Pentecost 4 A: Understood, Accepted, and Loved

Introductory Note: A week ago I was informed by email that Luther Seminary has determined that the column I started five years ago, Dear Working Preacher, can only be written by a member of Luther’s faculty and so I was asked to draw my involvement to a close. I did that last week. Over the course of the years I wrote my weekly letter, connecting with preachers and inviting them to share in the road of experimentation and discovery I have been on has become a central part of my own vocation as a preacher and teacher. And so I will continue writing these weekly letters of encouragement and post them here. I hope they are helpful. While I toyed with a variety of names, I wanted to preserve the sense that this column is still just a letter from one preacher to others and so will call it simply, “Dear Partner in Preaching.” 

Pentecost 4 A: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 ~ Understood, Accepted, and Loved

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Call it “Lose’s Law”: To be…is to be misunderstood. Do you know what I mean? Our life in this world is marked by a profound desire to be understood, to be known, to be accepted, and yet so much of life is colored by being misunderstood and feeling like we are neither known nor accepted for whom we really are.

To be is to be misunderstood. Whatever we call it, I suspect Jesus would have agreed. At the beginning of this chapter, the imprisoned John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was the one foretold by prophecy or whether they should look for another. Jesus responded by naming his “deeds of power” – not of conquest but of healing – and then went on to instruct the crowds about John, naming him Elijah, the forerunner of God’s messiah.

But now the tone of his message to those gathered turns more ominous. He compares them to a fickle audience who can’t decide what they want. Or perhaps it’s a divided crowd. Either way, nothing seems to please them. When John came with his message of austere repentance, they complained. When Jesus came welcoming all and proclaiming God’s abundant favor, they dismissed him. To be is to be misunderstood.

What do you want? Jesus seems to ask the crowd. Except he knows they won’t answer. Can’t. Because what they want is to grow, to evolve, to improve and more. And yet at the same time they want to be left alone, untouched and unchanged. Why? Because to change is to lose something, and so to change can feel like dying. And more than anything else the people who listened to Jesus – and the people who listen to you preach Jesus – want desperately to grow but not really to change.

Change, you see, brings the unknown. Change is not certain. Change implies risk and even potential loss. Which is why we often stay in failed jobs and relationships – they may not be much, but at least they’re something and at least we know what to expect.

But here’s the difficult truth about life in Christ. You cannot enter into it and expect to be unchanged. Which means a precondition of receiving Jesus – perhaps the only one! – is to recognize your need for Jesus. Forgiveness, when you think about it, is meaningful only to those who have sinned, grace avails only those who are broken, and the promise of life abundant and eternal is only attractive to those who know they are dying.

I think that’s what Jesus is getting at in the prayer our passage turns to a few verses later. He knows that this kind of message – a message that is good news only to those who can identify their need – will be of little appeal to the self-made man or woman of the first or twenty-first centuries. But it is good news – unbelievably good news – to those who know their brokenness, can admit their need, and who turn to God in Jesus to be known, understood, and accepted.

The recent chapters of Matthew’s Gospel have been dominated by stories portraying Jesus encountering and healing all manner of people – lepers, a centurion’s servant, those who are demon-possessed, a mother taken ill who cannot serve, a women who has bled for years, another who is presumed dead. The one thing all these various and sundry characters have in common is their palpable need. True faith, according to the narrative terms of this story, is simply acknowledging that need and trusting Jesus can respond.

So can we invite our people to do that, dear Partner in Preaching? Can we ask them simply to take stock of their lives, giving thanks for what seems good and right, but also admitting where there is hurt, pain, loneliness, or disappointment? And then can we point them to Jesus, promising them that God knows their struggles, that God has entered into them in Jesus, and that God has promised to heal them and make them whole? It doesn’t happen overnight, of course, sometimes the span of a lifetime is barely enough time to feel God’s healing presence and touch in our lives. But it does happen, and it happens more quickly when we come together again and again to hear the Word of God proclaimed and to receive, touch, and taste the Word of God shared as we gather in Christian fellowship around the sacred meal of bread, wine, grace, and acceptance.

Jesus’ call is clear: you who are content and satisfied will find little of value here. But you who are weary will find rest,
you who feel accused – whether by others or yourself – will find forgiveness,
you who feel abandoned will find fellowship,
you who feel disappointed will find relief,
you who feel hurt will find healing, and
you who feel misunderstood will be known, loved, and accepted for whom you are.

This is the message we are called to preach each and every week, dear Partner. I am grateful for the grace and courage it will take to preach it this Sunday and for the joy it will bring both you and your hearers. Blessings on your life and ministry.

Yours in Christ,