Pentecost | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 28 May 2023 | Numbers 11:24-30 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | Acts 2:1-21 | John 7:37-39

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Spirit of wildness and comfort who renews the face of the earth. Amen.

Good morning. Welcome to the Feast of Pentecost. Today we celebrate the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate the birth of the church. And when we celebrate the Spirit and the church, we celebrate movements of God that include us but don’t belong just to us. We celebrate God’s abundant love that keeps on expanding even farther than we might think it should go. We celebrate a grace that sweeps us up into what God is doing, a wild grace we can’t contain or control.

In our reading from Numbers, the Holy Spirit comes on a group of new leaders, including a couple of them who are not where they’re supposed to be. And Joshua wants to stop them, but Moses says that’s the wrong direction to go: “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” What a world it would be if everyone could be touched with this Spirit.

In the story of Pentecost in Acts, the Holy Spirit comes into the house like a rushing wind and then rests on the disciples as tongues of fire. The crowd gathered can hear the good news of Jesus in their own languages. The circle of Jesus’ followers expands beyond those who first walked with him. The Holy Spirit is moving and the energy is high.

And somebody thinks this is all getting pretty out of hand; some people think the disciples are drunk. So Peter goes back to scripture, and he tells the people what the prophet Joel said. “God declares: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” People of all ages and people of all genders, everybody will see visions and dream dreams and proclaim what God has revealed to them.

As we learned from Jesus John 3, the Spirit is a wind that blows wherever it will; the Spirit spirits wherever the Spirit wants to, and we can hear the sound of the wind, sometimes we can see what the Spirit does, but we can never pin the Spirit down.

Some Celtic Christians imagined the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. It’s a different image from our gentle doves in the stained glass, and I think it’s a good one to expand our imaginations. Because the Holy Spirit is strong and loud and fierce. She can fight when she needs to. The Holy Spirit isn’t afraid of causing a ruckus. And if you have encountered geese in parks or if you’ve played that video game where it’s a lovely day in the village and you are a horrible goose, you may know how much chaos a goose can unleash.   

And in our stories from Acts and from Numbers today, the Holy Spirit’s wildness makes people uncomfortable. Along with the lifegiving breath of the Spirit and the revelatory words of prophecy, some fears bubble up. There’s an impulse to tamp things down, to get things back under control, to restore order. And yet, the Spirit still goes right on doing what she came to do. There’s a pattern where the Spirit moves unexpectedly, and people react with discomfort but can’t stop the Spirit.

This pattern of the Holy Spirit’s movement reminds me of a time in the life of the Episcopal Church, and a group of women called the Philadelphia Eleven. So bear with me for some church history; and maybe you can tell me more if you were there. It starts in the 1970s when women weren’t yet ordained as priests in our church. For a long time, women had felt the Holy Spirit calling them to be priests, and for a long time, the Episcopal Church had said it wasn’t ready.

Women could be ordained as deacons at the time, and there were women deacons who believed that they were called to the priesthood. They had discerned carefully in community. They had met all the educational and organizational and spiritual requirements to be ordained as priests—except that they weren’t men. The 1973 General Convention (when we vote on church policy) was going to be the one that changed the rules and allowed women priests. People who supported the change had been working toward this for years and years, and they thought they had the votes.

But then there was a last-minute tweak in the voting rules that let split delegations block the change. So it didn’t go through; more waiting. Supportive men, bishops and priests and laypeople who’d helped in the fight so far, advised the women to be patient, to keep waiting, to try again in three years at the next General Convention.

And the way I see it, this is when the wild goose Holy Spirit comes in. Because this is the part in the story when some of the women realized that they were done waiting. The call the Spirit had placed on them was true, and it was bigger than the political mechanics that allowed a minority to keep stalling. The call the Spirit had placed on them was urgent, and they couldn’t keep waiting year after year.

And so they decided to be ordained a different way, a way that would answer the Spirit’s call and also force the church to make up its mind. They found retired bishops who were ready to ordain them before the church had said it was ready.

And on July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, eleven women deacons were ordained as priests in God’s church. In a church named for the Holy Spirit (the Advocate is another name for the Spirit), they claimed their calling as priests in the church the Spirit birthed at Pentecost. Their witness changed the Episcopal church and the world. They made a way for me, and for many others. 

And the way they did it made a lot of people angry. Bishops from across the country scrambled for an emergency meeting to condemn this ordination. Even now, some people in the church, some people I respect, who have no problem with women as priests still think that what these eleven women did was the wrong way to do it, and that they should have waited for the normal process. The ordinations were what’s called “irregular;” outside the regulations.

But the church couldn’t outright call the ordinations invalid, because in a spiritual sense, everything happened that needed to happen. We believe that bishops stand in the line of the authority Jesus gave to the apostles, and so they get to lay on hands and lead the vows and make people priests, and the bishops did that with these women. So were the Philadelphia Eleven priests or not at this point? It put the church in a tricky position. And the next Convention, in 1976, they did vote to allow women priests and also to affirm or “regularize” the priesthood of those first eleven.

Suzanne Hiatt, one of the eleven women ordained that day, was also a skilled public organizer, and she described the pressure the church was under this way: “In 1973, most delegates were faced with the decision of whether it would be more trouble for the church to ordain women or not to ordain women, and they decided it would be more trouble to do it. In 1976, when faced with the same question, the delegates decided it would mean more trouble not to do it.” The ordination in Philadelphia didn’t exactly cause new trouble for the church, but it shifted the balance of the trouble.

Some people think these women could have just waited a couple of years. Others think that the irregular ordination was the only way to make the official change possible, that without something like this the delays would have continued indefinitely. It’s hard to say for sure.

But whether or not it was the only way for the change to happen, I believe it was a way that the Spirit blessed. I believe that the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven was a movement of the Holy Spirit, in line with the ones we see in Numbers and in Acts. I think it was another moment when the Spirit decided to lift up people who weren’t the expected prophets in the expected places. I think it was another moment when the Spirit overflowed the boundaries of what was orderly and predictable to birth something new.

It’s beautiful when the Spirit moves this way—she can surprise us. The Spirit can lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty. She can show us that God’s love is so much bigger and freer and more alive than we could have imagined.  

And, to be honest, it can also be really difficult to move with the Spirit when she’s wild goosing all over the place and we’re just trying to get through the day. We all have expectations; we rely on some level of order and predictability to keep us safe and help us know what to do next.

Shortly after her ordination in Philadelphia, Suzanne Hiatt preached a sermon about the Holy Spirit. She said: “Religious people have a difficult time with the Holy Spirit precisely because we prefer to worship a God who is under control, whose ways are known and who can be trusted to feel as we do about events.”

I think it’s difficult because many of us look to our faith for stability and comfort in a chaotic world—I sure do. So it can be extra hard for us when it is God who is doing the chaos. The Holy Spirit’s wild goose ways can be a challenge when we’re already stressed and fearful; we’re looking for something steady to hold onto, looking for calm and comfort and not the flapping and the honking and the troublemaking.

And yet, Comforter is another name for the Holy Spirit we celebrate today. The Holy Spirit descends as a peaceful dove at Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit is promised as an advocate and guide who will come alongside the disciples and get them through the difficult times after Jesus’ death.

The Spirit broods over the waters at creation, and in our Psalm, she continually renews the face of the earth. In Romans, Paul says that to set our mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Paul says that the Spirit is with us in our weakness and intercedes with groans to deep for words whenever we don’t know how to pray.

So: the Holy Spirit is both; both the wild goose and the dove; the rushing wind and the gentle breath; present in both the fire of prophecy and the water of baptism; both an unruly agent of change and the steadiest thing we know; both challenge and comfort. The Spirit is God among us, and we don’t get to control what God does—but we get to respond. The holy wind will take us along if we say yes.

So on this day of Pentecost, and in the season of growth that comes after, I pray that we will have the grace to notice the Spirit’s movements and join in. And I wonder where you’ve seen the Holy Spirit show up lately.

Maybe the Holy Spirit has been with you as a gentle dove to bring peace and comfort. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is there in a kind word. Sometimes she’s with me in a deep breath when I know I’m loved, even in the midst of grief or stress or confusion. Sometimes it’s a sense of awe when we see something beautiful and know that God is with us.

Or maybe you’ve seen the Holy Spirit in full Wild Goose glory, God in goblin mode, reveling in holy trouble. I’ve seen her like this in creative disruption. I saw a video awhile back of somebody counterprotesting creatively. This was at a nazi rally where people were marching around trying to do very serious nazi things, and this guy showed up with a tuba and played dramatic music in a dopey way to make fun. I think that tuba was honking right along with the Spirit.

Maybe it’s listening to a new perspective even when the people sharing it aren’t being as polite or orderly as you’d like them to be. Or maybe embracing the Spirit’s wildness is as simple as finding joy in a day that didn’t go as planned, relaxing into what’s actually happening instead of trying to get back to what we expected to happen.  

However we might meet the Spirit in this season, I pray that we will be able to receive the gift. I pray that we will hear the Spirit’s voice among us, whether she is cooing or honking. I pray that we will be alive to the Spirit’s movement, whether the Spirit is breathing with us gently or asking us to throw our expectations to the wind.

And in this season, I pray that the Holy Spirit will make all of God’s people prophets. I pray that the Spirit will comfort us and challenge us, embrace us and trouble us, and help us to see the vision of God’s hope and dream the dream of God’s love. I pray that the Spirit will renew our hearts, renew the church, and renew the face of the earth. Amen.

A screenshot from Untitled Goose Game by House House, taken from the game’s website.

Lent 2 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 5 March 2023 | Genesis 12:1-4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 | John 3:1-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Amen.

Friends, welcome to the Second Sunday of Lent. In this season, we turn our hearts to God, and we remember our need for God’s help. Our prayers and our practices and our stories help us turn to God and ask for help in this season. Some of our scriptures give us stories of journey, where people meet God in the wilderness of the unknown.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey away from the comforts of home, our needs are more apparent to us. If we’re out camping in the woods, or even just traveling, we have to think about how we’re going to eat each meal and where we’re going to sleep. We can’t just open up the fridge and eat something, or go to bed in our normal bed.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey, we’re vulnerable. We have to think about how our needs are going to be met. And so in Lent, these stories help us to call on God. Stories of wilderness and journey let us remember how we need God’s help, and they give us models for facing the unknown.

Last week we followed Jesus into the wilderness in the story of the temptation. And we saw that Jesus was vulnerable like we are—Jesus faced hunger and thirst and mortality, and limits to what he could control. And when Jesus was tempted, he drew on scripture to strengthen him. He was able to face that vulnerability in the wilderness without escaping toward easy answers or betraying his calling and his relationship with God. He made it through the trials, and angels came to care for him.

And today, we turn to other journeys into the unknown wilds. God calls Abram to leave his homeland. Jesus calls Nicodemus to imagine the impossible.

So today we’ll look at Abram, and a little at Nicodemus, and we’ll see what we can learn from them about our own journeys into the unknown. And we’ll turn to our reading from Romans and our Psalm to remember how God meets us and cares for us in this kind of wilderness.

Let’s start with Genesis. God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s household.” God is asking Abram to leave all the things that are most familiar and safe to him, the place and the people and the protection that he’s had for all of his life so far.

God calls Abram to go to “the land that I will show you.” Abram doesn’t yet know where he’s even going ahead of time. He has to trust that God will lead the way. Abram has never seen this place before and doesn’t know where it is or what it’s like there. At this point, he doesn’t even know what the new land  is called. It’s so deeply unknown that Abram can’t even tell anyone where he’s going, because he doesn’t have a name for it.

God is asking Abram to do something that’s very hard to do—and God is also promising world-changing blessings on the journey. God promises to multiply Abram’s people into a great nation. And God says, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram’s faith will bless the whole earth. And there’s a connection between this blessing and the call to venture into the unknown.

Finally we learn that Abram answers the call. “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” We also learn that he doesn’t go alone—his nephew Lot goes with him, and we later learn that his wife Sarai goes with him, and a whole household of flocks and herds and people. Even though Abram is leaving one community behind, there’s a community that goes with him into the unknown.

Friends, God calls us into the unknown too. Sometimes God asks us to leave what’s familiar and comfy.

Sometimes we have a clear sense of that call, even if there are some uncertainties. Maybe we know where we’re moving for a job or for school, but we don’t know how we’re going to find community in that new place. Maybe we know it’s time to retire, but we don’t know what life after that will look like. Maybe we’re feeling called to a new way to serve others, but we’re not sure what the next step is to do it.

And sometimes, we have a call and we can’t say what it even is—like Abram’s unnamed land. Maybe there’s a yearning in us to do more. Or maybe (and this one is just as important but sometimes harder to hear) we have a call to do less, to lay down some burdens and rest. Maybe we can tell that God is drawing us toward some new insight or some new change or some deepening of faith that we can’t yet put a name to, even as we feel it beginning to unfold in us.

Like Abram, we journey on in faith, and like Abram, we don’t travel alone. We are here for each other as we face the unknown. When God calls the church, we travel together.

And perhaps for us, like it was for Abram, God’s blessing is waiting for us in the unknown. When we have the courage to leave what’s familiar and expected and reassuring and take a step into God’s wild country beyond, we will be blessed and be a blessing. Our faith and our vision and our courage will expand as we go.

This is what happens with Nicodemus too, in our gospel. Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch to something new. Nicodemus can’t understand what it means to be born again. And Jesus expands his imagination by teaching him about the Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings new birth even after we think we’ve grown up. The Holy Spirit goes with us into the unknown, because the Holy Spirit is unknowable.

Jesus says, “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” In Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, πνεῦμα, and so is the verb Jesus uses for the way the wind blows. So we could translate it like this:

“The Spirit spirits wherever it wants, and you hear its voice, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.” The Holy Spirit lives in the unknown. The Holy Spirit hovered over the unformed chaos at creation, and the Holy Spirit is with us in all our journeys through the wilds.

And don’t miss what Jesus says next. The Spirit spirits where it wants to, and “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” If we listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice, she can teach us to walk the winds too. We can become people who know how move through the unknown with freedom and grace. With God’s help, we can be people who survive and thrive in the wilderness by faith. 

In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul praises Abraham’s faith as what blesses us; the law helped to guide people in living well, but it was faith in God, relationship with God, willingness to follow God into the unknown, that mattered most. And friends, it is God who cares for us when we face the unknown.

St. Paul describes God as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It is God who calls us toward what does not yet exist. And sometimes, like Abram, we have to let go of some things that already exist in order to make room for the things God is bringing that don’t exist yet. That takes a lot of courage. It’s one of the hardest things God asks us to do.

And yet, God shelters us in the unknown and the unimaginable. Our Psalm says God is our shade at our right hand. God guides us and protects us through it all. The maker of the heavens and the earth watches over our coming in and our going out, and all our journeys into the unknown.  

So friends, let us find courage for the wilderness in God’s care for us. In this holy season, let us always call on God’s help, knowing that we always need it. Let us venture forth together to claim the blessings of the unknown. And let us learn, little by little, how to hear the Spirit’s voice and walk the winds in faith. Amen.

Towards the Unknown (1950) by Mexican painter Gunther Gerzso and in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |13 November 2022 | Isaiah 65:17-25 | Canticle 9 | 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 | Luke 21:5-19

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who calls us amid crisis and creates the world anew.

Today’s readings find the people of God awaiting various crises. In our reading and canticle from Isaiah, the prophet anticipates a new and better world that God will create—the end result is beautiful, but it will take drastic change to get there.

In Luke, we have Jesus being apocalyptic—he’s describing the terrors of a chaotic time to come, which is partly the destruction of Jerusalem and partly the end times. And in Thessalonians, we overhear a conversation with folks who expected the end of this world to come a lot quicker than it did, and need to figure out what how to keep on living when the world is not ending yet after all.

These readings on change and crisis and anticipation hit close to home for me these days. We are also living in a world that’s in flux in so many ways, and we are not sure what happens next. So many things hang in the balance—the state of democracy, the future of our planet, the lives of indigenous children, and the freedoms of many, and the impact of the next COVID wave. Many of us have had more personal crises on top of the shared ones in the news. It seems like the last few years, we’ve just been moving from one crisis to another, always in anticipation of the next one.

And there are moments of relief and moments of joy and connection, but for some of us, it’s just been a long time since we’ve felt safe enough from major threats to fully relax and let our guard down for very long. Some of us tend to feel like we’re always bracing ourselves for the next crisis. It makes sense that we would be, given the state of things—and it’s also a really difficult way to live. Our brains and our bodies aren’t built to be in crisis mode for this long.

And this is where the second letter to the Thessalonians comes in. This letter is also addressed to people living in perpetual anticipation of crisis. It’s addressed to people under threat from persecution. It’s addressed to people who are not sure what happens next.

Whenever we read the New Testament letters, we’re always doing some guesswork because we’re only hearing one half of the conversation. But it’s pretty clear from the rest of this letter that there was confusion about the second coming of Jesus in this community. We think that many early Christians expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes, and when he didn’t show up, they weren’t sure what to believe.

In this community some people thought that Jesus had already come and they’d missed the signs. Some people thought that they were either already living in the end times or else they were just about to be, and so there was no point in continuing to do their regular work and build community and keep on holding things together in this world.

And that’s the context of our reading today. When the writer warns against idleness, it’s for a specific reason. It’s not about people just being lazy, it’s about people misjudging the nature of the crisis they’re in. It’s about people thinking it’s already over when actually there’s a long ways to go yet.

This saying “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” has been taken out of context and used for harm. Some Christians have used this verse to speak against giving help to folks in need, and some have used it to label all people who struggle as lazy, and to justify letting God’s children suffer.

But this letter isn’t about what causes poverty or how we should respond to it; it’s about how to discern our calling in the midst of crisis. It’s about learning how to recognize when we’re in a marathon rather than a sprint, and pace accordingly. Because even in the midst of crisis and chaos and uncertainty, it turns out that there is still life to be lived and labor to be done and hope to be found in this present world. So we need to find our work and find what sustains us.

Our world and our people need us not to be weary in doing what is right. Amid ongoing crises, there is work to do—on the one hand, we can’t ignore that work, and on the other hand, we can’t throw ourselves into that work so frantically that we burn out. Even though some of the crises we’re facing might seem like the end of the world, we can expect there’s a long ways to go yet. And so as we keep doing whatever work we’re called to do, we also need to keep eating and breathing and praying and reflecting and resting together.

At Diocesan Convention last weekend, Bishop Jennifer charged the people of this diocese to rest. She acknowledged the exhaustion of these past few years and the difficulty of the work that’s yet ahead of us. And she called on us in this coming year to claim whatever rest and recovery we can. Because we’re going to need it. The crises will continue—but if we stay in crisis mode every day, we might become too weary to meet them with the compassion and conviction and clarity to which God calls us.

And so we could turn the letter’s phrase around: “Anyone who cannot eat cannot work.” We need to claim nourishment and rest in order to do the work we’re called to do. We need to pay attention to what feeds us, and seek out whatever that is. We need to claim time for rest and rebuilding as we’re able, and we need to come together and help make that rest and rebuilding possible for those among us who are overwhelmed and can’t see the way to restoration.

We need to give our bodies and our brains time to come down from crisis mode sometimes, even if not all of the actual crises have gone away. Time in quietness and prayer can help with this, and so can taking a long walk, and so can spending time with people who help us feel safe and connected. This is how we stay steady in anticipation of crisis.

And through it all, we are not alone. Jesus says it’s not all on us to prepare what to say. When unpredictable things happen, the Holy Spirit is with us to give us the words and the strength and the call to meet that moment as it comes.

And through it all, we hold onto Isaiah’s hope: Another world is possible. Another world is on the way. God is making all things new. We are being re-created for God’s delight and our own. Our prayers will be heard. Our divisions will be healed. Our labor will not be in vain. All creatures can flourish together in peace and plenty.

We will draw water with rejoicing from springs of salvation. The lion shall lie down with the lamb. God’s love will draw all creation together in joy.

And even now, friends, in this broken world, we see glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth that God is creating. We see people standing up for what’s right with their words and their money and their actions, and we find our call to follow Jesus boldly. We discern together amid crisis, and we find our quiet bit of work to do amid the chaos. We become part of God’s love transforming love when we care for each other and our neighbors. We claim the peace and flourishing and rest God offers whenever we find it.

We follow a vision of hope. We labor to make this world even a little bit more like the world God creates anew. We rest to sustain our work and ourselves, knowing that we are created for delight.

So may we trust that the Holy Spirit is moving among us to inspire our vision of hope, to strengthen our hands as we labor for what is right, and to give us rest and delight along the way.


The beginning of 2 Thessalonians in Greek from the 10th-century Egerton Manuscript (accessed through the British Library online).

The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 18 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |4 September 2022 | Jeremiah 18:1-11 | Psalm 139:1-17 | Philemon 1-21 | Luke 14:25-33

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God who calls us to costly change.

Friends, happy Labor Day Weekend, and happy 13th Sunday After Pentecost. Today’s scriptures take us to a difficult place. They remind us of the very great demands that God makes on our lives if we choose to be disciples. They’re about how we’re called to deep change that will cost us.

In Luke, Jesus asks us to take up our cross with him, and to count the cost of following. In Philemon, we overhear St. Paul asking a Christian slaveholder to radically transform his relationships to people and property. In Jeremiah, we see the image of God as a potter, and we face both the fear and the hope that we can be remade. In Psalm 139, we pray with a poet who is hovering between terror and delight in being known by God. There’s no easy way here.

So today we’ll walk through each one of these words from scripture, and we’ll see what we can learn about the costly change that is demanded of us, and about the God who holds us in love through the terror and hope of it all.

We’ll spend a moment with our Gospel to set the scene. We’ll take a deeper dive into the cost of discipleship in Philemon. We’ll look at the good news of God’s transformation in Jeremiah. And we’ll let the Psalmist take us home to God’s love that carries us through every hard thing God asks of us.  

In our Gospel today, Jesus says discipleship comes at a cost: It will demand our possessions. It will endanger our most valued relationships. We talked about this a few weeks ago when Jesus said he came not to bring peace but division. Jesus isn’t telling us to be hateful toward our families here—I think it’s stark language to make a point about the high stakes conflicts Jesus will stir up, where we’ll have to take sides for God’s love. We’ll have to choose justice over false peace.

Jesus says that following him could even demand our lives. And some of the people hearing him in that moment did give up their lives for Jesus. Our context is different today, and not many of us now expect to suffer that kind of physical violence for our faith. But counting the cost is not a relic of the past. We are still called to a faith that costs us something. Jesus still demands deep change from us—change that leads to conflict and sacrifice.   

In our epistle, we see some of the deep change Jesus is talking about in action. St. Paul writes to Philemon about someone named Onesimus, whom Philemon had held as a slave, and he asks Philemon to change course.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Paul’s letter to Philemon. We’re overhearing one part of a conversation, and we try as best we can to piece together the story behind it. Philemon held Onesimus as a slave, and Paul sends this letter back with Onesimus to Philemon. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

Reading between the lines, it’s likely that Onesimus had escaped from Philemon, and possibly stolen money from him in the process. Then on his travels as a fugitive seeking freedom, Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian. Another possibility is that Onesimus was traveling with Philemon’s permission to help Paul in prison.

It’s also not totally clear what Paul is asking Philemon to do when he asks him to treat Onesimus as a brother. Some readers think that Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away and to treat him better when he returns to serve again.

There’s a good case that instead, Paul asks Philemon to formally release Onesimus and no longer hold him as a slave. He says to welcome Onesimus the same way St. Paul himself would be welcomed, and he says Onesimus is no longer a slave but a beloved brother. He cranks up the pressure by including church leaders in the letter. I want to believe that St. Paul was asking Philemon to free Onesimus.

But whether or not Paul had gotten there yet, we can trust that the liberating God we follow did not want Onesimus or any other human being to be treated as property. And it’s certain that Paul saw Onesimus as a fellow child of God before anything else. Paul asked Philemon to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ. That would have been a deep change, a seismic shift.

Changing this relationship meant a very practical cost to being Christian for Philemon. Philemon believed that another human being belonged to him as property, as a unit of labor to direct as he saw fit. St. Paul asked him to transform that relationship and to see Onesimus in all of his God-given glory and dignity as a human being.

Philemon thought he could own another person, and Paul asked him to transform that relationship, to give up what he thought belonged to him, and to see a beloved brother in Onesimus. That is a better life together in Christ; it’s good news. But it’s a hard change.

And friends, we are also called to transformations this deep and this costly and this liberating.  I wonder what that call to costly transformation looks like now, when we read a letter about an enslaved person on Labor Day weekend. I wonder what it means when we read a letter to a slaveholder here, in a church where many of us are financially comfortable and most of us are white. What costs of discipleship do we need to count here and now?

We might have different ideas about that, and I’m here for the conversation. From where I’m standing, it looks like a good start would be to shine a Gospel light on our relationships to labor and property and human dignity.

Those of us who are workers might need to reflect on how our labor lines up with dignity and flourishing for us and for the world. We might be called to individual changes or collective action or both to make our work better for us and for our fellow creatures.

Those of us who are white might need to reflect on how we benefit from the legacy of labor stolen from Black people and land stolen from Indigenous people in America. When we really dig into that, we might be called to give up things we thought belonged to us, in order to build a future where all kinds of people can flourish in their God-given dignity.

We all might need to ask some hard questions about who makes our clothes and who grows our food, and who does all the labor that holds up the lives we live. When we get far enough with questions like that, we might start to hear a call to change how we consume. We might hear a call to act in solidarity with those whose work sustains us. We might hear a call to move toward a world where we all can flourish.

We might hear a call that has a cost in our daily lives. And we might disagree on what exactly we’re called to do here, and what the cost of discipleship looks like in this moment.

That’s okay, and we can work with those tensions together. The world is complex, and it’s not always clear how best to follow Jesus when it comes to the practicalities of money and votes and labor and possessions and dignity and flourishing.

But we know for sure that following Jesus has a cost. St. Paul’s letter to Philemon tells us that the cost is high, and the cost is material. It’s not only an internal struggle or a spiritual battle (though we’ll have plenty of those too).

God will ask us to give up things that we thought belonged to us. The Gospel will ask us to embrace as beloved brothers and sisters and siblings the people we didn’t think were our kind of people. Discipleship will reshape our relationships, and it will impact our bottom line.

If it doesn’t, then it’s time to ask hard questions about the authenticity of our faith. If we’re not called to change in ways that matter, can it really be Jesus we’re following, or is it something else?

And this metric of realness doesn’t mean we seek out suffering, or that whatever feels good and easeful has to be wrong. I’ve preached before and I’ll keep on preaching: God’s dream for all creatures to flourish includes us. God wants us to be fed and free and full of delight.

When we baptize a new Christian, we pray that God will give them “the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.” God wants that for all of us. Our happiness is a good and holy thing whenever we can find it in ways that harmonize with other creatures’ flourishing too.

And the fact of it is that not all God’s creatures are flourishing right now. Some of God’s beloved children work in sweatshops. Some of God’s beloved children are flooded out of their homes as the climate changes. Some of the ease and convenience in our own lives comes at a cost to others who labor on our behalf, and at a cost to “this fragile earth, our island home.”

We need to discern our call and count the cost in this moment. Because there is a cost already being paid by others for the way the world works right now. So what cost can we pay to make it even a little bit better, as disciples of Christ? As people committed to God’s love for all creatures, what burdens might we lift from those who can’t afford what they’re paying right now?

Deep change needs to happen for all God’s creatures to flourish in their life and labor. Deep change needs to happen for us to honor the dignity of every human being and to help God’s whole creation flourish.

And friends, the good news is that the kind of deep change we need is possible. We are capable of being transformed. This is the good news behind Jeremiah’s oracle at the potter’s house. This is a stark call for repentance, but it contains a word of hope for us. In this image of God as a potter, the potter does not throw away the marred clay.

The potter does not give up when the shape goes all wrong. The potter takes the same clay and reworks it into a new vessel. And God does not give up on us, or on this world. No matter how far out of line things seem to have gone, no matter how impossible it seems to get from where we are to where we need to be, God is with us. God is transforming us. God is making us into something new and useful and beautiful.

In God’s hands, we are capable of deep change. This is the truth that the prophet Jeremiah offers us today, and it is a truth that is both hopeful and terrifying.

In some ways it would be easier if we could just say that change is impossible and move on. Being transformed is really hard. There might be dark times in our lives where we’d honestly rather be thrown away than be remade.

But God isn’t going to throw us away. God sticks with us. God loves us. God transforms us.

God is with us wherever we are in our transformation, still loving us and calling us and claiming us and changing us. God knows us, and God chooses to be with us wherever we are. Our Psalm speaks to that.

We find our Psalmist today hovering between terror and joy at God’s transforming presence. At first it seems like the fact that God is everywhere is a terrifying truth. At first it seems like the Psalmist wants to run away from being known by God: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? There is nowhere to hide from God. It can be a fearful thing to realize that God knows exactly who we are, exactly where we need to change, and God is everywhere.

But eventually, the Psalmist finds a different tone about being known by God. The Psalmist turns to God’s lovingkindness, God’s care, God’s leading. There is a safety and a peace in being known and loved exactly as we are.

If I take the wings of the morning

And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me

And your right hand hold me fast.

The Psalmist realizes that God is everywhere, and that God is here to lead us and guide us and uphold us in love. God takes joy in us. And then, being known exactly as we are is a good thing. Encountering God wherever we turn becomes a source of hope and comfort for the Psalmist.

And we can claim that same hope and comfort, even as we count the cost of discipleship. God will never throw us away; God will remake us and our world. God loves us, wherever we are in our transformation. Even as God demands our all, God gives us the strength meet that call.

So friends, let us walk in that strength and love. In that strength and love, we discern together in community; we reckon the cost of this calling together.

We commit our own labor to God’s leading as we move toward a world where all work has dignity. We seek our own freedom and flourishing together even as we dare the deep change it will take for world where every creature can flourish and be free.

  The costly change to which God calls us gives life abundant, even as it asks us to give up what we thought was ours. God holds us in love through every conflict; God feeds us in abundance through every loss. Even when we feel ashamed or inadequate, God delights in us as God’s wonderful works. God beheld us as we took shape in the womb, and God continues to shape us and marvelously make us, and marvelously remake us.

And so, trusting in the deep love of God who made us and saves us and meets us on the wings of the morning, may we find the courage for costly change.


A Greek manuscript of the first page of Philemon in a neat, flowing hand. There is a geometric decoration at the top with some gliding.
The first page of Philemon from an 11th- or 12th-century Greek manuscript of Paul’s letters (MS 5116), accessed through the British Library’s Digitized Manuscripts collection.