Sunday, July 11, 2021

Recognizing All the Children of G-d

“The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein…”



May I speak to you in the name of the [+] G-d from whom all things come, in whom all things exist and to whom all things return. AMEN.

 [To hear the sermon, you can go to the Youtube recording of the service at   The sermon begins at 34:25]   

It is not often that I focus on the thinking of St. Paul in my sermons. I suspect I am like many of you in that I have a conflicted relationship on a good day with this man whose thought is found in letters and writings attributed to him which make up 14 of the 27 books of what we Christians call our New Testament.

 Not All Pauls are Alike…

There is the Paul of I Corinthians whose anthem to love contains some of the most beautiful language and imagery found anywhere in human literature:


Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. (I Cor. 13:4-6)


There is a reason that this passage is often used in weddings. This is Paul at his best. He is lyrical, his spirit is generous, his words evidencing a universalizing level of consciousness well beyond the bounds of the tribal values of his time.

 Then there is the thinking of Paul from the very same book which seems at odds with some of the other egalitarian language we hear from Paul as well as the practice of the early Jesus movement which abounded with women’s leadership. Here Paul says:


Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved…. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man….. [W]omen should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

(I Cor. 11:4-7, 14:34-35)

Here is Paul at his worst, echoing and thus legitimating the values of his honor/shame patriarchal culture: Women should keep their heads covered and their mouths shut. If you have any questions, ask your husbands. If you are like me, I find little to admire in this. My guess is that many of you have a similar reaction.


                                             Mural: Ephesus church, Paul and Thecla

Then there is the Paul who appears in today’s epistle to the Ephesians. Here he makes the argument that the followers of this sect of Judaism that is rapidly developing into a new religion of its own that will come to be called Christianity were somehow destined - if not predestined, as Augustine and his followers will argue - to become adopted children of G_d. I want to say up front that this is an incredibly problematic assertion that I find completely lacking in any compelling reason. But before we consider that, we need a bit of context to understand this passage.


Paul states that his letter here is addressed to the community of Jesus followers who are at Ephesus. A city on the coast of what is now Turkey near the legendary site of the city of Troy, Ephesus is the largest city and the main port in the heart of the Aegean Sea cultural and trading region. It’s hardly surprising that Jesus following Jews would be found in Ephesus. This city has had a good-sized Jewish population for six centuries prior to the time of Paul. The synagogues are well established there and, given the tensions in the Roman Empire around the Jewish tradition reverberating out of the ongoing uprisings of zealots in Judea, the leaders of these synagogues are not interested in any kind of behaviors that would draw the attention of imperial Rome.

Adoption by G-d – Good News for Outcasts

It is telling that the references to becoming adopted children of G-d only appear in the writings of St. Paul, specifically the letters to the Romans, the Galatians and the Ephesians from which today’s epistle is taken. In each of these places, the Jews of those synagogues were making it increasingly clear that Jesus following Jews and the so-called God fearers among the Gentiles who attended their synagogues were not true Jews. Eventually, this internal conflict will prompt those deemed less than fully Jewish to form their own religious bodies which in time would develop into the stream of traditions we today call Christianity.

But, if you are one of the outsiders in these first century communities, challenged by your coreligionists, it is hardly surprising that you would want reassurance from the leader of your movement about the validity of your religious path. And that is what we hear in the words of Paul this morning. The Jews may have been the original chosen people, the children of G_d, but you have been adopted into that tradition by your faith, a path for which you were always destined. You are now the new children of G-d.


In that context, the thought of Paul makes perfect sense. But the problem is, it doesn’t stay there. And in the end, that will have serious ramifications for those outside the Christian tradition.

To get a sense of how pervasive this adoption text taken out of context can be, I found that there are six references to being adopted children of G_d in our Book of Common Prayer. Two of them appear in collects, one for Christmas Eve, the other for Easter Vigil. There is a reference to becoming adopted children of G-d in our Baptismal rite. And there are two references to adoption in our Catechism and one in the 39 Articles of our historical documents at the end of our prayer book.


So What’s the Problem?

 So, what’s the problem with that? Clearly it’s one way of seeing our relationship with G-d. There is a sense of chosenness in being adopted by G_d. And for most of us, adoption of human children is a good thing. In my family I have four adopted cousins whom I love dearly. But when it comes to our faith tradition, it is more problematic. 

The first problem with this concept is that it runs counter to the dominant understanding of our relationship to G-d that results from Creation. In Genesis, that relationship is clear. From the moment of our creation, all living beings - assessed as “very good” by their Creator - bear the image of G_d and hold the capacity to grow ever more into the divine likeness. That understanding is reflected in today’s Psalm: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.” Everything that lives has come from our Creator G-d. 

We come into being as G-d’s children. Thus, there is no need for us to be adopted.   


                                    Image: “I Am a Child of God,” Howard Lyon

 The second problem with this concept is that it simply runs counter to the teaching of Jesus. He never talks about adoption. He is clear that everyone is a child of a G-d from the outset, a G-d who makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. Jesus’ call to his followers is not that they should become children of G_d but rather that they should live into their calling as children of G_d:

 “You are the light of the world! You are the salt of the earth!” Who? All of you!


 If there was ever a time Jesus could have driven down on notions of adoption of those outside the Hebrew tradition, it would have been in his parable of the Good Samaritan. There he addresses the question of who one’s neighbor is and what duties are owed them. In the end, he cleverly asserts that tribal boundaries and the prejudices that attend them must be transcended if one is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In short, these folks don’t need to be adopted into our tribe to become G_d’s children. We are called to recognize them as fellow children of G_d now and treat them accordingly.

 The Ones That Aren’t Saved

 So what happens when self-serving theologies of adoption dominate our understandings of our faith and those outside it? I think the recent news out of Canada may offer us some insights. And they are troubling.


Beginning in the 1870s, the churches of Canada were given the task of teaching First Nation children there how to function in the Eurocentric culture of Canada’s European settlers. These children were rounded up from their tribal homes and brought by force to schools across Canada. The churches who were authorized and funded by the Canadian government to operate these schools were charged with two primary objectives: one, to civilize these indigenous children, a goal which essentially meant stripping them of their native languages and cultures and replacing them with Eurocentric values; and two, to Christianize the children. 


No doubt there were religious leaders at these schools who operated out of the highest of intentions. But at a very basic level, the indigenous people understood this interaction in a much different way. As Colorado State professor Ward Churchill would describe it, from the perspective of the indigenous people, the ultimate goal was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”


Sadly, many of the children involved in this presumptuous process were not saved. Recent forensic findings at several residential schools in Canada have found the evidence of mass graves containing the bodies of hundreds of Indian children. Bear in mind, if the one who understands themselves to be a child of G_d but presumes up front that the other they are encountering is not, the duties they owe to the Other are minimal on a good day. This is a pernicious pattern that repeats itself in history. Indeed, the first examinations of American reservation schools, some of them led by our own Episcopal tradition, are just beginning. Stay tuned. 

Our Theologies Can Make All the Difference

 Theologies of adoption may be incredibly self-satisfying for those who presume they are, in fact, those who have been adopted. But I find such theologies to be profoundly misguided and woefully in need of reconsideration. Perhaps, more importantly, to those outside the bounds of the tribe, these theologies can readily prove deeply destructive. 

How we see ourselves, how we see others and our relationship to the G-d who created us makes a decided difference in the ways we behave. This day our lectionary presents us with two very different choices of how to view our world and those within it. We can opt for an ongoing acontextual, self-serving reading of Paul’s notion of adoption or we can affirm the words of the Psalmist who reminds us the world and everything and everyone within it belong to G-d from the moment of our creation. And from that common beginning point flow our duties to ourselves, to all others, to our created world and to the G-d who both pervades but is not confined to that world.


I think this is not a difficult choice. But don’t take my word for it. I present it to you for your consideration this morning. And I hope you will take it seriously. Our collect points us in that direction so I close with it. Let us pray:


O G-d, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 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.

 Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

 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, 2021


Saturday, June 19, 2021

He Spoke to Them in Parables

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;


At the end of the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus winds up a long series of teachings with two parables, both involving seeds. As is often Jesus’ inclination, these stories use the imagery of the countryside of Galilee in which Jesus grew up.  At a very basic level, that content tells us who composed his audiences. Stories of sowing seeds and harvesting the product of one’s hard labor would readily speak to the experience of the peasant farmers gathered around Jesus.

My focus today is on the part of the reading which comes at the end of these parables. With the seeds and the harvest as well as the mustard tree laid out for our consideration, the writers of Mark’s Gospel offer us some editorial commentary to help us understand what we’ve just read: 

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables….”

Clearly the use of parables was central to Jesus’ ministry. Indeed, at least a third of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels takes the form of parables. In using this form of storytelling, Jesus engages a practice widely known throughout the Mediterranean world whose usage dates back at least to the ancient Greeks with names like Aristotle and Socrates. 

But the Gospel parables have a distinction that is valued by those of us who would follow Jesus. Biblical scholars widely agree that while some of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels may well be the product of the lived experience of the communities who later produced the gospels, the chances are that when we hear Jesus’ parables, we are encountering the heart and mind of Jesus himself.

Some of us may have wondered why Jesus was so prone to use parables, particularly when he was trying to convey concerns of great importance to his listeners. As it turns out, there are a number of reasons for this.


Deceptively Simple Stories…on the Surface

Parables often appear as simple stories on their face. But in virtually every parable there is a much deeper underlying meaning at issue. Parables present moral dilemmas to listeners in very thinly disguised forms. Those of us who have taught ethics know that it is precisely in having students wrestle with contrived moral dilemmas that they come to a greater understanding of the ethical issues involved in our daily lives.

 Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)

Consider the parables we love. On its face, the Prodigal Son talks about familial relations in an honor/shame culture. But at a deeper level, it raises much weightier questions:

·         What does unconditional love look like?

·         What does it mean to really forgive others?

·         What does it mean to forgive ourselves when we have betrayed our own moral standards?

·         How do we balance the justice the older brother is rightly demanding with the mercy the father is adamantly insisting upon in creating our own societies?

Part of the magic of the parable is its power to call us to enter into the roles of its players. And if we stay with it long enough, we may well find that we have played each of the roles in the story. Consider the Good Samaritan parable.


Dianah Roe, The Good Samaritan, UK (2014)


·         When in our lives have we been the Samaritan, the despised outsider?

·         When did we do the right thing even in the face of social disapprobation?

·         When have we attended to the needs of the suffering victim?

·         Indeed, when have we been that victim?

·         When have we been the by-passers who did not stop to help the one we’ve met on the street in dire need?

·         When have we mustered rationalizations to avoid feeling the guilt for avoiding our duties to our brother or sister that we probably should have felt in that situation?


         James Janknegdt, Texas (found at

We Want It Spelled Out - But That’s Not What Parables Do

 One of the beauties of the use of parables is that they are enigmatic. They strike our imagination, pique our curiosity, they make us reflect in order to arrive at meaning. Parables never tell us on their face what their point might be. They require us to wrestle with them, to get beneath the surface explanation before we can ascertain the kernel of the wisdom that is being offered.



In short, Jesus makes us work for it. And to do so most of us have to get past our immediate couch potato response of avoiding the kind of the hard work that wrestling with our souls always requires. If we are being honest, most of us would admit that when it comes to moral issues, we prefer to be told what we should think, to be given the rules we should follow, to have clearly spelled out the way we should live.

But that’s not what parables do.

Instead Jesus tells us a perfectly ordinary story. Before it is over, it will confront us with a major question. He often begins with "The Kingdom of God is like this." By the end of the story, he has you thinking: Well, I hear the story, but how on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? And that's exactly the point when you realize, this is your cue – answering that question is now your job as the listener.

Jesus also seemed to recognize that what his hearers took away from these parables undoubtedly varied by the listener. The Gospel writers often emphasize points Jesus has made with the assertion “Let those with ears hear!” But whose ears are hearing? As Mark notes, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;” Much of what any of us hears turns on what we bring to that hearing. With a parable, the chances are that, much like a set of witness statements after an accident, you will get as many versions of what happened as there were witnesses. 

But that's the point of the parable. It's open to everyone.


A Major Vote of Confidence, A Major Entrustment

 Here’s what I see as the most important part of this. At a very basic level, Jesus’ use of parables is a major vote of confidence in our ability to hear, process and make sense of what he is trying to convey to us. Jesus does not operate out of a theology of depravity that presumes that human beings are incapable of even seeing the good, much less doing it, requiring a rescuing deity to swoop down to save us from ourselves.

 Rather, Jesus calls his fellow sons and daughters of G_d to listen, to reflect, to wrestle with our consciences, and hopefully to engage those attitudes, words and behaviors which in time will make manifest the kingdom of G_d.



Not only is that a major vote of confidence, it’s also a major entrustment. Clearly Jesus appeared to think pretty highly of his followers. I think that’s something we who follow him today ought to take very seriously.


[Sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL June 13, 2021, Proper Six, Year B] 




 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.


Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi


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, 2021



Monday, June 07, 2021

Family of Choice: Who Is Truly My Mother, Brother, Sister?

                “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (MK  3:35)

The Gospel lesson from Mark begins with a Jesus who has just completed a successful first round of teaching and healings that has made him a sensation in his region. Hundreds of people wanting to experience this charismatic figure from the Galilee have assembled outside his home, creating so much noise that it proves impossible for he and his followers to have a meal in peace.

But it’s also drawn his detractors. The vested interests within the religious establishment of Judea are on site to dismiss him. He’s crazy, they say, possessed by demons. No doubt, to a culture whose guardians have carefully taught them to shame the poor, the prostitutes, and the sick, much less the hated Samaritans, a teacher who insists that each of these human beings is valued by the G-d who created them and whose image they bear must be crazy. 

 But this *is* your family, Jesus…..

Even Jesus’ family members are there to rein him in. They come to where Jesus is to call him outside where they can talk some sense into him.  Perhaps the family is worried that their reputation is in danger here. In an honor/shame culture, reputation means everything.

But I also have no doubt that Mary was probably worried about Jesus. She clearly didn’t know what to make of what Jesus is saying and doing. What she does know is that she loves her first born child deeply and fears for his safety. Bear in mind this is the woman whom the Temple priest had foretold that “a sword shall pierce your heart.” Sadly, time would prove that warning to be well founded.

Jesus’ response to his family is what leapt off the page at me. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. It’s an odd question coming out of a culture where family ties and the duties that flow from them are seen as sacred. He then looks around himself at those gathered to hear him, answering his own question with the statement “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


Biblical scholars are not of one mind regarding the origins of this passage. It could readily reflect the divisions that opened within the synagogues where Jesus followers were present at the end of the first century, ultimately prompting the rabbinical leaders to expel the Jesus followers. Jesus’ statement suggests this conflict: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It could also reflect the struggle for leadership in the Jesus movement itself at the end of the first century that erupted between the community led by James, Jesus’ brother, and the growing movement that increasingly included Gentiles led by Paul. But given the shock value of these words and the potential to draw into question social structures and cultural values, I think this could easily be the Jesus of history.

Ears to Hear: Listening Through LBGTQ Ears

A common line that we encounter in the Gospels is “Let those with ears hear.” Of course, what any of us hear is often determined by what we bring to that hearing. That is true of all of us, including your preacher tonight. And so it is hardly surprising that in this month in which we celebrate LBGTQ Pride, what I heard in this passage echoes a common distinction within the gay community between families of choice – those who love and accept us as we are - in contrast with families of birth - those to whom we are related by accident of birth.

Some of us know the pain of having our families of birth reject us, choosing the affirmation of their religious circles, their social circles, their political circles, over their own children. Some of us know what it’s like to be called crazy because our affectional patterns run afoul of a heterosexist CIS gendered norm. Indeed, some of us know the scary experience of being declared demon possessed by those who far too often confuse revealed religion with socially constructed prejudices. 

My guess is that many of us can relate to Jesus’ Mother, concerned for the immediate safety of her child as well as the welfare of the rest of her family. Many of us know the vicarious pain of watching our loved ones weep or burn in anger as we have endured dehumanization from fearful people around us.

It’s also important to note that the family’s attempted intervention comes in the context of a confrontation of Jesus by the religious authorities of his day. None of us need to be reminded of the long dark history of demonization and discrimination that LBGTQ people have endured in this country and around the world throughout history. And we know that this animosity can readily express itself in deadly behaviors.


The Last Pandemic: Families of Choice Cared When Families of Birth Abandoned Us

This Pride month occurs on the 40th anniversary of the eruption of a deadly virus called HIV that was roundly ignored even as thousands of our loved ones took ill and died awful deaths. Worse yet, many were disowned by their families of birth and demonized from the pulpits of their churches. It was their families of choice who nursed them as they died and often who buried them as well. Jesus’ question rings loud and clear in the experience of many who felt abandoned by those they most needed in that time: 

“Who are my Mother and my brother and my sister?” 


This month also marks the fifth anniversary of the deadly Pulse massacre at the former night club across town. What I remember most about that tragic event was the vigil a week later in which a grieving family of choice numbering 100,000 residents circled the mile long rim of Lake Eola with their candles to insist “Hate will not prevail. Love wins.” It was a stunning demonstration of the Way of Jesus in action: 

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  

It is tempting to look at the successes the Gay Liberation movement has achieved in the past decades and assume the long quest for recognition of dignity is over. That’s particularly true in light of the lifting of the arbitrary restrictions that long precluded many of us from the benefits of legal marriage. For many of us who grew up in days when our lovemaking itself was a criminal offense, this was a major shift that most of us felt we would never live to see.


For that and for the role our church played in helping those changes to occur, I give thanks to G-d. But the post-election stream of legislation that would erode if not completely take away the expectation that LBGTQ people will be treated with dignity in our society suggests that our struggle is not over. If nothing else, the skyrocketing death toll of transgendered persons targeted for violence coming in the wake of legislation singling them out for unequal treatment tells us that many in our families of choice remain very vulnerable.

 Love may always win but in the meantime a lot of our brothers and sisters still require the vigilance, support and loving presence of families of choice. 


It’s Hardly Just LBGTQ People Who Understand This

Of course, one need not be LBGTQ to know what Jesus is describing here. How many of us have found that we no longer can have civil discussions with people we grew up with, people among whom we have lived, worked and worshipped? How many of us find ourselves debating about whether to go to that family dinner at Thanksgiving or the class reunion at the high school this month? Jesus’ question “Who are my brothers and my sisters?” is particularly relevant to many of us.


In a time when partisanship with all its contrived litmus tests has become fiercely tribal and notions like unquestioned belonging and unconditional love seem far away, some of our families of birth and some of our former families of choice no longer offer us a place at the table that does not come at a tremendous price.  And that price may prove much larger than we think before these conflicts are resolved. As Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

There is a reason Abraham Lincoln quoted that line frequently in the time of the Civil War.

What the Will of G-d Looks Like

Jesus’ assertion that his followers can be known by their willingness to follow the will of G-d is vague. Most of us respond to this verse with obvious questions: What is the will of G_d and how do we know it?

Again, the words of the Gospel are helpful here. “Love G-d with all your heart and soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Or as Jesus himself says in the Gospel of John, “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.”

If we are to love the G-d who created us and all that exists, we are called to treat that creation with respect. All of it. To engage in behaviors that destroy the Good Creation to satisfy human greed or lust for power is to spit in the eye of the G-d who created it. To dehumanize any children of G-d for any reason and treat them with anything less than respect is to fail in both our duties to the other as well as to the G-d whose image they bear. In a loving response to our Creator, there is no room for socially constructed prejudices, regardless of their basis. And there is no room for the rationalization of the failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself by insisting that G-d somehow holds our prejudices.

Finally, let us remember that loving one’s neighbor as oneself begins with a healthy love of oneself. Loving one’s neighbor never requires anyone to become a doormat or a punching bag as a condition of relationship. That may well mean that we must learn how to love those whose attitudes, words and behaviors cause us harm from a safe distance. It may mean avoiding the family dinners, the latest blast of forwarded social media or even in-person encounters with those who simply cannot love unconditionally. In some cases, the most loving thing we can do is simply to pray for those who would harm us even as we remain outside arm’s length.

There is much to think about in this Gospel and so I commend it to you . I close with our collect for today:


O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and everAmen.

[A sermon preached June 6, 2021 at the Integrity Eucharist, St. Richard’s Episcopal Parish, Winter Park, FL]


 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.

 Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

  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, 2021