Loving Those Who Cannot Help Themselves

Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, Minneapolis, Minn. 
Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:11b-19

Someday I’m going to preach a sermon on phrases some folks think are from the Bible. Phrases like: “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” People often intone that great bit of advice with a certain air of confidence that they know their Bible. I’m not certain who said it… Shakespeare, for all I know — but it is not from the Bible.

While there may be some truth to the phrase, it is not biblical and misses the entire gospel of Jesus Christ by a country mile. Our gospel strongly proclaims that our Lord helps those who cannot help themselves. The chorus of a non-religious song by Paul Overstreet says it well:

Love helps those who can’t help themselves.
Cares about those hearts who have been put on the shelf.
It will introduce a lonely soul to a lonely someone else;
For love helps those who can’t help themselves.

The 17th chapter of John is one of the most beautiful in all of the Bible. This startling, breathtaking prayer that Jesus prayed is like that of a prayer of a mother or father. It is the prayer that Jesus prays before taking leave of his friends and ascending into heaven. In that prayer Jesus asks God to protect his friends; in other words, to help those who cannot always help themselves. Jesus prays:

As you did send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

On this day when we celebrate the Festival of the Christian Home, we realize that God has sent us into the world to proclaim the word of God and to speak the truth about God. Like the disciples, we may face hardships and perhaps endure persecutions because of our faith and our convictions. We know that we cannot always help ourselves. Mother’s Day came into being because a Methodist laywoman, Anna Jarvis, wanted to find a way to express her appreciation to her mother for loving her and being there when Anna could not always help herself. We continue that tradition today because we know there have been persons in our life who have made all the difference in the world.

A group of third-grade children were receiving their Bibles one Sunday. Each child was to recite a passage from scripture as the Bible was handed to them. They came to one young fellow who couldn’t remember his name, much less a Bible verse. His eyes frantically searched for his mother, who was seated in the congregation. When he spotted her, he was greatly calmed when he heard her whisper, “I am the light of the world,” to which the greatly-relieved little boy turned, and as he received his Bible he boldly said, “My mother is the light of the world!”

So it is with our mothers and our fathers, and our grandparents, and aunts and uncles, foster parents, teachers, friends, and relatives. This is not a task of just the mothers of the world. It is our task… To be the light of the world for those who cannot help themselves. Our celebration of the Festival of the Christian Home could not be more timely considering what all is happening to our families, and our homes, and in our communities. The challenges are so great. The statistics of violence and abuse are staggering. There could not be a greater time than the present for us to focus on the home and the family. When Mother Teresa received her Nobel Prize, she was asked, “What can we do to help promote world peace?” She replied: “Go home and love your family.”

Too simplistic? Not really. I am convinced that one of the reasons why our radio ministry is so popular is because it speaks to the issues of values, love, and acceptance. I am not a sociologist, nor do I pretend to know why our society is experiencing so many problems, but I am convinced that much of the hate, random acts of violence, expressions of anger and the frightening disregard of human life, are often cries from people who cannot find someone who is the light of their world.

Everyone desperately needs to know how valuable and important they are. We simply cannot tell our children often enough, “You are special. You are worthwhile. You are loved.” If our children and youth do not hear this affirmation in some form or fashion, I am convinced that we will continue to experience grave consequences in our society. To love those who cannot help themselves means to take seriously the understanding that the home is a place where we not only teach values but live the values we teach. It also means that we understand that the home is where we teach the Christian heritage, so that everyone within the home can have a first-hand knowledge of the love of God.

Today we are experiencing a significant shift in our society. A growing number of young persons in their 20s and 30s, both single and young parents, are becoming a part of the church. Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church is no exception to this phenomenon, as can be seen each month when we receive new members. These persons know the value of a strong linkage to the church as they seek to live out their daily lives. That strong linkage is often seen when given an opportunity to grow up in a strong religious environment. I am reminded of a mother who was reading a book about Jesus to her little girl. As the mother turned the first page, there was a beautiful picture of Jesus. The mother said to daughter, “Honey, do you know who that is?” And the little girl quickly responded, “Oh, yes, he goes to our church!” Something like that does not just happen. It happens only when parents are willing to help their children in their faith development.

Celebrating Mother’s Day has some risks to it. It can either be sentimental or cynical. This past week [I had lunch with] Gordon Stewart of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Michael O’Connel of the Basilica [and] Joe Grubbs of First Christian Church. We were to play golf after lunch, however Gordon indicated that he would not be able to play because of a continuing back ailment. He was telling us that he just discovered that his brother was suffering from the same problems. Then he said, on top of that, he just found out that his mother is having the same problem. With that he smiled and said, “It ‘s all my mother’s fault!”

Michael O’Connel said, “That would be a great way for each of us to start our Mother’s Day sermon — by complaining about the problems our mothers have caused.” I did not see the movie, perhaps you did — I don’t even know what the title was — but a few weeks ago a movie was being advertised on TV. It had to do with a grown son and a somewhat meddlesome mother. There was one scene in particular that they kept running on TV. It was the young man having a phone conversation with his mother. She was going on and on with her “motherly” advice. As they were about the end the conversation the mother said, “I love you, son.” To which the young man said, “I know you think you do, mother.”

This is my first year of celebrating Mother’s Day without my mother. The TV ad for that movie provided some bittersweet moments for me as it reminded me of my mother who “mothered” me for 60 years. There were many times that I wish she would have stopped… but she did not. Now I miss it. We celebrate Mother’s Day not so much because we think it’s important to set aside a day to extol the virtues of motherhood, but rather to focus on what this day symbolizes. It symbolizes the fact that God places us in families where there can be loving protection and caring. It also symbolizes that God uses us in providing loving protection and caring especially for those who cannot help themselves.

Catherine Mumford Booth, welfare worker, evangelist, author and “Mother of the Salvation Army,” was born in Derbyshire, England, the daughter of an itinerant Methodist minister. Sickly throughout her earlier years, it was necessary for Catherine to be educated in her own home. In 1844, Catherine moved to London with her parents who in time became affiliated with the Wesleyan Church at Brixton. It was there she met William Booth, pastor of the church, who had a great passion for helping those who could not help themselves.

The couple married in 1855 and reared eight children. Catherine assisted her husband in working among the poor. It is said that on one Sunday at the close of the worship service, she mounted the pulpit and preached a stirring sermon on the theme, “Be Filled With the Spirit.” I hesitate to mention this for fear Marilyn will take the challenge and come up at the close of this service and preach another sermon!

William and Catherine Booth were known as Reformers. They often found themselves in conflict with the church and finally broke away in 1861. At that time William became an independent evangelist and the two of them worked together with poverty-stricken people primarily in London’s East End. By 1877 they had a band of followers who officially formed the Salvation Army. The movement was literally based on military lines, with rank and uniforms. Catherine designed the women’s uniforms and wore hers like a Christian crusader.

She crossed many religious frontiers, working with many expressions of the Christian faith, and preached in many churches and theaters as well. She devoted her energies by playing an influential role in improving the position of women and children. She worked with young girls who were caught up in prostitution, establishing the first Rescue Home in London and worked to secure the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Her public career climaxed in a series of great evangelistic meetings throughout Britain. In 1888 Catherine was stricken with cancer and died, just a little over 100 years ago.

Her influence was far-reaching. She authored seven books. Her eldest son, William, succeeded his father as General of the Salvation Army. Her son Bellington was founder of Volunteers of America, and her daughter, Evangeline, was the first and only president of the International Salvation Army. Catherine’s daughter-in-law, Maude, wife of her son Bellington, was one of the founders of the PTA (Parent Teacher Association). Catherine Booth, in her own unique way, became a light of the world. She did so because she knew that love helps those who cannot always help themselves.

There is a largeness in our celebration of the Festival of the Christian Home and Mother’s Day. It transcends our own particular situation. You may be married or single. You may be part of a large family, or like me, an only child from a rather small family. You may or may not have living relatives. You may be a parent or you may not be. But in the largeness of this day we all share one thing in common; we are family. Having that larger view will go a long way in our effort to solve some of our societal problems.

You never know when you may have an opportunity to share the mothering love of God by loving someone who cannot help themselves. It may make all the difference in the world to one who could use that love. John Ogden, friend and colleague, tells what a difference it made in his life when someone loved him when he could not help himself. His mother was a patient in a mental hospital for most of his growing up years. He and his father would go to visit his mother, and when they did they would usually eat a meal at a diner across the street from the hospital. Whenever John and his father came to that little diner, they were usually served by the same waitress. They both came to know this woman as a very kind and thoughtful person. John says that almost unconsciously he began to turn to her and she to him. This waitress began to say things like, “Johnny, why don’t you let me comb your hair,” or “The next time you come in Johnny, bring me that shirt, and I’ll sew a button on it for you.” John Ogden said that only years later did he realize that this waitress became the mother for him he could never have.

You may never know when you may be called to be the light of the world for someone. What a privilege it is to be called by a mothering God to love those who cannot help themselves.