UCC commentator Kathryn Matthews writes of today’s assigned Scripture readings, “When the focus theme for this reading is ‘God and Sparrows,’ we have a golden opportunity to spend a little time –in the beautiful days of summer (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere)– meditating on the secret lives of small birds and vulnerable creatures.” (Sermon Seeds, 6/25/17)”Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asked. “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.”
It sounds lovely and something of a relief,… but really? It sounds a little like walking clear-eyed and straight ahead in a super-hero movie in a hail of arrows. On the one side, the power and passion of Jeremiah’s rant at God – “O Lord, you have enticed me [seduced me really], and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.” And on the other side, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ saying, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not come to bring peace, but a sword…Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Yikes, can you really read all that and then meditate on the secret lives of small birds and vulnerable creatures?
Of course, meditating on small birds and vulnerable creatures could still take you to some pretty sticky places, like what our human actions have done to the habitats of small birds and vulnerable creatures, and the consequences of our pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Or what about the “small birds and vulnerable creatures” within the human species, left completely vulnerable by the latest proposed Health Care Act. Maybe such a meditation isn’t a copout after all.
I love what Barbara Brown Taylor says about this passage in Matthew–
This burr from Matthew’s Gospel is one of those passages I wish he had never written down. I wish a gust of wind had scattered all his notes and blown that page away. I wish he had forgotten all about it until he was done with his Gospel and there was no place left to put it. I do not like this passage, because it seems so contrary to what we need in the world right now. The American family is so fragile, so fractured. The last thing we need is another reason to be set against each other, especially a reason decreed by Jesus himself. The last thing we need is a Lord who strides into our living rooms with a sword in his hand to chop us apart. Most of us are already so chopped apart that he would be hard-pressed to put any more distance between us than is already there. [“Learning to Hate Your Family,” in God in Pain]
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth [Jesus said]; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Or I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
I think some years this ends up being the gospel lesson for Father’s Day, which makes you wonder what sort of sandwich filled with nails the lectionary committee had for lunch that day. “This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is good news!” Actually, for many in Matthew’s community, this was good news. In that time, the family was the structure that literally kept you alive. With no other social networks or safety nets, the family provided not only a place of belonging but food, shelter, livelihood, social security.
For any member of the family to claim allegiance to Jesus meant to put the whole family at risk. The gospel sword which Jesus talked about divided families, cutting off those who went with Jesus to protect the other members from persecution by the Romans, thus leaving those who had been cut off without any sort of security. Family members often snitched on their Christian brothers and sisters to protect themselves. (“One’s foes will be members of one’s household.”) To hear Jesus say that he had come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother was a relief. “Ah, this is what he meant to happen,” and a new family was formed amongst the members of Jesus’ community. “You’ve lost that life,” Jesus was saying, “but you’ve gained an even deeper, richer life in this community, this ‘kin-dom’ of God.”
Of course, families are torn apart in the 21st century as much as they were in the first. Just about half of all marriages end in divorce, which is not to blame everyone who goes through a divorce. Sometimes it was the marriage that was a mistake, not the divorce. “Plus,” as Barbara Brown Taylor describes so vividly,
divorce is not the only thing that divides our families. There are parents who abuse their young children, and grown children who abuse their aging parents. There are parents and children who have reached an impasse over money, lifestyle, or religion and no longer speak to each other. There are brothers and sisters who have fought over the same things and have erased each from their address books. When the separation is mutual it is bad enough, but it is even worse when you have been cut off and you don’t know why, or you do know why and you want to work it out but you can’t, because the telephone number is unlisted and the letters are not answered and the Christmas presents come back marked, ‘Return to Sender.’
This is very painful stuff, about as painful as it gets. [Members of the LGBTQ community are often especially aware of this.] Whether it is rejection by your family or rejection of your family, the rejection itself can consume you, so that you begin to define yourself by it, spending so much time either holding yourself apart from your family or trying to get it back together again that there is precious little time left for anything else. No one knows how to hurt each other the way family members do…..This is no doubt why a large percentage of the homicides in this country take place in homes among family members. [Ibid.]
You may be wishing by now that I had taken Kate Matthews’ advice and offered a meditation on the secret lives of small birds and vulnerable creatures. Families, of course, can be wonderful, life-saving, life-giving gifts from God, though even the most “perfect” ones have their own flaws and issues. As long as they are made up of flawed human beings, our families will be less than “perfect,” whatever “perfect” means. I prefer the sense of “perfect” as in the Biblical root of the word “shalom,” which sometimes gets translated as perfect. It means “whole,” all the parts living in harmony. Sometimes you have to get used to what the harmony for your family sounds like. It may have some pretty funky harmonics!
A colleague of mine was meeting with a couple for what was to be the last premarital counseling session before their wedding. They had already dealt with the “biblical and theological perspectives on the apparent issues in” the couple’s upcoming marriage, he said, and at this meeting, they were just supposed to be going over the edits of the wedding ceremony itself. “As I was about to pass out the red ink pens,” Craig writes, “Mike said, ‘Before we get into this I have to say I’m really scared.’”
He now had Sue’s attention. As he saw her stunned look he quickly added, ‘Oh, I’m not afraid of marrying you. I’m terrified of losing you.’ Then he looked back at me and explained, ‘Several years ago my mother died, and it almost killed me.’ Turning again to Sue he continued, ‘What if something happens to you too? I can’t imagine how I would survive.’”
There is that, too, about families, isn’t there? Loved ones die. The sword goes straight through our hearts.
The groom turned to the pastor imploringly, wanting some reassurance like, “Oh Mike, you’re young. You and Sue, I’m sure, have many wonderful years together ahead of you,” but as Craig wrote, “I’ve buried too many young people to say that.”
So, as compassionately as possible, I said, ‘Mike, in my experience 100 percent of marriages come to an end, and you’ll never beat those odds.’ There was a pause before Mike stammered out, ‘What?’ I tried again. ‘Well, your marriage will end in either death or divorce. There are no alternatives.’ This time his face was blank.
I sat back in my chair. ‘Let’s say you have a fabulous marriage that lasts as long as we can imagine. How about 60 years? Or 70? There are few of those, but let’s assume you have 70 years, and that each of those years is an experience in deeper intimacy. Still, one of you is eventually going to have to lay the other into the arms of God. That day will tear you apart.’
Young people often assume that the funerals for old lovers are not so difficult, as if the weeping person in the first pew is thinking, ‘Well, we had a good run.’ To the contrary, the better the marriage the harder it is at the end. A great marriage concludes with two souls that have become so intertwined the survivor has no idea what survive means without the one in the grave.
So I looked at Mike and continued, ‘That’s the best possible scenario for your marriage–to share a love so incredible and so long with Sue that it almost kills you to give her up at the end.’ He was not encouraged.
‘So why do you want to go through all of that?’ I asked. ‘I say give her up today. Give her back to the Creator who made her, sustains her, and to whom she will always belong. Get the grieving over with before it becomes unbearable. Let God hold her. That way, every morning when you find her next to you, you can rejoice in the temporary gift you can still enjoy.” [M. Craig Barnes, Christian Century, June 21, 2017]
That is easier said than done, of course. Bruce and I are now into our 40th year of marriage. Daryl and Vic renewed their marriage vows here in this sanctuary last night after 25 years together. Caleb and Katie Goossen just said their marriage vows for the first time last Saturday. Some of us have never been married, but hopefully we have people in our lives so dear to us that we wonder how we would survive without them. The only way is to give them over to God now, always, trusting that deep Mystery in which we are all held.
That’s what Sue finally concluded when, as it turns out, Mike died of a heart attack at age 50. It was Sue who was left behind. But in an e-mail to the pastor who had married them, she said that “in the six months that have passed, I can say I revere this mystery. I don’t want or need to understand everything about our lives on this earth.”
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asked. “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.” As it turns out, we all are vulnerable creatures.
That’s worth meditating upon. “Do not be afraid. You may be a wife or husband, father or mother, brother or sister, but more than any of those, you are beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold.” May that be enough for today, and all our tomorrows.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark