All these years later, I remember my dad teaching me to waterski as if it were yesterday. We lived 20 minutes from Lake Shetek in Southwest Minnesota, so on warm summer days when we were done with work, we would drive to the lake. It must have been Dad’s goal to have all three kids learn to ski that summer because we were focused. He bought new skis, he gave us instructions on land, and for the first few times, he would crouch behind us in the water as his friend drove the boat.
“Lean back, keep your arms straight, point the tips of the skis up, keep your chest up.” He taught me to yell “hit it,” and as the boat took off, I’d hang on, remembering his instructions and trying to let it pull me up out of the water. “Knees bent, arms straight, shoulders back.” It was a painstaking process. My dad was incredibly patient. Again and again, he would drive the boat and swing around again, helping my brothers and me develop our skills, patiently encouraging us. Mastery of the process was both thrilling and terrifying. My brothers became proficient and learned to ski doubles, one crossing in front of the other as they jumped the wakes. I was not nearly as adept, but we learned to ski! Years later, we coached the next generation.
We are all mentees at some point and mentors at others. Throughout life, we learn new things, master them and share them, then learn something else.
This weekend, my Facebook feed was filled with recent grads heading off to college and moving into the dorm, taking final photos with their parents. Those are the iconic mentor-mentee photos: a milestone that marks a changing relationship. Parents will continue to mentor from afar, but students will venture out and find new mentors. There is anticipation for what might lie ahead but also the awkwardness of growth as they navigate the unknown future.
Preschoolers heading to Kindergarten feel it. So do middle schoolers heading to high school. We know it when we start a new job or learn a new skill or move to a new home.
Sometimes we are beginning again. We are back to square one. Maybe we are learning to live after a loss. We need someone to believe in us, to cheer us on, to stay close until we are ready to go it alone. We need someone to guide us, to offer a word of encouragement.
Another way to put it, Pastor Guy Sayles says, is we need leaders — “people who envision our possibilities and encourage us to claim them, who nurture our potential and help us to realize it.” Leaders who “encourage us to trust that we can always begin, or begin again, no matter what has happened to us, no matter what we have done, and no matter what we have failed to do.”
Who have been the leaders in your life? And for whom have you been a leader?
Our reading tonight from Ephesians 4 speaks about leaders who inspire the followers of Jesus to do bigger, harder things than we might do on our own.
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.
Their work, according to Paul, is to:
- Equip the saints for the work of ministry
- Build up the body of Christ
- Help people become like Jesus
Training is, of course, an essential part of equipping. Just as a kid learning how to waterski needs to learn the mechanics of how to do it, training is part of equipping the saints for ministry. But there’s more to it. It turns out that equipping is also about restoration and healing. The word that gets translated as ‘equip’ comes from a family of Greek words that describe setting broken bones during surgery, fostering healing, and working for rehabilitation.
Sometimes the insights a leader brings for equipping people is recognizing that what’s needed is healing and restoration. Again, from Guy Sayles: “All of us have experiences which rend and tear us; we all have times when fatigue or failure tempts us to give up on ourselves. Leaders recognize that, sometimes, what people most need is not to refine their skills or to avail themselves of more training. Instead, what they need are grace and mercy, renewal and confidence. They need to know that it’s always possible to begin or to begin again.”
This fall we are doing the Alpha program in Minneapolis on Sundays at 5:00 pm. Alpha is an opportunity to have conversations about big questions of life with a small group of people around a meal. One of the sessions is about the church.
The church isn’t always seen in a positive light. Most often, I think, from the outside, the church looks like the morality police. And if that’s the case, the church’s own shortcomings are on display. Its integrity gets rightly questioned, and unity is a work in progress.
In the Alpha video, one of the presenters, Gemma, says, “The church is not a museum that displays perfect people. It’s like a hospital that welcomes us when we’re broken, when we’re hurt and wounded, and it loves us back to life. This unconditional love helps break down barriers. It puts people back on their feet. It restores and it heals.”
In baptism, we are given a promise and sent out with a mission. We are sent out to be part of God’s work of loving and healing the universe. Most especially, we are sent out to love our neighbors.
Paul’s words are to the church, but the church is not for the church. The church’s vocation is in the world. It’s about joining in God’s work of loving and healing the universe.
In a grown-up faith, we speak the truth in love. Speaking the truth in love is grounded in humility, Paul tells us. We do it with patience. We bear with one another in love.
It doesn’t come easily or naturally, but the Spirit equips us to grow in love. The Spirit moves us toward maturity, and we become more agile as our muscles get trained — even like a young skier. This gift of the Spirit is a gift that we hold lightly. It has come to us, and we pass it on. We point to the truth in the person of the crucified and risen Jesus.
This is counter-cultural. The culture is so quick to name winners and losers, to vilify the “other” and to stake out boundaries. But the Spirit gifts us for another way — grounded in patience, humility and love — we grow in unity and peace for the well-being of all God’s creation. We grow in our ability to speak the truth in love. Yes, always to speak the truth in love.
When I became a pastor 10 years ago, I needed to learn how to walk alongside couples in premarital care and how to preach at their weddings. Although I had been married for 20 years, I had no idea how to be helpful or how to preach a word of gospel, so I needed training. In one of the articles I read, there was one sentence that caught my eye, and I have hung onto it ever since. The author said that when he did premarital counseling, the conversation would always come around to talking about what makes a Christ-centered marriage. There were three things, he said: forgiveness, mercy and truth. Such an interesting trio, I thought.
Boiling it down to just these three. Forgiveness and mercy were obvious. Of course, Jesus was about forgiveness and mercy. These were part and parcel to who he was. But the truth was something I needed to test. Was truth really central to who Jesus is? As I read the New Testament, I found that, indeed, it is. Jesus revealed the truth. Jesus is truth.
We come together tonight to eat bread and drink wine. We come to support one another, to help each other be Jesus’ body in the world. We come to remind each other whose we are.
We belong to Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. And so we get nourished to look to truth, to speak truth in love, and to say no to all that tells us otherwise.
God grant us hearts of compassion and zeal for the truth. Amen.