21 June 2020 Revd Emma Phillips
Do any of you have sparrows in your gardens? I’m guessing that many of us have been listening to sparrows twittering away as we have enjoyed our gardens during lockdown. They may not be very tuneful but they certainly make their presence known. Their numbers have dropped catastrophically in cities but we still seem to see plenty of them in villages. This year we have at least three pairs nesting in our garden, in house martin nests they have taken over (poor house martins!). I would be hard pushed to count the number of parent birds, and now they are hatching brood after brood, I have no idea how many we have! All these years after Jesus used them to illustrate how much God cares for us, they are still all around us and taken for granted – little background birds that we still think of as insignificant and unimportant. So powerful then that God tells us he doesn’t miss the death of a single sparrow! Each scruffy little brown bird matters to him, even when there are so many, we can’t count them.
So, if God cares for sparrows like that – birds that don’t do anything very exciting with their lives, don’t look particularly pretty, don’t even sing his praises in tune, how much more does he care for us? It seems incredible – it’s the sort of mind-bending thought takes us us all back to little children who wonder how God can talk to everyone at once. Just like in the Catholic school cafeteria, where the children were lining up for lunch. The nun in charge had put up a notice by the bowl of apples ‘Take one only – God is watching you!’ but at the other end of the table there was a plate of cookies. One child was heard whispering to another ‘Take as many as you want! God is watching the apples!’
The coronavirus crisis has been a strange one for most of us, tucked away in a peaceful corner of rural Shropshire, many of us shielding. While there has been a great deal going wrong in the world our only response can be to stay safely out of it, hiding away in our own homes. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would glorify God or proclaim his kingdom. Indeed, it can very easily feel as though we were unnecessary, unimportant and irrelevant. Surely God must love those people who are out there on the front lines more than us? Aren’t they his army, his worthy servants? While we at home get more and more fed up with the ongoing restrictions and lack of things to look forward to, we also run into the danger of believing that God has more important things to think about than us.
And yet. And yet. He cares for every sparrow that falls. Even the hairs on our heads are counted – even though they grow longer and longer while hairdressers are closed! He treasures you. He treasures me. Not because of anything we do but just because he made and we are precious to him. There’s not a single thing you can do that will make him love you more – and not a single thing you can do that will make him love you less.
I’m sure you have heard this all before, but we are so surrounded by messages that say we are what we do, what we have, what we spend, who we know, that we have to come back again and again to remind ourselves of God’s unconditional love. The effect of the world’s valuation of us is corrosive – we cannot manage without the Bible and each other to constantly remind us that that is not God’s reality.
There is no other source of unconditional love, no other way we can know ourselves acceptable, unjudged, completely known. Today we celebrate Father’s Day, and many of you will have precious memories of the way your fathers loved you – and yet we will all know that our fathers were human, fallible and sometimes got it wrong, maybe even let us down horribly. To call God our Father is to reach beyond that love, to see it as a pointer to the very essence of fathering. If we take the very best bits abut the way that fathers love, the most selfless bits, we have a glimpse of the way God loves us.
We can extrapolate too from the ways in which we ourselves love, even though we are painfully aware of our own limitations. I am obviously not a father, but there’s plenty about love that God has taught me through being a mother, and particularly when it comes to loving our daughter Frances. Because she was autistic and profoundly disabled, she had no concept of empathy, no ability to put someone else first, and so we had to love her because she was herself, not because of anything she could do for us – which is how God loves us. Here’s a picture of the two of us from a while ago:
She is being her monkey-ish self, laughing in the security of my embrace. I know, looking at this and many other photos, that my heart is full of delight in her, pleasure that she can be just who she is. She’s rather strange – even in this picture you can see how she’s hyperextending her fingers. She’s not giving me eye contact, or even choosing to sit facing me. But I rejoice in her! That love tells me so much of the way that God delights in us. He doesn’t wait until we are paying attention to him. He doesn’t have a set of criteria to determine how good a Christian we are. He just loves us, as we are, right now.
So do not be afraid – you are not a nonentity, washed up on the shores of today’s crisis, disregarded by all those who matter – you are worth more than many sparrows, and our Heavenly Father watches over each one of those. He knows when we get up in the morning, when we sit down to rest. He knows what we are going to say before even we have opened our mouths. He called us into being from the moment of our conception – caring for us as we developed within our mothers’ wombs. None of us are mistakes. Each one of us is infinitely precious to our creator.
How do we respond? How can we possibly return such a love, or live out lives worthy of it? Well, of course we can’t – we are the creation, not the creator. But we are called to change as we turn to his light. Not to become heroes or saints overnight, but to grow. In our first reading Paul says ‘But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.’ He certainly means that we will be raised again when we die, following Jesus to heaven, but he also invites us to live in Christ’s resurrection hope right now.
We are called to live fully, rejoicing in each day, giving thanks for each blessing, bringing each sorrow to God. In the eyes of the world, those of us encouraged to stay at home are just furloughed, set aside. Never in God’s sight! Each of our days is precious to him, each moment! From opening our eyes in the morning to dreaming at night, he calls us into a greater awareness of his presence, his abundant love. We can live that way whether we are sick in bed or nursing on a Covid ward or making weighty decisions to steer a government. Most of the time of course we won’t – we are distracted or weighed down - but at any moment we can choose to look out and see him, in the bright morning sunshine, in a smile, in a few encouraging words from the Bible. We can always live more fully, shine more brightly, be loved more deeply.
So let’s pray together now:
Lord, Father God,
You know the secrets of our hearts, the sad and worn corners where we find it difficult to feel loved and purposeful. But you also know the times when we rejoice in love, both given and received. Help us to draw on that love to know you present with us, day by day. Help us to live fully, alive to your creation, to the people you surround us with, to your Holy Spirit within us. Bring us back to you, again and again, to be refilled by your abundant overflowing love,