Holy Week in a Time of Pandemic: This, Too, Shall Pass

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world. We adore you, O Christ and we bless you. Because by your [+] holy cross you have redeemed the world. AMEN.        

 [Traditional Franciscan prayer upon entering or leaving a church]

Palms.Crown.THorns

The readings for Palm Sunday provide some of the most difficult texts any preacher has to work with at any time during the church year. The brutal murder of Jesus and the events that lead up to it are hard to hear, much less think about. Holy Week takes us from the elation of the Palm Sunday procession to the absolute despair of Jesus’ last breath. Our readings this morning offer little of comfort to us. And we are particularly aware of such despair in times like our own.

In years past it may have been difficult for some of us to fully enter into the events of Holy Week. They seemed so distant from our daily lives. The idea of crucifixion alone was so foreign to most of our experiences that while we may have felt sympathy for Jesus and his followers, we really couldn’t relate to their experience.

VirusThis year, all of that has changed. Last December, a tiny virus which has proven highly contagious and quite deadly began to sweep our planet. As a result, the house of cards that we call modern civilization began to fall apart. Health care systems have been overwhelmed, our economy has tanked, and we find ourselves confined to our homes for the duration, however long that might be. Several weeks into this contagion, I think we are all beginning to understand what crucifixion really means.

This year there are many points in the story line of Holy Week to which we can relate. We know that elation of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, driven by hope of a messiah who would save his countrymen and women from their worst fears. We have watched a stream of would-be messiahs come across our televisions and monitors the past few weeks from the fields of medicine, politics and religion. All of them offered us hope, if only fleeting, that we might yet avoid a seemingly inevitable date with the cross, that things might return to normal and we could go on with our daily lives, the virus a mere blip on the radar of history.

FauciEach time, in our heart of hearts, we have felt a glimmer of hope – Hurray! We are saved! And yet, like the people of Jesus’ Judea, we have not been delivered from our distress. Our trajectory toward crucifixion remains on course. And so we know the sting of disappointment that gives rise to the rage Jesus experienced all around him as the mob cried out, “Crucify him!”

CASES

We know the feeling of betrayal by holders of power. Perhaps we have a better sense of the realization that Jesus must have had as he stood before Pilate, knowing that Pilate knew Jesus had done nothing to merit punishment, much less death. And yet he also knew that Pilate was more concerned with his own political future than doing the right thing.

 

Pilate

And so Pilate decided to play to the basest elements of those he governed and sacrifice an innocent man. And he exacerbated that wrongdoing by dissembling about it: “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

 

Texas Brain DeadWe live in a time when many of us fear we cannot rely on those who hold power in our land to do the right thing or to be honest about that. We live in a time when concerns for political careers and economic profitability supersede responsibilities to people. We see it in the scapegoating of other nations for causing this virus resulting in ethnic minorities who are our fellow citizens becoming targets for xenophobic abuse. We see it in the playing of states against one another to obtain desperately needed medical supplies. And we see it in when power holders, confronted with the harm their decisions have caused, respond like Pilate: “I’m not responsible for that.”

Jerusalem womenWe also know the feeling of betrayal by those people immediately around us. Jesus was betrayed first by a disciple who collaborated with the Temple cult to hand him over to the Romans and later by virtually all of his disciples who would abandon Jesus once trouble began. It has always fascinated me that for all the bravado we hear among Jesus’ male disciples, it is almost exclusively the women disciples who were present at his procession to Golgotha, who stood at the foot of the cross as he died and who returned as quickly as the law allowed to attend to his battered body. The rest of the disciples are all scattered, hiding, protecting their own hides.

TargetMany of us who went to the stores over the last couple of weeks looking for basic necessities from toilet paper to eggs, milk and bread experienced firsthand the feeling of betrayal by our fellow citizens. Feelings of fear in time of crisis are somewhat predictable. But egocentric, irrational panic buying and hoarding of necessities potentially endangers all of us. Worse yet, price gauging among those who would provide goods that could mean the difference between life and death for many engenders fear and loathing precisely at a point when we most need to be able to trust one another and work together if we are to survive.

At the end of Holy Week on Holy Saturday, the shattered body of Jesus will lie in a tomb, alone. His followers will be in hiding, fearful of discovery by the Roman authorities. No doubt they, like us who hide from a killer virus in our homes, had little idea of how to relate to a world that had changed so dramatically that they felt it was literally coming to an end.  And no doubt they, like us found themselves wondering “What is going to happen to us?”

What will happen

Truth be told, there can never be much good news in weeks that end in crucifixion. The words of our Evening Prayer rite spring to mind as we experience the darkness of the tomb: O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.

But I would like to offer three bits of good news before we embark on this journey of Holy Week in a time of pandemic.

This tooFirst, we need to remember that however painful our current suffering may be, it is not forever. When I was a naïve younger man out trying to slay dragons and save the world, I encountered an awful lot of disappointments. When I found myself most distressed by the events of my own life and the world around me, my Dad would say to me: “This, too, shall pass, Son.” I find myself repeating that mantra these past weeks of watching the world familiar to me falling apart. I believe these words contain a wisdom that is trustworthy: This, too, shall indeed pass. And history tells us that is true.

CrucifixionSecond, I find myself comforted by the recognition that even in the most agonizing final moments of Jesus’ life, the G_d he called Abba, Daddy, was still with him, even when it seemed that was not the case. The writers of Matthew’s Gospel place the words of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think all of us can relate to this feeling of abandonment as our world crumbles around us. Even so, G-d remained present with Jesus. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, G-d will highly exalt this Jesus who willingly endured the process of crucifixion to the bitter end. Jesus will not be abandoned to the pit. And neither shall we.

There are many ways in which G-d’s presence in our lives can become known during this time of crucifixion. This ministry of making our liturgical services available online to those who must remain in their homes is one of them. Our own willingness to remain in our homes to prevent the spread of this virus is another.

CashiersSome of us see the presence of the divine more clearly than ever in the faces of our grandchildren on FaceTime whom we cannot visit in person. We see it in the heroism of the grocery store clerks and the folks who pick up our trash and deliver our mail, in our law enforcement agents, the nurses, and doctors. We see it in the social worker reaching out to the homeless to warn them of the danger and teachers caravanning past their students’ homes to remind them they are not forgotten. We see it in the neighbors who stand on their porches and balconies to sing and play musical instruments for us to join in on. We see it down the street when another neighbor leaves a casserole on the stoop of an EMT who’s been working long overtime shifts because so many of her colleagues have been quarantined for exposure.*

DoctorsWe, too, become agents of the divine presence when we express our appreciation for workers in essential businesses which remain open and our admiration for the public servants who are risking their own lives in protecting us. If G-d’s saving presence is to be known in a world undergoing crucifixion by a simple but powerful virus, it will be because the people of G_d – and that would be all of us – have chosen to make that presence known.

ResurrectionHere’s the third bit of good news. Please note, this is a spoiler alert:  At the end of this ironically named Holy Week with the setting of the sun on Holy Saturday, the day in which we commemorate Jesus’ lying in his tomb, the church will begin a new liturgical season. Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, celebrates the reality that death does not have the last word with Jesus. And the good news is that the crucifixion we are currently enduring will not have the last word with us, either.  At the end of crucifixion lies resurrection.

Via Dolorosa

To those of you who are watching this day, whether parishioners here at St. Richards or those who have come to our Facebook site on your own, know that you are loved and remembered by this parish this day. Do not lose sight of the reality that this time of crucifixion, too, shall pass. And have courage, knowing that G-d is with us always, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

 

Blessings to all of us this Holy Week as together we make our journey down the Via Dolorosa, this final passage of the Way of the Cross.

Let us pray: Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, [+] one God, for ever and everAmen.

[A sermon offered on Palm Sunday, 2020 at St. Richard’s Parish, Winter Park, Fl]

* with gratitude to the Franciscan Action Network for the examples used in this section

A video recording of the live delivery of this sermon is available at the St. Richard’s Facebook site beginning at 24:30 into the recording:

https://www.facebook.com/StRichardsWinterPark/videos/589970611729106/

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com 

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

© Harry Coverston, 2020

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Lent in a Time of Pandemic

Ash Cross

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance…”

The Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979) calls the faithful to commence the 40-day Lenten season with these words. This calling embodies two essential processes: self-examination and repentance. There have been few Lenten seasons when such callings have been more timely.

Reflection and Only Then Repentance

ReflectionThe Latin verb pensare is the root of the first calling, self-examination. It means “to weigh out, to ponder, consider, examine.” It is related to the Latin word pendere which means “to hang, to weigh out.” The former is the root of the English word “pensive.” The later is the root of the English word “pending.“

Far too often the pensive, pondering aspects of self-examination to which we are called during Lent are lost in the emphasis on the second element, repentance, from the Latin verb paenitere, to repent, regret. It is ironic that many of us enter Lent with a penance of some form of self-denial already in mind without ever considering what such penance might be addressing.

self-deprecation

Any healthy self-examination occurs in the contexts of our lives – our relationships to families of birth and choice, communities, our nation and the world in which we live. One of the gifts Franciscan Richard Rohr has given us is an awareness of how egocentric approaches to religion often focus on the self, our shortcomings and our resulting existential angst about death and the afterlife. In a time of pandemic, we do not have the luxury of remaining focused on our selves alone.

It is hardly surprising that a medieval church obsessed with sinfulness would have created a rite of public penance as a means of discipline. The original 1549 BCP rite for Ash Wednesday opened with a homily which included “the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners.”

When the Episcopal Church revised its prayer book in 1979, the exhortation provided at the beginning of this discussion was used to replace that homily and the call to engage in self-examination during Lent took its place in the rite prior to the imposition of ashes. Notably, self-examination precedes the call to repentance. We are called to consider our lives individually, as members of families, communities, societies and citizens of the world. It is only after such thoughtful consideration that we can arrive at the point of a meaningful repentance.

The coronavirus pandemic has made this Lenten season’s call to reflection and reexamination of our lives individually and collectively perhaps the most imperative calling in our lifetime.

The virus has forced us to slow down the hectic paces of our lives. In a time when much of what we have come to expect from daily life no longer seems possible, we are having to reconsider many aspects of our lives that we considered to be given. The global nature of this pandemic is causing us to reflect on our inescapable connectedness to human beings – indeed to all living beings – around the world, a connectedness that is deeper than places of origin and nationalities.

Wall

We have had to recognize that none of the walls we might build to reassure ourselves that we are safe can ever protect us from this most basic of life forms, a virus. Viruses have no nationalities. They cannot be screened out at customs. They belong to no political parties or religious traditions. They have no ideological orientations. They are equal opportunity agents of contagion.

Aside from the nasty, sometimes lethal, physical effects, the chief pathology of this pandemic has been fear. It has led to hysteria in panic buying engaged without any consideration for the needs of others. Even worse, it has prompted denial among those unwilling to look the pandemic squarely in the eye. Sadly, too many of those engaging in denial have been those the public must rely upon to protect us from harm.

A Litany Made for Such Times as This

Among the revisions to the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Episcopal Church’s revisions in 1979 was the addition of a Litany of Penitence drafted by the Rev. Dr. Massey Shepherd, Jr. Reading these confessions of our failings, one would almost think the crafter of these prayers was writing them today:

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work

For our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us

One of the unforeseen aspects of the pandemic has been the need to step back from our busy lifestyles, our lives of constant distraction which have allowed us to ignore the suffering of our world. It provides us with the time and the opportunity to consider our relationship to “worldly goods” and to reexamine our consumerist presumptions of entitlement to constant comfort. It reminds us that mere discomfort is never the same thing as actual deprivation.

shelves

We have an unparalleled opportunity to examine our relationship to our technologies and how our use of them impacts all of our relationships from our families of birth to our families of choice. Without diversions from movies to restaurants to shopping, we suddenly have time to think of others, to call or write one another.

The importance of our personal relationships has dawned on many of us as we find ourselves unable to visit family, friends and engage our communities in person. Indeed, one of the aspects of the virus that has been most painful to those of faith has been the shuttering of our places of worship. We are cut off from in person community.

We struggle to balance the need for social distancing with the risk of an even greater danger from social isolation. The virus arrived in cultures where an epidemic of addictions and suicides was already unfolding, the carnage of an atomistic consumerist culture driven by loneliness.

Venice

Our neglect of our relationship to the creation has swum into focus for many of us as we find ourselves unable to spend time out of our homes. But the downsizing of human presence on our planet has had some surprising results.

We are seeing dolphins and swans return to once fouled waters in and around Venice. From space the views of Wuhan, the major technological and industrial hub of China, have changed remarkably in these days since quarantines were put into place. You can actually see the ground there from space, no longer obscured by choking pollution.

ChinaWith the rise of panics over basic necessities, ordinary people suddenly find themselves worried about their ability to survive. This is particularly true for those in danger of losing their jobs as businesses close, some perhaps never to reopen. The virus is providing unsolicited and unwanted insights into the existential struggles many working people have been experiencing for some while now as well as the many foreign refugees forced to leave their homes just to survive.

Drowned.immigrantsWhat might we learn from this time of pondering, reflection, examination? What might the virus have to teach us about ourselves, the ways we live, the things we value, the ways we see ourselves vis-a-vis others? And at the end of this Lenten season which may well be extended by a pandemic, what might we have come to realize is in need of repentance and remediation?

Even in Times of Pandemics

At the end of the Ash Wednesday litany, the officiant pronounces G-d’s pardon on those who have confessed. Thereafter the rite itself ends with an exchange of the peace.

The Lenten season ends on a Good Friday which commemorates a crucifixion, but it ultimately ends with a resurrection on Easter Sunday in which death is denied the last word. The truth toward which all of this points is that G-d is with us in all things, life, death and everything in between.

Even in times of pandemics.

May we not squander this unparalleled opportunity for self-examination and repentance. In the words of the psalmist whose words we recite every Ash Wednesday, may our prayer at Easter, whenever that great feast day may end up being celebrated this year, be this:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me..”

clean heaert

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com 

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

© Harry Coverston, 2020

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Looking Within, Beyond Ourselves

Acting Faithfully: The Way of the Cross

 Sermon on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany 2020

 Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

 St. Richard’s Episcopal, Winter Park, FL

 In our lesson from Sirach this morning we are told that “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” Today’s lessons are all about how we live out our lives of faith. They raise ancient questions of how much of our moral and ethical behavior is our own initiative and how much of it requires the power of the divine.

I will with Gods help

In our Baptismal Covenant, we Episcopalians are asked to respond to a series of questions about our lives of faith every time there is a baptism. We are asked if we will “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for peace and justice and honoring the dignity of every living being.” And we respond to each of those questions with the words “I will with God’s help.” What is clear from our liturgy is that our initiative must come first but we can never do any of this alone. We always need the help of the Holy One.

But what does the example of the Good News in Christ look like? What does loving our neighbors as ourselves mean? What if we have trouble loving ourselves, much less anyone else? How do we recognize what is just and how do we create a peace that is grounded in right relations, not the mere absence of conflict? In our lives together, how often does our sense of entitlement to comfort mean that dissent is stifled in the name of a superficial civility, the hard questions unaddressed, the elephant left to roam around the back of the room?

We all want the answers to those questions. And, being the well-trained consumers that we are, entitled to instant gratification, we want them simple, black and white and we want them right now. Truth be told, I wish I had such answers to give you this morning. But I don’t. And I don’t think anyone else does either.

The Journey of Spiritual and Ethical Development

Kohlberg

Much of my graduate work was spent studying ethical and moral development. As a result I have come to believe that finding answers of how to follow the Way of Jesus is a journey, a process of ongoing development we all must engage, a journey at which each of us may find ourselves at different points along the way, a series of lessons in which we often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

St. Paul points toward that understanding in today’s epistle. He says,

Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 

What St. Paul is acknowledging here is the journey, that process of moral, ethical and spiritual development to which the Way of Jesus calls us.

 

Crucifix.3

Developmental theorists from Lawrence Kohlberg to James Fowler to Ken Wilber all speak of varying stages of development, stops along the way if you will, at which all human beings find themselves. To illustrate this process of development, I will rely on a visual aid this morning. If you will look to the space above our altar, you will see a modernist vision of a crucifix. It is red in the middle with blue arms stretching horizontally from the center and multi-colored arms extending above and below the center. Bear this in mind as I lay out the stages of spiritual development.

Horizontal Arms: Looking to Others

HorizontalIn the red center of the crucifix is the place where everyone begins their journey of spiritual development. It is the egocentric heart of every human being that develops naturally in childhood. Here, the question of the right thing to do is determined by self-interest. At the earliest stages of moral reasoning the question sounds like this: “What must I do to keep from being punished?” reflecting the power differential between the child and the adult in control of them. We hear that question in our criminal law: Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time. We also hear that understanding in some expressions of religion: Either turn or burn. An entire industry of Chick tracts with their four spiritual laws reflects this initial stage of spiritual development.

The second stage is also egocentric asking the question “What’s in it for me?” We often hear this question in consumerist advertising: Your life will only be complete if you buy our beer, our clothes, our cars. We also hear it in the manipulative aspects of our religious tradition: Buy into this set of ideas and you win a free trip to heaven.

If this thinking sounds somewhat childish, it is.  But, most human beings begin to grow out of childish ways of understanding the world as they enter their teenage years and there a whole different set of considerations become paramount.

Looking again to the cross, moving from the red center of our crucifix to the blue arms on either side, as we leave behind the egocentrism of our childhood, human beings begin to look to others for guidance from others. This is called the conventional stage of moral and spiritual development. The initial stage comes in our teen years. What our friends think about us becomes paramount. The worst thing a teenage kid can be is uncool, i.e., different. We hear that in our concerns for our reputation: “What will people say if I do this?” And few organizations manifest the pressures to conform to group think with its tribal values of “us and them” more intensely than religious bodies.

As we grow into our adulthood, the conventional values of our society become more important to us. At the next stage of moral and spiritual development the judgment we defer to expands beyond the confines of our local tribe. The classic example is the role of the law in determining our behaviors. Most of us feel it is important to follow the law sometimes even when we know the laws are not morally sound. But when laws are broken, we are confronted with the question, “What if everyone did that?”

The religious expression of conventional reasoning is found in the concern for orthodoxy. For many people of faith, being in agreement with what some call “the received tradition” is important. We look for affirmation from those who hold the same ideologies we do. And those who don’t find those understandings compelling are often subject to being called names like heretic, pagan, blasphemer and Pelagians.

What is striking about all conventional thinking is the implicit and often unrecognized need for affirmation. Looking again to our crucifix, we tend to look to either side, horizontally, looking for someone to say to us, “You’re right! You have permission to believe and act as you do” And for most of us, that’s where our moral, ethical and spiritual development ends.

But not for all.

Vertical Arms: Looking Within, Beyond

Tillich

Theologian Paul Tillich, the same fellow who told us that G-d is the ground of all being, reminds us that the cross of Jesus has vertical dimensions as well as horizontal and that the vertical dimensions of the cross are generally ignored in our focus on the horizontal. Looking again at our crucifix, the lower arm of the cross reflects the need to go deep within ourselves and consider who we are and how our thoughts, words and deeds reflect our very character. The upper dimensions of the cross point toward the world outside of us and how our thoughts, words and deeds impact that world. More importantly, that upper dimension reminds us that we belong to a reality that is much larger than ourselves and our daily lives.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is calling his listeners to exactly such considerations: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” Our egocentric considerations tell us that we should not kill someone because we might ourselves be killed if we do – what must I do to keep from being punished? Our conventional considerations tell us that people may think poorly of us if we harm other people and the law prohibits such behaviors. Who wants to be condemned as a criminal?

VerticalBut Jesus is calling us to go deeper, to look within ourselves, to think harder, longer. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus is demanding that we look inside and ask ourselves “What is the source of this anger? What is it I want that is being denied here? Why do I expect my brother or sister to act in a given way which, when they don’t, I feel the need to condemn them, perhaps even harm them? And why do I inevitably presume the problem lies with them and not within me?”

Jesus is also calling us to ascend the upper arm of the cross, to consider how our attitudes, words and behaviors impact the world around us. Why would we believe that the mere replication of the killing of the human being who has murdered another would somehow result in justice? Justice means doing the right thing in the face of wrongdoing. Mahatma Gandhi recognized this years ago when he observed that an eye for an eye only rendered the entire world blind.

Upper Dimensions

How we live into our faith is at least as important as that we have one. There is no manual we can consult that provides all the answers to the moral, ethical and spiritual conundrums that human beings encounter every day. The Way of the Cross calls us to wrestle with our souls, no matter how uncomfortable that might be. We are called to remember that we are all on a journey into the Holy One, a learning process in which our mistakes are at least as important as our successes. We are all works in progress. But we are never alone. G-d is present in all our undertakings. And that is both our consolation as well as our consummate hope.

St. Leo Abbey
Crucifix, St. Leo Abbey, OBS, St. Leo,FL

Let us pray: O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [Collect, Epiphany VI]

Gods help 2

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com 

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

© Harry Coverston, 2020

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Just Call It What It Really Is: Impunity

Sister.Vicious.Power.Hungry.Bitch

On October 11, 1991, I attended a National Coming Out Day rally at Sproul Plaza on the University of California Berkeley campus, the famed site of the Free Speech Movement in the early 1960s. I had previously heard of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence but never encountered them. On the stage stood Sister Power Hungry Bitch, one of the founders of the San Francisco based movement that draws into question understandings of gender, sexuality and the way religions have historically constructed them.

This day Sister Power Hungry Bitch had an important message for me and the crowd there assembled. She said,

“Instead of calling heterosexuality ‘normal,’ call it what it really is: common.”

The Sister was raising an important point, drawing into question the tendency of the majority to see its own experience as normative for everyone else and thus morally correct. In truth, normal simply means statistically prevalent. Any conjecture about its moral status is purely subjective and often self-serving.

But this demand that we “call it what it really is” has stuck with me all these years with an application well beyond the immediacies of National Coming Out Day in Berkeley those many years ago. This week at the conclusion of the sham proceeding in Washington, that question came back to me.

It is highly problematic to describe the vote of the Senate as somehow “acquitting” Donald Trump. Acquittals come at the end of an actual trial. The verdicts are based on the testimony of witnesses who can be cross-examined by defendants in front of jurors who have pledged to be impartial. The proceeding is governed by established rules of evidence and procedure.

None of those things were true in this circus in the U.S. Senate. So let’s call these things what they really are.

  1. A Trial That Wasn’t – Sham Proceeding  

 

Moscow.Mitch

As a former practicing attorney and a constitutional law instructor, I shuddered as I watched the slow-motion train wreck that was proceeding in the Senate. Part of the problem is simply the language we use to describe it. This was a removal proceeding, not a trial. At a bare minimum, trials demand at least an appearance of transparency, impartiality and objectivity if they are to be seen legitimate.

None of these things were true here. Many senators announced up front that they did not intend to consider any of the evidence actually presented at trial. Some were ready to vote to let the impeached official off without any of the evidence even being heard. Jurors like these in a real trial would have been eliminated in the process of voir dire, jury selection.

In the end, these Senators demonstrated that they never intended to be jurors; they were aiders and abettors.

Trials require verdicts to be rendered based upon competent evidence presented by witnesses and relevant physical and documentary evidence.  In this case, it wasn’t that the evidence wasn’t available. It’s that it was never allowed to be heard, initially by the stonewalling of an administration who refused to honor subpoenas to produce relevant evidence and also forbade public servants from testifying. The administration was, in turn, aided and abetted by a judiciary now stacked with Federal Society ideologues more than willing to delay rulings on such evidence production. This allowed them to avoid having to blatantly tip their partisan hands in rendering foregone conclusions in their rulings.

This circus may have been a lot of things, but it wasn’t a trial. Those of us who are lawyers know this and most of us cringed as we watched this constitutional process being prostituted to a partisan charade that flaunted the very Constitution which created this body. All attorneys are members of bars who must take an oath to defend, protect and preserve our national and state constitutions. Watching this blatant dismantling of the dreams of the Framers was like experiencing a dagger through the heart.

Klan.ImpunityStudents of history know this is hardly unprecedented. A failure to hold wrongdoers accountable even in the face of horrific crimes thus granting impunity to the malfeasants has a long history in this country. There is a long string of Klansmen committing lynchings who were never charged with their crimes. Worse yet, there is a history of those who were actually charged with deadly church and home bombings who were quickly acquitted by all white juries.

Our homegrown terrorists have far too often gotten away with murder, quite literally.

 

Any proceeding that is predetermined in outcome, going through the motions for public appearances, allowing wrong doers to benefit from their malfeasance without any accountability, may be a lot of things but it is not a trial. It is ultimately little more than an attempt to legitimize illegitimate actions.

So, invoking the Sister Power Hungry Vicious Bitch imperative, let’s just call this Senate proceeding what it really was: A Sham.

  1. A Senate That Refused to Do Its Duty: Abdication

 

Collins

It was the hopes of the Framers that a responsible Congress would prevent an imperial presidency from doing the very kinds of things that Mr. Trump has done:

  • engaging in behaviors that were designed to enrich himself at the cost of the national interest
  • allowing foreign interests to influence domestic electoral processes
  • betraying allies in other countries in pursuit of personal gain
  • lying to Congress and the people about all of this
  • preventing relevant evidence from being discovered.

These are precisely the kinds of behaviors which prompted the Framers to create the provisions for impeachment and removal. And they are precisely the actions which this Senate, whom the Framers left with that responsibility, refused to consider.

Profile.In.Courage.RomneyThere is one exception to this sweeping condemnation of a Senate so fearful of this demagogue that its majority party refused to even consider his misdeeds. Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican representing Utah, offered a moving speech that reminded me a good bit of his father. George Romney was one of the last respectable Republicans to sit in the Congress and one of my heroes as a child. In announcing his vote, Mitt spoke of his faith and his moral compass. And then he became the first member of an impeached President’s party to ever vote against his party leader in a removal proceeding.

It does my heart good to know there are still Senators willing to take action based upon ethical considerations rather than expediency. And it is particularly gratifying to see that not every Republican is willing to cower to the hegemony of Trumpland’s money machine. Mitt Romney has come a long way from his condescending statements about “the 48%” and boxing up his family dog in the luggage rack atop his car and driving cross country. Even white boys of privilege have the potential of maturing into responsible adults.

Somehow, I sense that George Romney is smiling this day over the performance of his son.

Sadly, Mitt is a glaring exception. The remainder of his fellow Republicans were more than willing to sell out the Congress, the American people and empower the very imperial presidency that the Framers feared and several generations of their predecessors have fought. It was a shameful performance from a body that has sadly come to be predictable in such shameful behaviors.

So, invoking the Sister Power Hungry Vicious Bitch imperative, let’s just call this performance what it really was: Abdication.

 A Frightening But Predictable Outcome: Impunity

 

Equal.Opportunity.Offender

Given that this proceeding was not a trial, either functionally (the Senate is empowered to remove impeached presidents, thus it is a removal procedure) or actually (see No. 1 above), calling the result an acquittal is highly problematic. It suggests that the impeached official here was found not guilty. That does not correspond with the facts of this proceeding.

Even some of the cowardly Republican who abdicated their duties to the Congress, the Constitution and the people were willing to admit the President had engaged in wrongful actions. It was clear from the very wording of the Constitution that this was precisely the kinds of behaviors the Framers sought to prevent. But in an age when there is no Truth and any appeals to the same evokes the adolescent response of “That’s just your opinion,” the majority of Senators avoided their duties by deferring to the logical fallacy of appeal to opinion: “In my opinion this is not what high crimes and misdemeanors means.”

In all fairness, it does not help that this charge is not spelled out in the Constitution itself. Like many aspects of our founding documents (“…all men are created equal,” “equal protection of the law,” “Due Process of the law…”) the overarching principles that the Framers and their successors sought to instill were intentionally vague, designed to be interpreted contextually as they were invoked and evolved over the ensuing years.

Trump hotel

But the many examples of the Trump dynasty enriching itself at the public till, not the least of which was the required quartering of military personnel in Trump hotels overseas, are precisely the kinds of behaviors the emoluments clause was designed to prevent. The prohibition against the role of any foreign interests in the national electoral process applies directly to the blackmailing of foreign officials to create dirt on a political opponent back home. And the blanket stonewalling of officials and documentary evidence that has marked Trumpland since its inception is precisely the kind of behaviors prohibitions on obstruction of justice are designed to prevent.

Donald Trump was guilty of all of those things. Everyone knows it. But in the end, those charged with responding to impeachable behaviors chose political expedience and raw power over justice.

It was a sad day, even for Trumpland.

ImpunityWhen a Senate is unwilling to do its duties to remove officials they know to be guilty of behaviors which violate the Constitution, whatever the reason, this marks a very dangerous turning point in a constitutional republic. It sends a very clear message to wrongdoers from the lynchers and bombers of the Jim Crow South to the money grubbers of Trumpland that they can engage in their wrongful, harmful behaviors without any accountability.

The predictable result of such a message is that such behaviors will likely increase.

This was not an acquittal. There was no real trial, no impartial jury. In this sham proceeding with decision-makers willing to abdicate to power and political gain, there could be no acquittal. What happened here was that a wrongdoer was simply given a pass. And we can be assured that he will see this as a greenlight to engage in such wrongful behaviors in the future.

So, invoking the Sister Power Hungry Vicious Bitch imperative, let’s just call the result of this sham proceeding what it really was: A Granting of Impunity.

So What Next, Trumpland?

The America which existed prior to its devolution into Trumpland was always an imperfect democratic republic. Its imperfections were judged by its own constitutional ideals. But with the rise of Trumpland, this experiment in self-governance that always saw its very best as merely a step toward “a more perfect union,” is over. If there were ever any doubts that it has finally given up the ghost, those doubts were removed Wednesday, February 5, 2020 on the auction floor of what was once an august body.

CiceroWhat comes next is unclear. The devolution of America into Trumpland has the actual majority within this country – which has never supported Donald Trump – worried. We increasingly find ourselves barred from power in the stacked deck that now includes all three branches of government. Our hopes of undoing the harm and repairing the damage becomes increasingly difficult and farther and farther away. Even if it begins in the next election, the recovery process will not occur overnight, no matter how much we well-trained consumers believe ourselves entitled to instant gratification.

Even those possibilities were mortally wounded by the Senate’s granting of impunity to an electoral cheater. The chances of a fair election have diminished greatly as a result.

In granting this impunity, Senators bought into the cynical words of his self-promoting lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who echoed another corrupt president who left power to avoid impeachment and removal. Those were the days when Senates still remained accountable to the Constitution and the people. Richard Nixon had asserted that anything the President does, regardless of its legality or moral depravity, is legal. Forty three years after a responsible Congress refused to buy that self-serving argument, a cowardly Senate has given a corrupt businessman with a long history of cheating in his dealings with others, hiding his records and lying to anyone who would listen a green light to proceed with his depraved business unimpeded.

That includes the coming election.

Impunity.

It is hard for many of us to watch the country we once loved, served and sought to require to live into its own ideals of creating “a more perfect union,” descend down the slippery slope to utter depravity. If there is any consolation this day, it is that brave souls like Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch will continue their demands on their countrywomen and men that we be honest with ourselves and each other and that courageous souls like Mitt Romney will continue to hear that call to honesty and accountability and respond.

For the rest of us, little remains but to watch, weep and hope to begin the long road to recover in November. Truth be told, I’m not sure the Trumpland disaster has bottomed out yet. My guess is that there is more suffering to come before things turn around. I admit I’m not very optimistic. And yet I remain hopeful.

Weeping.Liberty

To those who read these words and nod your heads affirmingly, know you are not alone. It’s true that misery likes company. You’ve got mine. And to those who refuse to consider (or even read) these words because the truth that a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence requires of you is too much to handle, I will work diligently toward respecting your person even as I will oppose your thoughts, words and deeds at every juncture.

Most importantly know that I absolutely refuse to hate you. You should not confuse opposition to ideas, words and behaviors one finds harmful with being a “hater.” To do so is sloppy thinking and engages an adolescent behavior that does not merit respect. You’re capable of better.

As Sister Helen Prejean has taught us, no one is reducible to the worst thing they ever did, even being enablers of the depravity of Trumpland. But please know I and many others will resist that depravity every chance I get. On that you can depend.

May the America which once commanded the respect of the world, which merited our loyalty and gave rise to our most fervent hopes rest in peace. And may this dark night of the soul that is Trumpland go the way of the dinosaurs very quickly.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

© Harry Coverston, 2020

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A Righteous Man, a Courageous Mother

Giotto.

Giotto (Giotto di Bondone), Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (1266-1336)

The Gospel appointed for the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) contains one of the more beloved passages in the Christian scripture. The words are spoken by Simeon, a man upon whom the Holy Spirit rested, a righteous man who awaited what the writers of Luke called “the consolation of Israel.” These beautiful words reflect the heart of a patient, devout servant of G-d: 

“Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon

A Long, Patient Wait

 Simeon lived in a Judea occupied by Roman invaders. Like many of his countrymen and women, he had long awaited a savior, the one who would save the people of Israel from the domination of the hated Romans. From the context of this statement attributed to Simeon, it is fair to assume that this was not his first time in the Temple. Simeon’s devotion to Israel had no doubt brought him here many times before this day.

But this day was to be different from those that came before. This day, Simeon’s most fervent prayer had been answered. The One he had patiently awaited for so long was here, before him.

It is hardly surprising that his first response was one of astonishment and gratitude. That gratitude is expressed in his recognition that his prayers had been answered, that he was now relieved of his calling to the Temple to prayer for salvation. And that calling had not been in vain.

“For my eyes have seen your salvation….”

Titus

Sack of the Temple, Arch of Titus, Palatine Hill, Rome

It’s important to note that this salvation – and the way that word is ordinarily used in the Gospels – does not refer to individual souls nor is it connected to an afterlife in heaven. Salvus, the Latin root of this word, means health, wholeness. In Simeon’s use of this word, he refers to the entire people of Israel, not to any given individual. He also points toward the restoration to wholeness of an occupied people right here and now, not in the next world.

Simeon’s dreams have come true. And thus flow forth these beautiful words, as only the lyrical gospel writer Luke could produce them, that are so familiar to all of us in the Anglican tradition.

Evensong

 Choral Evensong, Westminster Abbey

Those of us who have sung in choirs or spent much time in our daily offices of Morning or Evening Prayer recognize these words from the Canticle we call alternatively the Song of Simeon, honoring its source, or the Nunc Dimittis, the Latin words for “now dismissed.” For those who love the choral evensongs of our tradition, the Magnificat or the Song of Mary precedes the Gospel reading and the Nunc Dimittis follows.

It is a beautiful tradition, one of the many treasures of Anglicanism.

A Chilling Prediction

 It is hardly surprising that words directed to Mary also play an important part of this gospel reading. Mary is present for Simeon’s prayer along with Joseph and her newborn son. Mary has dutifully reported for the ritual purification that Hebrew women are required to undergo after giving birth. The couple is also there to offer the sacrifice of turtle doves their tradition requires to dedicate the first born to the Lord.

Once Simeon is finished with his prayer, he turns to Mary and gives her a chilling prediction:  

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Imagine for a second being the mother of a newborn, a child she already knows is special, different from the others in her village, and now hearing this prediction. The last line is terribly troubling:

“And a sword will pierce your own soul too…”

Ferruzzi

                             Roberto Ferruzzi, Virgin Mary and Child Jesus Christ (1897)

We who know the rest of the story know that Simeon proved prescient. This is a Mother who would be forced to watch as her child was betrayed by one of his own disciples, tortured and killed by the Roman occupiers who, worse yet, were working in concert with the religious leaders of the very Temple in which they were now standing.

It is an unspoken law of nature that children should always outlive their parents. And most parents who have endured the loss of a child will readily say that watching their child die before them is the most painful experience a human being could have.

A Mother Weeps for Her Child

 I think have a little insight into that reality. In August of 1985 I traveled with my husband and my family to Europe. One of our stops was the Vatican. Once inside this cavernous facility, bustling with tourists, we decided it was best to separate, see the things we wanted to see and reassemble at the steps in an hour.

I had found a group of German tourists saying mass before the high altar so I joined them. Afterward I did the tourist bit, taking photos of the Baldacchino and the many beautiful sculptures. As the time to meet my family drew near, I made my way back to the front of the basilica. Over in the corner of the entry way I saw a group of people gathered. Ever the curious one, I went to see what had captivated them.

Pietta

It was the Pieta, Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of a sorrowful Mary holding the broken, bleeding body of her crucified son. It is an enormous piece of sculpture, its size alone overwhelming the visitor standing at her feet.

But it is the subject matter of this work – whose name means alternatively piety as well as pity – that Michelangelo had depicted so poignantly that most overwhelmed any visitor who knew the story. In my eye, I could hear whispered the words from Luke’s Gospel:

“And a sword will pierce your own soul too…”

Simeon’s words had, indeed, proved prescient. A sword had, indeed, pierced Mary’s very soul. And the grief of that moment that Michelangelo had so ably captured began to overwhelm the audience around me.

Mom.3

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman openly weeping. Trying not to stare, I turned to look at her. It was only then that I realized the woman was my own Mother. And it was at that moment that the unspeakable pain of a Mother watching her oldest child suffer became very real to me.

Some of us know what that suffering feels like because you have been parents. And some of us, like myself, know how hard it is to watch your own parent suffer because of the way you have been abused by others because of your sexuality – or anything else that makes a child different.

The sword of fear and loathing is a very powerful weapon indeed. No heart stands much chance against being pierced in its advance.

Saints Worthy of Veneration

There is a reason that we venerate Mary. She was a brave woman, a teenage unwed mother of a special child. She would watch with awe as her child grew up to be the revealer of the Holy here and now. And she would watch with horror as that beautiful child was stripped of his clothing, his dignity and crucified publicly on the edge of a trash heap in the capital city of her homeland.

And yet, it is Mary who says to the archangel Gabriel, “Be it unto me according to thy will.” And it is Mary who will dutifully remain at the foot of the cross until her son takes his final breath.

This is a saint worthy of our veneration, and – if we are courageous enough – our emulation.

Wounded.HealerIt is hardly surprising that Christians have prayed to Mary over the years to intercede for them. The theologian Henri Nouwen observes in his work The Wounded Healer that it is those who have themselves suffered who are best able to enter into the suffering of others. Little wonder the prayer “Ave Maria!”,Hail, Mary!”, ends with the words “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our deaths.”

This day I am grateful for the witness of two courageous souls, two devout servants of the Holy One. Let us give thanks this day for the life and examples of Simeon, a patient man who saw his prayers answered in the coming of Jesus, and Mary, a devoted Mother whose heart would be pierced by that very same coming.

Guadalupe.prayer

 A homily preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, 5 PM service, February 2, 2020

 

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020

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Revealing the Divine Light

Solstice

“Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives…”

Prologue of John is a reading made for a Christmas season which comes at the time of the Winter Solstice. With its imagery of light and darkness, of new creations at the start of a new year, John’s Prologue reflects this season of hope. Not surprisingly, it has a very interesting history.

Biblical scholars believe that the opening to John’s Gospel was a hymn that long predated the writing of the gospel itself. It may well have been used in communal celebrations much as we use the Gloria today. Called the Prologue because it is distinctly different from the remainder of the gospel which follows, this opening meditation on creation, order and revelation of the divine is a masterful use of thought from two different cultures: the Hebrew culture, whose account from Genesis it retells, and the Greek culture from which its images and language come. The author of this gospel has done a masterful job of interweaving the values, symbols and words from these two cultures which will become the basis for a new religion called Christianity.

Biblcial scholarsWe hear this Prologue through distinctly modern ears. The hymn that is the Prologue is offered as reverence for the logos. While that term can be translated as “word,” in the Prologue, that is at best a secondary translation. When we only translate logos as “word,” we lose its depth and its richness. And when we confine logos to the written word found in the scriptures themselves, we have missed the point entirely.

big bang

 Logos comes from the Greek world in which 700 years before the birth of Jesus philosophers spoke of a rational and spiritual power that permeated the universe from its very creation. The Greeks saw the logos as providence, nature, god, the soul of the universe. The Greeks believed that the logos was the emanation of god into a space where nothing previously existed and where it was then put into order by reason. It was the logos as emanation of god that created the cosmos and the logos as the ordering principle of the universe that put it all into place to form the world we know.

We hear echoes of that Greek thinking in today’s Gospel. Let me reword it using the Greek word:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The Logos was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Logos, without whom not one thing came into being.

FlowingSo the first act of Creation is the pouring out and ordering of the very essence of G-d  whose very nature is to flow out in ongoing creation, a process that we see all around us all the time. Even in winter we know there is a Spring coming. Even as our elderly loved ones die, leaving us behind, new children are being born into our world whose very images reveal the Holy One who is the source of all Creation.

CyclesWe Franciscans have long called Creation the First Testament. It is the place where G_d’s creative power, emanating from the Source of all Being, can readily be observed by those who have eyes to see.  It is in the Creation that we see the goodness of G-d’s creative power, the providence that ensures that there is always enough to meet all human need even as there will never be enough to satisfy human greed.

But the marvels of Creation alone have never proven sufficient to remind human creatures of the G-d from which they and all Creation have come. As the Gospel writers tell us,

“The Logos was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. The Logos came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

Reejction

It is our very human tendency to be self-focused and to look only to one another for affirmation. We often baptize that myopia with the description “common sense.” But in doing so, we lose sight of our origins. And so, the writers of John’s Gospel tell us, our Creator sends messengers to humanity to call us to remember the G-d who resides in the depth of every human soul, the G-d whose image is borne on the faces of all living beings. G-d knows that it is when we come to see ourselves as somehow cut off from our holy source that the worst of human depravity – including that which becomes coded into tyrannical religious ideologies – comes into being.

The BaptistIn today’s Gospel, there are two messengers. The first is John the Baptist. The writers of John’s Gospel feel it is essential to tell us two things here. First, John the Baptist is G-d’s messenger who has come to tell us to wake up, to pay attention, something new is happening in the world. He does so faithfully and pays with his life. But, John is not the final act – he’s just the warm-up. And he points toward Jesus.

This is precisely the point in the Gospel that we see a decided switch from the abstract philosophical language of the Greeks to the earthy, material language of the Hebrews:

And the Logos became flesh and lived among us…

Legend

While all that abstract, ideal language of the Greeks is all fine and good, for the Hebrew people, the Holy is only taken seriously when it takes material form. And that is true for many of us as well. A G-d who is tangibly present with us in our lives and particularly in our hearts will always be more compelling than one who remains bound to the mere conceptual realms of our minds.

 

But what makes Jesus different from John is the scope of his ability to reveal the G-d from whom all Creation comes. Jesus was so attuned to the will of G-d and so open to G-d’s calling to him that he became transparent and the G-d that is within him – and within all of us – shone through. Again, the writers of John put it very elegantly:

“We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Jesus.teaching

 Almost immediately, humanity lost sight of Jesus’ calling to us once we saw the divine within him. Jesus tried to convince us over and over: “YOU are the salt of the earth….YOU are the light of the world….Don’t look here nor there for the Kingdom of G-d. It is right here among you, indeed, within you!” The G-d that Jesus revealed was neither confined to the heavens nor isolated to himself. The G-d that Jesus revealed is all around us in the Creation and within each living being, simply waiting to be revealed.

Light of worldJesus knew he was not going to be with his followers forever. And so when he departed, he deputized them to take up his calling, to be revealers of G-d in the world. Because a world that does not recognize the divine even when it is staring them in the face is never going to become conscious of the holy within themselves unless the followers of Jesus live into their own calling to be the revealers of G-d.

Wow. That’s a pretty big calling. So what does that look like? I think I have an idea.

About six years ago, a dear friend of mine had been evicted from his Section 8 housing in downtown Orlando because, as a legally blind man, he was unable to see how filthy and infested his apartment had become. His friend from the Society for a Creative Anachronism, the group that produces the medieval fairs, took him into his place near here on Howell Branch Road.

Charles

Charles didn’t make very good first impressions. His clothes, which came from charities, rarely matched and often were not clean. He couldn’t see to shave and his hair was wild and out of control. That reflected a life of having been in and out of eight different foster placements as a child, a number of them which forced him to endure physical and sexual abuse. The medication he took for his glaucoma had a psychotropic effect that prompted Charles to utter things that most of us, without knowing him, would have presumed were the rantings of a mentally questionable homeless person.

I had met Charles while a parishioner at the Cathedral downtown. Given his love for the church, I proposed to him that I take him to church on Sundays to get him out of the house and ensure he got at least one good meal a week. St. Richards was the closest parish and so we began attending the main service each Sunday.

This was at a point in my life when I had come to believe that the Episcopal Church and I had said everything to one another that we needed to say. To say I was tentative about any dealings with the church is an understatement. As I have often told people, in my life in the church, I always stand near the exits.

But I was more concerned about how Charles would be treated. I watched carefully as people interacted with him here. They treated him with respect. When I asked him how he was experiencing his time here, he always said, “These people are kind to me, little brother.” And so we began to come on a regular basis until Charles got sick and disappeared into the maze of elderly indigent health care. Two years later we consecrated a brick in our memorial garden to celebrate the life of Charles Miller. And four years later, I am still here, in your pulpit today.

Charles Brick

This is how the light of the logos is revealed in the world. It does not come from getting the theology right, though theology is not unimportant. It does not come from zealously upholding moralistic standards that define the elect from the great unwashed, though morals and ethics are important as well. Rather, it comes from the willingness to be the revealers of G-d’s love in this world, to let your light shine in the vibrant ministries you carry out here. And it comes when you let the warmth of G_d’s love embrace all who might come through your doors.

No OutcastsPresiding Bishop Edmund Browning articulated this challenge you have undertaken well when he said,

“I want to be very clear – this church of ours is open to all – there will be no outcasts…”

 

Our collect today reflects this task to which we are called and so I close with it:

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. AMEN.

[N.B., A sermon preached December 29, 2019, First Sunday of Christmas, at St. Richard’s Church, Winter Park, Florida]

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

© Harry Coverston 2020

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The Costs of a Life Denied

[N.B. – I tend to pay attention to my dreams. I believe the unconscious always has something to tell us that we need to know. Dreaming is an important way that it communicates with us.

I often record and reflect on my dreams. But I am particularly attuned to the voice that often whispers in my ear upon my awakening. It is those messages with which I often begin my day in reflection.

Early this week, I awoke with the following in my head and on my heart. It comes in the wake of a painful funeral for a dear friend. The voice was insistent: “Write it down!” And so I have.]

Solo

What are the costs of a life in its fullness denied, a life in which bitter grief must be constantly swallowed, in ever increasing, toxic doses, a life in which one’s very soul must be betrayed, over and over? What is the loss to the world of a life rejected, of a human being required to live a lie, to manufacture a life on the terms of others, inevitably at the cost to one’s most precious truths, indeed at the expense of one’s very soul?

Procrustes

When tender souls are forced onto Procrustean Beds, where the parts that don’t fit the demands of the petty tyrants of the world are amputated with blunt axes of disapproval, disaffirmation, delegitimization, leaving bloody wounds which never really heal – what happens to the parts that are cut off?

Do they simply atrophy, drying up to blow away as if they never existed? Or do they slip deep within, deep below the surface, hiding behind smiling faces which can safely be shown in public, and there bide their time until they can no longer be held in the prisons of repression to which they were confined? What happens to those rarely whispered secrets of loves denied, dreams lost, lives rejected?

Do they spring themselves upon these wounded heroes carrying dark secrets in deadly forms? Do they unexpectedly come up for air, erupting to the surface in behaviors almost immediately regretted, in systematic self-harm that over a time takes a toll? Do they return in the form of heart attacks which seem to come from nowhere, in massive strokes which immobilize even the socially acceptable façade we have been living, in dark cancerous tumors of internalized grief which eat us alive from the inside out?

funeral

When the end comes, at their funerals, are the secrets really ever kept? Is the shame they bore for so long isolated solely to its bearer with no sense of wrongdoing on the part of those who shamed them? Do the preachers pretend that the cirrhotic elephants in the room do not exist?

Do their words serve their own interests, pitching theological obscurities and vague words of reassurance which are ultimately almost always words of self-affirmation, while avoiding at all costs the actual human life that has been sacrificed on the altar of social respectability? Will there be generalized eulogies, self-serving assertions cast in tribal salvation schema – pitches for afterlives conditioned upon the buying into group think – schema which insensitive officiants inflict upon the grieving without their permission?

And when all is completed, the last amen said, the final hymn sung, the urn bearing the ashes processed down the central aisle, will those who came out of social obligation to pay respects never afforded in person to the human being they never really knew head to the obligatory receptions? Will those whose demands these now ended lives were always required to serve say to one another, “I had no idea s/he was in such pain. I never knew.”

Shrimp

Of course, it is a confabulation that all willingly share. Because they did know. They were there from the inception of this pathology that swallowed up this life in its fullness, a fullness they could not handle, a fullness their own well-proscribed, socially acceptable lives of ethical mediocrity resented. And so they systematically killed that which their own limitations could not handle in their sacrificial victim as best they could, putting him, putting her – but most importantly putting them – out of their misery.

Over finger foods and punch they will assuage their consciences, blaming the victim, ascribing moral weakness to a life that was heroically lived on terms foreign to its own nature, a life within which waged an internal war in which only Thanatos could ultimately prove victorious.  They would never know that the ocean of booze, the mountain of pills and the endless plates of food gulped down was simply the cost of keeping an army of demons at bay, angry demons spawned by a life in its fullness denied, gifts rejected, demons that would eventually demand their due.

Book

After the last shrimp has been consumed, the last glass of tepid punch drunk, the last carefully considered greeting exchanged, they will sign the book that closes yet another completed transaction, completing that final chapter of their history.

Then they will depart.

They will walk away consciously denying the heroic struggle that has just ended, a life that dealt with more pain than most will ever know, a hero whose courage dwarfs their own existential mediocrity. They will not think too long about the jagged wounds in the lives of the families of blood and families of choice left behind. They will simply walk away to resume lives that in many ways are already far more dead than the ashes just carried from the sanctuary for internment.

Grief

Post Scriptum

Writing is the means by which those of us who pour out our souls on paper come to grips with our anger and – if we patiently wait long enough – embrace our deep grief. Writing is the means by which we seek healing, the surrendering of burdens we have carried all of our lives. Writing is how we reclaim our own humanity, our own lives denied.

Writing is the means by which we admit to the injuries that caused those deep wounds and left ugly scars on our souls. Writing is the place where we take off the party gloves, pull no punches, refuse to honor polite pretenses, perpetuate no more lies of convenience.

Writing is how we let go.

letting go

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

© Harry Coverston 2019

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