Sunday, June 21, 2020

Sermon: "Make a Joyful Noise: His Eye Is on the Sparrow", Matthew 10:24-39 (June 21, 2020)


“His eye is on the sparrow…” Sparrows are common birds, small and unassuming, that today can be found in almost every corner of the world. In Jesus’ day, they were so common that even the poorest person could afford a sparrow—two, in fact, as long as they had a single coin. Most people would have viewed them as essentially worthless, certainly not noteworthy in any way. And yet, Jesus tells us, God knows every single one of them so well, that if even one were to fall to the ground, God would notice. How much more, then, must God take notice of US? We are, after all, “worth more than many sparrows.”

“His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” What does this phrase mean to you? What message do you hear? For many of us, this familiar hymn is one of ultimate reassurance and comfort. “Why should I feel discouraged?” it says. “Let not your heart be troubled,” it says. It seems to be saying that if you just trust and follow Jesus, you’ll be carefree like a bird on the wing. You’ll live life without fear or difficulty. For many of us, this song is the spiritual equivalent of a warm, cozy blanket. “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.”

But while this is indeed a hymn of comfort, it’s not quite the cozy blanket that we might think it is. Remember those sparrows that poor people were buying in verse 29 of the scripture reading? They weren’t buying them as pets. Jewish worshipers were buying them to sacrifice at the temple. These weren’t free-as-a-bird sparrows; these were (soon to be) dead-as-a-dodo sparrows. These sparrows were NOT in a context where “don’t worry; be happy” was a reasonable attitude. So yes, it’s comforting to be reminded that God knows and loves us…but if we’re comparing ourselves to scriptural sparrows, we should at least know that these sparrows would understand this hymn a little bit differently. His eye is on the sparrow, indeed…but that doesn’t mean that the sparrow has no worries.

The truth is that like the sparrows of the Bible, we human beings are rarely free from trouble and worry, even though we know that God is with us. This hymn was never intended to deny the harsh realities of life. Its words were inspired by the challenges facing a husband and wife, one of whom had been bedridden for 20 years and the other who was entirely confined to a wheelchair.[1] When asked how they kept faith and hope in the midst of their struggles, the wife replied, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” This repeated refrain, comforting as it is, is offered in the context of the unknown and the seemingly unbearable. This isn’t, in fact, a hymn of warm-fuzzies; it’s a hymn of endurance.

In order to be faithful to the spirit of its scriptural reference, it would need to be. Here, Jesus is giving his brand-new disciples their job description—and it isn’t pretty. The interlude about the sparrows is intended to provide a bit of comfort in the midst of a big ol’ reality check for them. The whole reason Jesus offers these few verses of comfort is because otherwise, the rest of the passage would be a really hard pill to swallow. “Things are gonna be really difficult for you,” he says. “Just because you’re the disciple rather than the teacher doesn’t mean you’re gonna escape the hardships that I encounter. You’ll be called names, threatened, and worse. Just as I’ll carry the burden of the cross, you, too will have a cross of your own to bear…If you’re not willing to do this, you aren’t worthy of calling yourselves my followers.”

This passage isn’t about innocent victims being violently persecuted completely out of the blue. The suffering that Jesus talks about here is a direct consequence of the choice to follow Jesus and act as he does. We know that Jesus’ own actions led to false accusations, abuse, abandonment, and eventually his death, because people didn’t like what he had to say. The nature of Jesus’ message is divisive because it condemns the status quo and demands change, so if you choose to live in service to it, you’re going to make people angry. Discipleship doesn’t mean exemption or privilege; it means bodily suffering; it means being opposed and rejected by even your own family; it means being willing to give up your very life.

And yet, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” Suddenly, the message of the sparrow isn’t about being free from worry. There’s clearly more than enough to worry about. Instead, Jesus seems to be exhorting his followers to bravery. His message is that God is with us…so we CAN face the inevitable struggles of discipleship with courage. We can keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when things seem hopeless, even when we don’t know what comes next, even when it feels like we’ve lost everything important to us. The promise of the sparrow is a promise of peace, not instead of, but WITHIN the turmoil that comes when you choose to live your life as a disciple of Christ. Jesus is telling his disciples all of this so that they know exactly what they’re signing up for, and can choose to be brave in the face of adversity.

The question for us, then, is…what do WE need to be brave about? Why do we need the comfort of knowing that “His eye is on the sparrow”? The challenges of following Jesus today are different than the challenges of following Jesus in the first century. We aren’t a community facing potential martyrdom at every turn. What threatens us as a consequence of our faith these days isn’t generally physical in nature. But we, the modern Church, are faced with our own struggles that make it especially important for us to remember the words of this hymn.

We’re at a crucial point in the history of the Church. Because of a global pandemic, we’ve been forced to reimagine how we worship, how we connect, and how we share the gospel for the sake of public health. Because of unprecedented partisanship, the “powers and principalities” of our nation have manufactured a narrative of “us vs. them” that permeates every aspect of modern life—including our faith. Because of the resurgence of a social justice movement in this age of social media, many of our eyes have been opened to injustices inherent in our society for the first time ever. Our old, time-worn ideas that Jesus brings uncomplicated comfort, peace, and safety are being challenged. We’re beginning to realize that maybe, just maybe, we have some work we need to do within ourselves in order to claim Christ as our teacher. It’s time to be brave. The crosses that we need to pick up aren’t courage in the face of persecution from outsiders, but courage in the face of transformative soul-searching.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” While Nietzsche was an unapologetic atheist, I think that these words speak to the great challenge facing the modern Church; why we, today, still need to be reminded that God is with us. For centuries, the task of the Church has been to stare fearlessly into the abyss of our broken world and offer it God’s truth (a responsibility which still persists today). We’ve been commissioned by Christ to call out the sin and injustice we see and to transform it into holiness and faithfulness. But the longer we stare into the abyss that is our fallen world, the harder it becomes to ignore the ways that we’re a part of it, and that it’s a part of us. To ignore the extent that we take part in the sin and injustice. As we stare into the abyss, the abyss stares accusingly back at us.

So maybe, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me” has yet another meaning that we may not have realized. Perhaps God’s not only watching us for purposes of companionship and care, but also as a way to hold us accountable in our kindom work. God’s eye is on us because we have a responsibility not only to share the gospel message, but to LIVE the gospel message ourselves. We can’t heal the world without also working to heal what’s broken within us. Jesus is my portion and constant friend, yes; but he’s also my accountability buddy.

This isn’t a threat intended to intimidate us. This, too, is a blessing. Just as those training for a marathon have workout buddies, AA members have sponsors, and doctoral students have dissertation advisors, we have someone ready, willing, and able to keep us on track as we work towards our goals. It’s all too easy for us to forget about the plank in our own eye while working to dislodge the speck from the world’s. I forgot to mention the first part of that Nietzsche quote: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” As totally depraved sinners, it’s too late: we’re already the monsters that Nietzsche describes. In the eternal struggle against the world’s sin, we must not allow our own sin to go unquestioned and unrepented. Our hubris, our bias, and especially our complicity in maintaining the status quo. That’s not who Jesus has called his disciples to be. Fortunately for us, God is there, watching and holding us accountable to make sure that we do better.

The reminder that God is watching us serves both to comfort us in the face of difficulty and to hold us accountable to the tasks set before us. When we hear, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me,” we should think less of these words as a warm blanket and more as a suit of armor. They don’t soothe us into complacency but inspire us to courage in the face of every challenge. And not just the external challenges, but also the ones that emerge from within ourselves. As we stare into the abyss, we mustn’t flinch when the abyss stares back. This, too, is a vital part of discipleship.

Through every difficulty, God is present with us, to bolster us up when we need it and to hold us accountable when we falter. Let’s honor this gift by receiving it gratefully and doing the unavoidable work that lies ahead of us. Why do I sing even as the staring abyss lays my sins bare before me? I sing because Christ will not leave me to face it alone. I sing because God won’t let me turn from the righteousness that God demands of me. I sing because I’m happy in the choice I’ve made to follow Jesus. I sing because I’m free to confront my own sin without shame. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. Amen.



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