“God helps those who fight like hell”
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on August 6, 2017
Texts: Genesis 32:22-31; “Logos” by Mary Oliver; Matthew 14:13-21
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
August 6, 2017—Proper 13A
Genesis 32:22-31; “Logos” by Mary Oliver; Matthew 14:13-21
Right up there on my “pop theology that annoys me” scale is the idea that “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not in the Bible, kids. It was popularized by Benjamin Franklin, and as wise as Ben was, the phrase hasn’t generally been used in a way that harmonizes with biblical theology at all. Because if you look at the overall arc of the Bible, from the laws of the Torah and the words of the prophets, to the life and teaching of Jesus, a more accurate summation would be: “God calls US to help those who cannot help themselves.”
There are people who are hungry. There are people who are far from home, and unfamiliar with the surroundings. We hear this in the Hebrew Bible; we hear this in the New Testament. And then we are told: Do not tell them to fend for themselves; it is your job—as children of God, as followers of Jesus—to figure out how to give them food. “You give them something to eat,” he tells the disciples.
That is the core biblical message about people and needs and helping: that the faithful are called to help those who need help, especially those who are weakest and most vulnerable. The hungriest, the poorest, the farthest from home, the most powerless. You give them something to eat. You give them … something.
The biblical message is NOT God helps those who help themselves. Not when that idea is so often used an excuse to look down on the unfortunate, to call them lazy, rather than give them something of what they need.
However, the question of how we respond to the needs of others is not the only question in a faithful life. There is also the question of how we are called to act on our own behalf. And here, there is something in the story of Jacob that does in fact echo a version of “God helps those…” in that one of the lessons in the story of Jacob wrestling that figure on the banks of the Jabbok is “God grants favor to those who fight like hell!”
This is another theme that arches across the scriptures. God, after all, accedes to Abraham after he argues endlessly on behalf of Sodom. The widow facing the unjust judge is getting nowhere, but nevertheless she persists, and eventually receives what justice demands. And over and over in the healing stories, what Jesus calls “faith” (as in “your faith has made you well”) looks like daring, looks like determination, looks like extreme lengths to dig through the roof and lower the paralyzed man down on his pallet so that Jesus can heal him.
God seems to like it, as it turns out, when we go all in. When we act for what we believe in, what we desire, what we need. When we will fight all night, if necessary. When we will risk ourselves. When we will perhaps limp for the rest of our lives, but nonetheless call ourselves blessed.
Jacob is fighting for redemption. In some ways, he’s fighting for forgiveness, or the right to feel worthy of his brother’s forgiveness. He is fighting for his future, to become worthy of that birthright he stole: the right to come home and be the father of Israel (the name he is given alongside the blessing). He is fighting, in essence, for healing, for restoration, and for relationship.
You have to put the effort in. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, there is blessing to be had for those who put the effort in. Yeah, it might not always be the exact blessing you were hoping for. But blessing, nonetheless.
Augusten Burroughs is a writer who has made his living producing memoirs about his traumatic childhood (alcoholic father and mentally ill mother who wind up leaving him to be raised by the extremely dicey family psychologist), and subsequent journeys through his own alcoholism and various other hurdles. One of his recent books is This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike, and like all his books, it bears witness to the fact that he’s been there, and come through it all with an insight that is both compassionate and no-nonsense.
In his chapter on relationships, he tells of overhearing a woman complaining that the universe isn’t living up to its side of the bargain, in that she‘s owed a soul mate, but he just isn’t showing up! And in listening to what she claims she’s doing to deserve this reward (being a decent person, combing her hair every morning), he is overcome by a desire to grab her by the lapels and tell her she needs to meet the universe half way and actually find ways to go out and MEET MORE PEOPLE! If you want this so badly, then you’ve got to go at least a few rounds to try to get that blessing. It’s no guarantee of success, but the alternative is dead cert to fail.
Burroughs’ legitimately traumatic childhood left him convinced that everyone needs to take responsibility for his or her own life on all kinds of levels (not just in finding a mate). Clearly, he had every right to claim victim status, to choose self-pity, and wait for someone else to come and right his wrongs. But life taught him that those options just left him exactly where he was, while the rest of life moved on without him. So instead, he chose to accept that fairness doesn’t happen to be one of the laws of the universe. Which meant he’d better figure out how he was going to climb up out of that ditch. His advice: “Avoid self-pity by taking responsibility for everything that happens to you, even if somebody else is at fault. By taking responsibility, I don’t mean play doormat. I mean, repair yourself. Move forward. Move on. Then, only then, see if you can wrangle some empathy.”[i]
Fight like heck. Fight like Jacob. Work all through the night and don’t give up, because the blessings of healing, wholeness, and relationship are worth it.
Perhaps it sounds unfair. I mean, here we have a system in which: when it comes to the needy, you are called to give them whatever you can. And when it comes to your own needs, you are called to bring whatever power you might have to bear on those, too. No, it doesn’t sound fair (though it might help to remember that those less fortunate than you are also called to the exact same things: give to those with less and do whatever they can for themselves). But the point never was about fairness. God never promises it will be fair. He just assures us that this life—a life in which we are generous and caring for those who are less fortunate, and bold and tireless in working for our own wholeness—this life will be filled with blessing! Jesus promises the same: that the Way will overflow with blessing, like those twelve baskets left over after the feast. May it be so, Amen.
[i] Augusten Burroughs, “How to find love” and “How to feel sorry for yourself,” in This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike