GOD OUR HELP

Sermon delivered on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity the 23rd October 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the St. Alban's congregation of the Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Jeremiah 14: 7-10, 19-22     2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18     S. Luke 18:9-14

S. Luke 18: 13 The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

A word we come across often enough in nearly all fields of life is “Help”. Help may be needed to balance the budget, personal or national, to bring up a child or to repair a house. The saying “God helps those who help themselves” may come to mind. That one is such a common and proverbial saying that many, though I am supposing none in this congregation, have thought it was a biblical saying, but it is not. There is a level at which the saying does have some truth, so one could say that it is a model of life that has a semblance of reality. Those of us with experiences such as Hurricanes Ivan and Paloma or other destructions may realise that the model “God helps those who help themselves” may only take us up to the point at which we cannot help ourselves any more. We then find we have to rely on God’s help beyond the point at which we can do anything to help ourselves. There are many in today’s world that are sustained for long periods in such a state of existence: those around the world who are unjustly imprisoned, perhaps being tortured, or those running or hiding from a terrorist mob or an army for which rape and murder are the weapons of the day. However, such a state of discomfort, though having to be tolerated for a time, even a long time, is not a state of equilibrium, and after the crisis passes, we want to get back on our feet, as the saying goes, as soon as possible.

Wiser and perhaps more unselfish souls may feel however, that God helps those who help others. Hopefully for this reason, or at any rate partly, the Cayman community has for many years relied on volunteers, whether within or outside the church, for some of its social programmes, for instance to assist those who by their age or poverty or other circumstances are in a vulnerable state. We can indeed find some direct biblical support for this model, such as St. Paul’s statement that our Lord said that it is better to give than to receive. We are to love our neighbour as ourselves, as Jesus emphasised. And there are stories of heroism that go beyond the models that society sometimes provides for a help that is prudent. I am reminded of that video clip that you see at the beginning of a plane journey, in which the oxygen masks fall down, and you are advised to put on your own oxygen mask before offering help to someone else. That is the prudent course to take. Still, might we not have found somebody’s condition to have been so desperate, that we had to help that person even if it imperilled our own? A man may try to save his drowning friend, imperilling his own safety. Mothers are often compelled to help their children and to rescue their babies at great risk to themselves; moreover, faith teaches that all who hear the word of God are family to us, and that we are our brother’s keeper. Sometimes we are torn between prudence and impulsive generosity, and sometimes there seems to be no clearly good choice to be made. And then we may be driven instantly to turn to God and seek His guidance and take the plunge that His word to us suggests. Without that word, we may find that what began as help is misconstrued or even misguided, ultimately proving to be unhelpful.

In the Gospel parable today Jesus said that one man was helped by God - indeed God justified him through the utterance of the very prayer for help - and the other was not. The one that was not helped had taken up a prominent position in the Temple and had prayed a statement of thanks that he had helped himself to become someone that God could do business with. He was not like other men, no, he was an honest and just man, someone faithful to his wife (because he said he was not an adulterer), someone much better than the tax-collector who had come up into the temple with him. Here is where the words of Jesus seem to turn things upside-down, because as Christians we ought indeed, we might assume, to applaud someone for his honesty, sense of justice and yes, his marital faithfulness. Surely we must applaud a man for his uprightness, rather than someone with no such claim to make?

I would like to suggest that here we have someone who was using something like the familiar life model “God helps those who help themselves”. There were many upright men amongst the Pharisees, and this one considered that he had become one of these, and cited as evidence his twice-weekly fast and the tithes that he regularly made of his income. Unfortunately he had taken the model to a level at which it was impossible for him to conceive of God’s help being for the unworthy and the penitent. Perhaps it does take the odd hurricane, or other threat, to remind us too that God’s help is to be confidently sought at the limit of our own capacity for providing adequate help, either on our own account, or for others. God’s help is not to be measured by our own adequacy, because before Him we must fall down as entirely inadequate. It is as important for us to realise this as it was for the men in the Temple. For one of them was given the peace of God, but the other was not.

Perhaps then it is providential that many find an event like a hurricane or a financial or medical collapse hard, and to recover from it to be hard as well. It is hard not to be able to contact people, and to have to wait, and not to accomplish the things one wants to, and hard too, not to be able to help others, let alone oneself, as well as one would want. I think we find some of that sort of atmosphere in the words of Jeremiah today. This atmosphere too is instigated by a phenomenon of nature, in this case a drought, as is documented at the beginning of this 14th chapter of Jeremiah. Jeremiah observes that the people of Judah lament their inadequacy before God, and they admit their faith that God would be well within His right, so to speak, to abandon them. Nevertheless, at least as expressed in Jeremiah’s intercession, they call upon God and remind Him of the covenant He made with them, acknowledge His sovereignty over them and set their hope upon Him, for He alone and not any other power can help them. An Old Testament model certainly, but we can learn from it today and draw our attitude from it and the sense of dependence upon God to which we are called. S. Paul in his instructions to his successor and pupil Timothy that we heard in the second lesson was effectively warning him that the days would soon come in which, after his own death, Timothy would have to expect to be sustained and strengthened by God alone.

The Gospel tells us that the other man stood “far off” - far from the upright Pharisee, far from the prominent position near the Holy Place that that man took. Perhaps he stands half hidden behind a pillar of the temple. He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven. If God only helped those who helped themselves, that man would not be helped. The Good News is that it was he who was helped by God, rather than the other, because God is indeed merciful to the downcast and the admittedly sinful, who come to Him for help. Are you and I among that company who so come to Him for help? Before God, that is the only reasonable course to take, and it needs to be so.