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Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019 – Mark 9:14-29

The Lord helps those who help themselves. According to the demographer and pollster George Barna, the statement “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves” had the following results in a February, 2000 poll:

  • 53% of Americans (in general) agree strongly
  • 22% agree somewhat
  • 7% disagree somewhat
  • 14% disagree strongly
  • 5% stated they don’t know.

Of (self-described) “born-again” Christians:

  • 68% agreed
  • 81% of non “born-again” Christians agreed with the statement.

Despite being of non-Biblical origin, the phrase topped a poll of the most widely known Bible verses. Seventy-five percent of American teenagers said they believed that it was the central message of the Bible.

The saying is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who used it in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, yet its origins can be found much earlier. In his Metamorphoses in A.D., Ovid 8 writes “divinity helps those who dare.” Sophocles in his play Philoctetes, which is dated circa 409 B.C., writes “No good e’er comes of leisure purposeless; And heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act.” Euripides used a similar saying in his writings, also in the fourth century B.C. Babrius in the first century A.D. expressed a similar sentiment, as did Aesop in the sixth century B.C. Algernon Sidney worded the phrase as we know it today in the late seventh century in his Discourses Concerning Government.

This sentiment is in the Qur’an. It was used in bringing to bear the French Revolution and was the motto of a Confederate ship in the Civil War.[i] The saying has endured for so long. It transcends culture, religion, and time. There is just something about it that humankind has connected to the idea that this is how our God operates.

The problem with this saying is not simply that it is not in the Bible. The problem is also what this saying reduces God to. If the Lord helps those who help themselves, then God’s grace is conditional upon our initiative and our God is beholden to our initiative, which is to say that if we help ourselves, God is therefore required to help us, because we have done our part. Thus, we are either left with a God without mercy, who only helps when required or a God without any kind of self-determination, a mechanical God who vends assistance only when we first insert the coins of self-help. This smacks of an old belief deemed heresy in the sixth century called Semi-Pelagianism, heresy because it gives far too much power to humans in the divine-human relationship, teaching that while God helps us grow in our faith, it takes human free will to initiate the divine-human relationship.

So, to be clear, God does indeed help those who help themselves. However, God does not only help those who help themselves. God helps the industrious as well as the idle, the powerful and the powerless, God goes second, yet more often than we realize or wish to admit, God goes first, helping us even when we will not or cannot help ourselves.

In this morning’s text, we encounter a desperate father whose son is possessed by a “spirit” that causes him to have what appears to us to be seizures. The father is desperate because he is powerless to heal this malady which has affected the boy since his was a child. He is desperate because he has tried taking his son to the disciples who are also powerless to heal the boy.

He cries out to Jesus “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Here are two helpless people, father and son, in a longstanding and helpless situation. As Mark tells the story, it almost sounds like the father comes to Jesus only because he is willing to try anything, anything to end this torment. He comes to Jesus saying, “If you are able to do anything…” and that little two letter word “if” offends Jesus who immediately confronts the man for his lack of belief.” And the father does not know what he believes; he cries “I believe; help my unbelief!”

And there you have it: faith and doubt in the same sentence from a man who only desperately wishes for the end of his child’s suffering. He is not “helping himself” because he cannot help himself. He is in an impossible situation and nothing is going to change unless God intervenes. Only Christ can heal the boy. Only Christ can give him back to his father, and all the father can say is that paradoxical plea “I believe; help my unbelief.”

And because God is the God of mercy and grace, Christ heals him, takes him by the hand, and brings him to his feet. The one the people thought was dead is now, fully, truly, for the very first time, fully alive.

What is the appeal to us of a god who only helps those who help themselves? Why has this notion endured so long? And besides not reading the Bible enough, what are Christians, and the Christian church doing so wrong in our proclamation that we continue to promulgate the false belief that this is who God is?

One of my great, great regrets in my time in ordained ministry dates back to my time prior to my arrival at Reveille, during the early days of the Great Recession. I was sitting at my desk one day at church when a woman I did not know knocked on the door and asked for help. She explained to me that she was a landscaper who was losing even her wealthiest clients as the economy contracted and people began to regard having their yard work done for them as a luxury. She told me that she never thought she would ever have to do this, never thought it would ever come to this, but she needed financial assistance to purchase groceries for herself and for her children.

In that church, I had access to a pastor’s discretionary fund that I used often to help people in need, usually helping pay their bills. Yet in this situation, I saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Just outside of my office was a flowerbed that was created as a part of a distant Eagle Scout project that was now completely overrun with ugly wire grass, and no one in the church, including me, was interested in doing anything about it.

So, I told her “I tell you what: if you can clean this flower bed, I will give you $200.” I rationalized it by telling myself “Well, she has her work clothes on, and she will appreciate the money more if she earns it, and by giving her work, I will help give her dignity.”

For the uninitiated, wire grass is the spawn of Satan, nearly impossible to remove, and after an hour in the hot sun, she gave up. She was hot, sweaty, and dirty when she arrived and now was only more so. She came back to my office and said, “This stuff really is the spawn of Satan. I just need help. Can you please just help me?”

And that was when I, finally, at long last, did the right thing, the godly thing: I helped her not because she earned it, but simply because she was in need.

The Lord helps those who help themselves, yet the Lord helps everyone else, too. I wonder if the reason that the old saying has endured so long is because in it, we believe we have finally found a way to do what humans have tried to do ever since Adam and Eve walked with God in Eden in the cool of the evening: make God bend to our will. I’ve done my part, Lord. Now you do yours.

Even for those of us who believe, God can be so difficult to accept, the unconditional love, the undeserved grace, all of it. We desire to control so much because we trust God so little, and like small children determined to do everything for ourselves, we push away those crucified hands when they attempt to help, when they attempt to intervene before we are truly ready: I’ve got this Lord. I don’t need your help. I want to do it by myself.

And because God is a God of grace and mercy, God works through our desperate situations, through the people around us, helping us in ways seen and unseen, letting us take the credit, even when God did for us what we could not do for ourselves.

God is assistance before we ask, God is grace we cannot earn, God is love we cannot begin to understand without the cross, without the tomb, without Easter. As the psalmist writes, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.” Thanks be to God for helping us when we deserve it and when we don’t, when we act, and when we won’t. The Lord helps those who help themselves, yet the Lord helps everyone else, too. It is good news for today, good news for tomorrow, and good news for this world every day.

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.