Matthew 10: 29 – 31   The Sparrows of Hope August 23, 2020  

Here is this week’s sermon:


And the words:

The Sparrows of Hope

Matthew 10: 29 – 31


(preached on August 23, 2002)

 There’s an epidemic going on in this country, ravaging communities and families.  It’s not the corona virus pandemic, although the pandemic will surely make this epidemic worse.  This epidemic isn’t much talked about on the news, but it’s taking lives in our country, especially in places that used to be thriving centers of industry.  This epidemic is called deaths of despair.

I didn’t make up the name “deaths of despair.”  It comes from a new book by a couple of social scientists, Ann Case and Angus Deaton.  In the book, they show that the number of Americans dying in middle age is on the rise.  A growing number of people, especially white people in the working class, are dying from drug overdoses and liver disease caused by alcohol abuse.  Some are taking their own lives, simply out of hopelessness.

This epidemic is real, but you and I are not helpless to confront it.  As followers of Jesus, we have a kind of vaccine to fight this epidemic.  The vaccine is called Christian faith.  Jesus sums it up in our gospel passage for today, from Matthew. Speaking with the disciples, he says, “Aren’t sparrows sold two for a penny?  Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father knowing about it. When it comes to you – why, every hair on your head is counted!  Don’t be afraid – you’re worth much more than many sparrows.”

The God Jesus calls Father is a God of love, a God who even cares about sparrows, a God who made us and sees each of us as of great worth.  But in our world today, not everyone shares this faith in our worth as children of God.  I think that’s why the epidemic of deaths of despair is raging.  Not everyone shares our faith that each person has worth as a child of God.  Instead, in our world, people are often seen as producers or consumers.  In this view, our value doesn’t come from our relationship to God.  Our value comes from our ability to make things and buy things.  This view takes God out of the picture.  This view says we have worth because our labor, and the money we earn from our labor, serve the needs of a consumer economy.

So how is this related to the epidemic of deaths of despair?  For one thing, if we’re valued because we’re good producers and consumers, what happens if we fail at that?  What if we fail to find a job that serves the economy?  Jobs like that can be hard to find.  Factory jobs, the kind that provided a middle class life for our parents, are much harder to find than they used to be.  Automation and outsourcing have put the American worker in a much more precarious position.  That can make someone feel helpless and hopeless.

The economic changes we’re going through are real, but it seems to me that there’s a deeper problem.  There’s a deeper problem and it’s in us, who we are as Americans, and how we think about people who don’t make it in our consumer economy.

Compared with other countries, like England or Germany, we tend to be more judgmental about people who are struggling to find work or struggling to raise their kids.  To us, the United States is the land of opportunity. We think it’s up to everyone to take advantage of that opportunity.  If you’re unable to do that, even if it’s because of circumstances beyond your control, we don’t see your failure as due to those circumstances.  It’s due to a flaw in your character.

Case and Beaton say, “When it comes to people whose lives aren’t going well, American culture is a harsh judge:  if you can’t find enough work, if your wages are too low, if you can’t be counted on to support a family, if you don’t have a promising future, then there must be something wrong with you”  (Gawande, The New Yorker, March 23, 2020. p. 63).


In our land of opportunity, we Americans expect people to succeed.  We agree with Ben Franklin when he says, “God helps those who help themselves.”  When someone can’t help themselves to the latest opportunity, some of us Americans don’t blame their impossible circumstances.  We blame them.

But you and I see people differently.  We are followers of Jesus.  We don’t find people’s value in their ability to help themselves, to succeed at every opportunity.  Like Jesus, we find each person’s value, and our own value, in being beloved children of God.

Rowan Williams expands on this in his book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life.  He writes that Christians see every person as a child of God.  Every person is related to God before they are related to anything or anyone else.  “God has defined who they are and who they can be, by God’s eternal purpose” (Williams, p.65)

That belief, that each of us is a child of God, related first and foremost to God, is deeply ingrained in our Christian faith.  We’re very good at teaching that belief to children in Sunday School.  But sometimes we lose sight of that belief as we get older.  We’re influenced by the view that says people are primarily producers and consumers.  We’re influenced by the view that each person’s value comes from their ability to make and buy things.  When they aren’t able to make and buy things, even if it’s because of circumstances they can’t control, we tend to think it’s their fault.

In Jesus’ time, people were often seen as tools to serve the Roman Empire. In Jesus’ time, someone’s worth came from what they could make, and the taxes they could pay, to serve Rome.  Jesus offers a different view.  As he tells the disciples, we are created by God, a God who even cares about sparrows.  We are loved by God and created to serve God’s loving purposes.

Here in the land of opportunity, people are dying in despair.  What can you and I do about it?  What’s in the vaccine that we can share to bring hope to the hopeless, help to the helpless?   We can start by standing firm in our belief in our own and one another’s worth.  We can start by knowing that each of us is related to God before we’re related to anything else. We can care, deeply care, about those who struggle to make a go of it in a rapidly changing economy.  We can care for them as children of God.  We can pray for those in despair.  We can refuse to join the chorus of blame.  Instead, we can share our belief that each of us is created: not to serve our human plans and purposes, but to be part of the loving purposes of God.

Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 12