The earliest Christians used to refer to each other as ‘the little ones’. They were not, most of them, the kind of people the world thought important. They were not grand or rich or highly educated. They were the many – the hoi polloi. But they knew that God loved them, and that God cared about them, and that they were in God’s hands. Whatever happened, come persecution or prison, come fire or flight, come poverty or pain, they knew that God was with them. And this is one of the most radical things about a faith in the God we see in the Bible.
The passage from Genesis and the passage from Matthew both show us that God loves the little ones. As the African American spiritual goes, ‘His eye is on the sparrow’. So, if today you are feeling a bit ordinary and dull, a bit lack-lustre and down, doubting you have wings like an eagle and feeling a bit more like a little sparrow, then hear what the Bible says, hear what Jesus says, and believe – that God’s loving eye is on you.
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from my Father’, says Jesus. His eye is on the sparrow.
It’s true of course that lots of people will try to tell you that God has special people, chosen people, who God looks after first. And parts of the Bible try to tell the story like that. But if that’s the story, God just can’t stick to it. God might choose some people for a particular task or a special time, but in the end, when it comes to it, God just can’t resist loving everyone there is – eagles and sparrows, diamonds and bricks, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, just everyone God ever made to be in his image and likeness. And it even seems, if you look closely enough, that God looks out specially sometimes for the sparrows..
In the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, you see someone wrestling with this very question. And you see how it turns out. The story says, ‘OK, what kind of a God do we have? – a God with chosen people or a God who loves us all…?’ Do we have a God who loves the powerful and the chosen, or a God who loves the little ones and the sparrows, the ones others throw out, the ones on the margin of the page and in the wilderness, the ones who grieve and the ones on the outside?
Perhaps you remember the story. Abraham’s wife Sarah couldn’t have children and so, as people did then, they found a slave woman, from Africa, to have a child for Abraham. But then God told Abraham that he would, after all, have a child with Sarah – and Sarah laughed because it had been years since… (well, you know what I mean), but she did get pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. And then once there was a child of Sarah’s own body, Hagar and her child were surplus to requirements – and so they were packed off into the wilderness, they were ‘disappeared’.. And, of course, Hagar, an African woman, and Ishmael her son, who became by tradition the father of Islam, tell not only their own stories, but the stories of so many who have been cast out, exploited, and separated from others. Her story reminds us of the many times that we have tried as human beings to insist that God has favourite and chosen people: whether it’s the children of Abraham, people with white skin, rich and successful people, people like us.. And sometimes it looks as though God has chosen people too and that God is happy to divide us up. But always, always, God doesn’t stick to the story. Just as in this story, ‘God hears the voice of the boy’ and ‘God is with the boy’ (and his mother) – and they are rescued from the wilderness, plucked from the margins and from death itself and are given life. This is a horrible story in so many ways – a story of jealousy and cruelty and injustice, a story of separation, of apartheid, of racism. But it is also a story of how God cannot but choose life and promise and a future and so many good things for all God’s children – for the slaves, for the poor, for the African, for the ‘little ones’. His eye is always on the sparrow. As one writer put it better than I could..
‘…it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair, the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvellous promises, and loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out ten dollar bills.’
God just can’t stick to the story about favourites and chosen ones. In God’s creation, in God’s reign, all are chosen, all are blessed, all are given the future. I have a T-shirt, which says on it, ‘Jesus loves you. But I’m his favourite’. But, of course, the true secret of the Gospel is that we are all, somehow, God’s favourites, all of us, all… Even the worst of us.
Bishop Angaelos, the Coptic bishop who has a parish in England, was reflecting on the recent stories of terrorists who set bombs in Manchester and in Egypt, killing many of God’s children. And he said this to the terrorists,
‘You are loved. The violence and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.’
That’s quite something to say, when people you love have been killed, when terror seems to reign and when you might want to expel the perpetrators into the wilderness and leave them to rot. Bishop Angaelos says that even those who violent and wicked, even those people cannot escape the love of God.
I’ve been in a country this week where, for decades, many of the white people believed that they were the chosen people of God – and enforced the separation of other ‘races’ in law. They drove their own ‘other’ into the wilderness, gave them the worst land, humiliated them and abused them. And they did this with the complicity of our nation too, for a long time. And they did this all backed up with a theology that said that it was God’s will that the ‘races’ should be separated.
This week I’ve been chairing a meeting in South Africa. I’ve met people who lived through the apartheid years. Some of them were the victims of that terrible system. I met a Pentecostal minister, now like me a Moderator of a WCC Commission, who was tortured under apartheid. But I have to say that a more gentle, forgiving and cheerful person I have never met and will likely never meet. He models forgiveness and grace and joy and he knows that God never left him and his people, even in those darkest times. ‘God was with the boy’. And this week I met a theologian who was once imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. Robben Island was a place like the wilderness into which Hagar was cast – a place to die in, a place to be forgotten in, a place for the rejected. He told me too what I had seen with my eyes, that South Africa is still a divided country and that the poorest are still poor, that there are still many sparrows in the townships and the squatter camps. But that God is with them..
At the museum of apartheid in Johannesburg I saw a video of Desmond Tutu praying at a funeral in the last days of apartheid. Dressed in his bishop’s purple he knelt on the dry African soil and clasped his hands together as he prayed, ‘God, we know that you are with us and that you will bring victory, but why does it have to take so long?’
I also met this week people from the Dutch Reformed Church. It was this church that once justified apartheid theologically by saying that God intended the ‘races’ to live separately. It was this church that believed they were the ones chosen by God to rule South Africa and claim its wealth and resources and almost all the land. It was this church that was expelled from the World Council of Churches in the 1960s when apartheid was declared by the world church to be a heresy. But now this church has repented of this false theology, has recognised that God loves all of God’s rainbow people, and has been welcomed back into the fellowship of the world church. The meeting I chaired was the first WCC event with the Dutch Reformed Church for 57 years. The ones who thought they were chosen have now returned from their own wilderness and been welcomed home. Some of their members left as the church repented, because they still believe in apartheid, but the church now works for a new and just South Africa and is seeking restitution for past sins. Part of being in the fellowship of the world church is to know that they will be held to the truth of the Gospel, that God knows no favourites, that God loves all God’s children, that God’s eye is on the sparrow and he watches over us all.
God is with all God’s children – the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar. God is with those who live in the squatter camps, on the edges of the townships. God is with the lively Anglican congregation who sang and danced into worship last Sunday morning in Soweto – and who welcomed me like I’d never been welcomed before. God is with those who are living with HIV and AIDs. God is with those who are trapped by addiction and those who are still poor. God is with those who are members of the Dutch Reformed Church – newly returned to the international fellowship of the church.
This past week I saw that God is with his people. God was there in the extraordinary quality of forgiveness in the hearts of those who have been tortured.. and in their willingness to move forward to a new future and forget the wilderness of the past. God is there in the promise of a world in which all people are free and all are embraced with joy. God is there in the readiness of former perpetrators to repent and seek restitution.. God is there.
When our meeting was over, some of us had late flights the next day and so we got a bus to a game park and spent a few hours seeing the wonderful animals and birds of Africa. I saw lions and zebras, monkeys and antelopes, an elephant and a giant kingfisher. There were birds with brightly coloured flashes on their wings and wart hogs with impressive tusks. The entire cast of the Lion King was there before our eyes. But as I looked at the trees I saw that there were also sparrows… and I remembered what Jesus said, that God notices if even one of them falls to the ground. God loves all God’s creation and his eye is on the sparrow.
Perhaps there are days when you don’t feel like a ‘chosen one’, when it seems like someone else is getting all the breaks while you’ve been left in the wilderness. If that’s your story then listen. Even though God sets out to choose some rather than others, he just cannot do it. God loves all God’s children, and all of us, every single one, are his favourites. God watches over all of us. God hears all our voices. God is with us all. This is the Gospel to which I cling. If God sees every sparrow, how much more will God see you and all the ‘little ones’. You are loved. Whatever you’ve done. Whoever you are. You are loved.
This week in South Africa the story of Hagar spoke to me with a fresh simplicity. I grieve for all those who are like Hagar – Africans treated with cruelty and disdain, thrown out. I grieve with those among the poorest in our own land who are cast into the cheapest and worst housing. And I rejoice with all those who discover what she experienced, and what Jesus taught, that God’s eye is on the sparrow and that God does not choose some of us over others, but chooses us all to be his children and all of us to live in freedom and hope. Thank God for his expansive love – and let us learn to feel it and to give it too – this day and always, Amen.
 Buechner, F. Peculiar Treasures. A Biblical Who’s Who Harper and Row, 1979, p.46