Small, Swift Birds
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017
Third Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 25, 2017
Click below to hear the sermon preached
If we were asked the most important thing in our lives, I suspect many of us would reply, “My family.” Families in the best sense are where we learn love: where we are accepted, where we are nurtured, where we are accepted even when we are unacceptable. In The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost imagines someone saying,
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.’
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.
That’s our dream of family. It’s a good dream and a wonderful reality when it happens.
Of course, we know not all families are like this. Families are where we are meant to love but where sadly sometimes there is violence, sometimes there is oppression. Not all families accept each other. So many of people have stories about being fearful coming out to family. My own family included a deep story about my mother’s upbringing and she never lost her bitterness and feeling that in the gendered values of her family, she was less important, less valuable, than her brother. So families are a mixed bag. And today we’ve heard Jesus say some shocking things about causing division in family. What does he mean? What does he intend us to get from this?
Putting Jesus’ Words in Context
We need to put these sayings in context. When we say, ‘family’, we really mean a mother, father, kids, perhaps a few close relatives. But the family of Roman times was a much larger unit, a whole household. It was usually headed by a senior male and included adult sons and their wives, their children, perhaps other relatives, the senior male’s wife and slaves. In well to do families or households all these would live together; in poorer households, they might occupy an apartment building.
Roman religion and Jewish practice all centered on this pyramid of power. Women were not allowed to eat with men or talk to them at meals in most places. Slaves were an intimate part of the household but had no power. Babies could be exposed and killed at birth; children were not always prized. The decision, as in all household matters, was left to the head of the family. So when we hear family here, we need to think of this pyramid of power, this household with slaves and children at the bottom, women a little higher up, sons higher still, and finally at the top an older man.
Contrast this with Jesus. We hear almost nothing about his father and he disregards his mother and brothers and sisters at various points in the gospel stories, reuniting with his mother at his death. Instead, Jesus constructs a household. When his own family tries to bring him back from preaching and healing, he says,
And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ [Mark 3:34-35]
He invites a group of men and—shockingly!—women to come with him on his journey of healing and preaching. The gospels focus on 12 men but Luke mentions 70 people and lists a group of women that traveled with him. John has a set of stories that focus on Mary and Martha and makes it clear that he has a prior relationship with them. We know from a wide variety of stories that Jesus’ practice was a source of constant criticism. Over and over again, we read, “He eats with sinners”, a category that includes women, gentiles, and people who don’t observe the codes of family and religious life.
Jesus himself relates this here: he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”. Beelzebul is a demonic figure. He understands that if he is criticized, those who follow him will be as well. His solution is simple: everything will be revealed. His solution is to give away being part of this new family: show it and share it.
…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. [Matthew 10:26f]
Everything is going to be revealed, everything is an open invitation.
This Is Invitation!
That is the most important thing to understand about this text: it is invitation. Just before today’s reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to go out and spread the good news of this new household he is creating. Their mission, he says, is to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. He tells them some places won’t let them do this; just go on, he says. He tells them some people will oppose them; just go on, he says. Here in what we read, he focuses on the fact that even some members of their own families will oppose them. Just go on: make this new way the most import fact of your life, make this new household, the most important relationship in your life.
Why follow Jesus, if it’s going to cause such division and heartache? Because where we follow him is into a relationship with God so loving, so intimate, so particular that nothing else compares. He says, “…even the hairs of your head are counted.” Think of this: think what it would take to count the hairs of your head, think how intimate you would have to be with someone to do that, to sit with them, listen to them talk, through that process. That’s the way Jesus is God with; that’s how Jesus invites us to be with God. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? Yet this what gives life, he says. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
It’s not an easy way because it means changing yourself. It means learning a new way of looking at the world. Years ago, I was the pastor of a church much like this one, a big old building needing constant cleaning. We hired an organization that employed differently abled people and every day their crew would come in. The one I remember most was a young guy with some mental challenges who liked to engage me. I wore shoes with laces in those days and when he would see me, he would say, “Tie shoe!” and then laugh hysterically. At first I would politely smile, and go on with whatever I was doing. But this was a constant thing and it began to make me wonder and to be honest, annoy me a little, because he wasn’t satisfied to just let it go; he wanted me to laugh too. Finally I mentioned it to the supervisor. He said, “Oh, he had a problem learning to tie his shoes, so we used to tease him about tying his shoes. Somewhat chastened, reminded I was supposed to be a loving Christian, the next time he said it, I forced myself to laugh too. I learned to be more patient; I learned to laugh. Finally, one day, I discovered: I got the joke. I laughed, real laughter. He had taught me to stop, laugh, be there with him for a moment. I was healed.
This is what we are about: healing people. There’s a lot of talk here about growing the church and I’m just like you, I love it when the pews fill up. Now the 1950’s model of church growth was to find a place where people were moving, open up there, and they will come. That worked—in the 1950’s. It’s not going to work here.
A more modern way of growing a church is to market it like a new kind of toothpaste, or bread or anything else. The model of these large mega churches is Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels didn’t start out by figuring out what Jesus said; he started out going around to people in an area outside Chicago and listening to what they wanted and then creating a church that would tell them what they wanted to hear. Today you do this by finding someone who will use great music, great pictures, and great words to tell people they are right and good just as they are. That might work; I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.
Because Jesus doesn’t say one word about getting a lot of people together. He says: go out and heal. And that’s what we are doing, what we are meant to do. Most of the people who visit here and come here have been hurt; some are sick. They come here with scars, they come here with the hope that we can offer something that will help them. And we can.
At the center of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is this:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10:2-31]
Small, Swift Birds
Two sparrows: this is the food of the poor, this is the common bird no one notices, this is the little bit of almost nothing that flits and isn’t appreciated. Yet here is Jesus telling us that God cares about the sparrows. If we really believe that, if we act like it, if we live it, how can we help caring for others too? How can we not learn to laugh with the “Tie shoe!” joke? How can we not help and heal?
One of my favorite bands has a song called, Small, Swift Birds. It uses this image to teach us to appreciate how important every encounter is, to teach us to appreciate each moment.
I have heard about the lives of small swift birds. They dazzle with their colour and their deftness through the air. Just a simple glimpse will keep you simply standing there…. And then there’s the day we look for them and can’t find them anywhere.
The song reminds us of the value of each small moment. Each day, every day, Jesus invites us to live as members of his household. He knows it will cost us but he knows that what he offers is priceless. Each of you is so precious to God. Each other person out there is just as precious. He gathered us to share God’s love; he sends out to heal God’s people. This week, this month, every day: remember that you are on a mission from God to be the image of God’s love.