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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

7th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 10) | St. Paul’s Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 11 July 2021| Mark 6:14-29 | Ephesians 1:3-14

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

Good morning, friends. There is a lot going on in today’s readings. So even though I love the Old Testament and I love making lots of connections across scripture, today we’re going to stick with our Gospel.

Because the story of John the Baptist’s death is a complicated story. It’s a story about violence, a story about power, a story about how holy life persists in the face of violent power.

A lot of medieval and renaissance art depicts the violence in the story very creatively. There are some medieval paintings where the blood is just amazing, and I’ll let y’all google those rather than describing them.

I also really love the paintings where they’ve cut off John’s head and it rolls away with the halo still on it. It’s the kind of halo that’s a big circle behind his head, so it kind of looks like a giant gold bowling ball rolling off toward the edge of the painting. This one’s visually hilarious to me but it also says something beautiful about how John’s holy life still continues even after he’s murdered.  

There’s also the kind of painting where you get the platter with John’s head being brought into the party scene. The head is usually super pale or sickly green amid all of bright luxurious colors of the celebration. The contrast calls attention to the deadly side of these rich and powerful people’s revelry. There’s been something wrong, something ghastly, something violent, underneath all their wealth and influence all along, and the murder of John the Baptist reveals it.

This story reveals the violence that can happen when power like that comes up against a holy life. John the Baptist, this very annoying prophet of repentance, says something that the people in power don’t want to hear. Then these powerful people use their clout to inflict violence—to arrest John, bind him, imprison him, and eventually to take his life. In some ways the story is very simple, but in other ways it gets complicated. Like the question of who kills John.

A soldier who isn’t named actually does the beheading. But that guy was taking orders from Herod. And Herod was keeping his promise by doing what the dancer told him to do. And the dancer was being a dutiful daughter and doing what her mother Herodias told her to do. The text doesn’t give Herodias someone else to blame, but I also don’t know if she’s the real source of the violence here. It could be that her grudge is the main reason John dies, but even in that case, she has a whole network of people to enable her revenge.

There’s also a theory that maybe king Herod actually engineers the whole scene—he’s already decided it’s time to get rid of John, and so he sets up this public spectacle where it looks like he has no choice. He gets to get rid of John and blame some resentful, scheming women for the violence. Maybe! But whether or not we read it that way, it seems to me that almost everyone in the story has a part in the murder.

Herod at least understands his role afterward when he says he suspects that “John, whom I beheaded has been raised.” Herod knows that even though he wasn’t the one doing the chopping and even though he wasn’t the one who asked for a Severed Head Appetizer Tray at the party, he still killed John. While some of the details are blurry, we know—and Herod knows—that he used his power end a holy life. And yet, even though on one level it’s clear what happened, we still have this convoluted story. The question of who is to blame is complicated, and I think it’s complicated on purpose.

The complexity of this ancient story—the way everyone is to blame and no one is to blame for the violence—reminds me of a lot of problems we’re still dealing with now. Right before my work here started, Brian and I got to travel around and catch up with some friends across Indiana, and we had lunch with a friend of ours in another city who’s a social worker. And we learned a lot from them about how complicated it is for folks who are struggling to get help. Everybody working in a program can say that they mean well. And most of them can really mean it—there are so many people like our friend doing hard and holy and good work. And yet so often the people that the system is meant to help experience it as something frustrating and even violent, and not something that helps them flourish, not something that gives life.

And there are real complexities to how poverty works in our country. But there are also some situations that are meant to be complicated. There are systems where the blame gets passed around, and powerful people can all say they didn’t hurt anyone, and yet vulnerable people keep getting hurt over and over again.

The story of John the Baptist’s death holds a mirror up to that kind of situation. And in some ways, so does Jesus’ death later on, where Jesus faces Roman authorities who claim they’re reluctant to use violence, and yet they crucify him anyway. In some ways, the story of John’s death is a preview of Jesus’ own execution—you can see the echoes in the ways that violent power circles in to end the lives of inconvenient holy people and try to restore its own equilibrium.  

When I read this story of John the Baptist’s death, I hear a call repentance. I hear an invitation to reflect on the ways that we sometimes cause harm when we claim that we mean well and that only others are to blame. I hear a call to stop using “it’s complicated” as an excuse, to dig into why the systems that do violence are so complicated, who benefits from the complication, and who keeps on getting hurt. I think this work of repentance and truthtelling is part of our call as we honor what John the Baptist stood for as a prophet of repentance and as we consider how he died.  

AND I think there’s even more than that to the story. I also hear some very good news creeping in at the edges of this complicated and violent drama. There’s resurrection life here in this scene of a martyrdom. This story of John isn’t just a preview of Jesus’ death, but also a preview of Jesus’ resurrection. The story ends with John’s disciples laying his body in a tomb, just as Jesus’ disciples will do. And the story starts with Herod thinking that John has been raised from the dead.

And I want to say that Herod is only sort of wrong about that point—John does not physically come back to life here, but resurrection life is still happening. John is part of a whole movement of holy life that Herod couldn’t kill.

When Herod thinks that John has been raised from the dead, what he’s heard about is the mission of the twelve apostles. They’re out there telling the truth and casting out evil and helping sick people. Even though Herod killed one holy person, holy life persists. John’s haloed head is still glowing even from the prison floor. John’s disciples pick up his body and do the holy work of burial and lament. And Jesus’ disciples go out into the world full of life, full of the Spirit, just as annoying in their truthtelling as John and even more powerful in healing.

In this gospel story there is a complicated system in place that protects powerful people, that hurts vulnerable people, that hides its own workings. But there is also a complicated movement of the kingdom of God, a countercurrent of resurrection that creeps in at the edges, a lifegiving Spirit that finds a way where there is no way. There’s a movement that makes Herod say, “I thought I killed that guy. Who are these people?”

And we are called to be these people, friends. St. Paul tells the church that we’re marked with this same Spirit, we’re part of this movement toward redemption, toward resurrection. When we tell the truth, when we repent and turn to a better way, when we take care of our neighbors, we are part of resurrection life. When we lament together, when we rejoice together, when we look for the Spirit’s movement among us, we are part of resurrection life.

I already see that kind of life going on here. And I want you to teach me more about resurrection here in this place. I want you to teach me about where you find life here even amid death, even amid all the complications of our work in the church and the world.

As we follow this calling together, may God our Maker ground us in love, may God the Word inspire us in faith, and may God the Holy Spirit enliven us with with hope. Amen.

This is one painting from a stunning series on the life of John the Baptist by Giovanni di Paulo from the 1450s. These paintings live in the The Art Institute of Chicago and you can learn more about them on their website. You can see the halo on John’s severed head in this one.