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"His Eye is on the Sparrow"
The God Who Sees and Hears

For Sunday June 22, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 21:8–21 or Jeremiah 20:7–13

Psalm 86:1–10 or Psalm 69:7–10, (11–15), 16–18

Romans 6:1b–11

Matthew 10:24–39

           At the 86th Annual Academy Awards last March, one of my favorite movies won the Oscar for best documentary feature film — 20 Feet From Stardom. The movie honors the unknown musicians who sang backup vocals for Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, U2, and many other stars.

           Many of these backup singers were black women who grew up in church. Many of them had fathers who were pastors — like Darlene Love. Love, who's now 72, featured prominently in 20 Feet From Stardom and accepted the Oscar on behalf of the film. She wasted no time in her acceptance speech to Hollywood's glitterati: "Lord God, I praise you, and I am so happy to be here representing the ladies of 'Twenty Feet From Stardom.'"

           She then burst into an enthusiastic rendition of one of the most famous gospel hymns ever: "I sing because I'm happy, / I sing because I'm free, / His eye is on the sparrow, / And I know he watches me."

           Wow, I thought, that's so in-your-face, I wonder how the audience will respond. They gave her a standing ovation.

Darlene Love, 2014 Academy Awards.

           I also wondered how many people knew that the song comes from the words of Jesus in this week's gospel. Or that it was made famous by Ethel Waters, who sang it at Billy Graham Crusades and used it as the title for her first autobiography.

           Ethel Waters knew fear and pain. Her birth resulted from the rape of her teenage mother. She grew up without a father in severe poverty. In her autobiography, she writes that she never lived in the same place more than fifteen months. "I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family." She married when she was thirteen, left that abusive man, then worked as a maid in Philadelphia for $4.75 a week.

           Despite all that, Waters testified of God's providential care: "His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me."

           That's the message of this week's gospel. "Don't be afraid," said Jesus.

           "Don't be afraid," he said a second time. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father."

           And then a third time: "Even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

           Don't be afraid, for God sees and hears. He knows. This is also the message from this week's Old Testament reading.

           After God promised Abraham a progeny with his wife Sarah in Genesis 15, they laughed in disbelief, then took matters into their own hands. When Sarah remained barren, she insisted that Abraham father a child with her Egyptian slave Hagar. Predictably, the pregnancy provoked Sarah's acrimony and jealousy, and so she banished Hagar to the desert.

           The angel of God found Hagar in the desert. He told her to return, and gave her a promise almost identical to the promise made to Abraham. He promised to make her descendants "too numerous to count." And then came two namings, one by the angel and one by Hagar.

           The child to be born would bear a special name. "You shall name him Ishmael," said the angel, which in Hebrew means "God hears," for "the Lord has heard of your misery."

           Hagar then "gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: 'You are the Living One who sees me.'" In a delightful play on words, Hagar exclaims, "I have seen the One who sees me." (see Genesis 16:1–6).

           Ishmael: God hears me.

           Beer Lahai Roi: God sees me.

Ethel Waters.
Ethel Waters.

           Fast forward fifteen years to Genesis 21, which back tracks to the story of Ishmael. Isaac's birth to Sarah reopened festering wounds and simmering jealousies with Hagar, so once again she banished Hagar and the teenage Ishmael to the desert. Wandering in the desert of Beersheba, her waterskins empty, she abandoned Ishmael to die "and began to sob" with the love of a mother for her child.

           The Genesis storyteller then once again uses a delightful word play on Ishmael's name to drive home his point. He writes, "God heard the boy crying." This is like saying "God heard the boy named God hears." God then reiterated the promise to Abraham the father, then again to Hagar the mother, that's almost identical to the covenantal promise made to Abraham about Isaac: "I will make him into a great nation… God was with the boy" (Genesis 21:18, 20; see 12:2).

           Ishmael, the heir of Islam, cousin to Jews and Christians (all three trace their ancestry to Abraham), bears a name that signals a promise to every person. God is not deaf, dumb or blind. He's not implacable, impersonal, or impassible, without feeling or emotion. He's not an absentee landlord deity.

           God is infinite, but the story of Ishmael and the words of Jesus remind us that he's also intimate.

           He sees every human misery and hears every painful sob. As the Hebrews would learn after four centuries of slavery and exploitation under Egypt, "God heard their groaning" (Exodus 2:24). Knowing and believing that was the first step in their liberation from bondage.

           The same is true for us today. Ishmael, "God hears." Hagar, "the Living One who sees me." And from Jesus, "Don't be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows."

For further reflection:

The Avowal by Denise Levertov

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Image credits: (1) and (2)

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