[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on August 5 and 6, 2006.]
There’s a phrase we use a lot in this country, one that expresses a prominent America value which I frankly question. In fact, I more that question it. I reject it altogether. The phrase: “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
But have you really thought about the image in that cliche? Is it possible for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?
The Eddie Bauer shoes I'm wearing today just happen to have straps on the backs of them. So, let me see if I can pull myself up with them. Nope, the most I can do is lift up my heels. I think it's safe to say that once my feet are in my shoes (or my boots), I am incapable of pulling myself up by my own bootstraps.
You may think I’m being unfair to take this phrase so literally. But I’m trying to make a point: To advance in life, to grow up requires a lot more than talent or effort. We need help.
As a high schooler, Steve Jobs got the attention of a major businessperson. Impressed by the young man’s enthusiasm, this businessperson, the Hewlett of Hewlett and Packard, he saw to it that Jobs had a job with his company. That apparently proved precisely the encouragement he needed. Later, in his parents garage, with his friend, Steve Wozniak, Jobs started a company you may have heard of: Apple, which produces things like iMacs and iPods.
To grow up or to advance in life requires a lot more than talent or effort. We need help. No one has ever pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.
This is no less true in our faith life. It begins, as Tiffany’s does this weekend, in Baptism. Baptism isn’t something we do. It’s something God does. Through it, we become recipients of forgiveness and the eternity Jesus won for us through His cross and resurrection. God comes to us in the water and the Word, claiming us as His own children, and calls to believe in Christ. But our Christian life doesn’t end there.
In our Bible lesson for today, the first century preacher Paul says that our spiritual goal as Christians is to grow up. As he puts it, we’re to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ...” The Christian life is a process of growing up to look and be more and more like Jesus.
But how do we go about growing up as Christians? In the same way we grow as people in other facets of our lives. A woman once told me that she believed in Jesus; so why, she wondered, did she need Church? You see, this woman didn’t understand that the Church is meant to be more than a maternity ward, a place where people are born again in Jesus Christ. It’s also a fellowship within which things like spiritual pediatrics, surgery, check-ups, and corrective therapies happen. She didn’t understand that the Christian life is a process, a series of surrenders to God and the changes He needs to make to help us grow more like Christ.
The sports pages of The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a profile on the Ohio State football team on Saturday. A particular focus was two members of the team considered to be Heisman Trophy candidates, Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr.. These two have known each other and played together on teams since they were seven years old. I’m sure that when those two kids from Cleveland first got to know one another, pee wee league football coaches were salivating in anticipation of having them on their teams. But what if, over the past fifteen years, they had never received any coaching, never gone to a summer football camp, never gotten the advice of football experts like Ginn’s dad, a football coach? They’d still be playing like seven year olds and we wouldn’t be talking about the possibility of their being on a national championship team.
We grow up when others use their expertise, their influence, and their concern for us to help us, to teach us, to afford us the opportunities to make mistakes and learn and mature. Both the givers and recipients of such help need to be humble. Givers donate their help knowing that the more talented people they assist may one day outshine them. The recipients take help, acknlowledging that they don't know it all.
This humble interchange of mutual service is exactly what Paul was talking about when he wrote, “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
The Church is the body of Christ in the world, the community in which you and I are called to grow up, together. There are no “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” Christians. We need Christ and we need each other!
But what are the means by which this happens? What’s the workout regimen that God uses to help us grow up?
We do it in two ways.
First, by loving each other. I’m not talking syrupy sentimentality here. I mean, caring about each other when the chips are down and when it’s hard to care. I’m talking about love that’s more a matter of what we do than what we feel.
The second component of God's workout regimen for growing Christians is to use our spiritual gifts to help and challenge one another to keep growing.
A few years back, a newlywed couple started coming to our worship services, held in the Withamsville-Tobasco Elementary School gym. I went to visit them in their home. We had a wonderful conversation. At one point, I saw a guitar out of the corner of my eye and asked, “Who plays guitar?” The basic thrust of the fellow’s reply was, “I do...sort of.”
When I left that night, Laurel told Tim, “You’d better start practicing. I think you just got drafted to play guitar for worship.” That story, with variations for names and genders could be told and retold about the people of this congregation and of every Christian congregation for the past two-thousand years.
None of us can do everything. But when each of us who are part of the body of Christ, the Church, exercise our God-given gifts to serve the cause of Christ and each other, we all grow.
A man told me several years ago: “I don’t have any spiritual gifts.” I asked him if he believed in Jesus Christ. When he said, “Yes,” I told him, “Then you have at least one spiritual gift.” The Bible affirms that every believer has at least one gift that God has granted us not just for our benefit, but to help the overall ministry of the Church.
All believers in Christ are destined for the kind of greatness Paul talks about in our lesson today, the greatness of Christlike patience, humility, forbearance of one another, a commitment to living in the bonds of peace, and of loving one another enough to use our spiritual gifts for the glory of God and the ministry of the Church.
This past week, I re-read a story I'd read years ago in a book by the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum. It happened in a French monastery where only a few monks remained. The place was so empty, in fact, that the Church hierarchy was thinking of closing the place down and selling off all the property. The monks didn’t want this to happen. So, they prayed together about their situation. After doing so, one monk suggested they might want to get the advice of a Jewish mystic who lived nearby. One volunteered to approach him.
The next day, the volunteer went off to the mystic’s cottage and explained their problem. The mystic said he didn’t have an answer. A strong impression had come to him, though: He sensed that “one of the monks was destined to be a great man in the church someday.” The monks, when advised of the mystic’s words, thought that was all very nice, although it did nothing to solve their problem.
But in the ensuing months, the idea that one of them was destined for greatness began to work on them. Each wondered which monk was the one destined for greatness in the Church. They started to treat each other differently. They were more patient with each other. They bore one another’s weaknesses. They forgave each other. They encouraged each other. Visitors still used the monastery grounds for picnics. But over time, they all saw a different attitude among the monks. When they spoke with the monks, who had formerly been aloof, they came away encouraged and loved.
After a time, some of the families asked if their sons could apprentice under these monks. The monastery order began to grow rapidly. Today, it’s one of the most thriving, growing orders in all of of France. It started when the monks treated one another differently. They believed that each person had been crafted by the hand of God and they treated each other with the respect and love that the children of God deserve.
It reminds me of the story of Martin Luther when he was a boy. He had a teacher who, each time he entered the classroom at the beginning of the day, bowed to all of his students. Teachers in those days never treated their students with respect. So, this was really different! When asked why he bowed to his students, the teacher explained that to them that one day, they would likely become great men. He simply wanted to give them the respect they were due. That man had no way of knowing that one of the greatest theologians in all of Church history was among his students. But it's just possible that his gesture played some role in giving the young Luther the confidence he needed to become that great theologian!
Let me tell you something I have learned after twenty-two years as a pastor: Churches grow numerically when their members grow spiritually. And spiritual growth begins with a commitment to love and grow together and to finding and using our spiritual gifts, when we render love, respect, and mutual service to one another.
None of us can really pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But within the fellowship of the Church, God wants to lift us toward becoming all that He made us to be, all that Christ died and rose to help us become. Within the fellowship of the Church, find your gift and use it to lift others up. We all will grow when we do that. It’s a wonderful way to live!