I’m taking a break from miracles this week and posting, instead, the manuscript of the sermon I preached Sunday at North Haven Congregational Church in North Haven Connecticut. I hope you find something here that speaks to you.
We have sparrows in our barn.
Behind our house is an old barn that we have worked hard to fix up. I use it as a writing space, and we also use it for social events when the weather cooperates. Last night we hosted a hymn sing. As we were setting yesterday afternoon, Ginger, my wife, called me over to see the sparrow’s nest she had found on an empty bookshelf, tucked into an old Red Sox hat. There were eggs in it. This year, instead of having to worry about who was going to find her nest outside, our little sparrow tucked it away on an empty shelf in a mostly empty barn. Life must have felt safer.
Little does she know we could sweep it all away in one motion. Safe, it seems, doesn’t last for long. I looked at that little nest—so much effort put into creating a place where her eggs could hatch, her new little ones grow to build nests of their own—and I thought of Jesus’ words in our passage for this morning:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from God. . . . So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Hagar, the one at the center of our first reading, was a sparrow—a person perceived to have little human value. She was enslaved woman owned by Abraham and Sarah, as much as Sarah could own anything, being property herself. Some versions translate the word as servant or concubine, but Hagar had no choices of her own in her life. She was enslaved. She was forced to have a son with Abraham without her consent because Sarah thought she couldn’t have children and the custom of the day said Hagar’s son would be Abraham’s legal heir. Then Sarah got pregnant and became jealous of Hagar and her son, Ishmael. She told Abraham to banish them to the desert—to send them out to die. The wandered around, finding nothing to eat or drink, until finally Hagar left her son to die under a bush and walked away, trying to get out of earshot of the boy’s crying—and that is where God found them.
Many years ago, Scott Peck wrote a book called The Road Less Traveled. The subtitle was, “A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth.” It’s a good book. It helped me. One of the things that helped me most was his opening sentence:
Life is difficult.
He was not saying something new. To say life is difficult is to state the obvious. Hagar knew it. The little sparrow in our barn knows it. Both our biblical passages for this morning speak to the truth of those three words: life is difficult. Then Peck goes on to say,
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Once again, he is not saying something new. He is saying something important. Something true that bears repeating. When we face difficulty in our lives—tragedy, grief, sorrow, hardship (our list could go on)—we are not facing something other than life. Let us say it again: life is difficult because it’s life.
There’s an oddly humorous moment in Hagar’s story. She, as we said, had come to the place where she had abandoned her son because she couldn’t watch his suffering, and an angel showed up and says, “What troubles you, Hagar?”
I picture her turning around and saying, “Are you kidding me? What troubles me?”
The angel goes on, “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”
God has heard the voice of the boy right where he is. You can’t bear to hear it anymore, but God hears the boy. In your difficulty. In your pain. Do not be afraid. The story was not over.
Jesus’ words about in Mark’s gospel point to another side of the same truth: life is difficult, sometimes, because of the choices we make. You have probably heard a parent say to their teenager as he or she leaves the house, “Make good decisions.” Our poor choices can make life harder, but that is not what Jesus was talking about.
Our good choices–our right choices—can make life difficult. On purpose. We make choices we know are going to cost us. I think about Rosa Parks refusing to get up from her seat on the bus. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison because he was committed to freedom for everyone in South Africa. Those are big picture examples. Our lives are filled with moments—small intersections—where we can choose to put someone else before our safety or our comfort. A spouse, a friend, a stranger.
Jesus told those who were listening that following him was a difficult choice: lose your life to find it, he said. He wasn’t trying to be witty or poetic. The call of God on our lives is to choose to make it more difficult for the sake of others.
I get the impression that, somehow, Hagar was not as surprised by her difficulty as those around Jesus were. Perhaps Jesus was spelling it out because he could tell those around him thought they were signing up to be a part of an inside circle: the chosen ones. Jesus was quick to say choosing to live a life centered in God was not the way to the top, or even to easy street. It was a choice to engage life, to complicate our relationships, to choose to make picky details matter, to make our comfort something we don’t satisfy first. To not allow fear to be our primary value.
Sometimes, being blessed by God feels like a backhanded compliment. We are chosen to live through the pain, to let God make something out of all the broken pieces, which, of course, means we have to be broken first. It does not mean God is the one doing the breaking.
Recently, I’ve been up close to two extreme difficulties. One friend took her seventeen year-old son to have his wisdom teeth removed. He had an allergic reaction to the anesthetic that left him brain dead within a week. His funeral was this past week. Another friend just found out she has ovarian cancer. She had no symptoms. She went to her doctor on a hunch, for which we are grateful, but she still has cancer. I’m sure you have stories to tell as well.
God didn’t choose them to suffer. God didn’t cause the allergic reaction or the cancer. God didn’t engineer circumstances so Hagar and Ishmael would end up desperate in the middle of the desert to prove a point. When the biblical accounts say they were chosen by God doesn’t mean they got the same deal as Sarah and Abraham and Isaac. Chosen doesn’t mean privileged, or even protected. it means intended.
Remember, Jesus never says anything about God catching the falling sparrows. He says God knows when they fall. God knows. God is there. It’s in Jesus’ name, Emmanuel: God With Us. And even when the angel came to tell Joseph what to name the boy, he began with words we have heard twice this morning already: do not be afraid.
We are all chosen by God. We are intended–created–for God to incarnate through us, if you will, and that activity will be disturbing, both for us and for the world around us. The point of being chosen or intended or called is not to be on the inside track or to come to power or to get to take the easy way out. There is no easy way out. Life, remember, is difficult. And remember also that God is with us. Paul said it this way ;
Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, pain or persecution? Can lack of clothes and food, danger to life and limb, the threat of force of arms? , , , I have become absolutely convinced that neither death nor life, neither messenger of Heaven nor monarch of earth, neither what happens today nor what may happen tomorrow, neither a power from on high nor a power from below, nor anything else in God’s whole world has any power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 8:35, 38-9 Phillips)
Whatever our circumstances, and leaning into a love that will not let us go, let us choose to make life more difficult: to be the ones who call attention not to ourselves but to those who cannot speak up; to call attention to relationships, both personal and systemic, that are dehumanizing and destructive; to become agents–disturbers, agitators–for compassionate change; and to carry one another’s pain willingly.
Life is difficult. Do not be afraid. Thanks be to God.