More Worse Than Birds: A Sermon in Four Parts
Part One: I Sing Because I'm Happy
"Do you not know that you are more worse than birds?"
That phrase, which might sound silly and nonsensical to you, holds very special meaning for me. For me, it's a reminder that God not only watches over me, but that God is also mindful of me. It's also a very strong reminder that I, that all of us, are given opportunities every day to speak life and hope to those around us.
But before I tell you about my story, let me tell you about Caine Monroy. You might be able to relate to him. Caine lives in East L.A., and he, my friends, is more worse than birds. You see, Caine had this business idea, and he couldn't let it go. Sure, it was a little unconventional, but that didn't stop him. He spent every day last summer preparing, building, working, hoping. He imagined a lot, too, imagined how great it would be when he would open for business, welcome that first customer, make his first sale. Maybe you've been there, too. Maybe you've had a dream, or a business plan, or a ministry, or an idea that you were so excited about, you couldn't stop working on it or talking about it, and you stayed awake at night planning and worrying and imagining how great it could be.
Well, that was Caine Monroy.
Maybe I should tell you a little bit about Caine and his business. You see, Caine is just nine years old, and his passion is arcade games, things like foosball and mini-basketball and the claw, where you try to grab a prize by maneuvering a hook into a heap of toys.
When Caine said he wanted to build his own arcade in Smart Auto Parts, his dad's car-parts store in Los Angeles, he started with what he had--cardboard boxes, shipping tape, his own toys. Then he invested what he had--his time, his imagination, money for prizes, and he spent every day, all summer, building these incredibly imaginative and challenging arcade games--out of cardboard.
And when it was all done, when the last game was finished, Caine flipped the hand painted "Open" sign and waited.
Maybe you've been there, too. Maybe you've had a dream, or a business plan, or a ministry, or a relationship that you were so excited about, but after you'd done all the hard work, after you'd flipped the "Open" sign of your business, or maybe of your heart, it didn't turn out quite like you'd hoped it would. Maybe you, too, waited, and waited, and waited. Maybe you're still waiting right now. But let me assure you of something. You might not feel like it, but here's the truth. Just like Caine, you, my friend, are more worse than birds.
Okay, let me explain what I mean.
About six years ago, when we first came to this church, there was a message delivered from this very spot that has been a great comfort to me in my times of doubt. And the thing is, I don't remember the entire message. As a matter of fact, as many times as I've tried, I don't even remember who gave the message, though there's a good chance it was Ovidio Flores visiting from Honduras while he anticipated the birth of a grand baby. All I remember is that it was exactly the message I needed at that time, when I was dealing with what seemed like impossible obstacles in my life, when I was frustrated, defeated and incredibly insignificant. In that message, one phrase was repeated throughout the sermon over and over again, and I really felt like it was meant for me. That phrase, spoken by a spanish-speaking man delivering an english sermon that was sometimes difficult for me to understand, was this:
(Imagine this in a Spanish accent) "Do you not know that you are more worse (worth) than birds?"
He was talking about today's Scripture reading, and while the translation was a little fuzzy, the gist was this. God cares. God cares about the birds, and there's not a single one that falls to the ground without God's knowing about it. And that's pretty significant, if you ask me. I was at the Shreve Migration Sensation this year, and birder Kenn Kaufman, author of The Kingbird Highway and a half-dozen wildlife guides, took on the daunting task of trying to convince his audience that it's possible to look at a flock of little brown birds and identify the sparrows among them. He talked about the white-crowned sparrow and the rufous-crowned sparrow, the white throated sparrow and the black-throated sparrow. Then there are sparrows that aren't called sparrows, like the dark-eyed junco and the eastern towhee, and birds that are called sparrows, but aren't really sparrows at all, like the House Sparrow, which is actually an Old World Weaver Finch and is generally looked upon as a pest. Before Kaufman was half-finished, my head was spinning.
But whether it's truly a sparrow or not isn't the point. The point is, God knows each of these birds, and throughout the world, there are hundreds of species of sparrows alone, yet the book of Matthew assures us that not a single one falls to the ground without God's knowledge. And look, here's the deal, the Word says, you're worth so much more than those birds! Remember that! God is mindful of you, even when you think you're just one of the many, unremarkable, unlovable, lost in a sea of so many other brown birds, God cares for you, and even has the very hairs on your head numbered. That phrase, Do you not know you are more worse than birds? was just unique enough that it settled itself into my soul, became a catch-phrase in our house. Sometimes, when someone is frustrated, defeated, insignificant, one of us will pull out that phrase, do you not know you are more worse than birds? and assure the other that God is mindful of them.
Part Two: I sing because I'm free
Let's get back to our story about Caine Monroy, our little arcade developer.
So, when we left Caine, he had flipped over his shingle and was waiting, day after day, for someone to visit his arcade, but no one came. He even had a t-shirt printed up that he wore every weekend when his arcade was open. But here's the thing: Caine didn't just wait. He improved his arcade. He built more games. He bought more prizes. He even devised a reward system. If someone were to venture in and play an arcade game, Caine would climb inside the cardboard box and, through a slot in the top, would push a stream of tickets, just like you'd see at Chuck E. Cheese, but instead of mechanized, it was boy-powered. Those tickets could be cashed in for any one of the dozens of real prizes he bought with his own money. He even came up with a fabulous pricing plan. For $1, you can get two turns at any game. But for $2, listen closely, you can get a fun pass, and that's worth five HUNDRED turns.
You'd be a fool not to get the fun pass.
But customer's of Caine's father's auto parts store passed by Caine's arcade every day. I guess to them, Caine looked like any other little brown sparrow. And, to be fair, when you're shopping for auto parts, you're not really interested in games of chance.
But one day, along came film-maker Nirvan Mullick. Nirvan is also more worse than birds. Nirvan needed a door handle for his '96 Toyota Corolla, so he made a stop at Smart Auto Parts. When he saw Caine's amazing creations, he knew he had to play. When Caine told him his pricing structure, $1 for two plays or $2 for a fun pass, Nirvan didn't think twice. He's no fool. Of course he'd take the fun pass.
So here's how I know about Caine and Nirvan. See, Nirvan created a surprise event on Facebook inviting everyone in L.A. to visit Caine's Arcade, to see what he had seen, not just a boring brown sparrow but a young genius with a name and a purpose and a passion. On the day of the event, Caine's dad took Caine out for pizza so the whole thing would be a surprise. On the way back to the shop, Caine's father asked him if he'd just like to go home. After all, he said, they hadn't had a single customer all day. In fact, that Nirvan guy had been Caine's only customer ever. No way, Caine said. He had to get back to business just in case someone wanted to play. When they arrived at Smart Auto Parts, try to imagine what Caine saw--a crowd--hundreds of people of all ages--holding banners, waving hands, smiling smiles, ready and eager to buy fun passes to play all day at Caine's Arcade. And throughout the day, Nirvan filmed the events, making the whole story available to the public. Just Google Caine's Arcade and you can see it, too. Since last Monday, that short film had nearly two million views. Caine told his father it was the best day of his life.
Part Three: His eye is on the sparrow
It doesn't take much to make someone's day. While it was a huge surprise to have hundreds of customers, Caine had been pretty happy cranking out tickets when it was just Nirvan and his fun pass. Sometimes, when we're having a dark day, it doesn't take much to brighten it. Sometimes, God can send just one person with just the right word at just the right time for us to know that God is mindful of us.
Shortly after the "worse than birds" sermon, I was working at a nearby business, a place I normally loved to be. But on that particular day, I wasn't all that thrilled to be there. I was worried. I'd just found out that my van needed some serious brake work which was going to set me back about $800. I was already behind on a couple of bills, had just enough money in my pocket for a loaf of bread, and payday wasn't for another week. I was feeling like an insignificant brown bird lost in a flock of other nondescript brown birds. I tried to keep my chin up, not let my worries affect my work, but I must not have been doing it very well. Throughout the day, one of the other employees, a sweet little Costa Rican woman named Rosa, would come bubbling past me, always a cheerful expression on her face. "You should smile, Dee Knees," she would say to me. "The Lord ees so good to us!" Ha, I thought. She doesn't know how the Lord has left me high and dry in the finance department this week. But I forced a grin and thanked her. Here she'd come again, whistling away while she swept the floor. "Dee Knees!" She would say, "The Lord ees so good! You should be so happy!" Again, I'd force a grin. "Yes, Rosa. Thank you. I'll do my best to be happy." Later in the day, she set her broom aside and called me to her. She looked up at me--she was a very tiny woman--and told me very seriously that the Lord had a message for me. I tried my best not to roll my eyes. Then she reached into her apron pocket, took my hand, and, into it, she pressed a $5 bill. I knew she, too, was struggling to make ends meet. "I can't take this," I said, handing it back to her. "No, no," she said, nodding and smiling, "the Lord told me to give it to you." The Lord kinda got the amount wrong, I thought.
But then, Rosa gave me what I really needed. She pulled me close and whispered in my ear, (Imagine this in a Spanish accent) "Do you not know that you are more worse than birds?"
Tears immediately flooded my eyes, and in that moment, I knew. The Lord's message hadn't been that five dollar bill. That had been what Rosa needed to do, for whatever reason. The real message had been that, in spite of how I felt that day, God was mindful of me. I was not insignificant. I was not just one of the flock. I was, you are, important to God. God is mindful of me, of you. You, God wants you to know, are more worse than birds.
Part Four: And I know He watches me.
Nirvan the filmmaker didn't stop at making one day special for Caine. He didn't stop at making a film the rest of the world could enjoy. He went an extra step and set up a scholarship fund with a target goal of $60,000 for people to contribute to, so that he could make a difference in Caine's life, one that would have a ripple effect on everyone Caine comes into contact with throughout his life. As of this morning, that fund had reached $154,829.37.
Here's the takeaway for today. Yes, we are more worse than birds. Yes, God watches us. God is mindful of us. But what I believe is important for us to know is that, as God's people, we, too, are to be mindful of what God is mindful of. The poor. The downtrodden. The widowed. The orphaned. The ignored. The forgotten. The unattractive. Because if God's eye is on the sparrow, then our eye, too, should be on the sparrow, the little brown, nondescript bird that seems so easy to pass by in favor of the bright, the rare, the colorful, the exotic.
And if God's eye is on the sparrow, then God's hands are at the ends of our arms. God's feet are at the ends of our legs. Yes, sometimes we are the lowly sparrow, sometimes we are the kid with the cardboard arcade, waiting with an "Open" sign and an open heart, but sometimes, too, we are the filmmaker buying a car handle. We are the Costa Rican woman with a message to share. It's important for us, no matter what we're doing, to keep our eyes open for the little brown birds, to be mindful of them, and, when we feel that tugging in our heart, the one we sometimes resist because it will be too silly or too complicated or too embarrassing, listen. Be mindful of it, stop and play the cardboard arcade games as often as you can, to remind those who are waiting that they are so much more worse than birds. And, remember, too, if you get the chance, if it's at all possible, if it's ever, even an option, to always buy the fun pass.