Saturday, October 28, 2017

Scenes from a Changing World

Waves of change wash over our planet daily. Even here in Orlando the backwash of those waves are beginning to lap up on our shores as can be seen in these events from the past three days.  

Scene 1: Sonny’s Barbeque.

As I sit awaiting my lunch, a young female server brings two plates heaped to the brim with pulled pork, beans and French fries to the table in front of me. She is about to set them down on the table in front of the two young Muslim men, students at the nearby Full Sail technological college.

Their expression quickly indicates that this would be a big mistake.

“Did I get your order wrong?” she asks cheerfully. “We ordered chicken,” the one curtly replied.

The waitress walks away, plates still in hand, looking puzzled. These guys acted like I had insulted them just because I got their order wrong.

She generally doesn’t get that reaction from the fire fighters and police officers who frequent this place.

She has no idea what halal and haram means. But they do. And if she is going to remain in this business in a country where Muslims now outnumber Episcopalians, she will need to learn. 

Our world is changing.

Scene 2: Lake Underhill Drive

I’m returning from the Home Depot with newly purchased plants and pots. I want to get home to get my gardening done before the rain begins.

There is a black SUV with tinted windows ahead of me. It comes to a stop at the point where Lake Underhill Drive dead ends into Palmer Street. One has to go either right or left on Palmer. It is free of traffic.

I wait.

After 30 seconds or so, I figure the driver is distracted and touch my horn. No response. I beep again, this time a bit more emphatically.

No response.

I back up and begin to drive around the car, half irritated, half concerned that I might encounter a driver having some kind of medical emergency.

There in the front seat sits a woman my age, texting away, completely oblivious to where she is or the fact she is holding up other drivers. 

She never looks up. 

She is busy feeding her addiction.

Indeed, the addiction to communications technology in our culture by far exceeds the opioid crisis our pharmaceutical industry has fostered in its pervasiveness and its potential seriousness.

Texting while driving is only a secondary offense in Florida and cannot be the primary reason an officer stops a driver even as the insurance industry now reports that texting while driving is much more likely to result in accidents than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Thus far, there is no  pressure group equivalent to Mothers Against Drunk Driving crying out to regulate driving distracted by technology. And the communications industry lobbyists have paid our state legislature and governor quite handsomely to turn a blind eye to the dangers  of this addiction. As Upton Sinclair noted a century ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But how many drivers will continue to patiently wait while the oblivious texter carries on their conversation without erupting into angry violence? And at what point will we admit we’ve made a serious error in judgment in acquiescing to this culture of addiction? Will it be too late?

Our world is changing. 

But is it for the better?

Scene 3: Miller’s Ale House

The elevated tables next to our booth in the outdoor seating section are full of middle aged Latino men talking and drinking from pitchers of beer. There are empty seats awaiting arriving guests.

Within minutes, a group of men and women enter and the energy level in the room leaps several notches. Amidst joyful greetings complete with kisses and hugs, the group sits down together and begins an animated conversation. From my best Spanish (which is hardly fluent on a good day) I am able to overhear snippets of conversation: lots of trees down everywhere; no power; everyone is OK but they have no water.

These friends and family are among the thousands who have arrived from Puerto Rico this week, fleeing the wrath of Hurricane Maria and the ongoing misery of its aftermath, bearing news of loved ones left behind. The local Boricuas are delighted to see them, relieved to know they are OK. And the new arrivals are clearly happy to be out of the suffering they have endured on this isle of enchantment in which three quarters of its residents languish without power a month after a killer hurricane.

My guess is that a good number of these visitors will remain. Many have left destroyed homes. Most have no jobs to return to at businesses that no longer exist. They have come to begin new lives on the mainland.

Florida and the US will never be the same.

This is the vanguard of the waves of climate change refugees who will eventually land on our shores. They follow those who have preceded them in smaller numbers fleeing US wars and economic dislocation through treaties like NAFTA. They arrive in a cultural climate in which immigrants are widely demonized. They will be caricaturized by politicians eager to stoke and manipulate public fear for political gain even as the reasons for their emigration remain largely unexamined.

The coming of the Boricuas, as they call themselves, has been relatively easy. Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth. And their numbers are comparatively small.

But climate change is no respecter of the imaginary lines on the earth’s surface called borders. And as superstorms are charged up by heated oceans and droughts, heat waves and firestorms ravage inland locations, desperate people will do whatever they can to save their families. That includes fleeing their homelands and crossing hostile borders. And it includes enduring vilification in the countries in which they seek refuge. 

Our world is changing. 

How will we respond? 

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, October 25, 2017

On Becoming Instruments of Peace

A sermon offered on the Feast Day of St. Francis at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida, October 8, 2017

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

I must confess that I have struggled mightily this week trying to find inspiration – indeed, even clarity of mind – to create this morning’s sermon. It wasn’t that the lessons themselves did not hold plenty of fine material or that the lives of Francis and Clare of Assisi had nothing to offer us. They do. The truth was that I, like perhaps many of you, simply found myself overwhelmed by a tidal wave of ugly, heartbreaking news from a world around me that seems to have gone completely crazy.

As I walked into the sanctuary Tuesday morning to lead Morning Prayer I found the litany that had been used the night before at the vigil following the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Suddenly my inspiration appeared.

The vigil prayers used a response that comes directly from the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis which is found in our Book of Common Prayer. That prayer was not actually written by St. Francis and first appeared `during the period of the first world war in France. But it reflects the spirit of St. Francis and it also speaks so readily to the tumultuous times in which we live.

And so I offer a meditation using this prayer as my beginning point this morning and referencing the Morning Prayer service of our Book of Common Payer. I invite you to enter into that meditation with me. At the end of each meditation I will pose the invocation: O Lord. I ask that you would be kind enough to respond each time: Make us instruments of your peace. 

Instruments of Peace

The prayer begins. Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Because, in all truthfulness, Lord, there has been very little peace this week. Our country has been ripped apart by yet another mass shooting. We have watched in horror as the bodies of young women and men were carried from a public square designated for peaceable assembly turned into a slaughter house, their life energies draining from their bodies before our very eyes. It was another senseless massacre in a country completely paralyzed in dealing with its addiction to firearms, the graphic symbols of our fear and mistrust of one another.

Lord, you called us to be peacemakers, but we cannot create peace without your help, your guidance, your wisdom. Our response to the promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant - “I will with God’s help” - reflects our need for your help to live into any of those promises. Lord, we need your help now.

Oh Lord, Make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;

Lord, there is no small amount of fear and loathing in our country and our world today. Our social media has largely devolved into a cesspool of name calling, fake news and foreign espionage. Our news media has become obsessed with a flood of disrespectful and dehumanizing remarks from the Twittersphere. The image of G-d that every living being bears has long since been lost in this assault.

In Myanmar, whole villages of your children are being slaughtered because they are Muslim in a Buddhist country. In our own country, your Muslim children are the targets of enormous fear and loathing often with deleterious results. Lord, we cannot love our brothers and sisters if we never come to know them. Give us courage to question our self-serving caricatures of the Other and to meet them on their own terms. This day, we need your saving health among all nations.

Oh Lord, Make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is injury, pardon;

Lord, there is enormous suffering in our world today. In Puerto Rico, our fellow
Americans struggle to survive. In Florida and Texas we dig out from the assault of killer hurricanes while in Mexico the people dig out of the devastating effects of a killer earthquake. We feel overwhelmed, Lord. We know that in your own lifetime that where there was suffering, you were there, Lord. Richard Rohr reminds us that if we want to find Jesus in the Gospels, look for where the suffering is. As followers of Jesus, we are called to do likewise. Guide and empower us in our quest to be agents of healing in a suffering world, Lord, for only in you can we life in safety. 

Oh Lord, Make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is discord, union;

Public hanging of gay men, Iran

Lord, this week our nation’s ambassador to the United Nations voted against a resolution to prohibit the death penalty imposed on people simply because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. In our own Anglican Communion, the opportunity to offer a prayer for Las Vegas afforded our Presiding Bishop Curry to begin the evensong for the gathered Anglican bishops was objected to by bishops from the schismatic Anglican Communion of North America. Even in the tragedy of mass murder, we find it difficult to lay down our partisan differences to even pray together. In the meantime, the vulnerable among us wonder where we stand in your church, in our nation, our world and who will stand with us.

Lord you called us to be agents of unity in the Way of Jesus, not gatekeepers of conformity to socially constructed belief systems.  This day we need your guidance, O Lord: Guide us in the way of justice and truth.

Oh Lord, Make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is doubt, faith;

Lord, it is easy to doubt your existence in tumultuous times when so much tragedy and terror can be found at every turn. But what we lack is not faith, it is trust. And it is not hard to understand why that would be.

Yet we know that in the midst of every tragedy you are there, Lord. In the sorrow of death and the joy of birth and at every point in between, you are there. As the Franciscans have taught us, we come from G-d, we exist in G-d and we return to G_d.

Lord, you come to us in unexpected ways; in the random acts of kindness of strangers, in the willingness of those we have offended to forgive us, in the second chances that changed our lives that we may not have deserved. Our lives might be the only Gospel others ever hear. Help us to remember that you are with us always in the living of your Gospel, Lord: Show us your love and mercy; For we put our trust in you.

Oh Lord, Make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is despair, hope;

Lord, there are so many who are in despair around us. And if I am being honest, I must admit that there are days I am among them. Our world seems perched on the edge of major evolutionary change. And yet, the backlash against that change has predictably come to the fore. We hear threats of nuclear war, assaults on immigrants and people of color, and many of the most vulnerable in our nation face the threat of the loss of health care they need to remain alive. Some days the world seems grim, Lord.

Help us to be instruments of peace, Lord, to assist you in assuring that “the hope of the poor [will not] be taken away.”  But not us alone, Lord, for we absolutely need your help in these endeavors. In you, Lord is our hope. And we believe that our hope shall never be taken away.

Oh Lord, Make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is darkness, light; and Where there is sadness, joy.

Francis was born into a time of darkness and sadness. There was much suffering all around him. On the edge of town there were lepers who were required to wear bells to warn others to avoid them. The working poor were exploited in Assisi just as they are in our own time and derided by the privileged like Francis’ own family. War between the egocentric merchant princes was a constant threat. And periodically the plague, the great equalizer, would sweep through the region taking an enormous toll.

Francis knew deep in his heart that things were not as they should be in the world around him. But when a Byzantine cross began to speak to Francis in a deserted San Damiano Church, it did not speak of hopeless despair. Rather it called Francis to “rebuild my church.” And he immediately began gathering stones to do just that.

We, too, are called to be agents of light in a dark world, to be embodiments of joy in a world filled with sadness. We, too, are called to rebuild God’s church and our beloved country because they both, indeed, are falling into ruin.

Lord, we need your help to live into those undertakings in our own lives to which you have called each of us. Be with us this day and in the days to come. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

Oh Lord, make us instruments of your peace. 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


Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Calculus of Forgiveness

A sermon offered at St. Richard's Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL on September 17, 2017 based upon the lections of Proper 19 RCL.
This morning’s Gospel provides us with a difficult lesson. At the beginning of this chapter, the disciples are fighting among themselves as to who would be the greatest once the Kingdom of G-d was established. Apparently, things got pretty ugly and in today’s lesson an impetuous and prideful Peter, asks Jesus “How many times must I forgive these boneheads who appear to exist solely for the purpose of annoying me?”

Forgiveness: There is no Quota

Jesus offers two responses to Peter’s question. The first is fairly straightforward. You must forgive 7 x 77. If you are like me, by now you’re employing the math skills you learned in third grade and, after arriving at the answer of 539 times, are congratulating yourself on being an effective forgiver. I’m sure we’ve all forgiven people at least 539 times in my lifetime. So, we’ve met our quota, right? We’re off the hook for forgiving this numbskull in front of me, right?

Wrong. Jesus’ reference is not a mathematical equation, it’s a symbolic means of saying “Peter, you have to forgive every time, just as your Father in heaven forgives every time. There is no limit. There is no quota. Forgiveness is always the right response to wrongdoing.”

Jesus then contrasts the eternal forgiveness of G-d that his disciples are to practice with a parable about a king who forgives his slave of a debt. The slave, in turn, proves hard-hearted with those who owe him money, and the king, upon hearing it, calls the slave before him, revokes his pardon of the slave’s debt and throws him into prison until it’s paid. The lesson: We only get forgiven as much as we forgive others.

There is a very subtle contrast made here between the values of Jesus’ kingdom of G_d and the kingdoms of Caesar and Herod in which Jesus and his disciples exist. In the Kingdom of G_d, forgiveness is universal, inexhaustible, practiced without exception. In the secular kingdoms, forgiveness has limits – seven or 77, numbers that come from Hebrew Scripture. And in Caesar’s kingdom of Zero Tolerance, there may be no forgiveness at all, a lesson Jesus himself will learn very shortly at Golgotha.

So why is forgiveness so important? Why is forgiveness a central value in the kingdom of G_d that Jesus is proclaiming? What might it tell us about the G-d that Jesus is revealing?

Those Were My Children, Too…

In our Hebrew Scripture lesson this morning, the people of Israel are finally making their Exodus from Egypt to a land they will eventually invade to displace the residents there and create what they believe to be a Promised Land. As they approach the Red Sea, they realize they are being pursued by Pharaoh’s army intent on taking them back into slavery. Just at the crucial moment, Moses is instructed to lift his staff and the Red Sea separates just long enough to let the Hebrew people escape to the other side but then closes just as suddenly, drowning the Egyptian army and its horses. 

It is easy to read this story from a tribalistic perspective. G-d is on the side of his chosen people and intervenes to save them. The result, from the perspective of the Egyptians is catastrophic. And the implications of such a reading can be very disturbing: G-d punishes those who oppose G-d’s people. It lends itself to a wide range of abuses from justifying the near annihilation of the native peoples of the Americas during its conquest to the antisemitism of the Second World War that resulted in a Final Solution. When G-d is on your side, virtually anything you do can be justified. And when G-d is seen as having abandoned the Other, we have begun a slide down a slippery slope that leads to places with names like Wounded Knee and Auschwitz.

The development of the Hebrew Scripture by Jewish rabbis led to a set of writings called the Midrash. In Midrash Megil, which interprets this passage of the Hebrew Scripture, the angels are watching the events at the Red Sea from heaven. When the Egyptian army is drowned by the returning waters of the sea, the angels burst into celebration, singing and cheering. At that point G-d turns to the angels and says to them, “Why are you celebrating? These were also my children that were drowned in the sea this day.” 

This was not a day of vindication or vengeance. It was a day of mourning.

Thinking in Tribal Terms

St. Paul speaks to this very human tendency to think in tribal terms, us v. them, in today’s lessons. In a dualistic perspective, there are always two sides, ours and theirs. Ours is inevitably seen as right, theirs as wrong. We are righteous and good, they are sinful and evil. The image of G-d beams brightly on our faces but is absent from theirs.

Paul’s letter draws this dualistic vision into focus:  We quarrel over opinions. We pass judgment on those whose opinions differ from our own. Eventually we may even come to despise our brothers and sisters. Anyone who is familiar with the culture wars which have raged within our own church over the past half century knows that few people can despise their brothers and sisters quite as effectively and as righteously as people of faith.

So why do we do that? What is it in us that drives us to celebrate vengeance and vindication in the destruction of the other on whose faces we refuse to see the image of G_d? What is it that prompts us to define ourselves against others, judging ourselves to be righteous and them to be less than worthy of our respect? What is it that prevents us from living into Jesus’ call to us to forgive every time just as our Father in heaven forgives us?

No One Will Ever Love Me Again…

Let me offer a possible explanation using an example from my own life history. When I was a defense attorney, one of my duties was to represent parents whose custody of their children was suspended due to accusations of abuse, abandonment or neglect. One of my clients was a father accused of molesting his teenage daughter. When I visited him at the Orange County Jail I braced myself for the monster I thought I would encounter. What I found caught me completely off guard.

An obese, balding and rather unattractive man stood before me in his orange corrections jumpsuit. When I introduced myself as his attorney, he began to weep. He had an effeminate affect and as he crumpled into a ball on the floor in front of me, he sobbed repeatedly, “I’m so sorry. No one will ever love me again.” I did not have the heart to tell him that he was probably right.

While his victim and his wife had no obligation to forgive him, my guess is that each may have found their way to do so over their lifetime. But if I had to guess, I would bet good money that this man never would find a way to forgive himself. And he is not alone.

In my now 22 years as an ordained priest, I have heard many confessions. I believe confession is good for the soul and both confession and periodic visits to a spiritual advisor is a requirement of my rule of life as a Third Order Franciscan.

In virtually every confession I have heard, it is my observation that perhaps the number one sin with which my confessants present me is the inability or the unwillingness to forgive themselves. They are happy to hear that G-d forgives them and some may actually seek out those they have harmed to rectify their relationships with them. But at a very basic level, they are unwilling to forgive themselves. And some, I believe, probably suspect that if they can’t forgive themselves, G-d can’t either. 

Consider the ego implicit in the notion that G_d couldn’t possibly forgive me of my sins.

Our Shadows Don’t Stay Put

Because it is impossible for human beings to be continually aware of our own shortcomings, we tend to repress them from our consciousness. Carl Jung speaks about the formation of the Shadow, our own repressed personal darkness that collects in the psychic sewer of our unconscious minds.

But the Shadow does not tend to stay put once it has been relegated to the unconscious. It erupts in unexpected behaviors that often leave our friends and families shaking their heads and saying, “That just wasn’t like him at all.” More often, however, it provides material for the creation of individual and collective scapegoats upon whom we project our Shadow content. Franciscan Richard Rohr reminds us that the suffering in our lives which we do not transform we inevitably transmit. It’s always a lot easier to see our own darkness on the face of the Other than in a mirror. And it is often our own unforgiven, disowned darkness that we see in the other, about whom we make judgments and whose misfortunes we celebrate as something they somehow deserved.

What Part of Us Does G-d Actually Love?

So what part of us does G-d actually love? I believe the answer to that question is all of us. G-d loves the light, bright socially acceptable aspects of the persona we display to the world and G-d loves the dark, disowned Shadow that we repress and hide from it. And I believe that G-d calls us to do the same, to own our darkness, to love all of who we are and to forgive not just those who trespass against us but ourselves as well when we fall short.

In the trial services our general convention is creating in preparation for our next prayer book revision, one of the invitations to the general confession reads like this:

Let us confess our sins against God, our neighbors and ourselves.

That might be a good beginning point for becoming conscious of our need to forgive ourselves. I pray we take this bidding seriously. Perhaps the liturgy commission will also consider the absolution offered by the New Zealand Prayer Book to those who have just confessed their sins. I believe it reflects the holistic approach to forgiveness to which Jesus calls us this day and I end with it:

G-d forgives you.
Forgive others.
Forgive yourself.
Be at peace.   


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