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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.


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 6th Sunday after Epiphany | Joanna Benskin | 13 February 2022 | Psalm 1 | Luke 6:17-26

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who plants the righteous by streams of water and blesses the poor.

Good morning, friends! Welcome to the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, in the season of light and visions. Today we read Psalm 1, a beautiful image of flourishing in God. And we read the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, a radical revelation of God’s solidarity with the poor and the outcast. There’s some tension between them, so we’re going to work with that today because I think we need both of these visions.

I think these two scriptures are like two light sources slanting down on the landscape from different angles. Together they make for some confusing shadows, but they also make our path brighter once we’ve gotten oriented.

The tension, the confusing shadow, comes because in the Psalm, it seems like good people are going to prosper and do well in every aspect of life, but in the Gospel, it really sounds like God is on the side of the folks who are not doing well—folks who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated.

So, let’s start with the Psalm. (And we get a very similar passage in Jeremiah.) The core image here is righteous people as trees planted by streams of water. The righteous people have strong roots, and everything they need to flourish and flower and fruit is right there next to them. The righteous people trust in God, and they delight in learning and doing what’s right, and they don’t get tangled up in sketchy schemes, and they surround themselves with other folks who are on the same path.

And this contrasts with the wicked people in the Psalm, who will eventually fail. They’re chaff—the husks of grain that float away in the wind. They don’t have those roots in the river of God’s abundance like the righteous people do.

This Psalm is such a beautiful vision of how people can flourish in God. This vision feeds me spiritually. Back in seminary in California, there was a park I could walk to just up the hill, and there were redwood trees by a little stream. So I’d sit there and read this Psalm by the water under the tall, tall trees. And reading this Psalm in that place helped me grow strong roots in prayer. It helped me to shape my life toward flourishing in God.

The stream in the Psalm resonates with so much—water as an image of God’s Spirit, God’s transformation, God’s abundance. In the beginning of creation, God’s Spirit hovers over the waters. The Israelites cross the Red Sea when God liberates them, and we’re reborn in the waters of baptism. The prophet Isaiah sings about drawing water with rejoicing from springs of salvation, and Jesus promises living water. And here in our Psalm, the righteous people get to drink up that divine water with their roots, and they break out into full leaf and fruit.

It’s beautiful. These images are so powerful and so lifegiving that I keep coming back to them. Psalm 1 is a light that I follow again and again.

But it’s also a light that casts a shadow. And when we read it in this time and place, that shadow is shaped by our own assumptions about success and wealth and poverty and merit. Here in the US in the 21st century, we’ve been deeply formed to believe that rich people are rich because they deserve it, and poor people are poor because they made bad choices. Someone pointed out to me a few years ago how unusual this belief is, if you look at other places and other time periods, most people don’t think this. But whether or not we believe it’s true, it probably still frames our thinking.  

So the shadow side, the thing this Psalm does not actually say, but we might wrongly hear, is that prosperous people have their wealth and position because they’re righteous and they deserve it, and people who don’t succeed in life are in that situation because they did something wrong.

And that’s where we need a light shining in from another direction to help us see through those shadowy patches. Our Gospel today is the start of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. And Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you.” And on the other hand, “Woe to you who are rich.”

Jesus preaches a kingdom that turns the world upside-down, and this preaching today is our clearest vision yet of what that’s like. If we remember back to the Christmas story, things started to go this way from the beginning, when Mary’s soul magnified a God who lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty from their thrones, when the Savior of the world was born in a stable, and when the good news first came to lowly shepherds in their fields.  

And here, Jesus preaches that the poor, the hungry, and the hated are the ones who are truly blessed. God sees these folks, and God is with them.

And we’ll see this throughout the Gospel—poor people sick people and children and women and foreigners and anyone else that the folks in power ignore and shove away turn out to be the people closest to the kingdom Jesus preaches. Jesus’ vision is a world upside-down and backwards. The last shall be first. Blessed are the poor.  

God is with folks who suffer from poverty or hunger or the world’s hatred people in a particularly close way because of who they are and what they’ve suffered. Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are both the poor and the rich equally,” even if we might prefer that. He says “Blessed are the poor.”

So God is with the folks who come to our food pantry in a way that God isn’t with people who have plenty to eat all the time. God is with trans kids who get put out of their homes in a way that God isn’t with people who experience love and safety every day. And if that makes you uncomfortable, that is normal and ok. This is what liberation theology calls the “preferential option for the poor.”

And despite some discomfort with where this leaves me as a fairly comfortable person, I do find a liberating and lifegiving vision in this Gospel. It’s good news that Jesus is here to lift up folks who have been crushed down. It’s good news that people who suffer in life are never abandoned, because God is with them and God is working to bring them laughter and deliverance. Blessed are the poor. It’s a light.

But this Gospel’s warm, bright light casts a shadow too. Some Christians have read this to mean that if the poor are so blessed, there’s no reason to ease suffering in this world. Some have read this and thought that it means the poor have some kind of spiritual consolation prize that makes up for everything unfair that happens to them, and so the inequalities of the world are really fine to stay like they are. Some people have even used these verses to tell oppressed people to stay where they are and not make any trouble, because they’re spiritually blessed. And Jesus did not say any of that, but it’s a shadow these words have cast in our world.

And so we need the Psalm shining from the other side with a vision where the righteous flourish in every way. The righteous people in Psalm 1 aren’t blessed in a separate spiritual realm—everything they do prospers.

And the Psalm invites us to wonder: What would it be like if all of us, all of everyone, could get our roots into the stream and grow leaves that do not wither and fruit in due season? It’s a vision of human flourishing that also critiques the realities of this world, where often people suffer who don’t deserve it, and often people succeed who shouldn’t. The Psalm gives us a vision of God’s dream for people to flourish in every way, of a world where God’s beloved children don’t have to be poor or hungry or hated.

So we can see how these two lights shine into each other’s shadows. But that play of light and shadow is still hard to reconcile into one image. How are both things true? The righteous will prosper. Woe to you who are rich. The wicked will fail. Blessed are the poor. There’s a tension.

And maybe it would help to frame both of these visions as partial and conditional, rather than universal truths.

Maybe when we read this Gospel, we could say that as long as any of us are poor and hungry and weeping and hated, God is with those among us in a special way, because that’s what people who are poor and weeping and hungry and hated need.

And maybe when we read the Psalm, we could say that we sometimes do see righteousness flourish and wickedness fail this way, and we hope for a future world where that’s always true. Sometimes we see a really good person come into their own—we see their gifts bear fruit, and we see them so happy, and they have plenty of what they need and plenty to share. And sometimes we do see harmful plans collapsing in on themselves. Maybe the Psalm gives us a vision of what sometimes happens in the world we know, and a glimmer of hope that someday, somewhere, it’s what will always happen.

If we put both visions that way, as only a part of the picture, then maybe there’s room for both of them to be true. But even then, I can’t quite make the tension go away. I can’t quite make the crisscrossing shadows from our two lights resolve into a clear image.

So for now, I think we get to live with this tension. We can look to a vision where all people who try to live with integrity and love will flourish in every possible way. And we also find God’s special blessing among folks who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated, and in the parts of ourselves that are. Both of these lights can guide us.

When we follow the light of Psalm 1, we can embrace a vision of God’s flourishing for ourselves and for all. We can catch a glimpse of what it’s like to be planted by the river of God’s plenty, to grow strong, to bear fruit, to have enough and more than enough. Even if this doesn’t always happen as a reward for righteousness, we can draw nourishment and joy from the possibility of that tree planted by streams of water.

This vision of the righteous flourishing is especially healing and necessary for those of us who were taught early in our lives of faith that following Jesus has to be painful. Some of us learned to be suspicious of ease and joy; we thought that being righteous nearly always meant self-denial. And sometimes it does, for sure; sometimes doing what’s right is tough, and we have to make really hard choices. But this vision of the righteous flourishing and prospering helps us to learn that our happiness is part of God’s hope for us too.

This vision helps us to know that it’s sometimes alright to choose joy, choose comfort, choose abundance. Our God wants to see us flourishing like a tree planted by streams of water. And when we are able to discern what a pathway of righteous flourishing looks like for us and move toward that kind of life, it is a holy and good and joyful thing.

 At the same time, we can follow the light of the Gospel by looking for God’s blessing amid suffering.

Even when we’re the farthest away from flourishing, we can know that God is with us. And when folks who are poor or hungry or grieving or hated tell us what they know about God, we can listen to them as blessed prophets who see God in ways that comfortable people don’t. When we follow the light of this Gospel, we know that God is with people who seem to have failed. We know that hardship doesn’t mean someone is far from God—that God comes close to folks who are poor or hungry or weeping or hated.  

So in this season of visions, I pray that God gives us the grace to find a righteous path among all the lights and shadows we see. I pray that we’ll notice God’s light and God’s blessing in hardship. I pray that we will follow that light to move a step or two toward a world where no one has to be poor, no one lacks food, no one mourns alone, no one is hated. I pray that we will be nourished by a vision of hope for us and for all. And I pray that more and more, day by day, we will flourish like trees planted by streams of water. Amen.   

A 17th-century embroidered Tree of Life (accessed through the Met Museum’s online collections).

11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 8 August 2021

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 | Psalm 130 | Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who comes down from heaven to the depths. Please be seated.

Friends, someday I will get to preach to you on a day where we’re not reading about a gruesome death, but that is not today. Last time I preached here, we had the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, a holy death. And today we have a death that seems anything but holy. This is a hard story to spend time with, especially on a joyful day like today when we baptize a wonderful new life into Christ’s church. We baptized Karlee Jo at the 8:00 service, and our whole community is a witness to that joyous event. And so I thought about preaching something else today. But I think we need to spend time with this story because we find God in the depths.

When we tell the truth about what it’s like in the depths, we learn to lean on God’s love for us in new ways, and we learn to care for each other more fully. When we see how evil plays out, we learn to resist evil, as our baptismal covenant asks us to do. When we hear the painful cries of those whose dignity has suffered, we learn how to respect the dignity of every human being, as our baptismal covenant also calls us to do. So today we’ll tell the story, we’ll take a good look down in the depths together and see what we find there.

This story from Samuel is the climax of an epic tale of love, family, and revenge that has taken up the last few chapters. This part of the Bible reads a lot like a Shakespearean tragedy, or even Game of Thrones. There’s murder, intrigue, drama. A lot of guilty people get what’s coming to them, and a lot of innocent people get hurt in the process.

Absalom and David are both complicated men who have lost their way. David is a brave fighter, a brilliant strategist, a passionate worshipper of the Lord. And yet, he’s done something terrible, and amid the fallout from his crime, he allows destructive behavior to spiral out of control from within his own household. David’s son Absalom is a fiercely compassionate brother and an incredibly talented leader. And yet, his violence nearly destroys the kingdom.

The lectionary skips over some of the chapters in between last week’s reading and today’s because they’re really rough to read. The conflict between Absalom and David begins when another one of David’s sons abuses Absalom’s sister Tamar. King David does not protect his daughter Tamar and does not bring any accountability for the abuser. Absalom eventually takes justice into his own hands and murders the brother who hurt Tamar. From there, the harm and resentment continue to fester until Absalom starts a civil war, which ends with his death in today’s reading where we see him suspended between heaven and earth. It’s a compelling story in all its awfulness, as these complicated, powerful men almost find a way to reconcile but keep on raising the stakes.

And it’s also not the whole story. This conflict hurts a lot of people, and some of those people remain unseen. Our readings leave out the story of Absalom’s sister Tamar entirely. The text tells her part of the story and paints a moving picture of her grief, but our Sunday readings skip those parts because they’re so hard to hear. Bathsheba has been in our Sunday readings for the past couple of weeks, but in some ways she’s still unseen. We only hear one line in her voice even though she probably had a lot more to say. When the prophet Nathan confronts David with brilliant storytelling (which we read last week), he still pays more attention to Bathsheba’s husband Uriah as a wronged party than to Bathsheba—in his prophetic parable, she’s just a little sheep, not even a person. And I feel some anger about that. Bathsheba and Tamar may be the ones who suffer the most in this story and yet they’re not always seen in their full dignity as human beings.

And besides that, many of the people hurt by this conflict between David and Absalom aren’t even named, much less seen. We don’t know the names of the 20,000 soldiers who died and the many more who probably came back from the battle wounded. Most of the people fighting didn’t ask for any of this to happen, and yet they’re the ones carrying the scars if they make it out at all. David and Absalom don’t respect the value of these soldiers’ lives or their human dignity enough to settle their conflict some other way.

And there’s something that’s been on my heart to say since we started this section of the story a few weeks ago with David and Bathsheba. And that is that even though the story doesn’t always see the people who have been hurt the most, God sees them. If you are a survivor of violence, a survivor of abuse, if you’re someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, God sees you. If you are someone who carries a story of hidden hurt, God sees you. I see you.

We see you. This community may not know the details of your story, but we know that you’re with us. We know that you are us. As our Ephesians reading reminds us, we are a community called to tell the truth, to bear with one another, and to imitate God’s far-reaching love. And together we can make the church a place where grief like this doesn’t have to be carried alone.

Because we serve a God who will not be embarrassed or scared away or overwhelmed by our pain, no matter what our stories are, no matter what we’ve been through.

God sees the pain of the big loud main characters and the pain of the forgotten ones. In our story today there is deep anguish for a lot of people—for Absalom, for a host of women and men caught in the middle, and for David at the death of his son, that cry of anguish we heard at the end of the reading.

We read Psalm 130 with this story because it expresses that deep pain. Sometimes this Psalm has been read as a continuation David’s lament for Absalom. I wonder what it would be like to read this Psalm in the voice of Tamar, in the voice of Bathsheba, in the voices of the soldiers hurt in this war. These people cry out from the margins of the story, they cry out from the depths of their own sorrow, and God hears them.

This Psalm is for us to claim too, whatever we might have done wrong, whatever wrong might have been done to us, whether or not people have seen us, whether or not our pain has been heard before now. For those who have done harm, there is accountability that leads to growth and healing. There is always forgiveness with God. For those who have suffered harm, there is space for anger and grief and whatever else needs to be said. God hears every voice calling from the depths.

We can pray with this Psalm: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for God; in God’s word is my hope. With God there is plenteous redemption.” These words are for us, this hope is for us, this redemption is for us.  

This “plenteous redemption” is not just for the visible tragic heroes of the story. God sees everyone’s sorrow here—Bathsheba’s and Tamar’s and the soldiers’ included. The redemption is more plenteous than even God’s prophets know at the time. The redemption is more plenteous than we know. It reaches to the people the story doesn’t always see. It reaches to the hidden parts of ourselves.

We do not know the full scope of this redemption. We don’t always even know what the best outcome would look like in situations of such complicated harm. But a part of the redemption, a part of the hope we can claim is this: that God hears our pain, that we can be honest with God. That we can speak a Psalm like this in faith that God is with us even in the depths.

And I think that our Gospel today is about that kind of redemption too. Jesus offers himself to us as the bread that comes down from heaven.

The bread from heaven does not stay in heaven for us to admire it and think about how nice and perfect it is. Jesus comes down into the mess with us. Jesus the bread from heaven does not stay safe from human pain—he faces indignity and death. The bread from heaven is broken. The bread from heaven is eaten. The bread from heaven is given for us, in the depths of our most painful reality. This bread of heaven is still offered for us no matter what we’re guilty of. This bread of heaven is still offered for us no matter what we’ve been through. Our redeemer hears us and feeds us even in the depths.

And that is good news. And that is the bread we will eat together today when we come to the table—bread from heaven given for us even in the depths. And that is the faith we baptized little baby Karlee Jo into today—a faith that can hold death and resurrection together in the same hand, a faith that is strong enough to face evil and resist it, a faith that respects the dignity of every human being, faith in a God who loves us and sees us and feeds us and gives us hope wherever our story has taken us so far.

So please join me in praying for Karlee Jo who was baptized today and for all of us. God, we pray that Karlee Jo has a life that’s as joyous and free of suffering as it can be. And we also pray that she learns that we hear her and that God hears her whenever she might be in pain. We pray that Karlee Jo may find whatever nourishment she needs as she grows. We pray that she may eat the bread of heaven both in the depths of sorrow and in those joyful times in her life when it will seem like she’s found heaven on earth. We pray that in her family and in the larger communities she’ll find as she grows, she may always know that she is valued and heard and loved and fed, and that she will become a person who sees others in their full human dignity. We ask the same blessings for those who care for her, and for all of us. We ask this in your holy name, O God of the depths, redeeming Bread from heaven, and Spirit of life. Amen.

Marc Chagall’s Fin d’Absalom (1958).