October 2, 2022

Lonely Cities and Mustard Seeds — Rev. Brent Gundlah

I’ll tell you what: learning to swim wasn’t easy — at least for me anyway.

I desperately wanted to swim; I longed to be able to do all of the things that my friends who had acquired that valuable skill were doing — but, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to get it.

You see, I was absolutely terrified of the water, and I had a really hard time overcoming that paralyzing fear. I remember praying before every single swimming lesson that God would give me more skill or more strength or more courage or more of whatever else I needed in order to do it.

And then one day it just kind of happened. There was no indication when I woke up that morning that this would be the day; I didn’t feel any stronger or more able or more confident than I had before; and there was no voice from the heavens, no parting of the waters in the pool to enlighten me as to what was about to unfold (at least not that I remember).

So there I was, staring up at the clouds in the summer sky, trying to think about anything but the vast and terrifying expanse of water that lay directly beneath me as I once again tried to master the ancient art of the back float.

My teacher’s arms were underneath me supporting me. “You can do it. Just relax, breathe in and hold the air inside your lungs,” he said. After about ten seconds that seemed more like an hour, I finally exhaled. “Good, now do it again,” he ordered.

We must have repeated this exercise ten times before he finally let me know that, after the third time, he hadn’t actually been holding me up any more. I had been floating on my own and didn’t even realize it.

Suddenly, I went from being all timid and scared to feeling like Aquaman. In that instant, I believed that I could have conquered anything; it was awesome. Sure, there was no podium for me to stand on and no Olympic medal for me to accept; there was no adoring crowd with whom to celebrate my victory — just my mom, sitting there by the side of the pool (in retrospect, I realize that she was probably thinking, “Thank God. Finally!”). But I didn’t really need any of that fanfare because I was so empowered by simply knowing that I could do this thing that I didn’t think I could do.

Though my five year-old self couldn’t articulate what had happened — though I couldn’t explain what had changed that day to make me a swimmer — I understand now that it pretty much came down to trust.

I had come to believe, and for good reason, that my teacher would be there to support me, if needed; that he wouldn’t just let me either flail about helplessly on the surface or sink to the bottom like a stone. That is, after all, what good teachers do.

It was because of the confidence I had in that safety net that I could utilize all of the other resources I had been given to help me swim — resources that I’d had all along: the water underneath me, the lungs in my chest and the air to fill them up, the beautiful blue sky above that enabled me focus on something other than my own fear and doubt and just swim.

I hadn’t gotten any taller or stronger or smarter than I’d been the day before; there was nothing quantifiably different about me, nothing I now suddenly had enough of that I’d been lacking up to that point. All that had really changed was this: someone had shown me how to have confidence in myself and all that I had been given, where I could trust that I had what I needed to have in order to do what I needed to do.

Now it was up to me to get out there and swim and, indeed, my work had just begun. Sure, I could float; and while that was awesome; it certainly wasn’t going to get me very far. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent in the water and how many miles I racked up in the years that followed (I even did it competitively for a while). But I didn’t ever really think about swimming too much after I knew I could swim; I mostly just swam. It became second nature to me; it became automatic; it became inherent to who I was. But that took practice, practice and more practice; I actually had to do something to get to that point.

And I realize now, all these years later, the importance of that singular moment — on that hot July day, lying there on my back in the cool, calm waters of the town pool. It was downright theological.

Today’s reading from Luke tells a similar kind of story. When the disciples cry out to Jesus asking him to give them more faith, they are saying that they don’t believe they have what it takes to do what Jesus has called them to do.

And to counter that doubt Jesus replies, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Now I’m not sure why anyone would want to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea — I mean, what purpose would that serve? It’s kind of absurd.

Of course, Jesus isn’t being literal here; he’s exaggerating to make a point. He’s saying that faith empowers us to do amazing things — things we might not otherwise believe that we could do.

It’s not about transplanting trees out in the ocean blue; it is about transcending the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that keep us from doing the things that God calls to do — you know, things like supporting each other, working together, holding each other accountable for our words and our actions, forgiving each other, accepting responsibility, being open and affirming — the things that actually make a faith community like this work.

What Jesus has asked of his disciples is so daunting that they ask him to provide them with something they believe they lack so that they can do it. But Jesus’ disciples — then and now — don’t actually need more of anything to live the lives God calls them (and us) to live – well, except maybe a little self-confidence. They already have all they’ll ever need. We already have all we’ll ever need. That’s the whole point.

Like I said, it’s not about mustard seeds and mulberry trees; it’s about faith; Jesus is telling them, “If you had even the smallest amount of faith, you could live faithful lives.”

Now, this might sound like a statement about their lack of faith — and this kind of makes sense because even they believe they lack faith. But that’s not what’s happening here.

As the legendary preacher and New Testament scholar Fred Craddock explains, the Greek language in which Luke writes has two kinds of “if” statements: those which express something contrary to fact (“if I were you” — which I’m not) and those which express something consistent with fact (“if the earth were round” — which it is).

The statement Jesus makes here is the second kind; and so he’s saying, “If you had even the smallest amount of faith — which you do — then you could do the difficult things God calls you to do — which you can.” He’s not reprimanding them for their absence of faith; he’s affirming the faith they have and inviting them to live into all that faith requires. He’s telling them that they already have all that they need to do what they need to do. And so do we.

Let’s be honest: there’s been a lot of worry in the church lately — here and everywhere — about both our present reality and what the future holds for us. The gravitas of organized religion — in our country and elsewhere — has waned over the past few decades, a trend that has only accelerated as a result of the pandemic.

And so we in the church constantly complain that our pews and our Sunday School classrooms and our coffers aren’t nearly as full as they used to be; we look back nostalgically upon the good old days.

It’s sounds like a modern-day version of what the writer of Lamentations mourned: “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people!”

It sounds like the disciples’ plea to Jesus: “Increase our faith!” Though we often substitute words such as “attendance” and “donations” and “relevance” for “faith,” it’s kind of the same thing.

But maybe — just maybe — instead of obsessing about what we believe we lack, we should be utilizing what we already have, knowing that God has given us all that we need.

We are empowered. 

And, being empowered means that we are called to live faithfully,

to rise above our insecurities and fears,

to love and forgive as Jesus did,

to live justly and righteously,

to care for the poor,

to work together for the common good,

to be the body of Christ in this world.