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Bird Watching


St. Louis is a wonderful place for watching birds: songbirds and migratory birds, sure, and with all the rivers around, there are also many birds of prey.


A couple weeks ago I was in Forest Park with my family, and we noticed a hawk standing on the ground, not far from us. It was awesome because we were within sight of the zoo but this was in the park where the wild birds are free! The hawk was not injured; it was eating something. We stood and watched a little while, these fascinated kids were not at all bothered that the hawk was eating a squirrel. They said they were “team hawk.”


While we watched the hawk devouring its meal, I could hear another bird’s cry and spotted another hawk high in one of the trees. Was it another hawk competing for a piece of meat? Was it the partner hawk instructing the hawk on the ground to tear the meat into small pieces so the babies don’t choke on it? I don’t know.


I just know everyone was watching the hawks. There were a few people nearby, and there were a lot of other birds. I really noticed the robins sounding the alarm. I’m pretty sure hawks sometimes eat smaller birds. But the smaller birds weren’t fleeing the area—they were paying close attention and they were communicating. Loudly.


After a few minutes, the hawk with the squirrel finished its preparations, gripped the squirrel in its talons, flapped its majestic wings and took flight, to another tree. Look, I said, a flying squirrel! My daughter rolled her eyes. Look, I’m just reporting what happened.


The other hawk was still high up in the tree, and I saw a tiny bird, probably a sparrow, perch on the same branch, not three feet from that huge hawk. The tiny bird was chirping its heart out. It flapped its wings and jumped closer to the hawk, and to my surprise, the big hawk flew away, being chased by a tiny sparrow.


I don’t know a lot about bird behavior, but I’ve noticed this phenomenon of large birds of prey being chased by smaller birds. It’s not always sparrows doing the chasing, sometimes I’ve seen blue jays or crows, but the size differential is what gets my attention. A tiny bird chasing a much larger bird.


It seems counterintuitive—couldn’t the large bird just attack the smaller one? What gives the small birds this kind of confidence, to take on a bird that’s 10 times larger? I can’t imagine the small birds are attacking the larger ones—could a hawk be pecked to death by a sparrow? But I can imagine a small bird chasing and chastising the hawk: look here, you take your nonsense and move along, we are not about to die today.


Honestly, it’s kinda changed my opinion about sparrows. I always thought sparrows were pretty friendly, just small and minding their own business, eating seeds and building cute little nests and stuff. But what if sparrows are actually pretty fierce in their own way? What if sparrows are social justice warriors, taking care of their communities?


Maybe they can’t kill a hawk, but they sure can make it go away. Hawks aren’t evil, they gotta eat somehow—I have friends on team hawk, after all—but an insistent sparrow can pester them enough to move along. We’re not gonna die today.


When Jesus talks about sparrows, he mentions their relative worth: two for a penny. I mean, that’s cheap, whether you’re in the market for sparrows as a sacrifice to be offered in the temple or for food, a very small source of protein. Either way, sparrows aren’t worth a lot.


And that’s Jesus’s point: these sparrows that you don’t even care about, God notices all of them. God keeps up with every sparrow and guess what: God loves you even more than sparrows. You are of more value than many sparrows.


Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, though he isn’t denying that there’s plenty to fear. The threats are real, and he doesn’t try to convince the disciples to ignore the very real opposition they will face. Just don’t be paralyzed by fear. Don’t let fear get you stuck. Somewhere there’s a sparrow chasing a hawk and chirping WE’RE NOT ABOUT TO DIE TODAY. God is watching that sparrow. I wonder if the sparrow knows this, that God sees them.


God sees and hears the pain of humans. This is the story in the first reading today,[1] about Hagar and Ishmael. We may be more familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah, since Abraham heard God’s promise to have a child, to be the father of nations. Years pass without any sign of a child between Abraham and his wife Sarah, so Sarah suggests Abraham father a child with her own servant Hagar.[2] So he does get Hagar pregnant, but then Sarah isn’t pleased with the situation in her household and treats Hagar harshly. So Hagar runs away for the first time.


In the wilderness, an angel of the Lord intervenes, telling Hagar that she will bear a son to be named Ishmael, and the angel says, “the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” The name Ishmael means “God hears.” Hagar responds to this news, and she becomes the first person in the Bible to call God by name—she calls God by the name “El Roi,” which means the God who sees. God is the one who draws near, who pays attention, and who seeks relationship with people like Hagar, a house servant or slave who has been cast out.[3] Hagar returns to the home of Abraham and Sarah, gives birth to Ishmael, and later on Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. But the friction between these mothers and their young sons is too much, and that’s the story we’ve read today, when Hagar and Ishmael are again sent away into the wilderness. Hagar becomes the first person in the Bible to weep.


God hears her again, and the angel of God calls out to her, saying, “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”[4] Hagar gets a promise that sounds a whole lot like the promise given to Abraham. Three different faiths in the world trace their ancestry back to the patriarch Abraham: Jews and Christians are descended from Abraham’s son Isaac, and Muslims are descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. These are the great nations that were promised.


After this story about Hagar, we don’t hear about her again, but the writer of the book of Genesis does say that when Abraham dies, his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, together, are the ones who bury him.


God sees and God hears when humans are suffering, and God responds. Even to the ones who don’t have a lot of power. God notices every sparrow, and you, Child of God, you are worth even more than sparrows. Yes, the world can be a scary place. Yes, there are dangers all around. But we are called to life and to life abundant in Jesus Christ, who tells his disciples: don’t be afraid.


Lose your life for Christ’s sake, and lose your fear and anything else that is holding you back.


Even a tiny sparrow can lift their voice and can chase away a predator.


God hears and God sees these little ones—how much more will God hear and see you, precious Child of God?


Amen.

Pastor Cheryl

[1] Thankful for the guidance of a 2014 article by Dan Clendenin sourced at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20140616JJ.shtml, cataloged at http://www.textweek.com/yeara/propera7.htm [2] Genesis 16. [3] From a previous sermon I wrote in 2015, 03012015 Lent 2. [4] Genesis 21:18.




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