Sparrows and Hairs and Swords and Crosses

What if the only thing that divided us was whether or not we are following Jesus above all else?

Watch part 1:

(Scroll down to read what’s missing and to find video part 2.)

Read Matthew 10:24-39  

Our text for today is an excerpt from Jesus’ speech to the twelve disciples when he’s sending them out to spread the gospel.

Before the part we’re going to read, Jesus tells them to go to the lost sheep of Israel and to announce that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.

He tells them to travel light and accept hospitality.  He warns them about the dangers ahead.  “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.”

But don’t be afraid. There’s going to be trouble.  You will be hated and persecuted, even by people in your own family. But keep going.

That’s where we pick up the speech.  Jesus says…… (read Matthew 10:24-39).

Sparrows and hairs and swords and the cross.  And no matter what happens, don’t be afraid.  In the verses we just read, Jesus says those words three times.  Don’t. Be. Afraid.

  • Don’t be afraid of those who threaten you.
  • Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill you.

Don’t be afraid because you are worth more than many sparrows.  Not just one sparrow, but many sparrows.  A whole flock of sparrows.

Maybe Jesus is telling us that fear is for the birds.

But fear is real, and it often guides our decisions, for better or for worse.  “Don’t be afraid” is a good refrain for us during this time.  It’s a good refrain for me.  I’ve been nervous about this first time being back in the sanctuary and so I was having a hard time writing a sermon for today.  My mom said maybe this would be a good week to use one you’ve already written.  The problem is that I’ve never preached on this text before.  I’ve actually avoided it.

I’ve only been a pastor for six and a half years, but that’s long enough to have made the choice twice when this scripture came up in the lectionary of suggested scriptures.  Both times I chose to preach on the Old Testament scripture instead, Genesis 21, because, I’m an English major and I’m much more comfortable talking about a story in the Bible than I am trying to wrestle with Jesus’ words here that seemed to be as theoretical as they are theological.  Theoretical because I’ve never been hated or under threat of death for being a Christian.

At least, not that I know of.

Today, this scripture doesn’t seem so theoretical to me anymore.  Not that I’m being threatened now, but I’m seeing more clearly

  • how much some people are hated and under threat of death, and
  • how much we are afraid of each other, and
  • how much we have let hatred and fear be acceptable.

As I read this week’s text, the verse that jumps out at me is the one that’s been the reason I avoided this text in the past.  In verse 34 Jesus says:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

I come not to bring peace but a sword.  No peace but a sword.  It sounds kind of like another phrase we’ve heard quite a bit the past couple of weeks.  No justice, no peace.

And it reminds me of another Bible verse that keeps coming back to me the past few weeks, Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

So much of what’s been happening in our world lately brings each one of those requirements into sharp focus.

Justice.  Mercy.  Humbly walking with God.  No peace without justice, mercy, and humility.

There’s been a lot that’s humbling as we

  • confront new and uncomfortable and sometimes overwhelming challenges, and
  • learn how to do things differently, and
  • become more aware of things we’re not used to noticing so much. Like how germs spread and what it’s like to be a Black person in America.

One of the ways we’re learning more about that is reading books by black authors.  For our small group that starts July 1, we’ll be reading Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here.  My husband Rob and I started reading it this week. In the first few chapters Austin tells about growing up as a black girl in a white neighborhood, and about the times when her parents had to give her “the talk.”  When my parents gave me “the talk” it was about sex and birth control.  Austin Channing Brown’s “talk” was about how to behave around white people so they didn’t get suspicious or angry.  After reading her words, I was surprised later that night when we were watching the Juneteenth special on ABC that one of the commercials was about black parents giving their kids “the talk.” It made me sad that it’s so common and well known that it would be in a commercial.

Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid,” but the reality is that we have made it so that people are afraid of us.  Jesus says, “I come not to bring peace but a sword,” and hearing the stories about what life is like for some people cuts like a sword and disturbs our peace.

Don’t be afraid.  Jesus says, “. . . nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops.” (Matt. 10:26-27)

What is being hidden?  Kept secret?  Whispered?  Is he talking about the skeletons in our closets?  What do we keep hidden out of fear?

Jesus is telling us that when we make following him our top priority, when we choose following Jesus over following other people’s opinions, we will find ourselves standing against people who have a different priority.

Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

And maybe the reason I haven’t liked this text is that it points out how much we have let lesser things divide us.  Or, that we have let fear of being divided over those lesser things be more important than trusting the Holy Spirit who unites us.

What’s in your closet?

What if we made following Jesus so much the central thing that it didn’t matter about all those other things?

Other things like…

  • whether we worship online or in person,
  • whether we prefer traditional or contemporary,
  • whether we like a big church or a small one or a different kind of gathering altogether,
  • whether we would rather raise our hands and dance and shout, or sit in silence,
  • whether we have mental illness or another kind of illness,
  • whether we have a good job or no job,
  • whether we have money in the bank or no bank,
  • whether we vote republican or democrat or have given up on the whole political system,
  • whether we went to Sterling College, or Sterling High School, or dropped out of school,
  • whether we believe there’s a virus, or global warming, or gender fluidity

What if none of that mattered, none of that divided us, and instead what mattered is whether we not only say that Jesus is our king, but we are willing to trust what he says enough to be who he made us to be, and to focus solely on worshipping Jesus and what he taught us about love and forgiveness, and putting that into action.

We stopped reading before we got to this verse, so let me tell you what Jesus says next:

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (v35)

What if we welcomed and accepted each other the way Jesus accepts us?

Don’t be afraid.  How much do we hide who we are to fit in and be ok?  How much are we afraid of each other?

My parents used to tell me when I was afraid, “It’s ok.  They’re as afraid of you as you are of them.”  I think this was about bugs, or maybe bears.  Did your parents ever say that to you?  I don’t know if it was really true about the bugs or the bears, but I think it might actually be very true of people.

It is natural to be afraid of people we don’t know, and especially if they are different from us.  It’s our survival instinct kicking in.  We need to trust God to help us with that. Sometimes one fear supersedes another.

Pastor Brent Johnston, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wichita pointed out that reality this week in a letter he sent to his congregation. He said,

“That the African American community would come out in mass to protest at this moment when Covid 19 is devasting their community . . . is a testament of how much they feel racism is a threat to their well-being (physical, economical, and social).”[1]

It’s not that those who are protesting don’t think the virus is a risk, but that it’s worth that risk to stand up against the bigger risk.  When someone is willing to risk their lives over something, we need to listen.

Jesus says, “Those who cling to their life will lose it, and those who give up their life for my sake will find it.”

That’s what a young man who was a professional snowboarder discovered.

He was so good at it that he won every competition he entered.  He was expected to win gold at the next Olympics.  But then he had a bad fall that broke both his hip and his leg.  He spent months in rehab, and everyone wondered whether he would ever be able to go back to snowboarding.  During the time in recovery, everything about his life changed.  He’d been living in the fast lane when he was winning races, but since the accident he’d been back home in his small town forging new relationships and learning to talk to God.  He wasn’t sure whether he even wanted to go back to snowboarding, but his agent was encouraging it, so one day he decided to go to the place where he’d had the accident.  Being there brought the incident back, and the memories were as painful as the broken bones had been.  But as he stood there, he found himself thanking God for the accident because it had changed his life in ways that it needed to change.  He made peace with God and with himself, and he was then able to say yes to snowboarding again.*

We are at a similar turning point.  We’ve come through what may be for many of us the most tumultuous time of our lives.  There’s been pain and sadness.  There’s been disillusionment and discouragement.  And we’ve been changed.

It might seem like too much to ask that we would thank God for a pandemic and for protests and for whatever else we’ve experienced during these past few months, but what if that’s what it’s going to take for us to move forward?

As we prepared  for this Sunday, I was nervous about how different this would be from what we were used to . . .

– different from what we’ve been doing the past 8 weeks,

from what we were doing before all this started –

. . .and as we look around, we can easily see things that make us sad, mad, anxious, afraid.

Instead, though, for a few moments, I invite you to close your eyes to all of that, and instead say thanks to God.

  • Thanks to God for being here with us.
  • Thanks to God for being with each one of us through every moment.

God has never left us alone.  What has God been saying to you?

Let us give thanks to God, for God is good, and God’s faithful love goes on forever.


[1] Rev. Brent Johnston, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wichita, Kansas, in an email dated June 17, “Let the summer of 2020 be the moment when the fever of racism and Covid 19 finally breaks.”

*Adapted from the book “Snowstorm in Gold Valley” by Liz Isaacson

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