Pentecost 2 (Proper 5) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 11 June 2023 | Hosea 5:15-6:6 | Psalm 50:1-7 | Romans 4:13-25 | Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of grace, from whom all good proceeds. Amen.

Welcome to Ordinary Time, or The Season After Pentecost. We call this time a green and growing season in the church; we decorate the church and the clergy in green on Sundays, and we take time to put down some roots and grow in our faith.

We can take our time, because this is also the longest season. We’re in this until Advent starts in six months. There’s plenty of time for growing. And so, we listen for how the Holy Spirit might be calling us to come close to God, to deepen our love, to flourish in who we are and who we can be. I really enjoy this spacious season of growing. But there’s also a difficulty with the way we tend to understand growth, and the start of the season is a good time to address it.

We often think about growth as something we need to work hard to do. If I’m talking to my boss about “growing edges,” we’re probably going to talk about things I need to work on to do better. If I want to grow as an artist, what I need to do is put in the hours to practice whatever art I’m trying to get better at.

And it’s normal to want to work at things we care about, and try hard to do well. Wanting to put in the effort and get things right isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. But sometimes that understanding that we grow by working hard doesn’t serve us well in our faith.

Sometimes we can get the idea that our faith is about how hard we try and how much we sacrifice and how good we could make ourselves if we just practice. And sometimes we can lose track of God’s love for us, given for free. Sometimes we can forget that we’re the ones who need God, and not the other way around. Sometimes when we carry so much, we can forget that it’s grace that carries us.

And that’s what our scriptures are about today. In our reading from the prophet Hosea, God longs for God’s people to return to a right relationship with God, and to focus on “steadfast love” and “knowledge of God” rather than on the sacrifices they make at the temple to fulfill the laws.

I want to pause and acknowledge here that there’s something disturbing about the violent way Hosea imagines God speaking to the people in this reading; I’ve preached about that before, and we can talk about it another time if you want to. But for the moment, we’re setting that aside to look at part where God wants people to seek God’s face; God cares more about a loving relationship than about offerings.

And we get that same thought in Psalm 50. We hear God’s voice saying that God doesn’t need any of the things people offer. All the animals and all the birds and all the bounty the earth has already belong to God. So it’s not like God is waiting around to see what we can give God.

What God wants isn’t more offerings, but a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. God wants us to notice what God is doing and get to know who God is and give thanks. God wants us to call on God when we’re in trouble. God wants us to accept help when we need it, and to move through the world knowing that we’re not alone.

It’s so much more about what God wants to give us than about what we could be able to give to God. And some of us who grew up learning a very strong distinction between law (in the Old Testament) and grace (in the New Testament) might be surprised to read Hosea and Psalm 50 this way. But I believe now that God’s movement in the world has been about grace all along. Grace has always been there, and Jesus embodies that grace in a wonderful new way.     

Even in Romans, when St. Paul is talking about grace and faith in very Christian ways, he sees it was already about this for Abraham. It was about Abraham’s relationship with God, and the way Abraham was able accept God’s promises.

Abraham walked with God and argued with God and trusted God to do what God had promised. Even though God called Abraham to do some difficult things, it was always more about what God wanted to give Abraham than what Abraham could give to God.

And so Abraham is the example of faith Paul holds up for the new Christian communities. Even though Jesus has shifted the paradigm for Paul and for us in many ways, this faithful relationship with God is a constant. “It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” Our spiritual growth is about coming close to God and accepting the gift God wants to give us—it’s not about working harder or giving more to God or getting strong enough to do it all. “We are saved by grace through faith.”

When we get to Jesus in our Gospel reading, we see this grace again. Jesus gets flack for hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners” instead of good people who’ve figured out how to get their lives together and do good things.

And Jesus says, “It’s not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick people.” And y’all, in case there was any doubt, we are the sick people.

I remember a scene from the movie Stranger Than Fiction where Will Ferrell is a tax collector (an IRS agent), and Emma Thompson is a very morbid writer, and Queen Latifah is the writer’s assistant. The writer is stuck and looking for inspiration by wandering around a hospital trying to see dying people, and the assistant is complaining about it and says a museum would be better inspiration. The novelist says, “I don’t need a museum, I need the infirm.” And the assistant says in the shadiest way possible, “You are the infirm.” Friends, it’s us; we are the infirm.

And it can be hard to cope with all of the ways we are deeply unwell—maybe physically, spiritually, financially, socially, emotionally. Especially if we’ve worked hard to get it together, it’s hard to admit where we’re falling apart. But the good news is that Jesus is here for us, the infirm.

Jesus does not come close to us because we finally figured out how to be good—Jesus comes close to us because Jesus loves us and Jesus knows we need help. And yes, when we follow Jesus, we’re going to learn something about being good people. We’re going to grow in loving God and loving our neighbors and loving ourselves; we’re going to grow in putting our own lives into alignment with God’s dream of peace and justice and flourishing for all creation. As our collect says, we pray that God will inspire us to “think those things that are right” and guide us to do them.

And even that is grace. God doesn’t wait for us to get it right before God is willing to help us. When we grow a little better at kindness or generosity or any good thing, that’s not something we have to do to merit God’s attention; it’s part of the gift God wants to give us. And it becomes part of the gift we offer to one another and to the world and to ourselves and to God in turn. It’s all grace, and we get to be part of how God’s grace shows up in the world.

It’s by faith that we come to trust that this grace will carry us. And we can talk about faith in many ways; scripture does. We can say with the author of Hebrews that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We can talk about faith as in faithfulness, holding to our commitments and our love with integrity. We can talk about faith as a trusting and engaged relationship with God. And we can talk about the faith that reaches out for grace—like Abraham’s faith, and like the faith of the woman Jesus heals in the second part of our Gospel reading.

This is faith that’s about being able to accept a gift. This is faith that’s about reaching out to God when we know we can’t heal ourselves. This is coming to Jesus anemic and bloodied, with nothing to offer except our need and our hope. And this is a hard kind of faith for many of us to practice. Accepting a gift is difficult. Most of us have been taught that it’s important to carry our own weight, that it’s dangerous or shameful to owe anything to somebody else.  

It can be hard to let go of being self-sufficient, let go of being productive, enough to take hold of the grace that’s given. And yet, it’s how we grow in faith. We learn to accept what’s given freely, and we learn to give freely in turn. We learn to call on God and on one another in the day of trouble. We learn to move past the checklist of accomplishments and into praise and thanksgiving. We learn to accept the grace that God always, always wants to give us.

We gradually stop trying to impress God with all the shiny treasures we’ve collected, and we rest in the truth that God delights in us for our own sake. Because we are part of God’s beautiful and good creation, just like the wildflowers and the oak trees—even though most of us have a lot more anxiety than the wildflowers and the oak trees. 

The wildflowers can’t ever repay the sun for its light. The oak tree doesn’t measure how much water it takes into its roots so that it can give it all back. They receive what they’re given; that’s how they grow; we’re so glad they do.   

And that is my prayer for us in this green and growing season too: that we will take in whatever grace we might be given, and that it will be everything we need and more. I hope we can learn that we don’t have to hold ourselves up all the time; we don’t have hold ourselves together by sheer strength of will.

Not everyone’s growth will look the same in this season, but here’s something I’m trying. I’m a person who usually thinks the answer is trying harder; this season, I’m inviting myself to consider trying less hard, as an act of faith; to hold lightly. There’s grace. There’s community. It’s not all on me.

So we do what we can. We lift each other up. We are part of God’s grace for each other, and I pray that we can trust others to be part of God’s grace for us. We are all part of this network of grace together. Most likely, we’ll get our turn to help someone else too; that’s how it tends to work when we’re all connected; usually we get a chance to help. But even if we don’t, it will still be worth God’s while, worth our neighbors’ while, to help us, because God made us worthy and beautiful and good and beloved, even before we’ve done anything useful, even after we can’t do any more.

So I pray that this season of growing will be a season of grace. I pray that we will turn toward love mercy and praise and thanksgiving; that we will call upon God and one another in the day of trouble. I pray that our faith will flourish and grow in this season, and that by God’s grace, our faith will make us well.


The Second Sunday of Advent (Year W) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 4 December 2022 | Genesis 17:15-22 | Psalm 78:1-7 | Romans 8:18-25 | Luke 1:39-45

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who fills us with your spirit calls us to carry hope in community.

This is our second week using A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church by the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney. So I’ll say something about this special resource to build on what Holly said last week, and then we’ll dig into today’s Gospel reading about Mary and Elizabeth’s visit.

So: A lectionary is a group of Bible readings picked out to use at certain times, such as the Sundays of the church year. We normally use one called the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings. With Bishop Jennifer’s permission, we’re using a different lectionary for the season of Advent. This one highlights the stories and perspectives of women in scripture, both in what passages are chosen to read and in and how Gafney translates them.

I really value this shift in perspective. While we believe that God loves all people and created all people in God’s image, human history has made it so that we tend to focus on some people’s stories and some people’s value above others. Because of the cultures and power dynamics that existed when it was written, the Bible tells a lot more men’s stories than women’s. That isn’t surprising.  

But what did surprise me is what Dr. Gafney found as she compared the whole Bible with the selections we normally use. She says: “women are even less well represented in [the lectionaries] than they are in the Biblical text.”

Proportionally, the ancient texts of the Bible spend more time with women than the parts that churches picked out in the 20th century to read together in worship. I would have hoped that as both our culture and our Church have learned to value women differently, our readings would reflect that shift, but alas, they don’t.

It turns out that we still have trouble valuing women and women’s stories in our Church. We still carry a lot of bias with us that we may not even recognize. And that means that sometimes we need to do some re-balancing in order to appreciate what God is doing in the world and in order to align ourselves more fully with God’s love for all of us.

So I invite conversation about the lectionary readings this Advent—I’d love to know how these readings are sitting with you, what you love about them, what lifts your spirit, what causes discomfort, and what questions arise for you.

In her introduction, Dr. Gafney describes the point of her women’s lectionaries for preaching. She says, “The task of preachers is to proclaim a word—of good news, of liberation, of encouragement, of prophetic power, of God-story, and sometimes, of lament, brokenness, and righteous rage. These lectionaries will provide a framework to do that and attempt to offer some balance to the register in which the word has often been proclaimed.”

So with that framework in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel. Let’s see what word of good news, what lifegiving piece of God’s story, what prophetic power we might find in today’s story of Mary and Elizabeth.

It’s a meeting of two cousins, two pregnant women, two people brought together to share a secret hope about what God is doing in the world. Elizabeth is old; like her ancestor Sarah, she had given up hope of carrying a child. Mary doesn’t have a husband, and her pregnancy is a scandal. Neither of them expected to be expecting this way.

But Mary and Elizabeth are God’s partners in changing the world. They are the mothers of salvation.

In Dr. Gafney’s commentary on today’s readings, she asks us to reconsider what bearing children means in the stories of women like Sarah, Mary, and Elizabeth. She notes that sometimes with scripture’s annunciation stories, we end up reading women as “incubators” who are mostly valuable because they give birth to important sons.

Dr. Gafney invites us to shift perspective and consider “the symbolism of children for a world that continues under God’s care no matter the present circumstances.” It’s a broader view of these annunciation stories. It’s not just that one woman here or there changes her own standing by having a miracle baby, it’s that welcoming a child implies trust that God’s love will continue into the future. Welcoming a child brings people together to nurture and adore and teach and provide and rejoice.   

When I start to think in this direction this Advent here at St. Paul’s, I reflect on the hope God offers us, and on the gift of community that spans generations. We are part of the same hope that Mary and Elizabeth share in today’s Gospel, the hope that God is changing the world and lifting up the lowly. We are part of the same community that began with Mary and Elizabeth, the community that is filled with the Holy Spirit and rejoices to welcome Jesus among us.

So today I invite us to consider how blessed Mary and St. Elizabeth might be our teachers, and what this beautiful moment between them might have to offer us. Mary and Elizabeth keep hope alive, and they do it together in community, in holy friendship.

I invite us to reflect today on hope and community. I wonder where you find hope most difficult to sustain, and where you find it flourishing and blooming on its own. I wonder how you nourish the hope you have, and who helps you carry it. And if you are struggling to find any hope in this season, Holly or I can sit down with you and see if we can find some together.

And I wonder how community, here at St. Paul’s or elsewhere, has given you joy and strength. I wonder where you have been called to holy friendships. I wonder whose heart leaps for joy when you come into the room, and who gets that response from you. I wonder how you are holding hope in community.

That’s our call in the church this Advent: to carry hope in community. And it’s a difficult calling. There is a lot of bad news in the world; there’s a lot of uncertainty about money and politics and the climate; there’s a lot of hate; there are a lot of very real reasons to worry about the future. This is true for us, and it was true for Mary and Elizabeth as Jewish women living in an empire that hated them and would eventually murder both of their children. The world’s violence is real, and there are reasons to be afraid.

But Mary and Elizabeth held hope anyway. Not knowing what would come after—not yet knowing either death or resurrection—they rejoiced together in that moment. They carried God’s hope for the future in their own bodies.

And we can too, as we find our own callings. Mary and Elizabeth were called to carry God’s hope in the world as mothers, and that might be part of the call for some. Not all of us are able to bear children, and not all of us who are able will choose to; there are many other ways to embody hope.

We can practice hope by using our imaginations to envision a better world and using our actions to bring that world a little closer. We could practice hope by caring for children and young people (whether or not they’re our own children), listening to what they care about, and acting in line with hope for their future.

We can practice hope by sharing from the abundance we have, in trust that there will be enough for us in the times to come. We can practice hope by caring for “this fragile earth, our island home” well, even when we don’t know what happens next.

We hold hope by doing it. We don’t have to feel optimistic all the time or ignore our fear and grief in order to do hope. Activist Mariame Kaba likes to say that “Hope is a discipline.” It’s a practice. It’s worth struggling for. And we hold onto hope not by squashing down all the bad feelings, but by acting on hope together, even amid uncertainty. Paul says we hope for what we do not see. It’s an act of faith.

And for Mary and Elizabeth, hope was an act of defiance, an act of rebellion. Hope in God’s salvation meant that the empire wasn’t the ultimate authority; another regime was on the way. It meant liberation was possible for everyone. It means that God’s transforming love reaches everywhere, and the empire no longer gets to tell us who is unworthy, who gets thrown away, who goes hungry, who gets silenced. It means casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, as Mary will say.  

In this family visit between two pregnant women in Palestine, hope was a conspiracy. Have we talked about where the word “conspiracy” comes from? In Latin, “con” is “with” or “together” and “spirare” is “to breathe.” So conspiring is breathing together. Mary and Elizabeth are breathing together in this moment. And Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit; God’s own breath is breathing right there with them. The Holy Spirit is in on the conspiracy. The Holy Spirit is part of this shared moment of dangerous joy.

God is present, helping Mary and Elizabeth to carry hope, and God draws them together in community. They need each other. They need to take this moment and breathe together in order to hold the hope God has entrusted to them. They need to strengthen and uplift each other with inspired joy now in order to face what’s coming. Carrying this hope is so difficult that neither one of them is asked to do it alone; God calls Mary and Elizabeth to a holy friendship.  

Last week we read the story of how the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth; let’s not forget the part of that story where Gabriel tells Mary that Elizabeth is also pregnant. The news of Jesus’ birth—this message that upends Mary’s life and promises to transform the whole world—it also includes this gentle guidance towards community. Gabriel tells Mary: “Elizabeth is pregnant too.” And that means that when Mary is called to a revolutionary hope, called to do something impossibly brave, she is also called to community. She is not alone.

The angel Gabriel tells Mary where to find her next co-conspirator. Joseph will become a co-conspirator along with Elizabeth. And eventually, Peter and John and Mary Magdalene and all of Jesus’ followers will join in. They will all breathe with Mary and help her to bear the hope of Jesus’ coming reign. And so will we. Elizabeth was the first member of this community to breathe with Mary and the Holy Spirit, and now we’re all part of it.

We carry this hope together in community. God calls us to a dangerous and difficult hope—and God calls us into community to make it possible. God calls us to holy friendship. God calls us to care for each other in grief and lift each other up in joy, and that is where we find the strength we need.

God calls us to breathe together with the Holy Spirit. And in that act of breathing together, we claim our moments of peace amid the chaos; we find what it takes to carry hope through this world against all odds.     

Friends, in this Advent season of watching and waiting, I pray that we will find that space to breathe with the Holy Spirit and with our co-conspirators. I pray that we will find the community we need to hold hope. I pray that we will find grace to follow our teachers Mary and Elizabeth, and that with them we will carry God’s hope in our bodies and breathe with the Spirit more and more deeply.


A 15th-century German engraving of The Visitation (Mary and Elizabeth’s visit) accessed through the Met Gallery and in the Public Domain. Master ES (German, active ca. 1450–67) The Visitation, 15th century German, Engraving; sheet: 6 3/16 x 4 11/16 in. (15.7 x 12 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1922 (22.83.2)

The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 15 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |14 August 2022 | Isaiah 5:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18 | Hebrews 11:29-12:2 | Luke 12:49-56

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God who brings fire to the earth.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” He says that he has not come to bring peace, but rather division. These are harsh words. And they may be startling words coming from Jesus. After all, when the angels first proclaim Jesus’ birth in the Christmas story, they sing about peace on earth and goodwill to humankind. And Jesus preaches about loving everyone, even our enemies. So shouldn’t that kind of universal love and goodwill lead to peace, and not to fire and division?

We’ll work with those questions today—questions of why Jesus would be so harsh, why love would lead to conflict and division rather than peace and unity.

And we’ll also work with the difficult yet liberating truth that the Gospel is not actually about making everybody happy.

So. Let’s look at what Jesus says here in this first part of our Gospel reading. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled,” Jesus says. He refers to his coming death. And then Jesus challenges the expectation that his mission will be all about peace. He says that what he’s doing on the earth will actually bring division instead. Even members of the same family will end up on opposite sides of the conflicts that Jesus will stir up.

This is pretty disturbing. Most of us really want peace on the earth. Most of us really want to get along well with our families, and this passage is painful to those of us who are estranged from family members. Some of us even have deep religious trauma around fire and brimstone pictures of God’s judgment. And so it’s hard to hear our loving Savior Jesus talking about fire and division instead of peace and unity.   

It’s also confusing because Jesus doesn’t say here what the fire and division and conflict are about, just that he’s here to bring them. So one thing we can do to work with the disturbance of this passage is to look for that context. Maybe if we can understand what the conflict is about here, then we can see how Jesus’ harsh words might square with what we know about God’s love, and the vision of peace on earth.

So that’s our first step. We try to see what the division is about. If we zoom out from this one scene and pan the camera back and forth across the landscape of Jesus’ life, we can spot some of the major conflicts of Jesus’ ministry—sometimes these show up as stories of confrontation, and sometimes they show up as teachings or parables where Jesus says “No” to certain behaviors.

So, there’s the time when Jesus crashes through the temple turning over tables and driving people out with a whip. Jesus is in conflict there with moneychangers who make a profit off of folks who don’t have a choice.

Even beyond this memorable scene, some of Jesus’ harshest words in the Gospels are spoken to religious leaders who weigh down their people with rules instead of helping them bear the burdens of life. These are conflicts about oppressing people in God’s name.

Also about oppression but without the religious context, Jesus tells some burningly harsh parables about rich people who don’t help their neighbors. We read one a couple of weeks ago with the rich man who builds bigger barns instead of sharing what he has; and there are more, like the parable of the rich man who ignores the beggar Lazarus at his door. Jesus engages in an ongoing conflict with folks who pile up wealth and ignore their neighbors in need.

We can see a pattern in the conflicts in Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus speaks words of harsh judgment or enters into conflict with people in the Gospels, usually it’s about this kind of thing.

It’s so often about people using the power and wealth they have to keep folks with less power down, or failing to use what they have to lift other folks up. Jesus gets angry when powerful people oppress those who are weaker. Jesus gets angry when rich people ignore those in need.  These are the main times when Jesus brings the fire of his wrath. These are the times when Jesus disturbs the peace. These are the times when Jesus takes sides and causes division.

So maybe with that context in place, we can see how today’s harsh-sounding Gospel fits in with Jesus’ message of love. Maybe we can even see how it fits with the peace on earth and goodwill to humankind proclaimed at Jesus’ birth. Love for all people means speaking out when some of us hurt others. When people act in ways that harm their neighbors, it turns out that being quiet and peaceful is not really the most loving thing to do. There is a place for fire and conflict and division in the name of love for all God’s children.

We see this love behind the harsh judgement in our reading from Isaiah, too. Those who “join house to house” and leave no room for their poorer neighbors to have a home are on the wrong path. God loves every one of God’s creatures deeply. God wants everyone to be housed and fed and free and flourishing—that’s the vision of peace on earth. And that means that if we’re God’s people, we don’t get to build a real estate empire while ignoring those of our neighbors who sleep outside.

If we want to live our lives as part of God’s love, that means there are some actions, some patterns of life, that are out of bounds. We can’t use the power we have to keep people down. We can’t use faith to make people less free. We can’t hoard our money and not share with folks in need. And when we see that sort of thing happening, we have to say “No.” But the way our world is set up right now, that “No” is radical. That “No” disturbs the peace. And that means living out God’s love is going to lead to some conflict and division.

God’s love is infinite. And because of that infinite love, not in spite of it, Jesus’ mission leads to fire and division and conflict sometimes. God’s vision for peace on earth is more than just a superficial calm where nobody is arguing or complaining; it’s a deeper peace that comes with justice. It’s a vision where all people can flourish.    

I think that’s what this Gospel passage is about. There are times when what appears to be peace on the earth is not equally peaceful for everybody, and so fire and division are really a move toward a deeper peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talks about this kind of righteous division in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. King writes this letter in 1963 as a reply to a group of clergymen who had asked him to be more polite and patient in seeking equality for Black Americans. There were Episcopal priests in that group of clergy. They called the actions of the Civil Rights Movement extreme. They thought that the protests and sit-ins were disturbing the peace and causing division.

But King points out that the status quo was actually not peaceful, not for Black southerners. King’s community experienced constant violence and degradation. White moderate Christians were able to ignore it before the actions of the Civil Rights Movement, but the violence was there all along. King correctly argues that his work wasn’t the source of the conflict in Birmingham. He says: “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

And that is necessary work if we’re going to take part in God’s love for all people. “I come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” says Jesus. There are harmful structures in this world that need to burn for all God’s children to be housed and fed and free and flourishing. “I come not to bring peace on the earth, but rather division,” Jesus says. There are hidden tensions that need to be surfaced. When we follow Jesus in doing that, we might make a lot of folks unhappy. We might offend our relatives. We might disturb what passes for peace. 

And this isn’t to say that every division is about justice. Plenty of times we get crosswise with each from failures in communication, or we accidentally bump into one another’s unhealed wounds. Some conflicts just happen when we live in community, and we do our best to mend things and move forward. But, for better or worse, a conflict-free existence is not the ideal set forth by Jesus in the Gospel.

Some conflicts become inevitable when we try to live out God’s love in the world. The truth is that the Gospel is about loving everyone, and the Gospel is not actually about making everyone happy.

For me this truth, that the Gospel is not about making everybody happy, is both hard to accept and freeing. Y’all, I really want everybody to be happy. A part of me gets very uncomfortable when I can see people aren’t happy. The way I was raised, it was my job as a Good Christian Woman to make sure everybody in the house is happy, and try to fix it if they’re not. (Thank God, I’ve grown since then!)

Many of us carry that impulse to smooth things over, to go into fixing mode if we even see that anybody is upset or unhappy. And so we definitely wouldn’t want to cause the conflict ourselves. For people who have experienced abusive households, this need to keep everyone happy can be even more deeply ingrained, because for a time, keeping surface-level peace was genuinely a matter of safety—parents or partners would lash out when they were unhappy. Whether or not we carry that trauma, conflict is difficult, and most of us want the people around us to be content and peaceful.

So it can be hard to accept that the Gospel does not in fact call us to make sure everyone is happy. It’s hard to follow Jesus toward fire and division. It’s hard to accept that loving everyone is not the same thing as appeasing everyone.

And this is where the truth sets us free. Because love is better than making everyone happy. Love means we no longer have to contort ourselves to meet conflicting expectations.

Love is demanding, but never distorting—love asks a lot of us, but it never asks us not to be ourselves. We can stretch out and grow into God’s love. We can say “No” to things that harm our fellow creatures, and we can say “No” to things that harm us. It’s not our job to protect a false sense of peace even when this world is messed up. It is our call to love each other, and to tell the truth about the gaps between this world and God’s vision for a world where all people can flourish. And that is not always easy, but it is such good news.

There’s even more good news for us in Hebrews, and we’ll end with that. Friends, we have a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on. The Gospel is not about making everyone happy, but the Gospel is about community, and it is about joy. We are held in the love of the saints, living and dead. We don’t strike out on our own with our righteous rage un-anchored. We love each other. We delight in each other and we delight in God together. We strengthen each other. We hold each other accountable.

When we wonder, “Am I about to get into a fight for God’s love here, or am I just about to be a jerk?” we have people we can ask, who will tell us the truth. Thank God!

When we do enter conflict for the cause of love and truth, and we come back grieving and weary, we have mentors and friends who will comfort us. We have the stories of the saints who endured, and we have their prayers. 

Through conflict and community and suffering and joy and the messiness of it all, this cloud of witnesses leads us onward to the joy that surrounds God’s throne. This cloud of witnesses leads us through fire to God’s vision of true peace.

At the center of our community is Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus burns through false peace with the holy fire of love. Jesus forgives us and feeds us. Jesus invites us to come to his table and find strength in communion with a great cloud of witnesses. From the strength we find here, Jesus calls us more and more each day to become part of God’s fierce love for all creatures.


The image is Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon “Christ Breaks the Rifle” (…/christ-breaks-the-rifle). It’s a depiction of the need for decisive action (and conflict) in the service of a deeper vision of peace.

The Last Sunday after Epiphany | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 27 February 2022 | Luke 9:28-36

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of shining glory revealed on the holy mountain.

Good morning, friends! Welcome to the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. This is our final gleam shining from this season of light and visions before we move into the holy darkness of Lent. This Sunday is like one last glance back at the brightness reflecting off the river before we turn and walk off to make our way through the wilderness. It’s like the bright sunset we get to see before the night falls.

As we celebrate this last light of Epiphany, I want to start with a special thank you to our student group for helping me start to wrestle with our scriptures for today. Daniel and Patrick and Leah and Justin and Michael helped me with this last Sunday during youth formation time. 

We had some great conversations together about holy mountains and shining faces and being weighed down with sleep. We wondered what Moses’ veil looked like, and we noticed we’re all walking around with masked faces too these days. We wondered what it means to say something without knowing what you’re saying, like Peter does.

We also did scripture tableaux of the Old Testament and Gospel readings. We picked different characters to play and tried to stage ourselves in place to represent one moment in the story.

And when we did that, we noticed that our Gospel story is a really chaotic collection of characters. There weren’t enough of us in the room to play everybody—partly because you need people to sit out and look at the tableau to tell you what they see, and partly because Patrick decided on a riveting performance as the Holy Mountain itself instead of playing one of the people. (Well done.) But we’ve got Jesus, and Peter, and John, and James, and Moses, and Elijah.

And then there’s the mountain. And then there’s the cloud, and the voice that speaks from the cloud. We realized when we tried to make our tableau up in the youth room that this Gospel is a complicated, crowded scene.

It’s a really strange intersection of communities. We have people from the community that Jesus is building—the disciples. We might remember from our Gospel a few weeks ago that Jesus called Peter and James and John from fishing in Galilee to walk with him. Since then, they’ve been traveling and eating and preaching the kingdom and learning from Jesus together.

And then we have Moses and Elijah, who represent very different communities and times. Moses was called by God to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. He talked with God on Mount Sinai and gave God’s laws, and he led the people through the wilderness. Elijah was a prophet of a different era; he saw visions and did wonders and brought God’s word to the people and called kings to account.

Both Moses and Elijah were important figures in Jewish thinking in Jesus’ time—Moses represented the Law, and Elijah represented the Prophets. Law and prophecy were two key ways that God had related to God’s people and formed them into communities that knew who they were and what God called them to do together.

So at the Transfiguration, we see this confluence of communities—the Law, the Prophets, and this new Gospel group of disciples. And Jesus is at the intersection of it all. Jesus is in continuity with what has come before. He’s in community with Moses and Elijah as they all speak together on the mountain. And yet he’s also starting something new. He’s also part of this fresh community he’s built with fishermen and tax collectors and wealthy women and disreputable women and political radicals and good solid religious folk all somehow building something together.

And this confluence of communities is beautiful and chaotic at the same time. It’s holy, and it’s a holy mess.

Jesus’ glory is revealed on the mountain. The disciples get to meet their heroes from ancient times. The voice from the cloud declares Jesus chosen. The divine light shines forth and dazzles. And at the same time, we have a chaotic crowd of characters who come from different times and places and bring vastly different views of how God moves in the world.

And in the same scene, we have people nearly falling asleep. And we have people spouting off who don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s a whole mess. And sometimes this is what it’s like being in community now.   

People get weighed down with sleep, like the disciples. We get tired and dragged down; it’s part of being human. And when we’re in community, we all get weighed down with sleep at different times. Some of us are nodding off when others of us think it’s time to look up and see the most glorious vision. Some of us are revved up to do the next part of the work when others of us feel like we just need a nap. We get out of sync with each other; there’s tension.

And when we’re in community, sometimes people don’t know what they’re talking about, like Peter in the story. Peter wants to build three shelters; it seems like a good idea to him to make camp like that on the mountain. But the narrator says he doesn’t know what he’s saying.

Luke doesn’t tell us exactly why building shelters is not the move here, just that Peter suggests it and doesn’t know what he’s saying. And the problem of people who mean well yet don’t know what they’re talking about sure is familiar for us as we build community together.

These are normal trials and tribulations of every community: sometimes we get weighed down with sleep and we don’t what they’re talking about. And those of us who have tried to walk in community for very long have probably experienced these dynamics from all sides: Sometimes we’ve been frustrated with people who don’t know what they’re talking about; sometimes we’ve been the ones to give guidance and help a group find its clarity amid the chaos.

And other times, we’ve realized we’re the ones who didn’t know what we were talking about, and we’ve had to quiet down and learn something new, and maybe we’ve had to say we’re sorry. I definitely have. If we’ve been doing the work of community long, we’ve seen “didn’t know what they were saying” from lots of different angles.

It’s the same thing for being weighed down with sleep: Sometimes we’ve been the ones trying to wake everybody up to see the beautiful light of morning, to do the next exciting thing, to follow the next calling. And sometimes we’ve been the ones pulling the covers over our head, hitting the snooze button again, and just wanting to stay in one place and not have to look at anything new. I’ve done both of these for sure, and lots in between. This is the kind of messiness and tension that’s normal when we try to walk together.

But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s easy; and I think the pandemic has made these challenges of community even harder for us.

In these pandemic years (it’s just about 2 years now) I’ve felt a lot more weighed down with sleep than usual. And the exhaustion has been so, so much worse parents and for kids, for folks in more precarious health, for folks who work in healthcare, for folks who don’t have the resources to have as many choices in managing risk. It’s been such a tiring time.

And we’ve also had a whole lot of not knowing what we’re talking about, as we’ve had to learn so much as we went along. Early on, we sanitized every single thing and didn’t wear any masks, “not knowing what we said.” Once upon a time, we hoped this would all be over by Easter… Easter 2020, “Not knowing what we said.”

And for us as a church, this has been especially challenging because we’re doing community in a unique way. We’re trying to make decisions as and for a whole group rather than just one person or one household at a time. And we make those decisions with very different priorities and very different processes than a business or a government.

We have conflict and tension here about when to mask and when to sing and what we think we can do together safely enough. And that’s okay. It’s hard, but it’s okay—it’s part of what it means to walk together instead of each going our separate ways.  

So many of the things I read give great advice for making pandemic decisions based on your own personal risk level as restrictions lift, but not so much about how to move through this as a community where so many different needs and wants and risks are in balance. Community is hard to do, especially the ways that we do it as a church, and especially in a pandemic. There’s nothing else quite like this.

And yet, community is where the revelation happens. When we pray together, when we go up to the mountain together, we see Jesus revealed in glory among us. When enough of us manage to stay awake at the same time, miraculous things happen. This is where we find dazzling visions of who Jesus is, and of who we can become.

It’s a mess—people are falling asleep at all the wrong times, and people are saying all the wrong things, so loudly. (And sometimes it’s me who’s falling asleep at the wrong time and blurting out the wrong thing! And that’s almost worse somehow.) It’s a mess. And we might sometimes ask, “Who even are all these people, and why did we think it was a good idea for them to be in the same place?”

But, friends, it’s Jesus who brings all these chaotic characters together, including us. It’s Jesus who invites us to the mountain to pray. It’s Jesus who calls us into the terrifying cloud where the divine voice speaks, and it’s Jesus who calls us into the holy mess of life in community.  

And we see Jesus among us in this community. We come together to pray and to share visions and hopes. We hear the Law and the Prophets and the Gospel from each other, and not just when we’re reading scripture together, but also in vestry meetings, also in service, also in telling life stories over a cup of tea or on a walk.

Older folks and younger folks learn from each other here. We work through disagreements. We support each other in grief. We share joy. We help each other to follow the light of God’s abundant love, the light revealed in Jesus.

This is what we’re about. This holy mess is where transfiguration happens and we see Jesus in glory. It’s where our own transformation toward Jesus’ likeness happens. It’s where visions shine forth. And there’s nothing else like it.

This Gospel is our last dazzling glimpse of Epiphany’s light. This is the vision we get to take with us into Lent. We see Jesus shining, on a mountain, in the middle of a ragtag group of people who get sleepy and talk too much and don’t quite know what’s going on. Jesus’ glory is revealed there on the holy mountain, and Jesus’ glory is revealed here in our own gloriously messy, beautiful, transforming community.

So with our Collect today, I pray that we behold the light of Christ’s countenance by faith together, and that we are changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory.