Sunday, August 9, 2020
Rev. Doug Reble
I suspect most of you who are listening to or reading this sermon have never heard the name Kenneth Feinberg. He is the lawyer who chaired the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which gave money to the family of each person who died in the 2001 terror attacks in the United States. Starting with a formula and then using his discretion, Feinberg considered the victims’ age, their dependents, whether they had life insurance and their income and earning potential. The value assigned to those lost lives varied dramatically. As little as $250,000 for blue collar workers and as much as $7.1 million for executives.
Feinberg, in an article I read in The New Yorker magazine, reflected on his experience. “As I met with the 9/11 families and wrestled with issues surrounding the valuation of lives lost I began to question this basic premise of our legal system. Trained in the law, I had always accepted that no two lives were worth the same in financial terms. But now I found the law in conflict with my growing belief in the equality of all life.”
In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Chapter 10, we read of Jesus sending his disciples into a perilous world. There will be divisions in their families. There will be “those who kill the body.” The disciples must be prepared to take up the cross.
And yet in the middle of this recitation of conflict and danger, Jesus suddenly speaks of the smallest, most insignificant creatures. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet none one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.“ In the marketplace, sparrows were the meat of the poor, the ground chuck of the first century. Yet their lives – their deaths – are not beneath God’s attention and care.
“Do not be afraid,“ Jesus says, “you are of more value than many sparrows.“
When I told Bishop Michael Pryse, my colleague in our Eastern Synod office, that I was writing a sermon based on Jesus’ word about sparrows, he started to sing “God Sees The Little Sparrows Fall.” At first I started to laugh and then I realized how come I didn’t know it so I did what we often do and I Googled it. That got me on to another hymn about sparrows as these Google searches often do, entitled “His Eye On The Sparrow.” I listened to a clip of Mahalia Jackson singing it in 1958 and Whitney Houston 30 years later. Never heard of the hymn so I did some research.
I learned that Jesus’ words “Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows,“ inspired Canadian schoolteacher Civilla Martin, in 1905, to write the words to that hymn, “His Eye On The Sparrow”, a gospel hymn that declares with assurance, “I know God
I also learned that this hymn became very popular in African–American churches. In a world that insists that black lives do not matter, Jesus declares that overlooked, exploited, brutalized lives are, in fact, of the greatest importance to God. In a world that says the life of a rich person is worth 28 times as much as the life of a working person, Jesus says that God pays special attention to those who are poor, struggling, and suffering. God cares. We are not alone. In these days of pandemic and COVID-19, how we all need to hear those words. God cares. We are not alone.
Jesus’ calculus for the value of a life has little to do with a person’s income or earning potential. To Jesus, our lives have innate value, in and of themselves. We have value because we are creatures, like sparrows, made in God’s image. As mystic Julian of Norwich wrote in the 15th century of her vision of the hazelnut: “I marvelled how it might suddenly have sank into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it. “
Friends, to Jesus, our value does not lead to compensation or a guarantee of safety. It means that we receive attention. The God who cares for the welfare of sparrows also keeps track of every aspect of our lives, even tallying up the hairs of our heads. When St. Paul’s description of divine love comes to a crescendo in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13, he promises that one day we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. I would say that we already are fully known, known more deeply than we even know ourselves.
Occasionally, well meaning Christians declare that “God doesn’t care if you get a tattoo “or “God doesn’t care if you have a glass of wine,” or as I used to say to my mother as a young teenager, “God doesn’t care if I wear jeans to church.” While it is true that none of these choices is, for most of us, a matter of eternal consequences, the idea that God doesn’t care is entirely untrue. There is nothing, not even the smallest thing, that is outside the circle of God’s care. And if God cares about these little details, the sparrows of our lives, then how much more God cares about the shape of each life and of all our lives. Just remember. God’s care is not for me alone, nor only for people like me, but for all of us.
After the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund completed its work, Kenneth Feinberg received a call from the president of Virginia Tech University, asking him to manage the fund that would distribute compensation to the families of the students and faculty killed in the 2007 mass shooting. “I realized that Feinberg the citizen trumped Feinberg the lawyer. My legal training would no longer stand in the way. This time all victims — students and faculty alike — would receive the same compensation.“
Dear friends in Christ. Sparrows and disciples alike, we know God watches us. To God, we matter. Hear that again. To God, we matter. In God’s sight, there are no unimportant lives.
In the name of the God who loves us all.