Three weeks ago in worship, a fabulous soloist sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” When I was young, I thought this was a corny song, although I listened patiently to older church members who were mortified it was not included in the newfangled Methodist hymnal (that came out in 1966!).
Thankfully I’ve fallen back in love with this old hymn I heard my grandmother sing while she went about her chores. Jesus asked us to see God’s handiwork and sustenance in mere sparrows. Walter Brueggemann calls them “model citizens in the Kingdom of God.” They nest inside the glorious temple itself (Psalm 84:3), too high to be swooshed away by the priest and their acolytes. God feeds and clothes them, quite naturally; these non-acquisitive, trusting creatures have no worries.
Easy for sparrows, I’d say. The hymn asks “Why should I be discouraged?” Let me count the ways. “Why should the shadows come?” is worth pausing over, not merely to count all the darkness that imposes itself in every life. Ray Barfield, in his book on beauty and suffering called Wager, speaks of “reverencing my shadow.” If you’re in the world, you cast a shadow; it’s proof you’re here. If there’s light, there is shadow, and if there’s shadow, then there’s light. Obviously – but that is why shadows come.
What’s so lovely about the hymn is that it doesn’t pledge or expect a quick fix or any fix at all. It’s not that God will do what I ask, or God will repair everything tomorrow. It’s simply that God cares. God sees. His eye is on the sparrow – as virtually worthless as a sparrow might seem to be; Jesus pointed out that five are sold for two pennies (Luke 12:6)! God miraculously cares deeply for each one. God sees the sparrow, and you and me. And it’s not just a passing glance. Birdwatchers are patient, focused people, peering through their binoculars, noticing the slightest flutter of a feather, turn of the head, opening of the beak or twitching of a talon.
Who was Jesus? Who is he? His nickname at birth was “Emmanuel,” God with us. His parting words were “I will be with you.” Not a magical fulfiller of wishes or fixer of all troubles. He is with us. That’s what my grandmother was singing about while sweeping and ironing. God’s abiding presence infused her with joy and strength. She was still dirt poor, and her arthritis pained her. But Jesus was her “portion,” a lovely echo of Psalm 73:26.
Indeed, my grandmother and our soloist soared to the climactic high note in the hymn, which occurs on “I’m free.” Not free American-style, the paltry notion that I can do whatever I dang well please. No, I’m free, like a bird, as in Paul’s ringing declaration that “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Free from the cruel bondage of sin, anxiety, fretting over self-worth or terror of mortality.
Civilla Durfee Martin wrote this poem, later set to music by Charles Gabriel, after visiting with her friend, a Mrs. Doolittle, bedridden for over twenty years. Martin’s husband asked Mrs. Doolittle her secret of joy in the thick of affliction. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” That was in 1905. It was back in maybe the year 28 that Jesus said pretty much the same thing.← See All