Pentecost 2 A: Telling the Truth, Twice!

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Because of the way the readings for the Pentecost season are determined by the date on which Easter falls, we haven’t had a chance to hear this passage in Sunday worship for nearly a decade. It’s a great bridge from the Easter season that concludes just before Pentecost and Holy Trinity Sundays to the season of Pentecost proper. That bridge is immensely helpful for those who are trying to follow the narrative of Matthew, as after the Lenten focus on the journey to the cross and the Easter focus on the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection (both of which draw heavily from John’s Gospel, most recently with readings from the farewell discourse), it’s nice to finally be again reading from Matthew! So here we are back relatively early on in his account, just after the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus sends out his disciples into the world, all of which serves as a helpful introduction to the summer/Pentecost emphasis on Jesus’ teaching ministry and the growth of the church (hence the green of Pentecost!).

What stuck out to me powerfully when reading this passage this week was this single line that I think serves in some ways not only as an introduction to Matthew’s characterization of the ministry of Jesus and his disciples, but might also shape our sense of our mission and ministry today: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36).

What I love about this line is both the succinct description of the folks gathering around Jesus – “harassed and helpless” – and the equally succinct description of the motivation behind all that is going to take place across the rest of the pages of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ ministry: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”

The power of this description of the crowds rests in its truthfulness, and not just about the people then but also about those who will be gathering in our congregation this Sunday. How many in our community, if they’re given the safe space to admit it, also feel “harassed and helpless”? The young parent at her or his wit’s end, feeling ill-equipped for this role, guilty about responding in impatience or anger to a child? The persons unexpectedly in mid-life transition (or crisis) relating to a lost job? Those coping with the death of a spouse, sibling, or friend? Those whose relationships with their parents or children are simply not what they’d imagined? Those who feel they are seen, and dismissed, because of their age, gender, or ethnicity? The young persons recently graduated from high school or college and see no clear future before them? The retirees who wonder if they are valued?

If we take the time – and make the space – to allow our folks to be honest, many of us have and do feel “harassed and helpless” but can scarce admit it to ourselves, let alone to others. So let’s make create space this week, Dear Partner. Feeling harassed and helpless is not a sign of failure but of being human!

Sharing this truth opens the door to hearing the second truth of this passage: that Jesus sees us and has compassion! The power of this description of Jesus also rests in its truthfulness. Jesus did not come primarily to teach or inspire, let along to judge, but rather out of the abundant compassion of God for the world and in order to demonstrate that loving compassion through word and deed.

And the thing is: these two truths go together. The first – the truth about our situation and need – opens us to hearing and being transformed by the second – the truth about God’s loving response. Indeed, without the honesty of the first, the second would be, at best, pleasantly irrelevant (“Thanks but no thanks for your compassion, Jesus, but I’m doing just fine.”) and, at worse, offensive (“Who says I need your compassion, anyway? – I’ve got it all together, thank you very much!”).

The pressure exerted by our culture in manifold ways both explicit and implicit to have it all together, to be perfect, to have the ideal life and job and family is, I think, quietly crushing the spirit of many of our people. And this is particularly true of that generation that has grown up having to display their (supposedly perfect) lives on social media. While the constant drive to take “selfies” and publish life updates and broadcast our thoughts via social media may, as many suggest, be a symptom of our increasingly narcissistic culture, it may also be a sign of profound and increasing insecurity, the futile effort of folks to deny that they are, indeed, harassed and helpless.

So perhaps our opportunity this week, Dear Partner, is to share these two truths. First, that we don’t actually have it all together or lead the perfect lives and probably are sick and tired of pretending we do, so that we can hear, second, that Jesus didn’t come for perfect people, that the church has never been made up of perfect people, that it’s okay – indeed, incredibly helpful! – to admit that we all feel at times harassed and helpless, and that’s exactly why God came in Jesus in the first place and continues to come in the preaching of the church: to tell us that God loves not the persons we’re trying to be or have promised to be or want to be, but the ones we are. I know this sounds familiar – indeed, I wrote nearly the same sentence last week! – but I just don’t think we can hear it enough.

Indeed, perhaps this commitment to telling the two truths of this passage – and, indeed, the whole Gospel story – can shape our sense of what it is to be a community of faith in the first place. That is, perhaps we can promise that as long as folks are willing to keep coming on Sundays and other times during the week, we’ll promise to keep creating the space where we can admit being harassed and helpless so that we can hear and feel(!) once again Jesus’ profound compassion.

Blessings on your proclamation, Dear Partner. I have little doubt that you, too, at times feel harassed and helpless. But know this: you, too, are beloved of God and your words and ministry matter. Indeed, they make a profound difference. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,