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

You can listen to this sermon here or subscribe to the Congregational Church in Exeter’s sermon podcast on iTunes.

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.

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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.

The Gift of Our Lives: Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2016

Note: This is the third in a three-week series on stewardship. For the previous sermon please click here: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/30/good-seeds-good-soil-sermon-for-october-30-2016/

Over the past three weeks I’ve been preaching a sermon series on stewardship. The first week we talked specifically about financial giving and this church. And last week we talked more broadly about the good seeds that God has given us to plant and how it’s our job to find good soil.

All through it I’ve been stressing the point that stewardship is about more than money. Instead, stewardship is about life, and it’s about taking every good thing you have been given, and being a good steward of it, which in 21st century terms just means being a good manager.

Stewardship is about recognizing what God gives us and then deciding to use it well. Our time, our talents, our treasure…no matter what we have, we make the choice.

Layout 1So, this is the last day of our stewardship season, which means it’s also Dedication Sunday. Today we are collecting pledge cards for next year, and after worship the stewardship committee will be tallying them up. Then they’ll go downstairs to coffee hour, ring a bell, and announce the total. It’s an important annual tradition for us.

But today is also an even more important day. It’s All Saints’ Sunday. For Protestants, All Saints’ is when we remember the people we have loved and lost. On All Saints’ we proclaim our hope in Christ’s love, and we talk about what is called the “Communion of Saints”. That’s a confusing phrase, but to simplify it, by Communion of Saints we just mean this: all who have lived and died in this faith, who we now believe to be gathered (or in community) with Christ and each other in the next life.

Because I’ll be out of town on our usual pledge Sunday, these two events had to fall on the same Sunday this year. That made me a little uneasy at first. Money is hard enough to talk about. Money and the memory of people we have loved is even harder. And I didn’t want anyone to think we had done this deliberately to try to emotionally manipulate anyone into giving more. This isn’t “your grandmother was a saint and she would given more than you”.

But as I thought about it, I really came to appreciate the beauty of talking about stewardship and talking about our whole lives. I’ll tell you why.

One of the traditional readings for All Saints’ is the Beatitudes, which you just heard. Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the merciful. In other words, blessed are people who, in reality, are nothing like me. I want to be all those things, but I stumble on a daily basis.

And on All Saints’ my flaws are front and center. Martin Luther said that we are all simultaneously both saint and sinner, but I can testify that my saint is far outweighed by my sinner. And this talk of saints…those are the holy people, the ones who seem to walk around with halos on their heads. That’s not me.

But our faith says something a little different. We believe that people are not saints in life, no matter how good they are. We are all imperfect. But we teach that when we die, we don’t become angels like Hallmark tells you. Instead, we become saints.

In fact, the biggest barrier between you and becoming a saint is not that you are imperfect…it’s that you are still alive.

There will come a day when we will all leave this life. We do not have to fear that day. We belong to a merciful God who has given us extraordinary grace. And on that day we will find that we have joined the great Communion of Saints.

And so, that means that we, you and I, are saints-in-training, whether we believe we are worthy of that title or not. We are not going to get it entirely right this side of the kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take our work of preparing for sainthood seriously.

Mary Luti, who some of you know from her writing, once said that the best way to learn to be a Christian was not by reading more theology. Instead, it was by studying other people. In particular, she said to study the people whose lives and faith you admire, and then do likewise.

So, who have been your saintly teachers? Who have been the people who have taught you just a little more about what it means to live a life of faith?

For me, one of them was a man named Sammy Clark. Sammy was my college chaplain, and some of you might remember that I flew to Georgia for his funeral when he died suddenly last spring. I met Sammy when I was a college freshman, and a new Christian, and he changed my life. He’s the one who set me on the path to ministry.

I was one of many who learned from him, and recently I wrote this about him in a daily devotional:

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Rev. Sammy Clark

“As a college chaplain Sammy loved, and was loved by, everyone. He advised a fraternity that was perennially about to get kicked off campus while at the same time affirming gay kids coming out long before it was culturally acceptable. He prayed with us on Wednesday nights in the chapel and then snuck out back to smoke the cigarettes that his Methodist ordination was supposed to ban.

Sammy was good, but he wasn’t perfect. He was a human being who messed up, just like all of us. And he wasn’t a saint in life. Had anyone suggested that he was, he would have broken out in a grin, shook his head, and laughed.

But Sammy is a saint now.”

Those of us who knew him are better for it. And so on this first All Saints’ Sunday without him, I give thanks for him. And I give thanks for the way he used his life.

Sammy taught me about being a good steward of the life I had been given. He taught me that we are called to give not just parts of our lives, but every bit of it, back to God.

Sammy had left an Ivy League PhD program in English to go to seminary. In the late ’50’s, instead of becoming an English professor, he went back home to south Georgia and worked for Civil Rights. But he still always loved poetry, and it’s a poem that reminds me about what he taught us about that kind of life.

Mary Oliver writes in “The Summer Day” these words:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
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?

So tell me…God has given you this life. This “one wild and precious life”. What is it you plan to do with it?

Whatever your answer is, that is stewardship. It’s that simple. And it’s that hard. Stewardship is nothing less than figuring out what you will choose to do with every moment, and every gift you’ve been given, in your “one wild and precious life”.

On this All Saints’, I give thanks for the saints in my life who have taught me with their lives about how to choose well. Amen?