First, a little bit of context. This gospel starts in the middle of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as they are getting ready to go out into the world on their own for the first time as his emissaries, his missionaries; fishing for men for the first time without a safety net.
Jesus tells them, “Go to the lost sheep of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven in at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons… Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils and flog you in their synagogues… When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.”
This is the backdrop to Jesus’ words of “comfort,” or of caution: “Do not fear.”
Fear prevents us from living our lives as we would want, as God knows we are able, as Jesus commands.
This is something of a confession, and something of an illustration: the other day, I came home to find two successive calls on my answer machine, both claiming to be from the IRS and telling me that I must return the calls the second I received them or “legal allegations” would follow. “Take care and have a nice day,” concluded the first one.
I wasn’t born yesterday, so I didn’t call them back. The next day, I was sitting at my desk early in the morning when the phone rang. I grabbed it on the first ring. It was my would-be IRS agent calling back. I invited the IRS to put any questions it had for me in writing and ended the call. When I hung up the phone, it just kept ringing. I picked it back up. My caller said, angrily, “You have to hear me out.” No, I said calmly, I actually don’t. “Then I have no choice but to report you to the sheriff and have you arrested.” Ok, that’s fine, I replied. Have a nice day.
There were a few things going on here. First of all, I was in the middle of writing the day’s Bible Challenge blog post. I was writing about corporal punishment; we’d reached the “spare the rod, spoil the child” verse in the book of Proverbs. Of course, corporal punishment is a highly emotionally charged subject for many of us, and I am by no means the exception. Laden as it is with threat, with false authority, with issues of guilt and control, it was the perfect preparation for a stranger threatening legal and punitive action to sow seeds of fear. And my children were sleeping. I grabbed the phone on the first ring, to protect them from rude awakening. Another kind of fear.
I have a policy of treating all callers with respect and at least basic manners, but it was only an hour or so later, after researching the scam and posting a warning on our parish facebook page, that I was able to recall myself sufficiently to remember what Jesus said about praying for our persecutors; and I bethought myself to remember that I had no idea how this person came to be in the situation of calling me this way, what pressures he was under to sustain a life or a family, how he might be exploited, or misled. Only then was I able to take one step beyond the normal social contract of good manners and add to my own concerns a prayer for him.
A couple of hours after that, I remembered that I am a priest. I should, I thought, given that this man is endangering his soul and spirit with this soul-destroying, lying, cheating, threatening kind of work; I should have offered him prayer there and then. I should have offered to hear his confession, if I were a real priest.
See how fear holds us back, held me back, in the first instance by confusing my blood and my brain and walling me away from compassion in the name of self-protection; and then, after the threat is over and rationality returns, even after the turn to prayer and compassion, the fear came back from a whole new direction, from the inside: if I were a real priest, I would have offered him reconciliation.
No wonder Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. He certainly doesn’t say that there is nothing for them to fear: on the contrary, they are to expect trouble, to be called after Beelzebul, to be driven out of town and derided. But he urges them not to act out of their fear, but to step beyond it, because only then will they be able to do the work that he has given them to do: to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. Left in our fear, we would be too scared even to try. Left in my fear, apparently, I can’t even bring the gospel to a phone conversation with a remote stranger who is no real threat to me at all.
I’ve been obsessing about sparrows a little bit this week, ever since reading that I am of more value than many sparrows. I like sparrows; I wonder how many of them I am worth.
The thing I like about sparrows is that they are small and fairly nondescript, yet everyone knows them. They get everywhere and into everything; they seem not imprudent but quite fearless. They enjoy sharing the food of others.
Jesus says, “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
We cannot work effectively as disciples, proclaiming from the housetops the kingdom of heaven, healing the sick, casting out demons, welcoming the leper back into community, proclaiming release to the captive, as long as we are shackled by fear. But scripture tells us, “Perfect love casts out fear;” and God loves us perfectly. God has numbered each of the hairs on our heads. What have we to fear?
Jesus never promises his disciples a rose garden. He is honest about the risks as well as the rewards of discipleship. One of the benefits of knowing ahead of time that there will be trouble is that it removes the fear of the unknown: we know that the cross will come, so we need not be afraid that it will take us unawares. Instead, we can focus on the love that God has for us, that will sustain us and see us through; love that survived even the grave; love that is not diminished by our fear nor even by our sinfulness, but which abounds in grace and forgiveness.
We in the church have a lot in common with the sparrows. We feel, on our own, to be a little small and nondescript, hardly the ones to be raising the dead and so forth. Sometimes people feed us; sometimes they call us names. Yet we have the capacity to be fearless, because we know that God is with us, that God loves us, that God wants us to succeed in spreading the gospel.
Here’s something I learned about sparrows this week: “In Australia they’ve learned to open automatic doors. Some hover in front of the electric eye until the door opens. Others, mostly females, sit atop the electric eye and lean over until they trip the sensor.” (Blue, 147)
Sparrows have found new ways into new opportunities to spread their sparrowy, chirping gospel. And you are worth more than many sparrows.
Next time you are presented with an opportunity to proclaim from the rooftops what we whisper to one another here at church: that God loves each hair on your head, no exceptions; and your heart begins to race with fear, remember the sparrow, with its fast little birdbeat, its quick breath, its cunning and its commonality, and remember that you are of more value than many sparrows, and fear not.
Debbie Blue, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon Press, 2013)