The Fall of a Sparrow: Sermon for June 25, 2017

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Matthew 10:26-31, 38-39
10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
 
10:38 Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

In high school, like most teenagers, I had to read Hamlet. And, like most teenagers, I wasn’t so sure about this Shakespeare guy. We read a lot of his plays, and as much as the teachers told us they were relevant to our lives, the language was so archaic that it felt like another world.

In the play’s final act there’s a scene, as the action is about to come to a head, when Hamlet tells his friend, Horatio, that he has a bad feeling about how it’s going to go. Horatio basically says, “if something feels weird, let’s not go through with this.” But Hamlet replies, “Not a whit. We defy augury.” Now, that’s the Shakepearean way of saying, “I’m not superstitious.” And then Hamlet delivers this line: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

In college I was an English major, so I had to read more Shakespeare, but I can’t say that I ever really fell in love with it the way my professors hoped. But this week, as I thought about this text, that phrase kept coming back to me. I kept thinking about what it meant.

IMG_3044

A sparrow who really wanted my breakfast.

Shakespeare knew the Bible, and he’s having Hamlet use the words of today’s Scripture passage. Jesus is talking to his disciples about fear and life, and he uses the example of sparrows. Sparrows are little, tiny birds. You could buy two of them for a coin back then. They would seem insignificant to anyone who was listening. But, Jesus tells them, if even a sparrow falls to the ground, God knows about it.

Jesus asks them, “aren’t you worth more than a whole bunch of sparrows?” To put Hamlet’s quote, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” another way, “If God is paying attention to sparrows, God is paying attention to this moment.”

I’m going to stop here and say that I do remember that Hamlet it a tragedy. It doesn’t end well for him, so you might be thinking “okay, if you are telling us to be unafraid, this is a really bad example.” Fair enough. But I still think there’s a little hope here for us.

Jesus uses this sparrow story when he’s talking to his disciples about fear. He tells them that the hidden things in life, everything that causes pain or destruction, will one day be revealed. For his disciples, who lived with the fear of death, that was powerful. It meant that the whole corrupt system was going to be exposed. To quote a Johnny Cash song, or at least one he covered, Jesus was saying, “What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”

When things in the world feel wrong, when it feels like things are being done behind closed doors that will hurt us or others, it’s a good reminder that God knows those things, and God will not let them go unexposed and unanswered.

But this is also a good reminder that sometimes we are the ones called to do the work of confronting the injustice in our world. When we stand in the face of what is wrong, and wonder “where is God”, often the question we should be asking ourselves is “what does God want me to do about this?”

That can feel scary, but more than that, it can feel hopeless. We are one of billions. None of us have endless assets or mighty armies at our fingertips. We may feel like we can’t change things in our own neighborhoods, let alone the world. It may seem that the risk we have to take to stand up to what is wrong is more likely to backfire than to succeed.

pexels-photo-326642Our lives can feel so small. And the irony in that is that if we do nothing, they are indeed. But if we choose to resist our fear, and do what is hard, they become larger than we can imagine. Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He says that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it, and if you lose it for his sake, you will find it.

In other words, if we do nothing, if we try to lay low and protect ourselves, the counterintuitive truth is that we will lose our lives. I’m not saying by that that we will stop living, but we will lose the reason that we live. We will start to lose our very souls. But if we step up, and take the risks that Christian life calls us to take, we just might find new life. In fact, we just might thrive.

There is a story about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Before his consecration, he received a number of threats on his life, so much so that he wore a bullet-proof vest under his vestments for the ceremony. His family was concerned, and so he calmed them by telling them about all the preparations that had been made to ensure that he would stay safe. After telling them this, though, he said this: “I need you to hear, I believe that there are things in life that are worse than death.”

Living a life full of fear is worse than dying. And we are all going to die. The question is, “how do you want to live?” Or, as the poet Mary Oliver writes: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. And if that’s true, then there is a special providence in the rise of one too. Today we are baptizing Charlotte, not yet 8 months old. She’s not quite as small as a sparrow, but she’s close.

Today we bring her to the font, and in the waters of baptism she will be claimed as one of Christ’s own. And all of us, her parents, her godparents, and we her church community, are claiming her too. And we are saying that we are going to teach her to follow Christ, and to resist fear, and claim the life that God is calling her to claim. And if we do this well, this will be a courageous child. She may be afraid sometimes, as all of us are, but she will have the courage to do the work of healing and justice that this world needs. We are going to get her ready for that work. We are teaching her how to live.

And so Charlotte, today I say the words of Jesus to you: “Do not be afraid…you are worth more than many sparrows” God’s eye is on Charlotte, and it is on us all. In the face of that, our fear cannot win.

Journey Through Lent: Day 21

Carvaggio's "Incredulity of St. Thomas"

Carvaggio’s “Incredulity of St. Thomas”

We all doubt. At least all of us who see faith as a journey, and not a one time stop. Our faith gets shaken, we question it, we wonder why Jesus doesn’t appear to us when everyone around us seems to have seen him. We may even feel a bit ashamed of our doubt.

I wonder if Thomas did that first week. Why couldn’t he just accept what the others said? Why did he have to see for himself? I wonder if the next Sunday he thought about not going back. He wasn’t “one of them” anymore. He was the doubter. The one who hadn’t seen.

And yet, he went back. And maybe he went back because he had loved Jesus so much that he needed to hear them talk about him, even if he wasn’t so convinced it was true yet. Maybe he went back because it was easier than being alone. Maybe he went back because he thought maybe, just maybe, Jesus would come again. For whatever reason, we went back to that community in his hour of greatest doubt, just like many of you come here every week, and that day Jesus showed up and he believed.

Doubt can be the thing that propels us to faith. It can be what shakes us up. It can be what pushes us out of the doors of our once comfortable places and into a new, and better, world. Doubt can be the ticket that starts our journey to new life. It can be a sign not of the absence of God, but of God working in us to do something new.

I’ll close with this. During the time in my life of greatest doubt I went to a lecture by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. I know I’ve shared this story with some of you before, but it’s worth sharing again as we talk about journeying in faith while filled with doubt.

He was talking about the parting of the Red Sea and how we have this movie version in our heads where Moses lifted his arms and you could see across to the other side. The reality, he says, was more like this: the people put one foot into the water, tentatively, and the waters rolled back a little. And then they put another foot down, and the waters rolled back more. And so on, and so on, until they found they had safely reached the other shore.

It’s the same with doubt. You won’t see to the other shore. And you don’t have to. God is already there. And God is with you in the waters. Doubt as much as you need to, but leave just enough room for the faith that God will show you the next right step. And just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the life of doubt, and that’s the life of faith. Amen.

Sermon for February 27, 2011: Lilies, Sparrows and You.

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

6:34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I have this recurring dream. Maybe twice a year I dream that I get a letter from my high school. The letter tells me, “You didn’t actually graduate”. It turns out that there was some requirement that I overlooked and the school didn’t catch it until now, and I have to go back. In the dream I argue that I actually have a college and seminary degree now, but they tell me if I don’t finish this high school class those will be rescinded as well. I always wake up panicked and trying to figure out whether or not it really happened.

I’m told it’s not an uncommon dream. Another favorite of mine that a lot of people seem to have is finding out that you have an exam in a class you haven’t been to all semester. And it’s always something like German. Something you can’t even try to fake it on.

When I have dreams like this, I pay attention. Because I know when I have them, it means there is something else going on in my life that I am getting really anxious about.

We are get anxious. It’s part of what it means to be human. We worry about our family. We worry about work. We worry about money. We worry about all the details of our days. And by the end of this sermon, you will still worry about these things. But my hope is that you might worry a little less.

Jesus is still preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He’s been at this for a while now if you’ll recall the last few weeks. And today he is talking about worry and fear and anxiety.

Jesus tells the disciples a few things. First he tells them that they cannot serve two masters. They cannot simultaneously serve God and serve wealth. They cannot set those things as equal and work towards both at the same time. One must take precedence over the other, and Jesus tells us the only choice that makes any sense is God.

Jesus goes on to say don’t worry about what you will eat. Don’t worry about clothing. Don’t worry about what you will drink. Because worrying will not add a single hour onto your life. Instead, trust that God will provide. Trust that the God who takes care of the birds, the God who puts the lilies in the field, will care for you even more.

I think we’re all prone to anxiety. Some of us even more than others.

I was a very anxious kid and that continued as I got older. In high school, I worried about getting into college. In college I worried about getting into seminary. In seminary I worried about getting ordained. And then I worried about what I would do after I was ordained. I spent so much time worrying about the specifics of my future that I often missed the beauty of what was going on around me. I often missed the lilies in the fields, or the birds in the air. And when I finally got to that place I’d been trying so hard to get to, I felt like I had run a marathon.

More of us are like that than we like to admit.
If you are anything like me, you want to know exactly how the future will unfold. You want to know what everything will look like. You want to know that you will have not only everything you need, but everything you want.

When the hospice I was working for had to make cuts, I knew that they would have to cut chaplains. I know I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. I was basically prepared. First they cut one chaplain and gave me her territory to cover. And then, one morning, they cut me.

I was pretty terrified. I wasn’t long out of grad school, so I had no real savings to speak of. My transfer to the UCC was still is process so I couldn’t take a church yet. And no other hospices were hiring. Even non-ministry positions were overrun with a glut of applicants. I had no idea what I was going to do.

But I got through the year. And that’s not a testament to my thriftiness or anything like that. That’s a testament to what God was doing in me, and how much I had to learn to trust God. Because the more I learned to trust that God would provide for me, somehow or another, what I needed next, the more I felt my faith deepening. I began to feel God in ways that I never had during that year.

I really do hope I’m never in that situation again. But, in other ways, I’m grateful for having been there. Because as I searched for a call that year, I had a feeling that God was truly guiding me to something I did not yet understand. That God would make a way. That God had a plan and it would be revealed in time. I knew that being laid off would not have the last word. God would.

There is a story of the earliest Christian monks who were in Ireland. They used to build boats and put them on the sea, and then ask God to take the boats to the place they needed to be. They would let God be their navigator, and they would trust that their boats would be safely brought to shore.

While I don’t recommend the same course of action to you, there’s something to be said for that.

There’s something to be said for the idea of putting your boat on a stormy ocean and saying, “okay God…show me where you want me to go.” There’s something to be said about that act of faith in a sea of fear.

What would it mean for you to get in a boat? What would it mean to cast yourself out on the seas and see where God could use you? What would it mean even for our church to get in a boat and let God direct our journey? Would our life together look the same? Look different? I don’t know. But I think it may be worth asking.

I’ll close with this story that I heard about four years ago, and which has become integral to my faith life. I heard it told by a Gene Robinson, a bishop who had faced threats of great violence. He had been called to be a bishop and in the aftermath there had been great division. He had to celebrate worship in some places with a bullet proof vest under his robes because of all the death threats. Yet, his quiet, certain faith was so apparent to all who saw him. He told this story. Some of you have heard me tell it before, but it’s worth telling again.

Robinson talks about the parting of the Red Sea. He recalls the movie “The Ten Commandments” and how in that telling we see the sea parted wide from shore to shore. The Israelites are able to pass through quickly, always knowing they will make it safe to the other side.

Except, he says, it wasn’t really like that. Instead, Robinson argues, the sea only parted a little bit at a time. Someone put their foot in and the waves rolled back just enough for them to put another foot down. And then they did. And the sea retreated a little more. Little by little, step by step, they made their way across the sea. And finally they made it to the other shore. They did not know exactly how things were going to turn out. But they knew that God was with them in the next step.

Jesus tells us not to borrow tomorrow’s trouble. We have enough today. Instead we can pray earnestly and with faith, “Jesus show us the next right step.” And we know that he will. And we know that in God’s love there is always a safe shore waiting for us. Amen.