Good Friday | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 7 April 2023 | Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 | John 18:1-19:42

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who shared our human nature and lived and died as one of us. Amen.

Friends, today we dwell with a difficult and violent story: the story of Jesus’ death. This story of Jesus’ death is bloody and yet somehow it is also precious to us in this faith. So today I want to spend some time with the strangeness of the story, and the question of why it’s part of our faith, why it’s holy, why it makes a difference.  

Violence is already around us, and for me that makes Good Friday both especially difficult and especially important. In our country, shootings happen in schools and grocery stores and places of worship. The police that are supposed to protect people sometimes murder them instead. People all around the world die from war and from hunger, people who didn’t ask for any of this and just want to be safe and live their lives like any of us.

So we might wonder—why do we need another story of violence? We want to see less killing and not more. Most of us pray for peace and for safety. Some of us spend our time and tears working to change the conditions and the laws and the structures that make our world so violent and so unfair. We long for justice and for peace.  

So then what does it mean when we come to church and hear about another innocent person who came up against the unfairness of the world and died in terrible pain? And what does it mean when the person who died this way is also God?

Since early on in our faith, Christians have both embraced this story of Good Friday as holy and struggled with its meaning, often at the same time. We’re not going to solve all the questions about what Jesus’ death means today. We are not here to fully unravel the “holy mysteries” that we celebrate at the altar and remember in Holy Week. There is something about the cross that’s too deep for words.

And yet, it does matter what we say about the cross. For one thing, it matters because the story of the cross has been used to justify terrible violence in turn, especially Christian violence against our Jewish siblings; we need to tell the story in a way that won’t repeat that. It also matters because what we say about the cross flows into how we make sense of the violence and suffering we see around us now.

We know that we’re not going to solve everything. And I think if we asked everyone in this church what the cross means, we’d get a lot of different answers. That’s okay, and we can talk about it together; you don’t have to agree with my favorite ways of telling the story in order to be nourished by God’s mercy in the mystery of the cross.

So we’re holding these things in balance: We’re not going to fully understand the cross, and yet at the same time, what we say about it matters. There are many ways to tell the story, and we’ll look into three of them today as we try to make sense of Jesus’ suffering and our own.

One way of telling that story of the cross is that humans have messed up, and punishment has to happen in order to satisfy God’s justice, so Jesus steps in and takes that punishment for us by dying. For a lot of Christians, Jesus’ death in this story is key; it’s how God saves people from sin.

This is what I grew up believing. I grew up singing hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “There’s Power in the Blood.” And this way to tell the story gets at part of the truth of Jesus’ deep love for us. It also helps a people make sense of their own pain by seeing it as something connected with Jesus’ pain, something that ultimately has a meaning in God’s plan. And it fits well with some of the metaphors that Paul uses in the New Testament letters.

But at the same time, this way of telling the story, where Jesus takes our punishment, opens up some troubling questions about God for me. Questions like: Why couldn’t God just forgive us if God wanted to? If we can forgive people without making somebody pay, why can’t God?

And questions like: If God loves Jesus, what does it mean that God set Jesus up to be hurt on purpose? And also: What does it say about God and the world if more violence has to be the answer when things go wrong? Now, for many faithful Christians, these questions aren’t too troubling; or they’ve found answers that work for them while telling the story of how Jesus saves us in basically the same way.

But for me, wrestling with questions like these made me wonder if there might be other ways to tell the story. And eventually I learned that the story I grew up with wasn’t the only way—in fact, there are lots of other ways, some of them much older than the punishment story I learned.

Many early Christians didn’t even think Jesus’ death was the key moment in the story at all. They focused instead on the incarnation, the story of God becoming human in Jesus’ birth. For them, it wasn’t the Good Friday and Easter story of Jesus’ death and resurrection that mattered the most; it was the Christmas story of God being born as one of us.

These Christians believed that by becoming human, God changed what it means to be human and opened the way for us to become more like God, and that’s how we’re saved. It was by taking on human nature that Christ redeemed humanity and made us a new creation.

This way of telling the story of salvation is beautiful and gives me so much life. It also fits really well with a lot of the language in the New Testament about incarnation and about salvation as a new creation. It gets at another part of the truth—the truth of God’s loving relationship with us and God’s desire for us to flourish and be strong in coming near to God. It’s profoundly hopeful, and I fully believe it’s true that Christ’s incarnation changes the world and us.

And yet, this telling also has some gaps; it raises questions for me too. Beautiful as it is, I think it’s not the whole story on its own. It doesn’t tell us much about our own pain and our neighbors’ pain. And it doesn’t tell us what we’re doing here at the cross on Good Friday.

So we’ll look at one more way to tell the story of how Jesus saves us, and we’ll see what peace we can find there. In this telling, Jesus’ death is about how God chooses to be with us in suffering. We could say it’s about solidarity.

Liberation theologians have explored this way of telling the story—Latin American Catholic theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez and Black liberation theologians in the US like James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas. They read the Gospels and see the ways that even before the cross, Jesus puts himself in the company of folks who are poor and oppressed and suffering; he’s on their side, and he’s with them, and he’s one of them.

And so when we tell the story this way, the cross is the culmination of Jesus’ solidarity with humankind, especially with the people who suffer the most. In the solidarity story, God not only chooses to become human with us at the manger, but chooses to stick with us through the worst of human behavior at the cross.

When people hurt the most vulnerable ones among us, Jesus is still here with us, still being human even when it means dying in pain. Jesus’ death puts him right alongside the people who are the targets of violence in our sinful world.

So in the solidarity story of the cross, God doesn’t call for the violence against Jesus; it’s not a punishment given to him in our place. It happens for the same reason any other violence happens: because we humans haven’t yet figured out how to love and protect each other. And yet, the cross still matters deeply to the way that Jesus loves us and saves us. On Good Friday, God holds onto us even at our worst, and God is with us even when the worst happens.  

In this story, the cross means that if there’s a shooter in a classroom or a synagogue or a church or a Wal-Mart, Jesus gets shot too. Jesus is with those who die in prisons and traffic stops. Jesus is with folks who don’t have the care they need and die in childbirth. In the cross, when a transgender kid in a hostile state dies by suicide, Jesus does too.

The cross means that Jesus is with those who die in war and those who die hungry. God loves us so much that God chooses to be among us bodily even when we haven’t yet learned how to love one another, and even when the worst things happen to God’s body because of our sin.

In this liberation theology way to tell the story, Good Friday means that God is on the side of those who get hurt the most when our world is out of balance, so much that Jesus is willing to die among them. And Easter Sunday means that God will raise up everyone who suffers; God not only suffers and dies with us but delivers us from the sting of death and raises us to freedom and life.

But come back on Sunday for that. For today, let’s stay with the Good Friday part of the story: the part where Jesus’ body is broken for us, among us, with us; the part where the people who followed Jesus weep at the cross; the part where God loves us to the last breath.

This story is a mystery beyond our understanding. Sometimes we may feel it deeply in our bodies and our spirits, and sometimes it may be too much to take in. We do what we can to make sense of it with our minds. We tell the story in many ways. And year after year on Good Friday, we are invited to pray at the cross. God’s love meets us here, whatever words we use to tell the story this time.

And today at the cross, I hear an invitation to be present with suffering, our own and other people’s. Many of us tend to put these difficult feelings aside because we’re already overloaded and we’ve got to get through the day, and that’s normal.

But today when as we tell the story of Jesus choosing to abide with us in the worst of this world, I wonder if the cross might give us the strength to abide with our own pain awhile. Maybe we let ourselves feel it in our bodies, or talk it over with someone we trust, or pray it aloud, or find some way to mourn instead of putting it away again.

I wonder also if the cross might give us the strength to be present with someone else’s suffering, and maybe even to ease that suffering as we are able. When awful things happen in the world, it’s easy to be numb, and it’s normal; we can’t take on everything at once.

But today, I wonder if the cross might give us what we need to turn our numbness into compassion and our compassion into wise and courageous action. That’s the invitation I hear when the cross is about God choosing to be with us through pain.      

And I wonder what invitation you might hear as we gather at the cross this time. I wonder how you are telling the story of God’s saving love this time.

And friends, whatever words we might use, whatever sense we can make of it, whatever call we might hear at the cross, I pray that we meet Jesus here. I pray that whatever trouble we carry to the cross today, these holy mysteries may carry us toward God’s peace that passes understanding.


This is Marc Chagall’s 1938 painting White Crucifixion, which portrays Jesus’ crucifixion in the context of the persecution of Jews in Chagall’s own time.

Lent 4 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 19 March 2023 | 1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23| Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

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

Friends, we are more than half way on our journey of Lent. This Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare means rejoice. This Sunday is a chance to catch our breath and remember that Eastertide is on the way, even though we’re still in Lent. Springtime is on the way, despite the snow this morning. Resurrection is on the way, even if we find ourselves in the midst of grief. 

And today we pray the beloved Psalm 23. It’s a Psalm that has comforted the dying and the grieving and those in peril. Many of us know it by heart in the King James Version, whether or not that’s the Bible we grew up with. It’s a Psalm that gives us a glimpse of joy even when we’re still in the thick of it.

And so we’ll look at the psalmist’s faith that God is with us even when all is not well. And we’ll look at the Psalmist’s vision of God’s care for us, and the ways God wants to help make things well, the ways God wants to lead us into joy and abundance and rest. And we’ll reflect a little on how we might be called to receive God’s shepherding love for us in this season, and how we might be called to be good shepherds to each other.

The first thing I want us to notice about Psalm 23 today is that this Psalm already knows that all is not well with the world. Even as this Psalm expresses a deep faith in God’s goodness, it’s not written with naïve expectations that everything will be easy.

The valley of the shadow of death is right in the middle of the Psalm. It’s not always green pastures and still waters. The Psalmist’s enemies even make it in here—there are people who want to cause hurt and harm. And the Psalm doesn’t turn away from either of those things.

We have the valley of the shadow of death, which is a mythic, larger-than-life image of the hardships that come to us in this mortal existence: death and loss, and all the fear we experience knowing that we will die someday, and that so much of what we love is vulnerable to loss. So much of what makes us happy can be taken away. The valley of the shadow of death is not something we can avoid in this life, though we may feel we’re in it more intensely sometimes than others.

And then we have the Psalmist’s enemies, maybe an image of those more particular and petty struggles. Maybe these are the conflicts could have been avoided if people had been kinder, or if we’d been wiser. But they’re not always avoided; they’re still in the picture for the Psalmist.

Yet in the valley of the shadow of death and amid the threat of enemies, God is there. God does not make these difficult things go away, but God is with us to lead us and to feed us even there. Sometimes there’s no other way but through the valley. And yet, God is always, always with us.

As we come toward holy week, we are preparing to celebrate God’s presence with us even in death. We confess our faith in a God who became human in Jesus “to live and die as one of us” as our prayer at communion says. God is with us even when we are at our worst as humans, and even when we are facing the hardest parts of being human.

And God gives us courage because we know that we’re not alone in what we face. The Psalmist says, “I will not fear, for you are with me.” All of us are afraid sometimes. And a little fear is sometimes a good thing; it might help us avoid some of those dangers we can avoid. And yet, because God is with us, fear doesn’t have to be our way of life, even when we know that some dangers can’t be escaped.

We can walk with courage because our shepherd is with us even when all is not well, and we are far from thriving, and when (as the 1928 Prayer book says) “there is no health in us.” God is our shepherd even then, and God is always with us.

And at the same time, we see in Psalm 23 that God wants to lead us toward our flourishing. God wants to make all things well for us. God wants us to have what we need and more. God wants us to rest and enjoy. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters; he restoreth my soul; my cup runneth over.”

These images of beauty and plenty and peace remind me of Isaiah’s prophetic visions of the world God wants to bring about. It’s a world where everyone has enough, and all hurts are healed, and all creatures can enjoy the beauty of God’s gifts together. It’s a resurrection world where death doesn’t get the last word.

It’s a glimpse of the life where God wants to lead us. The green pastures and still waters are what God wants for us. It’s abundance—there’s plenty to eat and drink. It’s beauty—enjoying the peaceful and lovely parts of God’s world. And friends, it’s also rest. And I hear so much exhaustion in our community; rest is something we need.

I hear the tiredness from teachers and healthcare workers and students and parents. Folks who work in demanding jobs are tired. A lot of retired folks are tired too. Folks who do the hard and holy work of caring for family members are tired. Folks struggling with food insecurity are extra tired right now as they try to meet their family’s needs. Folks dealing with health crises are tired. I’m tired too even though I’m well and have everything I need. And sometimes it’s a lot of work to be a person and to be aware and to witness this world’s troubles.

Now, a Psalm is holy poetry, and I don’t want to reduce it to advice or directions, because it’s more than that. But at the same time, when I read this Psalm in light of the exhaustion I see in this community, “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures” really looks to me like God wants us all to take a nap if we need one. There is much more to the Psalm than “go take a nap.” But I do firmly believe that God longs for us all to flourish and be well, and resting is part of that.

Our value and our purpose in God’s sight are more than the work that we do. We are not just here to accomplish things—though our accomplishments can be good and worthy, and part of the paths of righteousness in which God wants to lead us. And this may be controversial: we are not here just to help others—though helping others is part of our calling as we share God’s dream for everyone to flourish.

Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse of purpose other than being useful. Maybe we are here to walk with God and follow God’s leading. Maybe we are here to witness God’s presence in the good and the bad. Maybe we are here to delight in the gifts God wants to give us. And so maybe our rest is just as good and holy as our work. Maybe we are called to lie down and rest instead of get up and do another thing. Maybe we are called to pause and let goodness and mercy catch up to us.

And so as we continue this holy season of Lent, I invite us to listen for where God might be leading us toward rest and joy.

I invite us to reflect on what the path of righteousness might look like for us in this season—because it doesn’t always look the same. Maybe we are called to prayer or study or listening. Maybe we are called to go outside and enjoy creation. Maybe we can enjoy the beauty God has given us through one another’s creativity in music and art and literature. Maybe this week we’ll taste God’s goodness in a delicious meal. Or maybe we’ll lie down for a God-given nap.

And perhaps we’ll be called to be good shepherds to others as God has been a good shepherd to us. Perhaps we’ll be called to share what we have so that someone else’s cup can run over instead of running dry. Perhaps we are even called to walk with someone through the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps we’ll see a moment to offer rest or joy to someone else, knowing God wants us all to have rest and joy.

So friends, let us listen for the leading of our good shepherd. Let us claim the goodness God offers for ourselves, and let us share it with others freely. Amen.

Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon, The Good Shepherdess.

Ash Wednesday | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 22 February 2023 | Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 | Psalm 103 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O gracious and merciful God who knows whereof we are made and remembers we are dust. Amen.

Friends, welcome to Ash Wednesday. This day begins the holy season of Lent. This day invites us to return to God, who is compassionate and merciful. This day calls us to remember our own mortality and our need for God’s help. And this season gives us tools to turn out hearts toward God.

One of the great gifts of the church year is to provide space for us to hold truths that are in tension. In Epiphany this year, we had seven weeks for seeing God’s shining glory and claiming our beloved-ness, and in Lent we will have six weeks for repentance and naming our need for help. Both of these experiences are true, and our faith makes space for both of these realities in the calendar.

Lent makes room for failure, room for grief, room to name the ways that all is not well with our world, and all is not well with us. Lent not only invites us to return to God, but Lent assumes that returning to God can actually be pretty hard to do. If we could just decide all in a minute, “I am going to return to God now” and do it easily every time, we might not need forty days. We might not need these ashes we’re about to put on our foreheads, or any of our Lenten practices, or the prayers and the stories in our worship that carry us through this season.

When I first came to churches like this, Lent was a new experience. I especially treasured Lent because the faith I grew up with sometimes had trouble making room for grief and for the slow process of turning to God. Sometimes the expectation was that the more faithful you were, the more cheerful you’d be, even in tough times. After the fact I learned a term for this: “toxic positivity.” And we’re not immune to toxic positivity in churches like ours either.

Grief and anger are difficult to deal with, and so sometimes we want to just force a smile, offer a platitude, and move on without digging any deeper into the causes of the grief or the anger. And sometimes we expect other people to do the same so that we don’t have to deal with it. In church communities, these expectations can be especially damaging because when positivity is seen as a measure of faithfulness, it can be hard to address the problems we have.

Even while I was still in the churches where I grew up, some of my teachers there helped me get free of this mindset by helping me to read the prophets in the Old Testament.

We read Jeremiah’s laments; this is a faithful prophet whose city is in ruin, and he spends chapters and chapters of his book crying and wailing and even ranting at God over the suffering he has seen and endured. And he still gets to be a holy prophet and still gets to be in scripture.

We read Isaiah. Isaiah’s visions show how God wants all God’s creatures to flourish and have joy. Yet at the same time, there is room for grief and anger when there’s injustice and suffering and the world doesn’t live up to God’s vision of hope and wholeness.

In our reading today from the prophet Joel, we can see that sometimes weeping is the appropriate response to the events of the world and to our own failures. We start Lent with a reminder that sometimes it can be faithful and righteous to be heartbroken.

The writer and liturgist Cole Arthur Riley said in her newsletter this week: “Lent, more than most things, is about existing in the pain of the world, not rushing past it toward spiritual toxic positivity.” In Lent, we get to surface things it’s hard to talk about. And that’s one of the reasons that Lent meant so much to me when I first came into churches that do it. Something in me was hungry for ways to abide with grief faithfully, ways to practice repentance patiently.

 In the churches where I grew up, we talked about sin and repentance plenty, but we didn’t really talk about how to come to repentance, except that you have to decide to stop sinning and then you have to behave differently. In Lent, we recognize that turning our hearts to God takes time and practice. We can’t always just do it in a moment.

It isn’t so much about mustering up the guts to change our lives in an act of willpower. It’s more about taking the time to create conditions where change can grow. It’s like building muscle memory. It’s like preparing the soil to grow a garden.

The rituals and prayers and stories of this season help us return to God. We remember God’s infinite grace and mercy; we acknowledge our own frailty and our need for help; and in many different ways and different voices and different practices, we call on God’s love to save us. Today’s ash is part of that. And some of us might find practices such as fasting or special prayer or Lenten study part of it too.

But both Joel and Matthew make clear that our practices of repentance are not about externals but about the heart. Joel says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Matthew warns against putting on a show for others with the practice of fasting. Repentance is about re-orienting ourselves to God, and the point is that we turn to God and ask for God’s help in our weakness and our need.

And so what we do in Lent may look a lot of different ways, and that’s fine. All of our hearts have different histories, different wounds, different gifts, different ways that they know how to turn. God’s grace is here for all of us, whatever injuries we carry, whatever capacities we have, whatever the shape of our turning might be this season.

For some of us, giving something up for Lent can be a part of how we turn towards God. Some people give up a particular kind of food, and when they crave that food, they remember to turn to prayer. Fasting from food is an ancient practice many faithful people have used to turn toward God.

For some of us, fasting from food isn’t helpful—some of us have health problems that make fasting difficult, and some of us have painful histories with food insecurity or diet culture, and about 10% of people have had an eating disorder at some point in their life. For some of us, fasting related to food brings up hurt, and for some it’s just not particularly where we’re called. I don’t give up foods for Lent.

There are other ways to fast in Lent if we feel we might be called to give something up. Sometimes in Lent, I give up buying things I don’t need on the internet. Giving something up can be a chance to re-set our relationship with activities that might not be bad in themselves but might need a checkup or a re-balancing from time to time. But again, giving things up might be hurtful for some of us, and for others it just might not be the way our hearts best turn.

We might also consider if we’re called to take something on in Lent to help turn our hearts to God. This year I’m spending extra time with the Gospels each week.

Some of us may not be called either to give anything up or to take on any new spiritual practice. For some of us, the prayers and the stories and the rituals of Lent will be enough to turn our hearts toward God. For some of us, it won’t be a new practice, but a deepening of what we already do that helps us turn to God. For some of us, it will be taking conscious moments to breathe with the Spirit and ground in God’s presence with us. And for some of us, the Spirit will surprise us, whatever we’re practicing or not practicing.

Friends, whether or not we choose to do something in Lent that takes some work for us, we’re never working our way to God or to goodness. What we might do is create a little extra space in ourselves that helps us be more ready to receive the grace God always wants to give us.

God knows whereof we are made. God always wants to heal us and forgive us. God always wants to satisfy us with good things and renew us. God is always gracious and merciful, abounding in love. So let us turn our hearts to God. Amen.

Joanna and Holly in the doorway of St. Paul's with ash marks on their foreheads, smiling; the St. Paul window is visible in the background.