In 1905, a Canadian-American writer by the name of Civilla Martin was traveling with her husband through Elmira, New York and visited some friends of theirs, the Doolittles.
The Doolittles had serious physical limitations. Mrs. Doolittle was bedridden and her husband was confined to a wheelchair. Civilla Martin wrote about the trip many years later:
“Despite their afflictions,” she wrote, “they lived happy Christian lives…one day my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them their secret. Mr. Doolittle replied: ‘His eye is on the sparrow and I know he’s watching me.’”
Civilla Martin was moved by that response — and the rest is history. Not long after, she turned that simple expression of faith into one of the most celebrated hymns of the 20th century, one made famous by Ethel Waters and Mahalia Jackson. It draws its imagery, of course, from the Gospel we just heard.
But it speaks in a way to the world we live in right now.
As the lyrics put it:
“Let not your heart be troubled, His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me…”
The hymn is about trusting in God — but the Gospel from Matthew this weekend is more demanding. It is about courage. Boldness.
It is also, not insignificantly, about suffering, even martyrdom.
It’s important to remember the context. Just before this passage, Jesus has told the Twelve:
“You will be hated by all because of my name.”
But then here he adds something more.
“Fear no one…You are worth more than many sparrows.”
In case we missed the point: three times in this passage Jesus tells his followers, do not be afraid.
This is hardly breaking news; he has told us this before. We heard it recently, in Jesus’s first words after the resurrection. And here it is again.
Do not be afraid.
How we need to remember that!
How we need to remember that we are not alone. God is watching us, paying attention to us, standing beside us.
It is a message we cannot hear enough. Especially now.
This Sunday, we find ourselves wearing green again, in Ordinary Time — but I think we can agree these times are anything but ordinary.
Yet the Gospel assures us: God is near. He is with us. In moments of uncertainty and hardship and upheaval. He stands with us.
God stands with us so we can stand with him, and for him — so that we might have the courage to stand for mercy and compassion, for justice and dignity, for healing and hope.
God stands with all who seek to live the Gospel and witness in the name of his son.
He stands beside all who suffer.
The psalm reminds us:
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, may your hearts revive! For the Lord hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”
Fear no one. Do not be afraid.
There’s so much that seems uncertain. The pandemic changed everything.
But some things don’t change, including God’s love for his people. No matter what hardship or affliction, no matter what obstacles or trials we face, we are not alone.
God is there.
His eye is on the sparrow. But that is just the beginning.
His eye is on priests who have been saying Mass day after day, praying for the world, and often anointing those homebound or in hospitals.
His eye is on nurses and doctors, front line caregivers.
His eye is on the sick and those who love them.
His eye is on those of us who grieve or who worry — those who have been laid off or who fear what the future may hold.
His eye is on those who stand for justice in our own country and around the world — and who often pay the price, sometimes with their lives.
And, of course: his eye is on the persecuted — Christians in forgotten corners of the world, faithful men, women and children who continue to practice their faith, in spite of everything.
“The Lord hears the poor” — that includes those who lack not only money or security, but those who know the poverty of not being treated with dignity, of not having a voice.
There are many ways of being poor. God’s eye is on all of us.
Last week, Pope Francis issued his annual message for the World Day of the Poor, which will be observed in November. The Holy Father reflected on the helplessness many are feeling right now, during this pandemic.
“We feel poorer and less self-sufficient because we have come to sense our limitations and the restriction of our freedom,” he wrote. “The loss of employment, and of opportunities to be close to our loved ones and our regular acquaintances, suddenly opened our eyes to horizons that we had long since taken for granted.”
But he reminded us of something he wrote in Laudato Si:
Now, he said, is a good time to recover “the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world.”
I would add: it is a good time to remember that we are not alone.
This month of June is traditionally dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As we lift up our hearts and pray to his Sacred Heart, we pray for a strengthening of our own hearts, especially now — that we may love fearlessly, live courageously, hope endlessly.
Fear no one. Do not be afraid.
Civilla Martin’s friend Mr. Doolittle got it. He understood. May we use this precious time to understand, as well.
“His eye is on the sparrow. And I know he watches me…”