I am a big fan of Chef Jacques Pepin. You may remember him from some memorable cooking shows on PBS with an elderly Julia Child, or from his cooking shows about “fast food my way” where he would show people how quickly and easily a really good meal could be prepared with just simple ingredients you might already have on hand.
Lately though, his passion seems to be showing you what to do with leftovers as he hates to see anything go to waste.
That approach really appeals to me because I learned to cook from my mother who rarely if at ever just warmed up leftovers. She always viewed them as a challenge to create something new and interesting.
So I find it fascinating to watch Jacques Pepin reach into his refrigerator and pull out a bit of this, a little of that, and then to create something completely different out of the bits and pieces that would otherwise have been thrown away.
“Here’s a little potato, some vegetables, a piece of chicken and some sausage, and so today I am going to show you how to make a tasty soup….” Jacques would say, and then go to work, fearlessly throwing together things that would not at first seem to go together at all.
You have to admire his boldness in the kitchen!
Sometimes reading this part of Matthew’s Gospel feels a little bit like that. It feels like you are perusing the leftovers of sayings of Jesus to see what you have to work with here.
Here we have a saying about slaves and masters, a reference to when the Pharisees accused Jesus of being able to do his miracles in Beelzebub’s name, some assurances about not fearing, a little story about sparrows, some teaching about parents and children not sharing the same ideas… let me show you how to blend all these left-over sayings of Jesus together into a new idea.
The preacher is faced with either pulling apart all these pieces presented to see where they may have come from and how they might be connected.
Or, the preacher can choose to focus on just one of the pithy thoughts or themes and spending some time in that.
I’m choosing a third option, inspired by Jacques Pepin. Let’s take a couple of things that pair well together and spend a little time with them, so see what we can make of them, shall we?
I’m choosing the bits about Sparrows and Sparring.
There is a theme of contention in this collection of sayings. The relationship of slave to master is a contentious one, fraught with expectations and friction, demands and assumptions.
No slave serves willingly, no matter what the appearances. The differential of power is felt and acknowledged.
It is not an equal yoke or pairing.
There is contention and strife built into the relationship of family dynamics, aren’t there? We know this to be true.
That is not to say that nobody ever gets along, but it is more a matter of knowing how best to get under one another’s skin, what buttons to push on the other.
You can’t, after all, put two siblings in car seats next to each other without discovering how contention and competition within families works.
“He touched me!
“She’s looking at me!”
We as human beings find ways to naturally spar with one another. We vie for control and for dominance.
We do have differences of opinion! When the stakes are really high we will employ outright nastiness to achieve our desired ends, or to convince people of our rightness, and will even jeopardize relationship in order to simply “win.”
This portion of Matthew’s Gospel with these sayings acknowledges the truth of that.
The way Jesus has been treated by the Pharisees and by others in power and authority is an indicator of how things will be for those who follow Jesus.
Those who follow Jesus and who try to engage in the same teaching or activity they have heard from him can expect to encounter the same kind of resistance.
They can expect to be the recipients of the same kind of arguments and attitudes.
If they called Jesus Beelzebub, (the devil,) then imagine what they are going to call his followers!
If families are already aware of their vulnerabilities, (how best to get at each other) then imagine how tense and strained relationships will get when disagreements about felt beliefs and convictions enter into the mix!
Jesus questions long held traditions and families are quite frankly, the keepers of tradition!
There is bound to be strife and arguments and tensions when Jesus’ teachings and sayings bump up against what Mom or Dad or Grandpa used to say all the time.
Whenever you bring into question long held understandings and beliefs, there will be sparring.
When you find yourself embroiled in controversy, advocating for a belief that no one else seems to share, or desperately trying to explain your point of view, you can feel pretty — well vulnerable and alone!
Sparring with someone, putting out a viewpoint that is different from the one held by those around you can make you feel pretty powerless, pretty dismissed, pretty much of little value.
We’ve felt that lately.
These are contentious times and no matter where you are on the issues of Black Lives Matter, or All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, or Defund the Police, or Justice for All, or Justice for George or wherever you are on the spectrum of trying to speak out loud, (maybe for the first time) — you recognize that to put forth your position is to be met with sparring and a difference of opinion.
That can be frightening, jarring, and hard.
Jesus knows that.
And so it is, that tucked into the middle of these sayings about sparring with one another is this little nugget of care and reassurance.
“You are worth more than many sparrows!” Jesus says.
Do not be afraid, because your presence and efforts will not go unnoticed by God!
Not a sparrow falls that God does not notice, and not a hair of your head falls out without God taking notice, so go ahead and speak up!
“What I say in the dark, tell in the light. What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Jesus says.
Speak up! Speak out! God is giving thought to you and has his eye upon you. Do not be afraid!
Why this assurance in the middle of all this talk about sparring with others?
It is fear, after all, that so often locks us up, and keeps us in line, and Jesus knows that.
It is fear that keeps people silent.
It is fear that the oppressor depends upon, uses, to keep the slaves in line.
It is fear that those in authority wield so effectively to keep things in the status quo.
Fear of not wanting to make waves.
Fear of not upsetting the family.
Fear of not stepping out of one’s place in life.
Fear of losing one’s life.
Fear of exposing dark secrets.
Fear of inciting violence.
Fear of…. Well, you name it, and we can be afraid of it.
Fear is what serves the interest of this world.
Now there are things of which one should be legitimately afraid, and there are times when caution is to be exercised, but when fear itself is directing the show, then it is that God has been forgotten.
When fear itself keeps us from speaking up or speaking out, then it is that God at very least feels far off.
When fear presses at us, threatening us, then it is that we feel least of significance in the face of all the insurmountable problems around us.
“Who am I to raise my little voice, my little “cheep” in the midst of the cacophony of this world?
“Do not be afraid” comes the voice of Jesus back to us when we question our own voice, our own ability to speak. “You are of more worth than many sparrows.”
Your voice is heard by God.
You voice will be heard by those around you, as God gives it strength and volume and purpose.
If you are speaking on behalf of God, then Jesus says he will acknowledge that, and speak well of you and on your behalf before God the Father himself.
Even if you get it wrong, Jesus is still willing to advocate on your behalf because you were not afraid to add your “peep” in opposition to the fear put forth from this world.
Better to speak boldly and loudly than to just go along out of fear with the workings of this world!
Of Sparrows and Sparring today.
As disciples we are not spared from the contentious realities of life in this world.
Fear will try to silence us, lock us up, and keep us out of the way.
But greater than fear is this power and love of God proclaimed by Jesus, who comes at us again and again saying, “Do not be afraid… you are worth more, your words spoken are worth more than you think!”