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Matthew 10:16-23, 26-31

        This will not be one of those sermons that talks about all the horrible things happening in the world and how they break God’s heart. We know them all too well, right?

        This sermon will not get so far down in the weeds of biblical scholarship that it leaves us wondering if there’s any connection between Jesus and our real lives here and now.

        Because we don’t even need to know the context of this passage—that Jesus was sending his 12 closest followers out to declare the good news that God’s dream for the world would soon be fulfilled—to relate to the whole sheep-in-the-midst-of-wolves business.

        We know the vulnerability of black lives, the insecurity of immigrant lives, the invisibility of poor lives, the fragility of sick lives, the instability of the warming earth. We know the cold-hearted calculus of terrorist attacks, the epidemics of violence and addiction, the greed that drives so much of our politics, and the randomness of fires and floods, landslides and earthquakes. We know the difficulty of speaking to friends and family across religious and political divides. We, too, often feel like sheep in the midst of wolves.

        Of course this is why Jesus was commissioning the 12—because God’s sheep were in trouble, because the lost sheep needed help, and, yes, God’s lovesick heart was hurting. This is why Jesus lived among us then and lives among us still: to heal and empower, to bring together and send out that all might be whole, that all might be free, that all might be at home in and a home for God, that all might be one.

        And so Jesus told the disciples to take God’s love not, primarily, to the privileged and powerful, not first to the well and the well-off, but to society’s cast-offs. Heal the sick, he told them; raise the dead, restore the reviled, and cast out evil spirits and debilitating traumas.

        (Apparently the sure sign of the nearness of God’s realm is the  liberation of the oppressed, the creation of community, the new-found power of lives transformed.)

        But this will not be a finger-wagging sermon, a moralistic summons to holy obligation, or a prophetic call to action—although it’s always good to be reminded of what Jesus and his movement were all about and what it means to be the church.

        We know what God requires of us: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. And we know what the world needs of us right now: a heart for the least of these, courage and hope in the face of unthinkable circumstances, resistance to evil, persistence, light that shines, love that sees through differences, community that welcomes all, faith that endures to the end.

        We cannot open our computers, turn on the radio or television, read a newspaper, collect the mail, or walk down the street without being reminded of what the world needs. We may be tempted to stay away from church because of the constant drumbeat about what God calls us to do.

        And still each day beckons us to get out of bed, to walk among wolves with open arms and a loving heart, to choose the way of Jesus over all else yet again, a path that is countercultural and sometimes even dangerous. If we are aware and awake, we realize that every day is a sending out, that each moment is an opportunity to love.

        Each day we need to hear this kind of scary pep talk from Jesus, this curious mash-up of creaturely metaphors: serpents and sheep, sparrows and doves—and don’t forget the wolves. Every day we need the same reality check-comfort talk combination: Be careful out there; the wolf is at the door; have no fear, Spirit will speak through you; do not fear, little sparrow, God’s got your back; in this world you will have trouble, but be not afraid for I have overcome the world.

        Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

        Every day we need to live into both our smallness (we are but sparrows) and our greatness (made in the image of God! empowered by God’s Spirit!), the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves, the world’s need and God’s abundance, our doubts and our faith, the sometimes scary realities and the just-as-real compassion of Jesus.

        Do you hear the compassion? Can you feel the love?

        My copy of the poems by the great Sufi master Hafiz automatically falls open to this divine promise:

  Just sit there right now
Don’t do a thing
Just rest.
For your separation from God,
From love,
Is the hardest work
In this

Let me bring you trays of food
And something
That you like to
You can use my soft words
As a cushion
For your
Head. 1

        And, from my Bible, another mystic speaks, saying,

Do not worry
Do not be afraid.

        And, my newspaper screams:

Climate change

Each day I can choose which words will guide my feet, which truth will shape my living.Each day I can choose which words will guide my feet, which truth will shape my living. Some days it is enough to make me wonder about the sparrow-sheep-serpent-dove-wolf business. Really, Jesus? I ask. So many sparrows are falling. So many wolves are circling. I am so tired.

        The writer Debbie Blue tells a fascinating history of the sparrow, but the bottom line is this: Try as we might, we cannot live without them. “God cares for what the world considers insignificant” and even bothersome. “God loves the world—every single part of it.” 2 And yet God does not promise to save us from life’s harshness, only to be with us through it all.

        It is both a wide way and a fine line that Jesus bids us walk: this path toward life abundant that passes through death. Paradox and promise, serpents and doves, sheep and sparrows.

        The Washington Post ran a photo last week that makes plain the paradoxical reality in which we live: Taken in the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria, on the outskirts of Damascus, it shows residents sitting down to break the day’s Ramadan fast, to share the Iftar meal. There, amid the concrete-and-rebar rubble of bombed-out buildings, on what must once have been a bustling street, residents sit on plastic chairs at three long tables. Each table is festooned with a burgundy cloth. The full length of each table is piled with plates of food, green napkins, and some sort of orange-colored drink. There are old people and children, women in hijab, some 30 people crowded around each table.

        The photo says it all: abundance in the midst of unbearable loss, gratitude in the face of uncertainty and fear, celebration amid pain, worship amid terror, one foot in front of the other, trays of food, faith that endures to the end, cushions for heads, sheep in the midst of wolves, sparrow upon sparrow upon precious, God-beloved sparrow.

        This is God’s world. Let us not be afraid.

1 “A Cushion for Your Head,” translation by Daniel Ladinsky, in The Gift.
2 From this wonderful book: “Consider the Birds,” by Debbie Blue, Abingdon Press, 2013.