HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW
Matthew 10: 24-31
The 1991 film “The Doctor” starred William Hurt as a self-confident, arrogant surgeon. As he’s introduced to the viewers, he’s doing surgery in a joyful mood, listing to his requested playlist of Frankie Vallie and Jimmy Buffett songs. He’s on top of the world and the most important person in that world was numero uno. As he goes home one day he notices he’s coughing more and more. His wife notices it too. When he coughs blood, he finally goes to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. The film was based on the true story written by Dr. Edward Rosenbaum called “A Taste of My Own Medicine.” When William Hurt’s character had to undergo an exploratory procedure on his throat and was delivered the news that a tumor was found, he made a joke about it. But his doctor was not joking. She said he would need six weeks of radiation. He said back, “just cut it out.” She said, “If I do that, there’s a chance you’ll never speak again. So radiation it was. The arrogant man became insignificant and unnoticed in the medical system. He had to check into the waiting room like everyone else. He had to fill out several pages of forms even though he was on staff as a surgeon. At the radiation center attached to the hospital, he had to fill out another set of forms like he’d already done. Many of you have been down that exasperating road. The exploratory procedure to look at his throat took place in the hospital where he was a surgeon. Still, to his indignance he was led to a room shared with another patient, the kind most hospitals used in 30 years ago. He protested his lack of privacy, and it got him nowhere. He was told to take all his clothes off and put on one of those infamous gowns that tie in the back. He protested. Every step of the way he felt insignificant and unnoticed. He was somebody in his mind! But now he was being treated as a nobody. As John Lennon once wrote: He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Or as Amos felt transparent to his wife, Roxie, in the Broadway show “Chicago,” he couldn’t find a way to get his wife to notice him; she ignores all of his attempts to please her time and time again. The audience gets it; Amos gets it; but it goes right over Roxie’s self-absorbed head. So Amos went into his famous and sad number singing to the audience, “Mr. Cellophane.” He felt invisible to everyone, especially his wife. She seemed to look right through him and walk right by him as if he wasn’t there.
Have ever felt insignificant, or like people were ignoring you or looking right past you? Maybe it has happened at a wedding reception or in a waiting room. Maybe it has happened in your marriage! The comic strip “Pickles” loves to describe an older couple who hardly notice each other. In my life it most strikingly happened in January of 1967. I had grown up in Richmond, Virginia and had most of the same friends in my Elementary School and in my neighborhoods there. I was somebody; certainly not a bigshot, but I had friends. They would call to play with me, or I would call to play with them. Then my father was transferred from Richmond to St. Louis, Missouri. Once I moved there, I called the state “Misery.” I was in 5th grade and had finished school in Virginia in December. Then the day after New Years’ day, I was driven by my mother to my new school. I hadn’t a friend in sight; in 5th grade; in the middle of a school year. I was “Mr. Cellophane” during recess and at lunch. Everyone played and ate with other friends. Feeling unnoticed can be lonely.
In the Gospels, therefore, I particularly am aware that Jesus notices those who others walk by: widows; beggars; children; foreigners; a little tax collector in a tree. Jesus notices them, and in his noticing them, they feel validate by him! It’s likely that they can’t believe they got his attention! But they did. What a blessing it is to truly feel seen, and noticed, and heard. In our day there have been people of color who for ages have felt unheard. Now they cry for change. There are men and women in uniform who have, at times, felt unappreciated. Or unheard. We are hearing from many of them now. The first step toward negotiation is noticing and listening and validating one’s existence. Then people can move toward reconciliation.
In today’s text Jesus helps us focus on a creature that may be among the least of the birds of the air: a sparrow. Not an eagle, that we can seek to find and admire. Not a hawk with his powerful talons. Not the bright red male cardinal or the bright bluebird, or bunting, or jay. A small, fliting, brown sparrow. Jesus engages his disciples and he has their attention. But he’s speaking to them in cryptic phrases, ones I doubt they understood on first hearing. He then says words that Martin Luther used in his hymn that we will sing later, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The words: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Then Jesus, and later Luther, referenced the fear of hell. As the disciples perhaps started to feel anxious, Jesus told them this, and we get to listen in: “Are not two sparrows sold for but a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” He could have just let that just sink in, but he goes on saying: “Even the hairs on your head are numbered.” Of course that claim is amazing to me! I have had a woman named Vonda cut my since the 1990s. A colleague of hers also cuts hair at a different location. His daughter went through our Confirmation Class. “Hey” he asked me one day looking at my lack of hair, “Does Vonda still charge you the same amount to cut your hair now?” I replied without missing a beat: “Yep, but now she adds a finder’s fee.” Even the hairs on my head, and on your head is numbered! That’s the kind of detail that doesn’t escape the watchful eye of the Father. “So fear not,” Jesus adds. If the Father has his eye on even sparrows, we can breathe easier, known he is watching you and me too.
Civilla Durfee Martin wrote the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” when she traveled with her husband to Elmira, New York. He was on a preaching mission in that area. Here’s the story as she told it:
Early in the spring of 1905 … we contracted a deep friendship with a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mr. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheelchair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and he asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s response was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watched me.” [The hymn “The Eye is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.
The day after she wrote the words, she mailed them to a composer friend, who wrote the tune. Since that time, no other tune has been associated with that hymn. And because of evangelistic connections in Great Britain, the first performance of the hymn was in an Evangelistic Crusade held in London’s Royal Albert Hall.] [Glory to God: A Companion. Carl P. Daw, Jr. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 2016, p. 626.
What a story, and what a first performance. And to this day, the hymn quietly reassures those who feel forgotten or unnoticed that the Father absolutely sees you and cares for you. There are days, perhaps even today, when you need to hear that; even if you believed it in your head before, it is good to have it sung as an Affirmation of Faith. Even if you doubt the presence of, or the engagement of God in the world, it is good to hear the words proclaimed by a remarkable woman of faith. Perhaps those can be your words of faith too.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus: even though we cannot see you or your Heavenly Father, we can still know of your love and care. And perhaps we will have a “God sighting”—some special place where we see God at work in the world. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 21, 2020