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.

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).