Reopening our doors


November 26, 2015
Passage: Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33
Service Type:

I’d like to recite a poem about fame, about being famous. I believe most people here are like me: we’ve never really been famous in the traditional sense: we are not celebrities. But we may be well loved by the people we know, by the small number of people who care about us. And so I begin with this poem, by Naomi Nye, called “Famous.”


“The river is famous to the fish.


The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so.


The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse.


The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.


The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom.


The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors.


The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.


I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.


I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.”



Famous: if you are famous to me, that means I am captivated by you, intrigued by you, into you. I can’t get enough of you. Sometimes I might fear you.


Today we hear a bit of good news, a bit of surprising news: we hear that we are famous to God. Today we hear Jesus say this to his friends: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”


This is part of what we usually call his Sermon on the Mount, a great discourse in Matthew that reveals the kind of world Jesus says God wants to come into being, a world of justice and peace where all beings are valued and cared for, and everyone is equally famous to God—equally beautiful and treasured by God. Even the birds and the flowers are caught up in the vision.


And if that seems quaint but naïve, the idea that such a world could come into being, imagine what it might have sounded like to the first people who heard what Jesus preached. Look at the audience that gathered around him: laborers, fishermen, rural peasants, homeless widows with no social standing, children, even tax collectors, the collaborators who perpetuated the injustice of the empire as a matter of daily routine. These are the people famous to God: God can’t look away from them, doesn’t want to forget them, doesn’t want us to forget them.


This is all very nice, but I wonder if it might ring a little hollow at times. We are continuing to reel from news of terror and war, news that just keeps coming. They were just going about their day in Parisian shops and cafes, and suddenly dozens of them fell dead.


Our own government has a program of drone strikes that sometimes take out hospitals and civilian homes, killing innocent people, many of them children.


This week the stories are coming out of Minneapolis, but it will soon be another city, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that cities and towns in the U.S. are simply unsafe for Black people.


Our schools and movie theaters and churches are under attack by mentally ill perpetrators of terror who enjoy lax gun regulation and easy access to automatic firearms.


But we are told today to not worry, because we are famous to God, just like the birds and the flowers, neither of whom have a care in the world because God feeds them and adorns them with beauty.


It doesn’t seem to add up.


Ten years ago—ten years of unjust events ago—I was following the story of Hurricane Katrina, specifically the story of how one magazine, the New Republic, got into a controversy over one of its cover photos. They printed a photo on their cover of a little girl who had been killed by the storm. She lay face down in the gutter, seemingly forgotten by everyone. The article that accompanied the story focused on the social injustice of Katrina—how the vast majority of those killed and displaced by the storm were poor and Black.


I couldn’t turn away from this photo.


It’s hard to practice a faith with integrity, hard to gather on a day like today and give thanks for the blessings of this life, and not consider that little girl, wonder about who she was, and wonder where God is in all of these stories of tragedy and injustice.


But as Christians, we have at least three answers to that question, three ways to understand how this little girl and the countless innocents like her are famous to God, more precious to God than the birds of the air or the lilies of the field.


First, God is present in our concern for those who suffer, particularly those who are in harm’s way. We are called to notice and care about the plight of our neighbor. We see God doing this from the beginning of our salvation story, when God heard the cries of the Israelites (they were famous to him) and then called Moses out of the flaming bush to lead them to freedom. We too can hear the cries of the innocents in our own day. And they are famous to us.


Second, God is present in our community, gathered here, enlivened and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Our community practices the kind of world Jesus preached about in his Sermon on the Mount. We pray for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit among and within us, a Spirit that has the power to transform this city into a city of safety and peace.


Finally, God is present in the life and death of that little girl herself. Jesus did not preach his message from a safe remove. He was himself a peasant in trouble, someone who did not survive the unjust and dangerous political and social environment that surrounded him. He is in the Paris café; he is working in the hospital our government is bombing; he lies face down in the gutter in the wake of the storm. The innocents around us are suffering and dying because we have not yet realized the world God envisioned in the Sermon on the Mount. But they are famous to God: so famous that God is one of them.


And for all of this we are called to give thanks. Gratitude is really just another word for someone or something being famous to us: If I am thankful for you, that means you are famous to me. I treasure you. You matter to me. We give thanks to God who hears the cry of the slave and finds someone to help lead them out of bondage. We give thanks to the Spirit who pours herself through this community and turns us together toward the plight of our neighbor. And we give thanks to Jesus, because poor folk and vulnerable innocent people were famous to him, so famous that he was one of them himself. He shows us a way to live, a way of gratitude and equality and friendship and courage and peace. He is famous to us. And he will always be seen and recognized in the most vulnerable living being we meet.


“I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.


I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.”