Softball Games and Mustard Seeds

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Luke 17:5-10

I have a distinct memory from college that coincides with the fall time quite well.

It was my freshman year, which every year in college, for me, meant fall softball. Spring is the regular season, but collegiate rules allow for a period of training in the fall as for every sport. I was a junior college athlete hoping to one day, as every JUCO athlete does, to be able to go D-1. Every year during the fall season, softball programs at four year colleges host tournaments where they invite junior college teams to come and play each other and one another.

It was the cool of early October, on a dreary day like today, and we were playing the University of Alabama on their home field in Tuscaloosa. A cool mist sank down from the top of the stadium and onto the field, feeling heavy. For our part, we, the Wallace Community College softball team, were nervous, not because we were losing, but because we were, by some miracle, winning. One to nothing.

It was the seventh inning and I was only beginning to clean the stars out of my eyes. I’m from a small Alabama town where the field that I learned to play on was mostly rocks and sparse grass. Nothing like this. I barely felt worthy to be anywhere but in the stands, but here I was.

And now it was the bottom of the seventh inning, and my team was beating the Crimson Tide. We had a really good pitcher. She signed with Alabama not long after the game.

Gathering us into a huddle prior to going out onto the field, our coach looked at us sternly. He was a classic old grizzled baseball coach. The kind that always has chewing tobacco in his mouth, speaks gruffly, and smiles only rarely.

I can’t repeat everything he said to us in a sermon else I risk offending sensitive ears, but the gist of it was this: “Y’all don’t lose your… minds when this game ends. Don’t act like you ain’t never won a game in your life. Just another day at the yard.”

Just another day at the yard. He said that every single day at practice.

The first batter grounded out. The second batter sent a fly ball into center field. Out two.

The third batter swung once. Missed. Swung twice. Foul. Swung three times. Missed. Out three.

It was, no doubt, a David and Goliath story. We whooped, clapped, shook hands with the Tide, gathered our things, got on the bus, and left. Just another day at the yard.

I learned a valuable lesson that day about how to treat daunting feats, expectations, and success.

Jesus words at the end of the Gospel reading for us today carry that kind of message. He’s just gotten finished telling the disciples a lot about forgiveness, namely this:

“Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Well, you know what they say. “Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, I forgive you again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.”

The disciples, understandably, are upset as heck by this, but they don’t argue about the need for forgiveness. Instead, they look at this impossible task he’s given them and cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

There’s just no way. There’s just no way that a thinking, non-Messiah kind of person like myself could possibly forgive someone that many times, over and over, every single day.

And Jesus seems to know that. I love what Beverly, one of my home pastors, said about this text years ago. She interprets it as nothing short of Grade A Messianic Snark coming from the Son of God: “If you only had faith like a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Sensing a Southern lady’s sarcasm in Jesus’ words, my pastor friend Kathleen adds, “Bless your heart.”

Now, knowing full well that trees of any kind do not normally go and uproot themselves at all, much less trod on over to the ocean and plant themselves there, I too find it hard to believe that Jesus is being anything other than snarky.

Pastor Beverly, one of my home pastors, interprets his words similarly: “If you only had faith like a mustard seed — but you don’t.”

And then Jesus goes on to ask whether we thank slaves for doing what is commanded. I admit, in my Americanized politeness, my immediate reaction was, “Of course we say thank you!” But Jesus isn’t talking about politeness.

It’s just another day at the yard.

When you’re a disciple, even the impossible is routine.

But we don’t treat success as routine. And we don’t have faith like a mustard seed. Because we’re afraid.

We’re so afraid of losing people, we’re afraid of displeasing people, we’re afraid they’ll leave and not come back. We’re afraid about the future and we’re afraid of what other people think of us and we’re darn proud of ourselves for even showing up. I know I am. We treat church as something that we do, a chore we accomplish, rather than something that becomes part of who we are.

But Jesus shows us something different. Because Jesus isn’t just telling us to be servants. That’s something that any ordinary boss would do, but I can tell you from personal experience that we do not have any ordinary boss. This is the same Son of God who took off his outer robe and washed the disciples’ feet, whom Paul says lowered himself to take on the form of a servant. The early church knew this rather well and often repeated it. To follow Christ, to be like Christ, is to be like a servant.

It is to come and serve not through great effort, but because you can’t do otherwise because it’s part of who you are. Like Jesus.

And knowing this, and knowing how hard it is, we cry out like the disciples, “Increase our faith!”

Someone at Bible study last week pointed out the Luther quote over our sanctuary doors (beautifully refinished by Lisa and rehung by Paul). It’s the paradox of the Christian life: “The Christian is perfectly free, subject to none; the Christian is the dutiful servant, subject to all.”

It sounds like it’s about effort, but it isn’t. We spend so much of our time trying to muster up enough faith, to give intellectual assent, to serve enough, to give enough, to be enough, because we’re so scared that we’re not enough. And we don’t just do it at church.

But Jesus chides us by reminding us, “If you only had faith like a mustard seed… but you don’t. If you could only serve and have that be unremarkable, expected… but you can’t.”

I can’t.

We will never be “enough,” and we will drive ourselves crazy by trying to be.

When my coach gathered us together right before the final inning of that game in Tuscaloosa, he already knew we were going to win. He had hand picked us, recruited us, trained us himself. He had been coaching longer than any of us had been alive. He knew that success wasn’t about pressing and pushing and trying too hard. Trying too hard and heaping anxiety on yourself and being afraid to fail will lose you more games than it will win. Winning, for us, was about living into the potential that we already had, that we were born with, guided by the expertise of a coach who had been there before us. Not just anyone can win like that, but we were not just anyone.

Not that different from church, really.

You are not just anyone.

You are baptized and beloved. You have found your way here to the font and the table. That’s not nothing.

The reason I became a Lutheran can be summed up by Luther’s words in the Small Catechism about the Holy Spirit. After spending my entire life trying to climb the spiritual ladder, I came to rest in these words: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith; in like manner as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the true faith; in which Christian Church He daily forgives abundantly all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and will raise up me and all the dead at the last day, and will grant everlasting life to me and to all who believe in Christ. 

This is most certainly true.”

In baptism, we are each claimed by God and given a unique call in the world. Faith is not about mustering intellectual energy or trying to produce warm fuzzy feelings. Faith is about showing up, time after time, day after day, and trusting that the God who calls is faithful, and trusting that God keeps showing up too. Faith is a gift, not something we muster. It’s who we are, given by God, our birthright. It is not tarnished by failing and it is not graded on a scale of 1-10 like everything else in our lives.

Christ has gone before us, and Christ calls us. You are not just anyone.

You are “called through the Gospel, enlightened by its gifts, and sanctified and preserved in true faith,” not because you tried hard enough, but simply because you are. Stop trying to muster up a feeling. You already have what you need.

The faith to pull up mulberry trees — or in our case, I suppose, maple trees —

… the faith to pull up maple trees and plant them in the Connecticut River is already ours. Bless our hearts.

We already have what we need. Just keep showing up.

This is most certainly true. Amen.

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