Sunday, July 30, 2017

Finding “Normal” in Trumpland

A friend of mine posted a thoughtful column from the Chicago Tribune on her Facebook page Friday. Entitled “Donald Trump’s Behavior is Not Normal,” it is one of many such commentaries lamenting the tsunami of adolescent behaviors that swept out of the capital and across the land this past week. Like the columnist, even I was shocked at some of the antics we endured.

But it was this line in the columnist’s analysis that stopped me in my tracks:

“[I]t's weird to hear a president using that kind of language. It's not normal.”

Actually it’s not weird at all. This is part and parcel of the Trumpland that enough American voters chose to allow the popular loser to become an electoral president. These are the values the head of Trumpland evidenced consistently throughout the campaign. 

They are the values about which white voters - and white evangelicals in particular - lied to themselves as they held their noses and voted for a moral monster reassuring themselves  “He really doesn’t mean that.”

But he did. And he does. And now he is showing us exactly what he meant. Ironically, while the CEO of Trumpland is a pathological liar, patently untrustworthy and willing to instantly turn on his closest allies when he perceives it benefits him, he has never made any pretenses about who he was and what he was about.

On that score, he was perhaps the only honest one who showed up on election day.

Normal in Trumpland

Contrary to the protestations of this columnist and many like him, the behaviors we have witnessed this past week are quite normal for this new reality called Trumpland. While it bears passing resemblance to the America which died on Nov. 7, 2016, its values - and thus its acceptable behaviors - are very different.

Many of us living in Trumpland are desperately trying to convince ourselves that this is still our country. We tell ourselves that we’re going to take it back in the mid-term election and, if not, certainly in the 2020 presidential election.

But the reality is this is a stacked system. It’s a system of Koch Brothers gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts. Its elections have devolved into a Citizens United auction to the highest bidder for campaign funding. And between the strong possibility of Russian election tampering procured by the reigning political party of Trumpland and the persistent efforts to suppress voting at the state and federal levels, the results of its elections lack legitimacy.

We may be appalled by this love child we spawned through our willingness to let corporate and vested moneyed interests have their way with us over the last 40 years of neoliberalism, and we should be. But the truth is we acquiesced to this stacking of our system every step of the way. Now like the frog who relaxed in the gradually heating pan of water on the stove, the water is beginning to boil and we are far too relaxed to jump out. 

A Context to Call Forth Our Better Angels

Though I have always been highly critical of socially constructed realities and ideological patterns of thinking all my life, I am hardly a pessimist by nature. For me, critique is always a tool in service to the calling to live into our better angels. I am a hopeful human being and, truth be told, I work very hard at seeing the image of G-d on every human face including those I find most disagreeable.

Especially those I find most disagreeable.

But over the years any optimism I might have clung to has become highly attenuated by the avoidable suffering I have observed in places all over the world from the bloody fields of Central America to the shuttered houses of Flint, MI to the sprawling outdoor prison that is the West Bank. Even in light of those atrocities, I have never found the dark determinist caricatures of human nature articulated by men of privilege from Augustine to Calvin to Machiavelli to be particularly compelling.

But like della Mirandola, Locke and Mencius, whose positive humanist visions I tend to share, I recognize that without providing the proper social context for virtue to be cultivated, the vices of greed, privilege and power lust will sprout like weeds and overcome any garden plot. Our best and highest angels simply cannot come to the fore in an adolescent consumerist culture whose Prime Directive is “What’s in it for me?”

Building a New Beloved Country

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that's the 
inheritor of our fear…” Alan Patton, Cry the Beloved Country

In the end, I believe it is inevitable that Trumpland will ultimately implode upon itself. Regimes built of fear and loathing always do but often with great harm to life and destructiveness in the process.

Let me emphasize, I absolutely do NOT wish to be proven right here. Like the Hebrew prophets, I take no pleasure in articulating the visions I see even as I feel compelled to proclaim them. And I continue to hope disaster can be averted, that it will be cultural evolution which prevails in my once beloved country and not the angry devolution – if not armed revolution - that increasingly appears more and more likely.

But it’s columns like this one – plaintive calls to simply return to a normal which no longer exists - that alarm me more than the content of the daily offerings from Trumpland’s Twitter-in-Chief. There is a sense in this column that if we simply insist that this moral monster and all his immoral minions will just behave themselves, everything will be OK.

But it won’t. And it is this avoidant approach, rooted in denial of the reality we face, that suggests to me that the trainwreck that is Trumpland will continue to barrel toward that cliff with no signs of slowing down.

In the wake of failed states, it is always incumbent upon those who survive to build a new land. That will be the task of the New America that will be forced to raise itself from the ashes of Trumpland. This is where hope comes into the picture without which the current reality would drive anyone to despair.

But there will be no quick fixes. There will be no room for instant gratification. If this process shall prove successful, it will require at least the patient, deliberate consideration that the original America required. And it will require the angry, fearful  denizens of Trumpland to learn how to once again listen to, care for and ultimately trust one another.

I pray every day for the coming of that New America. And I hope that if I survive, I can play my own role in the building of a new beloved country.

“The great valley of Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, bu the light will come there also. For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.”                 
Alan Patton, Cry the Beloved Country

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)

 © Harry Coverston 2017

The Home I Begrudgingly Love

I can feel my sanity beginning to return to me about a half hour outside of the city, just about the time I hit the Snowbird Road turn-off from US 27. Finally away from the crowded expressways and traffic choked surface streets of Orlando, I glide first through the rolling hills of Lake County, newly festooned with a flock of Confederate battle flags since the rise of Trumpland last November, then past the hard scrabble mobile homes and cow pastures of Sumter County into what is left of the small town of Center Hill.

There is a familiar comfort about all this that wears like an old shoe.

The words of Neil Diamond’s “I am, I said” often come back to me as I make this journey:

LA’s fine but it ain’t home, New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.

That’s how I feel visiting this place of my childhood, this place where I grew into my late teens, this place I fled immediately upon graduation from high school leaving my family and 11 years of my life behind, this place that taught me much about who I am and how I see the world, this place in which I could never live again but have always begrudgingly loved.

As I near town, I see a field dotted with rolled up hay, ready to be cut into bales and sold to farmers with hungry cows this winter. It’s one of many such scenes along the way that touch my soul, where I hear whispering of “Deep down, this is who you really are” in my ears.

There is a profound beauty in the simplicity of this place.

I’ve come this day to continue in my duties as the personal representative of my Dad’s estate. Today that includes depositing the check for the deposit on his power bill into his savings account. It will be part of the rest, residue and remainder that my siblings and I split three ways once the probate is complete in the next couple of months.

I also need to pay for the yard service that continues to keep the yard with its hundreds of azaleas that my Dad and I worked so hard to create looking beautiful. The Sumter County Adult Retarded Citizens crew does a good job of mowing and picking up limbs that fall in the storms. SCARC now occupies the stone building at the site of the old high school my Dad, my siblings and I all attended. I spent two years in vocational agriculture classes in this building. 

This is one of the places where I learned to grow jungles.

I observe that the some of the azaleas that line the road coming into our place from the nearby highway have already begun to creep out into the road. Nature has a mind of her own. Time marches on.

A few feet away, on the state road out front of our property that connects Lake Panasoffkee to Bushnell, a steady stream of traffic roars by, many times the volume of when I was a boy. It’s one of the many reminders that this is no longer the little town I grew up in.

I suppose it is silly but I just can’t help myself. I know my Dad is gone. But my heart involuntarily leaps each time I get to the end of the driveway and spot my Dad’s car sitting in the carport. “Daddy!” I exclaim, losing my breath. And then just as suddenly my heart plunges back to earth, the acknowledgement of his death now six months ago once more painfully forced upon me.

The tears come without warning.

In our yard, a set of pagoda plants are in full bloom, slightly withered in the blazing sun (it will be 94 degrees this day, no doubt a bit hotter in the full sun). Daddy got these plants from the yard of his sister, our Aunt Delphine, in Tallahassee. He brought them home to plant for Momma because the butterflies love them so much. There is no shortage of butterflies this day.

Mother had a great fondness for butterflies. At the end of her graveside service at the National Cemetery 9 years ago, a flock of butterflies suddenly appeared. I figured they were there to take their new playmate home. To this day, when I see a butterfly, I always say, “Hi, Momma!”

I have begun to take a journal with me on my visits home to scribble down notes about my time growing up in that rural county on the distant edge of two metropolitan areas that have since grown out to meet it. I think my first real writing project may be a book to talk about what it was like growing up in a place where I never fit - and the residents never failed to let me know that - yet I learned so much about the good Earth, about human nature and about the Spirit that has always been vibrantly present in my life. Much as I begrudgingly love this place, I also begrudgingly recognize the debt I owe to those 11 years spent in Bushnell.

As I turn to go into the house, where the presence of my Father and Mother both still loom so powerfully, I see my journal has attracted a visitor. It’ll be a neat trick to pick up that book and dislodge the spider. He’s a big one, not sure what kind, but not willing to take any chances. One quick movement retrieves the book and the spider goes flying onto the hood of the car and scurries off.

Now, to the ongoing business at hand.

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)

© Harry Coverston 2017

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Down the Trumpland Rabbit-Hole

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Increasingly these days I find myself wondering what planet I am living on and how I got here. I look around myself and see few of the familiar landmarks I am expecting. The ones I do recognize have become garish, caricatures of themselves which in many cases represent a complete reversal of the roles they played in orienting my childhood.

Like Alice, I appear to have fallen down a rabbit hole into a new world. And daily, life in Trumpland seems curiouser and curiouser.

When Leaders Were Still Responsible 

My childhood was marked by strong leaders in our White House. John Kennedy stared down the Russians intent on creating a nuclear silo in Cuba just 90 miles off our coast coming within a breath of an all-out nuclear exchange. His successor pounded out a whole series of civil rights acts even at the cost of his own personal and his party’s political future. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, was a consummate foe of communism even as his administration opened the door to thawed relations with Mao’s China and held his nose as the Clean Air Act and Head Start went into effect

They were flawed men, to be certain. Johnson’s obsession with Vietnam would cost thousands of people their lives and damage the lives of many who would survive the war there. Nixon’s obsession with domination of the political process would lead to a administration corrupted to its very core that ultimately imploded in the face of a likely impeachment and removal from office.

But even as the voters held LBJ responsible for his blunders in Southeast Asia and a once-responsible Congress held Nixon accountable for his paranoiac criminal activities, there was still a sense that the American system of government was reliable and the people we chose to lead it were ultimately capable of responding to reason.

Such cannot can be presumed in Trumpland.  

Godless Communists

My memories of my childhood are marked by ongoing expressions of an obsessive animus toward the Soviet Union and its Stalinist vision of communism. Under a foreign policy whose acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) said everything you needed to know about it, I spent my childhood perpetually on guard for the sirens that might mark the genesis of a world war studded with nuclear mushroom clouds. In such a tense era, anyone who dared to say anything remotely positive about the USSR or any of its so-called “satellite states” was roundly scourged for such impolitic behaviors. They were at best seen as unpatriotic and at worst as outright treasonous.

Few Americans were more scathing in their denunciation of what they called “godless communism” and more dogged in their paranoia regarding anything Russian than America’s white evangelicals. Often conflating “God and country” as if these commodities were somehow interchangeable, they seemed oblivious to the obvious idolatrous implications of such understandings. Evangelical preachers routinely used their bully pulpits to demonize the Russians as pawns of Satan just awaiting a chance to infiltrate American society and cause its internal rot from moral decay.

America had to be constantly vigilant, they told us.

The paranoia about the Russians was hardly limited to government leadership and conservative religion. By the time I reached high school, seniors were required to take a course called Americanism v. Communism in order to graduate.

Less an educational endeavor than a ham-fisted attempt to indoctrinate children whose minds were routinely described in those days as “impressionable,” the course was animated by a great fear that the Communists would weaken us from the inside through the insidious work of “pointy headed liberals” in the academy and the media. The supposed inclinations of this liberal elite toward the Red Tide of communism had rendered them a little red, thus they were called “pinkos.” According to the unquestioned Cold War dogma, the Russians had only to wait until we were sufficiently softened up internally to conquer us through military action externally.

This ongoing Red Scare was rooted in the belief that the Russians ultimately sought to enslave us. Ironically, as we would later find out, that was exactly the same fear Russians had of us.

Before the Cold War was over, it would end up bankrupting the Soviet bloc whose nation-states finally had had enough by the late 1980s. Ironically, the outspending and outlasting of our dreaded adversaries would also bankrupt America. Enormous deficits arose from inordinate spending on costly military toys like a Star Wars system that never worked while cutting the social safety net including mental health services. One of the many pathological results of that approach was the rise of a quasi-permanently homeless population that continues to plague our cities to this day. 
Even as America wallowed in self-congratulatory celebrations of “the end of history,” its social institutions from its once envied public education system to its once vaunted interstate highway system began to decline. A once vibrant middle class withered away under policies which favored the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. An income inequality which has marked unstable social systems historically approached and then exceeded the levels preceding the Crash and Great Depression of my parents’ generation.

In the end, those most seriously damaged by this neo-liberal post-cold war orgy which came at their expense would respond by voting Trumpland into being.  Thus they insured that the very corporate cronies who already dominated their lives would now have absolutely no checks on their power. 

How in the hell did we get here?

Souls for Sale

Today I find myself at the bottom of a rabbit hole in which the world I encounter is decidedly different from the one in which I came to adulthood. Our White House is occupied by the second popular loser in a presidential election in 20 years. We were taught in the American history courses of my youth that such a phenomenon was a fluke and unlikely to ever occur again in our lifetimes. Yet, it has now occurred twice within six elections to the benefit of the same political party.

Our airwaves are daily consumed by the rantings of this popular loser. His regular abuse of social media reveals him to be a pathological narcissist who appears to be suffering from a case of arrested development - if not serious mental instability. His thin-skinned adolescent responses to the media and the members of his own administration are reminiscent of the Red Queen of Carroll’s classic who routinely shouts “Off with their heads!” at those who fail to please her. 

I also find myself worrying about those pesky nuclear mushroom clouds again, something I had once thought was relegated to a closed chapter of my life history. Yet, with people around the world I watch this l'enfant terrible in horror wondering how in the hell this man ever got within a White House tour of the access codes to the nuclear football.

Even curiouser, it is the white evangelical “God and country” folks who once demonized the Russian horde who seem most likely to give this moral monster - and his Russian hackers - a pass. In virtually every way imaginable, the Red Queen of Trumpland is the absolute antithesis of who evangelicals have said they were historically.

From his condescension toward women to his demonization of immigrants to his ridiculing of the very disabled human beings Jesus spent his life healing, Donald Trump is the antithesis of the Jesus these evangelicals claim to worship. And yet, they are his most fervent group of supporters.

When one looks closely at them, however, it is hardly Jesus upon whom their worship focuses these days. The recent anthem created for use at First Baptist in Dallas contains lyrics such as “Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand.” These lyrics are talking about a misanthrope who has steadily demeaned and sought to repress the free press and whose hands – when not occupied with female genitalia - would scarcely clasp those of the Mexicans and migrants rebuilding America that he routinely denigrates.

The athem’s title? “Make America Great Again,” Trumpland's campaign slogan.

This rather thoughtless conflation of the deity and the nation-state is reminiscent of many examples in history in which leaders from pharaohs to fuhrers were deified. In each case, the presumption that G-d favored “the people” – always defined in self-serving terms - lasted only so long as the next conquest by those presumed to be outside the pale of divine favor. One cannot help but conjure up images of the prophet Jeremiah pleading with his fellow Judeans to recognize the danger they were in, danger they denied with self-reassurances of divine favor even as the Babylonians who would take them into captivity were pounding at the gates of Jerusalem.

In the second century of the developing Christian tradition, the leaders of Christian communities often described those whose values ran completely counter to the Way of Jesus as “antichrists.” Verily, I tell you as I look around me in Trumpland, if the popular loser in the White House is the antithesis of democracy, his white evangelical supporters are certainly the antitheses of the Way of Jesus. There is no small irony in observing the people who have most fervently kept watch across the horizons for the advent of the AntiChrist so oblivious to the antichrists who have risen among their own ranks.

Failed Lessons

If all of this were not curious enough, it is the peers of my generation -  those of us who completed that AVC course warning us against tyrannical government – who most seem to have lost sight of its lessons. Had anyone even attempted anything during my childhood remotely close to what the Trump boys did in colluding with Russia in this past election, they would have been enroute to federal prison for treason if not facing a lynch mob bearing torches, pitchforks and the flag, all the while mindlessly changing “USA! USA!”. Today, it’s those same fellow Boomers who are willing to give this boy king a pass and explain away his sins as lies and false news.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans obsessed over the possibility that America would become subject to authoritarian rule. We read Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World and told ourselves that it was unthinkable that something so severe could happen in a country which lauded itself as the beacon of freedom and democracy in the world. But in Trumpland 2017, the possibilities that authoritarian rule defending oligarchic privilege at the expense of the vast majority of Americans daily becomes not only possible but perhaps even likely.

Ironically, just our AVC texts had predicted, authoritarian rule won't have to be imposed from without. It is happening exactly as the authors of that well-intended but obviously ineffective AVC course feared it would, rising from within.  

And our dreaded tyrant has not come from eastern Europe or China. He comes from a television “reality show” wearing a red baseball cap (made in China, to be sure) reading Make America Great Again. He stands in the shadows of the flags of a vanquished Confederate army borne by self-proclaimed "patriots" and rides a tide of electronic espionage to an electoral victory generated by the very Russia that we were once taught was our greatest enemy.

In 1956, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev warned a roomful of western diplomats of their impending doom: “We will bury you from within!” he shouted.  Here, at the bottom of the rabbit hole in Trumpland,  61 years later, it appears Kruschchev may have been right.

But the Russians won’t have to bury us. Sadly, we have proven more than willing to bury ourselves.

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)

© Harry Coverston 2017

Observing the Limit, Waiting to Text: Lessons From NY

As I drove to Fed Ex office yesterday, I noticed that once again Orlando’s little blue boys with their techno toys were out on the speed trap that is North Crystal Lake Drive between Washington Street and the Expressway. The officers were standing just out of sight behind the buildings and trees off the northbound lanes just before Crystal Lake curves westward into the intersection at Washington.

Fortunately, I was doing the speed limit, as inappropriate as that limit might be for that stretch of highway. Truth be told, I usually do. Even when I instinctively slow down at the sight of the radar gun peeking out from behind the obstructions, I rarely need to.

But there were some who weren’t so lucky.

As I observed the officers, aiming their radar guns at oncoming motorists as if they were actual weapons  – a stance that communicates volumes in terms of the way these officers seem to see the public they ostensibly are serving -  I was suddenly taken back to my recent trip to visit friends in NY. 

On my journey across the state on the NY Thruway (I-90) I observed a number of highway patrolmen. But I didn’t have to look for them. They weren’t hiding behind bushes and trees with radar guns or just out of sight over the next bridge or hill. Over and over I spotted their cruisers idling in the median of the highway, in plain sight.

Not surprisingly, the traffic around them was all doing the speed limit. Indeed, I saw very few cars being pulled over in the entire stretch from Buffalo to Albany.

Wonder what cause and effect might be observable here?

What Prompted You to Do That?

The question about appropriate law enforcement practice often turns on what ultimate concern motivates that practice, recognizing that for all of us our actual motivations are often largely unconscious. Do we want to punish people? That’s always a good bet in a culture as strongly shaped by Calvinist anthropology as our own. Do we want to collect fines? That’s also a good bet in states like Florida that are socially irresponsible, making up for taxes not levied and tax breaks continually provided the wealthy through fines, fees, tolls, and regressive sales taxes that soak the working poor.

Do we want to trick people and then blame them for their misfortune to have been travelling down the road where law enforcement was engaging in deceptive practices that day? Check your control issues here. And be aware that at least in Florida, engaging in stealthy behaviors is seen as prima facie evidence of criminal intent. (Florida Statue 810.07) Why is it any different when law enforcement model the same?

Indeed, what example do we want our public servants to set for our populace here? Is it respect for the law which encourages its voluntary observance because the public recognizes its value or is it forced observance of a law through coercion with the resentment toward deceptive enforcement practices and contempt for those who engage in them that results?

What if we simply wanted people to slow down for safety reasons and took that seriously? Seems to me, the NYHP has figured out a sure-fire way to do that. I don’t know that NY officers don’t engage in sleazy practices elsewhere. If I’m to believe the television and movies I’ve seen, it would seem like a good bet. But at least the days I was travelling on their interstate highways, I was impressed by what struck me as thoughtful – and effective – law enforcement practices.

It Can Wait – Really, It Can

One other kudo to NY. It is illegal there to even hold any cellular device while driving. That means no talking or texting. First offense can cost up to $300. Repeated offenses begin to incur points against one’s driver’s license. 


Florida has no prohibition on driving while distracted by cell and only a secondary offense for texting while driving (driver must be stopped for something else to be charged). And we have the accident incidence to show for it. Indeed, a number of studies now suggest that cell phone/texting distracted drivers are ultimately more dangerous than those who are intoxicated.

Florida could learn a lot from NY beginning with the encouragement of drivers to wait until they reach designated pull-offs to engage in texting and talking. And we could learn a lot about how to generate respect for law enforcement from the examples of effective speed control practiced by the NYHP. 

In both cases,  the examples set by law enforcement are positive, the results encouraging and thus they offer Florida  valuable lessons: There is a value in following the law. And there are ways of enforcing it that are better than others. Finally, there is a time and place for everything. If you’re on the highway, you must remember that you’re driving an automobile, not a phone booth. Whatever it is, it can wait. Really, it can.  

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)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Parable of the Sower: Anyone with Two Ears Had Better Listen!

“Some seed fell along the path and was trampled underfoot; the birds of the sky at it up. Other seed fell on the rock; when it grew it withered because it lacked moisture. Still other seed fell among thorns; the thorns grew with it and choked it. Other seed fell on good earth and started producing fruit…(and Jesus said) Anyone here with two ears had better listen!” (Scholars’ Version, Luke 8)

A sermon preached July 16, 2017 at St. Richard's Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL

The parable of the sower is one of the most widely repeated passages of scripture in the New Testament. It appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels, MK, LK and today’s lesson from MT, and it appears in the earliest gospel, the collection of sayings called the Gospel of Thomas. Given the multiple times it appears in the various gospels, the chances are very good that this passage actually came from Jesus as opposed to the many passages that reflect the needs and self-understandings of the early church.

Questions not answers

How do we know this is Jesus? To begin with, it comes in the form of a parable. Jesus is fond of this kind of teaching. The parables were a means for Jesus to communicate powerful lessons to his followers in ways they would comprehend while at the same time appearing innocuous and non-threatening to the ears of the Roman overlords who kept Jesus and the crowds he drew under regular surveillance.

Parables differed from the teachings about the Jewish law that one might encounter from the Pharisees and their rabbis with whom Jesus often interacted. For one thing, parables raise questions rather than providing answers. Jesus often sought to prompt people to engage in reflection even as he rarely told them what to think. Parables also invoke multiple possible responses as the parable of the sower readily illustrates: some of the seed falls on rocky ground, some of the seed is eaten by birds, some takes only shallow root and withers. Yet some grows and produces in abundance. Jesus constantly asks his listeners: Which one are you and why is that?  

Another detail that points toward Jesus is his use of the natural world as the audio-visual aid for delivering his message. Jesus clearly loves the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. While it is not clear whether this particular parable is original to Jesus or whether he simply adapted it from a common form of story passed around in the Greco-Roman world, Jesus often focuses on the capacity of the earth to bring forth abundance, a pattern which reflects the goodness and generosity of his Father in heaven who created everything that is – including us.

One last aspect that is common to Jesus’ teaching is his valuing of the common people whom he trusted to respond appropriately to his parables. The Westar Scholar’s Edition translates the last line of this passage this way: “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!” Bear in mind that this is the same teacher who praises the poor – who compose the vast majority of his homeland – as blessed. He calls them salt of the earth, light of the world. Clearly Jesus believes they are capable of understanding his parables. And in today’s Gospel, he calls them to become what they are capable of being as the children of G-d: living beings which grow, flourish and produce good fruit.

Paul’s Greek audience

To fully understand what Jesus is saying, it’s helpful to compare it very briefly
with what St. Paul offers us in today’s Epistle. Paul begins with the assertion that “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Note the key element common to Paul’s thought: punishment and avoidance of punishment through believing. Paul then launches into a long dissertation on sins of the flesh versus life in the Spirit.

This division of the human being into a flesh which is largely sinful and a spirit which is holy is striking in its Greek philosophical overtones. The Greeks saw the human being as the corrupt realm of the flesh driven by our desires and appetites as well as the pure and perfect realm of the Spirit where an uncluttered reason reigns supreme. It’s pretty clear who Paul’s audience was and it is not the Galilean peasants Jesus is addressing.

Indeed, in this comparison it’s easy to recognize that while St. Paul was adept at constructing a religion about the Christ, a religion which focused on sin and salvation, punishment and its avoidance, death and resurrection, the truth is, Paul had never met Jesus. And while the ideas of St. Paul can be reconciled with those of Jesus if one really works at it, they are strikingly different in both their focuses and their goals.

If Paul were telling the parable of the sower, it would probably go something like this: The sower is Jesus. He has come to bring the Word to those wish to attain resurrection after death. It’s important to note that Paul does not presume that his listeners are already children of G-d. In the next verse after the excerpt we have read for today, he goes on to say that receiving the Spirit as a result of hearing the Word makes it possible for one to become an adopted child of G_d. By implication, that means we do not start as such, an understanding completely at odds with the Creation accounts of Genesis.

Every seed holds its own potential

But Jesus tells a different story. For Jesus the sower is G-d, the Creator, and the sowing of that seed takes place at the moment of our very creation. It is particularly important to note the symbolism of the seed here. Seeds are by definition life in its potential form. If a seed is properly planted and nourished, it sprouts and becomes a plant. With devoted care, the plant produces something of value – here the grain needed for one’s daily bread.  Bear in mind, this is the same Jesus who earlier in this gospel reminds us that it is by the fruits of our lives that people know who we truly are.

Jesus is not focused here on sin or salvation. He is not focused on divine punishment and how we avoid it. He is not talking about death and resurrection. And he does not presume that we must be adopted by G-d to become G-d’s children.

So what is Jesus talking about? Unfortunately, our excerpt from Matthew today leaves out about 8 verses in the middle of this passage that provide the key to understanding it. In verse 11 of this chapter, when his disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable, he begins with these words: “You have been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of the Kingdom of G-d...” While Paul is talking about sin and salvation, death and resurrection, Jesus’ parable is about the here and now, the way that each of us lives our lives as children of G-d, and the coming of the Kingdom of G-d.

So how does this kingdom come about? According to Jesus, it is the result of the willingness of each of us who bear the seed of our own individual humanity implanted in us at the moment of our creation to live into the best and highest version of ourselves that G_d has called us to become. Jesus regularly models that higher version of ourselves: healing the sick, giving to those who beg, turning the other cheek, forgiving your enemies. And he does so in a manner that is often self-sacrificing.

Let us remember that Jesus is Jewish, that Judaism has long taught that every human being is created a child of G-d born bearing the divine image. That’s the seed. Judaism also teaches that each of us is born with the potential to grow increasingly into the divine likeness. That’s the tending of the plant. And what happens if we are each faithful to the process of growth and development into the likeness of G_d? The parable of the sower tells us it is the great yield of which we are capable of producing. In short, the result is life in abundance, one of the marks of the Kingdom of G_d which Jesus asks us to pray each day will “come on Earth as in heaven.”

The Sower comes to the beach

Over the years as both a student and a teacher of world religions, I have come to believe that no spiritual path is worthy of serious consideration unless it has the capacity to do two things. One, it must have the capacity to enable people to transcend the vagaries of their daily lives, and two, it must have the capacity for those same people to collectively help transform the world in which they live. Absent either of those two capacities, a religion may be a lot of things but it is not ultimately a path worth following.

Now think about the mission statement of this church. Each Sunday we hear this proclamation of that mission: “We are here to discover G-d’s grace, to change our lives and to change the whole world.” Like the parable of the sower, it evidences a great deal of confidence in its hearers to respond to that calling from Jesus.  It is a spiritual path that aims at personal transcendence and social transformation. It is, in my view, a spiritual path worth following.

But is also a path that runs against the grain in a culture that accentuates individualism and measures human worth in terms of power and dollars and cents. And yet there are examples of transcendence and transformation around us every day if we are willing to see them. Indeed, if Jesus were telling this story today, it might go like this:

A woman and her family were at the beach enjoying a day of summer vacation. Suddenly the woman noticed that her three young sons were out in water over their heads and were frantically waving their hands and screaming. They had been caught in an undertow. Though the woman was not a good swimmer, she and other family members charged into the surf to try to rescue the boys. But the undertow was strong and soon nine people thrashed in water over their heads increasingly far from the shore

Other people on the shore had noticed what was happening. They began to form a line out into the surf holding hands, forming a human chain. Volunteers poured out across the beach and soon the human chain, with some members barely keeping their heads above water, reached the family and one by one pulled all nine of them to safety.

No doubt there were some who saw what was happening and simply said “It’s not my problem.” That’s the seed that fell on barren rock. There were others who started to join the chain but became afraid: “I don’t know how to swim, I might drown.” That’s the seed that sprouted but then died for lack of care. And yet others said, “Look, I’ve got things I need to do this afternoon. I don’t have time for this altruistic bit.” That’s the seed that gets choked out by noxious weeds.  

And yet, there were enough people who were able bodied, empathetic and willing to engage in what could well have proven a dangerous activity that resulted in the saving of a family on Panama City Beach, Florida last Saturday. They each transcended our cultural values of self-focus and in the end together transformed what could have been a serious tragedy into a story of human triumph.

By their fruits, we know them.

So now it is your turn to find yourself in the parable. Which one are you and why is that? What will you do with the seed that G-d has given you to nurture, tend and bring to production?  By what fruits will your life labors be known? Let me close with some advice from Jesus here: 

Anyone here with two ears had better listen!” 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)

© Harry Coverston 2017