Last week, I went to the zoo. It was a work-related expedition, as I was one of the adults who got to accompany the children from Vacation Bible School.
I arrived at church on Thursday morning, in the middle of what will henceforth be known as "the great flood." I saw our children's ministry coordinator standing in the entry, and said, "We are probably not going to the zoo today, right?" I had heard it would rain, off and on, all day, and I believe weather reports.
No, she replied, we're still going. It will be all right.
O me of little faith.
She was right. We left after lunch and we were sprinkle free at our local community zoo all afternoon. There were more puddles than usual, of course, and the weather was tropical-rainforest. We started right off with a reptile exhibit and spent some time looking at the flamingos. I sympathized with the polar bear, although it was fun to watch him (her?) turning constant somersaults in the water.
We saw a lot of impressive animals that afternoon, but one of the biggest thrills for my group of eight third and fourth graders was the discovery of a monarch caterpillar. It was on the sidewalk, not in a cage, and after one of the boys discovered it, a crowd of children gathered around to get a closer look, and to wonder what they should do with it. Some of the children thought the caterpillar was "gross", but others were concerned that it not be stepped on, and wanted to help relocate it to a nearby plant.
Standing there watching them, I couldn't help thinking about the gospel reading for Sunday. I was preparing to preach, trying to hold together all of the threads of the gospel from Matthew: you know -- if they malign me, they are going to malign you too, Jesus says. But don't be afraid of them. After all, I keep an eye on sparrows. And don't think I'm going to bring peace to earth. I'm coming to divide.
It's hard to keep all of the threads together, so I start thinking about the caterpillar, and sparrows, and how (I'll be honest) I would not in a million years have noticed that caterpillar on the sidewalk. I was too busy admiring the flamingos, and trying to figure out which exhibit we should go to next. Somehow the children's care reminded me of Jesus, paying attention to sparrows.
I suppose it is a heart-warming scene, but given the fact that Jesus speaks about sparrows in the middle of a series of sayings about persecution and division, I suppose I should guard against the heart-warming interpretation. There is something about loving sparrows, heart-warming as it seems, that actually goes against the grain, makes people mad. For one thing, sparrows are not as lovable as it seems, at first. As well, it seems to be okay to care about animals when we are children, but when we grow up, we are supposed to put away childish things. And may I say as well: we SAY we love animals, but if that is so, why are there so many endangered species?
I remember reading about the passenger pigeon a number of years ago. I had purchased the most beautiful children's book with pictures of extinct animals. The passenger pigeon was one of the animals, and a little of the story told. At one time there were so many passenger pigeons that they were considered a nuisance. They could not imagine them ever being gone. They were hunted freely, sometimes hundreds in one day. It's hard to imagine. Or, maybe it is not.
I come not to bring peace but a sword, Jesus says.
Not one sparrow falls to the earth apart from your father, he also says.
It is easy to talk about the second statement, hard to talk about the first. But they go together. The reason that Jesus' disciples will cause division is that they will value the things that God values: they will care for the widow and the orphan, the weak and the vulnerable, the unaccompanied immigrant children. And that will go against the grain, at least sometimes. People will not be all lined up for the sparrows, or the passenger pigeons, or the caterpillars, for that matter.
But have no fear of them. That's what Jesus said. Keep following Jesus. Not every task will be as easy as finding a fresh branch for a monarch caterpillar. And you won't always come out unscathed. But have no fear of them.
His eye is on the monarch caterpillar. The polar bear too. And those unaccompanied immigrant children: they belong to him.