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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Icon of Pentecost by the amazing Kelly Latimore (…/sig…/products/pentecost).

Pentecost | Joanna Benskin | 5 June 2022 | Genesis 11:1-9 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | Acts 2:1-21 | John 14:8-17, 25-27

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Spirit of Life.

Good morning, friends. Happy Pentecost. Today some of us are wearing red and other flame colors in honor of the story of Pentecost, when Acts tells us that the Holy Spirit came among the disciples in the form of flames and helped them tell the story of Jesus in all languages.

Sometimes we also say Pentecost is the birthday of the church, because this is the day when following Jesus expanded from a small group of disciples to a community that invites everyone. With the Holy Spirit’s help, that community learned to follow Jesus more deeply, and care for each other, and tell the story of God’s love in every language. That community became the church.  

In this Easter season, we’ve celebrated the resurrection, and today, we celebrate the Holy Spirit. When we celebrate the Holy Spirit, we celebrate that God is with us now, living and moving and guiding and comforting; God didn’t just create the world and tell us what to do and leave. Today we discern how the Holy Spirit might be moving among us, and we give thanks for the ways the Holy Spirit has shown up for us and for people of faith through history.

The writers of the Hebrew Bible didn’t see God as a Trinity the way we do as Christians, but they knew God as Spirit. In the beginning of creation, the Spirit of God hovers over the unformed chaos of the world, and she starts to shape it and nurture it into a vibrant world. In our Psalm today, the singer sees God’s Spirit as still active to replenish the created world: “You send for your Spirit and they are created, and so you renew the face of the earth.”

In Hebrew and in Greek, the word for Spirit is the same word that’s used for breath and also wind.

When God breathes God’s own breath into the first human beings, that’s Spirit. The word inspired is related to spirit and breath too—it means breathed into. So when we say scriptures are inspired by God, or maybe even when we feel inspired to do something good or creative, the breath of the Spirit is with us, breathing alongside us.

The Holy Spirit can be within us, as close as our own breath. It can be a quiet strength welling up from within. And at the same time, the Holy Spirit is God, and she’s mysterious and powerful and beyond our control. Jesus says in John that the Spirit-wind blows around wherever they want to, and we can hear their sound, but we can’t pin them down or know where they’re coming from or where they’re going.

I’m calling the Holy Spirit “she” and “they” on purpose, and I want to say something about that, because today is also a day about how God moves in human language. The Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine, so whenever we hear about God’s Spirit in the Old Testament, the Spirit is a she. The Greek word for Spirit is a neutral gendered word, so the Spirit in the New Testament can be an it or a they.

But why does it matter what gender we use when we talk about the Spirit? Most theologians believe that God is beyond gender anyway—when we say “God the Father,” that’s a metaphor, and it doesn’t mean that God the Creator is a man. And when we call the Holy Spirit “she” or “they,” or we use feminine or non-gendered language, we don’t mean that God is literally a woman or a nonbinary person.

So, it’s okay to use words and images of any gender to talk about any Person of the Trinity, if it helps us to relate with God and come close to God. In one sense it doesn’t matter if we say Father or Mother or she or he or they or something else—God is beyond that, and no words we use are ever going to fully encompass who God is.

But in another sense, the words we use do matter. If we only talk about God one way, we’re missing a richness of how God shows up in scripture and in our own experience.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, we sometimes sing. And that wideness goes beyond one gender or one image. So why wouldn’t we want to expand our language and imagination to talk about God in more different ways?  

There’s also a danger that when we get stuck speaking about God mostly in male terms (like Father or Son or King), we end up giving the impression that being a man makes a person closer to God’s image, even if that’s not what we intend. The Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson talks about how the language we use for God shapes how we relate to each other as humans too. If God is the ultimate holiness and wisdom and goodness, and then we only align God with men, what does that say to those of us who aren’t men?  

Johnson says that if we only use male language and metaphors for God, we dig deeper into a system that doesn’t see women as holy and wise and capable of using power for good. So expanding our language can help us build the capacity to see God’s beautiful image in all kinds of people.   

So, in one sense, it doesn’t matter if we talk about God as a “they” or a “she” or a “he,” or none of those, or all at once—God is beyond any of that. But in another sense, it does make a difference, because if God is what matters most to us, our language about God shapes how we value each other and ourselves too. Using “she” and “they” pronouns for the Holy Spirit is what the Bible happens to do, and it’s just one way we can honor God’s image shining forth in all kinds of people, and beyond any one way of speaking.  

In our stories of Babel and Pentecost, too, God’s presence disrupts and expands human language. At Pentecost, the disciples speak in tongues so that people from all around the world can understand them when they tell the story of Jesus. Here, the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to expand further out beyond the languages they know.

Babel is a little trickier. Languages multiply here too, but it’s not totally clear what that means. The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks introduced me to a new reading of the Tower of Babel.

Some early Jewish scholars picked up on the odd repetition at the beginning of the story: “They had one language and the same words.” Why does this get said twice? Rabbi Sacks thinks it’s because there’s more going on here than just the ability to understand each other—he thinks that maybe it’s a metaphor for a group of people all thinking the same way. Sacks reads the story of the Tower of Babel as a story about power and empire and conformity.

The way Rabbi Sacks reads the story, the problem with Babel isn’t that God’s ego feels threatened by people who can achieve a lot and build a tall tower. Instead, the tower is a larger symbol of building society as a monolith. So, the problem is that building a tower means building an empire; it means forcing a lot of people to conform to one idea of how the world should be; it means putting power in the hands of a few people, who then get to tell everyone else where to go and what to think. “One language” could be shorthand for a forced unity that squashes creativity.

When I was talking over the Babel story with Michael Kearns to get ready for this sermon, we wondered together whether the people who say, “Let’s build a tower” are actually the same people who actually have to haul the bricks. Sacks points out that the pyramids and the ziggurats of the time were built with forced labor. Famous empires that built impressive monuments usually did it by oppressing their own people, and sometimes by enslaving other people too.

Michael also noticed that the goal for the builders of Babel is to “make a name for themselves.” We wondered how this might relate to the job that God gives the first humans: naming and caring for the creatures. Instead of naming others, and letting others name them, the builders of Babel want to make a name for themselves. And they can do that with one language, one way of thinking, a narrowed imagination that concentrates on one place and one name instead of filling the earth with joyful noise and many names and a holy chaos of sound and movement.

In the way Rabbi Sacks reads the story, God’s move to multiply the languages at Babel is more of a gift than a punishment. He sees it not so much as God squashing down human ambition, but as God redirecting people’s energy outward into the world by expanding their speech. Maybe at Babel, God sets the early humans free for a world of multiplicity and difference and creativity.

Whether or not we agree with Rabbi Sacks’ reading of the Babel story, maybe we can see something like this happening at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes on the disciples in a wild, rushing wind. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t stay in one piece—they divide into tongues of fire and settle on each one of the disciples differently, and they give each one of them gifts of language. All the disciples there begin to speak in other languages, “as the Spirit gives them ability.”

And I really think it’s all of them, like the passage Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: People of all ages and genders, all kinds of people who followed Jesus.

They’re all speaking with the wildly different gifts of language that the Spirit has given them. And they’re all heard by someone in the crowd of festival pilgrims who knows that language, who never expected to hear it this way. Michael and I also wondered as we talked about this: When each person hears their native language, do they just hear words that make sense to them, or is it more than that?

Maybe they feel a clarity in their hearts that goes beyond the words spoken. Maybe the Spirit’s gift of tongues shows the hearers vivid images. Maybe the words they hear evoke what they love most about their homelands even as they give a glimpse of a truth beyond any nation or language.

In any case, the people are amazed and astonished to hear their own languages. This multiplicity, this abundance of languages, was the end of the Babel project, but here at Pentecost it’s the beginning of something else entirely. The early church begins with this amazement and perplexity, this holy cacophony of voices speaking as the Spirit helps them.

It begins with people from all over the world joining the conversation. The church starts with naming God and naming one another in dozens of languages all at the same time, and it goes from there.

And y’all, sometimes it’s a mess. Sometimes making everybody build one tower sounds a lot easier. I like my peace and quiet, and sometimes all the voices in the church are a lot, and I have to step back, and breathe with the Spirit awhile before I come back into the holy chaos. I also really like to know the one true absolutely right answer, and sometimes I have to learn to hold that more lightly, to be present in the complexity and multiplicity of the life we live together.

A church that began this way was never going to be easy, but it can be so beautiful. It’s so beautiful when we name each other, when we truly see each other in all the glory God has given each of us. It’s so beautiful when we teach each other new names for God, new languages of praise. It’s so beautiful when we see God’s image in all kinds of people.

It’s so beautiful when we do healthy conflict, and we can talk about our differences in the open even as we affirm our love and support for each other. It’s so beautiful when we get to see another person awaken to the Holy Spirit breathing in them, and come into their own with a new gift or a lifelong calling or an inspired insight. It’s so beautiful to hear us all speaking the love of God in our own languages.

And maybe this is part of how the Holy Spirit renews the face of the earth still: She rests on each of us. She gives us a word of hope to speak from the core of who we are, sometimes in a language we didn’t know we had, sometimes in a way no one else on this earth could have imagined it.

So, I pray that we see the holy flames of the Spirit among us—in this beautiful, messy church, and in all God’s glorious people. I pray we learn to listen for the wind of the Spirit wherever she might blow, beyond our comprehension and yet as close as our own breath. And I pray that we keep on teaching each other new languages for God’s love.