God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

About this sermon series

Mark 2:1-12

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, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves, and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Let us pray. Lord, we need you and we need each other. When people and structures and paralysis and the throngs of desperation and despair are blocking the way, send your boldest, most creative, and most determined people to find a way. And Lord in my words, human as they may be, may people hear your holy word. Amen.

            I saw a Dilbert cartoon where a coworker asks Dilbert, “Can you get me that data by Friday?” Dilbert responds, “They say God helps those who help themselves.” Frustrated, his coworker says, “So… you won’t help?” Dilbert says, “I am waiting for you to go first.” Coworker asks, “And then you’ll help?” Dilbert explains, coffee mug in hand, “No, the order is you, then God, then me.”[1]

            A survey by the Barna Group found that 81% of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. And more than half believed this was one of the core messages of Scripture. To set the record straight, this phrase is not in the Bible. This phrase comes from ancient Greece and Aesop’s Fables. In one of those fables, a man’s wagon falls into a ravine. He calls out to Hercules for help, “Lift my wheel from where it’s stuck.” Hercules laughed and said, “No such luck.” Set your shoulder yourself to the wheel!”[2] The gods help those who help themselves. Then, some two thousand years later, Ben Franklin included this phrase Poor Richard’s Almanack. It sometimes appears with a humorous addendum, “But God help those who are found helping themselves.”

            Like most of the phrases we’ve been discussing in this sermon series, there is some truth to it or it would not been worth the papyrus it was etched on. Here’s the part that is true. Our work matters to God. Our effort matters to God. Benedictine Monks use the phrase ora et labora, meaning pray and work. When we sit down to dinner, we don’t expect food to fly in from nowhere, we say “bless this food and the hands that prepared it.” That’s when I imagine the hands of farmers, hands of laborers, hands of packagers, hands of truckers, hands of grocers, hands of shoppers, hands of cooks, and finally hands of hungry people, that would be all of us, feasting on all this goodness that comes from the hand of God, but that goodness arrives thanks to the hands of others.

I suspect I don’t have to remind you of the importance and meaning of work, especially after this week on the brink of a government shutdown. This is one of the hardest working churches I have ever come across. You do not struggle to work. You do not struggle to help others. You have read every self-help book there is and if there were a non-profit dedicated to lifting the mats of paralyzed people, hoisting them through rooves, lowering them toward healing, you’d sign up tomorrow.

But, if you’re like me, you may struggle and struggle deeply to ask for help or accept it when it comes. One of the greatest fears we have as human beings is helplessness. The more powerful we are, I suspect the more we fear the idea of being powerless. As a result, we devote a great portion of our energy and, if we’re honest, our theology trying to remain in control of our lives.

Now for today’s story from the Gospel of Mark. The man was paralyzed. We don’t know why exactly. Maybe a terrible accident had happened. Maybe it was something congenital. I have known people who are immobilized by grief. A friend of mine remembers after her husband died her friends had to force her to drink Ensure because she could not feed herself. I have known people incapacitated by depression, addiction, fear, anxiety, and stress. I have known people paralyzed by conflict in their workplace, in their family, in their country, in their church or in their own mind. If you’ve ever spent time in the hospital, dinging that bell to get water or help to the bathroom, you can probably imagine at least in some way how the paralyzed man felt.

And then there was the crowd. Everyone wanted tickets to the Jesus show. Everyone wanted whatever he might dish out next. It was all shoulders and elbows and tiptoes pressing in, and with them, the sweaty smell of scarcity. And if you live in this area, you know crowds rarely bring out the best in people. Put me at the back of a line, and I am instantly the most legalistic version of myself. Douse a crowd with desperation, and you’ve got the makings of real scene.

But in that crowded chaos, a miracle happened. All of a sudden four people grabbed a corner of the man’s mat. They bumped along, maybe apologizing as they go, and hoisted him up to the roof. Then they tore away at the roof with their hands, hands still throbbing from weight of tugging. Finally, they lowered the man before Jesus. There is much in this story about sin and forgiveness, material for 200 sermons, but what strikes me today is one line. Mark’s Gospel says, “when Jesus saw their faith,” he healed the man body and soul. When Jesus saw their faith, the faith of those four helpers and the faith of a man who allowed himself to be helped, when Jesus saw their faith, there was healing. We often remember the part of this story that involves breaking through the roof, we imagine the thatched mess and the boldness, (and maybe that is a sensitive topic in this church given how concerned we are about holes in the roof) if you’re like me you worry that all five will plummet to the ground, but Scripture makes it clear that their faith – the faith of all of them bumping along together – that was the real breakthrough.

Here is my simple question for you today. Are there four people in your life whom you would allow to help you? Are there four people who know your brand of paralysis and whom you would actually allow to move you closer to Christ? Who are your four?

On World Communion Sunday, we usually celebrate the many languages and cultures that make up the body of Christ. I have always loved this day. I love the different kinds of bread, the allure of being one with churches wildly different from my marble church home with its padded pews, and the taste of something as sweet as Christ’s body healing this broken world. On a Sunday like today, when I was in my young 20s, I volunteered to become a Young Adult Volunteer in Guatemala for a year, weeping through the hymn “Here I am, Lord.”

Then I actually went. For a year, I lived in the home of Juan and Josefa Estrada Sam, and their three children, Francis, Mynor and Panchito. They lived in a cinder block house on the steep side of a mountain in a town called Cantel. According to all fancy economic metrics, they were impoverished. The smell of poverty hung in the air like diesel fumes belching out of buses that were too crowded and drove too fast for mountain roads in disrepair. Poverty meant a crowd for everything that looked like help. Poverty polluted the water. Poverty was tough on the teeth. Poverty turned curable illnesses into paralysis. Poverty lined the roads with men who were too drunk to beg and dogs no one wanted as pets. Poverty was what I thought I was sent to help fix. So, with my broken Spanish and several years prior experience working in a cubicle, I tried to help.

Over the course of the year, I began to see their faith. Faith in prayers that were so powerful they seemed to harness the force beneath the mountains themselves. Faith so generous it gave the very last chicken a family owned to prepare a meal of love and welcome. Faith so connected to God the creator that every plant and star and raindrop and cloud had something important to tell them. Sometimes at night, I could hear their faith nearly shake the walls as they cried prayers out to God. Not just prayers of desperation but also prayers of profound gratitude. Seeing their faith moved me out of a kind of spiritual paralysis.

I still believed I was helping, and maybe I was, in some way, until February rolled around and I was utterly flattened by an awful stomach illness. I took myself by bus to the hospital in the city about 30 minutes away. I couldn’t get in touch with my parents. I kind of lost the ability to understand Spanish and what doctors were saying. I felt so far away from my marble church and its soft pews. And for the first time since I was a little kid, I felt truly helpless. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Josefa, my host mother, showed up at the hospital and sat with me for hours. And around 8 at night, the entire Session of the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church showed up, having traveled at night in rented pickup trucks with their young children to get there. The pastor, who was paid only in prayers and corn from what I had learned, invited everyone to join hands and pray for me. They prayed the 23rd Psalm in Spanish, and by God’s grace I understood every word, as if my Sunday School teacher Mr. Vincent himself was there praying it. It felt like he was. I sipped my Nalgene as people passed around tortillas and it felt like the most world communion experience I’ve ever known. It felt like healing of body and soul. A breakthrough. God helping those who frankly struggle to receive help and need to learn grace over and over again.

Wherever you find yourself at the table this year… hungry or full… surrounded by friends or struggling to think of your four people… helper or helped…this table is for you. At this table, Christ calls us to tear down the dividing walls of hostility. At this table, Christ gives the breakthrough of grace. At this table, we receive Christ’s very self, broken for you when you thought you were just here to help.

These are the gifts of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Scott Adams, Inc. 8-10, 2016.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hercules_and_the_Wagoner#/media/File:Hercules_&_Waggoner2.jpg