Sermon: “Help for the Weak” (July 27, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Help for the Weak” (Romans 8:26)
July 27, 2014
Dave Johnson

Posted July 27, 2014

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

During the final season of the classic TV show Seinfeld George Costanza’s father, Frank, invented a holiday for his family that was devoid of any religious influences, a holiday he called Festivus—“It’s a Festivus for the rest of us!” he proclaimed. Celebrating Festivus involved some bizarre elements, including the “airing of grievances” during which Frank explains, “You gather your family around and tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year.”

Another element of celebrating Festivus was the dreaded “feats of strength,” during which George was to perform various “feats of strength” to prove he wasn’t weak. These “feats of strength” always ended with George crying.

At the end of this particular episode George has gathered with friends and family around his parents’ dining room table for the big celebration. “The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances,” Frank begins. “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re going to hear about them!”

After ranting about how disappointed he is with his family he continues, “And now as Festivus rolls on we come to the feats of strength.” Frank removes his sweater and throws it to the ground and cries out, “Until you pin me, George, Festivus is not over!” George panics, “Please, somebody stop this!” “Let’s rumble!” his father yells. The episode ends with George crying out for help as his father pins him to the ground while shouting, “This is the best Festivus ever!” (season 9, episode 10) ☺.

Like George Costanza all of us at times are weak and try as we might our various “feats of strength” won’t cut it.

In 1965 the Beatles had a hit song that all of you probably know, a song written primarily by John Lennon that articulates what we all need when our “feats of strength” fall short:

Help, I need somebody
Help, not just anybody
Help, you know I need someone
Help!

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured
Now I find I’ve changed my life and opened up the doors

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being ’round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?
(from The Beatles 1965 album Help!)

In the winter of 1971 Jann S. Wenner, founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine, interviewed John Lennon and asked him, “What do you think are your best songs that you have written?”

“I don’t know,” Lennon replies, “I always liked ‘Walrus,’ ‘Strawberry Fields,’ ‘Help,’ ‘In My Life,’ those are some favorites.

“Why ‘Help’?” Wenner continues.

“Because I meant it,” Lennon responds, “it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that aware of myself then. It was just me singing ‘Help’ and I meant it.”

This morning I’m preaching on the first sentence of today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which the Apostle writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26).

Throughout the rich eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans we read about the various ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us life, testifies in our hearts that we are God’s children, assures us of our hope of eternal life, and comforts us in our suffering.

And it is the Holy Spirit who “helps us in our weakness.”

Even when we need help we often don’t want to admit it. From the time we are little kids we are taught to be self-reliant and self-assured, and it cuts against the grain of how we are hard-wired to actually ask for help from someone else.

This may occur in a relatively small way, like what happened to me the other night. My family and I had dinner with some friends and on our way back home I got turned around and found myself in a part of town I didn’t recognize. I kept acting like I knew where we were—“I recognize this intersection” or “I remember that building” but the truth was I had no clue where I was. My kids kept offering to simply use the GPS on their phones but I refused, “I know where I am, we’ll get there soon.”

After several tense and awkward minutes (I’m sure you can relate) I finally asked for help and my daughter Emily pulled our address up on her GPS and laughed, “Dad, we are going the exact opposite way we’re supposed to be going!” I followed her GPS directions and eventually we arrived home, much to everyone’s relief.

But sometimes we need help on a much larger scale.

In the riveting 2013 film Gravity Dr. Ryan Stone (played brilliantly by Sandra Bullock) is an engineer on a spacewalk outside the space shuttle Explorer when high speed debris from a satellite that has been destroyed strikes the Explorer, detaches Stone and sends her spinning off alone in space. In a heartbreaking scene she calls out for help: “Explorer, do you copy?” (silence) “Houston, do you copy?” (more silence) “Houston, this is mission specialist Ryan Stone. I am off structure. I am drifting. Do you copy?” (no response) As she spins off into space she continues to call out for help, “Anyone? Anybody? Do you copy? Please copy. Please…”

Think about your life for a moment. What is the biggest weakness in your life? Where do you need help? Where do you feel like you’re spinning off alone in space?

There is a saying that attempts to link our deeply imbedded sense of self-reliance and self-assurance to the Christian faith — “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

I remember watching All in the Family as a kid and in one episode Archie Bunker, arguing with his wife, Edith (as usual), remarks “Like the good book says, Edith, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’”

It sounds good, and perhaps it’s good fodder for motivational speakers, but with all due respect to Archie Bunker, it’s not the gospel, not by a long shot.

The gospel is that God helps those who can’t help themselves.

That’s why the gospel is good news for the helpless.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul writes, and this was not some abstract “Quotable Quote” for Paul, it was true to his own life.

In his most vulnerable letter in the New Testament, his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about what happened when he cried out to God for help for a weakness in his life: “A thorn was given to me in the flesh… Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me… for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Paul never reveals what his weakness is—and scholars have posited many theories that it may have been a physical ailment or a chronic illness or a besetting sin or perhaps depression—but what Paul experienced in his places of weakness was the active grace of God, the Spirit helping him in his weakness.

And what is true for the Apostle Paul is true for you and me—the Spirit helps us in our weakness—and that’s very good news.

It means that when it comes to the places in our lives where we are the weakest, we can dispense with our silly “feats of strength” and simply cry out to God, “Won’t you please, please help me.”

The other night Steph and I saw the Peach State Summer Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins—what a talented cast! At one point in the play the hyper-driven, controlling, over-achieving, workaholic husband and father, George Banks, is suspended from his job, and all his self-reliance and self-assurance come crashing down—and he finds himself with empty pockets, weak and in need of help.

And one evening his children go to tell him goodnight, but before they do so, they each give him all the money they have; they each give him a six-pence. And his daughter, Jane, gives him a kiss on the cheek and reassures her dad, “We do love you, you know.”

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus demonstrated compassion for the weak and the helpless, again and again and again. And although the Israelites wanted a messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression through mighty “feats of strength,” instead Jesus delivered all of us from the oppression of sin and death not through strength but through… weakness—as Paul also wrote, Jesus “was crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4) for “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

The Risen Lord knows all the places where you are weak and where you need help—and as the cross demonstrates once and for all, he does love you, you know.

These comforting words from the Letter to the Hebrews tie all this together: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (4:15-16).

The good news of the gospel is that the Spirit helps us in our weakness—again and again and again.

Amen.