Delle asked me to preach this morning, based on something I wrote, and emailed to her, that I called "A midrash about the eye on the sparrow." Remember that "midrash" is a word we learned, from the rabbi who Delle invited to preach?
Anyway, I had not written it as a sermon. I feel strongly that sermons should be on the assigned texts, to keep preachers from lazily preaching on all the easy stuff, and never grappling with the bigger issues. Delle graciously compromised: I could just. . . combine it, whatever the texts. So, I'm just sayin', if this gets confusing, we can always blame Delle!
The sermon title, as you may have noticed, is "of kings and sparrows." So I did combine them. Maybe Delle was right.
These texts are hard enough, without reference to birds. The story line, in the gospel, is of Jesus, and includes two familiar, but fairly unrelated, tales.
The first one is of Jesus and the feeding of the 5000, from the basket of a child, who has two loaves and five fishes. There is an obvious tie-in, of theme, with the Old Testament lesson, where Elisha feeds 100 men from ten loaves. If we do the math, we can see that Jesus bested Elisha by at least 100 fold, as one might expect from a messiah, if this whole thing was a competition.
The second part of the gospel has Jesus strolling across the surface of a lake, sans boat, in the wee hours, and scaring his boat-borne disciples, who were already shaken by a storm, which Jesus promptly calmed. No puddle-gliding by a prophet, to thematically compare that to.
So, where are we, with all this?
The answer is sometimes found in the context. The passages preceding today's gospel are also about miracles, about crowds of people. In that instance, Jesus is healing folks until he is about to drop from fatigue, and they still keep coming. It's worse than the waiting room, in Rudy's office!
So healing, then the story of the feeding multitudes, and then the midnight water walk. Miracles. . . but to what end?
It feels like the crowds are leaning on Jesus, and his magic, to be their cure-all doctor, and then to be their farmer and feeder and cook, and then to take their hand, when they are scared. What is going on here? Next thing they are probably going to bug him to tell them where they left their car keys. Or to make their politicians behave themselves.
It was really verse 15 that began to reach me. "Jesus knew that they were about to come and seize him, in order to make him king, by force, so he went off again, into the hills, by himself."
There were really two options for an Old Testament lesson today. The one WE read tied in, by theme, since it had to do with stretching a skimpy food budget to feed unexpected guests. Susan and Sharon could tell us about feeding people. Those who have brought cans of food for the Foodbank also know. Elisha knew.
But there is a more traditional Old Testament option for today, and it is the story of David and Bathsheba. Or, more accurately, the story of how David betrayed, and assassinated, his loyal soldier, Bathsheba's husband,. Uriah. Another familiar story, but one that would be hard to tie to feeding multitudes, or walking on water.
In this alternative text, it is the first verse that caught my attention, so I'll share it. Before David even lays eyes, or hands, on Bathsheba, and spirals into deception and murder, there is this opening sentence:
"The following spring, at the time of the year when kings usually go to war, David sent out Joab with his officers, and the Israelite army: they defeated the Ammonites and besieged the city of Rabbah. But David himself stayed in the city of Jerusalem."
Til I read that verse, I had no idea that there was a time of year that was "when kings usually go to war." Isn't spring when farmers plant crops, so that people can eat? But kings "go to war." Not because they've been invaded, and need to defend their people and land. But because it is, I guess, tradition. It is what kings do. Maybe it is good politics. Proves you care enough to kill the very best. Proves that you are macho. Distracts people from asking just what the job of king is, or why YOU get to wear the crown, or how the economy is going, or why the cronies are up at the top, or who the king is sleeping with.
Why do we have kings? Why do we have football gods, for that matter, with statues that have to be torn down, when they cover up pedophilia. Why do we have candidate ads that focus on fear, where the other guy is a slimy spineless demon, and you guy all sunshine and strength? Why do we want the one who is "man enough" to send out assassination drones, and to send out the best and brightest, or the poorest and most desperate, to die. But not the candidate who is sane enough, for example, to say we shouldn't let less kingly madmen buy arsenals to use on innocents, closer to home?
I'm not being flip, or even political in this questioning. Well, maybe a little bit political, but mostly, I think it is a valid question. The Israelites had judges, and they wanted a king. instead. And, if you look at the objective evidence, we seem to want a king, instead of, for example, a president.
Kings send their citizens to war, mostly because it is that time of year, and even when the king, himself, would rather stay home, in Jerusalem, and indulge the other prerogatives of corruption.
The crowds wanted to make Jesus their king, by force if he couldn't be talked into it, and Jesus ran away, as fast, and hard, as he could. He would heal them, and feed them, and walk on water to hold their hand in the dark and stormy night, and even die for them, but he did not want to be their king.
So, who is this Jesus?
In the first week of June, I was watering my sunflowers, in the early morning, and a small white parakeet fluttered onto my driveway. Once I identified that it really was not some wild bird, I put my hand down, and talked reassuringly. But it would not let me get closer than a foot away. So I called to my neighbor, Howard, who was out tending his garden and his cats, to come and help me capture it. Howard found some wine-colored gauze cloth, and tossed it over the tiny bird, and held the perimeters, while I wrapped the bird, and took it in my hand.
I had no birdcage, but did have a large dog carrier, with open windows covered with square wire bars less than an inch apart. I put a small heavy-bottomed glass of water in there, and then began to loosen the bird from the cloth. It took a good bit to unfurl him, since I had to keep the door closed, and work from the outside. But he was finally free, and he hopped to a wire window, to have a perch, and to see the world outside. I pushed bits of bread through the bars, and some seeds. And then went to clear a place, in the house, where the large dog carrier would be high enough up that our dog would not trouble it.
But while I was inside, the bird escaped. I could hardly believe it-- the openings were so small between the wire bars. But the bird had been frightened and desperate. And now, it was gone.
I looked everywhere. I peered into neighbor's yards, scanned low tree branches, walked the block, and the next block. It was getting hotter and hotter, and cats were prowling, and where was there water for it to drink? By evening, I gave it up. The pudgy little white bird, by then, was either dead or had survived, but nothing that I could do would affect it.
Still, it is hard to give up on something that you have held in your hand, and tried to save. It was incredible that it should have come to my driveway, it was incredible that Howard and I were able to capture it. It was miraculous. Surely God intended something here. But what?
My sister, when I emailed her about it, quoted back to me "God's eye is on the sparrow."
And when I began to think about it, that was an odd thing for Jesus to say. In one sense, it seems to trivialize human life, and death, for God to be watchful of birds. Why did Jesus decide to express a concern about us, by talking about birds? Why not just talk about us?
I suppose, in part, it is to point out that God does not watch us-- and stay with us, in our life and in our hour of death-- because we are so intrinsically more important that other living creatures. We need to get over ourselves-- birds count too. God watches them, cares about them. Maybe there is a bird heaven [or doggy heaven or earthworm heaven], maybe not. But God IS with them, at the time of their death. They don't fall to the ground alone.
God will not spare us death. It will come. But God will be with us.
Several years back, when an execution was scheduled in Arizona, I would attend the clemency hearings, representing CWU and the AEC. After a day of the defense attorneys, and then prosecution attorneys, restaging what they had said at the sentencing hearings, years before, the Clemency Board would allow a 5 minute statement from anyone else who attended, before it voted [as it is appointed to do] against clemency.
I spoke. I would start by saying, for the sake of the victim's family who were there, "Your loved on did not die alone and frightened. They may have been frightened, but God was with them, and the next face they saw was the face of God. They did not die alone."
Then, for the family of the person who was going to be executed. "I have come to speak for clemency, in the hope that your family member will not die at the hands of the state. But, if it comes to pass, I say the same thing to you. He will not die alone. God is there. God is there for all of us. The next face he will see will be the face of God."
God's eye is on the sparrow, and God's watchful presence, as it falls from the sky. God's eye is on that parakeet, wherever it is. God is with each of us, across the globe, without exception. We may be frightened, but we are not alone.
Today's Ephesians text tells us that Jesus makes his home in our hearts, so that we, together with all God's people, may “have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ's love, which can never be fully known.” We, all of us, are to be “completely filled with the very nature of God."
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the one who is our doctor, not to impress us, but because we need healing. Jesus is the one who feeds us, not to flaunt the miracle machine, but because we faint for lack of food, and won't share unless we get some childlike trust that allows us to offer up our loaves and fishes, or our canned goods for the Foodbank drive. Jesus is the one who crosses the water, not to stun us that he can, but to get to where our boats are, and be with us. Jesus is the one who does not want to be king, and doesn't want us to want a king.
Jesus is the one who wants us to govern ourselves as though their were no borders or boundaries or inequalities among us, and as though all of us, without exception, could be filled with the very nature of God. Jesus is the one who wants doctors without borders, and no more starvation, anywhere, ever again, and no more seasons for sending our young men and women to kill, and to die, because it is spring, and politics requires it. Jesus is the one who lovingly counts the hairs on our heads, and who let's us hold the small wilding bird in our hand, and feel its heart, and want to do what is right, and then who reminds us that all the birds belong to him, and his care.
This text in Ephesians ends with yet another reminder about who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who, by means of his power, working in us, is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, or even think of."
There IS a kingship that is worthy of Jesus, and it is the kingdom of God. The place we pray for, and are citizens of. Where people are fed, and forgiven, and folded into God's care, singing happy hymns and holding hands and taking stands.
If we stop trying to drag Jesus, by force, into being the kind of king we want, and let Jesus be who Jesus is, and let Jesus transform us, every one of us, into being filled with the nature of God, and doing along with Jesus, healthcare for everybody, food pantries and refugee camps overflowing with shared food, governments transformed, fear and violence shrunk-wrapped to nothingness, then we get to know who Jesus is, and working in and with us, all of it can be done, more than we ever knew was possible, or thought to ask for.
That's who Jesus is.
The next question is. . . who do we choose to be. And what miracle project are we going to join Jesus in working for.
May the God who watches sparrows, and tiny white parakeets, watch over us
as well. May the Feeder of the multitudes help us plant seeds, and
harvest crops, and bake bread, and share it with the world, sitting down
to a common table. May the Jesus who walks on water, show us where the
stepping stones are. May the God who would not be the king we sought,
lead us into the Kingdom we never even knew to ask for. May we wake up
Monday morning, prepared to live out what we believe on Sunday.