Sermon on Psalm 86 and Matthew 10:29-31 for Pentecost +3, June 25, 2015
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
When I was overseas they asked me to teach some courses in English as a Second Language. I got a book, and learned some things about English I never knew before. For example, I learned that we treat countable nouns differently from uncountable nouns.
Countable nouns are objects big enough or few enough to be able to count, like sheep or shepherds.
Uncountable nouns are either too small, or just too many to count, like sand, or they are liquids, like water.
For uncountable nouns, we do not usually make them plural. We do not go to the beach to see the sands or to swim in the waters or to catch fishes.
Some things seem to straddle the line between countable and not. Stars are like that. There are way too many to count, but, in the pre-telescope days of the ancient world, you could imagine trying. In the story in Genesis, when God promises Abraham descendants, he told him to go out and count the stars if he could – so many will his descendants be.
The same is true for sparrows. They fly individually, but they also flock in numbers too many to count.
It is the same for hair.
While we could count hairs individually, there are just too many to bother with, so normally we talk about our hair, not our hairs.
The men in the room are probably thinking about baldness or partial baldness, called male pattern baldness, and thinking that the number of hairs they have left may well get few enough to count. Nevertheless, we talk about hair, not hairs.
Men and women both know about hair loss. Just look at your hair brush. And everyone knows that the older you get, the more hair you seem to loose; and that’s true for both men and women.
So, in the ancient world they had a phrase they used for death that involved hair. They spoke of our gray hair going down to Sheol – the world of the dead (not hell – which ancient Israelites had no concept of). To have your gray hair go down to Sheol is to die.
So that seems to have given rise to another expression about keeping safe that also involved hair. To not have one hair of your head fall to the ground is to be kept safe. Solomon once reportedly said,
“If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground” (1Kings 1:52)
Jesus used this countable/not countable phenomenon to help us imagine what God is like. The God Jesus taught us to believe in could count both sparrows and hairs.
Why? It was not simply because God was like a super computer with enough computational power. Rather, it was because God has such a vast ocean of compassion. God cares. And God’s care is inexhaustible.
So Jesus helps us to grasp the extent of God’s care for us by making an argument from the lesser to the greater case. He starts with sparrows, and then goes to people and their hair. If we can imagine that God tracks all the sparrows that are of almost negligible market value, such that none of them falls to the ground apart from God, how much more is it the case that God cares for us, people made in God’s image.
To what extent does God care for us? To the extent that even the hairs of our heads are numbered. God is the counter of uncountable nouns, because his care for us is inexhaustible.
The God of the Hebrew Bible
Where did Jesus get this concept of God? Was not the God of the Hebrew Bible the scary God of wrath and judgment? Was not the Old Testament God distant and vengeful?
Well, yes, that perspective is there, in great quantity. But there is another perspective as well. It was that God was also capable of enormous love. For Jesus, one way of looking at God is clearly better than the other way.
There are many examples of the God of love in the Hebrew Bible which Jesus would have heard read or sung. We are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” You may not be as familiar with Psalm 86, but it is another.
“You, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.” (v. 5)
“You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (v. 15)
The word for “merciful” in Hebrew actually comes from the word for “womb.” It is sometimes translated “compassion.” To say that God is merciful or compassionate is to say that God feels “womb-ishly” – or as a mother would feel for the baby growing within her It is a female, mothering characteristic of God. God also abounds in “steadfast love”. This word (chesed חסד) is almost untranslatable. Some versions of the bible use the word, “love” or “loving kindness”. In some places it is closer to “loyalty” or “devotion.”
It is frequently paired with “faithfulness” as it is in this Psalm. God, instead of being quick to anger, is slow to anger, because She abounds in “steadfast love and faithfulness”.
In human company, it is almost universally true that people defer to the strong, the great, the powerful and the well-born. People dote on them. They offer them whatever they have on hand to show how much they are honored.
I remember seeing a movie about a British family that, for reasons I no longer remember, got a home visit from Queen Elizabeth. They completely stressed out about how to honor her – finest china, best silver. Of course they offered her tea and “biscuits” (as they call cookies) and whatever else she wanted. Why? She was the queen!
In this Psalm, there is an implicit understanding that God’s motives for loving kindness go the exact opposite direction. God shows that vast loving kindness and faithfulness, that grace and mercy, that forgiveness precisely, the psalmist believes, to the lowly, the weak and the vulnerable.
The reason starts with the word “for”. Listen:
“Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.”
Three times the psalmist calls herself or himself God’s servant and once “the child of your serving girl.”
The central Israelite story is the exodus story. It is a story about people who are enslaved and suffering.
They cry out to the Lord, and the Lord hears them. God responds with compassion to people who are poor and needy, and liberates them. It is not because they are prestigious or beautiful, but the opposite. God’s womb-like attention is directed to the poor and needy, not to the deserving.
This is the very definition of grace, a word which also shows up in this psalm twice. God’s grace is not a new idea in the New Testament. Grace, mercy, forgiveness, burst out on nearly every line.
This is the perspective that we have on human beings: God loves us, not because we did anything to deserve it, but because it is God’s nature to love. And God’s nature is to listen to the cries of the poor, the oppressed, the suffering ones. Knowing that this is what God is like, we look around at the world we live in with eyes open to where the pain is.
That is why we are concerned about poverty, and the working poor. We too hear the cries of the marginalized. We too see systemic injustice. We know that you do not have to be a literal slave in a political empire to be trapped in legal systems that work against your race.
Without leg-irons you may be caught up in an economic system that leaves you without health care or the ability to afford college, even though you work as many hours as you can. If God’s attention turns towards the people in need, so does ours. If God is not okay with the status quo of injustice, neither are we.
A Mortal Issue
We need to pause here to acknowledge an issue that has been shadowing us today. We began with the God Jesus taught us to trust in – the God who counts uncountable nouns, the God who numbers the hairs of our head. Then we have looked at a psalm that exudes confidence in a God who is entirely good, full of compassion and mercy, loving kindness and forgiveness, a God who can be known personally, even intimately.
All of this is being affirmed in a world of real threats; potentially life-ending threats. Everyone knows that sparrows do fall to the ground. Even though our hairs are numbered, everyone experiences hair loss. Everyone faces the threat of death, because, whether there are ruthless men after us or not, as the psalmist feared, we all will die. We, unlike any other animal, know our own mortality. This is the existential tragedy we live with.
This is probably why the psalmist asks
“give me an undivided heart”.
A heart that does not waver between trust and despair. You ask for what you do not yet have. Who does not have a heart divided between trust and fear?
Trust, in the Real World
So, what does it mean to live with trust, knowing that we do not live forever?
“So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
“Do not be afraid.”
We will all die. And before we die, we will all suffer. Some people do get attacked by ruthless men, as the psalm writer feared. Others are attacked by ruthless diseases, physical or mental, or emotional. Some are attacked by broken relationships or heart-rending tragedies.
There are only two ways to go through life. One way is to go through life with fear and dread, resisting and fighting the bad that happens, being angry, resentful, and eventually bitter.
The other way is to trust.
Trusting does not mean that we believe we will be magically saved from any of the things we mortals are subject to. But it means that we live with the confidence that God is with us, always, even in our suffering.
This is the life that Jesus lived. He did not expect his trust in God, whom he affectionately called Abba, to save him, even from death; nor did it. But he trusted. He could say, as he faced death,
“into your hands I commend my spirit.”
There are many aspects to life that we do not, and cannot understand. We do not even understand our own consciousness. Certainly we do not understand the pain and suffering that life includes.
But we do believe that through it all, we are being upheld in goodness and love. We can go through life, whatever comes, with open hearted trust, in the God who keeps a running tally on our hair.