God’s Eye is on the Sparrow
By the time we get to Matthew 10 in the story of the life of Jesus, Jesus is in the middle of his preaching and teaching ministry. We have seen healings. We have seen Jesus uplift the downtrodden. We have heard him critique the establishment and the religious authorities. But by Matthew 10, Jesus is trying to teach those who would seek to follow him what it is like to be a disciple. My ears perk up at this point, because Jesus is giving the instruction manual on what it takes to be a Christian. That’s part of why we are here today, isn’t it? We come, we sing praises, we adore God. But don’t we also want to know how to live as God’s people in a world which is full of homelessness, hunger, refugees, terrorism, climate change, and all kinds of other restlessness that besets on our spirits and souls.
All kinds of expressions trace their roots to Jesus’ teaching here in Matthew 10. Terms like: “the lost sheep of Israel,” “shake the dust off your feet,” “sheep among wolves…shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves,” “whoever confesses me before people, I will confess before God,” “I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” “take up your cross and follow me,” “whoever finds his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” and “if anyone gives a cup of cold water…he will not lose his reward.” Without even getting into the task or work of being a disciple, we can see from these expressions alone that being a disciple is challenging, if not downright risky work. These words are all related to what life is going to be like for the disciples once they begin proclaiming the gospel on Jesus’ behalf. The picture Jesus draws is a little distressing.
In the middle of all of this are three verses that I love because of their great comfort: “Aren’t sparrows sold for next to nothing, two for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without God’s consent. As for you, every hair on your head has been counted. So, do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.” [Mt. 10:29-31]
When I hear this verse, I am transported back to my childhood and Sunday School in the basement of Clairlea Park Presbyterian Church in Toronto. I can hear with great clarity the Sunday School singing the hymn, His Eye is on the Sparrow.
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
This hymn might be a little blast from the past for some of you. It was written by Civilla Martin. She wrote in her diary:
Early in the spring of 1905, my husband and I were sojourning in Elmira, New York. We contracted a deep friendship for a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheelchair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s reply was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me. The hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.
God has a few less hairs to count on the heads of those who are folically challenged, but this verse gets to the heart of it. We can be filled with a lot of fear. As adults we might not be living in fear of what goes bump in the night, of what’s under the bed or in the closet. But adults do have fears. What are your fears this morning?
Our ancestors feared famine, war, the rise of an evil leader. They feared for their lives and the lives of their children. One modern writer has said that today we have two fears: the fear that we will be found out and the fear of our own death. Many people are scared to death of people finding out what their life is really like. We expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to keep a failing marriage, crumbling finances, problems with children, health issues locked up inside an emotional vault so that no one will ever know our struggles. We focus on trying to project to others that we are competent, talented, and successful so that no one will ever know our inner thoughts of critique and failure. This is tied in with our fear of death because our mortality reminds us that we aren’t even close to invincible.
Jesus comes along and says, don’t worry. All that stuff we try to keep inside us, hidden, so that the world will think that we have our act together, don’t worry about it because if God knows how many hairs are on your head, God surely knows about all that stuff and God doesn’t care about it. God loves you. God cares for you. There is nothing to be afraid of because God has counted your every hair, your every wrinkle, your every cell. And you are loved.
St. Benedict said that each day it is important to recall our mortality. Every day, we need to remind ourselves that one day, perhaps even today, we are going to die. As Christians, we believe that death is not an ending, but a beginning. It seems to me that if you think today might be your last day, all those fears disappear quite quickly as you realize what really is important to you. Do not be afraid.
This is a quote from a woman who recently retired:
I’ve joked to my friends that I’ve felt like I was under pressure ever since I walked into Sister Perpetua’s first-grade classroom back in September 1956 (okay, maybe I’m not totally joking), so it’s taken time to make the adjustment to a life without evaluations or deadlines hanging over my head. It occurs to me how much getting good grades or job performance reviews worried me and made me think I had to earn…what? God’s love? God’s care? Safety? Abundance? Sufficiency?
What is it we are doing with our lives? Trying to earn value in God’s eyes? Proving our worth by what we do or by how well we do it? Why is it that the doing in life matters so much? Ask anyone who has recently retired and they will tell you how busy their lives are and they just don’t know how they had time to work. What if we all tried a little harder at “being” rather than “doing”. Being kind. Being loving. Being caring. We’ve all seen lists that list the richest people in the world. When was the last time you saw a list of the most caring people, or the kindest people? We tend to measure success by dollars. I’m not quite sure how we would measure kindness or gentleness. In the United Church, with all of our structural changes taking place, we are talking about bringing in standardized performance reviews for clergy and all staff. I am not quite sure what we are going to evaluate (and I think I am on the committee that will be tasked with coming up with the evaluation tool!). Thinking of this scripture passage, how would you evaluate a good disciple?
Then I wonder, how do I evaluate the way God evaluates? You and I know what sparrows are. They seem to me to be something like the least of the birds. They are not swans or eagles or cranes. They are just those little things that fly around making chirping sounds. Yes, Jesus tells us, they are of tremendous value to God.
I looked at the news this past week. There was an article debating the value of refugees coming to our country. At what point do they become contributors to our society, it asked? At what point are they valuable? Yet, aren’t human beings of inexpressible value, at least according to Jesus, not because of their potential economic impact, but because they are precious children of God? What does the God who cares for sparrows think of concentration camps for gay men in Chechenya or refugee camps in Africa?
What about people in our society who can’t care for themselves. What do they contribute? Of what value are they? Isn’t it easy to write off people who need tremendous amounts of care, seeing them as not having anything to contribute to us? How do our social programs, the politicians that we elect speak of the value of the marginalized in our city? It is easy to toss a toonie in the cap of the guy sitting on the street wrapped in his sleeping bag, but did I see him as someone of value, as the child of some mother and father who care for him and might be desperately searching for him.
Then I come back to those sparrows. God seems to value all the created order. I see articles on climate change, endangered species, magnificent animals in Africa hunted for sport and tiny little insignificant species in the forests of the world becoming extinct. I read in an article that dozens of new species were discovered recently at the bottom of one of the ocean’s trenches, in the dark and cold, where we thought there could be nothing alive. And the rainforest, the lungs of the earth, greatly shrinking. I wonder, what is God seeing in all of this? God taking note. God caring more that we can ever comprehend.
What is the disciple to do about all of this? Perhaps the task of the disciple is to begin by seeing the world with God’s eyes at the same time we hear the call to be disciples. I know that God’s eye is on the sparrow and God watches over me.