“Living by Faith”

Matthew 13:31-33; 17:20-21 and Excerpts from Malcolm Gladwell “Tipping Point”
November 22, 2020 – by Rev. Don Ludwig


I have been saying this for months. We are at a crossroad in society – perhaps this is our tipping point. Many are living in fear of death or illness for self or a loved one. Many are consumed by loneliness and isolation. Economic inequities abound – while Wall Street appears to be doing quite well, Main Street is on the brink of collapse. We have a sitting president that refuses to concede the election and conspiracy theories that fill the public with misinformation. Thanksgiving will be a very different holiday in most homes this year.

Yet, for most of us, we can feel that the storm is passing over. There is a sense of relief…a new lightness in the air. New national leadership is on the way and a vaccine…or several could be just around the corner. But we also know that we are not past these difficult days…hardly. We somehow know that the worst is yet to come. Challenges remain aplenty. 

As we proclaimed in our Call to Worship today, W.E.B. Dubois, a Black Sociologist in the early years of the twentieth century, a voice for the Black disenfranchised folk of his day, a man of deep faith, once wrote: “The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thought, until day calling unto day shall make a life worth living.”

Faith of a Mustard Seed

DuBois’ words here draw insight from the teaching of Jesus. The parable of the mustard seed was delivered when the disciples were having a great deal of trouble casting a demon out of a little boy and the boy’s father was in such distress about their failure to help his son that he brought the boy directly to Jesus and said, “Your disciples can’t do a thing, Jesus! Would you please have mercy on my son and do something?”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples that it was because of their little faith that they were ineffectual at the healing effort – that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains and nothing would be impossible for them (Matt. 17:20). Luke’s version of that statement is even more grandiose, saying, “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” (Lk.17:6).

This teaching on mustard seed-like faith is something that we saw this week when political elites tried to stop the state vote certification process for the presidency in Wayne County, Michigan. They tried. But they did not succeed, largely because of the opposition they faced from Michigan residents who protested and politically mobilized against this travesty. Faith the size of a mustard seed moving mountains and, at times, just mulberry trees – is not only inspiring and heartening, but real! 

Change and Growth

Faith and science are mutually connected. This past month I decided to revisit a book that I read some time ago by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is a popularizer of scientific information. Many of you are probably familiar with his work: Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point… During this pandemic, I found myself drawn to open and skim The Tipping Point.

In it, Gladwell explains the processes of change and demonstrates how small mustard seed-like events can produce significant change. In epidemics, whether we’re talking about the current virus… or the rapid adoption of cell phones in the 1990’s… epidemic change grows not in a slow, linear fashion…it grows exponentially. We see it in the spiking Covid-infection rates and we know that the growth rates will just continue if it is not contained. Here is an example from Gladwell.

“If I give you a large piece of paper, and I ask you to fold it over once, and then take the folded paper and fold it over again, and then again, and again, until you have refolded the original paper 50 times. How tall do you think the final stack [of folded paper] is going to be? In answer to that question, most people will fold the sheet in their mind’s eye, and guess that the pile would be as thick as a phonebook…(you do remember phone books)…or, if they are really courageous, they’ll say that it would be as tall as a refrigerator. But the real answer is that the height of that stack [of paper] would approximate the distance to the sun.” 

That blows my mind. Geometric progression. Gladwell argues that we need to “prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big…huge…changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly”. In other words, our current reality may be a tipping point for our nation and perhaps even for our church.

Gladwell explains that the “tipping point” term originated in the flight of white families to the suburbs back in the 50’s. When a certain percentage of black families managed to move into a neighborhood…10% or a bit more…which would take years…but when that tipping point was reached…the vast majority of the remaining white families would leave almost immediately. 

Living by Faith 

Jesus tells us that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains and, at times, just mulberry trees. In other words, faith can lead to a tipping point that changes the course of our world and life together. I truly believe that. I have faith that the United States will truly become a democratic nation again — where Americans, all of us, join together and cry out “Glory”! Things will most certainly get worse to be sure, only to be made even better than before. I have faith that Southminster will break out of this pandemic, this world of political chaos and white privilege, this transition in leadership, and become even stronger and more equipped to meet the call of justice than ever before.

I know that our stewardship today – our mustard seeds of faith – will grow exponentially. Faith and science have both taught me that. Friends, we are folks who are living by faith. We are called to be people of hope, a people of perseverance, a people of action, a people of righteousness, a people of trust, a people of love, a people who cry out “Glory”…a people of God. We know that there is a love that has never broken faith with us and never will.

And with Dubois we know:“The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thought, until day calling unto day shall make a life worth living.”