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The Sparrow

By Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

Of all the horrifying headlines this fall, there was one that caught my heart. I avoided the article for weeks, only glimpsing the compelling photograph. Then once I did read it, I couldn’t shake it off – “Birds are Vanishing from North America.” Scientists find that the number of birds have declined by 29 percent in the last half century.

“Experts have long known that some bird species have become vulnerable to extinction. But the new study, based on a broad survey of more than 500 species, reveals steep losses even among such traditionally abundant birds as robins and sparrows.”

With no skill as a birdwatcher or any particular expertise, I have contracted a fascination with and dependence upon birds. My favorite idle reading in the summers is the Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Who knew that for more than a century ornithologists have studied every detail of bird anatomy and behavior? But I am able identify swallows and seagulls and of course, sparrows. My friend and bird expert, Brian Dalzell, used to call ordinary birds, “LBB’s” “Little Brown Birds.” These LBB’s live in the birdhouses in our backyard, designed for bluebirds and purple martins who never came. Their presence — flocking, pecking, chirping – simply that they are – makes me happy.

Sparrows have an interesting cultural history. I learned from Debbie Blue, author of Consider the Birds, that in 18th Century England, birders and farmers hated sparrow and set up campaigns to eliminate them. Sparrows stood in for immigrants and people who didn’t belong, and the ruling class held them in contempt.

And now climate change has succeeded in causing even the LBB’s to vanish, even where historical human efforts had failed.

How does the flourishing of birds constitute our well-being as human beings? How does the unraveling ecology of their habitats warn of the precariousness of our own world? How does economy intersect with ecology? How to think about this? What to do?

Jesus’ queer quips and crazy claims startled those who heard them. They have remained in the memory of the church to comfort and provoke. In Matthew chapter 10 Jesus is preaching to recruits for the movement of the kingdom of heaven. The dominant economic and political powers exulted in greatness and scorned the values of the that kingdom: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…”

Jesus’ movement proclaimed an alternative reign, another kind of kingdom, another kind of household.

In the world where Jesus lived, sparrows were invisible and insignificant and worthless. The empire was not a safe place for sparrows, for the common, the insignificant, the weak. They had little economic value. But in God’s household, no one escapes notice:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows?

Even as he rates people above sparrows, I hear Jesus affirming God’s commitment to their life and concern for their death. I hear the divine parent saddened by the falling to the ground of a sparrow in the first century, and I imagine God weeping in 2019 as the “skies are emptying out.”

In the household of the kingdom of heaven sparrows are of infinite value, necessary to the divine economy. Maybe scientists who study birds so rigorously know that birds are necessary in the economy of nature. Maybe poets and painters know they are essential to our humanity.

Jesus speaks to the persistent grief evoked by “Birds are Vanishing.” He says, “So do not be afraid.” I am motivated to look for my place with those who seek to repair habitats for animal and human creatures. I am called to question the dominant powers. I will not take the commonplace for granted. I will pay closer attention. I will visit the backyard.

This fall, Sowing Holy Question will explore questions of
stewardship, reflecting theologically on practical decisions about
money, possessions, ecology and our connection to God’s creation.

[1] Matthew 10:29


[3] Debbie Blue, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013)

The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, ThD, is dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest. The focus of Dean Kittredge’s leadership is the formation of Christian leaders in community for the vitality of the church and to advance God’s mission of reconciliation. She believes that critical engagement with scripture, tradition, and context, energized by imagination, and grounded in prayer is the center of formation for mission.

In the wider church, Dean Kittredge is a respected scholar and preacher who teaches and leads retreats on the vital intersection of scripture, spirituality, and preaching for Christian leaders. In her role as dean and president, she continues to form students at Southwest in creative and faithful approaches to biblical studies, early Christian history, Greek reading, and the embodied practice of liturgical leadership.

Dean Kittredge is the eighth dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest. She was appointed in 2013 after serving on the faculty as the Ernest J. Villavaso, Jr. Professor of New Testament and as academic dean. Committed to theological education for the church, Dean Kittredge has served as a member of the Steering Committee for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, as Chair of the Board of the Episcopal Evangelism Society, and President of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars.

A biblical scholar valued by her colleagues for her insight and generous collegiality, Dean Kittredge is a contributor to The New Oxford Annotated Bible and the Women’s Bible Commentary, and the author of Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John and Community and Authority: The Rhetoric of Obedience in the Pauline Tradition. She co-edited The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times and Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She is the co-editor of the Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (2014).

Fascinated by the interplay of intellect and imagination in the interpretation of scripture, she wrote A Lot of the Way Trees Were Walking: Poems from the Gospel of Mark (Wipf & Stock, 2015).

Prior to joining the seminary faculty in 1999, Dean Kittredge taught at Harvard University and the College of the Holy Cross. She serves as assisting priest at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin.

She is married to Frank D. Kittredge, Jr. and they have three grown children.


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