When Jesus tells his disciples that they should not be afraid because God cares for them so much that even the hairs of their heads are counted, I have to think that assurance is a lot more comforting to some people than it is for others! In fact, that statement means less and less to me with each passing year.
On the other hand, Jesus mercifully Jesus balances that statement out with the one about no sparrow falling to earth without God’s notice. In ancient times, sparrows were the cheapest and most abundant source of meat. Relatively easy to trap and kill, they were sold for a fraction of a daily wage even though they really didn’t provide much nourishment. Yet, Jesus remarks, if the One who created the universe wants to and is able to keep track of the deaths of even the least valuable living thing, economically-speaking, then imagine how much more attention will God pay to the life of a being created in God’s image!Whether or not the disciples ended up finding these statements particularly encouraging or comforting is not known. I suspect they did, which is why Matthew took care to write them down. Regardless, Jesus certainly intended for them to be, and although we don’t eat songbirds in our culture I assume the same spirit of that comfort and encouragement goes for us as well.
And that’s all well and good. We all probably like feeling comforted and encouraged as much as the next guy or girl, but it begs the question: why would Jesus say something to comfort and encourage his disciples in the first place? What is going on between Jesus and his disciples that would make such dramatic declarations of God’s care necessary? Does Jesus say these things simply because he knows that there is a good chance each of us will deal with some sort of hardship in our life, be it cancer, or mental illness, or the betrayal of a spouse? It is because Jesus knows that we all suffer as a result of the terrible inequalities in this world and our widespread inability to discuss them lovingly and find level-headed ways to resolve them?
Would Jesus say these particular words, for example, to the thousands of immigrant children and youth warehoused right now at the border with Mexico who are desperately seeking a life beyond the grip of crippling poverty and crime—that they actually are more valuable than sparrows? Or, perhaps, is Jesus intending these words for the vulnerable families on the American side of the border whose relatively peaceful way of life is threatened by an ill-guarded border and an influx of illegal newcomers? Could he somehow intend them for both?
Truth be told, I suppose Jesus would and does want each and every person in harm’s way to be assured of God’s presence and protection, but these particular words of comfort about the hairs on our heads and the price of sparrows are not about just any type of suffering, however great it may be. Jesus has words elsewhere for those situations. These words, rather, are intended for those who will suffer on account of their faith in and witness to him. They are spoken to those who will be sent out to proclaim in word and deed the mercy and peace of God’s kingdom as it is being made known in Jesus Christ. Think of them as pep rally words before the big game or the speech from the general before the troops head into combat.
All of the words this morning from Jesus remind us that there is a cost to being one of his disciples. It’s easy to forget that—or gloss over it—in this day and age, and especially in this country where freedom of religious expression is basically protected. When I think of the costs of my own discipleship, my mind might wander to the portion of my income that goes to support the church or other charitable organizations, or maybe the evenings I have meetings and am pulled away from family.
Viewed this way, I’m afraid I might reducing Christian faith to little more than a way to self-fulfillment and inner peace, kind of like a hobby—as if Jesus came to bring about way of thinking that leads to a more balanced, more holistic life. While there is nothing wrong with any of those things, pep talks like the one Jesus gives his disciples this morning are stark reminders that following Jesus is not about self-fulfillment at all. It is always first and foremost about the kingdom of God and finding our place in it. Following Jesus, or “walking in newness of life,” as Paul calls it, is about the embodiment of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. It is about standing in all instances as a representative of a new world order which values mercy over sacrifice, forgiveness over revenge, and giving over receiving. Some of us may at long last find that those kinds of things lead to self-fulfillment, but that is not their point. Their point—and the disciple’s task—is to let folks know that God loves the world and therefore stands against all that would tear it apart. Jesus, the teacher, knows that his followers will be met with rejection and maybe even persecution for the message they bring. Why? Because he himself is met with even worse…and the disciple is not above the teacher.
Being buried with Jesus in our own baptism and rising to walk with him involves the death of and reorientation of a lot more things than we realize. Walking the Christian way is about learning and re-learning that over and over again. It is about letting the Spirit take stock of our lives and having that love of Christ renew our vision and re-form our decisions.
In fact, that is what this talk about family relationships is about, and why so much of Jesus’ discussion about discipleship uses language we typically associate with family. In Jesus’ time, family bonds were, hands-down, the most important mark of one’s identity. Family determined everything about one’s sense of well-being and his or her place in society in a way that is difficult for us to grasp today. In fact, family associations did not have much to do with love or affection. Family was everyone’s primary allegiance and place of loyalty, regardless of how you personally felt about them. This was the case even when those family arrangements were unfair or abusive, especially to women and widows or orphaned children. The decision to follow Jesus, then, usually challenged and often broke those allegiances. It gave believers a new identity—and a new freedom—that took precedence over all others.
I remember some baptisms we performed in my internship congregation in Cairo, Egypt. One afternoon we baptized some 30-odd Sudanese and Somali refugees who had undergone weeks of baptismal preparation not from people in our congregation within the two African congregations who shared the building with us. After the ceremony, one woman shyly presented my supervisor and me with some handmade gifts she had woven from simple fibers. The note, scrawled in broken English, which accompanied the gifts revealed that she had originally been a member of another faith, but that now she was so thankful to have found a true family that loved her with the love of Jesus. Her humble gifts were actually heartfelt “thank yous” to us for welcoming her in. I was proud of them and wanted to share the news, but my supervisor told me not to mention a word of it to anyone. In that country, that woman could have been sought out and killed for her decision to be baptized. It would have quite literally set her against her mother-in-law. Or her father. Or someone else in her family.
|Baptismal font, Bornholm, Sweden|
We would never have done anything to put that woman in harm’s way, but hers was a decision, you see, not of self-fulfillment, not of peace with everyone in her family group, but a decision to stand for a kingdom that was not yet fully welcome everywhere, a decision for a family of acceptance and forgiveness.
On the other side of that same coin, I remember a conversation I had with a man at our most recent Synod Assembly at Roanoke College. He freely shared with those of us in his discussion group that he looked forward every week to Sunday, not because of the music in worship or because what he heard preached and taught edified his life, but because, in his words, it was the only time he got to see people he considered family.
Into the midst of so much turmoil and uncertainty goes this family of Jesus, imperfect and wounded though we often are, and distant though we may sometimes feel from another. Among the borders with Mexico as well as here safe in the heart of Virginia…against the violence-mongering mafia families of southern Italy… around the dinner tables Henrico County that are riven by strife as well as those that are pictures of harmony…anywhere a sparrow falls can appear this kingdom of Jesus, and we are empowered to weave our unworthy gifts of thanks and praise with the one thread that will actually hold the world together: the kind of love that dies on a cross.
We are sent to these places and others like it dismantling systems and groups that with that word of love. And when we worry about the hairs on our heads and the costs it will involve, the complete and utter loss of our lives, let us never forget that the one who gives us this pep talk—the one whose watery name we bear on our heads—has decided to comfort us with more than just words. He has comforted us with his own death. So that in the end, and as we follow, we will not simply find peace and self-fulfillment. We will find something far better: we will find ourselves with our brothers and sisters standing on the side of the one kingdom where death no longer has dominion. That is, we will find life.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.