Excerpts from a Sermon Delivered on
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2020
The Reverend Joseph C. Alsay
“His Eye is on the Sparrow”
At the 86th Annual Academy Awards, the movie— 20 Feet From Stardom won the Oscar for best documentary feature film. 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 African-American women who grew up in church. Many of them had fathers who were pastors — like Darlene Love. Love, who is 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."
The song comes from the words of Jesus in this week's gospel.
That's the message of this week's gospel "Don't be afraid."
It has been said, that particular phrase is used over 70 times in the entire bible.
"Don't be afraid," "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."
Don't be afraid, for God sees and hears. He knows.
This is also the message from this week's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Here we recall the rich family saga of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch/matriarch of Israel, the founding couple of the people of YHWH.
After God promised Abraham a progeny with his wife Sarah in Genesis 15, they laughed in disbelief, then took matters into their own hands. This is a story that we sweep under the rug. This the skeleton that we relegate to the dark corner in the back closet.
Predictably, the pregnancy provoked Sarah's acrimony and jealousy. Sarah abuses and demeans her slave-girl. I can imagine that during their “Pillow Talk” Sarah told Abraham that we have an “uppity slave and you have to do something about it.” Abraham being the upstanding man that he is responds, “Whatever you say, honey. The slave-girl is yours. You take care the problem” So, wonder of wonders Hagar hits the bricks and flees like a runaway slave. Who could blame her? She goes not just around corner, but escapes into the yellow hot sands of the desert towards Egypt.
It is there, in the searing heat, that the angel of God found Hagar in the desert.
The child to be born would bear a special name. "You shall name him Ishmael," said the angel, which in Hebrew means "God hears me," for "the Lord has heard of your misery."
Hagar then "gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: You are El roi 'You are the Living One who sees me.' Beer Lahai Roi: " In a delightful play on words, Hagar exclaims, "I have seen the One who sees me."
Fast forward fifteen years to Genesis 21, which back tracks to the story of Ishmael.
One day, Sarah sees Ishmael "playing," with Isaac, and she cannot stand his very existence.
So once again, Sarah demands that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. “Throw out that child and her slave mother, too."
Abraham gives Hagar a bit of bread and water and drives her and her child, Ishmael, out of the camp, dooming them to a terrible death in the desert.
Too easily any one of us may forget our own origins, may assume that we are far grander than we in fact are, and may begin to treat others as slaves and lesser beings.
Wandering in the desert of Beersheba, Hagar’s waterskins empty, she can’t bear to see Ishmael, the child she loves and bore, die in front of her eyes. So, she " began to sob" with the love of a mother for her child.
Then, from out of the ground, a well springing forth with water, a gift of God appears and saves the lives of Hagar and Ishmael.
Such an old story, and yet how current it finally is, offering a lesson that we still have yet to learn.
God is not deaf, dumb or blind or banal. He's not implacable or impassible, without feeling or emotion. He's not an absentee landlord deity or forgetful father.
God is infinite, but the story of Ishmael and the words of Jesus remind us that he's also intimate.
~ Fr. Joseph C. Alsay