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What to do when we don’t know what to do

This is a longer post than usual, because it is the copy of the sermon I preached at my church this past Sunday (8/5/12). My pastor was off on vacation and asked me to fill in. We follow the lectionary at my church, and this week’s texts included Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35. The sermon is based on these two texts.

What do you when you are struck by a life crisis and you find yourself in desperate need? It is probably safe to say that all or most people in this room would turn to God for comfort and help – but that is not all we do, is it? Some of us may cope with a crisis by arming ourselves with as much knowledge about the situation as we can – diving into books and studying whatever is afflicting us. Others may start problem-solving and attempting solutions on our own. Others may involve the justice system or the media in order to get enough attention and help from other people and means. Yet others may avoid thinking about the situation altogether by pretending like nothing is happening. It’s what it has been called the “flight or fight response.” And in our culture, at least, we give special credit to the ones who choose to fight, or who choose to do something about it.

After all, many of us believe in the saying, “God helps those who… help themselves.” Many of you may have also heard the joke about a man praying to win the lottery. There are many versions of this joke, but one version says that a very devout man prayed everyday that God would help him win the lottery. And everyday he would give money to charity to prove himself worthy of such a reward. But he never did win the lottery. So when this faithful man died, he went to heaven and came face to face with God. He asked, “God, I would have helped so many people if you had answered my prayer on earth and let me win the lottery. Why did you choose not to answer my prayer?” And God said, “My son, I would have done it, but you never bought a ticket!” Have you heard that before? However you feel about the lottery, the point of the joke is that if we want God to do something for us we should also be prepared to do our part. In other words, we should not expect God to do what we can do ourselves.

We believe that, don’t we? I think most of us would agree that it is not enough to ask for God’s help if we are unwilling to do our part. None of us would counsel a student to pray for God’s help with a test and not to worry about studying for it. That would be unwise or irresponsible. If one of us were diagnosed with something like high blood pressure or diabetes, we would pray for them, but we would also expect them to seek medical care and perhaps make some lifestyle changes to be well. It is only appropriate and sensible to do what we can, right?

What we are talking about is having initiative, taking responsibility, and being willing to work. Most of us have taken these values to heart. It seems to me that in this particular time and place in the history of humanity we have also really come to value self-sufficiency, or the ability to help your own self. “If you want something done well, you’d better… do it yourself.” “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And the American dream is that you can do anything if you work at it hard enough. So we often meet a crisis or need with the expectation that we can and must do something. The problem sometimes is knowing what to do. And even more terrifying is realizing sometimes there is nothing in fact we can do to change things, no matter how hard we might try. And our self-empowering beliefs and inspiring and motivating sayings aren’t much help to us anymore.

We have all been there, in those impossible situations when we find ourselves helpless. We might be paralyzed by too many options; too many conflicting voices telling us what to do, what to try, where to turn for help. Or it might be that we have looked for just one possible course of action to take and have not come up with any real answer. Maybe it’s a relationship that has been broken and the other person refuses to reconcile with us. Maybe it is something that happened in the past which we cannot change. Maybe we are being laid off from a job or diagnosed with a devastating illness. There are some things we simply don’t have the power to prevent or to stop or to reverse.

It really can be anything, although many of you have probably thought about the terrible illnesses which have afflicted our church family lately and our own personal lives and families over the years. When I first started thinking about this sermon several weeks ago, I thought about my father, whom many of you know was diagnosed with ALS three years ago. ALS (aka Lou Gehrig ’s Disease) is a fatal illness for which there is no cure and no treatment. It’s one of those rare diseases that have no definite cause, and there is no way we know of to prevent it. As it often happens, my father was one of the healthiest and most health-conscious people I know: healthy diet and exercise, healthy social life and spiritual practices. He is also a physician so you can say he really believes in and has leaned on medicine and medical practices. When he was diagnosed with this disease, he consulted the best specialist in Brazil and also came to consult with a specialist in the United States to find out what he could do to keep the disease from progressing. All of the doctors said the same thing: there is no cure and there is nothing you can do to stop the progression of this illness. Wow. Nothing.

I remember one time last year when I visited my dad in Brazil and a group from his church came to the house to hold a service. All around the room, people started to share memories about how my father had cared for them as a doctor. It seemed that he had been directly or indirectly involved with the medical care of several people in the room at one time or another. A few people said, “If you weren’t for you, I might not have made it that time”. It was a very special and emotional moment for everyone and you could see that my father was grateful for that. But I could also sense the sadness that went along with that for everyone involved. How can it be that, someone who has helped so many people medically cannot find help for himself?

If you have been in a situation where you feel that helpless, you can appreciate how painful and frustrating that is. You see, we talk about doing our part and helping ourselves as if it is simply a noble and sensible thing to do. And it is. But it is also the way we try to gain some control over a situation that is suddenly out of our control. It’s a frightening place to be – when we have lost control over our lives. And so we may ask for God’s help, but at the same time we keep looking for something we can do ourselves to ensure that we will get the results we want and have some control back.

If you can appreciate the frustration of being helpless, then you can appreciate what the Israelites were going through as they wandered in the desert hungry and without food. And worse of all, there was nothing they could do about it. Just imagine with me those people walking and living in the desert desperately searching for some way to provide for themselves. These were people used to hard work. They would be ready and glad to be able to plant and work a garden, or to hunt for food or to work in any way they could. Only there was nothing for them to plant, no food to be gathered anywhere or animals to hunt.

We often judge the Israelites for complaining about being without food in the desert after God delivered them from slavery in Egypt in such a powerful way. But can you really blame them? They say, “In Egypt we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread… here we are going to die of hunger.” In Egypt they worked hard and were afflicted, it’s true. But they knew what to do then to survive. They knew how to work for their food and how to keep themselves alive. Here in this new world they didn’t know what to do anymore.

It seems to me that we might feel the same way when something out of our control or not of our choosing happens to us. We just want things to go back the way they used to be. Maybe life wasn’t perfect but we knew what to do. We knew the rules and how to survive. When life is disrupted we just may not know how to survive anymore.

Since it is so important to us to do our part, we might expect God to tell the Israelites, “OK; I’ll give you food, but you will have to work for it.” But that is not what God does. Instead, God tells them, “I have heard your grumbling and I will provide for you. I will send you quails in the evening for your meat, and during the day you will have bread from heaven. You can take as much bread as you need but you must not keep any bread for the next day. You will have enough for each day.” It seems that God anticipates what the Israelites were going to do when they found the manna; they would try to stock up as much as they could and hold onto it for when they needed it. Again, the need to do something that would give them some control. And why not? Today we would call that being pro-active. It’s good to plan for tomorrow; that is why we have savings accounts and retirement plans.

But God makes sure the Israelites don’t practices stocking up. The first day, a few people try to keep some leftover bread despite God’s warning, and the next day they found that the bread had become rotten and there were worms in it. The only time they were advised to keep leftover bread was the day before the Sabbath so they wouldn’t have to gather the bread on the Sabbath day.

Why is it that God won’t allow the Israelites to stock up on the bread? The Scripture suggests that God was testing their willingness to trust. We could see this in a very restrictive way: that God was making the Israelites pass this test of obedience in order to receive God’s blessing of food. But we can also see it in another light: that maybe God was offering a gift to the Israelites by placing limits on their ability to provide for themselves. Think about it this way: if God had allowed the Israelites to stock up on bread, surely there would be some who would work all day gathering bread to make sure they would have enough for their families. There might be some competition and people might take more than what they need out of fear that they might not have enough. And it is possible that some might not have enough because they might not be able to gather as much as the next person. But if everyone knows there is no use in gathering bread for tomorrow, there is a freedom in this. They know that their provision for tomorrow does not depend on their health or strength or ability or intelligence or anything to do with them. The next day’s provision depends solely on God’s mercy and compassion, and they can trust the bread will be there the next morning. So you see, maybe the blessing isn’t the bread itself, but knowing and trusting that God is with us and will provide for our tomorrow.

Isn’t this what Jesus was trying to say to the crowd that was asking him for bread? Earlier in the service we read the account of Jesus’ teaching to those who had eaten their fill of bread and fish after Jesus multiplied food for the multitude. They asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the work of God?” In other words, “Just tell us what to do, and we won’t have to come to you anymore. We saw the way you provided for our needs by multiplying that food. Teach us how to do that, and we will do for ourselves.” And what Jesus tells them is this: the bread or the working of the miracle isn’t the blessing. The life-giving bread that God provides is not a set of skills, or a special knowledge, or a physical solution. It is relationship; trust; presence. Jesus says, “The work of God is to believe in me. I am the bread of life. Those who come to me will never hunger or thirst again.”

What do we do when we don’t know what to do? We realize that our peace does not come from our doing. It doesn’t mean that we become complacent, or that we stop doing what we know is right. It means that we let go of our belief that what we are able to do is what is most important, or that somehow our lives are worth more if we are able to do more. I can’t tell you how many times in my hospice work I hear people express that they feel worthless because they aren’t able to help themselves or others in the ways they feel they should. Our texts for today teach us that God values relationship more than our ability to produce.

When we don’t know what to do, we make room to be attentive to the moving of the Spirit inside of us. We take a moment to rest from our toils like God invited the Israelites to do on the Sabbath day. When we don’t know what to do, we surrender to the One who gives us life. That means that when we find ourselves very committed to a particular outcome and fearful that we might not get it if we don’t do all the right things, we take a deep breath and we decide to let go of our need for control and to trust that whatever happens will not destroy us. There will be provision for tomorrow because God is with us. Amen.


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