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Easter Sunday | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 9 April 2023 | Jeremiah 31:1-6 | Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 | Acts 10:34-43 | John 20:1-18

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

Happy Easter, friends! Today we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Today we come to the empty tomb with Peter and John. Today we meet Jesus with Mary Magdalene, and with her we proclaim the good news that Christ is risen. We proclaim the good news that resurrection is not just a singular miracle that happened to one person two thousand years ago; resurrection life is for us too. Today, hope meets us in the risen body of Jesus.

This hope ripples through our scriptures today. The Psalmist trusts in God and says, “I shall not die, but live.” The prophet Jeremiah proclaims God’s “everlasting love” and says, “the people who survived the sword have found grace in the wilderness.” In Acts, Peter preaches that the good news of Jesus’ risen life is for all people, not just a few.

The good news is that God’s love brings life. If you were here Good Friday, you heard the good news that God loves us so much that God is willing to die with us. The good news of Easter is that once that’s happened, God doesn’t stay dead, and God doesn’t want us to stay dead either.

The Good Friday story is that God is with us in the worst humanity can do; God is with us in suffering and injustice and death. The Easter story is that God turns suffering into joy, God delivers the oppressed from injustice, God transforms death into life. Jesus didn’t come only to meet us in this broken world, but to heal it and us, to bring life in the midst of death.

A line from a poem has been in my head for the last few weeks. It’s from “Spring Song” by Lucille Clifton. I came across this as I was gathering poems for the Lenten Quiet Day. Lucille Clifton says, “the world is turning in the body of Jesus, and the future is possible.”

That’s a word of hope I need this Easter. “The world is turning in the body of Jesus, and the future is possible.” Because right now the future doesn’t always seem possible. We don’t know what will happen in our political system. We don’t know if we can find the collective will to stop gun violence. We don’t know if the wars that are raging now will ever come to an end. We don’t know if we’ll be able to avert ecological collapse and pass on a livable planet to the next generation.

And yet: “The world is turning in the body of Jesus, and the future is possible.” The resurrection life that brings Jesus up from the tomb enfolds the whole cosmos. The world is turning; we’re not stuck. The world is turning in the body of Jesus. Maybe somehow, in a holy mystery, in a dazzling miracle, somehow Jesus’ body coming to life encompasses our own bodies, and the bodies of the dispossessed, and our whole broken planet with its waters and its wars and its myriad creatures.

In this holy mystery, we shall not die, but live, and declare the works of our God, whose mercy endures forever. In this miracle of resurrection, we find grace in the wilderness; we find life in the midst of death. In the risen body of Christ, we find hope even amid fears.

And friends, hope is itself a mystery and a miracle. Hope is not always easy in this world. And hope is so much more than just a positive attitude and an expectation that things will work out fine. Hope isn’t about ignoring what’s wrong with this world, but about the courage to imagine and act for a better world. Climate writer Rebecca Solnit says, “hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky… hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.”

Hope is active. Hope is brave. Hope is revolutionary. Hope is what we need to be whole in the midst of terror; hope is what we need to change this world into a better one for ourselves and those who come after.

And in the resurrection, hope has a body. “The world is turning in the body of Jesus, and the future is possible.” The hope of the resurrection is not a hope for our souls only (though it is that) but also for our bodies, and this hope meets us bodily. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus alive in the flesh. In our reading from Acts, when Peter proclaims the good news of resurrection in just a few sentences, he includes the detail that Jesus ate and drank with the disciples after rising from the dead. Peter testifies to Jesus physically eating and drinking as a resurrected body.

God made our bodies, and God came to us in a body, and God raised Jesus in that same body that was broken for us. Salvation meets us in these bodies of ours that have allergies and migraines, these bodies that break bones and lose limbs and get cancer, these bodies that age and die. Resurrection is for these brave, always beautiful, always breaking bodies that carry us as long as they can. God loves us in these bodies; God raises us to new life in these bodies.

When we gathered at the cross on Friday, we talked about how Good Friday means that God is on the side of those who get hurt the most when our world is off kilter, so much that Jesus is willing to die among them, to have his body treated as one of theirs. And today we celebrate the resurrection: Easter Sunday means that God will raise up everyone who suffers. Resurrection life is God’s deliverance for the poor in spirit and for those who mourn and for those whose bodies have been battered by the unfairness of this world.

That deliverance starts with the body of Jesus that can’t be held down by empire or hatred or even death. “The world is turning in the body of Jesus, and the future is possible.” The world is turning toward justice in the wounded body of Jesus. The world is turning toward freedom in the rising body of Jesus. The world is turning toward wholeness in the beloved body of Jesus.

And in the body of Jesus, we are turning too. 

In Jesus’ broken body, we turn toward forgiveness. In Jesus’ wounded body, we turn toward grace in the wilderness and deliverance from death. In Jesus’ rising body, we turn toward God’s everlasting love for us all. In Jesus’ lifegiving body, we turn toward a brave hope.

In the mysteries of the altar and the mysteries of Holy Week, we celebrate that we are somehow part of the crucified and risen body of Jesus. St. Paul says in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ… the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me.” St. Paul says in Romans that we are baptized into Christ’s death, and so “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

In the church, we are the body of Christ, even as we eat the body of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. St. Augustine says to people receiving communion, “Be what you see; receive what you are.” Sisters and brothers and siblings, we are the body of Christ.

“The world is turning in the body of Jesus, and the future is possible.” The world is turning in us, and the future is possible. We carry deliverance in our bodies. We carry grace in our bodies. We carry everlasting love in our bodies. We carry hope in our bodies, and the future is possible.

And friends, if we’re not ready for the tambourines and the dancing and the joy of risen life right now, if we’re too tired, if we’re too sad today—then all the more, this hope is for us. And we have time to come into it. We have fifty days of Easter. We have an eternity of God’s everlasting love. We’ll help each other. Another poet says, “leave comfort root-room.” Hope meets us wherever we are.

So friends, let us expect grace in the wilderness together this Easter season. Let us carry a brave hope in our bodies. Let us revel in God’s everlasting love for us. Let us walk in newness of life, as the resurrecting, lifegiving body of Christ. And as the world turns in the body of Jesus, let us find out together what future is possible. Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

The Feast of St. Francis (Transferred) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 9 October 2022 | Job 39:1-18 | Psalm 121 | Romans 8:18-25 | Matthew 11:25-30

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may, for love of you, delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today we welcome animals into the church, and we celebrate the life of St. Francis. We’ll keep things simple today; we’ve got critters to bless and vanities of the world to renounce and creation to enjoy. So we’ll remember St. Francis’ story and reflect on the gifts his holy life offers us now. In the words of our collect, St. Francis renounced the vanities of this world and delighted in God’s creation.

Francis was a generous kid drawn to spiritual things. His family had made a comfortable life as silk merchants in medieval Italy, and Francis enjoyed the luxuries of that life.

The stories tell us that in his early 20s, Francis had a vision in a church near his home. Christ appeared to him and called on him to repair the church. Francis tried to use his family’s wealth to pay for repairs, and his father beat him, locked him up, and took legal action to disinherit him.

Some versions of the story even say that while the trial was going on, Francis renounced his inheritance and stripped naked to give back the clothing that belonged to his family. The bishop then covered Francis with his robe.

Francis went on to found the Franciscan order, a brotherhood of monks dedicated to poverty. With them, Francis preached the good news of Jesus, lived simply, prayed, and found holiness among people begging and sick people, where he saw Christ’s presence most clearly on earth.

St. Francis saw all people as sisters and brothers and siblings, and even claimed a kinship with God’s non-human creations. There’s a story about Francis negotiating a peace treaty with a wolf that was terrorizing a town called Gubbio.

There’s also a story that when Francis was travelling with some of his brother monks, they came up to some trees full of birds. And Francis said, “Wait a bit. I’m going up there to preach to our sisters the birds.” And he came close, and he spoke God’s love to the birds, and they didn’t fly away.

St. Francis is known for his delight in God’s whole creation as good and beloved and interconnected. We see that joy in creation in our reading from Job. The mountain goats and the wild donkeys and the ostriches might be beyond our control. Sometimes the world’s creatures are beyond our understanding. And yet, God made them too. God delights in them too, and we can share God’s delight in them. They are part of creation with us.

St. Francis wrote a prayer called the Canticle of the Sun to give thanks to God for different parts of creation and claim them as our sisters and brothers and friends. He wrote:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and pure.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night; and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

And so this is one of the gifts of St. Francis’ life for us: to help us see the beauty and wonder of creation around us. This is why we (and many churches) bless animals near St. Francis’ feast day—because St. Francis saw God’s creatures as holy and good and worthy of our respect. St. Francis shows us how to “delight in God’s whole creation with perfectness of joy.”

And this might seem like a paradox in St. Francis’ life—he both rejects the world and loves the world.

He turns his back on the life that’s expected of him: the money, the busyness of the family trade, the comfort and respectability that his family worked so hard for. And in doing so, he turns to face the world God offers—the face of Christ amid poverty and suffering, a kinship that includes the sun and the moon, the water and the wolves and the birds.

He says no to one form of enjoying the world in order to say yes to a different one. We see this in the language we use at baptism: Our faith calls us to “joy and wonder in all God’s works,” and at the same time calls us to renounce “all sinful desires that draw us [away] from the love of God.” Though most of us aren’t going to be saints like Francis, we are called to this same tension.

This paradox—where we both love the world and reject the world—exists for a reason. It’s because the world itself is in a crisis of identity, and we’re right there with it. St. Paul tells us in Romans that creation itself longs to be set free.

Creation is in labor; creation is still waiting for what God will do. God is in the process of redeeming this world, and right now it is both wondrous and wandering astray. The world we live in is both God’s glorious and beloved creation and at the same time, it’s a place full of distractions and cruelty and confusion.

And so it makes sense that we both need to “renounce the vanities of this world” and “delight in God’s whole creation.” For St. Francis, the renouncing led to the delight. Giving up his share of wealth and comfort and social importance was what led him to the kind of life where he could see Christ in his poorest neighbors and commune with the birds.

So I wonder what that call might look like for us now. I wonder how we might reject the vanities of this world in order to delight in what God has made and claim our kinship with creation. We can start small.

 Maybe instead of buying something that we don’t need and that won’t last, we could share that money with someone we know who could use a hand.

Maybe there’s a claim on our time this week that we might do out of habit or obligation, but we kind of know it will be neither useful nor joyful—and maybe we could try crossing that thing off the calendar this time. Maybe we could take a walk in the woods or snuggle an animal instead.

Maybe we’re being hard on someone and we could ease off. Or maybe there’s a relationship where we never feel like we’re seen as good enough; maybe we could start to let go of that person’s expectations a bit and make room for joy.

Because God wants to give us joy, friends. God wants to free us along with all of creation. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Perhaps like St. Francis, we’ll find that when we renounce the vanities of this world, it’s our own heavy burdens that we’ve laid down. And we can walk a little lighter.

There’s a lightness to St. Francis’ way in the world—he suffered pain and trouble on the path he chose, and yet his gift was to see the beauty God gave in the midst of it. Releasing control opened St. Francis up to new kinds of joy and wonder and connection and playfulness.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney gets at this sense of play in a poem about St. Francis preaching to the birds, and we’ll end with that:

When Francis preached love to the birds

They listened, fluttered, throttled up

Into the blue like a flock of words

Released for fun from his holy lips.

Then wheeled back, whirred about his head,

Pirouetted on brothers’ capes.

Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played

And sang, like images took flight.

Which was the best poem Francis made,

His argument true, his tone light.

Friends, may we also find such lightness as we lay our burdens down and delight in God’s whole creation. Amen.

A manuscript illumination of St. Francis with birds and animals, from Italy ca. 1320-42; in the public domain and accessed through the Met Gallery online.

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.

Amen.  

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 Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 17 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 28 August 2022 | Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God the fountain of living water.

Good morning, friends. Today we come to the waters of baptism together again. We do this at Easter, and at feasts of baptism, and whenever someone among us comes to be baptized. In a few minutes, we’ll baptize baby Jean into Christ’s church.

So today we’ll all renew our Baptismal Covenant as we welcome Jean into the community of the baptized. We’ll remember what we signed up for as Christians, and the good news we proclaim by word and example. We’ll renew the faith we’ve found, and we’ll reflect on what kind of faith we want to pass on to Jean and to other young Christians in our care and to our neighbors and to each other.  

Our readings speak to this faith too, and to the process of passing it from generation to generation. We learn again what it looks like to live out the faith we’ve learned. Our scriptures speak to the abundant life we find in God, and what it’s like to drink living water.

In Jeremiah, we learn deep truths about faith from a lament for its absence. The prophet, in God’s voice says, “my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and have dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” You might know a cistern is a water tank. You use it to hold water if you don’t have a well or if you know that your well dries up part of the year. It’s not as good as having fresh water, but it’s better than having no water.

So the accusation here is that God’s people are turning to something less good than the gift God offers. Sometimes we do that: We hoard resources and we scrape by on something stale and limited, when we could be tapping into the love of God that is right under our feet.

God is a fountain of living water. Living water is water that’s moving—like water in a river or an actively bubbling spring. That matters if you don’t have plumbing, because living water is safer to drink; it doesn’t have a chance to get stagnant. It also matters because unlike water in a cistern, there’s not a small, finite amount of it—it’s flowing from somewhere, and it keeps flowing. It’s abundant.    

And we are baptized into the living water that is God. We are baptized into the grace and vitality and freedom and flow and abundance of God’s own life. In this baptized life, we don’t have to hoard water in cracked, leaky cisterns—we make our camp right on top of a well that never runs dry. In our Psalm, God says God wants to feed God’s people with the best food, satisfy God’s people with honey from the rock.

Luke says more about what that abundance is, and what it isn’t. When we drink living water, we’re not here to jockey for position. We have honey from the rock, so we don’t have to make exchanges that will profit us in social life.

We can afford to be humble and not try to push our way up the status ladder, because we know that God upholds our dignity. We can afford to give without expecting anything back, because we know that God provides abundantly.

 And in the letter to the Hebrews, we see even more clearly what the life of baptized people looks like. We love each other. We show hospitality (we seek and serve Christ in all persons, as our Baptismal Covenant says). We are faithful in the commitments we make. We have living water; God is our helper, and so we don’t need to chase after money and status. We learn from the legacy of faith passed down to us, as we pass it on to the next generation. We praise God. We do good. We share what we have. It’s just what we do in baptized life, as normal as breathing or washing our hands.

These are the basics of Christian ethics, and yet so much more than basic. Regular human kindness and hospitality can become an encounter with the angels. Love for those suffering can change the whole world.

Simple faithfulness can become a pattern of beauty and strength that spans decades in our own lifetimes and millennia in the communion of the saints. When we share what we have, even if it doesn’t seem like much, we are taking part in God’s movement to feed all creatures and to reconcile the cosmos. (Remember that when baby Jean decides to feed all her cheerios to pets under the table.) And baptism is one way that God weaves our most ordinary, creaturely capacity to do good into God’s dream for the world.

And today our church gets to welcome another little life into that dream with us. We get to support her in her life in Christ, as we continue to support the other young Christians among us, as we continue to support each other, as we all grow in the faith together.

We here at St. Paul’s will get to learn from the wisdom God gives baby Jean, and we’ll get to help teach her what God’s grace looks like in action. Wherever Jean goes in her life, she will always have been baptized here.

She’ll always have a part in the lifegiving, resilient legacy of faith passed down here in this community, starting at this baptismal font. You may know that this font has been through fire and water already; we’ve told this story and will tell it again. After the flood in 1937, our church was rebuilt, only to burn down in 1938. But this baptismal font survived.

When the wooden floor of the sanctuary burned, the font came crashing down to the undercroft below. It’s broken at the edges here, under one side. But it’s still with us. It’s a little bit battered, but it holds water just fine. It is not a cracked cistern. It is still a place where people can encounter the living waters of baptism, the fountain of God’s love.

And so are we, friends. Some of us are a little rough around the edges; some of us carry scars from what we’ve been through. Some of us carry pain we should never have had to carry. But we are here. We still have the capacity to hold the living water that flows from God. And we are passing on the faith.   

We don’t yet have the vision here to know what the church will look like when Jean grows up; we won’t be able to teach her exactly how to live into the call the Spirit gives in the future. But we do know the love of Jesus that was with the saints yesterday, that is with us today, and that carries on forever. That’s what we pass on to all those we care for, and to Jean as she grows up in this church.

The most important thing is that she knows she is loved. The most important thing is that she knows where the living water is. And the best way we can teach baby Jean or anybody else about that is to live it ourselves. Our words can only go so far.

The way we can show other people the springs of living water is by drinking from them deeply ourselves. The best thing we can do for baby Jean or anyone else whose faith we come to care for and nourish is this: We can let God love us, and we can show the ones we love how that’s going.

God’s life is already among us. Living water flows free. If you are lucky enough to know baby Jean as she grows up, please show her where it flows for you. If you are lucky enough to spend time with our children and youth, please show them the springs you’ve found so far.

Tell the people you love where you find living water as each season of your life unfolds. Sometimes you will be so glowing with grace that you won’t even have to say any words—you will be so clearly living in the flow of God’s love for you and for creation. And that is how we pass on the faith; that’s how we proclaim the good news by word and example.

So today I invite you to reflect: Where have you known God’s love for you lately? Where have you tasted living water? What was it like the first time that you really knew you were forgiven?  And where do you find life right now? What are the things that nourish you? Where do you find peace and joy in your walk of faith?

These are the things worth sharing as we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. These are things worth teaching to the young people among us. These are things worth shouting from the rooftops or whispering to our loved ones at night or texting to our priests or our friends in the middle of the day. What does God’s living water taste like to you in this season of your life? Where is it flowing?   

And friends, if you start to reflect on where you find living water, and you realize you have actually been thirsty for a long time now, God’s love is here for you too. It’s not too late to find it together. If you’ve been struggling along with a cracked cistern that keeps on leaking all the life out of you, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

If you’ve been dry for a season or for decades, you’re not alone. God loves you, and we love you. Come talk with me or Holly or someone you trust, and we’ll look together for the gift God longs to give you. We will find our way back to the honey from the rock, the spring that never dies.

Life can be so hard, friends—and there is always grace for the asking in the midst of it. There is living water for all of us. And the gift of the church (for Jean and for all of us) is that whenever we get stuck in a place where we can’t find our way to God’s love, we have each other to help us get unstuck. We help each other remember the living water that is always here for us. We help each other remember our baptism, whether we were too young to remember the moment of our baptism, or we remember but have forgotten the grace of it. We remind each other of the living water of baptism.    

There is living water to drink. There is living water to splash around in our joy. There is cool, fresh, living water to wash our faces when we’re weary with crying. It’s here for me, and for you, and for baby Jean, and it’s here for everyone we love. The water of God’s love springs from the ground under our feet and falls from the sky above us.

So, trusting in that love, let us pray for baby Jean and for ourselves: Holy God, we thank you for the living water of your love, and for the water of baptism.

We thank you for baby Jean, and the blessing of a new life in our community. Bless her with every good gift as she grows in your love. Help us to love her well and pass on a lifegiving faith to her.

Give us all grace to return again and again to your waters of healing when we are wandering or in need, and to help each other find the way back to your peace whenever we miss it.

Help us to drink deeply of the springs you give us.  And from that welling abundance, help us to proclaim your good news by word and example to Jean and to all.

In the name of the Maker who loves us, and of the Word who saves us, and of the Holy Spirit who flows within us. Amen.

a photo of a stained glass window detail showing blue water flowing over Jesus' bony feet with plants and geometric designs below
Living water flowing over Jesus’ toes from our stained glass window of Jesus’ baptism.

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.

Amen.

The image is Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon “Christ Breaks the Rifle” (https://kellylatimoreicons.com/…/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 Eighth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 13 | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 31 July 2022 |Hosea 11:1-11 | Psalm 107:1-9, 43 | Colossians 3:1-11 | Luke 12:13-21

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

Okay friends, we’re doing this—it’s time to talk about the prophet Hosea. You might remember that last week’s reading from Hosea featured the word “whoredom” repeated a very uncomfortable number of times.

And a lot of things about the book of Hosea are deeply uncomfortable. So we’re going to go carefully. But if we can work with our discomfort, we’ll get through to a good word here for us about ourselves and about who God is.

Last week we talked about naming God in prayer. In Hosea, we see both our glorious potential to imagine to God, and also the limits of our ability to say who really God is. And the really good news is that God is in our midst, always loving us, and God breaks through no matter how messy it gets.

And Hosea is really messy, folks. Hosea was a prophet in Israel in the 8th Century B.C.E. The setup of the book is that he and his family become a dramatization of God’s relationship with the people. We read this last week.

Hosea is supposed to marry a woman whom he knows will be unfaithful to him, and this is supposed to show how God’s people have been unfaithful to God by worshipping idols and disobeying the commandments.

Hosea has children with this woman, Gomer, and he gives the children names that tell the story of the rift between God and God’s people—names that literally mean “Not Loved” and “Not My People” in Hebrew. The narrative is a little messy too, but it seems Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea as expected, maybe more than once, but then they eventually reconcile. The children are renamed “Beloved” and “My People” to signify that God will claim God’s people again. That’s the first two chapters, and the rest is prophetic poetry where God’s voice and the prophet’s voice interweave.

The first chapter of that prophetic poetry is closely connected to the Hosea and Gomer story. It might be spoken by Hosea to his wife Gomer, or by God to Israel, or maybe both at the same time. And in that poetry, we find professions of love all mixed up with some really scary threats of punishment. The plot arc is that after a time of estrangement, God will forgive God’s people and reconcile with them, and their love will be deeper than ever before.  

I think there is a lot here in the story of Hosea and his family that’s truly disturbing. First off, the children definitely did not sign up to be in this play about divine forgiveness, and maybe Gomer didn’t either.

There are also a lot of really tricky things going on with gender and power in this drama. It’s a problem for women when a woman happens to play the role of unfaithfulness who needs to be gotten back into line, and a man happens to play the role of… an all-knowing God whose decisions are always justified.  

The structure of the drama in Hosea plays into social problems we already have—problems about gender and power and virtue, and who gets to make decisions, and who we consider good and trustworthy. Metaphors like this feed into a system that already makes it harder for women to be free in the world.

And what’s maybe even more troubling, the story of Gomer and Hosea and their children sounds a lot like real life stories we might know of abusive relationships and even domestic violence. Feminist and womanist scholars like Renita J. Weems have pointed out this connection.

God/Hosea threatens Israel/Gomer with violence, and he claims that the punishment is justified by her behavior. He deprives her of resources, he keeps her from leaving the house, and he even brings the children into the conflict. He has lots of different ways to control her behavior. She tries to escape, but he ultimately wins her back with a mix of gifts and threats and promises of even greater love.

If you’ve walked with a survivor of domestic abuse, or you are one, or you’ve heard someone’s story who has been through this, then chapters 2 and 3 of Hosea might seem horrifyingly familiar. And if hearing this story now is bringing up things you’d like to talk about, Holly and I are here for you. And if surviving abuse is part of your past or your present, we can help you find other resources.

Womanist and feminist Bible scholars have read these first few chapters of Hosea with survivors in mind, from Gomer’s perspective. They’ve unpacked the connections with real life patterns of abuse, and they’ve named the need for the church to be clear: we don’t believe that God is like this.

Even though this story is in scripture, the God we worship loves us unconditionally. The God we worship is not about control at all costs. The God we worship is not on the abuser’s side in situations of domestic violence. The God we worship stands with survivors, and the church does too. We can be clear about that.

Because the story in the beginning Hosea isn’t the whole picture of who God is; it’s one attempt to tell the story of God’s love. Depending on our view of scripture, we might handle the presence of this story differently.

If you are just learning that the Bible has stories that imagine God in this way, it is okay to be disturbed and confused and upset right now. Working through that kind of disturbance and confusion can lead toward growth and maturity in faith. And you also don’t have to work through it alone—we can talk and pray and study about these things together and see what makes sense to you.  

Some of us have a view of Biblical inspiration where everything in the Bible is perfectly good and true in itself (even if it can be interpreted badly). From that perspective, we might say that this story is ok because it’s one metaphor; it’s God and not an actual controlling husband. In this view, the story itself is good and revelatory, but maybe it has the potential to be misused, and so we need to be careful with it.

Some of us believe that there’s room for flaws in the inspiration of the Bible, that God reveals Godself truly and powerfully in the midst of our human mess, and not separate from it in the Bible. That’s where I am. And from this perspective, we can say that maybe the story at the beginning of Hosea is a flawed attempt to understand God’s love.

We can recognize that the prophet Hosea was telling the story of God’s love as best he could, with the resources that he had. We might cringe when we have to read about whoredom in church, and that’s fine. We might choose not to spend much or any time with this story if it stirs up hurts for us, and that’s fine too.

But maybe we can understand that in some ways, we’re right there with Hosea, doing our best to tell the story of God’s love with what we’ve got, making a lot of mistakes, but still keeping the conversation going. And there is faithfulness in keeping the conversation going, as messy as it is. There is holiness and beauty in the struggle to name God.

And today we’ve stuck with that struggle. We’ve been through a lot of rough stuff so far in our conversation with Hosea. Thank you for coming across this difficult terrain with me so far; it’s been hard work.

And now it’s time for some really good news. I am ready for some good news now.

The really good news is that even when we tell the story of God’s love in a flawed way, God breaks through with that love in all its glory and power anyway. The really good news is that when we keep the conversation going, even in a messy way, God is part of that conversation too, and God talks back. God names Godself in our midst.    

The really good news is here in today’s reading from Hosea chapter 11. It’s that God’s love can’t be shaken, no matter what we’ve done. It’s that God cares for us with tenderness and compassion. The really good news is that God is God, far beyond any metaphor we could use. And in Hosea 11, God comes right out and says so.

By this point in the book, the conversation has gone beyond the metaphor of a husband and a wife. God has shown up in many voices—not just as an aggrieved spouse but as a mourner, as a plaintiff in the courtroom, and even as a lion chasing its prey. And in chapter 11, we start a new voice for God with this parent-child metaphor. God cares for God’s people like a parent who can’t stop loving their child, and God turns away from wrath to endless compassion.

Some scholars read this as specifically a mother and child metaphor because women were usually the caretakers in early childhood, and because when it says “I bent down to them and fed them,” that sounds like God is scooping up a child to breastfeed. So Hosea likely imagines God as a mother here, caring for her child and choosing compassion.

In the early chapters of Hosea, God threatens to give God’s people up to punishment if they won’t change their ways. But here, God turns away from that judgment; God knows that she can’t abandon her children.

One metaphor—the contentious marriage—worked for the prophet Hosea (whether or not it works for us) to tell some truths about God’s relationship with God’s people. But even for Hosea, that one metaphor wasn’t enough. The image of the parent and child tells the story of God’s love in a different way. It’s a way of naming God that shifts things.

And then something even more stunning happens. The first part of the book was like a play where Hosea and Gomer act out the relationship between God and the people. But now it’s like God takes the stage and breaks the fourth wall. “I will not execute my fierce anger,” God says, “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

The voice of God here says that mercy, and not destruction, will be the way forward. And what’s more, the reason for that mercy is that God is God. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.” The Holy One is in our midst, and unlike us mortals, the Holy One chooses mercy.

The reason that our human images are not enough to describe God truly is that God is always even more compassionate than even the best people we know, never less. And so here in Hosea, the voice of God pushes back against images that were not deep enough to hold the depth of God’s compassion for God’s people.

And if we look at the Hebrew text here, that pushback becomes even more direct. Our New Revised Standard translation says “I am God and no mortal.” And that’s because this translation tries to be gender-neutral when it can, which I usually appreciate.

But I think the specific word here makes a difference in this case. Because we have a Hebrew word for person in general, and we have a different word for man as in male person in particular, and Hosea uses that last one here. So how it reads in Hebrew is “I am God and not a man.” Or even “I am God and not a husband” (because husband is the same word).

It’s this same word that Hosea uses several times in the early chapters talking his relationship with Gomer and God’s relationship with God’s people when he says they’re husband and wife.

But now God says, “I am God, and not a man. I am God, and not a human husband.” Or maybe even “I’m not really that person we were talking about earlier. I’m better than that, because I am the Holy One and not a mortal.” The book of Hosea holds this tension. We have the dramatized metaphor of God as a man in a particular relationship having mercy in a limited way in the first chapters, and then here we have God saying God is not a man at all, God is beyond that, and God’s love is more than what we could imagine.

The book of Hosea itself questions its own central metaphor in this moment. I am grateful to 20th– and 21st-century feminist scholars for unpacking the complexity and violence of that metaphor so well.

But we didn’t actually have to wait for this movement of scholarship to arrive in order to question the metaphor of God as a punishing spouse. That questioning was already happening about the 8th Century B.C.E. That pushback is already here in the text in God’s voice in chapter 11.

And I believe that’s because God really was there with the prophet Hosea, breaking through the mess of it all to be God, in all of God’s glory and faithfulness and love. Because God has always been breaking through the mess to be God. And that is good news.

And God really is here with us too, in all of our messes, in all of our misunderstandings, in all of our best efforts and all of our epic failures. The Holy One is in our midst. God is God, and not a mortal, and God does not come in wrath. And that is such good news, friends.

And we carry that good news with us. We try to tell the story of God’s love as best we can. We keep on naming God in the dark. We use the images we have.

We use the best we know of human love to try to imagine God’s love. Sometimes we get it really wrong, and we cause harm, and we have to try again. Sometimes we find a new insight into who God is that changes everything for us.

We trust that God is present in the stories we tell about God, and we trust that God is beyond the stories we tell. While we take care with our stories and our naming because they matter, we also rejoice that it’s not up to us to get it right for God to be God. And that is such good news.

The Holy One is in our midst. And God is actively breaking free of any story that would make God less than God. And God is actively breaking us free of anything that would make us less than the holy people God made us to be.

So friends, let us walk in faith, believing that God is God, beyond the best that we could imagine. Let us walk in hope, expecting God’s holy revelations in our midst. And let us walk in love, holding fast to God’s boundless compassion for us and for all.

Amen.

a medieval illustration of a man and a woman holding hands, inside an illuminated letter with geometric patterns
A Bible manuscript illumination of Gomer and Hosea from the 1340s (Public Domain, accessed through the Art Institute of Chicago).

The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 10 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 10 July 2022 |Colossians 1:1-14 | Luke 10:25-37

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

That prayer is our collect for today—every Sunday of the year has one, and we pray it near the beginning of the service. Collects are a special kind of prayer that gathers together, or collects, the community’s prayer for a certain situation.

And today’s collect brings up questions for our faith and our growth. How do we know what’s good to do? And then, even if we know what to do, how do we find the grace and strength to do it, and keep doing it?

These are really great questions to ask, especially now in our green and growing season of the church year, and especially right after all the time we’ve just spent with St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In that letter, Paul pushes back against legalism. He defends God’s grace as a free gift, and he rejects the idea that this new Christian faith should be based on policing each other’s behaviors and following a certain set of rules that will tell us whether we’re good or not.

But if it’s not about figuring out what the rules are and following them, then what is it about? Even as they rejected a rules-based approach, the early church felt called to act on their love of God and their neighbors in the world, they felt called to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “bear fruit in every good work” as our reading from Colossians puts it. They felt called to do good.

That can be complicated in real life. How do we discern what is good to do, and how do we find grace to do it?

I think questions like these are behind the lawyer’s conversation with Jesus in our Gospel today. First the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And instead of answering the question with a ruling on what exactly this guy is supposed to do, Jesus asks another question back: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

Jesus is asking for some hard work with this question, and our lawyer friend delivers. There are hundreds of things commanded in the law. Later Jewish tradition says there are 613 commandments in the Torah. And so, Jesus is challenging this lawyer to find the heart of it: what is it in the Law that really leads to life?

And the lawyer does that: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Okay! Right answer. This is the core of the law.

There are a lot of commandments, but this is what they’re all for. Love God and love your neighbor. This is what leads toward life. And Jesus says so. Our lawyer friend is on the right track so far, and we’re there with him: Love God with everything you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the good stuff.

But then comes the follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?” And this is where our lawyer runs into trouble. Maybe the problem with this question is that “Who is my neighbor?” actually means “Who is not my neighbor? Who do I not have to love? Where exactly is the boundary beyond which I do not have to care about people anymore?”

There’s a lot going on here. But maybe we can find some sympathy for the question, too. Honestly, “Love God and love your neighbor” leaves a lot left to figure out. What does it really look like? Where are the edges of it? How do we find out what loving our neighbor really means, and find the grace and strength to do it?

I think we can forgive the lawyer for wanting some more detail. I know I wanted more detail when I moved from a church wanted to control my life to a church where I’d ask what the rules were and get “Eh? Love God and love your neighbor. You go figure out how that applies here.”

There is a real need behind the lawyer’s question. He’s found the core of the law (good job!), but now he needs to learn how to discern what is good, and he needs to find the strength and grace to do it.

What he asks Jesus for is more detailed law, a definition of terms: Who counts as a neighbor? But what he actually needs is to become the kind of person who knows his neighbors and has what it takes to love them. Our lawyer asks for a rule, but what he actually needs is growth.

And Jesus meets the real need underneath the question. Instead of answering the question, Jesus tells a story that creates space for growth. This story is like an incubator set to the exact right temperature to hatch this lawyer’s God-given goodness out of its little egg. Or, maybe this story is like a training scenario tailor-made to unlock his next level of skill by giving him challenging decisions to play out.

And the first way the story creates growth is through the characters. The lawyer knows that this is a parable, a genre of story where the characters are symbolic. And so of course, he’s going to want to know where he fits in the story. Which character out there represents him, the very smart lawyer trying to learn who to love?

All of the options Jesus gives him are uncomfortable, and they are all designed to create growth. Our lawyer has to choose between three different kinds of discomfort as he tries to figure out where he fits in this story. His main options are the priest and the Levite (we’ll take those together), the Samaritan who helps, or the man who is attacked by robbers. We’re leaving out the innkeeper and the robbers for now and just focusing on that moment of action on the road.

So the first option: He could identify with the priest or the Levite, and that makes some sense because he’s an educated, religious person like them. It’s an easy connection to make.

But the problem is that they don’t help the injured person, and so if he decides he’s Team Priest and Levite, he then has to deal with the dissonance of maybe not being a good person. And that’s a painful way to imagine himself. But it’s an amazing catalyst for growth, when we can admit that we are not as good as we thought we were. So that’s one option for uncomfortable growth.

The next one is identifying with the Samaritan. And the Samaritan is a good person, so this way our lawyer can escape the discomfort of seeing identifying with the folks who don’t help. But this is hard in a whole new way, because the Samaritan is culturally this lawyer’s enemy. If he puts himself in the Samaritan’s place, he has to imagine himself as someone he’s physically disgusted by, someone he probably doesn’t have personal dealings with, someone he thinks is twisting his faith and disrespecting what he considers holy. That’s got to be a surreal experience for him, and it might disrupt a lot of assumptions.

And it’s a whole different kind of growth. This is human empathy across a major barrier. It’s a stretch. It’s option number 2 for uncomfortable growth.

And option 3 might be the hardest for this lawyer, to identify with the guy who gets beaten up and robbed in the first place. And this might not be the hardest one for all of us—but this is growth that is tuned to this person’s particular challenges.

And this lawyer is somebody who expects to be strong and in charge. He came to this discussion seeing himself as the one who has love to offer and just needs to figure out who down there counts as a neighbor so that he can decide what actions to take. In his mind, he’s the one whose decisions matter; he’s the protagonist of the story.  

So, if he identifies with the victim in the story, he has to deal with the dissonance of receiving love on someone else’s terms rather than controlling it. The way Jesus tells the story, the lawyer has to deal with the possibility that it will be up to somebody else to decide whether to love him, not just up to him to decide who he will love.

If he identifies with the battered victim, and then he’s not the one in charge of legislating who counts as a neighbor anymore, and he’d better hope that the Samaritan’s circle of neighbors is big enough to reach him. For somebody like our lawyer, that shift in perspective is a burst of new growth.

So, following each character leads to a different kind of growth. So just by hearing this story and doing the mental and emotional and imaginative gymnastics of finding his place in it, the lawyer is already starting to grow. He’s a smart guy, and I think the wheels are turning; he’s running through all the possibilities and trying them out, and he’s growing.

And maybe we’re starting to grow too, when we can put ourselves into a story like this, imagine it different ways, put up with discomfort, stretch our imaginations and our empathy.

This story is a chance to grow in our ability to love people. It teaches three of the hardest skills we need most to love others: the humility to admit we’re wrong (if we go with the priest and the Levite), the empathy and imagination to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes even when they differ from us (if we go with the Samaritan), and the self-awareness to understand our own needs in relation to other people (if we go with the one who’s injured).

So this story teaches some of the most important things that we need to learn to love our neighbors: humility, empathy, and self-awareness.

The lawyer asked for a ruling on who he was supposed to love, and what he got was a story that actively trained him (and us) in how to be more capable of love.

And even as all that uncomfortable growth was happening, Jesus turned the tables on the lawyer’s actual question too. We might not notice it’s even happened until we get this twist at the end. Jesus asks the question back, “Which person was a neighbor to the man who got beat up?” And again, our lawyer friend has the right answer. He’s good at having the right answers. The neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.”

And what that means is that the question “who is my neighbor?” had it backwards all along. The Samaritan’s act of love is what created a neighbor relationship between him and the traveler who got hurt. He “comes near” to that person in love and becomes his neighbor. So, it turns out that we don’t first figure out who our neighbors are and then go love them—what happens is that we love people, and that love is what makes us neighbors with them.

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Show mercy. Love people and become neighbors with them. This isn’t a rule, it’s grace. We don’t know who our neighbors are until we love them. Which means that everyone is a potential neighbor. It’s beautiful. It’s freeing. It’s open. It’s grace.

And I have to say a little more, because sometimes we turn what’s meant as grace into a giant burden we have to carry. And so if we’re in our grind culture, always-work-harder mindset, we might think that the lawyer’s main problem in this story was that he tried to do less work by limiting who counts as his neighbor.

We might think that the moral of the story is, “Whatever we’re doing, we always need to do more, because our neighbors are everyone and we have to go out there and love them all and help them all or we’re not doing enough.” Our takeaway might be, “We always have to work even harder.” Y’all, I do not think that is the point of this story.

I think there’s a deeper growth to be found here. Let’s remember the parable’s invitation to imagine ourselves in need of help, as well as helping. Loving our neighbor doesn’t mean going out into the world and working really hard to fix everybody’s problems; it can be about receiving love; it can mean being cared for and healed and receiving love from the neighbors we meet. And of course it means doing what we can for folks when we see a need we’re able to meet.

But it doesn’t mean losing ourselves in other people’s needs. We love our neighbors as ourselves, which means that we have to love ourselves as a foundation; we have to be gentle with our own needs, we have to move in our own integrity, we have to value our own flourishing too, so that we can share that same compassion with other people because we know how good that compassion is.

And when we feel like we’re always inadequate, like we are never doing enough, that doesn’t really help us love our neighbors any better.

Maybe that fear of not working hard enough, that fear of inadequacy, is what’s behind the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” and his urge to justify himself. Maybe he’s really asking, “Am I enough?” this whole time.

And Jesus meets that question under with compassion. Jesus knows the lawyer is asking the wrong questions out loud, but he doesn’t berate him for that or tell him why he’s wrong. Instead, Jesus picks up on the lawyer’s real strengths—his knowledge, his insight, his ability to get to the heart of the matter. Jesus uses those strengths that are already there to guide the lawyer toward better questions, better answers, stronger skills, new perspectives: toward the growth that.

So I wonder how we can shift the question from “Are we enough?” to “How can we grow?”

Maybe if we do that, then little by little, we can stop trying to justify ourselves, and start living in this moment, where we are loved and loving and flawed and growing and failing and bearing fruit all at the same time.

We can tell and hear stories that help us to grow, even when those stories make us uncomfortable. We can practice the humility to admit when we’re wrong, we can strengthen our empathy, and we can become aware of our own needs. We can learn to show mercy to others (and even to ourselves) without keeping score.

Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” The goal here is life. It’s resurrection, renewal, flourishing. Jesus wants us all to enjoy these good gifts, and Jesus is our gentle teacher who will use whatever good that is already in us to help us grow toward them.

The life Jesus offers is for us, it’s for the neighbors we already know, and it’s for all the strangers who will be our neighbors once we try loving them and they try loving us. We learn this life together. We pray for the wisdom to know how to love our neighbors well and the strength to do it. And we can trust that the wisdom and strength and grace we’re longing for are already growing among us.

Amen.

The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh (accessed through Wikimedia Commons)

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 30 January 2022

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 | Luke 4:21-30

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

Good morning, friends. Welcome to the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. We’re still in the season of light and revelations. We started this season with Jesus’ baptism, and the revelation of Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son. And we’ve continued to see these beautiful, dazzling glimpses of the light and the love our Creator wants to show us.

Today in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we have a profound revelation about love. I think our Gospel reading also reveals something about love, but it’s a little trickier, so we’ll start with Corinthians and then go from there to read the Gospel story in that light.

Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most gorgeous passages in scripture. Love is the core of who God is and who we are as God’s people, and here Paul shows us what love looks like in action, in its full capacity.

We get all these verbs about what love does. When it says “love is patient” and “love is kind,” those are verbs in Greek—love practices patience, love acts kindly. For Paul, love is a pattern of actions, and love is stronger and greater and more enduring than any other power in the world.

This passage reveals the truth that love is what matters most, and other things are secondary. Paul contrasts the abiding power of love with a bunch of other things that might claim our attention and that are genuinely important—but they’re not love, and when we don’t put love first, all these other things can become distractions. Paul names things that matter deeply to him as a person of faith in his time and place.

Speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, knowledge, faith, generosity, and martyrdom are the best gifts and the highest achievements Paul can think of. And yet, without love, even the best gifts are all just noise—a clanging cymbal without substance.

We might list different accomplishments now than Paul does. It could be life goals like having a fulfilling career or making art that matters or raising a family or leaving a legacy that’s remembered. It could be helping others or solving the most tragic social problems. It could be deeply spiritual endeavors like learning to live a prayerful life, or giving more, or mentoring others in faith.

But whatever it is you think would be the highest goal or the best achievement in our own time and place, Paul would say it’s all just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals unless it’s rooted in love. And if that’s true, then the less important things like wealth and status are definitely just noise without love.

Every possible accomplishment in the world, no matter how important or helpful or spiritual it might be, needs love behind it in order to be more than just noise.

Everything else that matters needs love to mean something, and it needs love to hold it together. We’ve all seen things fall apart without it: a friend group or a marriage or a church or a team or a nonprofit crumbling from the inside. Maybe the accomplishments were going great, maybe everything looked fine on paper—but people forgot how to practice patience and act kindly and believe in each other, and it could only go on so long. Our best endeavors need love in order to outlive the noise.

But on the other hand, love doesn’t need any of that other stuff to still be love. When all of the achievements and empires come crashing down, when prophecy falls silent and knowledge fails and the music stops playing, love is still there. Love abides. I heard a story about that this week at Jim Hager’s visitation before the funeral.

Those of you who knew Jim and know Shirley might be able to help me with the details—this is the story of Shirley and Jim’s wedding.

Shirley and Jim were expected to do a big wedding with drinks and dancing and all the bells and whistles, but they couldn’t afford it and they decided to have something smaller instead. When they made that call, their friends and family got so mad about it that all the guests decided not to come at all. So then it was just going to be the two of them and the best man and the maid of honor.

But then the best man, who was in the Navy, shipped out unexpectedly right before the wedding. And there was some kind of a falling out with the maid of honor, so she was out too. Another friend stepped in for the best man at the last minute, but there was no maid of honor until Shirley recruited a courthouse janitor who happened to walk by. Also the judge doing the wedding was wearing house slippers and pajamas for some reason… I didn’t quite catch why.

This wedding didn’t have the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals of recognition and achievement. It didn’t have the glow of happy friends and family. All the fanfare failed. By many of the usual metrics for success, this wedding was a disaster. But the love was there. And love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Shirley and Jim were married for over 60 years. They cared for each other and for their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. They had beautiful adventures together. They mentored younger leaders in the church. The love that started between them touched countless lives. That love still abides after Jim’s death, and we saw it here as this community came together to grieve and to care for the family.

This is the kind of love Paul is talking about. This is love in action. This is love that practices patience, acts kindly, rejoices in the truth, bears all things, holds faith through all things, hopes all things, endures all things. That’s love.

And then we come to our Gospel reading where Jesus, who is Love Incarnate, nearly gets thrown off a cliff in his own home town.

It’s hard to say for sure why things take this violent turn after Jesus starts off so well in Nazareth. In last week’s reading, we saw Jesus come into the synagogue and read a scripture about preaching good news to the poor and liberation to the captives and God’s favor on earth. Where we pick up today, Jesus has put down the scroll and starts to tell the people that all this good news is happening right away, that he’s here to do all those revolutionary things the prophet talked about so long ago.

And everyone is really impressed with Jesus. They’re amazed that he’s such a gifted public speaker. And they’re so proud that such an eloquent teacher comes from their own scrappy little town, and they even know his family.

But then things seem to go sideways, and it’s not totally clear why. I really wish Luke told us something about people’s tone and body language here.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate these compliments about his speaking ability. And then he tells a couple of stories. These are stories about times when God made miracles happen for people from foreign countries rather than the home town crowd—stories of love moving unexpectedly at the margins. And after Jesus tells those stories, the people who were so impressed with him a minute ago chase him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.

And I’m not totally sure I follow the nuances of the conflict here, but I think part of it is that the people’s hopes and expectations for what Jesus will accomplish aren’t in line with Jesus’ mission of love. Jesus is here to be a loving, liberating, Spirit-filled Savior. But the Nazareth congregation wants him to be a talented, eloquent, successful preacher who will do the home town proud. And those aren’t the same.

Jesus tries to reveal himself as Love Incarnate in world-changing glory, and they want to see him as a really gifted kid bound to go far in the world and achieve a lot. When he pushes back against that expectation, they lash out.

I think maybe this Gospel is a story about how sometimes we prefer a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal over love. Sometimes we prefer talent and hard work and giftedness and accomplishment, because we feel like they’re reliable, we can count on them, we know we’ll have something to show for all the effort.

Sometimes we’d prefer being really good at stuff than really knowing love, for ourselves and for those we care about. Because in our limited perspective, being successful or gifted means we and our people will be okay. We’ll win what we need to win to feel good. Our kid or partner or friend will do us proud out there with their amazing accomplishments. Everybody will hear the noise and know that we or one of ours did something.

But love is harder. We see where love leads Jesus. Love leads to grief and risk and humiliation and sometimes even a cross. Love is unpredictable; love doesn’t let us claim ownership. Love moves in unexpected places. Love lifts up people who make us uncomfortable. Love multiplies a foreign widow’s bread so she can feed herself and host a hungry prophet through a famine. Love grabs a janitor on the job to serve as a maid of honor. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.

And sometimes, when we have to make a choice between reaching out for love and reaching out for whatever counts as success for us, we choose wrong. We see the risk of love, we see the grief that is bound up with love, we see the sparkle of achievement and success and recognition, and sometimes we choose the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals instead of the love that abides. This Gospel reveals the sad truth of how we sometimes choose the noise over love, especially when love is not what we expected.

But there’s good news in the story too. The crowd is all ready to throw Jesus off the cliff. And then Luke says, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Jesus does not fall to his doom today. Love Incarnate walks through the crowd unharmed. Love abides.

Even when we expect the wrong things, even when we choose the noise, love is in our midst. Though we sometimes do hurt folks and cause real harm, love itself is bigger than our mistakes. No matter how many times we get it wrong, we are still God’s beloved children, and love is still in the midst of us, still surrounds us. Love never ends.

Love is moving, and it will keep on moving whether or not we’re able to move with it this time. Love moves unpredictably like the Spirit; we can’t stop it even when we want to. And because we can’t stop it, we always have another chance to be part of its movement by doing the things that love does. Love practices patience. Love acts kindly. Love rejoices with the truth.

And love abides when everything else fails. Even though the people chose violence, love walked away safe on solid ground. Even though all the guests boycotted the wedding because there weren’t enough noisy gongs and clanging cymbals for their taste, a 6-decade marriage still began that day. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Friends, this is the love that holds us. This is the light that guides us. May we have grace to choose love over the noise more and more each day, and may we rest in God’s abiding love.

Amen.

The image is a photo of baroque sculptures of Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love) by Balthasar Ferdinand Moll from the Met’s online gallery. Notice how Love (the middle one) is in motion, actively dancing with Faith and Hope!