The Lesson of the Rattlesnake
June 19, 2005
Matthew 10: 26-33
The Indians of the American Southwest believed that every animal was intended to teach us a lesson on how to live. It was the rattlesnake, they believed, that was meant to teach us about fear. The Indians believed that in late summer, when the rattlesnake would shed its skin, it became temporarily immobile and blind. It was therefore in a very vulnerable position. In that position it was controlled by fear. Whenever it would sense a movement in its vicinity, it would immediately strike out in blindness after the sound that it had heard. If anything brushed against its skin, it would immediately bite the spot that had been touched, thereby injecting venom into its own body from its fangs. This of course would lead to death. So according to the American Indians, the lesson that the rattlesnake teaches us about fear is this: Our fear can destroy us.
That is why it is very important for each one of us to identify the fears in our life and to deal with them. It is important that we do this, because ignoring fears can lead to blindness and paralysis. Ignoring fears can rob us of life.
So, are you afraid? Take time in answering this question, because not all fear is the same. There is a violent, obvious fear, a fear that sets our hearts pounding and causes us to sweat. We feel this fear after we have escaped from an automobile accident, or when someone startles us in a quiet room. But there is also a subtle, insinuating fear that can pervade our lives. This fear comes at us not like a roaring lion, but as a coiled snake sitting in the corner of the room. This quiet fear travels with us day by day. It can rob us of freedom. It can choke our life.
So how can we discern whether this subtle, quiet fear is having an influence upon us? One way is to notice the things in our lives that we say we should do, but never get around to doing. We should recognize the things that we do not have the freedom to act upon. Because this failure to act is oftentimes the result of a fear that is under the surface, a quiet fear that undermines us.
Why have you not had that conversation with your spouse that you know you should have? It might be because of a fear that, if you start an honest discussion, larger issues would surface that would also have to be dealt with. Why have you not broken off a relationship that you know is unhealthy, perhaps even abusive, and moved on with your life? It might be because there is a fear that, if you end this relationship, you will live the rest of your life alone. Why is it that you do not speak what you feel, that you do not express what you need? It might be because there’s a fear that really telling others who you are would somehow be disloyal to your family or the people you love. Why is it you don’t take time for yourself but instead are always working and helping others? It might be because there is a fear that, if you stop doing, you will somehow lose your identity or your own value. Why is it that you do not commit yourself to a person that you know that you love, or to an opportunity that you know would be good for you to accept? It might be because of a fear that, in choosing this one person or this one opportunity, you must leave behind other possibilities without which you might be unhappy.
All fear is bondage. If we let fear control us, it robs us of our freedom to act. It paralyzes us. It sets us in a vicious circle, where we keep knowing the things that we should do but somehow never find the power to do them. How do we break this bondage of fear? How do we short-circuit this vicious circle that keeps robbing us of our life? We have to reach outside of ourselves. As those in AA would say, we have to find a higher power. This is what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. Three times in the gospel he says, “Do not be afraid.” He can say this because he knows that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing about it and caring about it, and that we are worth more than many sparrows. Jesus tells us that to deal with fear we must recognize love. We must recognize the love of God that surrounds us, the love of God that has intimate knowledge of our life, the love of God that knows the number of hairs on our head. If we can claim that love and recognize God’s presence in our life, we can overcome the fears that paralyze us.
Are there reasons to be afraid? Of course there are. But for the believer who recognizes that there is a love surrounding us and guiding us, those fears need not overwhelm us. The gospel today encourages us to entrust ourselves into God’s care, to believe in God’s love, to trust that God knows all the needs and problems of our lives, to know that God will not abandon us.
“Perfect love drives out fear.” That saying is true. But the perfect love that removes fear from our life is not our love of God, but God’s continual, powerful, unyielding love for us.
Noticing the Details of Life
June 22, 2008
A New York businessman was undergoing some serious personal problems. It became apparent to him that he would need the help of a professional psychiatrist. But if he was going to do this, he wanted the very best psychiatrist available. After consulting with a number of people, he decided upon a psychiatrist with a fashionable address on Park Avenue. He entered the well-appointed waiting room but found no one in attendance. As he looked around he saw that there were two doors in the waiting room, one marked “men” and the other marked “women”. So he opened the door marked “men” and walked in. He found himself in a second very well appointed room with again, two doors. One was marked “introvert” and the other was marked “extrovert”. So he thought for a moment and chose the “introvert” door. He found himself in a third room, again with two doors. One was marked “those making over $100,000.00 a year” and the second: “those making under $100,000.00 a year.” He walked through the door marked “those making under $100,000.00 a year” and found himself again on the Park Avenue sidewalk.
All of us have, in one form or another, experienced rejection from others because we do not fit the definition of what they consider desirable. Our world tends to limit value and worth into certain limited categories: those making over $100,000.00 a year, those who are well connected, those who are attractive. In this way of thinking, if we do not fit in to one of those limited categories of wealth or influence or beauty, we are expendable, we do not have value.
Today’s gospel challenges our way of thinking about value. It challenges us to see the world and our self differently. It does so by presenting a truth and a strategy. The truth in today’s gospel is a truth about God. The gospel tells us what God considers valuable, what God considers important in creation. The revelation is that God considers everything valuable. God does not just value the blockbusters of creation like the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest. God values that shady corner in your back yard. God does not only care about the impressive creatures that God has made like the eagle that soars in the mountains. God also notices and cares for the sparrow that can be bought for a half a penny. For God, value is not rare. It is not limited. For God, value is universal. God values all things including the details of creation. That is the truth.
Here’s the strategy: I believe that today’s gospel is calling us to see the world and ourselves the way that God sees us. I believe that the gospel is calling us to value everything, even the details of our lives. And why is this important? Because the more that we limit value to only certain categories, to only big moments, to only important people, then the majority of our life will be value-less. The more that we are willing to write off a particular moment because it is ordinary, or a particular person because that person is not that interesting, or a particular opportunity because that opportunity does not look like it will produce income, then the majority of our life becomes barren and without joy. It is, then, more and more difficult for us to recognize our own worth and value, because value is limited only to rare categories of people, moments, and things. But the more that we can see the world as God sees it, the more that we can see the value in every person and in every moment, the more that we can rejoice in the details of our lives, the more that our whole life is filled with value. Then it is easier for us to recognize the true value that God has given to us.
So that is the strategy for this week. Try to notice the value in the details of your life. Take time to appreciate the humming bird buzzing around your garden, the glint in your daughter’s eye, the courage that a co-worker struggling with a difficult burden, the patience of your spouse, or the laughter of a close friend. God notices all these details of life and so should we. The more that we notice the value of a sparrow, the easier it will be to see the greater value that surrounds us. Then it will be easier to see how all of creation has been wonderfully and lovingly made and is fused in with a deep worth and value, a worth and value in which we share.
The Problem with Sparrows
June 25, 2017
Matthew 10: 26-33
There’s nothing wrong with sparrows. They are cute, little brown birds with a lot of pep. And I have to admit that I enjoy watching them flutter around my bird feeder. But when you compare sparrows to other birds, they do not stack up well. They are not colorful like cardinals or fast like hawks. In fact, in the bird kingdom they come across as commonplace, low level creatures. So this is why I am taken aback when Jesus says in today’s gospel, “You are worth more than many sparrows.” Isn’t that rather back-handed encouragement? If Jesus was trying to tell us that we were worth something, why not say, “You are worth more than many eagles.”
But this is the kind of thinking Jesus is trying to undercut in today’s gospel. He is trying to assert that we find our value not by comparing ourselves to others but by claiming our status in God’s eyes. God has made all things, and God loves all things. God has made some things bigger, faster, and more beautiful than others—and God loves those things. But God does not simply love the things that are bigger, faster, and more beautiful. God loves all things. God loves sparrows. There is something about their “sparrowness” that gives God constant delight. This is why Jesus uses the example of a sparrow in today’s gospel. He says, “Not a sparrow falls from the sky without your Heavenly Father noticing it.” And God notices sparrows because God notices everything that exists and loves each thing in creation for what it is.
How different our lives could be, if we could share in God’s way of seeing things instead of comparing our value and worth to the value and worth of others. We all want to excel. We want our children to excel. But if we are constantly measuring our worth and their worth against that of others, it is possible that we will miss the particular goodness that God has placed in us and in them. You can see this when you overhear fathers talking about their sons in the grade school football program. They do not use these words but one father will say, “You know, my son’s like a cheetah. No one runs faster than him.” Or another father will say, “My son is like a bear. He never misses a tackle.” But often there is a father who says, “My son. . . my son is like a sparrow.”
It is difficult being a sparrow on a football team. Yet God sees the value that is there. So should we. We cannot all be Supreme Court justices, or Hollywood celebrities, or multibillion-dollar entrepreneurs. But God has given to each one of us a goodness that allows us to love and serve others. What today’s gospel calls us to do is—instead of comparing our goodness to the goodness of someone else—to claim the goodness that we are and to use it. This is what God does. God is noticing our goodness every day and loving it. And God loves it not because it is better or less than someone else’s goodness. But because it is our goodness. The goodness that God created and in which God never fails to take delight.
Dogs and Sparrows
June 21, 2020
Mathew 10: 26-33
Over the last few months one thing that has become very clear to me: Dogs love the coronavirus. When I look out my window, I see more and more people walking their dogs. The owners are rather sad and pre-occupied, checking their cell phones and staring off into space. But the dogs have an entirely different demeanor. They could not be more pleased. They literally prance down the sidewalk, wagging their tails, sniffing the air, and pulling their owners this way and that. It is impossible to know what a dog is thinking. But the other day a happy little beagle stared and me, and I would swear that he was saying: “This is my third walk of today and I am in heaven.” We do not know if dogs can catch the corona virus. But obviously they don’t care. Sickness and pain are for another day. In the present, dogs are completely focused on enjoying that strange sent in the air, the new bush they just discovered, or the other dog they see on the horizon. Dogs find joy in the things around them, and there are very few things that escape their notice.
Now if you will excuse the comparison, this is a characteristic one that dogs share with God. We know that God is responsible for the whole world and everything in it. Yet we believe that God takes joy in the world in this present moment and that nothing escapes God’s notice. The gospel today says that not even a small sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowledge and care. God does not pass by the opportunity to delight in that sparrow. God is always extending love and care to all that is, even to things that do not seem that important. We should do the same.
I know that the last couple months we have been overwhelmed with huge issues: a health pandemic, social unrest. But even as we appropriately address all of these major concerns, we should not rob ourselves of the joy that comes from the small things around us. The new recipe that we just tried out which came out much better than we expected should not only be acknowledged but savored. An unexpected call from a friend who was just checking up on us should not only be welcomed but celebrated. The new picture that our 6-year-old grandson has drawn for us and proudly displays on Zoom should not be an occasion to lament the fact that we cannot embrace him but be received as a wondrous gift that can make us happy.
We can find joy in the smallest things and that joy can give us the strength to face the major issues in our lives. That is why the gospel calls us today to live in the present and find joy in the small good things around us. Now we will not be able to do that as well as God does it. We might not even be able to do it as well as our dog does it. But we can do it. And we can begin today.