Chapel Address: January 23, 2013
I am tempted to say a lot of personal things, but I must save them in order to give you the message the Lord has laid on my heart—the Word of God must take precedence.
Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, for he said, “Thus far, the Lord has helped us.”
This text carries us back many, many generations to a very distant time, a very distant place, and in the life of an ancient people. The scene in the text is of a man, the leader of his people, setting up a monument, to commemorate an event whose meaning would echo down through the centuries and is still heard today by this ancient people whose descendants are still among us and throughout the world. The setting up of a stone, those words, have to do with erecting a monument. All of us are familiar with monuments. They fill our cities, they fill our nation’s capital, and usually there is an inscription on the monument to depict some occasion, honor some person or some deed. And those monuments are there permanently in order to teach, remind, and perpetuate valued meanings. Samuel sets up this monument in order to commemorate the deliverance God gave the Hebrews from the archenemy of that nation: the Philistines. When they came upon them as they were worshipping—and the Israelites had not come to war, they had come to worship—God routed the Philistines by a deed that the text does not fully explain. We’re left to wonder how it happened. But that it happened is being commemorated in a stone. Two words were listed, etched on the stone—’eben ha-‘ezer, “stone of the help.” Two words, for a deed that would have meaning for centuries still to come. Doesn’t take much, just takes a celebrative act to give God thanks, to say thank you to God, simple words. But when it is done with real thankfulness of the heart, God is pleased. And when a monument is raised, generations yet unborn passing that way will take note and also learn to thank God.
As you enter the second semester of your school year, I have been impressed to use this text to help you give God thanks for how you have come this far. Because in giving God thanks, you renew the hope you need for the days that are yet to come and the future you cannot yet see. In giving God thanks you are giving him your personal tribute for placing a hand, a tender caring hand on your life, overturning forbidding circumstances and overcoming threatening evils that you did not even see. I’ve come to talk about that. The Lord is our helper. He helps because he’s gracious. He helps because he loves us. He helps us because we need help. He helps us because we ask for help. He helps because we could not endure without his help. He also helps because we could not succeed without his help.
There are many in our day and in America where we think individualistically all the time, who think there are good results in our life because they are the grand rewards of our own personal effort, our self-will, our dogged determination. But we haven’t thought long enough or deep enough if that’s as far as we go. Because anyone with any good sense knows that in spite of all the careful planning, in spite of all the best intentions, they can be thwarted. Even the most persistent efforts will fail, apart from being helped and enabled. Now a proper view of the human condition—yours and mine—shows that life is a mixed story of opportunity and obstacles. Plans and problems. Concerns, challenges. Nothing you do in life really makes its way without help. It does not last without help. You and I could not last without help. When God fashioned humans, he breathed into their nostrils, and man became nephesh chaya, a living being. The life in you now is at the hand of God, and it does not continue without his help every day! Interesting that you don’t have to relearn the breathing process all over again every morning. Because you’re helped! Threatening evils, unavoidable struggles—we need the assistance from beyond ourselves.
Now the Hebrews needed God’s help so often that wherever you pick up your Bible and open it, you find a problem for which they need help. Wherever you read! That’s all the Bible is about! Humans needing help. That’s all it’s about. Only the names differ and the times. Turn to the book of Psalms, Israel’s hymn book, and what do you find? Always, paeans of praise for having been helped, or prayers asking for help.
“The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD, he is their refuge in times of trouble. The LORD helps them and delivers them.”
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
“I was pushed hard so that I was falling but the LORD helped me.”
“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from whence does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
Where does your help come from? Your own little mind? Your thimbleful of brains couldn’t manage your life unaided. I don’t know why we Americans are so selfish and so self-willed. We didn’t create the world, and yet we try to dominate it. We haven’t learned yet how to be humble with power because we have forgotten who helped make us a nation. The Lord is our helper. Seminarians, remember it. Faculty members, it is not your learning that will be remembered most by your students. It’s by the touch on your life that shows them the God you serve. That will be remembered. Administrative staff, pride in where you work and what you do—remember it is the Lord who gave you the spot that you now occupy. You were helped to get your job. All of us have been helped. I wish I could go through a litany of helps, but I’m going to confine myself to just to a few more things to be said, because the time is short.
I’ve talked about Israel’s help and the stone Samuel erected—two words on it. I’m thinking now about my people, color-wise. I’m thinking about my great-grandmother, Lizzie Underwood, who was freed by the edict of a president who knew he was being helped. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863. Historians of Lincoln’s presidency tell us that he didn’t get any sleep on the eve of January 1. He was busy pacing back and forth on the second floor of the White House, studying yet again the proclamation, the wording of it that would be signed later on New Year’s Day. The signing would be a ceremony, yes—cabinet leaders would be around him. It would be an official act. But it was more than ceremony. And it took a blend of political conscience, civic courage, and a personal persistent faith for him to do what he did. The signing was an intentional action on his part that he’d been contemplating for a long, long time, and had preannounced it in September of the year before. His staff was divided on whether this should be done. Some argued it would be the end of his presidency. But Lincoln was determined to do this because he felt it was the right thing to do. He said it would ensure the nation’s future, and it would also change the status and destiny of an enslaved people who were suffering the greatest indignity that humans had ever undergone. So he had his will set to do something to change it. He felt it was duly warranted by the Constitution. So that afternoon he took up his gold pen, dipped it in ink, and as he was about to set his signature, he said, “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” And then he added, “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this action, and my whole soul is in it.”
What made this man do what he did? What was it that gave him the courage and the will to persist, in spite of his cabinet saying otherwise? It was the hand of an almighty God who saw that it was time to change the status of a people who had been crying and praying, as did the Hebrews years earlier, to be delivered from their bondage. My great-grandmother was one of those whose prayers was behind this deed that Abraham did in signing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1 a hundred and fifty years ago. I’m speaking personally. I thank God for the help he’s given my people in this nation that underwent such horrid conditions at the hands of a nation whose founding fathers wanted to be free, and yet they based the nation on slavery. What a strange set of affairs. Abraham Lincoln understood how strange it was when he said, “Those who argue for slavery always talk about the good it is for this people, but they never would want to give that good to themselves.” How wise he was. I’ll say more about Lincoln tomorrow in the lecture.
Of what people are you? Who helped them rise in history? Who helped you come to where you are now, studying at Fuller? Oh, I know you’re thinking of grade point averages and all of that. But none of that matches what I’m talking about now. You are where you are because you were helped to be there. I don’t understand how anyone can be proud on their own. Why should the spirit of a mortal be proud? We are helped!
Well, I’ve talked about Israel. I’ve said a brief word about African Americans. Nor have I forgotten that fifty years ago there stood at the Lincoln Memorial a man, a dear friend of mine with whom I worked, who gave that challenging speech still being heard around the world. He stood there knowing he was being helped. Interestingly enough, both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. lost their lives by an assassin’s bullet. But they did what they did because they were helped. And they died in the will of God. I thank God for them.
Now let me give a personal word as I close. The Lord has been my helper. I have known, since the age of 14 when I was converted, I have known the Lord’s help daily, systematically, constantly. I did not think I would reach the age of 39 because of health issues. But here I am, far from 39. I have known God’s help while facing the painful crises of youth, peer pressure—all of my peers arguing, “This is what we want to do, be part of it!” And my conversion told me, “You can’t be part of that. You can be their friend, but you can’t be part of what they’re doing.” And I resisted. And years later they told me they wished they had been able to resist. How did I resist? I had help. I didn’t get into drugs because I was helped! There is nothing that happens in the world that must take you or me down, because we, you and I, have help from above. And there is no peer pressure that ought to be so constraining that you cannot stand on your own, because if you’re living for the Lord, you’re not on your own. “I am the LORD, I will be your Helper.” You can make it. I have known the decisive challenges of adulthood; choosing a mate, choosing the right one. And this year, she and I will celebrate 62 years together. Help! Whenever I introduce her I say she is the better half—because she is. How’s your dating going? How’s your courtship? How’s your marriage? There is help!
I have not only known the crises of youth, the challenges of adulthood, but I’ve also known and am still experiencing the unavoidable surprises of the middle years, and at this later stage of my life, I’m experiencing what T. S. Eliot referred to so poetically as “the things reserved for age.” The gifts reserved for age. Arthritis. But I’m being helped! I have a walking cane, but I don’t mind going anywhere and it does not embarrass me to use the cane because I can still go. Think of the alternative! I once heard a woman speaking about her pastor, a man who was my friend, “I don’t want him to have a cane! We don’t want a pastor who has a cane!” He had lost his leg in an accident and she was embarrassed in seeing him use a cane in getting about. How silly on her part. He was pouring his life into hers and she was embarrassed by his cane. What fools we mortals be. What embarrasses you? So long as the Lord is helping you, you can stand the embarrassment. Like Paul standing before Agrippa, I can say, using his exact words, “to this day I have had help from God and therefore I stand here testifying.” What is your testimony? And do you have the courage to give it? That’s what witnessing is all about. Sharing the faith out of a personal experience. That’s what witnessing about the Lord is all about, and that’s what I am doing today. I’m witnessing about Israel’s history, I’m witnessing about African American history, I’m witnessing about my own personal story, and I’m glad about it, because the Lord has been my helper. And I’m advertising that help for you today who might be struggling with something that seems a bit too much for you.
So let me close with a story. A dear friend of mine was preaching at Bishop College during Prayer Week. In one of the sermons he gave he told of his own growth in a family where his father had died and his mother was training the children as their widowed mother. After the sermon that night this young lady came to him smiling, and she said after a pause, she said, “Reverend, if nobody else understood you in what you said tonight, I certainly did.” And then she told him about her experience and walk with the Lord. She said that when she started college, her father and her mother said to her, “Lily, if you behave yourself and make good grades, we’ll see you through college.” Well, that fall her mother died. She went home for the funeral. After the funeral was over her father said to her, “Lily, get your things together, you’re going back to school. Behave yourself, make good grades; I’ll see you through college.” That spring, her father died. She came home; relatives came from near and far to assist her with the funeral details. After the family came home from the cemetery, Lily went to her room exhausted, frustrated, brokenhearted; fell across the bed, having shut the door to her room, sobbing her soul out. She heard a voice speaking to her. Nobody had entered the room, but the voice was sounding in her consciousness. “Lily, follow me, and I’ll see you through college.” It was the Lord speaking to Lily. She sensed it was the Lord. She got up from her bed, composed herself, told her family what she was going to do, and she went on back to school. And through ways that she didn’t tell this preacher friend of mine, the Lord saw her through the next three years, and while she was standing there, telling my friend about her walk with the Lord, and how the Lord had helped her, she was getting ready to graduate.
If you ever wonder what your life is going to be, or how it can happen for you, remember, the Lord is our helper. You don’t see how he’s going to work, but he knows how. Give him your trust. Give him more than ceremony. Samuel had a ceremony as he was erecting this monument. But Samuel gave God more than ceremony; Samuel gave God commitment. And as long as you and I give God our hearts in a committed fashion, there is nothing under heaven that God won’t do for you to see you through. When he knows he can trust you, he’ll give you his very best. Really that’s what he did when he sent Jesus among us. And we didn’t have sense enough to honor his coming. So he forgave, and that’s the best gift he can offer. Have you experienced that? And if you really thank him for having been forgiven, you don’t have him go through that all the time. You gratefully serve out of an obedient spirit, and try to the best of your ability never to bring shame or dishonor upon your Lord. There’s a hymn we sing sometimes—I don’t know if you still sing it, in this day of 7-11s . . . I have nothing against them, there is a message they convey—but the solid hymns that have come down to us across the centuries have an extended message through several stanzas that teach us a solid theology that holds us steady when the times are hard. There is one that I love and I commend to you: “Fear not, I am with thee. Oh be not dismayed, for I am thy God, and will still give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.” The last stanza runs like this:
“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose, he will not, he will not desert to its foes. That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake, He’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Don’t tell me you can’t make it.
This complete chapel sermon was the first of three speeches from Massey as the Martin Luther King Jr. 2013 lecturer. All three events in the series can be accessed at http://vimeo.com/channels/63347.
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2013, “Thinking Science and Christian Faith Together.”