preached at St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff, March 18, 2018
“Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” a thoroughly American motto, is a concept deeply-woven into our collective understanding. “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a testimony of what it means to be a successful person and a responsible member of our society. “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” has a long and honored history in our culture. It’s a point of pride, it tells us something about who Americans believe themselves to be, and what it is we believe we’re capable of. “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is about working hard, it’s about earning your wages by the sweat of your brow. “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” tells us that we have all that we need to be successful inside of us, if we would only use it, only tap into it. “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” believes that success or failure, our fate and destiny, the place we end up and the place where we are right now, is all in our own hands. We can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We are our own saviors.
Did you know that this saying started out as a joke? Think about it: there is no way to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. A variant of this joke that appeared in books of tall tales around the middle of the 1800s, the same time as this funny saying, was the story of a man who fell into a swamp and got stuck, and then pulled himself out of the swamp by his own pigtail.
The point of pulling yourself up or out, using your own resources, your own bootstraps, your own pigtail, is that it’s impossible. The point is that you cannot be your own savior. To think that you can save yourself by your own pigtail or your own bootstrap is ludicrous. It is so ridiculous as to be funny, it’s self-evidently a joke. And yet, we still struggle to believe that we cannot be our own saviors. We cannot save ourselves.
This is what the prophet Jeremiah tells us in the Old Testament lesson today; Jeremiah preaches hope to the people, he gives voice to God’s promise, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” We do not have the power in ourselves to help ourselves. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we cannot pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own pigtails. Humans need supernatural help to get out of the swamp.
So let’s back up a step. We’re nearing the end of the season of Lent — next week is Palm Sunday (only one service that day at 10:15am!), and then follows Holy Week. Looking back over the last five weeks, what swamps have you encountered? What are you carrying with you this morning? What’s sitting in the pew with you right now? What is clinging to your shoulders from the last week, what burdens or obstacles are you facing at home with your kids or your spouse or your roommate or your loneliness? What’s been happening at work that’s still sort of eating you up?
Maybe your swamp, or your wilderness, is bigger than the last week or Lent. Maybe it’s a nagging health problem that eats up all your extra energy and time; maybe you can’t keep up with your job anymore, or maybe you’ve lost your job all together. Maybe unexpected bills for medical problems, or an accident, or a family disaster, are stretching your bank account to the breaking point, let alone any retirement plans. Maybe it feels like you’ve prepared and prepared, you’ve done all the right things to be secure and to set yourself up well, but it still hasn’t worked.
You completed all the continuing education credits, and your position was still discontinued at work. You have gone to all the therapy, you’ve read all the books on marriage or on child-rearing, you’ve gone to the seminars and you’ve polled your friends, you’ve prayed hard, and still, the relationship is broken. It just won’t mend.
No matter what you do, no matter which direction you try to go in this wilderness, you can’t find the way out. You can’t find a resting place, or even a path. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You can’t pull yourself out by your own pigtail.
You can’t be your own savior.
I wonder if this might be what the Greeks in today’s Gospel passage realize; famous for their philosophy, the Greeks had knowledge on lock. This culture was full of worldly wisdom, it was the cutting edge of intellect and book-learning. But even with all this knowledge, the Greeks who talk to the apostles Philip and Andrew sought something else. I wonder if they found that all the knowledge in the world, all the self-sufficient education and effort they could muster, still couldn’t help them climb out of their loneliness, their search for meaning, their desire for contentedness, their quest for the truth.
Humanity knows deep down that it needs a savior, that we can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Sometimes we try to hide that truth underneath an addiction to alcohol or to status, an addiction to being needed or to being an expert, an addiction to being busy or to being successful.
Beneath our coping mechanisms, we know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, under our efforts to save ourselves and each other, we know that we aren’t able to know enough or argue enough or achieve enough to make our own happiness, our own peace, our own salvation.
This coming Saturday, I’m hosting a book group here at St. Augustine’s — 10am in the parish hall! — we’ll be talking about a book that came out last month entitled, “Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” A mother in her 30s, who had just landed her dream job was promptly diagnosed with stage iv cancer. Though she hadn’t been member of the prosperity gospel movement — that world ruled over by Joel Osteen, the one that promises that if you name it and claim it, God must provide it — she realized as she reflected on her reaction to this diagnosis that there were plenty of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” lies that she’d been clinging to, lies that were exposed in the harsh light of terminal illness. The harsh light of death is one that hovers of each of our lives, but one that we’re able to ignore and deny for the most part. Modern technology in medical treatment, in public health and safety, in nutrition studies and global trade, all these tools allow us to push death far enough down the road that we’re often lulled into believing that we have power in ourselves to help ourselves, that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That we can be our own saviors.
This author, her name is Kate, talks about questioning if she had only given up her habit of eating cookies — if giving up that sugar would have changed the course of her life. She writes about the lie that if she’d just prayed hard enough, or kept enough stress out of her life, or had the right hands laid on her at the right moment, she could have avoided all this mess, she could have avoided illness and death.
Even saying it out loud sounds ludicrous. How could someone believe in a sort of voodoo that if we just eat the right things, we would have the power in ourselves to help ourselves? How could someone think that if we just lived lives healthy enough, and if we just worked hard enough, and if we just did enough yoga, and if we just went to enough therapy, we could have the power to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?
And yet, our lives betray in our everyday decisions and habits that we believe exactly that. It’s not that God wants us to eat only hamburgers and trust him that he will clear out our arteries, it’s not that true faith in God comes only by lying on the couch and waiting for him to show up with a pizza box to feed us; it’s not that we must believe in laziness as the way of salvation and passivity as the path to life.
God says, “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
It’s that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. It’s that we cannot strong-arm ourselves to eternal life. It’s that we cannot work hard enough to prevent the decay and disease of our bodies. It’s that we cannot go to enough therapy to heal each wound. It’s that we cannot find peace through busyness or alcohol or accomplishment or sloth.
Power lies with God. Eternal life is a gift that only he offers. Our bodies are inescapably mortal, it is fact that they will break down beyond the point of repair. The emotional and psychological wounds we suffer need supernatural ointment. The Prince of Peace is the only giver of lasting contentment.
The pagan Greeks, with their heads full of knowledge, knew they needed something they couldn’t produce for themselves; may we know that we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. May we know that the only way of life and of peace is by the path of Jesus Christ, by the way of the cross. Amen.