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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Faith that's Bigger than a Bumper Sticker: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves? (Leviticus 19:9-10, Acts 2:42-47)


When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest.  10 Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a sermon series on “Faith that’s Bigger than a Bumper Sticker.”  We are looking at so-called “Christian” platitudes, axioms, and clichés that can easily fit on a bumper sticker or in a greeting card – easy to memorize and most of us have heard these phrases bandied about our entire lives.  Some may even believe that they are from the Bible or perhaps even the words of Jesus, himself.

And yet, not only are these phrases nowhere to be found in Scripture, but much of bumper sticker theology represents only half-truths about God at best, and at worst, many of these phrases even do more harm in God’s name than they do good.

My goal in this series is for you to have a faith and a theology that is rooted in Scripture and the living core of the Christian tradition, not one inspired by a bumper sticker.  We’ve already challenged the idea that God won’t give you more than you can handle.  We’ve already peeled away the idea that wealth and possessions are a sign of God’s blessing.  Today we’ll shed the notion that God helps those who help themselves.  May we pray.

We human beings can be a very self-centered bunch, can’t we?  That’s a value we don’t have to learn or be taught – it comes naturally to us.  Just watch a couple of two-year-olds playing in a room full of toys.  The second one child reaches for a specific toy, 9 times out of 10, the other child will go into a screaming fit because now, all of a sudden, they want to play with it.  They’ve never showed any interest in it before, but now that someone else has it, well, now that’s a problem.

Adults do it, too.  In fact, the most childish behavior I have ever witnessed wasn’t by children, but adults.  How many times has someone died, and the body is still warm and the family are arguing with each other about who’s going to get what – and no one stops to say, “Hey, is any of this fighting actually worth it?”

Think of the Cinderella story, where she has made her dress for the ball out of the discarded scraps that were no longer wanted by her step-sisters, but as soon as they see her wearing them, they are thrown into a fit of rage and literally shred her dress to pieces.  Why would we rather see something of ours go into the trash when we’re done with it instead of being used by another human being?

It all stems from one word – “mine.”  That one word, “mine,” is quite possibly the most damaging and destructive concept in human history.  Think about it.  Wars have been fought over this word.  Blood spilt.  Families destroyed.  Communities fractured.  Churches split.  Everyone wants as much as possible to be “mine.”

Enter the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.”  That’s just a socially-acceptable way of saying, “I don’t want to give you what is mine.”  I don’t want to share, I don’t want to give, I don’t want you to have what I have, Even though I have plenty and then some, I don’t want to have just a little bit less so that you can have just enough.

 “God helps those who help themselves” is just a pious way of saying “I do what I want, and I don’t really care what happens to you because I don’t care about you.”  I’d rather people leave God out of it altogether, and just call it what it is – selfish, callous, and cruel.

Like so many of the phrases of bumper sticker theology, we see how this phrase does more harm in God’s name than good.

God’s idea is different than helping those who help themselves.  God wants us to help each other.  In the text we read from Leviticus, we hear God’s instruction to the owners of farms and vineyards about how they should harvest.  Don’t harvest the whole field, but leave some at the edges.  Leave some grapes on the vine, don’t gather up what falls on the ground.  Leave it!

The landowners of the day would have been among the wealthy members of society.  These instructions for leaving some of the harvest behind is a way of caring for the poor – those without land, those without work, those who have no harvest to sell.  God is saying, “Leave some behind.  You already have more than enough to turn a good profit.  Rather than adding to your wealth, leave it for those who are barely scraping by.”

You can anticipate the protest from the landowner: “The poor haven’t earned it.  They haven’t worked for it.  They haven’t planted and harvested, they are taking money out of my pocket!  If they want help, they should help themselves!”

Yet God’s directive stands.  “For the wealthy, a few more bucks in your already well-padded pocket is the difference between food and no food in the already empty stomachs of the poor, so leave it.  Ultimately, it means far more to them than it does to you.”

God’s idea is not that God helps those who help themselves.  It’s that we help each other, particularly those who can’t help themselves.

That’s one reason we have the Church.  The Church is not a collection of individuals, but the unified body of Christ.  We are first and foremost the living, breathing, body of Christ – knit together in God’s grace as we grow in God’s love.  We start with the body, and then look at how the parts work together to support and share with each other for the good of the whole.

Bodies are fascinating things – they have the ability to heal themselves.  Say you have an infection somewhere in your body – the entire body responds to fight it.  What if one or more parts of the body said, “I don’t want to help.  I don’t want to share.  There’s an infection in the leg?  That’s the leg’s problem.  I’m not sharing any of my white cells with that leg.  The leg needs to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.  God helps the leg that helps itself.”

Ultimately, who does that hurt?  Everybody.  Thankfully, the whole body gets in on it.  Your temperature will rise, your whole body ramps up white cell production and sends it to the infection site, and you get tired – your body forces you to rest, because your body is putting all of its energy into fighting the infection, and doesn’t want you wasting energy by moving around or going to work or whatever.  The whole body responds.

The same is true for the body of Christ, the Church.  When there is a need somewhere else in the body, we respond.  We make food, we make visits and phone calls, we provide a ride, we paint a house, whatever.  What affects one of us affects all of us.

In the Church, our motto is never “Every man for himself” or any other version of “God helps those who help themselves.”  It is no coincidence that we follow a crucified Christ – the one we worship and follow didn’t simply look out for his own interests and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves.  No.  Jesus is the penultimate expression of God’s infinite love and grace – a life lived not for himself but for others, and Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise.”

For me, the remarkable thing is not that Jesus taught us to give of ourselves as he gave for us, but that some have actually done it!  When the people of a church each lay aside their collective individualism and put their energy into loving God and loving their neighbors ahead of each person’s individual desires or opinions, well, the result is something like what is described in what we read from the 2nd chapter of Acts:

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

This passage describes Christian community at its best – a picture of what the Church can, and should, be!  When a church wholeheartedly dedicates itself to loving God and our neighbor, we find a sense of purpose and unity that simply outshines individual opinions, agendas, and desires.  We find ourselves of one heart and mind, that resources are freely and generously shared, and those who give them are glad to do so.

That sharing is rooted in our understanding of God’s grace is that is freely, abundantly, indiscriminately lavished upon all people.  We call this prevenient grace – from the Latin, meaning “to go before.”  God’s grace goes before everyone – before we have done a thing to help ourselves, God has already done more for us than we will ever know, and church becomes a place of glad celebration of all God’s gifts for all God’s people.  Wouldn’t you rather be part of a church like that than one in which people are stingy and ungenerous and hold back from God and one another?  I know I would, and God would rather be there, too.

Communities of faith that are generous and grace-filled, and joyful – the Scriptures say those are the ones God grows.  Adds to their number.  Gives them more people to share God’s love with.  People are naturally-drawn to the places where that is happening, because something about that resonates with people, and they’re able to say, “Yes, this feels right.  This is what it’s about.  I want to be part of something like this” – something that’s bigger than ourselves and connects us with God and God’s people in a way we simply can’t do on our own. 

I think about that at tax season.  Tax season, of all places!  I don’t necessarily enjoy the paperwork of tax season, but what Ashley and I both enjoy is being able to look back and realize that everything we gave away, we didn’t miss.  We don’t have vineyards or farmland, but it’s one way for us to leave something at the edges, so to speak.  And what we gave, we didn’t miss.

I know a man who has spent his entire adult life trying to get rich.  He’s always got an angle, always investing in the newest thing, always scrapping to make a buck.  He’s in his 60s now, had some success in some of his ventures, but he’s still a tightwad, and is more miserable than ever.  He’s 60-something, and all he has to show for his life’s work, is more misery than he’s ever had before.

The description of the Church in Acts says that they all had glad and generous hearts.  Take note of the correlation, here!  Gladness and generosity go hand-in-hand.  Giving makes us happy.

God helps those who help themselves?  Sure, but that’s not the whole story, because God helps everybody.  God also helps those who don’t, or can’t help themselves.  God helps the helpers and the helpless.  God helps those who don’t even want help.  God helps those who don’t believe in God, don’t know God, and have done nothing to earn anything from God.  God’s gifts to us are always greater than our response back to God, and yet God keeps helping us, anyway.  There’s nothing we can do to make ourselves deserving of God’s goodness in our lives.

Thank God, that when it came to sharing God’s goodness and grace in our lives, God didn’t just cross his arms and say, “Mine.”  God didn’t say, “I’m gonna hold onto this grace for myself, thank you very much,” but shares it freely with us.

In the life of faith, sharing what we have needs to become as second nature as our instinct to grasp and scream, “Mine!”  That one doesn’t come naturally; it’s something we need to learn.  There are some things it will take a lifetime and maybe then some for us to learn, and sharing is one of them.  Don’t miss your opportunities to practice.

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