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).

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 21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 26) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 30 October 2022 | Luke 19:1-10

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

Good morning, friends. Today we hear the story of Zacchaeus. It’s a heartwarming tale of tree climbing, repentance, joy, and salvation. It’s also a story about money, and how a person’s relationship to wealth changes dramatically after an encounter with Jesus.

So, fair warning: we are going to talk about money today. That can sometimes be uncomfortable—but Jesus talks about money a lot, and I think it can be liberating for us to work with our discomfort. So, I promise I won’t ask anyone to pledge half of their wealth to support St. Paul’s in 2023. But we will look at how giving money away is one part of Zacchaeus’ spiritual transformation, and how it might be part of ours too.

So let’s start with our friend Zacchaeus, who is a tax collector. We heard a little bit about tax collectors last week. And some of us might not have warm fuzzy feelings for the IRS, but this is so much worse. Tax collectors like Zacchaeus were in league with the enemy. Palestine was occupied by the Roman Empire, and tax collectors were the ones willing to betray their own people in order to help the Roman Empire squeeze wealth out of the lands they ruled.

Not only that, but tax collectors were known for collecting extra money unfairly and getting wealthy off of doing it. The occupying Roman forces backed up their tax collectors, so people couldn’t do much about it. Zacchaeus is rich, and this is probably how he got rich.

But when we find Zacchaeus in today’s story, his mind isn’t on his money. We find him “trying to see who Jesus is.” It’s said in passing, but there’s a lot going on there. Zacchaeus is doing something vitally important. 

If somebody were to ask what it is we do in church “trying to see who Jesus is” would be a pretty good answer. Zacchaeus realizes that he doesn’t know who Jesus is and that he needs to find out.

And we don’t know for sure why Zacchaeus has such a burning desire to see who Jesus is. Maybe he’s heard Jesus’ teachings against oppression, and he’s concerned. Maybe he’s heard about the parables and the miracles and the world-changing love, and something sparked his curiosity. Maybe he caught a whisper of hope that things could be different from the way they are. Whatever Zacchaeus is thinking in this moment, we can trust that the Spirit is moving in him.

And the Spirit moves in us too. Many of us can name those tipping points where we might or might not know why it happened, but we found clarity where there was confusion. Or we were able to escape a false certainty that had trapped us. We felt our love kindled for God or for a neighbor. We knew we needed to seek Jesus out in a way we hadn’t before.

Zacchaeus needs to see Jesus so badly that he climbs a tree. It’s not a dignified thing for someone of his status to do. Maybe people who used to be scared of him point and laugh. Maybe he’ not used to climbing trees either. So maybe he scrapes an elbow or gets sticky sap all over his hands. Maybe he tears an expensive piece of clothing. But Zacchaeus needs so badly to see who Jesus is that he doesn’t care about any of that.

 Whether or not he knows it, Zacchaeus is called to climb a sycamore fig tree, and he answers the call. And friends, we could stand to climb a tree now and then too—it’s a change in perspective. Lazarus’ unexpected tree-climbing reminds me of a scene from the movie Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ character invites his students to climb up on top of a desk in the middle of English class and see the room from a different angle. Zacchaeus finds that new perspective. From his vantage point among the leaves, Zacchaeus finally sees Jesus.

But what turns out to be even more important than that is that Jesus sees Zacchaeus. Jesus sees a man who needed Jesus so strongly that he climbed a tree just to get a better look. Jesus sees a beloved child of God who has lost his way in this world. Jesus calls Zacchaeus to come down, and Jesus invites himself over to stay and Zacchaeus’ house.

And then it says in the Greek, Zacchaeus “hurried, came down, and received him rejoicing.” Zacchaeus is filled with joy when he knows Jesus will be at his house. We don’t know what he felt when he went up the tree to see who Jesus was, but now we know he’s rejoicing. And this rejoicing is the ground for everything that happens next.

In this joyous encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus finds what he needs for transformation, what he needs to get un-stuck. When Jesus sees him and feasts with him, his whole life changes. He sees the world from a different perspective. And finally he is seen and loved for the glory God gave him as a human being, not for his wealth or authority.

Jesus sees Zacchaeus as a child of God’s promises. And I believe Jesus’ love is what saves Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ achievements don’t impress Jesus, and Zacchaeus’ very real sins don’t scare Jesus off either, even when other people grumble. Jesus already loves Zacchaeus just for being a person, and Jesus knows that Zacchaeus has it in him to be a very different kind of person than he has been in the past.

And in the joy of Jesus’ love for him, Zacchaeus’ whole life transforms and blossoms. He starts to be a different kind of person than he has been in the past. He gives away half of the wealth he’s shaped his whole life to pile up. He begins to make amends to those he’s harmed. And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Bible scholar Pete Enns talks about the story of Zacchaeus as a story of salvation centered in this present life. In his blog “The Bible for Normal People,” Enns shares that he used to see “salvation,” or being saved, as only about what happens after we die. Like me, Pete Enns grew up in churches that put a lot of emphasis on heaven and hell and see salvation in terms of being saved from hell and making sure we know we’re going to heaven when we die.

But in this story, Enns sees salvation as something that happens now, that happens all along, that can happen every day. Zacchaeus needs Jesus to save him from his greed, which is making his life and his neighbors’ lives worse in tangible ways. Enns sees salvation in the present here.

And I agree with that reading. In this story, salvation happens “today.” It happens when Jesus comes to Zacchaeus in love and joy. It happens when Jesus’ love frees Zacchaeus to live differently than he did before.

Zacchaeus starts to get free from the life that was about using his position to extract as much as he could from other people. He has been orbiting around the weight of his wealth for as long as he can remember, and somehow Jesus helps him to break free of that gravity and fly off in a completely new direction. Jesus saves him.

Salvation begins to transform Zacchaeus’ relationships with his neighbors and with money. We don’t know if he gives up his position as a tax collector in a corrupt system after this, or if he stays and tries to change how it works from the inside. We don’t know what it looks like for Zacchaeus to give his money to the poor as someone who might have made a point not to know poor people until now.

There’s probably a lot left for Zacchaeus and his community to figure out in the wake of this transforming encounter. Maybe Zacchaeus will sometimes have trouble remembering Jesus’ love for him when Jesus isn’t sitting at his table in the flesh. Salvation is an ongoing process for Zacchaeus and for us.

The Spirit moves us, and we have our moments of new perspective, our joyous encounters with the love of Jesus, our choices to act within that love and to claim the freedom Jesus offers us. We have our struggles and failures too. And day by day, we are being saved.

Our salvation is happening now. God will save us after our death and bring us to the communion of saints, and God is already saving us now. Our salvation is happening when we know in our bones that Jesus loves us. Salvation is happening when we see God’s image in another person, and when we love our neighbors. Salvation is happening when we rejoice in the beauty and bounty of creation. Salvation is happening when the Spirit moves us and we find a new perspective (with or without actually climbing up a tree).

Today, salvation has come to this house. And salvation is also happening when we choose to share the resources we have. For Zacchaeus, joyfully giving money away was part of a spiritual transformation in response to Jesus’ love. Zacchaeus was saved from a life that centered on piling up more and more, and was saved for a life of joy and connection and helping his neighbors to flourish. Giving was one part of Zacchaeus’ turn toward grace, and it came from his joy in Jesus’ saving presence.

With Zacchaeus, some of us may find that there is something radically freeing about giving money away at all, no matter the amount.

In this world we hear so often that we have to hold on tight to make sure we have enough money, no matter how much we might already have. So sometimes giving something away can help us to move past a false story of scarcity. It can help us see how we might be part of the abundance God offers so that all creation can flourish and be well together.

Now I want to be clear that some scarcity is real, and if you’re struggling to meet your needs, we don’t want you to give in any way that causes more suffering. This is not about giving until it hurts, and it’s not about giving in expectation that God will multiply your money back to you.

What it is about is being more free from whatever it is that might trap us. It’s about helping each other whenever we can. It’s about is making a prayerful choice to open our hands and be generous toward the things that matter most to us.

It’s about walking forward into the transformation that Jesus offers and discerning what that looks like for us day by day, in all aspects of our lives.

In Jesus, we are called to move toward own freedom and our neighbors’ flourishing at the same time. For Zacchaeus, that happened to involve giving away a big chunk of money. For some of us, it might look like setting aside a percentage of our budget to give—this is what Brian and I do, and I’m happy to talk about that practice with you if you’d like. Some of us might give in a different way. Some of us may not be ready to give financially right now, and we may be experiencing transformation and generosity and gratitude in other ways in this season.

And friends, God is present in all of it. With Zacchaeus, we rejoice to welcome Jesus every day, and we are being saved every day. We give thanks for so much. I’ve been reading the beautiful words of gratitude we’ve shared in our jar. Some of us gave thanks for family and friends.

Some of us gave thanks for St. Paul’s—for the growth and courage and friendship we find here. Some of us gave thanks for the wonders of creation—for sunsets and sunrises and the Ohio River. Someone gave thanks for being accepted and loved in their own quirkiness. One of the cards just said “cheeseburger.” Whoever that was, I’m with you friend.

Salvation is happening among us—in the fellowship of our families and friends, in the growth we share together, in the beauty God gives us, sometimes in the delight of biting into that delicious cheeseburger, in the affirmation of being seen and loved for who we are, and in the grace to turn to God and give thanks. Jesus is saving us every day.

Salvation has come to this house. So with Zacchaeus, may we listen to the Spirit’s calling together and find the perspectives we need. May we rejoice in the salvation of the Savior who sees us. And may we live and move and give and flourish in the embrace of our Maker who loves us.


A 15th-century woodcut of the story of Zacchaeus; in the public domain and accessed through the Art Institute of Chicago.

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.

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 6th Sunday after Epiphany | Joanna Benskin | 13 February 2022 | Psalm 1 | Luke 6:17-26

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who plants the righteous by streams of water and blesses the poor.

Good morning, friends! Welcome to the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, in the season of light and visions. Today we read Psalm 1, a beautiful image of flourishing in God. And we read the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, a radical revelation of God’s solidarity with the poor and the outcast. There’s some tension between them, so we’re going to work with that today because I think we need both of these visions.

I think these two scriptures are like two light sources slanting down on the landscape from different angles. Together they make for some confusing shadows, but they also make our path brighter once we’ve gotten oriented.

The tension, the confusing shadow, comes because in the Psalm, it seems like good people are going to prosper and do well in every aspect of life, but in the Gospel, it really sounds like God is on the side of the folks who are not doing well—folks who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated.

So, let’s start with the Psalm. (And we get a very similar passage in Jeremiah.) The core image here is righteous people as trees planted by streams of water. The righteous people have strong roots, and everything they need to flourish and flower and fruit is right there next to them. The righteous people trust in God, and they delight in learning and doing what’s right, and they don’t get tangled up in sketchy schemes, and they surround themselves with other folks who are on the same path.

And this contrasts with the wicked people in the Psalm, who will eventually fail. They’re chaff—the husks of grain that float away in the wind. They don’t have those roots in the river of God’s abundance like the righteous people do.

This Psalm is such a beautiful vision of how people can flourish in God. This vision feeds me spiritually. Back in seminary in California, there was a park I could walk to just up the hill, and there were redwood trees by a little stream. So I’d sit there and read this Psalm by the water under the tall, tall trees. And reading this Psalm in that place helped me grow strong roots in prayer. It helped me to shape my life toward flourishing in God.

The stream in the Psalm resonates with so much—water as an image of God’s Spirit, God’s transformation, God’s abundance. In the beginning of creation, God’s Spirit hovers over the waters. The Israelites cross the Red Sea when God liberates them, and we’re reborn in the waters of baptism. The prophet Isaiah sings about drawing water with rejoicing from springs of salvation, and Jesus promises living water. And here in our Psalm, the righteous people get to drink up that divine water with their roots, and they break out into full leaf and fruit.

It’s beautiful. These images are so powerful and so lifegiving that I keep coming back to them. Psalm 1 is a light that I follow again and again.

But it’s also a light that casts a shadow. And when we read it in this time and place, that shadow is shaped by our own assumptions about success and wealth and poverty and merit. Here in the US in the 21st century, we’ve been deeply formed to believe that rich people are rich because they deserve it, and poor people are poor because they made bad choices. Someone pointed out to me a few years ago how unusual this belief is, if you look at other places and other time periods, most people don’t think this. But whether or not we believe it’s true, it probably still frames our thinking.  

So the shadow side, the thing this Psalm does not actually say, but we might wrongly hear, is that prosperous people have their wealth and position because they’re righteous and they deserve it, and people who don’t succeed in life are in that situation because they did something wrong.

And that’s where we need a light shining in from another direction to help us see through those shadowy patches. Our Gospel today is the start of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you.” And on the other hand, “Woe to you who are rich.”

Jesus preaches a kingdom that turns the world upside-down, and this preaching today is our clearest vision yet of what that’s like. If we remember back to the Christmas story, things started to go this way from the beginning, when Mary’s soul magnified a God who lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty from their thrones, when the Savior of the world was born in a stable, and when the good news first came to lowly shepherds in their fields.  

And here, Jesus preaches that the poor, the hungry, and the hated are the ones who are truly blessed. God sees these folks, and God is with them.

And we’ll see this throughout the Gospel—poor people sick people and children and women and foreigners and anyone else that the folks in power ignore and shove away turn out to be the people closest to the kingdom Jesus preaches. Jesus’ vision is a world upside-down and backwards. The last shall be first. Blessed are the poor.  

God is with folks who suffer from poverty or hunger or the world’s hatred people in a particularly close way because of who they are and what they’ve suffered. Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are both the poor and the rich equally,” even if we might prefer that. He says “Blessed are the poor.”

So God is with the folks who come to our food pantry in a way that God isn’t with people who have plenty to eat all the time. God is with trans kids who get put out of their homes in a way that God isn’t with people who experience love and safety every day. And if that makes you uncomfortable, that is normal and ok. This is what liberation theology calls the “preferential option for the poor.”

And despite some discomfort with where this leaves me as a fairly comfortable person, I do find a liberating and lifegiving vision in this Gospel. It’s good news that Jesus is here to lift up folks who have been crushed down. It’s good news that people who suffer in life are never abandoned, because God is with them and God is working to bring them laughter and deliverance. Blessed are the poor. It’s a light.

But this Gospel’s warm, bright light casts a shadow too. Some Christians have read this to mean that if the poor are so blessed, there’s no reason to ease suffering in this world. Some have read this and thought that it means the poor have some kind of spiritual consolation prize that makes up for everything unfair that happens to them, and so the inequalities of the world are really fine to stay like they are. Some people have even used these verses to tell oppressed people to stay where they are and not make any trouble, because they’re spiritually blessed. And Jesus did not say any of that, but it’s a shadow these words have cast in our world.

And so we need the Psalm shining from the other side with a vision where the righteous flourish in every way. The righteous people in Psalm 1 aren’t blessed in a separate spiritual realm—everything they do prospers.

And the Psalm invites us to wonder: What would it be like if all of us, all of everyone, could get our roots into the stream and grow leaves that do not wither and fruit in due season? It’s a vision of human flourishing that also critiques the realities of this world, where often people suffer who don’t deserve it, and often people succeed who shouldn’t. The Psalm gives us a vision of God’s dream for people to flourish in every way, of a world where God’s beloved children don’t have to be poor or hungry or hated.

So we can see how these two lights shine into each other’s shadows. But that play of light and shadow is still hard to reconcile into one image. How are both things true? The righteous will prosper. Woe to you who are rich. The wicked will fail. Blessed are the poor. There’s a tension.

And maybe it would help to frame both of these visions as partial and conditional, rather than universal truths.

Maybe when we read this Gospel, we could say that as long as any of us are poor and hungry and weeping and hated, God is with those among us in a special way, because that’s what people who are poor and weeping and hungry and hated need.

And maybe when we read the Psalm, we could say that we sometimes do see righteousness flourish and wickedness fail this way, and we hope for a future world where that’s always true. Sometimes we see a really good person come into their own—we see their gifts bear fruit, and we see them so happy, and they have plenty of what they need and plenty to share. And sometimes we do see harmful plans collapsing in on themselves. Maybe the Psalm gives us a vision of what sometimes happens in the world we know, and a glimmer of hope that someday, somewhere, it’s what will always happen.

If we put both visions that way, as only a part of the picture, then maybe there’s room for both of them to be true. But even then, I can’t quite make the tension go away. I can’t quite make the crisscrossing shadows from our two lights resolve into a clear image.

So for now, I think we get to live with this tension. We can look to a vision where all people who try to live with integrity and love will flourish in every possible way. And we also find God’s special blessing among folks who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated, and in the parts of ourselves that are. Both of these lights can guide us.

When we follow the light of Psalm 1, we can embrace a vision of God’s flourishing for ourselves and for all. We can catch a glimpse of what it’s like to be planted by the river of God’s plenty, to grow strong, to bear fruit, to have enough and more than enough. Even if this doesn’t always happen as a reward for righteousness, we can draw nourishment and joy from the possibility of that tree planted by streams of water.

This vision of the righteous flourishing is especially healing and necessary for those of us who were taught early in our lives of faith that following Jesus has to be painful. Some of us learned to be suspicious of ease and joy; we thought that being righteous nearly always meant self-denial. And sometimes it does, for sure; sometimes doing what’s right is tough, and we have to make really hard choices. But this vision of the righteous flourishing and prospering helps us to learn that our happiness is part of God’s hope for us too.

This vision helps us to know that it’s sometimes alright to choose joy, choose comfort, choose abundance. Our God wants to see us flourishing like a tree planted by streams of water. And when we are able to discern what a pathway of righteous flourishing looks like for us and move toward that kind of life, it is a holy and good and joyful thing.

 At the same time, we can follow the light of the Gospel by looking for God’s blessing amid suffering.

Even when we’re the farthest away from flourishing, we can know that God is with us. And when folks who are poor or hungry or grieving or hated tell us what they know about God, we can listen to them as blessed prophets who see God in ways that comfortable people don’t. When we follow the light of this Gospel, we know that God is with people who seem to have failed. We know that hardship doesn’t mean someone is far from God—that God comes close to folks who are poor or hungry or weeping or hated.  

So in this season of visions, I pray that God gives us the grace to find a righteous path among all the lights and shadows we see. I pray that we’ll notice God’s light and God’s blessing in hardship. I pray that we will follow that light to move a step or two toward a world where no one has to be poor, no one lacks food, no one mourns alone, no one is hated. I pray that we will be nourished by a vision of hope for us and for all. And I pray that more and more, day by day, we will flourish like trees planted by streams of water. Amen.   

A 17th-century embroidered Tree of Life (accessed through the Met Museum’s online collections).