God's Eye is on the Sparrows
It was war time, which may explain why people went to such extremes.
In the year 1852, having suffered the ravages of invasion long enough, the good people of New York City paid to have natives from Europe brought here to fight on their behalf. They arrived by ship and were initially housed by the city (https://hatchingcatnyc.com/2014/10/04/english-sparrows-in-new-york-city/#:~:text=Having heard that the house,sparrows from England in 1850.)
But when these newcomers proved unsuccessful at defeating the enemy, the good people of New York turned on them.They called them “lazy” for failing to do the job they had been hired to do, and yet at the same time they feared these immigrants as competition. They were, frankly, shocked at how quickly the foreigners were multiplying. So quickly that they were afraid that there wouldn’t be enough in the way of resources to go around.
Although they had brought these migrants over and allowed them to make a home for themselves in the midst of the city, now that they were finally settled and starting to thrive, the people of New York called them “dirty” and described their neighborhoods as “ghettos.”
But most damning of all, the objections that started out as primarily economic and environmental, soon morphed into attacks on the moral character of these newcomers. The migrants were accused of “filthiness, sexual immorality, dishonesty, laziness, mob violence, impudence, noisiness” theft, and murder. It wasn’t long before people agreed that these newcomers didn’t just need to go, they needed to be exterminated (Consider the Birds, p 146).
Their homes were torn down. They were shot and poisoned. In 1886 it was illegal to feed or shelter them, the penalty for which was up to a year in prison or a $1000 fine.
Does anyone remember the war of 1852; what it was called?
1852 was the year of the Great English Sparrow War.
In an effort to save the Elm trees of Manhattan from an infestation of Linden Moths, people brought over English Sparrows in 1850 to eat the caterpillars; which they did. But, being sparrows, they ate other things too, and soon flourished to such an extent that they began crowding out native species; particularly song birds.
The same folks who had hoped the sparrows would save them from the moths now hated them with a passion. This resulted in an organized campaign to eradicate the English Sparrow on our shores. (An effort that continues to this day https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/the-truth-about-sparrows/?_php=true&_type=blogs&module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22%7D&_r=0).
But what I found fascinating is that everything I just told you about how the sparrow was characterized is true. They were not simply labeled as an invasive species that needed to be controlled, they were vilified as immoral characters who needed to be eradicated with the exact same rhetorical fervor being employed by anti-immigrant activists worried about the Irish, German, and Chinese emigres who had come to our shores (“Consider the Birds,” p. 146, Debbie Blue).
Debbie Blue, in her brilliant book, “Consider the Birds,” includes a quote from a children’s book of the time called, “Citizen Bird.” In this picture book for kids, the House Sparrow is described as, “a bad citizen and a criminal.”
"This disreputable tramp not only does no work for his taxes - (and again, just to be clear, we are talking about a bird here) - (this disreputable tramp…) hates honest work… like all vagrants - (he) destroys the buds of trees and plants, devours our grain crop, and drives away the industrious native birds who are good citizens….he is a very bad bird, who ought to suffer the extreme penalty of the law" (Wright and Coues 1897 as found in Blue, p 147).
It’s a little over the top - isn’t it? - to talk about birds in this way, let alone human beings. But according to Debbie Blue, this mistreatment and maligning of the sparrow is nothing new.
In Jesus’ day sparrows were the food of the poor, who plucked their feathers and threaded them on sticks to be roasted…2 for a penny, 5 for two. The fifth sparrow was always free because a single sparrow had no value.
In the 16th century a German clergyman petitioned to have sparrows exterminated on moral grounds because he claimed that their incessant copulating was distracting people from his sermons (p140).
He was not alone in thinking them wanton. Women suspected of witchcraft were often accused of turning themselves into sparrows so they could satiate their lustful desires, (giving new meaning to the term dirty bird) (p141).
And historically, there has been no love lost between sparrows and farmers around the world who have long suspected the birds of stealing their seed. So much so that in “18th-century England, ‘Sparrow Clubs’ were formed (to kill) as many as possible….In Russia you could get your taxes lowered by bringing in sparrow heads.”
And, perhaps most famously of all, in China under Chairman Mao, an eradication campaign was undertaken to keep the sparrow from “robbing The People of the fruits of their labor” with disastrous consequences.
In an effort to keep the sparrows from eating too many seeds, children tore down nests and stomped on the eggs, woman banged pots and pans to keep the sparrows in the air until they died of exhaustion, and millions more were shot and poisoned by The People’s Liberation Army. Mao’s campaign brought the Tree Sparrow to the brink of extinction. But without the sparrows to eat them, crop eating insects proliferated, “resulting (in) crop loss that contributed to the Great Chinese Famine, which killed over 30 million people (p 142).”
So much violence and animosity directed at something so small and defenseless, and yet the sparrow persists. Wherever humans live, you will find sparrows nesting in the cracks and crevices of our lives, living off the crumbs we leave behind.
So much outrage and suspicion directed at something so seemingly insignificant, and yet your Heavenly Father loves them.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny” asks Jesus? “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
I’ve sat with those words for more than a week now. In the context of chapter 10, with all Jesus’ talk of demons and destruction, conflict and cost, they originally sounded like the one bright spot of hope in the midst of a litany of hard truths. But the longer I sat with this passage the more I began to wonder if his words about sparrows were a promise or a warning. Sometimes, when it comes to scripture, it can be hard to tell.
What I do know is that Jesus uttered these words to his disciples right before he sent them out to proclaim the good news to the lost sheep of Israel. He sent the 12 forth to proclaim God’s kingdom come with no money in their pockets or shoes on their feet, no food, no bags, no change of clothes, no walking stick.
Which is to say, that he sent them out as vagrants to experience what it feels like to be completely dependent on the kindness and generosity of strangers for one’s shelter, sustenance, and protection.
Jesus sent them out with nothing in order that they might experience how the world so often treats those who have nothing…. as if they are nothing, on the one hand.
But, if we’re not careful, if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not vigilant, as those who could cost us everything, on the other.
Think of all the diatribes you’ve heard, whether you agree with them or not, about immigrants, people on welfare, refugees, the incarcerated, the enslaved, panhandlers, addicts, the down and out, or anyone really who has ever been othered because of their race, religion, orientation, affiliation, or circumstance.
Think of all the rhetoric that labels people as parasitic, lazy, drains on the system, but also somehow fears the power they have to completely take over, brainwash our children, rob us of our jobs, our rights, our language, our religion, and refashion society as we know it until they drive away all “the industrious native birds who are good citizens.”
Jesus sent his disciples out like sparrows the better to draw their attention and ours to the plight of the despised, the dispossessed, the ones we consider disposable. He keeps saying do not fear, because he knows that deep down we do. We are afraid, afraid that the one’s with nothing will take and take and take what is ours until there is nothing left and we are as poor and powerless as them.
And people, as you know, do awful things when we are afraid. We heard just last week - many of us for the first time - about the New York City Draft Riot of 1863 that followed on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation (https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/317749.html&title=The+New+York+City+Draft+Riots+of+1863&desc=).
The German and Irish immigrants of N.Y., having gotten a foothold in the city, feared that released slaves would come and take their jobs. To deter migration north, they burned down the homes and destroyed the businesses of black families - tore down their nests, if you will - till there was no safe place for a black body to land.
Where was God’s eye then? If Jesus is to be believed, God’s eye was on the sparrows.
The mob took out their rage and fear, not just on black bodies, but on the homes and bodies of the white people who had helped, mixed with, and dared to love the black people amongst them as neighbors; setting men against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, tearing homes and neighborhoods apart.
Where was God’s eye then? God’s eye was on the sparrows.
Where was God’s eye when 6 million Jews perished in the holocaust? God’s eye was on the sparrows.
Where was God’s eyes when Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming passed over 80 anti-trans bills in just the first 6 months of this year? 2023? God’s eye was on the sparrows.
When the Southern Baptist convention voted to expel 5 churches led by women pastors? God’s eye was on the sparrows.
When a ship overloaded with migrants went down off the coast of Greece this past week? God’s eye was on the sparrows.
The world may have been fixated on the 5 people aboard the the Titan sub - and I have no doubt that God cared about them too, but God’s eye was also, also - both/and, not either/or - also on the sparrows… all 650 of them.
God’s eye was on the men, women, and children who drowned, not because we lack the collective resources to help people like them - the international effort to rescue the Titan shows that we have the means - but because we lack the will. The will to see what God sees. The will to love who God loves. The will to trust that there is enough for us all, enough to go all the way around, if we can trust God enough to rise above our fear and love one another the way God loves every last one of us….even and always the sparrows.
Friends, when we live in fear, when we live with a scarcity mentality and then convince ourselves that we deserve more than others because of our class or race or religion, because we were here first, because we worked harder, because we were born here not there, male not female, white not black, straight not queer, rich not poor, because we paid our dues, because we went to the right college, because, because, because…. we deny the One who showed us over and over again that God’s eye is on the sparrow.
Not a one of them falls without God knowing because nothing and no one falls outside the bounds of God’s loving care.
No one is despised, dispossessed, or disposable in the eyes of the One who created us all. When we deny the full worth of others, we don’t just hurt them, we hurt the God who loves them, and ultimately, we hurt ourselves. Denying their full humanity isa denial of our own. Desecrating the image of God in them desecrates it in us. When we fail to love the sparrow we fail to love God.
There is a saying that comes around on Facebook from time to time: “You will never look into the eyes of someone God does not love.”
“You will never look into the eyes of someone God does not love.”
Jesus warns us that the world, our friends, even our families, will not always affirm us for living into this truth. But the God who sees all and loves all will know you when you do. So love the sparrow. Do not be afraid, for the God who provides for them will provide for us all. Love the sparrow, for when you love what the world deems unlovable, God’s eye is upon you too. Amen