters into our own hands.

Maybe, then, we should start telling one another, “God helps those who help themselves to grace.” God’s grace is right there—freely and unmeritoriously given—waiting for us to claim it at every moment. Whether we do or not is a choice that we make—one that Ahab made and one that David made. It’s a decision that’s within our power, and one that is ALWAYS the right choice. I’m not saying that it will fix everything. I’m not even saying that it’ll suddenly make everything bearable. What I’m saying is that it’ll remind us that we’re not alone, and it’ll point us back in the right direction: towards God.

God has granted us free will, and as such, we always have a choice. Sometimes, the choice will require deciding which option out of thousands is the right way to take care of ourselves. Sometimes, the only choice we’re able to make will be to turn to God. But either way, grace tells us that God will be there with us, every step of the way, helping. There’s a certain peace that comes with recognizing that some things are within our control, and some things aren’t, but that all things are in God’s hands. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to this other non-scriptural saying, one that I feel confident we can now hear with an ear to a deeper truth: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”. With grace informing and illuminating our lives, may it be so. Thanks be to God.

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