Monday, February 11, 2019

The Calling


 
A Sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida Sunday, February 10, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Our lessons today have a common theme. It is the experience of those who find themselves called by G_d into service. This calling represents a clean break with their past and a beginning of a new life that is unclear, uncertain and at a very basic level, unnerving.

In the passage from Isaiah we are given an incredible image of the calling of a prophet. In what can only be seen as a vision from the divine, Isaiah finds himself surrounded by seraphim, the highest order of angels in the Hebrew cosmology, who stand in reverence before G-d sitting on a throne. The hem of the garment worn by the Holy One fills the entire floor of the temple while the smoke of incense fills the air.

 
The early scholar of religion Rudolph Otto reported human encounters with the Holy produced two different but related responses. Such visions rightly provoke awe in both the sense of fascination as well as terror. In Isaiah’s account you see both at work. 

["Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinan," Faith 24 at Street Art News]


But this is not simply a random encounter for Isaiah. He is being called into service as a prophet for the most high. Not surprisingly, he feels overwhelmed by this calling. More importantly, he feels unworthy: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"  

Not surprisingly, G-d is not willing to take no for an answer. An angel touches Isaiah’s lips with a live coal taken from the altar. In the process, Isaiah is cleansed of any impurities he might have brought to that encounter. Now he has no excuses. So when G_d asks “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah recognizes the time to respond to his calling has come: “Here I am. Send me.” 



Many ordained clergy in the Episcopal Church know this story well. It is one of the two prescribed readings for ordination services. We hear it at perhaps one of the most vulnerable points in our lives, the time when our callings to ministry are officially affirmed by the church.



Many of you also know this story. It is the basis for one of the more beloved hymns in our tradition. Written by Daniel Schutz in 1981 and now part of the Wonder, Love and Praise supplement to our Hymnal, the lyrics echo the words of scripture here: “Whom shall I send? Here I am, Lord, It is I, Lord. I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart”

[Video link to Here I am, Lord sung by one of my favorite fellow Franciscans, John Michael Talbot]

Notice the echo here of our Baptismal Covenant. In the promises we make at every baptism, we respond to each set of questions with this response: “I will with God’s help.” Our willingness to respond to G-d’s call comes first, but we know we can never successfully live into it alone. We need the loving, healing and guiding presence of G-d.


In our lesson from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he talks about his calling. Like Isaiah, he is reluctant to answer the call of G_d to be an apostle of the Way of Jesus. Apostle is a word meaning one who is sent. He reminds G_d that “I am unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church.”

But G-d is not convinced, Paul will answer his calling and will become the primary apostle of this Way of Jesus, a way already in the process of becoming a new religious tradition, Christianity. But Paul is very clear that he has not done this alone: “[B]y the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” Again, we hear the echo of our Baptismal Covenant: “I will with God’s help.

Finally, in our Gospel reading today, we hear the calling of Simon Peter, the fisherman from Capernaum who will become the head of the Jesus Movement after the death of Jesus. A form of this story is found in the three synoptic gospels. In both Mark and Matthew’s versions, Jesus spots Andrew and Simon and says, “Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people.” And they simply abandon their nets and follow him. Easy schmeasy. And slightly unbelievable.

Luke’s Gospel today is more complicated. The invitation to fish for people only comes after a miracle in which Jesus instructs fishermen where to fish and they suddenly cannot handle the immense catch they have landed. As a result the soon-to-be disciples recognize this is someone special.

Of the three gospels, I find Luke’s to be the most compelling. It doesn’t require us to believe that Jewish fishermen whose livelihood fed working class families dependent on them would simply walk away from their labors without a second thought. It also provides us with a response to being called by G-d that we have seen in our other two readings today.

In recognizing that Jesus is not your average wandering sage who happens to know how to catch fish, Simon Peter is suddenly aware of two things. The first is that this man is holy. And the second is that he does not see himself the same way. Peter says to Jesus, “"Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

 


I think a lot of us recognize that response. We find it throughout scripture from Moses’ fearful response to the burning bush to St. Paul’s stunned response to the blinding light in Luke’s account of his conversion. And perhaps many of us have had the same response. Any immediate encounter with the living G_d tends to be overwhelming and destabilizing. In such encounters we frequently become aware of our own insignificance in the face of a G-d who is the Ground of All Being.

It also doesn’t help that most of us have bought into an account of ourselves constructed in terms of our imperfections, an account created by the very church which evolved out of the life and ministry of Jesus. Consider the words of our eucharistic prayer: “Forgive us Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.”

Really? That’s what G-d sees? In all our complexity, the mix of good, evil and indifferent that dwells within the soul of every human, sin is all the G-d who created human beings with all of that potential is able to see?  That suggests a rather limited deity to me. And while it sounds an awful lot like egocentric human beings so highly aware of how others perceive them, I have to believe the wisdom and the heart of the G-d of all creation is simply larger than that.

Clearly Jesus understood Peter’s concerns. “Do not be afraid,” he tells him. Jesus knows from experience that a direct encounter with G_d can be overwhelming. Jesus has just spent 40 days in the desert after his own encounter with the Holy One at the Jordan River. But Jesus also knows that it is always the will of a loving G_d that each created being live into the calling for which they were created.

 


It was the calling of Jesus, a first century Jewish peasant sage, to reveal the G-d who lies at the core of every living being. My Franciscan Christology professor in seminary often said that Jesus became so open to the calling of G-d that he became transparent. The G-d that was within him - and within all created beings - shone through for all the world to see.” Thus, Jesus became the revealer of G-d.

But Jesus knew he would not be around forever. And so he called disciples to perpetuate his Way of Jesus after his death. If the love of G-d was going to be revealed in the world, it would take human agents willing to be revealers themselves to do so. Indeed, their lives might be the only gospel other people ever read.

Much like our human nature, our track record as followers of Jesus on living into that calling is mixed. Even so, that does not let any of us off the hook. Like Isaiah, St. Paul and St. Peter, we don’t get to beg off based upon our failings and imperfections. 

It’s critical to remember that G-d has historically called highly imperfect human beings to be agents of the divine in the world. Moses was a murderer. David arranges for the death of his best friend in order to take his wife. St. Paul was essentially a serial killer in his persecutions of the very folks that Jesus - himself a capitol felon in Caesar’s Empire - had called to be his followers.

Imperfect human beings are the only materials that G_d has to work with in this world. And the need to reveal G-d’s love has probably never been greater than today. That means all of us have callings to answer if G-d’s love is to be revealed in our world.
           
How we do that will vary from person to person. Martin Luther was very clear that the farmer shoveling manure in the barn was just as faithfully living into his calling by G_d as the priest praying at the altar. Finding our calling is undoubtedly our life’s greatest task. It means listening to our hearts and taking seriously the whisperings in our ears of the Spirit sometimes uttered by the most unexpectable sources. Most of all, it means remembering that whatever we do, we are never alone. The G_d we would reveal in the world is always present with all of us. And we always need G-d’s help.

May G-d give us the wisdom to discern our callings this day, the courage to respond to them without fear and the strength to persist in them even amidst our failings.  This day let us respond to our own calling by G_d with the words of our Baptismal Covenant: “I will with God’s help.” AMEN.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida



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
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++



Friday, December 28, 2018

Unexpected Gifts: Visions of Angels





Our very talented priest at St. Richards, Winter Park, provided an unexpected gift this Christmas Eve. Her sermon took an unusual turn for Christmas Eve sermons. She talked about angels.

The lectionary text from Luke is the only account of shepherds who saw angels in the skies over Bethlehem the night Jesus was born. Luke paints such vivid portraits of the events he narrates. Little wonder he is the favorite epistoler for many of us.

Marc Chagall, Israelites Eating the Passover Lamb, 1931
The first angel to appear to the shepherds had to first quiet their fears. Contrary to the cutesy, Hallmark visions of angels, these messengers of G-d (Hebrew, mal'akh) were often experienced as a fierce, imposing presence of the holy. There is a reason they almost always begin their encounters with human beings with the greeting “Peace!” followed by assurances that the humans encountering them are not in danger.

In Luke’s story, the angel relates the news of a Messiah who had come to save all of Israel, a child born in Bethlehem, the City of David. They are told that they would recognize this child by the very meager state of his birth: a baby wrapped in bands of cloth, laid in a manger, the feed trough of domestic animals – hardly the stuff of the “king of kings” as the Christ child will eventually be constructed by later Christian theologians. 

Abraham Hondius, The Annunciation, 1663
As the shepherds arose to go find this newborn child, the skies suddenly erupted with angels: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven…” This angel encounter is a part of the story that is usually glossed over quickly in Christmas Eve sermons.

But not this night.

Alison told the parish that, like the baby Jesus, there are angels around each of us when we are born. When we see babies staring out into the distance, smiling and cooing, reaching out to something no one else sees, they are acknowledging the angels they can still see that are always around all of us all the time.

Sadly, as we mature into fully grown human beings, we lose sight of those angels and many of us come to believe they simply don’t exist. Never underestimate the proclivities of the modern rational mind to dismiss as nonsense that which it cannot explain through empiricism and left brain reason. Modern control issues play out in many ways.

A Taste of Heaven    

But not all of us lose sight of those angels.

I awoke Christmas morning dreaming of angels. With a smile on my face, I began to think of the times that I had been aware of the angels present in my life. 

In a class in seminary, we were invited to try to remember our very earliest memories we were capable of recalling. We were told it would provide some insight into how we saw G-d. One scene arose immediately.

At the end of my second year, my family moved to Sebring in the heart of cattle and citrus country. We lived in one half of an asphalt shingled duplex in a complex of the same situated across the highway from a former air force base and bombing range. These duplexes had at one time housed enlisted men and their families during the second world war. The complex was originally called Splinter City, hardly a glamorous appellation. After a recent visit to that place, I think the name was probably well deserved. But to a three-year-old with a vivid imagination, it was a magical place.

One afternoon right around Christmas time in 1956, I was sitting on the wood floor in the passageway between the kitchen and the living room. My Mother was cooking and singing, as she often did. The wonderful smells of chicken and dumplings and collard greens and my Mother's beautiful voice filled the room.

This space served as an exit to the fenced back yard. There my sand box with all the toys my little brother and I used to build castles awaited us under the sheltering arms of a big oak tree. A French door with glass panes down its length led to the outside. Though it was chilly outside that day, the warm light of the afternoon sun poured through those windows at an angle. I sat in that pool of sunlight, playing with my toys.

Suddenly something caught my attention. In the sunlight dozens of dust devils were dancing in the golden sunlight. When I would reach out toward them, they eluded me and all of them would dance even more energetically.



“Momma,” I exclaimed, “The angels are here!”

“Of course they are, honey. They’re all around us all the time.”

For that moment, I think I had a brief taste of heaven: a warm, sunlit room in my home, my saintly Mother just steps away, cooking up food producing heavenly smells and singing. 

"Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe..." 

All was well in the world. I felt safe, deeply loved by both G-d and the family I had been given, and completely content. Heaven.


A Very Close Call

But this would not be my last visitation by angels.

I believe my Mother was right. Angels do surround us in our daily lives even as we are often oblivious to them. But she was also convinced that there are guardian angels assigned to each of us that watch over and sometimes step in to protect us from ourselves. In my lifetime, I have had that experience more than once.

In 1972, I was in community college and just beginning to come to grips with my sexuality. It would probably have been easier had I ended up a Kinsey 1 (on a scale of six) rather than a position close to the middle of the scale, three on most days, three and a half after a couple of beers. The result was no small amount of confusion particularly in a heterosexist culture which pressured its members to be heterosexual or at least pretend they were.

After a girlfriend had dumped me, I fell into a deep depression. Truth be told, I was terrified of the truth lurking within my unconscious that I might actually be gay. Being rejected only intensified that doubt. After a sleepless night, I drove to her workplace and parked in the lot at the time I knew she’d be going into work. I just sat in my car and watched her walk in and wept. Only later did I realize how creepy that was.

After she entered the hospital to begin her shift, I began the drive back to my trailer near the college where I lived during my first two years of college. As I neared the town of Tavares, where US 441 splits the middle of Lake Woodward, I decided that the pain I was feeling would never go away and that it was not worth living given that reality.

At 65 mph, I headed my car off the highway toward the lake.

Archangel Jophiel 
My car was completely off the highway and beginning to descend down the banks of the lake when in my head I heard a voice loudly shout “No!” The next thing I knew, I was back on 441 nearing the far end of the bridge across the lake.

I had been spared.

Weeks later my Mother would ask me, “Son, what were you doing at about 6:30 last Thursday.” At first I resisted telling her knowing it would upset her. But Mother persisted. “I need to know,” she said.

“I was completely asleep when something woke me up and I just knew there was something terribly wrong with you. I was absolutely terrified. All I knew to do was to get out of bed, onto my knees and pray for your safety. And so I did. And after about a half hour, I knew you were OK and was able to go back to bed.”

“So, tell me what happened, Son.”

Her face fell as I recounted those awful moments. They had occurred precisely when my Mother had had her experience. With tears in her eyes, she simply said, “Son, the guardian angels are watching over you.”

Putting the Angels to the Test

That would not be the last time I would put the guardian angels to the test.

The day I was accepted into my doctoral program at FSU in 1991 I was awakened in my home in Fremont, California at 5 AM PST with a call from Tallahassee, Florida, where it was 8 AM EST. “I just thought you’d want to know the good news,” the office manager said.

I was overjoyed. I was going to be able to live into my dream to get a Ph.D. But that proved to be a very long day that began in triumph and ended in disaster.  

It was midterms time at the Graduate Theological Union where I was in my first term as a Masters of Arts student. I had been up most of the previous night working on a final paper. I’d had little sleep.

I also had no one to celebrate with me. Andy had gone to work crying that morning, grieving that I would be leaving him once again to return home to Florida. He had hoped we would stay in California.

When I arrived home that night, he was still not home, attending class at a University of California extension to hone his programming skills. I was lonely, desperate for someone to share my good news. So I decided to go to the closest gay bar, some 15 miles up Mission Boulevard, to find someone to celebrate with me. There on an empty stomach and about three hours of sleep, I was soon congratulated by patrons at the bar with rounds of peppermint schnapps shots and beer. And very soon I realized I was in deep trouble.

I knew I was in no condition to drive home when I left the bar about 11 PM and I never did make it home. Only five miles from my home, a wave of unconsciousness passed over me. I drifted off the road into the back of a parked semi-truck and totaled my car.

The next few days are largely outside my memory, perhaps mercifully. I was bruised but had no major injuries. The glass moon roof over my head had remained intact even as the passenger side of the car was smashed. I had been very lucky, indeed.

The deeper injuries were to my person. I was just about to be ordained deacon, finishing four years of seminary and ordination process. I’d come to California to attend seminary on my own nickel without any diocesan sponsorship. I’d found a parish to sponsor me and a bishop who’d agree to ordain an openly gay man, no small feat in 1991. As I assessed my situation, it felt like everything I had worked so hard to accomplish was about to go down the tube.

Enter the angels.

Russian icon, 19th CE, Guardian Angel
In the hospital that night, I found that when I would awaken from the sound sleep that results from trauma and medication, I could hear the sounds of wings fervently beating all around me. I felt protected, lifted out of my misery.

That would continue over the next few days as I recovered at home. Each time the realization of my serious error in judgment and my resulting predicament enveloped me and I began to despair, I would hear those angel wings and found myself flooded with a sense of well-being and words of comfort: All will be well. Do not worry. I am with you.

When I told my Mother about that experience she simply said, “Son, you have some very strong guardian angels protecting you. There must be a reason for that.”

I have taken that last statement very seriously ever since. Whatever that reason might be, I was clear I needed to take this “one precious life” that poet Mary Oliver speaks of with no small amount of seriousness. I learned a lot of lessons from my experience 23 years ago. That has included the wisdom not to let the worst thing I ever did define me.

Angels in Human Form

There have been other close calls in my life in which I believe angels played a role. You see, while I have come to question a number of the theological constructions that form the basis of western Christian dogma over the years, I’ve never doubted the existence of a G-d whose presence I experience everywhere I look. And my nearly constant sense of the presence of those who have gone before me convince me that an afterlife of ongoing growth into the image of that G-d awaits me and all of G-d’s creatures. In light of that, the presence of angels all around us all the time is not much of a leap.

Beloved Nanny, Henrietta Hadley (1984)

I am also clear that there are angels who appear unbeknownst to us in human form all the time. There are those strangers who suddenly appear out of nowhere without whose interventions our lives would have gone very differently, perhaps even ended at that moment. 

There are also those who appear at pivotal moments in your life to guide you. Many of my angels have been women – wise, strong, loving – whose roles in my life have proven indispensable. For the presence in my life of all these angels and the gifts they have brought to it, I will always be deeply grateful.


But I do not take them for granted. There are times that I envision arriving in the afterlife to encounter a double line of guardian angels standing in front of the Pearly Gates, arms crossed, serious looks on their face. No doubt I will need to pass through that gauntlet to get to the gates to the afterlife. Sometimes I can even hear them saying, “Mr. Coverston, please step over here for a moment. There are a few matters we’d like to talk with you about….”

Gulp.

Glory, Indeed….

In all honesty, I was not expecting to hear about angels Christmas Eve. That was a gift. And I did not expect to awaken Christmas morning thinking about the angels that have graced my life. That, too, was a gift.

For all these unexpected but wonderful gifts I have received this Christmas, beginning with the sermon which stirred up these visions and the vibrant parish in which unexpected gifts are often the norm, I am grateful. And for all the angels who inhabit my life and those who watch over it, I am ever in your debt.

Glory to G-d in the highest, indeed!

Stained glass over altar, St. Richards


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida




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 2018

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++