The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year W) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |18 December 2022 | 1 Samuel 1:19-28 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Titus 3:4-7 | Matthew 1:18-25

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who is with us in hearing and speaking and naming and incarnation.

Good morning, friends. Today is our last Sunday of Advent, of preparing for Christ’s birth together. And for now it’s our last Sunday of hearing scripture with the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary. Our readings these four weeks have explored Advent as a season of Annunciation, these birth stories. That means it’s been a season of conversations with God. Hagar, and Mary, and Abraham, Samson’s mother, Elizabeth, and today Hannah and Joseph, talk with God or God’s messengers about coming births.

So today we’ll look at how God meets these saints and sages in holy conversation, in hearing and speaking and naming, and how we might meet God there too.

Today we hear part of the story of Hannah. Like Sarah and Elizabeth, Hannah is a woman who did not think she could have children. She and her husband faithfully worship at the temple every year, and there she prays to God for a child. When she’s praying intensely, her lips are moving even though she isn’t speaking aloud; the priest at the temple thinks that she’s drunk and calls her out. Hannah defends herself and shares her prayer, and the priest blesses her.

And as today’s story tells us, Hannah has a child the next year. Samuel, who will become a prophet; someone who helps God’s people hear God’s voice for their times, someone who facilitates this conversation between God and human beings. Hannah names her child Samuel because it means “God hears,” and God has heard her prayer.

This naming of Samuel echoes the first conversation with God we read this Advent—when Hagar meets God in the desert, and she’s the first person in scripture to give God a name. Hagar names God “The One Who Sees.”

Hagar names God for the way that God sees her praying. And Hannah names her son Samuel for the way God hears her praying. These names are part of the holy conversation between God people that’s still going on; they’re a form of prayer; they’re a kind of testimony to God’s presence with us. Naming and being named are part of how people in the Bible learned how to be present to God and welcome God’s presence among them.

Dr. Gafney’s lectionary gets at the importance of naming in scripture; she uses many names for God. In the Hebrew text of the Bible, there is a Name for God that’s written but not spoken. When reading aloud or translating into another language, we substitute another word. Our Jewish siblings sometimes say “HaShem,” (which means “The Name”) for this. English translations often use “Lord” in small capitals. And there’s also a movement in translation that when this holy Name appears, we can use a descriptive name for God in place of what can’t be spoken.

This is what Dr. Gafney does. The ways she names God are rooted in the stories of God in scripture, the ways God has been present with God’s people. She invites us to use these names in prayer and worship and see where they might take us. Here are some of the names for God we’ve seen so far in Advent:

Inscrutable God

Wellspring of Life

Ever-Living God

Faithful One

Living God

Worthy One

She Who Speaks Life

Holy One of Old

Generous One

Ageless One

God Who Hears

Creator of All

Gracious One

Fount of Justice

Since Hagar, God’s people have given God many names. It’s part of how we pray. It’s part of how we take our part in the conversation God is having with this world.

And in today’s Gospel, God claims the name Jesus, which means “God saves” and the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In our final divine conversation for this season, God’s messenger visits Joseph to announce Jesus’ birth. The angel tells Joseph that Mary hasn’t betrayed his trust, that her pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit. And Joseph is called to care for Mary and name the child Jesus.

As many readers have pointed out, Joseph does not say anything back to the angel in this story. The end of the scene says Joseph “does as the angel of the Lord commanded him,” but he we don’t get to hear what he thinks about it the way we do with most of the other people we’ve seen in dialogue with God or angels this season.

Maybe Joseph’s part of the conversation just wasn’t written down, or maybe Joseph was too busy listening to be talking in this moment. The only place it’s even implied Joseph speaks is to name the child Jesus, as the angel has told him to do.

When God becomes human and takes on a human name, Joseph gets to be part of the naming. Joseph gets to be part of that same legacy of naming God that goes back to Hagar, but in a new way. Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, and it means “God is help” or “God is salvation.”

Matthew also gives us another name for the child to be born—the name Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This name is taken from a story back in Isaiah when the timing of a child’s birth symbolized God’s presence with God’s people in a difficult time. It takes on new meaning in Matthew’s gospel as a name for God incarnate, God in the flesh, God walking with us as a human being. 

In her commentary on this gospel, Gafney points out that annunciation stories are common in the ancient world—heroes and demigods are often born to unlikely mothers and heralded by prophecy. But for the child to be “God with us,” Emmanuel, “the fullness of God in the frailty of flesh,” for God to be a human being with us—that’s something new.

The incarnation is the mystery of God becoming radically with us; God claims the name Immanuel for Godself in this moment, and God grows in a woman’s body and is born as a human infant and is named by his parents and learns to speak a human language. It is a continuation of the divine conversations we heard with Hagar and Hannah, with everyone who ever answered God’s call or cried out to God in prayer or dared to give God a new name.

Dr. Gafney says: “God’s saving work did not begin with Jesus; we see it borne witness to throughout the scriptures as Hannah sings of it in her time and in the days to come as would Mary, echoing [Hannah’s] song. Jesus is the continuation and embodiment of that salvation, himself an annunciation, of good news.”

And friends, this is the good news for which we prepare in Advent. This is the love that saves us. This is the holy mystery we welcome. This is the divine conversation in which we speak and listen and name and are named.

And this divine conversation can look a lot of different ways and still be faithful and good. Hagar in the desert demands to be seen and lays out her troubles before God. Hannah answers back when a priest tries to shame her for how she’s praying to God. Abraham and Sarah both laugh, and their child is named for their laughter.

Mary says yes to God’s call. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and strengthens her friend with joy and wisdom. Hannah and Mary both sing songs of praise for God’s revolutionary love. And Joseph hears what the angel says and doesn’t speak at all, but he acts to answer the call.

God is with all of these people, and all of these people are with God. All of these conversations are honest and faithful. All of these conversations are holy moments of presence where God and God’s people are in relationship. Some of these moments end up as lovely Christmas card art, and some are too messy for that, but they are all part of the holy conversation. They are all beautiful.

Some of us have a reflex to evaluate and rank things unnecessarily. (It’s me, I do.) And so we might want to figure out which conversations with God are the best kind, or judge how we should talk to God and how we shouldn’t. But scripture doesn’t do that in the stories we’ve just read. It turns out that the correct way to have a conversation with God is to have a conversation with God, and we grow as we go.

Joseph’s silent obedience is faithful. Hagar’s bold naming is faithful. Arguing can be faithful. Songs of praise can be faithful. Complaining can be faithful, and so can peaceful acceptance. There is no single template for how we relate God’s call or how we pray to God.

Conversations with God will look different for different people; they’ll look different for the same people in different seasons of life. The point is that we listen for God’s voice, and we speak to God honestly, and we practice a life of being present and active and fully ourselves in God’s continual conversation with our world.

And the real point is that God is with us. No matter how quiet or loud or distracted or wise we might or might not be, God chooses to be present with us. If we have had an Advent season of contemplation and reading scripture and lighting candles, God is with us. If we have had a season of rushing around taking care of a thousand things, God is with us. God is with us anywhere in between—Immanuel is God’s name.

And if our prayers this season have deepened into fathomless wells of silence from which we draw pure peace, God is with us. If the only prayer we can manage is “Oh God help,” God is with us too. God sees us, and God hears us.

So friends, let us take our part in the holy conversation that we have followed through scripture—whatever shape it takes for us as we come to the end of this Advent season. Let us listen for God’s voice among us and offer to God whatever words or silence or names or cries or laughter we might have in us today.

And in that holy conversation, in the mystery of God with us in speaking and hearing and naming, let us prepare our hearts and minds and bodies to welcome the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery Mary’s holy child born among us, Emmanuel, God with us.


Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon of St. Joseph. Latimore reflects: “St. Joseph has shown us that even the quietest ordinary acts can be signs of hope in the world.”

The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 12 | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 24 July 2022 | Hosea 1:2-10 | Psalm 85 | Colossians 2:6-19 | Luke 11:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God who loves to hear our prayers.

Good morning, friends. There is a lot going on in our readings today, and maybe we’ll get to Hosea another week. But today’s gospel gives us the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples. So today I’d like to talk about the practice of prayer, what we might learn from the Lord’s Prayer, and how God delights to hear us pray.

The first thing that happens in today’s Gospel story is that Jesus’ disciples see that he’s been praying, and they ask him to teach them how to pray too. They understand prayer as a skill they want to learn, and not something they automatically know how to do. Even the people who walked with Jesus on this earth wanted help to learn how to pray.

So, if you feel uncertain, all’s well; you’re in the company of the saints. And if you already feel skilled and confident in prayer, there’s always more to learn from this rich moment where Jesus teaches his people how to pray.

For folks learning how to pray in the Episcopal Church, often the growing edge is praying without the Prayer Book (or a bulletin, or other prayers that are already written out). We have this beautiful tradition of prayer at hand, and so not everyone here has learned the skill of finding their own words to pray in the moment.

I grew up in a church where we never used pre-written prayers. In worship and on our own, all the prayers were extemporaneous—we just started talking to God, and however it came out was the prayer. Speaking to God with the words I could find was how I first learned to pray.

When I first came to the Episcopal Church, Prayer Book prayers were a revelation to me. I admired how beautifully crafted they were in language and theology.

I loved the ability to just settle into the prayer without having to struggle for words or worry about what strange thing somebody was going to say next. I learned that using written prayers can be authentic and sincere—you absolutely can pour your heart out before the Lord by using words that have been passed down for hundreds of years.

After a while, I also circled back to reclaim the kind of prayer I first learned and find new beauty in it. Sometimes it comes out a jumble, and there’s a holiness to that confusion; we can trust that God gathers up the broken pieces. And sometimes the Spirit moves and words come out more right for that moment than anything we could have prepared.

As I’ve deepened my practice of prayer over the years, I’ve been grateful for the gift of having learned these two very different ways to pray. I’m thankful for the people who taught me to pray and the ones who are still teaching me. Because learning how to pray is an ongoing process.

We can trust that God hears us and God loves us and delights to hear us pray even when we don’t know what we’re doing. And we can also learn the skill of prayer—Jesus is willing to teach the people who ask in this Gospel.

Jesus’ prayer, this prayer that so many of us have learned by heart, can be a foundation for us as we learn more ways to pray. We can use this core prayer to anchor us when we lean into the prayers we know, when we pray in our own words, and even when we pray beyond words.

So let’s look at Jesus’ prayer here in our Gospel. (I want to note quickly that we have different versions of Jesus’ prayer in the manuscripts of the New Testament; maybe Jesus said different things at different times, or maybe early Christians expanded it to give us the longer version we use in worship.) In this prayer, Jesus teaches us some of the most profound ways we can pray; these are movements we’ll use again and again in different ways. We might not use them all every time, but each part of the prayer has a lot to teach us.

It starts, “Father, hallowed be your name.” Jesus prays by naming God as his Father and praising God as holy. He claims a relationship with God by calling God “Father.” That Father language might work well for us, or we might want to claim our relationship with God in different words, like “Mother” or “Friend.” In Genesis, Hagar names God “The One Who Sees Me” when she’s wandering in the desert; our names could come from our own stories. We can try different ways to name God and praise God and claim our relationship with God in words.

Or we could even just be present with God in silence when we pray—that can also be a way to come close to God and praise God too. We might try taking a few deep breaths without words, trusting that the Holy Spirit breathes with us. We might take a hike someplace beautiful that helps us feel close to the majesty of God. Whether we use words or not, Jesus is teaching us that in prayer we name God, we find our relationship with God, and we praise God for who God is.

Okay. We could stop there and it would be prayer. Some prayers are just this one move by itself, and that’s beautiful. If we learn how to name God, and praise God and be present in our relationship with God, we have learned to pray. But Jesus gives us even more.

“Your kingdom come.” I don’t want to give the game away early, but this is my favorite part of the Lord’s Prayer. The longer version says: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In this part of the prayer, Jesus holds onto a radical hope that God’s reign can come here among us. The world doesn’t have to stay the way that it is now. Transformation is possible, and in prayer, we keep that hope in God’s coming kingdom alive.

That’s how our Psalmist today is praying too, crying out to God for a better world: “Truly, God’s salvation is very near. Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

This is “your kingdom come.” This is prayer as visioning, lining up our imaginations with God’s imagination.

We might pray “your kingdom come” by asking God in our own words for the transformation that we believe is in line with God’s dream of mercy and truth and righteousness and peace. We might pray “your kingdom come” by daydreaming with intent, or by stretching our imaginations in poetry or art. We might pray “your kingdom come” with our hands and our feet and our bank accounts in acts of mercy and justice. “Thy kingdom come” is a prayer about transforming the world.

And right alongside that we have “Give us each day our daily bread.” Because prayer can also be about simply asking for what we need. And the world-shaking prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth is connected with the humble prayer for our daily bread—because we can trust that God’s vision for the world includes everybody getting to eat every day.

God cares about what we need, and God wants us to ask for the things that sustain us.

Praying for our daily bread can be as simple as naming needs and wants before God. Asking God for help like this is maybe the most primal kind of prayer. It isn’t selfish to do; it’s another way of coming close to God in prayer, and it’s right at the core of the prayer Jesus taught us.

Jesus also teaches us to ask for and give forgiveness in prayer: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” In prayer we can unload some of the burdens we carry and give them to God. We might go through the day beating ourselves up for things we did wrong, or replaying a conversation that we think did not go well. We might also be carrying a lot of resentment toward other people. We might carry deep guilt for real harm.

And when we pray “forgive us our sins,” we can be honest about what hurts and what’s gone wrong, and still move toward freedom from it.

When we pray this way, we can name our problems without trying to say they’re no big deal, and still turn toward God’s compassion for u and for other people. We can find both accountability and grace.

Some people find it helpful to kneel for prayers like this, expressing our humility with our bodies. Some people find that running or other exercise is the best way to let burdens fall away. (That’s not me, but God bless y’all.)

For some of us, remembering specific ways we’ve fallen short is helpful—naming those hard things can bring them into the open for us and stop them from nibbling away at the back of our minds.

For others of us, listing off sins only creates anxiety, and we’re better off staying with the big picture: we fail, and every time we do, God is there to pick us up again and comfort us and get us back on our way. So we pray in faith that God forgives, that God can deliver us from what we do to ourselves as well as from the dangers of the world.

The last part is about those dangers. “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” The longer version adds “deliver us from evil.” We can talk about the different ways this is translated, but the gist of it is that this is a prayer for God’s protection. Sometimes this can be a prayer from the brink of suffering, asking God to shield us from the worst of it.

Sometimes we pray God’s protection for those we love as well as ourselves. We do this in our Prayers of the People when we pray for folks who are ill or in danger. I think our acts of care for people who are in need or trouble can be part of this prayer too—any time we can be part of some small moment of deliverance from evil.

We might also pray a protective prayer like this when we’re driving and suddenly something dangerous happens. That prayer might include words I’m not going to say from the pulpit today, and it’s still a prayer; God has heard worse, I promise. We serve a God who knows life’s pains and perils, and God is with us when we cry out in pain or trepidation.

So that’s the prayer Jesus teaches: “Father, hallowed be your name.” (We name God, we come close to God, we praise God.) “Your kingdom come.” (We take part in God’s dream to transform the world.) “Give us each day our daily bread.” (We ask for what we need.) “Forgive us our sins.” (We bring our burdens to God.) “Save us from the time of trial.” (We ask for help in suffering and danger.)

These are not the only possible ways to pray—for example, Jesus’ prayer here in Luke doesn’t include thanking God. But we can use the movements of Jesus’ prayer as anchor points when we explore new ways of praying. So, I invite you to take the Lord’s Prayer home with you, either in your memory or in the bulletin, and see how you might be called to pray this week. Holly and I are also here if you ever want to pray together or learn more about how to pray.

But for some of us, the trouble isn’t so much how to pray but why we pray, or what happens when we pray.

For some of us, unsettled questions about what prayer is and how it works can make it hard for us to practice and learn and grow in prayer. So I want to say that our branch of Christian tradition has room for many different understandings of what might happen when we pray.

Some of us believe that God answers our prayers with miracles like the ones in the Bible. Some of us believe that God answers our prayers in more subtle ways, that God meets needs and averts disasters through little nudges that other people would call coincidence.

Others of us believe that prayer is important because it shapes our own lives in relation to God and God’s vision, but that God usually does not change material things in the world because we prayed.

Some of us believe that by God’s hearing them, our prayers become part of a larger web of reality, part of the love that connects us all and pulls things together for good.

The differences between these understandings do matter, and they have implications. We can talk about that together too if you’d like—but there’s a range of ways to believe faithfully here. And if you’re able, it is okay to keep right on praying even if you’re in a space of questioning or transition and you don’t know for sure what you believe about prayer. We hold each other up in prayer, and you don’t have to hold it all by yourself.

We are in this together, and God is with us. Wherever we are in our understanding of prayer or our process of learning how to pray, God hears our prayers. That may be the most important thing to learn about prayer—that God hears us praying, and God delights to hear us as we learn to pray.

We get an inkling of this in the end of the Gospel story where Jesus is talking about parents and children. Jesus says that even we, who are flawed people, are able to respond to children with love when they ask for what they want—and God’s love is so much deeper than ours.

We get other glimpses when the prophets envision God rejoicing over God’s people with singing, or caring for God’s children like a mother. So, we can imagine God responding to us as we learn how to pray the same way that we respond someone we care for learns how to speak to us.

When a baby is born to a loving family, and that baby has the strength to cry, those cries are heard and valued and tended. We might wish the baby could tell us exactly what they need, but we don’t blame them for not having that skill yet. And God cares for us that way, even when we don’t know how to pray—even when our prayer is just a burst of need, God delights to hear us and to hold us in love.

And then the little one starts to form syllables or signs, and the caregivers look for the delight of being called by name—“Mama” or “Dada” or “Aunt Joanna” or however the child calls us, in whatever language they can form. And God takes that same delight when we name God in prayer, when we say “our Father” or any name we might use.

And even once the basics of language are locked down, a person keeps on learning how to speak, and the people who love them take delight in seeing it happen. A parent is thrilled and proud to see their teen articulate who they want to be in this world. Friends support each other when one of them finds the words to tell a new truth about a marriage struggle or a career change or a deepening faith. Spouses fall in love more deeply when they learn new ways to tell each other what they need and what they hope for and who they are.

And this is how God is when we pray. God delights in us as we learn how to speak to God more and more deeply, how to relate to God and each other, how to tell the truth, how to dream the dream. God is brimming with delight in our prayer. All of it is precious in God’s sight—babbles of joy, cries of anguish, literary masterpieces of the Prayer Book, unanswered questions, silences, songs, sighs, tears, naming God in the dark as best we can.

Whatever words we use, and even if we don’t use words at all, God holds us in love as we pray. We keep on learning how to pray as we dwell with Jesus’ teachings, as we use the traditions we have, and as we practice prayer and find out what works for us.   

So I invite you to turn to the Lord’s Prayer in your bulletin if you’d like to have the words in front of you, or you can close your eyes if you prefer. Let’s pray the prayer that Jesus taught us now, and rest in God’s delight to hear us pray.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory

            for ever and ever. Amen.

Daily bread of the sourdough variety (J. Benskin, 2021).