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The Sparrow and the Cross

June 26, 2017

“The Sparrow and the Cross” Genesis 21:1-21; Matthew 10:16-39 © 6.25.17 Ordinary 12A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“What are you worth?” If someone were to ask you or me that question, which would actually be rather rude, I suppose, unless it came from our financial planner, we might immediately begin mentally or on paper to list our assets and then subtract our liabilities, arriving at a figure known as “net worth.” On the other hand, “Are you worth anything?” probably with an emphasis on the last word, and said in a mean, sarcastic tone, is about self-esteem, what we can or can’t do, our value to someone else. “You’re not worth it” is a cruel assessment that the annoyance, the effort, the emotional turmoil our habits, opinions, and neediness cause another are simply too big an investment of time and energy.

How do we measure the worth of a human life? After 9/11, attorney Kenneth Feinberg had that task. He and the Fund he chaired had to determine how much money each victim’s family should get. He factored in age, dependents, life insurance, and income and earning potential had they lived. The amounts thus determined varied dramatically, from $250,000 for blue-collar workers to as much as $7.1 million for executives. But Feinberg later wondered about such calculations. He had accepted the legal premise that lives were worth different amounts in financial terms, but he now found that idea in conflict with what he called his “‘growing belief in the equality of all life’” (quoted in Liddy Barlow, The Christian Century, June 7, 2017: 20).

We might wonder if Feinberg was comparing apples and oranges. Can’t we talk about the contribution someone makes or will make to a family or society, and agree that this one makes more, while another makes less, while at the same time affirm that everyone has intrinsic worth, value, as a human being, and ought not be squashed like a bug or killed as if he or she were nothing? We may want this or that person on our sports team or task group or committee or choose him or her as a life partner because of our sense of his or her talents and abilities and attractiveness, without implying that everyone else is somehow unworthy and maybe not even a human being.

These are big questions in our day when we argue about which and whose lives matter, when politicians might even question the humanity of their opponents, when the most vulnerable are at risk, when every day we see another story of death and violence. Can the words of Jesus as reported by Matthew offer any help? He says we are of more value than many sparrows, yet he promises his disciples will be called names, face persecution, and experience conflict in, and rejection by, their families. They will even be at risk of life itself at the hands of the state by the cruel and sadistic means of crucifixion.

I have to wonder sometimes what the framers of the lectionary were thinking. It feels as if we’re back in Lent with all this talk of suffering and the cross. Don’t they know it’s summer, and we want to relax a bit? To be fair, I didn’t have to use this text, but for some reason I chose to do so. Maybe after forty years of preaching, and never addressing it, I felt it was time.

In order to tease some meaning for today out of these hard sayings and figure out how watched sparrows and a taken-up cross ended up in the same discourse, we have to look at how Matthew’s community would have heard Jesus. None of the talk about conflict and trouble would have come as a surprise. It’s what they experienced, and in fact expected. They were, they thought, living in a time when Jesus would come back very soon. Matthew’s church in 80 or 85 AD was a Jewish Christian group, and it was a common Jewish apocalyptic expectation that families would break down during the terrors before the kingdom of God came and the Messiah appeared in judgment and salvation. That idea was from the prophet Micah, chapter 7, where he said: “The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household.”

The Christians of Matthew’s church were also regarded with suspicion by both their Jewish and pagan neighbors, and having to give a defense of their faith was not uncommon, though their natural inclination was to stay under the radar, hidden. When called names, they were to remember that their Lord was also criticized and insulted. The term “Beelzebul” Jesus mentions is a title of Baal, an old Canaanite god, and meant “lord of the lofty abode.” But it was routinely changed to “Beelzebub,” “lord of the flies” or something even nastier, which I can’t repeat here. As you no doubt know, Beelzebub became associated with Satan and the demonic in Jewish and Christian thought. So, in essence, good is being called bad, true is regarded as false, helpful as hurting when the disciples are subjected to such mudslinging.

The underlying agenda of the opponents of the disciples in Matthew’s church was to make them feel worthless, to convince them that not even God cared for or about them. How could they be facing such intimidation, such risk, such strong conflict if their mission were really worthwhile and right? Why would their families reject them, even want them dead or treat them as dead? They must be bad people, not worthy of love and acceptance. Through fear of reprisal and trial and even execution, the religious and secular authorities tried to sow doubt about the rightness of the mission and the truth of the gospel, marginalize the Christians, and shut down the whole effort.

The matter of worth, then, is a major concern of this text. What does a worthy life look like? What are you worth, and to whom? Who measures worth and how? And most of all, are you worthy of your Lord, who makes the ultimate claim on your life, even as he promises fulfillment beyond that provided by any other endeavor or relationship?

So we return to sparrows. We have them in abundance and variety in our yards, and sometimes they’re a nuisance, especially if we have bluebird houses. But we don’t think of having them for dinner, which was exactly what Jesus was talking about. Sparrows were hunted and killed for their meat, to be sold to the poor in the marketplace. They were bundled whole in packs of ten, and sold at the rate of two for an assarion, which was a bronze coin of the day, later minted in copper. It had a small value, but “penny” and “farthing” are not really equivalents. Whatever it cost as a portion of a typical poor person’s wages, though, suffice it to say that sparrow was cheap meat.

The little birds were hunted and dispatched for the market, yet Jesus claims God watches over them. They “fall to the ground,” but somehow the care of God is not inconsistent with their being killed. When a sparrow or a disciple meets a bad fate, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care.

I know that’s not very satisfying. If God cares so much, why doesn’t he prevent the suffering or death of the vulnerable or of those trying to do the right thing? I have no answer, and neither does the text. But there is something here that may be helpful, even if we’d like more.

Consider how someone or an institution can make you or me feel worthless by ignoring us, giving us no attention. A sure way to denigrate, discount, dismiss a person or a group is not to notice him, her or them, give scant or no media coverage or refuse to listen to their concerns, pretend they don’t exist. Without a thought for his or her well-being or needs, craft a policy, develop a plan that directly and adversely affects someone’s work, say, or his or her status in society. It’s a strategy used all the time in business, politics, personal relationships, and even in the church. Stand someone up. Don’t keep a meeting, reply to a text or return a phone call. Delay indefinitely in hopes that the one asking for help will give up.

But God, even if he doesn’t prevent suffering, doesn’t keep that sparrow from falling, pays attention. He sees. He watches. Not the watch of surveillance as in the authoritarian state, but the watch of the concerned parent, the vigilant guard. He knows, and he suffers with his creatures. He sorrows at their plight. He’s so intimately knowledgeable about everything we are and have that every hair on our heads has a number.

Our situation might not change, but we may be better able to endure suffering, face what comes, if we know God cares. We experience his attention through the ministry of friends and family or even directly, in some mysterious way we don’t understand. The stories of two well-known, popular hymns remind us of that.

“Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was written by the Reformer Martin Luther in October 1527 as Germany was threatened by the Plague. It’s based on Psalm 46, but it picks up the line from our gospel this morning when it reminds us that “the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still.” The service of the sovereign God, who ensures that his truth endures, makes life worthwhile and gives meaning to suffering and death. Evil forces cannot prevail over God and turn his eyes from the plight of his own.

It’s no wonder that the hymn gained immense popularity in Europe during the Reformation. It became a song of resistance, sung in churches over the protest of priests and sung in the streets, giving strength to persecuted leaders of the Reformation. As someone has written, it was “‘sung by poor Protestant emigrants on their way into exile, and by martyrs at their death. It is woven into the web of the history of Reformation times, and it became the true national hymn of Protestant Germany’” (Tim Challies, https://www.challies.com/hymn-stories-a-mighty-fortress-is-our-god/ quoting Louis Benson).

The other story, as told by music professor Michael Hawn (Perkins School of Theology, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-his-eye-is-on-the-sparrow) is about the beloved gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” He relates how Civilla Martin, who wrote the lyrics, described the context out of which the hymn was born. She said: “‘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 response 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.’”

If like those German peasants of old, if like Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle, we know someone is with us, watches over us, even though we suffer, we can live with meaning and hope. We may fall to the ground in failure or despair, a sparrow shot down. We may know family conflict or even more or less permanent estrangement over religion or politics or some hurtful, insensitive behavior. We might fear the opinions of others about our beliefs or our actions or even have to explain ourselves every once in a while. Others may call us names or question our faith. But God takes notice. He watches the sparrow that falls. He deems worthy those who bear burdens, risk their well-being, for the sake of his Son, out of loyalty to the truth.

Writer Liddy Barlow observes: “To Jesus, our value does not lead to compensation or a guarantee of safety. It means that we receive attention. The God who cares for the welfare of sparrows also keeps track of every aspect of human lives, even tallying up the hairs of our heads….We are…fully known, known more deeply than we even know ourselves.

“When we feel secure in God’s deep attention, knowledge, and care for us—in other words, when we know that God loves us—then we are able to go forth without fear into a dangerous world. Then we can declare out loud the lessons we’ve heard whispered in darkened rooms. Then we can stop being afraid of those who wish us harm. When we are assured that our Creator loves us, we can remain steadfast even when our human families turn against us. We can be faithful even when our very lives are at risk. We can pick up our crosses, no matter the cost.

“Sparrows and disciples alike: we know he watches us. To God, we matter. In God’s sight, there are no unimportant lives” (see citation above).

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