“Sparrows and Sparring” Matthew 10:24-39

I am a big fan of Chef Jacques Pepin.  You may remember him from some memorable cooking shows on PBS with an elderly Julia Child, or from his cooking shows about “fast food my way” where he would show people how quickly and easily a really good meal could be prepared with just simple ingredients you might already have on hand.

            Lately though, his passion seems to be showing you what to do with leftovers as he hates to see anything go to waste. 

That approach really appeals to me because I learned to cook from my mother who rarely if at ever just warmed up leftovers.  She always viewed them as a challenge to create something new and interesting.

            So I find it fascinating to watch Jacques Pepin reach into his refrigerator and pull out a bit of this, a little of that, and then to create something completely different out of the bits and pieces that would otherwise have been thrown away.

            “Here’s a little potato, some vegetables, a piece of chicken and some sausage, and so today I am going to show you how to make a tasty soup….”  Jacques would say, and then go to work, fearlessly throwing together things that would not at first seem to go together at all.

            You have to admire his boldness in the kitchen!

            Sometimes reading this part of Matthew’s Gospel feels a little bit like that.  It feels like you are perusing the leftovers of sayings of Jesus to see what you have to work with here.

            Here we have a saying about slaves and masters, a reference to when the Pharisees accused Jesus of being able to do his miracles in Beelzebub’s name, some assurances about not fearing, a little story about sparrows, some teaching about parents and children not sharing the same ideas… let me show you how to blend all these left-over sayings of Jesus together into a new idea.

            The preacher is faced with either pulling apart all these pieces presented to see where they may have come from and how they might be connected.

            Or, the preacher can choose to focus on just one of the pithy thoughts or themes and spending some time in that.

            I’m choosing a third option, inspired by Jacques Pepin.   Let’s take a couple of things that pair well together and spend a little time with them, so see what we can make of them, shall we?

            I’m choosing the bits about Sparrows and Sparring. 

            There is a theme of contention in this collection of sayings.   The relationship of slave to master is a contentious one, fraught with expectations and friction, demands and assumptions.

            No slave serves willingly, no matter what the appearances.  The differential of power is felt and acknowledged. 

            It is not an equal yoke or pairing.

            There is contention and strife built into the relationship of family dynamics, aren’t there?  We know this to be true. 

That is not to say that nobody ever gets along, but it is more a matter of knowing how best to get under one another’s skin, what buttons to push on the other.

You can’t, after all, put two siblings in car seats next to each other without discovering how contention and competition within families works.  

“He touched me!  

“She’s looking at me!”   

We as human beings find ways to naturally spar with one another.  We vie for control and for dominance.  

We do have differences of opinion!  When the stakes are really high we will employ outright nastiness to achieve our desired ends, or to convince people of our rightness, and will even jeopardize relationship in order to simply “win.”

This portion of Matthew’s Gospel with these sayings acknowledges the truth of that.

The way Jesus has been treated by the Pharisees and by others in power and authority is an indicator of how things will be for those who follow Jesus.

 Those who follow Jesus and who try to engage in the same teaching or activity they have heard from him can expect to encounter the same kind of resistance.

They can expect to be the recipients of the same kind of arguments and attitudes.

If they called Jesus Beelzebub, (the devil,) then imagine what they are going to call his followers!

If families are already aware of their vulnerabilities, (how best to get at each other) then imagine how tense and strained relationships will get when disagreements about felt beliefs and convictions enter into the mix!  

Jesus questions long held traditions and families are quite frankly, the keepers of tradition!

There is bound to be strife and arguments and tensions when Jesus’ teachings and sayings bump up against what Mom or Dad or Grandpa used to say all the time.

Whenever you bring into question long held understandings and beliefs, there will be sparring.

When you find yourself embroiled in controversy, advocating for a belief that no one else seems to share, or desperately trying to explain your point of view, you can feel pretty — well vulnerable and alone!

Sparring with someone, putting out a viewpoint that is different from the one held by those around you can make you feel pretty powerless, pretty dismissed, pretty much of little value. 

We’ve felt that lately. 

These are contentious times and no matter where you are on the issues of Black Lives Matter, or All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, or Defund the Police, or Justice for All, or Justice for George or wherever you are on the spectrum of trying to speak out loud, (maybe for the first time) — you recognize that to put forth your position is to be met with sparring and a difference of opinion.

That can be frightening, jarring, and hard. 

Jesus knows that.

And so it is, that tucked into the middle of these sayings about sparring with one another is this little nugget of care and reassurance.

“You are worth more than many sparrows!”  Jesus says.

Do not be afraid, because your presence and efforts will not go unnoticed by God!

Not a sparrow falls that God does not notice, and not a hair of your head falls out without God taking notice, so go ahead and speak up!

“What I say in the dark, tell in the light.  What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”  Jesus says.

Speak up!   Speak out!  God is giving thought to you and has his eye upon you.  Do not be afraid!

Why this assurance in the middle of all this talk about sparring with others?

It is fear, after all, that so often locks us up, and keeps us in line, and Jesus knows that.

It is fear that keeps people silent.

It is fear that the oppressor depends upon, uses, to keep the slaves in line.

It is fear that those in authority wield so effectively to keep things in the status quo.

Fear of not wanting to make waves.

Fear of not upsetting the family.

Fear of not stepping out of one’s place in life.

Fear of losing one’s life.

Fear of exposing dark secrets.

Fear of inciting violence.

Fear of…. Well, you name it, and we can be afraid of it.

Fear is what serves the interest of this world.

Now there are things of which one should be legitimately afraid, and there are times when caution is to be exercised, but when fear itself is directing the show, then it is that God has been forgotten.

When fear itself keeps us from speaking up or speaking out, then it is that God at very least feels far off.

When fear presses at us, threatening us, then it is that we feel least of significance in the face of all the insurmountable problems around us.

“Who am I to raise my little voice, my little “cheep” in the midst of the cacophony of this world?

“Do not be afraid” comes the voice of Jesus back to us when we question our own voice, our own ability to speak.  “You are of more worth than many sparrows.”  

Your voice is heard by God.

You voice will be heard by those around you, as God gives it strength and volume and purpose.

If you are speaking on behalf of God, then Jesus says he will acknowledge that, and speak well of you and on your behalf before God the Father himself. 

Even if you get it wrong, Jesus is still willing to advocate on your behalf because you were not afraid to add your “peep” in opposition to the fear put forth from this world. 

Better to speak boldly and loudly than to just go along out of fear with the workings of this world!

Of Sparrows and Sparring today. 

As disciples we are not spared from the contentious realities of life in this world.

Fear will try to silence us, lock us up, and keep us out of the way.

But greater than fear is this power and love of God proclaimed by Jesus, who comes at us again and again saying, “Do not be afraid… you are worth more, your words spoken are worth more than you think!”

“I Don’t Believe What I’m Seeing” Matthew 28:16-20

“I don’t believe what I’m seeing…”   There are a whole bunch of variations on that these days, aren’t there?

          Living now weeks into a pandemic and civil unrest, a point of conversation in nearly every interchange these days is some kind of comment on what we have seen.

          Partiers in the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend as if Covid 19 did not exist?   “I can’t believe what I’m seeing…” many said as the video was played around the world of people ignoring social distancing, and masks, and handwashing in preference to partying.

          The video of a police officer who held his knee on a man’s neck for over 8 minutes while George Floyd struggled and pleaded for him to get off, for his own mother, for breath itself.

          We watched it and said, “I can’t believe what I am seeing.”  He’s killing him.   I can’t believe they are showing that.. over and over and over again.

          Protests that appeared peaceful on the television camera angle we could see were suddenly broken up by lobbing tear gas canisters, or rushing law enforcement officers.

          A man shoved backward by a police officer and striking his head on the pavement, the officers then surrounding him and walking on by leaving him to bleed on the pavement unassisted.

          I can’t believe what I am seeing.

          I could go on, there have been a lot of unbelievable things this past week, but you can fill in the blanks with your own.  

          Some will be about not believing what you see.

          Some will be about things we can’t believe that are joyous, law enforcement and national guard joining peaceful marches, hands clasped, encouragement given, hospitality extended.

          Others will likely be about others disbelieving the validity of the images, or explaining them away, or trying to temper them, or maybe even substituting other videos or images to counter with comments like “where was the outrage when this happened….”

          I can’t believe what I am seeing has become for us, almost like a liturgical refrain to life.

          This is Holy Trinity Sunday, and one might wonder just what a rather arcane formulation about God like being “Three in one and One in three” might have to do at all with any of the turmoil or the events of this current age?

          You might even be tempted to mock a bit.   “You go ahead pastor, talk about the Trinity, while the world burns and the virus spreads.    Maybe your comments will be a pleasant brief academic distraction from all the troubles.”

          I wondered if there was any point to mentioning Holy Trinity Sunday at all, but then I looked at this Gospel lesson from Matthew again and found in it a peculiar little detail that seemed to make it speak precisely to this moment.

          Matthew records that Jesus gathers his disciples on the mount again, the high place from which in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus always seems to ascend to deliver an important address or a teaching. 

          They gather there, (we are told) and then we are given this detail by Matthew that we dare not overlook. 

          When they saw him (that is, Jesus), they worshiped him; but some doubted. 

          In other words, (at least for some of them, although we don’t know who or which disciples exactly) — they could not believe what they were seeing….

          Suddenly the events of this Gospel make direct connection to us.

It is possible, in other words, to look squarely at the presence of the Resurrected Jesus in your midst and not believe what you are seeing, still have doubts and questions in your mind.

          It is possible to hear the call of Jesus to come up to the high place, and to answer that call, to come up to stand in the presence of Jesus looking full at him and hearing his words to you and still not believe what you are seeing.

          It is possible to be in the presence of Jesus and not trust your own eyes.

          It is possible to be listening to the very words of Jesus spoken to you and still not trust your own perception of what he is saying.

          Question and doubt and not knowing what to make of a particular moment, as powerful as it may be, is apparently a possibility even for those who follow Jesus and are listening to him.

          I think that’s good news!

          We are under incredible pressure right now to do the right things, to make the right decisions, and to follow the right procedures.

We are all trying to understand the dynamics of race relations, the behavior of epidemiological spread, the intricacies of supply and demand, global supply chains, how one sector of the economy impacts another, etc. etc.

          We want to get this “right.”

          We don’ t want to make any mistakes!

          We are bombarded with more than our minds can take in, and so while we listen, discern and sort things out it is completely possible to stand even in the presence of experts and have the experience of not believing what we are seeing!

          I think it is good news that even the disbelieving disciples still hung with one another even after the ascension of Jesus.

          I think it is even better news that the way they are able to do that was not simply because of what they had seen or heard.

No, the disciples are given the commission in Matthew’s Gospel to go and baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This is the point.

God doesn’t just come at us in what we can see and hear.

God comes at us in whatever way God has to in order to bring us into God’s presence.

I can look at Jesus before me, and hear him speaking, and still have doubts about it, and about what I am supposed to do, and how I am supposed to respond.

But God doesn’t only come at us in the person, in the examples and teaching of Jesus.

God also comes at us as the Creator, surrounding us with all of creation that we might sense the power and majesty of God in all of its raw and unpredictable power.

When I am full of myself and feeling like I am the one in charge of my fate, the thunder rolls and the lightning strikes and the earth shakes and I am suddenly put in my place as creature.

I am given a sense of awe at things that I cannot comprehend or certainly cannot control.  

This is the God who comes at me too, who terrifies as well as comforts.   Who I turn to when the machinations of human events, politics, violence, terror at the hands of the oppressor threaten to overwhelm me.

The God of the Omni’s – Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, — so different and far above me…. does not do the bidding of Presidents or Kings, Queens or Corporations — nor can God be pocketed by them or held up like a talisman to be controlled.  

Holy Trinity reminds us that God is unsearchable and unknowable at times, we can see and not believe or make sense of the things that God may be doing (even in our midst) that are simply beyond our comprehension at this time.

We trust in this God to bend the moral arch of the universe toward Justice, as God has promised so to do with the narrative arch of the scriptures.

From the blood of Able crying out from the ground to God showing Pharaoh who is God to exiles returned and children mourned, the stories of scripture recount a God who moves to end oppression and who calls to count those who trade in exploitation.

We trust in this God even when we cannot see how the arch of justice is bending from our particular angle.

But God also does not only come at us simply as raw power and unsearchable other.

No, God also comes as Spirit.

God comes as a breath that gives life, and that separates waters, and that stirs dry bones making them live again.

God comes as a breath that warms, as a feeling that overtakes, as a movement that cannot be directed or manipulated or stopped. 

“The Spirit blows where it wills..” Jesus says to Nicodemus, who cannot fathom or understand what Jesus is talking about in that moment, even though Nicodemus sees and hears Jesus face to face!  

It is not just Jesus who reveals God’s presence, Nicodemus also senses God’s presence in and around Jesus’ actions themselves, and his own inquiry. 

“No one can do these things without God.”  Nicodemus says.

The Spirit is the promised advocate who will work on us internally.

The Spirit will inhabit us, fill us, cause our eyes to see and our ears to hear, and empower our service, as imperfectly as we may offer it – and it is the Spirit who will multiply our meager efforts until God’s will is done at last.

This is the gift this day, of Holy Trinity. 

The doctrine of the Trinity is not so much something hammered out by theologians and controversies and ascents to understanding.

No, Holy Trinity is finally about how God comes at us, and God has chosen to come at us in these distinct ways.

God comes at us through creation to remind us that we are indeed creature and limited, and so must never think so highly of ourselves that we begin to believe that we can take the place or position of God.

God comes at us through the Son, Jesus — whose life, example and teaching, and whose acts of love and acceptance become the model for how we are to live and understand God’s own love for us.

God comes at us through the Spirit, to move us and fill us in ways that we cannot quite describe but know when we feel it.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing….”  The disciples would say, and thanks be to God, seeing was not the only way that God was willing to come at them, or at us.