Easter 4 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 30 April 2023 | Acts 2:42-47 |Psalm 23 | 1 Peter 2:19-25 | John 10:1-10

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of abundance. Amen.

Good morning, friends. It is good to see us all together in one service today, being the church together on this beautiful Fourth Sunday of Easter. We get to share communion all together in one place, and we get to feast together with a potluck too. We are in the midst of a season that celebrates resurrection life, and today we get to celebrate the life Jesus gives us all together.

In our Gospel today, Jesus says he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus is the gate and the good shepherd; others destroy the flock, but Jesus comes not only to preserve life from danger, but to give abundant life. This is why Jesus is here. And so today I want to ask, what does it look like to have life, and have it abundantly?

We’ll look at what abundance is, and what it’s not. We’ll look at the image of abundance in Acts, and a some in other scriptures. Maybe we have our own images of abundance too. And we’ll reflect on why these stories and images matter, and what abundance might mean for us.  

So, what is abundant life? When Jesus says he came that we may have life and have it abundantly, abundantly is περισσός. Abundantly is a good translation of that word; we could also say exceedingly or excessively or to the fullest. There’s a verb form of the same root, περισσεύω, that means to exceed or to overflow.

So I think when Jesus says he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly, he means that we’ll have even more life than what we need. There’s a baseline of survival where our needs for living are met; we have food and shelter and enough safety and freedom and connection and meaning that we’re doing okay. And abundance is over and above that.

Having life and having it abundantly means that we’re not just surviving but thriving. We not only have enough of what we need to get by; we have enough to share and enough to enjoy. Abundant life means we have enough to help our neighbors be more than okay, and enough to be more than okay ourselves.

And I want to say that when we talk about sharing in abundant life, it isn’t the same thing as the teachings known as the Prosperity Gospel. These are teachings that treat giving as a magic trick to get rich quick. You may have encountered those teachings in preaching or on TV or in pamphlets that show up in your mailbox and tell you how your gift will be multiplied back to you a hundred times.

I don’t believe that when I give away money, God is going to do a miracle to give me back more money than I gave away. I don’t believe Jesus wants me to have a private jet. But I do believe that the abundant life Jesus dreams for us all becomes possible when we open our hands to each other.

This is what happens with the early Christians in Acts, so we’ll look at that image of abundance. This part of Acts comes right after Peter preaches to the crowd at Pentecost. This is the moment when the small group of Jesus’ followers expands. So we already have abundance in the community itself. They are learning about Jesus in the apostles’ teachings; they are learning about each other in fellowship; they are breaking bread together. 

And at this stage of overflowing expansion, the new believers share what they have with one another. Some of the believers don’t yet have their needs met, and they all come together to fix that. When anyone has more than they need, they give it away in order to bring everyone else up. The image is open hands, tables piled high, awe and wonder.

This abundant sharing comes from a place of wonder. The result is that everyone’s needs are met, but the story doesn’t start with need. It doesn’t start with being worried for those who have less, or with guilt from those who have more.

It starts with awe. It starts with signs and wonders. It starts with the amazement and the mystery of the Gospel. It starts with sharing in Jesus’ resurrected life together as a community. It starts with celebrating together what God is already doing. It starts with joy.

I attended a conference online earlier this year, and a keynote from Bishop Deon Johnson of Missouri has stuck with me. Bishop Johnson talked about joy in ministry, and the way that God calls us to our best and most generous work through joy. Bishop Johnson went so far as to say of church ministries, “If it’s not joyful, don’t do it.” And joy and abundant life are part of the same thing.

In the abundant life Jesus came for, this joy is both where we’re going what draws us there. When we have enough, and more than enough, there is joy. And when there is joy, we are able to see the abundance we have better; when there is joy, we are more free to share what we have in community, as the disciples did in Acts. 

The disciples as a community have enough and more than enough because they help each other. They know each other’s strengths and each other’s needs, and they come together to make it work. They respond in joy to the wonders of this life they share. It’s a beautiful image of life abundant.

Scripture is full of these images of abundance—the lilies clothed in splendor without laboring and the ravens God feeds; the righteous person as a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit and not withering; Jesus’ miracles of feeding thousands with a few loaves and gathering baskets and baskets of leftovers after.

Psalm 23 is another one. With God as our shepherd, we have enough nourishment, we have enough safety, we have enough rest. The table is set, and our cup overflows.

And maybe we have our own images of abundance, our own stories of joy and connection and plenty. Maybe we’ve seen what it means for our cup to overflow. I’d love to hear sometime how abundant life has shown up for you.

For me, I think of the time when Brian and I moved across the country for seminary. We didn’t know what it would be like. We didn’t know how we’d make friends or what our life would look like or whether we’d have enough. And that first night when we drove in, people we’d never met before cooked us a delicious meal. We gathered around a full table in the courtyard of our apartment building, and we ate pasta and drank wine and shared stories and laughed together. And in that moment, we knew we’d have enough and more than enough. We knew what abundant life was, because we were living it together. We were feasting on it together.  

And today when we take communion together, we’ll be feasting on that same abundant life Jesus has for us. And after this service when we eat lunch, we’ll feast together in a different way. Where better to find abundant life than in a church potluck? And maybe in that feasting, joy will call to us as it did to the early Christians in Acts. Friends, I wonder what Jesus’ dream of abundance looks like for you.

I wonder what your stories of abundance are, and your hopes for the future. I wonder what gets in the way of joy and abundance for us, what needs we can meet when we come together, what stories of “not enough” keep us more stuck than we’d have to be. I wonder how we can we receive the abundant life Jesus wants to give us in this moment. I wonder how can we be part of abundant life for our neighbors. I wonder where we are witnessing resurrection life in this season, where joy might be calling us.

Maybe we can start there: by noticing joy. There’s a lot that’s hard right now. But maybe there’s a whisper or a shout of joy somewhere in our midst, and maybe stopping to hear that joy is the start of the life Jesus wants to give us.

So friends, let us tell each other the stories of abundant life we have, and let us make new ones together. Let us pay attention to where the joy of the resurrection life stirs in our community and where that joy might be calling us as we feast together today. Amen.

Paul Cezanne’s ~1890 Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses (in the Public Domain and accessed through the Met Gallery).

18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 21) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 26 September 2021

Esther 7:1-6, 9-19; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124 | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who delivers us from fowler’s snare and turns our mourning into joy.

People who fish sometimes have a story about the one that got away—a big impressive fish that they almost caught, but it somehow managed to escape. They don’t have the fish to show, or even a picture of it, just the story of the one that got away.

In today’s readings, we have two versions of the “one that got away” story, but from the fish’s perspective. In our Psalm and in Esther, we hear stories from people who almost got caught and then escaped at the last minute. These are stories from communities who almost became somebody else’s lunch but lived to fight another day. And these are not only exciting and dramatic stories, but they’re also formative stories. These stories of survival, stories of deliverance, shape how we see ourselves and what we do next.

Our Psalm is a song of praise for God’s help in a narrow escape. “If the Lord had not been on our side, then the raging waters would have gone right over us. We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the trap is broken and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord.” This Psalm brings the people together in giving thanks to God for God’s deliverance. It goes right up to the brink of what could have happened, only to breathe a sigh of relief and thanks to God for deliverance. The fish got away. The trap broke and the bird got out and kept flying free.

This is the same kind of story we have in the book of Esther. It’s a story of deliverance, a story of a narrow escape. We only read this one little piece near the end of the story in our cycle of church readings, but it’s worth reading the whole book of Esther sometime—it’s short and full of dramatic twists. It’s a story of when the Jewish people were in exile under Persian rule. Esther, a young Jewish woman, is married to the king and becomes queen of Persia. Haman, a scheming advisor to the king, plots to annihilate the Jewish people, and he doesn’t seem to realize that Queen Esther herself is Jewish. Then Queen Esther’s uncle Mordecai urges her to try and convince the king to stop the genocide. At great personal risk, Esther goes to the king, reveals her hidden identity, and pleads for herself and her people. Then the tables are turned. Esther’s people are saved, and it’s their enemies who are destroyed. The fish gets away, and the fisherman who was trying to catch it even falls in the lake at the end. The trap is broken and the bird flies off safe. It’s a story of a narrow escape, a story of reversal, a story of deliverance.

And it’s a formative story. It’s a story with lasting effects. Most scholars don’t think that the book of Esther is meant to be read as historical fact; Esther probably didn’t become queen of all Persia. But it’s a story that helped people live their lives at the time it was written and still does today. It’s partly a story about how to survive by adaptation and diplomacy. For people living in exile, this was an especially formative story because it helped them learn how to stay true to their unique Jewish identity while doing what they had to do to get by under foreign rule. It’s a story that gives hope for oppressed peoples that the tables can turn, that sudden reversals can upset the expected balance, that sometimes the underdog can come out on top.

Jewish communities today retell the Esther story at the feast of Purim every year in festive and humorous ways. It’s a melodrama with audience participation and irreverent costumes and plenty of chances to make fun of whatever oppressive empires exist today. The king is played as hilariously incompetent and full of himself, and everyone boos and makes noise when Haman’s name in mentioned. There’s food and drink and celebration. It’s a holiday that builds resilience to survive the new challenges by retelling this ancient deliverance story with laughter and play and feasting.

It’s interesting that of all the parts of Esther we could be reading, our lectionary included these verses near the end where they set up a holiday to remember the story. I wish that we were reading more of Esther in our Sunday reading cycle because it’s such a great story, but I also really appreciate that we get this part. We get to see the connection between Esther’s story of deliverance and the way that a community remembers that story together with “feasting and gladness.”

And that’s something we do in our Christian communities too. We celebrate the stories of our faith in our holy days. At Christmas we gather around the manger. At Good Friday we gather around the cross. At Easter, we gather around the empty tomb, and we remember what God has done for us, and we pray together, and we feast together.

Every Sunday at the altar, we retell the story of our deliverance in Jesus, and we eat in remembrance. We tell the story of how we were wandering, but Jesus found us. We tell the story of how the raging waters almost drowned us, but Jesus pulled us back up. We tell the story of how the snare is broken and we have escaped, thanks be to God. In the eucharist, we tell the story of how when the powers of death were closing in on Jesus and on us, our God turned the tables and brought resurrection life. Listen for that story of our deliverance today when we move to the altar to pray. Telling that story together again and again is part of what makes us who we are, part of what unites us with Christians all over the world, with those who came before us, and with those who will come after us.

It’s like the stories a family tells around the dinner table, how we learn who we are and who we want to be in that feasting and storytelling. I grew up hearing stories from and about my cowboy grandpa and great grandpa in Texas—stories resourcefulness and survival in difficult times. These are some of the stories that make me who I am. And I’m sure you have those stories in your family too—stories of where you’ve come from that are also about where you’re going and who you want to be. Those in our community who have survived cancer and other serious illnesses have their own deliverance stories and their own scars—the Psalm today could have been written for them. These stories of survival and deliverance form us and guide our decisions and give us strength.

But we know that not all our stories are deliverance stories, or at least not yet. Sometimes the bird stays caught in the trap, at least in this life. Sometimes we or our loved ones are caught in suffering, and we don’t see the deliverance we want. Some of our stories are full of trauma that needs healing and gentleness. Sometimes we need to unlearn stories of scarcity or exclusion that we learned growing up, or learn to tell them in a different way. Some of our stories of illness or trouble are unfinished, and we don’t yet know the outcome even though we hope for deliverance in some unseen future.

Our reading from James invites us to bring all of those stories—the deliverance stories, the suffering stories, the unfinished stories—to our community in prayer. This letter to the early church invites us to come together in prayer when we are suffering and to come together in praise when our spirits are high. It invites us to share our joys and our troubles with one another through prayer and praise and counsel—to be part of each other’s stories as we bring those stories to God. We carry our stories of deliverance and of suffering together. We retell them together and help each other find new meanings in them, new ways to tell the story. We pray about them together. We feast about them together.

And when we do that, these stories shape who we are as a community. These formative stories become part of our collective DNA. Sometimes they are even part of our physical spaces. Soon after I came here, I learned that this church survived both a flood and a fire. The building had to be rebuilt, but the church, the community, survived. I heard the story of how this baptismal font survived too. When the fire burned the wooden floor, this font fell through onto the basement floor below. There’s a broken place right here where it hit the floor, but it survived. Sometimes our deliverance stories come with some scars. Sometimes we and our communities carry the marks of our survival stories even when we make it out alive. Deliverance stories like this become part of who we are as a community.

And when I hear us tell stories like that one about the fire, I wonder what stories our parish will tell about these pandemic years. I wonder what we’ll be able to say about how we got through, how we helped each other, how we found God in the mess. I wonder how we’ll mourn those who didn’t make it through. I wonder how we’ll celebrate the hard-won victories and the narrow escapes and the tipping points where hope broke in against all odds. I wonder what scars we’ll carry forward and what deliverance stories we’ll tell in the church years from now. When we look back, maybe we’ll find some Psalm 124 stories to tell and some Esther stories to tell—stories of deliverance and courage that will shape who we become and how we face the future together.

And I wonder: What are the stories that make you who you are now? Where has God shown up in the story of your own life? How can we make space in this community together for you to share the stories that matter to you? What Psalms are you singing? And who are the Esthers in your story today?

I pray that in this season we will be inspired and strengthened to tell our stories together, and that when we do that, we will discover new glimpses of God’s deliverance among us. Amen. 

15th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 5 September 2021

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | Mark 7:24-37

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of imagination and abundance.

Today we have a gospel story that’s both beautiful and a little disturbing. We have the story of this woman who comes to Jesus asking him to help her daughter. And it’s a beautiful story because it’s the start of a great expansion in the Gospel—in Mark, this is where Jesus’ message starts spreading beyond Jesus’ own people. It’s a great story for Labor Day weekend when we celebrate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Labor Movement—there’s some of that going on here. It’s a beautiful story because we get to see this woman’s amazing persistence and imagination, and we get to see her need met in the end when her daughter gets help from Jesus.

But the story is also a little bit disturbing because of the way Jesus responds to the woman at first. It kind of sounds like Jesus calls her a dog. It kind of sounds like Jesus doesn’t think she’s worthy of help because of who she is and where she’s from. To be honest, the start of this story is not a good look for Jesus.

Even the part where Jesus does help the woman’s daughter may be a little challenging for some of us, because it looks like maybe Jesus changed his mind because of what she said. It looks like for a minute there, maybe this woman understood Jesus’ mission better than Jesus did. And even though our faith teaches that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, it’s strange to think about how Jesus might have sometimes needed people to teach him or remind him of a truth like this. This story can challenge us to consider what we mean when we say Jesus was really and truly a human being, and not just God playing dress up in a human suit and pretending to have limitations. (For my church nerds out there, that would be the heresy called Docetism, where God only seems to be human in Jesus but isn’t really.)

But maybe if we can imagine Jesus learning to walk like other babies, learning carpentry from Joseph, learning how to read the Torah from teachers in the synagogue, maybe it’s possible to imagine that in this story Jesus learns something he hadn’t yet realized about how far God’s love could reach through him. There are other ways you could understand what happens in this story, and it’s okay to disagree, but I think this woman was one of Jesus’ teachers.

I think that in this story we see Jesus doing a very human thing we’ve all done—making a snap judgment about who belongs and who doesn’t, who is worthy and who’s not. And then I think Jesus does something we’ve also done as humans in moments of grace—he really hears another person, and he expands his view of who belongs in God’s vision, who is worthy of love and healing.

But whether or not we think this expansion of the mission beyond the Jewish people is unexpected news to Jesus at the time, it has a huge impact. In the version of this story in Matthew, Jesus specifically says he’s only sent to “the lost sheep of Israel” before his conversation with the woman. Most of us would not be included in Jesus’ saving mission if not for the expansion that starts here. This moment is where the Great Commission starts, Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations.

This moment foreshadows the stories in the book of Acts where the Gospel is heard in all languages, where the Holy Spirit comes to foreigners and outsiders, where our friend St. Paul makes epic journeys to preach Jesus far and wide. This Syrophoenician Greek woman continues the legacy of some Old Testament prophets who envisioned a world where all nations would be included in God’s saving work. She’s a prophet of a new era, a new possibility. This story is a turning point for something profound, something wildly new, something abundant in Jesus’ ministry and the coming life of the church.

The new era begins with this woman’s persistence and imagination. She is bold enough to voice her need in the first place and to keep on asking even when Jesus says no. And she is creative enough to use Jesus’ own words to imagine a situation where she gets what she needs.

When Jesus says it’s not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs, the woman takes that image and runs with it. She thinks about how children eat at a table. She knows that even the dogs have to eat somehow. She imagines how much food falls off the table when children feast. And there’s her answer—even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall. When Jesus says the children get to eat bread and implies that the woman and her daughter are dogs who don’t get to eat, this woman fills out the scene. She adds a banquet table that Jesus hadn’t mentioned, where the children are eating and the dogs under the table get to eat too.

This woman paints herself and her daughter into a picture that was framed to exclude them. Her move here reminds me of the work of an artist named Titus Kaphar. A lot of Kaphar’s work deals with the legacy of racism and oppression in American history. Some of his artworks are re-creations of historical artworks. These original artworks either excluded Black and Indigenous people or included them in a demeaning way. Kaphar sometimes re-creates artworks like this with imaginative revisions that change the meaning and the focus. His versions put the spotlight on what’s happening with the nonwhite figures.

He has one piece called “Enough About You.” And the original painting was of Elihu Yale (the guy whose money started Yale University) with some colleagues at a table. These wealthy white men are up front with their powdered wigs and their elaborate outfits, and behind them in the background is an enslaved young Black boy who seems to be there serving them. Kaphar re-created the painting, but with some changes. He added more depth and detail to the face of this child who was in the background. He placed an ornate picture frame around that child’s portrait. And he crumpled up the rest of the painting to blur the figures of Yale and his colleagues. Kaphar took the representation that was given and then made these imaginative changes to create a different vision, a vision where the child in the painting is treated as fully human and worthy of attention. 

I think this is the same kind of creative work that the Syrophoenician woman does when she claims Jesus’ attention for herself and her child.

And I think maybe she’s claiming more than just crumbs to eat. The beginning of our story says that the woman heard about Jesus, but it doesn’t say what exactly she heard. I wonder if she heard the story from the chapter before of how Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. I wonder if she heard about how everyone ate as much as they wanted, and then there were still twelve baskets of broken pieces left over. This was a feast so abundant that the crumbs that fall are still twelve whole baskets of bread. If the woman in today’s story knew about that, then maybe she was claiming so much more than crumbs. Maybe she was claiming a feast for herself and her daughter, a feast that she knew could exist in God’s abundance. This woman was a prophet of possibility.    

And I think we need her story today, when so much of the word seems impossible, when we’re dealing with so many crises and wondering if we have enough of what it takes to face them. Will there be enough doses of vaccine for the whole world? Will we find enough stamina and wisdom to get through however much longer the pandemic lasts? Will there be enough time to heal the climate before it’s too late? Will there be enough housing and food to take care of all the people displaced by flooding and fires and war? Will there be enough money to fix what’s broken? Will there be enough love to go around? Will there be enough hope to keep trying?

Today’s story doesn’t give us a simple answer to those questions, but it does give us an invitation to expand our imagination and consider new possibilities. The story invites us to see the picture differently, to seek out new ways of finding enough for everyone, to claim a feast for people who get treated like dogs.

Sometimes we might need to do what Jesus does in this story—really listen to someone and change course. This story invites us to pause and hear those around us who don’t think their needs are being met and who are calling for change. It invites us to slow our judgment down and rethink what’s possible, even when the people asking might sound too loud or too angry or too impatient to us at first. I believe our savior Jesus gives us a beautiful pattern here for how to listen and move forward differently.

The Syrophoenician woman also gives us a model for how to be persistent and creative to get needs met and help people see new possibilities. Sometimes we need to do what she does and expand the picture so that more people get in on the feasting. Sometimes we need to renegotiate what’s possible. We need this woman’s imagination today. If you’ll forgive the pun, we need this woman’s dogged determination today. Her ability to claim God’s abundance in the midst of denial and scarcity gives us strength today.

Friends, I pray that you go forward in that strength this week. I pray that you take this story with you into whatever challenges you face right now. Receive God’s blessing:

            May God your maker hold you in abundant love,

                        may Christ your redeemer feed you with the crumbs that become a feast,

                                    may the Holy Spirit lead your imagination in ever-expanding visions of plenty, now and always. Amen.

A photo of “Enough About You” by Titus Kaphar.