June 22, 2014 Romans 6: 1b-11 Matthew 10: 24-31
Rev. Catherine Purves
This week a sparrow flew into the Sanctuary. That’s what we get for leaving the doors and windows open. It perched happily up in the rafters and showed no inclination to leave. Far from being frightened, when Jacquie came to practice the organ the wee thing seemed to enjoy the music. It made me think of the hymn version of Psalm 84 which is # 207 in our hymnal. These are the words:
“How lovely Lord, how lovely is your abiding place.
My soul is longing fainting, to feast upon your grace.
The sparrow finds a shelter, a place to build her nest.
And so your temple calls us within its walls to rest.”
I hope that our sparrow has no plans to build a nest in here, but she is one of God’s creatures, and as our Gospel reading for this morning says, though two sparrows are sold for a penny, “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Have no fear, little sparrow (if you’re still in here someplace), God is looking after you. And God is looking after us!
Have no fear! Does that mean that there is no danger in the world? No, little sparrow, there is danger in the world. When Jesus was speaking to his followers he knew that they (that we) would face dangers. In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about the persecutions that would come. Our reading begins in the middle of a longer discourse which Jesus introduces with these ominous words, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Christians would be persecuted for their faith. And as Jesus tells the disciples, if people have treated him badly, how much more would they abuse his followers. It doesn’t get much worse than crucifixion. But still he tells them not to keep their faith a secret, but to share it boldly. In fact, they are to shout it from the housetops with no fear.
Andrew and Charissa and the other students from Pittsburgh Seminary are still travelling around Scotland and meeting with church leaders from our mother church, the Church of Scotland. Apparently, the trip is going extremely well, and they are all learning a lot. One of the people they met with was a church planting minister from Glasgow. He told them something that I could hardly believe: that Scotland is now 97% unchurched, 97%! Not only that, but he is trying to start new churches among people who for four generations have grown up outside the church. There is a certain amount of hostility toward the church in Britain, and that is coupled with a general disinterest in the faith – the faith that is so important to us.
It’s one thing to shout from the housetops that you are a Christian in a country where most people would claim to be Christians. It is quite another thing to risk the rejection and scorn of a thoroughly secularized society that wants to have nothing to do with the church. That minister worked in a rather rough part of Glasgow too. The students and Andrew decided to walk back to the train station after their meeting to try to get a sense of the city. It turned out to be a rather intimidating hike through slums. As they were finally boarding the train and heading back to beautiful Edinburgh, they realized that the Glasgow church planters would not be leaving. That minister and others like him are called to claim their faith and share their faith and plant new churches in that hostile environment without fear. And so are we!
How is that possible? How can we live without fear? Our two readings give us two answers to those questions. The first answer from Matthew’s Gospel we have already noted. If even our sparrow is held in the providential care of God, then why should we worry? Jesus tells us that even the hairs of our heads are all numbered. That doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed a charmed life. Sparrows do fall from the sky, and people do get mugged and murdered on the streets of Glasgow even if all they are trying to do is start a church. But no matter what happens, our lives are still in God’s hands, and that means that we can live our lives without fear.
Our reading from Romans provides the theological foundation for that courage, because it is hard to have no fear when you see sparrows falling from the sky and forces of evil at work in our cities. Paul is trying to allay our fears by assuring us that our connection to Christ changes everything. We are so bound to Jesus Christ that not even death can harm us. As Paul says, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” When death itself has been defeated, when the cross becomes a symbol of victory and the empty tomb becomes a promise for us, then what is there to be afraid of anymore? We can shout our faith from the housetops, even in the Glasgow slums. We can trust that the God who marks each sparrow’s flight will be with us to the grave and beyond.
A lot has happened this week in our church, the P.C.(U.S.A.). The General Assembly made some controversial decisions, including actions related to same-sex marriage and the withdrawal of church funds that had been invested in companies providing materials and services in support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Some people in our denomination are elated; others are despairing. Some are saying, “Finally!” while others are still saying, “Never!” Changes to the Book of Order will need to be approved by a majority of our Presbyteries before they become law, although authoritative interpretations of the constitution go into effect immediately.
I have my opinions on these issues, and I’m sure you do too. No one can say what this will mean for the church going forward. The votes on same-sex marriage were not even close, roughly 60% to 40 and 70 to 30. The decisions give permission to those churches and ministers who want to hold services of same-sex marriage, but they in no way represent a mandate that we must do that. The vote on divestment in companies supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine was much closer, but it too was approved.
In addition to all of the other emotions that are flying about in the aftermath of the General Assembly, there is also some fear, as if this somehow will trigger the demise of the church as we know it. For many people, this was their issue, and they can’t see past it. Some seem to feel that we have wrenched control of the church out of God’s hands and are, to coin a phrase, sending it to hell in a hand basket.
There is no doubt that we can do terrible damage to the church. I look at the Church of Scotland, or virtual lack thereof, and have to wonder if we are following their lead, as our own culture becomes more secular and disinterested, if not yet hostile to the church. At the same time, I see rising from the ashes of the Glasgow tenements a new church that is struggling to be born. It is a church without fear, a church that is relying solely on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, a church that has learned well the lesson of the sparrow.
Of course, we don’t know what the future holds for our church. But we do know that the future belongs to God. And we can trust that the God who cares for the sparrows will not abandon his church. Have no fear beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We are of more value than many sparrows.