Lead Pastor's BlogThoughts from our Lead Pastor, Matthew Dyer
I love birds, and always have. As a child, they caught my attention out in the countryside, and I would watch them intently through the window while I was munching down my breakfast before school. Slowly I started to notice their distinctions and began to identify them. One of my most treasured childhood possessions was a beautiful 12-inch vinyl album of a myriad of British bird songs! Obviously this was before I became acutely aware that birdwatching did not exactly make you cool, and I was careful not to include this particular album when I swapped and shared favorite records with friends.
My love of birds, and the thrill of identifying them, has been a gift to me in adult life, too. I am prone to overfill my day and rush from one thing to another. But looking at the birds slows me down, lifts the burden of taking myself too seriously, and frees me from the illusion that I must solve all of life’s problems. When outside, I always have a pair of binoculars handy and try to identify whatever birds I see. They’re mostly common ones, but occasionally I see something extra special. I walk with my dog in some meadows near my house almost every day, and just a few weeks ago spotted a northern harrier (also known as a marsh hawk). They are not exactly rare (classified as “uncommon” in these parts) but I had never seen one before. I’ve since spent hours watching it glide effortlessly to and fro over the tips of the grasses, as it seems to have taken up residence. I hope it stays. Our property here at Cedar Ridge is full of birds of all kinds, too. Mostly common ones again, but just the other day, as I walked into the woods from the meadow, I came face to face with an eastern screech owl just a few feet above, staring at me with disdain, and surely thinking, “… and who the heck are you?” I just stood still and stared back—way more impressed with him than he was with me.
But birds are, of course, even closer than this. Our yards and neighborhoods are full of them. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Great Backyard Bird Count. This annual event, started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society in 1998, invites everyone to spend a minimum of 15 minutes a day for one or more of the days February 15-18, 2019 counting the different species of birds you see in your backyard or any other location. You can read all about it here, and enter your own data online.
This helps ornithologists develop an annual global snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds, but there are two other reasons why we should participate. Firstly, it will slow us down. Even for just 15 minutes, we’ll get to stop and take notice of the beauty, mystery and wonder of the birds around us. And secondly, we’ll get to see just how many different types of birds there actually are. Put up a bird feeder in your yard, if you don’t have one, and just sit and take note that the visitors are not just “birds.” There’s a whole diversity of house wrens and Carolina wrens, white-breasted as well as red-breasted nuthatches, large blue jays and tiny chickadees, brilliant cardinals, and more subdued but equally beautiful sparrows. There are over 25 species of sparrow in Maryland, but don’t expect to see them all!
When Jesus said “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26) he was trying to tell us just how much God loves us. Slowing down to look at the birds could help us feel the rhythm of love to which the heart of the universe beats. Connecting to the mystery of nature can help us feel that God is love, as well as knowing it. When we stop to notice the birds, we see their diversity. Each of us wants to be known for all the detail and particularity of who we are. You are not just a human. You are a very special and unique “you.” There’s not another one of you on the planet—never has been and never will be. And God sees you; God loves you! Always has and always will.
So let’s get counting!
My favorite elementary school project was on the animals of the Serengeti plains in Africa. But the two other members of my team were not so enthusiastic, and were happy to let me do all the work. We got a good grade and were all commended when we presented it, but I felt resentful. It didn’t seem fair they should benefit from what I had done and, even at the ripe old age of ten, I nurtured my self-pity into self-righteous indignation. No doubt we’ve all had experiences like this: perhaps we’ve had to pull the most weight at work, or taken on the lion’s share of responsibility in the family, or always seem to be the one to take the initiative in a relationship. We might be glad to do it (I loved that project!) but seeing others reap a benefit they didn’t earn can rile us.
Dr. Martin Luther King worked at great personal cost for a world that benefitted everyone. He fought against racial injustice knowing that his dream of a better future would benefit all God’s children—even those who were perpetrators of injustice, and the privileged, passive participants in it. The love that drove Dr. King opened up a pathway to reconciliation for everyone. There would have been a definite appeal and certain satisfaction in defeating his enemies and seeking revenge on white people, but he offered only love and forgiveness while remaining resolutely committed to justice. Jesus embodied this love and dream for humanity, which meant crying “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” as “they” crucified him. It meant the resurrected Jesus reached out with love and empathy to those who had deserted and denied him, rather than seeking vengeance or saying, “I told you so.”
The Pharisee in the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 18:9-14 is indignant (and not a little self-righteous) about the tax collector’s injustice and wrongdoing. In verse 14, most Bible translations favor the tax collector in Jesus’ adjudication of who is righteous (“I tell you that this man, rather thanthe other, went home justified before God”). “Rather than” comes from the Greek word “para” in the original text. But some scholars (and especially Jewish ones who don’t automatically view the Pharisee as a hypocrite) think another way to translate that word is “alongside” or “as well as.” And some suggest an even more shocking translation: “because of.”
Could all the hard-working righteousness of the Pharisee somehow benefit the unrighteous tax collector? Such an interpretation sounds illogical in our culture that values and rewards individuals rather than communities. It sounds almost blasphemous to a religious culture that preaches Jesus as our own personal savior. But what if Jesus is the savior of the whole world? What if Jesus is the savior of every nation, of liberals and conservatives, of black and white, of gay and straight, of democrat and republican? I don’t think Jesus was dreaming of a future where we all agree with each other, but one where we all love one another and make room for our differences. And that’s a kind of reconciliation worth dreaming of.
It’s all too easy to seek to defeat those who disagree with us, to trap them in the apparent wrongness of their opinion. This builds walls when really we need bridges. Jesus and Dr. King weren’t concerned about who gets the credit, nor even with who deserves the better future they were dreaming of. They envisioned such a depth of love and reconciliation that everyone would benefit. That’s a big dream!
We can all work politically for justice, to unconditionally stand for what is right and to resolutely oppose and resist those we believe are doing wrong. And we can all create pathways to healing with those around us. I might not have a direct relationship with those in power, but I have all kinds of connections to people who support them or put them in power.
What if we were to deliberately connect relationally to co-workers, neighbors and family members who disagree with us? What if we were curious enough to ask why they hold their perspective and commit to listening? What if we refused to walk away when we disagree, and remained committed to them as a person? What if we didn’t fall foul of the potential sensationalism of tweets, sound-bites and stereotypes, and stopped comparing their worst with our best? Could questions rather than accusations help everyone (including me) think a little more reflectively about their views? Could relationships and a shared humanity help us develop more understanding as to why so many of us hold such diametrically opposed views about the current political reality?
Personally, I feel much more at home surrounding myself with friends who think like me while critiquing from a distance those who disagree. But as a follower of Jesus, like Dr. King, I am called to build pathways to reconciliation that open up a way for everyone—not just those I think deserve it.
On Monday, we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Few people in recent history have challenged such painful and seemingly intractable injustice and captured the imagination of a whole culture with a dream of an alternative future. In the face of unbelievable hatred, opposition and violence, he never gave up on love. He was able to vehemently oppose the forces of racism and all manner of injustice, and still hold out hope for a future of healing and inclusion for “all of God’s children.” Only love could do that.
Dr. King followed in the tradition of Jesus, who lived and taught that nothing other than radical, sacrificial love could heal the human condition at the deepest level. In my last blog post, I discussed Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Through this story, Jesus opens us up to just how challenging love is. This is a parable about not being self-righteous, and not judging the other. But while agreeing with Jesus, we still readily judge the Pharisee (for being self-righteous) and in doing so, judge ourselves because we have thereby become the Pharisee! Jesus taught that real love lets go of judgement of the other.
I don’t think for one minute this means we shouldn’t have an opinion, disagree, or speak out. Jesus is not saying don’t work vigorously and tirelessly against injustice. Or that all political systems, opinions and decisions are morally equivalent—so love means accepting everything. Clearly that is not the case!
But what Jesus does seem to say is that if we want real healing of the human condition, if we want healing of society at the deepest level, then only love can do that. For Jesus, judging means an attitude of heart that sees itself as separate from the other, that condemns the other and sees itself as superior. It fails to see that we are all part of broken humanity, and the deepest healing and the greatest freedom come only when we include even our enemies in the struggle for reconciliation.
At one level this seems terribly unfair. To take the log out of our own eye, when it feels like a speck compared to the plank in our enemy’s eye, seems unjust. An “eye for an eye” sounds equitable and somewhat satisfying, but it only perpetuates the cycle of revenge and violence. “Treat others as you’d like them to treat you” breaks the cycle. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and overcoming evil with good are ways to initiate love where love seemed impossible. Loving our neighbors as ourselves (rather than as other and separate from ourselves) means seeing that we are “all God’s children,” and dares to dream of a future of freedom for everyone.
Jesus described this way of love as the Kingdom of God: a new consciousness, a new way of being, a new way of living. When John the Baptist announces the coming of Jesus in Luke 3, he speaks in graphic, extreme, almost apocalyptic terms about how “the axe is laid to the root of the tree.” In other words, Jesus is not going to patch things up. Jesus is not just going to impose a better political system or a better religion from above. Rather Jesus will go right to the heart, right to the core of our humanity to bring about complete healing. Only love can do that—and that’s why Jesus constantly challenged his followers so uncompromisingly that nothing but love would do.
There is great sacrifice in this love. It might get you manipulated, misunderstood or misinterpreted. And it can also get you beaten on a bridge, shot on a balcony—crucified even. And to go this deeply into the human condition takes time. For all the immense work, energy and ultimate sacrifice, King saw only relatively small gains in his own lifetime. He himself seemed aware that he would not live to see his dream, but this kind of love transcends the individual and embraces the whole story of humanity. The life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenges us to never give up on love. As followers of Jesus, like him, we should courageously struggle for social justice, no matter what the cost. And, like him, love should be the very heart of the struggle, because nothing but love will do.
I’ll be honest: I do not like Mr. Trump. I don’t like his policies. I can’t stand the boasting, the belittling, the bullying, and the addiction to ratings. I’m appalled by the rhetoric that sounds (to me) racist, sexist and chauvinistic. It’s outrageous how this kind of talk has empowered white supremacism in all its guises, and disgraceful how all the fear mongering about borders, walls and immigrant criminals breezes over the fact that children are dying in custody. My view is we should speak up, stand up, march, resist, vote and act—and I am trying to do that wherever I can. That’s my own personal perspective. You may not see it that way, and I am not asking you to. But as followers of Jesus, we are compelled to stand against injustice wherever we see it, regardless of our political affiliations.
But as a follower of Jesus, I am also conflicted about this. After Mr. Trump is long gone we will still be faced with racism, sexism, fear, hatred and all the darkness of the human condition that has plagued us for millennia. It feels cathartic for me to pin all my anger and judgment on such a worthy (in my opinion), scapegoat, but it does not get to the real issue of our collective human darkness. It feels liberating to blame my political enemies for all the problems, but that does not address the hatred, judgment, prejudice and self-righteousness in my own heart. The truth is, despite all Jesus taught about love, and how only love can really heal our world, I don’t want to love my enemies—especially the unloving ones! And so I continue to be part of the very problem I am trying to solve.
Jesus once told a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). Tax collectors were powerful bullies, authorized by the mighty Roman Empire to extort taxes from the people using force as necessary, and taking extra as their own commission. In today’s political climate the tax-collector might be analogous to a thug-like, government-authorized, bounty hunter, granted exemption from the law, sent to flush out undocumented immigrants. The Pharisee, on the other hand, could be seen as protesting this kind of character. The text says he thanked God he was not like “robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” What if by “robbers” the Pharisee meant systems that steal from the poor, or tax systems that favor the rich? What if by “evildoers” the Pharisee meant those peddling racism, prejudice, violence and injustice? What if by “adulterers” the Pharisee meant sexism and the patriarchal system that justifies the abuse of women? What if by “tax-collector” the Pharisee meant someone who is in cahoots with a government, regardless of its use of violence to protect the interests of the elite at great expense to the poor? If this is the case, then I am the Pharisee. And yet Jesus seemed to side with the tax collector.
Jesus told parables like this to help us think again. That’s what repenting means: to think again, to open our minds, to open the eyes of our heart to a higher consciousness. This parable challenges us to change our minds about our self-righteousness and the way we see our enemies. It challenges us to see ourselves as part of the problem rather than separate from it. Jesus did not come to usher in a better political system, or even a better religion—that’s not where the hope lies. Jesus comes to wake us up to the forgotten reality that God is Love: Love is the currency of the universe; the very fabric and nature of our reality. Jesus’ vision was that if we could begin to open our hearts and minds to this love, if we could begin to absorb and live in this reality, then we could love others too—even our enemies. Relationships would be healed, societies would be healed, humanity could be healed.
None of this means we shouldn’t disagree with others. It doesn’t mean we should not protest and work hard for a more just political system and society. In fact, if love becomes our reality, we will be compelled to act because we will be driven by compassion. But if we speak or act out of self-righteousness, hatred, or a judgment that fails to see ourselves as part of the problem, we will not walk the pathway to deeper healing of the human condition. As Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” This is our challenge. This is the hope that we can nurture in our own lives and share with the world.
My parents grew up in relative poverty in England in the early part of the twentieth century, when there was very little economic opportunity. Neither of them was able to finish school or could afford to go to college. My mother lived with her three brothers in a house with two rooms in a war-ravaged city in the North of England, and had to work as soon as she was able to supplement the family’s income. My father spent his childhood in various foster homes and orphanages in London. He contracted TB, which incapacitated him and kept him from work in early adulthood. Opportunities, support, and pathways to success were in scarce supply.
But social changes with the poor in mind slowly created better conditions and more opportunities for working people. Children gained full access to a good public education, and I personally benefited greatly from that. I remember some of the difficult days (including one memorable week where we ate only porridge!) but by the time I approached adulthood, and with a grant from the government for low-income families, I was able to go on to medical school. That would never have been possible in my family just a few generations before.
My story is far from unique, of course! Not so long ago, families who did not own land or other means of production had very few rights or opportunities. But people who have gone before us courageously, patiently and selflessly struggled to establish workers’ rights (including a holiday to both celebrate “labor” and provide time for some well-earned rest)—such that today many of us have access to unbelievable opportunity and benefit.
So this Labor Day I want to take a moment to remember those who helped create a brighter future for people like me. I want to express gratefulness and celebrate the Labor Movement not just as a very practical and political entity, but as a movement that resonates with God’s belief in humanity. Everyone matters, everyone bears the divine light, everyone has immeasurable potential and so much to give.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by actually having some down time, resting from my own labors, and honoring those who struggled so that people like me could be allowed time off.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by honoring the thousands of working people around me in jobs that seem menial and often go unnoticed, but that keep the world ticking over and make my life so much better. I want to renew my commitment to see them, to speak with them, to tip them, to thank them, and to share God’s love.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by being painfully aware of the countless people who still don’t have as much opportunity as me for all the reasons that I find so hard to talk about like race, economics, power, and privilege. I want to renew my commitment to taking action in society with the interests of the less privileged as a priority.
This Labor Day I want to express gratefulness by emulating those who have gone before me and giving my life away to others. I want to renew my commitment to invest time and energy in my relationships and to look out for others who need support and encouragement.
For many, Labor Day has come to mark the official end of summer. Evenings are getting slightly shorter, mornings are a little cooler, goldenrod is blooming, and the leaves are tinged with yellow and brown. Soon those leaves will fall, a sacrifice to enrich the soil with the energy and nutrients to make another spring possible. This Labor Day I want to renew my commitment to live my life like that. As Jesus said: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Interested in listening to messages?
You can hear messages from Matthew and our other speakers right on our website.