Consider the Sparrow: A sermon on fear & pain

Sunday June 22, 2013 Trinity Episcopal Church, Milford MA


sparrow tattoo by Darlene DiBona at Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoos in Jamaica Plain:

Matthew 10: 24-39

Even before his team had played a game, the head coach of the US Men’s Soccer team had gotten himself into trouble. Jurgen Klinsmann , a native of Germany, but the US Men’s coach was remarkably candid last week: “You have to be realistic. Every year we are getting stronger,” Klinsmann said. ” For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is just not realistic. If it is American or not, you can correct me.” And correct him they did. The media jumped all over Klinsmann for his lack of hope, his lack of optimism, his failure to embrace an American ethos of grit and determination. Perhaps the strongest rebuke came from Landon Donovan, a major US player Klinsmann left off the World Cup team. Donovan said, “This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen. As someone who’s been in that locker room, and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws — ‘We believe that we will win.’ I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.” Klinsmann’s words were no accident, no slip up during the interview. Last December, he told the NY Times magazine, “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible.”

Jesus would have made a horrible soccer coach (or maybe he’d just be a bad American soccer coach). This passage today from the Gospel according to Matthew is essentially a pep talk to the disciples, a pre-game speech to his team. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus summoning the twelve disciples and giving them authority to cast out and heal. He directs them to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. Jesus gets them ready for the game, but tells them there are no extras, no safety nets, no bag for your journey, no extra pair of sandals. And then it turns a bit darker. Klinsmann said to the press, “you have to be realistic.” And Jesus is realistic. He looks ahead, knowing the kinds of subversive, counter-cultural mission of the Gospel, and tells the disciples what to expect.

Jesus begins by telling the disciples that they will be maligned, as he has been maligned. Jesus tells them that there will be those who try to kill the body. Jesus says this mission will not bring peace but conflict. World’s. Worst. Pep-talk. You have to be realistic.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine if we said all the things that we fear are true that we don’t say? That maybe you’ll graduate, but you’ll be in debt and can’t find a job. That maybe you’ll find a job but you won’t be doing what you love, or you won’t be making enough money. Maybe you’ll fall in love, but one of you will die first or your marriage will end with infidelity. Maybe you’ll get married, but you’ll struggle to conceive, or you’ll get pregnant when you didn’t mean to. That children and family and friends will break your heart and disappoint you. That a son will be set against his father, “daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:34). That people you love will make hurtful decisions and you’ll make hurtful decisions too. That people you love will get sick and die before you can get there to visit them and say all the things you meant to say a year ago. That one day, you’ll be the last one alive and all the names of your friends will be crossed out of your address book.

We don’t say these sorts of fearful things when we look ahead. But Jesus does, he points out the conflict and the grief that is to come. And he’s as direct and unflinching as a German soccer coach, saying “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Jesus warns of conflict ahead, conflict between fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, friends and foes. In my experience, when I get fearful, I get combative. When I’m worried that there isn’t enough, I get snippy with those around me. My colleague Courtney withdraws like a turtle into her shell when she gets afraid to avoid the coming conflict. Another colleague told me she gets “controlling and distracted and self blaming” when she’s afraid. We aren’t our best selves when we are afraid. We turn in. We seize up. We arm up. We run away. You know these responses, freeze or fight or flight, when we are afraid. When we are afraid, we do not live as the beloved children of God we are called to be.

These are hard words from Jesus to the disciples. And they are understandably afraid of what awaits them. Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day, and saying all sorts of cranky things after he woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping mat and there was no honey left for his tea that morning. But I’m more inclined to think that Jesus is being realistic- unflinchingly, painfully realistic.

He is preparing the disciples for his capture, humiliation, torture and death. He is preparing them for the possibility of a similar fate. Jesus tells the disciples of his own defamation, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” And maybe, just maybe by naming their fears outloud, they can be released from their fears.

Three times in this short passage Jesus addresses their fear. In verse 26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered; and nothing secret that will not become known.” In Verse 28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” In Verse 31 “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Jesus’ hard words about the future are not a slip up, or a mistake. And his warnings are not without hope. The strange and glorious part, is that this hope, even in the face of real, hard, fearful words, comes in the form of a bird.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father,” proclaim verse 32.

Why a sparrow? What’s so special about a sparrow that God would be so attentive? Well, it turns out, there’s nothing special about a sparrow. They are utterly common. Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue just wrote a book called “Consider the Birds: A Provocative guide to Birds of the Bible.” Sparrows were the chicken McNuggets of 1st century Palestine. As Blue describes, “sparrows were stripped of their feathers, threaded onto long strings, or jammed onto wooden skewers and laid out on trays a gray and lifeless to be sold in the ancient Middle Eastern marketplace as cheap food- two for a penny according to Matthew…They are ubiquitous… Field guides describe them as bland, dingy and dull, with songs that are monotonous and grating. The Egyptian hieroglyph based on the sparrow had no phonetic value. It was used in words to indicate small, narrow, or bad. In ancient Sumerian cuneiform writing, the sparrow was the symbol for ‘enemy.” (129).

A bird worth less than a penny, this is the symbol for all that God sees and knows. Blue sees God’s attentiveness to this disposable bird as a sign of “God’s profuse care.” Debbie Blue writes “God cares for what the world considers insignificant. This is all over the text: the weak and the poor, the widows, the broken. Jesus eats with the common people. Our eyes are so often on something with a little more prestige… We desperately don’t want to be common… We are hardly able to convince ourselves that God is unlike us in this. But the Scripture keeps pressing us to hear this: God loves what is ubiquitous. ” Even the sparrow. Even you. Even me. And all of the common, unremarkable, fearful and ordinary things in our lives. The profligate grace of God is so thorough-going, so complete, so all-encompassing that even a fallen sparrow is noticed, so that we don’t have to be afraid of going at it alone.

I had a pretty hard week- A week ago Sunday, one of my mentors died after a very short and aggressive cancer. At 53 and just coming into the prime of her academic career, it seemed especially cruel to have her dead so young. It was a haul to drive to Montreal for the funeral in the middle of the week and disrupted my full work schedule. People were cranky with me for not doing the things I said I would do, but couldn’t get done. But the promise is this: It’s not that we avoid the hard times or the pain of living in line with the Gospel, it’s that we do not go through this apart from God. Not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from God. Maybe you had a hard week too. Maybe you’ve had a hard month, or a hard year. But not one single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s notice, and you, beloved are of more value than many sparrows.

It is hard to remember, hard to live without fear, hard to live with the assurance of God’s profuse care of even us. My friend has this beautiful tattoo of a sparrow on her arm. It’s her reminder of this promise from Matthew and of the promise of the gospel hymn “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” I can “sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” It’s her reminder of Hamlet’s words to Horatio in Act 5, Scene 2:

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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1 Comment

  1. beautiful. thank you. I can her you and see you in my mind’s eye. your wisdom is as infectious as your smile. I am so blessed to have opportunities to see, hear and read you work, all blessings

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