Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
June 25, 2017
You are Sparrows, You are Bread
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father….So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (10:29, 31)
Jesus’ question about the sparrows is rhetorical, and it’s no accident. Sparrows are small, numerous, rather insignificant birds, but most important for Jesus’ audience is that sparrows are just about the least expensive kind of meat one could buy in those days. Shouldn’t be surprising: there’s not much meat on a sparrow.
This passage today is part of Jesus’ long instructions to twelve disciples whom he will send out as apostles. This detail about the sparrows clues us in to what these guys are like. If Jesus is deliberately using really, really cheap food to make a point, then we should expect that his audience knows what he’s talking about, that they’re the kind of people who buy that kind of food with some regularity.
Two inferences can be made: his disciples are not entirely destitute—if they were, they wouldn’t be buying sparrows. But they’re also probably having to stretch each paycheck as much as possible—otherwise, they wouldn’t be buying sparrows.
Notice what this means: in the grand scheme of things, sparrows are insignificant in terms of their value. You can get two scrawny little sparrows for a penny; they’re not worth much. And yet at the same time, if this is the only kind of meat his disciples can afford—other than the fish they catch, that is—if this is the only kind of meat they can afford to buy, then to Jesus’ audience, sparrows actually are fairly important.
It’s a powerful image. By using the sparrow as his example, Jesus recognizes that his followers aren’t paid much attention by the folks in power. Roman imperial authorities, scribes and Pharisees—they see Jesus’ disciples as no more significant than the cheap, scrawny sparrows they wouldn’t be caught dead eating. And yet in the context of Jesus’ disciples’ own financially strapped existence, sparrows are significant. They provide affordable protein and sustenance—Jesus’ disciples are even more valuable than many sparrows, as they provide true sustenance, true bread of life to hungry people.
Jesus reminds his disciples that there are no insignificant people in the eyes of God. The powers and principalities of this world pay no attention to the sparrows when they fall. But under the reign of God, those who are powerful in this world will come to see the intrinsic worth and value of sparrows, of anyone currently overlooked by the powers of this world, for not even a sparrow falls outside of God’s loving attention.
Nothing is insignificant in the eyes of God. Not sparrows, and certainly not people. However, the context in which something is seen changes our receptivity to its significance. Depending on where you’re standing—if you’re Peter the fisherman, or a Roman centurion—a sparrow may or may not appear to matter much.
I was reminded yesterday of how changeable the value of something can be based on where you’re standing. Our movers came and packed up Lucy’s and my house. I mostly stayed out of their way, tucked in a back room trying to write a sermon, while periodically venturing out to answer a question or get something from the kitchen. As I watched the movers packing everything up, I noticed this long, thin, cylindrical bundle wrapped in paper leaning up against the wall, waiting to be taken to the moving truck. It was labelled with its contents: “hall closet: broom, large umbrella, Swiffer, a long stick.”
That “long stick” was wrapped up casually with the broom, umbrella and Swiffer. I don’t use it for anything, but it’s important to me. It’s about five feet long and a little bit smaller in diameter than my wrist. I brought it back with me from Uganda about nine years ago. I was there volunteering for a few months in a little village. While I was there I got to be friends with a brother and sister named Deo and Zaitun. He was 19, and she was 17, and they’d been orphans for seven years. Deo had been the head of his family since he was 12. I got to be friends with them while I was there. I helped Deo cut trees to frame his latrine. I played soccer with him. He taught me some Luganda; I helped him improve his English.
Deo and Zaitun supported themselves by farming an acre of ground owned by their uncle. While we were there, something happened, the details of which were never clear to me, but Deo and Zaitun weren’t able to farm that patch of ground anymore even though they’d already planted it. Fortunately, someone from their village lent them some land for the year, and since it was late in the season, Deo and Zaitun were frantic to get some crops in the ground so they could start growing. They decided to plant cassava, which was new to me; if you’re wondering, it’s just a big, starchy root vegetable that produces a lot.
Deo asked if I would help them dig for planting. I said sure, and he said thank you, and could I please bring my own hoe. Next time I was in a town I went to a little hardware shop and picked up a hoe blade. I said, “Do you have any that come with a handle?” The shopkeeper smiled and said, “You must provide.” I’ve never felt more like a mzungu with a liberal arts degree. I got back to the village, and asked the matriarch of my host family for help. She laughed her old woman’s laugh and led me into the bush with a machete. She pointed to a thin tree and told me to hack it down, and then she showed me how to strip the bark and hack off the knobs and stuff to fit a handle.
I spent the next few days with Deo and Zaitun, digging holes big enough to sink a watermelon into. I’d done plenty of yard work before, but nothing anybody’s livelihood depended on, and not for multiple days in a row. We’d dig in the morning. I’d argue with Deo about English football teams, then late morning we’d stop and make a fire and clean out a pot and walk to buy a little bag of cooking oil from somebody and do all the other hundred things preparing a meal requires in those parts of the world where ovens don’t plug into the wall because the walls, when there are walls, are made of reeds and packed mud.
To this day, those few days I spent helping Deo and Zaitun dig holes is one of the most formative experiences of my life. I learned that wherever you go, when it comes to ministry, the job is always about working with people. There is no poverty dragon out there you can slay. There is no hardship monster that leaps out of the woods at night and attacks people, and if only we could capture and kill that hardship monster, people would no longer grieve or starve or weep. There is no vaccine against grief. Wherever you go, it is always and only people; it is always and only our openness to hear their own stories, without judgment, in their own words, with all their own assumptions and biases and insights; it is always and only our willingness to approach them and say, “Hey, I need help digging some holes” and our willingness to say, “Sure. Can you show me how to do it?” that matters. Wherever you go—Uganda, Texas, Montgomery—people are always people, and people are always significant, people are always worth more than many sparrows.
I never really knew that until I spent a few days digging holes with a hoe with a homemade handle in a field in Africa. I’ve kept the handle of that hoe with me since then. To me it’s kind of a symbol of the only authority anyone ever has to do anything good, which is simply the authority that comes with making an honest effort to see people as God sees them. It’s a powerful symbol, one under the judgment of which I endeavor to stand.
And yesterday, the movers came, and they bundled up that symbol of one of the most important experiences of my life with a broom, an umbrella, and a Swiffer and labelled it: “a long stick.” I was a little incredulous at first, and I began to marvel at the oddness of paying three strange men come into your house and handle all of your belongings, to wrap them in brown paper and then load them into a truck and drive off without you. The two dollar science fiction novel on the shelf gets no more or less attention than the bible given to you by your parents. Your work out clothes are packed right next to the suit you got married in. And the matter-of-fact way these strange men handle everything begs the question, “Why do you think all this stuff is important?”
The context in which something is seen changes our receptivity to its significance. Depending on where you’re standing, a sparrow may or may not appear to matter much. To professional movers, there’s not much difference between a casual breakfast plate and pottery made by French monks because it’s all breakable and all goes into the same box. But then I realized that, even though these three moving guys treated all the books the same, all the clothes the same, all the plates the same, regardless of their value to us, they only did so because they were being careful with everything. They didn’t treat the bible my dad gave me worse; they treated the cheap science fiction novel better.
Why? Perhaps because everything is significant: not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from your Father in heaven. Watching them work, being careful with every little thing, I couldn’t help but think of the three men who came to visit Abraham last week.
It was then that I started to treat them with the dignity they deserved. I started to talk to them, ask about their families, that kind of stuff—just treating them as something more than laborers hired to facilitate one particular transition in my own life. Our “movers” became “Rick, Chris and Sean.” We ordered lunch, and I learned that Rick is based in Texas, but Chris and Sean are here in Alabama. Sean has two kids, a boy and a girl. He used to do more long haul moving jobs, but it was hard on his family, so he stays local now. Rick just finished a big job in Tennessee, and this is his last stop before he gets to go home to his wife of 27 years. Rick hasn’t been home in five weeks. (He should be arriving this morning, actually.) And Chris, well, Chris is really good at working hard while also using the Bluetooth earpiece function on his cell phone.
To be honest, if I hadn’t been preaching about this passage today, I probably wouldn’t have thought anything about Rick, Chris, or Sean. They were people I hired. Or, to be more accurate, they’re the people the Diocese of West Texas hired on our behalf. Like Jesus’ disciples, they’re not destitute—they work hard, and they get paid for it. But also like Jesus’ disciples, they’re probably not the kind of people who would scoff at buying two sparrows for a penny. They’re the kind of people the Pharisees and Roman citizens and I and many of us can afford to overlook because we don’t think of ourselves as the kind of people who deal with sparrows.
Yesterday, I was reminded that without the pressure of the Gospel, I am basically just interested in spending my time, my money, and my energy making my life easier and more entertaining. Sparrows are just sparrows. Movers are just movers. A long stick is just a long stick.
In that kind of life, bread is always just bread, and wine is always just wine. When Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven, he sends them out beyond the horizons of mere utility and into the fields of sacrament, where there are no insignificant people, where being washed with water becomes being cleansed of sin and raised to new life, where bread becomes the body of Jesus and wine becomes the blood of Jesus, where movers are hard-working people grinding for their families, people with particular cares and desires, people who prefer orange Gatorade above all others.
The harvest that field produces is always more abundant and more challenging than we think it will be. Bread becomes the body of Jesus, and we, who eat of that bread, we become His body, too, part of the body of God, clothed in the life of the Trinity itself. And then what? Well, God takes us, maybe breaks us into manageable pieces, and gives us out as bread for the world, just like those first disciples. You are bread God is offering the world. You are the sparrows hungry people can afford. You are the comfort grieving people can afford. You are the companionship lonely people can afford. Everybody in this room, scattered by Jesus like bread crumbs for the birds of Montgomery.
I’m grateful to have shared this field with you for a while. I’m grateful to have been your friend and priest. Thank you for your generosity and encouragement, and for being a place where I can stretch my fledgling wings a bit. Godspeed, Amen.