Last week, I had an amazing opportunity to spend the week in Washington, DC, learning about Spirituality in Nature.
As many of you know, I love being out in the woods, on the lakes and in the mountains, because those are among the places where I feel incredibly connected to God, to my spirituality.
And at first, I was hesitant: DC is a sprawling city, with roads and buildings and new developments being built everywhere you go.
How would I be able to find the natural world like I can so easily do here in Central Pennsylvania?
What with all the people, the cars, the low-air quality days and the noise of airplanes overhead every 30 seconds?
After a couple of days exploring some of the nature parks and preserves deep within the city, on Wednesday, my class of seven students was able to take a ride on a skiff on the Anacostia River.
The Anacostia River is an 8-mile-long waterway that flows from western Maryland and empties into the Potomac, running past dense woods, and eventually into very urban neighborhoods.
On the boat, I saw osprey, great blue herons, an array of shore birds too numerous to count, Canadian geese, wood ducks and barn swallows nesting beneath a bridge.
The birds were a good sign — especially those whose diet consisted of fish, because birds who eat fish can’t live if there aren't fish around.
You see, until quite recently, the Anacostia River was one of the most polluted rivers in the country.
The Navy yard dumped toxic heavy metals directly into it.
Household garbage was dumped into the river regularly.
The National Zoo dumped all of its animal waste onto land on the river, which ran off into the waterway.
And — even to this day — human waste flows directly into the Anacostia whenever there’s a rainstorm.
You see, the same pipes that carry stormwater, carry human waste, and when there is too much stormwater, the excess goes straight into the river.
It’s surprising anything lives in this river, and it breaks my heart.
But it also breaks my heart because of not only the injustice to the natural world, but to the human world, too.
That’s because the neighborhood called Anacostia used to be home to some of the poorest families — predominantly African-American families — in all of Washington, DC.
Where once children swam in these waters and people fished in them, and where people were baptized along the shores, the entire river is toxic.
Those who lived there watched as their river was taken away from them because they didn’t seem to matter.
Because of the color of their skin, if we’re being honest.
The good news is that today, through the efforts of just a few people who have adopted the river, the Anacostia’s health is returning.
Fish and birds and other animals are coming back, and although you can’t swim or eat the fish or be baptized in the river still, hopes are that a day will come soon when the Anacostia will be healthy again.
And, as evidenced by the birds, animals and fish that I saw from the bow of the skiff, I knew the river was being taken care of — from the white-tailed deer I saw lapping at the water’s shore, to the tiny sparrows, darting for insects near the reeds.
His Eye Was on the Sparrow
In 1905, Civilla Martin wrote the lyrics to the song “His Eye Was on the Sparrow.”
In it, she sings:
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye was on the sparrow,
and I know He watches me.
Ms. Martin wrote the song after beginning a friendship with a couple in Elmira, N.Y. Her new friend had been confined to her bed for 20 years because of an illness, and her husband was confined to a wheelchair, yet still managed to go to work every day and take care of his wife.
Ms. Martin was amazed by their outlook on life, and when she asked the woman how they could maintain such happiness despite their challenges, the woman from her bed said "His eye was on the sparrow, and I know He watches me."
More valuable than many sparrows
In our reading today in Matthew 10.24-39, Jesus is speaking with his disciples who will face many challenges, hardships and dangers in their mission to share the Good News.
And Jesus talks of the sparrow.
He says, in Verse 29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”
And he adds, “So do not be afraid: you are more valuable than many sparrows.”
As I mentioned, the apostles had a very hard road ahead of them.
And they were afraid.
It’s as if all that Jesus has told them and shown them in his ministry and in their learning has been the same as whispering in dark corners.
“This stuff is all great, but let’s keep it down — if anyone hears us talking, they will persecute us.”
Jesus tells them, no — in fact all the things they whisper about in the dark, they will proclaim loudly in the light.
They will shout from the rooftops, Verse 27.
Jesus tells them to not be afraid, because they are valuable to God.
Just as those in creation that we might think are at the bottom of the food chain — such as sparrows, which were some of the least expensive food one could buy in Jesus’s day.
And not one falls to the ground without God knowing about it, Jesus tells us in Verse 29.
And how much more are the children who are made in God’s very own image?
Further, Jesus tells them that he is on the apostles’ side as well.
That if they acknowledge Jesus, Jesus will acknowledge the apostles — and us — before God.
So what is there to fear?
As we read on, the language gets a little harder.
Jesus says in Verse 34 that he didn’t come to bring peace, but to bring a sword.
It’s not a literal sword, but it’s a sword that will divide people against one another.
A sword that will divide good from evil.
He adds that families will be divided against one another in the following verse.
As a child, I always hated this verse because I thought it meant that I have to choose Jesus against my family.
But again, Jesus isn’t being literal here. He hardly ever is.
In the context of Jesus’s day, family was more than brother, sister, mother, father — the definition we use today;
It’s a metaphor for kinship. It was social status. Prominence, respect, position and power.
Who your family was, was your position and power in the world.
This statement is a critique against lineage and hereditary wealth.
It is against the societal power structures of the day.
In other words, if you’re more loyal to your social status, your financial standing, your power and position in this world, you are not worthy of Christ.
And that still holds true today…
And suddenly those famous words of Jesus in Verses 38 and 39 come into a much sharper focus:
“…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.”
They might sound like harsh words; but they are, in fact, words of great comfort if you love and follow Jesus.
It’s a way to put things into perspective — to reframe the way we think about our very lives.
* Instead, we see God’s great love for us.
* We see how much God cares for us.
* We see how God provides for us.
* And we see how God guides us.
* We see this all because of the way God’s children and God’s creation are lovingly cared for.
* And we never, ever have to be afraid to speak of this great love, anywhere, to anyone, at any time.
God watches your every move
Some times, we feel down.
We suffer loss, we suffer heartache, we suffer injustice… We’re afraid.
Sometimes following Christ is even a hard road to walk.
We’ve all been there.
But it’s a comfort to know God’s watching us, every move.
We might not think so.
We might not think God cares about every decision we make or every feeling, good or bad, we have.
We might not think God cares whether we take that new job, buy that new shirt, go on that new diet or take that vacation.
But God does.
God is intimately involved with every facet of our lives.
God feels every hurt, cries every tear, and celebrates every joy with us.
Jesus tells us God counts every single hair on your head.
Again, if it’s not literal, that even enhances the point.
God knows every little detail about you and me and more, God cares about each of those details.
God is truly with us! Always!
And so it’s no wonder why this verse about sparrows and this song about “His Eye Was on the Sparrow” have become such anthems for the oppressed, the lowly.
How many African-Americans have recorded and sung this song?
* In a world that has greatly discounted — and continues to discount — people simply because of the color of their skin, these words offer hope.
* In a world that persecutes those who don’t share their own religious or social beliefs, we can easily see how these words offer promise.
* In a world that assigns worth and value based on a person’s income and status, it’s abundantly apparent how these words offer comfort.
“His eye was on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”
Plying the Anacostia River, the neighborhood that once housed hundreds of impoverished families along its banks has been replaced by new develoment.
The Washington Senators baseball stadium sits across the river, and surrounding it are new pubs and restaurants, tourist attractions and brand-new high-rise condos.
The former neighborhood along the bank is a great big park and greenspace, with a boat launch, playground, and an outdoor roller-rink.
On the shore, the only people I saw were riding on the bike trail, and a few kids were throwing pebbles into the water.
Where have they all gone?
The neighborhood is gone.
Wouldn’t it have wonderful for them to have seen the river’s cleanup and care while they were still living there?
One of my classmates on the skiff grew up there.
For most of the trip, she remained deeply quiet.
When we asked, she talked about what this place once looked like.
How no one really noticed the river when she was growing up there because it might as well have been a dump.
They stopped seeing it.
And to be on a boat on the banks of the once-neighborhood where she grew up was profound.
“It feels like a homecoming,” she said, holding back the tears.
What God Gives
We face injustice.
And sometimes we must come face to face with the injustices we’ve caused.
The proof was sitting beside me in this skiff.
But the proof was also in that great blue heron, that osprey, those wood ducks and those sparrows along the river banks.
God certainly cares for us.
* Enough so that God gave us Jesus to show us how to live.
* That God gave us care of one another, of the land, of the rivers, and of the birds, too.
* And that God gave us the sparrow.
That we can look at and see how loved, how cared for — how valuable each part of creation truly is.
And when we see the sparrow, we can understand God’s love for us.
Not based on how rich we are.
How privileged we are.
Where we live.
What we believe.
Or what the color of our skin is.
We are loved profoundly by the one who created us.
God is faithful.
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know He watches you and me.